Team collaborating
Team collaborating

The Future of UX Research

How UX research is evolving to help everyone connect to customers

Monty Hammontree
Sep 26, 2019 · 13 min read

In 2014, Satya Nadella became CEO of Microsoft and put forth a vision that drove customer empathy and growth mindset into the center of everything we do as a company. Through his leadership, we’ve seen an explosion in demand for connecting with customers and for data-driven decision making.

Satya Nadella talking at a conference
Satya Nadella talking at a conference

This phenomenon is not limited to Microsoft. As technologies like artificial intelligence, automation, and big data emerge, companies are increasingly grappling with how to deliver innovation in a way that augments and supports our humanity.

This presents an unprecedented opportunity for the UX research community as it is the very essence of our profession to connect product makers to the motivations, emotions, and unmet needs of their customers. The core skillset of the UX research discipline has always included the ability to engage with, learn from, and empathize with customers. Learning from and connecting with customers is what we do best. Identifying assumptions, formulating them into hypotheses, and running experiments is in our DNA.

However, as practitioners we can no longer hold on to this as our exclusive purview. The quest to gather insights from customers has rightfully become everyone’s ongoing responsibility. Our product teams’ hunger for customer data and insights is increasing. Armed with whatever insights they can garner, they are making product decisions faster than ever before.

This requires us to revisit our purpose within our organizations. We must look to the future and redefine what it means to be a UX researcher. We must be clear on what we do, what we value, and who we want to be. Only then can we, as a discipline, attract and grow the top talent in our industry and maintain our relevancy for years to come.

In his book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, author Daniel Coyle discusses how “belonging cues” help us understand what it means to be part of a group or organization. In short, we all look for belonging cues to determine how we should invest our time, what actions we should take in each situation, and what we should value.

As an extended community, we should reflect on the belonging cues each of us is sending out within the marketplace. Through our language, thinking, and actions, what are we telling others about our discipline?

To that end, the following are a set of belonging cues that highlight the values, attitudes, and behaviors to which we should collectively aspire. They represent the emerging future of our discipline.

The future of UX research is to function as a “multiplier”

As companies like Microsoft move away from a know-it-all mentality and embrace a learn-it-all culture, we must lean into the momentum this culture shift is creating for employees to learn new methods and ways of working. We can no longer think of our role as being the exclusive pathway to customer learning. In fact, we should actively build new pathways to learning and create innovative ways for our product teams to connect with and learn directly from their customers.

It’s no secret that, across the industry, UX research is outnumbered compared to the sheer demand for learning coming out of our respective product teams. Put simply, there is more demand for customer insights than there are UX researchers to uncover them. The skills we have in conducting interviews, focus groups, concept value studies, site visits, and usability studies are vital to creating products that respond to customer needs. Within organizations embracing a learn-it-all mentality, these skills are in extremely high demand.

A key evolutionary step for us is to figure out how to scale the application of these skills to meet the newfound demand. The answer does not lie in adding more researchers who focus on learning on behalf of the many. It’s in expanding the role of researchers to focus on empowering everyone to learn.

In her book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, Liz Wiseman completed a global study of organizations and their employee output. She found that the companies where employees were encouraged to learn and experiment had more than double (and in some cases triple) the employee engagement, productivity, and realized impact. This contrasts sharply to those organizations led by “diminishers”—leaders who tell employees what they can and cannot do. These diminished companies were full of employees who felt uninspired, under-utilized, and unfulfilled.

Red calculator focusing on the multiply button
Red calculator focusing on the multiply button

Our future lies in eradicating diminishing behaviors and multiplying our product teams’ excitement to talk to and learn from their customers. Our goal is to improve their confidence and their ability to learn from customers. We achieve this by promoting psychological safety within our organizations and encouraging teams to experiment, try new methods of learning, and connect directly with their customers.

The future of UXR serves two customers: the customers who use our products and the product makers who build them. We must develop our understanding and empathy for both communities and seek to develop experiences that empower both to achieve more than they ever thought possible.

The future of UX research is about co-experienced learning

The role of the multiplier is not one who excludes others, but rather seeks ways to continually bring others along on the journey of learning. Future UX researchers won’t see themselves as “siloed specialists”; they will be fully committed to the pursuit of co-experienced learning and building a continuous and collaborative relationship with product teams.

The future reality of working in cross-functional teams means that we can no longer “own the voice of the customer.” Quite frankly, no CEO, VP, general manager, program manager, marketer, engineer, designer, or researcher has ever owned it. The customer’s voice has always been and will always remain the rightful property of the customers themselves.

