Microsoft XC Research

Microsoft XC Research

Building trust: The value of involving product partners in UX research

July 16, 2020

By Matthew Adeiza

Graphic artwork of four people walking up stairs and holding hands

We arrived at the home of a Windows 7 user in a suburb of Seattle on a sunny day in June 2019. Our host was expecting us and welcomed us graciously. She was the second interview for the day, and one of the most memorable in the study where we were trying to understand the hassles users were facing in transitioning to Windows 10. The woman used her aging computer mostly for Word processing and emails and relied on family and friends for tech support. But what made the interview so memorable was how delightful she was—funny and unsparing in her critiques.

We left her house determined to let our team see what we had seen and to ensure that users like her could migrate effortlessly to Windows 10, whenever they wanted. In the following months, we would conduct several additional studies—testing proposed solution ideas and designs for problem-solution fit, conducting AB testing on designs, and evaluating the usability of the final prototype.

By involving product partners into the research process—early on and during critical junctions throughout—we worked together to make more informed decisions and advocate more confidently for users, like the one we met that fateful day. While many of the products we work on require faster cycles, the lessons from the experience of leading this research effort can be applied to any cycle that involves collaboration with multiple teams. Here are a few of the lessons learned.

Know your product partners and align on goals

At the beginning of the process, before collecting data, set up a meeting with your product partners to align on the project goal. In this case, it would be PMs, designers, content experts, engineers, and market researchers. There is usually a short timeframe for research and there is not much room for exploring every aspect of a technology. So, aligning with what the team is trying to achieve helps everyone understand the relevant problems users face. This way everyone can make meaningful contributions towards designing solutions.

Understand what is already known

Depending on what you are working on, chances are high that some research has already been done—either within the organization or outside of it. So, complete a quick literature review, which can range from a few hours to a few days, depending on the topic, and look into market, usage, or user research data.

This review will help establish what is already known, reduce the potential for redundant work, and provide a foundation for you to go deeper with your own. At Microsoft, we have a very useful research database called HITS that I like to consult before every new study.

Bring your partners into the process

Once the team is aligned, create a study guide, and ask for feedback from your research team collaborators as well as product partners. Sharing a study guide with product partners achieves two goals. First, it can help to cross-check that the study covers everything the team needs for informed decision-making. Second, it facilitates partner engagement with the process and the findings because they can see how the sausage was made. For some studies, we share interview videos with the whole team so they can hear more directly from users and develop deeper empathy for the challenges users face.

One outcome of involving product partners in the research process is that the sharing becomes mutual. In other words, partners begin to involve us in their processes as well. They share ideas and prototypes for feedback, which means we can remind them (where necessary) of research insights. This also affords us more opportunities to see how different disciplines think about problems and formulate solutions to them. This understanding, in turn, empowers us to proactively address their concerns while communicating research insights.

On more than a few occasions, I have heard product partners talk about “our research” and accurately represent research findings. This was possible because they were folded into the process from the beginning, understood how the research was executed, and felt some ownership in the final results.

When product partners understand and feel confident in research insights, they are more likely to advocate for users. While some might argue that allowing product partners more active participation in research diminishes respect for the research discipline, this has not been our experience. Collaboration builds confidence in research for decision-making.

Be transparent and learn to say no, nicely

On the rare occasions when product partners offer to help with conducting research or ask for answers that are outside of the research scope, it’s important to be transparent about research limitation. It’s OK to say no. Proper expectation setting ensures that product partners trust the answers we provide and trust that we’ll provide clarity about the questions we can’t answer.

Be flexible about deliverables

One approach to sharing research is to deliver the research findings at a scheduled time where you answer clarifying questions. While this works for many, it’s not a catchall solution. Don’t get hung up on specified schedules and methods of research sharing. Sometimes, designers need feedback to begin making changes before there is time to share with the whole team. That’s OK.

The goal of research is to bring forward customer understanding and insights to shape products and inform decisions. When and how you share is in service of that goal, so give your team what they need. Use different media formats, like videos and images, to help drive home your point.

Strive to generate durable insights

Durable insights are research findings across multiple studies or products that demonstrate a common user behavior or challenge. At Microsoft, we are lucky to have a research archival platform that allows us to cross-link studies easily and to highlight common themes. The archive helps product partners see what challenges users across time and geography are facing or what features they are requesting. Regardless of your method of sharing research, find a way to reference past studies, and call out themes that appear across multiple studies. It helps everyone see what is important over time.

Looking back, looking ahead

From this experience, it seems clear that the collaboration between research teams and product partners helps to inform better research, which can then be trusted by those same product partners who make product decisions. This trust enables partners to talk confidently about the research underpinning product decisions because they deeply understand and embrace it.

Impactful user research is not an esoteric endeavor undertaken by a user researcher with a reveal date for product partners. Rather, it’s a journey of discovery with product partners where knowledge is generated and shared, feedback is received to improve the process, and everyone involved feels informed and confident in the outcome.

How have you included product partners in your research process? Tweet me your thoughts at @ohimatt or @MicrosoftRI or like us on Facebook and share your comments.

Matthew Adeiza is a design researcher on the Windows Experiences team. He is interested in understanding how people use technology to achieve personal and professional goals, and how we can help them succeed more effectively and meaningfully. He has a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Washington where he studied how presidential campaigns in Sub-Sahara Africa use digital media for organizing and voter mobilization.