Researchers as Contrarians

Saswati Saha Mitra
Mar 23, 2019 · 8 min read
A good reminder on the streets of Brixton

Every day I walk past the above image on my way to work. Yesterday, it reminded me of one of my favourite topics and a recurring challenge that comes up at every stage of a researcher’s career — the notion that researchers are contrarians and no sayers. I experienced this myself years back when I was a researcher trying to convince my clients not to launch their immediate plans but to evolve them in a way that they would be more successful.

I see this today as a manager when the ability of some of my team members to collaborate are questioned because they are asking some tough questions to their teams. I see this as a leader, where the expectation to rally behind organisational priorities fast, is so high that any sign of critical thinking and asking clarifying questions, is almost seen as slowing everyone else down.

So, you are a contrarian, huh?

This notion of researchers as no-sayers can emerge in many ways. Few examples I have seen in my own experience:

Researchers bring up things that were not said.

There are occasions where I see teams disagree with their researchers because something was never “explicitly said” word by word by users. This may happen when a team may not be familiar with how research works. They may not have full confidence in their researcher or the researcher themselves is unable to substantiate a claim with more than one observation or data point. The researcher may also get flummoxed and forget to articulate their position effectively.

Researchers caution too early or too often.

It is interesting to note how researchers in different industries, are evaluated differently. When you work in the automotive industry or healthcare, you are incentivised for preventing the roll out of underprepared products; whereas in the tech industry you are incentivised for rolling things out faster, even if it is half baked. What this means is researchers in technology teams may caution their teams about why something may not work but user opinions are hard to trust in a world where celebrated thinkers like Henry Ford or Steve Jobs have set the precedent that users do not know what they want.

Researchers do not understand the pressures of a launch.

The launch of a product is a key milestone for anyone who works on a product team. However, there is this interesting notion that Product Managers, Data Scientists, Marketing Managers and Engineers are the ones who get us to the finishing line. Researchers, Designers and Content Writers prepare the ‘what’ of a launch. The other functions focus on the ‘how’ of the launch. If the what is weak or incorrect, then does it really matter how you launch it?

Many a time, I have heard from researchers, the frustration they feel when their leads complaint about why it is hard for research to be more supportive. The expectation of support can be as simple as agreeing to sending out something that’s not fully ready, to a more complex reality — changing or suppressing insights so the optics of a launch can look rosier than they are.

I have been asked once to tone down the real insights in my career, so as not to impact the morale of the team. If the morale of a team is so easily demotivated by their inability to process real insights, then there is much more going on in this team than what meets the eyes.

Stop being a contrarian! But how?

Assuming some of these notions are true and alive in the workplace, how do we then, move forward? Do we as researchers, stop being the ‘contrarian’? Or is there still a way to be an effective contrarian retaining some independence of thought while trying to do justice by one’s affiliate group?

I like to believe there is space for us to practise our critical thinking. A big part of this hope stems from being able to have reasonable conversations with one’s teams and working on one’s ability to negotiate under pressure. This is as much on others as on oneself in situations like this. Ultimately, we all want the same thing — we want our products to do well- just our ways to achieve the same results may be different.

So, what are some of the ways that have worked for me?

Identifying the right moments to provide user feedback

As I have grown in my research career, my youthful optimism for any time is a good time for user feedback, has given way to a more strategic view on delivering the right feedback at the right moment. When is the moment right, is something important to set as a team. For example, if you are running a beta program for a new feature, it is important as a researcher to get your team to align on what are the check points at which you will provide inputs as daily usage data continues to evolve every day. When teams are exhausted after a launch, they may not have the mental bandwidth to process user feedback. They just want to celebrate a win, even a poorly managed one.

It is important to understand what type of feedback is valuable at this point. Is it usage data which product analysts and data scientists can provide or is it really user experience data? A combination of the two is ideal but it is also ok to prioritise one over the other instead of not making good use of any one’s insights. Mature teams that can balance well different data points can do this triangulation close to launch but less experienced teams are better off doing follow up user experience research a little bit later.

