“How do I get the CEO to sit down and listen to a one hour presentation of our research findings?” 

When I spoke with her, the manager of the company’s UX research team was deeply frustrated. Her CEO had dismissed her recent research findings as irrelevant, for reasons that had actually been resolved in the research. The CEO didn’t know about it because he wouldn’t take the time to listen to her full presentation.

This sort of situation is disturbingly common when I speak with UX research leaders. Many of them say they do not have a seat at the table for key business decisions. They’re treated like a service group that checks off tactical deliverables rather than a thought leader that helps steer the company. This creates several problems:

  • It leaves the company at risk of making ill-informed decisions, 
  • It’s frustrating for the employees involved, who often have important perspectives that the company needs to hear
  • It also leaves UX research teams vulnerable to budget cuts when the company needs to be careful with expenses. If the execs don’t understand the strategic value of your work, they may not be willing to pay for it.

I’ve been in your shoes. Earlier in my career I managed Apple’s worldwide Customer & Competitive Analysis team, which included all primary and secondary research, plus competitive analysis and analyst relations. I held similar roles at Palm, an early pioneer in mobile computing. And I also advised many companies on these issues as a consultant. So I’ve hired and fired and reorged and repositioned, and I know how painful it is when the company doesn’t understand the value of your research.

Over the years I learned the hard way how to make a research team strategic, how to influence, and how to make the execs value the investment they made in my team. I want to share my experiences with you. Every company is different, but many of these principles are common to most companies.

There are two things you need to do: First, diagnose where you stand with the company, and second, create a plan to fix it. We’ll start with the diagnosis. UX teams often have a couple of problems – how you think of your function, and how everyone else thinks of it. Both need attention.

How to diagnose your situation

Consider how you position your role

Most of the research leaders I speak with want to make the company value their work by teaching everyone to understand the sophistication and complexity of their research methodology. In other words, you want to make everybody research junkies, just like you. This is a very laudable goal, but it’s often the wrong one. 

Think of it this way: If you go to a nice restaurant and order a meal, do you want the chef to come out and spend 20 minutes explaining how hard it was to cook it? Maybe, if you’re a food critic. But otherwise you want the restaurant to make it all look effortless. You don’t want to know all the details of how the food is made, you just want it to taste good and arrive quickly.

The people you’re looking to influence are like impatient restaurant patrons – they are generally very experienced, they think they know what they want, and they are unlikely to revisit their basic assumptions about you (or anything else). They also don’t have a lot of time available to learn about the nuances of your work and the “perfect crystal certainties” of your analysis (as one senior exec at Apple said to gently mock me when I spent too long geeking out on my data).

Instead of teaching them to love your methodology, you need to change your behavior to meet the executives where they live. How do you make your work relevant to the issues they already care about, and how do you help them easily see what they need to do about your findings?

Your first step is to apply your human insight skills to the people you’re trying to influence. If you can, interview them 1:1. Ask them about their goals for the year and the biggest problems that interfere with achieving those goals. You should also ask what they want to know from your team (because it would be rude not to ask) — but don’t make that the center of the conversation. They don’t know everything your team can do, and therefore they probably don’t know the right questions to ask you.

If they don’t have time to meet, watch what they say in meetings and what the company says online. Dig into the company’s annual goals and ask yourself what those goals tell you about their challenges and concerns. For example, if the company says it’s looking to increase customer satisfaction, does that mean there’s a customer retention problem? Are they trying to raise prices? Is a competitor targeting the company? Don’t settle for understanding the goals, dig until you understand the hopes, fears, and vulnerabilities that led to the goals.

Do you have an image problem?

Some companies are driven by design. They view their design executives – including the UX research team – as business thought leaders. I’m thinking of places where design is part of the culture, such as Apple; and places that have committed heavily to Design Thinking methodology, such as Intuit and IBM. In those companies, it’s usually pretty easy for the UX research team to influence, because they can leverage the company’s general reverence for design. 

Unfortunately, only about 10% of companies think this way. In the other 90% of companies, including probably the one you work for, the UX research function is generally seen as a service group that answers questions.1 The entire design organization is often lumped together as “creatives” who keep to themselves and are useful mainly for making pretty pictures on demand. Often the company is very quant-focused in its business planning structure, and the qualitative nature of UX design and research just don’t fit with the way the company thinks.

