Skills, stages, specialties, and work-styles are the set of lenses that I found useful to understand user experience (UX) researchers. They also help identify archetypes of UX researchers which can in turn help source candidates and manage researchers.
This lens is about the research methods a researcher is good at, the tools or processes she or he uses, and the questions she or he answers with actionable insights.
The dichotomy of qualitative vs quantitative research has been long established in academy and in industry, therefore it’s always safe to assess a researcher on this dimension. Another common dimension lies in the data of interest — are they mostly attitudinal or behavioral? Different research tools work for different data, for example inter-person interview is good to understand subjective user opinions while nonintrusive observation is good to capture objective user interactions.
Christian Rohrer (2014) published a great article When to Use Which User-Experience Research Methods which plotted about 20 various methods in the a two dimensional framework. I found that chart very effective to explain the diversity of UX methods to my stakeholders.
In fact, many researchers’ skills spread broadly in both dimensions. Hence they call themselves a “mixed method researcher”, “hybrid researcher”, or “general researcher”. Many startups love to hire this type as their first UX researcher. This inclination resembles the tendency to firstly hire a “full-stack” engineer, not a front-end engineer or a back-end engineer. In reality, they often ended with having a qualitative researcher as their first.
UX researchers answer different questions at different stages to turn user insights into real product implementation via the user-centric design (UCD) process.
- What to build to meet user needs? Generative research will be employed to helps decide what product to build to meet specific user needs. Typical research questions can be “Do customers have unmet needs?”, “What can be better to meet the identified needs?”, “What is blocking customers to fulfill their needs,” etc. For example, Google UX researchers once sent the searchers 8 pings a day to solicit their daily information needs including the moments a need didn’t result in Google search. Read a lengthy report at your spare time. At this stage, the research is often called strategic research and the researcher research strategist.
- How best to build based on user, tech, and business needs? Formative research can filter and rank conceptual solutions by assessing how well they meet specific user needs. Typical research questions are “Do target users desire it?”, “How do they expect to fulfill the need?”, “Are they better potential solutions?” Further filtered by technical constraints (e.g. “Is it feasible to build?”), and business constraints (“Is it viable in the short-term and in the long run”), the team can identify the conceptual solution that can fit well into the market. At this stage, the researcher can be called design researcher.
- Does what is built really work and scale? Evaluative research naturally comes into the stage to answer specific questions such as “Is what we build useful, usable and satisfying to the target users?”, “Is it better than what we’re already offering?”, or “how does it compare with competitors?” By the way, evaluative research is often the first thing our stakeholders know about UXR. At this stage, the researcher is traditionally called usability researcher or analyst.
- “How well do UXR insights talk to the insights from data science or market research?” This question often haunts us over all stages of UCD. Triangulation is a meta-analysis paradigm to answer this question by combining multiple research projects that’ve looked into the same phenomenon. Sarah Christopher made a great writeup about the values of triangulation in UX research. Further read about it.
UX researchers definitely show different levels of comfort working in a given stage of product lifecycle. Vice verse, an experienced UX researcher knows well her or his comfort stages.
Most new UX researchers, if not all, have a mindset to excel at all stages and they’re working their butt off to achieve this aggressive though admirable goal. It may work well in a startup that ideates and pilots a product solution in their early adopters, but the researchers will soon find themselves stretched too thin as the product rolls out to larger scales and enters the majority of market.
A mile wide and an inch deep is neither sufficient nor necessary for researchers to grow up and succeed. This mindset becomes especially problematic to work on a massively successful but very mature product, such as Google Search, when all low-hanging fruits are gone, all apparent solutions implemented, and all easy wins far gone in the past. Very like how a great football team works, a team of UX researchers plus all insight functions can orchestrate a massive success to optimize product experience and deliver new user values. Relaying the user insights across stages and holding your position are equally important to the final product success.
One more thing. UCD hasn’t been well adopted by many tech companies or teams, therefore some researchers thrive while others suffer in a company because of the comfort stage differences. It’s unfortunately beyond the scope of this post.
