Tent Talks Featuring Janelle Ward: UX Research Management in Low UX Maturity Organizations

Tent Talks Featuring Janelle Ward: UX Research Management in Low UX Maturity Organizations
Janelle Ward
Founder and Principal Consultant
Janelle Ward Insights
Janelle has led UX research at digital product companies, both as a founding lead and as a manager upskilling and growing existing research teams. She has a background in psychology and digital communication and spent 15 years in academia before transitioning to the tech world.

On Tuesday, August 15th 10:00am Central, Janelle Ward joined us for a live Q&A session: “UX Research Management in Low UX Maturity Organizations.”

Session Notes

Here are the main points from the Tent Talks session with Janelle Ward titled, “UX Research Management in Low UX Maturity Organizations:”

  • Determining Organization Maturity: Start assessing during interviews. Consider the clarity of decision-making in research paths.
  • Supporting Research Team Growth: Align with goals, involve in maturity determination, foster collaboration, and share insights.
  • Handling Hybrid Lead/Manager Role: Recognize challenges, support researchers, keep focused one-on-ones, and track time.
  • Reporting to Non-Research Leaders: Understand stakeholders, seek clarity, and educate on research challenges.
  • Working with Stakeholders in UX Research: Understand needs, establish relationships, and provide support as needed.
  • Hiring UX Researchers Responsibly: Trust in expertise, emphasize collaboration and transparency.
  • Good User Research Planning: Utilize frameworks, include stakeholders, define outcomes, and align expectations.
  • Explaining UX to Stakeholders: Align understanding, use accessible terms, and develop an “elevator pitch.”
  • Addressing UX Research Maturity Variation: Consider nuanced evaluations, understanding differences within the organization.
  • Training Analysts in UX Research: Explore skills, provide tailored guides for different backgrounds.
  • Conveying Evidence Over Gut Feelings: Engage stakeholders in research, show process, build trust.
  • Involving Stakeholders in Research: Assess necessity, communicate directly, build trust.
  • Research-First Approach with PMs: Offer help, start small with contributions like tests, show value and ease of research.

Session Transcript

[00:00:37] Chicago Camps: What’s a good way to determine the maturity of my organization?

[00:00:41] Janelle Ward: What comes to mind is when do you want to determine this and for what purpose? And I think that the first most important moment to start to determine it is in the job interview. Something that I hear a lot from people that I coach is that they’re struggling in a low maturity company and they’re not sure if they want to do that again.

[00:01:02] They might want to work somewhere where things are a little more mature, things are a little more established. I think whether you take a job or not, you need to go in with your eyes open. I think the first stage is really making sure you ask probing questions in the interview, you’re going to be talking to probably design people, product people, find out what their roles and responsibilities currently are. What role user research is playing, what kind of current interactions are they having with users? How does it feed into decision making and roadmap planning? Because I think a lot of times people think, Oh, there’s a lot of researchers in this company. There’s a team of five, so they must be mature.

[00:01:38] But. Just because there are a lot of researchers, it doesn’t necessarily mean that research has this clear path to decision making. And I think another question that’s really illuminating in the interview can also be later is just to ask, if I were to join as a researcher, what could I do to help improve understanding of your users?

[00:01:55] And listen to the answers there. And also use your observational skills as a researcher and listen to the interaction between the different stakeholders you’re with, especially in those big interviews where you have a couple of different people from different disciplines, you can get an idea of how that looks if people are in agreement on why you’re coming into the company.

[00:02:14] Chicago Camps: What are some of the ways that a research manager can support their team while leading the broader organization toward becoming more mature around its practices?

[00:02:24] Janelle Ward: A lot of research managers feel responsibility to their team, but they also feel the sort of strategic responsibility for changing their entire organization.

[00:02:32] So it’s a big job. I would say these things really go hand in hand because as a manager, you need your team to accomplish these goals. You’re not there to do it single handedly. Your team is there to help you with that. Not something you can do in isolation.

[00:02:46] We didn’t talk too much about how to determine research maturity in a company. There’s different ways to do that. There’s models, there’s workshops you can do, but I think that is something where your team needs to be involved. Not just you as the manager talking to stakeholders, but also including your team in that discussion.

[00:03:04] You can talk about this is where we’re doing well. This is where we need to take more concrete steps. The key thing here is to make sure that the research team is coming together to discuss these things. I think sometimes in companies when researchers find themselves embedded in different product teams and, Oh, Hey, our stakeholders are all different. We’re all just working on our own.

[00:03:23] That can be dangerous and isolating for researchers. So I think you’re all working for the same company. So make sure you’re coming together and discussing those things. It’s a team effort to raise that maturity.

