Slack’s director of research explains how to build your best user research team

Research team work.
Research team work.
Image: Reuters/Tobias Schwarz
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At its core, user research is about understanding your customer’s needs and experiences in order to improve and inform your product.

Most organizations want to build something that solves real problems. That can’t be done successfully without taking the time to understand both those who use your product or services now, as well as potential customers who will benefit from your offerings in the future.

I’ve had the opportunity to lead research teams at leading tech companies. Each team had slightly different remits, each integral to their organizations in their own way. Each provide insights that influence decision-making across the company.

When building out my current team at Slack, I discovered that a “people first” approach has been critical in building a best-in-class team.

If you want to build a research team that can help guide everything from company-level strategic priorities to tactical product decisions and direction, here are five things to consider along the way.

Start by looking inward, before looking outward

If you’re a researcher, you know how to ask good questions. Start there. 

Not all companies need the same thing, so understanding where the organization is headed and what its challenges and opportunities are will help build a solid foundation to inform the research team’s mandate and roadmap.

Internal research with stakeholders will help you understand what the company needs. (Side note: it might not be what people say they need, or what they ask for!) This could be as simple as sitting down with stakeholders such as product managers, engineers, executives, or others, and asking them what their biggest questions are, what’s preventing them from achieving their goals, and what they wish they understood better about their customer base.

Knowing what is most important to internal leadership will guide you in what you need to do and how to build your team.

Use previous experience as a compass, not a map

Let previous experience guide you in the right direction—but don’t rely on it blindly.

Experience will help you know an opportunity when you see it, what the warning signs are that can be ignored or need immediate attention, and which stakeholders you should engage. But there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to building a research function at a company.

While it’s helpful to be able to rely on your previous experience, when joining a new organization I encourage you to take the time to fully learn about your new company before deciding what to bring over, and what needs a fresh strategy.

Take a longer, broader view

While some research teams focus on product, many robust research teams have much broader responsibilities. When I shifted my team at Slack from user research to research, it was a nod to the fact that we were going to expand our scope to be company-wide, versus just focusing on product.

This decision made sense for us because it benefits us to be able to understand the overall business, and importantly, how everything fits together. Internal stakeholder meetings revealed that people are interested in many of the same questions.

We felt thinking holistically would not only enable us to tell a more complete story about what’s going on, but also potentially save us time by combining efforts. This also led to combining the research and analytics functions, which enabled us to approach questions with different methods and skillsets. While it doesn’t make sense everywhere, taking a broader view at Slack has benefited both the team and the organization.

Advocate for your team’s brand

While good work should speak for itself, so many times quality work gets lost among all of the other things going on in an organization. When people relate to the research, they’ll be more likely to remember it and advocate for it.

Researchers are not simply number crunchers or surveyors—they are storytellers. They bring data to life. Taking the time to share research in compelling ways will go a long way, as will building the right stakeholder relationships, and establishing the right cadence for sharing.

Find advocates and befriend them. Do work that helps them. Walk them through your work and get them on board. Help them speak for it when you’re not in the room. This helps spread the impact of research.

Take enough time to develop a proper roadmap

The more you can understand the business and challenges ahead, as well as what’s top of mind for stakeholders, the more you can get ahead of potential research projects. Part of a researcher’s job is to get ahead of the most important questions, anticipate what people need before they ask, and tell a holistic story about where the company is going.

Try to balance the amount of time you spend in a service-oriented mindset with the amount of time you spend on more forward-thinking strategic research. It’s easy to direct all of your attention to the questions people need answered today, which often tend to be more tactical.

But taking time to consider where the company is going, how to unlock new opportunities, or thinking about the questions people haven’t articulated but are important to address, are equally important.

In a similar vein, don’t be afraid to spend time on strategic research. Do it one project at a time, and don’t take on too much at once, but take the risk, and do it well. This is how innovation happens. This is also the work people will reference again and again. For example, Michael Massimi on our research and analytics team at Slack became interested in understanding writing in the workplace more broadly, and applied that in research. Understanding the purpose, the medium, and the style has been really helpful as we think about how we can enable different forms of writing in our products. Over time, we’ve come to reference this research over and over.

You may have to make a case for strategic research, but if you’re thoughtful about what to take a risk on, you will see deep rewards from working it into your roadmap.