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Beyond specialization: the generalist revolution that will shape the future of insights

28 May 2024
John Garvie

Watch Uber Senior Design Manager John Garvie take the main stage at Insight Out—Dovetail's first global conference for product people. John's talk is about harnessing the four forces—powerful playbooks, human-centered cultures, evolving tools, and merging duties, to make up resourceful generalists who will help shape the future of insights.

Increased specialization inside product organizations is a thing of the past. We’re shifting to a new dynamic where resourceful generalists will thrive.

I’ll be telling this story through one of the most powerful narrative structures ever created: comic books, specifically Pokémon, which my 10-year-old son recommended for this talk. Gotta catch ’em all!

I’m going to argue there are four powerful Poké forces at play inside every product organization today:

  • Human-centered cultures

  • Powerful playbooks

  • Evolving tools

  • Merging duties

These four forces are creating a new kind of superpower professional that I call “resourceful generalists.”

I’ll also tell you about how we, as insights professionals, can prepare for and adjust to these forces.

Learning the hard way

First, I’ll tell you how I learned the hard way about how these forces are driving big changes inside organizations.

In 2020, I was a research manager at Uber for about two months. I came to Uber from LinkedIn and was quickly swept up in a large round of COVID-initiated layoffs that impacted roughly 25% of the Uber population. Sadly, most of my research team was let go too, so I wasn’t alone. I was one of roughly 60,000 people in tech who were laid off that month, and that wasn’t the end of layoffs in 2020. There were around 80,000 total layoffs in tech.

This experience caught me off guard, and I started asking questions that helped me better understand the forces impacting me as a researcher, designer, and manager.

Remember, it’s 2020 in the middle of a global pandemic. And I was definitely not freaking out.

OK. I totally was, and I was asking myself some existential questions. Why was my team impacted more than others? Were we not adding enough value? Did they think they could actually work better without us?

And then, two months after getting laid off, I got a call from Uber asking me to come back.

I said yes.

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A new Uber

I got the rare experience of boomeranging back into a company where I’d just been laid off. I got a unique look into the before- and after-layoff versions of Uber. The Uber I stepped back into was a completely different company, but more on that in a second.

My layoff was only the first spike of much larger layoffs to come. In 2022 and 2023, a second spike occurred, and these layoffs were much more disruptive.

The spike produced a groundswell of doomsday prophecies within the insights community. Like some of the questions I’d asked myself, the broader insights in UX research communities were asking tough questions and coming to terms with hard truths, wondering if we were at the lowest point of UX.

Others were asking if we had entered a new dark age of late-stage UX. Maybe the most fundamental question people were asking was whether UX was even a viable future career path.

I’m here to tell you that UX research and insights professionals are still crucial. We will continue to play an important role in tech and product organizations. But we must evolve to stay relevant in this new post-layoffs paradigm.

This is because all product organizations, particularly those that went through layoffs, have fundamentally changed or are changing as we speak, just like the Uber I returned to.

Four Poké forces driving change

There are four Poké forces driving much of this change. Some of these forces have been happening for some time, others are newer. They create a completely new kind of product environment where resourceful generalists thrive. All this creates new expectations for insights professionals.

Force 1: human-centered cultures

Driven by design thinking, human-centeredness has gone mainstream. Some argue whether design thinking has lived up to the hype.

However, thought leaders like Don Norman, Jacob Nielsen, Tim Brown of IDEO, and countless others have ingrained the idea that design thinking and human-centered approaches are valuable and worth using in a broader business context.

Their efforts have been so successful that every top business school now teaches design thinking. The result is a new generation of business executives, product managers, and entrepreneurs who know about human-centered approaches.

Human-centered culture is no longer owned just by UX. It’s now owned by the entire product organization.

Force 2: powerful playbooks

Hard-won insight methodologies developed over a decade have been packaged into powerful playbooks.

Excellent books like Continuous Discovery Habits from experts like Teresa Torres have reached a mainstream audience of product leaders and practitioners. These playbooks have been so successful that some insights professionals have blamed the authors for research layoffs.

Teresa is one of the most talented product-insights professionals I’ve ever worked with. I stand firmly in the camp that it’s poor form to blame a book for losing your job. But it is a clear signal of the power of these playbooks and how widespread the powerful-playbooks force has become.

The main takeaway here is that the playbooks will only get better and more widely available. Roles outside of insights will continue to pick up these playbooks to their own benefit.

Force 3: evolving tools

The pace at which new research and insights tools are coming to the market has significantly increased. These tools are getting more powerful and easier to use, allowing any user to self-service more easily and get quicker and deeper levels of analysis and synthesis without experts.

What’s more, AI is now supercharging these tools. In addition to off-the-shelf ones we’re familiar with, companies are building their own AI-powered insights tools which can provide even more capability to any role.

This means a subset of questions that would have previously required an insights professional to answer can now be answered by anyone inside the product organization, radically empowering novices.

Force 4: merging duties

As organizations have become leaner, employees have absorbed some of the duties of lost roles. Until 2022, maturing organizations that wanted to grow quickly had easy access to quick loans, and investment opportunities were plentiful.

In this new environment, that is no longer the case, as interest rates have gone up and VCs have become more disciplined about their investment portfolios.

Additionally, as organizations have reached maturity and streamlined their business models, they’ve cut employees. As we know, since 2022 there have been around half a million layoffs in tech alone. Rather than the duties of these employees going away, they have been absorbed by others in the organization through heightened productivity.

Market conditions will drive further consolidation and backed by the other three forces, we will increasingly see smaller organizations achieving incredible outcomes with only a handful of employees. For example, Midjourney is said to have reached hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue with just a team of 11.

