Standards and definitions are often unifiers for a field of practice. Common approaches, philosophical roots, and success metrics operate to pull practitioners together so that they may understand how they fit into a broader business context.
User Experience (UX) research is uniquely not unified in this way. We have varied definitions of who we are, how we do our work, and what it means to have done the job well. Personally, I love that our field operates like this – it gives us even more of a qualitative edge. We are skilled at managing and communicating the ambiguities of people’s lived realities – and we can’t always put a number on how we come to knowing and leveraging those realities.
Without such concrete boundaries holding our field together, the reaction can sometimes be to establish our value with ROI or other quantifiable metrics. Mapping the outcomes of research directly to a design decision, that then affected some kind of change in user/customer behavior is sought, but damn hard to pinpoint. In parallel to the charge for these quantifiable metrics, is the demand that UX practitioners operate more like arbiters of design decisions, ushering cross-functional teams through the mess of creative energy.
The dialog on our value needs to shift toward a more human-centered approach. Right now, we measure the distance between old offering and new, as observed through behavior change. We are measuring the entire value of the User Experience team through a single factor of the team’s potential impact. The offering is touched by so many hands, and often gets to the UX team late, so what are we measuring when we use behavior change as the metric?
This is not to say that we should not look at behavior change as a success metric. But, it would be more meaningful if it was internal teams’ behavior changes, not users’. As such, User Experience’s impact might best be unified and measured through an HR lens. User Experience teams can impact company culture greater than it can impact offering outcomes.
As an industry, we should set the expectation that our work should be considered across various cultural factors, such as communication, wellness, and performance. In more detail:
1. Communication. Well-executed research is able to pull together cross-functional teams, resolve debates, and establish internal folklore about users. It also can do this for the internal team. The work it takes to align teams on research questions, discuss identifying criteria for participants, and share research findings all rely heavily on communication skills. Researchers are fabulous communication facilitators between and among teams, and their value is probably best measured by their ability to make the collaboration points meaningful.
2. Wellness. The time and space it takes to develop a credible research study allows teams time to reflect on the work they are doing. Rather than operating on auto pilot, User Experience research studies give everyone a moment of pause to think more empathically about the user. Introducing more meaning and context to the work that is being done has profound effects on employee emotional wellbeing.
3. Performance. When done well, research has actually demonstrated to pull together creative teams more effectively than heavily process-based approaches. The abstract nature of User Experience research, being more qualitative in nature, tends to encourage teams to seek more points of convergence along the nebulous creative path. Research becomes important milestones along a project, and the scope of that research can reveal if a project is doing well, behind, or perhaps becoming asynchronous with other parallel processes.
The way we should value User Experience research shouldn’t fall solely on its expected outcome, this will set our industry up for failure. If we look at our success more through the eyes of an HR perspective, we might have more room to express our value to the business, but also give us the freedom to use our skills for internal betterment, not simply offering betterment.