elephants at sunset

How UX Research Can Break Down Barriers Across Teams

It's time to break down organizational silos across all teams that talk to customers & conduct powerful user research.

10 mins read

Qualitative UX research is one of the primary drivers of decision-making for all organizations. 

Executives and organizations make decisions based on the conversations that they’ve had. The stories they tell. The feedback they receive. 

But it’s hard to quantify this reality.

“Something that fuels me even today is the idea that qualitative research is valid and scientific,” our CEO Prayag Narula says. “Today, if you ask most people in an organization, even researchers, they say quantitative research is more data-driven, and qualitative research is anecdotal, not scientific nor a base for making decisions. Qualitative research doesn’t get its due — I want to change that.”

One way Prayag is changing it? By talking to other powerful voices who fly the flag for UX research.

Like Lou Rosenfeld, founder of Rosenfeld Media, one of the biggest publishers and communities in the UX space.

The two research fanatics met a couple of times this year to share their advice for breaking down organizational silos with solid research practices.

Below are the highlights. 

(Or maybe you want to hear it all? We approve! Watch “The Big Picture of UX Research: How to Break Down Organizational Silos” or listen to “AI’s Role in Qualitative Data.”) 

Article Summary

  1. Cross-Functional UX Research
  2. Centralized User Research
  3. Research Synthesis and Organizational Silos
  4. How to Tie User Research All Together
  5. Current State of the Research Industry
  6. Key Takeaways for UX Researchers

What is Cross-Functional UX Research?

To ground the conversation around UX research, Lou likes to share a folk tale that illustrates the importance of breaking down silos.

Long ago, six blind men went to visit an elephant to quell their curiosity about the great beast.

The first one walked into the elephant’s side and remarked, “the elephant is like a wall!”

The second grabbed a tusk and said, “an elephant is like a spear.”

The third blind man, grasping the elephant’s trunk, cried, “elephants are like snakes!”

The fourth man went round the elephant’s leg and stated, “the elephant is like a tree.”

The fifth man managed to get hold of the elephant’s ear and said, “this elephant is like a fan.”

Finally, blind man number six clutched the elephant’s tail and declared, “an elephant is like a rope.”

The blind men argued incessantly, each defending their stance about what they think an elephant might be. 

If only they’d sat down, discussed and collated each of their conclusions, they might have truly understood what an elephant is. 

The moral of the story?

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 

“If you’re only listening to one blind man, you’ll be stuck with an incomplete and unbalanced view of your customers and the world they inhabit,” Lou once wrote. “That’s risky organizational behavior: you’ll miss out on detecting (and confirming) interesting patterns that emerge concurrently from different research silos. And you likely won’t learn something new and important.”

A healthy balance of research tools and methods will give you a chance to really see the whole elephant.

Many UX researchers don’t realize the power they have to lead this conversation — especially when they’re new to a company.

Here’s Lou’s advice for getting started with user research:

  1. Conduct an ethnographic study of your organization. 
  2. Draw a map of who does what and where they gather research & insights.
  3. Go beyond your immediate vicinity to really figure out what makes the org tick.

“This exercise is not only going to be really valuable for you, but as a deliverable, it could be really valuable for the whole organization,” Lou said. “That’s a way to put research on the map in a tangible way for the whole company.”

Prayag compared this to best practices within consulting firms:

“Talk to any management consultant, they spend most of their life doing qualitative research.

The Importance of Centralized UX Research

Lou spent the early 2000s as an independent contractor, providing information architecture consulting at a strategic level for large organizations. Research was already occurring at these companies —various departments were conducting their own studies. There was a problem though. 

“You knew there was stuff to be learned, stuff that they already hired researchers to do. Yet you couldn’t get your hands on it. People didn’t even know about each other in these large organizations,” he said. 

