We’ve had a good run. You’ve been a great partner. You’ve helped us get a foot in the door when big companies didn’t know what to do with us. You’ve evangelized research and its value. You’ve fought the good fight with us, advocating for users at every step of the way. We really can’t do enough to thank you.
But it’s time for a change.
It’s not you, really. It’s us, researchers. We’ve changed. We’ve grown. We have needs that simply can’t be met as a sub-discipline of UX. We need to branch out, spread our wings, and explore our own identity. One that’s not tied to our relationship with you.
In short, UX, I think it’s time for us to move on. To expand our horizons. But we can still be friends! And we’ll always cherish the time we spent together.
What’s wrong with UX Research?
Industry research, it would seem, is in the middle of a long-time-coming identity crisis. As several recent articles have pointed out, the role of research – particularly within tech companies – is in flux. For those of us navigating the job market, this isn’t just some abstract question about the future of research as a discipline. It’s an existential question about who we are and what we want to be as we attempt to define our personal career narratives.
As I argued in my last article, one of the biggest challenges facing research lies in its branding. Specifically, in the name “UX Research.” A name, which I argue, is holding us back.
Even before the most recent wave of layoffs. Before the great resignation. Before Generative AI or the Metaverse or the Pandemic or any of the many other major disruptions to the industry. Before all of that, research was already in the midst of a quiet re-discovery period.
To get a sense of what I mean, we need only look to the many, varied role titles across the industry. While UX Researcher (UXR) has been the favored term at many large companies for the past decade, there are also product researchers, user researchers, design researchers, consumer researchers, insights researchers, research scientists, and – my personal favorite – plain ol’ ‘researchers’.
These names are sometimes used interchangeably. But, oftentimes, these titles can reveal a deeper truth about the mental model of research at that company. The “consumer” titles, for instance, are often born out of the marketing or business side of the company. “Insights” titles typically imply some sort of relationship with other data functions – such as data science, analytics, or market research. “Product” titles skew newer and usually involve a direct relationship with other strategy functions.
This somewhat chaotic fracturing of the research role is, in part, an attempt to break outside the boundaries imposed by the UX Research title. Because, you see, UX Research is inherently limited by association with and, specifically, subservience to design.
As the name implies, UX Research tends to focus specifically on the user experience, often within a specific part of a specific product. Like design, UXR focuses on the user problems, goals, and journeys within the product experience. This work often culminates in outputs like journey maps, personas, and pain points – which serve to guide design decision-making.
Now let me be clear, this work is valuable. Keeping product teams focused on the goals, building empathy for users, and ensuring a viable / desirable / usable experience is critical for the function of major tech products. It’s just not all that research can do. And, by bucketing research under UX – we limit not only the type of work that research can do but also the impact it can have.
How did we get here?
So why does research get lumped in with UX? Well, as I mentioned in my break-up letter, UX has played a big role in helping research get a foot in the door at tech companies – usually because research is considered a major part of modern UX design. Most formally trained UX designers are taught how to conduct heuristic reviews, how to interview users, and how to do basic usability tests. At smaller companies, designers often do their own research. But at a certain point, this usually becomes untenable, so a dedicated UX researcher is hired.
Note: For a thoroughly researched look back at the role of UX in research, check out this article on the Three Waves of Research.
But herein lies the first problem: when research starts out as just “part” of design, it inherently limits the potential of the discipline. Unless you are actually hiring a designer (and not a researcher) who just happens to like leaning into the research side, you’re setting that role up for stagnation. Because they are not designers, their growth path to design leadership is non-existent. That is, unless they want to switch to becoming a designer, a discipline with a completely different set of skills.
But there’s more to it than just convenience. Research is often lumped in with design because both roles focus on users. Here’s the kicker though – everyone should be focused on the user. Especially product people. UXR can be a powerful tool to try and instill user focus from the ground up, but by creating an organizational model where only some disciplines are charged with representing the ‘voice of the user’ – you’re effectively outsourcing that responsibility. Ideally, everyone should be focused on both aspects – product and users. And everyone should hold the line on a quality user experience.
