Research is a Job that Benefits Businesses First, Users Second
02 May 2023
Research is not neutral. In the device insurance industry, user research gets used to drive profits – or else it gets ignored. Today, Claire talks about her almost-impossible situation at a giant company, ideas for restructuring to help research do its job, and why she quit.
The Worker’s Perspective
by Claire S
I come from classic graphic design: create a visual that communicates an idea. Over time, I moved to research and eventually, I showed up at Asurion because I found an opportunity to work in a place that I thought could provide real help to people: protection plans and repair services for electronic devices.
A huge proportion of Asurion’s staff includes the technicians who do the face-to-face work with customers; answering support calls, diagnosing malfunctioning devices and appliances, and doing repairs. The company refers to them as “experts,” some of whom previously owned and operated independent businesses. People who know what they need better than me, or anyone. My role was to learn from these experts and identify the improvements they needed from us, the makers of their tools, in order to streamline processes and make their work more efficient.
As an example of a very typical usability project, I did research asking, “How might we make X tool better?” I collected and synthesized over 2,000 comments that experts submitted. Eventually I figured out how to say, “This tool isn’t working. But, there are several improvements that could help people – that they asked for – and could also make a business impact.”
Despite having concrete evidence and presenting it to leadership, the recommendations were ignored. Why? Because the data was collected from the bottom up, not from the top, which automatically gave the research a second-rate position. The irony was shocking but expected, as it was not a VP decreeing what was important. Even though the job was done, and a complete business case was presented to decision-makers based on concrete research done in the field, nothing changed.
So, as a researcher, I began searching for an explanation. I think this situation is easy to explain. In this case, my review of 2,000 comments was coming from somebody who doesn’t hold nearly the same power as someone who has a VP status or above. But I knew that would be a hurdle to overcome, which is why I took the effort to make it into a business case. Nevertheless, the ship had sailed on my research. It stayed ignored because the product team backlog was already filled to the brim with requests from our VPs and from everybody else who has decision-making power, more authority than I had. There was no room to add important fixes and tasks that probably wouldn’t even take that long to implement. But it didn’t matter.
Part of my work as a researcher involves getting to know these experts, building trusted relationships with them to learn about their goals, needs, pain points, and more. And several of them have told me that the protection plans are often not worth the money customers spend – that’s how insurance becomes a profitable business! The greater the difference, the greater the profit. The company spends much of their time and effort trying to prove that various new and specialized protection plans are indeed worth the cost, but it ends up looking less like a company that’s helping people and more like a sales company. If you ask people working on the frontline, they’re not doing the job of customer support representatives, or of experts – they’re making sure somebody buys something that day. That’s the real goal.
The basics of what Asurion is are interesting, because what the company claims and what it sells are somewhat disconnected. If you ask what they do, they would say, “We protect and repair your most important electronic devices.” But we know that insurance is, for the most part, misleading. These are expensive protection plans that most people get coerced into signing up for and can’t always use, thanks to coverage that actually covers very little. Nevertheless, Asurion continues creating more and more and more of these protection plans for all sorts of different use cases. Additionally the system is built to find any reason to deny the claim, so there’s a good chance customers won’t get a replacement, or it will be significantly delayed. There’s so much red tape and fine print in those protection plans, that you might not even get the help you’ve been promised.
That is when I saw the writing on the wall: the company would always care more about business goals than the end user. That’s also when it became a very difficult place for me to feel like I had any positive impact. I felt like I wasn’t helping anyone at that point other than C-suite executives. I also realized that this position limited my ability to grow as a researcher or as a designer, because the company only wanted us to do two things: one, learn how a given decision was going to make them more or less money, and two, figure out how new ideas could make them more money or less money.
So, I did a thought experiment: What if I were a vice president at the company with the authority to act on my research? What would constrain or enable my efforts? People working in HQ and in corporate don’t see the disconnect between company claims and actual sales as viscerally as people working on the frontline. This is because they’re just managing the business, while the frontline workers are directly supporting customers. Frontline workers go into a job with a duty to help people. Maybe someone has a broken phone or network connectivity issues, and we need to fix the screen or replace the device. At Asurion, frontline jobs are marketed as being able to help people solve these kinds of problems.
Instead, through all these convoluted plans, products, accessories, and other services, we turn a problem into a sales opportunity. If a customer has a problem, management tells workers to use a certain script to sell them something, even if they came in with something as simple as a broken phone. They don’t need a protection plan on their big screen TV; they need a new phone, so why can’t we give them what they need?
Frontline workers see this hypocrisy every single day, in almost every interaction. But in HQ, we’re not as close to the people we impact. That’s what made the 2,000 comments so much more real to me. And again, I realized, where does the rubber really meet the road? In our business decision making.
As a researcher, I’ve seen many opportunities for real improvements. I did my best to support experts in succeeding at their job, and to help customers with their precious devices, often their main links with the world. And so, I built relationships and got input from thousands upon thousands of individuals. Another former researcher colleague said that relationships are the wires along which research runs. A total company restructuring might begin to help foster healthier relationships where grassroots ideas get taken seriously. For example, if frontline workers sat on our board of directors, then maybe I would be reporting to them, not our current VPs who saddle the product team with their ideas.
I recently found myself in a weird philosophical place where I wondered, “Can I even do this work, and also help people?” Going deeper, I’ve begun to wonder what accountable research looks like. How might someone create a role that serves user objectives first, business objectives second? Are there any software companies where research works this way? I didn’t see an opportunity at Asurion, so last week, I quit. I need to take the time and to see if it’s possible to find a role where research is motivated by an understanding of people’s needs rather than profit.
This has been a slow and complicated learning process. I’m grateful to TWC for the ongoing conversation and constant encouragement. If you want to connect, email me at email@example.com.