Future-proof your UX research career

By Amrit Bhachu | March 25, 2024

Involving UX research in organisations’ product development decisions is a vital component of creating product market fit and a culture of customer centricity. Unfortunately, when budgets shrink, UX research programs often become some of the first initiatives to fall by the wayside. UX researchers find themselves in the unfortunate position of fighting for a seat at the table.

Why is that?

In this article I’ll dig into some answers by looking at the common challenges UX research faces, how those challenges impact organisations, and what UX researchers can do to secure their future as a driver of strategy and innovation within the product delivery lifecycle (PDLC). 

The challenges of UX research and their impact on organisations

Many UX researchers share common challenges we're all familiar with. It's important to call these out and recognize the impact those challenges can have on the larger organisation so that we can learn how to overcome them. 

Challenge: UX research is seen as slow and costly

Speed is a common problem for UX researchers. Product managers care a lot about speed because their careers depend upon their ability to meet deadlines and budgets. When product or project managers need to save time, they start by looking at the areas within the PDLC that are most time-consuming. When UX research has a legacy of being slow, it’s easy for UX research to hear the common  “we’ll test it later” excuse from leadership. 

Granted, there are reasons that UX research has a legacy of being sluggish. Finding participants, creating a test plan, conducting tests, and running analysis all take time. It’s also easy for UX researchers to take days or weeks searching for that elusive “perfect” piece of research.

Impact: subjective decision making 

When leadership feels that research takes too long, subjective decision-making can take over in an organisation. Products begin to be shaped by the opinions of those with the highest rank or loudest voice. It’s common for decisions to come down to back-and-forth discussions that can drag on for weeks. As Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape once said, 

If we have data, let's look at the data. If all we have are opinions, let's go with mine.” 

Opinion-based decisions stifle innovation because solutions get defined, mapped, and built before the perceived problem is even validated or fully understood. 

Challenge: Research insights aren’t immediately actionable

While large scale, time consuming research projects may produce interesting insights for an organisation, there’s a difference between interesting and actionable. The insights gained from conducting research in this way might be interesting to an organisation, but often aren’t immediately actionable for the current phase of the product development lifecycle. Insights that aren’t immediately actionable get put on the backburner to be addressed later or not at all. This causes product managers to view the UX research as a wasted effort, guaranteeing they’ll be less likely to frequently utilise research in the future. 

Impact: Researchers lose strategic value

Infrequent testing creates a traffic jam of research insights at the end of the product development lifecycle. UX researchers become overwhelmed by endless usability test requests that take up the majority of their time. When UX research resources become limited in organisations, researchers are forced to be too selective with their bandwidth.

Product teams end up stuck between two options: Either proceed without testing or figure out another way to do the testing. UX researchers end up relegated to tactical research and time constraints make it difficult to break into more strategic work within the organisation. They’re seen as a plug-and-play resource rather than a vital strategy stakeholder for product delivery.

Challenge: Leaders don’t understand the value of UX research

UX researchers are the representatives of users. Their primary goal is to champion the customer’s needs and make sure that the user experience is as excellent as possible. While this is a vital component of any successful business, there is often a lack of clarity between the goals of UX research and the company’s bottom line.

It’s important for UX researchers to remember that the primary concern of executive leaders is business value. Too often, when it comes time for UX research teams to share their findings with key stakeholders, their reports miss the mark. 

Research is presented in the form of anecdotal stories that fail to connect to the metrics that matter most to business leaders. This causes leadership to misunderstand how research is impacting product delivery. Over time, research becomes an uninspired box-ticking exercise just to claim a culture of “customer centricity.” 

UX researchers must remember that their work is often seen by executives as an expense within product teams. Those expenses must be justified. When there’s a misunderstanding of research value, research roles become limited within organisations. This causes designers and product managers to put on the UX researcher hat, limiting the full potential of research to usability studies. 