He illustrated this with an example from his time working with a large financial services company in Silicon Valley. Lou, heavily into search analytics at the time, wanted to learn more about the kinds of searches people were performing on the company’s website. He asked some employees to help him out with the firm’s search logs

“I was working with really sharp people — they didn’t even know where to look. It took nine months of searching before they finally found search logs in a unit based in Omaha, Nebraska,” he said. 

A problem that arises due to non-centralized user research (i.e., not easily accessible across an organization) is a duplication of effort

One team, unaware of research being carried out by another, is likely to waste time, effort and resources conducting the same research. This gets worse over time.

UX Research Synthesis and Organizational Silos

Had the six blind men shared their views, they might’ve surmised that an elephant is an animal solid as a wall, with large ears like fans, sharp tusks like spears, thick legs like tree trunks, a tail like a rope and a slithery trunk like a snake. 

Lou likened the blind men to various departments in an organization, each conducting their own research:

“They’re often looking at the same problem from different perspectives, getting different insights. If you don’t put those things together, you miss out on so much that you can learn.”

He highlighted the importance of collaboration among teams carrying out research within an organization.

“True insight comes from the ability to take different strands of research that are developed by different tools or using different methods and put them together in a way that leads to synthesis,” he said.

Synthesis of various insights leads to new discoveries and can help researchers uncover answers to deep questions behind their studies. Say you have good web analytics that answer the who and what behind a question. You may also have access to studies that tell you the why behind a question

“If you put those things together, they’re really powerful,” Lou said. 

Organizational silos inhibit the synthesis of insights. So why do silos occur?

Large organizations are usually the product of mergers and acquisitions. The integration of two different companies is a crucial step in fostering a cohesive culture moving forward. Key decision makers overseeing the process who drop the ball create organizational silos. 

Lou mimicked their sentiment: “We’re happy to buy the company, we’re not happy to do the maintenance work of the integration.” 

An organization takes time to benefit tangibly from its user research 

Apple’s success in publicizing UX as a research practice is evidence of the long-term reward. Executives driven by metrics and earnings can lose sight of the value of research in the short term, though. 

This is detrimental to the research infrastructure in the company, inevitably leading to organizational silos. 

The blame doesn’t lie squarely at the feet of executives and decision makers, though.  According to Lou, the onus should be on researchers themselves. 

He encourages research teams to make friends across their organization to prevent falling into silos. 

“If you’re doing qualitative research, do you know the data scientists well in your organization? Are you going out and meeting them? Are you having lunch (or) setting up a brown bag series with them so you can learn together? These things that don’t cost much in terms of money or time, but pay huge dividends down the road,” he said. 

How to Tie User Research All Together

Ultimately, who brings this all together? Moving forward, should there be a specialized role created for the intersection between various disciplines and the synthesis of ideas and learnings across an organization? 

Perhaps we already have a role for this purpose…

“I think it should be called leadership,” Lou stated. “That’s what leaders are supposed to do — they are supposed to orchestrate (and) work on tricky areas. They’re supposed to be the people who connect areas like product, tech and design. They’re the ones who have the big vision, the big picture.”

To avoid bickering like the blind men, leaders and researchers need to work in unison to prevent organizational silos. Communication across the company is key in reducing duplicative efforts and increasing the value of insights. An accessible, user-friendly, centralized research repository helps too. 😉

Current State of the UX Research Industry

As humans, we get stuck in moments. We create definitions. We create categories to make sense and boundaries. 

Lou explained:

“Moment prisons are definitions or metaphors that have a very short lifespan and they’re really useful for a little while and then get stale and are no longer useful. In fact, they’re damaging, negative in many respects. An example? Coining Information Architecture in 1998; we needed a term without baggage to help people who came from different perspectives. After a while, the term started accruing baggage and becoming problematic. Suddenly people were saying, I’m an information architect and that means we do this. Someone else might say, what about interaction design? We start building silos around things.”

Other examples of moment prisons within research: 

  • Minimum Viable Product
  • Agile
  • Design Thinking

So what does a “moment prison” mean for UX researchers in this exact moment? 

