This is part of our guide to help UX research teams drive a human insight transformation inside a company.

Many companies today don’t have UX research teams. This could be because they don’t understand the value of human insight or they believe they can evolve good experiences through failing fast, relying on survey data and analytics alone. They might also be leaning on their assumptions around who their customers are and what they need. 

Regardless of the reason, these companies often struggle to create great experiences, and they’re at risk of being outcompeted by companies that know how to do it right. 

Key attributes of the Emerging phase 

  • Company lacks formal UX research expertise
  • UX research is done on an ad hoc basis or not at all
  • Quantitative data serves as a replacement for UX research; in other cases, no customer data is used at all
  • Demand for UX research is building

For companies that fall into the Emerging Phase, one of three things is likely happening:

  1. UX research is not being performed at all: The occasional customer survey is sent out, but an authentic understanding of who customers are as human beings and what they need, think, feel, and value doesn’t exist across the company. In some cases, companies are obsessed with analytics and believe they can evolve great products without gathering human insight. In other cases, companies aren’t informing decisions with any customer input at all.
  2. Non-researchers are doing their own UX research without oversight: Product managers, designers, and other creators often wear many hats, and in some cases they are asked to wear a “researcher” hat to gather human insight on their strategies or designs. That can work, but only when they are supported by people with UX research expertise.
  3. The company hires outside agencies or contractors to do UX research: Hiring out research is far better than doing no research at all, but best practice is to use agencies as a supplement rather than a replacement for your own insight team. Agencies simply can’t take on every single human insight request in an organization or move as quickly as a dedicated team. Also, when companies outsource insight gathering, they lose the institutional knowledge of customers that they would have otherwise gained.

If your company is in situation two of three on this list, that’s encouraging. Although you don’t have a team yet, your company is open to allowing a more dedicated UX research practice to develop. If your company is in situation one on this list, you will need to do some significant advocating to get the company to invest in a UX research practice. 

Don’t worry, regardless of where you are in the above list, we’ve got guidance for you.

Since your resources may be limited and your role may focus primarily on other tasks, the practices we’ve outlined will help you work more efficiently, prove the value of human insight, and help you convince leadership that a UX research team is a wise investment. 

Be strategic about where you apply human insight

There are endless decisions that can be informed by human insight. In these early days of evangelizing the power of human insight, you have little to no dedicated resources, so you have to be very strategic about where you bring it in.

Here is some guidance on applying human insight to company strategy:

  • What’s your company’s strategic focus for the next 6-12 months? Find out what the company is focused on and where investments are being made so human insight can be part of shaping those strategies. For example, if your company is moving into a new market, go talk to prospects in that market to understand their needs, existing solutions, and how your company can stand out from the competition. 
  • What company KPIs need to change? Your company likely has a set of metrics that are flashed at every company meeting or all hands. Know what those are and find ways to inform them with human insight. For example, if your company tracks repeat customers, talk to a handful of those customers and understand why they returned. This will help the team understand what they need to do more of and what can be deprioritized.

Lean on defined best practices

Given the lack of UX research expertise in a company at this phase, it can be difficult for someone who has not been formally trained to know how to find the right people to get feedback from, what questions to ask, how to analyze the data, and how to take action on the learning. 

There are plenty of best practices available in the industry. From interview guides to test plan protocols and reporting templates, there is plenty of guidance to lean on.

And remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s not the goal here. The goal is to build awareness and demonstrate value.

Your human insight solution should:

  • Provide test plans and reporting templates for common use cases

UserTesting resources

Get some wins and socialize them

It can be a difficult and lonely task to pioneer a new business process within your company, but it can also be very rewarding. Whether you’re working in an old school company that’s going through a digital transformation or a digital-savvy company that’s overly focused on analytics, your strategy is the same: Get some wins and talk about them broadly.

Anytime you use human insight to influence a decision or fix a problem, share information on what you learned and how it helped. Your goal is to teach others the benefits of human insight with real-world examples that relate to your company’s work and goals. 

