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Research Can Lead: A look at UX Research career progression

Hello, I am Andrea Lewis and in mid November 2020, I gave a talk at the UX Live 2020 conference with a very simple title: Research Can Lead.

I like to think my talk was really a call to action.

Here I do my best to provide a transcript and summarise the talk, but you can also watch it if you prefer:

During my talk, I asked the audience to join me in an interactive discussion about UX and user research (UXR) and career progression in the role. Frankly, this is a topic on many minds in UXR, regardless of level in our UXR career.

First, let me introduce myself because I rarely do conference talks or write articles like this — and that is entirely my fault. My poor excuse is that I’m often consumed with my own projects and work, but I realise the power of community and sharing. I’ve held many roles over a long career in digital services, working with global brands in the commercial space as well as government/public sector.

Andrea’s work experience and UX career overview

My initial UX role was Information Architect (IA) figuring out mega menus. However, for the past 10 years, I’ve solidly focused on UXR and spent most of my time working in the UK public sector.

I’ve been fortunate enough to manage large UXR teams and have trained and mentored many ‘newbies’ and junior researchers. I’m currently working for a large UK Government department leading a team of about 20+ researchers, with about a 50/50 mix of permanent staff and freelancers.

The topic of career progression is at the top of my mind and something I discuss often. I get so many questions from my team about research leadership and where and how far they might go.

I’m UXR focused, so of course, this talk (and now article) has key themes I’d like to consider: role clarity, career maturity, ambitions vs aspirations, blockers to leadership, and inspiration to keep going in the UXR field.

I consider myself quite fortunate to be able to manage and lead other researchers. Part of leading a team includes a lot of one-to-one discussion about where members of the team ‘can go’ with their chosen profession.

The UXR community has been buzzing about careers and where we all ‘can go’ for some time now. I’ve certainly seen, by the flurry of activity on the topic, UXR careers coming up in my social feeds.

Some are frustrated, but many are hopeful.

Unfortunately, the more hopeful are those new to the UXR industry and the more frustrated are those most senior in their UX research career.

“After 7 years of being a user researcher, I wonder where my career progression will take me. I’ve always had an inkling that there will be a pivot somewhere…” - Gavin Fung, Sr. UX Researcher (via LinkedIn)

This post I saw on LinkedIn from Gavin Fung struck a chord. I have heard similar from senior researchers on my teams, but sadly I often have no answers. Gavin makes his point by sharing an article with a similar sentiment and an even more foreboding title — The UX Research Leadership Quagmire

The article shared is by Alec Levin and Alec opens with a first line that is quite damning: “For a lot of people, myself included becoming a UX/user researcher sucked.

Okay, at this point I take a deep breath. As someone who spends a so much of my time trying to recruit, hire and train talented UX researchers, this is painful to read.

There are three key points Alec made in his article that I’d like to consider closely:

1. Employers don’t know how to evaluate UX research candidates.

2. There’s no straight-forward journey into UX research, unlike software engineering or design.

3. To be a competent researcher, you also have to get really good at stakeholder management, time management and all other forms of self-management.

I certainly agree with the two at the top points but that 3rd point is actually a good thing in my book. But why is it not for Alec and others who share this point of view?

Alec goes on to say,

“At some point, you realize that there’s nowhere left for you to grow to. Our colleagues in engineering and product have directors, VPs, and even C-suite executive roles to grow towards, and as researchers we have nothing.”

We have nothing.

That line is another painful summary of the UXR career prospects. Alec makes quite a few great points but his real gift in that article is this — he includes a video of a talk by Matt Gallivan called ‘Stepping Out from Behind the Two-Way Mirror: Research as a Leadership Function’. It is a brilliant talk and worth a watch, but I will share a few relevant points here.

Matt offers the UXR community a bit of hope — and clearly, he’s had to field tough questions from his own team of researchers about where they can go.

Matt talks about leadership and boldly puts forward that research can lead many of the teams we already support with knowledge and evidence. This is quite amazing and groundbreaking.

As UXRs we’ve seen ourselves in a supporting role for so long.

But Matt says there is hope, and that we can lead amongst our colleagues in in product and design — even across the entire organisation.

