Growing Your Influence as a UX Research Leader

Moderated by Kuldeep Kelkar and Rima Campbell
View the full presentation here.
December 1, 2023

If you’re a UX leader who wants to have more impact, the following strategies will help affect change, increase your influence in your organization, and help get a seat at the table with decision-makers to determine product strategy, corporate strategy, and budgets.

Strategic Influence to Increase Executive Buy-in with Kuldeep Kelkar

Approaching this topic can be overwhelming. But let’s look at two keywords that will help break it down a bit: Executive and Influence. 

What Executives Need

To create strategic influence, first identify key executives within the organization, then contemplate their needs, and lastly, consider their concerns. Following these steps will help you focus your efforts where they will have the greatest impact.

Step 1. Identify Key Executives:

Reflect on two to three key executives at your company whom you want to influence. Consider their roles, responsibilities, and the scope of their influence within the organization. These could be anyone within your organization: a product leader, someone in marketing, your reporting line VP, and so on. 

Step 2. Contemplate Executive Needs:

Beyond the realm of UX, contemplate what these executives might need. What are their broader goals, challenges, and priorities? Think about how your work intersects with their objectives. 

Step 3. Consider Their Concerns: 

What potential issues or challenges keep these executives up at night?  Try to empathize with their position and the pressures they face. 

Ways to Grow Your Influence as a UX Leader

The second keyword in today’s topic is Influence. How can research leaders influence stakeholders? The following suggestions are by no means the only tools you can use to grow your influence. But these are the ones that I have found valuable throughout my career.

Build Credibility 

Building credibility is both an art and a science. Since you are already working with an organization, you can demonstrate tremendous value and build credibility as you execute research; whether in a large study, design validation, or part of a research roadmap.

Forge Strong Relationships 

Forging strong relationships across the organization cannot be overlooked. While this applies to designers or product managers, look for allies in marketing, engineering, HR, or finance. Eventually, an opportunity may come to have a wider influence, but it starts with building those strong relationships. 

Become a Master Storyteller and Share Success Stories

None of us can be influential unless we are master storytellers. I have never interacted with a successful executive who was not also a good storyteller. Learning to share those sound bites and narrate success stories is key to influence. I work with many executives, and those I have tried to emulate are all good storytellers. 

Please note that this goes beyond a PowerPoint deck or research report. Consider adding sound bites and enticing stories into general conversations. Success stories of what you are doing will increase your influence over time. 

Facilitate Workshops 

The next one is near and dear to my heart. As researchers, AI will make us more productive and efficient in defining screeners, analysis, and reporting. But I don’t know that AI can unite us as humans. Most UX researchers and designers are proficient at reading people. We empathize with end users, product managers, and people we work with. As researchers, we are best suited to bring people together. Anytime you have an opportunity, jump in and facilitate a workshop, whether at the divergent or convergent phase of an engagement. Doing so will bring you into strategic conversations you were not previously aware of.

Domain Expertise and Industry Knowledge

The next suggestion centers around domain expertise that is more than the user experience or user research domain. By this, I mean industry knowledge. In the last year, I have worked with product leaders and investors and have worked with several startups. I also speak with the investment community. I have learned that successful leaders within any organization are generally those who have been in that industry and are familiar with competitor pricing, personas, or the ICP, the ideal customer profile. They know what the competitors are doing. 

The more you know about your industry, including pricing trends and growth, the more you know about your competitors. Information for public companies is likely found online. Keep up with the knowledge of whichever industry you work within. Try to speak those sound bites so that people understand that you know how things work within your industry. And again, this is not just about UX but the implications of UX within your industry.

Hire Consultants and Invite Guest Speakers

The next suggestion is to hire consultants and invite wise speakers. You might wonder why this is important when you are a consultant yourself. When I worked at PayPal, before my consulting days, I brought in guest speakers within my organization. Ironically, this made me more influential because I could introduce industry thought leaders to my company. Even if these guest speakers said the same thing I had shared, they offered additional value and validated what I was saying. Doing this will increase your influence.

Mentoring and Being a Continuous Learner

The following two suggestions focus on mentorship and seeking mentors within and across the organization. You don’t have to have a particular agenda in doing this. Being a continuous learner is an important attribute that ties into the need to forge strong relationships. 

Learning from others is crucial, but it is also vital to mentor others. You have experience the larger community can benefit from, even within your company. Every day, product managers, designers, and researchers are being hired. Network with them and be available to educate others to the degree you can.  