In most cases, it’s not realistic to try to move immediately from having no UX research at all to having a full UX research team. You need to bring the company along gradually. It’s a little like teaching a child; you start them out with basic reading and writing and work up to particle physics later. Socializing some early wins is a great first step in a much longer process.

Share customer videos shamelessly

Seeing footage of actual customers—especially footage with genuine emotions—helps your colleagues recognize customers as people. The immediacy and authenticity of the feedback usually pulls people in, making them want more.

Why? Because watching and observing real customers changes people, particularly in scenarios that can be emotionally charged. Depending on context, everyday activities and experiences can make feelings rise to the surface and when teams get to witness that—to see how excited people get, hear their visceral reactions to a new feature, or observe how upset they feel when they can’t do what they want to—it impacts their understanding of how important human insight truly is. It becomes part of the knowledge and narrative that gets built up over time about your customers.

For example, an insurance company featured a 90-second video to kick off a company all hands meeting that included videos of actual customers reacting positively to a recent product launch. This brought the company closer to the customer and helped the team celebrate a win. An added benefit: They now start every all hands meeting with a customer video.

Note: Sometimes it can be time consuming to find the exact right moments to share in a video. Using AI and machine-learning technology, this can be much more efficient. For example, the technology can pinpoint an exact point in a video where a user expressed delight or confusion so you can jump right to that part, clip it, and share it. 

Your human insight solution should:

  • Provide sharing capabilities of videos, visualizations, and other data. 
  • Allow you to put together a compelling group of videos, often called a highlight reel, to share with others in your organization. 
  • Expedite the process of finding compelling video clips (or other visualizations) to share with machine-learning and AI capabilities that bring you to key insights. 

UserTesting resources

Be thoughtful about when you apply human insight

While there are many scenarios and places to apply human insight, you need to be thoughtful about when you apply them. 

For example, gathering a bunch of (negative) human insight after a product launch has failed is not going to support your case for a dedicated UX research team. Instead, think of ways where you can apply human insight to help mitigate risk or inform key decisions before something fails.

Let’s break down a few critical times within your workflow and how to get started incorporating human insight:

What to do before you create anything

It’s widely known that a majority—up to 80%—of new products fail. There’s always some risk in new endeavors, but the best way for your company to mitigate that risk is to ensure you understand customer expectations and reactions at every step. 

Designing before you understand your customers and the problem you’re trying to solve is equivalent to putting the cart before the horse. Save your company money and headaches by advocating for executing discovery research before concepting or prototyping to ensure you aren’t wasting cycles building something that people don’t need or want.

When you’re learning about customer needs and problems, human insight allows you to dig deep into who the customer is, what they need, and how they’ve solving problems today. As the team develops a solution, this insight guides them to hone in on the right problem to solve, while simultaneously building an intimate understanding of the customer and what will be best for them.

Typically, this work is done through live interviewing. However, recruiting, scheduling, and conducting live interviews can be incredibly time consuming, which is why many teams skimp on it. 

While live interviewing is a recommended practice, consider self-interviews as well. This is when the participant provides a pre-recorded video of answers to a series of questions that you’ve posed. The downside is that you can’t adjust the questions on the fly, but you still get a host of benefits: You can watch them later at a high playback speed, or use AI-powered tools to analyze the interviews so you can jump to the most insightful parts without watching every single second of footage.

The outcome: Discovery can be completed within hours or days rather than weeks or months, and you have very high confidence that you are marching towards solving the right problem.

Example: The Disney MagicBand

One result of understanding customers before building is giving them something they didn’t know they needed or didn’t explicitly ask for. Disney gives us the ultimate example of listening to customers and designing to anticipate their unarticulated needs: the MagicBand.

No visitor to the Disney theme parks ever said, “You know what would make this experience even better? Wristbands that will open hotel doors, pay for souvenirs, and reserve a spot in line for my favorite ride.” But the leadership knew that visiting parks was a painful experience because only 50% of first-time visitors planned to return. 

