Working in the innovation research and strategy space is many things: exciting, fast-paced, and nonstop educational. It can also be a bit confusing, especially when terms, titles, and discipline areas get involved.
The profusion of naming conventions can help advocate for the broader ethos, but may also serve to dilute or obfuscate the ethos of importantly diverse sectors. We talked with Robert Skoro, an applied anthropologist and founder of the research practice The Social Process, about some of the field's primary ideological buckets. Below, Robert details how you can partner, position, and parlay these into advocating for better business through empathy.
We began the conversation with a brief attempt at etching the boundaries of several noteworthy human-centered practices. They were selected for their prevalence in the field of human-centered thinking today.
User Experience Research
In as simple terms as possible, I think of UX research as studying how people use existing products and/or services. This means addressing something concrete, like use cases, refinements of a feature, and the behaviors or perceptions applied by a user.
UX research illuminates people in a necessarily limited scope—as users—but that practice can really blossom in both empirical and rationalist directions.
For example, I marvel at what seems like a substantial amount of quantitative work that can be done in UX research—looking at things like choice architecture or conversion points in traffic patterns. Yet, there’s also much more social and cultural construction to learn about, in order to dimensionalize the value users bring to/imbue the product or service.
This topic cuts in a few different directions. Traditionally (which is perhaps to say “particularly among large organizations”), this involves things like customer satisfaction, CRM, and loyalty. It’s key terrain for metrics like NPS.
But I think when you start to look at different industries, it can take on a more philosophical tone that engages with the concept of experience more specifically. For example, if you make consumer electronics like smartphones, there are layers and layers of CX to peel apart—from how they are marketed and retailed, to how people age into their devices or seek secondhand or refurbished products. CX can start to feel far afield as you look back at something like a NPS score.
And philosophically—literally if we get into the ontology and epistemology of customer experience—there are fun applied theoretical realms that we can work with. How does service-dominant logic and consumer culture theory collide in particular realms of CX, for example?
Service blueprinting front of house and back of house activities seems to be the most unique offering of service design. But obviously, how one does that can be a remarkably creative process. I think service design is the industrial discipline that most accurately and intimately does ethnography.
I wish I saw more recognition of that potential among researchers and designers—it truly takes bricolage and thick description to be able to make an outstanding service blueprint. Otherwise, it’s just a sort of choice architecture or decision tree with a little bit of actor-network theory (addressing relevant people and objects at stages) applied to it.
The human-centeredness of product research seems to vary heavily depending on who is doing it and the maturity of the project. Product managers can have a ton of other areas of interest and responsibilities in their role, which can sometimes make “doing the empathy work” an initial checkbox that can be moved past.
On the other hand, a strong commitment to problem definition—and redefinition—can keep a product manager and any research partners they work with in dialogue. Experiential elements can go beyond “solutions.” They can investigate feature-benefit relationships, expose jobs to be done, and frame the product as a hero that intervenes in a person’s life and meets unmet needs.
Whether this is through more reflexive activities like co-creation, personas, or just greater attention to context in usability testing, there’s always going to be an opportunity to have product maturity and depth of understanding of users be more tightly knit.
And as much as segmentation helps bring strategic clarity to business challenges, the ways in which people do things ultimately provides much greater meaning for those strategies to convert into value.
Broadly speaking, I think about CI as what consumers are doing and why, with a potentially agnostic regard for any given brand, product, etc. But I also feel like there is some existential hand-wringing about this veteran of market research disciplines, which has grown out of necessity to include more quantitative fields like Business Intelligence and AI amidst the rise of the analyst and big data in general.
On the other hand, some of the best CI people I know are changing the role to become better strategic partners, not just the “voice of the customer.” That too changes things from the kind of evocative, qualitative encounters that consumer insights used to imply. Things like needs, pain points, barriers—all these negative descriptions of a person’s life—help with that strategic partnership but also risk flattening the perspectives that come out of the fieldwork experiences themselves.
Design thinking is, as the name indicates, simply the way that designers think about the world or their work in it. That’s not how many people in business automatically think, so it’s both valuable and hazardous in that regard.
