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Insights and Actions: What Can We Do to Change UXR for the Better?

UX research often attracts idealists and dreamers. Jenn Kuhns breaks down how we can turn our greater hopes for the field into a concrete reality.

Words by Jenn Kuhns, Visuals by Thumy Phan

In October 2023, nearly 80 UX and adjacent professionals gathered in Chicago for Co-Lab, a three-day conference hosted by dscout. The goal? To connect through our collective dreams for—and challenges within—our field.

The UXR landscape. Democratizing research. Inclusive and equitable research. The rise and future of artificial intelligence (AI). Generating revenue. Proving impact.

As UX professionals—namely designers, researchers, and strategists—we work to understand the human experience so that we can improve the human experience. Many of us come with backgrounds in psychology, human factors, behavioral science, sociology, and anthropology.

On the final day of Co-Lab, Michael Winnick, the CEO at dscout, proposed a critical question: “What can we do to change? I don’t want to come back a year from now and hear, ‘How do we democratize research?’ again.”

I did a mental synthesis of what I heard the previous three days. What I realized wasn’t particularly flattering of us, but in a weird kind of way, it was hope-inducing. If we truly want to change our field, it’s simple: stop blaming everyone else for our shortcomings.

What follows is my unfiltered attempt to answer Michael’s question: What can we do to change our field?

What we can do to change the UX field

💡 Insight: We’re deeply committed to our findings

✅ Action: Create insights tied to business value

UX professionals are undeniably a passionate group of humans who care about doing good in the world. We care deeply about representing our users accurately and providing them with solutions that better their lives, whether it’s the perfect Netflix recommendation or simplifying access to medical care.

However, when our intense dedication to making a difference overshadows the needs of our colleagues, our dialogue can become a power struggle. We strive to be correct while our colleagues do the same, leading to parallel paths that never converge.

In our field, change is the one guarantee. When we embrace changes, we are opening doors to discovery.

Jenn Kuhns
Design Research Manager, Visa

During the conference, it was suggested that as UX professionals, we should persistently reinforce our user insights until our stakeholders and colleagues fully understand them.

“It’s our job to make sure our colleagues never forget the user insights,” one person said.

While I respect this viewpoint, I believe that we limit ourselves and harm our relationships if we become repetitive, rather than a source of irresistible insights that others choose to revisit.

Instead of repeating our research insights, we need to create insights that are so obviously recognized as a path to increasing business value that we don’t need to repeat them.

💡 Insight: Orthodoxies limit our ability to embrace change and innovation

✅ Action: Instead of fearing change, be curious about it

During Co-Lab, I was introduced to orthodoxies—deeply ingrained beliefs or rules that can act as self-imposed barriers, preventing us from embracing change.

In the business world, orthodoxies can hold us back from innovation, as Nokia’s story clearly demonstrates: They clung to their beliefs and missed the smartphone revolution, ultimately being left behind.

When our conversation shifted to AI, I noticed an absence of welcoming it into our future. Instead, it seemed that people were scared that AI would sweep in and take our jobs from us.

Our deeply held orthodoxy here is that we need to work five days a week. But, what if AI could help each of us be more efficient in our work, essentially gifting us the finite resource of time?

When we resist change, we’re at risk of reducing our efficiencies, limiting our optimal output, missing opportunities, and ultimately, getting left behind. This is true for resisting AI or anything else that might alter our current way of working.

In our field, change is the one guarantee. When we embrace changes, we are opening doors to discovery.

With AI, for example, instead of being afraid of it, try to learn how to use it, and then integrate it into your work. Imagine if many of your own pain points could be resolved with AI:

  • Your survey platform could generate follow-up questions based on a user’s response.

  • Language barriers would no longer limit your interviews.

  • AI could help diminish human bias in your data analysis and interpretation, improving fairness and equality, decision making, and innovation.

  • You could rapidly identify and address missing values, inconsistencies, and outliers in your quantitative data, ensuring quality and accuracy.

  • By analyzing historical data, AI could help you predict future trends or outcomes.

As AI models like to remind us, “Remember, while AI can bring significant benefits to research, it’s crucial to ensure the quality and integrity of the data being used, as well as the ethical implications of the research.”

See, even AI models know you’re still needed.

💡Insight: Ethical issues may not always align with companies’ priorities

✅ Action: Integrate values into company policies and practices

As UX professionals, our passion extends beyond our immediate work. We deeply care about equitable research, diversity, inclusion, ethics, trauma-informed research, gender inclusion, unconscious biases, systemic racism, and more. Our passion is a strength that can bring about meaningful change.

While it may seem that our companies do not share these values to the same extent, it doesn’t mean they can’t be influenced or that they don’t care. Instead of feeling a disconnect, we can use our position to advocate for these issues and integrate them into our companies’ practices.

Imagine if we could channel our passion and use our influence to create research programs that promote equity, or to ensure our products are inclusive and accessible. We could use our voices to advocate for ethical practices within our companies and industry at large.

I’m not suggesting that this will be easy, but we can stay connected to our values by using our passion and position to make a difference where we are now. One of our greatest powers in life is the power of choice, and we can choose to be agents of change within our own companies.

A final note

While we can be frustrated with slow processes, product managers, capitalistic agendas, and the like, we can only really change one thing: ourselves.

Fortunately, when we change ourselves, we change each other.

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Jenn works as a Design Research Manager at Visa where she encourages everyone to solve human problems, not product problems.

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