Meg Croften, the president of Walt Disney Parks & Resort at the time, sent her team out to better understand the “problem” so they could build the right solution. In her own words, “We were looking for pain points.” So they went out to the parks and saw the pain first hand: long lines, waiting on meals, waiting to pay for goods and services. Walt Disney World had developed a reputation for its endless wait times.

A few years and nearly $1 billion later, the Disney MagicBand was born. These wristbands contained a radio chip that transmitted forty feet in every direction, communicating with systems throughout the park as wearers moved about. It allowed them to enter the park, check into their hotel rooms, and even make purchases without waiting or fussing with keys, wallets, or paperwork. It was the ultimate in frictionless tech.

And after MagicBands were deployed, guests began spending more money, 70 percent of first time visitors said they planned to return (as compared to just 50 percent six years earlier), and 5,000 more people could visit the park every day because the MagicBands introduced a ton of efficiency. Clearly, “waiting in long lines” was the right problem for Disney to solve.

As of this writing, MagicBands have evolved into smartphone capabilities. Available in the My Disney Experience app, Disney MagicMobile service is a contactless way to access MagicBand’s features through eligible iPhones, Apple Watch or Google Pay enabled Android phones. 

Not only did Disney anticipate an important customer need, they’ve continued to listen and respond by creating an updated response to that need. 

Source: UserTested by Janelle Estes and Andy MacMillan, page 103.

What to do while you’re creating

Human insight should be used continuously throughout ideation, concepting, and building. The sooner you detect a mistake you’ve made, the easier it is to fix, and the less time you will have wasted going in the wrong direction. 

Rather than waiting for analytics once the experience goes live, your team can put ideas, mockups, and prototypes in front of customers and get reactions. Reactions will include both what they feel and why they think that way, making it much easier for the team to determine what to do next.

If you do prototypes before development, you should insist that your teams validate their earliest concepts and ideas by running them past real users. As they iterate, the tests should be repeated. Almost anything can be tested: a written description of a product, a verbal description, even a napkin sketch. (Literally, we’ve seen companies test photographs of napkin sketches, and it works.)

Ironically, most companies wait until prototypes are complete before they gather human insight. Generally that translates to running an acceptance test on a high-fidelity prototype just before it gets handed off to development. That is the absolutely worst time to get feedback, because it’s usually too late to change anything.

Example: Pediatric health system

One of largest pediatric health systems in the United States wanted to update its website and apps, which are hubs of critical information that help to attract prospective patients and keep current patients informed. 

Starting with the existing template used on department and program pages of the website, the team gathered feedback to figure out what was working, what wasn’t, what people liked, and what needed to change. 

Using these insights, the team created a wireframe of a potential new design. They then sought feedback on the revised wireframe as well. Once the winning template design was finalized, the team ran a pilot using the updated design on two department pages. 

After one month, one department page saw a 27.2% increase in requests for an appointment, and another department page saw an astonishing 39.8% increase in appointment requests. The year-over-year increases were even more impressive: a 58.5% and 56.8% increase respectively.  

Source: UserTested by Janelle Estes and Andy MacMillan, pages 115-116.

What to do once it’s live

Once your experience is live, most teams want to continually optimize and make it better. There are a couple key places where human insight can have a massive impact:

Diagnose issues identified by analytics and big data

After launch, the analytics may tell you that something is going wrong. Typically you’ll see that customers are behaving as expected until they get to a particular point in the experience, and then they’re either going someplace unexpected or they’re dropping out altogether.

For example, picture a checkout process where many customers are abandoning their carts when it’s time to enter their shipping address. Although analytics packages are great for identifying these problems, they don’t do much to diagnose them. Your team may have to run several experiments to figure out what’s wrong. 

It’s much faster to take people to the problem step and then ask them to talk you through what they’re doing and what they’re thinking. This will enable your team to make a high-quality hypothesis on what’s wrong so they have a good chance of fixing the problem on the first try.