In this new reality, UX researchers may be asking themselves, “If everyone is responsible for connecting with and learning from customers, then what’s my job?”

In her 2019 keynote address at the Mind the Product conference in San Francisco, Tricia Wang had a terrific response to this question:

As UX researchers, organizing our product teams to learn from customers is analogous to a safari guide taking a team to observe elephants in the wild. Both the UX researcher and the safari guide want to create an indelible experience for their teams.

A family of elephants, walking at sunset, on the savanna.
A family of elephants, walking at sunset, on the savanna.

A safari guide knows that nothing will be more impactful than taking the team to the savanna, lying with them in the grass, and observing a herd of elephants in their native habitat. The guide is the expert who has devoted their life to fully understanding the nuances and unique qualities of these majestic animals, yet they continue to learn something new on every expedition. They point out how the elephants communicate, how they care for their young, and how they work together to survive. They empower their team by sharing their knowledge of elephants and giving them the tools they need on the ground, to make the most of their experience. They’re a master at enabling moments to unfold that reshape understanding, promote empathy, engender advocacy, and inspire action. The most coveted guides enable moments that last a lifetime.

Impact Ladder: It’s a bar chart. From left to right: Exposure, Awareness, Understanding, Empathy, Advocacy, Inspired Action
Impact Ladder: It’s a bar chart. From left to right: Exposure, Awareness, Understanding, Empathy, Advocacy, Inspired Action
The Impact Ladder

Just like the safari guide, the goal of the UX researcher is to empower product teams so they feel equipped, safe, confident, and energized. It’s through this empowerment and co-experiencing model that we will multiply our impact and become an increasingly essential part of our teams’ product-making process.

Just as a safari guide would never take a team member’s camera away from them as they take their first picture of an elephant, we shouldn’t dominate control of the microphone during any form of customer research. We should seek opportunities to hand over the microphone (both physically and metaphorically) to our product teams and encourage them to get involved in learning from the customer.

Sharing our expertise doesn’t put us out of a job. It makes us the vital component that keeps our company human. It’s a noble and essential pursuit, and we should embrace it as core to our identity.

At first, this co-experiencing model may sound time consuming or difficult to scale. However, by empowering others to learn, we will scale our discipline and our relevance. As our product teams uncover customer insights for themselves, they’ll look to us for new methods and new learning. We will remain one step ahead, ready to offer them feedback on their approach and introduce the latest techniques our discipline has to offer. We will partner with them and strategize new ways we can collectively gather the insights they need. Our industry needs more people connecting with customers, but it will always need experienced UX researchers to show other product makers the best ways to do that.

Andy Grove, the former head of Intel, pioneered an approach for aligning organizational intent and investments referred to as OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). In the spirit of OKRs, our objective as a community should be to have our product teams continuously connecting with and learning from their customers. The key result we should strive for is to have 100 percent of these teams directly connecting with and learning from their customers.

Furthermore, our objective should be to have any research activity we are directly involved in be co-experienced with our product teams. Within the OKR approach the recognized best practice is to set key result targets at an aspirational enough level that you are likely to only reach 70 percent of your target. Such is the case with this co-experienced objective. In other words, I acknowledge that there will be product teams who are unwilling to join us, or situations wherein it’s not feasible for them to do so, but these circumstances will not deter us from striving for this objective.

Through this co-experienced approach to learning, we’ll eliminate time spent on weighty, overproduced reports that are often ignored or viewed as marginally impactful. Erika Hall captured this reality perfectly in a recent Medium post:

In the new fast-moving world of our product teams, we will rely on continuous conversations over punctuated documentation as our primary means of communicating. By reducing time spent creating lengthy reports and other outdated communication methods, we’ll free ourselves to invest in more co-experienced learning opportunities.

For those product teams without dedicated research support, we will offer them guidance through one-off meetings, periodic check-ins, workshops, training sessions, and self-service learning materials, tools, and templates. Rather than blocking them until they can receive full support from a UX researcher, we will meet them where they are and give them the best tools to be successful in our absence.

The future of UX research is lean and pragmatic

In some respects, this co-experience model of learning flies in the face of what we were taught by our professors and mentors. Many of us were taught to value research as the rigorous pursuit of truth, objectively distancing ourselves from the attitudes, emotions, desires of our teams. Many of us have prided ourselves in being the “voice of truth” in a world full of unsubstantiated opinions and political maneuvering. However, left unchecked, this mentality caused us to become more and more detached from our product teams.

