Gregg Bernstein About Speaking

Changing my mind about research practices

I keep changing my mind about research practices.

Sometimes I believe that our role as researchers is to democratize the practice—to make everyone a researcher and teach best practices. That’s how we instill a culture of research and demystify the act of understanding users and product context.

But then sometimes I think democratization is a great way to minimize the value of research and researchers. We don’t ask engineers to devote a few hours each sprint to sales calls, yet we expect that research is something that everyone can and should tack on to their other responsibilities. If you hire a researcher, let them lead the research.

Sometimes I believe that it is our responsibility as researchers to “prove the value of our work” to our colleagues. Since research is far less understood—and staffed—than other disciplines, it’s on us to show how valuable it is to listen to users, and to demonstrate how to do so methodically and rigorously.

But then I think about proving the value of research and want to scream GTFO. Researchers bring a unique and powerful skill set to any org. If you’re hired into a research role, someone made the case for research headcount. Someone wrote a job description. Someone approved your salary. If you’re still facing obstacles and having to prove your value after you’re hired, that’s not on you—that’s on your manager or director. Tell them to step up.

Sometimes I think that the best way to make an impact upon starting a new role is to establish a quick win with a tightly scoped project. This dovetails with my thoughts above about proving the value of research: once you establish evidence that research really does fit into a product design calendar, everyone will buy in.

But then I think that a quick win is premature and performative. You might end up working on the wrong tightly scoped project—one that is based on the misinformed ideas of an executive or director with good intentions but little insight into what would truly be useful. Or your tightly scoped project is too scoped—or too devoid of context—to be helpful to anyone. So then I think that a better place to start is to do nothing but learn how your org works for your first 90 days. Observe. Listen. Ask questions. Then you’ll know where research can really make an impact.

Sometimes I believe in the power of a shared research repository. If you put all the useful information in a searchable, usable, accessible place, everyone can learn from it! No one has to guess, because anything we need to know is a query away.

But then I think that researchers should curate the repository and act as the interface between colleagues and research data. Researchers are great at separating the wheat from the chaff. They keep folks from glomming onto any half-assed data point they find in a repository that supports their already held opinion.

Being a researcher means being comfortable with ambiguity. Every time I think I have things figured out, that’s a signal that I should prepare to be proven wrong.