Words by Julie Norvaisas, Visuals by Addie Burgess, Photography by Paul Evangelista and Justin Evangelista
As you read this, start to ask yourself...
“UXR will always ________”
“UXR will never ________”
dscout hosted our first-ever Co-Lab conference in mid-October. It was a small-ish gathering of 80 leaders from UXR and adjacent fields such as product, strategy, and market research. Our purpose was to talk about the state of our field, outline some of the challenges we face, and act on the imperative to revitalize our field.
While the in-person Co-Lab event was an intimate gathering, our intention from the outset has been to scale the conversation. I’m excited to announce Co-Lab Continued, a series of virtual replays of the talks and conversations for the entire People Nerds community in early December.
We are also distributing presentations and content in our People Nerds Slack community. We hope that many of you will sign up for the virtual replays, engage with us on Slack, and add your views and perspectives on what was discussed all along the way.
In this article, I share a bit of what went on at Co-Lab to whet your appetite. You will find the dates and opportunities to sign up for Co-Lab Continued throughout.
Day 1: Who’s hungry?
Our event started with a fun and inspiring evening, featuring a keynote with Michael Winnick and Eve Turow-Paul focused on her recent book Hungry. Did you know that one of the most impactful things we can do to address climate change is to adjust the way we eat? We also learned that beans are a big part of that.
Eve shared examples of how she employed innovative thinking together with a deep understanding of and connection with communities—and a firm grasp of behavioral science—to encourage eating a more plant-forward diet. Not only because it’s healthy or good for the earth (though it is), but because the food tastes incredible, is affordable, inspires creativity, and can even be nostalgic.
As we embarked on our conference, Eve reminded us that there are so many ways we can think about working together toward positive behavioral change—both within our organizations and as manifested in our products and services.
And that small changes from individuals and communities can have an outsized impact on persistent, wicked problems. These concepts were so relatable and scalable, but we were left with one burning question: is a green bean actually a bean?
Day 2: The state of UXR
The first morning of Co-Lab, I gave a keynote on my work studying the state of UXR. I set our intentions to get beyond the same old conversations, center hope and creativity, and focus on our personal accountability to drive change. I went through a series of analyses of various primary and secondary data.
My keynote was designed to raise questions, provoke thought, and situate us in this moment in time. The overarching mandate was to invite the group to practice active futurism as we learn lessons from this past year’s layoffs and reckonings, and really focus on revitalizing our field together.
The main beats of the talk:
✔ An examination of available UXR job market data
And a look at how we can emerge into 2024 in a sustainable
way, based on a look at the phases of financial (and Beanie Baby)
✔ Hot takes from UXR thought leaders
This summary included UXR thought leaders including myself
throughout 2023, which provide some clues into issues that need
✔ An analysis of my UXR landscape survey data
We conducted this on dscout’s Express tool, using a mix of closed and open-ended questions, including…
A list of things that UXRs need UXR Leadership focused on
How we perceive our strengths and challenges as a function
favorite part – An art-historical analysis of responses to the
projective question, “Imagine you walk into a museum and see a painting
that depicts the current state of UXR - describe it.”
I also suggest a metaphoric shift, from bubbles to kites!
*Co-Lab Continued: I will introduce and then replay my keynote for you on December 4th, and hope to engage in a lively Q&A afterward. I’ll be curious to hear what you think I got right and what I missed.*
As I reflect on my keynote and continue to study the UXR industry, I reject the dismissive notion that we have nothing to fix or worry about, and I also reject the idea that we are in a doom spiral.
As incredible as our field’s growth trajectory has been, we do have lessons to learn from the past, and we face some very interesting challenges to rise to in the future. I also believe it’s time for UXR Leadership to better define ourselves, to establish more of an “out-loud” identity.
I’m not the only one who feels that way—it was a theme of many conversations at the conference. This is not to say that “UXR leadership” is one thing, or can/will have a single way of doing things or a uniform set of circumstances or contexts. Our situations and circumstances are all too diverse.
But we need to show up for the field right now, and for our teams, and step into our own. We’ve earned a spot on the team, now it’s time to bring the discipline, grit, teamwork, and skill to be the MVPs we know we can be.
It was incredibly gratifying to have a bunch of established and emerging leaders at the conference (and many more of you are out there!) who are operating this way already to inspire us. You’ll learn more about them in the next sections of this article.
“Let’s practice active futurism. We can do this through embracing a mindset of preparedness and sustainability, removing some of the mystery that comes with new technology and challenges, and refraining from a 'UX vs. them' mentality—we’re in this together.”
