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20 "Non-Research" Skills All User Researchers Should Develop

We asked 6 lead UX researchers "What non-technical-research skill should any human-centered research have?" Here's what they said.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Thumy Phan

As human-centered thinkers, we're being asked to react and evolve a lot lately. We interface with a diverse set of stakeholders and collaborators—product, design, human factor, insights, and UX/CX folks. Each pathway brings with it a slightly varied "non-research" skill set, things like copy drafting and editing, light design skills, or even foundational accounting (for those smaller shops).

We recently asked People Nerds across roles "What non-researcher skill should any human-centered researcher have?" Find their responses below.

Table of Contents

  1. Breaking outside the guardrails with curiosity, flexibility, and inclusivity | By Josh Williams
  2. Cultivating social and emotional intelligence to foster collaboration and empathy | By Brett Barndt
  3. Playing to your strengths and matching your methods | By Danny Spitzberg
  4. Learning to improvise (and that expertise rejects rigidity) | By Theo Shure
  5. Revisiting (and refining) the core of human-centeredness: listening, storytelling, and adaptability | By Leora Yardenay
  6. Peeking around the corner to sharpen and evolve your practice | By Valentina Salvi

Breaking outside the guardrails with curiosity, flexibility, and inclusivity

By Josh Williams | UX Research Manager @ Insulet Corporation

Researchers are swiss army knives: project managers, designers, brand ambassadors, recruiters, mediators, mind readers, researchers, and so much more.

These are core tenets of success I have established for my team:

1. Curiosity

I often find that less-experienced researchers like to stay within formulaic guardrails. For instance, junior researchers tend to stick to their discussion guide as if it were a nuclear launch sequence, or only include research questions for which their stakeholders explicitly asked.

Instead, I find really successful—impactful—researchers go beyond what they see before them, living between the lines, to achieve the ethereal insights no one saw in front of them. Curious researchers are not satisfied with superficial insights, but rather they chase the foundational root cause. Curiosity uncovers the unseen research that no one was ever going to ask for—driving innovation forward.

2. Flexibility

A common fact about product development is that everything is always in flux. Researchers, especially those who are academically trained, often like to stick to these well-conceived, self-contained studies.

But sometimes UX research is just fast, dirty, and broken up into small chunks. Researchers who haven’t mastered flexibility will be thrown off when the inevitable participant who goes off the rails, leadership changes the product vision or changes course, a prototype isn’t ready the day before a study, or…a pandemic hits.

Successful researchers are able to work within shifting environments to craft a valid research approach that produces reliable data, understanding what constraints and variables are important and which are not. The ability to pivot at any moment is a hallmark of a successful researcher.

3. Inclusivity

Inclusivity is inherently linked to curiosity: to understand a problem is to view it through different lenses; to remove bias from our research approach is to have others involved; to develop products that meet everyone’s needs is to test it with a representative sample; and to get buy-in is to include all stakeholders. Researchers must embrace diversity of all kinds to gather well-rounded insights that are consumable and championed by all. Inclusivity can take many forms, but nonetheless research should never happen within a vacuum.

Curiosity uncovers the unseen research that no one was ever going to ask for—driving innovation forward.

Josh Williams
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Cultivating social and emotional intelligence to foster collaboration and empathy

By Brett Barndt | Senior Director, BD @ Envirosell & Instructor, Parsons School of Design @ The New School

1. System thinking

Being conscious of how parts of organizations, institutions, culture, etc. come together to make up an ecosystem. Seeing the system is important to truly spot formerly unseen connections and possible opportunities for change beyond simple products and services or solving a known problem.

Wider and wider circles around a system can inform true transformation and identify new people to invite into the solution. Engaging everyone in the total system can ensure that all potential stakeholders, allies or resistors are invited to be part of a solution affecting them. New connections, personal relationships, and exchanges of information, ideas, empathy, and insights between never before connected people can transform a system.

