Turning Research Ripples into Waves

Turning Research Ripples into Waves
Hana Nagel, Lead UX Researcher, SAP Customer Experience

From the Design Operations Summit website:
Growing organizational research capacity requires both bottom-up and top-down changes that can be daunting to tackle. Hana Nagel will examine the challenge of scaling research ops through the lens of social change theory, showing how service design and systems thinking can be used to create a strategy to increase research’s impact on product. By building collaboration, connection and community, you can bring enough people together to turn research ripples into waves.

Before SAP, Hana worked with non-profit organizations, and in that work she learned how small actions can have an outsized impact. She worked with organizations like UNESCO, and later made her way to high tech.  She is going to speak from her experience in making social change, and how we can bring that to our work in the enterprise space.


Raves are large electronic underground music performances, happening on the fringes of society.  That dance scene was created by queers and people of color; cultural norms were suspended, and as a result, new norms could develop and flourish.

There are literal, physical divisions with people in Israel.  As a result, you may never have a chance to interact with others who are different than you are.  At these events, people are asked to respect and care for themselves and others.  These raves were a way of developing new patterns of interaction between people working at the intersection of electronic music and social resistance.  This is how real social change is made – by creating an environment where behavior change can occur.

How can you make changes in your own organization?  Making the leap from scaling raves to scaling research.  To accomplish that, she is bringing three disciplines together:


It is a significant change in behavior and norms over time.  Because the patterns of interaction change, the system changes too.   Thus, this has a special set of wicked problems.  When you make a change, it ripples out, and it’s hard to know right away of you’ve chosen the right solution.  And there is no single right solution.  The reality is that there are many root problems that are intertwined, and stakeholders may have competing priorities.


From the non-profit world, the theory of change is that you work from the impact back into the activities that might best help you realize that outcome.  That helps you think about priorities, and get people aligned on one vision. This also helps you achieve a shared understanding of the system, and with whom you need to intervene.

Researcher Catherine Howe describes the key elements – the active network of change makers, and then the system and the blockers of change, as well as believes that can trigger the change.


How can you trigger the change engine?

Social impact is about making a significant positive change to a pressing social challenge.  Jared Spool has a great piece called ‘non-designers are gonna design’.

SAP is a company of 90K employees in 180 countries, and she is part of team of ~30 person team.  There are thousands of screens.  How to provide insights to people?  How do we improve the scope and scale and speed of UX research?  She conducted research, with herself as one of the users.  She contacted everyone with ‘UX’ in their titles, using a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods.

This wasn’t about getting more user research, but more about how people were gong to act on it, and influence the product itself.  So, that required rethinking the outcome she was trying to achieve.

Thinking about cause and effect helps you think about constraints.  The beginning of the product lifecycle was that soft spot where she wanted to intervene.  And then, mapping of cause and effect helps to open up black boxes.  They had a long workshop to introduce design thinking concepts, but it was too much information to remember (although the course was highly rated).  So, how to better set up those activities to support feature validation?

Using this approach, they identified intermediate events that could influence that key outcome.  Service design focuses on primary actors, and designing, testing, and refining interventions. because there is no way to know which intervention will be best, before you scale it.


By looking at the behaviors of Vietnamese parents with better nourished kids, ethnographic researchers found ‘positive deviance’ and used those learning as a way to help malnourished kids.  How to bring these ideas to enterprise?  She brought the idea of Ritual Lab to her work. Rituals are a way to bring those values.  What rituals better embody the values we are trying to achieve?


They wanted to focus on Product Owners.  To get clarity, she created a behavioral model – they want to deliver on time and on budget, but they valued UX.  What were these positive deviants doing?  What was different was they had firsthand experience with UX research.  That showed these Product Owners that UX doesn’t necessarily slow things down, but does let them make better decisions about building the right thing.  So, she realized that they needed to get more Product Owners directly involved in conducting UX research.

Grassroots change from the bottom up – having empathy for user values. But, allowing them to understand that all feelings are valid.  Our job is to guide new patterns of behavior that reflects those values.  She was working on a service design project for three-year old children in Jerusalem, they were not developing age-appropriate motor skills.  They proposed to build a new playground, even though she felt they should be addressing the underlying values.  But the goal is asking a positive social impact – a new kind of behavior to engage in.  Incremental change is important, and more practical.

So, she reframed the outcome.  How can we maximize our development resources to deliver the best user experience?  They had three levels of intervention – providing exposure, experiences, and engaging people in in UX research activities.

Change is hard, so things falling apart is inevitable.  She had a chance to share her approach with Sam Yen who was the Chief Design Officer at SAP at the time, and through that conversation she gained access to a VP of Design.  She also contacted Bill McDermott (the CEO), who assigned his Chief of Staff.  But re-orgs happened, and the effort lost steam.  Although she was discouraged, she pivoted – she went back to her original document and focused on other things.

Sustainable strategies for scale include:

Start with small local actors, while keeping global in mind.  And build a coalition to help ripple out that change for you.  The goal is to stimulate change – which means giving others for the ownership of both the problem and the solution.

And, finally, to explain the wave metaphor.  Wave swells travel across long distances – that is where you really hit success, when you achieve that longevity.  Hana was talking to another new VP of UX at SAP, who told her there was a great initiative to bring in new tools.  She recommended Hana speak with someone on another continent.  Her feelings were hurt at first, but then she realized that she had achieved her goal, because others were carrying on and sharing her vision.

Meaningful change has to come within the system itself.  Co-creation builds a sense of ownership – FUBU (for us, by us).  Design is a way to create better futures – a utopia, which has two meanings:


Being successful means being realistic about the challenges in front of you.


Design is a discipline of action, a tool for change.  We’re using design as a way to improve the human experience with technology, and we’re here at this Summit because we believe in a better way to interact with one another.  We need to take a systemic approach to change.  Be willing to engage with constraints, but take hope that your ripples will become a wave.

1 Comments on “Turning Research Ripples into Waves”

  1. Pingback: Design Ops 2018 – Recap | Natalie Hanson

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