Measuring Your Impact and Influence

It is sometimes difficult to measure impact and influence. But you cannot manage something that you cannot measure. I encourage you to figure out ways to measure, improve, and re-measure your current influence. It’s all about understanding where your influence exists. 

Perfect Your Elevator Pitch

The theory of an elevator pitch is envisioning yourself on an elevator with an executive. As you enter the ground floor together, you will have five to 10 floors before exiting. That’s 20 to 30 seconds. That may not seem like a lot of time, but it is enough to do a few simple things.

The elevator pitch typically has three components: sharing who you are, what you do at the company, and why what you do is important. Take advantage of every opportunity to connect with executives, even if for this short period of time.

Think about sound bites to have at the ready. These can be cliffhangers or dramatic headlines, or anything that will cause the other person to pause and want to know more. These hooks are conversation starters that encourage a response and leave an impression.

Speak the Business Language

To connect with executives, you will need to understand the needs of the company and the business metrics that drive performance. On the simplest level, if the person you are speaking to within your industry refers to the end user as a customer, patient, or guest, use those key terms and understand why they are used. 

On a more complex level, take time to research basic concepts of business and finance. You don’t need an MBA or PhD to do this. Someone somewhere in your organization is working on how to beat the bottom line or the beta or gross margin goals that determine how much money the company has to spend on different functions. Every company that I’ve worked for and known has someone who is looking at what the top line number should be for the next four quarters. This forecasting determines how much money there is to spend. The more you understand and speak the business language and understand the company, the more influential you will be simply because you will participate in conversations that you were not part of before. 

Getting a Seat at the Table with Rima Campbell

UX Challenges in Business

A major challenge UX researchers face is getting executive buy-in for UX research. One reason this may not happen as often as we would like concerns the relationship between user experience and key performance indicators. Executives in the C-suite are looking for KPIs and the bottom line and how that impacts their business. The UX professionals and leaders are looking for insights. So, how do they bridge the gap between the C-suite and the user experience? 

McKinsey & Company ran a study about the potential for design-driven growth.1 They analyzed the impact of the design effort of 300 publicly listed companies over five years across a variety of industries and countries. The report found that design-forward organizations performed at twice the rate of their industry competitors when it came to generating revenue.

How were they able to do this? As explained in the study, “Setting a North Star and combining qualitative data and quantitative measures can demonstrate the value and effectiveness of design.” They started with continuous iteration of their design validation, then consistently embedded research throughout the product development lifecycle, which led to making data-driven decisions by using a higher sample size. They also measured the performance of their design and its impact on the financial success of their business. 


Competition in the World of UX Research

We live in a world of constant competition in which every executive wants to know their company’s rank among competitors because seeing their ranking can be a motivational booster.

I experienced this firsthand in a study while at Citigroup. The business wanted to increase online credit card applications submitted by 22%. As a researcher, I wanted to make an impact and get executive buy-in for more UX research to grow the budget and the team and be able to embed research across the product development lifecycle. To do this, I had to show metrics and the impact UX research and design make on the business. We looked at the analytics, trying to figure out why people did not submit their credit card applications online, as well as why there was a large call volume related to that issue. Looking at just the analytical data wasn’t giving us the answers. 

So, we looked at the survey where we had interviewed 15 individuals. We chose to simplify our approach by asking participants to do one task: choose a credit card that matched their needs without submitting their application. We also determined that we needed a significant sample size to prove the accuracy of our results.

We ran a baseline benchmarking study where we examined behavioral data and also ran a “talk out loud” study to hear the participant’s frustration along the way. We discovered that the success rate for completing that journey and selecting the current card was 63%; satisfaction was below 60, and the ease of use was equally low. We now understood why participants did not complete that task in the journey. Our comparison experience was unsatisfactory and left participants with a sense of mistrust. When we shared this information, the executive wanted to know what the success rate norm was. We knew why and had statistical data to prove our findings. But how did we know that a 63% success rate was not good?

To verify this, we ran the same study on American Express, Discover, and Wells Fargo and found out that we were, in fact, not doing a good job. To improve the success rate, we needed to improve the customer satisfaction.

As we improved the comparison experience, success, satisfaction, and ease of use increased. We then ran more studies on the prototype and made improvements, iterated design, and tested it to ensure the success rate and satisfaction were on par with our competitors. Within 12 months, we realized that enhancing the experience improved the online application by 22% and reduced the call volume from 63% to 30%. Imagine the impact we created in that particular case study. We got the executive buy-in to do research across the product development lifecycle by starting with this case in that project. 

How to Measure UX Influence

We all agree that measuring influence can be tricky. Consider sharing a survey or questionnaire with stakeholders to collect structured feedback every six months. 

