Breathing New Life into UX Research

Mar 23, 2017
Jen Padilla


As a UX research manager on VMware’s EUC team, Jen spends her time exploring new, innovative approaches to understanding the problems users face. Jen received her MS in Human Factors and Ergonomics from San Jose State University and has worked in in the San Francisco bay area for over 15 years.

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As a user experience (UX) researcher, explaining what I do for a living can be quite a challenge. Often, people confuse my role with quality assurance. They say to me, “Oh, you test software? So, you’re in QA, right?” Or, people think I’m a market researcher, and they say, “So, you study your users, like market research? You’re in marketing, right?”

Part of my job as a UX researcher is to partner and collaborate with many departments. I did a quick internet search on UX research, and the results I found focused more on the various methodologies that researchers apply in their work rather than defining what it is. Methods are certainly important to know and master as a UX researcher, but in order to give you a better understanding of this role and the expectations placed on it, I’d like to share my definition of this critical discipline.

In my view, UX research is a systematic approach that is applied in a very deliberate way to gain a better understanding of users’ (or prospective users’) behaviors, attitudes, thoughts and impressions relative to a product, set of products and/or their features and functionality. UX researchers then digest these insights to inform the design of products. As an extension of the design process, UX researchers are the experts who craft activities that reveal what users say, think, feel and do, so the design team can build products that solve their real-world problems, wrapped in delightful user experiences.

UX research is a systematic approach that is applied in a very deliberate way to gain a better understanding of users’ (or prospective users’) behaviors, attitudes, thoughts and impressions relative to a product, set of products and/or their features and functionality.

Ramping Up


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After joining VMware’s UX End-User Computing (EUC) team several months ago, my charter was to breathe new life into our research program to better inform our UX discipline as a whole. The team was already engaging in a variety of research initiatives, including usability testing across a range of products, customer feedback sessions and other activities. My goal, however, was to formalize a more rigorous UX research practice that would become part of a more holistic design process across a large and varied team of UX professionals.

There are several key ingredients that can make amping up your UX research program less daunting. Fortunately, when I joined the company, I had the deck stacked in my favor. Indeed, there were some challenges in place, such as some product team members who viewed user testing as a lower priority. However, for the most part, our UX design team genuinely embraced the value of incorporating UX research in the development process.

Cross-functional collaboration is absolutely essential if you want to optimize efficiency and communication. I also had the buy-in and support from our leadership team, which made advocating for change so much easier. Finally, I was given a realistic budget that allowed me to quickly get all the resources I needed in place. While launching a new research program with all these pieces of the puzzle in place may sound like a no-brainer, you might be surprised by how many UX researchers face uphill battles with one or all of these pieces missing.

No “I” in Team

As I began plotting out my course for implementing our new program, my UX design team’s willingness to collaborate was immediately apparent. They not only helped brainstorm new opportunities to research, but also worked with me directly to bring our ideas to life.

Key to our success as an integrated team was our focus on achieving cross-functional alignment and resource optimization. For example, our team of mobile app UX designers and I worked together closely to develop a plan that would showcase a new app concept and conduct user research at an internal tech fair. After agreeing on an approach and the materials we would need to conduct this experiment, we designed a unique hybrid demo/guerilla testing experience that would serve our distinct and mutual goals. Participants at the tech fair were able to interact with prototypes, provide us with detailed feedback and learn about our new app concepts all at the same time.

We wanted to maximize participation, so the entire team volunteered to facilitate the sessions. The result was a big success! Not only did we showcase the up-and-coming version of our product, but we also collected a great deal of feedback that overlapped with the findings from previous usability testing. It was extremely encouraging to see our design team’s willingness to experiment with and adopt proven research techniques as part of their overall development process.

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Top-Down Support

Reimagining a robust research program without buy-in from leadership would be an extremely challenging endeavor for any UX team. To be effective, research initiatives must be tightly integrated with the product design and development process, which would be nearly impossible without broad support. During my first month in my new role, it was clear that the team was motivated to implement a more rigorous research protocol and had the resources to make it happen. Our product management director and UX directors gave me the green light to run research validations for one of our key products and wanted the results as quickly as possible so they could be included in upcoming planning sessions.

Not only was the budget for acquiring new tools approved, our leadership team played a critical role in advocating for the implementation of our new program and provided thoughtful feedback and direction on my strategy. Now, I’m meeting with design leads and directors and mapping out research opportunities. Top-down support and a realistic budget can make the difference between having to track down stakeholders to make your case and hitting the ground running.

Collaboration. Buy-In. Budget.

With these three key ingredients in place, I was able to stand up a more comprehensive research strategy and map out discreet research activities that truly aligned with our team’s design cycles in a relatively short period of time. And now, after just three months, I’m already rolling out a diverse range of exciting, new UX research initiatives, including:

  • Design Partners Program Expansion: Our newly expanded Design Partners Program will enable customers to provide input at critical points in the design process as our team explores new concepts and iterates designs.
  • User Analytics Collaboration: More collaboration between the user analytics and UX research teams will enable us to leverage data from product telemetry to inform research direction and complement insights.
  • Training and Workshops: As VMware’s EUC UX research program expands, we will begin conducting more generative research and knowledge sharing, which will move beyond PowerPoint presentations with interactive workshops and activities that optimize dissemination of research insights.

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Of course, breathing new life into a UX research program comes with many challenges, and having these components in place will certainly give you a leg up. However, whether you’re a lone ranger or part of a small UXR team, having the supportive environment and resources you need to grow and nurture a UX research program doesn’t always come easy.

I’ve been fortunate to have the resources I need to be effective. But, if you find yourself in a different scenario, don’t lose hope. I’ve been there before, so here are some ways I was able to build a grassroots movement and then slowly move to building a research program that was staffed and embedded in the product development cycle.

  • Forge alliances. Identify teams who are open to UX research and partner with them. Conduct small tests with them to demonstrate UX research impact.
  • Be accessible. Make user research activities easily accessible by providing online sessions. Get your observers involved by asking them to submit their observations so they the feel like they’re part of the process.
  • Evangelize, evangelize, evangelize. Whenever you have a chance, whether it’s an impromptu or scheduled meetings, view this as an opportunity to advocate for user research.
  • Generate awareness. Host brown bags, or post pictures of your deliverables outside your cube. Create awareness by doing activities that make people curious about your work.
  • Recruit advocates. Involve your managers & UX designers to help advocate for UX research.
  • Identify and pursue research opportunities by working closely with designers to plan research activities in their projects.
  • Be flexible. Sometimes you might have to adapt your research to accommodate the fast moving development cycles.
  • Network. Connect with fellow researchers outside the company so you have a support group. This is also a great way to share your experiences and get advice on how to resolve them. Being around fellow UX researchers and hearing their stories can help you stay energized and motivated.

Remember, the process of establishing a UX research program can be slow, but have faith and patience. Eventually, as more teams begin to understand the value of UX research, the more momentum you’ll create toward establishing a more comprehensive, long-term UX research program.

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