Example: AAA Club Alliance

AAA, a federation of regional clubs with over 60 million members across North America, knew with precision what customers were doing on its website, but they were unsure why potential customers were not completing the membership sign-up process. 

The various tools at AAA’s disposal produced large quantities of data but little in the way of the insights they needed to understand how to improve this conversion rate. And despite rigorous analysis and targeted updates, these efforts failed to produce the desired results. 

After connecting with real customers to gain human insight, they quickly learned that people were simply overwhelmed with information on their website. This insight not only explained why membership sign-up conversion rates were low, but also empowered the AAA Club Alliance to streamline the experience by prioritizing information to show and making interactions informative, persuasive, and easy to navigate. 

After numerous design iterations with human insight informing the team along the way, they arrived at a solution that was significantly cleaner, more concise, and easier to use. After these changes were live, AAA saw a 30% increase in overall conversion rates across all membership types, with a 55% lift in AAA’s most profitable membership product. These improved conversion rates alone helped drive a remarkable 39% lift in total company revenue. 

Source: UserTested by Janelle Estes and Andy MacMillan, pages 23-24.

Improve the efficiency of A/B tests

Depending on who you ask, between 50% and 80% of A/B tests fail to give a statistically significant winner. That can waste a lot of time, especially if you’re testing a part of the app or website that has relatively low traffic and requires ample time for a single A/B test. 

Using human insight, you can pre-qualify the alternates for an A/B test in hours, identify the ones that are most likely to succeed, and flag any problems in wording or design that might have caused an otherwise good alternative to fail. This can significantly increase the success rate of your A/B tests.

Example: QSR loyalty program 

A well-known quick-service restaurant designed an app that customers could use to interact with the company’s loyalty program, but the team was struggling with the best way to present the login process. They’d come up with eight possible options and wanted to narrow them down to just two. So before anything went live, they ran user tests on all eight login processes. The human insight they gathered made the choice clear: The team could quickly see users’ top two options—both of which followed the same pattern as Amazon’s login experience—and felt confident moving forward with both of them.

Proactively find problems 

In all likelihood, teams within your company are launching new features, adding to the code base, and pushing out design updates on a near-constant basis. This means you need a way to regularly assess the holistic experience.

Performing regular assessments of existing experiences or offerings is a proactive approach that can keep you ahead of the curve. Instead of waiting for problems to pop up and reacting to them, this type of check-in testing helps you circumvent headaches and dings on your brand or business. Even if nothing is obviously wrong, a quarterly or bi-annual check will help you find out where the customer experience can be improved, and position you to make beneficial tweaks.

To make the most of regular testing, be sure to create a standardized approach that can be repeated at regular intervals. This will enable you to keep a running record of results and track improvement (or decline) over time. 

Example: Krikey

Krikey is a provider of app-based augmented reality (AR) games designed around Indian mythology. The company was curious to run a health check of their Google Play Store page to see if any changes or optimizations could be made. 

Users provided very strong feedback on what language to use and how to rewrite Krikey’s product description. The company didn’t expect such candid input, but took it all to heart since they wanted to be sure their app fit into the market standard and aligned with user expectations.

Users also had strong opinions about Krikey’s Google Play Store images. Nearly every user commented that because Krikey was an AR app, they wanted to see AR in the images. The company had AR shots in the images, so this feedback stymied them at first. They wisely ran another round of tests, and in an interview one user explained that he wanted to see the game characters “coming out” of the phone.

Finally, the company found out that many users referred to their app not as an “AR app” but as a “3D app.” So, they swapped out the word AR for 3D. 

Recognizing that they wouldn’t have gained this critical human insight without user testing, Krikey has continued to run Google Play Store user tests every few weeks and made tweaks as suggested by users. Due to continual health checkups, their app download rate went from 5% to 40% in six months.

Source: UserTested by Janelle Estes and Andy MacMillan, pages 154-155.

