UX Researcher: A User’s Manual

This article is a guide on what to expect, and how to get the most from your UX researcher–a user manual, if you will.

You will invest a lot in your researcher and you deserve the greatest return. You should have high expectations for this critical component of your UX team, and following the recommendations presented in this article will help maximize your return.

A long and prosperous future

Congratulations on hiring a user experience design researcher!  When maintained correctly, a full time researcher will give you many years of strategic insight and validation, eliciting oohs and ahs from jealous shops that have chosen to forgo a researcher and cheers from your many satisfied clients. There are many benefits of having a researcher on staff, which include:

  • Making insights through on-site observation
  • Validating business hypotheses through customer research
  • Discovering usability issues through user testing
  • Initiating new projects in an effort to constantly expand their interests and skills

First, let’s spend a minute discussing the return component of return on investment. Incorporating user research into your product ensures its usability. According to Forrester (2009, pg. 2), product experience is what creates value and establishes power in the marketplace. Specifically, they found companies providing a superior user experience led to:

  • 14.4% more customers willing to purchase their product
  • 15.8% fewer customers willing to consider doing business with a competitor
  • 16.6% more customers likely to recommend their product or services

Investing in a UX researcher is a critical part of ensuring you provide your users with the superior experience Forrester notes as being such a critical differentiator. Everything covered in the following article applies to teams of researchers as well as those in a department of one.

Expectations

You should have high expectations for the quality and quantity of your researcher’s work. She should be a main contributor to your organization, a team player, and someone you look to for new ideas and fresh perspectives on long-standing issues. Your researcher’s unique background in asking questions and finding solutions, as well as the fact that she is likely spending ample time listening to your clients, provides her with insight she can provide your team on how to move forward with addressing various issues.

You might be saying anyone can accomplish the tasks in the paragraph above. You’re correct. I’m pointing out you should expect this from your researcher fresh out of the box, no questions asked.

You might have hired your researcher with specific duties in mind; however, you should expect her to want to know what others are working on, to be a part of the bigger picture, and to ask for feedback allowing her to become more proficient at what she does.

The following are some of the key expectations you should have for your researcher.

Asking questions

Asking the right questions is a basic expectation. Don’t laugh. This is harder than it looks. Asking questions involves the preliminary step of listening to understand what the issue actually is. Not everyone can do this.

Solving a problem isn’t as simple as asking the question you want answered.

For example, your overarching question might be “Does this website work well?” You could ask 1,000 people this question, and you wouldn’t know much after counting the “yes” and “no” responses.

What you need to know is “what about this site works, what doesn’t, and why?” Responses to these questions can be obtained in a variety of ways, allowing solutions to be identified. You can rely on your researcher to determine the most appropriate questions to ask in situations like this.

Researchers spend years listening to professors, clients, peers, and stakeholders to identify core issues to solve as well as what questions will provide data to find a solution. When meeting with project staff from a recent client, don’t assume your researcher isn’t engaged if she is quiet. It is likely she is observing verbal and physical interactions in the room as she designs a plan of attack.

Navigating relevant literature

Most likely, other researchers have published findings from studies related to what your researcher will examine. Your researcher should easily navigate and compile reports and studies from the body of knowledge in UX, HCI, and other relevant fields. The fact that someone else has explored questions similar to those of a project you’re asking your researcher to tackle helps shape their thinking on how to move forward, using existing resources to their fullest potential.

Literature can serve to inspire your researcher. For example, studies of ecommerce sites suggest trust is a key factor in determining users’ purchasing behavior. If you have a client developing a site meant to provide information, not selling a product, how might trust be developed? Your researcher can use findings from ecommerce studies to shape her questions and study design and then potentially publish a report contributing to the field, beyond the needs of your client.

Using the right method

Asking the right questions and reading up on relevant literature leads to the next critical expectation for your researcher: Using the right method.

UX research is more than usability testing. Your researcher knows methods shouldn’t dictate the questions asked, but the opposite: Your methods should be tailored to get relevant data for the questions to be asked.