Don’t get me wrong, UX people are often respected in these companies, but they’re respected as artists, not as business partners.

I’ve asked business executives many times to tell me what they think of their UX teams. Here are a couple of examples of what they say about you behind your back:

“UX architects are not analytical. If you come to them with the testing, the numbers, that is not of interest to them. Many of them do not drive the business, they just follow requests: ‘Just get these four steps into three steps,’ etc. I worked at Sony, Office Depot, and with agencies, at least five agencies per company. So I have seen a lot of UX architects, and they are not truly analytical people.”

Senior executive at a major cosmetics company

“UX designers can be seen as creatives – they are just an extension of the creative scene. Or as uber geeks, people who are not familiar with the consumer perspective. Often they are more introverted, (and) do not sell their work. There are some stylistic barriers, people not understanding what they are and what they contribute.”

VP of marketing at a global clothing brand

If you’re in one of the 10% of companies that view design as strategic, you’ll know it because you’ll be involved deeply in strategic planning. If you don’t get invited into those conversations, you’re in the 90%.

Once you understand the problems that senior management cares about, and how your team is perceived internally, you’re ready to start making changes. Here are six steps that worked for me:

Six steps to make your team relevant

1. Report implications, not findings

This is probably the single most impactful change you can make, and it’s also one of the most uncomfortable. If you want to be seen as a business partner rather than a service group, you can’t only report the data and key insights from your research, you need to also report the implications: the things the business needs to change as a result of your findings. 

The implications are the way you connect your work to the strategic priorities of the company, and they’re what makes your work relevant to senior decision-makers. You need to call the implications out prominently in your reports and presentations (and put them at the start, not the end – they are the main course, not the dessert).

When I talk to research teams about focusing on implications, I often hear three concerns:

  • “You’re forcing me to oversimplify.” Many research teams are more comfortable communicating findings because you can call out all the subtle nuances in your learnings, and you get to walk away feeling good because you produced a big report with lots of charts and tables in it. Boiling that down to a couple of recommended actions can feel like oversimplification; it trivializes the very complex and sophisticated analysis you just did. You need to get over those feelings. They get in the way of your team’s ability to influence.
  • “The implications are obvious.” We’ve all been there: The findings from a study are so striking that you feel it’s obvious what the company needs to do about them – so obvious that you don’t want to waste time spelling it out. In my experience, this is a big mistake. Often things will seem obvious to you because you’ve been paying attention to all of your research, and it’s easy for you to see connections and trends. Chances are no one else is paying as close attention. More importantly, most people are emotionally resistant to news that requires them to make a change in the business. If you give them the chance, they’ll rationalize away anything that would force a disruptive change. Often they won’t even be aware that they are doing it. So you need to call out very explicitly what your research means for the business. For example, if a feature is likely to fail, say so clearly and right up front, so no one can ignore it.
  • “This is politically risky.” If you call out a problem in the company, will that get you labeled as a troublemaker? Will you make enemies who try to sabotage your career? In most cases you can minimize these problems by supporting your points with clear evidence, and by attempting to point out possible fixes to the problems you’re highlighting. If you do that, most people will respect you even if they disagree with you. But if you’re working in the sort of place where people reporting the truth backed by evidence can get punished, you might want to think about changing employers. The company’s not likely to succeed in the long term anyway.

2. Combine numbers and feelings

We all talk about the power of mixing quant and qual data, but in practice many teams don’t do it. Frequently they report separately on each study they do, which makes it awkward to combine quant and qual results. Analytics, quantitative surveys, and qualitative tests often are managed by different people within the team, or sometimes completely different departments, which makes it even harder to combine them. But your work will be a lot more influential if you bring together all of those perspectives into a holistic view of the customer. People see the value in information better when they get quantitative data together with the qualitative. It’s a right-brain / left-brain thing. They’re more persuaded when you can bring numbers and emotions together.

One easy way to do this is to physically combine an online survey and a human insight test. Run the survey first to get your quantitative results, then use a human insight system to have some people  take the exact same survey while explaining their answers out loud. That gives you videos to explain the most surprising or confusing findings in the survey, and brings the whole thing to life.

