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It's Time to Dismantle "Us vs Them" for Researchers and Designers

Designers are running quality research and advocating for research. It’s long overdue for us to fully recognize and support their work.

Words by Taylor Klassman, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Before we dive in, I want us to abandon the term “Democratization”—at least for the duration of this article. “Democratization” was never quite the right word to describe what was happening in our industry. Since it became a major buzzword, it now has way too many connotations and—frankly—baggage.

At dscout, we’re big fans of “PWDR” (People Who Do Research) instead. In fact, it’s the name of our very own “non-researcher” research program, “PWDR Donut,” which you’ll hear more about in a People Nerds piece later this year.

This might be just semantics, but words are important! And that is much of what this piece delves into. Forgive me, I’m a recovering English literature major. Now this piece is based on recent research that I’ve conducted in my role as the resident “researcher who researches researchers.”

This research was provoked by the genuine deluge of thought pieces, studies, and process all on the topic of “Democratization” (hiss) from the researcher perspective; however, there is a relative dearth of perspective from designers (or other “non-researchers”) themselves. I set out to, in a small way, get that designer perspective and bring it back to the dscout team.

To be fair though, a lot of this article is an opinion piece and some fodder to hopefully inspire some provocations of your own. I, myself, have had to confront my own orthodoxies around non-researchers doing their own research. It has been a winding journey to look my biases in the face and productively work through my hesitations. But doing so better enables collaboration and teamwork with my design partners.

Designers are multifaceted

Many UX professionals are not just one thing, right? We have seen a great deal of “UX specialist” or “Generalist” roles come onto the scene for a reason. I want us to think about designers in three slightly different “roles” then perhaps we are used to: Advocates, Expert Users and… Researchers. It’s important to note that (of course) designers are not monolithic. Not everyone wants to or feels enabled to do research of their own.

✘Assumption: Designers are a threat to researchers

✔ New perspective: Designers are crucial research advocates

What if instead of the narrative of designers as a threat to research (or researchers), we thought of designers as advocates for research (and researchers)?

Designers are oftentimes the first “UX” hire at a startup or budding company, which means they shoulder the responsibility of establishing UX practices and norms, including research.

The designers that I spoke to learned about research through their design education or training, and learned best from watching researchers in action as colleagues and collaborators. Designers are looking to us for inspiration, the excellence of our advanced training, and some reassurance that they’re on the right track.

The myth that designers want to replace researchers in our function is just that—myth. In fact, these designers were begging leadership to bring on “actual researchers” to help the business focus on more strategic research. These two functions can perfectly co-exist as they are two sides of the same coin.

Unfortunately, we’re also seeing that design tends to be less impacted proportionately from layoffs and budget cuts affecting the industry, so design is brought in sooner, and sometimes persists longer. Because of that, I think we could be asking ourselves instead:

How can researchers support designers in this tall order of not only establishing and maintaining design processes and best practices, but also those of research?

Assumption: Designers need simple tools with guardrails to succeed

✔ New perspective: Designers are experts at using complex tools

Designers who run their own research have most of the same exact struggles that we, as researchers, have in our research.

Recruitment persists as the bane of our shared existence, and great research starts with great participants.

Designers have very similar discussions to us as researchers about…

  • Establishing repositories

  • Debating when to make that investment and in which tool or solution

  • Fear that a tool might get mishandled or misused

Designers also struggle with disconnected tools when they have to move between providers to satisfy the entire phase of research, which can be costly and time consuming.

The designers I spoke to aren’t just running “simple usability testing” (which, can we just stop diminishing evaluative work as “simple” in general??). They’re running complex concept tests with statistical significance, they’re running diary studies and ethnographic studies. The tools they need are not simple or limited by guardrails meant to protect the research. They need sophisticated tools, same as we do.

Finally—and maybe a place where we diverge a touch—is how SaaS-oriented and savvy designers are as software users. Designers are quite driven by speed of research, because remember they are fitting research into a design process that is already time-boxed. The designers I spoke to are even more inclined towards SaaS and complex tools that they can pick up, tinker with and master with a quick turnaround.

Assumption: Designers only do research because it’s “democratized”

✔ New perspective: Research is a fundamental aspect of the design process

I saved the most provocative for last in the hopes that I’ve built an argument that makes this feel less abrasive—but you tell me. It takes quite a bit of hubris to assume that researchers are the reason why designers run research.

Research is taught as a piece of the design process in traditional education programs and bootcamps. It is simply a part of design. There are many organizations and businesses that have the resources to keep these disciplines completely distinct (in titles, practices/processes, etc…) but that doesn’t mean designers lose their instinct and drive towards research.

Unfortunately, the narrative we’ve constructed around this is that researchers are allowing designers to come into the fold (oftentimes, quite begrudgingly). And this has left designers feeling like imposters who aren’t trusted. It’s not too late for us to question this narrative, stare our orthodoxies down, and ask ourselves, “What are we trying to protect? What are we scared of losing or breaking?”

"Not a very welcoming community, to be frank."

Lead Designer
@ Insurance Start up

There are many occasions when I recommend to my design partners, “This sounds like a PWDR project” versus a study that I would run. Most of the time that’s because the time it would take to onboard me to the project is not even remotely outweighed by my “expertise.”

That is why designers running evaluative studies is the low-hanging fruit of PWDR work. Designers…

  • Know the material far better

  • Know the gaps and questions inherently

  • Can put the data to work with more efficacy than we might be able to as non-designing researchers

Better equipped to run research because I already have the context, the relationships, the onboarding time for a researcher will be lengthy.

Design Leader
@ Freelance (previously Survey Monkey)

Why does this matter?

I started this piece admitting, “This might just be semantics.” A lot of what I’ve covered is. Why does that matter? How we talk about things, how we represent people, how we create spaces is heavy work and it has always been at the center of the UX community for me.

We are an intentional community, and I wonder if we’ve made a bit of a blunder here by contributing to such a chasm within it. The designer versus researcher paradigm hasn’t served us particularly well from what I’ve seen. What it’s done a really effective job of is making designers feel unwelcome. That is not the kind of space that fosters growth and learning, which is exactly what we are hoping for from our design counterparts.

How can we all work better together?

This piece isn’t meant to make you feel guilty or dismissive of me for calling into question a collective orthodoxy I think we hold as a research community. The hope is that it can help us figure out different ways to work together. It’s been a journey for me for sure. And look out for a piece from the dscout team on how we’ve worked on this internally over the years to create our “PWDR donut” process.

Maybe some of these ideas challenged you. What if you have a challenging conversation with your design partners at work about why?

What if you run a little research with the designers you work with about where they learned their research practices?

How do they define “research rigor”?

How would they like to work with the research team?

Join me in ensuring that future articles and conversations about "democratization" emphasize trust, mentorship and learning opportunities—and viewing designers as a partner and an asset to the research team and process. We can certainly strike a balance of protectiveness of our trade (and our jobs, genuinely!) while also being team players who believe in the potential of our UX colleagues.

I welcome the opportunity to chat with you about this more! Feel free to start a conversation with me in our People Nerds Slack community.

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Taylor is the Principal UX Researcher at dscout. She is a researcher conducting research with researchers to improve the experience of a research platform (say that three times fast).

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