So, you've decided to hire a user researcher to join your team - huzzah! Starting your user research team is incredibly exciting, but whenever a “first” of any role joins the team, it can feel a bit chaotic.
There was a point in my career where I was working with many people on the job hunt. Together, we scoured through job descriptions and I coached them to be ready for the job interviews. Spending hours in this world made me feel a bit disheartened. Job descriptions were confusing, expectations were unclear, and some companies couldn't answer questions candidates asked them.
Since user research is still relatively new, it can be tough to understand the role of the first user researcher in a company. While there is no perfect way to hire a user researcher, I have formed some best practices over the years.
Understand the role in general and at your organization
Before writing a job description or interviewing candidates, the first thing to do is understand a user researcher's role. What do user researchers generally do at an organization? How would this person fit into the structure of your organization?
There are three different types of user researchers:
- Qualitative user researcher. A "qualie" is someone who dives deep into generative (one-on-one interviews, mental models) and evaluative (usability testing) research methods. Although they may know some survey and quantitative analysis methods, they specialize in the qualitative side. Most qualitative researchers are skilled in understanding the "why" through conducting, analyzing, and presenting qualitative research, including deliverables such as personas, journey maps, and mental models.
- Quantitative user researcher. A "quantie" is someone who dives deep into quantitative methods, such as surveys, correlational research, experimental research, and causal-comparative research. Most quantitative researchers can help teams understand what is happening and how with a large sample size. Quanties can also specialize in customer satisfaction measures, such as understanding key drivers of your company's NPS.
- Mixed methods user researcher. A mixed-methods researcher has experience in both qualitative and quantitative research but generally leans more toward one - it is rare to have a 50/50 split.
If you are unsure which type of researcher you need, think about the problems you are trying to solve by hiring a researcher. Are you looking to gain a deep understanding of your customer through journey maps, mental models, or personas? Then a qualitative researcher might be best. Or are you looking for someone to help segment your users and provide analysis on overarching user behavior? Then go for a quantitative researcher.
In addition to learning about the different types of user researchers, it is also essential to understand the craft of user research. User researchers are trying to achieve:
- To build an empathetic, user-focused company that aligns the product and business strategy with users' core needs and goals.
- To understand how people perform tasks and achieve their goals to design an effective and pleasurable UX
- To create a shorter development time upfront, with a clear vision of what you are trying to build.
- To avoid costly fixes of development problems later down the road.
- To allow different teams to work collaboratively, ensuring a cohesive user experience across the entire product/service.
- To solve differences in opinion of "what should we do now?" by replacing it with the phrases: "let's test it" or "let's see what the research showed us."
- To design and build something people will use, something that solves a relevant problem that people are having - and keeps teams motivated!
Write a great job description
Once you understand how a researcher could work in your organization and what kind of researcher you want to hire, it is time to write a job description. I have seen some pretty abysmal job descriptions ambiguous and unclear, leading me to believe that the company isn't sure what user research is. These job descriptions can be a red flag to candidates and cause your role to sit unfilled for some time.
The best way to write a job description is to list all the things you wish the researcher would do and be as specific as possible. Be as transparent as you possibly can with information. And, please, include a salary or range.
Let's take an example for a senior user researcher:
As a senior user researcher on the team, you will be responsible for designing and conducting user research across the organization. Based on your expertise, you will identify the best methods for the team's goals and the available resources (see our budget and tools below). You will own all aspects of research (planning, recruitment, conducting, analysis, and reporting) for both generative and evaluative research. In addition to working directly with 5 product teams, you will help the other departments, such as marketing and customer support.
At our company, we will empower you to use a variety of methodologies to unveil customer insights. You will have support from our product analyst for data usage metrics, but you will also be responsible for follow-up surveys.
Pillars of work
As a researcher at our company, you will play a role in:
- Research. You are responsible for the end-to-end lifecycle of user research. You employ a range of methodologies that you choose from based on the team's needs and goals. Within the organization, you will help teams locally with evaluative research and run cross-functional strategic research initiatives. Additionally, you will work with the innovation team in validating/disproving new product ideas through generative research.
- Collaboration/partnership. You engage with multiple teams across the organization through conducting research, presenting insights, or facilitating workshops. You work closely with product managers within sprint planning and roadmap planning, with designers to help them sketch out ideas and test designs, and with developers to spread insights through presentations and workshops. In addition to the product teams, you will work with marketing to test content and customer support to triangulate customer needs.
- Evangelism. You will be the bridge between the users and our organization. You will spread insights throughout our organization, to all necessary departments. You feel comfortable talking through the benefits of user research and when user research doesn't work.
