Moves to Modern Research: A New Maturity Model for User-Centric Organizations
After years of conversations with leading researchers, we've nailed down tangible stages orgs take as they adopt, expand, and grow user-centric practices.
Words by Michael Winnick and Mac Hasley, Visuals by Emi Tolibas
For half a decade, we’ve asked the People Nerds community: “What does research at your organization look like?”
And the shifts we’ve heard about are nothing short of seismic.
The need for research has grown and scaled. Research insights are becoming part of our organizations’ cores. And what’s core to our role as researchers has changed to meet this demand.
Researchers who were evangelizing for their work are now democratizing it. UXRs that were fighting for a seat at the table are now asked to speak to company-wide strategy. We’re no longer solely charged with “doing good research.” Instead, we’re paving the way for more ethical, more empathetic, and more user-centric company cultures.
Yet for many of us, “where we’re going” looks a lot different from “where we are.” And navigating the fundamental changes—in our research scope, timelines, org structures, and deliverables—can be a clumsy process.
Moves to Modern Research is a series of steps we’ve seen companies take as they expand and evolve their research practices. Use it to assess your organization’s maturity and to shape the way your research team grows, develops, and influences.
A note, as you read: Consider each “step” an addition, rather than a pivot, from the step before it. The needs that motivated us and the tactics that allowed us to move from “Step 1” to “Step 2” don’t disappear when we work toward “Step 3.” Instead, at this point, we need to employ additional strategies—on top of what’s already working—to advance our practice and impact.
Scope: What do we expect research to do? Proving practical value > Tackling tactical needs > Guiding company strategy
Step 1: Foundation Proving practical value
When organizations hire their first researchers, UXRs work to prove their ROI. Research teams need to demonstrate user research’s utility and evangelize its necessity. As such, the projects they take on first are ones that lead to clear implementation improvements, or that solicit buy-in and trust from key stakeholders.
Step 2: Expansion Tackling tactical needs
Once a company is bought in, research practices build momentum. But while stakeholders are still learning the basics of “what research can do,” project requests disproportionately come in for evaluative or tactical projects. Research teams struggle to make space for thornier research questions—and have to distribute projects deliberately to make time for strategic work.
Step 3: Integration Guiding company strategy
As the value of research becomes more apparent to company leadership, research teams are able to scale. Orgs begin to view UXRs as strategic partners. Researchers become responsible for projects that define company strategy and vision and initiatives that make user wants, needs, and pain points tangible.
Approach: How are we getting research done? Executing on projects > Accommodating increased demand > Increasing cross-company capacity
Step 1: Foundation Executing on projects
Initially, the job of a researcher is to execute on research projects. Stakeholders determine which questions are most pressing for the company to answer; researchers conduct research and report their findings. The research process—from start to finish—lives with trained researchers, regardless of the study’s complexity and scope.
Step 2: Expansion Accommodating increased demand
As teams work to ensure the company understands the role of research, they find themselves building processes to handle the increased demand. The research team’s time is no longer being spent wholly in doing research; in addition, they take steps to ensure research is valued company-wide. They begin to dedicate resources to building systems, processes, templates, and rituals that allow them to conduct and distribute research faster, but still thoroughly.
Organizations, and UXR teams at those organizations, actively develop tools for training, monitoring, and project managing—rather than just conducting research. Teams develop formal processes for offloading simple testing and research methodologies to other roles. “Non-researchers” begin to lead research projects, oftentimes with oversight or guidance from a trained researcher.
Talent: Who makes up our research teams? Generalist pioneers > Methodological specialists > Operational experts
Step 1: Foundation Generalist pioneers
Initially, an org may start with one or two dedicated researchers—folks who have the “generalist” capacity to execute on whatever projects come their way, and a “pioneering” vision to get the organization excited about what research can accomplish. They’re often tasked with educating and empowering non-researchers to better understand research’s capacity and the research process.
Step 2: Expansion Methodological specialists
As demand and resources grow, roles start to specialize further. “Researcher” is no longer a specialization in and of itself. Different researchers begin to become primarily responsible, or known for their expertise, across different methodologies or tactics (ie. qual or quant). Alternatively, as researchers begin to work closer with other teams (ie. design, eng, product), companies hire researchers who have those backgrounds (ie. a researcher who does design).
