Five Things They Didn’t Teach Me in School About Being a User Researcher

Written by: Chelsey Glasson

Graduate school taught me the basics of conducting user research, but it taught me little about what it’s like working as a user researcher in the wild. I don’t blame my school for this. There’s little publicly-available career information for user researchers, in large part because companies are still experimenting with how to best make use of our talents.

That said, in the midst of companies experimenting with how to maximize user researchers, there are a few things I’ve learned specific to the role of user researcher that have held true across the diverse companies I’ve worked for. Some of these learnings were a bit of a surprise early on my my career, and I hope in sharing them I’ll save a few from making career mistakes I made in the past for lack of knowing better.

There’s a ton of variation in what user researchers do.

In my career, I’ve encountered user researchers with drastically varying roles and skillsets: many who focus solely on usability, a few who act as hybrid designers and researchers, some that are specialists in ethnography, and yet others who are experts in quantitative research. I’ve also spoken with a few who are hybrid market/user researchers, and I know of one tech company that is training user researchers to own certain product management responsibilities.

If you take a moment to write down all of the titles you’ve encountered for people who do user research work, my guess is that it will be a long one. My list includes user experience researcher, product researcher, design researcher, consumer insights analyst, qualitative researcher, quantitative researcher, usability analyst, ethnographer, data scientist, and customer experience researcher. Sometimes companies choose one title over another for specific reasons, but most of the time they’ll use a title simply because of tradition, politics, or lack of knowing the difference.

At one company I once worked for, my title was user researcher, but I was really a usability analyst, spending 80% of my time conducting rapid iterative testing and evaluation (RITE) studies. When I accepted the job at that company, I assumed–based on my title–that I’d be involved in iterative research and more strategic, exploratory work. I quickly learned that the title was misleading and should have been usability analyst.

What does this all mean for your career?

For starters, it means you should do a ton of experimentation while in school or early on in your career to understand what type of user research you enjoy and excel at most. It also means that it’s incredibly important to ask questions about the job description during an interview to make sure you’re not making faulty assumptions, based on a title, about the work you’d be doing.

Decisions influence data as much as data influences decisions.

I used to think the more data the better applied to most situations, something I’ve recently heard referred to as “metrics fetishism.” I’ve now observed many situations in which people use data as a crutch, end up making mistakes by interpreting “objective” data incorrectly, or become paralyzed by too much data.

The truth is that there are limitations to every type of data, qualitative and quantitative. Even data lauded by some as completely objective–for example, data from website logs or surveys–oftentimes includes a layer of subjectiveness.

At the beginning and end of any research project there are decisions to be made. What method should I use? What questions should I ask and how exactly should they be asked? Which metrics do we want to focus on? What data should we exclude? Is it OK to aggregate some data? What baselines should we compare to? These decisions should themselves be grounded in data and experience as much as possible, but they will almost always involve some subjectivity and intuition.

I’ll never forget one situation in which a team I worked with refused to address obvious issues and explore solutions without first surveying users for feedback (in large part because of politics). In this situation, the issues were so obvious that we should have felt comfortable using our expertise to address them. Because we didn’t trust making decisions without data in this case, we delayed fixing the issues, and our competitors gained a huge advantage. There’s obviously a lot more detail to this story, but you get the point: In this circumstance, I learned that relying on data as a crutch can be harmful.

What does this mean for your career?

Our job as user researchers is not only to deliver insights via data, but also to make sure people understand the limitations of data and when it should and shouldn’t be used. For this reason, a successful user researcher is one who’s comfortable saying “no” when research requests aren’t appropriate, in addition to explaining the limitations of research conducted. This is easier said than done, especially as a new user researcher, but I promise it becomes easier with practice.

You’re not a DVR.

Coming out of school, I thought my job as a user researcher was solely to report the facts: 5 out of 8 users failed this task, 50% gave the experience a score of satisfactory, and the like. I was to remain completely objective at all times and to deliver massive reports with as much supporting evidence as I could find.

I now think it’s old-school for user researchers to not have an opinion informed by research findings. Little is accomplished when a user researcher simply summarizes data; that’s what video recordings and log data are for. Instead, what’s impactful is when researchers help their teams prioritize findings and translate them into actionable terms. This process requires having an opinion, oftentimes filling in holes where data isn’t available or is ambiguous.

One project I supported early in my career involved a large ethnography. Six user researchers conducted over 60 hours of interviews with target users throughout the United States. Once all of the interviews were completed, we composed a report with over 100 PowerPoint slides and hours of video footage, summarizing all that was learned without making any concrete recommendations or prioritizing findings. Ultimately we received feedback that our report was mostly ignored because no one had time to read through it and it wasn’t clear how to respond to it. Not feedback you want to receive as a user researcher!

