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The state of research in 2022, an interview with Janelle Ward
Interviews with leaders

The state of research in 2022, an interview with Janelle Ward

Last month we caught up with research leader, Janelle Ward, to talk about the state of research in 2022, how teams can help their organisation accelerate to an ‘insights-ready’ mindset, and how to truly maximise the value and impact of their research skills.

Dan Robins
December 2, 2022


Being a research leader in any organisation is never an easy job. Far from being just about research, success often comes from developing a far wider set of skills and understanding.

Last month we caught up with research leader, Janelle Ward, to talk about the state of research in 2022, how teams can help their organisation accelerate to an ‘insights-ready’ mindset, and how to truly maximise the value and impact of their research skills.

Janelle is Founder and Principal Consultant at Janelle Ward Insights, where she partners with companies to accelerate their insights-ready mindset and create research practices that supercharge their competitive advantage. 

She’s built a UX research team from the ground up and upskilled an established UX research team, for both B2B and B2C digital product companies. Janelle has 20 years’ experience as a PhD-level researcher and leader, both as a professor in the academic world and in UX research leadership roles. 

This interview is full of actionable advice and unique perspectives inspired by a career at the intersection of academic and applied research. Let’s dive right in…

Janelle, as researchers, how can we ensure that we’re delivering the maximum amount of value to an organisation?

When I first joined the User Research field, I quickly came to realise that getting the most out of research is not to view it as a service. It’s not about just doing interviews, or validating existing decisions and design assumptions. It’s about getting everyone onboard with a way of approaching problem solving. 

I think that the perception that research delivers something can be problematic because it doesn't do full justice to the value that research can bring to an organisation. It misses the breadth of the craft, and the collaborative elements that have the ability to change the mindset of an entire company. 

When research first comes into an organisation, you need to ask the question “what is its purpose? 

It’s obviously a deliberate choice to start hiring researchers, so there is positive intent. But I think that many companies fail to think very far ahead, and instead the rationale for hiring researchers is simply to “jump on the UX train”. This mindset opens us up to being seen as a resource that can be deployed.

Something I've been thinking about a lot lately is this concept of being ‘insights-ready’. 

Part of assessing insights readiness is looking at how a company culture is set up to receive outward messages from users. Whether it's through marketing research, UX Research, Data Science, or Customer Support -  how are these data points being used to make decisions? And given this type of user focus, what kind of culture is being fostered within the organisation? 

It would be amazing to work in a place where functions like Customer Success, Marketing Research, Data Science and User Research were openly communicating and experiencing the true benefits of a holistic approach to research. 

So in my view, maximising the value of user insights is often about how you’re set up as a team, and how that team functions within the organisation, on its own and in collaboration with other teams. Bringing in experienced leaders to steer the ship and set you on the right path can be very beneficial.

Historically in the product org, Research has had a close association with Design, does that have an impact on our ability to be ‘insights-ready’?

Great UX design starts with user insights, and research is an integral part of the design process. But research also has broader functions too. If you look at the possible applications of UX research, supporting design is super important, but it’s not all-encompassing. 

The challenge is when you join an organisation as a researcher, and you're ultimately reporting into a design team, who is ultimately reporting into a product team - you can find yourself in a position to make a lot of impact but it can also be constraining.

In my eyes, research is such a huge, incredible beast. It's slowly growing out of that corporate cultural association with design because of all the amazing practitioners out there who are stretching their insights and reaching across to other areas of the organisation. 

We’ve spoken before about the concept of a centralised insights function - do you think this is something that organisations will move towards in the future?

When I first started out as a UX Researcher, there was often a misconception that I was a UX Designer. Even though I was lucky enough to be in an organisation that gave us time to demonstrate our value through generative research, questions I often found myself asking were:

  • Why do I sit in the design team?
  • Why are we separated from other functions that are customer facing? 
  • Why are we only focusing on this part of the company?

And then I would start talking with someone in Customer Success, and then someone from Data Science, and realise that these functions were not collaborating at all. My first reaction was: “why aren’t we triangulating this”?

At the end of the day we’re all ‘doing research’ in an attempt to drive this organisation forward through an intimate knowledge of our users and customers. And that knowledge has so many applications. To me it felt like such a missed opportunity that our findings are reserved for a Design team, or a Product team, when this knowledge would be so useful for other teams too.

The reality is that we talk a lot about how we can work together, but because we're reporting to different people (who may not have the same goals), it becomes political. The challenge is that access to users and customers is a powerful thing - it’s not something that any department would want to give up. 

It really does depend on the organisation. Sure, in an ideal world, you would have this sort of centralised insights function, but unfortunately it’s not that simple.

What advice would you have for someone that would like to broaden the application of research in their organisation? 

I think the organisation itself needs to be ready for such a broadening. It's a really tough job to be a researcher in a lower research maturity organisation - if you know all the things you could do, and the influence you could have, but you feel pressure to stay ‘in your corner’.

I would suggest looking for ways to show people that we can add far more value across the wider company.

Let’s say there is some evaluative research that is really important. Your team needs some testing done at the end of this sprint.

At this moment you can say “I'm not doing this because my research skills are worth so much more than that”, (don’t do that, because it doesn't work!), or you can do the work within the constraints that you have, and when it comes to sharing your findings, also explain what we could have learned had we broadened the focus of the study - the things we don’t know but assume about our users for example. 

By doing this, you can begin to educate those around you by explaining that “this is an evaluative study - and we didn't leave room for open ended questions to better understand our users before we focused on their reaction to a feature”.

You can propose a broader scope, for example diving deeper into certain things that surfaced. So next time, we propose a generative study, or a study that combines generative and evaluative elements.

It’s often a case of showing people it’s not always about doing more research, it’s about doing better, more targeted, more robust research.

I'm reminded of my academic background. No matter how wonderful you think your research is, in academia, if you're writing it up and publishing it, you always have to include a ‘discussion’ section at the end. In this, you need to reflect on the shortcomings of your research - whether theoretical or methodological, or perhaps your analysis could have been better. It's like a piece of humble pie at the end of an academic article. You have to show that you're always reflecting on your process. And as an academic, I honestly learned so much from those reflections.

For researchers who might feel underutilised, I would encourage you to take that evaluative study as an opportunity to talk about the kind of work you want to do, and move forward by showing people what’s possible.

Closing thoughts 

Janelle has so much wisdom to share, and it’s unfortunately not possible to fit all of the topics we covered into this post. I’d highly recommend giving her a follow on LinkedIn if you’re interested in reading more unique perspectives from Janelle’s fascinating career.

For now though, that’s it for another Interview with Leaders blog post. To find out more about Janelle and how she can help your organisation to accelerate its insights-ready mindset, check out janelleward.com.  

Happy researching folks!

About Dualo

Dualo is an insights hub used by digital product teams to showcase their work and get more repeatable value from their user research and insights. If you're interested in learning more, please request a demo and a member of our team will be in touch.

Dan Robins

I’m a design, UX & strategy lead with a passion for storytelling. Proud member of Dualo’s founding product trio. Always seeking new inspiration.

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