Returning to Alec’s article, I realise he may be quoting Matt’s words because they offer inspiration but with a twist as Alec writes:

“The desire to grow and learn (and earn more?) is a powerful force. If researchers can’t find a way to do that in research, they’ll find it somewhere else.”

Somewhere else?! That sounds to me like mass resignations and UXRs leaving the field in droves just when they’ve reached the right level of seniority to really make an impact.

Our best and most ambitious senior researchers will go elsewhere because the UX research industry hasn’t sorted out a career progression that excites and inspires them.

A reminder to those reading — As a team leader in UXR, I spend about 50% of my time recruiting, maybe even more, so this idea of an exodus is truly damning.

I now begin to wonder, does every UXR feel this way? I did a bit of research into this enigma of leadership and progression to understand— what is leadership, really?

In my search I kept coming across a diagram called Drotter’s leadership pipeline model. The model is referenced frequently, even if altered a bit, there is a persistent premise around progression.

Stephen Drotter’s leadership model and the Charan, Drotter & Noel book on leadership

In Drotter’s model, leadership begins with mastering the management of yourself and your own time, skills and outputs. The next tier or level is then leading yourself toward either excelling as a senior expert in your field or moving into manage others in your field. Then eventually moving on to higher tiers or levels where one manages other managers in their field, and so on and so forth, up the ladder.

In certain versions of Drotter’s model, the six turns or passages between each stage of the pipeline are described as representing major events in the life of a leader.

Defining what each passage or turn means and the challenges involved in making each transition, rising to the next tier or level, can help organisations to build a clear UXR leadership pipeline.

For example, a collection of churches in the USA use the model and it’s quite brilliant — one begins by leading and developing the self, then grow into leading followers, and eventually leading other leaders. The model takes a different spin as it includes aspects of personal spirituality, but one can easily see how such a model could work for the UXR industry.

In my personal experience, Drotter’s interpretation of what leadership progression can be is mostly true for UXR progression paths. In my world, I’ve hired both experts, freelancers, and contractors to deliver and hit the ground running as well as also hiring, growing and mentoring permanent staff up through the ranks from very junior to the most senior.

But I add this major caveat: In the world of UXR progression and career pathways, I believe there is a glass ceiling or a career plateau.

I have found that, between managing other UXR managers and moving on to wider functional leadership roles in UXR, I’ve hit a blocker. Why? Because there seems to be no clear progression for UXR in the very senior levels of organisations — or at least, not yet.

I admit I am right at that level of the glass ceiling as a head of team and UXR role leader. My face is so pressed against the glass ceiling that I am often one with the glass. So very often I am the sole voice of the user at the leadership table, but that is only when I am invited to sit at that senior leadership table.

So why continue? I continue to embrace UXR leader roles because I know too well how much a productive UXR team needs or rather requires a functional leader who understands UXR. We in UXR deliver outcomes for design, product and operational services and yet we are often working in an organisation where UXR is still too new or too vague or just classically misunderstood.

So what can we do? What can any of us do?

I go back to Matt’s talk and his encouragement, that promised land of ‘something else’ — that promise land of leadership, of a way forward and upward!

And Alec agrees. He ends his article with a positive sentiment:

“The hope is that as researchers move into leadership roles in other parts of the business, we’ll have strong advocates in place to facilitate the creation of research leadership opportunities in the future. I think that’s something to be optimistic about.”

Hope? Optimism? Huzzah! These are wonderful words and my UXR heart sings.

But I also have to ask, what is happening? What is blocking us in UXR from reaching those upper levels of leadership? The levels where UXR can really make an impact?

I’ll take a guess at that now. Although we in UXR want and crave that leadership, many of us are not really sure what true leadership means. What it this golden stuff of UXR leadership that might take us beyond leading a pure UXR team? I believe the blocker is that we lack a shared knowledge and shared understanding in the UXR industry. Establishing a clear and shared view would ultimately help us to establish UXR as a clear profession.

Okay, quiz time.

I have my personal views on what makes a good UXR leader in my organisation: Strong, can defend the team, or disable an attack, is the first in battle to protect and defend UXR findings, and the living representation of a strong function.

So for this quiz, I’d like you to ask yourself: What are the signs of a good leader in your business? Now list them before reading the next bit.