2. Multi-stakeholder collaboration

Skills to bring diverse groups together to collaborate, co-create, and action plan, skills to handle group dynamics, personality styles, corporate hierarchy, social class, gender, race, ability, age, language, culture, and other diversity & inclusion issues that can trip up group work, totally apart from the task at hand.

Most of us are not used to working with people very different from ourselves. We get caught up in our professional or expert hierarchies, or social divisions and badges of belonging to them that keep us from truly empathizing with, being curious about, and benefiting from new people’s perspectives.

We need to develop conscious awareness of how our thought patterns, speech, and behaviors can hinder true free flow of ideas and creation in groups. There are many techniques, methods, and best practices to master and this skill should not be taken lightly.

3. Communication and persuasion

Knowledge, vocabulary, and skill to engage stakeholders, influencers, and decision-makers at different levels in generative future-orientated conversations and decisions. Researchers with these skills can support or even drive decision-making and influence to make their insights and recommendations to improve experiences and human conditions become reality.

HCD Researchers create first-hand knowledge about the human conditions, opportunities to change, and recommend design innovations. Why shouldn’t they be using this felt knowledge to speak extemporaneously with authority and conviction to decision-makers to bring that change into being?

Projects fall apart and join the dust pile when decision-makers can’t make hard decisions or be persuaded to reprioritize their normal priorities and habitual responses in the hurly burly of business and public life. The people with the right knowledge, pathos, ethos, and logos can shift habitual patterns and inspire leaving comfort zones or taking risks. Otherwise, a suit will have to do it. They should be part of it too, anyway. They have different skills and knowledge. It is a team sport.

4. Social and emotional learning, dealing with ambiguity, incomplete information, fear, resistance

Knowledge and practice to grow personally and to help others grow through challenges and adversity (and tough conversations), understanding what moves forward or holds back individuals and groups from being able to change mindsets, skills, conscious and unconscious attitudes and behaviors.

Plenty of us learn technical skills to do design research, or we create designs that get A’s at school. We learn how to source and process data about humans to generate insights and strategies for improved human experiences, new products, or services and service models. We learn how to present strategies as stories that can move audiences to say: "Yes, we want to change." What we don’t learn at school is how to work with humans to really adapt to change, and to overcome our true unspoken motivations to stay exactly the way we are.

We don’t learn to grow self-awareness about our own effects on others around us and the systems we could influence positively if we only would try, and effectively be able. This is why we fail or get stuck in a mid-level career.

Understanding power dynamics allows us to truly see what is possible and what is not.

Brett Barndt

5. Divergent thinking

Understanding the difference between divergent and convergent thinking, when they are appropriate, and embodying practices to encourage each. Educated and skilled people in workplaces are conditioned to provide answers and solutions quickly as a mark of professional achievement or value.

This conditioning generates bias toward convergent thinking and action before exploration, discovery, and consideration of new and wide-ranging evidence that truly leads to novel ideas and innovations. Convergent thinking before divergent thinking leads to groupthink and marginal improvements at best, big mistakes or missed opportunities at worst.

HCD Researchers are probably conscious already about this in themselves. Their colleagues trained and conditioned in other fields may struggle with this. Being able to stand in the middle of a group and guide and encourage different types of thinking requires knowing how to respond to people, generatively, in the moment, in your bones.

6. Power analysis

Understanding who has the real power in an organization, institution, web of interconnected counterparties, or ecosystem, where does that power come from, and what motivates those with that power. Understanding power dynamics allows us to truly see what is possible and what is not, what is blocking change in hidden, unspoken or taboo ways, and to strategize as part of design research and ideation about shifting power toward those motivated to really change.

Otherwise, we get ourselves stuck in protracted, stalled, and abandoned projects because our novel solutions bump up against the true motivations of the most powerful, frustrating ourselves and everyone involved. Power analysis can empower us to find ways to bring real change as part of the design.


