April 25, 2024

Janelle Estes on shaping the next generation of UX Researchers

Janelle Estes, a Research leader, author, and lecturer, joined us for a Rally AMA on April 25 on shaping the next generation of UX Researchers. If you missed our live event, or want to revisit the highlights, read our recap below. If you’d like to watch a recording of the full AMA, follow this link

Who is Janelle?

I'm currently a lecturer at Bentley University in the Greater Boston area. I've spent many years as a researcher. Before joining Bentley, I was at UserTesting as the Chief Insights Officer. In this role, I was able to work primarily with UX Research teams within our customer base and sometimes those outside of it.

I've had the opportunity to meet with teams across various industries, company sizes, and maturity levels. I like to say I had a researcher's dream job: I got to research how research teams were conducting their research. Over the roughly eight years I was at UserTesting, I learned a lot and have seen our field continually evolve.

My experiences at UserTesting and Nielsen Norman Group, where I engaged in User Research and consulting, have brought me to a point in my career where I'm ready to influence and shape the next generation of UX Researchers. Now at Bentley University within the Human Factors and Information Design graduate degree program, I teach two classes focused on User Research and User Experience Research. Working closely with the students is incredibly rewarding and fun and marks an exciting time in my career.

How have research teams evolved over the years and what's the current landscape of UX Research like?

Our field has been shifting and evolving since it first started. Today is no different. We’re continuing to grow and shift and change. We have to keep what got us here front and center when we think about the future of our industry and how we need to evolve and adapt as professionals. 


In reflecting on this evolution, it's essential to consider where we started and the progress we've made. Initially, research was predominantly done in person. We rented lab spaces or brought participants into office settings, and sometimes we even visited them. Some of these methods are still being done today, but remote technologies like GoToMeeting and WebEx revolutionized how we connected with users, making research more scalable and efficient.

In addition to adopting remote technologies, we've redefined the recruiting process to be more efficient. We've transitioned from a manual, in-person process to one where automated analysis and testing solutions provide quicker insights. This shift has significantly sped up our operations, allowing us to achieve more in less time.

The scope of who conducts User Research has broadened. Initially dominated by trained researchers, now designers, product managers, and even non-research staff are involved. In some organizations, every employee is required to interact with customers monthly, fostering greater empathy and driving the creation of superior customer experiences.

Research frequency has also changed; what was once a quarterly activity is now conducted much more rapidly, providing immediate feedback. This accelerated pace allows us to address and incorporate user feedback before moving forward with design and development, ensuring that we're not only solving the right problems but doing so effectively.

The role of research has evolved – it’s now more focused on proactive problem-solving rather than just identifying usability issues. This evolution reflects broader industry trends and marks an exciting phase in the development of our field.


Looking at the current challenges, we face cutbacks and layoffs which have led to smaller teams or complete dissolutions. The integration of automation and artificial intelligence poses both challenges and opportunities, as these technologies could potentially replace some human roles. The uncertainty surrounding these changes generates anxiety and prompts us to reassess the value we bring to our organizations and to society.

As we navigate these uncertainties, I believe it's crucial to reframe how we perceive our role and the impact we can make. While I don't have all the answers, I am keen on challenging current practices to explore new opportunities for making a greater impact. This is an exciting time for our industry, and I look forward to seeing how we can leverage our skills and insights for the greater good. Part of this process involves utilizing our superpowers as User Researchers — those unique skills that allow us to deeply understand and connect with users — to redefine how we want to show up and contribute more effectively to our organizations and the broader community.

What are the major challenges that the UX Research industry is facing? 

Results based off a live poll during the AMA answered by 33 live attendees.

In the UX Research industry, many teams operate within the constraints of their designated roles, often embedded within product organizations in tech or supporting specific functions like website or mobile app development in ecommerce. Typically, these teams work alongside design functions and are confined to these areas by organizational structures.

A key challenge I've observed with UX Research teams is their tendency to develop unique processes and workflows that are distinct from the rest of the team's practices. Rather than integrating smoothly, these processes often require others to adapt to the UX team's methods, which generally proves ineffective. The more successful teams deeply understand and integrate into the operational styles of their partner teams, such as product and design teams. This isn't about conforming for the sake of ease but about leveraging their position to influence product design and development through effective collaboration and demonstration of value at critical points in the process.


It’s common right now to position UX Research within product organizations, typically reporting to UX design. This arrangement can restrict the scope and perception of UX Research, often relegating it to tasks perceived as less impactful, like simplifying user interfaces. While necessary, these tasks do not fully represent the potential impact of UX Research on broader organizational goals.

