I’ve contributed to People Nerds in the past, but welcome to my first official contribution as VP of Research at dscout! In these early days, I’m still in that very fun period of intense reflecting back as I march into an exciting future. I wanted to take a pause in this moment, and put the proverbial pen to paper to share some of what’s rolling around in my mind.
Where I came from
After decades in the business, I’m coming off of a two year break and (nearly) complete hiatus from design, UX, and tech. During that time, I painted a series of watercolor planets, went for hikes with friends, and ran trails alone. I took tennis and guitar lessons, explored museums, and read a lot. I moved twice—the second time clear across the country, landing back in Wisconsin. I must also confess to a lot of cat naps with my cats. I reexamined my life’s relationship with my career.
I'm often asked why I needed that break when I had a truly incredible job by any measure. I was Head of User Experience Research and UX Writing at LinkedIn. So yes, I walked away from a truly great company and a rockstar team. I was responsible for growing from 2 to 50 people over 8 ½ years.
Pretty much from scratch, we built a diverse team that was integrated into product and influencing strategy at the executive levels. It was a helluva ride. My reasons for stepping away were mixed. Part of it was straight-up needing a personal break after going all-out for many years. If I’m honest, I was also worn down by what sometimes felt like a series of endless uphill battles as I scaled and operated a UXR team—especially in a hyper-growth, metrics-driven tech company. I was tired, my friends!
I know that many of you feel all that in your bones, whatever your position is. Taking a break was a privilege. I know this. I’m grateful that I was in a position to take the time I needed, and to get beyond both the personal and professional burn-out.
During this time of detachment and exploration, I was unsure whether I would be called back to design, UX, product, or tech. I wondered if my desire to continue to participate in and influence the field to which I had dedicated my career would return. TL;DR: It did, big time.
I’ve always believed that our work is not only essential to the design and development process, but an ethical imperative.
VP, Research at dscout
Why I returned to UX, and what’s on deck for our industry
Now that you know why I left, you’re probably wondering what drew me back. And not just back, but back with a renewed sense of urgency, purpose, and faith. What changed? I missed y’all! As I contemplated various opportunities, something crystallized for me: I needed to land somewhere that shared my values (curious, fun, experimental, rigorous, honest). I also longed to find a place where I could make the most meaningful difference to researchers and the field of design/UX research. I found both here at dscout.
I’ve always believed that our work is not only essential to the design and development process, but an ethical imperative. Add to that, our work drives better business decisions. We need to drive challenging and critical conversations about the consequences of what we put out in the world through careful human insight—helping organizations do better for individuals, better for systems and society, and better for their bottom line.
I also believe that we’re at an inflection point, collectively on the cusp of another major stage of maturity. I felt compelled to bring my energy to this moment and to experience it with all of you. And this time from a different vantage than as a consultant or running an in-house team. dscout has a strong vision and plan to support and accelerate this evolution, and I wanted to be part of that here.
I’m going to go a little deeper into a few themes at the intersection of what I care about (and what dscout cares about). This, specifically, is what’s lighting a fire under my ergonomically questionable home-office desk chair. I’m excited to engage with the community (that’s you!) on all of these topics as our future unfolds, and we each do our part to help shape it.
✔ Democratization: Harnessing the power
Who isn’t talking about it? In 2021 I wrote a piece for People Nerds about smart democratization, which was based on conversations and collaborations with UX and design leaders across industries. Since then, momentum has only grown, as has the level of sophistication in our approaches to it. Democratization is driven by improved operations and increasing business pressure.
Let’s be smart about it, though. More often I think of democratization in its many forms as the how, with the why to dramatically increase the strategic impact of our work within organizations. Smart democratization can be a lever to raise our research profile and gather power. It can elevate our status and impact in organizations. I’ve seen that happen at LinkedIn, and it’s already doing so in many other organizations. I’ve been so excited to hear more about how it’s playing out in organizations around the world.
Let’s continue to enable democratization in a way that:
The team at dscout has embraced this ethos, and we have a ton of stuff in the works for you.
✔ Operations: How did we ever live without you?
It’s critical that we focus on efficiency as we develop programs (including democratization) to build and use research tools that scale our practice. The purpose of scaling is to bring human insight to business decisions at all levels, helping influence decisions about what to invest in with confidence and empathy.
Outside of helping us improve more of the experiences of the people who use our products and services, greater efficiency is for the sake of the bottom line, as well as for the love of researcher happiness and safety. I’ve seen research operations help teams go from a state of scrambling chaos to a well-oiled system deploying crisp, timely insights to the right people.
Clear priorities, efficient recruitment, streamlined collaboration with stakeholders, operationalized democratization, impact tracking, and the management of programs such as rapid research and heuristic evaluations are just some of the ways that research operations revolutionizes how research happens. These initiatives show what we are capable of within our organizations, and on behalf of society.