Impact: Increased risk and wasted effort

As research capabilities shrink within an organisation, testing is often pushed back, only to be used after major design milestones. When this UX research does flag problems with the product, it’s too late. At this later stage of the product development lifecycle, it’s now overly expensive and time consuming to backtrack and make the necessary fixes.

Teams will often find ways to gloss over or work around the research findings in order to hit the deadline for product launch, ultimately shipping a poor product with limited positive impact. .

Overcoming the challenges of UX research

To run UX research more often and maintain a seat at the table of product strategy, UX researchers must make their value clear to the organisation. Research that doesn’t connect with stakeholders has little value. 

UX research teams must avoid purely reporting their research and outcomes, and learn to communicate their work in the context of the organisation’s needs. The benefits of this shift in perspective can create the buy-in necessary for more user research and influence in the product delivery lifecycle. 

Learning to communicate research value

UX research teams are great at running studies to understand what matters to customers. Those same research skills can be applied to understanding what matters to their organisations’ leadership. 

Most importantly, researchers must understand how their respective organisations measure and talk about success. Internal and external annual reports are a great starting point. The language and measurements used in these reports provide clues into how UX research reports should be positioned.

All businesses seek to increase profits. Achieving that goal requires 3 important steps.

  1. Improving revenue
  2. Reducing cost
  3. Increasing resilience

With that context, I’ll cover a few important tips for communicating the impact of research to other stakeholders.

Don’t be too humble

While humility is a great trait on an individual level, it doesn’t necessarily help UX researchers in their quest for influence. Researchers often consider the variety of individuals who contributed to the product delivery, and play down their own contributions. An equally important concern, however, should be failing to communicate the impact the UX research did have on the final product. It’s okay to take a bolder approach in sharing the team’s wins. 

Translate the impact of research

UX researchers must understand business priorities and use the right words when they collaborate cross-functionally. When communicating with key stakeholders, adapting the language used during presentations can have a massive impact on how the work is viewed and leveraged in an organisation. Additionally, when researchers understand business goals, they can create studies that are even more impactful for internal stakeholders in the future.

Leverage and integrate existing tools

The tools used by other business functions can help better position and embed UX research into more areas of a business.

Optimisation and experimentation programs are a growing trend within many product organisations. Because their outputs have a direct correlation with the key metrics of the organisation, they’re quickly outpacing the prevalence of UX research. If an organisation is already using A/B testing as a seal of approval throughout phases of the PDLC, UX research teams can integrate themselves with these programs in order to amplify and communicate insights.

Well-known analytics platforms provide performance metrics and insights into user behaviors. Most companies share this information in dashboards that can be leveraged by research teams. Research outputs can be discussed in the context of their already-established key metrics. Merging qualitative and quantitative data gives deeper context into changes and trends metrics.

Collaborating with design

It can be scary for UX researchers to empower others to conduct tests. Many researchers are concerned that bias could be introduced into the research. But taking the lead and training designers to run tests the right way creates benefits for both groups. 

When designers become skilled at running short tests — early and often — in an unmoderated environment, the PDLC’s efficiency improves dramatically. The goal for UX researchers isn’t to get designers running perfect in-depth research studies, but helping them get quick insights to make better design decisions and reduce subjective decision making. UX researchers can act as coaches, overseeing the approach, providing guidance, and keeping tests focused on individual variables.

As designs are refined through the smaller design tests, the chances of the UX researcher finding major problems at the end of the PDLC — during larger research projects — are greatly reduced.

It’s more effective for a UX researcher to oversee multiple usability studies conducted by others as opposed to running every single one themselves. Doing so makes them the centerpiece of a successful PDLC. This gives UX research teams the ability to do more strategic research to impact product decisions earlier in the process. That means asking more questions like “should we design this feature?” before “are we designing this feature correctly”?

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About the author(s)
Amrit Bhachu

Amrit is a Principal Customer Experience Consultant at UserTesting (headquartered in EMEA) with over 15 years of experience as part of and leading UX research teams. He’s taken a keen interest in understanding user behaviour and helping businesses deliver success.