Back to Matt’s talk. Perhaps Matt also saw that there is lack of knowledge and perhaps even a lack of grooming of UXRs into leadership roles. He shares quite brilliant answers —

Leadership looks like: Thinking long-term + Having a point of view + Speaking up

NOT like: Attending more meetings + Getting a certain title + Managing people

So did you get the right answers when I asked you to think of what makes a leader in your current organisation? Okay, some might be thinking “Andrea, you asked what leadership looks like in my current organisation and I told you. How can it be so wrong?

Well the true answer is that maybe your organisation isn’t giving you the right knowledge or formula about what leadership really is.

UX and UXR careers may hit a leadership plateau

I invite you to think along with me now — if UXR has a ‘glass ceiling’ as I described it, then perhaps this plateauing of leadership in UXR profession is by its very nature the real blocker to our progression. Why indeed are we in UXR not able to access those higher levels in an organisation and progress to running the whole show?

In fact, to get to that next level of leadership, we must make a fundamental pivot.

Unlocking that higher level is about a change in our perspective. Just as my quiz using Matt’s leadership is and isn’t list of what real leadership looks like may have changed your perspective today.

Let’s go back to Drotter’s model and pay closer attention to those passages.

What is the critical passage from Team Leader to Leader of a Function or the entire Business leader? It’s Passage 3, so not really that far up and it’s where leaders learn how to manage areas outside their individual expertise for the first time.

Knowing the challenges to overcome at each leadership passage will be critical for UXRs

Curious about Passage 4? Getting through that passage is about holding profit & loss so managing a budget and being responsible for the bottom line and financial performance or repercussions.

There is an entire book about this leadership pipeline and often recommended reading for team leaders:

Charan, Ram & Drotter, Steve & Noel, Jim. (2001). The Leadership Pipeline How to Build the Leadership Powered Company.

Some of us in senior UXR leadership may indeed be in very senior roles, but if our role is solely focused on managing UXR experts or budgets, then we are still not really in that moment of experiencing ‘pivotal’ leadership growth.

To make a real impact, to evolve as a discipline, to start this action of elevating UXR to true leadership roles — we must leave the UXR tribe. We love our craft so this must be tough to read, but we must move ahead with no fear or hesitation. Many of us were doing other roles before UXR.

If you do indeed plateau and hit some sort of glass ceiling, all is not lost. Your leadership skills are incredibly valuable and might be best used elsewhere. So my biggest suggestion and recommendation is for UXR leaders to apply to roles outside of UX and User Research. Shocking, yes, but also necessary.

When you succeed in getting a non UXR leader role, and that’s a definite when not an if, then bring in or lean on the UXR function to support your new world. We know our UXR evidence as an insight function stems from a solid foundation in social science, and we know we have something amazing to offer organisations at every level.

It is time to take a stand and demonstrate that we are truly a professional UXR industry and not merely a loose collection of experts.

Now, it is time for action. We are now face-to-face with the future of our industry. Others have seen it, I am not the first to issue a rallying cry but hear this now and hear me clearly. The moment is now for leaders in UXR.

The author of the most profound rallying cry so far has been Molly Stevens, a UXR Director. In her motivational article Escape Velocity, Molly says:

“The time has come for Researchers to define our own path. It’s time to define our discipline before we’re splintered apart by people who try to control, define, and own what we have to offer. We must not let other people define our discipline.”

Can you hear the UXR war drums beating? Can you feel the researcher energy changing? I can.

Do take a read of Molly’s Escape Velocity article or see if you can find the video of her conference session. There is much to nod-along-to in there and her article got many UXR leaders talking.

Again, looking across my social networks, I could see many reactions and nodding along to what Molly wrote. First was Jeanette Mellinger’s post on LinkedIn that broke down Molly’s points about the UXR profession into these basic three:

1) Be seen as the scientists we are.

2) Be specific and precise about our roles.

3) Break away and stand as an insights function.

Maybe within a few days I saw another mention of Molly’s article in my social streams. This time a LinkedIn post by Amanda Rosenberg, another UXR leader. She focuses on the first and second points about being scientists and being precise and specific about UXR roles. This is a big topic and I don’t think many of us in UXR fully agree.

