Successful Stakeholders Series: User Research with Reed Townsend Jones

One of the biggest lessons that is drummed into product managers is that WE.MUST.TALK.TO.USERS.

But how many times has this happened to you? You’re excited. You’ve been put in the driver’s seat for a new project. You’ve looked at the data. Now you’re ready to talk to some users to validate your hypothesis from the data. You run to your user researcher with a list of asks. But your enthusiasm comes to a grinding halt when your request meets the reality of being slotted 39th in a long queue.

I sat down with my friend and former colleague, Reed Townsend Jones, to understand this situation from the perspective of a user researcher. (In other words, I user researched a user researcher!) This is the first article in the Successful Stakeholders Series that helps product managers do their best work with cross-functional partners.

Reed is currently a Senior User Researcher at SoFi, after getting into the minds of everyone from live event goers at StubHub to autonomous vehicle drivers at Cruise. We bonded over the hard problem of how to teach an algorithm to price tickets and the even harder problem of how to get people to trust what you tell them to price their tickets at. When we recently chatted, he shared the foolproof secret that will get you to the top of the queue with your user researcher every time.

According to Jones, it all comes down to impact. User researchers are graded on impact — whether it’s considered in their performance reviews for their current job or when they interview for a new job. But user researchers don’t have direct levers to impact themselves. Instead, they present their findings and count on their partners to put research findings into action to deliver their impact. So, partners who have a track record of taking action on user research have an edge on getting their requests prioritized over those who don’t.

Jones thinks of building the relationship between product managers, designers, and user researchers as a three-step flywheel.

Product Managers should:

1) Start with a good ask

  • A good ask is something that users actually care about and their input can improve the quality of product decisions. It’s important enough that getting the user input matters.
  • A good ask comes with a genuine intent to learn. This sets it apart from user research that’s done to “check the box”.

2) Be engaged throughout the research process

  • Help write or provide feedback on the moderation guide. Even though your researcher is the expert on how to do user research, you provide valuable context on the product and what you hope to learn from the study.
  • Moderate or observe the user sessions. There’s no substitute for hearing feedback directly from the user’s mouth. Don’t just rely on your researcher to share a report of findings with you afterwards.

3) Use the findings of the research to improve the product

  • This is a must-have to build the relationship: help your researcher show impact!
  • If your request originated with learning mindset, then this should be easy.

The more you work with your researcher over time and complete these three steps, the stronger your relationship becomes.

That said, even with a strong relationship, your request could be received differently, depending on how many requests your researcher has and how important your request is. Jones explains that it’s helpful to think of your request across two dimensions to identify which situation you’re facing and navigate the best outcome.

If your researcher gets few requests and you make a low importance request, then shoot for Apprenticeship.

  • Apprenticeship is a great way for you to learn more about user research, which comes in handy when you need to do a little research on your own. With guidance from your user researcher, you can try drafting the moderation guide or programming the tasks into the online research tools. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn and build the relationship.

If your researcher gets few requests and you make a high importance request, then shoot for your request to be Accepted.

  • Because there’s less competition for researcher time and your request is important, your existing relationship is less important to getting your request accepted in this quadrant. This makes it a great time to start building a strong relationship. If you can work through the flywheel together in these moments, you’ll have a much better chance of having your requests Prioritized when researcher time is tight.

If your researcher gets many requests and you make a low importance request, then brace yourself for your request to be Declined.

  • Because your researcher is slammed and your request is low importance, your request will probably get declined, even if you have a solid relationship. Your best play is to be understanding of your researcher, and decide if you can get the research done by yourself or rethink if it’s really needed.

If your researcher gets many requests and you make a high importance request, then shoot for your request to be Prioritized.

  • When you’re in this quadrant, relationship is very important. As Jones puts it, “I am held accountable to the difference I make. If there is a track record of ignoring what we learned, it is dangerous for me to accept the request.” Dangerous! Do not put yourself in the danger zone. To get your request prioritized, it’s ideal if you have built your relationship in advance and have shown through past projects that you help your researcher drive impact.

When working with stakeholders, put yourself into their shoes. What are their goals? How is their success measured? If you can show them how working with you helps them hit their goals, you will get a “Yes!” For user researchers, it’s all about impact. And if all else fails, you can also try sending a barbeque sandwich. Sorry Reed, the secret’s out that it’s your guilty pleasure.

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Lauren Chan Lee is a product leader who enjoys writing about the connections between product principles and everyday life. Learn more at: laurenchanlee.com