Something I think more product teams would benefit from, is a code freeze. At a time when we are able to push out new code in seconds and change experiences, a hypothetical wait out period is almost an archaic notion. However, in reality, a code freeze can also be an opportunity to see how something new does well out in the world without any real time fixing. This is hard to do when so much is at stake. You can lose millions every second. Organic engagement is a crucial matrix of product development success and by making time for this in one’s launch cadence, a team can get a real sense check on how effective is their build process itself. The longer the organic engagement time, the more robust is that product development process.

Developing a sense of market and usage correction

As UX Researchers, it is very much on us to start developing a sense of how launches have gone historically and how long it takes for a new experience to settle in and achieve usage equilibrium. Change aversion is real and it takes time to achieve the right amount of traction.

This kind of historical knowledge should exist in organisations but in reality, they often don’t. In my discussions with start ups in London and elsewhere, when I have asked them the question that how do you know how much time it might take you to get to a point of stable usage for your product or feature, there is very little real estimation. The most common answer is we try to get there faster each time but without an empirical number to it.

We all have an opportunity to do this better. The more closely a Product team is able to forecast what is a good experience equilibrium point, the better are our chances as researchers to gather quality input and present a real picture. So, spend some time in your historical launches and see what it took to stabilise the experience rather than think of doing more net new research as soon as your experience hits the world.

Setting expectations around your own ethical boundaries.

As the world of technology becomes more complex, as researchers a big part of our growth comes from knowing what we are ok with and what we are not. A fair marketplace is very important for me and I study hard the factors that go behind the creation of a marketplace to understand what position I need to take as a leader. Much of my work in research right now is less about what methods to use and more of how we take better decisions.

Setting some of these boundaries is a life’s work. I did not know this when I started. There’s also no clear handbook that tells you how to take these decisions. This is where critical thinking comes in. You look at experiences and data and decide for yourself where to draw the line. Setting some guard rails for yourself is good to do when you are not in the middle of a fire. Having set them in more conducive conditions, you are able to lean into them in challenging times.

Ethical boundaries are important to discuss as a part of one’s roles. This really helps an organisation and an individual realise whether we can live and operate by the rules of others. If the values don’t align, it is better to work in a different space with different people than to constantly be at cross purpose with each other. Even within a good team, these questions will rise and in that case, it is helpful to discuss what we as researchers can put our names to and what we can’t. A big part of being a mindful, ethical researcher is to know your own depths. Someone else may say yes but you will at least know what you are willing to accept in the name of product vision and team work. Being blind to data misuse, using invasive technologies or putting people’s identities at risk have grave social consequences and someone has to raise the concern. A good researcher should do that. Even if you are earmarked as a contrarian.

And then there are times, when the stakes are so high that nothing works. Leaders and teams often knowingly go in the wrong direction. What do you do then? You have to go back to those guard rails you set for yourself. Does the decision ahead break your own compass? Is mediation out of question?Then at that point, you really are at the crossroads of your career. And you and only you can decide whether to stay or leave. Being opinionated and a strategic thinker comes with its own risks. If you are a good researcher, you will push your teams to think about questions that no one really wants to. By being the person who raises these difficult questions, you either make a team better or you make yourself better by choosing a different ethos and ecosystem.

Getting comfortable being the contrarian

As a Researcher, I have learnt to get comfortable with this tag. I do not mind taking a different position. I am always learning how to be an even better “contrarian” by leveraging the power of language and communication. This is hard work. You have to disagree on some profound principles without getting emotional or erratic. Especially as a woman, I feel I am a lot more under scrutiny for how I voice my disagreements. I have been witness to several situations where a leader who is male can say directly what they think. I have had to come prepared with data to say these are the reasons why I believe something may not work or impact us negatively. Being a contrarian is not something one does for fun. One does it out of necessity, as someone in a room has to espouse the right values. Just because I help build technology products that have no historical examples to fall back on, does not mean I do not know what is the right thing to do. We almost always know what is the right thing to do. We just choose not to do it.

So the next time, someone calls you a contrarian, pause and reflect. Are you really being negative and a no sayer? Or do you have enough justification to say you are taking a different position? If you do have enough points, then you are really just doing your job. You are really doing what you were hired to do.

Saswati Saha Mitra

Written by

UX Research Manager at @WhatsApp. Past life Googler and Uberite. Scope and scale of global tech innovation excites me.

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