Many stakeholders come to me wanting to learn how to do user research. And while I have a lot of feelings about democratization, I appreciate it when colleagues want to understand user research better.
So, whenever I begin engaging with a new colleague or stakeholder on this topic, I start the conversation by asking, "How do you define user research?"
Creating a shared understanding
I ask how people define user research for two reasons:
- Gauge where someone is with user research and the expectations they have of it
- Understand how much education might be needed to help support that colleague with user research
Whenever we start with this shared understanding, there aren't any guessing games on what that person thinks or how educated they are in user research, and I don't spend time pitching or educating the wrong way.
I can teach from a much more informed perspective with this starting point. And the place that I typically start is by breaking down what user research really is (outside of the standard definition) and how to think like a user researcher.
With this foundation—and before diving into things like writing usability tasks and recruitment—there is a higher success rate with democratization.
This article would be a helpful resource to send to your stakeholders or colleagues to help them better understand our craft and collaborate more effectively.
User research in an organization
People often think user research is just about understanding the user and becoming more "user-centric." It's about walking a mile in our customer's shoes to make better product-based decisions aligned with our customers.
While this is all correct, this isn't where user research stops. We should discuss many more components of user research within an organization aloud. However, user researchers often assume (gasp!) that our colleagues understand the full scope of what we are trying to accomplish.
As a role, we sit between the users, the product, other teams, and the business. What does this mean? We combine information from all key areas to help the product teams create an experience that supports our users and keeps the company in business.
We are not solely focused on our users because we understand there are a lot of confounding variables that go into a product. For example, users may need something that is not technically feasible or may not be a smart decision for the business. However, our specialty is within the sphere of users, so sometimes we need help piecing together the other areas.
It’s important to us to support the users, product teams, and the business. We aim to do this by:
- Understanding what our colleagues and the business need in terms of support, then turning that into viable research projects.
- Gathering the information stakeholders need about users, then help product teams make more informed decisions regarding their product roadmap, or how to approach a particular idea.
- Including success metrics in our studies that relate to product team goals (ex: increase the number of app downloads by 10% in a quarter) and business goals (ex: increase revenue by 5% in the next 12 months).
With these three responsibilities in mind, sometimes we can use a little help from our counterparts to ensure we get all the information we need.
We want to be the bumpers in bowling to ensure no ideas go into the gutter. Even if you don’t consistently bowl a strike, we help get you the information to get closer to that.
Our goals and needs
When it comes to user research, there’s often a misconception that our only goal is to push users' needs and pain points into the product. However, that isn't the only thing we’re assessed on—nor is it the only thing we care about!
Whenever I started as a user researcher, I focused too much on the users. All I cared about was creating or improving features that would alleviate users' pain points, or helping them achieve their goals. And while this is essential, it’s only one piece of the pie.
As user researchers, we aim to support product teams and the business by sharing information that leads to more informed decisions. We want to be the bumpers in bowling to ensure no ideas go into the gutter. Even if you don’t consistently bowl a strike, we help get you the information to get closer to that.
Ultimately, our work is a product that our stakeholders experience. We want to curate a positive user experience for colleagues. With that, we do need help in several areas to collaborate more effectively:
✔ Explore ideas
Sometimes someone gets a fascinating idea for a solution. As user researchers, we aren't here to rain on anyone's parade, but we want to ensure we have enough information before running toward a solution.
So, instead of testing a solution, we might ask for time to explore the original idea further. That’s because we want to see ideas succeed. Getting this background information helps us determine if the solution addresses a priority need or pain point.
✔ Accurately predict timing
Sometimes it takes time to do particular research quickly. For example, creating personas—no matter how we try—isn't something we can do in two weeks, let alone three or four. We can help develop proto-personas (a prototype of a persona) in a shorter period, but they need further research to lead to better decision-making.
Try to include your user researcher in your work as early as possible. We are more than happy to create a research roadmap that mirrors your product roadmap, so that you get the information you need when you need it!
✔ Balance rigor and planning
I've had colleagues feel that research takes too long and gets stuck in the planning phase. I get it. It sucks when something takes longer than you may expect, but research does include rigor. We work to balance that rigor with the speed of tech and product companies.
However, planning research properly sets the entire project up for success. If we don't plan and think through the study's goals, we might not get the information we need—adding more time to the project.
✔ Determine approach on projects/questions
We work hard to determine the best way to align your needs and questions with a valid research study. Trust me, I wish we could ask people how much they love something or if they would buy a product, but we know that will give you unreliable and invalid data.
You may ask us to understand if a user would be interested in a feature, and we might change it to ask about their past behavior around something similar. This is because we are trying to get you reliable information to make the most informed decisions.
By including your user research in these areas and understanding their goals, you’ll be able to collaborate a lot more effectively. This collaboration will mean the researcher has time to do quality (and reliable) work, and you get the best insights for your team—a win-win!
Operating like a user researcher
Operating and thinking like a user researcher takes time and
practice. We have usually spent (or will spend) years honing our craft
and mindset. But there are some valuable concepts to keep in mind if you
want to begin practicing user research.
✔ Ask lots of questions
Like detectives, we aim to get to the bottom of things, the real crux
and need. We don't only do this with users! When you approach us with a
project, we might ask a bunch of questions to ensure we completely
understand what information you need.
To get used to asking more questions, I recommend the five-why
technique, asking someone why after they have told you their initial
answer. Or use open-ended questions to dig deeper, like the TEDW method.
When UXRs interview participants, we aim to ask more questions than
talk, ideally at a 90%, 10% split (90% of the time the participant
talks, and only 10% of the time we talk).
✔ Show curiosity
User researchers love to get curious, and it's one of our biggest
drivers in joining the field. We like to go into conversations with
non-biased thinking and without an agenda (well, not always, but as much
as we can).
One of the best traits I've seen in stakeholders who want to do user
research is this sense of curiosity. What does that look like? Going
into a user research interview
genuinely interested in what that person is telling you. Of course,
there is certain information you want from them. But allow them to
unravel it in their way, leading the conversation.
We are more likely to listen actively and ask open-ended, unbiased
questions when curious. Try approaching different situations and
problems within your teams with this mindset and see how it can help you
gain more understanding with less stress!
✔ Come with an open mind
One of the coolest things about my job as a user researcher is being
able to go into research sessions with a completely open mind. If the
participant hates a prototype or complains about our product, I am 100%
okay with that because I’m here to understand them with an open mind.
Allowing yourself not to take feedback personally and looking at it
with an open mind is critical in using it properly. When we make this
shift, the input becomes more powerful and can lead us into a creative
space rather than us fighting it. This creativity can enable us to
brainstorm ideas we never even thought possible. The limits are truly
✔ Don’t focus on validating
I cringe whenever I hear the word “validate.” Let's validate our
designs, let's validate our ideas, let's validate our direction, and
let's validate our hypotheses.
Validating makes it seem like we are already correct and there is
something valid about what we present to the participant. It also
signals a one-and-done approach to testing. Was the design validated or
not? And we know user research can't answer those ambiguous yes or no questions.
Instead of the word “validate”, try:
These words help you shift into a mindset of curiosity and
open-mindedness. They also remind us that user research and product
development is a journey, not a one-shot approach!
Understanding each other's roles, the goals we are trying to
accomplish, and how to collaborate most effectively is critical when it
comes to democratization. It’s also an effective and efficient approach
to making great products that help the business, team, and users achieve
Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs.
To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membership, follow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.