Your human insight solution should:

  • Connect you with your target audience, both prospects and existing customers, in any location.
  • Allow you to schedule discovery interviews, either live or self-guided, to be completed within 24 hours.
  • Provide options to test anything in any form: a napkin sketch, an early concept, a homepage mockup, or even a competitive experience.
  • Give you test protocols to “start” from for common approaches
  • Allow you to set a date and time to collect human insight.

UserTesting resources

At the Emerging Phase, accumulating customer understanding is often handled by people without deep knowledge of UX research. And once you’ve demonstrated that human insight can be collected at any point, done in a reasonable amount of time, and provide major impact, you’ve laid the groundwork for the next big step: convincing leadership that a dedicated, expert UX research team is a wise investment.

Build the case for creating a formal UX research function

Now that you’ve started accumulating some wins, the next step is to make a case for adding full-time UX research resources. Chances are you understand the need for this intuitively, but you can’t expect others to reach the same conclusions on their own. You need to build a business case through examples and hard evidence. 

Getting your stakeholders to shift their perception of UX research from just a good idea to an essential part of everyday decision making may feel overwhelming at times, but with a bit of a strategy and some planning, it can be a lot less stressful—and more successful.

Here are some topics to hone in on when building your case:

Revenue impact & cost savings

Most executives love to see return on investment, so start by laying out the financial benefits of a dedicated UX research team. If you have any cases where you can prove ROI—like when you’ve used human insight to drive a change that created $10 million in new revenue—by all means tout those.

Here are some other actionable tips to communicate revenue impact and cost savings:

  • Keep track of the wins and tie them to business impact. Keep a list of every time human insight has informed a decision or solved a problem. As much as possible, estimate the revenue impact or cost savings for each. 
  • Show how human insight can get you faster to market: Human insight gives stakeholders a clear picture of what customers need and want. It basically obliterates guesswork and eliminates any friction and internal arguments that might otherwise arise. When everyone can make quick and informed decisions, you get to market faster.
  • If relevant, calculate what your company is currently spending on outsourced human insight-related learnings. When a company is using many different contractors or agencies for human insight, it doesn’t always have a clear picture of how those expenses add up across the organization because they’re hidden in different budgets. Show how much the company is already investing in human insight (and how that investment could be more effective by building out the expertise internally).
  • If relevant, calculate the time and cost savings over traditional research approaches. Is your company doing UX research in person? And renting out lab space to do it? If it is, the time and money savings from moving to online UX research can be enormous; more than enough to fund one or more full-time UX researchers. Include the cost of recruiting people and conducting the interviews, as well as the time and travel expenses and long lead times required to get actionable insight. Document those costs against more modern human insight solutions to show how you can get much more with the same investment.

Risk mitigation

As we know, gathering human insight early and often can ensure you are solving a real customer need and developing the best solution. Consider weaving risk mitigation into your pitch for an investment in UX research.

  • Calculate the downside of rework. How often does your company need to spend a sprint correcting mistakes? How often do new features or products fail because they didn’t resonate with customers? When you add up the cost of all the engineers and other employees involved, these avoidable mistakes are enormously expensive and can usually justify the creation of a UX research team. Tip: Document the other downsides of rework, including employee burnout and retention problems, loss of credibility for the management team, and the risk of losing markets to competitors who get to product-market fit faster than you. (source: CISQ)
  • Expose the risky processes & decisions. How often are teams making decisions blindly without human insight? Managers accept this risk today because many don’t realize there is any alternative. They call it “exercising business judgment” or some other phrase that hides the problem. Your job is to show them how much risk they are taking on and how it can be mitigated efficiently.

Customer pain

Seeing user tests in person, especially ones that prompt genuine emotions, helps executives recognize customers as people

Witnessing customers become visibly frustrated, overwhelmed, or disheartened has the power to change a leader’s perspective on the company’s priorities in a millisecond. Also, if you can generate an “aha” moment by showing footage of a customer and how their feedback led to a big win, that creates a powerful case for building out a dedicated team. 

