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Overcoming UXR's "Wet Blanket" Reputation in the Age of GenAI

User researchers are often unfairly pinned as being sticks in the mud. How can we evolve our roles in the fast-moving world of AI developments?

Words by Karen Eisenhauer, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Stick in the mud. Negative Nancy. Wet blanket.

Have you ever heard any of these terms in your role as a UXR? Have you ever thought them about yourself?

Part of our jobs as UXRs is to represent the needs of our users. Sometimes, that information is contradictory to an assumption or opinion our stakeholders have. Or sometimes, we feel the need to raise ethical concerns if we feel our organizations aren’t considering the users’ best interests.

These conversations can be uncomfortable. Sometimes, they produce outright conflict. And if they happen enough, colleagues might start associating you with those emotions—and the “wet blanket” reputation is born.

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Addressing a long-standing UXR challenge

This problem has always existed for the UXR role. But it’s especially tense right now, when we are in the midst of a generative AI boom. We’ve written about how GenAI tools are slippery and unpredictable, and how unexpected outcomes can have major consequences for users.

But at the same time, some organizations feel rushed to incorporate genAI into their product roadmaps as quickly as possible. We found that this is creating a lot of tension for UXRs, who want to advocate for responsible design when the rest of the org is moving full speed ahead.

Sometimes all that tension can leave us feeling like we should just switch our job title from UXR to PWB: Professional Wet Blanket.

But is that fair? It’s true that delivering difficult truths and asking challenging questions is a part of our jobs. And many of us have a drive to advocate for responsible and ethical design, which can definitely ruffle feathers among colleagues.

Can we navigate the challenge of advocating for our users without having our colleagues think about ourselves merely as wet blankets? More yet, can we do it without applying that label to ourselves? And how do we do that in the era of GenAI, when tension between responsibility and speed is at an all-time high?

To answer these questions, I revisited four of our amazing experts who informed People Nerds’ outlook on GenAI. All four are outspoken advocates of ethical, human-centered ethical design.

Together, we dove into how they think about advocacy, especially when it’s uncomfortable.

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Re-imagining the wet blanket

I learned that our experts are no stranger to the concept of being a wet blanket, and even use it as a joke amongst themselves at times.

“To me, it feels like an inside joke between researchers…I think I've probably used it with my immediate team as a joke, but that's with people that I know believe in the value of research.”

Liz Jernegan
Senior UX Researcher, AWS

However, while they acknowledge the truth to the challenge, they don’t necessarily agree with the mindset that the phrase implies.

We know how powerful that mental model is of ourselves and what we're bringing to it. So I never think of us as a wet blanket, personally.”

Jessa Anderson
AI/ML Research Manager, ServiceNow

After talking with them, I agree. The issue with phrases like “wet blanket” or “stick in the mud” is that they concentrate so heavily on the negative impact we might have on development—dampening enthusiasm, killing creativity, or slowing down timelines.

But this is not the truth of what we’re doing.

The real truth is that, yes, UXRs sometimes create discomfort—but it’s not to dampen everyone's spirits or slow them down. We know that we are bringing important new information to light that will ultimately help the company and the user.

And, we shoulder the burden of instigating and holding space for discomfort, which is hard work. It’s not a burden. It’s a skill, and a necessary one at that!

When we let the wet blanket reputation get to us, we are devaluing our own labor. We may end up less confident in what we know is right or our ability to speak up for it. We may be more susceptible to difficult co-workers overlooking our work or ignoring our findings. We may expect enemies and stop looking for allies, because who wants to be allies with a wet blanket?

In short, although the challenges we face as user advocates are real, I don’t think that translating that into “Professional Wet Blanket” is doing anyone any favors. So, I asked our experts:

How do you think of yourself when you advocate for responsible design? What should replace our title of Professional Wet Blanket?

Our experts sounded off. They told us about how they like to think of themselves instead of Wet Blankets. And they also gave us some tips and tricks for their brand of advocacy.

This is a continuation of the conversation on ethical GenAI which we began at Co-Lab earlier this year.

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The Wonderer

Katie Johnson | Global Head of Research, Yohana and PanasonicWELL

Katie is a powerful advocate for ethical AI in her organizations. At Co-Lab 2023, she shared the importance of centering human interaction in our UX design in the age of AI. She thinks deeply about the implications of our choices as designers in this new era of technology.

In her organizations, she often plays the part of bringing up meaty and difficult questions in leadership meetings about the intentions and consequences of AI design.