[00:03:33] I think you can learn so much just from your peers who are in totally different companies and different situations. Imagine how much you can learn from your own team. So there will be a lot of similarities, even though you feel like your sort of key product manager is a very different person.

[00:03:48] Chicago Camps: UX researchers may sometimes find themselves in a hybrid lead / manager role, or even a bit of a player coach role. Do you have recommendations for how to handle this?

[00:03:59] Janelle Ward: Oh, yes. The hybrid role. This is a big one. The challenge of the hybrid role. And I actually mentioned a quote and being a huge nerd, I’ve written it down because it’s such a good quote. It’s from Julie Zhou and her book, The Making of a Manager, and I’m going to read it right now. It’s very brief.

[00:04:15] She says, “your role as a manager is not to do the work yourself, even if you’re the best at it, because that will only take you so far. Your role is to improve the purpose, people, and process of your team, to get as high a multiplier effect on your collective outcome as you can.”

[00:04:32] So basically she’s saying, if you do the craft, you’re only contributing an additive amount and not a multiplicative one. And your team is not getting the best from their manager and your organization isn’t getting the best from you on the jobs.

[00:04:45] Look, I know I can stand on my high horse over here, like coaching people and saying things, and I know this isn’t the reality and I know the reality is often that people have to take on these multiple roles.

[00:04:56] And third one, right? Also coaching stakeholders. I think researchers often find themselves, managers find themselves coaching stakeholders. So there’s a third one.

[00:05:04] I have a couple of tips. I know it’s often the reality. So let’s definitely deal with the reality. So I would say if you have a team of a couple of researchers or more, make sure you buddy them up so they have someone to talk to regularly about tactical issues. You’re doing a lot of jobs. You’re wearing a lot of hats. That’s going to be challenging for you. If you’re also playing the role of the lead or the coach, and you have to get into all of these conversations. So make sure they have a buddy so they have support.

[00:05:29] I would also highlight this whole regular team meeting to discuss both tactical and strategic issues across the team. What you can learn from each other. We already talked about that. Keeping your one on ones focused on higher level issues so your reports can really feel like, hey, this is my moment to step out and it’s not just a progress report, status report with the manager.

[00:05:51] You also really need to track what you are spending your time on and communicate these duties clearly to your manager, who may not be a researcher, right, to make the case to eventually build a Separate roles for these different aspects of your job because it really is tough and it really is unsustainable in the long term.

[00:06:10] Chicago Camps: In some organizations UX researchers may end up reporting to someone who doesn’t do or have a lot of experience with research. Do you have any advice on how to manage up to help UX researchers be successful in their roles in that type of situation?

[00:06:26] Janelle Ward: You as a research manager might also be managing up. I think that you can pass on your wisdom. I think sometimes we forget that we’re researchers and we have all these skills that we direct outward at the users and the research that we do for the organization, but we forget that we can use those exceptional skills to also deal with our stakeholders and the people that we need to work with.

[00:06:47] I think it’s never making assumptions about what you think people mean, right? Always asking for clarity. And that could be hard sometimes. I was a career transitioner, so I ended up in a job where people were saying things and I didn’t know, am I supposed to know what this means? Is it because I was an academic and I’m clueless about this tech terminology? Or is it because we’re really not understanding each other? Or are we talking about the same thing, but using a different word?

[00:07:14] So there’s a lot of, let’s clarify this. What are we talking about here? Can you explain what you mean? And don’t assume that they understand the challenges of your work either. I think the biggest thing that comes to mind here for me is research operations, and in particular, like participant recruitment. There’s just a sort of magical thinking about, we have researchers, now we can do all this research, but do we have anyone to actually talk to and how much work does it take to get people in line to do these interviews from representative samples, representing our users?

[00:07:46] Imagine that nobody is speaking the same language and do that in a very sort of cheerful and curious way.

[00:07:51] Chicago Camps: How would you coach teammates on the best way to work with stakeholders who are unfamiliar with UX research and what to expect?

[00:07:59] Janelle Ward: Thinking about your stakeholders as users. You need to understand them. You need to understand their perspective and where they’re coming from. Something I’ve always done in a new role and , especially if you are working solo in a product team, your manager is centralized and you’re alone, you really need to work to get to know your stakeholders. And I think what better way to do that than interview them. You’re a researcher. You can show off your skills a little bit, but really asking them about their role.

[00:08:25] Just like you did in the job interview, asking them how they incorporate user insights into their day to day work, finding out how they react to that. You’re also seeing just how they react and what kind of assumptions they’re making about your work and the expertise you’re bringing in. A really key thing is to make sure you’re asking how can you help them make their job easier?

[00:08:46] We’re trying to provide more information and more insights to help people make better decisions. And if they feel like we’re there to support them, I think defensiveness or misunderstanding can really float away.

