Xplor's Lindsay Boylan on building a user-focused research practice
Insights on being the first researcher and a research team of 1 and how to stay focused on your user.
Lindsay Boylan, Global Product Lead at Xplor, joined the Rally team on Dec 15 for an AMA on building a user-focused research practice. Lindsay answered questions about topics like joining an org as the first dedicated researcher, panel building and keeping panelists engaged, and measuring value and impact.
If you missed it, or want a refresh on what Lindsay shared, we’ve put together highlights from some of the questions she covered. If you’d like to watch the full AMA, head to our YouTube channel.
🔑 It’s critical to make research a team sport. Everyone should be seeing and hearing the user’s struggles and wins firsthand as well as understand the research process from start to finish.
🔑 Being close to your users can build empathy and help you share that empathy with your team.
🔑 Research Ops is critical to the success of any research practice and should be an ongoing priority.
🔑 Be intentional about thanking your users. “Even if we’re paying them, we’re still asking our users for their time and their thoughts.”
🔑 The length of time you should spend synthesizing research should equal the time you spent researching.
🔑 Researching your team is just as valuable as researching research methods and strategies. Make sure that you understand at every level what research looks like to your team and org.
Who is Lindsay Boylan?
When it comes to backgrounds, Lindsay’s is unique — she’s spent time in most of the roles you’d find in a product org. “I like to say I worked my way from the back and all the way up and out,” she said.
So, let’s start at the back. Lindsay went to school for industrial engineering and landed a full-stack engineering role after graduating. “Throughout my time as a developer, I was always a lot more interested in the front end and UX rather than the back end,” said Lindsay.
She started looking for roles that blended design and engineering and was hired at Mariana Tek (which was later acquired by Xplor) as a UX engineer. After six months of spending half her time doing research, Lindsay transitioned into doing research full-time as Mariana Tek’s first dedicated researcher.
Lindsay moved up the ranks to become the Global Head of Product Research and Operations and recently became the Global Product Lead. “I'm excited to be leading the whole product function with a big focus on research.”
How Lindsay utilizes her unique background
“It gives context to all of my decisions,” said Lindsay. For example, her coding background helped her understand how to translate her research insights to the dev team. “You can’t be collaborative and deliver insights without being grounded in reality and able to speak at the same level.”
Joining a high-growth SaaS company as the 1st researcher
“Joining a high-growth startup is exciting and stressful and awesome all at the same time,” she said. For Lindsay, joining a startup provided her more access to learning about the business, product, and users. This access to users became “deeply personal” for Lindsay.
The closeness Lindsay has cultivated and grown with her users “helped both further my own empathy and helped me distill that to the rest of the team.”
Xplor’s users are all small business owners and Lindsay said connecting with them and hearing their stories and experiences made her a better researcher.
Lessons from Lindsay’s experience
- It’s critical to make research a team sport. Everyone should be seeing and hearing the user’s struggles and wins firsthand as well as understand the research process from start to finish. Doing so furthers the amount of research being done and also increases the empathy your team feels.
- To scale and expand, you need proper systems and processes in place.
- When building processes and systems, keep your non-researchers in mind. “As researchers, we’re super trained and know how to communicate with our users. For non-researchers, this can feel very foreign and even scary. Put systems in place to mitigate and limit that fear as much as possible.”
- Allowing both researchers and non-researchers to do their own research gives valuable experience and learning, even if the results are lower quality or unusable.
Where does Research Ops fit into your scope?
“If the process around research is chaotic, then the research will be chaotic,” said Lindsay. Dedicating time to Research Ops has paid off endlessly for Lindsay and her team. “I learned really early on that Research Ops is critical to the success of any research practice,” she said.
Ultimately, Lindsay said Research Ops isn’t something you can just hire a consultant to come in, implement, and leave. “It’s an ongoing priority. It matters as much as actually completing the research.”
Making the case for scaling beyond a research team of 1
- Break down all the proposed research projects that a team would have over the next quarter.
- Identify what you can do vs. what you can’t do (i.e. what would either need to be picked up by someone else or not done at all).
- When talking to executives, position research as risk mitigation. Ask “would hiring for X position increase the chances that we will build the right thing the first time?”
- Share examples of times when research made an impact and times when research wasn’t followed and resulted in a negative impact.
BONUS: You’ve been given the green light to grow your team, what roles or skillsets do you prioritize for your first hire?
“Prioritize someone you can trust to be your right-hand person as you grow and scale,” said Lindsay. She also said she prioritized how a person felt to work with over their skill. As you continue to grow your team, Lindsay recommends getting a mix of both junior- and senior-level experience and people from diverse backgrounds.
“Not everybody on my team was a researcher before and I love that,” she said. “It gives them awesome context into other parts of the business.” Lindsay’s current team is very qualitative heavy and she’d like to add researchers who are more focused and experienced on the quantitative side. “You want to make sure you’re covering your bases and not just being an echo chamber.”
