Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Austin Smoldt-Saenz
This is part one of a two-part series. The second part of the series will focus on structuring, scaling, and providing growth and development for your team.
It's super exciting to build and structure a user research team. I remember the first time I had the opportunity to do this. It was after I had been a user research team of one for years. Then, finally, I had the green light to build and grow a user research team.
I was ecstatic. And terrified.
How was I meant to go from researcher to scaling research across an organization? I knew how to work across different departments, but I had no idea how to grow a department. Nevertheless, it was an exciting opportunity, and I jumped at it.
There are a few mental model shifts that you need to go through as you build and structure a team, so I wanted to provide a breakdown of my experience and advice during this time.
Before you build the team or hire
Let's start at the beginning, shall we?
At this stage, you are the only researcher or person who does research at an organization. You may or may not have buy-in for research, depending on the user research maturity of your organization. Either way, before you dive into building a research team, you must set the stage properly.
The last thing you want is to hire researchers to work with stakeholders who don't believe in user research. Or to bring in researchers to an unfriendly environment.
So before we even begin building a team, we must ensure we cultivate the best (to our ability) environment in which other researchers can thrive or contribute positively.
During this stage, focus on…
Creating a user research framework
A user research framework is a guide on how user research works at a company. I don't write user research frameworks for myself, I write them for other team members.
Often, people on other teams don't fully understand what user research is or what user researchers do.
Although we are mainly part of the product team, we can positively impact other areas of a company. However, it isn't easy for people to reach out to us with questions or ideas when they don't know what we do. Also, a user research framework can highlight the value of user research to the product team and the broader organization.
Even though we work with products, colleagues on these teams sometimes might not know how to best work with a user researcher. This framework can help others understand the depth of user research and how we can help organizations.
Here are the components I typically include in a framework deck:
- What is user research?
- Misconceptions of user research
- UX research principles and mission
- UX research responsibilities
- UX research process
- UX research metrics
Read more about frameworks (and an example) here.
Educating on user research
During this stage, talk to stakeholders about how user research can help teams and businesses make more informed decisions. Use the framework you built to help people understand the benefits and processes of user research.
One of the best ways I've learned to educate people on user research is first to understand their perspective. This approach consists of many internal stakeholder interviews, in which I ask about colleagues' mental models and views on user research.
Geared with this information, I can build a practice that aligns with stakeholders' needs and goals.
Educating colleagues about user research is also a great time to highlight the overlap between user research and business. Fusing a bond between user research and business is essential early on and will help you provide evidence on how user research positively impacts the product.
Every company is unique. There are different people, perspectives, goals, industries, metrics, and needs—the list could go on forever. One way to measure the research ROI would be nice, but it depends on your circumstances and situations.
If you are interested in trying this method, here are some steps you can take:
- Chat with stakeholders to understand their goals and the important metrics within your organization.
- Make a list of all the money and human aspects you can think of based on the information from the stakeholder interviews.
- Use numbers (ask for help!) to calculate gains and losses in each area.
- Assign potential research methods that would help alleviate these issues (Ex: generative research → personas, unmoderated usability testing → simple but time-constrained projects).
- Create a presentation to pitch to your audience. In the past, I have created several presentations for each stakeholder or smaller group, so they are more related to colleagues' immediate goals.
- Remember, it is always an estimate! You don't need to come up with exact numbers.
Here are some potential areas to look into when it comes to mixing user research and business:
- Development costs – Think through how long it would take to complete a project with and without research, and how much time or money it would take to fix mistakes that the team could have found upfront.
- Reducing support costs – How much less will you need to pay for extra staff doing account management or customer support?
- Increasing sales – Understanding customers and what they need will help them make a purchase decision.
- Improving business metrics – Think pirate metrics and customer satisfaction (maybe not through the NPS, though).
- Increasing team output – Level up efficiency and motivation of the team, causing them to act faster and more creatively.
- Employee retention – Reduce the loss of talent and of finding new talent.
While it might be obvious to researchers that user research is essential and can positively impact our users and the business, that isn't always the case for others. Part of our job is to help others see how research can benefit them and their goals. Use these steps to begin and move forward with that conversation!
Founder, User Research Academy
Not everyone is thrilled about user research. And that's okay! One of the best ways to build a user research practice is to create a sense of FOMO.
To do this, find allies who enjoy user research—or at least tolerate including user research in the process. By working with these allies, you can gather testimonials for user research and help you concretely share the benefits with others.
When colleagues see others participating in user research, they get curious. One time, several less-than-excited stakeholders walked past a room full of sticky notes and popped their heads in. A few days later, they contacted me asking if I could work with them.
Creating a budget
A budget is necessary for hiring. First, you need to know how much you can spend on hiring new researchers. This step requires researching average salaries and looking at what your organization can offer to potential hires.
