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9 Research and Productivity Hacks for UX/UR Teams of One

On a small research team with big ideas? Learn how to prioritize the big-picture goals while juggling the day-to-day challenges—all in a day’s work.

Acting as your team’s sole user researcher is sometimes fun, always exhilarating, but never easy.

It’s also a reality many researchers face—especially at smaller companies that lack the experience, resources or the bandwidth to hire additional practitioners.

Being a user researcher of one leaves you juggling all the different day-to-day responsibilities user researchers have, such as: managing stakeholders, recruiting, creating research plans, conducting the research, synthesizing the research, holding brainstorming sessions, working on UX research strategy and frameworks, selling the value of user research, and much more. Exhausted reading that? It’s quite a lot to manage.

It’s doable but can be exhausting, especially when you are constantly running research and also joining internal meetings.

As an example, I currently work across three teams, and coordinate research for each of them. This means I need to be at every weekly meeting to ensure I know the upcoming research needs for each team, recruit the right amount of participants in time, conduct the research and synthesize the insights. I love every second of it, but keeping up can be a challenge.

Here are nine ways I make the user research team of one an easier job:

1. Join communities outside of your company/role

Just because you don’t have a sounding board at work doesn’t mean you have to figure out everything in isolation. There are so many amazing resources now that the UR community is growing. If you need advice, or just want to read through some amazing discussions, I highly recommend jumping into existing research communities and joining the conversation. 

For instance, I’m part of the Mixed Methods and ResearchOps Slack groups, as well as the User Research Collective Facebook group. There I’ve posed questions that I’m stuck on—like when I can’t quite define a research budget proposal. And I, in turn, have helped others trying to break into the field. There’s such a plethora of information in these places, so definitely use that to your advantage. In addition to the digital community, attend as many conferences as possible to meet people in person!

This, hands down, is the best piece of advice I could tell a solo user researcher. The connections I have formed and the concepts I’ve learned from those platforms are invaluable. It’s a great way to extend your reach and leverage a community that you don’t have access to from the office. Beyond these communities, there are things you can do from within your company (and other things for yourself) that will make your day-to-day easier—and your research more effective.

What you can do for your teams:

2. Establish yourself as an internal consultancy service

The second I start at any job as a user research team of one, I establish myself as an internal consultancy service. I set up workshops and meetings to teach colleagues more about what user research is, and how it can be used in a company. Then I allow them to come to me. 

The second I start at any job as a user research team of one, I establish myself as an internal consultancy service. I set up workshops and meetings to teach colleagues more about what user research is, and how it can be used in a company. Then I allow them to come to me.

Since I position myself as a service, teams understand they need to contact me if they have different research needs. While I still find it incredibly important to be part of each team, a “user research as a service” framework has cut down my “chasing” and “babysitting” time. I am less likely to have to run around, making sure I have enough participants for upcoming research. Teams come to me when they need research done, like they would any other external agency, and then we proceed.

3. Empower colleagues to do research 

Sometimes it’s scary to give up control of moderating research—but at times, it is absolutely necessary. Additionally, by teaching a colleague—such as a designer, product manager, or developer—how to perform user research, you are giving them the opportunity to spring their career forward. What I’ve done in previous roles is gather the interested parties and hold a two-day user research crash course, where I go through interviewing tips, best practices, note-taking techniques, and synthesis methods. I show examples of how I conduct research, and we discuss why I approached a participant in that particular way. I also show videos of my mistakes or how not to conduct a research interview, so we can discuss these situations as well. Empowering colleagues to conduct their own research, like usability tests, takes a bit of the workload, and the pressure, off. Plus, teaching helps you feel more confident in your research approach.

4. Have your teams create a backlog

It’s important to ensure the teams you are working with create a project backlog and roadmap. This can be supremely helpful when you are planning your own research roadmap, so you see what’s coming up and what needs to be tested. When you can foresee the different research projects you need to prepare for, it gives you extra time to recruit—which can really help take the stress off. There are few things worse than scrambling to find last-minute participants when your project completion date is a week out. In addition, when you have clarity of teams’ roadmaps and backlogs, you can sometimes combine research tests. When you are able to combine a few different usability tests into one research session, it gives you more time overall since you are planning and recruiting for fewer research sessions. Bonus: You also get teams thinking about the product holistically.