Are others who are not in a UXR role allowed to do UXR work?

Amanda says boldly, no: “I don’t believe in the democratisation of research. Our PMs, Engineers, and Designers are not Researchers.” And she makes a very valid point.

I actually stumbled upon Amanda’s post because a UXR in my network commented on her post. I’ve known Jacob as we worked in the same organisation a few years back. He reply to the post was what captured my attention and he also has a valid but different take:

“But if the choice is to have someone talk to users or no one, what do you do? I’ve worked in organisations where someone was going to build something, whatever happened. In those situations I’d rather that someone spoke to some users and played what they had found back.”- Jacob Bonwitt, User Researcher (via LinkedIn)

Perhaps if I quizzed this audience again, I’d get varying views on this topic of UXR democratisation. I’d rather save that hearty discussion topic for a live exchange and conversation with UXR colleagues.

My point including it here is that we may have a bit more work to do on unifying our professional standards and views. How can we unite and set collective standards? And, isn’t it amazing how much we all love our craft? And also, isn’t it amazing how valued our craft is? I can see that love, passion and value in both points of view above.

On a final note, Molly shares a critical point that is indeed the crux of her Escape Velocity metaphor:

“We must move out from our standard position as subordinate to other disciplines such as Design and Product.”

Subordinate? Earth-shatteringly glad she said it.

I wonder if doing so might feel like betrayal to our design and product brethren? Well, we in UXR already push back on product and design — at times that IS the role. But, perhaps we shouldn’t? I mean, aren’t Product and Design our leaders and bosses? Aren’t we merely a step in their business critical processes and wider functions?

Is UXR a sub-discipline?

Are we a support function for product and design? I’m not sure we are. More importantly, I think we can be so much more.

So UXR folks, I say let’s all join in on this rebellion.

Frankly, I often give similar advice to my team when they come to me grappling with pushing back to product and design teammates. It’s always in that moment when they’ve hit such a formidable roadblock or must step outside a comfort zone to craft an elegant push-back. We in UXR know all too well that fight for users when faced with a horrible MVP. We also know our insights are powerful and can stand alone when other disciplines in the organisation might turn to us. We know or evidence can inform much more than product and design decisions.

And, to anyone in Product/Design who might be in the audience, we in UXR do love you, so please don’t take offence. This call-to-action as an attempt to inspire rather than alienate.

Keep in mind, the reason user research is part of multidisciplinary teams is to ensure user-centred ways of working and thinking.

We are critical to product and design teams. This is because Product and Design can be led astray by business goals and so are not always nor traditionally user-centred disciplines. Also, user research as a distinct role is still in new for many industries.

So, what comes next? What do we in UXR do now?

Let’s flood the leadership job market with UXR leader CVs and resumes.

Flood it, and let your UXR talent rain down like Manna from the heavens. Let’s unleash our UXR goodness on the world. See a VP Design role? Yup, hit apply. Is that a Head of UX job? Then tick. Thinking about that Chief Design Officer role? Hell yeah, go for it!

For any recruiters in the audience, if my advice to UXR leaders shocks you then I must ask, why not UXR leaders for those roles? UXR leaders are the evidence and knowledge holders in organisations.

For Senior hiring managers concerned with my suggestions, then I encourage you to consider how powerful leading with empathy has proven to be for organisational success and loyalty. Wouldn’t a UXR be the perfect person to lead in thoughtful ways?

So I say to UXR seniors who may be hitting that glass ceiling or feeling stuck — yes, go for it and apply to leadership roles in product design, but go beyond your comfort zone.

We should flood generalist UCD, Product, Design leadership roles especially, but I also mean something else.

I encourage UXRs to start looking at senior leadership roles outside of UXR differently. Start seeing these job adverts as intended for you. Because research can lead.

Below I share my interpretation of Drotter’s model for the UXR career paths based on all the functions we support across an organisation (borrowing from Matt’s view of the industry).

Andrea’s view of how UXR is already on a leadership pathway in product & design

We are already functional specialists in Product and Design, we provide evidence, we build roadmaps aligned with delivery, we are agile. Why do we hesitate in owning these roles? Could these roles exist without our expertise? I’d argue that UXR is a critical ingredient, and I’d go even further to say that good UXR (data insight) is the most valuable ingredient.

