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What Research Looks Like Now

Starting a career in UX research comes with a lot of questions. Gregg Bernstein's upcoming book Research Practice attempts to answer them.  

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Thumy Phan

How did you start your career as a UXR?

Maybe you got your start in college after taking a few design classes and falling in love with it. Maybe you were doing something completely different before it fell into your lap. Or maybe you had a mentor who helped show you the ropes.

For many, you likely had to work through this complex career path by yourself. That can feel like moving to a new city alone and trying to navigate the public transit system for the first time: confusing—and frankly, lonely.

“What if you're a team of one and you're the only researcher?” asks Gregg Bernstein, UX Researcher at Signal and author of Research Practice: Perspectives from UX Researchers in a Changing Field. “How do you find somebody to talk about work with? What if there's no career ladder for you, because you're the only UX researcher? [...] Those were all the perspectives I was trying to put into this book.”

Gregg’s upcoming book Research Practice dives into a holistic view of UX research. He leveraged his experience researching at orgs such as MailChimp, Vox, and now Signal to give readers an in-depth look at the day-to-day work of research and the potential pitfalls you might encounter.

No, you’re not going to learn methodologies, or how to create questions for 1:1 interviews. Instead, you’re going to see what research looks like told by the very people who do it.

Drawing on interviews, essays, and the experience of more than 40 UXRs, this book covers everything from how to start a new research role, to building and scaling your research team, to dealing with the loneliness that comes with being a team of one.

We caught up with Gregg to discuss his book and background. But first, we asked him about his current role at Signal—and the challenges of researching for users who really value their privacy.

You were at Vox Media before, which is more of a media and news focused company. Now you’re at Signal, where the users and the company are much more focused on privacy and security. How does the work differ from what you did then to what you do now?

The thing about Vox Media was who we were researching was clear. We needed to understand how writers write stories, how editors edit stories, and how people use their phones to report news that's breaking. The mission was set.

At Signal, that's four steps down the road, because we don't really know who's using the product. When you join, you don't have to disclose your information. You’re not added to a database. Everything is anonymized, private, and secure. So step one is just trying to understand how we even find our users in a way so they will trust us and feel comfortable giving us information.

I've been there for eight or nine months now and most of that time has been experimenting with how we reach the people who use our products in a way that makes them feel comfortable enough to disclose how they use the product.

How exactly do you reach out to these users? I would imagine it's more difficult than doing more traditional research.

Totally. At Vox Media, people have newsletters that they subscribe to, so we could put a link in the newsletter. Or we could put a banner on the websites they visit. They follow us on social media so we could put a link to a survey on Twitter. People would sign up in droves to help us with any questions we had.

With Signal, we do have power users or tenured users. We have a Signal community where they talk about our newest releases or they offer feedback on the product. There's a Reddit board where people talk about Signal. And so I would start there to observe and just try to take in what people are talking about.

Sometimes I'd engage with them or ask them for feedback. But there's this whole other world of people who we don't hear from, and they're only going to get in touch with us if they are having trouble and need to get support.

One of my biggest projects was working with our designers and engineers to build a message within Signal that says, "Hey, we would love to hear from you so we can improve Signal for everyone. Would you be interested in completing a short survey?"

It sounds like a simple process, but doing it took a lot of engineering and design collaboration. Setting up the survey to not capture any identifiable data was another challenge. How do we make sure that we don't collect any geolocation data or IP data? How do we set it up so if somebody does provide their name and email address, we can automatically delete that after six months so that there's no record kept? So we did a survey, which is simple, but all the steps to get to that survey were really hard.

I talk to a lot of UXRs where setting up a survey is almost a banal process. I can't even imagine how difficult it would be to treat it for a user base that values privacy so much. Like where do you even start?

Within the survey itself, I'd ask, "Are you comfortable telling us about other apps you use? Yes or no?" And if yes, then we'd ask about other apps they use. I want to send a signal—no pun intended—that we're trying to be respectful and not ask questions that people aren't comfortable answering.

For example, there's also no way for us to know where our users are without them telling us. So in the survey, we ask, "Do you mind telling us where you’re located?" If they say they're okay with that, then we show them that question. It's a lot of priming and just trying to be sensitive.

I help people make smarter decisions. And, to me, that's the value of user research.

Gregg Bernstein

I'd imagine you don't do things like one-on-one interviews or things like that.

We do, but they're usually done over Signal. I don't ask for their name. I'll say, "What do you want us to call you? Do you have a nickname or something you want to go by?" I tried using dedicated research tools with our Signal users, and as soon as they saw that it meant logging into a platform or downloading an app to record themselves, it was no good. They just were not interested.

Instead, people can just send me screenshots or videos of themselves on Signal, and that's the best way to collect information from our users—it’s where they feel most comfortable.

Your book Research Practice is coming out soon. What inspired you to write this book?

Having been a professor and having worked at Mailchimp where everyone was encouraged to share their work, I've always just looked for the lessons in what I'm doing that might be useful to somebody else.

After I had scaled up the team Mailchimp and the practice at Vox Media, I felt like I had some lessons learned on how I had done that successfully. That's where the idea for the book came from. What have I learned from this process that might be useful to others?

