This five-part guide is designed to help UX researchers (as well as those advocating for an investment in UX research) increase the impact of their work and spread human insight throughout their organizations. You’ll find advice and best practices relevant to you no matter what size your team is or how mature your UX research practice may be.
Today, your UX research team may be emerging, a team of one, a team of 20, or a team of hundreds. You may have well-established processes or you may be developing them at this very moment. You may be partnering with just one team or business unit inside your organization or the work you do may be powering your entire company.
Regardless of where you are in your human insight journey, this guide will help you to:
- Integrate human insight into your company’s everyday decisions
- Increase your team’s influence within the company
- Tie your work to measurable business impact
- Build efficient workflows and processes around human insight, and
- Champion a movement for human insight within your company
Why did we write this guide?
Let’s start with a hard truth: Most companies think they are customer-centric but very few actually are. As a UX researcher, you are painfully aware of this. Your passion is to observe, connect with, and empathize with your customers so the work your company does can serve them well. Your job is sometimes … slightly different. You may end up testing prototypes at the last minute or focusing solely on lower value UX research instead of contributing to larger strategies.
In most companies, no matter how “customer-centric” they claim to be, UX researchers struggle to be heard. Too often their insights are ignored, their true contributions aren’t valued, and they struggle to get a seat at the table for key business decisions.
You can change that. You can’t do it overnight, but by implementing some of the strategies we outline here, you can help shift your company culture toward one that is led by the output of UX research: human insight.
Collectively, we’ve been working with UX research teams for decades; we’ve seen and worked with companies that are at the very beginning of creating a UX research practice as well as companies that have massive, mature UX research functions that touch every aspect of the business.
We’ve talked to thousands of highly skilled UX researchers who are trying to navigate the intricacies of moving from a tactical service role to a valued strategic business partner, scaling their impact, and ultimately building a human insight-led culture.
And as we’ve helped UX research teams set up and scale their practices, we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. We’ve seen the common speed bumps you’ll hit and we’ve learned how to overcome them.
In this guide, we’ll share back what we’ve learned from working with people like you. Together we’ll help you champion and build a movement around human insight within your organization.
How to use this guide
If you opened this guide, you likely want human insight applied more widely throughout your company.
So how can you, as a UX researcher or an advocate of UX research, champion the use of human insight across your organization?
Your first step is to determine what phase of the UX research journey you are in now. Then you can decide if you’d like to read this guide from end-to-end so you have perspective on every phase, or skip to the phase that applies to you and your team currently.
Read on to learn more about each phase, and find links to jump to the corresponding sections that guide you on next steps.
Where are you in your journey to a human-insight led culture?
The natural progression of UX research within an organization goes through four distinct phases.
The Emerging Phase
A company in this phase doesn’t have any formal UX researchers. If any UX research is done, it is typically ad hoc and done through contractors, via an agency, or handled by “non-researcher” roles at the company, like UX designers and product managers.
When there is no formal UX research practice, offerings are often created and launched without any human insight or possibly by leveraging survey data, analytics, or anecdotal feedback. These offerings can have significant customer experience flaws that later require rework or cause the product to miss its market entirely.
Companies in the Emerging Phase often pay lip service to the importance of customer experience but won’t make the investments necessary to optimize it. They may believe they can “fail fast” quickly enough to learn the market or they may believe they already understand customers on their own.
Often this won’t change until they suffer a severe market failure, are overrun by competition, sink to the bottom of NPS or JDPower, or fall victim to bad press.
If you’re in one of these companies, the business is at risk because it’s not investing in deep customer understanding. Anything you can do to educate them about the value of human insight will help build the case for a more formal approach to UX research.
The Organized Phase
In the Organized Phase, the company has hired at least one UX researcher (or a whole team) to ensure experiences aren’t being created in a vacuum and without the customer in mind. In this phase, UX research is typically in a “service model,” running studies on request and delivering reports to the stakeholders that requested them.
