A Radical Proposal: Put UX Research In Charge

by Jared M. Spool

This will sound radical. Bear with me on this.

Product, Development, and Design should all report to UX Research.

That’s right. We’re talking about a research-driven organization. Everyone in your product, development, and design teams would report to your research organization, led by your Chief Research Officer (or maybe your Chief Customer Officer or even Chief Experience Officer).

Your research-driven organization would drive every decision based on a deep, shared understanding of the experiences of your users and customers. No more would your product managers have to guess what’s valuable to your customers — your research will tell everyone what’s valuable. No longer will your developers have a vague understanding of when a new capability is “done” — the research will clarify what users need from the capability.

Become the world’s foremost expert on your users’ experiences.

Your research organization, led by your CRO (or your CCO or your CXO), will start with one goal: to make everyone in your organization the world’s foremost experts in the experiences of users and customers.

Much time is wasted when your people don’t know who your users are or what those users need. Opinions abound, but there’s no apparent authority to say whose opinions match what your customers want or need.

Being research-driven would change that. Your CRO would have the authority to drive every decision from research.

What goes into your product roadmap? Your research would drive that.

What defines when your product is ready to ship? That would be driven by your research too.

What determines the delivery schedule of your new capabilities? You guessed it, your research would drive that too.

Everyone on your product, development, and design teams would be experts in the experiences of your users and customers. They would have the knowledge and understanding to make optimal decisions for your organization.

That doesn’t happen today because research efforts are entirely buried in the org chart. Research is under-resourced. What little research is done is inadequate to provide value to the organization.

No more fighting for exposure time.

It’s long been understood that the more exposure your product managers, developers, and designers have with your customers and users, the better the products and services you’ll deliver. When these colleagues directly experience the product‘s use (instead of hearing about it second or third-hand), they learn what solutions your customers need.

Yet, most research teams struggle to get anyone to pay attention to research, let alone regularly participate in it. In most organizations, those teams don’t have the power or influence to make exposure a regular habit.

If research were in charge, your CRO would make it part of the job of everyone who reports to them. They’d have the power to ensure your PMs, developers, and designers have regular exposure to a spectrum of customers and users.

This exposure would be deep and detailed. It would uncover the subtleties and nuances left out of most discussions today because everyone has a shallow perspective on who uses the product.

Those detailed subtleties would deliver insights to drive innovation for your customers. Your designers, developers, and PMs would know precisely what it would take to exceed your customers’ expectations and anticipate your users’ needs.

Research-driven roadmaps start with a solid vision.

Deep research delivers perspective. It surfaces many different opportunities. It shows what work is necessary (and what work is unnecessary) to make improvements in the lives of users and customers.

Some of that work will be easy to address. This can give your developers, PMs, and designers some quick targets to hit. Because they’ve seen what you’ve seen, they’ll have no trouble making quick decisions and delivering something valuable for customers immediately.

However, that same research will uncover problems that need more effort. These problems are likely things that nobody is solving. Neither you nor your competitors are working to make improvements for customers in these areas.

The difference is that you’re conducting the research, but your competitors aren’t. So you have a head start.

You can build a product roadmap with that understanding of those more extensive, more challenging problems. But not just any roadmap.

A roadmap where every new capability solves a fundamental problem for your customers. A roadmap where everyone in your organization can see the value. Few things are more inspiring than seeing how every little thing you do contributes to massive improvements in the lives of your customers and users.

Research makes teams more agile.

The better the research, the more agile your teams become. Your developers, product managers, and designers know exactly what’s expected of them as they start each sprint, spike, and epic.

Uninformed teams spin their wheels. They build things that don’t solve users’ problems. They deliver products that don’t provide value. Instead, they’re missing the critical information that points them in the right direction every time.

Siloed research doesn’t penetrate the product or development spheres. Instead, the knowledge might be somewhere in the organization, but it’s not where it needs to be.

In your research-driven organization, your product managers, developers, and designers will have a shared understanding when they start their next iteration. You’ll empower these teams to work more autonomously because you’ve ensured they have everything they need to make intelligent decisions.

Empowered autonomy is the key to true agility.

Research-driven is ideal for your business.

Businesses only succeed when they deliver products or services customers want and will pay for. Understanding what those customers will pay for shouldn’t be guesswork.

Research paints a detailed picture of every customer’s everyday experience. It pinpoints the frustrations those customers have today. It highlights unmet needs.

Research into new markets shows how your products and services could evolve. For example, your teams discover what would make the product more attractive for people who aren’t using it today.

A detailed research agenda uncovers valuable opportunities for your organization to address right now and in the future. Your organization would have a clear understanding of where you provide value.

Every vital business objective needs a solid plan for where the changes will come from.

Want to increase revenues? Which customers will give you more money? Want to increase retention? What new reasons will you provide customers to stay subscribed?

A research-driven organization focuses primarily on value creation, not value extraction. Senior stakeholders and executives will adopt a long-term view to building up markets and creating new value.

How would this even happen?

Becoming research-driven won’t be easy. If it was, you’d probably already have done it.

There will be politics to overcome. Someone else would need to lose control for the Research team to gain power. So it’s possible they’d put up a fight to do so.

Your organization would need to adopt new practices. For example, making decisions based solely on research means breaking some bad habits in today's decision-making.

More importantly, your research team may not be ready for this. It’s a big step to start working strategically. Most UX research doesn’t work at that level. It’s tactical.

This will require new skills and new mindsets. It won’t happen overnight and could take years to take hold fully.

Why would we keep doing anything else?

The benefits are evident once you start thinking about it.

Being research-driven is the ultimate in customer-centricity. It makes the entire organization human-centered. It puts customer needs and wants at the core of every decision.

No other approach to governing the organization does that. Therefore, positioning any research or insights team on the sidelines will never create the same impact.

So, I’m left with the question: Why would we do it any other way?

That’s the most radical thing about this proposal.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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