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The Future of Research and Insights Is Fully Integrated

Salesforce's Yakaira Núñez sketches a sustainable, impactful future for research and insights teams, integrating them throughout the organization.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Austin Smoldt-Sáenz

Although research's role for developing innovative products and services seems to be table-stakes, the strategic implementation of these practices is often happenstance, stunting its influence.

With over 15 years experience leading insights, innovation, and research teams, Salesforce's Yakaira (Kai) Núñez believes the industry has made visible progress, but has ground to make up.

We caught up with Kai to discuss her path to now, her observations from conversations with executives, and the bottlenecks we need to bust to see fuller adoption of human-first user experience research principles.

dscout: Was there a marker moment that propelled you into design thinking and research?

Kai: I graduated with a dual degree in English and Spanish. I became very good at writing persuasively and doing so in multiple languages. My first professional chapter was all about experimentation, about trying several paths. The throughline was technology and specifically, how difficult it was at that time for humans to leverage it. Whether it was legal services, social work, or a gaming company, tech was just not designed for the human using it.

It was clear to me that what fired me up was this sort of disconnect between the human experience and the technology that was going to serve us. Now, I'm also a big Star Trek fan, and I do believe sincerely, the value of technology as it's going to compliment us as we continue on our journey as humans on this earth that will augment our experience here, make things better holistically. That is aspirational for me.

This is why I entered into the tech industry, but that sort of is an undercurrent of why I kind of chose the path of tech. Tools kind of suck now. How can I make it better? That propelled me to a graduate program that was very multidisciplinary; we covered everything from organizational design and usability to design and art theory. It really prepped me—which I didn't know was a title at the time—to excel as a mixed-methods UX researcher.

I imagine that because "UX" and "design thinking" were still maturing, your early work required ongoing advocacy...

Oh absolutely. Those early days, the language just didn't exist yet, but the motivation was there. We were asking, "How do we create products that truly serve the needs of the business and the customer or user simultaneously?"

Historically, the business requirements (e.g., what we want to make) came before any consideration of user requirements. This was most pronounced in the digital sectors, and that's where I really started looping in stakeholders to align on the need to flip this requirement order.

"The worst thing to do is to reach out to your customers a bazillion times about the paper cuts of feedback versus one time, when you actually can thematically engage with them about an area of a product or an initiative that really resonates with that customer. They can give you invaluable feedback in that instance, that treasured moment that you have them."

Yakaira Núñez
VP of Research & Insights, Salesforce

My team's intent was to weave our work directly into the sales cycle so that it was inseparable and directly built into the product development cycle. This way it wouldn't be an afterthought—and cut.

In most consultative engagements, the first thing that gets cut is time to do the research and discovery to sharpen the development. My responsibility was to ensure that there would be no engagement sold without mandated research at its base. It took a lot of work because the biggest challenge was actually selling it to the salespeople.

Wait, selling?

Yeah! When I worked in the agency space, one of the responsibilities for anybody who is leading teams was selling work and being accountable for building SOWs. We were accountable for being in the room to sell these implementations.

My responsibility was to speak the voice of the customer, the voice of the product, and to enforce the value proposition that if we truly have to have a clear understanding of your target audience's needs, then we can build the best possible solution for you.

"Selling might be important, and you're always selling, and what I sell is my product and my product is my team, my product is our insights."

Yakaira Núñez
VP of Research & Insights, Salesforce

And that was selling. But when I went into industry I didn't think that I'd have to do it. The truth is that I sell every single day. I was horrible at it when I first started because I didn't think that my insight was my product—I thought that was an output. It's taken some time, but I think I'm comfortable with it now. What better way to ensure that your insights get used than to provide professional services [and] ensure that those insights are implemented? It's thinking about the entire lifecycle.

Would you sketch your ideal insights that's future-ready?

If I had my druthers, honestly, there are some people who are super good at the insights generation, and there are other people who are really good at getting it woven into the product. If you thought about research and insights as a standalone professional services business unit, one might argue that not only do you need ops, but you also need sort of your customer success or your support group.

You need your account managers that are doing the constant triage for the work that needs to get done. Then you've got the solutions engineers who as insight generators and producers knocking the data out of the park. If you really wanted a compelling team, it would be sort of like a tiger team of individuals having all of those super sets of skills to be able to deploy against it.

"Right now, we're asking each individual researcher to be all of that. Be a great salesperson, be a good enabler, enable sales, service, support, and product design. You're also doing the do—the good work of doing the research."

Yakaira Núñez
VP of Research & Insights, Salesforce

So don't forget, you have to be mixed methods, so you have to be qual and quant. "Did you do that regression test?” “How many times can you slice and dice that data?” By the way, don't forget, data intelligence is super important…”Did you identify the jobs to be done and the instrumentation needs for this product?" Like that, all of that, we're asking singular individuals to do the work of many, because we put the wrapper of "research" around it.

What I posit is that the future will hold the sort of continued maturity of what insights looks like in corporations, which is to increase the gravity around this construct of "intelligence", while also acknowledging it doesn't have to be centralized.

