How to create a more mature validation culture?

I want to talk about how businesses approach work, specifically how an idea comes through validation into implementation. And how I together with my UX team introduced and grew a more mature validation culture.

Have you ever caught yourself in a conversation where stakeholders are suggesting solutions and then you hear testing a prototype or doing surveys as the only dimensions of validating the idea.

If the answer is yes, you need to take a step back and think, ‘Can the idea be validated in a better way?’

More often than not, it can. But everyone in the company must have fallen into a comfortable pattern and you as a UX designer have the power to shake things up. Because if you don’t, you will end up building products that are not solving the right problems or that are not important for the customer.

How can you change the pattern?

Never stop asking questions. Asking questions is such an awesome part of our job. Challenging hypothesis, being curious about people’s motivations… It’s a big responsibility to ask the right questions at the right time, though.

The more questions you ask, that no one can answer, the more likely you are to get support for more research and validation. The fun starts when you pick how to approach those questions. Questions like, ‘What goals are we trying to achieve? What problems are we solving? ‘What are the best ways of solving them?’, could be answered differently. Surveys and prototypes are not always the right techniques.

How do you choose the right technique?

As a UX designer you are familiar with a wide range of techniques, and your challenge is to make sure you choose the right one and get all the stakeholders on your side.

This is where I would highly recommend ‘Validating Product Ideas: Through Lean User Research’, a book by Tomer Sharon. Not only is it very practical, it’s easy to apply in real work scenarios.

Your go to book for inspiration on validating ideas. Courtesy of Rosenfeld Media

It is structured around the idea lifecycle and the questions you might be asking at any given point. Tomer brilliantly explains the best techniques and approaches for a range of questions from, ‘What should we build?’ to ‘Which design performs best?’

The beauty of the book for me personally was that it offered a different angle of introducing and promoting those validation techniques to the management. Most likely people on your team would be familiar with most of the techniques listed in the book, but it also tells how to mitigate any misconceptions about what the UX team can offer to the business.

This is a great opportunity to change how the UX team is seen across the business and show how valuable UX is.

What did I learn from shaking up the existing approach?

I am not going to go over the methodologies in much detail in this article. I would like to share the journey of introducing those new approaches in my company and what I learned.

We had this exact problem of relying too heavily on testing and surveys for any idea that popped up. I wanted to change this and try different techniques to avoid building features that were very usable but not desirable.

Depending on the company you work for, change might not be an easy thing to introduce. I am lucky to have the support of fellow UX team members and a leadership team that believes in UX and encourages innovation. However, there still were some challenges.

Everyone’s initial reaction to my suggestions was, “Oh, that’s cool”. Followed by, “But we are already doing some of those, so why change them? They work and they don’t take too much time or resources”. That’s where I had to take projects case by case and give examples of where we are too far in the process of developing a solution without having validated that it’s the right problem and that we need to take a step back and revalidate. Or out-there ideas that need more thorough prototypes that can be validated outside of the lab setting and so on.

As much as I’d like to say that after that we instanly changed the approach and lived happily ever after, the reality is a bit less exciting. I quickly learned that you need to pick your battles and prove the value gradually. For example, if something is already almost built, no point pushing for rolling it back and doing the process ‘properly’ — you need to find ways of assessing the product after launch and iterating. Or in my case, several projects that might be addressing the same problem were ran by different teams. I visualized the ‘problem space’ with all the hypothesis and proposed solutions, overlapped it with questions that we haven’t answered and resources needed to run better validation. As a result, senior management saw exactly what I meant and why I was pushing for more research; that, instead of committing to a couple of ideas, the business will gain from having a better understanding of the problem space and might end up with other solutions off the back of that.

Thus far, we have done a big piece of quantitative and qualitative research to re-evaluate items that were already on the roadmap. We learnt what people currently do, why they go to competitors, what features are really important (and I mean REALLY, not theoretically). This informed the overall strategy. Not just product roadmap but marketing, trading and brand strategy as well, which was the first time everyone was aligned so well. This has set a great example for getting more buy-in for research and various validation techniques.

Recently we kicked off a vast research piece on habits and familiarity, while pausing on development of isolated ideas aimed at building habit. I treat that as a win.

The takeaway is — go outside the boundaries of the typical validation methodologies you use, get stakeholders on board by picking the most important project and proving the value of UX input on it and don’t forget to have fun :)