Find Breakthrough Innovation Opportunities Through Strategic UX Research



Find Breakthrough Innovation Opportunities Through Strategic UX Research


Hi, welcome to NextGenUX, where we explore the benefits of strategic UX research and help you ride the wave to better innovation. I’m Karyn Zuidinga, founder and CEO of NextWave Innovation. In this episode, we’ll explore how strategic UX research can open the door to breakthrough innovation.

 But before we get too far into it, a little bit about me. I’m an innovation researcher and designer with a passion for exploring the periphery. I specialize in strategic research to drive innovation. Moving from insight to action, I work with my clients to bring big ideas to life.

I have over 20 years experience in UX. I started the very first user experience consultancy in Vancouver, back in 2005 and it grew from just me to 14 people in 2016 when my business was acquired. We had offices in both Vancouver and Seattle and in that time I have worked on, led, envisioned, dozens and dozens of UX research, design and strategy projects.

This is just a small spoonful of Logo Soup, illustrating the range and number of different kinds of places I’ve worked, everything from government, to Fortune 500, to technology startup, to, large institutions, and all points in between. I am also co host and producer of the Positive Turbulence podcast, as well as a board member of AMI, who supports this podcast. AMI is an innovation learning community that’s been around for over 40 years.

Let’s get real for a minute and talk about the rut you’re in. Once upon a time, maybe you, maybe someone at your company, maybe an early founder, had a freaking brilliant idea and was able to turn that idea into an amazing company, and that’s no small feat. But, somewhere along the way, and despite your best efforts, something has changed, and not for the better.

You see that sales are slipping maybe, or you’re seeing competitors where you didn’t have them before. Maybe your market has changed. Whatever it is, things are not that great.

 You, your team, your shareholders all crave big breakthrough innovation, but you don’t seem to be able to get there. Sure, you’re likely innovating all the time at an incremental level, feature tweaks make things better, and, maybe even sometimes you’re getting to that adjacent innovation. Maybe you’re finding, a new market for the same product or the same product new use. But what you’re not getting to are those big breakthrough, thought leading innovations, those ideas that break you out of the slump you’re in. They’re just not there.

Karyn Zuidinga: But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just close your eyes for a second and imagine a world where you were able to find that unmet customer need that led to that breakthrough innovation you crave. It would feel like those early days when your company, your product, was a big success. 

So what’s stopping you? Why can’t you do this? 


Karyn Zuidinga: It’s the pressure cooker you’re in, and it is real. 

The pressure for velocity. You have competitors coming up behind you. You have to keep driving features out. You have to keep delivering. It’s intense.

You’ve also got pressure from customers. You’re juggling so many customer needs, and it seems like they are all their own special snowflake. And then there are the stakeholders. They want you to do way more with way less. 

Given all these pressures, getting to a breakthrough innovation seems impossible, right? 

But it’s not. Through strategic user research, we can uncover unmet user needs, and that can lead you to big breakthrough innovation.

First, let’s have a definition. What is strategic UX research? It is UX research that’s next level research. It moves us beyond the tactical inquiries like we see with usability testing and towards a more strategic user understanding. I always think about strategic user research as research that generates insights and ideas.

We shift from looking at the user interacting with a given interface to looking at how the user behaves within a given context.

And to quote Jared Spool, who has written quite a lot about this recently, Strategic UX research is how organizations connect their long term direction and strategy to customers and users deepest needs. It has been around for a while, but only recently has caught the attention of top executives.

When I talk to people about strategic user research, this is the first thing they usually respond with. Wait, isn’t UX research about validating ideas and usability testing? And to that I always answer, yes, and there’s really two big buckets in UX research. There’s this more evaluative bucket, that’s the usability testing that you’re thinking about, and it’s highly tactical.

And then there’s the strategic bucket. It’s also called generative UX research. And this includes things like ethnographies, journey maps. It’s looking at a context or a problem space rather than a particular problem. 

To quote Jared Spool one more time, the problem is when you only work tactically, you never feel like you’re making progress. The teams always doing tactical UX research are caught in a feature factory, and this is really the rutt you’re in. You’re on a tactical hamster wheel. 

This is the second thing that people say to me when I talk to them about strategic UX research, but you can’t just ask people what they want and no, you can’t. That’s not what strategic UX research is all about. It’s all about observing behaviors, creating spaces where you can learn about context.

And finally, this is the third big pushback I get. Yeah, we tried that, and the researcher went away for six months and came back with nothing. Now, of course, the six months is variable, but that idea that someone tried to do this more strategic research and they didn’t come back with anything new, they didn’t learn anything.

Often that’s because the person trying to do this research is maybe inexperienced with strategic UX research. It’s not easy work, but it is super valuable when done well. You need someone who can lead the work, who doesn’t just know the methods, but can look into that messy pile of data, because you get a lot of data back, can look into that messy pile of data, identify the key insights, and know the strategic value.

Let me tell you a quick story about how I did this at Copperleaf when I was there as Director of UX Research. 

A client required a new feature as a part of their purchase agreement. They had built an in- house tool and now wanted something just like it but a part of the Copperleaf system they were buying. One of the outbound product managers who had a ton of client experience, super smart guy, had done some investigation and was suggesting customization of the existing product. We had two other clients using this so called hack and so it seemed like a kind of let’s just do that. 

And while this hack was being used. I had a sense that we could discover some unmet needs if we could only just widen the aperture of the research to be a little bit more strategic.

So I suggested A layered concurrent approach, starting with a contextual inquiry with clients who are already using the hack. Instead of doing a usability test of what they were doing, we did more of a contextual inquiry, asked about the context of use, what they needed it to do, and looked for whether or not it was meeting that need. And what we found out was the hack was not super effective band aid. 

Then we ran some workshops with some customer support people. We explored what customers were asking for, what they were saying about the problem space that the hack was supposed to be filling. We also asked them about our customer journey in that space. The key insight here was that there was a lot of discussion about this area, that we weren’t serving. 

Then we did some journey mapping workshops with clients. In the journey mapping workshops, we ask customers to tell us about their, thoughts, feelings, and actions, as well as their ideas for opportunities for improvement across the journey that we had identified in the previous workshops. The key insight here was that there was a significant unmet need that went beyond the proposed solution. 

I led the strategic UX research to discover a new product pillar at Copperleaf. 

 It’s not just me, and it’s not just Copperleaf. What I know, from knowing a lot of people doing this kind of work in the world, is that there are a number of B2B organizations and other organizations, including, GitLab, Workday, Zapier, Atlassian, but also Microsoft, Apple, you name it, all of these companies have strategic UX research in house.

You’re struggling. And if you don’t change, you’ll be stuck with this problem forever.

Let’s have a conversation about how I can help you do some effective strategic UX research where we will uncover unmet customer needs and identify new product opportunities.

Thanks for listening.