ARTICLE: Sarah Freitag & Allie Lozinak

Are your UX design and research teams working in lockstep?

The best EdTech products, the ones that instructors, students, and administrators value most, are those that truly anticipate and meet their users’ needs. Developing a product with a superior user experience requires the right UX expertise, of course. But that’s not all. Your product’s usability also depends upon how well your product team coordinates and collaborates during the development process. In particular, when your UX designers and researchers are working in lockstep throughout the entire design process, you set up your product for success — while at the same time gaining efficiency in the research and design processes. 

Product Development Team Structure: The Designer-Researcher Relationship in Product Development 

UX designers and researchers must work closely together over the course of the product development process. There is a natural back-and-forth rhythm to their shared work as designers create increasingly high fidelity prototypes and researchers validate each round of designs. However, that back-and-forth pattern (design-validate, design-validate, repeat) sometimes leaves room for communication vacuums and breakdowns. Like a game of hot potato, it can result in overly hasty product pass-offs, without enough knowledge-sharing and context overlap. 

This can happen even when everyone on your team is working with the best of intentions. The most common tendency is for the design process to pull too far ahead without researcher involvement. In this situation, it’s as if the designers are throwing each round of work over the wall to the research team, without sufficient context to guide the researchers’ work. The funny thing is, designers often make this misstep because they don’t want to waste the researchers’ time.  So they work to get a design fleshed out enough that it is (in their mind) worth testing before involving the researchers at all. Unfortunately, the unintended result is often that the designer goes too far down a particular path without validating all the underlying assumptions upon which the design is built. 

In addition, designers who pull too far ahead miss out on getting the researchers’ input about which prototyping tools are most useful for a given scenario, workflow, or set of problems. For example, let’s say a designer has a specific goal of determining whether users can understand where they are in a step-by-step process. Without consulting her UX research colleagues, the designer spends two weeks building a high-fidelity, linear prototype. The problem? The prototype doesn’t allow users to go back and forth as they explore the process. What the researchers really needed was an interactive prototype. Without it, they aren’t able to test the designer’s question fully or efficiently. This limits the usefulness of the UX research because the designs aren’t optimized to answer the right questions. The options now are to move forward with substandard data or spend more time and money reworking the prototype so that it’s more suitable for testing. None of this would have been a problem if the designer and researchers had simply worked together earlier in the process. 

Including researchers early on during design reviews allows them to become more familiar with your design problem, resulting in less time spent bringing them up to speed on the user problems you are trying to solve and the various flows in a prototype. Your researcher becomes a stakeholder when they are familiar with a feature and how your users want to use it. Essentially, they serve as a voice for users. The more frequently you consult them, the more your team’s design decisions will be shaped by your users’ needs. 

Early, frequent collaboration between UX researchers and designers helps researchers understand the goals and expectations needed to do quality work. It gives them the chance to guide designers in determining the fidelity and form necessary to achieve quality test results (as in our example above). In addition, when researchers actively share their process and results with designers, the designers grow in their understanding of what researchers need in order to conduct the most revealing research. The result is a speedier design process and a better end-product, too. 

Bringing Your UX Designers and Researchers Into Lockstep

Product owners who want to bring their UX designers and researchers into lockstep should take the following steps with their teams. 

  1. Include the research team in the discovery phase. Product owners can set the stage for a high-level collaboration between designers and researchers by including the research team as early as possible in a project. Ideally, this means looping them in during the initial discovery phase. Doing so gives your research team the opportunity to test and validate the assumptions that underpin your upcoming project, whether it’s a new product or an updated feature set. With solid foundational research to work from, your designers can enter the design process with a solid understanding of what your users want and the questions that they’ll need researchers to help answer as they go. This allows designers to make smart and informed decisions rather than playing out all the possibilities as they guess at what will be important in the design. At Openfield, we begin the collaborative process during the discovery phase. And we use daily design reviews to keep designers and researchers in alignment with regular check-ins between pass-off points.  
  2. Document research questions, including a balance of high-level and design-specific questions. Designers should take care to thoroughly document their research questions, including both big-picture queries (What do instructors’ onboarding journeys look like?) and nitty-gritty details (Do instructors walk through the setup wizard, or do they prefer to skip and setup later?). As much as possible, high-level questions should be broken down into smaller, constituent questions that can be individually answered in testing. Pairing questions with specific design elements and screens helps your researcher write more effective scripts for testing. There is a pay-off in doing so. More nuanced, design-specific questions enable your research team to evaluate designs faster. In addition, the answers to those more detailed questions often provide clues for how to answer high-level questions. At Openfield, our designers prepare research briefs to accompany each new round of design work. This document is used to capture a designers’ goals and questions, as well as nuances about the prototype. It acts as a central repository for research-related questions and is shared with product owners so they know what’s happening and have the opportunity to add their own questions. 
  3. Go beyond detailed documentation. No amount of documentation can replace the camaraderie of a designer and researcher working together on the fly throughout user sessions to prioritize questions and understand user needs. In order to be truly collaborative, your team must move beyond written briefs. For example, at Openfield, even when a project is in the designer’s hands for a design sprint, we regularly pull in researchers for design reviews. This allows the researcher to stay in tune with what’s happening and get a sense for how the prototype will shape up. It also gives researchers the opportunity to weigh in on which user flows to test and how to structure the prototype to optimize future research efforts. That way, when the project is ready for another round of testing, our researchers already know what to expect, what to test, and why. 

Creating an environment in which your UX researchers and designers are working in lockstep is really all about fostering excellent and continuous communication throughout the product development process. Building this muscle yields more efficient internal processes and stronger, more user-centered products. Want to learn more about how Openfield’s highly collaborative approach? Drop us a line. 

  • 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.

  • Photo of Allie Lozinak
    Allie Lozinak

    Allie’s uncanny ability to analyze and organize complex user flows is well complemented by her enviable design and illustration skills. She is serious about her work, but uses her sense of humor and love of puns to make us all laugh. Allie is strong in her conviction that breakfast IS the best kind of food. Outside of the office, she enjoys family game nights and hanging with Poopsie Woo, the family Dachshund-Chihuahua mix (also known as a Chiweenie). Allie is a lover of the great outdoors who is enamored with National Parks. She believes every hike is rewarded by the view or, at the very least, a well-earned snack (breakfast perhaps).

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