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Predictions for user research in 2021: part one

6 minute read

With 2020 finally over and 2021 already descending upon us like a herd of Black Friday shoppers looking for a PS5 deal, we thought it’d be a good time for us to take stock and reflect—and while we’re at it—crack out the crystal ball, don our best soothsaying cloak, and make some bold predictions about the future of customer research for the big year ahead.

To help in this endeavor, we’ve recruited two of the best divination specialists out there—Alec Levin, CEO and Co-founder at UXR Collective in Toronto, and our very own CEO and Co-founder of Dovetail, Benjamin Humphrey. Between the two of them, they have served us up a smorgasbord full of spicy hot takes, tastily prescient predictions, and refreshing well-trodden wisdom. And (as you can probably tell from the title) we had so much on the menu, we decided to release it in two servings, so keep your eyes peeled for the next course.

So without further ado, let’s draw the curtain and get the show started.

Today’s Specials

  1. Democratization of research will be inevitable

  2. An increasingly online world will drive the demand for research

  3. Video will continue to play a large part in conducting and consuming research

  4. Reports will become more interactive and collaborative

Democratization of research will be inevitable

It’s been a recurring and somewhat controversial topic in the research community for a long while now. Still, Alec Levin is coming down hard on one side of the fence: Democratization of research is inevitable.

He says our current ways of working are not sustainable. If organizations can’t hire enough researchers to conduct research, it becomes important to involve stakeholders in the process.

As is common with the debate around democratization, there are many different approaches, opinions, and definitions of what it would look like on a practical level. “When we say the democratization of research, it elicits some strong feelings from people,” acknowledges the UXR Co-founder.

A more precise word here would be the structurization of research. It’s about being intentional about where you require research expertise to learn something and where you don’t.

“For example, it doesn’t make sense anymore for researchers to be doing usability tests. Because, honestly, that work is not too difficult. Other people can do it,” he says. “Compared with an in-depth ethnography, which is really hard—you need training to do that. That’s a good example of democratization. I think it’s an inevitability because there’s just too much we need to learn.”

It allows researchers to focus on stuff that’s important but not necessarily urgent.

In today’s hyper-connected world, competition moves fast, opines Levin. There is increasing customer demand for well-designed, user-friendly products and services. “It’s even more important than ever to stay on top of what’s going on,” he says. “You’re going to want your researchers focusing on higher level, big, strategic, sometimes multi-month projects, rather than just helping with the product team’s usability issues.”

An increasingly online world will drive the demand for research

In the 90s and early 2000s, your average internet user was likely to be young, male, educated, affluent, and urban and not a member of a racial or ethnic minority group. They were also almost certainly from a Western nation—shockingly, only seven percent of the world’s population were online in 2000 compared with 50 percent of the US population.

In a relatively short period, this has changed—dramatically. “We’re quickly approaching 100 percent of people being online,” says Levin.

In the early days of the internet, building a product or service for other net users required you to understand a group who were more or less just like you. “Now, all of a sudden, instead of everybody having the same socioeconomic status, literally every socioeconomic status is represented,” says Levin. “Instead of everybody speaking the same language, having the same culture and the same values, now everyone has every single culture and value set represented.”

“As the world has become more connected, our intuition has changed dramatically from something really useful for building products and services to something that would lead us astray.”

If you’re trying to build something, what do you do? The answer is research. Research is the only way you can figure out what other people who aren’t like you are looking for, want, and need.

Video will continue to play a large part in conducting and consuming research

Three factors have spurred on the increased usage of video in research over the past few years, according to Benjamin Humphrey, CEO and Co-founder of Dovetail.

  1. Speech-to-text natural language processing and AI have reached a point that is both affordable and accurate, allowing for high volume transcription tools like Dovetail, dScout, and Otter to process large amounts of research data.

  2. Cloud storage and bandwidth have become cheap and accessible, allowing for a huge amount of video data to be recorded and stored.

  3. The COVID-19 pandemic means researchers are conducting more remote video interviews than ever before, giving the format increased relevance and utility.

This trend will continue, says Benjamin, as researchers come to rely on raw video footage broken up into small segments as a way of synthesizing findings and presenting them to stakeholders.

Reports will become more interactive and collaborative

“We know the read rate is quite low for reports in their traditional form; they’re offline, disconnected from the data, they aren’t really searchable, and they’re not standardized,” states Dovetail’s founder.

In the next year or so, reports will evolve with richer source material, so it’s not just people’s notes. You’ll get higher engagement, and reports will become less long-form academic documents and more of an interactive thing.

We know video is more engaging than text—by a large margin. The impact from listening to an end-user or customer in the first person, rather than reading potentially biased notes, is driving a trend towards mixed-media reporting.

Further, PDFs aren’t interactive. “You can have a discussion about it in Slack, or you can put comments in there and have a discussion inside the PDF and almost secondarily analyze it or ask follow up questions of researchers and things like that,” says Benjamin. “But I think reports being cloud-based will enable more collaboration, with an increased feedback loop between the research and stakeholders.”

If research is getting more investment, headcount, and budget for software, says Benjamin, it comes with a requirement to demonstrate impact and ROI. Something that remains difficult to do with current reporting practices.

“You can’t really do analytics in a PDF. You don’t know how many people have seen it or what they read, or when they dropped off. Whereas with a video and reports that are cloud-based, you can do analytics, you can see how many people have looked at the page, how many have scrolled to the bottom, you can see when the drop-off is and after how many seconds it happened,” says Benjamin.

For a second serving of hot takes on user research in 2021, check out part two of the series here.

About the contributors
Picture of contributor to Method in Madness, Benjamin Humphrey.
Benjamin Humphrey
CEO and co-founder, Dovetail
Kiwi and classic mini enthusiast.
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