Designer Confidential

Designer Confidential: All the opportunities are in product design…but I love research

4 min read
Emily Campbell
  •  Dec 10, 2019
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Welcome to the next installment of Designer Confidential: a new column sharing practical advice on solving your toughest challenges like transforming your organization, creating a better-connected workflow between designers and developers, and building a great team. Submit your questions via this form, email us at designbetter@invisionapp.com, or tweet at us at @InVisionApp. Our question this week is from a UX researcher who is considering a career change.


I love user research and have been a user researcher for the last three years. I want to continue to remain in user research, but there are more opportunities for product designers. Should I make the switch or remain in this role?

—Signed, Conflicted UXer

Your question poses a common dilemma. It seems like what you’re really asking is: “How can I have more impact in my career?”

Let me take the time to clearly state that researchers definitely have a large impact on the final product. I think you feel that since, in many organizations, design research is siloed at the beginning or end of a product’s lifecycle, that means that there are fewer opportunities for researchers than product designers. While this may be true today, I think this is only a temporary state, and that research will play an imperative role in the new future.

In our report “The New Design Frontier,” we found the role of design research changes as an organization matures. Think about it this way: In lower-maturity organizations, like many relatively-new tech start-ups, design is focused on the look, feel, and interactions of a product. That means research is siloed at the beginning or very end of a product’s lifecycle. For example, market research is conducted at a product’s outset to highlight which trends should be incorporated into the design, or, after a product is shipped to assess its usability.

(Check out “The New Design Frontier” to learn more about how design impacts business.)

In these smaller, less mature companies, why does research take a backseat? Because, in these companies, speed is prioritized over everything else—the mentality is to “move fast and break things,” and cross the finish line as fast as possible. According to Laura Martini, Staff UX Designer at Google, many companies are able to do this simply because they joined the race as early as possible and don’t have to compete to attract new clients if they’re the first to ship. However, as they mature, this strategy of shipping new product after new product loses its efficacy.

Dave Malouf, revered design leader and co-organizer of the DesignOps Summit, shared in our DesignOps handbook that maturing organizations often get stuck in a “Groundhog Day scenario” of asking and answering the same question over and over again.

In order to move forward, organizations need to focus on creating a great holistic client experience across multiple channels. And to do this successfully, organizations need a wealth of data that deeply understands the needs, perspectives, and behaviors of its users and customers. Research can no longer be a siloed, waterfall process; instead, it must touch the entire organization, across integrated, agile teams.

“Unless you know what direction you’re running in, you’re not going to get across that finish line any faster,” Martini says. “And, in fact, you’re often just running in circles because you haven’t defined where that finish line is.”

Some of the best organizations have already realized this: For example, The Home Depot does an “Upfront Phase” in all of their design sprints to copiously research and identify areas of their customer experience that require innovation. Capital One conducts open-ended, foundational research labs that pair traditional researchers with design strategists.

Many companies have even started creating Research Ops departments. While still nascent, this department serves the entire organization and treats research as a product in and of itself. For example, Atlassian has a department that focuses on answering strategic questions and supporting product teams across the organization.

According to Lori Kaplan, the company’s head of design, members of this team develop and train internal stakeholders on research-based products. For example, one team member recently constructed questions for strategic cloud migrations alongside leadership. Atlassian also has a research group that identifies areas of customer experience that require innovation and analyzes responses from both internal designers, developers, and customers.

This is all to say that, as many companies mature, I predict that there will be ample opportunities for you in research moving forward. Who knows? In a few years, you may find yourself in a new role integrating research into scaling product design processes, or holistically incorporates it into multiple departments and dimensions of an organization.

Your current company may even find they’re ready to invest in a Research Ops program and promote you to lead it. While you may feel limited now, these advanced positions you seek may just simply not exist yet.

However, if you still are considering a career pivot, ask yourself this: What about research drives you? You may be passionate about the scientific practice of research itself and enjoy objectively collecting and assessing data that could be applied in numerous ways. Luckily, you’re able to transfer these skills to many different positions. For instance, while researchers may be responsible for screening and recruiting participants, facilitating research sessions, and delivering synthesized findings, product designers may participate and aid throughout the entire process. They may even own more ad-hoc or small scope research projects themselves during the design process.

Is it the service element of research you’re inspired by? Do you like how it allows you to work on narrow problems in a holistic manner? If this is true, I’d recommend talking to those in DesignOps or Service Design to see how their roles center around service.

Do you like the discovery phase of product development? If yes, maybe a change to conceptual prototyping, co-creating, or market research would be a good fit for you.

No matter what path you take, remember: The future of design is highly collaborative. Don’t feel like you have to hold the title of design researcher to conduct research. What does matter is knowing what drives your passion and allowing yourself to invest in it. Once you do that, you’ll gain confidence that your inquisitive skills will help bring value wherever you land.

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