But I realized that there's so many gaps in my experience. The book I was writing would only be useful to somebody who was going to work at Mailchimp and then Vox Media. It wasn't gonna be useful to somebody who was joining Google or Facebook or working in a different country. So, I started interviewing other researchers.

On one of these calls, the researcher I was speaking to said, "Instead of interviewing so many researchers, ask people to write their own stories and just share their perspective that way." And that unlocked this entire project. The book became, "Here's how I've scaled up research practices in organizations, but here's how, for example, Noam Segal at Wealthfront hires researchers."

I was able to introduce 40 more voices who could talk about what it means to get a job in UX research, how you scale a team, how you hire people, how you form partnerships with a design organization or marketing team or a sales team, and the challenges researchers face.

What if you're a team of one and you're the only researcher? How do you find somebody to talk about work with? What if there's no career ladder for you, because you're the only UX researcher? How do you advocate for being a senior or a director? What happens when you become the highest ranking researcher and you're ready for your next role?

Those were all the perspectives I was trying to put into this book. I know my path, but I didn't know what it meant for somebody else.

The book’s not going to tell you how to do usability tests or an interview. It's everything around the practice of UX research from getting a job to leaving a job where you've been a director and are going somewhere else.

How did you choose what topics you would focus on within the book?

The topics came from a few different places. One was what are the questions I get emailed the most? Like, "I'm a psychologist or in academia. I think I want to now go into software or technology. How does somebody with my background enter the field?" That's a question I've gotten a lot. And I felt like that was something that I could answer.

Topics would come from the question I would get after conference talks. I would get plenty of questions like, "How do you collaborate with a marketing team?" or "If the marketing team's doing research and the research team is also doing research, how do you bridge those two tracks?"

And then, just interviewing other researchers and asking, "What's a challenge that you're currently facing?" And I’d hear, "I'm trying to hire the right person—do I hire a research ops person or do I hire a UX researcher? Do I hire somebody who's been elsewhere or do I hire somebody who's brand new to the field?"

Then, I also created this giant Trello board with all the topics that I thought would be interesting to put in this book. I shared a link with about 80 researchers and 40 of them put their names on different topics.

A couple people wrote about imposter syndrome. A couple of people wrote about the loneliness of being the only researcher in an organization. People would propose their own topics and then write about them. And it really just broadened the scope of what the book could be and what the book ultimately became.

How did you choose the different voices who you would feature in the book?

It started off with people I knew, but I also would ask all those people, "Who are researchers that you think I should speak to?” It was the typical snowball approach, and it introduced me to a number of interesting—and eloquent—practitioners. I also tried to be as inclusive as I could seeking other voices for the book. Cyd Harrell, who just wrote A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide, was especially helpful in not just contributing to the book but recommending practitioners who could broaden the perspectives in the book.

It's obvious what a beginner or student might gain from this book, but I was wondering what are some examples of things someone more experienced can gain from the book?

Experienced researchers will learn, for example, different approaches people take to sharing their work.

In the book you're going to see different examples of how people have not just hired new researchers, but spread the tentacles of research across an organization. So how does research help a marketing team or even the CEO make better decisions? Or maybe you have dealt with difficult stakeholders? It's always helpful to hear how other people have tackled those problems or those challenges.

I've been doing this work and in the field for eight years, which doesn't sound like a long time, but it's long enough that I have to think about what am I going to do next as I get older? Am I going to top out as research manager or is chief research officer going to be a thing that is more common? Or is teaching going to be the pathway that a senior research leader in an organization has to go to next? I think the book is going to show you different models and examples of what you can do that you might not get within your own bubble if you're a practicing researcher.

What are some of the most surprising things you learned throughout the course of writing or researching for it?

The biggest surprise to me was I had this idea that scaling up a research practice was pretty much the same process everywhere; you come in and figure out what the big questions are, you put the systems in place to collect information, and you share with the right people.

But if you're at a Google or Amazon or giant organization like that, there's always a new product that's being spun up, but you're doing so in a place where research has already been done and there's already systems in place. One of the writers in the book said, "You know where the bathrooms are. You know all the software that people use. It's still a new research practice, but you're using the things that are familiar." So my notion of what starting a research practice looks like was very different than what it might look like in an enterprise organization where there's new practices starting up and scaling up all the time, in an ecosystem where the value of research is known.

What's a question that you wish people would ask you more?

It's not a question I wish people would ask, but it's the question people ask and I wish I had this answer earlier in my career: "What do you actually do all day? What is your job?" Some people’s dads build things. I'm sure my kids have no idea what I'm doing.

Well, what do you actually do all day?

I help people make smarter decisions. And, to me, that's the value of user research—having an expert who can help you make better decisions, whether it's design, company strategy, or sales questions.

It's not going to be the right answer every time, but at least it narrows the scope of the direction that we should head in. It mitigates the risk of making the wrong decision, because we're making informed choices.

I hope that's in your book, because I don't think I've ever heard research be described so succinctly and well.

It's in there. It's in the book!

Learn more about what's in the book at Gregg's website. Or you can pre-order Research Practice now for Kindle.

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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