Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Austin Smoldt-Saenz
This is part two of a two-part series. You can check out part one here.
Last week, I explored what it looks like to hire researchers for the first time onto your team, including creating a framework and going through interview and evaluation processes.
After many bumps and bruises, I hired my first user researcher. After that, I continued to scale the team up to five people. I then left that team and, down the road, joined another large team that I helped to scale.
Through those experiences, I learned a lot about building and structuring a user research team. It isn't easy, but it is incredibly rewarding. Not only are you positively impacting the user research field, but you are helping to grow others into effective researchers.
Structuring the team
Structuring a research team is the next step—and a big one. Coming up with a structure for the team is one of my least favorite parts of this process because it is a loaded decision. It can impact how researchers work with other departments, stakeholders, and each other.
I've worked on research teams in three (and a half) ways. Of course, each has pros and cons, and it's up to you to decide on the best set-up for your organization. Let's explore them below.
Embedded means that a researcher is part of a team. There are two types of embedded styles:
- Embedded within a team means the user researcher is part of a scrum team/squad.
- Embedded across teams means the user researcher is a part of multiple teams, but works directly with these teams on their projects.
Regardless of whether it’s one or more teams (typically more than one team if you are a solo UXR), researchers in the embedded model work directly with product managers, developers, and other team members. They help the team strategize and prioritize research within the team's scope.
Sometimes the researcher reports directly to their product team, such as a product manager. However, I always ensure that they report to a user research manager if this is the case.
One huge advantage of the embedded model is that researchers are an inherent part of each project. They participate in planning sessions and meetings with the rest of the team, making research more visible. This can lead to teams naturally embedding research into the product development process.
There are two main disadvantages I've seen with the embedded model:
- The research team can get siloed, and there can be clear overlaps in research that the team doesn't see because they’re stuck in their box.
- There can be a development limitation for researchers, depending on the methods the team needs for projects. For example, the researcher could over-index on evaluative methods.
The centralized user research team is the exact opposite of an embedded model and is sometimes called the “agency model”.
In this setup, researchers are part of the same core team and hop on and off projects based on availability and requests. This model is much more like a consultancy: a request comes in, a researcher is put on the project, presents the work, and then moves on to a new request.
One benefit of this approach is that researchers work on various projects, getting exposure to many parts of the business. In addition, this approach can help researchers develop a variety of skills.
However, with the agency approach, I've seen quite a few disadvantages:
- Researchers don't know how to properly collaborate with stakeholders and teams since they’re temporarily placed on projects.
- Insights sometimes get ignored or left in a dusty corner because there is no chance for the researcher to activate the insights.
- There is a lack of deep understanding for the context behind topics or problems.
- Teams that don't trust or value user research can often get left behind.
The hybrid approach attempts to take the best of both worlds. There are a few different ways to structure hybrid models, but I’ll walk through the one I have used.
In a hybrid model, there are two sections:
- Researchers embedded within product teams
- Researchers working on high-level, cross-departmental topics on a centralized team
This approach means you have some researchers who work deeply with your different product teams, focusing on that exact problem area. They are essentially embedded in that team, helping them prioritize and strategize research projects. These researchers support and conduct the research for their teams.
Then you have a centralized team of researchers. These team members look at high-level and strategic projects, such as service blueprints, persona generation, and organizational innovation. They’re focused on cross-departmental research.
It is possible, if necessary, to shuffle the research team around every so often to ensure team members get to try both sections. Just make sure there is excellent hand-off and knowledge sharing if you do this.
I'm biased, but I always go for the embedded or hybrid model, depending on how many researchers are on my team. I also consider my team's strengths and development areas. If there isn't an opportunity to do larger strategic projects within embedded teams, I consider a hybrid structure to give my team the ability to cultivate those skills.
Always remember that you can change and iterate on the structure if it isn't working.
Learn more about how structure impacts a research team's efficiency.
Scaling the team
As you scale the team and add more researchers, make sure you’re always going back to the basics and thinking about:
- Where the team is overlapping in skills → Which skills are we less excited about since they’re already on the team?
- Where the gaps are in the team → Which skills do we need to become more well-rounded?
During this stage, focus on…
Hiring other roles
Hire a ResearchOps person as soon as possible, as this will help your researchers focus on their craft. In addition, having an expert specializing in operations will make your life much easier.
Other vital roles to consider are:
- A librarian who builds and maintains a research repository
- UX writers to focus on content
Aligning on processes
As you grow your team, you may find a mish-mash of perspectives and past experiences. In addition, team members may have different ways of working. Therefore, during this phase, it’s essential to align processes to ensure efficient and effective collaboration and communication.