When it comes to ethical advocacy, Katie thinks of herself as a professional wonderer. Her gift that she is bringing is curiosity and complex imagination.

“[UXRs are] people with a copious amount of curiosity. I really think we should look at curiosity as what it truly is, which is wonder...we wonder at the muti-dimensionality of humans all the time…this ‘wet blanket’ is actually that [our orgs] are lucky to have us infusing hope, infusing humanness, and infusing marvel into these things, without rose-colored glasses and with a firm understanding of why…and how far we’re going to go with it.”

Katie Johnson
Global Head of Research, Yohana and PanasonicWELL

Curiosity is a powerful tool. It’s something the UXR profession trains in. It’s easy to forget, but sometimes our colleagues seem less curious or concerned about an outcome not because they’ve decided it doesn’t matter, but because they literally don’t have the bandwidth and skill.

Katie highly values her ability to imagine everyone around her complexly. She sees that as a UXR, this is her muscle to flex—and she does it with pride.

Katie also believes that being an ethical advocate means being a Wonderer in all aspects of our job, not just when talking to users. We can also wonder about ourselves and our own motivations for building. We can wonder about our stakeholders and what they value.

Some might call this skepticism or even suspicion. But Katie believes that the drive to question our organizations and ourselves is the same curiosity and wonder that lives at the heart of our profession.

“[It’s important to] have just enough of…a suspicion of our own selves to say, ‘Why am I doing this?’...curious about motivations and those kinds of things. If we can remain curious, not just fearful, I think it will be okay.

Katie Johnson
Global Head of Research, Yohana and PanasonicWELL

Katie’s philosophy is to stay rooted in that sense of curiosity and hope, and carry that curiosity to her colleagues constantly. That way, she can model a richer way of thinking about product development, and stay focused on the gift she’s bringing—her marvel at the human experience.

Katie’s tips for being a Wonderer

Being a wonderer is about finding ways to inject curiosity and complexity everywhere you go.

✔ Root yourself in real-world examples

“I would say situationally it's better to have examples because they (stakeholders) think that you're coming in to be Chicken Little or Skynet, right? They think you're coming in to be like everything is gonna be ruined and it's gonna be terrible and they're like, ‘We don't have time for this Chicken Little—get out of here,’—[so] the key is to be able to come in armed with situational examples.

Katie Johnson
Global Head of Research, Yohana and PanasonicWELL

If you need to bring up a challenge or a concern about a Generative AI product, Katie suggests you come armed with some specific stories about GenAI and its consequences. Sometimes concerns don’t land with product teams because they’re thinking too abstractly—they’re not doing what you do best, which is imagining the complicated lived experience of the user.

Katie thinks that the best examples would be anecdotes with your own products. Build a portfolio of stories from your users where GenAI caused a consequence or unknown oddity. Keep track of when users use your product for a use case you didn’t predict. If you don’t have any real-world examples, use any number of public stories about AI behaving in unexpected ways with various consequences.

None of your examples even have to speak to your concern directly. They just need to remind people how complicated real-life people are—or how unpredictable product interactions can be when users don’t have a mental model of what they’re working with. Bring your stakeholders out of their preconceived abstraction of your product and get them to start asking questions.

✔ Bring your curiosity with you everywhere

“You're changing hearts and minds around the organization every time you interact with someone, even at a water cooler. So if you're able to share stories about [the consequences of GenAI]…being able to talk about that moment and bringing empathy and valence and feeling to it at the water cooler is as important as getting in the room with the CEO. Because the reality is that the story is gonna make its way through the organization. So it's also about just telling stories and being open and honest and talking about it as much as you possibly can.”

Katie Johnson
Global Head of Research, Yohana and PanasonicWELL

Spreading out your sense of curiosity doesn’t need to be saved for big meetings. You can bring the stories you collect to the lunch table or the water cooler, too.

You don’t need to frame these stories as cautionary for them to do their jobs. You can frame them as anecdotes about your work day, or something curious you read online. But the more concrete stories about users you can plant, the more you are spreading your Wonderer energy in the organization.

✔ Play the long game

“I'm designing a study [that] is meant to prototype something 24 months away. So that I'm not in the way of this thing that they're building right now because I will slow them down….but the reality is anything they build right now is not going to be the thing that lives in someone's phone 24 months from now. So instead I can do a study on something that doesn't exist yet that's gonna give us some sense of what it's gonna feel like, so we can make impactful decisions now that set up our long-term roadmap for success.”

