I recently chatted with Peter Krajnak, Director of Product at Slido (and former Head of Research) and Greig Cranfield, Senior User Researcher at Freetrade, about the art and science of building research teams from scratch. Here’s what they had to tell me about UX research and how vital it can be.
Product intuition is something that can make or break a startup very early on. It comes from knowing the market and knowing the problem that a startup is trying to solve. As that startup grows, however, it becomes more and more difficult and risky to rely purely on product intuition, because the customer base is becoming more diverse and more problems are getting discovered. At this point, startups need quantitative and qualitative data to make better decisions for de-risking decision making, testing assumptions and knowing their customer better.
Here, it’s important to distinguish between usability testing and tactical/strategic research. Hiring designers who are experienced in running usability research on their own early on and empowering them to run these studies as the company grows is a great practice. When the number of customers starts to grow from tens to hundreds of thousands, it requires a very different skill set to run foundational and strategic research. It can start to feel like the startup is drifting away from their customers. This is a great time to think about adding the first dedicated UX researcher to the team.
The next question that arises is whether to hire externally or internally. Companies tend to create their own rationale to support both scenarios. One of the pros of promoting someone internally to this role is their knowledge of customers, especially if they’re coming from the sales or customer support departments. But one of the biggest pros of hiring externally is the wealth of domain knowledge the hire will bring. There is no silver bullet when it comes to making this decision. You have to do the maths.
It wouldn’t be wise to recommend one particular skill here. When it comes to talented people, it’s always a combination of multiple skills, traits and factors. A few skills that you want to screen for when bringing your first researchers on board (apart from the UX research skills) are: ability to navigate in chaos, proactivity, ability to ruthlessly prioritise and knowing how to say no to requests, written and verbal communication, and, last but certainly not least, a sound business acumen.
The very first research hire will be doing the rounds with product managers, engineers, product designers, the CEO, technically with almost every position in the company. They will have to be able to zoom in and focus on the particular user problem (which they, very likely, will have to identify themselves), as well as zoom out and focus on how research can shape the product strategy and the direction of the business. It’s also critical that they understand how to prioritise ruthlessly. There are many fires at a startup, therefore picking the right fire and being comfortable with letting other fires burn is a challenging but incredibly important skill to master. Excellent communication skills (written and verbal) will come in handy when it comes to breaking down complex behavioural and motivational patterns, distil it to something that makes sense for them internally and communicate the insights on multiple levels across the company.
Greig Cranfield made an excellent point in the interview. He highlighted that research as a newly formed function in a startup can be pigeonholed right away to usability testing and guerrilla research. It’s important to choose the very first research projects wisely. Instead of going for quick wins, the very first project he ran was a large scale, strategic archetype project, qualitatively segmenting the customer base by the needs, motivations and behaviour. This set the tone of what research could be.
If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it, is the common mantra used in discussions about setting up goals, KPIs, OKRs, metrics, etc. When it comes to qualitative research, there are different approaches that can be used as a good indicator of the quality and impact of the work the researcher and/or the research team have done. The quality of decisions a product team has made, how the company is solving customers problems, direct feedback from teams that collaborate with researchers, product teams moving their metrics.
Greig shared two great pieces of advice. The first came from his ex-colleague at Monzo, now the Head of User Research at Zoopla, Samantha Davies. When it comes to hiring your second researcher, hire someone senior. You’re very likely hiring at the point where you’re swamped with work, therefore, someone who can effectively run their own project would make a huge difference. The second piece of advice came from another ex-Monzo employee, former VP of Design, Hugo Cornejo. When it comes to shaping the role description, if unsure, try living with the problem for as long as possible. The thing which is needed will become very clear when the problem is pressing. After waiting some time, it becomes apparent what kind of research is needed as the backlog starts to rise and that shapes what kind of research skills the startup will need to hire for.
There are two different types of experience you can identify in a researcher. One is the experience scale in relation to time that usually brings methodical approach and rigour. The other one is the experience scale in relation to an environment, which usually comes with a level of flexibility, proactivity, and the ability to move at pace. Both experiences nurture different sets of skills and as always, it depends on the particular needs of the startups to decide which suits the emerging team the best.
In the short term view, research generates answers to specific, project-based questions. It’s done on the team level and the main beneficiaries of insights are usually people within the (product) team.
Long term research impact lies in continuous accumulation of knowledge across the whole company. It could be compared, using startup terminology, to building moats, a competitive advantage that strengthens over time. It empowers people to make better decisions. Peter Krajnak used a nice analogy in the interview: “Imagine, you’re driving your car using only headlights. Turning on high-beams is the equivalent to bringing research on board.”
Referencing research as often as possible on all levels in the company is the easiest way of realising its impact across the board.
The fact that a record number of startups are hiring UX research related roles, signals that the near future will be all about the detailed understanding of users and their needs. As a result, we’ll likely see a growing number of seamless, unforgettable product experiences that will benefit all of us. Despite the fact that there are no silver bullets when it comes to building complex systems such as teams or startups, I hope this guide sheds some light on the key aspects of building research teams.
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