Some UX professionals find themselves having to fight for the respect and validation their hard work deserves; not everyone is fortunate enough to work for companies with strong customer-centric cultures. Shane is one of the lucky ones - his work is valued and well supported at Accent Technologies, a byproduct of a great company culture and leadership that value UX and Design research.
But that wasn't always the case. Shane has had to do his fair share of internal "selling" at past companies that didn't value research as much. We asked him about his varied experiences, and for his advice on dealing with company cultures that undervalue UX research. Let's dive in:
Sofia: Could you tell us a bit about Accent Technologies and what you do there?
Shane: I am the Sr. UX Design Lead at Accent Technologies, which is a Sales Enablement and Sales Analytics SaaS company. We have two primary platforms that work well together or as stand alone solutions. The main app is Accent Connect, which is an sales enablement content management system (CMS) for marketers and sales teams. For large enterprise organizations, it helps to organize their marketing content and get it into the hands of the sales reps easily and efficiently. That is a simplified solution, as it does so much more than that.
Connect has helped to build the company to where it is today. Our future, however, is more focused on our CRMSupercharger, which is a powerful sales analytics solution that solves the large CRM (e.g. SalesForce) adoption issue faced by nearly every large enterprise. It does that by automating CRM data entry without changing reps behavior, then takes that data and creates unique visuals that help reps and sales leadership quickly understand the health of an opportunity. It then offers up suggested next steps based on powerful A.I and machine learning.
My role at Accent is varied, as it is essentially in “start-up” mode. Aside from working with and mentoring our talented UI designer, I primarily focus on enhancements to the current product offerings and conceptualizing innovation with the product management team and the CEO.
When you work closely and strategically with sales leaders, reps and sales support, you start to see the many issues they face and gain a deeper level of empathy for the obstacles and friction they have to deal with each day. This insight gives our team a greater understanding of how we can help to remove those barriers and improve their productivity and efficiency.
For example, we are currently working to improve the CRM user adoption even further by incorporating the “Hooked” model, popularized by gaming and social media. My team and I have applied methods learned from the book of the same name by Nir Eyal, to attract sales reps via notifications and email with variable rewards like new deal insights uncovered, suggested follow-ups or new buyers added to the opportunity.
This not only brings valuable information to the users, but also lures them into the system for more granular information to help them in the sales cycle. They then have to invest a little time and effort to start the process all over again. Essentially, they get more than they put in to the CRM and sales leadership gets more insight into sales activity, which is the only way to accurately manage and forecast. We are currently working to pilot this program with several customers, including DHL Express.
Sofia: In our initial conversation, you said:
“I've spent the last 5 years introducing user-centered design to my last two companies, so ResearchOps has not been a high priority. I think "we" are so used to hearing about big name, design-centric companies (e.g Google, Atlassian, etc.) that people often forget that many companies still don't understand the topic, let alone the benefits.”
Why do you think that’s the case? Why do only a few companies genuinely understand the value of UX research?
Shane: That’s a great question, a complex question and one whose answer will vary depending on who you ask and what industry and stage of company they are working. Personally, from my own experience, it is mostly about education and exposure. For people working in hotbeds of innovation and knowledge sharing like Silicon Valley, ideas are practically contagious.
Great ideas are even more sticky and everyone works to replicate that experience in their own organization (think Design Sprints). However, there is an entire world outside of those communities that are still running on the status quo, slow to adopt new ideas or change. Even the ones that do realize they need to change and adapt to new ways of thinking, don’t fully understand why. They hear the buzz words like UX, Design Thinking, UX research and see other companies successfully employing user-centered design and feel they must need it as well. But once they hire a UX designer or team, they don’t know what to do with them. There is no accommodations or room made for them in the product lifecycle and the designers become useless to the organization. Designers end up reporting to development managers with little autonomy to be effective.
This is not to say design-centric companies only come from places like Silicon Valley. There are companies like Skuid in Chattanooga TN, Aha.io, which is virtually distributed all over the world. These companies get it. They understand the benefits of user research and focus. Be it through exposure or education on the subject, they have made user-centered design a priority and are successfully growing as a result.
Sofia: From previous experiences, what do you think is the best way to go about introducing user-centered practices at businesses that are not familiar with it?
Shane: This is an important question, as I am sure many UX designers and researchers deal with this issue around the world. After working as both a UI and then UX designer over the last 20 years, I believe its a top down issue. Leadership has to believe in and support user-centered practices. If they do not, you have to switch from designers to salesmen, ambassadors and diplomats. You have to pitch your ideas in a clear, concise manner that both sells and educates leadership and team members. Presentations need to be compelling - using sales tactics, logical - using metrics and backing it with ROIs or attaching it to KPIs and clear - using language the business can easily understand and digest.
