Researchers: Are you the difficult stakeholder? 
I’m looking at the man in the mirror.
I’m looking at the man in the mirror.
15 February 2024
UXRs often feel embattled, unappreciated, and misunderstood. There are good reasons for this. But perhaps to solve the problem, researchers can begin by looking at things from stakeholders’ perspectives.
In 2008, Lauren Conrad, then a cast member of The Hillswent on David Letterman to promote the show. They discussed the repeated friendship/relationship drama Lauren had experienced with other cast members. At one point, Lauren said, “It’s been years, so throughout the show, we’ve had problems with everyone.” Then David Letterman made a cringe-worthy observation: “Maybe you’re the problem.”
The user/UX research world is full of talk about our stakeholders. And “stakeholders” usually come with a host of negative attributes: They don’t understand our work. They have no respect for data-driven or data-informed decision-making. They think they can do our work themselves and actually make decisions based on a “conversation with a customer.” They want to move too fast and don’t understand that research takes time. 
Whether at conferences, on LinkedIn, or with in-house teams or research colleagues, we bond with other researchers by bemoaning tough working conditions, clueless companies, and the frustrations of trying to “manage” difficult stakeholders.
Then it struck me: what do these stakeholders think of us? By stakeholders, I mean the non-researchers we work with on a daily basis. They are often in product. Depending on the company’s size, they could also be in senior or executive leadership. 
In other words, is everyone else the problem, or is it you? 
This is a research project waiting to happen—interviewing those who work with researchers about their experience working with researchers. But I started by turning it into a LinkedIn post:
“Researchers: have you ever considered that you might be the difficult stakeholder in your organization?
The research community has countless articles, talks, and workshops centered on understanding our non-research stakeholders better and convincing them of our value.
We often lament how our company leadership doesn’t understand us and insist that the business would succeed if they would only see our worth and embody our perspective.
But have you ever thought about what their perspective might be of you and your research work? How what focus/method/timeline you’re advocating for might be, in their view, harmful to their best interests?”
I got a slew of passionate reactions, ranging from defensive to reflective, with some case study examples and practical tips for good measure. Let’s run through what the community had to say about this line of inquiry.
It’s our job to be the difficult stakeholder
David Hamill kicked things off with a bang: “It’s your job to be the difficult stakeholder. Compliant researchers are as useful as chocolate fireguards.”
David got a lot of support for this perspective. We’re supposed to be the difficult stakeholder.  
And David wasn’t alone. Ricardo Lamego framed it similarly—being difficult is what you are hired to be. He told the story of a former role in which his manager saw feedback that he was “*really” difficult” as evidence that he was doing his job successfully.
Ricardo continued: “We need to stop apologizing for wanting to do our work properly. We must stop validating this mindset that we must ask for permission to do our jobs or justify it in the eyes of others.”
They make a solid point, which I have repeatedly heard from researchers. But does focusing on solid research to uncover the user perspective mean that it’s built in our DNA to be inherently “difficult”? 
Our work is inherently difficult in that we often challenge assumptions and expectations. When I wrote the post, though, I had something different in mind. It was more about taking the descriptors we use to represent the stakeholders we find difficult and flipping these around and imagining our non-research stakeholders saying these things about us: 
“They don’t understand our work. They think they can do our work themselves. They want to move too slow and don’t understand that we need to move quickly.” And so forth.
As I wrote the post, I imagined it relating to empathy. Or, if that word doesn’t suit, it’s identifying with their challenges—being understanding of their time pressures and building rapport by learning a shared vocabulary. 
Antonia Landi put it well…”As with any problem, trying to look at it from all sides will ultimately always put you in a better position to find a way forward.”
Let’s have a look at some other perspectives on this issue. 
Is “user focus” a great truth or our albatross? 
Let’s ask a slightly different question: Is our identification as the difficult stakeholder a problem that prevents us from accomplishing what we want in our roles? 
Ari Nave, Ph.D., thinks so. He said, “...researchers can often be myopic in the sense that they are totally focused on the user…But when researchers ignore basic elements of the enterprise, the constraints and conflicts and conflicting demands that the product teams and others face, they can come across as idealistic, unrealistic, and unhelpful.”
Ari pointed out that, as researchers, we operate within a business framework. No matter how much we prefer, our research cannot be conducted and shared without considering the company’s realities.
Lawton Pybus shared an anecdote that focused on how non-UXers perceive us. He asked a non-UXer about the talks at a UX conference who told him they observed “a theme of ‘We have the Truth, everyone else needs to fall in line.’” Well, that’s confronting, isn’t it? 
A solution in truth-seeking
Laura Davies takes the perspective of ruefully admitting, yes, we can be difficult. She points out, “...research can be the bad news bearer surfacing things that the org doesn’t want to address or that a stakeholder knows won’t be received well by their leadership. It’s really a balancing act unless the culture is comfortable with warts and all research.” 
We can be difficult. And we can accept this and embrace the balancing act.
I first heard about the Lauren Conrad drama mentioned at the beginning of this article in Annie Duke’s book Thinking In Bets. In the book, Annie Duke brings up the conversation between Lauren Conrad and David Letterman as an example of how not to conduct a truth-seeking exchange. Duke defines truth-seeking as “the desire to know the truth even if it does not align with the beliefs we hold.”
David Letterman provided Lauren Conrad an insight that she had not solicited in an inappropriate forum. Annie Duke concludes that for this to have been effective (which it was not, as Lauren responded defensively), both parties would have needed to agree to the discussion. 
Perhaps I made the same mistake in my LinkedIn post. Even researchers who “seek truth” as a key part of their calling may not want to hear this alternative perspective. It’s understandable: our jobs are tough. We feel undervalued. Who wants to hear more bad news? 
Think about it again, even if it rubs you the wrong way: Have you ever thought about your non-research stakeholders’ perspective of you and your research work? How what focus/method/timeline you’re advocating for might be, in their view, harmful to their best interests?
But if you’re willing, researchers, let’s focus on our expertise but also understand the perspectives, needs, and incentives of other stakeholders within the organization. Finding a balance between bringing our expertise as a valuable contributor and sometimes delivering tough news is challenging, but we can do it—it’s part of our mindset. 

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