There have been a few articles making the rounds lately spelling doom and gloom for the future of UX Research. Their main argument? Research as a discipline has been focused on all the wrong things, has failed to make an impact, and as a result, is suffering the consequences. And while I don’t agree with the specific claim that this foretells the death of the research discipline (nor do I suspect the numbers support this), I do agree with a broader underlying sentiment: we are witnessing a major shift in the role of research in industry.
But it’s not that research is dying. It’s evolving. And to understand this evolution, we have to stare an uncomfortable truth in the face: UX Research is a misnomer. Because research is not a sub-discipline of User Experience and Design. It’s something much more.
To understand what might be coming, we have to start by looking back. It helps to think about the research discipline as existing across three major eras: the research that was, the research that is, and the research that is just emerging.
The first era of research was defined by HCI (human computer interaction) and establishing the foundational building blocks of usability. This era was marked by such breakthroughs as Engelbart’s mouse experiments. These researchers specialized in experimental methods derived from engineering and scientific research, specifically focused on ensuring users could successfully operate software and hardware. This was the era of research as engineering. Researchers with this focus today are often referred to as research scientists or human factors researchers.
Then, came the wave of social scientists. More researchers began to join the field with backgrounds in psychology, sociology anthropology, and economics. This era focused on understanding human needs, goals, behaviors, and interactions to create better, more enjoyable, more effective user experiences. These researchers specialized in social science techniques including web surveys, ethnography, and interviews. This was the age of research as design – and marks the rise of the UX researcher. And it’s been the dominant paradigm of research until recently.
More recently, we’ve witnessed a shift in where researchers come from. Increasingly, researchers have more varied and often multi-discipline backgrounds. They may hybridize in product management, business, or consulting. They may be called a variety of things – from pathfinders, to product researchers, to research strategists. Of course, they still focus on studying human needs and behaviors. But often through a lens of product ecosystems, unmet needs, and the role of the product in the user’s broader life. They may borrow approaches from market and business strategy – including expert interviews, competitive analysis, and strategic frameworks. While the previous eras of researchers partnered most closely with engineering and design, these researchers work directly with product leaders to proactively shape the direction of the product. This is the era of research as strategy.
All three of these domains of research are valuable and important parts of product development. Research-as-engineering is still a critical part of designing high quality products. For products with billions of users – such as social media – or with high-stakes consequences – such as FinTech, small changes to interactions can have a tremendous impact on users and the product. This work is even more imperative as large language models, voice assistants, and immersive technologies rapidly evolve the concept of a user interface.
But this work is often poorly understood. As research has evolved, the meaning of usability research has been diluted. All researchers are expected to be usability experts, though very few are trained to become technical experts in the field. The differences between qualitative and quantitative usability are often misunderstood. And many companies are unwilling to hire specialized experts to work on seemingly “small” parts of the product. They are often spread too thin across many teams or limited to niche parts of the organization.
Research-as-design, too, remains an important part of the development process. Too often, products are designed without a clear user need in mind. Or built with incorrect assumptions about how and why the user will be using the product. Or what an effective interaction solution looks like. Design research helps developers better understand both the problem and solution space to get to the right answer, faster.
Unfortunately, this is also why this type of research is often undervalued. Design research is often preventative. It saves time by reducing iteration cycles. Compared to the more precise and specific improvements offered by research-as-engineering, the impact is often diffuse – distributed across multiple parts of the product – and delayed – building value in time over multiple improvements. It’s a lot harder to A/B test experiential changes or measure them with easily available metrics. And building this measurement capability is often costly and rarely deemed worth the effort.
The fundamental problem isn’t with either of these research specialties. They have and continue to add immense value to the industry. However, too much focus today is put on research as design, pigeon-holing what research is capable of and ignoring the potential of research to shape both tactical (often a ‘dirty word’ in research) and high-level strategic (often an overused word) outcomes. Research, as a result, gets taken for granted. And it’s not until it gets taken away that businesses truly understand what they’ve lost.
There is no arguing that we are both continuing an era of unprecedented uncertainty in societal shifts and entering one of rapid technological evolution. The need to deeply understand these changes, specifically from the perspective of human needs and societal impact, has never been more salient. But businesses’ understanding of what research is and can do will need to evolve. It will take time for the job listings to catch up, but early signals of change are there – from job listings titled “Innovation UX researcher”, “UX strategist”, or “Generative AI UX researcher” – to the increasingly common research VP.
All change is hard, and the transition may be challenging – but I, for one, believe that the future of research can be bright. We just may need to evolve a little along the way.
Genevieve Conley Gambill is a pathfinder and strategist with over ten years of experience advising top tech companies on preparing for the future. Her blog, tiny-data.tech, is aimed at helping researchers deepen their strategic impact and future thinking. You can find more from Genevieve on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash