We had the opportunity to sit down with Vidhya and chat about her thoughts on ResearchOps and how companies should be evaluating their UX functions for opportunities to improve efficiency. She also shared stories about her experience building trust and respect for UX research as practice within organisations. Let's dive in:
Sofia: Okay, let's do this. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, what you're doing today, and what your role in the company is?
Vidhya: For the past four to five years I've been working with companies who are intentional about digital transformation. These companies want to embrace a more collaborative mindset so it can take the form of design thinking, DevOps, or lean approaches. These are companies that are interested in understanding their customers better, believe in experimenting in small chunks and getting things out, and committing to continuous improvement. Those are the companies I've been working with, because those are the types of companies that are usually interested in customer research.
Fundamentally, the companies that are interested in truly understanding their customers invest in customer research; the companies who are truly understanding in their collaborative experimental mindset invest in cross-functional design thinking or design sprint methodologies. Companies who are interested in continuous improvement think about value addition for their customers and play the infinite game. They are competing with themselves instead of always focused on the competitors. That's the pattern I see in the companies I've been working with.
Sofia: It seems that we are making a lot of progress in terms of UX as a function having a stronger place within the organisation, but at the same time it feels like we haven’t made enough progress. What are your views on the state of UX, especially in large organisations?
Vidhya: Here’s the thing, because I've been working with these companies, I can have a bias that things are progressing. But I can relate to your question, because the commitment and the sponsorship within some companies is not much. For example, companies think that they have committed to customer understanding if they have some usability testing done.
Being lean or having a startup mindset is construed as innovating without the necessary homework to right size the value proposition or understand the end-users. They rely on usability tests and decide to improve after. And if we fail, that's okay, failure is part of this - a lazy justification.
It ends up touting the lack of due diligence as wearing failure as a badge of honor. There is that piece. So, the intent is good, that they do want to do right by the customers. But they compromise problem understanding for solution validation.
And there are times that they start working on establishing usability rigor and integrating NPS scores, they see the gaps and if the efforts are highly visible within the organization, they invest in formative research. So, it is not the norm – but the exception. And they're very happy patting themselves on the back because they have made a start when many of their counterparts have not.
These are the dynamics in play that actually stifle progress in the long run. And there is also some blame to be shared by researchers like me, who need to start talking about business value and not get dogmatic that qualitative research is the best thing and that quantitative is a sham and surveys are useless.
We have to start asking ourselves, “there is a problem to solve and these are the tools in my toolkit - how do I do the necessary mix and match to make it work?” We have to really start empathising with stakeholders and leadership; understand the business value they care about. Because the one thing that people are worried about is that research can slow down things and we need to educate as well as strive to decrease the time to deliver value.
There are times you have to slow down to pick up speed, but there are enough things to do to accelerate value. If researchers are valuing rigor more than learning, are getting more dogmatic than being collaborative, I think we are also part of the problem.
Having said that, there are a handful of companies that are investing in what I call a discovery sprint. The discovery sprint is basically a continuous discovery of problems which can be your innovation pipeline. If I’m remembering correctly, Capital One was interested in this idea a couple years ago, and I guess that must be Adaptive Path’s influence. There are very few companies that take the long view and champion such practices.
This practice is not prevalent, at least to my knowledge. The really progressive companies are those that are intentional about discovery of problems today to solve for tomorrow. But because the awareness has just kicked in, I think I'm ready to be a little more patient and see how this plays out. As researchers, we have to be patient. There's no other choice. You can't really accelerate it. There is no convincing here. You have to care about what they care about, and they have to understand the value you bring with research, and that takes time.
Something that bothers me though is companies investing in design thinking workshops and that's it. Having co-ideation sessions and that's it. Then what happens is key. Somebody has to manage the process, which is where I think products like NomNom come in; somebody has to manage what comes out of these activities and see where it leads.
I've been a CX and UX team of one in many of these companies. It can get really tricky tackling the urgent and important, balancing the strategic and tactical, being focused in the problem and solution space. It needs a lot of executive commitment, too. This is something that starts from the top. I think awareness and testing your investments is a good way to go for executives, and hiring people who are committed to lean ways of working.
Sofia: That actually leads into something you mentioned in one of your blog posts, about ResearchOps not being a “thing” just yet - when will ResearchOps be mainstream?
Vidhya: I recognize that DesignOps has become a thing, which sometimes subsumes ResearchOps. I see people writing about DesignOps and they include what I write about ResearchOps, because they think about research as the preamble for design, which is the right way to think. Having said that, in really big enterprises, research comes with its own need for governance and logistics management; but we have not come to that level of maturity and that’s what I meant by not a thing yet. It’s still an emerging discipline.
Small companies can think about both as the same thing from a life cycle perspective. Big companies do need dedicated investment in terms of ResearchOps, especially when you think about companies like Facebook, Capital One, InVision, or Intercom. These people at least have shown interest in tackling big problems and taking the long view. They are investing in ResearchOps, which is basically committing to the problem spaces so that you can solve for them in the future. Also having a way to leverage what you already know and not keep reinventing is key to make space for innovation.
There is also this distinction that people will have to understand - your fundamental needs don't change. Like connecting with people, belonging somewhere, or needing social validation. These kind of things, they don't really change. Whereas little things like today, maybe I was interested in Facebook, and now I'm moving to Instagram or to Snapchat, it's still the same connection that I'm seeking deep down. My deeper needs and wants remain the same. It's just manifesting in different ways. We can ask ourselves, what kind of customer problems are the same, and what kind of customer problems are newer?
And I'm not saying this is only something that researchers can do, but even acknowledging the distinction about what stays the same and what keeps changing - that kind of clarity really helps you invest in the right kind of efforts.
Sofia: In one of your blog posts, you mention that structural change around research can set behavioral change in motion - have you seen this happen before? Do you have any specific examples of structural change leading to behavioral change?
Vidhya: Let me give you some specific examples about the structural changes. So, when we say investment, the investment starts with even hiring a researcher. In order to hire a researcher, you have to assimilate and work with your HR stakeholders in cross functional teams. People are going to wonder what the role is about, what value a researcher is going to bring. Just hiring for the role is one of the structural changes that starts people questioning and understanding the value, hopefully.
You could be for it or against it, but it starts a conversation about it, which did not exist before. So that's a behavioral change. But a lot of the companies, unfortunately, stop there. It becomes a checkbox activity. "Oh, a lot of people talk about researchers when I go to conferences," the leaders think, and they want to hire somebody. So it has its caveats but this is one important first step.
The second is tone setting by leadership. During the all hands, they have to talk about not just revenue, but customer lifetime value. You start switching the conversation to, “this is the retention and this is the customer lifetime value and loyalty we have gotten because of these capabilities we have enabled”, instead of just looking at revenue and the new customers and the average order value.
Those metrics are important too, but leadership has to give the same importance to both kinds of metrics, and then the conversation evolves. Then slowly but surely customer loyalty becomes part of the fabric of the conversation.
The third is, when you have design sprints or design thinking sessions, let the leadership be present. They cannot be divorced from this completely and say, "Okay, everybody do this and report back." It's like parenting, you know, you are performing and you are being seen as a role model, whether or not you like it or you signed up for it. So, it is important for leaders to be in those sessions to attend, listen and give their piece.
Sitting in those sessions is a great way to send a signal to the team. Having said that, the caveat about that is they can completely take up the airspace. They may start defending things that the users don't value. You can present the research and the designers come up with an evidence-based point of view, but the leadership may not be willing to admit that opposing point of view from the customers. They may be after an idea that the team knows may not resonate with customers. But we all need to start somewhere and be accepting of these initial hiccups.
The most fundamental change that researchers can commit is not to think of themselves as the sole saviors or the advocates of customers. I have had developers, designers, product managers and executives join me during research sessions, and even when I was not available, they have defended the decisions when the executive or the stakeholder conversations have happened.
When the stakeholders have said, "No, no, this is not the direction we want to go with," the developers have stood up and said, "No, this is an important customer pain point and we need to resolve this in this manner” And that is a very big win for me.
It's like leadership - you need to make yourself irrelevant if you are a good leader. So, you're not the only person who cares, but rather an influencer to make others care - then I think you've done your job well and you have set in motion a cultural change for empathy and innovation. I think we have to see our role as researchers, as change agents in the organization instead of somebody who talks to the customers and brings up a report.