Beyond that, it’s helpful to budget parts of the research practice, such as participant incentives, recruitment agencies, necessary tools, and the number of studies you hope to complete.
Typically, I do my budget per quarter or half-year with a tentative yearly budget.
Within this budget, I include:
- Hiring costs for the different roles I'd like to hire. I use ranges based on research through reports and calculators.
- An approximate number of studies (and what types) planned, with the number of participants needed for each study.
- Recruitment costs for the studies, breaking down incentives or recruitment agency costs.
- Recurring costs for any tools we currently use.
- Costs for new tools.
- If applicable, marketing or advertising costs for recruitment (ex: Facebook ads).
- Costs for team building or cultural needs.
- Costs for development and learning for the team (ex: conferences, mentorship).
- If applicable, costs for community engagement (ex: sending out swag to participant panels).
I usually have two versions of my budget. One version I call Strategic, which is the ideal budget for everything I need, and the other is called Lean, which is the absolute minimum for what I need.
Building a career framework
Before researchers join your organization, it is super important to have a framework or way you can help them grow. I like to create a career framework before researchers start so that they understand everything they need to succeed and excel when they begin.
Here is what I include in my career frameworks for each level:
- Core role knowledge – The breadth and depth of expertise in research methods, skills, and processes
- Diligence – The planning and documentation of research with regards to an organization's standards and best practices
- Stakeholder partnership – Being a reliable business partner that stakeholders value and trust
- Growth mindset – Seeking feedback, giving feedback, and taking advantage of learning and development opportunities.
- Impact – Evaluating and striving for the impact of one's research across departments and the organization
- Community service – Helping the UXR team and broader organization achieve more with research by contributing to tools, knowledge management, processes, and infrastructure.
- Leadership – Participate in setting and communicating research direction, leading the planning and scoping of research in alignment with team and company priorities.
For each of these areas, I list the hard and soft skills for each level and indicators that the team can use to measure success.
For example, within core role knowledge, a junior UXR should embody the following skills:
✔ Knowledge of basic qualitative research methods:
- Recruitment (research execution)
- Scheduling (research execution)
- Usability testing (research execution)
- Interviews (research execution)
- Basic affinity diagrams (insight generation)
- Competitive audit (research execution)
- Note taking (research execution)
- Basic written reports (insight generation)
- Understanding of primary deliverables (ex: personas)
✔ Measurable indicators (could look like the following):
- Increasing the number of research methods the person is comfortable with
- Getting [X amount] of feedback on processes and skills from colleagues
- Becoming a go-to person for certain areas of the process
- Assessing [Y number] of previous interviews to highlight improvement areas and applying those to future interviews
If you have difficulty brainstorming skills for the different levels, look at my skillset checklist (which is also helpful for individual assessment).
Lay out some basic processes
If possible, establish some basics of user research at your organization to make it easier for your team to slip into a routine.
For me, it’s looked like this:
- A basic recruitment process (even if it's not the best!)
- Creating a research roadmap and backlog tied to the product team
- Processes aligned with legal (ex: consent forms)
- Some basic templates for things like reports or research plans
- A rough idea of end-to-end projects for generative and evaluative research
Before we officially grow a team, it is crucial to consider who you need and why you’re hiring them.
I've seen many companies put up job posts for researchers, hire them, and then deal with a very unsatisfied employee. This is because the company didn't prepare for a researcher. If you've completed the work in the section above, you've made the first step.
Now, it's time to dig deeper into why you are hiring a researcher (or researchers) and what that process will look like for them and your organization. And if you want even more juicy hiring details, look at this article.
During this stage, focus on…
Who to hire
Look through the upcoming research. Then, based on the type of research, stakeholders, and necessary experience, think about who you should hire. Also, think of your capacity as a coach and what amount of time you can give to your new employees.
Whenever I have been the only researcher looking to hire my first additional researcher, I tend to look for a mid- or senior-level researcher that fills the gaps in my weaknesses.
For example, I am strong in generative research, and even while growing a team, I will still have to dedicate time to conducting user research. So there are two ways I could go about this:
- Hiring someone who is equally as strong in generative research and can take those more significant projects off my plate
- Hiring someone strong (and interested) in other areas like evaluative methods
I have listed this person's tasks, responsibilities, and challenges. I use this list as criteria when assessing candidates to know if they would be efficient and effective on upcoming projects.
Overall, you want to look for someone who can take on the upcoming projects and whatever challenges you've identified this person will face. Also, ensure you find someone interested in and excited about building a research practice with you. They need to be okay with ambiguity and a lack of structure.
A compelling job description is vital. Please don't just list responsibilities you copy and paste from other job descriptions. Instead, use the list you brainstormed above and your organizational knowledge to create concrete responsibilities.
Here are five steps I take when writing job descriptions:
- Look at other job descriptions to find the most impactful information relevant to your organization. This isn't permission to copy and paste, but learning how others write job descriptions.