Sectioning off the user experience from other disciplines can also have the unintended effect of creating an ‘us vs. them’ scenario where UX believes they are the only discipline that can represent or interface with users. Anyone can talk to users – and should! It’s everyone’s responsibility to understand the audience. The best product leaders I’ve worked with were deeply in tune with users. That’s how people (product managers or not) naturally form a model about the world and how the product fits in it.
But research doesn’t just talk to users. Or collect feedback. Or test concepts. Or generate empathy. (Though, again, these are all important). They can and do so much more.
What is research then, if not UX Research?
As I mentioned above, UX Research is just one piece of the puzzle that makes up the Research discipline. To understand what the broader function is capable of, it helps to zoom out a bit. So what is capital R “Research” then?
Research is about testing our model of the world so we can make better decisions at scale.
Let’s break that down a bit more…
- Test our model of the world – Researchers use data to build, test, and refine hypotheses about products, people, markets, and society.
- Make better decisions – With a more accurate model of the world, we can improve baseline understanding and build decision-making frameworks to power better outcomes for users and the business.
- At scale – We use systematic approaches that allow us to generalize our insights beyond a single context, to drive holistic comprehension of the ecosystems we operate within.
One key takeaway here: Research isn’t just about users, it’s about people. That can include non-users, potential users, lapsed users… but also people who won’t ever use the technology but are impacted by it in some way, shape, or form. And it’s also not just about people. Research lies at the intersection between people, products, and the market. It’s about the role that products play in people’s lives, understanding the product in the context of the broader ecosystem, and – perhaps most importantly – the role of products within the societies they inhabit.
By thinking about Research this way, we open up an opportunity for impact well beyond the user experience on a product. When framed this way, Research can inform decision-making at any level of the company.
I’ve seen Research guide questions about the ethics of a technology, inform mergers & acquisitions, chart a new course for a stagnating product, solidify the core value of a mature product, and identify net new areas of exploration for the business. I’ve seen Research leaders partner with every discipline in the company – from policy, to marketing, HR, art, and even sound design – and work with every level, from fresh-out-of-college graduates to the company CEO.
“Okay, Genevieve. But that definition is pretty broad,” you might be thinking. “How is that different from any other data function like market research or data science?
Well, frankly, at a high enough level – it’s really not. Hear me out. At a sufficiently expert level, all data disciplines strive to achieve the same goals. A quant researcher and data scientist might use different techniques, but their potential impact is nearly indistinguishable. Or, at least, the difference between them is no greater than between a quant and qual researcher. A market researcher and user researcher are both responsible for understanding the potential role of the product in the user’s life — they might just leverage different techniques to do so and work with different stakeholders. In both cases, the biggest difference comes down to what data they use and how they frame their analysis.
But that’s true for any difference in methodological approach. You see, what we’re talking about, really, is specialization. Not some fundamental difference in purpose or ability. Just take a look at the core skill set behind all these functions. All of these disciplines need…
- Structured problem solving
- Analytical ability & data literacy
- Business & product sense
- Storytelling & visualization
- Cross-discipline collaboration
Wait, hold up. Let’s revisit that list for a second. Can you think of any other disciplines with these skills? Outside of data disciplines, who else needs to use critical thinking and data to make decisions about the product? Who else needs product sense and storytelling to influence decision-making within the business? Who else needs a deep understanding of the product, the market, and its users?
Who else? Well, product leaders, to start.
Do you see where I’m going here?
Research isn’t just a sub-component of design. It’s a core part of product.
Product leaders need to have an accurate model of the world to make good decisions about the direction of their product. They need to understand and synthesize multiple types of data. And they need to translate that into a framework (implicit or explicit) that guides their decision-making. Research is an invaluable partner to product leadership.
Why does it matter where we put it?
So, let’s recap. Why should we care whether Research is part of UX or some other function? If it currently works organizationally as part of data, marketing, product, or UX – why not just stick with what works?
Simply put: when we lump all Research into UX Research, we limit growth, impact, and collaboration while drawing unhealthy boundaries about who should care about users.
