The UX-ification of research

The word ‘thoughtful’ appeared many times in an excellent, recent profile of Google CEO Sundar Pichai. It’s not a word that is often associated with Silicon Valley. These days it feels like open season on big technology companies. They are accused of being unwilling, or unable, to address the (un)intended consequences of their innovations. Thoughtfulness is not a typical descriptor of their response to the burden of influence that weighs on them.

Their innovations have altered the fabric of everyday life. But they have also changed the conversation about how organisations get stuff done. Silicon Valley has not just bequeathed us life changing technologies. Their dictums have changed how we think about research, strategy and impact.

“Move fast and break things”. If you want to make a “dent on the universe” you need to ship first, evaluate later, then iterate. Speed, in this version of events, is everything. In the UK, the Government Digital Service’s nostrum is that “Delivery is Strategy”.

This way of looking at the world, like its creations, has rippled out far from the Valley. I once saw a scrappy print out of Zuckerberg’s exhortation to move fast on the wall of a consumer goods company. Everyone nowadays, it seems, wants to move quickly and break things.

This quest for speed has changed how organisations think about and do research. It has also affected activities that research supports: strategy and innovation. Research has become less about questioning underlying assumptions and engaging with the complexity of culture and more about testing and validating objects and artifacts.

I call this trend the “UX-ification of research”. I think it’s a dangerous trend that needs to be resisted.


Do versus Think, Fast versus Slow


All organisations – and their many constituent groups – operate at different speeds. Classically, R&D departments have been the epitome of long wavelength cultures. They tinker and explore over long periods of time. R&D efforts are often supported by longer range socio-cultural, trends or market research.

This way of doing things research is about sensing the wider environment. It’s about building the social and emotional intelligence required to create new ideas. It helps de-risk R&D investments and outputs. In this way of doing things research is an “opposable thumb” that helps organisations get a grip on the reality of the world.

This ‘slower’ wavelength approach is under threat. In part, that might be a good or necessary thing. As former colleagues at Intel pointed out in what I believe is a seminal paper – Models in Motion: Ethnography Moves from Complicatedness to Complex System – the world is both more complicated and complex now. That complexity requires different R&D models.

(It’s true too that I am exhibiting nostalgia for sort of slower, tinkering type of R&D wonderfully captured by Jon Gertner in his history of Bell Labs. But then this place did create nearly all the major technology innovations of the C20th so they must have been doing something right).

But speed is everything now. A desire to move quickly and break things means that research is often relegated to an after-thought. Do first, think later. I call this the UX-ification of research. From many conversations with practitioners in the industry I gather I am not alone in seeing this shift. Allow me to step into the breach and call a spade a spade on their behalf!

What’s going on?


First, and most simply, longer range, more thoughtful ‘sensing’ research is being de-prioritised. In its place comes UX research with a focus on optimisation. UX is a bolt on when “user needs” that have been captured (or merely posited) have already been acted on by product teams.

Second, “user research” is the vogue. I loathe the term, not least because I subscribe to Redström’s view that “People, not users, inhabit the world. A ‘user’ is something that designers create”.

A ‘user’ is to user research as a ‘consumer’ is to market research. A uni-dimensional abstraction. A great way to flatten out the richness of everyday life and make the user subservient to your creation. User research, as I understand it, is focused. It’s trimmed down to meet specific design goals. It’s not an instrument for revealing and revelling in the complexity that a smart organisation needs to grapple with in order to prepare for an uncertain future.

Third, this form of ‘user’ research is increasingly aligned to more rapid product cycles or sprints. Research has become harnessed, unwittingly, to the dominant mode of production. Rapid, iterative cycles. The agile tail now wags the research dog.

If research is in service to product it cannot easily be in service to an organisation’s need to have a point of view on more profound questions.

If research is trimmed down to focus only on what is necessary for a specific purpose, how can it enrich an organisation’s understanding of other cultural phenomena?

Fourth, the social organisation of work in many large companies is now speeded up to align with sprints and accelerated product cycles. This is the new temporal rhythm of organisations. Time for thinking, being thoughtful, and being critical or questioning gets erased. 30 minute meetings are the default in many technology companies. Top-lines, key insights and headlines are the coin of the realm when research has to conform to this rapid organisational pace.

Finally, the UX-ification of research is about efficiency. It is the natural bedfellow of cost cutting and the stripping out of everything that has the look of a “nice to have” . “Make it work, optimise the UI and UX then we can ship. Don’t encumber us with surplus understanding”.

Research, in this way of looking at things, and to paraphrase Kevin Kelly “knows what it wants”.

Research, as I see it, is about the unexpected and unanticipated. If we knew what we wanted to discover we wouldn’t call it research.

Maybe I’m mourning a (mythical?) past when research was speculative, deliberative and a ride into the unknown. And , for sure, a case can be made against long wavelength research projects that result in lovely PowerPoint but don’t add up to much more. But we have clients who bravely resist the temptation to turn research into an exercise of validation or requirements gathering. Sometimes I sense that they are fast becoming the exception.

I believe the UX-ification of research is a bad thing for researchers. It’s a bad thing for product. It’s a dangerous thing for organisations.

Research is about creating a space where opinions are discussed and debated. Good research create a ‘public sphere’ in organisations. A sphere of debate where status or silo are less important than opinions supported by data. Most importantly, research creates organisations which privilege the view from outside. Culture, not the pre-determined needs of scientists and engineers, drive decisions.

The innovation over the last twentieth to fifteen years have wrought huge social change. As the ‘thoughtful’ Sundar Pichai admits in his interview not everyone is ready for that change (and there more to come, with AI, ML, autonomous cars, VR and combinations of all those things on the near horizon). Pichai was opening a space for organisations to re-commit to understanding the world not just the user. To explore the unknown, not just gather requirements.

A more thoughtful mode of research enquiry will lead to better product. It also creates better attuned organisations ready for disruptive shifts. Organisations able to anticipate the second bounce of the ball.

In times of flux and complexity research as an exercise in ‘optimising the user experience’ is not the answer. It’s time to push back against the UX-ification of research.