The Shake-Up: Crafting Research Futures

Session Overview

Date and Time: Monday, August 19, 4 – 5:30pm

Location: Broad Theater, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, Los Angeles

Livestream: Free for EPIC Members

Anxieties about the future of research are being fueled by budget cuts and advances in AI, renewing debates about the strategic role of research, the commodification of research, and the nature of research expertise. Presentations in this session offer deep dives into these topics and directions for building strong research practices into the future.


What's Going on with Strategic Research in Big Tech?


Morgan Ramsey-Elliot, Partner, ReD Associates

Something is going on with strategic research in big tech companies. For years big tech was one of the major employers of (and training grounds for) industry ethnographers focused on solving complex, longer term strategic problems. But over the last few years, amid mass layoffs, budget cuts, and other shifts, things have changed. Through interviews with UXR and cross-functional leaders at big tech companies, this paper offers a perspective on what’s going on with strategic research, including best practices and practical tips for driving maximum impact.

Morgan Ramsey-Elliot is a partner in ReD Associates’ New York office, and has extensive experience helping clients leverage the power of emerging technologies to build new markets and drive transformative business value. He specializes in advising leaders on complex problems at the intersection of tech and adjacent spaces. Having led teams both in house for big tech and on the agency side, he is an expert at translating strategic recommendations into concrete product outcomes.

Democratization and Research: Can Ethnography Save Itself?


Nadine Levin, Design & Research Manager, San Francisco Digital Services

This paper presents a critical analysis of the current push to “democratize” UX research. Moving beyond fears that democratization steals jobs, this paper shows how democratization often (de)values certain types of knowledge and leads to misunderstandings about the critical skills researchers bring beyond collecting data. Ultimately, this paper argues that ethnographers can use their skills to interrogate the business concerns that create such pushes for democratization. In doing so, ethnographers can better position their discipline to have long-term influence in changing organizations and evolving business contexts.

Nadine Levin leads design and research for San Francisco’s Digital Services team, which aims to improve digital experiences with permitting, forms, and hosting, as well as help the city centralize and scale its digital resources on Her focus is on strategic research, improving equitable access to technology, and combining ethnography and quantitative research. She has previously worked at Meta, UCLA, and the University of Exeter, after completing a DPhil in Social Anthropology at Oxford.

Designing AI to Think With Us, Not For Us


Stefanie Hutka, Head of Design Research, Sendfill

The impact and speed of generative artificial intelligence (AI) technology’s disruption, coupled with its potential to perform increasingly advanced “thinking tasks,” raises the stakes for designing human-centered solutions. This paper offers a new framework for designing generative AI that extends, rather than displaces, human cognition, including tools to guide envisioning, problem (re)framing and selection, and interdisciplinary collaboration. The framework is informed by systems theory, frame analysis, and human-computer interaction research on current AI design approaches, as well as analogous approaches from the author’s spatial computing design research practice.

Stefanie Hutka is a design researcher asking questions about the future of human cognition. Her work specializes in emerging technologies, such as augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. She has led research for numerous 0-to-1 spatial computing product launches, including Adobe Aero, Adobe Substance 3D Suite, and Meta Quest 3. Stefanie holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Toronto, focused on cognitive neuroscience.

"If Today's Problems Are So Urgent, Why Are We So Stuck?"


Meg Kinney, Partner, Bad Babysitter Productions

We are surrounded by messages urging us to see the suffering, injustice, and corruption of both the natural and built world. But today, people seem to be gripped by passive despair. Why is that? Perhaps we are weighted by a loss of optimism. This presentation questions if optimism is misunderstood and if, as ethnographers, we are getting in our own way and underestimating it as a powerful tool of social transformation. Optimism requires us to examine our own emotional intelligence, capacity for change, and belief in our own human potential.

Meg Kinney is a partner at Bad Babysitter – a brand strategy consultancy focused on using an ethnographic approach and documentary storytelling style to humanize stakeholders and contextualize brand meaning across the value chain. Clients span Fortune 500 brands and retailers, Climate Tech startups, emerging sectors, and marketing agencies. She has a Masters in Natural Resources & Sustainability Leadership to help brands and agencies find their breakthrough narrative for this moment.