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Playing to your strengths and matching your methods

By Danny Spitzberg | Lead Researcher @ Turning Basin Labs & Advisor @ Start.coop

1. Sharing roadmaps

Users rarely get to see a product roadmap, which is usually purposeful: we as researchers want more focus on their situation, less feedback on future features. Why not do both?

Stocksy United is a stock photo and video platform based in Victoria, Canada and serving up content worldwide (like dscout!). Adding capacity for video actually emerged from the content creators themselves, who co-own the company. Because of Stocksy’s simple but sophisticated process for cultivating proposals, everyone was involved in figuring out the projected costs and benefits, and risks. Now, Stocksy provides video content and its creators are thrilled.

Making proposals can come from any corner. A roadmap is a kind of proposal, and sharing it with users at the right time and place can become a collaborative conversation. Above and beyond building empathy, allowing users to make an informed decision leads to even better insights and products.

2. Working with accountability

“I’m advocating for the user” is how user researchers define – or defend – our work. What if users advocate for themselves?

In New York, a platform for booking home cleanings called Up & Go. Early on, the online booking flow asked customers, “Do you have cleaning equipment?” But cleaners soon realized that question was too broad for customers to indicate if they had a particularly important piece of cleaning equipment: a vacuum. So, they asked the project coordinator to add another question for vacuums – and, to add a fee for the service of bringing one. Because Up & Go was incubated by a nonprofit that does cooperative business development with these cleaners, the workers (as owners) also have oversight over the company and its platform, meeting monthly or more to review everything for prices to policies.

Instead of advocating for users, which is how most user research skills get framed, being responsive and accountable to users is a whole other set of skills and capacity. This goes beyond tracking adoption and referrals, to building mechanisms for oversight and regular sessions for shared governance. A related skill is conflict resolution. As user perspectives may be at odds with the product team or investors, but ultimately, everyone wants something that works for almost everyone.

3. Hiring and building relationships with users

Hiring is a skill that most researchers approach merely in terms of a gift card. Creating meaningful jobs for users opens a contracting can of worms, but the people closest to a problem can do the best research.

Low-wage workers in California have it hard under COVID-19, but for decades, the state’s workforce development has struggled to catch up with rapid changes in employment. To research quality jobs, I worked with Turning Basin Labs to hire four “Worker-Researchers” with low-wage work experience and to train them to conduct and analyze interviews with 50 Californians. We also conducted a feedback session with their interviewees to validate their results. The result: a new framework for job quality, from the worker’s perspective, presented to the state labor secretary.

To handle the contracting can of worms, TBL used its staffing skills and its cooperative model, too. And while the training and overall investment might have been 5X more compared to professional researchers, it built new relationships and lasting capacity for further research.

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Learning to improvise (and that expertise rejects rigidity)

By Theo Shure | Senior User Researcher @ Huge

Last year, I went to see a performance by two musicians from two different corners of the world. They played together for hours, on each song shifting instruments, singing back and forth in their mother tongues, trading fragments of melodies, and twisting together their culturally-distinct musical styles.

Knowing they’d both flown in that day with no time to rehearse, I pictured all the email threads that must have been required to coordinate their collaboration, until I realized: this music wasn’t composed in advance. Instead, they were improvising freely with one another, trusting their shared musical vocabulary and instincts, to create something that felt coherent and original. I thought, if only I could work as fluidly as they do!

In speaking with a musician friend, we discussed a common misconception that improv is just randomness. “Improvisation is really about mutual understanding,” they say. “Musicians who improvise are all speaking the same language—a language in which they can communicate and play freely.” Improvisation is a conversation. All participants are simultaneously listening and sharing ideas for one another to respond to.

