Research often falls down once insights are in the hands of stakeholders. Could a specialist focusing on insight and research advocacy improve the state of play?
UX research deserves a new specialization: The Research Evangelist. What if we made this a “must-have” role on UX research teams?
The role—necessarily held by a research expert—solely focuses on influencing how research is received, perceived, and acted upon by non-research stakeholders.
UX researchers wear many hats. They do full-time project work. They build relationships with cross-functional teams. They advocate for the insights uncovered in project work. (They are also responsible for research operations if there are no dedicated staff).
So what, you might say. Every job has multiple responsibilities.
Agreed. But let’s dive in a bit more, starting with a definition.
Defining the Research Evangelist
You’ve probably heard the term evangelist before. It might conjure up religious meaning, and indeed that is where the word originates: To “convert or seek to convert (someone) to Christianity.”
Research evangelism is about converting a non-researcher to an insights-ready mindset, one where research insights play an informed and essential role in decision-making.
But aren’t we just advocating for our insights? Isn’t conversion too strong?
Let’s look at the definition of “convert:” To “change the form, character, or function of something.”
We are responsible for changing the form, character, and function of stakeholders’ decisions. In essence, how they do their work and understand their business.
We are attempting to change an existing way of thinking.
For that? We deserve a specialization—the research evangelist.
Why we need research evangelism
I want to illustrate this point with a nod to my academic origins. Let’s compare academic and applied research. Academic researchers craft contributions to an existing, often global field of study, facilitated by a university. Applied researchers craft insights to identify and solve real-world problems, often in the context of a company or organization.
I bring this up because academic researchers, like UX researchers, have a dual responsibility to conduct and to share research. Sharing is what defines academic researchers’ success. Presenting and publishing their work allows them to thrive in their profession.
UX researchers, too, must share research insights to have impact in their role. One could argue that having research expertise is necessary but far from sufficient to be successful: a UX researcher must share actionable insights to ensure their insights are applied to the business and, ultimately, increase its financial success.
What’s the difference? An academic researcher is engaging an audience that’s already drunk the Kool-Aid. Whether it’s a heated debate at an academic conference about choice of method or theoretical framing or a peer reviewer at a journal article complaining about the perceived overreach of conclusions, discussion participants are all on the same team. When academics share research insights, no one is debating the relevance of the scientific method. The necessity of a carefully structured research design. The very premise of research.
The audience that UX researchers find themselves in front of is, to put it mildly, very different. They are non-researchers. Nothing is sacred. Often, no set of universal standards governs the discussion. In this example, the academics have it easy.
How many of you—especially in low UXR-maturity organizations—recognize you’re not simply responsible for sharing insights in an agreed-upon form. That you’re dealing with stakeholders who don’t understand or actively resist your definition of an insight? Or discount your perspective on what it means to be user-centric?
Maybe your stakeholders understand and appreciate research insights but struggle to incorporate them into existing decision-making processes and need your help and expert guidance to convince leadership.
In essence: We need Research Evangelists because we are not preaching to the converted. First, we must convert.
How to separate research evangelism from other roles
Some would say evangelism or advocacy is entrenched in Research Operations. Others would say it’s simply part of an individual contributor job or at least a UXR Lead or manager’s responsibility.
Let’s start with operations. Research Operations does indeed have a crucial role in research advocacy. Research Operations professionals need to ensure that the structure is there to share research insights coherently and impactfully.
The Research Evangelist takes a different focus: It is not about building and maintaining the structure for storing and sharing research. It requires taking the ops-designed advocacy structure and evangelizing it to non-research stakeholders full-time. Coming back to the origins of our term, the insights repository created by operations professionals is like a Bible held in the hands of the Research Evangelist. Those insights—crafted under the supervision of research experts—are our source of truth when it comes to evangelizing the power of insights-driven decision-making.
Regarding IC or lead roles: We hire UX researchers to focus on a subset of users. As a company matures its practice, researchers often focus on a holistic user group or the users of a particular product.
Employing a Research Evangelist takes this evolution further: an evangelist focuses on internal user groups—non-research stakeholders. The evangelist can apply all their research skills to understand these users. They can conduct internal research to understand needs and pain points and craft solutions based on the unique profiles of their stakeholder-users.
This doesn’t mean the UX researcher is off the hook when insights are delivered. UX researchers: Have you experienced the pain of wanting to disseminate insights and brainstorm solutions with stakeholders but need to move on to the next project? The Research Evangelist solves this problem by ensuring insights are acted upon and influencing non-research stakeholders to understand the insights-ready mindset any user-centric company needs to adopt.
As for managers? Managers are often at the top of the hierarchy on their teams. In hierarchical organizations, they will have the greatest chance of getting in front of high-level leadership. It would be counterproductive to take this opportunity away from them. But their key responsibility is to their team. Let’s let them focus on hiring and nurturing talent and collaborate with the Research Evangelist on the best strategies to communicate with “out of reach” leadership.
Until a company shifts its mindset to being insights-ready, until it incorporates user insights into every decision-making process, evangelism is a necessary specialization for UX research.
How do I find a Research Evangelist?
This person is an expert researcher. They have to be because they must be fluent in what they are evangelizing. They must be ready for skepticism and even hostility. What helps them stay strong is their commitment to empirical research to study the world as it is, their unflappable trust in the scientific method, and an undying cheerfulness for converting the cynics.
Look around. You might already have one on your team.