I envision a future where UX Research transcends its traditional boundaries, not just in location but also in function and perception. The term "User Experience Research" itself may inadvertently limit the perceived scope of our role. By reimagining and redefining where and how UX Research is integrated, we can enhance its recognized value and impact. This involves not only a shift in where UX Research teams are situated within organizations but also a broader reconsideration of what UX Research entails and its potential contributions beyond just usability.

These are some of the current challenges and areas where I believe we can push further to redefine the influence and reach of UX Research in shaping user-centric products and experiences.


Where should UX Research live in an organization?

There's a compelling argument for moving UX Research out of the traditional confines of the UX department and product organization, integrating it into a broader insights function. This shift would align UX Research with teams like market research and data science, fostering a comprehensive understanding of customers. Currently, UX Research is often segregated due to differing operational and reporting structures.

I see a lot of value in adopting a shared insights function. This approach would not only enhance collaboration with other insight teams but could also consolidate and leverage data across functions. This consolidation might also reduce the “turf wars” often seen between market research and User Research over responsibilities and domains.

However, merging functions raises concerns about potential redundancies and the need for talent consolidation. While challenging, this strategic shift could lead to more integrated and effective customer understanding. Another possibility for UX Research is embedding customer-centric practices across all organizational levels, not just within dedicated teams. This approach is already evident in some newer companies where customer-centricity is a core value from the outset, influencing all decisions and actions.

This more integrated approach could be unsettling for UX professionals accustomed to more defined roles but could lead to a broader, more impactful engagement with customer experiences across the organization.

Where can UX Research be most valuable today?

UX Researchers are pivotal in enhancing organizational engagement with customer insights. UX Researchers serve two important roles:

  1. They establish infrastructure necessary for effective customer interactions. This includes setting up training, processes, and governance to ensure that when employees engage with customers, they do so effectively—asking the right questions, handling data correctly, and sharing insights meaningfully within the organization. Research Operations, a field that has grown considerably over the past five years, is critical in maintaining the integrity and effectiveness of this interaction.
  1. They play a crucial role in disseminating customer insights throughout the organization, ensuring that these insights reach individuals who may not directly interact with customers. For example, they could facilitate indirect exposure to customer feedback via channels like Slack, where employees can see real-time reactions to marketing campaigns or product features. Alternatively, in physical spaces like office break rooms, they could set up displays showing video feedback or data on customer reactions to new updates or features, integrating customer perspectives into everyday employee environments.

When I first joined UserTesting, I went to a big fast food restaurant organization. While onsite, I walked past this room with glass walls that reminded me of a fishbowl and was filled with people lounging on beanbags, monitoring live social media feeds showing customer reactions to a recently released feature. While this direct data monitoring is insightful, imagine enhancing it by also showing videos of customers using the feature in real-time. 

UX Research's value lies not only in gathering and analyzing data but in making that data accessible and impactful across all levels of an organization. By fostering a culture that is genuinely human-centric, UX Researchers can drive a more profound, empathetic connection with customers, influencing decision-making and enhancing the overall customer experience. UX Researchers as key facilitators in integrating and humanizing customer data within business contexts.


What are some common misconceptions about User Research?

Results based off a live poll during the AMA answered by 30 live attendees.

→ User Research is inherently slow and expensive. 

The term "research" itself often conveys a sense of lengthy and costly processes. However, with the advent of modern tools, obtaining quick customer insights or feedback is more accessible and affordable than ever before.

A decade ago, when I was with Nielsen Norman Group, engaging in a study involved substantial financial investment — tens of thousands of dollars — and could take 6 to 8 weeks to deliver results. During that period, business operations didn't pause; teams continued to move forward. Sometimes, by the time the research was delivered, it was too late for the findings to be effectively used.

Today, the situation is quite different. Research can be conducted swiftly, ensuring that teams have timely data to inform decisions about features or competitive strategies without significant costs.

→ User Research is solely focused on UX and design. 

This is often believed due to its typical placement within organizations. This narrow view overlooks the broader potential applications of User Research across various aspects of a business.

Additionally, there is a challenge related to the actionability of research findings. While researchers are adept at collecting and reporting data, these reports often fail to clearly communicate the necessary actions teams should take. Researchers need to be able to translate insights into actionable recommendations that are easily understood and implemented by their teams. 

How can researchers build up skills that differentiate their offering to companies that are hiring? 

The job market has been particularly volatile in recent years, especially within the tech sector. This has led to significant shifts, including market corrections and organizational restructuring where UX Research teams are sometimes seen as expendable. How do we stop this from happening? How do we position ourselves to be critical to the business? UX Researchers have to demonstrate the indispensable value of their work.

