Why You Really Need to Hire a UX Researcher
Instead of hiring a do-it-all unicorn, find someone who’s actually trained in research
There’s an active debate within the UX field on the merits of specialists versus generalists because many companies are small and feel they can only afford to hire one UX person. These financial constraints lead them to seek out a jack-of-all-trades, or a “unicorn” who can design, code, conduct user research, write copy, and contribute to business strategies.
While there certainly are professionals out there who have diverse training, well-rounded experience, and can thrive in these roles, I believe the demand for these individuals is misplaced. Depending on your product, you likely need someone trained and well-versed in research, not just design. Many companies want a silver bullet to solve their UX problems — but like unicorns, silver bullets don’t really exist.
What not to do
This job posting from a customer electronic robotics company is a great example of what not to do when hiring a UX person for your team:
You want an excellent designer who can define, design, and develop new and existing products? Check. And an experienced researcher with expertise across all forms of research, from design thinking to ethnographic research to user interviews to market research? Of course. Brand and marketing skills? Sure. Staying on top of emerging trends in robotics and UX? Yes. Supporting implementation and safety with customers? Certainly. Establishing the entire UX department in North America? Yes, please.
This posting could encompass at least three full-time roles. Asking one person to execute effectively across all of these complicated roles is setting them up for failure, not to mention burnout.
I currently work at a medium-sized startup and we move at an incredible pace. In six months, we’ve launched three brand new products. We have a small UX team of two designers and one researcher (me). While I partner with the product team to help define the roadmap and collaborate with marketing on client resources and product positioning, my hands are also more than full with my research work. I’m working to simultaneously educate the company on UX, execute research across more than six products, and develop research processes. I can’t fathom being responsible for significant design work on top of all this.
Asking one person to execute effectively across all of these complicated roles is setting them up for failure.
Assess your company’s specific needs
When considering your hiring goals and expectations, consider the breadth and complexity of your products.
How many products do you have?
- Do you have a few or a whole suite of products?
- Are they similar or wide-ranging?
- Do they have similar or diverse users?
- Are you maintaining existing products or gearing up to launch new ones?
How complex are your products?
- Are they fairly simple consumer products or complex B2B enterprise products?
- Are they pretty straightforward or filled with technical jargon?
- Are you building freely or are you marred by system or legacy constraints?
- Is customer confusion merely unfortunate or a matter of life and death?
If you have a lot of complex products, you definitely need to hire a formally trained UX researcher. However, if you have a few simple products, you can likely get by with a designer who has research experience. Just remember: You get what you pay for. While you may be strapped for cash, carefully vetting your applicants and finding people with the right background and experience will save you a lot of time, money, and headaches in the long run.
Don’t underestimate research
More often than not, though, you do need to hire a formal UX researcher, not just a designer who has read a few research articles. While research might seem easy to the casual observer, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.
Researchers meet with product, design, and engineering stakeholders to develop research goals and objectives. They carefully craft research questions that will uncover the users’ underlying needs and pain points. They also guide the conversation about research, read participants’ actions and subtle expressions, and probe participants’ responses; it’s not just sitting back and listening to what participants are saying. Researchers also analyze the data to uncover trends and patterns, instead of just cherry-picking the quotes that support their hypotheses. In other words, research is much more than asking simple questions. Rather, it’s all about phrasing, nuance, and observation, and it takes concentrated training and specialization.
While research might seem easy to the casual observer, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.
Why you likely need a trained researcher
1. Researchers intimately understand research methods
Should you use quantitative or qualitative methods? Various research methods have pros and cons and specific applications, so conducting a survey when you need one-on-one interviews will leave you stranded with high-level and cursory findings about what is happening when you really need an in-depth and robust understanding of why it’s happening. Conducting a focus group when you need a card-sorting task will leave you with jumbled insights riddled with groupthink instead of a quantitative breakdown of ideal groupings and relationships. Researchers also understand the necessary sample sizes and how to adequately screen and select representative participants in order to get the most valid results and conclusions.