Picking a method is hard work, this is why you need a researcher in the first place, they have the training and experience needed to select the right method for the question being asked. Use your researcher to do this. Your researcher carries a toolbox of methods. They might have preferences, or be more comfortable with certain methods, but they should not be a one-method pony. Some researchers are on a constant quest to define or refine new methods to answer questions. These can be exciting models to work with–the sports cars of UX researchers–willing to push the pedal to the metal to see where things go.

Regardless of the amount of planning, you often find yourself in a situation less than the ideal one written up in a methods textbook. Adapting to on-the-ground scenarios is something to expect from your researcher. Whether it’s using her smartphone to record an interview when her digital voice recorder dies, or adjusting on the fly when a busy client decides they only have 45 minutes to complete a 90-minute interview, your researcher should walk away from each scenario maximizing her ability to be flexible and still collect relevant data.

Translating findings

You’ve asked the right questions and selected the right method to collect data; now your researcher should serve as a translator for the application of research findings. Study results can be confusing if not interpreted appropriately. This includes verbal and written reports tailored to the experience and expectations of your audience. Your researcher should embrace the opportunity and challenge presented by making the results of her labor relevant to her peers.

Silo-busting

Researchers should come with the ability to break down silos, serving as ambassadors internally and externally, across teams and projects. Researchers are often deployed with surgical precision at specific intervals in a project timeline. This means your researcher might be actively involved in five or six projects simultaneously, giving her a breadth of insights. Few others within your organization are as able to communicate on the goals and achievements of multiple projects as she is. If findings from one study being conducted for client A would impact a recommendation for client G, your researcher should ensure everyone working with client G is aware of this.

Academia: A land far, far away

To make the best use of your researcher, it’s important to know where they come from. Especially if she is one of the PhD models, she was likely assembled in a far away land called “Academia.”

In Academia, your researcher gained or honed some of her most useful attributes: critical thinking; exposure to broad topics; research methods, both quantitative and qualitative; analyzing, interpreting, and presenting results; and connections with fellow researchers and academics.

Academia is the land of publish or perish. There are plenty of opportunities to give presentations to groups, write papers, teach courses, and create visual displays of data for various projects. This experience should leave your researcher well polished at speaking and presenting research in various formats well before they land at your front door. Although not all researchers are the best orators in the room, they should all be highly proficient at tailoring the message to their audience.

Additionally, your researcher has navigated an unbelievable amount of bureaucracy to escape Academia with a degree. She comes with the skills of diplomacy, patience, interpreting technical documents, and correctly filling out these documents under duress. This contributes to refining her ability to successfully reach the finish line and receive the prize. Your researcher is a doer and a finisher!

There are some things done in Academia, however, that don’t translate as well in the “real world.”

Academics have a unique language beyond the jargon typically found in professional fields. An example of research-ese is the statement, “I don’t think the items in this scale are valid at measuring the factor they purport to” translates to, “We might not be asking the right questions on this survey.”

Using obscure words–sometimes in different languages–becomes second nature to those moving through Academia. It is perfectly acceptable to tell your researcher she isn’t speaking your language. She should be able to translate for you; you just need to be clear when this is necessary.

Academia instills an unrealistic sense of time, as well. Your researcher may have spent one, two, or more years working on a single research project while earning her degree. Anyone that’s spent time in the real world knows you are lucky to have a timeline of one or two months to complete a study and, more realistically, about three weeks.

Adjusting the timeline for conducting a study is something you can expect your researcher to come to grips with rather quickly. You might see smoke coming out of her ears as gears that have been set to snail’s pace spin at hyper speed, but trust me, the adjustment will happen.

Be clear about your expectations for timelines at the beginning of a project, particularly if your researcher is fresh out of Academia.

The attributes instilled by Academia have become ingrained in your researcher. Enjoy them while you provide coaching to help her adapt to your business’s requirements. Experiences in Academia are part of what makes your researcher quirky, unique, and invaluable to your organization.

As time passes, she will become more polished, especially if you provide her with explicit feedback on what she is doing well and what she can do to improve. Patience is key when helping your researcher transition from Academia; if you exercise it, you will find the results quite rewarding.