- Education. As the first and only user researcher at the company, you help others learn basic user research (ex: usability testing) through training and shadowing. You will also build the framework for user research at the company, including any processes and best practices for the organization.
- Impact. You understand the goal of the company, OKRs, and relevant business metrics. With this information, you know how to prioritize the most impactful research for the organization and different teams. You proactively identify problems and projects for teams to work on, and you follow through on all projects by measuring success. You are responsible for finding the sweet spot between users, our product, and the business.
- Planning, conducting, and synthesizing generative and evaluative research
- Leading generative research initiatives to inform product strategy and innovation, which will be discussed quarterly with product leadership
- Executing evaluative research initiatives for teams to help show the right path for the next steps of a design, concept, or idea
- Creating deliverables, such as personas and journey maps to help enhance our understanding of users
- Collaborating with product managers in understanding upcoming research needs and prioritizing the most impactful research at the company
- Sharing insights from research across different teams and the organization to keep research top of mind
- Help teams iterate on ideas and keep the user top of mind when planning sprints and the following areas of improvement
- Teaching others best practices in basic user research (ex: usability testing) through training and shadowing
- Facilitate ideation, brainstorming, and synthesis workshops with teams at the end (or during) research projects
Go through as many different job descriptions as possible and pull together what feels best for your organization's needs.
Set up an efficient hiring process
The hiring process can be tiring for everyone involved, so it is best to do it as streamlined as possible:
Intro call (30 minutes) with the hiring manager, recruiter, or manager to understand basic skills
Portfolio deep-dive (60 minutes) with a product manager, designer, or team member to assess previous experience, skills, and communication
Research exercise (45-60 minutes) with a product manager, designer, or team member to understand the approach to a problem and critical thinking. Check out our article on the whiteboard challenge to know what to expect for a research exercise
Panel interview (60 minutes) with a small number of teams not present in the other steps to verify approach, methods, and communication. The candidate can present the same work as the portfolio deep-dive, and the team asks follow-up questions
Manager check-in (30 minutes) with manager to identify career goals and organizational fit
Having trouble deciding which questions to ask? These are the common questions I recommend researchers prepare for.
Be ready to answer some questions
If researchers are good at one thing, it is asking questions. Be prepared to answer questions about your organization. Here are the most common questions to be ready for:
- How does work get prioritized?
- Where do research projects come from?
- How do product managers, designers, developers, and the organization feel about user research?
- How would you define success in this role?
- What would you expect from this person in six months?
- What would be the biggest challenges for this role?
- How does the team/organization deal with people making mistakes?
- Who are the big decision-makers? How would they impact research?
Set them up for success
Remember the pillars I put at the beginning of the job description? Those are the pillars you can use to assess the success of the role. Under each pillar, list all of the expectations you have of the user researcher.
For example, collaboration/partnership success criteria might look like:
- Streamline incoming requests in a way that is effective and clear for stakeholders
- Prioritize team's research requests (with clear alternatives)
- Meet with stakeholders regularly and be a part of the team's planning and roadmapping
- Adhere to deadlines and timelines
- Advise stakeholders on research needs, including helping them define research goals, questions, and methods
- Align research projects with team OKRs/goals/KPIs
- Challenge stakeholders' requests and understanding of user research
- Help stakeholders understand the value and use of user research - and where user research is not applicable
If you are looking for a list of technical and soft skills at different levels, look at this template.
Also, if you don't have any others with user research experience (or even if you do), consider a learning budget. This budget will allow the researcher to continue expanding their knowledge and skills.
What to avoid
- Trying to hire a unicorn that does a little bit of UX design, research, UI design, interaction...if you want to hire a researcher, hire a researcher! We are specialists in the field and, don't worry, we will have plenty of work to do!
- Hiring a succession of short-term contractors might sound like an excellent idea, but great, ongoing user research requires a depth of knowledge. If you want to "try-out" the role, consider a six-month contract with a freelancer.
- Make sure onboarding and success criteria for the role are super clear. Even if no one else in the organization has any experience with user research, the team should still define what they believe is successful in the role.
- Don't hire a full-time user researcher if everyone in your company hates user research. While our job is to advocate and evangelize user research, we aren't there to beg and plead with colleagues who don't believe in our craft. First, try to shift the company's mindset and find several allies before hiring a user researcher.
- Hiring a user researcher to do usability testing won't get you your bang for your buck. Allow the researcher to take part in strategy meetings and conduct innovative, generative research. Our skills extend much further than testing designs!
Hiring a first for any position is complex, particularly user research since it is still a new and niche field. If you take the time to think through how a user researcher can work and excel at your organization, you will be attracting the right people.
Nikki Anderson is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 8 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Explore her research courses here or read more of her work on Medium.