Responding to the reckoning: It’s time to fix how we approach UXR
080 Time to fix how we approach UXR (1)
4 April 2024
Meta’s Eniola Abioye responds to Judd Antin’s viral Medium article on the UX research reckoning and provides a renewed vision for the future of UXR.
User experience research and human centered design hit the scene in 1958 out of Stanford University’s design school and rapidly gained traction as increasing access to technology fueled large-scale innovation.
Interdisciplinary by design, UXR draws from anthropology, psychology, and hands-on creative problem solving to create useful and delightful experiences.
While UX research has been one of the most powerful tools we’ve seen to inform what product teams should build and how they should prioritize along the way, the past two years have shown us the value of UXR as we knew it has shifted and requires us as researchers to shift as well— let me explain!
The TL;DR here is UXR in the tech industry looks different now than it did a few years ago. What worked well for researchers working with product teams a couple years ago just isn’t the standard anymore. 
It’s time to adapt our approach to UXR based on the composition of headcount in the tech industry, incorporate a high level of business sense into our work, and redistribute the responsibility of user centricity across product functions. 
How did we get here?
As an increasing number of companies recognized the value of UX, we saw UX professional demand skyrocket in 2020 and 2021. According to Indeed Design data, job posts increased by 566 percent for UX researchers and 265 percent for designers.
Then in 2022 and 2023, we—UX researchers in Silicon Valley and beyond—experienced what Judd Antin refers to as “The Reckoning.” Massive layoffs hit tech companies across the board, with a disproportionate impact on UX researchers. Midway through 2023, we saw research roles at the lowest they’d been since the end of 2020. Critics of user-centricity consider research a bottleneck that slows down developers and even Antin states that “it’s easy to develop a product that makes money without [user] research. Companies do it all the time.” 
For a long time, we’ve seen a building tension between product and UXR—whether to optimize for speed or quality when one had to be prioritized. This “reckoning” has brought this tension to the forefront and expanded a conversation that we’ve needed to have for a while.
Antin goes on to share his perspectives on why this reckoning happened and at the top of his list of reasons is that we are doing the wrong type of research. He writes that researchers should shift focus to micro-research like usability testing and eye tracking rather than generative, middle-range research that yields less actionable impact. I disagree.
I’ve spent almost 10 years in UX research working across industries like biotech, healthcare, fintech, and big tech. I’ve worked both on the agency side and client side, on small teams and large. In my experience alone, I’ve seen researchers leverage countless methods to conduct research at every stage of the double-diamond. 
To say that we, as a function, don’t do enough tactical research that yields definitive impact for the business is simply not true. And I can say with confidence that business impact and having our work evaluated with hard metrics is not a new phenomenon for UXRs. Organizations have evaluated our work on the basis of its business impact long before 2022. If we were doing the wrong kind of research, surely this would have been evident in each quarterly review cycle. 
What’s evident is that doing good research and landing strong recommendations that impact products is not enough anymore. As researchers, we have to incorporate strong business sense into our work and align with companies’ revenue goals. 
Antin writes that the former status quo in UXR was to “deliver insights that others use to drive business value, while we’re forgotten. Never driving the roadmap, no seat at the table, consistently miscast, only to be laid off in the end.” 
Here he names all of the things that UXR is currently doing wrong. To change our positioning and value on teams, it’s imperative that we understand insight delivery to be only a fraction of our role. Rather than handing off insights to be used by our partners and moving on as we’ve done in the past, we must actively carry insights from research to application. 
The call in this moment is to partner with our stakeholders to cocreate how insights and recommendations should be incorporated into product strategy. As researchers, we see the impact our work has on company objectives but we’re doing a lackluster job at showcasing it.
Meanwhile, the tech industry has downsized as a whole in the past few years and we’ve seen inflation and interest rates on the rise and as expected, businesses are prioritizing revenue-driving roles. Because UXR has traditionally been considered a role with delayed impact to a company’s bottom line as we center users not profits, it makes sense that leadership included a hefty reduction to UXR in their layoff strategy. Not to mention, many companies saw almost instantaneous increases to stock prices after each workforce reduction announcement.
