Ongoing Research Program Case Study:

Keys to a Multi-Year UX Research & Strategy Partnership

A top industrial machinery company has partnered with Marketade for 9 years. Here are some of the factors that have made this engagement a success.

Fast, one-off UX research projects have their share of benefits: economical budgets, focused scopes, and an emphasis on actionable findings, to name a few. When companies are looking to hire a research consultant, it’s usually for a project or two, over a fixed interval of time.

However, we’ve seen firsthand the way an ongoing relationship deepens and enhances the benefits of UX research consulting. By working with the same team of UX specialists for multiple years, a client not only gets more findings and results, but also receives qualitatively better, more insightful guidance.

9 years ago, we started working with a large metalworking manufacturer, a relatively new retainer client for our agency, Marketade. From that time on, we’ve had the good fortune to deal with the same point of contact. This engagement is a great example of the power of a long-term partnership and the progress it can bring about.

What factors make a long-term UX consulting engagement so beneficial?

1. Balance between the client’s immediate needs and a UX-driven agenda

A long-term program can enable a consultant to move the client further down the path of UX maturity. We allow the relationship to evolve with the client’s needs. As we cross items off the client’s urgent to-do list, we can shift the focus from the issues that need a Band-Aid towards projects that emerge from observed customer behavior.

Baileigh initially hired us for a combined content and UX evaluation. When they planned a big site redesign and relaunch, they turned to our agency and agreed to IA research with users: a card sort and a tree test. At first, this client mainly looked to us for help with overhauling their product descriptions. We rewrote reams of these by applying web writing best practices: breaking up sentences, adding bullets, bolding key points, and so forth.

While we are proud of the work we did for the first year or so, our strategy was mostly reactive. We made recommendations in response to issues that the client had already identified and prioritized. We incorporated research with users as often as we could. Nevertheless, much of the time we relied on heuristic evaluations or spot UX reviews to prioritize the client’s short-term needs.

Over the years, however, we’ve continued to address the client’s request while pitching more user-centric projects. We talked with sales reps to understand customer journeys and started asking more big questions about the buying process. We found more creative ways to recruit in order to entice the reticent customer base to open up to us in interviews.

After improving the website for so long, we’d also addressed many of the barriers that had once plagued the client. Instead of “what problems do we need to fix?” the key question became “what can we do to make this website even better?” Having arrived at a more mature website and experience, we can define our strategy based on user needs and difficulties, rather than letting immediate needs dictate the agenda.

This Gantt chart shows how we’ve shifted projects toward UX maturity from 2013 to 2019.

2. Immersion in the organization’s products, services, and audience

The more a UX consultant understands what a business or organization does, the more they can help that client. Even if we conduct research with the company’s customers, we won’t reap the full benefits of their feedback if we don’t “speak their language” — that is, if we don’t have an adequate understanding of the products they buy and how they use them.

For example, not all e-commerce websites are the same. Certainly, some best practices apply to the majority of online stores. However, different types of products involve widely varying buying processes. The specific UX issues that arise on an e-commerce site that sells makeup versus an e-commerce site that sells power tools are very different.

Over a 6-week research cycle, we might be able to pinpoint some product-specific issues without knowing a great deal about the products. But after working for a client for several months and gaining a more nuanced understanding of their offerings, we can glean much more from interviews with clients and ask more specific probing questions.

One major advantage of a long-term UX consulting relationship is that we can take the time to acquire a detailed knowledge of highly specialized products and services. It may sound geeky, but we really embrace the opportunity to dive into the client’s industry and niche.

Will we become as much of an expert as my client in their subject matter? Of course not! But our deeper understanding of their products and services will heighten the value of the analysis and recommendations we can provide. And that deeper understanding is hard to rush.

There are a number of techniques we’ve used to gather this knowledge:

  • Read up on the products. Browse the client’s manuals and catalogs — and their competitors’ manuals and catalogs.
  • Watch videos. In the case of metalworking, it’s difficult to understand some concepts without seeing them in action.
  • Visit the client’s headquarters and get an in-person demo of their products and services.
  • Interview the client’s sales or service team. We’ve done 1- to 2-hour “brain dump” sessions where they explain as much as they can about a product and how customers approach the buying process.
  • Ask a lot of questions along the way.

Over the past 6 years, we’ve invested considerable time in learning the client’s products. We can interview industrial metalworking manufacturers without getting lost in the conversation. We know why you might need a band saw instead of a cold saw. I’ve written about the right kinds of tube benders you need to make roll cages.

Perhaps most importantly, when we analyze UX testing sessions with the client’s customers, we can break down their feedback and frustrations more productively. When we review new designs and features for the website, my knowledge of the client’s products allows us to identify issues that obfuscate the most important information.

If you hire a consultant for a one-off project or a short engagement, they may be able to offer some general guidance. But unless they’re already an expert in your subject matter, they cannot speak directly to your organization’s needs. A long-term partnership brings your consultant into your world, your industry, and your offerings — for a mutually beneficial result.

3. Reliable check-ins and status updates

One key to the long-term client relationship, in my experience, is sticking to a consistent cadence for meetings. In the case of my metalworking client, we have a 1-hour block of time scheduled for every other week. During that time we share updates, pitch new ideas, and/or discuss next steps.

For these meetings, my colleague and I take an hour or so to put together a quick slide deck. The slides not only provide some visual reinforcement to our points, but also give the client a browsable record of what we discussed.

Sometimes the meetings last 20 minutes; sometimes they last the full hour. Every now and then we’ll cancel it because everything is moving along as planned. But the fact that the recurring meeting is on the calendar accomplishes all of the following:

  • Holds space for us to make requests that only the client can grant (e.g. help implementing an A/B test, permission to move forward on a project, a list of customers we can contact).
  • Jogs the client’s memory about how UX consultants can help: “Oh, hey, maybe we should have you test that new feature we’re rolling out next month.”
  • Maintains a sense of rhythm and stability in a long term relationship with multiple projects working on different timelines.

4. Long-arc projects… that sow the seeds of other projects

Qualitative UX research provides answers, but almost always raises new questions and avenues of exploration as well. As my colleague Kristy Knabe writes, “The problem with running one usability test is there will inevitably be more ideas that need to be tested and without a culture of ongoing research, that can be difficult.”

Moreover, it’s comparatively easy to test a specific flow and remove obstacles. It’s much more difficult to break down a huge question like, “Why aren’t customers buying online?”

A long-term client engagement gives a researcher space to digest user input and translate that feedback into positive changes.

For example, last year we conducted interviews with the metalworking company’s customers. Their feedback on the website was generally positive. One challenge they identified was comparing different products. Based on that insight, we mocked up comparison charts, UX tested our concepts, then improved them. After working with the client’s developers, we’re excited that this change has gone into the queue and will hopefully be implemented soon.

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