- It limits growth. When Research reports into UX, it inherently limits career growth. Look around at most companies. How many Research VPs do you see? Chief Research Officers? Very few, if any. That’s not about the maturity of the discipline — it’s a direct result of organizational choices. Without a clear path to leadership, Researchers are left with two choices – double down as non-manager craft specialists or switch career tracks. I’ve seen many brilliant Researchers forced to switch into an alternate career simply because they ran out of runway.
- It outsources user focus. When you designate one team as the “user” team and one as the “product” team, you create an unhealthy mental model that there is an inherent trade-off between the two. It makes a statement to both sides about the relative importance of business thinking versus user-centric thinking. It creates unnecessary tension. It puts a greater burden on the UX team to work on things outside of product impact – including evangelization and education. And it reduces empowerment of other disciplines to engage directly with users.
- It constricts impact. Narrowing the focus of all Research to UX limits the potential impact for both the discipline and the company. If Research’s primary stakeholder is UX, then Research will over-focus on UX decisions. This leaves a lot of value on the table. If, instead, Research flows directly into product leadership, it can help guide decisions across the full spectrum of product strategy and execution.
- It stifles communication. When Research reports into UX, it complicates communication and limits the opportunities to engage directly with leadership. On one memorable occasion, my Research director and I were told we couldn’t attend a critical strategy meeting because “there were already too many people” and, specifically, since Design was already attending, we would already be “represented”. This hierarchy creates a game of telephone where a non-data discipline is unfairly expected to represent Research findings upwards and stifles feedback loops between Research and leadership.
- It creates artificial data divisions. When you take one data discipline and put it under UX, it creates barriers between that group and other data disciplines. I’ve had the pleasure of working on teams where data science and Research sat side-by-side and reported into the same leadership. As a result, we were able to tackle shared questions collaboratively and divide-and-conquer projects where appropriate. In a different organization – where these disciplines were treated as completely unrelated – we consistently ran into issues where our teams were unknowingly working on the same problem. This meant we often duplicated work or, worse, walked away with conflicting guidance for our leadership. Whether it’s data science, market research, or another data function – organizing data teams for effective communication and collaboration leads to more efficient and higher quality insights (and thus, decision-making).
So, what do we do about it?
“Alright then, Genevieve,” you might now be thinking, “If you’re so clever… what do we do about this?” And I’ll tell you straight: I have no idea. Or at least not a great one. There is no perfect solution for Research organizational structure, in part because there is no perfect org structure period. Every company is different. Research needs differ by development stage, leadership data savviness, the existence of other data disciplines, the scale of the product, and so on.
But I would urge any discipline leaders out there to ask yourself the following question: Where can Research be most impactful? Then build your model around the answer to that question. Not by defaulting to the path of least resistance.
I’m a strong proponent that, with a sufficiently experienced research team, Research can function as a strategic partner to product and business leadership. This means that any organizational model should focus on placing Research as close to decision-makers as possible.
For example, in one of my past companies, Research leaders sat directly on the product leadership team as part of a “four-legged stool”: insights (Research), design, engineering, and product management. We all had a dotted line into the product lead, as well as lines connecting us back to our discipline leaders. We were all involved in decision-making and collaborated (mostly) seamlessly across discipline lines.
In my experience, companies that invest in this type of structure are much more capable of correctly diagnosing issues, staying flexible to changing conditions, keeping an eye towards the future, and robustly testing their assumptions about the world. In other words – they make better decisions at scale.
At the end of the day, UX functions have and will continue to be critical partners to Research. And, just like with Research, I suspect the role of UX Design will continue to grow and evolve as well. Some of the most impactful work I’ve done as a Researcher happened when I was paired with a ‘product designer’ or ‘design strategist’ who tackled problems at the same altitude as me: thinking about problems through the lens of the product ecosystem and the role of the product within people’s lives, iteratively testing assumptions about the world, and building decision-making frameworks to guide product direction. I suspect we’ll see an evolution of this role in parallel with Research over the next several years.
Instead of ending our relationship with UX, what I’m really arguing is that we expand our thinking about what both disciplines are capable of. That we grow beyond our current boundaries and think about our roles not only in the context of user experience but in the broader context of the business.
In other words, it’s not that I’m breaking up with you, UX. I just think we need some time apart to see other people.
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.