Navigating change: User research as a compass during uncertain times

The world today is a strange one to be building products in. We’re adapting to an ever-changing digital landscape, where AI conversations swamp newsfeeds, and mass layoffs loom over the tech industry. Economic uncertainty is the new normal.

In this landscape, the role of user research is more critical than ever.

In 2023, 88% of people working in product said they believe user research fundamentally links to effective decision-making and business success. However, to cope with the current recession, many organizations are cutting their research budget. Why is this? Is there a way to demonstrate the value of research, even in uncertain times? How can organizations benefit now, more than ever, from understanding their users?

The overlooked role of research

I believe there are several reasons research is often the first to go.

Partly, it is due to the nature of research outputs: while user research provides both quantitative and qualitative data, results come in the form of digital reports, video/audio clips, or workshops to collaborate on solution ideation. Product teams garner ideas, user sentiment, and deepened understanding, rather than lines of code or a newly-designed mock-up—sometimes making it feel less tangible than other elements of product development. Feeling further removed from the practice makes it an easy target when it comes to budget cuts.

The shelf life of research can also vary greatly. Depending on the circumstances, a research report could be relevant for a few months, years, or the company's entire existence. What's more, the time from research to product results is a waiting game. Where designers can immediately show a revised sketch, or devs can prove the success of fixing a bug, researchers rely on following teams to action feedback, users to engage with the product, research to be conducted following the change, and analysis to show the improvements.

User research is flexible and malleable—this is one of the great values of the craft. However, if stakeholders don't understand how to review the success of research or how shelf life varies, research can quickly become expendable.

User research at full capacity is business-changing

One of the key reasons researchers and research budgets are being cut stems from a simple misunderstanding—or rather, a lack of understanding.

Research is more than it is currently used for.

Consider the research typically conducted by your organization. What does that look like? According to a recent article from Judd Antin, ex-Airbnb and Meta researcher, we should be utilizing three broad types of UX research:

  • Macro research: strategic, business-first research which generates evidence for business decisions
  • Middle-range research: mid-level user and product research, focused on user understanding and product development
  • Micro research: detailed interaction analysis, technical usability testing, and in-depth behavior analytics

Judd suggests the issue comes when businesses and researchers have blinders on, and look only at middle-range research. Dalia El-Shimy, Head of UX Research at Miro, says: "Macro research helps businesses identify new viable opportunities to take on—new problem spaces, new audiences, new markets—and as a result, it can play a role in increasing revenue."

Middle-range and micro research can then be used to ensure products work in a way that meets user needs and expectations. By utilizing different types of research, “This allows product teams to move faster and with greater confidence, increasing their velocity to get the right solutions to the market and decreasing development costs."

Ultimately, by stepping back and considering the entire research function, as a strategic tool, organizations can unlock a wealth of information and guidance. During a recession, taking advantage of this can be make-or-break.

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Why research is crucial in uncertain times

Without user research, teams would guess their way through development and risk focusing on the wrong solutions, wasting precious time and money. Research brings forth clarity from assumptions and prioritization from a minefield of ideas.

Here's just a few ways research is pivotal during uncertain times:

  • It steers product decisions: user research derisks decisions by ensuring every step of product development is informed by user needs. It guides not just what solutions to build, but how to build them—meaning you avoid wasting resources on the wrong decisions.
  • It keeps the team aligned and maximizes efficiency: having a clearly-defined set of goals, driven by data and user feedback, is pivotal to keeping the whole team focused on the objective. Use research to validate and evidence your roadmap, unite the team, and ultimately boost productivity.
  • It gets ahead of competitors: connecting with your users during uncertain times is a guaranteed way to increase retention and customer loyalty. Showing you value their opinions and want to hear how they're doing, and how you can help, builds connection. By understanding your users better, you can create empathy-driven, user-centered products that stand out in an increasingly competitive landscape.

Committing to the right things = increasing ROI

A study by Forrester found that every dollar spent on UXR brings $100 in return. This amounts to an ROI of over 9,900%. Dalia explains, “While we can debate the actual numbers, the heart of the matter is that UX research helps teams build the right thing in the right way."