VP of Research at dscout
Three guiding words
What sparks change? To do differently, we have to think differently. The rest of the conference was designed in a creative format that helped us dig into some of the focused topics that came out of the research I did on the industry and shared in my keynote, briefly listed below. These should sound familiar, as they came from you. From us.
What do UXRs and UXR Managers want UXR Leadership focused on?
Business impact and ROI
Integrating across insight teams
Stakeholder and executive influence
GenAI, LLMs and other emerging technologies
Organizations and reporting structures
Before I get into what happened during the rest of the conference, I want to introduce three guiding words we used to help shake up our thinking. We emphasized and played around with these throughout the conference.
We encouraged each other to say the real thing, the hard thing, the perhaps controversial thing, something about our practice or the way we’ve been working that would be challenging for people, even something they think other people may disagree with.
An example shared was, “Bad/imperfect data is better than no data.” Okay, so what is it like in organizations where leaders believe that, versus those that don’t? What do we even mean by “data” in this concept, and how does quality fit in? What if we talked about driving informed decisions versus data?
Here's where the "UXR will always" and "UXR will never" come in! We also encouraged each other to examine our deeply held beliefs and what we believe to be unshakably, almost invisibly true about UXR. An example shared: some of us believe the statement, “UXR is by its nature slow—this is a feature not a bug.”
What would it be like if we flipped it, if UXR were known for being fast, for immediacy? Imagine a world in which our stakeholders asked us to slow down. Is this possible? What would be gained? What would need to change for it to be true? What might we lose?
We don’t need to drastically reinvent or refactor UXR. We do need to revitalize—to imbue new life and vitality—after such a tumultuous few years. New energy, new ideas, debates, even a new generation of practitioners and leaders with fresh, unencumbered ideas.
I hope that this word takes flight at all levels. I love it for its suggestion of community action, akin to revitalizing a neighborhood for and with the people who live there to thrive—not to gentrify, displacing the people who live there.
Day 2: Paired panels, held in tension
We convened a bunch of truly impressive leaders and thinkers to sit on paired panels throughout Day 2 to provoke the group, examine orthodoxies, and inspire revitalization.
We also spent quite a bit of time in break-out sessions using a Describe - Do - Dream framework. We wanted attendees to learn from each other, to be challenged, to be inspired by successes, and to imagine our future.
✧ Describe: Share how things are or have been for you!
✧ Do: Focus on tangible and specific examples of solutions that made a difference.
✧ Dream: What would it look like if we solved this? What is the ideal state?
Morning: Anatomy of a team, levers of flexibility
These morning panels were paired to be complementary. You’ll notice that both use language of embodiment: anatomy and flexibility. Our teams (whatever the size) exist as bodies within organizations, which means that we have structure, and we have agency. We are complicated organisms, and we have to stay nimble and make adjustments as we age.
As bodies, we also are in motion, tension, and conversation with other bodies—our stakeholders and partners. These two panels helped us, fueled by fancy coffee, to expand our thinking.
Anatomy of a team
- Karel Vredenburg, Global Vice President, UX Research at IBM
- Roy Opata Olende, Head of UX Research at Zapier
What is a UXR team today, what should it be? How much control do we (or can we) exert over that? Many models have come into vogue and faded, and we're continually questioning and experimenting—now more than ever, it seems like. What are the conditions that need to be present for UXR to be successful?
The levels and quality of the experiences that Karel and Roy brought were perfectly complementary. Their thoughtfulness, optimism, and boldness reminded us that constraints invite creativity and gave us really practical advice on things like:
What are we called? Why? Why does it matter?
What level does/should leadership sit at?
How to call bulls*** in a productive way
Who are our key partners and stakeholders? How is that changing?
Centralized, decentralized, hybrid? Why?
Embedded, programmatic, hybrid? Why?
How (and why) to operate like a start-up within your organization.
Ratios (everyone’s favorite!)
“We used to always be a part of the design function and we said no, UX research is a separate discipline. Designers need to know how to do some research, they should know the philosophy and some core methods of research—but they aren’t researchers. Just like if you teach someone to do design thinking, that doesn’t mean we don’t need designers anymore."
Global Vice President, UX Research at IBM
Levers of flexibility
- Marissa Dulaney, Chief Experience Officer at Acorns
- Gregg Bernstein, Director of User Research at Hearst Magazines
- Joey Jakob, Operations Manager, User Experience Research at Wattpad
Flexibility requires practice, and that practice can create discomfort, like a triangle yoga pose. It helps, but it hurts. We leaned into that discomfort a bit. How must, and indeed how has the practice of UXR evolved to adapt to shifting conditions? To do more with less in some cases, or to amplify organizational impact in others. Where have we perhaps been too rigid? Too compliant?
