Stakeholder management is at the core of UX research. If your stakeholders aren’t ready to listen or if they have the wrong expectations, it doesn’t matter how interesting your insights are.
At Belka, research is an important part of our product design process: in the last year alone, we interviewed over a hundred users for 15 projects. We’ve found that managing stakeholders’ expectations is the single most important factor to ensure the success of a UX research project.
But not all stakeholders are alike. Over time, we’ve seen a pattern that led us to identify three main types of stakeholders in UX research.
In this article, we will talk about these three types we’ve come across: the Novice, the Enthusiast, and the Skeptic. We’ll discuss the unique challenges of working with each type of stakeholder, and suggest strategies for effective communication and collaboration that will maximize the impact of your work.
1. The Novice Stakeholder
“Let’s start with this thing … [makes an Italian hand gesture] … what did you call it? ‘Research with a user’? ‘User research’? Yes, that one!”
The Novice Stakeholder may never have heard of user research, or they may only be vaguely familiar with the concept. They’ll probably be hesitant to invest in it until they see how it can benefit their product. But they’re willing to listen! They just need someone to introduce them to this new world.
- No common language. The Novice Stakeholder will not really have the vocabulary to discuss user research with you. (See the quote above, from one of Belka’s recent clients.)
- Identifying relevant topics to research. Not having experience with user research, the stakeholder will probably not come to you with a formulated research request. You’ll have to suggest a topic for user research after running into some uncertainties that make it difficult to make decisions about the product.
Working with the Novice Stakeholder
- Keep it simple. All your fancy concepts — “primary user research,” “benchmark” and all the rest — will be useless to you at this stage. Start with words and ideas that the stakeholder already knows, and then slowly introduce new ones.
- Locate a source of pain. Start by looking for a blind spot in the product — something like a drop in the onboarding process or a low conversion rate in a specific part of the product. Find something that hurts, and discuss it with the stakeholder who feels that pain the most.
- Make room for questions. Highlight areas of the product where you’re missing information you need to make an important design decision. Help your Novice Stakeholder get comfortable saying, “We don’t know this.”
Some examples of questions:
– “Do we have data (not opinions) on why X happens?”
– “Do we know the main reasons why a user leaves our product or service?”
– “What keeps you awake at night when you think about your users or product?”
– “Do we know the top 3 needs our users would love to see implemented in our product?”
- Take a breath. Be patient. The Novice Stakeholder is trying their best, but they don’t know (yet) how to formulate research questions without bias. It’s your job to do it and to explain to them why a certain question works, and another doesn’t. Let stakeholders be product experts, and you be the UX research expert.
- Make them feel part of the process. Involve your stakeholder in all stages of the project to build trust and understanding. Once you’ve found a research question your stakeholder is interested in, have a 1:1 meeting with them to understand their expectations and worries. Work with them on the research plan, and keep them updated on progress. Invite them to hear some interviews, or invite them to take notes. Help them experience the excitement of discovery.
2. The Enthusiast Stakeholder
“Can we quickly test this new button with two or three users?”
You won’t have to convince the Enthusiast Stakeholder about the usefulness of user research — they’re already a convert! In fact, they may have an excessive belief in research as a cure-all, having heard about it or seen its positive impact on a previous project. Some will want every single feature to be user tested. Others will only want to do interviews because “We already did that and worked so well.”
- Curbing their enthusiasm. The Enthusiast Stakeholder expects research to have all the answers. They have yet to run into an ambiguous insight or uncertain answer, and they aren’t ready to see a research project fail.
- Keeping things strategic and realistic. The Enthusiast will be tempted to use research to determine every single decision about the product, even down to the color of the buttons. They’ll want to user test the readability of an article, even if there are already clear guidelines and best practices for it.
Working with the Enthusiast Stakeholder
- Emphasize limits. Explain how user research can detect problems and find solutions, but that it’s not infallible and cannot predict the future. For example, The Enthusiast might ask you to do a round of interviews to discover if users will use a certain feature. To which we always reply: Research isn’t about asking someone if they eat healthy; it’s asking to see the contents of their fridge.
- Highlight other sources of truth. Show your stakeholder how user research won’t tell them the purpose of their product and they don’t need it to tell them if yellow is a readable color. Emphasize that some answers come from other sources, such as product strategy or design practices.
- Do a cost-benefit analysis. Research is resource intensive! It doesn’t always make sense to user test every feature or release, so choose wisely. Discuss the costs and help your stakeholder prioritize high-risk, high-priority topics to look into.
3. The Skeptical Stakeholder
“This feature? Don’t worry about it, we know what works.”
The skeptical stakeholder isn’t impressed! Maybe they’ve had negative experiences with user research in the past. They’re resistant to new research projects and will need convincing to invest time and resources. They’ll say things like, “We don’t need to do research, we don’t have time, and besides, we already know the answer.”
- Overcoming skepticism and disappointment. The Skeptical Stakeholder’s low opinion of user research is sometimes based on negative past experiences, possibly due to the wrong method being used or research not leading to any significant improvements. Or maybe they just had a specific expectation on the result that wasn’t validated.
- Stakeholder’s personal investment. Stakeholders that have influenced the design a lot and have a huge psychological investment in a design often find it hard to accept results that go against their preconceived ideas. They’ll say things like, “You picked the wrong users” or “I need to watch the interviews myself,” etc.
Working with the Skeptical Stakeholder
- Address the past. Ask about their past experiences with research, and listen to their concerns. Form an understanding of their perspective, validate their concerns and work to avoid similar pitfalls in the current project.
- Find the thing they care about. What does your stakeholder care about? Acquiring new users? Improving a current feature? Fixing the drop in the onboarding funnel? Whatever stakeholder is deeply focusing on, work on that. Show them you you’re there to help, not to try to get them to change their focus.
- Showcase success stories. Share examples of successful research projects, highlighting how the insights led to improvements in the product or cost savings in development. This will help build confidence in the research process and demonstrate its potential value.
- Show, don’t tell. Let your data do the convincing. Let stakeholders observe some of your user interviews. Or, when you share an insight with them, use video clips of users struggling with the product. Stakeholders will often have an epiphany during insight presentations when they finally see a user struggling to interact with their product, or crack a smile when a user is delighted by a new feature.
- Test the waters. Try to gain an understanding of the stakeholder’s openness to change before you present the final results. How does the stakeholder react to the fact that an idea can be tested early and discarded if it doesn’t work? You can’t always change the stakeholder’s behavior but you can have an expectation of their reaction to your proposals.
Beyond the 3 stakeholder types
We’ll leave you with what we think are the three big takeaways:
- Your job might not be what you think it is. You’ve been told that your job as a researcher is to understand users. This is true, but you also need to understand stakeholders. The sooner you get this, the more successful you’ll be in your work.
- Stakeholders are not your enemies! They just don’t know the same things you do. Your job is to find an approach that’s suitable for each, and do your best to involve and educate them. (Treat them like enemies, that’s what they’ll become.)
- Stakeholders are people too! And just like people, they’re all different. Classifying them as one of three types is of course a simplification. And they can also change — the same person can go from Novice to Enthusiast in a matter of days.
Regardless of the simplification, viewing stakeholders through this lens, and understanding the characteristics and challenges associated with each of them has helped us at Belka tailor our communication and collaboration strategies to maximize the impact of our UX research.
We hope that this can also work for you, dear reader.