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11 Experts Weigh In: What Does the Future of User Research Look like?

Top researchers from Google, Lyft, Uber, and LinkedIn give us their take on where UR is moving and the challenges we’re set to face as the field grows.

At People Nerds San Francisco, we asked some of our favorite minds in research a series of big, impossible questions: What will the field look like in 10 years? How will the skillsets we need change? How should we build and scale our teams? Is there a point where nuance is overrated?

They gave us a series of succinct, helpful, thought-provoking answers. And we’ve summated some of their insights here.

On the skills that will drive the research of the future:

“I see our field transitioning to be more specialized and more collaborative. A decade ago, I was working with developers and making recommendations on content strategy, and design, and things that weren’t really in my wheelhouse. But now things have shifted, and I’ve been actively collaborating with strategists and designers and data scientists—as those unique roles start to emerge.”

Jen Romano-Bergstrom
Director of User Experience Research, Bridgewater Associates

Learn more from Jen in her People Nerds Profile



“Internally, organizations are always thinking about how we can have more impact, reach more people, and just grow, grow, grow. But I think sometimes the tech industry has done that so quickly that we end up creating siloed organizations—and that has an impact on our users. So as we continue to scale, we have to think about how we can use our skills more broadly. We’re going to have to audit across an organization. We’re going to have to think about doing research across an entire ecosystem.”

Vanessa Whatley 
UX Researcher, Google



“In 5-10 years, every researcher in our industry will have some proficiency in coding. We’re seeing an emergence in coding literacy within the tech industry and around the world in general. So the next generation of researchers are going to have some proficiency with code and with using that within the discipline.

For example, I ran a big study last year and after analyzing thousands of entries, I thought, ‘there must be an easier way.’ So I actually explored running topic modeling through the qualitative data to identify similar topics that I’d painstakingly classified manually. I ended up with an 88.6% accuracy rate. Which meant I went from spending three hours a week analyzing data to zero.”

Andy Warr
Staff Design Researcher, Uber


On how to structure your research team:

“At Jet.com, we have a centralized model; I report to the Chief Customer Officer. That means I have the opportunity to influence strategy, think big picture, and work at the strategic level. On the other hand, we sometimes have gaps at the tactical level—which is oftentimes the place where you can get the tightest measurement of the impact you’re having.

In my case, we’re an eCommerce company, so we have to think about everything from the TV commercials that we run, the ads that we run to the website, the app experience, to the physical box that things are shipped in. So I’ve allocated some of my team members to specific teams, to ensure that we have someone available to cover all parts of the customer journey.”

Ben Babcock 
Senior Director of Research and Insights, Jet.com



“At Lyft, when we started, we were a small team—brought on to insert research into a product development cycle. A lot of our initial studies were tactical in nature. But now we’ve grown in our influence and in our ability to do more strategic research.

Our team works on an embedded model—so most of our researchers are full-stack researchers with specific backgrounds and strengths. We try to ensure that every researcher has a seat at the table, cross functionally, with product design, product, data science and engineering.

We want team members to be able to focus on a specific area of our product and business. And we acknowledge that the best work is going to come from people who are excited, motivated, and in the place that’s the best fit for them.”

Monal Chokshi 
Head of UX Research at Lyft



“We’re a small team, working in an embedded model. One of our challenges involves having a leading vision—considering how we can direct what the company is thinking about, and what it should be looking at. We don’t just want to be a service that answers questions and takes requests. And sometimes this means pushing back on ‘moving fast and breaking things.’ I’m trying to define what ‘moving fast’ looks like.”

Yasmine Khan 
UX Lead, Even 
Learn more from Yasmine in her People Nerds Profile



Jrb



On the concerns we should mitigate in the new research landscape:

“Machine learning and AI are really taking off. What we still don’t do a good job at is anticipating the unintended consequences. And that leads to a lot of systemic challenges being magnified and a lot of vulnerable populations being impacted. We’re playing with people’s lives, so we really need to do a much better job of being intentional.

We need to change our focus from ‘we can’t design for everyone’ to ‘we can’t design for every user need.’ Because as things get more global, everyone is our user. And that starts at: ‘who are we speaking to?’ When we talk about the voice of the customer, we have to ask ourselves: ‘what customer?’”