- Be clear about what future employees will do daily and their impact on the organization.
- Include how that person could grow from the role
- Highlight what you can bring to their experience
- Your job description should be gender neutral as well. I use a gender decoder program to ensure that the wording encourages anyone that qualifies to apply regardless of gender.
Here's a job description example:
- Conduct both generative and evaluative research using various methods to collect and analyze users' behavior, such as usability testing, surveys, interviews, diary studies, and card sorting
- Collect information from different teams (e.g., product, account management, customer success, sales, marketing, tech) to understand assumptions about users and current gaps in knowledge
- Proactively work with teams (e.g., product, account management, customer success, sales, marketing, tech) to share insights and deliverables through collaborative synthesis, presentations, and workshops
- Assist teams in turning research into fundamental, actionable ideas through ideation workshops, helping them to develop user-centric prototypes, wireframes, and experiences
- Prioritize the most impactful research to teams, the business, and our users by balancing research requests
- Turn business questions and goals into viable research studies that enable the company to grow and succeed.
- Identify new, innovative products or feature areas for the company through research.
- Execute the end-to-end research process, including planning, scoping, recruiting, conducting, analyzing, and sharing
- The opportunity to help scale the research team and set up a foundation for the team to grow
- Mentor and coach other researchers to understand your future as a manager or individual contributor (we support both!)
Not all interviews are the same, and not all companies go through the same interview steps. However, there are trends in the interview process. Companies may combine some of these steps into one call, and some might be in a different order.
As a hiring manager, here are the most common interview steps I've seen and used:
- HR/recruitment call (30-45 minutes) – This step is a very standard get-to-know-you call. In this call, recruiters try to understand a candidate's general level, skills, and competence for the role.
- 1:1 deep-dive interview (60-90 minutes) – During the deep-dive interview, the candidate presents one to three case studies to either one person or multiple people. This stage is essential for assessing the candidate's competency and process to understand if they fit in your organization.
- Panel interview (60 minutes) – The candidate presents the same case studies to a broader audience. Sometimes the team members may be from different teams, such as product managers, designers, or developers. This step assesses how the candidate communicates with a larger group and gives colleagues from other teams the chance to ask questions.
- Whiteboard challenge (45-60 minutes) – Use the whiteboard challenge to assess how the candidate responds to a problem. You can make this challenge live or take-home. Read more about making these tests here.
- 1:1 interview with another team member or manager (30-60 minutes) – If the candidate didn't have the chance to interview with members from other teams, you could include an additional interview with another team member. Otherwise, this is a chance for the candidate to talk with you after the process. Use this call to evaluate culture fit to ensure you would work well together in the company environment.
- Final HR/recruitment call (30 minutes) – Please include this step, even if it’s a rejection. Take the time to give the candidate meaningful feedback. If it's an acceptance, use this call to discuss the following steps: finalizing salary, start date, and contract signing.
I quickly learned that a straightforward evaluation method was essential during the interview process. Before this approach, I sometimes forgot precisely what I assessed previous candidates on, and the whole decision-making process felt messy.
I now use a scorecard when assessing candidates, making my evaluation process as consistent as possible. I create the scorecard based on the level I am looking for, the job description I wrote, and the criteria for who I want to hire.
A clear onboarding process
Startups or companies with fewer resources don't always see the value in thorough onboarding. I have even seen huge companies overlook an onboarding process and throw an employee into a mess of things on the third day. So while the whole sink-or-swim method might work for some, it doesn't work for everyone.
Whenever I notice a company undervaluing onboarding, I ask, "Would we let our users go blindly into our app/product/service?" Hopefully (and usually), the answer I get is a resounding "No." But, if we wouldn't let our users flounder as they start with our product, why would we do so to our employees?
Onboarding is employees' first touchpoint with your organization and can be the catalyst for a positive career.
Here are the primary areas I include in my onboarding process:
- Relevant introductions to teams and concepts
- An important information sheet
- Role expectations, responsibilities, and levels
- Standard review cycle
- Regular 1:1s with a manager
- Virtual coffees and lunches with teammates
- An onboarding buddy
- The opportunity to shadow
Onboarding tasks for the first five weeks:
- First few days – Settling into the new company, meeting the most critical people (ex: manager, onboarding buddy), setting up technology, and troubleshooting.
- 1-2 weeks – Meeting with critical team members, learning about the organization and where user research fits in.
- 3-4 weeks – Understanding the team's processes and meeting other relevant people. Begin shadowing appropriate projects.
- 4-5 weeks – Reviewing what they have learned, taking charge of a project with someone shadowing (usually the onboarding buddy).
Want to dive deeper into each of these areas? Check out this article.
And stay tuned for next week, as we dive into what it looks like to structure, scale, and develop your team over time.
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, follow her on LinkedIn, join her bi-weekly newsletter, or read more of her work on Medium.