The User Research Team …

  • … is regarded as a credible and reliable source within the organization.
  • … demonstrates exceptional expertise and knowledge in their field.
  • … consistently provides value.
  • … regularly introduces innovative ideas that significantly benefit our projects.
  • … effectively engages with stakeholders, fostering positive collaborations and outcomes.
  • … is frequently recognized within the organization for its contributions to success.
  • … plays a crucial role in positively influencing and shaping our organizational culture.
  • … exerts influence beyond its immediate domain to other departments and areas.

Being open to their feedback will go a long way in measuring the influence you have on executives and the company as a whole.

Additional Thoughts on the Elevator Pitch

Adding to what Kuldeep shared on this topic, being on an elevator with an executive is a perfect opportunity to talk about UX research and what we’re doing in that world. But if you launch into a long story, the executive will lose interest. 

How do you do an elevator pitch that captures their interest and encourages them to want to know more? Look at sharing specifics, such as, “We ran a benchmark study and Blue Cross Blue Shield won the competition. They scored 77 out of 100, whereas Humana scored the lowest. Their score was 57 (this example is fictitious).”

Sharing this story of scoring and comparison will spark the executive’s curiosity. I could then share that Humana paid a significant amount of money to redesign its website. So why did they score the lowest? Now, with their attention, I am invited to the table. I can go into greater detail to show how this impacts business metrics and KPIs.This will lead to even more discussions because every executive cares about their KPIs and is accountable for business metrics. 

As a UX research leader, you need to know your business metrics and how to tie them to what matters most to your organization. The QXscore will help you do that. It also includes the loyalty or NPS score which most executives resonate with. 

Connecting UX Metrics to Revenue

The bottom line is you don’t have to remember a million scores; you only have to remember one score that is out of a hundred. Having information like this at your fingertips will allow you to capture an executive’s attention. This then trickles up into what we call the 21st-century metrics framework from level four to level one as an impact on the financial goal. Having a deep understanding of a key executive’s ambition and desire, and tying those UX metrics to the business metrics, will make a huge impact and increase your influence.

You Got a Seat at the Table: Now What?

Several organizations ran the measurement program and made a huge impact. One of them is Kimberly Clark. Because they were able to improve before and after from a task success perspective and time spent, they were able to improve the business metrics and show how the UX metrics improve their business metrics and what they end up with. One big success for them is driving prioritization and demonstrating progress as UX leaders and practitioners. In this way, you can impact the prioritization of your project from a product and IT organizational level.  

Scalable Solutions with Customer Value

Another study was with Kroger, where they incorporated scalable solutions with customer value as they ran these measurement programs. Doing so allowed them to get the business to invest more at the beginning of the product development lifecycle and do more discovery, ensuring they were creating the right solution for the customer problem. This occurred at the beginning, not just validating the design in the middle of the product development lifecycle. 

Tying OKRs to QXscore Results

Adobe tied the OKRs to QXscore results and embedded the UX metrics in the design and performance reviews. This desire came from the UX design team to improve their score and the impact they’re having on their organization. So, it was something they included in their performance reviews. 

UX Measurement Program Framework: Activate, Ignite, and Drive

A UX measurement program framework includes three categories: Activate, Ignite, and Drive. 

In the Activate category, there are three components: 

  • Identify what matters most to executives;
  • Identify a pilot project that focuses on a user journey; and
  • Connect UX metrics to the business metrics. 

The Ignite category includes the following steps:

  • Know the QXscore and the competitor’s QXscore;
  • Educate and build trust with the QXscore; and 
  • Prioritize improvements with stakeholders, test and iterate with benchmark.

The last category, Design, incorporates these three elements:

  • Visualize, track, and share progress regularly;
  • Embed QXscore into team performance review; and 
  • Tell inspiring stories regularly.

UX researchers face challenges in today’s enterprise, and focusing on them may seem overwhelming. But don’t give up. Your dedicated efforts will eventually bear fruit. Remember that you can demonstrate value, get executive buy-in, and gain a seat at the table.

About Rima Campbell and Kuldeep Kelkar:

Presenters Rima Campbell and Kuldeep Kelkar worked together as research leaders and consultants at UserZoom (now UserTesting) for the last seven years. They consulted with leaders at Global 500 companies, helping them to conduct effective research, refine products, and increase their influence. Previously, they had long stints leading research in large enterprises; Rima as SVP and Global Research Manager at Citi for 16 years, and Kuldeep as Head of Global UX Research at PayPal for 10 years.

Kuldeep Kelkar

Rima Campbell