What it Takes to be a Strong UX Researcher
Spoiler: It’s not just about your research skills.
I love a lot of things about user research — getting a small window into someone else’s life, having an impact on products used by millions (and sometimes billions of people), making sense of mountains of qualitative data. But what I like the most about the job is getting to use so many different skills in one role. No day is the same. Some days you might be wearing my manager hat and going from meeting to meeting. Other days you might be interviewing people about their habits and behaviors or getting their reactions to something my team has designed. Still other days you might block off the calendar and go heads-down to analyze data, think deeply about a problem or put together a plan for a new process.
When I first started as a UXR I had a very elementary understanding of the skills I’d need in my new career. I should know how to conduct a lot of methods, right? What else is there to do? I’ve seen this same thinking in some early career UXRs I’ve worked with or mentored over the past few years. But what makes user research so fun and so interesting is it’s interdisciplinary nature and the variety of skills and competencies you need to be a strong UX researcher.
Today, I’ll describe seven key areas that strong UXRs understand.
Mastering a variety of research methods (qualitative, quantitive, or a combination of the two) is at the heart of any strong UXR. If you don’t have a strong research core, nothing else matters. No UXR knows every method but a good UXR can shift between a number of methods and have a few that are their speciality. Strong UXRs start with the questions they’re trying to answer and then apply the right method to answer that question. If you’re working with a UXR who starts with the method first … RUN! Find a new UXR! In all seriousness, I’m sure most (if not all UXRs) have started with a method first at one point or another (I know I have). The good ones contain their excitement, take a step back, and focus on what it is that they really want to understand (and adjust their method selection accordingly). In a fast paced product environment, good UXRs know how to balance rigor with scrappiness. They know when to cut corners to answer an urgent question for their team and when to push back and apply rigor to a question. Along with identifying the right method to answer a research question, good UXRs know what specific questions to ask in an interview or survey to answer the larger research question. And they know how to analyze the data they’ve collected, what conclusions to draw from that data, what recommendations to make, and the limits of the data they’ve collected.
Design and user experience
You can’t be a good UXR without an understanding of design and user experience. Our role isn’t just to collect data but to understand why we’re seeing what we’re seeing. This is where having an understanding of design and user experience comes in. You can’t really understand the root cause of an issue or make good UX recommendations if you don’t understand user experience.
So much of our work as UXRs is about communication: giving presentations, designing deliverables like reports and presentations, and writing clearly and concisely. Communication is such a big part of our role that most tech companies require a portfolio presentation as part of the interview process.
Having influence in your organization might be the toughest one of these seven areas to master (but maybe that’s just me). It’s no wonder so many books have been written on this topic. At a basic level, all UXRs must be able to convince their peers and stakeholders to adopt their recommendations. As UXRs progress in their careers, they may need to drive change in a culture (this is so hard) or influence an organization to start up a new project based on their work (also super hard).
Passion for people and/or products
Ideally, a UXR is passionate about both people and products. I know passion might seem like a tech cliche but it really is important. Passion is what drives your curiosity — to learn more about a topic and to investigate new research questions. It’s also what’s going to drive you to advocate for the right decisions for your users. And if you’re not passionate about your work, you’re less likely to invest the time to continue growing in your career.
Product, tech, and business acumen
Strong UXRs not only understand human behavior and motivations but they also understand their product’s ecosystem. This means understanding the latest trends in tech (especially related to your domain/industry) and business. This is another reason why having passion for your domain is so critical. The reality is that being a well-rounded UXR is not a 40 hour/week job. You’re going to have to spend some of your free time keeping up to date with your industry. For instance, in my spare time (usually on weekends), I listen to various business and tech podcasts and read HBR, Medium, the New York Times, and various organizational behavior and management books. It would be a lot harder for me to spend that time if I didn’t genuinely enjoy this aspect of my work.
Good researchers are humble enough to admit when they don’t know something. Good researchers get help when they’re embarking on a method that’s outside their area of expertise. They get feedback from more senior researchers and actually listen to that feedback. Everything I’m describing here requires a level of self-awareness — to know your strengths and your weaknesses. You’re not going to progress in your career if you don’t seek feedback and act upon that feedback.
I recognize this list might seem overwhelming but just like no one UXR can master every research method, no one UXR is perfectly adept in all these areas. We’re all a work in progress. And UX research would be a pretty boring career if you ran out of things to learn.