Vanessa Whatley
UX Researcher, Google



“I was talking to someone the other day, and I quickly realized that their team had someone researching nearly the exact same things that I was. And I thought, man, how many other people are there doing the same work? How much redundancy is there? How much could we be learning from each other if we were a little bit more willing to share organization to organization?”

Aryel Cianflone
Senior UX Researcher, LinkedIn
Creator, Mixed Methods Podcast

Learn more from Aryel in her People Nerds Profile



“User privacy is becoming more and more of a concern, and it’s more about ethics than just about guarding their legal ‘PII.’ As researchers, it’s really important for us to be advocates for our participants anytime the envelope is being pushed. We have to be the mediator between the things our stakeholders, our team, and our clients want to know—and the protection our participants need.”

Jennifer Romano-Bergstrom
Director of User Experience Research, Bridgewater Associates
Learn more from Jen in her People Nerds Profile

Davesonders

On getting your message across effectively:

“You have to find the sweet spot between the business impact and what the person you want to listen to you actually cares about. For those of us who deal in facts and insights, there are “swashbuckler types” that can be mysterious. If you approach a ‘Han Solo’ in a wrong way—they’re not going to listen to you.”  

Dave Sonders
Senior Director - Innovation, Salesforce


“I think one of the toughest things for me—when it comes to influencing executives —is shedding my desire to be the one who comes up with all the good stuff. It’s recognizing that this is a big, huge community of people that we’re working with to create an experience.

It’s been a really long journey for me to understand that I can’t be the only one influencing any one product. And once I sort of let that go, I became much more of what my team is starting to think about as being a mentor.

Imagine that. Imagine thinking about yourself as a mentor instead of a researcher or instead of a service provider. What does a mentor do? How they think? What kind of work do they take on?”

Kirsten Lewis
Director of User Research, Sonos Inc.

Learn more from Kirsten in her People Nerds Profile



“Anyone can be curious, but it’s very hard to bring clarity. To do so, we need to create allies within an organization, get all of the product teams aligned, and have people on our teams really ‘own’ different parts of the overall user experience.”

David Keegan
VP of Experience, Acorns

Learn more from David in his People Nerds Profile

Andy

On the expanding role of researchers:

“There’s a lot of expectation, especially in recent years, for the user research discipline to be providing strategic direction in terms of where our companies should be going. And it’s not just about me being strategic, it’s about getting the team to be strategic. So I’m working with my business development partners to understand more about how they’re thinking about our strategy, what our tech IS doing, and where we need to be taking our technology forward.”

Andy Warr
Staff Design Researcher, Uber



“As we move into the future or as we gain more experience, we’re going to be required to take a larger vision—to have a broader perspective and have a position on how we scale. We’re going to be expected to provide strategy—and strategic vision—rather than providing a service.”

Aryel Cianflone
Senior UX Researcher, LinkedIn
Creator, Mixed Methods Podcast

Learn more from Aryel in her People Nerds Profile

Vanessa

On what it means to research strategically and at scale:

“You might remember learning about visual field processing in high school science. You’re told to look at an object in front of you, and you’re taught your eye is really ‘filling in’ the blind spots around that object. It’s sending all the details to you, and you don’t even realize it’s happening. And I think that often happens when we’re looking at numbers and data.

So a strategic difference maker is going to be knowing how to leverage data well. We hear a lot about how to use qual and quant together—and the ways we can use data to really frame our qualitative inquiries. And in the past, we’d been using data to understand who was doing what, how frequently, when, and where. But it never really told us why.”

Yasmine Khan
UX Lead, Even
Learn more from Yasmine in her People Nerds Profile



“Nuance really does matter early on—when you’re poking around, and asking: ‘what are we going to do here.’ But farther down the road, when your offering is more concretely hammered out, you need to understand quantitatively whether this feature is going to get picked up by enough people, or whether it’s going to have an impact.”

Ben Singer
Innovation Design Strategist, Humana Inc



“To me, the measure of success for the team that I run is, ‘Are we getting stuff on the roadmap that’s getting built? Are we influencing how we’re communicating with the customer?’”

Ben Babcock
Senior Director of Research and Insights, Jet.com

Mac Hasley

Mac Hasley is a writer and content strategist at dscout. She likes writing words about words, making marketing less like “marketing,” and unashamedly monopolizing the office’s Clif Bar supply.

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