PT asks: “how do I convince leadership to care about UX research?”

A new mentee opened the session with (paraphrased)

How do I convince leadership to care about UX research?

It’s a broad question. A giant question. It’s highly situational; it’s hard to answer without deep knowledge of the organization’s goals, its failings, and the people involved.

After a bit of conversation it became clear that the actual question was a little smaller. Paraphrased,

Our CTO is placing a lot of emphasis on summative research activities like usability testing. I don’t want to neglect, and am more interested in, formative research. How do I convince him to let me do formative research?

Okay, that’s still a big question, of the sort that a disinterested third party (me) can’t answer directly. But it led us to talk about a few topics:

1. People have their reasons. What are they?

The CTO is favoring testing over formative research. Why? They might be right in doing so; maybe that is what the company needs right now. Or they might not understand the value of one or the other. Or they might have a different understanding than you of the proper division of labor in the company. Or…a lot of things could be in play here; people have their reasons. But it’ll be hard to influence the CTO or others unless you understand their reasons.

2. Given the organization’s goals and performance, what needs to change?

What is the company trying to accomplish, and what are their results so far? Does the gap between what they want and what they are achieving (there is almost always a gap) suggest a particular course of action? Is this gap due to poor product/market fit, poor initial quality, churn, cost of support, customer time-to-value, customer payback time, something else? Each of these would suggest different areas of the product to attach and might require different research activities or emphasis.

3. Who needs to understand the problem the way you do? Who are your allies? Who is your audience?

Once you understand the CTO’s reasons and the organizational situation you can determine if your idea about an intervention (more formative research) is sensible or not – whether or not it will contribute meaningfully to closing the results gap. But then you need to make it happen. And this requires deep knowledge of the organization: the people, the culture, and how change occurs. You may be in an organization where you can, armed with the above information, make a convincing argument to the CTO. You may be in an organization where you have to recruit like-minded people to surround the CTO. Or you may be in a place where convincing the CTO is less important than engaging the people who would be helped more directly by your intervention, the product managers.

We also talked about projects vs incrementalism, chain of command vs lateral influence, and allowing for serendipity in formative research, but those are topics for another time.