Designing a good experience

Editor's note: Kay Corry Aubrey is a UX researcher and trainer with Usability Resources Inc. She can be reached at This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the spring 2022 issue of QRCA VIEWS under the title “How to work with stakeholders in a UX research project.” Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2022 by QRCA.

If you are a qualitative researcher who wants to get into user experience (UX) research, you’re in luck! You can apply the same well-honed skills you use to understand a participant’s unique point of view to working with your user experience project stakeholders.

I’ve worked in user experience with product development teams for over 30 years, first as an employee and, for the past 20 years, as a consultant. I’d like to share some tips I’ve learned along the way that have helped me succeed. 

UX stakeholders are technical and focused on creating a product. In a typical UX project, the stakeholders you deal with include engineers, product managers, UX designers and quality assurance, as well as senior managers and C-level executives. This diversity presents significant challenges. Each one of your stakeholders has different skills, contexts and pressures. And these stakeholders may not even understand one another and their competing agendas and pressures. And oh, by the way, many of them will have a pretty hazy idea of what you do. 

Here are just a few of the different agendas I’ve encountered: 

• Engineers who push back when your research reveals they’ve been working under false assumptions about the end user – and this new information requires a change in design, involving a lot of unplanned work and changes to the release schedule. 

• The chief technology officer whose baby you are usability-testing might have the urge to jump up and show the participant “the right way” to perform the task. (Make sure the door to the study room locks from the inside.) 

• Product managers who care about usability and customer fit. The UX research results will send them back to the drawing board, causing a ripple effect throughout the organization.

It can be traumatic for stakeholders to watch end users struggle with a product, especially if they have a lot riding on it and have put a lot of time and energy into developing it. On the practical side, revamping a product plan (especially late in the game) often has a domino effect that impacts people’s reputations, maybe their jobs and the company’s bottom line. In these situations, I’ve trained myself to not take stakeholders’ emotional reactions personally but rather see them as a window into their understanding and what matters most to them about this project overall. This is an emotional as well as an intellectual process so sometimes the best thing to do is to give stakeholders time and space to absorb and apply the insights and issues the research is revealing. 

Deliverables change

Another unique aspect of UX research is how your deliverables (and often the people you work with) change depending on where you are in the product development cycle. These cycles can last several months or more. There are two cycles/phases you need to know about: formative and summative. 

Formative. The early and, I think, most fun portion of a UX research project is called formative research. The formative phase mostly uses qualitative methods such as observational studies, co-creation, in-home studies and focus groups. Your mission is to help your team develop an accurate understanding of the key end users and their needs, their goals and tasks and the context in which they are using the product. Your research helps the team develop the right product for the intended audience.

Formative UX research often uses rough prototypes as the stimulus for gathering feedback and the rougher the better because you want to get the end user’s gut reaction to concepts and designs. You work closely with product management and UX design in this phase, as well as engineering, to gain an understanding of the underlying technology so the concept is implementable. 

Summative. Once the product concept and design become established, the UX researcher’s work transitions to the summative phase. The goal of this phase is to produce a polished product design, most often by running iterative usability studies with participants who match the target end users. Development teams move fast so to keep up with them, you are often using an agile approach to your work, running sessions with just three to four participants at a time. Aside from usability testing, the methods used in the summative phase include eye-tracking, A/B testing, beta testing and other detailed and numerically-oriented approaches. During the summative phase, the UX researcher works with progressively more detailed prototypes to the point where the prototype’s user interface looks like the final product. This means they are working more closely with engineering, UX design, product management and quality assurance, as well as stakeholders involved in the rollout, such as customer success and account managers.

Not feel totally integrated 

Over time, companies finally see the critical impact of UX research on product success. Still, due to organizational politics, a UX researcher might not feel totally integrated into the team; they might not be invited to meetings that matter, given a spot on the schedule or given the right resources to do the research.

Why the cold shoulder? As I mentioned, sometimes the insights you deliver shake up the status quo, challenge powerful people’s basic assumptions or reignite old disagreements. Or maybe the team skipped the formative phase, so you are uncovering reasons for going back to the drawing board to start over. Although you are only the messenger, any unexpected insights about the users that you uncover often create unexpected work, delivery delays and even a ground-up change in plans. When this happens, the impact radiates from the development team to the executive and company-wide level, which can lead to bad things. 

Other reasons for ambivalence about UX research are turf battles and fuzzy roles (Who owns the end user? How is UX research different from product management or customer experience? The customer belongs to us, not UX!). Finally, resistance to the UX research function is sometimes due to a lack of understanding of the UX researcher’s role and the value this person brings to the project. 

One helpful exercise is to determine where the organization fits on a UX maturity model. One of the best-known maturity models is an eight-point scale by Jakob Nielsen that goes from “hostility towards usability” to “user-driven corporation.” Organizations at the bottom rung of the maturity model typically have no formal UX program in place. Others on the team may have taken on the coveted (and creative) role of product design and they don’t want to give it up. They may run sporadic user studies and feel this is enough and sometimes it is, in situations where the company is very successful because it produces great technology and has a strong sales force. They just don’t see the need for UX and outside feedback and ideas. 

