Example: USAA – Problem Space Research in a Large Enterprise
by Indi Young, Nina Blanca, and Kunyi Mangalam
Imagine this: A team in some department is struggling with the directive to “map the customer journey and resolve the friction points.” You watch the team build the map based on touchpoint data, but what’s missing is deep knowledge of why the customer is there using the solution in the first place. What problem were they facing when they decided to turn you? What was the inner thinking leading up to this? Have you served that inner thinking or have you served a simplification of people’s variety and complexity, instead?
To fill this breach in knowledge, you suggest doing problem space research. Yet you are met with resistance. “The problem is already well-understood.” “How does it fit into our Agile development cycle, anyway?” This scenario plays out even in organizations who already embrace a design-led philosophy. You suspect that it’s because of lack of experience in integrating problem space research within the frenzy of existing processes. Here’s how people have faced this resistance.
Breaking Through the Resistance
Even when your org follows a design-led philosophy, sometimes people still need examples of the value of problem space research. People need to see how others within the org have benefitted. Nina Blanco does exactly this at USAA. She says that while USAA has always been member-focused, five years ago experience design was being done at different levels within different divisions. At that point, leadership at USAA recognized that experience design was bringing successes to other orgs in the financial services industry, and they created the Chief Design Office in an effort to level up experience design across divisions and eliminate duplicated effort. Nina spends about a third of her time helping teams understand the language of experience design and two-thirds of her time leading research efforts with these teams. Many of these research efforts are in the problem space, which, in addition to supporting members better, are being used to transform internal processes. For example, Nina helped the Bank at USAA understand discrete member experiences and touchpoints so they could restructure their process owners in support. Instead of people at the Bank being within functional silos, they organized themselves along member experiences.
Recently, Renters Insurance invited Nina to a meeting to help them begin identifying how they could reorganize along the member experience. At the meeting, the executives wanted to start by understanding reasons that would trigger a need for renters insurance. So they asked everyone to describe scenarios and what goes through members’ minds. The executives at the meeting were under the impression that the assembled employees could provide answers. It was immediately clear to Nina that research into real-life scenarios was needed and that she needed to communicate this part of experience design to the executives. First, though, she asked about their ultimate goals and how they planned to accomplish them. She listened to them describe what they needed to know in order to get started on the path to a design-led experience. It took a couple of meetings and push back from the executives who were thinking they only wanted to explore the current state, not the future state, but she realized they were framing their needs too narrowly. They had planned on trusting their assumptions about renters insurance in the real world. So Nina decided to solicit an ally in leadership to help the executives re-frame their approach and recognize how valuable problem space research would be to the outcome.
My first course of action was to schedule time with the Design Executive assigned to Property and Casualty, a person who also works in the Chief Design Office. I wanted her on my side. I brought her my meeting notes and told her my conclusion that Renters Insurance needed to do some problem space research before hurrying on to the task of restructuring along member experiences. I also showed her the mental model diagrams I’d done with the Bank and with Auto Insurance and the outcomes from those, and recommended that Renters Insurance also use that tool. The Design Executive was on board and scheduled a meeting for me with the project sponsor. So my next task was to make sure the project sponsor could see the direct line from the goals the Renters Insurance executives were trying to achieve back to the knowledge that could be gathered from problem space research. In my meeting with them, I taped the Auto Insurance mental model diagram to the wall and started with the goals that team had and how the research gave them the answers they needed. Everyone was nodding, so I felt pretty confident about the likelihood of the research project.
