If you’ve worked as a UX researcher in a rapidly scaling tech company, you’ve probably seen first-hand what growing pains can look like:
- Leadership needs research experts to lead research in specific product areas.
- They need research experts to mentor more junior researchers.
- They need managers, preferably research experts, to fulfill HR duties.
- They currently employ one person who fits these criteria.
Organizational growth: There's good news and bad news
The good news: these growing pains are an indication of research buy-in—your organization sees the value of research and is facilitating its growth alongside the growth of other disciplines.
The bad news: roles and responsibilities can get messy, especially if you are working at a lead or management level.
I’ve had this experience in both my UX leadership roles. In the first, I was hired as a Lead UX Researcher, and as a founding researcher, my aim was to demonstrate the value of research by, well, conducting research. We succeeded and within six months started growing our team.
From this point on, I also became a hiring manager and a people manager for existing team members plus new hires. Hiring a replacement for my original role didn’t happen until late in the game, which meant I was juggling these newfound responsibilities alongside my original mandate to lead generative research projects.
My second role was even more of a tongue twister. I was hired as a Lead UX Researcher, but my role in practice was to be a Team Lead for an existing team. Therefore, the management responsibilities were explicit from the start—I was to mentor and grow the team.
I quickly learned that a team in need of research upskilling won’t thrive with a manager who conducts weekly one-on-ones and sits in planning or leadership meetings all week. A team like this needed someone to step in and contribute to the project work, supporting the team members along the way.
My experiences are far from unique. Having to perform the role of a lead IC alongside management duties is a common dual role for UX researchers. Ideally, these are separate jobs, having (at least) one person managing the craft, and another managing the people.
Clear division of responsibility is especially important in a highly dynamic profession like UX research, which is often a novel function in an organization. It comes with a healthy dose of setup and change management along with the everyday practice of research.
Further, leading a team is a completely different skill set than being a high IC performer. You will need to draw on separate skill sets to fulfill your responsibilities. What should be isn’t always what is, so let’s talk about some tips for succeeding in this dual responsibility role.
Advice for an individual contributor, responsible for shaping the craft
An organization needs researchers to do research, so you hop on board to do just that. Your primary responsibility is to lead research projects—you operate as a project manager, you are the key contact point for non-research stakeholders, and you actually conduct the research and analyze the data. Finally, you share insights with the organization.
Leads also find themselves responsible for mentoring or coaching more junior members of the research team. As a dual lead/manager, this is where your skill set overlaps.
Essentially, this can work by consciously building a mentoring practice into your research project work. Through your experience and example, you help your team grow in their skill level while maintaining the quality of the project.
Encourage team members to lead meetings
Ask one of your team members to take the lead in a meeting with stakeholders to scope a research project. Block some time after this meeting to discuss how (they think) it went.
Show them tactics, then discuss
One of your team members needs some help in conducting interviews—in particular, gaining rapport with the interviewee, and making sure to employ useful probes to get the information needed.
You lead the first interview, with them participating as a notetaker and observer, then you discuss together how it went. Next time, let them lead, and discuss positive points and opportunities for growth.
Building in these moments for teaching and reflection will indeed mean that the project might take extra time, so be sure to take this into account with your planning. Inform your stakeholders of your approach so they are also informed about timelines.
Advice for a manager, responsible for the well-being and performance of your team
Craft management is important when helping researchers to grow—that’s why you, with your research expertise, were chosen to manage them. Your responsibility is, additionally, for the well-being and performance of your team.
Further, your performance is predicated on theirs. There are different ways to thrive in this balancing act:
Keep 1:1s focused on their career
Good managers give their reports the gift of stepping out of the day-to-day activities for a brief moment every week, to reflect on their work and professional development. This is especially challenging for a manager who is also working closely with team members on research projects.
Remind yourself—and your report—that your one-on-one time is about them, and how they are doing. It is not about whether interviewee #6 has been rescheduled or how the analysis is coming along. This is hard. You will fail—I know I have many times. But keep trying to pull the conversation back to them, and how they are doing. This is their only scheduled opportunity to do so.
Schedule quarterly career assessments
You can further enhance this reflection time by scheduling a quarterly career-focused assessment. This allows your report to step even further out of the day-to-day and look at their progress and set goals for the future.
Conversely, when you’re in the trenches with them on a project, you will need to secretly keep your manager hat on. This means watching for examples of how they are using their daily work to meet their broader professional goals.
It also means looking out for them and making sure you’re aware of potentially challenging situations that could be hindering their well-being. Unless it’s urgent to discuss immediately, keep these observations to yourself until it’s time for the one-on-one again.
Be explicit about how you are enacting these roles
There’s no reason these tactics need to be a secret from your reports. Let them know what you’re up to, and when. That way they’ll know you’re doing your best in the dual role, and can speak up for themselves, too, if they feel like they’re getting too much “leading” and too little “managing,” or vice-versa.
Document, document, document
Document this process for two reasons: For your successor(s), and for yourself.
It’s a tough challenge, this dual role. But keep in mind the powerful view you currently have of your team members: Not only are you managing them and aware of their professional development, successes and challenges, but you also know intimately how they actually conduct their craft.
These insights are invaluable not only for you but also for your successor. Documenting progress on all fronts will ease the transition when the moment comes for someone else to take the craft or management reins.
Do it for yourself, too. Make sure to reserve personal time to reflect on how you are performing in these roles, and share your insights with your own manager. This role is an incredible growth opportunity and reflecting on your experience will enhance your own career trajectory
Your manager should know this role isn’t a sustainable solution, and hopefully is advocating for one or more researchers to join to support either lead IC or management functions. Hang in there, IC/people manager. It’s a big challenge, but with the right approach, you can successfully navigate these roles.
Janelle Ward has led experience research at digital product companies, both as a founding lead and as a manager, upskilling and growing research teams. Before moving to industry, she spent 15 years in academia, teaching and conducting research in the field of digital communication. You can find her on LinkedIn, and read more of her work on Medium.