Here are a handful of things to keep in mind:
- Team best practices – Have transparent, documented processes and best practices that the team agrees on. Be flexible in coming back and iterating on these processes as the team grows. This can include revisiting the framework as a team every three months to ensure it still works.
- Current templates – Update templates based on these new processes and new experiences.
- Aligned roles – Start assigning go-to people. These team members specialize in certain areas, such as building a participant pool or budget. Try to align these go-to people with their interests.
Quality tools – Assess tools and recruitment processes to make sure they still work for the number of researchers on your team. It may be possible that more researchers mean different or new tools with higher capacity.
What UXRs can do during downtime
When a team grows, there might be times when researchers have downtime. This downtime can be unsettling for some people, so having a backlog of to-dos is helpful.
Here are some downtime activities researchers can think about:
- Creating (or leading) a continuous research program
- Starting or leading an internal mentorship program
- Implementing and trying a new research methodology
- Making or optimizing a user research lab or room
- Engaging the organization in research activities or presentations that haven't yet had time to be activated
- Planning team-related events
- Demoing different tools that could be relevant for the future
Growth and development
The final aspect of this article is about your team's continued growth and development. Happy employees have opportunities for learning and advancing in their careers. You are responsible for your team's development as a team lead.
This continuous stage requires iteration as the team grows and gains shape.
During this stage, focus on…
Remember the career framework you worked created? That career framework is helpful for development plans and review cycles.
Feedback is key for growth. We don't know how to improve our craft and further our careers without feedback. Set up a standard review cycle where your employees can get feedback consistently. The review cycles I've worked with happen at the same time every six months, but I know companies also base them on start dates.
Before each review, you ask the employee to pick two or three people they worked closely with in the past six months. These colleagues provide feedback, and you anonymize the input to share with the employee, including your own (as a manager).
Then, have a discussion and create goals based on the feedback. You can use this template to facilitate discussion and this other template to develop goals.
Your employees might get a lot working with you, but just like any other relationship, you can't provide them with everything. I always try to give the team additional resources or opportunities where they can learn. Sometimes outside advice is the best you can hear.
Make a list of external resources your team can use, such as:
- A book budget (even better if you start a book club!)
- Conferences or events
- Outside mentorship
- Paid websites or memberships with resources
If your team is stuck in different areas, enabling them to find help can be the key to unblocking them. As mentioned, you won't have the answer to everything, and you won't have the capacity to be there as much as you might want. Bring them other opportunities, so they stay satisfied and motivated.
Something else I've implemented on my teams is learning time. Every week, team members put the time in their calendars to learn. Team members can dedicate this learning time to reading a book, taking a course, watching relevant YouTube videos, reading relevant articles, going to events during the workday, or networking with other researchers.
As you grow your team, you will naturally have to consider culture. What type of team do you want to be? How do you want to act as a team? What are your values? Your visions?
Hopefully, you can step back from the tactical and operational side of research to focus on building a team culture that works.
Here are a few areas to consider:
- Establishing rituals – What types of rituals do you want your team to have? Some ideas are a weekly 1:1 team sync and a monthly lunch and learn. Whenever coming up with a ritual, always make sure there is a goal and a plan.
- Feedback and critique – How do you want your team to give and receive feedback? One ritual I included in all my teams was a research review session. This meeting is a time for researchers to present their work and receive constructive feedback from peers. Cultivating open communication and a growth mindset within the team can make a huge difference.
- Quality control – How will your team ensure you are all conducting quality research? What does this look like to everyone? These conversations can help establish best practices.
- Team vision and goals – Take the time to brainstorm what the team wants to be like in the short- and long-term. What are the team's goals? Ethics? Ideals? This brainstorming brings you closer.
- Team outings – Save time for fun and bonding! My favorite moments have been team outings, bowling, or chatting with colleagues online. Fostering the time for these relationships can help your team better collaborate.
- Nip negativity in the bud – Know how you will handle difficult situations and negativity in the team. If you are ready and looking out for it, you stop it from getting out of hand.
Be open to your team for feedback! The best managers and team leads
I've worked with are those willing to hear constructive feedback and
Building, structuring, and growing a research team is a big
undertaking but worth the effort. The times I've had this opportunity, I
have learned so much from each experience. It is both rewarding and
humbling work. Although it may feel overwhelming, always know that you
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, check out her user research membership, follow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.