When I started out in UX (when it was called “usability” and “UI design”) in the early 1990s, most of the organizations I worked in fell into the “hostility” camp. When working with companies still at this phase, you feel like you have no power. You find that: others are making decisions that overshadow and dismiss inputs you provide from your realm of expertise as a UX researcher; you are working with limited resources; you can’t get anything done. Some UX researchers thrive in these environments because they have specialized skills (like visual design or an engineering mind-set) and are able to find a solid niche within the work group because they relate well to the people around them. 

Working inside organizations that fall on the other end of the spectrum – a user-driven corporation – is like heaven. The UX role is well-established and you are integral to product design decision-making. While people may not agree with everything you say, they pay close attention, seek to understand it, give their opinion and respect yours. You have the people, budget and time to do great work. The organization supports UX and makes room for it because they see its value, especially in this age of digital transformation. 

Somewhere in the middle 

Most of the companies I work with fall somewhere in the middle of the scale but the situation is still manageable. For me, most of the work I do as a consultant takes place in corporate environments, which present their own dysfunctions because they are hierarchical, unstable and often very rigid. The headwinds I encounter tend to come from office politics vs. stakeholders not understanding or resisting my input.

Yes, there are challenges, but here are the five essential strategies to work successfully with stakeholders in a UX research project.

1. Seek allies

Create close relationships with teammates who value what you do and who apply research learnings directly to their work. Focus on forming trusting relationships with peers and with stakeholders at high levels, even if they are not actively participating in the work. High-level support needs to be visible because it reinforces the integral nature of your contribution, which makes it easier for you to be effective. Ask your client to identify the key stakeholders and interview these stakeholders early in your project, before developing research materials. 

2. Show stakeholders their impact

Show stakeholders how they are influencing the research design and process. Make the connection very concrete where they see how you are asking questions and presenting usability tasks that directly relate to their concerns. For example, create an “observer” version of your usability task list where you call out the intent behind each task and the stakeholder(s) who care about that aspect of the design. Meet with your stakeholders at the beginning of the project to learn their areas of interest and usability concerns as it relates to the product. As you and your team do the work, check in with your stakeholders to learn if their needs are being met by the research. 

3. Involve them in the actual research

People learn about end users through direct observation, so always invite stakeholders to observe your sessions. If you know and trust the stakeholder(s), it’s fine to ask two or three of them to accompany you on an in-home visit or other research activity; however, make sure to explain your role clearly and tactfully as the moderator and theirs as the notetaker, cameraperson, etc. To accommodate a larger group, set up a back room with piped-in video from the session. Ask a colleague who understands UX research to manage the group and help folks process what they are seeing. 

4. Let them analyze the results

Debrief continuously with stakeholders as you move through your study. This gives you a chance to really understand their perspective and the impact the findings have on their area of responsibility. In a usability study debrief, compare notes on how well participants completed tasks, what went well, where they struggled. At the end of a study, sponsor a “roundup” workshop where the team reviews all the findings, decides on issues, solutions and priorities. The affinity diagramming technique is a very effective team decision-making tool for these types of workshops. 

Affinity diagramming

Affinity diagramming is a wonderful and simple tool for involving stakeholders and helping them reach consensus on insights and issues. UX researchers leverage affinity diagramming especially for usability studies. At the beginning of each testing session they hand observers a stack of blank sticky notes that are all of the same color so they can match observations to a participant. They instruct folks to quickly write one observation per sticky note using as few words as possible. The UX researcher collects all the sticky notes at the end of the session and reviews them to extract findings. They display the sticky notes harvested from the sessions on a wall that allows teammates to review key learnings, as seen by their colleagues. 

At the end of the project, the UX researcher reserves a large conference room, lays out all the sticky notes on the walls, and invites the team to a meeting where they “walk the walls,” reading the notes and grouping them by notes they feel belong together (e.g., by issue or theme). Anyone in the group can rearrange the notes to their liking. The team creates labels to identify each grouping (which can also be overwritten by another person). 

At a certain point all the sticky notes will find a home in one of the labelled groups. During this meeting or in a follow-up meeting, the UX researcher leads the team through the groupings where they explore the issues, prioritize them and develop solutions. Affinity diagramming can be done in-person as well as virtually through a tool such as MURAL or Miro.

5. Meet everyone’s needs with your reporting 

Your report needs to be succinct and actionable. It can be multimedia but its primary purpose is as a record of team decision-making with a punch-list of action steps. The report should also contain no surprises because throughout the whole research process you have worked closely with stakeholders to identify the issues, prioritized them and developed solutions. Layer the information, separating summarized from detailed findings because some stakeholders (e.g., C-level executives and product managers) care most about the summary while others (engineers and UI designers) need to see the details. 

Do whatever you can 

Throughout it all, though, remember to keep it human! Your success hinges on how people feel about working with you and their recognition of the value you have brought them. A big part of your job as a UX researcher is to do whatever you can to gain your team’s attention, positive regard and willingness to work with you. The relationships you form with your stakeholders are as important as the quality of the insights you deliver.