Applying user research to product development

5 questions for Amy Silvers: Implementing, embedding, and championing user research in design teams.

By Mary Treseler
January 12, 2017
Photo montage. Photo montage. (source: Pixabay)

I recently asked Amy Silvers, a senior product designer and researcher at Nasdaq, to discuss why it’s important to embed user researchers in design teams, how you can train all team members to think like user researchers, and achieving buy-in through sound bites. At the O’Reilly Design Conference, Silvers will present a session, The embedded researcher: Incorporating research findings into the design process.

You’re ​presenting a session on embedding user researchers in design teams. Why is this vital to a creating a successful product or service?

Most UX practitioners would agree that talking to customers is an essential part of the design process, but in my experience, many design teams don’t carry the voice of the customer through their design decisions. There are many reasons for this—sometimes even good (or at least unavoidable) reasons—but one way to insure against it is to make sure there is someone on the team who represents the voice of the customer and advocates for them at every stage of the design process. “Embedding” a researcher may mean having a researcher (or any member of the team who conducted the research) attend design reviews or be involved in the approval process. It may mean something as simple as pinning the research findings to a whiteboard in the design room or including them in the end-of-sprint review form. But whatever form it takes, it’s a necessary step if you want to create products, services, and experiences that meet users’ needs and expectations.

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What are some practical steps for making certain user research isn’t treated like an artifact?

One obvious one is to not just include designers and product managers in user research sessions but have them take notes and report to the rest of the team on what they heard. Quick debriefs right after a research session are also effective. They can be tricky to arrange if you’re doing a lot of research in a short time, but even then, taking 15 minutes for a recap at the end of a day of research is very helpful. We assign someone to do a quick summary, using a simple form, after each interview, and those are great for capturing noteworthy insights before the full findings report is created. We make the summaries easily accessible to everyone on the team, and they can look through a bunch of them in a short time to get an idea of themes that are emerging from the research. I’ll have more to say about this in my talk, of course.

For organizations that don’t have the resources for user researchers, what advice do you have for design teams that want to make certain user research is an integral part of the design process?

Designers can be their own user researchers—it just takes a bit of practice and guidance. And when they do their own research, it becomes easier for them to design for the people they’ve been listening to. They gain empathy for and understanding of the people who will be on the receiving end of their designs, and they may start to think about their designs in ways that would never have occurred to them without speaking to users. They can also enlist others in the organization—customer service reps, product managers, salespeople, and others—in customer research. Have them listen in, and even ask them to help structure the research sessions. Those partnerships mean that you have non-designers who are invested in making sure the users’ points of view are represented in the design.

For designers who want to champion user research in their organizations, what advice do you have for them?

That’s almost a whole other talk in itself, but one specific thing that’s worked for me at several organizations is sharing findings early and often, with verbatim quotes. At Nasdaq, we’ve had good results from the soundbite approach: we pull out comments that are particularly pointed or relevant, or that introduce a viewpoint that differs significantly from our assumptions, and we make an audio clip of it that gets emailed to stakeholders and decision-makers. We also keep track of quotes in a shared space so that we have them for easy reference. Whenever possible, we invite them to sit in on research sessions, too. Obviously, it can be challenging to get senior leadership to make time for user research, but it’s worth the effort to try to include them. A half-hour of a VP listening to customers who use your website or product is worth a thousand carefully crafted decks about the ROI of user research.

You’re speaking at the O’Reilly Design Conference in March. What sessions are you interested in attending?

There are so many that I can’t even list them all! There are sessions devoted to several of my current pet interests: bots and voice services, the promise and perils of AI, building a culture of design, even designing for government. I hope to see as many new (or new-to-me) speakers as possible, but there are also experienced speakers that I don’t want to miss, like Peter Morville and Braden Kowitz. All the keynotes look great, but I’m especially looking forward to Dan Hill talking about the UX of buildings, cities, and infrastructure. Pamela Pavliscak’s on IoT and emotions will be top-notch, I’m sure, and I’m eager to see Eli Silva and Molly Beyer’s talk on diversity in design organizations. And I can’t wait for Noah Iliinsky’s talk on successful design techniques, not only because it sounds like fun, but also because we’ve been Twitter pals for something like seven years but have never actually met.

Post topics: Design
Post tags: 5 Questions for designers