North-South or East-West: what is your platform’s direction?


Apr 30 · 6 min read

NNorth-South execution is likely what researchers are most comfortable with: conducting research to help the developers improve a specific product. In contrast, East-West execution refers to the same processes across teams, pillars, and organizations. Platform developers should strive for strengthening their muscles in East-West execution to tackle the challenges ahead.

The notion of East-West execution might hit a nerve with engineers because of the need to work on research projects that span across teams, products, or organizations. While engineers might love this form of research, they could also see challenges and roadblocks. Little did engineers know that the global pandemic of COVID-19 would bring them together in practicing East-West execution.

Let’s share some perspectives on the challenges that East-West execution brings to UX Research, which are best illustrated by the popular Indian parable:

“A group of blind people heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable.” So they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “this being is like a thick snake.” For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. Another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said “the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk.” The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant “is a wall.” Another who felt its tail described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth, and like a spear.”

While none of the observations were incorrect, each observer lacked the ability to see the entire animal and capture a holistic understanding of what they were dealing with. In essence, they had siloed themselves into an Ear Taskforce, a Trunk Working Group, a Leg Sub-Committee, and so on. Extending this metaphor to research at platforms, each team can be very successful and impactful within their domain without recognizing the ‘elephant in the room.’

One could argue that UX Research does not necessarily need to care about the elephant. After all, when we, as engineers, help our design teams better understand their specific perspective on the people who use the products, we can cumulatively help them create better products and experiences for people. Furthermore, we can also pathfind researchers to understand bigger questions.

Take for example, the case of the video chat application a company offers on almost all surfaces. Establishing a thorough overview of what past UX research can tell us about video chats was and still is a cumbersome and people-intense process. Integrating these results into a coherent picture of what video chat means for the company is a Herculean task. In essence, because all the results have been scattered across the company, it requires a manual and time-consuming process for UX researchers to bring the full voice of the user to the table.

East-West execution for UX Research means having the capability to roll up tactical research around specific topics in a rigorous and timely fashion.

Even without (hopefully) exceptional circumstances like a global pandemic, we can see increasing demand for East-West execution because we increasingly need to tackle research questions that span across apps.

Imagine the impact of UX Research in a world where we could ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ (hats off to you, UX Researchers) and easily synthesize and juxtapose existing research to give an estimated answer to a question without having to execute original research. We would be at the table from the start and could focus our precious resources on validating, falsifying, or extending the company’s knowledge base. We would also have a clear sense of how confident we were in the research findings as a whole, which would allow UX designers to make better, more informed decisions.

Synthesizing research results across the company would not only help engineers to identify the similarities across the people who use their products, but also reveal idiosyncrasies. For instance, video chat on a platform may serve completely different use cases than video chats on another platform, but no matter where people video chat they want a safe experience. Designing products for everyone requires us to understand what makes everyone unique.

The mission of UX Research is to deeply understand people and boldly drive insights that shape the future of a product or platform. In everything developers do, they strive to be the voice of our users and UX teams also appreciate it when we speak up on behalf of our users.

Being the voice of the user means that we, as engineers, have to be domain experts for the specific products that we work on. Domain expertise allows us to really understand the needs of our users and makes our research immediately impactful. Domain expertise earns us our seat at the table.

Alas, the side-effects of domain expertise may include tunnel vision.

An East-West perspective reveals the negative effects of tunnel vision:

  • We share our research results almost exclusively with design teams in mind and tend to de-prioritize activities that enable fellow researchers to build on top of our results or adapt findings to their teams.
  • As a result, it takes a lot of effort to pick up research results from across the company as a whole. In the absence of formal tools to facilitate it, personal communication is still often the best way of identifying potentially relevant research results, despite the size of our research organization.
  • We can study how users interact with individual products, when we could bring more value by understanding how people solve their needs across our products — and sometimes outside of our products.

Figuratively, we are each standing blindly next to a different part of the elephant, proudly proclaiming what we know to be true, but not recognizing how each part contributes to a holistic perspective on the broad issues affecting our users.

At this point it is important to note that we do not argue to replace or de-prioritize domain expertise. After all, without understanding the details of a trunk or a tusk, it is hard to describe an elephant. Instead, we argue that we should enhance our capabilities of integrating research across teams, pillars, products, and organizations.

We should invest in connective tissue between research results. We suggest two steps:

First, we need to acknowledge that there are two audiences: UX and fellow researchers. Platform developers need to develop formats and tools that help them to communicate the research results differently to each audience. The format for fellow researchers should focus on communicating the context, method, confidence in the findings, and implications for how to connect the research findings to other research.

Second, there is a need for systematic efforts in combining and synthesizing research findings. The role of research syntheses would be to capture the existing research around specific topics. Ideally, research syntheses are living documents that highlight and size people problems, design trade-offs around these people problems, and rank the effectiveness of potential solutions to these problems.

There is an increased need for East-West execution as a major opportunity for UX Research at platforms. Identifying ways to strengthen this particular muscle would help us all to increase the value of UX research even more. UX research should build the observation tower that allows everyone to see the whole elephant.

Here are some open questions for designing and constructing this observation tower:

  • How do we identify critical questions that will most likely be addressed in the near future across the organization?
  • How do we measure when we reach critical mass on a topic to build a research synthesis?
  • How can we help researchers in including their findings into research syntheses?
  • How can we help researchers identify fruitful areas of potential collaboration across product teams?
  • How do we provide opportunities for researchers to collaborate beyond existing organizations prior to immediate product needs?
  • How do we embed foundational research into more targeted product research?

We should be aware that designing, constructing, and maintaining the observation tower will not be an easy task, but that it would be worth the efforts.

UX research could help a platform to see the elephant clearly. This way the company avoids the risk of being trampled.

What do you think? We would love to hear from you in the comments!

Categorized as UX

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