So, You Want to Do User Research: Characteristics of Great Researchers

By Demetrius Madrigal and Bryan McClain

Published: June 7, 2010

“It takes real commitment and a lot of personal development to do user research well.”

One of the best things about user research is that anyone can do it. On the other hand, it takes real commitment and a lot of personal development to do user research well. People commonly assume that research is research—and doing any kind of research is better than doing none at all. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Not all user research is created equal. Flawed research can be a significant liability to the success of a product, as well as the company developing it, so it really is important to get it right.

To be effective, there are certain personal characteristics a user researcher should have. Whether you are a dedicated user researcher, a student who is considering a career path in user research, a UX designer or software engineer who sometimes gets called upon to do user research, or a stakeholder looking for research support, this column will help you to understand the personal characteristics that really make a difference to a user researcher’s success.

Curiosity

“Caring about users and their lives is absolutely at the core of user-centered design. Curiosity is a natural outcome of caring, and it is the single greatest contributor to effective user research.”

Caring about users and their lives is absolutely at the core of user-centered design. Curiosity is a natural outcome of caring, and it is the single greatest contributor to effective user research. A user researcher needs to care about a project and get answers to the burning questions that let you achieve the necessary understanding to guide a product’s development. Curiosity guides the data-collection process—helping a researcher to see a problem from all angles and really dig into pain points and important design considerations. Caring and curiosity engender personal investment, and investment motivates a researcher to develop a deep understanding of users. When a researcher is genuinely curious about something, he engages at a deeper level, thinks of questions he would not otherwise have thought of, and puts in the extra effort to understand how a product’s intended users might be able to interact with a product.

A user researcher who isn’t invested in answering such questions to inform the design of a product will engage with users on a superficial level. The data he acquires will not result in a deep understanding of users, and he may miss important details. For example, a user might say that she’s not interested in having a certain capability in a product. A researcher who isn’t invested might take that statement at face value, but a researcher who is invested would want to know why. With some digging, an invested researcher might discover that this user is not now interested in the capability, because it wouldn’t be convenient to use in her current situation. However, when the researcher asked whether she would be interested in that capability if there were a convenient way of accessing it, she might report that she would be very interested in it. These are important details that can guide design—and an invested user researcher is more likely to uncover them by making the research questions his own.

Communication

“Improving your communication skills expands your toolset, providing you with more reliable and versatile ways of working with people.”

One of the challenges of user research is that it depends on the contributions of other people. Great designers and engineers can lock themselves in a room, harness their talents, and work on a project in isolation, emerging upon its completion with a design or a build that does what it needs to do. This isn’t an option for user researchers, who must venture out into the world to obtain the essential building blocks of their work. Designers and engineers have many tools they can use to complete their work. For user researchers, our primary tools are our communication skills—and people and their experiences are our raw materials.

Improving your communication skills expands your toolset, providing you with more reliable and versatile ways of working with people. It is important to keep in mind that there are two aspects to communication: giving and receiving information. The goal of user research is to generate an understanding of the people who use our company’s products, and the best way to do that is to focus on listening and observing, tapping into the hidden meaning of what remains unsaid or assumed. Your understanding of people informs what you say to help to bring these hidden elements to the surface. A proficient user researcher notices details during a research session that others might miss.

There are various ways in which you can work on improving your communication skills. When people ask us what we recommend, we usually start with Toastmasters. This might seem somewhat basic, but getting comfortable in front of people is essential to allowing yourself to relax and let your personality and natural communication skills come to the fore. In addition, we have developed some material that goes into reasonable depth about both listening and observing. The techniques we describe can be useful in achieving an understanding of what kinds of interactions with research participants generate the best understanding of users.

Organization

“It takes a researcher who can also act as a project manager to ensure that each aspect of a study occurs at its proper point during the rampup to data collection.”

As we mentioned earlier, user research is not something that you do alone. It requires a lot of coordination with a variety of different people: stakeholders driving the project goals and scheduling deliverables, designers and engineers supplying mockups or prototypes—for concept or usability testing—recruiters providing research participants, and participants providing data. You must process and organize all of these inputs properly to achieve a seamless user research process. This involves quite a lot of logistics management, so it takes a researcher who can also act as a project manager to ensure that each aspect of a study occurs at its proper point during the rampup to data collection.

To achieve this type of coordination, it’s enormously helpful to be able to work with people that you know are reliable. For example, we work with a recruiter we have always found to be fast and reliable, while providing excellent research participants with a fine attendance record.  Having a strong relationship with a quality recruiter allows us to spend more time on the other aspects of study planning that require our attention. We can also rely on having these kinds of positive interactions with clients we have worked with many times. Cultivating strong working relationships can dramatically simplify a user researcher’s job, but in the end, when handling research logistics, there’s no substitute for having the ability to be well organized.

Integrity

“It is a user researcher’s responsibility to obtain accurate data from users, responsibly report trends, and make appropriate recommendations.”

User researchers provide information that guides a product’s development process. Inaccurate information can lead to inappropriate design decisions and negatively impact the quality of a product. Companies can suffer or even fail because of decisions they’ve made on the basis of flawed recommendations from user researchers. Therefore, it is a user researcher’s responsibility to obtain accurate data from users, responsibly report trends, and make appropriate recommendations. However, it might surprise you to learn that not all user researchers hold to these standards. We have seen people selectively report trends or make inappropriate recommendations that fly in the face of the data they’ve collected from users.

There are various reasons why user researchers might choose to make such poor decisions. One is their own pre-existing beliefs and biases. As people who work in the development of technology, we all have ideas about how new technology should be designed and developed. Sometimes the data researchers obtain isn’t in agreement with people’s preconceived ideas. So, when the data says users desire one thing, but a researcher or stakeholder is absolutely convinced that the opposite must be true, the researcher might be tempted to look for wiggle-room in the data. We’ve seen people find this wiggle-room and exploit it beyond any point that might have been appropriate. In such cases, it is our responsibility as user research professionals to set the record straight. One of the most difficult aspects of user research is telling our clients things they don’t want to hear. But encouraging a client to release a product that our data shows will fail in the marketplace unless it undergoes significant revision is unconscionable. These are the hard truths we must all deal with, and it takes a user researcher with integrity to stand up and tell the emperor that he has no clothes.

Conclusion

“Great user researchers take pride in their work, so they investigate thoroughly, communicate effectively, coordinate sufficiently, and report responsibly.”

Great user researchers take pride in their work, so they investigate thoroughly, communicate effectively, coordinate sufficiently, and report responsibly. In this column, we’ve outlined the characteristics and personal traits that ensure the best researchers cover all of the bases user research must cover to be successful. Keep these characteristics in mind when you are doing user research yourself, working with a user researcher, or hiring someone to do user research. It’s unfortunate that not all user researchers meet these standards. Flawed user research can lead a company down the wrong path in ways that could be costly or even catastrophic. Therefore, as user researchers, it is extremely important that we do our best—ensuring that our user research gets done properly and that the discipline of user research maintains its integrity and value.

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