But there are a host of other areas too.

Andrea’s view of possible UXR leadership pathways across industries

We are differentiating already. There are UXRs who work more closely with Data/AI as a specialism. There are UXRs more skilled at supporting more MarCom, Sales and Growth as a specialism for e-commerce and software-as-a-service models. Indeed, there are also UXRs more skilled at influencing content or content-heavy products/services as a specialism.

The differentiation is already happening. UXR can support a variety of disciplines, but we must also infiltrate the higher ranks of those disciplines.

Do not bend at that glass ceiling.

What if we don’t want to go? Meaning, what if UXR is exactly where we want to be in terms of a profession? You might be thinking, “Andrea, you are mad, this is my dream job, this is what I love.” Maybe UXR work is what gets you out of bed in the morning, maybe you think you’ll never leave, or that you just don’t really belong elsewhere.

Okay, then stay in the UXR field.

We need leaders in UXR to lead our profession into being that credible, insight function within an organisation.

It won’t happen without our unity as a profession. It won’t happen without a collective effort.

So be that UXR discipline Leader who can improve standards. Start navigating your current organisation and make friends that help you to push beyond just playing a supporting role to Product and Design alone.

Hint — if you are in a commercially-oriented company, get closer to Sales, if you are in the public or non-profit world, then get closer to Operations. Be a part of moving the UXR dial within your business, and show them first that Research Can Lead.

For sure, any advancement in our profession requires collective action, collective thinking. I’ve spent a lot of my talk, this article sharing the ideas of others. It is not for lack of individual thoughts.

I’ve thought along the same lines as Molly, Matt, Alec, Jacob, and all the other UXRs I’ve mentioned. It is a good thing to have common ground and common views across UXR.

There is no groundbreaking or unique theory here, just a call-to-action and arms because we are all feeling the pain of being in a subordinate function.

UXR is heralded as so valuable and vital to product development, yet, we rarely see our leaders at the helm of product driven organisations.

It is up to our best and brightest to start taking centre stage, on all stages.

Why I think research is best poised to lead, right now.

1. UXR standards and processes are taking shape. (ReOps as global governance.)

2. Tools most relevant to our craft are surging. (Remote analytics/video.)

3. Our global UXR community eagerly shares best practice knowledge as open-source.

When is the right time for this stepping up? Now.

Why? Well, it’s now or never, and now is the perfect time.

Do you realise I mean YOU can lead? You, that UX or user researcher, are the one I am reaching out to and I don’t even know your career level.

What I do know is that you may doubt yourself or hesitate, I know you may not be getting much encouragement to break that glass ceiling, but you don’t need anyone’s permission to step beyond your UXR role.

You don’t need permission to break that glass, it is there to be broken.

You don’t need anyone’s permission to lead or be a leader, just remember what real leadership looks like.

So does UXR really suit the rigid structure of Drotter’s model?

I would describe my own career as perhaps more fluid, with loops and crossovers instead of hard edges. These represent the times I have stepped out to be an expert, an entrepreneur, stepping into an organisation as an employee because I loved a product or team, or wanted to grow, or wanted a change of pace.

UXR is damn flexible — it’s one of the reasons I love the profession. You can bend and flex, exit, re-enter, pivot, go up, go down, across. It all depends on where you are and what you want or need.

I think leading yourself is where to start.

If nothing else, what we prioritise at this moment in time should be our mental health and well-being. Our lives should be aligned with our career, not defined by our career.

Are you happy and healthy, both physically and mentally? Then maybe you are already exactly where you need to be in your UXR career.

Looking after yourself right now is no bad thing. Ambition and ladder climbing are great but it’s been a tough year and some of us may just be tired.

We’ve been through some things, both globally and individually in 2020. So self-love is what I preach right now above all else. If you’re in your Pandemic pyjamas while listening to or reading this, there’s no judgement from me at all — all are welcome!

Lastly, I just want to thank you for your time and attention.

It has been my pleasure to share this call-to-action and I hope some of what I’ve said has resonated or inspired you.

UXR brain with a UX view of digital

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