Plant your research team flag

Applying the lessons from Jeff Gothelf’s Forever Employable to a new user research team.

A flag on a christmas tree

Earlier this year, I read Jeff Gothelf’s new book, Forever Employable, which promises to invert the job search. Instead of looking for a job, new opportunities will start to come to you. I thought it was really great in helping me clarify the trajectory of my career, and make explicit what I do (which is currently ‘helping new research teams get established’).

Many of the points the book made were relevant not just for someone defining their career, but also for a new research team describing what they do to new people. This is particularly useful when working with organisations unfamiliar with user research. In this post, I want to share how the idea of ‘planting your flag’ can help a new research team, and how to apply it in your own organisation. 

What is planting your flag?

The first concept explored in the book is ‘planting your flag’. This means making it explicit what it is you do, and having a story to tell to supports it. Examples of people who have planted their flag include:

  • Simon Cowell is the mean TV judge
  • Liam Neeson is the actor who plays retired special agents called upon to use their skills one last time
  • Jeff Gothelf is the Lean UX person

Being ‘the person’ is helpful, as it means that people start to come to you when their problem fits your niche. When someone is looking for an mean judge to host a TV programme, they will contact Simon. Someone looking for an actor to play a retired CIA agent who needs to save their family from terrorists will call Liam. As a user researcher, you want the people who need to understand their users to call you.

When working in an open marketplace, being ‘the’ person also allows you to differentiate yourself from others on factors other than price. People will pay more for the right person, and this helps you avoid having to be cheaper than competitors. 

What does planting your flag mean for a research team?

For user research teams based in large companies, planting a flag is a very helpful lens to consider when getting established.

A lot of the work for new research teams is helping others understand what your team does, and what sort of problems to come to you with. By ‘planting your flag’ and clearly explaining what it is your team does, it’ll help the right sort of problems to come to you.

A narrative I use frequently when describing what our user research team does is “helps you make better-informed decisions”. I talk about how the jobs of product managers and designers require them to make a lot of decisions, and that those decisions require them to understand a lot of complex spaces. Some of the areas they need to understand include technical limitations, stakeholder demands, timelines and user behaviour.

I go on to describe how our team make understanding user behaviour easier, and reduce the complexity of the product managers role, allowing them to focus on exploring those other domains. Once engaged, our user research team will take responsibility for making sure they understand everything they need to know about users to inform their decisions.

This helps our colleagues know when to come to us – if they need to understand their users in order to inform their decisions, we’re the team. Any of those other domains – stakeholder demands, technical limitations, are not for us. It also clearly places ‘user behaviour’ is one of the domains that need to be understood when making decisions.

Hopefully, it also resonates with our colleagues, who recognise how difficult the decisions they have to make are, and the variety of factors they have to consider. 

How to plant your research team flag

When working inside an organisation, it’s easier to plant your flag than in the outside world, due to a lack of competition. In the outside world, your research team are competing with prominent research institutes such as as the Nielsen Norman group, unmoderated tools like usertesting.com, or research agencies as a source of knowledge about users. 

Whereas there are thousands of research teams in the world, inside a company, there are only a few teams that do something similar to what your research team does. This could include other teams who run studies, such as a market research team, teams who use other methods, such as an analytics team, or colleagues who apply research methods themselves, such as service designers.

Working closely with these other teams to first describe the difference between what your teams do, and then come up with a consistent message, can help reduce friction or competition between teams, and create a clear differentiation that can be communicated. This can be run as a joint workshop where each team plots how they assist a project onto a ‘project development’ timeline, and the nuances can be exposed and discussed.

The other competition for your internal research team will be external research agencies, who may be considered by teams who don’t know an internal team exist. This is where a story can help, that can be understood and passed on between people to help disseminate knowledge of your team. “You’re looking for a research agency to run a usability test? I heard there was a new team who can help with that internally”, can be a good source of referrals. Being very visible inside your organisation will help with this – make sure people know you exist, and that you are talking about the work you do.

Within your research team, it’s also valuable to have a shared goal or mission to create a consistent message. That can be the output of a mission statement or vision workshop. Anna Watt gave a great intro on how to run this kind of workshop on the Product Coalition blog. 

What’s the benefit?

Planting your research team’s flag ensures that the right research problems come to you, reducing the outreach work you need to do, reduce missed opportunities and frees up your team’s time to focus on the other parts of the role. I’d love to hear any approaches you’ve found work particularly well in the comments below. 

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