User Research: Too little, too late?

User Research: Too little, too late?How this neglected and abused role is really the secret savior of modern business

Looking around at job boards, I see two trends in the area of user research:

  1. More businesses are hiring for this role and skillset
  2. Most companies fill this position later in their lifecycle

We live in a world where user research must be a priority and appear earlier both in a company’s lifecycle and in a product’s lifecycle. Very similar to other tacit roles like product management and UX design, companies assume that the skill or function gaps of the position are being covered with overlapping roles from other departments. Take Product Management, for example. Before a company hires their first Product Manager, they assume the engineering, marketing, and executive teams are performing all the core Product Management functions. Somehow, this disparate group is expected to handle the wide ranging functions of a Product Manager, but it often falls short to the detriment of the entire company.Given their importance, why do user research roles show up at larger companies too late? #Unify Click To Tweet

Most of us know the unfortunate reality of using a product that was designed with user experience as an afterthought—it’s just no good. But that’s exactly what results when a designer gets their first crack at improving the experience only when the product is in the final stages of engineering instead of when it’s in first-draft or just a fledgling idea. Of course the product will be lackluster, even after the designer wages a harrowing yet futile battle to make it useable and beautiful.

Sure, today more companies are becoming user-centric and putting more focus on the customer experience. It seems inevitable that as more products and services are differentiated only on their ability to deliver value in an intuitive, simple, even pleasurable way, the need to understand—and even empathize with—the customer will be critical.

Given their importance, why do user research roles show up at larger companies later in the lifecycle? On popular job sites, user research roles are found at companies with 1,000 or more employees. It’s mind boggling that modern software companies put user research so far down on the list of priorities. They don’t seem to view user research as a critical step toward a fully developed product. The truth of the matter is, as described above, most companies believe someone is already doing the job. As products hit the market, pivot, evolve, iterate, and grow, someone must be doing the research, right? Otherwise, how would they be so successful?

The sad truth is, most companies and their products fail. Exceptions are those that got something right, though we seldom know exactly what. Assuming the successful companies have structured departments for marketing, sales, development, and support, it’s likely that there will be successful outliers by pure luck. So it’s conceivable that an industry leader could arrive at tens or hundreds of millions in revenue before realizing they don’t understand their users and their growth becomes stagnant. Often while the company is still scaling, attracting media attention, and acquiring adoring fans, the management team gets an early whiff of the stagnation. Growth rates start to drop, new popular products or features become less frequent, and the customers who used to beat down the door for more slowly morph into well-behaved, complacent email list subscribers.

If they’re lucky, someone finally says it out loud, “We need a better understanding of our user and our market.” To the management team, this news is earth shaking. To avoid panic in the streets, that same group of leaders rarely acknowledges the situation, but instead looks to bring on the talent required to right the ship—and fast. Enter the user researcher.

By this point, the company’s leaders have forgotten how much of their initial success was built without titles like PhD, MBA, Master on the payroll, so this user researcher is no regular empathetic customer-focused employee. No, for a task as important as understanding the user in these troubling times, the company will seek a statistical expert with several credentials and a cumbersome research process that is sure to thwart the success of any effort.

Fast forward two years, and plenty of companies do gain the insights needed to start moving in the right direction, but many others do not. Despite their army of researchers, it’s too little too late.

I prefer to take a different view. I believe smart companies double down on user research roles early. I believe that the future of successful products and companies will be full of stories about companies who rode the wave of their first few successes to bring on more talent in the core function of understanding the user. I work at a company that has a good handle on the target customer and knows the things they want to accomplish, and we’re showing the expected success. But why stop there? Why wait until the future doesn’t look so rosy? Despite our upward trajectory, we’re choosing to add user research sooner rather than later.

It’s clear that user research is a crucial way to invest in success that is both scalable and sustainable. That puts companies like ours ahead of the curve, which also happens to be right on time. Check out the great roles we have available.