When running qualitative interviews, I remind myself to allow for improvisation like this. I want the conversation to feel as organic as possible, and for my research participant to be able to express themselves openly and honestly, which generates the best insights. A few ways to "improvise" user research:

  • Trust your participant: Think of your participant as your collaborator, with equal say in where the conversation might go. Rather than forcing a rigid agenda with an overly inflexible discussion guide, seek to connect at a human level and know when to ease up. If a participant answers a question in a way that seems irrelevant, follow them as you might learn something. If you need to ask again, try framing the question in a new way that meets them where they are.
  • Trust your instincts: As a researcher, you know what topics to listen for and how to carry important threads through a conversation. Ask follow-up questions that show you are actively listening and genuinely curious.
  • Speak the same language: Build trust and mutual understanding by using familiar language that makes your participant feel comfortable to communicate freely. Avoid using jargon-y terms, prescriptive questions or unfamiliar conversational structures that could make them feel out of their element. In some instances, incorporating visual or auditory activities can be a great way to bridge differences in communication styles.
  • Don’t be afraid to play: Sometimes in improvisation, putting yourself in unfamiliar contexts can also produce moments of great honesty and creativity. Try experimenting with creative activities or questions that might help us consider topics in a new way. Sometimes questions that don’t appear directly relevant can yield relevant answers!

When running qualitative interviews, I remind myself to allow for improvisation.

Theo Shure
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Revisiting (and refining) the core of human-centeredness: listening, storytelling, and adaptability

By Leora Yardenay | Associate UX Researcher @ Indeed

1. Desire to help others learn / Presenting

I have a background in education and I use it daily in my work as a UX researcher. For instance, I often present findings to a room full of stakeholders, reminiscent of my days in the classroom.

Most recently, I was trying to explain the results of a tree test. While some were familiar with this methodology, others had never heard of it. Rather than race through a presentation and lose 50% of the audience, I decided to break down the information architecture (IA) into bites- literally. I used a real-world example of IA by talking through how to find chocolate chip cookies on a menu.

As you would expect, the room perked up and was eager to hear a presentation about dessert. From there I was able to bring the attendees through the deck.

2. Listening

While some respondents are gregarious and forthcoming, others are more reserved. The best researchers know how to build rapport and engage with others. This is a muscle that can be flexed both in and outside of work.

For instance, at a party, try conversing with someone new. Let them do most of the talking and listen diligently. Ask follow-up questions to show you are genuinely interested in understanding their point of view. By listening carefully to what is being said (and not said), you will be able to garner meaningful insights.

3. Adaptability /Flexibility

While we all agree that there are universal skills every UX researcher needs to be successful, such as knowledge of different methodologies, there are also non-research-specific skills that every person should possess. One of these is adaptability.

For those of us in the UX field, we are constantly adjusting to change. As researchers, we try to anticipate issues by performing pilot sessions, testing equipment, and confirming appointments with respondents. However, our preparation doesn't always cover it. Participants will run late (or no show!). The internet connection could go out. Our prototype might not work.

Veteran and novice researchers alike need to be prepared to go with the flow and maintain a sense of humor. UX is a burgeoning field and will no doubt continue to evolve in the years to come.

Veteran and novice researchers alike need to be prepared to go with the flow and maintain a sense of humor.

Leora Yardenay

4. Advocacy

Self-advocacy is also vital. Learning to stand up for yourself on the playground and in the conference room is a necessity. Yet, as researchers we are responsible for speaking on behalf of our end-users. This means we provide information that may or may not be what colleagues want to hear.

Experience with influencing others, albeit convincing the cable company to lower a bill or persuading someone to volunteer, will be useful here. We represent those who are not in the room and need to make sure their needs are represented.

5. Storytelling

We associate storytelling with campfires and bedtime...not the office. The reality is that as UX researchers, our data is only valuable if we can get others to act on it. Our findings need to be delivered in a way that is engaging and memorable.

At work, I try to bring studies to life by making our users relatable. In addition to including photos, videos, and quotes, I sometimes infuse brief visualization exercises. For instance, in a recent presentation about job seekers in the nursing field, I asked attendees to think about the last time they received medical care. I had them close their eyes and remember the appointment.

Who took their temperature? Who gave them bandages? Who held their hand? Chances are it was a nurse. This exercise made the study personal, and the study findings top of mind.

