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The True Value of User Researchers: When to Hire, and How to Best Utilize, a UXR

All companies can benefit from dedicated researchers on staff. Here’s how to make the case for the value of qualitative insights.

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Danbee Kim

All companies can benefit from dedicated researchers on staff. Here’s how to make the case for the value of qualitative insights.

I have fascinating conversations with product teams, particularly those that don't have user researchers in their organizations or have had bad experiences with user research. They ask me a gamut of questions, from how to run interviews to how to justify the small sample size of qualitative research.

However, one of the best questions I get is, "When should we hire a dedicated user researcher?"

Not only does this indicate a more user-centric mindset in that organization, but it also proves the value of user research is spreading. We are specialists in understanding users and supporting teams in making more informed decisions. When I see a shift from product managers and designers being the user researchers to bringing in an actual user researcher, I am thrilled.

As excited as I am, this can be difficult to answer, as every organization is different. However, if you are considering bringing in a new user researcher, there are some great tips on why it is necessary, when to dedicate an entire role to a researcher, and how to find a great candidate.

Why hire a trained user researcher?

With the democratization of user research happening, the pros of hiring a user researcher might not be fully apparent. However, as user researchers, we are specifically trained in our craft. We don't hold additional roles, such as being a designer or a product manager, and we focus solely on user research. Through our training, we gain experience and skills that can take years to hone.

Although there is a lot that others can learn and apply when it comes to user research, having a trained researcher can help organizations in the following ways:

  • Finding suitable methods. When a team faces a problem, has a specific question, or is looking to accomplish a particular goal, we can decide the best research method to use. We work with teams to understand what information they need to know and break that down into the methods that will get the team the most valuable insights. There isn't a universal method or combination, and a user researcher can help you determine the right approach from the start.
  • Asking the right questions. Yes or no questions, double-barrelled questions, leading questions, and a whole slew of biases can lead to skewed and unhelpful (or even detrimental) insights. As user researchers, we know how to turn unbiased questions into open-ended conversations that gather rich data and insights. We are comfortable with having these conversations with participants and are well-versed in framing questions to get people to open up.
  • Being less biased. Frankly, we don't care too much about ideas, concepts, or designs from the team. We aren't wedded to or invested in what we are testing, which makes us very neutral. I often want participants to criticize designs and give constructive feedback; then we come out with information on moving forward.
  • Getting to the pain points, motivations, and needs. We are not interested in what participants "want" or say they "would use." That data won't be helpful for a team because people have no idea what they want and are terrible at predicting future behavior. Instead, we dig into pain points, unmet needs, goals, and motivations. When teams address these issues, we create products that solve real problems for people.
  • Determining when/if user research is needed. Sometimes user research is not the answer to a question. When a team thinks user research answers every question, they may get very disappointed with lackluster results and insights. We can help teams consider if user research can support their questions and goals and offer potential alternatives.

Again, this is not to say others can't develop these skills; however, people need formal training to get to the point of a user researcher. If someone is juggling two or three different roles in one, something will have to give, and, ultimately, they are set up for failure. Including a user researcher in your team will pay off by bringing these unique and expertly trained skills.

When to hire a user researcher

Many people start the conversation around when to hire a user researcher with company size. However, I believe a user researcher can be helpful to a company of any size. Whether a company is just starting or well-established, there are many places a user researcher can come in and support.

Instead of thinking about company size, I encourage others to think about the issues or questions they cannot solve. Whenever I advise on whether or not to hire a user researcher, I ask people to consider the following:

You know what is happening, but not why

Many data-driven companies can tell you everything a user is doing in their product. Product analytics and data can tell you what, when, and, to an extent, how users are behaving, which is extremely valuable.

However, with quantitative data, you miss a part of understanding users. You might see that users are dropping off before converting or not finishing a sign-up, but why? Qualitative data collected by user researchers can help you understand the why behind your quantitative data, creating a more holistic understanding. Quantitative and qualitative data complement each other very well and lead to creating products and experiences users need.

You have no idea who your users are (or think they are like you)

If you aren't sure who you are building for, how do you know you are doing the right thing? I have often seen colleagues tell me that they are the user, but this leads to very narrow-minded thinking.

Even if we work at companies where we can use the products/features, that doesn't mean our users are exactly like us. We might represent one group of users, but there may be others out there we are underserving. Bringing a user researcher in can help you validate and understand who you are building for to ensure you are making the most informed decisions.

Innovation is lacking

Generative research leads to the discovery of "unknown unknowns." These unknowns are gems that can push companies to innovate and become market/industry leaders. Through generative research, you can deeply understand the problems you are solving and go above and beyond to create the best solutions possible. Bringing in a user researcher helps kick-start innovation and brings significant insights about your users (or potentially new users!).

You are struggling with the prioritization of "what's next?"

User researchers can help with a team's prioritization. If there are battles about what the next feature or improvement could be, user research can step in to bring clarity. Through interviews, surveys, or heuristics evaluations, we have many tools to help teams prioritize the most beneficial next step for the user and the business.

Users are churning or not using features/products

Retention and loyalty are critical for a successful business. If an organization notices people are leaving or aren't using/interested in key features or products, assuming or guessing what's wrong might take a long time.

Instead, user researchers can tangibly measure satisfaction, efficiency, and effectiveness, which are the cornerstones of usability, and help determine whether customers leave or stay. A researcher can dig in with one-on-one interviews to understand the significant problems and follow-up with a survey to validate and understand the scope of these issues.

Do you have the time, resources, and willingness to act?

Finally, before jumping to hire a user researcher, it is essential to consider whether you have the time, resources, and willingness to use their work. I have heard of many researchers joining companies to find teams who were resistant to user research and didn't act on insights. Ensure that most teams are excited about this change and will be okay with getting guidance from a user researcher.

Also, it is worth considering your product development process and if user research can fit into that. For instance, if you are only releasing product updates or features once every five months, you might not need a full-time researcher.

How to get the right person

If you are excited and ready for a user researcher, there are a few things you can do to start the process:

  • Truly understand what user researchers do and how the role works. Considering how the role works will help you write great a job description and set the new person up for success
  • Be ready to answer the challenges they will face in your organization
  • Have a path (even if it is flexible) for them to grow within your organization
  • Put together a learning budget for them, especially if their manager or other colleagues are not familiar with user research
  • Make sure there are allies for them in the organization so they can get started as quickly as possible
  • Don't try to hire someone who can do it all. Mixing a role for a designer, researcher, developer, and project manager will cause that person to burn out. Unicorns may exist, but hiring someone skilled in just user research will get you the best results

Hiring a user researcher at the right time can bring a team and organization so many benefits. Not only will you be able to make more informed decisions, but your teams will feel positive creating products/features that customers use and enjoy.

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 membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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