During an economic shift, it’s even more crucial to be efficient, and ensure you’re investing resources in the right places. Efficiency is the ability to achieve maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense. And to achieve maximum productivity, we must first realize what is most important to focus on, and be intentional about what we commit to.

Research—in particular product discovery—is a vital tool in this process. It reveals:

  • What problem users have
  • The best solutions to that problem
  • …what solutions users actually want (and will spend money on!)
  • The best way to build those solutions

Discovery uncovers what is most important and keeps things on track—even more critical in uncertain times, when companies need to be diligent about their plans, manage resources, and set intentions.

It doesn't matter how fast you're moving if you're moving in the wrong direction.

Dalia El-Shimy, Head of UX Research at Miro

As Dalia explains, "Without the strategic direction that research can identify and inform, teams risk building solutions that don't meet users' needs, challenges, and expectations."

After discovery, UX research ensures the product works effectively, in the way users want it to. Then, continuous product discovery and post-launch research like website usability testing means products remain serving users, evolving along with their needs, and staying relevant for years to come.

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Connecting with users in a human way improves retention

Connecting with users and embracing a human-to-human approach is a great way to gain trust and loyalty—and thus retention. Data from Maze’s Continuous Research Report shows that research positively impacts product adoption and activation. In fact, 25% of respondents selected ‘product/feature adoption’ as the highest-impacted area by research, with customer satisfaction, activation, and conversion closely following.

In times of uncertainty, we must look for ways to become closer with our users, and better serve them. In turn, this will better serve your business.

By conducting research and gauging user feedback, you'll discover what your users' expectations are, how their needs are evolving, and how you can provide solutions which can truly impact their lives. You may discover a feature which has found a new lease of life, an update users would be eager to receive, or a pivot the product could make to meet users where they are, and evolve with them. One of the foundations for building great products is empathizing with your users—how can you do that without talking to them?

Maximize the data available to you

One common objection to conducting research is, 'We don't need user research when we already have data science' or 'We can save money by only doing [single research type].' While I'm a big fan of data science, and any research is better than no research, it's safe to say that relying on quantitative data alone can lead you down an inaccurate or—at best—shadowed path.

User research offers a plethora of feedback, data types, and metrics. Use them!

With your product goals in hand, consider what research is possible, and what metrics you need to arm your team with the best chance of creating (or iterating) an industry-changing product. As always, the best research comes from a combination of data:

Quantitative data alone rarely paints a clear picture, but user research as a whole can provide a narrative to help contextualize the numbers. This creates empathy and a deeper understanding of your users—ultimately improving the quality of the final product.

Per Lindstrand, Product Manager at Spotify

Numerical trends gathered from high-level product reports or data science are undeniably valuable, but they’re only part of the story. Per Lindstrand, Product Manager at Spotify, explains: "More often than not, the context and questions will change as you learn more about the problem. Be nimble, be adaptable, and listen."

User research enables your team to shed light on not just the problem, but the context that surrounds it. When every penny counts, businesses can’t afford to skimp on understanding and planning. Research is critical for gathering the full context, whether you’re planning a new product, a feature update, or a bug fix.

Investing in user research benefits the entire organization

I've heard many excuses as to why an organization doesn’t need user research—and I've also seen the aftermath of what happens when companies stick by this philosophy.

Yes, research is about connecting with users and understanding their needs. But it also offers a strategic foundation upon which to lay decisions; it provides skilled, versatile employees; and above all, it ensures survival of your product, and backs every decision with real user insight.

There are different strategies businesses can take on when facing an economic downturn, but staying afloat throughout one ultimately requires lowering costs or increasing revenue—and user research can help on both fronts.

Dalia El-Shimy, Head of UX Research at Miro

Investing in research shouldn’t be optional—even more so when times are uncertain. Your user researchers are vital in connecting you with your customers, setting a clear direction for your business and product, and empowering the entire organization to learn.

User research has a lasting ripple effect. You might have originally done the work to serve the needs of one team, but over time its impact will grow and evolve. User research is like a backstage team—even though they may not be on stage in the spotlight, the show can't go on without it.