Given its increased popularity in business, design thinking has attained this mythological status that remarkably steers clear of the engineer-driven, process-oriented approach to making things offered by Agile. Still, I think design is fundamentally about commodification and therefore it’s no surprise that design thinking has produced innumerable frameworks, worksheets, and other stimulus to inform design research.
This can be problematic because it creates a potential paint-by-numbers opportunity for empathizing with people who are stakeholders of one sort or another. These tools are incredibly useful for building consensus around aspects of human experience and designed objects, but they also provide a body of evidence that people can point to and say “See, we did the empathy work,” as though it was just a stage at the beginning of the project everyone went through to cleanse their palate from the last thing they were working on. That’s...not how empathy works.
The goal that should be true for every role
With some working definitions laid, let's shift to when you might use each, what questions they're best-suited for, and how they help a brand or business stay human-centered.
As I subscribe to design thinking in most of my work, I look to types of research that allow for discovery and definition as the best options for helping businesses cultivate human centricity. Those fields like consumer insight and experience-focused research tend to create the most space for conversations about people that are agnostic of business interests yet can translate into them.
In doing that work, one of the recurring commitments that researchers must make is to prioritize process over traits as the focus of research with people, to borrow from Arjun Appadurai. Simply put, we are not our demographic characteristics. And as much as segmentation and other trait-based activities can help bring strategic clarity to business challenges, the ways in which people do things ultimately provides much greater meaning for those strategies to convert into value.
This is not necessarily the dominant logic for defining customers in business, but I do think that such a commitment represents a future of human centricity for firms that is being embraced more broadly, in large part through technology. Artificial Intelligence is perhaps the best example of this: something which is deeply empirical yet deals specifically with utterances, ontologies, and other philosophical constructs that aspire to run full-circle into a phenomenological embrace of what we mean when we say humanity.
Better than the sum of their parts: natural pairings for collaboration
Generalist designers + social science researchers: I think the researcher with some background in the social sciences and a designer with a generalist’s skill set makes for a potent collaboration. Generally speaking, what both do implicitly is frame our world to a limited degree—bring order without sacrificing too much agency. As a research team, a trained researcher and designer can do an amazing job of collecting and making in a relatively streamlined fashion.
CI insights and strategists: The consumer insights specialist and strategist is another pairing that seems to be increasingly prevalent in larger firms. There’s just so much mutual benefit to having better partnership across those roles; they do the boundary work on business rationales and human experience in late capitalism. How businesses—particularly in the U.S.—shift from a shareholder-focused version of capitalism to a stakeholder-focused one seems to be the bigger project being undertaken there.
Design researchers and human resources: Design researchers and human resources professionals are a third mash-up that I crave. Both parties want to bring the outside in—especially for large firms—and apply the experiences workers have as consumers to their day-to-day work experience. Whether those efforts are focused on bringing elements of social media experiences to internal company platforms, or creating organizational change through diversity, equity, and inclusivity, the ability to broaden an organization’s imagination about doing research on itself—the people at hand—continues to have massive potential.
Even if you’re a researcher in a smaller shop or are a freelancer, I think embracing those points of collaboration and being knowledgeable of the disciplines themselves is a growth opportunity and marketable skill. Hopefully it leads to more—and more interesting—work.
Assess, and Act
Although a focus on titling may seem trivial, naming holds great power, especially within organizations. If at the leadership and senior levels there exists the interest in—and the resources for—human-centered practices like the ones outlined here, equipping oneself with a role title and etching of responsibilities can go a long way toward avocation and socialization. Remember, translating one's work and practice is an imperative skill and can earn someone "a seat at the table," so to speak.
Start by taking an inventory of goals and consider the organizational hierarchy (e.g., embedded insights teams, an agency model, no UX practice at all). These two data streams should help highlight the best way to advocate for both the doing of the work you feel is necessary and your unique ability to complete it. It might also help you network, find communities to learn more, and hunt down further reading. As organizational psychologist Karl Weick's work shows, we are more apt to make sense of an organizational concept and its relationships to a structure when we can hear ourselves speak it aloud. Roles and boundary conditions is a step in that direction.
Robert is an applied anthropologist whose career brought him out of academia to global consultancies (ICF), boutique agencies (Zeus Jones), and his own research and innovation practice, The Social Process. He currently works as a design strategist, leading the Rapid Design Studio within Innovation at U.S. Bank.