For example, at my previous employer, AgriLogic, I worked with the development manager and business analyst manager to introduce design thinking and user-centered design to the business leadership. We ran a design thinking workshop with them, actually built out personas and what would eventually become the framework for our application’s dashboard. While we were successful in productive outcomes, I failed to convince the leadership of the value of our activities. The leadership did not support my team and I until we produced a large victory with a new addition to the application. While not perfect, it was a big hit with business and agent users alike. Suddenly, things changed in the hearts and minds of the business. Funding, more autonomy and additional UX support staff were all approved after that. But it took a lot of effort, lobbying and constant reinforcement of the messaging. It was more politics than design work, but it ultimately changed the way the company worked. I still thank the support of the Dev and BA managers, as you need to collaborate and build relations with people who believe in you and your craft.
Sofia: Why do you think ResearchOps has become a hot topic? Why now?
Shane: Overtime, UX process and implementation as a whole has become increasingly efficient. The process has been iterated, improved, scaled and shared in thousands of ‘test labs’ in thousands of companies. Efficiency provides time, time provides productivity and scale. Operationalizing and automating research is incredibly practical as a company scales and a logical next step. It democratizes research insights for the entire company, as opposed to keeping it in a product team silo. Why now? While many companies I mentioned are still trying to adopt user-centered design, others have a UX maturity level that is capable of innovating process, research and marrying user experience and customer experience as brand experience. Adopting ResearchOps seems like a natural progression.
Sofia: Are there any practices you could share with us that have helped you optimize research activities in your current or previous organizations?
Shane: Absolutely! While I find user research for B2C products somewhat easier to manage, B2B users can be much more elusive and harder to get in front of for interviews, testing, etc. The B2B buyer is rarely the user, as well, which adds additional issues to the process. However, something that has worked well at my last two companies is to position the research activities as customer outreach. You pitch it as a consultative or ambassador role, working to help the customer be more successful. You are more likely to get traction with B2B customers if they feel it is benefiting them directly, as opposed to passively.
The customer success team is a great place to start, as they know the clients well and can make introductions help facilitate the interactions. For example, at AgriLogic, we began inviting partnering agencies to come to our IT offices in Orlando and meet with our product team directly. We used this as an opportunity to not only run usability tests and interviews, but also to discuss roadmap items and share prototypes.
This exercise went over so well, we made it a regularly occurring activity. It help build relationships and strengthen trust, all while giving us the valuable research we needed. This was as close to ResearchOps as we were able to come. With that in mind, it is important that the language used with these customers needs to be carefully crafted, as some enterprise customers, as well as business leaders from your own company, may perceive the engagement as letting the customer tell you what they want.
This is why it is critical to keep them in the problem space, rather than the solution space. Otherwise, they will start asking for items, features and other requests that you simply cannot produce. The product team can then use that research to investigate and come up with the best solution to the customer’s problems.
Sofia: How do you know if research is working? How do you know if it is generating value? Do you have any metrics in mind?
Shane: The question isn’t ‘is it working?’ but rather ‘how effective is it?’ All user research will lead you closer to understanding and empathizing with your users, which will help influence your designs and decisions, but the quality of that research is more important.
An example would be using a tool like Hotjar. I LOVE Hotjar, as you can really gain a lot of insight into user activity, individually or as a whole. For instance, at my current company we used Hotjar and discovered users were not using some of the new features put in place to help them find content quicker. Instead, they were going right to search.
This was helpful insight. We now knew what the users were doing, but it didn’t explain why they were doing it. So, while it may tell one person that we should place the search bar front and center on the page, it tells me we need to investigate further to uncover why the tools we created were not being used and why users opted for search, and more so how did we miss this one as a business - dedicating time and resources to tools no one used. Metrics are important for a number of things, but there needs to be a balance of qualitative and quantitative research. It is as important to understand the how and why as it is to understand the who and what.
Sofia: What do you wish you knew 5 years ago. What advice would you give yourself 5 years ago (in the context of your career)?
Shane: Everything I went through in the last 5 years helped sharpen my leadership and diplomacy skills, as well as help me work through difficult scenarios with the business. That being said, I was frustrated many times when I proposed ideas that were tabled or turned down. Ideas that did ultimately help the business and the users. Therefore, the advice I would have given myself is to be patient, be persistent and believe in the process.
The special forces have a motto that in so many words means “always be improving your position.” If you are in a company that has not embraced user-centered design or understood the importance of user research, take every opportunity to advance your position. Have conversations with anyone who will listen. Keep proposing new ideas, keep chipping at the seal. At the end of the day, it’s about understanding the people around you and empathizing with their assumptions, constraints and ideology. The more you understand them, the more you will understand how to approach conversations to help get them on board.