Escape Velocity: Finding Our Path in the Next Decade

UX Research Conference Talk June 26, 2020 #uxrconf #uxrconfanywhere #uxresearch

UX Research Conference Talk June 26, 2020

In the last year, I’ve found myself wondering about the field of research, the choices we’re making, and how we’re letting our roles and activities be shaped — somewhat by us, but mostly by the forces around us.

The time has come for Researchers to define our own path. It’s time to define our discipline before we’re splintered apart by people who try to control, define, and own what we have to offer. We must not let other people define our discipline.

A simple graphic of the title of the talk “Escape Velocity”

We’ve circled in the orbit of Design and Product, subject to all the push and pull and the goals and incentives of these stakeholders. It feels normal to not be in control. We’re so used to it that it can be hard to see where we started.

Escape velocity is a term used in space exploration. It’s “the lowest velocity which a body must have in order to escape the gravitational attraction of a particular planet or other object.” Escape velocity is what we need to reach to break out of the patterns of our day-to-day work. But to break away, we need a clear destination.

This is a wake-up all for Researchers to break away. And we must take an active role in charting our own path as we do so. We must lead the definition not only of our day-to-day work should look like but also what our discipline should be and how we can get there in the next decade.

There are three main things that we must do to move forward.

First, be seen as the scientists that we are. The work we do is grounded in years of study and scientific principles. We should emphasize and celebrate this, instead of diminishing or ignoring our foundation.

Second, be specific and precise about our roles. We must define: how to work with us, who works with us, what is unique about what we offer, how to say yes and no, and what we will (or will not) democratize to other functions. Beyond this, we must create more precision and definition in our specialities. These will ensure that the Researcher role is not expected to be all things to all parts of the organization.

Third, break away and stand as an insights function. We must move out from our historical position as subordinate to other disciplines such as Design or Product. Standing together and collaborating closely with other insights functions as a coordinated entity will ensure we demonstrate value more clearly. We need a seat at the table that is wholly our own.

How we got here

I’ve been in the area of User Experience for nearly twenty years. I’ve seen how technology, organizations, and our roles have evolved over that time. A major shift that I’ve seen, particularly in the last five years, is around the power and importance of knowing users. We must understand the varied nuances of the humans we serve and how they understand the technology that they use, and what they need from those tools.

User research has become much more ubiquitous in tech organizations, a key element of the core team. In the early days, having the right technology made you Queen over the other competitors. As the technology has become more available and as the barriers to entry have lowered, having a deep and meaningful understanding about users has grown in importance.

For example, my niece could use a laptop, the internet, and an app builder to create an app over the weekend. She could use design patterns and free graphics to build out something that works reasonably well and could appear in the Android store. However, the real test of that app is whether it serves a defined user need. Whether it really speaks to the humans it may have been designed for originally.

Research has been one of the primary gatherers and sharers of knowledge about people and their behaviors. Businesses turn to Researchers when they want to understand user needs and predict human behavior. Data Science has been increasingly able to expand our world of “what” behaviors are ubiquitous among our users; research remains the route to understanding “why” those behaviors occur and successfully reshaping our products accordingly.

Prioritization

As understanding human behavior becomes more important, we’re being asked to do more. I’ve seen people from across the business, at every level and every part of the organization, come to us for insights. We are responding to these requests, and we are doing the work across the business and across many contexts.

Unfortunately, an often low ratio to other disciplines, a large scope, high expectations, and short deadlines mean that we do a little bit of everything very fast. We are becoming a “Joan of all trades, but a mistress of none.” The scope of work that is now being done is truly dizzying.

Joan of all Trades, Mistress of none.

I certainly understand that we want to help our colleagues. We see the value and benefits that our insights can provide to teams and organizations. We understand not just our end users’ needs but also our coworkers’ “user” needs and want to meet them.

So we say yes.

Yes to the idea of wanting to help. Yes, to “being a team player.” We even say yes to bad methods and approaches. We let them believe they know how to do our work. How many of you have had to fight to use the right method for a study when your boss thought she knew better?

It’s difficult to say no to these requests when

  • We know that it can define our usefulness in an organization
  • Our promotions or bonuses are tied to being “helpful”
  • Pushing back is seen as conflict
  • We over-deploy the helper instinct to try to be all the things for all the people

Of course there can be good learnings and relationships from saying yes. However, there are several side effects to saying yes to the wrong things and/or for the wrong reasons. When we say yes in this way, we are teaching our stakeholders the wrong things about our discipline. We lose our unique value — deeply understanding people — and our work becomes cheap, easy, and, frankly, low value.

Words that say “Yes vs. No”

How many of you spend more time managing your multiple stakeholders and training your designers than you do conducting research or sharing findings?

Another side effect of spreading ourselves thin is how our titles and roles have become so broad and the expectations of us so huge. Our colleagues learn that we will do practically everything for them. So a Researcher who may have studied quantitative methods is expected to do qualitative field work. Or vice versa. The title of User Researcher now means both everything and nothing.

In other fields, we’ve seen the development of more defined and specific job titles that allow for both the ability to specialize and refinement of the practice. For example, a Designer can focus on motion, interaction, branding, visual, etc.

