Skip to content

The hats of the researcher

People Nerds explain the different hats they wear when presenting their work.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

As any People Nerd knows, the job of a researcher doesn’t end once the data’s been collected. Sharing your findings is just as important as the research itself, and often demands just as much finesse. It also requires practitioners to take on multiple roles—to become the storyteller, the skeptic, and the future forecaster, sometimes in the space of one meeting. It’s a phenomenon we’re calling “The Many Hats of the Researcher.” We asked some of our favorite People Nerds to weigh in on the hats researchers wear most often: from the ever-popular “Empathizer,” to the compulsory “Skeptic,” or the pinch-hitting “Short Order-Cook.”

The “Storyteller” is the hat researchers told us they put on most often, and was seen as critical to translating their findings and bringing insights to life. It was also frequently called out as a favorite—per Aryel Cianflone of Mixed Methods, “as human beings, we’re hardwired to love a good story.” (We think People Nerd Lance Weiler would agree.) The “Divining Rod” was also popular, though it was also seen as a time-consuming and sometimes difficult hat to wear, and several lamented not having the space to wear it more often. We were surprised by how much enthusiasm there was for hats like the “Rigor Nerd” and the “Skeptic.” Less surprising was hearing just how many people were wearing multiple hats at once—after all, researchers are known multitaskers. Case in point: many of the Nerds we asked for feedback came back with ideas of hats we hadn’t even considered: the “Teacher,” the“Conduit,” or the  “Decipherer.” Oh, and lest we forget: the “Bad News Bearer.” Read on for a breakdown of how Nerds far and wide adapt to the many different hats in their arsenals.

We’d love to hear from even more of you with your thoughts on the many hats of the researcher.  Shoot us a note at [email protected], or shout on social media with the hashtag #peoplenerdhats.

The Storyteller
a.k.a. tell us why we care

All research needs a narrative, a deeper level understanding of why we looked, what we found and why it matters. Nearly everyone wears the storyteller hat at some point.

“Above all, you have to be a good storyteller at all times. There’s an artfulness to storytelling, and bringing those moments from research to life. The visual component is also an integral part of that. Once you have both the verbal and the visual, that’s when you get high fidelity.”
—Scott Weiss, Co-founder of Community x Design

“Ultimately, researchers are the voice of the data, so they have to be good storytellers. Sometimes that might seem like it’s at odds with being extremely rigorous. But at the end of the day, accuracy isn’t the only goal. You have to be able to point to insights.
—Nicole Baltazar, Research Lead at dscout

“To me, the Storyteller and Empathizer hats are intertwined. Part of my job is to add the color and depth to the learnings; to tell the stories from the field, those charming consumer anecdotes, that led to the conclusions on the page. For example, I once did a presentation about breakfast behaviors. There was one sub-group of consumers who were very routine-oriented, and had journaled their breakfast over the course of 2 weeks. One guy had the same picture every day. At first I questioned it. (I was the Skeptic!) Was he just re-posting the same picture? Did he not understand the assignment? But looking more closely, I realized these were actually distinct photos (the mug was maybe turned just so). He was just so set in his routine, his morning ritual never varied. I used this story when we were discussed this sub-group of consumers (and his row of nearly-identical journal pictures filled the slide). That’s the kind of story that’s essential in building the empathy that clients need. It’s the kind of story they remember afterwards.”
—Kat Figatner, Senior Vice President & Partner at C+R Research

The Empathizer
a.k.a. the user incarnate

Why did people respond this way? What's their thinking? Where are they coming from?

“Research isn’t a profession that lets you wear just one hat at a time. I’m always wearing “The Empathizer” hat and trying to understand the needs of users or others on my team though. My work is as much about understanding the designer, the manager, the engineer, as it is about understanding users.”
—Aryel Cianflone, UX Researcher and host of Mixed Methods podcast

“I’d call myself a ’Rigorous Empathizer.’ I specialize in quantitative methods, but when I'm presenting I always try to dig deep into the underlying reasons and (self-reported) rationale for behavior. That gets me closer to the whole picture, the story of what's happening.”
—Ben Wiedmaier, Ph.D., Research Consultant at dscout

The Skeptic
a.k.a. the counterweight, conscientious objector, “fly in the ointment”

The dissenting voice in the room, the skeptic is there to play devil’s advocate, to remind us there are multiple sides to everything, to hold us back from jumping to conclusions.

“I often find The Skeptic is the easiest hat to wear—especially for the non-researchers in the room. It can be easy to poke holes in an argument or point out what you think could have been done better after the fact.”
—Aryel Cianflone, UX Researcher and host of Mixed Methods podcast

“I’m definitely often the Skeptic in the room, but I also need skeptics of my own. I ask people on my team to provide that function for me. People who are inquisitive by nature, I’ll ask them to okay devil’s advocate as I prepare for a presentation, because what I may think of as being a very obvious conclusion or understanding may not read the same way to a room full of executives. It’s really helpful to get those different points of view.” 
—Supriya Gokarn, Global Insights Lead, Google Hardware 

The Rigor Nerd
a.k.a. the dispassionate fact presenter, the straight man

Starts with the facts, and just the facts, ensuring we don't over-editorialize too quickly.