It’s important to ensure the teams you are working with create a project backlog and roadmap. This can be supremely helpful when you are planning your own research roadmap, so you see what’s coming up and what needs to be tested.


5. Have one place to put all your research outputs.
 

One of the most common questions I get asked is: “Oh, I remember this participant said this really specific thing about this part of the product a month or so ago, but I can’t find it. Could you find it for me?” Digging through and digging up research is one of the biggest time sucks I face. Realistically, I could hire an intern to answer these questions, and they would have a full-time job. But instead, a more practical way to solve this problem is to place everything into a single research repository. If you have the budget for it, you can look towards the more fancy repositories such as Airtable, EnjoyHQ, or Nom Nom Insights. No budget? Google Drive isn’t as robust, but can be organized in a way that makes collaboration easier. As long as people know the information is sorted and in one place, they’ll be more willing to look through the data on their own.

6. Create as many easy-to-use templates as possible

One of the best things I did for myself when I started at my current job was to make templates and one-pagers. What do I mean by templates? I created a generative research plan template, a usability testing plan template, and an idea template. Each of these allowed me to easily throw together a research plan when a team came to me asking for my services. In addition to that, I could hand a template over to a colleague if I was feeling overwhelmed and needed some help. The templates all have descriptions in order to enable basically anyone to fill them out. My idea template is what I give anyone who comes to me with a one-line research idea. The idea template forces them to add context to the idea, such as the business opportunity, the potential user benefits, the basic resources needed, etc. With this information, I don’t need to chase idea owners for more context, or hold unnecessary meetings. I also make one-pagers, which include easily digestible information, such as a step-by-step guide on “How to Work With a User Researcher.”

7. Use analytics (or previous research) to help make decisions

Although I primarily conduct qualitative user research, I have very high regard for quantitative data, and how it can show crucial information about a user’s interaction with the product. If you are only able to speak to a few users, you can understand the patterns they perform, and use supporting data to validate or disprove the hypothesis you made. You can also use analytics tools, such as HotJar and FullStory to watch how users are interacting with your product. Data only gives part of the story, and can’t always answer the question “why?” but is a great tool to use when you are strapped for time and participants. It is also important to use data in conjunction with qualitative research, as they are incredibly complementary to each other.

8. Don’t have time for external research? Do some internal user testing.

I’ve used internal testing at nearly every company I’ve worked for…You learn a lot quickly, which you can then validate later with actual users. Bonus: It helps me evangelize UX research across the company.

I’ve used internal testing at nearly every company I’ve worked for. To begin with, it’s a great way to learn about the product in general, but it’s also a wonderful method to get (sometimes very valuable) feedback from people who care about the product. I usually start with account managers, customer support, and sales—as they generally have the most contact with customers, and a better understanding of what customers might want. When I do internal testing, I book a time and room, get snacks, and send out an email asking for interested parties. Usually, within the hour, I fill up most of the slots. Internal testing is also free. You learn a lot quickly, which you can then validate later with actual users. Bonus: It helps me evangelize UX research across the company.

9. Keep a participant panel and recycle

Maybe you are looking to test some new ideas or prototypes, but are struggling to find new participants. One hack is to think back to your previous research sessions and try to identify which sessions went well. Usually, after a research session, I write down whether or not the research session was successful. Then I ask if the participant is okay with my contacting them for future studies, so I know if I can recycle the participant. It isn’t the most effective method to get research insights repeatedly from the same set of people, and can introduce some bias, so don’t use the same people every time. But, if you need participants, and you’re on a time crunch, recycling isn’t cheating.

By using a combination of these approaches, I have been able to streamline my work to make my day-to-day responsibilities easier, and more attainable. There is never any reason to work 10+ hour days, or to feel like your job is pulling you in different directions.

Although I still occasionally feel frazzled, I’ve created more time to give my teams better attention and insights. It is important for us, as researchers, to feel empowered by our job, and to feel like we’re truly making an impact—even if we’re flying “solo.”

Want more pro tips? Share this piece in a researcher Slack community to start the conversation with other researchers on small teams!

Nikki Anderson

Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.

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