This panel featured two strong leaders from outside of UXR (Marissa and Joey) and one from within (Gregg) to balance and challenge. Their mission was to give it to us straight—and they did!—on questions like:
How (and why) should we think harder about integrating and tracking insights across research functions (data science, market research, CX)?
What are modern approaches to democratization? We need to flip the script.
What are advances in programmatic research?
How does the role of research ops unlock flexibility, and what does UXR get wrong about working with research ops?
How do we balance speed with quality in data gathering and reporting?
How does UXR get in its own way, from a partner and stakeholder perspectives?
“Engineers will take credit, ‘We built and shipped that thing.’ Designers will take credit, ‘We designed and shipped that thing.’ Researchers do not. We don’t take credit or ownership because the impact is diffused. We are diplomats, we are collaborators—why are we so loathe to take credit for our work?”
Director of User Research at Hearst Magazines
Afternoon: From post-it notes to balance sheets, doing it right/doing it well
The afternoon’s panels were paired to expose some natural dissonance. How will we get more focused on delivering and articulating hard-nosed, bottom-line business value while maintaining momentum on design justice, inclusive research, accessibility, and ethics in practice?
We must get better at the former to be more effective at the latter. These are in some obvious tension, but also interlaced and dependent on each other in more nuanced ways.
These two panels helped us—fueled by a shaved ice break on a surprisingly beautiful October afternoon in Chicago—examine this tension and even question whether these are necessarily in the tension that I just outlined at all!
Doing it right/Doing it well
We need to stay true to our field’s values and integrity. Full stop.
Thinking of the consequences of what we build
Anticipating user/community and systemic implications
Embedding trauma-informed approaches
Centering marginalized or historically misrepresented groups
Even introducing non-human users such as the Earth
We are increasingly seen as (and see ourselves) as an ethical function and a business function. Are we equipped to take on these roles? What can we share, tangibly, about how to make a business case for these dimensions of our work? The perspectives of Alba and Jonathan were as deep as they were direct and sometimes surprising, on things like:
Research as a system of care
What are our obligations to research and participant safety?
Can we think of justice and equity in design as a risk management lever?
What are the risks of democratizing research legally and ethically?
To what extent are we/should we be an ethical function?
“Going beyond rapport building, what are we doing to ensure that we aren’t activating our participants unintentionally? How are we using trauma-informed practices to see if they’re comfortable sharing more? Rather than just a business objective of ‘we need to answer that and learn more,’ how can we make sure we’re not capturing that at the expense of someone else’s wellbeing?”
Head of Design Research at Headspace
From post-it notes to balance sheets
- Lisa Gudding, Executive VP at Ipsos
- Todd McCullough, Adjunct Professor at Vanderbilt University
- Greg Marinelli, Executive Director, UX Research at JPMorgan Chase
This emerged as the most urgent and pressing topic to discuss, based on my research on the field. We all agree (and have for years) that design, UXR, and insight professionals of all stripes need to speak the language of business, think commercially, tie work to bottom-line impact/metrics, and bring user value and business value into harmony.
We have not cracked the code on this. This panel featured two panelists who are NOT from the world of UXR to give us perspective, and one UXR leader who has actually cracked the code.
How does direct impact get measured? What’s the math?
Does perceived impact get us anything?
What if we think of ourselves as risk mitigators versus idea generators?
What does impact and influence up and down the organization look like?
How does saying “no” increase your ability to have an impact?
What if we understood what executives care about beyond the $$?
“You can keep a spreadsheet of the work that you do. Was the advice from that work taken? What was the financial impact? Also, really listen to what your CEO is saying in investor calls and try to tie your work into their exact words. Then there’s a really easy way to see that you’re adding value and having an impact.”
Executive VP at Ipsos
*Co-Lab Continued: We will introduce and re-play highlights from these panels on December 5th. Some of our panelists will be there for Q&A. Let’s provoke and be provoked, and challenge some orthodoxies together!*
Day 3: A splash of GenAI
- Meredith McDermott, User Experience Researcher at Duolingo
- Liz Jernegan, Senior UX Researcher at Amazon Web Services
- Katie Johnson, Global Head of Research at Yohana/PanasonicWELL
- Karen Eisenhauer, UX Researcher at dscout
- Kevin Johnson, Head of AI at dscout
- Michael Winnick, dscout CEO
Turns out that the conversations spurred by the paired panels were the perfect set-up for great conversations about the emergence of GenAI, and the UX of AI.