[00:08:59] Chicago Camps: Do you have approaches that you recommend to help organizations hire UX researchers transparently and responsibly?

[00:09:07] Janelle Ward: A lot of the stuff just comes back to maybe people feeling a little bit insecure about what they know or what they can share and then over compensating with confidence. Sometimes the leadership that brings in research is often from product or design, especially when it’s the first researcher, obviously. And it’s like, we know what we want, and this is what we want you to do. We want you to execute like this. I’ve been in job interviews like this, where it’s like, this is the job. Can you do it? Yes or no. That’s okay.

[00:09:34] I understand it, but there’s the potential to be setting it up for failure or to turn off a candidate that might really be interested in helping, but they need to feel like their expertise is valued.

[00:09:44] I think on the one hand, from the people who are hiring researchers, it’s trusting. Researchers to do the work that they think is necessary to let the practice thrive. At the same time, researchers need to trust the people who are hiring them and the expertise that they have about the organization they’re coming into.

[00:10:03] You might come in as a researcher and know I have all these tools. I’m going to do this maturity model assessment. I’m going to do all these things, but the people in front of you have expertise on the organization. So you need to also trust them and work with them. I think this can be revealed in the interview process.

[00:10:20] Chicago Camps: Now, a question from our live studio audience, Emma asks, “what does good user research planning look like? I need designers, product owners, tribe directors, and our own team of user researchers to be able to use it. What does good look like?”

[00:10:33] Janelle Ward: There are lots of different frameworks out there for planning a research project. That’s easy enough to find. For me, the key is picking something that works for you, but what you need to make sure to do always is really include the key stakeholders in the process, right? You’re mentioning that you have all these different roles that you need to include, how important is it for them to be involved?

[00:10:59] It’s a way of assessing how much do they need to know. I always suggest whatever your planning document looks like, what is the outcome that you want to end up with? What is the, what kind of insights are you expecting out of this project and what are those going to be used for? Not just, hey, we’ll have some insights, but are they feeding into particular decisions? Are they feeding into particular prioritization of roadmap planning? Make sure you have those stakeholders involved in the process.

[00:11:28] I don’t know your organization, it will be different for every organization, but that’s a conversation you can have. That’s another example of really making things explicit, like even sharing the planning that you have in mind with them and saying what do you need to know? Where do you want to be involved? What do you think about this? And most importantly, what are our expectations for this project.

[00:11:51] If it isn’t stated, I can guarantee you someone will have a different idea of what’s coming out of the project than what you have because everyone’s coming from a different training, even researchers, sometimes.

[00:12:03] Chicago Camps: Christina asks, “what if stakeholders don’t know what the role of UX and UX research in general is?”

[00:12:09] Janelle Ward: Yeah, you’ve gotten to work cut off for you. It’s figuring out what they understand. It could be they have a different understanding of the term UX. I’ve found that myself as well, but maybe they have an idea. Maybe they’re just using different terms. That’s something I’ve learned, especially since going independent as so many different disciplines and companies are doing the same things we just have completely different tools, completely different terms. But we’re talking about the same things conceptually.

[00:12:36] Talk to them about what they think it is and get away from this terminology like UX. Is it research or is it talking to customers? I know that’s a very hot button issue cause research isn’t necessarily talking to customers, but what is it that they’re assuming about your role and really make that explicit.

[00:12:55] And this can vary across the company, depending on the role. So I think this is really Christina, an example of, yeah, a company who doesn’t know what you do, but it’s also a good opportunity for you to have kind of your elevator pitch for what your role is in the company and what you hope to do in the company.

[00:13:13] So it will also help you in understanding your own job better if you have to explain it to other people.

[00:13:19] Chicago Camps: Steve asks, “I feel like UX research maturity is like the future. It may not be evenly distributed. As in, how do we talk about maturity in a way that says it’s different per team, per group, et cetera, especially in a larger company where there’s going to be a big difference?”

[00:13:35] Janelle Ward: I think you’re right. I think maybe it’s a sign of the lack of maturity of UX research that we talk about it as this sort of umbrella term for a whole organization, because you’re right, it’s not going to be the same.

[00:13:47] In my role at Mendix, we did a workshop on maturity and we brought in different people from across the organization to assess different aspects of maturity. I realized they also had very different views on what the maturity was. There was a product leader who was like, Oh, we’re doing great. And then there were designers who were like, no, we’re completely low. We need to do so many things to improve.

[00:14:10] I think that definitely is something that will be more relevant for larger organizations. And I know it’s interesting to think about. Maybe the scale isn’t going to be necessarily the same for every part of that organization, depending on what they’re working on, depending on how things are going.

[00:14:28] It’s definitely makes it more complex, but I like the thinking. Maybe we should move away from just this single score for the whole organization and look at it a little bit more nuanced based on different parts of the company, different parts of the product.