One effective strategy is to ensure that the outcomes of UX efforts align closely with business objectives such as revenue growth, cost reduction, risk mitigation, and speed to market. Understanding business fundamentals, like reading a balance sheet, although daunting at first, is essential for speaking the language of decision-makers outside of the UX sphere.

Additionally, possessing a robust educational background can be advantageous. While a master's degree in a relevant field might impress some hiring managers, it's also about the ability to apply theoretical knowledge practically. Continuous learning and adapting to new tools and methodologies remains important.

Specializing in a particular niche, whether it's an industry sector like VR or gaming or a methodological focus such as advanced analytics, can also help differentiate a UX Researcher. This specialization should be evident in your portfolio and professional narrative.

Core skills such as strategic thinking and problem-solving are foundational in UX Research and are unlikely to become irrelevant. For example, when teaching usability testing in a graduate class, I encourage students to engage critically with literature and apply it contextually in practice scenarios. This type of deep, analytical thinking cannot be replicated by AI or simple algorithms and is where UX Researchers can truly add value.


Finally, inherent traits such as curiosity, observational skills, and the ability to analyze and synthesize information are invaluable. These skills enable UX Researchers to understand deeply and advocate effectively for users, ensuring that their role is seen as essential within any organization. Continuously honing these skills will prepare researchers not only to meet the current demands of the job market but to excel in their careers long-term.

How can researchers demonstrate that their work saves the company money by preventing the launch of a product that doesn’t work? 

Consider the costs associated with developing a new feature: 

  • the development time during sprints
  • training for support teams
  • education for sales reps on how to sell or explain the feature
  • marketing efforts required for launch. 

Each of these stages incurs costs, not only in terms of direct expenditure but also in personnel time and resource allocation. Also think about the potential long-term costs of launching a poorly received product, such as the impact on brand perception and company reputation if the product fails or is not adopted by customers.

UX Researchers can demonstrate their value by showing how their insights prevent these kinds of costly errors. It’s not only about the initial savings from not developing the feature but also about avoiding the ongoing costs of supporting, marketing, and potentially sunsetting a failed product. Encouraging companies to quantify these avoided costs can make the case for the critical role of UX Research in strategic decision-making.

What are some of the superpowers of User Researchers?

Results based off a live poll during the AMA answered by 23 live attendees.
  • Remaining curious: This innate curiosity is crucial for continuously gathering insights about users and improving products and services. 
  • Collaboration: Being able to work effectively across various teams helps to future-proof our role within organizations, ensuring that UX is seen as an integral part of the business.
  • Effective communication: It's not just about conveying research findings; it involves articulating our value, the impact of our work, and our potential to contribute to the organization's goals. This includes demonstrating how our insights can drive decision-making and innovation.
  • Building empathy and understanding people: We spend a significant amount of time engaging with people outside of our organization — customers, end users, and even competitors' customers — to understand their needs, preferences, and experiences. This ability to deeply connect with and understand users is what enables us to create better experiences.

Where we sometimes falter is in applying these superpowers internally within our organizations. When working with other departments, such as product or marketing, we need to understand their concerns, goals, and the language they speak. Treating these internal teams as another user base to understand and empathize with can enhance the relevance and application of our research findings.

The challenge and opportunity for User Researchers lie in using our superpowers not only to understand external users but also to engage and influence internal stakeholders effectively. By doing so, we can ensure that our work resonates across the company and contributes to broader organizational objectives.


How can UX Researchers advocate for user needs and foster empathy in organizations that traditionally resist user perspectives, while also balancing these needs with business objectives?

One of the things I’ve learned in my career is balancing storytelling with metrics. While working at UserTesting, we faced a situation where we needed to convince the product team to develop a new feature. Initially, we relied heavily on storytelling, using customer interviews and video clips to illustrate the demand for the feature. However, these stories alone weren't sufficient to sway decision-makers. It wasn't until we combined these narratives with concrete data — identifying specific customers who had requested the feature and highlighting the potential revenue at risk if we did not develop it — that we truly captured the attention of the decision-makers. Ultimately, we decided to acquire a company that offered the needed feature, a decision driven by both the compelling stories and the critical business metrics.

While UX professionals are naturally inclined toward empathy and storytelling due to our focus on human-centered design, not everyone in an organization may respond to these approaches. To persuade stakeholders in a business-focused environment, it is crucial to combine storytelling with hard data. This combination of qualitative insights and quantitative facts creates a compelling narrative that not only portrays the human element but also illustrates the tangible business benefits of acting on user feedback.

Connect with Janelle

If you enjoyed Janelle’s AMA:

Thank you, Janelle!

We’re grateful to Janelle for joining us and sharing her insights and experiences. If you’d like to watch the full webinar, follow this link