The future of our discipline won’t afford us this distance anymore. Technology moves fast and so do our product teams. We must maintain a lockstep relationship with them, helping them gain the insights they need, when they need them. We don’t have the luxury of going off on our own and pursuing our own research aspirations, then expecting the product team to care when we return with our findings.

In his article “How to Stop UX Research being a Blocker,” Ben Ralph makes a distinction between foundational and directional research. Foundational research can remain relevant for months, but it can take weeks or even months to produce. To achieve this, foundational research must happen outside the product team’s sprint schedule.

In contrast, directional research takes days to produce and is relevant for answering a specific question at a specific point in time. It occurs frequently within the product sprint as it’s intended to respond quickly to the questions a product team has during development.

By being lean and pragmatic, we’re not dismissing the value of foundational research. Our product teams need foundational research to better understand their customer’s surroundings, motivations, and problems. They also need it to ensure they are building capabilities that their customers will value both now and in a rapidly evolving future.

However, UX research cannot be encumbered by foundational research to the point that it affects our ability to deliver directional research in lockstep with our product teams. Our home is not in the halls of scientific inquiry; it’s in the ever-shifting front lines of product making. As Ben Ralph states in his article, when seeking research balance, “your agile team is always the central and guiding force.”

For our research to have the greatest impact possible, it must always be commissioned and co-experienced by our company’s product makers whether it be foundational or directional in nature. In every research endeavor we undertake, we should be asking ourselves, “How will the outcomes of this research drive today’s product decisions as to what we’re going to build or whether we’ve built it correctly?”

The future of UX research is a wide umbrella that continues to attract a variety of talents and expertise. That’s what makes this type of research so exciting. We’re not only capable of attracting researchers, but we can also attract makers, technologists, futurists, designers, program managers, computer scientists, and engineers to our discipline. It’s a discipline that promotes the value of the “generalist” over that of the “specialist,” because defining the human condition requires the best of what humanity has to offer.

Photograph, looking up at blue, red, yellow, green, and orange umbrellas floating in the sky.
Photograph, looking up at blue, red, yellow, green, and orange umbrellas floating in the sky.

The future of UX research is in powerful moments

The future of our discipline must recognize that our power does not solely rest in our ability to generate customer insights. We must think more broadly and appreciate that we will need to invest in creating powerful moments of customer connection for our product teams.

We must recognize that we’re still amid a cultural shift within many of our organizations. This requires us to critically evaluate the impact potential of each research project we could pursue.

For each project, we need to consider the potential for creating a powerful moment for our product team. Not all projects will create the same level of insight and connection to a customer, so we can make resourcing decisions by looking at the potential for us to create impact-filled moments for the product team:

  • moment potential = (overall importance of project) x (direct product team participation)

Essentially, we will engage projects that have the highest potential for direct product team participation. Additionally, we will advocate that the more important the project, the more important it is to have direct team involvement in the customer learning process.

We will be “moment makers,” and we will help our product teams create moments of insight for others by giving them the same techniques we use in telling vivid customer stories. In this way, we will help our teams learn how to more effectively leverage customer insights. Through this partnership, our teams will rely on us to help them make sense of their data and communicate it in a way that has the broadest impact.

The future of UX research is bright

At Microsoft, UX research has become increasingly vital to our CEO’s vision for the future of our company—one built upon customer obsession as what we do and cultivating a growth mindset as how we do it.

No matter where you work, if learning from customers is a priority within your organization, there will be a wealth of opportunities to innovate and drive impact by sharing your research expertise with other disciplines. As demand grows, we’ll find ourselves confronted with new and exciting UX research challenges. These challenges will require the best talent in our industry.

At Microsoft, our mission is to “empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.”

A photograph of three young girls playing on a Surface Pro. They’re smiling and laughing.
A photograph of three young girls playing on a Surface Pro. They’re smiling and laughing.

As we apply this maxim internally, we’ll be looking for UX researchers with a growth mindset and an innate desire to co-experience learning with anyone, regardless of discipline or background. These future UX researchers will avoid isolating themselves in their labs; they’ll want to be in constant contact with their product teams. They’ll want to be on the front lines, influencing the direction of not only their company’s products but also its culture.

As a community, we will empower them to do so by stretching the very definition of what it means to be a UX researcher.

Together, we will be the future of UX research.

This article is an opinion editorial. The views it expresses are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of Microsoft.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

Monty Hammontree

Written by

Partner Director of User Experience Research at Microsoft. Avid reader and learner. Passionate advocate for customer-driven engineering. Views are my own.

Microsoft Design

Putting technology on a more human path, one design story at a time.

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