Katie Johnson
Global Head of Research, Yohana and PanasonicWELL

Curiosity is a valuable gift, but it has a time and a place. Unfortunately, by the time you hear about some decisions, the time for wondering might have already passed. Give yourself permission to let some of those battles go. Instead, look ahead to future conversations where your curiosity is welcome. Use your research to prepare for those conversations instead.

You can learn more about playing the long game in our series on stakeholder engagement with Miro. It’s just important to keep in mind that marveling is a precious resource. It’s okay to preserve your curiosity for places where it’s welcome and timely, instead of burning your gift out fighting a train that has already left the station.

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The Crew Chief

Liz Jernegan | Senior UX Researcher, AWS

Liz Jernegan is a senior researcher at Amazon Web Services, where she helps design novel AI development tools. In her Co-Lab talk, she shared all about her role removing rose-colored glasses in her product teams.

Liz thinks of her advocacy as a vital step for a long-lasting, successful project. She’s like a crew chief in a NASCAR race, calling for a pit stop. She brings her organization the gift of long-term strategic payoff.

She acknowledges that a big part of her job is to ask people to slow down, which can be uncomfortable. But she argues that the brief slow-down of asking uncomfortable questions will pay off down the road. The products that her research skill has a hand in go farther, faster, and smoother than those that don’t have her input.

“I think this idea of the pit stop and the fact that these things can be really fast…The thing is if I didn't voice that this is a potential risk and communicate that to the people that needed to hear it….it may not be considered, and they would just keep running at full speed towards the thing that they think is right.”

Liz Jernegan
Senior UX Researcher, AWS

Liz’s Crew Chief role positions her as an expert in having challenging conversations. Instead of feeling like a dampener, she thinks of herself as a leader through an uncomfortable time. Her skill enables hard questions to get asked, and that’s something to celebrate.

Liz also believes that her advocacy pays off for the company as well as the user. She invests heavily in gathering user data that builds trust that the temporary pit stop is well worth the time.

She has found that over time, this trust is paying off. She is included in more and more conversations, earlier and earlier. Not only that, her teams are gaining literacy about what common risks with AI—especially Generative AI—and are learning to ask questions themselves. And above it all, Liz can maintain the confidence that her step is a crucial mechanism to responsible and successful design.

Liz’s tips for being a Crew Chief

It’s all about positioning yourself as an expert whose point of view will benefit everyone in the long run.

✔ Scaffold uncomfortable conversations

“People don't like thinking about things that make them uncomfortable.…and it's really hard in meetings to kind of force someone to slow down on their excitement and sit in discomfort...I found that kind of time boxing it and kind of going, ‘Hey, for a couple minutes, let's consider this or talk about this and voice some of those concerns or some of those risks.’”

Liz Jernegan
Senior UX Researcher, AWS

Nobody likes sitting in uncomfortable conversations. But that’s where our skills come in. We can use our research savvy to hold space for people’s uncomfortable energy. With the confidence of a crew chief, we can position ourselves as experts in discomfort.

There are a lot of ways to do this. But Liz likes to navigate those tricky conversations by giving people strong expectations about the beginning and end of the conversation. In other words, let people know that their discomfort won’t last forever, and reassure them that it has a purpose.

Liz accomplishes this by guiding the conversation with very specific questions and documenting the answers in a shared space. Usually, these guided conversations are met with requests for evidence or clarification on how any raised concerns might be addressed. She doesn’t try to push deeper engagement past the documented expectations. This allows folks to feel comfortable engaging in these short, time-boxed conversations instead of rejecting them outright.

You can consider implementing a similar tactic—add a concrete agenda item in a regular meeting, create a worksheet or a set of specific questions that need to be answered, or even try a literal timer. Give your conversation boundaries, act as the authority, and let people trust you through the discomfort.

✔ Speak your stakeholders' languages

“As a researcher it kind of feels like we're speaking different languages all the time: How do I communicate the ethics in the storytelling in a way that communicates why we're making this choice? What are the risks? How do we need to think about this effectively? So a lot of it is just kind of getting my toes in the room and positioning it [to my stakeholders]. I’m trying to understand their questions, their risks, and being able to support the product team or whoever is leading these meetings.

Liz Jernegan
Senior UX Researcher, AWS

Liz understands that her opinions may ruffle feathers occasionally, but isn’t daunted by it. She believes that most of the time, the friction is generated by a few core assumptions or miscommunications between her and her stakeholders.

