September 5, 2020
In 2019, Uber laid off nearly half of its global research team. Elsa Ho - a part of the research team at the time - has written an excellent analysis of the lessons which can be learned from this. Many of these lessons touch upon a single, fundamental question: what exactly is research for?
It’s disputed whether Steve Jobs actually fired people who couldn’t answer the question “what have you done for Apple lately”, but it’s a useful reference point. If a piercing gaze cast out from the turtleneck of doom demanded an explanation for what researchers contribute, then a good response would need to be instantly available.
My answer has always been the same: the purpose of research is to help people in your company make better decisions. This doesn’t mean research has to have a role in every decision - as Elsa points out, if an A/B test can provide a quicker, more authoritative answer than a 2 week UX research study, then your job as a researcher is basically to get out of the way.
What it does mean is that for research to have value within a company, it has to be actionable. The connection between your findings and a decision which needs to be made has to be clear, authoritative, and articulated as quickly as possible. There are three things which any researcher can do to ensure their work meets these criteria.
Even within companies that go out of their way to avoid hierarchies, different people will still be making very different decisions. Making sure you understand the decision somebody needs help with is essential if you want your research to have an impact.
Imagine you have two colleagues: a designer who is working on a new checkout page, and a VP who manages your entire product team. What decisions do they need your help with? One might need your help to inform incredibly specific decisions about what icon to use for a shopping basket; what colour the checkout button should be; where it’s placed on the page; or how this layout changes when on mobile. All decisions that are going to have an immediate impact on the customer’s experience of a current product.
The other needs you to help them take a step back from this. Will that product exist in 5 years time? How should it interact with the company's other products? What sort of customer can the company attract more of in the next 12-18 months? How can the company ensure that all products are developed to the same standard as the one you’re working on?
Your job as a researcher isn’t just to find information: it’s to structure that information so that people can find what they need to inform different decisions. Think of it like a restaurant: a junior chef might need a recipe which tells them what to do, whereas a senior chef in a larger kitchen needs this to be broken down so that multiple people can work on the same dish. The buyer in head office meanwhile needs similar information but in a very different format: their job is to procure ingredients at scale and at the best possible price.
They’re all making decisions you can help with - and all are ostensibly about the same thing - but each needs you to structure what you tell them in order to make it more actionable. A second key principle can help you achieve this.
A common complaint among many researchers is that the higher up you go in their company, the more difficult it is to get people to engage with research. Meanwhile I’ve watched researchers try and engage their VPs with the kind of micro-level insights that are better suited to a weekly UX review than they are to a discussion about a 5 year product strategy.
If you’re frustrated because somebody “doesn’t care” about what your customers are saying, try putting yourself in their shoes in the same way you do with your users. If a senior manager is trying to work out how to achieve 30% growth in your company’s user base, and your contribution is to advocate for a more streamlined “forgot password” flow, is it really “lack of empathy” that’s driving their disinterest? Similarly, if a designer has been asked to improve the checkout experience and you offer up a 20 page analysis of “why AR will make checking out defunct within the next 5 years”, have you really done your job?
Knowing your audience is essential. Understand the decisions they have direct control over, and base what you present to them around the choices they need to make. And if that ever feels difficult to put into practice, then remember the third golden rule:
It can help to think of research as a series of hypotheses. This is the real root of the “atomic insights” approach that Filo is based around: every insight is a hypothesis that a particular decision will affect a particular metric in a given way. Prioritise AR over mobile and your company’s market share will increase over the next 5 years. Place the checkout button in one location rather than another and conversion rate will increase over the next 5 days. Batch fry your onions and you can bake more pies. Different hypotheses, targeting different metrics, for different audiences.
If this feels daunting - like trying to be all things to all people - then just lower the burden of proof which you bring to these principles. You don’t need to present exactingly correct and objectively undeniable statements of scientific fact in order to help people make better decisions. Hypotheses are fine. Even guesses are fine - as long as people can follow your logic and reach similar conclusions themselves. Present people with the right information in the right format and you can let them decide if they need more evidence before proceeding. That’s better than spending a month exploring an issue that people would have trusted your judgement on after a single day - especially if your hypothesis is going to be A/B tested either way.
If research is ultimately about making better decisions, then this also applies to you as a researcher. Know your audience, understand what they want from you, and be confident enough to trust their judgement about whether more work is needed. Then you can decide whether to ride the lift with the CEO or not.
This article is part of our "Beginners Guide to Research" series, which sees a new article uploaded every week. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like to know more.