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Peeking around the corner to sharpen and evolve your practice

By Valentina Salvi | UX Researcher @ Glovo

1. Online Facilitation

With both research techniques and cross-team collaboration happening remotely these days, being solid in online facilitation practices can definitely ease and step up the researcher’s game.

The ability to plan, execute, and consolidate custom workshops of any length to address both internal processes as well as generative sessions with end-users, is a skill that positively makes the difference in research on an engagement and output quality level. Moreover, such a skill is most likely to stay relevant in a post-COVID work life, where 5 days a week at the office might now feel too tight for many.

User-friendly whiteboard software like Mural & Miro make the learning curve from newbie to pro pretty quick and in my experience, they represent a great way to foster co-creation with designers and literally anyone part of your team towards a common goal. If eager to sharpen your online facilitation skills, try the following:

  • Take ownership: Volunteer to prepare and facilitate a session for your team as a learning opportunity: from prioritization to brainstorming or ideation; from 30 mins to 2 hours. Commit to it, align with your team so that everyone’s expectations and objectives are met, and just roll with it. Practice is the only way forward to get better!
  • Explore new formats: Widen up your online facilitation toolkit over time: Try different energizers at the beginning of a stand-up or team meeting. That can make everyone learn something new, have fun, and help you get closer to your learning goal.

Online facilitation, in my opinion, positively enriches the researcher’s skillset and strengthens the capacity for this role to inject and enhance synergy within a multifaceted team. In an increasingly remote world with flexible lifestyles across time zones, this is a skill that I consider becoming more and more valuable for researchers to own as we move forward.

In an increasingly remote world with flexible lifestyles, [online facilitation] is a skill that I consider becoming more and more valuable for researchers to own as we move forward.

Valentina Salvi

2. Futures Thinking

The predominant way that human-centered research is leveraged in the digital domain mostly involves the focus on the present (by investigating which problems occur and why) and on the short-term future (by informing with evidence-based, actionable insights the user-centric solution to that problem, promptly). That makes sense considering the fast-paced world we live in where user-centricity inevitably needs to go hand in hand with business goals and KPIs to create a bold synergy that lasts.

If we take a step back and we look at today’s world though, as COVID is notably demonstrating, disruptions are not the exception, but rather an ongoing condition organizations need to learn to navigate with flexibility and resilience.

So what about becoming better at anticipating possible future scenarios, imagine new possibilities, and control what’s in our hands towards it?

Paired up with researchers’ inner empathy and inquisitive mind, Futures Thinking could not only positively strengthen the researcher role in a strategic way but also amplify their impact within organizations—alongside designers—to help them navigate and forecast possibilities 10-15 years down the road.

‘Futures Thinking offers ways of addressing, even helping to shape, the future; it is not about gazing into a crystal ball. It illuminates the ways that policy, strategies and actions can promote desirable futures and help prevent those we consider undesirable. It stimulates strategic dialogue, widens our understanding of the possible, strengthens leadership, and informs decision-making.’

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

But where do you start embedding micro Futures Thinking actions when that’s not exactly the day to day priority? You can start small:

  • Stay receptive for signals: Looking out for trends and news on what’s happening in the industry you are operating in as well as at the broader macro level is not something to overlook. Often, we are too absorbed by our to-dos that we forget to stay critical, curious thinkers. Add dedicated 10 mins to your calendar to sip your coffee while catching up with the latest happenings before starting a workday: you’ll feel less in a bubble and more open to the future with just a small effort!
  • Hackathons and design sprints: They are a great way to allocate targeted time to creativity and explorations for the future without conflicting with the internal workflow schedule, for example, at the end of the quarter. Question what’s happening around you and ask yourself how that can affect or influence your business in the future. Team up with designers, engineers, experts: train your mind at connecting facts and have fun exploring possibilities.

Futures Thinking represents, in my opinion, a promising additional strategic lens for human-centered researchers to bring value to the business by sparking conversations, co-creating future possibilities and boldly trigger innovation that takes desirable and undesirable consequences into account.

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Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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