Initially, the idea was to make some extra money. That’s all.
But when Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia decided to rent a portion of their home to strangers one month in 2007, they took the first steps in disrupting the entire hospitality industry. Their cash-flow gambit became the signature event in the founding story of Airbnb.
What many may not realize: Had it not been for the company’s user researchers and developers working together toward a common purpose, it might not have happened.
According to “The Inside Story of Airbnb,” a 2017 book by journalist Leigh Gallagher, one of the main turning points in the company’s success came when the founders talked to users directly about their experiences. Insights from those meetings were used to develop subsequent iterations of the Airbnb platform, allowing the company to catch fire.
Today, one of the pillars of the Airbnb operating philosophy is integrating those who gather customer insights with the experienced professionals responsible for translating them into action.
It’s a fundamental premise that many organizations need to learn. The voices of customers can only make an impact when UX researchers, engineers, designers and the rest of the team work together seamlessly.
In that respect, at Airbnb, “data has become an ally,” writes Riley Newman, Airbnb’s first data scientist. “We use statistics to understand individual experiences and aggregate those experiences to identify trends across the community; those trends inform decisions about where to drive the business.”
As with so much in life: It’s easy to teach the principle, but much harder to implement. In short, if a UX research project provides data about what users want, but researchers are “alone in a forest with no one to act on the insight they uncovered,” Newman wonders, “what difference does it make?”
The keys to a culture of collaboration between UX researchers and developers
Creating an environment where developers and UX researchers work well together requires equal amounts of attention to organizational structure and to the softer skills that enable organizations to get things done with the least amount of friction.
Creating cross-functional teams
A crucial aspect in applying data-based insights rests with how the organization structures itself to process the data. Many organizations, including Airbnb, learned quickly that a siloed approach is the least effective, as it turns data scientists into service providers rather than strategic partners.
There are many ways to develop a structure for developers and researchers to work together, where they can debate and discuss what the user insights are telling them in terms of solving specific problems. Creating a centralized data team is one approach; embedding developers and researchers together is another.
The challenge is determining what’s suitable for your organization. What structures work best to allow passionate and intelligent professionals to learn from each other to build better products?
It’s all about communicating insights and debating their implications on equal footing across professional disciplines.
Done properly, effective collaboration “can be a goldmine for decisions about community growth, product development, and resource prioritization,” Newman wrote. “But only if you can decipher it.”
Develop softer skills to do the deciphering
Structure alone is not a magic elixir for turning user experience research into the next big thing for customers. Organizations and their teams also must pay attention to how the information is being shared, or it can still go awry.
Developers and researchers can work together most effectively if they leverage softer skills in collaboration. For instance, developing empathy and respect for each other remains essential to successful research and development partnerships.
If, for example, data is presented confrontationally as a way of disproving a developer’s gut sense of what users want, the effort to work together is likely to go awry. The critical point is for both parties to respect each other’s disciplines on the way to accomplishing something big for users, based on positive outcomes for the business.
One of the ways of paying that respect: hiring team members who demonstrate active listening skills. Researchers and developers can learn much from each other, but only if they learn to hear what others say.
How UX researchers and developers can work together
Developing the right structure and selecting and training professionals to communicate well, listen actively and show empathy will allow developers and researchers to work together in productive ways. A few concrete examples:
● User experience researchers and product developers can work together to understand the voice of the customer to develop new products, designs and features. User insights position the product for success right from the onset.
● Testing is a critical element of successful product development. Collaboration between developers and researchers can result in quick and focused user-based evaluations of prototypes.
● Looking into the future, user research can further team-wide discussions of product roadmaps and help reach a consensus on which new features to tackle first. In a collaborative environment, research may have multiple uses in learning about product and feature requirements.
Treating humility as a virtue
At the heart of the imperative for researchers and developers to work together is accepting that no one person has the perfect answers for what customers want from their products and experience. If such a person existed, there would be more successes, such as the iPhone, and fewer failures, such as Google Glass or the Newton.
The necessary attribute is humility and respect for the domain knowledge of fellow professionals. For instance, a user experience data researcher may be able to identify that users don’t like a particular feature. They may even be able to report why users say they don’t like the feature. But the necessary insights for why the problem is happening and how to fix it, belong to a different set of professionals—the designers and developers.
It’s well-established that working together brings excellent results: successful products, services, and experiences rooted in effectiveness and user-friendliness. In fostering collaboration, you can bring the intellectual insights and intuition of long and successful careers together with the actual lived experience of the customer.
Include us in your next project
Are you struggling to understand your users' needs and behaviors, and how they interact with your products and services? We know what you’re looking for. It’s not a list of research methods. It’s the insights, answers, confidence and direction that come from understanding your users better. That’s our specialty. Based on best practices in UX, our services are tailored to your specific goals and challenges. Whether you need to validate a design concept, test a new feature, or optimize your website or app, our team can help you get the data and insights you need to succeed. Connect with us today to start working together.