A series of lightning talks indeed sent bolts of energy through the crowd, covering a wide range of topics:
GenAI and ML basics for UX and Insights (Kevin)
Removing the rose-tinted glasses of GenAI (Liz)
High-level learnings from 18 months in the field: reflections on designing relationship-first products with and for users (Katie)
UXR on Duolingo Max: from dogfooding to dscout (Meredith)
Navigating “New”: the tensions of new GenAI tech for UXRs (Karen)
GPT needs UXR, and dscout’s approach to AI/GenAI product development (Michael)
So many nodding heads and busy pencils during these talks and the panel conversation that followed! While there was lively debate, everyone was unified on the fact that UXR must embrace this technology and experiment not only with it, but with methodologies to study it—and that we are crucial to building AI into our lives ethically and effectively. And, too, that GenAI offers us unique opportunities to gain traction into executive levels and with engineering that have been historically challenging.
We are uniquely positioned to influence the development and deployment of this revolutionary technology through our methods and mindsets. To not seize this moment is to be left behind. We also started musing on how GenAI can help us think differently about some of the tensions and dreams for our future state that we talked about the day before.
*Co-Lab Continued: We are excited to re-play these talks on December 6 and bring some of our speakers back. We should all be talking about AI’s impact on what we study and how we study it—so let’s do that!*
“The best option is human, but what’s the beta? As UXRs, we can define the beta with constraints. Authenticity might not be possible with this tech right now—and maybe that’s okay. We don’t need a one-to-one human-to-AI relationship, because it can be weird. But what we can do is build a relatable experience.”
User Experience Researcher at Duolingo
Day 3: dscout product open house
The conference was not focused on promoting our product, but at the same time, we are so proud of our product and our customers who’ve helped us build it! Especially some of the new launches and integrations we have recently announced and are in the process of building.
We value customer-led innovation here at dscout, and Co-Lab was an amazing opportunity to connect our customers directly with our product, design, and research teams. The group explored upcoming work, watched demos, and had opportunities to ask questions and provide feedback on:
Our new Usability solution, building on our relatively new fast feedback tool, Express
Our new Contributor seat permission level, offering guardrails for non-researchers to get more involved in research
Our new Private Panel management offering
Quality Scout and Recruit features and innovations
- New concepts that are under development and in pilot
Team collaboration spaces
AI features focused on working with you, not for you
Upcoming heatmap features
*Co-Lab Continued: Attendees loved getting a sneak peek at our upcoming features and providing feedback, so we are excited to be scheduling some demos and Q&As with the product, design, and research teams at dscout on December 7*
Join the conversation with Co-Lab Continued
I, and many others, were left all up in our feelings in the best way. We felt seen, connected, inspired, challenged, revitalized, and ready to keep the conversation going. Very importantly, we felt that the conversation should not be contained to those three days and these 80 people. All of us deserve to feel seen, connected, inspired, challenged, and—most importantly—revitalized.
Sign up below for our upcoming “Co-Lab Continued”! Join in on some spicy debates, unpack large thorny questions in our field, flip some orthodoxies, and discuss how we can shape the future of our industry. The series will take place over four days.
12/4 Day 1: The UXR Landscape (~1 hour)
A replay of Julie’s opening keynote with the results of her analysis of the UXR landscape, and what we need to focus on to take it to the next level. Julie will engage attendees in a Q&A in the chat and after the replay.
12/5 Day 2: Co-Lab Conversations (~2 hours)
We’ll replay all of the panel discussions, highlighting key ideas around keeping our practice flexible, shaping a team for long-term success, proving our value/impact, and maintaining a mindful, responsible practice. Expect a lively Q&A with Julie and some of our panelists!
12/6 Day 3: AI, Anyone? (~2 hours)
Day three is all about AI. This will include replays of all six lighting talks, and highlights from the panel discussion. You’ll gain insight into how AI works, its limitations and potential, what to consider as you conduct research on AI, the imperative for UXR to shape GenAI, and how dscout is approaching AI integrations.
12/7 Day 4: Where is dscout heading? (~2 hour)
On the last day, we’ll highlight new dscout capabilities, share some sneak peeks, and give folks the chance to ask questions and give feedback.
A group of 80 leaders—as amazing a group as it was—can’t have this conversation in a vacuum. Please join us in our revitalization effort!
Secure your spot for Co-Lab Continued, register today!
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