The amount of complex planning and operational strategy going into this is staggering, and though we’ve come leaps and bounds, it’s just getting started. Ops are becoming full partners to unlock potential alongside researchers, designers, PMs, and other practitioners and builders. It’s been gratifying to see that “scalers” (research operations) are a key user group that we build for at dscout.
✔ Research portfolios: Intentionally balancing the load
One of my goals at LinkedIn was to make sure the team was balancing the types of work we did not only methodologically, but at different altitudes. We strove to be roughly 25% foundational/discovery, 50% formative/generative (programs and democratization playing a huge role here), and 25% evaluative. With more tools at our disposal and increased democratization and ops, we were able to work with much greater intention across the full product development lifecycle.
The appetite for formative, generative, and evaluative work must be satisfied adequately in order to create space for strategic discovery or foundational work. Concept testing and usability help drive continuous improvement, and make life so much easier for people who use our products and services.
Are we sick of apps and websites that just don’t work yet? I cry. But we also must not lose sight of our core—building with humanity. Uncovering and raising deep human insight early and often. That is dscout’s DNA, even as we increasingly become a platform where teams can work across their research portfolios, and longitudinally, without switching contexts too much.
✔ Ethics and justice: Making matters better
Speaking of deep human insight, design and UX—specifically the people within these fields who hold degrees and advanced knowledge in sociology, anthropology, any of the cognitive, behavioral, or social sciences are critical. They help organizations and institutions understand the consequences of what we are bringing into the world from a systemic, individual, and societal level.
We are (finally) in an era of much greater diversity in our field than even a decade ago, which is forcing us to confront and shed old habits, mindsets, and practices as our field meets this moment. Importantly, we are also helping our stakeholders expand the notion of users.
That includes centering people and communities in our work who have been historically marginalized or excluded altogether from conversations about how we design our future world and the things in it. Some of the ways we do research need to be (and are being!) challenged and changed to expand the notion of inclusion in the design process and do so carefully, so as not to replicate harm.
I am eager to continue conversations internally at dscout and with the People Nerds community on how we build and use products and services that bring progressive tools, diverse participants, and an ethos of justice to the process of research.
✔ Generative AI: Wow, just wow
Now that I’ve made a bunch of points about humanity, here come the robots! It's a monumental moment for us—and for all industries and institutions—as we consider the implications of generative AI. This is already impacting our processes, the tech and products that our work as researchers informs, and, frankly, our humanity.
Some applications of this tech are helpful and delightful, others questionable and downright frightening (AI-generated users?!). Let’s put a pin in this for now! Like all of you, no doubt, I am involved with many conversations here at dscout about the possibilities and the concerns, straddling the line between optimist and skeptic…as we do.
We have historically focused on persuading (storytelling, relationship building). It’s high time we start convincing.
VP, Research at dscout
✔ ROI: Evolving beyond persuasion
I’ll be the first to admit that I have shied away from this in the past. But we must internalize a focus on ROI. If we want our field to grow and thrive, we must be able to clearly articulate and discuss the value that it brings.
This has got to be in collaboration with our stakeholders to include up-front disclosures of how much we cost, agreeing on decision-making frameworks, establishing accountability, motivating incentives, and providing actual proof that our work saves or makes businesses money—even as we improve the experiences of the people who engage with or are impacted by our products or services.
We have historically focused on persuading (storytelling, relationship building). It’s high time we start convincing. I’m eager to face this one down and collaborate with people who have expertise in these areas. Let’s become focused on making a watertight, data-driven case for the value of our contributions. I believe that solving this will massively help to reduce the burn-out endemic to our field.
The people in People Nerds
Running research for a best-in-class product that supports the world’s best researchers is a bit of a recursive mind-melt, but I’m here for it. I can’t think of anything more rewarding than being immersed in doing great work with, for, and on behalf of the best in the business. I’m fortunate to have a small but mighty team to work with here at dscout—shout-out to powerhouses Taylor Klassman and Claire Ruggiero, who have done so much to stand up our internal UXR practice at dscout.
Finally, it’s not lost on me that as I start a new job, many have lost theirs or feel unsteady. If you’ve been laid off, are pivoting to UX, being asked to do “more with less,” managing a lean team, or leaning into democratization, I see you. Reach out to me on LinkedIn, or reserve an upcoming mentoring session with me through ADPList. One of the things I’ve always loved about our field is our desire—it’s a compulsion really—to lift each other up. Many have done so for me, and I’m here for you.
Our field is evolving so rapidly. It’s full of the most thoughtful, determined, brilliant, fun People Nerds. In a few years, we will look back at this inflection point and marvel at how far we’ve come in building a more human future, together with our partners and stakeholders and all the humans who use and are impacted by what we bring to the world.
If you're looking for some inspiration, here are some books that really got me thinking during my break…
Julie’s work in Design and UX Research has spanned decades, as a consultant across industries, in-house as the Head of UX Research and Content Design for LinkedIn, and now as VP of Research at dscout. She has cultivated a practice that centers dignity and the complexity of the human experience in product development and leadership—and a belief that it’s okay to have a little fun along the way