Exposing executives to this can help sway them into supporting a UX research team to effectively find and address those acute pain points with laser precision.

Industry FOMO (fear of missing out)

Nothing gets a leader to pay attention to your message faster than comparing your company or approach to competitors or industry leaders. We’ve used this approach time and time again to bring executives along with investing in UX research.

  • Share success stories from other companies. Individual stories about other companies are usually not enough on their own to drive the creation of a UX research team, but a collection of examples that show broadly how others are making a significant investment in UX research can move mountains.
  • Best practices from industry experts or analysts. Forrester and Garnter have been analyzing data on the world’s top-performing companies for decades. These big consultancies know what the best of the best are doing, where they’re most innovative, and what they’re struggling to achieve. They even have some insight into how they’ve structured their customer experience and center-of-excellence groups. Consider leveraging reports and stories from these firms to keep building that FOMO.

Happier customers

Don’t forget to point out the biggest benefit of a UX research function: They provide an ongoing flow of human insight that makes the company smarter and better in a thousand ways. Putting a numerical value on having a smarter company is almost impossible, but you can explain that investing in a UX research team is a strategic move.

And once the investment is made, be sure to track metrics like NPS, customer satisfaction, or other customer happiness measures.

More engaged employees

Multiple studies have shown that happy customers make for happy employees, and miserable customers can cause mass employee exodus. By adopting a business practice that enables your company to create consistently amazing customer experiences, your leaders will also boost the morale of their workforce. A full-time UX research team could indirectly impact the organization’s ability to attract and retain great talent.  

Small investment required

You’re unlikely to be able to jump from no team to having a group of ten dedicated UX research people. Show what the company can do with one or two people, get them hired, and document the wins they generate. This will help you create the case for further growth.

Build alliances

Don’t neglect the soft skills required to drive corporate change. Many research-savvy people are relatively introverted and focused on logical persuasion. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you also need to get outside your comfort zone and learn the business problems of your co-workers to help them understand intuitively how human insight can help them make better decisions, increase their impact, and reduce their workload. 

Treat it like any other human insight problem: Learn how your customers (i.e. coworkers) think and feel so you can frame human insight in a way that resonates with them. 

Tabitha Dunn, global head of customer experience at Hitachi, strongly recommends working to understand your stakeholders in the same way you understand your customers. Dunn has built customer experience practices from scratch at multiple companies—including Ericsson, Citrix, SAP, Xerox, and Philips—and knows that getting buy-in from executives only happens when the pitch is tailored to their decision-making styles and unique mindsets. 

“You have to think about two things to be successful in a CX-related role,” she says. “The first is why your customers do what they do. And the second, which too many people overlook, is why our own people do what they do. That includes internal teams, leaders… everyone within the company. Why would you treat your peers and senior leaders any differently than your customers? Turn the skills you use inside as well as outside.”

Stay positive

Enthusiasm and progress usually sells a lot better than finger-pointing and negativity. You may be outraged at the mistakes your company is making through a lack of human insight, and if so you’ll probably be very tempted to write a big email laying out everything that’s wrong. More often than not, that will get you branded as a crank.

You’ll probably be more effective if you focus your communication on the benefits you can achieve, not the bad practices that you hate. But if you do send that email, make sure you include videos of customers or prospects providing feedback. Let your customers do the talking for you.

Moving to the Organized phase

In order to determine if your company is ready to create or hire a dedicated UX research team, assess how many of the following elements you have in place:

  • Conducted regular sharing and socializing of human insight 
  • Documented wins that were fueled by human insight
  • Created a strong (financial) case for a formal investment in a UX researcher or team
  • Built alliances with key stakeholders

If you have most or all of these elements, it’s time to hire some expert UX researchers to support the next phase of the UX research journey, the Organized phase.

Click below to choose the phase you want to see next:

Photo by Håkon Grimstad on Unsplash

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.