Instead, we could have a focus of work where excellence is delivered because that goal has all the scaffolding and the support that it needs to be successful; it balances competitive intelligence with product intelligence, and user intelligence with consumer and market intelligence.

So much of the "intelligence" an organization is building against comes from—usually—a single source: humans. That is humans generating bits and bytes of data, either via an interview or via their action on a computer that is being tracked and turned into some sort of data for analysis, either at scale or not.

If the foundation is us as humans actually building and creating all of those data points, then we need a team that is able to speak the language of these different cohorts who deliver insights holistically to the business so that they can take the best action against it. That's my hope. It's going to be a long journey.

So it sounds like comprehending the levers and drivers of a business has helped you and your team advance the project of UX internally?

I do see that folks who come from a UX background tend to be more about people. But somewhere along the way, making an experience better for people got distinguished from the business' needs, like revenues and profits. But it's not! We just have to build bridges.

The guidance that I've given newer grads is this: I believe fervently that if our customers are getting their needs met, then the business is going to make a profit. It is incumbent upon us to understand why that profit is meaningful, because there is a long tail.

"If we're working for a corporate entity or even a non-profit—if we want to earn our living—we need to know how that profit becomes manifest because that is the full system. We are sitting in a system. If you're doing research on a system, you should know all of those elements, then you become fully versent and understand why the changes that you're proposing matter."

Yakaira Núñez
VP of Research & Insights, Salesforce

Then it helps—here I go again with selling—if you also sell the value of the insight that you're bringing to the fore, putting it into the language of the individuals who have to make the decisions. UXRs can speak to business decisions: Is this going to increase profits? Is it going to drive down costs? Is it going to increase our margins? Is it going to increase our CSAT?

When we're not versed on those, that's when insights, that's when design work tends to be ignored—because we're not putting into the language of the individuals that we are supporting.

What does your research and insights advocacy look like today?

It varies by org and even department maturity. A product org and its leaders usually drives the opportunities to take advantage of research—to better inform the success of your product. I'm not trying to be cagey, what I'm trying to be is generous: Product managers have varied backgrounds.

Some have come up through engineering or MBA programs, while others may have transitioned from UX. Depending upon the product leader with whom you're engaging and where they came from—and their leadership profile—that can determine their willingness to capitalize wholesale on research.

Then the other variable is the makeup of the research team and its ratios. My team's ratios don't necessarily map to the way in which the products are built. It's not because there's not interest, because there's plenty of it, but there's also macroeconomic conditions that don't often afford researcher teams a lot of headcount.

For my team, we are a limited and precious resource. As a consequence of that, only a select few product managers are actually afforded the opportunity to leverage us. Sure, everybody would love to have some research if they had their druthers, right? But prioritization is critical. The scarcity of time, value, and resources means we have to apply our skills to the most important things—those are dictated by the priorities of the business.

I have had partners hungry for research insights before embarking upon and their product development life cycle, and I think that's the ideal state for everyone: timely, relevant, and ongoing insights to inform a solution. But it has to have all of the wrappers around it in order to be viable. It has to have the business buy-in, it has to have the engineering support in order to build the things, build against the findings that we've identified in concert with our product leadership.

Although that might be the ideal state, it's only ideal if all of the players that dance to the tune of building products are in the same conversation and able to deploy against it. We look for those moments in those spaces and places within a product opportunity ultimately, so as to also help prioritize.

Nothing's worse than building a whole bunch of amazing insights in partnership with your favorite people and not being able to actually take action against it, because then it becomes...shelfware.

Any tactics to prevent our work becoming wall decor?

The biggest change that I've seen in research and researchers is moving from the construct of productivity—"I've created all these awesome decks and I've handed them over to my stakeholders!"—to ownership and accountability.

There's not just insights, they're recommendations, and there's a commitment from the researcher's perspective to take those insights and see them through. That is the biggest cognitive shift that I work on with my teams, to move from being the insights producers to being thought leaders and partners for generating product through data from our customers.

That, in part, is where I see research going: this motion towards being thought partners, because we are equally responsible for the outcome of the work that we've put in. It's not insights for insights sake; it's insights because we're driving the direction of this product.

That comes with emotional baggage when you're more closely tethered to the work that you're doing as a product contributor, or when that product does not look like you want it to look or gets deprioritized. Those outcomes hurt a lot more. There's the emotional triage that you have to go through with that, but I'm not opposed to it. It's a little bit of solidarity with those [who] actually are living in the trenches.

I think there's been this move of having researchers as a separate shared service that executes against the research asks, effectively making them fungible assets; they can just be pivoted or moved here and there. I'm firmly a proponent of a researcher becoming a font of knowledge about their domain space, so that not only are they doing the work, but they become expert in that space.

I've designed my team so that I have someone versent in the administrative experience, in the developer experience, in cloud technologies or artificial intelligence. Why? Because then that person becomes invaluable to the business."

Yakaira Núñez
VP of Research & Insights, Salesforce

In this way, they're no longer just an individual who's working to test the product, but they're also the locus of information about a subject area from the bottom up and or up top down, whatever is needed at a given moment. That's the type of researcher that I love to craft, and that's where I'm seeing the industry move.

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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