We’re going to share the direct transcript because it’s so important…

Lou: There’s a couple problems. One is, research is still new to the DNA of most organizations. It’s not that they haven’t been doing research, but they don’t think of it explicitly and intentionally at a strategic level. People who ultimately make decisions aren’t thinking about it as seriously as they could.

It’s also not respected. Researchers often come out of social sciences and the world’s going to STEM. We don’t value the social sciences like we should as a culture. We also probably fall into the trap of our culture’s misogyny because you have a lot of women researchers, maybe disproportionate compared to developers.

So who are you going to lay off? Researchers are getting laid off at a far higher level than designers. The reason is a lack of understanding of the value of research, combined with the fact that companies have short-term goals and that research is a long-term proposition. There’s also more being spent, which creates more expectation. Research takes time and many organizations, especially large ones, are driven by their quarterly earnings reports. Those things are not compatible. 

Prayag: What does this mean for researchers moving forward? Does that mean a return to research consultancy and contract work?

Lou: Yeah, that’s the way we’ll get through the next couple years. We have to be flexible – you’re still doing research. A lot of people are going to be doing solo or ‘gig’ work. That’s going to give us some good skills as a group (or) field that help us grow and succeed in the future. If you can sell your skills to clients, you’ll be a lot better at selling your skills to the next boss.

A lot of senior researchers or managers have gotten to the point where they’ve reached that seat at the table. Now they’re facing challenges of a new variety. They didn’t win the war. They won a battle, but there’s new battles. Those include things like dealing with democratization, creating teams that are diverse and able to serve and research diverse populations, having more strategic conversations and how to actually work with your peers.

Designing & Researching with AI: What Challenges Do You Foresee?

Prayag: So the problems are broad, but at least there are more people doing research. You’re calling (it) more expectations and a seat at the table, which is I think huge. What I’ve been seeing is a lot more heads of design coming from research rather than the traditional design field. We had Jared Erondu, head of design and GM at Lattice, talking about his expectation that it’s going to happen more and more as AI does a lot of automation in the design. What and why to design becomes much more important than how to design it.

More design and product leaders are going to come from the research space. It seems like research is starting to get that attention from the top that it has always created and deserved. I’m pretty optimistic. There are a lot more people doing research and research is a lot more permeated throughout the organization today than it was even 10 to 15 years ago.

Lou: Design is going to be commodified sooner than research, especially with some of the AI tools coming out. Commodification is going on and everyone’s freaking out, understandably,about getting laid off, yet research is becoming more important at the same time. Ultimately research becomes a competitive advantage. As much as we hate them sometimes, we owe Apple this enormous debt of gratitude for publicizing UX. How many of us explain UX by saying, “it’s like what Apple does and why you like their products better”? That’s where the term was coined. Why Apple and not Sony? I see something similar for research. Maybe it’s not as apparent yet, but we understand that research is something that does make a difference in many settings.

Practical Takeaways for UX Researchers

From Lou: I hope if you get anything from our conversations, it’s the two concepts of (1) having a balanced menu of research methods and approaches, and (2) using them in a way that fits with this thing called time. There are things that you can do every day as far as your research goes. There are also things that you might only do once a year or even less frequently and then stuff in between. Those two concepts of balanced research regimens and cadence for when you do your research, I think are really important concepts.

From Prayag: Qualitative research is one of the primary drivers of decision making for all organizations. I would argue it’s the primary driver of decision making for anybody on a personal level as well. Executives and organizations make decisions based on qualitative data. It’s happening in multiple places in an organization, not just design research. Qualitative research is a big part of pricing. A big part of strategy is qualitative research. Talk to any management consultant — they spend most of their life doing qualitative research.

Dive deeper into the power of UX research:

The Big Picture of UX Research: How to Break Down Organizational Silos 

The Role of AI in Qualitative Data

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These interviews were recorded and transcribed using Marvin. Learn more about how Marvin can improve your qualitative research.

Photo by Mylon Ollila on Unsplash

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