I have been teaching introduction to user research courses and mentoring new researchers for about four years now, and I’ve noticed some trends.
First, I was surprised by the types of questions that came up and how slippery some of the definitions of user research concepts were (still struggling with this today)!
Second, learning something new is difficult and not something we seem to be used to as adults. For me, after years of putting time, effort, and money into my Master's Degree, the last thing I wanted to do was become an "intern." It felt disheartening to (seemingly) take so many steps back.
I see this disappointment and discouragement with people trying to switch into the field. But I am here to tell you a few things:
- User research isn't easy, but it isn't impossible! There are ways to learn user research if you don't yet have the experience and clear ways to improve!
- You are not alone. If you feel overwhelmed by all there is to learn, and the sheer amount of Google results and Medium articles, take a deep breath. There are a few sources of truth, which I will touch upon in the sections below. But, primarily, know that others are also feeling similarly to you (and connect with them)!
- Many people transition from another field to UXR. I've seen people from roles far away (such as finance) and people coming straight from school.
If you want to get into user research, you can. From all the people I coach and teach, I have learned a few important tips which, I'm hoping, might help you wherever you may be in your journey. Also, keep in mind, I am still learning—every day.
Jump to a lesson:
- Practicing UXR ≠ Theory of UXR
- “Simple” concepts are tough
- Follow-up on participant responses during generative research
- Three things make a "good" research session
- You don't need an advanced degree (unless...)
- It isn't easy to know where to get started
- It's also difficult to know where and how to improve
Practicing UXR ≠ Theory of UXR
There is a huge difference between the theory of conducting user research and actually doing the thing. When I started as a teacher, I knew this distinction of theory and practice was important, but I didn't know how important it would be.
I can teach user research basics all day long: ask open-ended questions, don't talk too much, don't ask yes/no questions in screener surveys, make tasks realistic for usability tests, and always measure success metrics!
All of this is great and important, but it only gets you so far. What does this mean when it is actually applied in a setting?
Unfortunately, I can't mimic a tech and product team (but, oh, I wish I could). Instead, I have found it essential to include activities where students go out into the world and practice research. User research is learned by doing, not reading.
You need to go out and practice what you read over and over again, even if you are unsure if you are doing it right. I started by practicing usability tests on friends and family and then ran some pretty horrible ones at the beginning of my internship with real users. But I kept practicing and working the muscles of user research, which is how I got better. Similarly, I spent hours looking up how to build a persona, but it wasn't until I put one together and shared it with some people that I actually figured out how to do it.
Get out there and practice—even if it isn't perfect research. As the adage says, "Practice makes perfect." If you want to take it a step further, learn about how product teams work, and practice within the constraints a team would normally face!
Have trouble figuring out how to practice? Try one of these practice problems!
“Simple” concepts are tough
I remember the first time I tried to explain usability testing to a class of eager students.
"It's evaluating the usability of a website or an app or a platform. It's right in the name!"
I grinned and looked into the faces swimming in front of me. You could have heard a pin drop. After years of experience in the field, I realized that something obvious to me might not be obvious to others. That is why I find it especially important to put on a beginner's mindset when teaching about user research—overexplaining is better than being vague or assuming what people know.
These seemingly simple concepts, such as writing a "good" usability test scenario and setting sound research goals, are much harder to explain than I could have realized. In this case, models are critical. For instance. I teach about five major types of research goals for any given project. This simplifies user research, but it is a great starting point for learning and getting into the field.
As someone new to user research, seek out the basics that explain how something works from start to finish. And also, find books and articles that speak in simple language. When I dove into the field, I read many academic books and, while they sometimes serve a purpose, the lofty language made it harder for me to understand.
Check out my guide to a generative research project to get an end-to-end guide on how I approach these problems. For usability testing, I recommend Jeff Sauro's, A Practical Guide for Measuring Usability (it's a book I reread every year)!
Follow-up on participant responses during generative research
As students start to learn how to ask open-ended questions and conduct generative (discovery) research sessions, the next question naturally arrives, "How do I keep the conversation going?"