Liz believes that being a successful advocate is about learning those assumptions across her teams. She can speak to stakeholders in a “language” that makes sense for them. This means filtering and translating her vast amounts of data into a narrative that feels actionable and impactful for their particular role, taking into account their day-to-day responsibilities and values.

Liz says she feels lucky because AWS is a deeply data-driven organization. Her stakeholders listen closely if she can find and present data that resonates with their professional priorities.

To be prepared for that, Liz is proactive about collecting data related to risks and potential harms, even in studies that aren’t directly about it. That way, she’s prepared with an arsenal of data when stakeholders have questions pertaining to risk in their roles. And if she doesn’t already have what she needs, her proactivity is a step towards earning trust that she can go learn what her stakeholders need to know.

✔ Build your network of allies

“I rely on relationships with different stakeholders. If you’re in a meeting and we’re discussing the customer, if we’re discussing the value of design changes…add me. Have me in the room or talk to me about it later. Let me know what’s going on so I can make sure it aligns with feedback we’ve gotten from customers.”

Liz Jernegan
Senior UX Researcher, AWS

One thing about being a crew chief is that you need to be there at the right time. That’s difficult logistically because you just can’t be everywhere where decisions are being made.

Liz negotiates this by building allies in her ethical and human-centered work. She has established enough trust and value in her long-standing stakeholder relationships and communicated the expectation that she is included in strategic decisions. That way, even if she’s not there, there will be someone in the room who says, “Hey, should we take a pit stop?”

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The User Megaphones

  • Katie Schmidt | Senior Manager of AI/ML UXR, ServiceNow
  • Jessa Anderson | AI/ML Research Manager, ServiceNow

Jessa and Katie are two powerhouse research managers from ServiceNow. Both of them are on an established AI team since before the most recent wave of GenAI technology. They have been working hard in their organization to establish clearly defined guidelines for human-centered AI design and amplify the voice of the human user.

They view their role in their organizations as a megaphone up for their user. Their superpower is organization and clarity, which amplifies and empowers their users’ points of view.

“I would say my role here is to empower the human. It’s that simple. So when I look at this as an experience and what I'm bringing in from that UX research view, I'm bringing in the way that the human is going to be receiving this and working with this…how can we set this human up for success and empower and elevate the human?”

Jessa Anderson
AI/ML Research Manager, ServiceNow

Jessa and Katie’s viewpoint is fundamentally centered on the user, not on themselves or their stakeholders. In this lens, every step they take is first and foremost an empowering positive step, even if it makes waves in their teams.

This role also positions their findings and questions as removed from them, and thus removes them and their stakeholders from some of the friction that those points of view might cause. They keep the conversation centered on the third party in the room—the user.

I literally go into meetings and say, ‘I'm representing the human in this case. This is our user, let's remind you who they are as a person.’ It sounds silly to do, but I think people get so carried away by the technical capabilities and excitement of what it (AI) could be that they lose the human element and the fact that we're still trying to help humans at the end of the day. And that we, humans, are not the technology.

Jessa Anderson
AI/ML Research Manager, ServiceNow

Being a megaphone gives them the courage and enthusiasm to speak up on the users’ behalf, even in difficult situations—after all, it’s easier for a lot of us to stand up for others than it is to stand up for ourselves.

You have expertise in your user. You have empathy. [You have] what they need to solve the real world problem and the pain point for them. [The job is] feeling okay to bring up questions about how the AI could disrupt that or if it's gonna help serve that need and even starting with something of that small is moving in that direction.”

Jessa Anderson
AI/ML Research Manager, ServiceNow

Katie and Jessa bring their empowerment role to life by synthesizing and socializing their users’ points of view systematically. They concentrate heavily on scalable education. Anything to push their users’ voices directly to their teams, and move away from the idea that they are the sole keepers of human-centered opinion. They believe their whole organization is working together for the user—they just have the unique position of being the megaphone.

Katie and Jessa’s tips for being a User Megaphone

It’s about concentrating on user empowerment and decentering yourself from the conversation.

✔ Create an external source of truth

One of the keys of the empowerment mindset is to move the point of focus away from you as an interpersonal lynch-pin. You are not the source of these potentially challenging ideas, you’re the messenger.

Jessa and Katie’s team have helped codify the lessons from their user research into a comprehensive internal document that they’ve socialized heavily within their organizations. With this in place, they have something to refer to that’s beyond themselves or their stakeholders.