Care and maintenance

Addressing the following will ensure your researcher stays running at optimal conditions.

Continuous learning opportunities

Researchers have an inherent love of learning. Why else would someone voluntarily go to 20th grade? Your researcher probably believes “everyone is a lifelong learner.”

It’s critical to offer educational opportunities and training. You must allot time and money for her to attend classes and seminars on topics ranging from research methods, to statistical analysis, to how to visualize data.

You should offer these opportunities to all of your staff; learning opportunities are key for ensuring a high level of morale throughout your organization. These opportunities aren’t always costly. Many organizations offer free or low cost webinars lasting the time of a reasonable lunch break.

Membership in professional organizations

Professional organizations allow your researcher opportunities to keep a pulse on the current state of their field. Professional organizations often host events and distribute publications promoting professional development and networking among professionals.

You should provide your researcher funds to join a professional organization; however, there are organizations that do not charge a fee to join. For example, I am a member and current Vice Chair for PhillyCHI the ACM chartered professional organization serving Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley region. There’s no charge to join, and monthly events are free for anyone to attend.

I suggest encouraging your researcher to attend meetings and allowing her time to serve as a volunteer or board member of professional organizations. There are numerous legitimate professional organizations at local, national, and international levels affiliated with ACM, IxDA, UXPA, and more.

Attending conferences and workshops

There’s a subconscious desire for researchers to congregate to drink beer and exchange ideas. Attending conferences allows researchers to meet peers from around the world and across topics, to learn the state of the art in their field.

Your researcher is most likely aware of the various local UX organizations such as ACM SIGCHI and UXPA sponsored groups, UX book clubs, and other UX meetups. Many of these groups offer workshops and one day events that are low or no cost (Thanks sponsors!). So, if you need convincing on the value of attending conferences, you can dip your toe in the water without blowing the budget. There’s also no shortage of national and international UX conferences that would satisfy your researcher’s needs. You can start with this list compiled by usertesting.com.

Besides getting a chance to feed off the ideas of others, interacting with professionals in her field, and allowing her to show off her work, there is another way of getting value from having your researcher attend conferences:

At Intuitive Company, staff give presentations on any conference they attend using company funds. This promotes the value of attending conferences to your staff, with the added benefit of allowing your researcher to present information to their peers, something most researchers already enjoy doing.

Reading

This was mentioned in expectations, but allowing your researcher time to read is your responsibility. She is one of those rare birds that actually recharge their batteries when reading, particularly when it relates to her research and practice interests.

Here’s a secret: You benefit from your researcher’s desire and ability to read! By allowing your researcher to read, you are actually allowing her to work, so long as you structure it correctly. For example, tell her you want her to conduct a literature review; therefore you are giving permission to read while at the same time setting up the expectation that there will be a usable product as the outcome of her reading. A literature review on a relevant topic can inform future research you engage in as well as design recommendations you make.

Win-win.

If you still can’t fathom giving your researcher time to read on the job, you should at least provide her with a book budget to purchase some of the must reads in UX.

Publishing and presenting

What good would research, professional development, conference attending, and reading do if your researcher couldn’t share her newfound knowledge with others?

Academia has hammered the need for dissemination into the fiber of your researcher’s being. Allowing time for writing and presenting is another area of maintenance that is your responsibility. You should encourage her to present at conferences and publish articles, blog posts, and white papers on relevant topics.

This is a way for her and your organization to build a strong brand in the communities you work in. For example, having your researcher cited as an expert on responsive design because she’s published on the topic is something you can include in future proposals and presentations you make to potential clients.

Conclusion

The success of your researcher is a two-way street. If you’ve already begun the journey with your researcher, this article might have highlighted expectations or maintenance that you’ve overlooked. If so, it isn’t too late to implement change; she can handle that as easily as a dead recorder, and you can enhance the relationship you have with her. If you haven’t started the journey, the advice provided can help ensure you get the most from your well maintained researcher for years to come.

What would you add or change to this manual based on your experience?

