Where User Research Needs To Go

Steve Portigal
Rosenfeld Media
Published in
5 min readSep 30, 2020

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Sketchnotes from Brigette Metzler’s talk at Advancing Research 2020 “Helping Researchers Do Their Best Work”

Having been in the user research field for an awfully long time, I like to distract myself from the inevitable “gee, I remember when” fugues with some brow-furrowing “where are we heading?” What a gift, then, to be able to collaborate with my fellow Advancing Research 2021 curators (Natalie Hanson, Jamika Burge, and Lou Rosenfeld) to go out and get some signal about that! In a tiny project, this team of researchers picked a number of people (some identifying as researchers, others that we identified as research-adjacent) who could give us a range of perspectives about the practice of user research, past, present, and future. This research builds on last year’s survey (as well as what we learned from producing and getting feedback on the first event, Advancing Research 2020).

Interviewees raised plenty of issues that are certainly familiar to anyone in research But we also heard nuance that excited and intrigued us. If you look at the Call for Participation, you’ll see that we’ve significantly boiled down to a few key points but we have a bit more space here to try and get beyond the cliched takes that most of us have anyway.

  1. Connecting research with business: Research skills — the craft aspects of our work — are table stakes. We need more human skills, such as storytelling, and working with stakeholders, and carrying ourselves with an “executive presence”. We especially need to be ensuring that our research is in service of the needs of our businesses. This doesn’t mean serving as order-takers; rather, we have to make a better case for our research approach when it diverges from the business’s expectations, where our recommended approach will actually be the most effective for those business objectives. Still, do we need a note of caution? How do we evolve to be more businesslike but still maintain our unique values and ways of seeing?
  2. We’re grappling with the effects of growth: The research field has grown tremendously. Even so, demand still exceeds supply. But many people are coming to research from other disciplines, or as the first stage of their career. They haven’t had the training and experience to execute research at the higher level needed to address many of our business objectives. We have a collective skills debt that needs to be addressed before we can really equip for the future. Meanwhile, under-delivering calls into question our narrative about the value we say we can bring.
  3. Lack of shared language for the basics: We don’t have a shared understanding of the necessary skills and experience. It’s left to employers to define their own standards, while for people wanting to enter the field (or advance) there is no clear signal about what path to take. We call ourselves “researchers” but there are many many different types of researchers and research teams. While we lament the lack of uptake for our strategic value (even as we are responsible in part for undercutting that), we need to remember that not everyone doing research needs to be doing that kind of work. There is a need for research of all types. But practitioners (and aspiring practitioners) should be clear about what they value; organizations should be clear about what they are hiring people for.
  4. We’re still an immature field: In tech especially, research is years behind design in maturity. And in many organizations design itself is years behind product. Maturity here is both inward-facing (developing best practices, say) but also outward-facing (e.g., how well understood is the value we bring, and the resources we need). Other common departments in tech companies (e.g., CX) are better at positioning themselves as revant and ROI-friendly. While we may hold onto the nuance of what we do that is somehow different, no one else cares.
  5. Honest assessments of success (and failure): Conference talks and PR-assisted “case studies” are the chief way we put forward success stories about the impact of research. But those will always lack the depth and specificity. We have an opportunity to go deeper (using the lens of research) look at the contexts where research has been successful inside an organization in order to really understand the conditions that led to success. To even do this, we would need to consider what a shared definition of success is.
  6. The pros and cons of democratization: We lean into trends without asking the deeper questions; when we aren’t deliberate about what to democratize, how to democratize, and to whom we are democratizing, we face consequences in our influence and even our employment, not to mention the overall quality of the work.
  7. Personal qualities have an impact: Common qualities in researchers, such as being people pleasers, lead researchers to set up incentive and reward structures that over index on collaboration and fairness. Yet, the realities of team structures and how work really gets done serve to undercut researchers and research leaders. Similarly, we undercut our own expertise by saying “yes” when we should be saying “no,” either because we disagree with the recommendation or because we’re stretched too thin. In the latter case, researchers under-deliver, which suggests that research as something that pretty much anyone could do, rather than exacting and unique work. When the collection of data is commodified, the harder and time consuming work to uncover strategic impact is sacrificed to balance our workloads.
  8. Justice and capitalism: A great deal of research takes place inside capitalist contexts; is it feasible, reasonable, or just for us to consider our work without also considering its impacts on the global crises of climate change, systemic racism, and income inequality (among others)? What does that actually look like?

These are crucial and complex issues, but this synthesis is based on our limited research. Perhaps these are the issues you are facing (undoubtedly with some interesting shifts or variations). We are certain there are plenty of other issues. But what are they? Leave a comment and contribute to our collective effort to make sense of research at this moment in time. You are literally advancing research!

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Steve Portigal
Rosenfeld Media

Author of Doorbells, Danger, and Dead Batteries & Interviewing Users (http://portigal.com/books ), Host @DollrsToDonuts podcast, work at Portigal Consulting