From there, they were able to socialize their documentation along with a variety of actionable deliverables. They created worksheets for their builders to complete themselves. They helped the design team make a Miro board of principals for human-centered AI design. They have run workshops, webinars, and internal publicization campaigns, with leadership stakeholder sponsorship and support.

All this helps get the users’ truth out of their hands and directly into the minds of their builders. This decenters UXR, puts the user in the spotlight instead, and helps democratize human-centered thinking throughout the org.

✔ Be ready to talk solutions

“When we come in and we have to say, I think we might have a risk here, come with an ethical situation with this AI from a user perspective. [Share] what I think that risk is, and here's how we might resolve it. That's received a lot better and less ‘wet blanket’ than just coming in and being like, ‘Did you guys read the guidelines? Because it doesn't look like you did.’”

Katie Schmidt
Senior Manager of AI/ML UXR, ServiceNow

Katie and Jessa believe that their teams should be creating new solutions, not just shooting old ones down. Stakeholders respond much better if you can bring them new ideas instead of just telling them that their current ones are concerning.

Even if you don’t have a clear solution for the issue at hand, try to bring something in good faith. It might be an old insight that can get folks to think in a new way, or a broad-strokes concept that designers and product teams can respond to. The bigger idea is to maintain an image as someone who is empowering new ideas, and not disempowering current ones.

✔ When in doubt, return to common ground

“Engineering is going to have a different lens than UX research, the responsible AI folks and the model builders, the model researchers, they all have a different lens. So sometimes when we come out we say, ‘This is how we are approaching UX research from a human-centered perspective,’ [and] people get nervous, because they're approaching In a different way. That doesn't mean that one person's right or wrong. It means that they've taken those core principles that we all agree on and they've interpreted them in the way they need to do their job.

Katie Schmidt
Senior Manager of AI/ML UXR, ServiceNow

Sometimes Jessa and Katie find that when they are communicating with other teams, they run into different lenses on how they are approaching product building. This can come with some friction, but Jessa and Katie both believe that this isn’t because of different objectives. It’s just that different roles put pressure on people to look at different parts of the development process in detail.

When conversations like that arise, Katie and Jessa take the approach of taking steps backward until they can find some common ground with their stakeholders. Even if tensions start to run high, they can always return to finding and affirming common ground in ServiceNow’s core mission, which is an extremely customer and employee centered company.

It’s important to keep in mind that, even in tense conversations, there is no true conflict here—you and your stakeholders are probably aligned on what matters. From there, you can re-engage in understanding each others’ specific lenses.

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Parting thoughts

Being an advocate for ethical design can be difficult work. Conflict is uncomfortable. Sometimes there can be real material consequences for speaking up. All our experts, and myself, want you to know that if you find this part of the work tiring and hard, it’s because it is.

This is incredibly hard...We will never know enough. We're never gonna be perfect ethicists. And yet this work can be immensely meaningful. If you're interested in it, if this is something that aligns with your values and your interests, there's immense value and opportunity and impact in this work—but it is incredibly difficult. So if you are dipping your toes into it, if you're interested in it, if you're doing it currently, take breaks. Take care of yourself. Establish those systems of care because in addition to our day-to-day jobs, this is a really hard and heavy thing to do.

Liz Jernegan
Senior UX Researcher, AWS

That’s all the more reason why re-imagining our work as advocates is so important. We are doing valuable emotional and intellectual labor. We deserve to imagine ourselves as something other than just a party pooper. And we should be modeling a positive treatment of ourselves to our colleagues as well.

“I really do hope that one of the orthodoxies we just throw out [is the ‘wet blanket’] because we make it hard for ourselves to be loved. Because we feel we need to self-deprecate. Self-deprecations like my personal love language so I get it. But at the same time, we shouldn't be hard to love like we are. Very deeply caring, empathic human marvelers, and we should be celebrated for that. And we're going to be needed on the other side of this revolution.

Katie Johnson
Global Head of Research, Yohana and PanasonicWELL

So let’s leave the wet blankets in 2023, and choose something new to be instead. A wonderer, a crew chief, a user megaphone. A human who profoundly cares—and much, much more.

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Karen is a researcher at dscout. She has a master’s degree in linguistics and loves learning about how people communicate with each other. Her specialty is in gender representation in children’s media, and she’ll talk your ear off about Disney Princesses if given half the chance.

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