I love being The Rigor Nerd because, if my method and analysis are tight and defensible, I report what I found. Period. Honoring systematicity in my approach, regardless of method or question(s) asked, gives me the foundation to stand confidently behind my conclusions. I love feeling good about what I’ve found because I trust my method and approach.”
—Ben Wiedmaier, Ph.D., Research Consultant at dscout

“Knowing your audience is key. I have some financial clients that just want the facts—in those cases I’ll play the Rigor Nerd. Hopefully, if you’re identifying and synthesizing the themes of the conversation as it progresses, you can anticipate what clients are going to ask and be one step ahead of them. Reading the room is a huge part of that.”
—Scott Weiss, Co-founder of Community x Design

“Sometimes  I don’t use the Rigor Nerd as much, but listen to intuition or an internal gut feeling about participants’ feedback. Even if it isn’t backed up the largest number of responses. I think that’s the real magic of a good researcher, being able to identify where the real ‘nuggets’ are.”  
—Ana Roji, Lead Design Researcher at Nokia

The Short Order Cook
a.k.a. “I’m here to answer your immediate questions”

A specialty hat that can provide some much-needed relief. The short order cook helps solve immediate problems, getting regular feedback from users on the issues they face day to day.

“I sometimes play the Short Order Cook during presentations, when I get interrupted to answer questions. I like and encourage this, to an extent. On the positive side, it shows me that the audience is engaged and curious, but sometimes they just need patience as I’m going to address their questions later on in the presentation. I prefer to save this hat until the end–after I’ve been able to tell my story, and then I have a conversation and answer more questions the audience has.” 
—Kat Figatner, Senior Vice President & Partner at C+R Research

The Carrier
a.k.a. the one who brings everyone along on their back

Sometimes people need a bit more help getting up the hill. The Carrier helps build consensus and understanding, making sure no one is left wondering “how did we get to this conclusion?”

“Being the Carrier is something that just kind of comes with the territory. You have to be able to wear that one, especially when you’re working with different industries. Your role is not just to find insights, but to help them land so that people will take action based on those insights. If you don’t communicate with people and carry them along on the journey, then it’s really not going to go anywhere. You find stuff but lose it for the sake of itself. So that’s a hat I think everybody needs to wear.”
—Supriya Gokarn, Global Insights Lead, Google Hardware 

The Divining Rod
a.k.a. the forecaster, the soothsayer, the future predictor

The long-term thinker, the person who takes the research four or five steps into the future to predict what's next.

“This is a hat I like though I don’t wear it often. I see it as fundamental as it links with strategy and future product decisions.”
—Ana Roji, Lead Design Researcher at Nokia

“I wish I was able to wear the Divining Rod hat more often. It would be a very fun research exercise. In my organization, things end up getting practical fairly frequently, and we’re often problem solving for the present or the near future. That definitely puts you in contact with gems that are slightly more long term and have a life cycle that’s beyond near term. But I think for a trend to be of any value you have to mine a lot of information. You have to see it in multiple bits of data in multiple different contexts. Then you’ll see if the trend has legs. That in itself takes so much time and dedication. Often you don’t have the luxury of taking some time off from all of the needed work you are doing, and saying ’I’m going to chase this thing for a little while’ and see whether it goes anywhere.”
—Supriya Gokarn, Global Insights Lead, Google Hardware 

“I feel all clients want me to be the Divining Rod, and to confidently know the future, but I feel less comfortable wearing this hat. I’m better with translating consumers’ current behaviors and identifying unmet needs, or potential trends, but I think it’s a dangerous game to overpromise and forecast the future. Additionally, clients always want the consumers to also wear this hat–to project and say how they would behave in hypothetical situations, but it’s too difficult for them to accurately predict. There are just too many factors at play. I believe our research can help shed some light on the future, but nothing is a crystal ball.”
—Kat Figatner, Senior Vice President & Partner at C+R Research

What other hats do you wear?

What researcher hats do you wear?

“‘The Teacher.’ At this point in the evolution of the field, a lot of product professionals are still unfamiliar with UX research methods. I find in those situations my role is just as much about teaching and education as it is about research.”
—Aryel Cianflone, UX Researcher and host of Mixed Methods podcast

“‘The Conduit.’ I like to conduct interviews alongside the client whenever possible, because it‘s a more powerful way for the client to understand firsthand what the research is telling us.” 
—Scott Weiss, Co-founder of Community x Design

“As a researcher, you’re pretty well trained to play the Skeptic, the Rigor Nerd, the Short Order Cook. But in a professional setting, you have to step into some roles that school doesn’t really prepare you for at all. You might call one ‘The Decipherer.’ How well can you read the relationships between different members of a client group? What about other stakeholders, like their board or outside advisors? Who are the ultimate key decision makers? Practically, it’s incredibly helpful to understand those dynamics.”
—Nicole Baltazar, Research Lead at dscout

“’The Bad News Bearer,’ when the insights you’re communicating aren’t supporting what your team or client wants to hear.”
—Ana Roji, Lead Design Researcher at Nokia  

“’The Audience Reader.’ Is that person pausing too much while talking? Was that a brow furrow I just saw? The human body can provide a deluge of information related to the impact you’re having as a communicator.”
—Ben Wiedmaier, Ph.D.,  Research Consultant at dscout

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest