The end of research: what about my career?

Hina explores what is happening in research today, and shares her advice on how to be intentional about your research career.

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At times, it feels like research is dead.

We’ve all seen the press, the LinkedIn posts, the worry, the mourning.

Whether that’s re-naming, re-shaping, budget cuts, job losses, or existential crises, the role of research in digital product and technology delivery has felt all of these things.

Despite this, many people and businesses know that research has value, but whether that value is being realised and focused in the right way is another question.

It’s just a phase

Fortunately, this is probably just a cycle. Research is still viable and will be going forward, albeit on ever-shifting terms. While research is not yet like the stuff of seasonal work, nor do I think it’s likely to be, I’ve decided to share my thoughts on careers in research based on conversations with clients, people I mentor and people I manage.

Fundamentally, navigating this landscape requires nuance. While the market may influence the immediate demand for research, it's crucial to recognise the cyclical nature of budgetary fluctuations and who has a place in the limelight when it comes to the next big ‘thing’.

Instead of mourning the death of research, consider it an opportunity to change and diversify. Explore complementary skills. Stay abreast of emerging trends. Strategically position yourself within the evolving landscape. Remember, pursuing advanced degrees like a PhD or MA in human-computer interaction (HCI) still hold value, particularly if aligned with industry needs, technology advancements and personal career goals.

The key lies in remaining agile, updating skills often and assessing opportunities for professional growth by spending more time thinking about the business and the rules of the game as well as speaking to people outside your immediate team.

What is happening with research today?

There are changes taking place within the research field. We are being looked at differently. Why? Let’s boil that down:

Research is shifting from strategic to tactical For some organisations, there’s a notable shift in the type of research projects being funded. There’s a sign that some established brands are moving away from strategic user research. These companies know, or think they know, enough of the unknowns about their product or service to not do formative, strategic research.

While strategic research remains valuable in helping senior leaders understand the medium-to-long-term user needs and to inform strategic direction, execution of more formative methods takes time and resources. And the perceived lag in insight to value feels costly, while high-visibility products typically need more tactical efforts when the pressure is on to deliver.

Of course, data and insights are everywhere and are not only accessed through primary research. However, there’s a tendency to leverage insights from multiple and widely available sources without deeper interrogation in relation to a particular product or service and the long term implications. The emphasis today is on real-time insights where there’s a tangible impact on a product’s outcomes and the bottom line.

Decentralisation: everyone’s a researcher There’s evidence that organisations are decentralising research activities across their business. I’ve seen many team structures in play within organisations: centralised, decentralised, product-led or a combination. This sometimes means department heads cycle through different shapes in one financial year to see what will work best for the teams and their productivity.

A decentralised team structure seems common today. It’s a model that empowers product teams with specialised training and coaching to enable them to engage well with their customers. Meanwhile, market researchers and analysts, outside of traditional user experience teams, are diligently gathering data on customer behaviours. This integration of research into different roles aims to enhance agility and adaptability, even as traditional research roles undergo evaluation.

From insight to impact Research creates a wealth of data and collateral. Often, this presents a challenge when deciphering and determining its practical implications. The sheer volume of information can be overwhelming, leading to valuable insights not being effectively shared and acted upon. It might also be the case that the insights are considered irrelevant or known. In this situation, the format and delivery of these insights becomes crucial, as they need to resonate with the right teams and decision-makers to create action.

When research outputs appear cumbersome and challenging to apply in practice they risk being perceived as wasted energy and expense, especially when more focus on delivery is deemed the priority. To optimise the value of research you need to carefully select research initiatives and thoughtfully present insights to ensure they create a tangible impact. By aligning research efforts with business goals and adopting an effective communication strategy, researchers can use raw data to inform decisions, making the entire research process a valuable investment rather than an extraneous cost. This can be achieved through the use of a measurement framework and creative flair when it comes to showcasing meaningful insights and opportunities.

Navigating the "ship it fast" mentality In the fast-paced landscape of product development, the prevailing "ship it fast" mentality often sidelines the importance of research, restricting it to specific phases within the product lifecycle or removing the activities altogether. This shift occurs because organisations may prioritise time-to-market and short-term goals over a thorough understanding of user needs and jobs-to-be-done, potentially underestimating the long-term benefits that well-informed research can bring to the overall success and sustainability of a product.

Contrary to this perspective, research plays a vital role in enriching the understanding of the operating context and building confidence within product teams and the business well before a product launch. Embracing the principles of continuous product discovery, as advocated by experts like Theresa Torres, emphasises asynchronous research. This involves decoupling the research process from the product release cycle, allowing for a flexible and continuous approach to gathering insights without being tied to the specific timelines of product development.

This approach provides insights throughout development, enabling informed decision-making and the creation of products that resonate with customers, adding value to the organisation in the process. Beware, extended research programmes with little knowledge sharing and limited decision-making influence create the feeling of ‘research is slowing us down’ and may lead to de-prioritisation or removal.

