ARTICLE: Sarah Freitag

How an external UX research partner can help you avoid biased results and internal pressures

As an EdTech product leader, you understand how important user research is to your product’s success in the market. You know you need to invest in UX research. But how? You may be weighing the pros and cons of hiring your own internal UX researcher versus partnering with an external UX team. 

In our work, we’ve encountered many different types of engagements. We have worked with product teams that prefer to utilize outside UX research teams as well as those that employ one or more members of an in-house team. Both are viable options and sometimes a blend of the two is what’s best. We’ve collaborated with numerous in-house research teams that are able to expertly navigate the challenges that internal pressures present. But if you decided that spinning up an internal research team is the best option for you, it’s important to acknowledge that they will be inherently more susceptible to bias and, at times, office politics. Interpreting data can be trickiest for those closest to the product. If you’re heavily invested in one outcome or another, the challenge is resisting conscious or unconscious urges to focus on the interpretations you wish to hear rather than seeing the data holistically. By recognizing the potential pitfalls, you can help your internal team overcome them. But many of the product teams we work with have decided an external UX research partner is the right answer to help ensure their research findings best represent their users’ interests because they are more free to remain completely objective.

Outside research partners aren’t invested in one outcome over another, and they aren’t bound by internal politics, either. Here’s why you should consider hiring a neutral third party to conduct your UX research. 

The Challenges Facing Internal UX Research Teams 

There are several reasons you may want to think twice before conducting all of your UX research in-house. 

First, it’s very difficult for internal UX researchers to remain completely neutral when it comes to the research they conduct for your company. It’s not that internal researchers are any less committed to the idea of bias-free testing. It’s just that it’s much harder to remain that way when they are embedded in your team. After all, they are held accountable to the same big-picture goals as the rest of your team. And, because they are embedded in your team, they are much more likely to be subconsciously influenced by internal biases and opinions about which outcomes are best for the company. As a result, they may find it more challenging to separate themselves from their own biases (and those of the company at large). 

On a related note, internal UX researchers may also be swayed by internal politics. Depending on your team’s dynamics, they may want to avoid “upsetting the apple cart” by showing certain results, even if the research bears them out. They may feel pressured to produce findings that are favorable for your organization. For example, a researcher might knowingly or unknowingly interpret data in a way that skews their findings to fit your team’s preferred outcomes, or to match strongly-held opinions of stakeholders they do not want to disappoint. 

Secondly, depending on the size of your organization, you may not have a dedicated UX researcher on staff. Smaller EdTech companies typically have just one or two people on their UX teams. These individuals often have to wear many hats, from research and design to project management. 

That’s a problem in terms of the quality of your research, regardless of your team’s talent and know-how. You see, UX designers can never be truly neutral in testing their own designs. For example, designers often have strong opinions about which design outcomes they prefer. If they are also in charge of conducting user testing, those preferences may express themselves in the form of subconscious research biases. In addition, designers have a personal and professional stake in the success of their own designs. This, too, can translate into a biased outlook when they are in charge of testing their own work. 

Just as a judge is required to recuse herself from a case in which she has a personal stake in the outcome, a good researcher should recognize her own bias and seek to get out of the way of the research. This is one reason why external UX agencies have a stronger division of labor. At Openfield, our UX designers don’t conduct research on their own creative solutions.  

The takeaway? For a number of reasons, it’s harder for internal UX teams to remain truly neutral as they conduct user research. Which means that the quality of your findings — and the success of your product — are at risk. 

The Benefits of Engaging an External UX Research Team 

Hiring an external UX research team like Openfield comes with many benefits. These include:  

A Neutral Approach 

As researchers at Openfield, we see our job as speaking for your users rather than your product. In contrast, an internal researcher is really tasked with the often impossible job of representing both. Of course, our goal is to help you strengthen your product. But we aren’t invested in any particular outcome, and we never push an agenda. 

Rather, we represent the voice of your users and amplify their needs. Doing so paves the way for a more user-friendly experience. When you champion your users, the result is always a more successful product. 

Unvarnished User Feedback 

User testing participants often open up more easily and honestly to neutral third-party researchers. They don’t have to worry about offending a representative of the product they are critiquing. In the EdTech space, many instructors enjoy close relationships with their sales representatives. In the context of user testing, they may not want to “get their sales rep in trouble” or say anything that sounds too critical of the product. 

A good external UX research partner can encourage users to be completely honest in their feedback. They can reassure your users that their opinions are anonymous — and that they will be used to improve the product moving forward. 

Politics-Free Findings  

Internal researchers may struggle to frame their findings in a way that will make them “acceptable” to certain internal stakeholders. But your external research team can present their findings — whatever they might be — without any fear of internal political kickback. 

In fact, at Openfield, we are frequently asked to present UX research findings in situations where one of our clients wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing the outcomes on their own. The reason? The research invalidates an important stakeholder’s proposed strategy or preference. As a neutral third-party, we are able to deliver the truth of our findings in a way that enables organizations to move past politics and get to the heart of what’s best for their users. 

Depth of Expertise

Internal UX teams — especially those that are small — represent a smaller pool of experience and expertise. A UX agency like Openfield has a much wider, deeper pool of talent — and much broader exposure to the EdTech space overall. This enables us to embrace the most up-to-date best practices — and quickly identify the most common pain points. We bring that larger perspective and understanding to bear on each of our client’s products. 

Want to learn more about how Openfield can help you uncover your EdTech product users’ most pressing needs? We’d love to talk

  • Photo of Sarah Freitag
    Sarah Freitag

    As Director of UX Research, Sarah draws on her deep understanding of EdTech users and her background in research, design and business strategy to enable our clients to make confident decisions that result in products that solve real needs and create demonstrable impacts on their business’ bottom lines. Like her design-side counterpart at Openfield, Sarah is responsible for fostering collaboration, team development and for bringing new strategic initiatives and methodologies that allow our company to stay ahead of the curve of what EdTech users truly need to realize higher levels of learning and teaching success. Sarah is an avid reader and an adventurous explorer. Highlights from her favorite travels include Morocco, Peru, Italy, Denmark and France. With the recent pandemic-induced reduction in travel, she makes it a point to fulfill her wanderlust with another one of her passions, cooking and baking, by experimenting with recipes inspired by cultures around the world.

Spread the word – help avoid the traps of digital product development!