The blog post "The Loop #1: How we conduct research on the Community team" sheds a little light on how the current process for making changes on Stack Exchange works.
Today, our research process might look something like this for a high-impact, high-cost project.
What's our current research approach?
Strategy (Survey; User interview; Comparative site analysis; Historical context research; Data analysis), Design (User interviews), Build (User interviews), Ship (Survey; A/B tests; Meta feedback)
And later on it says:
Meta feedback. We monitor Meta for bug reports and small usability/copy issues after shipping changes to the site.
Now, as was mentioned in the blog post, this is a marked departure from how things worked in the past.
What was our past research approach?
Strategy (Meta feedback), Design (Meta feedback), Build (Meta feedback), Ship (Experiments)
Before, every stage of the process was simply "Meta feedback". Now, the Meta feedback has been relegated to... bug reports and usability issues.
Please consider gathering Meta feedback earlier in the process.
Meta feedback is important.
Now, as an avid Meta user, I may be biased. However, Meta represents the most engaged users - the ones who have been here for years in most cases, often current or former moderators on the network, and those who are, most importantly, the ones that the site most heavily relies on for moderation. Meta feedback represents the feedback of those most engaged users.
The feedback of your most engaged users, especially on a "high impact" project, is important. Those users are in the best position to tell you how it well affect their use of the site as someone who uses it very regularly, and they may let you know about something that is very important to them but less so to other people.
I'm thinking of cases such as the incident where the Worldbuilding.SE robot, Slartibotfast, was going to be removed due to the design changes to the site. Due to meta feedback from those most invested in the community, the robot was saved and an important part of the site identity was preserved.
Journeyman Geek put it nicely in this post:
I'd also like to point out that, well, the designer is not going to have the same grasp of a site's "uniqueness" as someone who has been on it a while will have.
As I mentioned before, this is a marked departure from how SE worked in the past. You are taking a group who has, for ten years+, been deeply involved in every stage of a change, and suddenly telling them "you're only giving feedback after it's done and we won't be making any big changes because of your feedback. Sorry!"
That's not going to go over well.
Especially in the current climate of the community having broadly lost trust in the company, removing their feedback from any changes is only going to serve to further deteriorate any remaining trust.
On the other hand, including them in the process and working with the community will massively help improve trust and relations between the engaged community and the company.
We, the Meta community, are the people most invested in these sites. The way our feedback is treated should reflect that.
Please consider gathering Meta feedback earlier in the process for making "high-impact" changes.