Skip to content

Build Your Ideal UXR Team from the Ground Up

After you've laid the foundation with management and training skills, think about how to approach team formations and resources.

Words by Andy Warr, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Building a new research team from scratch is an exciting prospect—but it's also easy to get overwhelmed, prioritize the wrong things, or head in the wrong direction.

As the first researcher at AirTable, on the Chrome team at Google, and Instagram, I got a lot of first-hand experience on how to build teams from scratch.

In the first installation of this series, I outlined the prerequisites to building a team, which included gaining management experience and building or identifying the need for a team.

In this installation, I’ll walk you through the activities and decisions you’ll need to make when starting to build a formidable research team.

These experiences are based on a career in the tech industry working on B2B and B2C products. Even if you have a different set of considerations for other industries, these tips could still be helpful jumping off point.

Do it yourself

Before building a team, conducting research yourself allows you to…

  • Establish working relationships with cross-functional partners
  • Understand how they operate, and what their needs are
  • Begin to establish a research identity and understanding of research priorities

✔ Take on a research project

When I joined Instagram, before hiring anyone I conducted evaluative and foundational research studies to fulfill some of the immediate needs of the product team. And when I joined Airtable, I partnered with a contractor to build a research roadmap for a product team. I then conducted in-depth interviews for a market research project, eventually hiring a full-time employee to execute the research roadmap for the product team and beyond—which mapped to a company priority.

Doing the work allowed me to determine the skillsets needed. I also learned how to work with the team, established how to work with research, and evaluated if there was a persistent need for a researcher. This was especially important when deciding whether or not to hire a full-time employee.

When a manager joins an existing team, I encourage them to conduct their own research study to build a first-hand understanding of the research practice and build empathy for the work of their company.

✔ Learn to replace yourself

The greatest lesson a previous manager taught me when building the research team at Instagram was, “Learn how to replace yourself”. He recommended that I evaluate what work took the majority of my time, which should be the highest priority work given limited resources, and then hire someone to do that work. This would then free up my time to work on the next high-priority opportunity.

In 2014, Instagram had three product groups—engagement, growth, and monetization. The engagement product group was responsible for the core Instagram app. It was also the team that had the most research requests, mapped to company priorities and the most cross-functional partners. As such, I hired a senior researcher to work with this group. This freed me up to work with the growth product group, which was the next immediate priority.

Design the team

Before you build a team, you need to design it. More specifically, this includes how the team will be organized, such as which product team a researcher will work with and how they will work with them, based on the number of headcount you have to hire.

✔ Decide on an operating model

Before building a team, you need to consider how you will structure the team. In my experience, there are four possible team structures:

  1. Embedded
  2. Service
  3. Hybrid
  4. Shared

1. Embedded

The embedded team structure is a popular approach that assigns researchers to a specific team, enabling them to become subject matter experts in a particular area and build relationships with cross-functional team members.

However, it’s essential to prioritize teams carefully, especially when there are more teams than researchers available. If priorities change frequently, the embedded team structure may not be suitable, and it may be necessary to move researchers to different teams.

Leaving researchers on teams that are not a high priority for the company is also not feasible. Therefore, it’s crucial to ensure that people are allocated correctly before hiring additional staff when adopting this team structure. By taking these factors into account, organizations can successfully implement the embedded team structure and reap its benefits.

2. Service

The service team structure assigns researchers to time-bound research studies for product teams, with projects typically determined based on company priorities. While this approach offers a lot of flexibility and can quickly adapt to changes in priorities, it also means that teams don’t have dedicated research support, and they may work with a variety of researchers.

This can make it challenging to establish rapport and trust between the research team and the product team. However, by providing clear communication and project management processes, this structure can still be successful.

Furthermore, this structure can be more suitable for specialist research functions, such as quantitative survey research, where a product team may not have a need for a dedicated person.

Overall, the service team structure can be an effective approach for organizations seeking to execute research studies quickly and efficiently—while also ensuring they align with the company's strategic priorities.

3. Hybrid

The hybrid team structure is a flexible approach that combines the benefits of the embedded and service team structures. In this model, researchers are assigned to projects within a particular area, allowing them to develop a degree of domain expertise.

This structure also enables researchers to work on the highest priority projects and establish relationships with teams within an area, building up trust and understanding. While not as rigid as the embedded team structure, the hybrid team structure still provides some level of consistency, which can be essential for conducting high-quality research.

By striking a balance between flexibility and consistency, organizations can leverage the hybrid team structure to achieve optimal results from their research efforts.

4. Shared

The shared team structure assigns a researcher to multiple teams, which can include teams within the same area or span multiple areas. This approach is typically adopted by smaller teams to maximize coverage and make the most efficient use of available resources.

However, the shared team structure can present challenges, including the need for frequent context-switching by the researcher, which can be disruptive for both the researcher and the team. Context switching can also result in a loss of focus and decreased productivity.

Despite these challenges, the shared team structure can be an effective approach for smaller teams seeking to balance research coverage with limited resources. By setting clear expectations and with effective time management, organizations can mitigate the risks associated with the shared team structure and leverage it to achieve their research objectives.

When building the team at Instagram, we first adopted the Shared team structure. However, we found that the context-switching was problematic—context switching increases cognitive load and can result in burnout. As such, we transitioned to the Hybrid team structure.

The Hybrid team structure was what we initially used at Airtable. When hiring more specialist functions, such as a Research Operations Specialist and a Quantitative UX Researcher, we adopted the Service team structure, operating across the company.