I recently tested a complicated new navigation design. After three sessions, two participants had successfully navigated through our task, while one did not. Despite this, all three participants said the navigation made sense. Clearly you can’t take people at their word during research. People have an incredible ability to explain away difficulties and blame themselves for any issues instead of holding the designs accountable. One of the designers on my team called the design a success and said we should cancel our remaining sessions. I refused, and the next two participants also failed to understand the navigation and complete the task. We had a 50% failure rate for the design, which I would definitely not deem a success.
This was an excellent example of why you need a formal UX researcher: That designer is great but he doesn’t have formal research training. If he were on this project alone, we would’ve launched a brand new navigation item with a whopping 50% failure rate. No doubt this would’ve greatly confused users, reduced efficiency, and increased support calls, costing the company valuable client loyalty and satisfaction.
2. Researchers understand how to frame questions
One of the biggest skills in research is understanding how to uncover underlying needs and pain points — not settling for the first thing clients ask for. Unfortunately, you cannot simply ask people what they want; you have to uncover it through a series of questions. I love Laura Klein’s analogy in her book, UX For Lean Startups. She compares UX researchers to doctors: You don’t ask the patient to diagnose themselves, you ask them about their symptoms and collect a variety of evidence in order to ultimately form a conclusion.
Countless times on client calls, I’ve heard product owners or designers ask clients, “Do you think this feature is useful?” Clients will simply say yes to appease them and move on. Instead of asking a basic yes or no question, they should be asking, “What are your initial thoughts on this feature?” or “How would you use this feature?” Now you’re having the client actually think about the feature. Then you provide the reasoning and evidence to support their ultimate answer.
3. Researchers are more neutral
Researchers aren’t wedded to certain ideas or invested in specific designs. They know the overall goal but they haven’t spent time carefully crafting designs. This makes them more open-minded and neutral. They’re less likely to fall prey to confirmation bias, which is the tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information in a way that affirms one’s prior beliefs or hypotheses.
Designers, on the other hand, often focus on feedback that aligns with their preconceptions and opinions. This is a massive issue. Conducting research to simply confirm your hypotheses is pointless. In the example above, our designer had worked on those navigation designs for a while and he felt they were intuitive. He ignored the participant who really struggled, focusing instead on her final comment that it made sense overall. Giving in to confirmation bias can massively skew the results and lead to very poor UX.
4. Researchers aren’t intimately familiar with the designs
During research sessions, participants love to ask questions. “What does this do?” “Why is this here?” “How would I do this?” Designers conducting research often simply answer these questions instead of pushing back on the participant to uncover their expectations and preferences. The whole point of research is collecting feedback, not supplying answers yourself. Trained researchers, particularly ones who aren’t very familiar with the designs, are better at “playing dumb” and turning participants’ questions back on them by asking things like: “What would you expect it to do?” and “What do you think?” or “How would you expect to do it?”
5. Researchers are trained listeners
During conversations, we’re constantly filling in gaps in knowledge and trying to anticipate where the conversation is going. Experienced researchers know the value of active listening. Researchers focus on fully concentrating and understanding what participants are saying. They keep an open mind and work to avoid assumptions, continuously probing responses and uncovering underlying needs. Being too invested in or too familiar with the designs being tested can lead you to mentally fill in gaps and make assumptions about clients’ statements and feedback. This weakens data collection and analysis and can lead to suboptimal results.
I’m not arguing that only formal UX researchers can develop and hone these skills; rather, I am arguing that effective UX designers need to have formal training, experience, or mentorship in research if they’re tasked with research. Hiring a novice designer and assuming they can perform a wide range of research responsibilities is irresponsible. Asking new hires to excel in design, research, and a combination of other responsibilities is setting them up for failure. UX professionals regularly expand and change their expertise — but as with any expertise, including research, they need formal training or experience in order to succeed.
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