It’s very easy and common for outsiders, a.k.a. non-UXRs, to believe that all UX researchers are the same as long as they own equivalent skill-sets and equivalent comfort stages. What is more? Some executives strongly presume that UX researchers are “fungible” following textbooks like The World is Flat by Thomas L. Friedman (2005).
It’s a mistake. Period.
It’s simply a mistake because UXRs are more different in work than what they appear. Root causes? A researcher acquired specialties from her or his academic background, professional training, product experience, and domain knowledge.
UX research is a relative new-comer in industry, and the researchers come from various academic fields such as anthropology, ethnography, psychology, human-computer interaction (HCI), statistics, computer science or any related or loosely related fields. Even for the same field, say HCI, different universities (Lillian Xiao made a nice list here) offer drastically different curriculums even they all reside in the United States. For what it’s worth, HCI is “housed in a number of university departments and integrated into more established disciplines (e.g., design, information science, computer science, business)”. A group of heterogenous UX researchers often use various terms to describe the same thing, for example “participants”, “subjects”, “respondents”, and “informants” can all refer to the sample of users they studied. On the other hand, the same term, say “mental model”, can only be understood in the research context.
The past product experience, both the successes and not-so-successful ones, also defines a UX researcher and provides some assurance to stakeholders. Despite a grain of salt, all hiring managers look deeply into a candidate’s proven track of research successes, investigate existing behavioral patterns to identify the specialties.
Last but not least, there are plenty of special industry fields require certain degrees and certain amount of domain knowledge to work successfully as a UX researcher, such as healthcare, safety, privacy, accessibility, identity, maps, trust, insurance, autonomous driving, hardware, emergency response, and the list goes on and on. The learning curve is often inevitably steep for a general UX researcher to pick up, meaning very difficult and very time-consuming.
Overall, understanding a UX researcher’s specialties and strengths makes it easy to set her or him for success, and make teamwork smooth. Otherwise, as a manager you can easily fail the researcher and in turn fail the product.
It’s mainly about how a UX researcher works on her or his own and in a team, and what environments she or he needs to thrive. When these factors were overlooked, she or he won’t be happy to succeed or stay long in a team.
Let’s go over these factors.
Work on their own. In a group of UX researchers, you can easily find some are speed-seeking and breath-taking sprinters, and some are determined and persistent marathoners. Some researchers heavily index rapid design iterations, while some prefer structured waterfall processes. Some are risk-taking while some are risk-averse in choosing projects. Some don’t like distractions when concentrating on a report, while some only can generate best great ideas in team discussion.
Work in a team. In a research team, the differences in skillset, comfort stages and specialties can result in challenges and confusions. However the diversity is one of our strengths as UX researchers, and we don’t want it to change. The differences will only get amplified in a cross-functional, cross-disciplinary product team. Some researchers might err on the side of holding back their insights, while some might err on the side of mercilessly shooting down bad ideas. In practice, it’s important to have a set of principles to guide all UX researchers. Welcome to check out another post of mine on true partnership.
Support to succeed. I largely identified at least three categories of needs from their managers, and it varies between researchers and cases. One, methodological support for the rigor, reliability, and validity of their work. Two, organizational support to ensure the project the work on is prioritized at the beginning and impactful in the end. Three, emotional support to advocate their achievements, manage their energies, and pump them up in the right manner at the right time.
Lastly, the aforementioned points are my personal opinions based on my reflections. Your claps, critiques, and comments are highly appreciated!!!
Happy holidays and look forward to 2020.
- Thomas L. Friedman (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century
- Christian Rohrer (2014). When to Use Which User-Experience Research Methods”
- Steven Levy (2015). How Google Know What You Want to Know
- Lillian Xiao (2017). Best HCI graduate programs in the US
- Sarah Christopher (2017). What’s the Point of Triangulation in User Research?
- George Zhang (2019). True Partnership with UX Research