It should be noted that the structure you choose to begin with is not the structure you have to use forever. In the next part of this series, we’ll discuss how the team structure needs to evolve in order to scale research.

✔ Determine how many researchers to hire

One way to decide how many researchers to hire is based on ratios. A company will typically evaluate what it plans to build in a fiscal year and how many engineers it needs to do so, which will then inform the estimated headcount for other functions.

Many tech companies size product teams based on ratios. While ratios vary between companies, a common and ideal ratio is considered:

20 engineers : 2 designers : 2 product managers : 1 data scientist : 1 UX researcher

We arrived at this ratio at Airtable by looking at companies of a similar size and companies with similar annual recurring revenue.

As ratios are based on the headcount to be hired and UX Research is typically a function that is hired once a company reaches a certain size, additional headcount is often needed to reach the target ratio. Otherwise, the function will likely be understaffed.

✔ Hire generalists

Regardless of the team structure you decide on, it’s important to hire generalists when first building a team. A generalist is a researcher who is experienced with a wide variety of research methods and can apply them to a variety of problems.

This is important when first building, because there will be more projects and teams than researchers, and they may have to adapt based on changing priorities. The first three UX researchers hired at Airtable were generalists. Adopting the hybrid operating model, they worked on the Core, Growth, and Platform product areas.

Block at least two hours each week to focus on hiring. I would use this time to reach out to potential candidates, review resumes from our recruiting team, message candidates in our hiring pipeline, and write hiring packets for offers we were planning to extend.

Focus on hiring

A research leader should always be focused on hiring. I will never forget Mike Krieger, the CTO and co-founder of Instagram, telling a story of how he would spend a lot of his time keeping the servers up and running. However, this prevented him from developing the Instagram app further.

This problem was exacerbated as more people started using Instagram—it took more time to keep the servers up and running. Mike uses this as an example of why hiring is a vital part of scaling a company, requiring dedicated attention and time.

✔ Block dedicated time for hiring

Block at least two hours each week to focus on hiring. I would use this time to reach out to potential candidates, review resumes from our recruiting team, message candidates in our hiring pipeline, and write hiring packets for offers we were planning to extend.

✔ Message potential candidates yourself

Even if you have access to a recruiting team, send messages yourself. This drastically improves the engagement rate of potential candidates. At Airtable, we had candidates reach back out to us months later when initially not interested because of the hands-on approach we took.

✔ Design the interview loop

An interview for an individual contributor (IC) commonly consists of a:

  • Recruiter phone screen (30 minutes) to confirm the candidate meets the requirements listed in the job description
  • Hiring manager phone screen (45 minutes) to dig deeper into the candidate’s experiences and values
  • Full interview loop which will include a:
    • Portfolio presentation (60 minutes) for the candidate to present two case studies
    • Research skill interview (45 minutes) to assess a candidate’s knowledge of and expertise with various research methods
    • Collaboration & Communication interview (45 minutes) to evaluate how a candidate works with cross-functional partners
    • Product interview (45 minutes) to understand how a candidate translates research insights into actionable recommendations
    • Values interview to determine if the candidate exhibits company values

Interview loops will vary between companies. Clear and crisp written communication was highly valued at Airtable, so we also had a paid written assignment before the full interview loop. We also had a business acumen interview which was more focused on strategic thinking. To reduce the length of the full interview loop, we also integrated the questions from the values interview into the other interviews, so each interviewer focused on a given value.

Remember that in addition to evaluating a candidate, they will be evaluating you as a potential manager, the people who work at the company, and the company. As such, consider the candidate's experience when designing the interview loop. Ensure that they will get to meet other members of the research team, cross-functional partners, meet with you as a manager, and have time to ask questions.

At Airtable our interview loops included data scientists, designers, product managers, and researchers. We would organize a coffee chat with the Research team. And the research manager and team would reach out to the candidate after the interview to ensure a positive candidate experience.

✔ Borrow interview guides and processes from other functions

No need to reinvent the wheel. When designing the interview loop for UX Researchers at Airtable, we had interviews that focused on business acumen, collaboration and communication, product thinking, and research skill.

I modified the interview guides from the data insights team for the business acumen interview, and the design team for the collaboration and communication interview. I also recreated the interview guides for the product thinking and research skill interviews based on the same interviews I had designed at Meta.

✔ Let your company values guide you

A lot of candidates, cross-functional partners, and members of the team would comment on how great the Research team was at Airtable—it had one of the highest employee engagement scores in the company. They would ask how we went about building such a great team.

First, we focused on our company values. We hired people who behaviorally demonstrated…

  • Being action-oriented
  • Thinking about the big picture
  • Being company-oriented
  • Having a growth mindset
  • That they were humble, as well as being customer-obsessed
  • Having research rigor

Second, great people want to work with others who are great. This is why it’s essential to maintain a high bar. As the research team grew at Airtable, people joined the team from established tech giants and even chose to work at Airtable when receiving multiple offers, including high-paying offers from big tech companies, because of the research team and vision.

Wrapping it up

Overall, building a research team requires thoughtful consideration of team structure, hiring practices, and alignment with company goals. By following these guidelines and adapting strategies as the team grows, organizations can establish a robust and effective research practice that drives innovation and customer-centric decision-making.

In the next post in this series, I’ll walk you through the steps to scale a team—including hiring specialists and leaders, empowering others, and building processes that scale.

Andrew (Andy) Warr is a UX leader with over 15 years of experience leading impactful, high-quality projects across multiple business and product lines at hyper-growth companies, and over 10 years of experience building, coaching, and managing strong-performing teams.

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest