UX research is an emerging discipline. Organizations still have a lot to learn about how best to harness it.
UX researchers are in high demand due to the accelerated rate of digital transformation and disruption occurring in organizations—especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This 2022 survey by User Interviews shows a clear trend. The percentage of respondents who said their company had zero dedicated UX resources declined from 19 percent in 2019 to only 6 percent in 2022.
But does high demand for UX research mean organizations take full advantage of the knowledge of these professionals and get the best ROI? In my humble opinion, the answer is no. Organizations invest mainly in hiring UX researchers and supplying software tools but a lot less in creating the conditions to enable their work. Let’s dive into it.
First, let’s talk about skills and UX research positions.
If you look at any typical ad for a UX research job, you’ll find a strong tendency towards mixed-method researchers or UX research unicorns who can “do it all.” In other words, professionals who can conduct research activities both in the problem and solution space. More specifically, I’m talking about job descriptions that describe responsibilities like “using a breadth of research methodologies that span from exploratory to validation,” as well as requiring knowledge of how to conduct usability testing, field studies, interviews, and more.
That shows a lack of understanding of how to recruit UX researchers. Some UX researchers are naturally more qualified and interested in the problem space (e.g., people with anthropology backgrounds) or the solution space (e.g., people with design or marketing backgrounds). Listing every possible research method in the hope of finding someone who can do it all and actually has experience is unrealistic in a tight job market. Some organizations could find themselves without resources while overloading existing employees with large workloads.
Also, suppose you recruit very qualified UX researchers from academic backgrounds, and you mostly need them to conduct usability tests to validate assumptions made by executive managers (that sometimes simply want to prove someone else is wrong). In that case, they might get bored very quickly. In this case, you won’t see a good ROI on UX research.
Let’s look at other organizational conditions.
In the 2022 User Interviews survey above, 31 percent of respondents mentioned they are particularly unhappy with their organizations’ structure and bureaucracy. This was the biggest reason UX researchers were not happy with their work.
Let’s unpack that.
Not all organizations have managers who understand UX research in particular. Only 35 percent of respondents worked in a pure UX research team. That means the rest of the 65 percent are supervised by managers that might lack knowledge about what researchers actually do. There are pros and cons of reporting to different departments, but there’s nothing worse than reporting to a manager who doesn’t understand what you do. To get the most out of research, managers should have at least a basic understanding of UX research beyond dry job descriptions.
Additionally, many technology organizations adopt an agile mindset and work in sprints. While this can be OK with UX researchers who primarily conduct rapid usability tests, it’s not going to work well with UX researchers working in the problem space on bigger questions that require a very different cadence.
If you want to make the most of your resources, you’d rather separate them into two teams. By this, I mean one team that conducts more operational UX research activities such as usability and concept testing. And a team that works more on problem definition and exploration and conducts longer ethnographic or strategic studies, as well as more exploratory concept testing.
In the past, I’ve spoken to a few UX researchers whose companies already understand this idea, allowing them to work on one-to-two big strategic questions per quarter. They conduct a few research activities to understand the problem space better and even start ideating solutions. However, if you expect your UX resources to conduct these studies over a one to two-week sprint, it will likely not happen. The time needed to define questions, create a research plan, recruit participants, and analyze data is much longer than when we work in the solution space.
Now that we understand the problems preventing companies from getting the best ROI from their UX resources let’s discuss some solutions.
Before hiring new UX resources, here are a few things to consider about your organization’s needs and current conditions.
Your real needs. Do you mainly need researchers to work in the problem or solution space? Or both? Do you need someone to execute all the research themselves or someone to teach others how to conduct their own research and democratize research (e.g., product designers, product owners, etc.)? If what you need sounds like the second option, you’ll need someone with research and mentoring skills.
Supervision. Do your intended hiring managers have enough knowledge to supervise UX researchers and understand their work? If not, you may want to hire a practice lead first or think about the right person to manage them.
Research organization. While it may be OK for solution-space UX researchers to work in a design team with designers and help them evaluate designs within a typical two-week sprint, this would not fly very well with problem-space research.
Suppose you intend to look into big questions and dig deep. In that case, you need to plan a structure independent of executional work and scrum/agile methods that are very common in software development but not a good fit for problem-space research. Doing strategic and problem-space research has many advantages, but it has to be given adequate space with the right cadence to flourish.
This article aims to show you how smart and qualified UX researchers who are given good software tools can help you make better design and business decisions. But everything will depend on whether you provide them with the right conditions to do so and proactively invest in those conditions.
Capable people who work in less-than-ideal conditions won’t be able to deliver the best work and help your organization harness the highest possible level of insight that delivers the most robust ROI on UX research.