Measuring the value & impact of research as a team of 1
Lindsay offered some questions to ask to determine the impact of your research:
- Are you getting engagement from senior leadership?
- Is senior leadership looking to you for guidance?
- Are they asking more generative questions?
- Are research insights being shared throughout the company?
- Was your research guided by business metrics and goals?
Lindsay also recommends taking time at the end of the year to document and reflect on all research projects, initiatives, goals, and results. This can help you see, record, and share the impact of research.
Setting up a user panel and keeping panelists engaged
“I did a ton of research before I started a panel,” said Lindsay. Lindsay said she took a lot of inspiration from the team at Atlassian. “I love how they have branded their panel to feel really special,” she said.
Lindsay also liked how many touch points the team at Atlassian incorporated into their panel like an email a user would get after signing up that explained what they could expect from participating.
“The expectation part is key,” she said. At Mariana Tek, they’ve created a landing page for research that explains the purpose of each research session and when a panelist should expect communications from the research team.
Building a panel can be a big, challenging task. But it’s equally as challenging to keep the panelists engaged. One way to increase engagement is to keep your panel at a reasonable size. “Our panel isn’t so big that there are corners of it that go cold,” said Lindsay. “We are trying to make sure that we’re getting to some of those people that haven’t been reached out to.”
Lindsay also sends out a thank-you message at Christmas to every single person who has participated in a study, taken a survey, or interacted with the research team in any way. In this thank you, Lindsay tries to make it personal and share things like how the research team is growing. And of course, Lindsay makes sure the focus is on thanking her users.
“We’re in the business of favors,” she said. “Even if we’re paying them, we’re asking our users for their time and their thoughts.” For Lindsay, showing appreciation is a major part of maintaining and growing a panel.
How to manage time and create the right research cadence
“My rule of thumb is that the length of time I should spend synthesizing research should equal the time I spent researching,” said Lindsay. So, if her research took her a week, she should plan to spend a week going through it. It’s important to communicate this timeline to your team and stakeholders.
The questions you ask before starting a research project will help you manage your time and create the right cadence. Lindsay said it’s important to identify the critical research questions that need to be answered before moving forward. You can use those questions to gauge the scope of the project and the time it will take, and to ensure you’re on track throughout the research process.
When it comes to research insights, “we’re not big report writers over here, we’re more into bit-sized and digestible.” Lindsay’s team has started doing rolling share-outs. This allows for time-sensitive decisions to be made without rushing the research or synthesis. Lindsay said it also helps keep everyone involved in the research.
Lindsay’s vision for research at Xplor
“Research has always been at the core of how we work,” said Lindsay. “We’ve been really lucky to have partners in every part of the business that really value the work that the research team does.”
In her new role in product leadership, Lindsay said she’s excited to lead from a product perspective and from a senior leadership level. As her team and org grows, Lindsay’s had to reevaluate their working model. Previously, the team worked in a centralized model, working on whatever was most important. “It helped get the work done, but it didn’t allow our researcher to go super deep in their areas.”
Now, the team is moving to a more segment/brand-specific approach where each researcher will be focused on their specific segment and support the product roadmap. “I’m excited to see the generative work that comes out of that and see how research can really drive our roadmap in a way that we might not have been able to do before.”
Another thing Lindsay is hoping to do more of is work with the design team to understand where they fit into research. “We advocate that the designer should be able to own the evaluative part of their work,” she said. “We want to empower them.”
Lindsay also shared her ideal split for her researchers’ time:
Another goal Lindsay has for the future is to be more focused on product analytics and metrics.
Advice from Lindsay
For those with no dedicated Research Ops support, Lindsay recommends prioritizing your Research Ops work alongside your research work. Understand your and your org’s priorities and learn what impact should look like and how you can achieve it with your work.
For user researchers in general, Lindsay suggests researching your team as much as you study research itself. “I’ve done all the research on research, but how it applies to your specific team is always going to be unique.” Make sure that you understand at every level what research looks like to your exact team. Does your entire org understand research? If not, how can you help provide that context?
For those transitioning into UXR, Lindsay said “join as many communities as you can.” These communities were great for asking quick questions. “As a team of one, you feel really alone sometimes, and as a team of one who is transitioning, you feel super alone.” To help with that, Lindsay recommends finding a mentor, either inside or outside your company. “Having that person was such a huge relief and kind of de-stressor.”
Lindsay’s favorite part about being a researcher
For most her career as a researcher, Lindsay has worked with small business owners. “Knowing that the work we do impacts the things our users are most passionate about and that the work we do contributes to them being able to continue running their small business is just endlessly wholesome and humbling.”
Lindsay loves the relationships she’s been able to build with many of her users. “They’ve impacted me immensely.”
Connect to your users with Rally
Choosing the right tool can help you build a user-focused research practice. At Rally, we’ve built a User Research CRM that helps teams of all sizes manage and engage their participants. If you want to learn more, join our waitlist!
We LOVED having Lindsay join us to share her experience and insights. If you’d like to watch the full webinar, head to our YouTube channel.