10 Best Practices for Managing UX Research and UX Design Activities, from a PM’s Perspective

By Jessica Dolson
Sr. Program Manager

As Program Manager, you wear lots of hats — budgeter, timekeeper, documenter, delegator and logistics coordinator. But when you have a project that involves research, you have to be prepared to pull out your cape and become the team’s Super Strategist. This is true when the research reveals insights that the client may not want to hear. Managing expectations and reactions from the client, in addition to keeping the team focused on delivering the best solution, can be tricky and stressful.

To help you become a more effective PM, I selected 10 common research activities with insights and best practices that assure a successful project and a happy client.

The Project Kick-Off (BONUS INSIGHT)

Almost every large research project begins with a formal kick-off meeting, sometimes combined with a workshop. It’s imperative to encourage the client to invite as many people from the company to this meeting as possible, even if all attendees do not stay for the entire meeting. Educating as many people on the client side about who you are, what you do and what the project is about will save an enormous amount of time down the line — particularly when the project branches outside of the immediate project sponsors. 

I learned this lesson the hard way once when only one (yes, one!) stakeholder attended the kick-off. As the project progressed, the researcher and I spent an inordinate amount of time just explaining who we were and what we were doing, while trying to establish trust with research participants. Repeating this pitch two or three times is fine; 15 times becomes a complete drag and large waste of time.

UX Research Activities

In the UX research phase, you and your team talk to project stakeholders, observe users in their environments, analyze observational data, and generate insights and opportunities from data gathered. 

Common activities in this phase include, but are not limited to, the following:

1. Stakeholder Interviews

Ensure that these are not done in a group. Information gathered during these interviews is exponentially more valuable when interviews are conducted one at a time. The participants feel much more comfortable talking “inside baseball” without their bosses or peers in the room. Keep this in mind when using quotes from these interviews in deliverables. Do not use quotes that make it obvious who the quote came from, especially if it can be viewed as inflammatory in any context.

2. Heuristic Evaluations

These presentations can be sensitive. From a client perspective, pointing out all the flaws in a system they’ve designed and developed can feel a bit like “calling the baby ugly” — especially if the designers or developers are in the room with their senior management. Set the tone of these meetings early. Reassure the client that you are there to help and only have the best intentions. Be clinical and non-judgmental.

A section of quick wins is a great addition to Heuristic Evaluation reports. These are items that the client can develop and deploy quickly with low risk. These reports can be very comprehensive and hundreds of pages long. Giving the client a place to start making improvements is an extra delighter. Whenever possible, start with something positive.

3. Contextual Inquiries

Recruit, recruit, recruit. Begin recruiting early, even before kick-off, if possible. Creating the participant screener, sourcing the participants, logistics, and scheduling can be great challenges; it’s best to get a start on this as soon as possible. When using an outside agency for sourcing, require the agency to confirm the participants’ attendance the day before, even if that means calling the participants on a Sunday for a Monday morning session. There is nothing worse than having a room full of clients waiting to watch a CI and the person does not show up.

Normally, weeks conducting contextual inquiries are exhausting for your researchers. They are often traveling, sometimes internationally, interviewing for 6-8 hours a day, and then reviewing the notes, audio and video at night. Take care of your researchers. If they are traveling, ensure they approve the schedule before confirming it with the client. If inquiries are happening in the lab, give the researchers first choice on what they want for lunch, keep the refrigerator stocked with their favorite drinks and snacks, and ask them if they need anything throughout the day. 

Did I mention recruit, recruit, recruit?

4. Affinity Diagramming

Anyone on the team can participate in affinity diagramming and I encourage PMs to take part in this activity. As PMs, we may not have time to participate in all the research activities based upon our allocation to the project. The affinity is the perfect time to catch up on the highlights of the research. Knowing these highlights can help you talk intelligently to the client and stay informed on the most important findings. Affinity diagramming is also fun and a great way to bond with the team.  

5. Persona Development

Ensure photos used in the creation of the personas represent both the user and a diverse group of users. For instance, if the persona is a millennial, use a photo of a person in that age group. This may seem obvious, but trust me, it isn’t always. A good way to delight the client is to print personas in a large, mounted format and give them to the client to take back to the office. Just make sure your company logo is on them. Credit where credit’s due, right?

6. Technology Assessment

Allow time in the schedule to have a designer review the technology assessment. A designer can apply an attractive visual style to the final technology presentation and help maintain visual consistency across all the project deliverables.

UX Design Activities

In this phase, the team generates design concepts and prototypes based on research findings, and hopefully validates concepts and prototypes with users. An iterative approach to concepts and prototyping while testing with users provides a vision of the UI moving forward, and begins analysis to set the team up for development. 

Common activities in this phase include, but are not limited to, the following:

7. Journey Mapping

Involve anyone who participated in the prior research phases to contribute and review the Journey Map. Each team member brings a unique perspective and may have discovered insights others perhaps missed.  

8. User Validation

This is a great time to revisit any users you did not get to talk to during contextual inquiries. You may have had a user who volunteered to do a contextual inquiry, but the timing did not work out. Go back to that person and involve him or her in the validation, since the user already has the context of the project and has shown an interest in participating. 

Also, recruiting: Start thinking about these users when you are doing contextual inquiries.  

Encourage your client to attend these sessions to see the process and the design in action. The more involved they are in seeing the designs that work (and don’t work), the less lobbying you have to do with them on the finished product later.  

Not all validation participants are created equal; some are better than others. If you get a particularly bad participant, keep your disparaging comments and eye rolling to a minimum when the client is in the room. The client is paying these participants to be part of the validation. The last thing you want is for them to walk away with a negative feeling about something they funded. If the client starts commenting about the participant, resist the urge to pile on and remind your teams to be cognizant of this as well. A simple instant message to remind everyone to keep their composure works wonders in this situation.  

9. Requirements and User Story Creation

PMs are often asked to write user stories to kick off the analysis phase of the project. The easiest way to write user stories is to look at the design and begin to break it into pieces and parts. Start by identifying the larger themes and work your way down to the story level. Involve your designers in this process. They know the intention of each item and interaction on a page. They are great resources for answering questions or reviewing your work.  

10. Visual Exploration

Know your client. Will your client want three or 30 reviews and iterations? A good indication of how many reviews they will require during visual exploration is how they have behaved thus far in the project. Plan your time accordingly. 

Do they need to sell the design to other stakeholders or senior executives in the organization? If so, try and help them craft a story or message to go along with the design. A story will resonate and leave a lasting impact that can be carried throughout the organization.  

As the team’s Super Strategist, it’s your job to keep the project on track and empower your team, which can be sometimes easier said than done. Ultimately, managing a successful research project is not about having best practices. It’s about putting those practices into the right hands.

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