Over the past couple of years, design as a discipline and more precisely design thinking as a methodology, have grabbed the attention of businesses across a wide range of industries. Specifically, the human-centeredness of this approach is often lauded as a driver for customer satisfaction and innovation. Thus, more and more companies pay attention to the processes and methodologies that contribute to this increased focus on customers. And at the root of human-centered design is an informed understanding of customers and their needs. Therefore, user experience research is becoming increasingly important as a tool to inform design and business decisions.
Most companies struggle to figure out how to conduct research. Not every company is equipped to support these types of research efforts, whether it is the lack of skilled personnel, a lack of alignment with existing processes, or other difficulties. Thus, before trying to execute elaborate research studies, a key question is whether to build core competencies internally or to hire external consultants to assist with the research. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages that affect insight quality and the research and communication processes. These are differences that need to be evaluated before deciding on an approach.
When conducting UX research in-house, the people assigned to the research are often familiar with the industry, the business, and likely even the specific topic of the study. This degree of familiarity can enable the researchers to dig deeper into the idiosyncrasies of a particular area, using their own expertise to uncover highly specific findings. On the one hand, an insider is more prone to taking certain processes for granted, thus developing blind spots on areas that are not taken into question. A researcher coming from the outside is more likely to be unbiased and naive, questioning established patterns without much hesitation. On the other hand, their lack of subject matter expertise means they require additional time to prepare for the research in order to reach a baseline understanding.
Many processes at an organization can be under the influence of internal politics. Research is no different in this aspect. When a research initiative is executed internally, it is at risk to fall victim to the same struggles as other internal processes. People in different positions may try to gain influence over people that get talked to, limit or shift the scope of the research, or ask for specific findings to be excluded from the reports. While external consultants will likely have to field these requests as well, it is easier to navigate organizational politics from the outside. They can also make arguments that researching specific areas and talking to specific people is necessary to get a more well-rounded picture, filling in gaps in the knowledge of someone who is unfamiliar with the subject matter.
When research is conducted in-house, the risk of ownership-related bias increases. When asking people for feedback on something that the researcher was involved in, researchers often tend to defend their offering against criticism expressed by the customer. On the other hand, interviewees may become more reserved and hold back more critical feedback in order to not offend the researcher and the organization. If the tenor of the conversation results in only focusing on positive aspects, the risk of missing crucial feedback is significantly higher. An external consultant can more easily assume a neutral position and communicate their objectivity to customers, making them more likely to share critical feedback — especially when they are assured that their feedback will be anonymized before being shared.
UX research may lead people to uncover findings that challenge the opinions and decisions of a company’s leadership. Conducting research in-house may force researchers to indirectly or openly challenge superiors — even based on solid research and well-rounded analysis — putting them at risk of losing their job or facing other repercussions. As is the case with organizational politics influencing research, an external consultant is not exposed to this type of pressure. Traditionally, they are hired specifically for their outside perspective, which they can then use to soften the blow, framing their findings as something that is only visible coming from this outside perspective. Additionally, they may not even be aware of the decisions that led to implementations that their findings challenge.
These are just some of the bigger differences to consider when deciding whether to handle a research initiative internally or bring on external consultants. The degree of these differences will vary from project to project, based on the culture and structure of an organization and even the subject matter at hand. However, they will likely result in requiring different approaches to the way the project is handled.
Subject matter experts conducting research internally within an organization are typically familiar with industry jargon, specific acronyms, and processes. Communicating findings to their peers within the same organization, they can use this vocabulary and streamline the communication process and address matters with high degrees of specificity. An external consultant most likely does not possess as in depth of a knowledge level. In addition to speaking a different language, their perspective is also different from those they are reporting their findings to. They typically rely on frameworks that their audiences will not be familiar with. While this outside perspective can help uncover entirely new connections, it becomes crucial to find a way to clearly communicate these discoveries in a digestible manner.
While conducting research from an internal perspective does bear the risk of blind spots, it has the benefit of familiarity with the topic. Consultants will rely on preliminary research to familiarize themselves enough with the area of inquiry to have an insightful conversation. Before conducting further research, it is essential to conduct stakeholder interviews to have a solid understanding of the client’s business, their position within the industry, and their vision. While this is still beneficial when conducting research in-house, internal researchers are likely going to be familiar with many of these things already, and this part of the research can become much lighter.
Working for the company that is commissioning the research has the benefit of being able to tap into an existing network of relationships. The team may know people in sales who can connect them with customers to interview, and they know the company structure well enough to know who to ask for specific information. An external consultant will rely on the client to introduce them to customers or will have to invest a lot more work into recruiting efforts. Recruiting for user interviews or testing is often a very time intensive process and must not be underestimated.
Conducting research in-house is often targeted at internal initiatives that are based on ongoing efforts. This constellation allows for a continuous communication between researchers and those who work on the development of the new initiative. External consultants, on the other hand, are mostly brought in for specific expertise, such as their research, and are then required to hand off their findings to another team. In most cases, these two teams have little interaction and information might be relayed by the project manager on the client team. It is critical to produce research reports that are easy to consume and navigate, making sure to bundle all important information and include the source material. The key is to reduce the amount of follow-up questions that require direct input from the researchers.
When planning research, two key factors should be considered based on the aforementioned differences.
- Iterative Processes: Development of digital products increasingly requires iterative processes. The age of waterfall development is coming to an end. Research is not a ‘one and done’ activity but should be considered a recurring activity in order to inform new developments or iterations of existing offerings. Organizations need to consider how to best integrate this into their business processes. If the research is commissioned from an external consultancy, an organization then needs to evaluate if they are willing to start an ongoing partnership with a consultancy to support these continuous efforts.
- Expert Knowledge: Based on the subject matter, it is also of critical importance to consider the amount of expert knowledge necessary. Is the area of inquiry very specific? Does it require one to go into the intricate details of brain surgery or rocket science? If so, successful research will rely more heavily on somebody with extensive knowledge of the field in order to be able to dig deep into the idiosyncrasies. For most projects, this is not the case and the risk of being overly familiar and ignoring the resulting blind spots is greater than the risk of missing out on specific details due to the lack of subject matter expertise.
Both approaches to research have their benefits. Having an internal research team means having people who are familiar with the subject matter and having existing relationships they can leverage. An internal team is typically easier to integrate into ongoing processes, in order to have their research support these efforts. External consultants benefit from a greater level of independence from internal politics, and coming from an outside perspective it is more likely to yield more objective feedback from both stakeholders and customers. Furthermore, their lack of immersion in the field reduces the risk of blind spots, questioning a wider range of concepts and processes within the status quo.
Planning research will need to take into account these differences and prioritize them based on the project or larger ongoing initiative and subject matter. To reduce friction during handoff, and provide continuity, an organization should look for a partner who can also assist with design and development of digital products. Ideally, they should consider an extended partnership in order to leverage insights beyond the scope of a particular project and have fringe findings inform other areas of the business.