Step 3: Integration Operational experts
Research teams continue to expand, hiring practitioners across specialties to fill talent gaps as they emerge. Eventually, a new need arises—one for operational expertise. Companies begin to hire employees responsible for supporting a busy research organization (like additional HR representatives or project managers). Research teams also see the addition of hires who are responsible for non-field-research related tasks. This may be research operations managers, librarians, or trainers—anyone whose role is primarily defined by “making research happen across the organization” rather than “conducting research in the first place.”
Structure: Where does research “fit” within an org? Agency model > Embedded model > Hybrid model
Step 1: Foundation Agency model
Originally, researchers operate in an “agency model,” “centralized model,” or “as a service.” Other teams bring them projects they need executed, and they, in turn, execute them. Research teams at this stage may struggle to prioritize tasks that come in with relative urgency from different departments.
Step 2: Expansion Embedded model
As the roles, expectations, and capacity of research teams grow, researchers become embedded across teams that require their expertise. They join design teams, product teams, or engineering teams. They participate in “stands” and “sprints.” And they work closely with the people who need research insights and can execute on research insights. Researchers may have a harder time, within this model, of breaking out of “silos” and seeing the entire strategic picture. They also risk doing duplicate work, unless there are vehicles for cross-team knowledge sharing in place.
Step 3: Integration Hybrid model
Researchers start to take on a more company-wide strategic function. To execute on that need, they need to untangle themselves from the weeds, work on their own teams, and take on projects that can pave a company-wide vision. “Hybrid” models, at this point, are common. Some researchers within a company work in a way that is more “centralized,” while other researchers embed themselves across different teams. Alternatively, an organization’s researchers split their time working in these different capacities.
Tempo: What timelines do we expect for research projects? Deliberate and thorough > Quick and sufficient > Integrated and impactful
Step 1: Foundation Deliberate and thorough
Because researchers often work more independently—rather than in the confines of other teams “sprints” or timelines—studies are done deliberately and thoroughly. UXRs fight to prove value, set expectations, and deliver results that feel careful and complete. An organization’s lack of education about research, and what it’s capable of, may mean researchers see fewer urgent requests.
Step 2: Expansion Quick and sufficient
As research becomes more critical, org capacity starts to build, and the presence of researchers becomes more embedded and felt across teams—demand starts to shift. Research begins to increase its footprint. More and more of the org sees research as a solution to their problems and as a way to answer their questions. Researchers find themselves needing to execute more projects on tighter timelines—either to keep up with increased demand, or stay on pace with agile product and engineering delivery windows.
Step 3: Integration Flexible and impactful
Researchers work to make space for strategic work while still delivering findings within fast-paced product and development cycles. Tactical work is executed by new researchers or non-researchers and is positioned to deliver “just-in-time” insights. Strategic work is tackled by research pros and requires more resources. Researchers are taught to say “no”—as expectations are set company-wide about project types and timelines, and the research team’s capabilities.
Output: What happens to findings once a study concludes? Reports and Decks > Just-in-time Updates > Well-structured repositories
Step 1: Foundation Reports and Decks
When a project has wrapped, researchers make the time to deliver a full report, and when possible, formally present their findings. This helps contextualize research for external teams that may need more guidance to fully understand the results—lest they misinterpret them. Researchers often develop multiple versions of reports and presentations in order to better appeal to a myriad of invested stakeholders.
Step 2: Expansion Just-in-time Updates
As demand and tempo scale—short presentations, one pagers, summaries, and Slack alerts become critical research delivery mechanisms. Researchers fight to deliver concise, digestible insights without removing critical context. Researchers might also bring non-researchers into the synthesis process, turning a workshop into a deliverable.
Step 3: Integration Well-structured repositories
As research projects increasingly amass, teams become concerned with the accessibility, findability, and safe storage of insights. Researchers focus their “output” energy on where research can be strategically housed and easily accessed for maximum utility—leading to the challenge of building an effective research repository that prevents duplicate work and minimizes security concerns.
Mark up this summarized chart to get a gauge of where your org stands.
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Michael Winnick is the CEO and founder of dscout. Since the platform's founding, research leaders have tapped Michael’s personal passion for harnessing context-rich, human insight to drive innovation.
Michael previously served as gravitytank’s managing partner, steering the innovation consultancy through continuous growth for nearly a decade, prior to its acquisition by Salesforce. He’s led product development at Bay Area start-ups and media companies, including WIRED.
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