3. Combine customer and competitive info

Another area where it’s very useful to combine information is the intersection between customer research and competitive analysis. Your executives don’t want to understand customers just for the sake of understanding customers. They want to understand customers so they can predict how the marketplace is going to change, and therefore how to win. You can create a more complete view of the marketplace if you mix customer and competitor analysis. Just as you’re trying to understand customer psychology and predict their actions, the competitive analysts are trying to understand competitor psychology and predict their actions. If you can help your company see how customer and competitive trends are combining to shape the market, you’re going to be very valuable to the company strategically. 

For example, your competitive analysts might collect information about a new feature being developed by the competition. You can then run a customer study to figure out how people will react to the feature. Based on that information, your company can decide how much effort it needs to put into answering that new feature, and what the answer should be.

There’s a catch: Culturally, competitive analysts can be very different from researchers. Competitive analysts tend to be intuitive and driven by anecdotes, while researchers are data driven and rigorous. You may need to do some cultural mediation to get the two groups to respect each other’s strengths and work together cooperatively.

4. Get out ahead of issues

In most of the companies I talk with, there is more demand for human insights research than there are people available to do the tests. This has two negative effects on the research team:

  • The team has to do triage on research requests, meaning that some designers and product managers will be frustrated because they didn’t get the support they needed. This doesn’t help the team’s image with upper management.
  • Because there’s a backlog of support requests, it’s very hard for the team to find time for generative studies that produce the most benefits for the company and help you position the team as a thought leader. You’re trapped in request-handling mode.

One way out of this is to anticipate the issues that will become important to the company in the future and start researching them now, before you’re asked. Based on your understanding of the company’s goals and customer trends, you should be able to anticipate problem areas the company is likely to encounter. Even if you don’t have the bandwidth to run full studies on those issues, you can start adding questions relevant to them into the studies you’re doing. This will give you some data points you can start sharing to build up your thought leadership.

5. Write like a journalist

The education given to researchers usually includes academic writing appropriate for professional publication: abstract up front, lots of discussion of methodology, conclusions saved for the end, etc. That same style spills over into presentations. It’s great if you’re looking for tenure, but it’s terrible when you’re communicating to business people who don’t have time to slog through a long presentation or report.

You’ll be more effective if you and your team learn to write like news reporters, putting the most important information up front and keeping the sentences short and clear. Journalists call this the “inverted pyramid” writing style, and it’s something you and your team should learn. Everyone knows how to read a news story, and we’re used to extracting information from them. If you adopt that style you’ll have a much better chance of communicating clearly to the organization.

6. Go crazy with video

I’m always surprised when UX research teams tell me that they watch videos in order to analyze their results, but then they report the findings as text slides and quotes from the transcript. Videos of people complaining about a problem, or praising a product, are persuasive on a visceral level that you can’t reach with words and numbers alone. You should set up your human insight system to record the participants’ faces (because that’s what communicates emotion), and you should shamelessly share short clips that are evocative of common customer attitudes. If you’re not sharing videos, you’re robbing yourself of your most persuasive ammunition.

Conclusion: How do you know when it’s working?

Let’s revisit that CEO at the start of the story who dismissed the research findings but refused to spend the time necessary to understand why they were correct. If you follow the steps above, will you be able to turn that situation around?

You’re not going to convince them to sit still for an hour-long presentation; they simply don’t have time for that. But you can improve your chance of getting through to them in the five or fifteen minutes you can get, by understanding the issues that matter to them the most, by being very clear on the implications to the company, by putting that information up front, by sharing videos that engage them emotionally, and by bringing competitive issues into your analysis. Even if you can’t persuade the CEO directly, you may be able to persuade other executives who can spread your message. 

And in the process you’ll make it very difficult for anyone to dismiss your team as just a service group.

Good luck, and please share your questions and experiences with us below. We’re all on this learning journey together.

1In case you’re wondering where that 90% figure came from, we asked analysts at Forrester Research and Gartner Group to estimate the percentage of design-driven companies, and they came back with almost identical answers. It also matches the pattern we’ve seen in our own interactions with companies.

A shorter version of this article appeared originally on the UserTesting blog.

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM 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.