The evolution of resourceful generalists

In this environment, a new kind of super-professional is evolving, whom I call resourceful generalists.

Resourceful generalists are adaptable and smart professionals who are:

  • Laser-focused on increased productivity

  • Inspired to solve challenges by any means necessary

  • Often undeterred to do work across roles and responsibilities

Fueled by the four forces, resourceful generalists will thrive inside the product organizations of today and tomorrow.

Rapid evolution in the tech industry

I imagine that many of you will have critiques of this analysis. You might say these four forces are nothing new. To some extent, I agree with you.

There have always been new tools, evolving organizations, and transfers of knowledge. What’s different today is the rate and speed at which this is happening. The tech industry, similar to the evolution of other mature industries like the automotive industry, is going through an intense period of change and evolution.

In the course of creating the deck for this presentation, I’ve used five new AI tools. I use Midjourney for the comic expired images. And for those eagle-eyed folks out there, you may have seen the prompts throughout this deck.

I used Gemini, ChatGPT, and Copilot to help with research and analysis. I used a new AI-based deck-creation tool, which gave me inspiration for deck layout and overall narrative structure. Prior to these tools, I would have needed double the editing time and help from an illustrator. And more.

Now these tools have cousins in the insights domain, and resourceful generalists are already using them.

Adapting to this new reality

What can we do about it? How can we adapt to this new reality?

There are three actions we can take:

  • Acknowledging resourceful generalists by rooting ourselves in hyperrealism

  • Supporting them by enabling, not blocking, their access to

    insights, which also allows us to focus on more impactful work

  • Becoming resourceful generalists ourselves by doing work across the product life cycle and thinking outside our traditional roles.

Acknowledging resourceful generalists

Ray Dali is the founder of Bridgewater Associates, an asset-management firm. Ray says, “Be a hyperrealist. Truth—or, more precisely, an accurate understanding of reality—is the essential foundation for any good outcome.”

The good news is that being a hyperrealist is an insight professional’s purpose and superpower.

We’re committed to telling hard truths rooted in data. These truths are sometimes difficult to hear, but we hold ourselves and our organizations accountable to these truths because it’s the right thing to do for our teams and businesses.

And this is the moment that calls us to lean into this capacity within our community. Looking boldly at the future of our profession and work, even when it’s uncomfortable.

Supporting resourceful generalists

Supporting resourceful generalists thoughtfully has been one of the keys to my team’s success. We realize that we are in control of how we empower generalists. And this has allowed us to evolve with these broader forces while maintaining the quality that drives optimal outcomes for our teams and business. Instead of blocking their access, we built frameworks, guardrails, and programs for them.

When we did this at Uber, we developed a model based on uncertainty and business risk. Uncertainty is based on how much we already know; whether we have answered similar questions before. Business risk is based on how much risk we take by not answering the question at hand. As you can see, this matrix allows UXR to own high-risk and high-uncertainty projects, which is where we can deliver the most value.

The other quadrants include outsourcing, enabling self-service, and dropping an inquiry entirely. To support this model, we developed a range of different tools and templates for our resourceful generalists.

This model extends beyond research. The UX design team that I manage follows a similar approach. The design team’s decision matrix is based on OKR impact and UX complexity. Just like our teammates on UXR, this approach allows our fairly designed team to deliver impact at scale through partnership and prioritization.

Supporting resourceful generalists involves proactively designing how your team wants to support them, not the other way around. 

Becoming a resourceful generalist

Don Norman is the co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group. He challenges each of us to start thinking more broadly about our roles and impact and to become generalists to drive impact and influence. He says, “Increased respect comes when you are able to think and do work outside of specialized departments.”

As insights professionals, if we wish to increase our impact and influence, we too have to become resourceful generalists.

There are two ways that we must become generalists:

Work nimbly across the product cycle

The first is to think and work more broadly across all stages of the product life cycle. It’s no longer an option to narrowly focus on one part or another. We must be able to accurately move across the life cycle, adjusting our focus nimbly on where gaps in business risk and uncertainty exist.

Don’t be constrained by traditional zones of specialization

The second is to think and do work more fluidly across roles and functions. We can’t be constrained by our traditional areas of specialization, and we must start working across domains together.

A year ago, I decided to change my role at Uber from UX research management to UX design management. I made this change because I believe that designers are researchers and vice versa. And I wanted to lean into my potential as a generalist.

But even if we don’t jump roles, we must focus on adaptability. Not surprisingly, according to LinkedIn Learning, the most in-demand skill of 2024 is adaptability. As insights professionals, we must learn how to write a PRD and translate our findings into concrete design recommendations. We must also frame our insights around business value.

We must ask other roles for self-service tips and tools when we get blocked. It’s also helpful that AI now writes SQL for you.

Finally, we must always be one step ahead in our thinking about what other resourceful generalists might need or want from our roles.

In summary

The four forces—powerful playbooks, human-centered cultures, evolving tools, and merging duties—are already at play inside your organization. If you don’t see them yet, you might just find one around the corner the next time you look.

These forces combined create resourceful generalists. They are inside every organization and will become increasingly powerful.

To adapt to these four forces and evolve alongside resourceful generalists, we have to acknowledge what “is” by rooting ourselves in hyperrealism, support resourceful generalists by enabling them, and become resourceful generalists ourselves by working across the product life cycle, not being constrained by traditional zones of specialization and embracing adaptability.

When you do this, you will become part of the generalist revolution that will shape the future of insights.

Editor’s note: This article is a condensed overview of John Garvie’s remarks and live Q&A session at Insight Out 2024.

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