My Journey to Understanding Research Strategy
Updated: Oct 17, 2022
Why is Research Strategy such a critical topic?
When I entered the UX Research field six years ago, people kept talking about the importance of strategy–the need to “be strategic,” to “think strategically”, to do “strategic research” and “research strategy.” And to be honest, I couldn’t ignore them because:
They sounded glorious.
They were what companies were looking for in research candidates.
I heard it was a key reason for increasing your impact, influence and growing as a researcher.
So what is Research Strategy?
At first I thought, let me try taking some classes on how to be strategic. So I took a class by DevelopPeopleUX that was aimed at helping researchers (and other UX folks) develop more influence and be more strategic at work. And while it was an exciting class with specific steps to increase one’s influence, it felt a little too broad for me and better suited for those who were more senior or already established at work. So I struggled to apply the learnings in my day-to-day work as an individual contributor who was new to the research space.
Then I thought, let me try observing and interviewing researchers who were considered successful to learn what being strategic means in the research space. But every time I did, I got mixed responses. Someone said it meant doing strategic research, some said it meant balancing foundational and evaluative research, some said it was about keeping stakeholders happy, some said it was getting timely answers, and some said it was about making significant changes in the product or business decisions, and so on.
I did achieve many of the above requirements, but I still felt I was not seen as strategic or a thought partner, and I was constantly being looped in after a product or business decision was made and not before. I observed that the successful researchers were usually looped in while the decisions were being made and not after the fact. This severely limited the impact my research had on the product and business decisions.
I became knowledgeable about the company’s planning process and aligned my research to give insights before the product roadmap planning began. But even then I still felt that only 40% of my insights were being acted upon, and the rest - even though they were really critical for the business - were being ignored because the decisions were already made.
And so I continued to feel like an outsider looking in until I came across the following statement from Chris Geison:
“Strategic research is research that informs product decisions that have strategic value. Whereas research strategy is about ensuring that we are doing the right research. For strategic research, I am using tools like diary studies, contextual inquiries, and in-depth interviews. With research strategy, the tools that I’m using are more like prioritization frameworks, research roadmaps, impact metrics–things of that nature.”
It was from an interview Chris did with dscout’s People Nerds and, reading that, it all started to make sense. So what was it about this article that made it such an ‘aha moment’ for me? To put it simply, it clarified the importance of doing four things:
Tying research outcomes to business metrics or decisions
Having this clarity made me realize several things that have ultimately helped me become the strategic thought partner that I always wanted to be. How do I know I’ve become that thought partner? Through things like:
Consistently making a medium-to-high impact, as measured by the number of significant changes my research insights made on the product strategy, direction, or execution, as well as acknowledgments received
Earning trust within my stakeholders and the research team, as measured by the number of times I got looped in while decisions were being made
Increasing my ability to quickly adapt my research efforts any time there is a change in business priorities mid-way through a project (which often happens in smaller growth-based companies)
So let’s look at each of the four things in more detail.
1. Starting small
As in so many other things, it is good to start small and then expand. In terms of research strategy, this can be applied to identifying the 1-2 stakeholders you’d like to win first in your department or company and then determining the 1-2 research questions that will help earn their trust. You can use this article I wrote with my trusted colleague Anna Poznyakov on how we identified these stakeholders at Salesforce, how we won their trust, and how we increased the shelf-life of our insights.
Further, as you’re working on a research project, keep an eye out for opportunities to score a few quick wins here and there so you’re consistently providing value. These can include:
Doing a quick literature review or heuristic evaluation to answer a product or design question.
Having a workshop to help stakeholders prioritize efforts, or providing meaningful inputs on key business documents.
Supporting stakeholders with a DIY study.
2. Being proactive
This means keeping your eyes on any changes that might have a significant impact on your research roadmap. For example:.
When a product experiment has an unexpected outcome that needs immediate investigation
When you start losing deals or users because of a particular product launch
When the business priorities change due to some unforeseen circumstances (e.g., getting hit by a global pandemic, experiencing a market crash, getting acquired, etc.)
Being proactive not only makes you and your UX research roadmap more resilient but also helps earn respect in your stakeholder’s eyes - thereby making you a trusted thought partner. Some of the ways my teams and I have been proactive are by:
Having regular check-ins with stakeholders (aka stakeholder interviews) to identify relevant research opportunities by understanding what is top of mind
Taking time every 1-2 weeks to stay abreast of all work shared by other insight teams (e.g., Data Science, Marketing research, Competitive research etc.) and make the connection between various streams of work (a tip I learned from the DevelopPeopleUX course). In addition, I make sure we have a sync conversation with the respective stakeholders to ensure they are aware of these connections and use these as opportunities to brainstorm ideas or suggest next steps.
Doing end-to-end evaluative studies of my product/area every few years to understand the current landscape. You’ll be surprised by how helpful it is to identify strategic research opportunities as well as making stakeholders happy.
3. Tying research outcomes to business metrics or decisions
If you want to be considered strategic, you must demonstrate your impact and value in a measurable way. But when UserInterviews asked researchers how they track impact of their research in their State of User Research Report, 2022, almost half said they’re not tracking the impact of their research or skipped the question entirely. Such a missed opportunity!