So what do we do about it?
Whether you agree with me or not on how we got here, we can all agree that UX research is in a much different place than we were a few years ago. And like anything else in the tech industry, we’re forced to innovate or become obsolete. 
Here are three things we need to do to succeed in this next phase of UXR:
Set the same goal post for UXR and product: building quality products that drive sustainable revenue for the business
While product teams are often encouraged to ship innovations fast and often, research functions are focused on ensuring the quality of the experiences that products provide based on evidence and codesign. 
In an ideal world, product managers and UXRs collaborate seamlessly and efficiently to build things that users love and find valuable, efficiently. Sometimes (more often than some product teams would like to admit), teams sacrifice quality in the name of speed. When UXR and business goals are misaligned like this, it can seem like creating useful products is less important than doing so quickly. 
Take Google Glass for example, a smart glasses product that launched to the consumer market in 2013, which failed primarily due to privacy concerns and poor product-market fit. The product worked well but users didn’t want to use it.
In reality, researchers and product teams should be committed to the same goal—building desirable, sustainable, and lucrative products. Elements like usability and intuitiveness are prioritized by everyone on the team, not just researchers. The metrics that we track and measure ourselves against are the ones that we improve, so measuring product quality and making it our collective responsibility is the first step in improving the alignment of our work. 
Assessing UXR and other product functions by similar metrics reduces friction and allows for more stakeholder buy-in of end-to-end research. This can look like identifying quality metrics that point to value derived from a product and tracking them alongside other goal metrics like revenue. On the other hand, it is also our responsibility as UXRs to align our research insights with business objectives and unlock wins that product teams are excited about like Cori Winden writes about in her piece, Building a UXR Practice in a Thriving Organization
Democratize the responsibility of user-centricity 
As product professionals, it is our duty to incorporate users into what we build in the face of existing constraints. Who better than tech product teams to innovate around how we procure, store, and leverage research? It’s time that we adapt to a smaller ratio of UXRs within product teams and decentralize the responsibility of centering user needs in product development. 
We simply know too much about human-centered design to only apply these basic principles when there is a UX professional available to do so. There will always be more questions to explore than time to do so, especially now that there are fewer UXR roles filled at tech companies. 
Taking on user-centricity as a collective responsibility can show up a few different ways—one example is standardizing product proposals to include qualitative and quantitative user data to support leadership making informed decisions. 
Say a product team wants to launch a new platform to change the way people deploy email marketing. Whether there is a UX researcher supporting the team or not, there should remain an expectation to present the user problems that the product aims to solve and user evidence to support that what they have built is positioned to solve existing user needs.
Build a strong and easy-to-use repository of research that allows everyone who builds product to interact with and self-serve user insights
Conducting research is really only the beginning because insights are only as valuable as the impact they drive. As UXRs, we take on the task of surfacing insights through research and then we work to share said learnings in the context of different bodies of work. More often than not, insights are shared through people in live share-outs and cross-functional conversations rather than in written reports. Researchers hold space for teams to learn directly from users, make sense of how to better serve them and then apply these insights to meet their objectives.
All of this takes time and as we see more lean research organizations, it’s even more important for research projects and context around them to be readily accessible to product teams. If not, it’s more likely for at-capacity researchers to be bottlenecks for product teams in search of relevant insights risking a decrease in shipping speed or user centricity.
Sometimes, new research projects are required to fill knowledge gaps about user behavior, but many times secondary research like literature review and data analysis is enough to inform design decisions. While primary research should be left to the experts, cross-functional participation in secondary research (i.e. product managers, data scientists, and UX designers) is a great way to speed up research timelines and prioritize UXR capacity for strategic primary research. Luckily, in the past few years, we’ve seen several tools leverage AI to make insight development and rediscovery more accessible.
UX research isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but it will continue to change based on shifts in the tech space. It’s up to researchers to stay cognizant of how we show up for our stakeholders as well as our users to support our organizational goals.

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