Are researchers right to think their profession is in decline and what is the future?
I have read a lot recently from researchers worried about their future and the future of the industry. This post seeks to make sense of what is going on and identify a future for researchers and draws on some recent interviews I conducted.
The mounting evidence
There is growing concern amongst researchers that the market has shifted and research is in decline. Personally, I am more optimistic, and suspect we are feeling the effects of one of the worst economic downturns in recent times. That doesn’t sound very optimistic, but it might provide the context behind the mounting evidence.
The evidence researchers point to includes the wave of redundancies that has and continues to impact the profession. Even today, one of the first posts I read on LinkedIn was from a researcher who had been made redundant. There is no doubt these are challenging times for the profession.
Brands also appear to be increasingly relying on technology and data. Build it, test it, launch it, is increasingly the mantra for many and this is seen as further evidence that there is a big shift taking place. Twenty years ago, researchers were trying to convince designers to do research and now seemingly they need to convince product owners too.
Add to that evidence the great “democratization” of research that is gathering momentum. Research is now being carried out by designers and product owners. Pre economic crisis, this was largely seen as a good thing, with evaluative research being the main area of democratization, researchers were freed up to do the more complex generative research. Now in the midst of an economic downturn and it feels like it is being done to researchers, not with them.
Researchers can point to the larger numbers of redundancies in their profession versus design and product ownership. They fear they have been engineered out of the product development process and innovation is a luxury that in recession, brands won’t afford. Many are asking what the future is for researchers.
They also worry that brands are becoming less focused on their customers and that is behind the decline in research and recent redundancies. That it is more than economics and that there is something more sinister going on. So are they right to be worried and are brands shifting away from research?
Are brands becoming less customer-centric?
Over the past couple of months, I have been interviewing researchers and product leaders. With both groups I have explored how customer-centric the brands they work with are. The interviews with researchers included people from around the world, whilst the product leader interviews are more UK/DE centric.
Many of the researchers told me that at best, brands were paying lip-service to customer-centricity. One told me, “they talk about it, it’s up on posters, but in practice I don’t really see it”. Another said “they’re about 50% there”. Overall researchers suggested there is a willingness by brands to be more customer-centric but that a lot depends on the individuals in the team, the maturity of the team and the leadership.
On the other hand, product leaders generally felt that brands were customer centric. One told me “we’re trying to make sure that everything that the customer touches and they interact with is something that meets their need and product is doing that”. And that sense of ownership and accountability was evident from all.
I did get a sense from them that they are too reliant on data and perhaps drifting away from the “actual” customer. One even told me that they think the organisation “is a little bit scared of talking to our customers”. Without doubt, product owners spend far too much time looking in the rear-view mirror at what has happened and not enough time looking forward. Gathering data about what your customers did with what you offered them is not the same as understanding their unmet needs.
However, with all that access to data it is no surprise to me that brands feel they are customer-centric. Many measure, analyse and evaluate every interaction the customer has with them. It is customer-centricity, it just depends on your perspective.
Who owns the customer?
Twenty years ago, researchers battled on behalf of the customer, and felt quite isolated in doing so. Usability testing and UX research were relatively new disciplines and there was a big educational job to be done. This was largely achieved by researchers bringing the customer (or user) into the product development process. They represented the customer and felt a strong degree of ownership that survives to this day.
But ask product leaders who ‘owns’ the customer, and they will tell you they do. One of the product leaders I interviewed told me that what defines a good product owner “is their ability to manage the triumvirate of user, business and technology”. All told me they were accountable for the customer and spoke passionately about how they delivered on that promise.
At their fingertips was not only (sometimes not even) research insight, but analytics data, product feedback data, call-centre data, one even told me “I can just talk to the people in my contact centre who talk to our customers day in, day out”.
So perhaps the battle has been won and customers are now “in” the product development process. Product leaders may just be going about it in a different way, with a different set of tools and priorities. They have multiple data-points available to them and research is only one.
Is there a shift?
If there is a shift, I would argue it’s been coming for a long time. Economic crises are always a catalyst for change, and some cause disruption, but generally they accelerate something that has already begun. That isn’t to diminish the impact on people’s lives because of losing their jobs. Sadly, people always lose their jobs when times are bad, and research has always been high on the hit list.
Evaluative research, i.e. usability testing, has become increasingly commoditized. Even before the arrival of Usertesting.com in 2007, agencies were being forced into bidding wars to deliver ever-lower cost services. The online platforms accelerated this shift, by making “research” part of the tech-stack, and suddenly anyone can do research. Welcome to democratization, a new label for what was already emerging!
The issues with online platforms are too many to cover here and I have written about them on my UX24/7 blog. Like any tool, used properly for the right purpose they can be extremely useful and effective. Used poorly, or for the wrong purpose they can send you in the wrong direction entirely.
But if you had to choose, evaluative research is the best place to risk poorly executed research. If the wrong questions are asked, or the wrong conclusions drawn, there is always the analytics data after launch to help fix what’s broken. Nobody knows or measures how a product would have performed if it was right first-time, so the cost is hidden. That is not the case for the research overhead which can be cut with an immediate and measurable impact on the bottom line.
So, I don’t think there has been a new shift, it is just that the tough economic situation has accelerated a transition that was already taking place.
The future for researchers
That democratization has gained such momentum, with so little concern for the potential risks, points to one of the dangers researchers’ face. Outside of the research profession there aren’t too many people arguing about the importance of doing it right. We weren’t consulted, we didn’t have authority, for whatever reason, we didn’t have a voice.
In my interviews with both researchers and product leaders they spoke with one voice about the lack of understanding from senior leaders of what customer centricity really means, and in particular what user experience means. Leaders think they are doing it if they have NPS in place, website/product feedback, customer centers recording calls. But I don’t think that is the biggest problem.
As far as I’m concerned they shouldn’t need to know. I bet most of them don’t know how double-entry book keeping is done, they trust the accounting team to make that happen. And the accounting team has established processes and procedures for running the accounts. Senior leaders don’t need to know this level of detail about accounting and nor should they. But I bet if you asked them, they’d be pretty certain that democratizing the accounting function is not a good idea.
If researchers are going to be more than a delivery function, we have to solve the democratization problem and become a trusted advisor. We do have a problem with what we are called and where we sit, as set out perfectly by Genevieve Conley Gambill. UX is too narrow a term for what UX Researchers do, and it puts us in a box. The risk is that in the same way we travelled from Usability Practitioner to UX Researcher and even Design Researcher, we choose a new moniker based on the current industry trend and are back in square one in 5-years time — Product Researcher anyone? The irony that I run an agency called UX24/7 isn’t lost on me!
Regardless of what we are called, I think the future for researchers is about enabling an organizations’ capability to generate accurate and actionable insight, at scale. That can involve generating the insight, but more importantly it is about building the capability, supporting the capability, and creating the governance infrastructure. I think Research Operations gives us a good platform and could facilitate our ownership of capability as opposed to function. I hope we can build that out to become the trusted authority that an organization needs.