I’ve been having more and more conversations with people who are  thinking about how to position research within their organizations. In one case, a senior researcher and her colleagues were debating whether user experience (UX) researchers should report up to design, to engineering, or whether they should establish their own reporting structure within their company.

In one way, I see this dilemma as a promising sign, since it feels like an indicator that we’re emerging from the reductive perception of research (and especially ethnographic research) as a tool embedded within other practices that’s used solely for identifying customer needs. However, I also think it’s worth considering whether this is the most effective question to ask. More specifically, does this question do enough to shift the conversation away from the constraints of “ethnography-as-tool” perceptions, and toward the ways in which research provides strategic market insight?

Learning from Others

It’s useful here to turn toward design and the ways in which it has pushed past traditional perceptions of its purpose and value as ‘the practice of crafting beautiful objects.’ Through a concerted effort to actualize the critical value of its mode of practice (aka design thinking), millions now understand and use design processes to innovate across vastly different practices and settings. In this same way, ethnographic/user experience research needs to push past its own object of practice—user/customer needs—and better communicate the broader value of applying its processes to other domains. This means defining its contributions not as identifying customer needs alone, but as insights derived from modes of thinking about culture that reveal both customer needs (the original ‘product’) and the dynamics within and between the cultures that those consumers and companies exist within.

So, for example, the most valuable insights into social networking aren’t necessarily about how easily users can share content, or even what they like to share. They’re about how sharing and trust are understood within different cultures (or subcultures), and how this plays out in social networking platforms in different (or perhaps similar) ways. They’re about how the range and direction of sharing practices in different cultures might allow an organization to better understand patterns of reach, pathways, and the viral potential of content. And, they’re about how the modes of interaction social networking organizations provide—as well as the nature of their organization’s own practices and norms—either facilitate or run counter to their customer’s cultural contexts and expectations. These insights, derived by applying ethnographic thinking to domains that reach beyond identifying user needs alone, have direct impact on the business models of organizations providing these services.

Returning to the question of qualitative research (specifically UX) and its position within organizational structures, the benefits of ethnographic thinking listed above clearly demonstrate that subsuming it within any other discipline would constrain its full value. Which, I believe, leads us to two other questions.

Toward a Value Proposition

First, if the full range of insight from ethnographic thinking is often under-appreciated, how do we make its value proposition more clear and compelling? In the same way that design centered on it’s unique ability to drive innovation as the core value provided by design thinking, I would argue that research should better communicate how it can inform strategy through behavioral and cultural insight. To do this effectively, we need to steer clear of highlighting skillsets or professional qualifications, and prioritize the strategic value that ethnographic thinking provides to organizations. For example, we might present some of the following benefits, which place an emphasis on the advantages they provide to an organization first, followed by the means of achieving them:

  • expand market share and increase loyalty through deep understandings of different customer cultures and the ways in which they intersect the organization’s own culture;
  • increase new product/service success rates by developing offerings that are a solid behavioral fit for customers and are situated appropriately, ethically, and strategically within different cultures;
  • reduce risks through incremental, culturally-informed, thoughtful adaptation to cultural changes;
  • help organizations grow strategically by facilitating, finding patterns among, and curating, inquiries from customers, collectives, and internal stakeholders;
  • solidify market share by deriving longitudinal and holistic insight from cumulative understandings of behavioral and cultural dynamics relevant to the organization’s offering;
  • build internal creative momentum by cross-pollinating ideas between insider and outsider domains and growing the pool of possible ideas via sharing different points of view;
  • improve internal traction for innovation and product/service development by expanding empathy to include both customers and internal team members and stakeholders;
  • break down silos and ensure customer centricity by challenging assumptions, ‘common sense,’ and orthodoxies within organizations.

(More here and here about ways these benefits can be realized in more detail.)

Similarly, we might work to introduce the broader benefits of ethnographic thinking within prompts that take the form of something like an elevator pitch…

Want to lower organizational risk and make better-informed strategic decisions? Ethnographic thinking will help you deeply understand your customers and their cultural contexts so that you can both serve them better and be more strategic about the actions and approach your organization takes to serve them.

Words Matter

As for the second question, I think we need to ask whether ‘User Experience’ reflects the full value that its practitioners can provide. Like Carrie Yury, I appreciate how the emergence of this term reflects the increasing recognition of the importance of integrating behavioral and attitudinal insights. However, it seems clear that the term also implies a set of constraints that focus on understanding people solely as ‘users’ (more on that from Tamara Hale here) within the confines of designed experiences. When we factor in the rapid growth of immersive interactions that reach ever more deeply into our lives via advances in AR/VR, AI, ML, IOT, voice, haptic, and gestural interfaces, and even ingestibles, the term UX feels even more limited.

So, instead of User Experience, shouldn’t we be shifting our terminology to better reflect how behavioral and cultural insights can both ensure customer fit and drive more effective organizational strategies? Rather than focusing solely on UX, shouldn’t we be talking about Behavior, Culture & Strategy (BCS)? And, instead of asking “Where do we position UX within our organization?,” shouldn’t we be asking “How do we position BCS to optimize for its full value throughout our organization?”

Regardless of whether a nomenclature change transpires, it’s clear from my conversations with colleagues that a shift is underway: FROM seeing research as a tool embedded within other practices TO a means of establishing frameworks for other practices. Organizations at the forefront of fully leveraging behavioral and cultural insight will use these frameworks as a competitive advantage to develop more culturally-attuned product and service offerings, more informed and aware customer strategies, and improved adaptations to their internal cultures that align better with both.