Now, this is actually the hardest concept to explain because my best advice is to "just keep asking follow-up questions to understand better what they mean." This translates as reading the questions on the discussion guide in succession and not following-up much, which is not really how generative research works.
However, this isn't great advice. I describe generative research as a conversation you are having with an acquaintance or someone you recently met and are trying to get to know. If you met someone at a networking event and were talking to them, you wouldn't just ask a list of questions like:
You: "What do you do?"
Them: "I am an account manager."
You: "For how long?"
Them: "About two years."
You: "Which company?"
Them: "Dog City."
You: "Do you like it?"
Them: "Yes, but sometimes it's hard."
You: "Thanks, bye."
The above feels more like an interrogation rather than a conversation. Instead, think about how you would have a natural conversation with someone while getting to know them:
You: "What do you do?"
Them: "I'm an account manager."
You: "Oh, nice, what is that like?"
Them: "It's nice, I enjoy the work and working with our different brands because it's something different every day, but it can be hard."
You: "What do you mean by 'hard'?"
Think conversation, not interview! Also, when a participant says a subjective word (attitudes, values, thoughts, feelings, or beliefs of the person), ask what they mean to get a shared understanding. What "difficult," "upsetting," "frustrating," "unique," or "happy" mean to me is different from what it means to you, especially in your recalled experience. Always make sure to ask the participants what they mean!
Three things make a "good" research session
One of the top questions I get asked after workshops or company training is, "What are the top three things that make up a 'good' research session?" Picking three is nearly impossible, but here are some good indicators that signal you are going in the right direction:
- You ask open-ended, unbiased questions. As researchers, we are curious to learn from our participants in the most non-leading and unbiased way possible. If you form most questions in an open-ended way, you will likely get participants to open up and tell you stories. Stories are the key to rich qualitative insights, so you are on the right track with these types of questions! Having trouble forming these types of questions? Check out my simple technique that helps you phrase questions!
- You stay silent. As a rule of thumb, the participant should be talking 80-90% of the interview, and you should be talking 10-20% of the interview, mostly to ask clarifying questions. A trick I use is to wait three seconds after a participant finishes their thought, which helps you make sure they are done articulating and reduces the number of interruptions, especially now that we all lag remotely.
- Make the participant comfortable. I have seen many researchers dive right into a research session without any introduction or rapport. I was also guilty of this when starting. Take the first 5-7 minutes of a research session to introduce yourself and the project, and do a small warm-up. After asking a warm-up question, engage with the participant. If you ask them a new hobby and the participant tells you they started knitting, don't just move on to the next question, but ask them how they got into it, what types of things they are knitting, and what they want to learn. My favorite warm-up questions are:
- "What is a hobby you recently started?"
- "What do you like to do in your free time?"
- "Have you done anything new or different in the past month?”
You don't need an advanced degree (unless...)
You really don't need an advanced degree to get started in user research. The exception to this rule is applying to more competitive companies such as Facebook, Google, or Amazon. Not everyone at these companies has an advanced degree, but it can help you during your application process, especially if you don't have explicit experience yet as a researcher.
I used my MA in Psychology to help open some doors to my first internship; however, it didn't really prepare me for the work I was going to do. Yes, it helped me design good research and ask open-ended questions, but I definitely didn't pay all that money for those two skills.
There is a vast, expansive difference between academic research and user research in rigor, pace, and environment. While an advanced degree may help you in some ways, it is not necessary to transition into the field of user research.
It's also difficult to know where and how to improve
Finally, once you get a hold of these skills and start to move forward in your career, it can be difficult to know where to go next. Something essential is to assess yourself and your career continuously.
One of the best ways to improve is to listen to your interviews and assess them (I still cringe when doing this)! Through this process, you can easily learn opportunity areas to improve your interviewing.
In addition to improving your interview skills, I always recommend that you assess where you are in your career at least once a year! I try to do this during evaluation cycles at whichever company I am working at, but you can also do it around the New Year.
We are all learning—together and separate! Make sure never to forget you are not alone trying to improve and learn and that you won't always know the best answer. Give yourself space to absorb the information and practice, even if it isn't perfect!
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.
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