Additional resources

Forrester Report on best practices in UX (2009): https://www.adobe.com/enterprise/pdfs/Forrester_Best_Prac_In_User_Exp.pdf

Sandy Greene of Intuitive Company on evolving a creative workplace: http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/author/sgreene/

Posted in Business Design, Discovery, Research, and Testing, Workplace and Career | 12 Comments »

12 Comments

  • Deb Galdes

    October 11, 2014 at 1:53 am

    Hi Victor – GREAT article! I’ve been a UX Researcher for two decades and this is the first description I’ve seen that describes what I need to do to excel in my role. Most job descriptions and discussions on UX research don’t mention asking the right questions, reading, continuous learning, or publishing but those are critical to being successful and enjoying the job. Thank you for posting this.

  • Victor Yocco

    October 16, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    Hi Deb,

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I appreciate your perspective as a longer tenured researcher that the advice offered is still valuable. I think it is important, regardless of position, that we remember ensuring productivity and happiness is a two way street. Thanks for posting a comment!

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  • Ade Shields

    October 24, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    Hello Mr. Yocco,

    I just wanted to thank you for this post. I have been interested in entering the field of user research but have been uncertain as to the expectations of the job. After reading this I am actually more excited than ever to make an attempt. Hopefully I will make it past my current undergraduate status into a world full of stimulating challenges and endless exploration.

    Also, though I knew there were many names for the occupations in the field, I was not aware at the degree to which the name may not line up with the actual tasks. Thank you very, very much for this information.

  • Rich Gossweiler

    October 28, 2014 at 12:10 am

    Like Deb said, great article! Well written and includes elements that many articles don’t discuss. A big part of industrial UX is guerilla testing and encouraging everyone on the product team to think about the scientific process of observation and measurement. Amazing what happens when they see even a few people using their hard-written product.

    Thanks!
    PS no share buttons?

  • Victor Yocco

    October 30, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    Ade – You’re welcome. Being a UX researcher is very rewarding. I’d suggest seeking out as many challenges and experiences as you can, starting now! I think any experience can be made relevant to the job as a researcher, it’s how you choose to enter a situation and think about the challenges and possibilities. As a trained researcher, you will bring a set of methods or tools that are very useful to any field. You will find yourself choosing which ones are the most appropriate for each situation you encounter, based on experience and guidance from you peers. Good luck!

    Rich – Thank you and yes! An entire book could be written on bringing together teams with diverse roles/members to observe what is actually happening when users encounter their products. I personally advocate to have as many people as possible observe our sessions. This includes clients who also have large assumptions about how their users behave, as well as the various members of our internal teams. It is great to hear non-research colleagues discussing something that came up in an interview or a testing session, and how their idea addresses what was found. About the share button, it doesn’t seem to be on any articles. At least it isn’t a conspiracy!

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  • John Maynard

    December 29, 2014 at 12:30 am

    Great article, thank you. It captured so much more than I struggle to articulate whenever friends or colleagues ask me about the role. Your article also helped me consolidate a great deal of my preconceived ideas about the role I’m excited to embark upon as a recent graduate and career changer.

  • Victor Yocco

    December 30, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    John – thanks for the comment. I’m glad you found the article useful. Good luck with your recent career shift. I find UX research to be exciting and challenging. I appreciate my job and value the diversity of topics and tasks I encounter.

  • Amel Ziri

    March 14, 2015 at 5:22 am

    I clearly identify myself in this post. The only known world for me is academia. Although I am tenured professor, I am considering seriously a UX researcher position. Your post is excellent, as it summarizes very well what is expected from an academic. I would love to continue publishing (maybe not at the same pace), because this is what drove me to research at the first place, but it depends on the company policy. Although I am frighted by this transition, mainly because the industry is an unknown environment for now, I am looking forward to be a successful UX researcher. Any advice (or book you would recommend) to successfully pass the UX challenges that are given during interviews? Because as an academic, we take our time to think about some research questions and we also use a different jargon. Usually those challenges are two-hour challenge, at least this is my next stage in the process.
    Thank again for this great post, it is helping my future decision.

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