Be intentional about your research career

If you are a leader in research, a research practitioner, or someone contemplating a transition into a career in human-centred research, consider these areas to enhance and sustain your career path with intention:

1. Break the fixed-mindset If the job title of ‘UX Researcher’ or similar confuses others or pigeonholes us into a specific category showing an open and flexible way of thinking and working is always a good thing.

Change the label (and the signals) to alter negative perceptions. While being a specialist master of one is commendable and makes us unique being more versatile and indispensable demands us to invest time to deepen our expertise beyond our specialisation.

Gaining a breadth of skills and experience demonstrates flexibility, making us a valuable asset in different contexts. This starts through gathering inspiration - working with new people, getting a mentor, reading and learning by doing.

2. Embrace continuous learning Irrespective of our education, proactively learning new things and putting them into practice will be to our benefit. This is integral to our roles as Researchers, as we interact with people and technology on a daily basis.

In addition to honing skills within the research domain, seeking opportunities for collaboration across the business and allocating time to delve into front-end development, product management, content creation, and visual design always pays off. Getting the hang of frameworks, tools and even the language, will help us talk and work better together, making our interactions more fluid.

3. Stay positive As Researchers, whatever team structure we’re sitting in, we work with both internal and external customers to create value. It's easy to feel frustrated when people critique research ideas and insights we've delivered, and it's tough when research becomes challenging to justify due to its perceived value.

When it comes to demonstrating resilience and flexibility maintaining a positive, can-do, attitude makes for smoother collaboration. It also encourages open communication, adaptability to different team styles and positive resolutions to problems. All while boosting motivation, keeping spirits high and sparking creativity for problem-solving. In the long run, it helps us endure the tough times and remain flexible.

4. Build bridges and influence Remote-first work hasn't made it easy for people to come together in person. This has hindered our ability to build rapport and empathy with colleagues, clients and customers. As we transition back to in-person work, there's now a chance to allocate time to build deeper relationships with the people we work with and for. To convey the impact of research work, it's incredibly beneficial to connect with the teams we are working with beyond the screen. Sharing insights early and regularly provides a chance to offer valuable input as we learn about customers, but also to gain perspectives and experiences from teams. Being together shouldn't be limited to our immediate teams; instead, we should invest time in building relationships with individuals working across the business including marketing, engineering, strategy, and, of course, those in product and leadership roles.

By understanding their goals, needs and challenges, we’ll be better equipped to identify ways to create business impact. We’ll also be able to; explore alternative routes to uncover insights, tailor our findings and recommendations to suit our target audiences and even define more strategic research initiatives that hit the mark and change the conversation on research’s use today.

5. There’s a whole world out there: make use of existing data and insight Research projects start when teams need insights that uncover unknowns or validate knowns. They minimise risk when it comes to a product falling short of customer expectations, couching findings in commercial and business needs. Although, at research readouts, we may hear our stakeholders say, ‘we already know this.” This might be true, the insight might not be new, but if we’ve heard it before and nothing has changed how can we use insight to move to action this time? By working together.

Data is everywhere. While teams within organisations hold valuable insights across departments, silos stop us from seamlessly sharing knowledge. This leads to the creation of new research initiatives without tapping into existing insights, resulting in redundant efforts and missed chances for cross-departmental collaboration. Working closer across departments, encouraging the transparent sharing of insights and creating an insights repository will mean that insights are central to the business and supported by a communication structure. This approach optimises internal knowledge, encourages collaboration and improves efficiency.

6. Prioritise and measure what we research Having understood what data already exists internally and through accessible secondary sources, we should be in a better position to plan and structure research projects so that data is collected where it’s needed most.

Depending on the role we play, we might not always be in a position to define what to research, however, we can always ask why. Prioritisation becomes even more important when teams are running lean. Engaging with key stakeholders, accessing existing data and insights and connecting our research efforts directly to business priorities demonstrates why we are doing it and how it will create a measurable impact.

7. Don’t just do research, bring it to life The value of user research extends far beyond the selection of methods and the delivery of insights; it lies in the impact these insights have on the work of others, the user experience and bottom line. As Researchers, our responsibility goes beyond producing outputs; we must invest time in sharing and communicating findings and recommendations. To do this well, we must use our creative super-powers, or seek help from our creative counterparts, to bring them to life to captivate our audiences.

Act the insights out, use videography, do everything to help build customer empathy and buy-in to the changes we see as key to the product’s success. Researchers shouldn't be passive observers but active collaborators working within teams business-wide to build strong relationships and to collectively catalyse change.

Research in 2024 and beyond a balancing act

While the landscape of research may be shifting, embracing adaptability, continuous learning and effective communication will not only safeguard our careers but contribute to the resilience and effectiveness of the research field as a whole.

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