Leading Design Research can be a Full Time Job (or not)

TL;DR:

Empowering a design research leader affords us several benefits, including:

  • One person or team to span across business units, customers, products, and product teams to identify customer or industry trends that would be difficult to identify from only one area of focus
  • A single leader to work the 5,000 person organization as the face of design research
  • A coach and mentor to improve the skills of designers and product managers who conduct research

While for some the week between Christmas and New Years can be quiet, it’s important to remember that Design Twitter knows no such respite.

This year I happened to see the below shared by someone else who I follow:

Skipping over the first sentence, it’s easy to agree that a designer should be able to collect insights and know how their customers use their product. And likewise, these designers should certainly be able to diagnose observed problems and recommend solutions.

But are we ready to agree that a design research role is redundant if a design team is capable of collecting insights? That a specialized design research role cannot co-exist, let alone thrive, along side designers who know how to conduct design research?

If the original intent is that a design research role is unnecessary if a good design team knows how to conduct research, well, I haz some opinions.

I yelled into the Internet my own response:

As a gentle reminder, I want to stress that this is not a one-size-fits-all response. I’m describing lessons learned from when my team did not have dedicated research leadership and to when we have had amazing research leadership. There’s a pretty good statistical chance your situation is different. As more articles on the Medium should remind us, your mileage will vary.


When Nasdaq started hiring designers in 2012, we were working on one or two projects and grew to about 5 generalists. One of the designers was quite adept at user research, as was I, and others on the team were hired early in their careers and had yet to experience a lot of first-hand research.

We were able to plan, conduct, and review customer interviews and usability tests with the junior designers along side their other responsibilities. Some of those junior designers 6 years ago are the first people I’d encourage to interview a CEO or board member today. The designer-as-person-talking-to-customers worked just fine. If we stayed this size, and with a pretty focused remit — one business unit, one product, and one set of customers, I imagine this model would continue today.

But if a team grows across multiple product lines, business units, and the expectations of what design and research does change in the organization, as we experienced, it may become painfully clear that expecting designers to design and conduct all aspects of research — far beyond testing the usability of an interface — quickly becomes a bandwidth, scale, and scope problem.


The scope of research has changed dramatically at Nasdaq. Research is no longer making sure we’re designing the interface the right way. Many times the result of the research has nothing to do with an interface at all — it’s whether the company should enter a new market, invest in a new venture, determine the threat of new legislation, or what could happen if that company zigs and that company zags.

It may also be mapping multiple touch-points and services across teams, products, business units, and customers. The goal may not be how to design functionality, but to identify risk in unintended overlap or unmet needs across those touch points.

In both of those scenarios, do we need Ph.Ds or interaction designers? I’d argue we need intelligent people who know how to ask questions, who can see the big picture and explore cause and effect, and who can get access to the right people and have the time to fully investigate the challenge at hand, and summarize their recommendations in a defensible, logical, persuasive argument.

Those traits are often shared by designers and researchers — but someone has to do it, and have a body of experience to identify patterns and outliers across multiple campaigns or projects. The rigor, subject matter, and breadth does not require the team size or academic training needed by other organizations. But it does mean we need a dedicated person to focus on our research efforts. And the benefits go far beyond simple time allocation.


Counterpoint

“Design research doesn’t require fancy degrees — any designer should be able to do it”

First off the last thing I’m going to do is argue a social scientist, anthropologist, ethnographer, behavioral scientist, or statistician has all the skills that the latest download on my Kindle can easily replicate. There’s a reason such a body of work for years has laid the foundation of the products and services we rely upon and why companies of all sizes and industries continue to hire for those skills and degrees.

(Brew some coffee, clear off your favorite chair and spend some time on the work of women such as Sam Ladner & Natalie Hanson if you need a few examples of what actual intelligent analysis of social science and design looks like and come back to my tripe for an awesome comparison).

On the other hand, you probably don’t need a PhD to plan, execute, and summarize a typical usability test.

What this argument leaves out is the bandwidth required to make those usability tests happen — and I’m not just referring to booking the room and providing the honorarium or gratuity to the participants.

We’ve found that while the logistics to maintaining a mature research practice are certainly laborious, the real value is in having a design research leader who other executives know and trust is talking to their clients and prospects.

Sales managers, customer account teams, service leads, product owners, and business unit heads all have a primary person to ask about or suggest design research. The inverse is also true — we have one person who spans across teams who can work the organization to enable greater access or exposure to more research.

In many organizations, this could be the head of design or the design manager as the person who cultivates those relationships, but having the design research boss as the primary point of contact is one less game of telephone we have to play.

In short, conducting the interview is the least amount of time the design researcher likely spends time on, and the easiest skill for someone else to pick up. Working the org can be a whole other battle that takes time, effort, and intent.


Counterpoint

“But the design researcher becomes yet another siloed bottleneck if they’re the only ones doing research!”

This is one of the first fears my team voiced to me when I began moving the pieces on the chessboard to hire a dedicated researcher, and it’s certainly been echoed on Twitter.

The concern, of course, is that the researcher is the only one with access to customers and prospects and conducting the research. The stakeholders and designers are left to wait near the wall until the findings report is heaved over, which hopefully addresses every issue worth researching in the first place. Of course this is problematic for a variety of reasons, including the initial fear that designers aren’t getting critical knowledge of customer behavior first hand.

But their growth as problem solvers is also being stunted, the ability to empathize with their users is slowed if not made impossible, and they’re not able to get any more details about a potentially valuable insight. They’re just there to push the pixels and make the logo bigger.

Often we’ve heard the right answer is to have a designer paired with a researcher, which solves a lot of the problem. But how does that scale? Just add more researchers? Find a magic ratio of designer to researcher that holds true in periods of both growth and maintenance? Let me know how that works out, because I’m all ears.

Rather, our head of design research coaches up our designers so they can handle all aspects of a campaign, including script-writing, recruiting, conducting the interview, and summarizing the event. Our design researcher can then provide critique to the designer-as-facilitator to improve their skills, while still hearing the insights of the original interview.

As the designer’s skills level up, the research boss provides less instruction and more closely monitors the thematic summaries of the campaigns. In other words, she doesn’t have to know if the button needs to be moved in usability testing, but she should know if customers still aren’t grasping the value of the workflow. Of course, the designers in those interviews are also seeing those patterns emerge and can then work together to propose adjustments to improve the experience.

When we’ve asked designers on the team what they want to improve, strengthening their research skills is always — always — at the top of the list. Having a dedicated researcher who can coach less experienced designers is a huge asset to both their growth and our ability to scale up and down as campaigns intensify or wind down.


This peek inside my team’s world isn’t to tell someone they’re right or they’re wrong. It’s certainly not to tell someone their job should not exist or their turf belongs to someone else.

It’s to share one example of a single organization that empowering a dedicated researcher does not mean other designers will never research — it’s to reinforce that having deep specialized skills in one discipline affords our team and the larger organization advantages we wouldn’t have if we only relied on our designers to conduct all of our research activities.