As the company begins to see the value of human insight, the demand for it almost always outstrips the ability of the UX research team to deliver it. This can result in either the UX research team becoming deeply overworked or stakeholders becoming resentful because they can’t get all of the insights they need in a timely manner. Often both problems happen at the same time.
We’ve seen companies in this situation try to add headcount to their UX research teams to meet all the demand, but that’s usually a losing proposition. Skilled and experienced UX researchers are a precious resource, and the company may not be willing to invest in doubling or tripling the team size to meet demand.
To imbue the entire organization with human insight, UX research teams need to invest in tactics to empower other teams to collect and consume human insight.
The Systematic Phase
As others outside of the UX research team see the value of applying human insight to their decisions, the demand for insight expands exponentially. The team eventually recognizes that they can’t do it all. The solution? The UX research team empowers people in other functions to gather their own insights.
The most common first step in the Systematic Phase is to empower UX designers to conduct their own user research. However, other roles can be empowered, too, including product managers, engineers, and even marketers.
This doesn’t mean that the UX research team is no longer needed or delegating out all of their work; on the contrary, the team is becoming more visible and critical to the company’s decision-making processes.
While facilitating even more human insight across the company, the UX research team has more time to focus on high value work.
Guidance for UX research teams in the Systematic Phase
The Culture of Human Insight Phase
The ideal end state for a UX research practice is powering a culture of human insight, where everyone in the company has the ability to access and act upon human insight whenever they need it.
Imagine having your customer sit beside you as you sketch out a new marketing campaign or prioritize product features? Today, that’s possible, but many companies aren’t aware of this possibility. Among those that are, few have operationalized it.
When human insight can be delivered and consumed at scale, it becomes woven into decisions at every level. It’s everywhere, influencing strategy and driving business outcomes.
At this stage, the UX research team drives the process by which the entire organization is constantly consuming, sharing, discussing, and collecting human insights while also conducting high value UX research.
In the remainder of this guide, we’ll dive deep into each of the four phases, discussing the common problems and best practices you can use to help your team and your company evolve toward a human insight-driven future.
Where should UX research live?
Before we jump into recommended practices by phase, let’s address a common question within the UX research discipline: Where should the UX research team live?
There’s no consensus in the industry on where UX research should report within a company. As is the case with many things in UX, it depends, and there are pros and cons associated with each scenario. Here are some examples we’ve seen:
- At a financial services company, there are two UX research teams; one that sits within a market research function that rolls to the Chief Marketing Officer and supports all corporate initiatives, and another that lives with a UX team (including research and design) supporting digital products for a specific business unit that reports to the Chief Technology Officer.
- At a media company, the UX research team reports into the Head of Digital Product, who rolls up to the Chief Product Officer
- At an enterprise software company, UX research reports to the VP of Design. The VP is a designer by training but is also a research fanatic. In addition to having a team of dedicated UX researchers, she expects her designers to be able to conduct their own studies.
- At the software company GitLab, the UX Research team reports into the Product organization
- At a health insurance company, UX researchers live within the overall UX team, which includes UX designers, service designers, and accessibility experts. That organization reports to the Chief Digital Officer.
- At a consumer tech company, the UX research team reports into a corporate Center of Excellence that sits outside of all business units.
Where UX research lives and who it supports varies wildly from company to company. Some structures that would fail miserably in one company positively thrive in another, so the most important thing is to make sure you have a structure that works with your corporate culture.
Many companies waste a lot of time trying to find the “perfect” reporting structure for UX research. Once you realize that it doesn’t matter all that much, you can focus on the much more important decisions: Setting up a UX research practice that delivers undeniable business value, operates efficiently, and is the nucleus for human insight within the company.
We’ve made sure our suggestions are flexible enough to work for any UX researcher in any company, regardless of where they sit or to whom they report.
Ready to start refining your UX research practice? Let’s go.
Click a link below for the phase you want to learn about.
- Overview (you are here)
- Phase 1: Emerging (next)
- Phase 2: Organized
- Phase 3: Systematic
- Phase 4: Culture of human insight
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of UserTesting or its affiliates.