When Growth Feels Like Failure

One of the weirdest paradoxes I’ve recognized in my career is that the more strategic you ARE, the less strategic you may FEEL.

UX researchers tend to be people who like to see the impact of their work and feel that they have made a tangible difference in the products their teams ship. This is, after all, why most of us were attracted to applied research in the first place. In addition, this is often what we’re asked to show in resumes and portfolio presentations. What was the impact of our work? The ideal storyline is “I identified this problem, designed research to understand it, developed recommendations for a solution, and then we solved it”. Case closed, victory all around. These stories are clean, they play well as we sell the value of our own work and of research more broadly. However, as researchers climb their career ladders these stories often start to fall apart, causing angst, discouragement, and self-doubt.

Here are a few key things to keep in mind on the way to becoming an influential strategic player:

  1. Ripple effects are part of impact. The most impactful research shapes the way an organization thinks and approaches problems. Ripple effects include insights to be leveraged, approaches to be replicated, assumptions disrupted and shaped, and sometimes how the organization views and resources research as a function. These are huge and indirect.
  2. The bigger the ship the slower the turn: the time between research and outcome stretches the bigger the scope of the project and impact. It’s often months before stakeholders value insights and years before things ship.
  3. Ownership becomes communal: While one researcher may have done all the research for a small feature, for a multi-year product strategy research is often one input into work done by a large and shifting collective. UX research may influence the thinking of multiple teams and stakeholders who build on it.

Personally, as I became more senior, I found that showing “impact” became more complicated, not less. As the scope and complexity of the problems I worked on expanded, it became harder and harder to point to specific artifacts that showed impact. Also, emotionally, things felt worse and not better. I would wrap up a massive project, tie a bow on it, present it and often get greeted by a collective shrug from my stakeholders. It was massively frustrating! But then a funny thing happened. 6 months later, 12 months later, people would start coming to find me about the research I’d done and being excited about it. Then an even funnier thing started to happen, which was that people kept referring to that work for years. The frameworks I created were deeply influencing how my organization understood a problem, but my name was no longer on the credits for any particular project, I could no longer point to specific features that I’d worked on. The biggest impacts (aquisitions, multi-year product roadmaps) were not things I could or would claim credit for, except as influencing a tiny piece of a huge effort primarily formed by other thinkers.

It took me years of frustration to understand this dynamic and paradox of my UX research. I started to be able to anticipate which projects people might not value right away, and started to learn how to identify the right audiences for different projects (sometimes for example marketing were better strategic allies than product at first).

When I moved into research management I stopped thinking about this as much (although to some extent there is a similar insight to be gleaned about management). As my team has matured and moved from testing products and working on small features to influencing our long range product strategy and shaping how our organization learns, I’ve relearned this lesson through watching my team start to encounter the paradox themselves. Shaping how people think is harder and more frustrating than shaping an individual product, but the impacts ripple out way further. 

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