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UX Researcher at Google describes the ideal Product Manager and UXR relationship

A Product Manager works with people across many different functions, to bring a product to life. A key role that Product Managers end up collaborating with is UX Research (if you’re curious about what a UX Researcher does, check out our podcast that explores this role with a researcher at Airbnb).


In this post, we talk to Chloe Doan, a Senior UX Researcher at Google, about what makes for a great PM <> UXR relationship.

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Note: Check out this highly rated course on User Experience Research and Design on Coursera, offered by the University of Michigan. 

LED: Can you describe your background?


Chloe: I have a masters in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. It was a quantitative research focused practical program which perhaps sowed the seeds of an interest in research for me. From there, I worked at Uber on their People team for a few years. I was doing some research-ish work, but really missed working in a core research role. I therefore ended up working at Apple in Research on a gamified learning app. I then joined Google in Stadia as a UX Researcher, and more recently, I work on Food focused products at Google, again as a UX Researcher.


LED: How would you describe what you do?


Chloe: This is a fun one! This is how I describe it to my family - I do research on products. I help people figure out whether products are usable and easy to understand. I also do more strategic research to help the team working on the product to assess what the product should become and what direction it should go in.


In many ways, a UX Researcher’s role is to de-risk decisions around products and help look ahead to where the product might go.


LED: Can you describe a typical product development process and where a UX Researcher fits in?


Chloe: Product development starts with very open ideation, discussion around the possibilities. These are then refined, and once there is consensus on an idea, we would prototype it, build it, evaluate it, launch it, and continue to iterate on it. This is a rough, end to end, development process.


As far as where a UX Researcher plugs in, they can be present anywhere, and ideally should be present everywhere. But often times, that’s not possible due to practical reasons, there are only so many projects that a single researcher can be involved with end to end.


An example of where a Researcher might help - UXR might do concept testing to get some sense for what ideas are exciting and have legs, based on real user feedback. They can help identify potential risks and issues. Another example is that post product launch, they can help identify how to iterate and measure how it lands.


LED: Typically, how do you collaborate with Product Managers?


Chloe: Well, there’s a typical scenario and then there’s an ideal scenario.


Typically - I’m working with multiple PMs, usually in different product spaces and areas. The nature of UXR is that we’re stretched across many different projects so in reality, I can’t do all the things that I’d like to do. Usually, I lean into areas that are high risk either strategically or in terms of usability. That’s where Research can add the most value. Huge products can sometimes have a lot of risk, or new product launches - What is it? What should it be? Who is it for? These are the questions I help Product Managers answer.


In the case of an ideal scenario, I’m preset end to end across all projects. I think of my partnership model with PMs as a “collaboration”. I learnt this from my previous manager actually - I think of my role as a doctor! I can help diagnose issues, and identify how to fix them. That’s how I like to partner with PMs.


A trap UXR can sometimes fall into is that they’re being asked to spit out research, without being involved in the process of diagnosing the true problem. That vastly reduces the impact that this role can have, and when that happens in this sort of a “barista” / “Research as a service” model, the quality of your work as well as the end product itself will suffer.


LED: What makes for a great UXR<>PM working relationship?


Chloe: In a single word - Trust. If there’s a lot of trust between the PM and UXR, that goes a long way. The PM can trust you that you’ll look at the product end to end, think about things holistically, and identify true issues.


Another thing that stands out when PM and UXR are working well together, is aligned and clear expectations. If the PM is expecting you to follow the service barista model, and only knows how to give you specific tasks, or has preconceived notions around what methodology to use to answer a question - that’s a signal that there are misaligned expectations around what the role can be. It’s not ideal.


LED: Can you share some examples where you think the PM made your job really easy and fun?


Chloe: When there’s high trust, you get along, and you understand eachother’s role. You’re on the same page, the PM takes you along the entire process and you feel like a part of the whole thing end to end.


Here’s an example that illustrates this - One of the PMs whom I had a great working relationship with, came to me once and said, “My VP just talked to me and said that they’re really concerned about XYZ. What are your thoughts?” This was really great. She didn’t ask me to do specific research at first. Instead, I was there for the diagnosis of the problem.


LED: Can you share examples where the PM <> UXR working model wasn’t that great?


Chloe: An example of this is when the findings are very deeply questioned in an almost hostile way. “Is this valid if you just talk to 8-10 people?” “Is this really enough data?” This sends the researcher into the direction of explaining their work and methodology. When your work and your expertise are being questioned, the trust is simply not there and it can be very frustrating.


LED: If you had to share advice with new Product Managers on how best to truly unlock the value of UX Research, what would that be?


Chloe: In the same vein as trusting someone’s expertise, what their role is and what they’ve been trained to do, one pitfall I’ve seen is - “I know that research seems to say that people don’t like it, but I still want to do it.”


And that’s ok, there’s definitely something to be said for product sense, and there are often other factors at play. What users say doesn’t always need to happen. It’s ok to take decisions that go against research findings. However, what we have to acknowledge is that research is there to de-risk decisions --as long as we’re aware of the risk or issues that the research uncovered, and are comfortable with it, that’s ok. If you’re ok to take that risk for whatever other reasons are in the balance, that’s totally fine.

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