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Predictions for user research 2021: part two

3 February 2021
Benjamin HumphreySean BruceLisa NguyenAlec Levin

As promised, we’re back with a second serving of soothsaying. This time, we’re making big calls about the restructuring of research teams, the future of data privacy, how increasing regulation will shape the industry, and the role research will play in the development of products and services in non-tech sectors. For those who didn’t read part one (what are you doing here, go and read it now), our resident research industry oracles are Dovetail’s CEO and Co-founder, Benjamin Humphrey, Co-founder of UXR Collective, Alec Levin.

Today’s Specials:
  1. Research will spur on the growth of digital products and services across non-tech industries

  2. Research departments will emerge along with a growing number of leadership positions

  3. Privacy regulation and compliance will become an even more significant factor in research

Research will spur the growth of digital products and services in non-tech industries

The most sophisticated digital products and services tend to cater to a relatively small group of Bay Area startups and businesses. For example, the maturity level of design tools, payment processing platforms, or web services is quite high compared with products that solve problems for the rest of the world.

Dovetail CEO and Co-founder Benjamin Humphrey points to increasing investment in agriculture, education, health, and finance technologies, as evidence that the uneven distribution of technology is coming to an end. He believes research will be the bridge that drives the expansion of sophisticated digital products and services into non-tech sectors.

“We’re only just starting to see the growth in spaces like agriculture, education, finance and healthcare software in the past few years,” he says. “So your local doctor has been relegated to using rubbish software for the past 20 to 30 years, but now there are more and more startups in that area because they’ve run out of problems to solve for themselves.”

While research obviously played a part in developing products for Silicon Valley-based businesses, product teams had an advantage in that they were essentially creating products for themselves. They already possessed a high level of inherent customer understanding. The issue with addressing customer needs outside of the technology sector is that the customer base is far more diverse in almost every way.

“In new industries like agriculture technology, where you’re building products for farmers, it’s unlikely that software developers or a person who starts a software company is going to be a farmer,” says Benjamin. “So, engineers, designers, product managers, and founders need to go out and spend time in the field with farmers to figure out some hypothetical solution for milking cows more efficiently.

“And how do you do that? Well, you typically go and hire people who know how to speak to farmers—that’s what anthropologists and researchers do,” says Benjamin. “So, product teams are hiring researchers earlier and earlier, and I think that’s something that’s only going to get more prevalent as time passes.”

Insights will live under one roof

Research is all about uncovering mysteries, says UXR Collective Co-founder Alec Levin. It’s finding the answer to difficult questions that also have high impact. These questions aren't only about customers.

“Obviously, the product is part of the business, but there’re other things that we need to figure out and uncover mystery-wise that matter to the success of the business. And to do that, we need to change the way we work,” he says.

Levin’s big picture prediction is the rise of research departments—a department of truth, he calls it, while acknowledging that, yes, it does sound like something straight out of Nineteen Eight-Four.

“We’re saying there are things that are important to our success that we don't know. That’s true for almost every single business,” urges Levin.

He argues that a central department of research would mean creating a leadership role that could “talk” to other department heads, coordinate research on a company-wide level, and report to the C-suite.

“We need to have a research leader who doesn’t have to be the best at interviews or the best at any particular method,” he says. “Someone who knows a lot about methods and knows what they’re good for and how to work with them, but who also understands business.”

“When somebody else is doing the project prioritization for us, we’re essentially saying that our point of view doesn’t matter,” Levin contends.

That’s stupid. Instead, go and do some research within the company, figure out what the big problems are, and then say, ‘Here’s what I think I should be working on: solving these mysteries rather than doing usability tests or interviews.’

Privacy regulation will become an even more significant factor in research

“I’d say a big one this year will be more regulation and compliance,” says Benjamin.

He cites increased awareness of big-data algorithms and their problematic relationship with the spread of misinformation and increased political polarisation, or the misuse of data by companies like Cambridge Analytica that led policymakers across the world to introduce evermore strict privacy and data protection laws.

“It’s a constraint that researchers are bound by because obviously research all about the details and specifically about demographics, personal information, and building a picture,” says Benjamin. “Researchers have to be able to paint a compelling picture with evidence to stakeholders, colleagues, and clients, but they have to do that in a way that’s privacy-conscious.”

In the past, privacy has been more of an ethical problem for researchers, but now it’s a legal problem.

Benjamin refers to similar trends in financial sector regulation that have been ongoing since the 1970s. “I think Research Ops teams might start operating more and more like finance teams in publicly listed companies, where they have compliance and certification processes, and they have policies and software to help them enforce it,” he says.

Increasingly heavy privacy regulations pose a difficult challenge for the industry. It’s very difficult to build empathy when you can’t show people’s faces or disclose anything about them, Benjamin reflects.

More privacy regulation would also hinder efforts to democratize research. “You simultaneously want more people consuming and doing research, but then you also have to be safe about how you do it from a privacy standpoint,” he observes.

“Solutions will probably be some part software, some part processes, and some part social conventions, policies, training, and awareness.

“Many people say it’s an immovable constraint, but in a similar way to other heavily regulated industries, there will be opportunities for innovation.”

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