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“The best ideas look initially like bad ideas” became the startup scene’s version of a proverb after Paul Graham wrote about how he identified billion-dollar startups at Y Combinator. Since its release in 2012, it has inspired a slew of articles about how to come up with seemingly bad ideas that actually turn out to be Airbnb-good. Less talked about is the fact that many bad ideas are actually bad – even when the product leader’s instincts say otherwise.
That’s why, when it comes to deciding whether to move forward with a risky new idea, product teams shouldn’t rely on their own experiences alone. Instead, they should turn to the people whose product intuition is built on data: user researchers.
Ximena Vengoechea, a Research Manager at Pinterest, has made a career out of the belief that companies that invest in dedicated user experts outperform their peers, and the ones that loop in researchers during the ideation stage do even better. Ximena has a resume that supports her opinion. Previously at Twitter and LinkedIn, she has worked on the teams building some of the most popular, habit-forming products in tech.
“As researchers, it’s our job to know everything there is to know about our users: their behaviors, their needs, their motivations. From there we have to build empathy within the company, socializing and sharing what we’ve learned, giving the team a glimpse into how people use our product or competitor products, and identifying opportunities for improving the experience. Our focus is on people, and how they experience our service or product.”
On a good day, this means getting the chance to provide user insights early in the product development process to inform a new feature or product. On a tougher one, it means nipping a much beloved but ultimately bad idea in the bud.
In this exclusive interview, Ximena makes the case for a research strategy that sets up product teams to invest in the projects that will pay off, and saves them from putting time and resources into the ones that don’t.
Ximena’s path from liberal arts to technology – and the talents she took with her
“UX research sits at the intersection of user empathy, research and design thinking, and technical know-how,” says Ximena.
Ximena’s interdisciplinary experience in Art History and Comparative Literature armed her with key skills for user research. Among them, a knack for asking the questions that get straight to the core of a problem; the ability to communicate complex ideas through easy to digest stories; and a passion for understanding people – whether through fiction and art or through in-person conversations.
That last talent is also a passion which drove Ximena’s decision to move from academia to technology. “Graduate school felt solitary and insular – there was a small set of questions and opinions passed back and forth between the same five experts ad nauseam. The first startup I worked was the opposite: we each had the opportunity to take on a variety of projects and explore beyond the scope of our role.”
The culture of experimentation there gave Ximena a chance to take her first foray into UX research, despite not having a background in product or design. “I fell in love with it. I wanted to skip straight to the part where I could actually speak with someone, face-to-face, and try to figure out what would best fit their needs. I’ve always cared more about the people than the pixels.”
How to strategically organize and operate research teams
Companies who hire UX researchers typically structure their teams in one of two ways – the service model or the embedded model. “In the service model, researchers act as consultants, moving from team to team to provide spot support as need. For example, if a product team is building a new feature and they have designs ready, they might call on a researcher to see if the designs are intuitive and map to users’ needs.”
In the embedded model – the one used at Pinterest – a mixed method team of qualitative UX researchers, quantitative researchers, and market researchers work collaboratively to understand current users and potential users of Pinterest’s consumer and business products, as well as the way the brand is perceived on a broader scale.
“We provide insights and recommendations on existing and future products, grounded in real users’ needs. Instead of sharing insights at the very end of the product development process, we work throughout it, and continually push for an organizational culture where our Pinners and Partners are heard, valued, and understood.”
In that sense, the embedded model not only shapes product outcomes but also allows researchers to develop a deep expertise in a specific domain. This, in turn, enables them to partner closely with their product and design counterparts to ensure the user’s perspective is baked into product ideation and design.
Four reasons to engage UX researchers throughout the product development process
Embedded user researchers build deeper expertise
At a company as large as Pinterest, researchers can drill down into a particular domain, focusing their attention on a specific and interrelated set of products and their corresponding users.
At the same time, because of the highly collaborative nature of Pinterest’s research teams, Ximena can connect the dots between another team’s insight and an insight she’s uncovered. “Our team believes in the idea of ‘enduring insights’. That means that over time, we build on each other’s work, as opposed to researching in a vacuum. In doing so, we may find evidence for a whole new product or strategy, or uncover a critical connection between seemingly disparate parts of the experience.”
Over time, the researchers working in a single area of the product develop intuition that becomes their domain expertise. “We take what we’ve observed and then we pair it with our instincts. The more a researcher works within a specific domain, the more expertise they build up over time. You can spot a core user experience challenge where others can’t. You see patterns that others can’t. And you can see these things much more quickly.”
Early-stage research has a higher return on investment
Researchers can harness that intuition to help product teams understand not only how products should be built but also what products should be built in the first place. Unfortunately, many companies don’t bring UX researchers until the end of a product cycle. “A lot of teams will bring a researcher in after a feature has been built, as a gut check that everything is shippable,” says Ximena.
That approach is a good start, but in isolation can have devastating consequences. “If none of the options the team has created will work for users – or worse, if they have only one option and it won’t work – not only does that team have to start all over again, but they’ve now lost time and potentially resources to go back to the drawing board.” Of course, teams gain something from trial and error, but they learn faster if they incorporate all the available information from the start. “By bringing a researcher in early on, they can gain insights that help drive the product in a way that makes sense for the user, and for the business.”
Ruthless prioritization requires objectivity
Bringing in a researcher early in the process carries another benefit: focus. Product leaders frequently talk about the ability to prioritize as a key trait of successful PMs. But prioritizing can become overwhelming for PMs swamped with requests or who have become invested in certain projects rather than certain outcomes.
Because UX researchers don’t actually build or design the products, they’re able to take a step back and look holistically at what features are highest need for users. “We don’t go into any conversation with favoritism toward a particular idea. We just want the best outcomes for users. So teams often come to us with ten improvements and ask which are needed most to create a more effective experience. We have the insights, instincts, and distance to make an informed call.”
User researchers can act as product storytellers
UX researchers have a unique capacity within an organization to tell the story of a product from the user’s perspective, instead of from a founder’s or other product leaders’ perspectives. Using their domain expertise, UX research can suggest strategic shifts or tactical improvements that will make the biggest impact to the overall product experience.
“As researchers, we collaborate to find the most compelling way to tell the story of our users. That calls for experimentation. Sometimes, it means bringing in a videographer to help create a sizzle reel, or hiring a graphic recorder draw during a session as I interview. Then, we incorporate those assets into our findings to make our case and help our insights stick.”
Compelling storytelling helps teams internalize insights, and done right, allow Ximena and the other researchers on her team to have more long-term impact, beyond their tenure working on a single team.
Because the UX researcher’s primary input are insights, it can be difficult to measure the impact of their contributions. But researchers who can successfully communicate the value of an insight to the right stakeholders will inevitably shape the direction of the product. “There should always be something actionable that comes out of the research. Part of proving your value as a UX researcher is your ability to drive those actions forward.” When user-centered products ship, researchers can see the fruit of their efforts, that all began with an insight.