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Why Product Teams Need User Researchers for Continuous Discovery

In product development, user research is never complete, but somehow we make do. We learn just enough to give us confidence in a direction to take a product, and then we discontinue the research. The narratives we tell ourselves for why we stop user research vary:

  • there’s not enough time, budget, resources, or infrastructure
  • the turnaround time for learnings can be too long, often on timescales of weeks, not days or hours
  • stakeholders are too siloed to prioritize research when they’ve already aligned on a roadmap to execute against

But it’s in these circumstances that user experience (UX) research becomes especially valuable. UX research empowers the rest of the cross-discipline product team – composed of developers, designers, and a product manager (PM) – to ask questions and get answers on an ongoing basis. It minimizes the risk of developing ineffective solutions, rather than relying on a pre-assembled backlog where the priorities might not always be the most relevant. 

Product teams benefit from embedding researchers early and throughout development to foster a culture of continuous discovery that encourages data-driven solutions. 

While embedding a researcher on a team might sound costly, consider that usability testing alone can increase website metrics by 135% [Nielsen Norman], in addition to other benefits such as reducing development costs by up to 50%. In this way, user experience researchers (UXR) can not only provide tangible ROI, but also can train the team’s continuous discovery muscle. Continuous discovery highly complements product teams’ existing continuous delivery practices by maximizing learning to drive impactful development.

In this article, we explore the ways in which a UXR can help product teams ask better questions and get critical answers through 1) providing a healthy tension with the product manager, 2) leveraging data to inform post-launch iterations, and 3) promoting continuous discovery to the team.

 

 

1. Work in a healthy tension with product managers

Let’s face it – when product managers are expected to work at the intersection of user needs, business needs, and technology, how can we ensure the end product is truly addressing user needs if there is consistent under-investment in UX research? Studies show that the ratio of researchers pale in comparison to the ratio of designers, product managers, or developers on teams, and that’s a problem. We don’t know exactly what the magic number is, but we believe it should be greater than the typical standard of 1 researcher for every 5 designers and 100 developers. 

UX Researchers have the power to amplify the user’s voice in product development and back it with data. When working with product managers, they enable more data to be used in design and development. Consider the ways in which UXRs can complement product managers in decision-making:

Individually Together
Product Manager UX Researcher New value created
Aligns user needs and technology constraints to the business goals Advocates for the user’s needs  Tighter coupling of solving user needs that drive business value
Analyzes behavioural data* from the product in relation to business goals Combines mixed research methods** to learn about the user’s context and needs Explaining the why and how of product data
Plans and builds scaffolding for effective and sustainable development Plans and builds scaffolding for effective and sustainable user data gathering Launch products and its iterations with robust research preparation
Has limited exposure to UX research and its methods Has attained maturity in UXR practices Deepening the PM’s user research skills

 

*It’s worth pointing out that data scientists can also be instrumental in analyzing the product data to uncover patterns of behaviour. However, the argument stands that product usage data does not uncover the user’s context and needs directly.

**Mixed methods involve more than one data collection method so they can be analyzed together. Quantitative data could entail surveys and tree tests, whereas qualitative data could involve contextual inquiries and interviews.

UX researchers are invaluable team members when building new products, bringing an additive lens to data-driven decision making in UX design and development.

 

2. Leverage data to rapidly inform post-launch iterations

Far too often we see UX researchers play a big role upfront during problem finding and concept evaluation, only to completely pivot to another product weeks or months before there’s a launch. The challenge with this is that the bulk of the learning and validation comes from live user data observed in-market. 

No product exists in a vacuum, and to evaluate solutions for users requires stepping away from the business context and product metrics to spend focused time in the broader context of the user. This is where a rich understanding of the user’s needs, through cognitive empathy, is developed and complements the live product data. Without a UXR, this qualitative understanding of the user and their needs gets lost.

One way to reduce launch risk is to invest upfront in usability testing because fixing the issues in development will be more costly – but that’s just table stakes.

Once a product goes live, the team is fed with multiple data streams. Even if the product is instrumented with behavioural analytics tools for the product manager to analyze, that’s just another piece of the puzzle. Designing iterations requires context, and the UXR is best equipped to interpret what progress toward your north star metric really means for the users. This is where the UXR and designer do their best work – in combining data with design iterations. 

Additionally, the UXR can be leveraged to re-evaluate, redefine, and iterate on the next major release on the roadmap. After all – if the launch wasn’t meant to learn something new, what was the point? 

Post-launch, rich insights can be diluted or lost due to the flood of data that the in-market product generates. Including a UXR during this critical phase can be instrumental in ensuring a robust and rigorous approach to interpreting that data.

 

3. Form team routines to promote continuous discovery

Workplace culture reflects the collective behaviours and motivations of the workforce. If a company is striving to be (more) customer obsessed, then it needs to recognize that tangible investments in workflows and behaviours need to be introduced [Teresa Torres]. A developer or designer–on their own–might not always be equipped to effectively employ cognitive empathy, so that they can actively listen to users to develop insights on what to test and how to improve the product.

One approach is to embed a UXR on product teams, so that they can involve the developers, designers, and product manager in generating and testing ideas. In addition to leading the research, the UXR’s secondary goal could be to empower the team to ask and get answers on their own, training their own muscle for continuous discovery. We see an advanced version of this model working at Facebook, where the rolling research initiative has put infrastructure in place dedicated to testing products on a weekly basis in tandem with the product teams.

Researchers bring a uniquely curious and data-driven approach to understanding users and evaluating solutions to solve for their needs. In working with product teams, that curiosity can be contagious and spread, especially once team members see insights put to work, emboldening non-researchers to seek input from users more often.

 

4. Bonus: Researchers challenge the ethics of data collection 

The UXR can act as a proponent for more ethical product development – not just in how the data is used and collected, but also in how the product is designed to meet diverse needs. Consumers’ awareness and demand for privacy are growing, and government policies like GDPR have already come in effect to defend its citizens. Businesses that consider ethics from the beginning will be ahead of legacy companies that need to retrofit their products to be less invasive. UXRs challenge their product teams to be more considerate in their approach to personal data collection.

 

In closing

Continuous discovery helps your cross-discipline product teams make better, data-driven design iterations. Investing in a voice for the user in the role of the UX researcher can go a long way in harnessing data, complementing it with context, and levelling up your team’s continuous discovery practices.

Want to know what it’s like to complement your product and data teams with a UX researcher, or to assess where your team stands today? Connect with a member of our research practice at hello@twg.io and we’ll be happy to discuss ways you can use UX research to level up your practice.