[00:14:42] Chicago Camps: Nav asks, “have you ever worked with BAs to train them and upskill them to become UX researchers? If so, what strategies and techniques would you suggest?”

[00:14:52] Janelle Ward: The short answer is no. There are specific things you could say for people who have quantitative training. Finding people in house who want to make the move into research and then there comes the training and if you’re the only sort of senior researcher or research manager, you’re going to have to take responsibility for that.

[00:15:09] I think my academic teaching side comes out here a bit and it’s find out where they’re at. Find out the skills that they have. And in this case, if it’s more quant, perhaps they could provide a bridge for you between data science and more qualitative UX research.

[00:15:24] It depends like where they want to come in and what kind of research they need to do.

[00:15:29] I think you could write an entire guide on training people with different backgrounds and becoming researchers. And I think it’s going to be more common especially if hiring isn’t picking up again, like it used to be.

[00:15:40] Chicago Camps: We’ve got another question from Don, “How do you convey the fact to stakeholders that scientifically solid evidence might be better than their gut feelings?”

[00:15:51] Janelle Ward: This one keeps me up at night. To be really provocative, like their gut feeling might be , too. Let’s put it in the context of a simple project, because this could be really like a kind of mindset shift thing that takes place over time, but it could also be a project.

[00:16:04] So it could be another example of why when you’re starting up a research project and you have a stakeholder who is like, I need you to prove that I’m right. They might not say that, but they might say, I need you to prove this because then people know that I’m right.

[00:16:18] Figure out where they stand, figure out what their hypothesis is. Why they think that way, this is just asking them questions about their position. Some people might say, I have a gut feeling and I trust my gut. Other people might point to other evidence.

[00:16:32] And then if you can show through your research that actually there was a different outcome and you can explain your process again, not just like poof, here’s our evidence, we did this project behind closed doors, here it is now believe us, but if they see the process and they can start to think, Oh, actually maybe this does have some kind of relevance to the situation and maybe I shouldn’t always just trust my gut.

[00:16:56] For stakeholders who have followed their gut and might be a part of a really successful company and they’ve been following their gut for all these years, you have to be careful not to come in with kind of this arrogant attitude, like we know better because that’s not going to fly.

[00:17:13] Chicago Camps: Beth asks, “do you have any examples of how to successfully convince stakeholders that they will get a better outcome when they are involved, rather than simply handing off a project and expecting deliverables to be processed through your team without their involvement?”

[00:17:29] Janelle Ward: It’s like, show, don’t tell. It could be that they don’t need to be involved.

[00:17:35] It really depends on what their role is. And that’s why it’s good to figure that out. When we were talking earlier about frameworks for doing research, do they need to be involved? And then why is it so important that they are.

[00:17:46] Now, if they have to make a decision, an important business decision and your research insights are going to play a role in how that decision goes, okay, that’s already a huge win because they’re including research and that decision making process. I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t want to at least understand where it came from, right? It could be that they trust you and they don’t need to see every step of the process.

[00:18:13] Sometimes it can be just like we say about our users, you have to feel the pain a little bit to then understand, but make sure that, there is pain and it’s not your pain. I think sometimes we want people to be involved and they don’t want to be. So then it’s our pain, but maybe they’re like, we trust you. We’re going to factor this in and that’s it.

[00:18:31] It’s something you have to talk to them about directly to find out where they stand and what they need.

[00:18:35] Chicago Camps: We have one last question from our audience. “How do I incorporate a research first attitude when only the PMs are doing all the brainstorming and ideation without research, unless they simply feel like including UX research in the process?”

[00:18:50] Janelle Ward: This can be really frustrating because you’re coming to the organization and you think, I’m going to be doing research. And then you find out maybe not in all cases. I think it’s taking the perspective of how can I make your job easier?

[00:19:02] If they’re doing it all themselves and they don’t see the need for research, you coming in and saying, but you need research is going to make their job harder. It’s where can I help and what can I do? And that might not be something super interesting. It might just be a usability test. Usability tests have their purpose, but they can also. serve to highlight bigger issues that can come out in those interviews.

[00:19:26] That’s why I always like to ask broader questions in those interviews to maybe surface things that might be relevant to the stakeholders.

[00:19:33] I think it’s find out where you can be useful and build it from there. Don’t try to change the way that they’re doing their process. You need to show them where your value is.


Event Details
August 15, 2023
10:00 am
August 15, 2023
11:00 am
Tent Talks Featuring: Janelle Ward On Tuesday, August 15th at 10:00m Central, Janelle Ward joins us for a live Q&A session: “UX Research Management in Low UX Maturity Organizations.” Join this live session for free and take part in the...
May 2024