So, these are the kind of structural changes I'm talking about that will set in motion behavioral changes. And it starts one project at a time and one effort at a time - that has been the biggest way that I have been able to effect change.
Sofia: How do you see the future of ResearchOps? What will the discipline look like in 3-5 years?
Vidhya: Like I said, it could be subsumed as part of DesignOps, which I think could be the right thing to do because then you're thinking about research as an inevitable preamble to design. That is a complete mindset shift which would be a good thing. I think the allure of artificial intelligence and virtual reality and augmented reality and all these emerging technologies only make problem understanding an even more important consideration.
I think the future of research is going to be more important because with newer technology, problem understanding is given a backseat and then companies pay a heavy price. This is a great moment to reset and sharpen our value proposition about the right problems and seize technology to enable, empower and delight customers in unimaginable ways.
One thing that does worry me about today is we have the tools that make A/B testing so much easier. It's something I welcome wholeheartedly, but it has, in some ways, set in motion a misunderstanding that that is the replacement for problem understanding.
A/B testing is solution validation and problem understanding clearly comes before that. You can solve for the wrong problem amazingly and it may not take off.
If you're not solving a problem that people care about, the solution can be awesome and all the A/B tests can give you statistically significant results, but you won't deliver any value to customers. So the value proposition aspect comes from understanding the problem well. People say, "we do a lot of A/B testing that gives you clarity. It's yes or no. It's black and white. So I think we'll go for that." People divert their investments for user research tools or ResearchOps, to tools like A/B testing thinking that that is going to answer their questions. That fundamental misunderstanding will have to get sorted out.
People are not black and white, it's as simple as that. You want to understand people. It is going to get complex and there's going to be a level of judgment and intuition which is also not guaranteed. That's why you do experimentation. But the whole idea has taken a completely different form. They say, "Okay, we don't want to understand the problem. It's okay if we fail.” Making failure a badge of honor. We can do A/B testing so we will get black and white results. We don't have to work with research reports, and we don't have to hire somebody that will help clarify, which is an alternative to dealing with the nuances of the human mind.
Simply put, It is easier today to convince ourselves that we more customer obsessed. People think that they are empathizing, but not as needed and they cannot see that. Yes, we are better than before, but it's not enough. I think it's like women's equality - of course it's better than before, but it's not good enough
Having said that, I sincerely believe that we need to assume good intent and extend empathy to everyone.
I understand that it's not that people don't want to do the right thing; they think they are doing the right thing. Or, they have to yield to the metrics that impact their performance bonuses than doing right by the customer sometimes.
We can't be condescending and make people the bad guys because they are not doing the things that we are recommending them to do. It doesn't work like that. That's why business understanding and stakeholder empathy is even more important for researchers in today's world.
Sofia: Let’s say you’re the only UX researcher at a medium sized company with very little resources. What would be your advice to that person about making an impact and building the UX function within the business the right way?
Vidhya: Invite yourself to meetings. Meet more people across the organization. Have coffee with them and ask them to invite you to meetings whenever they can. And you can add value by being the note taker for that meeting. Offer something of value and go to meetings which can expose you to the micro-cultures that are within the organization. That’s how you can understand before recommending or advocating for customers. Just understand the ground level problems these the teams are facing.
Apply the same research principles. First, starting to understand instead of starting to ideate or advocate. First understand the problems by going to different meetings, by going to market research, data science, and engineering meetings. You don't have to understand, you just have to immerse. Now as researchers, we work across different domains. Not that we understand all the domains. We're not experts in healthcare, and education, and IT, but the only ability that we have is starting with a beginner's mindset. It's the same thing that's required here. So if I go to different meetings, understand the problems, then circle back, I start understanding who is an influencer, who is the decision maker, and who is struggling but doesn’t have a voice.
Find a way to connect to that person and see if you can solve their problem, even in the smallest way. And maybe you’ll start building champions at different levels. You don't always have to talk about the qualitative research methodologies and ethnography and put people to sleep. What you're doing is truly trying to understand if there's a problem from their perspective to see if you can add value. If we just bring it down to that one first principle, I am certain that we can add value, get buy-in and be a powerful change agent in our own way. That's what I would tell anyone.