Why haven’t we done this in research? What is holding us back from being more specialized? I think it’s mostly because we’re working hard and we’re very overwhelmed. We are all so overstretched that we’ve started looking for help in more places. And we are teaching more of our colleagues about how to conduct more varied kinds of research. Many Researchers have trained and continue to train non-Researchers throughout the organization to conduct surveys, studies, and field work.

This is the democratization of research you’ve been reading some important debates about. See Eduardo Gomez-Ruiz’s Scaling UX Research: how to train an army of (non)researchers and Saswati Mitra’s Undemocratising User Research as examples. We think it’s just teaching our colleagues to fish.

But I’m beginning to think this oversharing is a bad idea. In the past, I was someone who thought that democratizing research was important. That teaching others how to do elements of our job didn’t matter in the long run. I was ok with non-Researchers doing research, because I thought “people who do it almost always come back to us and say it was hard.”

I don’t believe that anymore. Those of us who have sought to solve our problems with selected versions of this approach now teach all methods. We do it in a blanket way that doesn’t reflect the studying and hard work that got us to where we are. We’re cheapening and undercutting the scientific foundations of our work.

  • How many combined years of experience and study are at this conference? How many interviews have we done? How many surveys? Stakeholder presentations?
  • Why do we make what we do seem cheap and easy to learn?
  • Why do we take two hours on a Thursday afternoon to teach something that took us a year of classes to start learning? I think we’re cheapening and undercutting the scientific foundations of our work.

I recently had a conversation with a Data Science colleague about their challenges with leadership. I suddenly realized they don’t face the same challenges we do

I asked, “Do your non-Data Science colleagues think that they can do your job?”

They looked surprised. “What?”

I laughed to myself as I realized that no one thinks, “Oh, Data Science … I’m sure I could learn how to do that in a couple of hours.” There’s no assumption that what they do is as easy as “talking to people.”

An image of two speech bubbles, like people talking, and it says below “You talk to people, how hard could that really be?”

How can we bring the science back to our work?

I’m not saying that teaching people some specific things about our work is fundamentally bad. There are activities that maybe they can do or specific activities we don’t want to be exclusively responsible for anymore. For example, maybe we are ok with Designers testing their own designs. Maybe we can teach people how to do better interviews or design basic surveys.

But let’s make considered choices and recognize the impact of those choices before we dilute our discipline.

What’s next?

We can no longer let our discipline evolve organically. As a group, we must take charge and define our next ten years with thoughtfulness and a view to the future vision. We have so diluted and spread our value across the organization that we have to fight to make our value seen.

The emotional labor of continuously having to teach and demonstrate our value is too high.

Do our cross-functional stakeholders have to track our impact and value like we do? I don’t hear about it if they do.

Let’s return to the three things we can do to own the path forward.

First, be seen as the scientists that we are. We need to be sure that the people around us understand the size and complexity of the work that we do. We can highlight the methods and approaches we take. Talk more about experimental design and repeatability. Perhaps we should change our titles to reflect the science element? People Scientists, Insights Science, Human Needs Analyst?

Second, be specific and precise about our roles. Both what we as a discipline will and won’t do in particular roles (or democratize to other groups), as well as creating more precision and definition in our specialities. When we define our titles, we should get more specific and precise about the work that we are experts in. The title User Researcher right now can be so many different things, that even we are confused sometimes. Let’s stop encouraging our Researchers to be a “Joan of all trades, but a mistress of none.” Yes, it’s good to be familiar with a variety of methods so you know which one is appropriate, which you can do, and which you should find an expert to handle. Taking the time and effort to scope and do things right is important. Expertise should not be a dirty word. And saying no should be acceptable and supported. When we have to prioritize and say no to projects, and our non-research teams ask if they can do the research for us, let’s have a common point of view about what can and can’t be done by others. We cannot democratize all research.

Third, break away and stand as an insights function. We must move out from our standard position as subordinate to other disciplines, such as Design or Product. We must stand with other insights functions as an entity that is not beholden to these groups. We need a seat at the table that is wholly our own.

This will be hard, as it comes with pressures and challenges that many of us have not faced yet. When we control our own destiny, and our incentives are related to the work being done not who we report to, we will be able to more fully demonstrate the value we bring. It won’t be invisible to our leadership.

For example, currently I am reporting to the VP of Customer Insights, a role that encompasses leads for Experimentation, Data Science, and Research. The ability for us to effectively cooperate, triangulate, and multiply our impact is incredible. The open collaboration between insight functions provides us with huge opportunities and huge responsibility — but it’s ours to control.

I urge our community to consider these points. We must take control of our destiny in the next decade. You can step up and make these changes happen. Looking at the leaders around me, I am in awe of the work that we have already accomplished, and I see a potentially bright future. However, it’s one that needs deliberate shaping

Please consider what you’ll do today or tomorrow to move forward on one of these points. Or please comment on the LinkedIn or Medium blog post. This content is also presented as part of the #UXRConference.

Together we can chart a path and reach escape velocity for our discipline for the next decade.

Thank you to everyone who helped me frame these thoughts!

John Boyd, Jenny Gove, Laszlo Laufer, Jeanette Mellinger, Saswati Mitra, George Zhang

— and to Etienne Fang and Darya Pilram who helped with the presentation version of these thoughts.

Note: Recorded on June 6, presented at UXRConf on Friday, June 26.

20+ years experience in understanding customer needs in a variety of domains around the globe. She is currently the Director of Research at Booking.com

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