Time to reshuffle?

Time to reshuffle?
Photo by Nik / Unsplash

Researchers, maybe it’s time we reshuffle the cards.

I was reading User Interviews’s State of UXR 2024 Report just now and I’m trying to wrap my head around some of the stuff there.

Research is changing.

According to the study, slowly but steadily, user research is more valued across the board.

Apparently, buy-in starts to be less of a problem, there’s more awareness of the importance of conducting research and there seems to be more interest in insights. Research finally started “talking the language of the business” (rolling my eyes as I write this).

This all sounds great, but things start to get tricky.

In terms of hiring, many companies who laid people off are not backfilling those roles and some companies directly froze the headcount for scaling the research team further. We know the market is super tough and not many new research jobs are created.

Let alone those companies that still don’t have a researcher and are still not even considering the possibility. These are not featured in the report and it’s where a lot of potential future researcher jobs lie.

On top of that, researchers seem to now allocate more and more of their time to giving support to other roles, whether through teaching, training or working on the infrastructure. Slightly moving towards an enablement or empowerment function. Probably as a response to being outnumbered, maybe as a consequence of leadership decisions or simply to adapt to a new reality.

This last bit is a consequence of the rising popularity of Product Discovery and Democratization. More and more companies are trying these things out and the number of PWDR (People Who Do Research) is increasing, as well as the ratio PWDR to Researchers (more than doubled in two years!), naturally. As I said in this 2023 talk, research is getting messy.

In a nutshell: it seems companies want more insights but do not necessarily want to invest in researchers, who are, in turn, asked to empower other roles in insight collection tasks. More research happening, less researchers.

The current situation is inviting us (or should I say forcing us?) to rethink how we position ourselves and what role we should play in the team.

The problem with value

Now comes the opinion part.

For me, it’s all about the value researchers bring to a company and how it’s perceived.

For quite some time, we researchers focused on the collection of data. We gathered insights, we brought the customer’s voice into the organization. We went, did the research, came back and delivered the results.

That’s how we rolled.

This brings up two issues, first: this model of request-research-report has proven to be rather insufficient and sometimes even ineffective and now, with the new ways of working teams are experimenting with, it’s even starting to feel quite incompatible (Dave Hora explains this beautifully in his article Unbundling User Research).

Second, if the value we propose to an org resides only in the collection of data, not only we’re exposing ourselves to be replaced but also we’re not exploiting our potential to the max. We’re leaving so much on the table.

When money is tight, a quick workaround seems to be reducing the number of researchers (or cutting them out altogether) and having the collection done by other roles. Even if the quality is not the same.

“Why have researchers do research when it can be done by designers or PMs?” some leaders might think.

Researchers as Playmakers

When the number of researchers in a company is low, we are asked to do more with less and we need to be smart about where to strike to make the most impact.

Some might argue that the most impact can be achieved by moving “upwards” in the range of research that we do, and if we’re allowed to work on more strategic projects, our impact will be seen. And that’s fair, that’s one way to look at it. However, for me, that’d still be pairing our value with the data collection.

The move towards more ReOps tasks makes sense. Research doesn’t happen magically and you need to have the right infrastructure to make it happen. Plus, you also want to ensure a certain standard. Having said that, I believe it doesn’t end there.

Researchers are the insights experts by default. At its core, our job should be about orchestrating different types of data from different sources, making sense of it and giving counsel to drive decisions.

Dr. Ari Zelmanow talks about a consigliere figure, someone who gives sharp, precise counsel to the business.

In this talk earlier this year, Behzod Sirjani talks about building insights infrastructure and being data gardeners, tending to the data in the org so people across the board can better use it.

For me, it’s a mix of all those.

I believe researchers can help organizations learn more and better by empowering other teams, then connect all that knowledge that’s produced and by having this nurtured 360-view, inform decisions at different levels.

I’m a football fan (you now get all the Messi references in my content?) so I like to use the term playmaker. I see researchers as someone who drives the ball, connects plays, involves the rest of the team and helps elevate everybody’s game to score goals and win.

My hunch is that if we’re successful at positioning ourselves this way, not only we can use our skills and knowledge to a much larger extent but also we can have an enhanced impact in different levels of an organization.

My goal is to have research as a staple position in most companies and I believe this can be one way of doing that.

What’s your take?