Before the project could launch, however, there were a few typical obstacles. My executive director informed me that I’d have to do all the research myself because no one else in the Chief Design Office had time to help. This would mean the timeline would get stretched out. The Renters Insurance sponsor requested a second meeting that I had thought was about reviewing the logistics of the project, but turned out to be a second introduction-to-problem-space-research meeting for 9 of their interested co-workers. I came with a project plan but really should have come with the example Auto Insurance mental model diagram again. And when the subject of timing came up, the excited co-workers became shocked that I wanted 19 weeks to do the research if I didn’t have any help. “We work in an Agile environment. We can’t wait months; we need to move fast!” So, the two weeks following that meeting I assumed I didn’t hear back because they were opposed to the timeline. But it turned out my efforts to establish value and trust in the process succeeded; they were still excited about what problem space research could do for them. They had been going through organizational realignment and were now ready to start the research with me.
You Can Do This
Nina’s story illustrates how to choose whom to persuade and how to shepherd the persuasion through common barriers. Here is a summary of how she did it.
Assess whether problem space research will answer needs at this time. Sometimes problem space research can help and sometimes can’t. If you are trying to broaden your horizons, delineate risks, innovate, measure how well you support a certain group, or focus down on supporting that group in more humane ways, it’s time. But if you know your risks and are forging ahead with an idea based on a well-researched understanding of people, then you don’t need to. Nina saw a team trying to innovate without any basis for their ideas, so it was time for problem space research in that scenario.
Assess where your organization is in terms of readiness for problem space research. There are organizations that will take more convincing. The culture at USAA was ready to embrace design-led research, so people were willing to give Nina their attention as she explained the tools, vocabulary, and processes involved. If your org doesn’t embrace experience design, then:
Find out what’s at stake in the project so you have a relevant context in which to talk about research. Do your homework. In addition to explaining tools, Nina also approached the meetings in a mode of listening, so that she could understand people’s thinking and tie her explanations to their needs. Link existing metrics that show organizational priorities (e.g. shopping cart abandons) to potential problem space research, so people can imagine what might come out of it. You will need to do more of listening if your org does not already believe in experience design.
Be ready with examples to illustrate problem space research. Know what kind of research your organization, product owners, decision-makers and marketing are used to. Many people are comfortable with analytics, metrics, and quantitative research. Be ready to present example research projects, success stories, and user anecdotes; the more they can be drawn from your own company or a like company, the better.
Get agreement in principal, and then work out the details. You can get a lot of momentum by keeping all minds focused on the benefits and value of taking time for problem space research. Even though Nina needed several meetings to figure out a good way to move forward, her questions and listening helped create a well of expectations for the project. People were already sold on doing it; they just had to figure out how.
Be prepared to start from square one with each meeting. You might be an expert at the value and logistics of problem space research, but there are lots of people for whom it will be a new approach. Expect to re-explain details at every meeting you attend. Don’t get caught at a follow-up meeting, like Nina, without examples to show. Bring examples every time, just in case.
Use language that resonates within your organization. Language is powerful. Non-researchers are often more comfortable with language that conveys certainty that solid results will come out of the expense and effort of research. Word like “test,” “validate,” “determine,” “measure,” and “identify” convey confidence. Words like “explore,” “investigate,” “study,” “observe,” and “uncover” might make your decision-makers uneasy. You be the judge; Nina stuck to the vocabulary of certainty in keeping with the custom of a financial services org.
Forge relationships in the org to further the initiative. The more people who trust you, the more you’ll be heard. It’s a requirement in this role to continually reach out to people across divisions and throughout hierarchical levels to build relationships. Listen to fellow employees tell you what they’ve been grappling with. Nina paid special attention to people’s business objectives. When she connected the benefits of potential research to these objectives, it cemented trust in her services. You can’t just isolate yourself and hope that this kind of work will get approved.
If you suggest problem space research at your org, you will probably run into resistance. You might be the person with the energy, like Nina, to shepherd through research like this. Or you might know someone with the energy and act as their support person. Either way, connecting with others who do this sort of research helps. Share techniques and tell your stories. The more voices talking about researching the problem space, the easier it will be for others to get permission. The more knowledge there is about the diversity of thinking styles and approaches to achieve a purpose, the more valuable you can make your services. And there’s a whole lot less risk.