What does this mean for your career?

The most impactful user researchers I’ve encountered in my career take research insights one step further by connecting the dots between learnings and design and product requirements. You might never be at the same depth of product understanding as your fellow product managers and designers, but it’s important to know enough about their domains to translate your work into actionable terms.

Having an opinion is a scary thought for a lot of user researchers because it’s not always possible to remain 100% objective in bridging the gap between research insights and design and product decisions. But remember that there’s often always limitations and a subjective layer to data, so always remaining 100% objective just isn’t realistic to begin with.

Little is accomplished when data is simply regurgitated; our biggest impact is contributing to the conversation by providing actionable insights and recommendations that helps decision makers question their assumptions and biases.

Relationships aren’t optional, they’re essential.

As a student, my success was often measured by how hard I worked relative to others, resulting in a competitive environment. I continued the competitive behavior I learned in school when I first started working as a user researcher; I put my nose to the grindstone and gave little thought to relationships with my colleagues. What I quickly learned, however, is that taking time to establish coworker relationships is just as important as conducting sound research.

Work shouldn’t be a popularity contest, right? Right–but solid coworker relationships make it easier to include colleagues in the research process, transforming user research into the shared process it should be. And trust me, work is way more fun and meaningful if you enjoy your coworkers!

What does this mean for your career?

Take the time to get to know your coworkers on a personal level, offer unsolicited help, share a laugh, and take interest in the work that your colleagues do. I could share a personal example here, but instead let me refer you to Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Also check out Tomer Sharon’s book It’s Our Research.

Expect change–and make your own happiness within it.

Change is a constant for UX’ers. I’m on my eighth manager as a user researcher, and in my career I’ve been managed by user researchers, designers, product managers, and even someone with the title of VP of Strategic Planning. I’ve also been through four reorganizations and a layoff.

What does this mean for your career?

Change can be stressful, but when embraced and expected, you’ll find that there are benefits to change. For example, change can provide needed refreshment and new challenges after a period of stagnation. Change can also save you from a difficult project or a bad manager.

I remember a conversation with a UX leader in which he shared he once quit a job because he couldn’t get along with a peer who just didn’t get the user experience process. A few months after he quit, the peer was fired. If only he had stuck around for a while.

The U.S. Navy SEALs have a saying: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable,” which refers to the importance of remaining focused on the objective at hand in the middle of ongoing change. Our objective as user researchers is to conduct research for the purpose of improving products and experiences for people. Everything else is secondary–don’t get distracted.

For more detailed recommendations on how to deal with change as a user research, I highly recommend watching Andrea Lindman’s talk “Adapting to Change: UX Research in an Ever-Changing Business Environment.”

Concluding thoughts

I’ve been happy to see in the past two years that the user experience community has stepped up in making career advice more readily available (we could do even better, though). For user researchers wanting advice beyond what I’ve shared in this article, here are four of my favorite resources:

  • Judd Antin’s talk in which he covers many opportunities and challenges of doing user research:
  • You in UX, an online career conference for user experience professionals.
  • Tomer Sharon’s book It’s Our Research.
  • A special issue of UXPA’s UX Magazine, with the theme of UX careers.
Chelsey Glasson

Chelsey Glasson

Chelsey Glasson is a user experience researcher whose skills have impacted a wide variety of enterprise and consumer technologies at diverse companies including Google, Salesforce, Udacity and T-Mobile. You can find her on Twitter @chelseyglasson.
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11 thoughts on “Five Things They Didn’t Teach Me in School About Being a User Researcher”

  1. Wow . I always wondered how the things that I couldn’t get the internet to do for me evolved into old -guy-user-friendly. UX saves me from the nerds!

  2. Hey Chelsey,

    what a thought in this article! I believe you have tackled many important issues, especially with regard to the data usage and the impact that creativity could have on them. If you are interested more in the topic, I could gladly point you to the Max Shron’s book entitled Thinking with Data. I am convinced that it contains valuable guidance in the process of taming data and actually using them to your benefit, instead of becoming a data slave.


  3. Love this article! ‘Metrics fetishism’ is something I see many people falling prey to, being overly reliant on statistics without transferring them into actionable opinions and viewpoints often just wastes time and obfuscates the issues at hand. I take the view that if we can agree that all types of data centric research share basic, core similarities, that we can learn a lot from Daniel Kahneman etc’s research on the heuristic biases people succumb to when interpreting data; and that it’s likely user researches fall prey to the same errors when filtering through user data.

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