I’ve found that the best way to demonstrate my impact is to measure it in business metrics (quantitative metric) or changes made in product strategy or roadmap (qualitative metric) as a result of your research. I think this is what Chris meant when he said, “strategic research is research that informs product decisions that have strategic value.” Using business metrics or decisions as a measure of success is important because they are the most objective and irrefutable pieces of evidence one can have to demonstrate success. You can be the most experienced, qualified, or favorable researcher on the team, but no one can argue impact based on key business metrics or metrics that matter to your key stakeholders.
Now I know that having an impact on business metrics or decisions consistently when you’re just one (junior) researcher can seem daunting (and even impossible). I’ve found that the easiest way to do it is to tie your research objectives and outcomes with key business objectives as that will give you access to the business metrics that matter.
Here are are some ways I’ve used (or observed successful researchers use) to identify and tie your research objectives and outcomes with key business objectives:
Conducting stakeholder interviews to identify research opportunities that are top of mind for your stakeholders. You can find them by asking your stakeholders what is keeping them up at night and listening for an assumption/hypothesis that is risky and unverified, or building a solution for a user base or problem space that is not very well understood. These assumptions, hypotheses, user base, or problem space should form the crux of your research objectives.
Highlighting research insights and recommendations that clearly articulate how a product vision, strategy, roadmap, or design should change to meet the desired business outcomes. However, make sure that the change is not too drastic or it will dissuade people from acting on your insights rather than being encouraged by them.
Tracking and socializing the changes made based on your research so that your stakeholders are not only aware of the amazing impact you made but also feel encouraged to involve research earlier when making business decisions on product strategy or innovation.
Once you’ve tied the research objectives and outcomes with business objectives, you can use the following metrics to measure your success:
Launching a product or service where your research played a key role in informing vision, strategy, roadmap or design.
Measuring key business metrics like adoption, conversion, revenue generated etc. of the product before and after your research - your PM, Designer or Analytics partner can help you find them.
Conducting UX benchmarking studies with old and new versions of the product - unmoderated tools like UserTesting and UserZoom are perfect for it.
If for some reason, you feel you’re not able to have an impact on the business metrics or decisions for a given project, consider earning favorable stakeholder feedback as a measure of building trust and ensuring that you’ll be looped in the next time. Stakeholder quotes can also be a valuable qualitative measure of success!
4. Saying no
As Chris said in his interview, researchers have a tendency to say yes, and I think for good reasons (e.g., we want to please our stakeholders to establish the need for investing in research, earn a seat at the table, get more resources, earn promotions, etc.). However, saying yes all the time does more harm than good because it dilutes our attention and diverts our resources from doing high-impact work consistently, which is required to achieve all the measures of success referenced above.
Finally, it is also important to remember that saying no is not just the job of senior leadership or research managers but also ICs. Any professional should be able to make decisions and justify those decisions, and choosing one option means saying no to another. If you feel you lack credibility because you’re early in your career or research isn’t taken seriously at your company, it can be hard to say no, especially when it’s saying no to something proposed by someone more senior than you. So how do we say no? Here are a few tools my team and I use to say no:
Having a mission statement because, as Chris said in his interview, “a good mission statement is like the strategy at an atomic level.” It helped us make those quick, in-the-moment decisions on which research to prioritize.
Creating a decision-driven research roadmap and using it to have a prioritization conversation. For example, whenever someone thought their work was important enough to get our time, we’d ask them which of the previously prioritized work they would like to deprioritize. We also ensured that we updated this roadmap every 3-6 months, depending on the company’s planning cycle.
Providing alternatives every time we said no with clear pros and cons of each approach. I also liked to accompany these alternatives with recommendations on what I thought should be the next step with a clear and concise explanation of my rationale. If it helps, consider taking courses on having difficult conversations if you need more confidence, guidance, or practice (I know I did!).
Once my team and I had demonstrated the strategic value of research and earned our stakeholder’s trust, we’d then proceed to set up tools and processes to democratize research so that we could focus on doing the more complex, risky, or strategic research that only a researcher should do.
If you’re interested in growing as a researcher, start making time to become more strategic. As opposed to the vague and conflicting answers I got early on, this simply means ensuring that the research being done aligns with the strategic priorities of your organization (e.g., you are involved in research for products or initiatives that are strategically important for your company). To help you do so, you can use tools like stakeholder interviews, prioritization frameworks, research roadmaps, vision statements, 1:1s, etc. For me, that translated into the following:
Tying research outcomes to business metrics or decisions
I hope you enjoyed reading about my learnings and experience on Research Strategy so far, and I’d love to learn about what your learnings and experiences have been. If you have any questions or have anything you’ve learned that you'd like to share, please send us a note at help@ResearchStrategy.info and join the Research Strategy Community at ResearchStrategy.info.
Thank you to Chris Geison, Natalia Em, Cindy Lu, Sean Fitzell, and Wendy Castleman for your feedback on this blog.