Ting-Ray Chang is a user experience (UX) research manager based in London, working for Stepstone and is happy to share her knowledge and experience of building a user research function for any kind of business from scratch. She is a multicultural researcher and designer and investigates the psychological and socio-cultural impacts of design across a wide range of sectors, including technology and the built environment. Ting-Ray says that building a user research function and creating a cohesive team can be a challenging venture and shares some of her insight and wisdom below.
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Getting the buy in that's needed
It's important for any business considering the benefits of creating a user research function to fully buy into the project from the outset, as UX researchers will be working across a wide range of company disciplines. Ting-Ray explains that Cervallo's has quite a varied business culture across all its different branches and this did affect the ways in which they received user research and their interactions with researchers. Her principal responsibilities revolved around working with the development teams and design teams and they were much more familiar with working with on-site researchers. But, the company's head office was more accustomed to using agencies or run their research, which is a totally different ball game. She says: "So, helping the company to understand, to get used to having a team of researchers, to create visibilities and understand what we can do to help them, and how we can be part of the organisation and part of the operations have been the challenge that happened in the past year".
Challenges of building a user research function
Ting-Ray uses the example of her current employer, Stepstone to explain just what challenges are likely to be faced when setting out to build a user research function. Ting-Ray was recruited to her role to specifically build a team of six, although the company did already employ one user researcher.
Some of the challenges faced by Ting-Ray in her new role were:
The company immediately asked for insight, but this type of function requires considerable learning prior to reaching any conclusions. Ting-Ray comments: "I think it's about us communicating the patience and understand how we work together, so that allows us time to actually understand what we're trying to achieve by running a research project, and bring the stakeholders alongside with us to run the project, and to actually utilise the insights whether with designers or with the development team". With a complex business structure and product offering it does take time to reach understanding of the business. Ting-Ray's current company offer about 11 brands presently, so it took time to understand their focus and to build a user research function using job seekers and recruiter agencies. One of the initial decisions made was that the new team would be split into researchers to look after job seekers and researchers to handle the recruiters, as these are two discrete projects.
Ting-Ray finds it extremely challenging to recruit participants and this plays a huge part in running an in-house research function. User panels can be one good source of participants, so whenever her organisation participates in other research projects or in trade fairs or exhibitions she takes time to collect details for potential participants. Agencies are also important in supplementing these numbers.
Recruiting the right talent
Before taking any steps to build up a team to handle the user research function it's important to scrutinise the available budget. Anyone tasked with setting up a user research function for any type of business needs to be quite clear on what available budget there will be as this will impact upon the recruiting task considerably. In her current role Ting-Ray was fortunate, as she was appointed on permanent contract immediately. She says that the decision on whether to recruit by way of contract or permanent staff will be very much dependent on the available budget and the type of research the business requires. Across her current company a number of agencies already work on projects, so the in-house researchers had the ability to tap into the knowledge produced in previous projects.
She was looking for permanent researchers for her team and it's extremely difficult to recruit between four and six user researchers, with different specialties in the current jobs market. It was also essential to build a training programme to assist with their development into their new roles.
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Opting for contractors or permanent team members
In many cases team leaders will be allocated a budget for around three months for individual research projects, which means using contractors is the only way to go. However, it's important that individual contractors have the ability to show up on day one and hit the ground running. Where this happens, it's possible to illustrate to business employers just what value user research provides to the company. What is critical is that the team manager and individual team members are all working off the same page to provide value to companies. The decision to recruit contractors or permanent members of the team will depend very much on the project requirements. Standalone projects can generally be allocated to agency staff, but direct studies or interactive types of work are more likely to remain in-house.
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Juggling team expertise
Different levels of expertise and knowledge within teams can also be difficult to juggle, so setting up mentoring programmes with senior staff members mentoring juniors can be very beneficial. One of the major benefits of building a team of six and working together is the camaraderie and the ways sharing resources and practices can help build increased knowledge. Further, it's very difficult to recruit team members with the knowledge and expertise needed to handle sophisticated user research. Ting-Ray participates in an external mentorship programme to help bring more education to the wider workforce. She will generally meet different external researchers once a month and this type of programme helps enhance jobseekers knowledge. She also works with industrial care for the British XPI on epidemics and this can help her identify suitable researchers for roles in her current position. But, she knows that at this time there are far more vacancies for user researchers than there are skilled researchers in the jobs market.
Importance of recruiting graduates
In most cases when she is recruiting to teams she relies on employing masters graduates, as they have the familiarity gained from recently handling comprehensive research projects and they possess the skills she requires. The UX research field used to be manned by a large number of generalist jobseekers with experience working on different projects for a number of agencies, but more recently jobseekers are looking to specialise.
Deciding on whether to build an in-house research lab
Any thoughts about building an in-house research lab and buying equipment will need to be justified, as agencies will often offer these types of services. Managers need to take a step back to think about just how much in-house lab facilities will be used throughout the entire year and plan accordingly.
Ting-Ray utilises online research tools for remote testing, remote interviews, moderated testing and onsite testing and these all contribute to capturing the insight required. All available tools are documented on one spreadsheet and new tools are constantly coming to market. What can be labour intensive though, is training up the team to be able to use these tools effectively. One of the major challenges to building an on-site testing or lab facility is trying to create bite sized research and maintaining visibility within the organisation. Currently, she is thinking about creating a booklet or newsletter to make her team's research more visible within the company.
Benefits of the user research function
Working closely with product managers and stakeholders can be immensely successful and help build understanding and knowledge throughout organisations. Ignoring the end user of any product is a bad move for any company and the user research function allows business organisations to appreciate end users much more fully. Real user research is a complex operation and often mixed in with the marketing function, but companies ignore this aspect of their business at their own peril. One of the principal benefits of the user research function is to help organisations and departments achieve a more customer-centric approach in all aspects of work conducted. Long term, a successful user research function will help enhance returns on investment (ROI) for any business, but it can never be classed as an immediate solution. The data produced by user research can help inform product improvements and developments considerably and user research also allows companies and organisations to achieve a far greater understanding of customers and meet their needs more specifically.
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Working with data
Ting-Ray highlights that one of the most important aspects to the area of work in which she is involved is working with quantitative data. Researchers need to have the ability to work with analytics and create reports based on these data.
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