Perhaps you’re thinking about a career specializing in user research. Perhaps you’re looking to hire a user researcher. Or perhaps you manage or work with user researchers. If so, you might be thinking about what qualities lead a person to succeed in user research. While others have written about this topic—notably Demetrius Madrigal and Bryan McClain in a 2010 column on UXmatters—I want to add my own perspective based on what I’ve observed specializing in user research over the past 17 years.
The following list of characteristics may seem daunting, but you don’t have to be a perfect ten in all of them. There are certainly areas in which I have strengths and weaknesses. We all have room for improvement. But the more of these qualities you possess, the more well suited you are for a career in user research. In this column, when I refer to a user researcher, I mean both user-research specialists and generalists who do both user research and design.
In examining the qualities of effective user researchers, we can group them into two categories: soft skills and hard skills. Soft skills are the personal characteristics that make someone effective in working with a wide variety of different people. Hard skills are the qualities that make a person particularly well suited for the main activities of user research—such as effective note-taking and analytical skills.
First, let’s examine the soft skills—the personal characteristics that make someone especially well suited for user research.
User researchers spend many hours interviewing people and observing their behavior, then many more hours analyzing the resulting data, so must have intense curiosity about people and their problems. User research can sometimes be repetitive and monotonous, especially when observing many people performing the same tasks. Genuine curiosity and a real desire to understand users, clients, and stakeholders is what motivates researchers to keep going.
Some people are fascinated by how machines work, so become engineers. Others are fascinated by how the world works and go into a scientific field. User researchers are primarily interested in people and their problems.
Curiosity About People
User researchers are curious about people and their needs. They want to learn about how users think, their goals, their tasks, and why they behave as they do. That’s why people so often come to the field of User Experience from psychology, sociology, or anthropology.
Curiosity About Problems
User researchers are also interested in understanding problems, what causes them, and how to solve them. Identifying previously undiscovered truths and making insightful connections excites researchers. They want to dig beneath surface explanations to understand the answers to these questions:
What do people really need?
How do users really use this product?
What are the real problems?
Idealism and the desire to improve people’s lives is another strong motivator for the best user researchers. User Experience is an idealistic profession. At times, it even feels like a noble calling. User researchers represent the users, who companies have all too often forgotten, maligned, or taken for granted. Our goal is to create technology that makes people’s lives easier and more satisfying. Even when we make small improvements to a product—for example, an enterprise application—we feel like, in a small way, we’re making the world a better place.
Idealism should be tempered by pragmatism. User researchers can’t exclusively represent the users. They also have to consider business needs and find solutions that satisfy both business and user goals.
While there are ideal UX processes and practices, we rarely have all the time and money we would like to have to conduct ideal user research. Instead, it’s often necessary to be practical and make the most out of the time and resources we’re given.
Persuasion is a very important skill for user researchers—precisely because user research is the UX activity that most often gets left out of projects. First, user researchers often have to evangelize the value of user research and persuade clients to include it on their projects. Next, they must persuade people to participate in the research. Then, during research sessions, researchers have to persuade the participants to perform the research activities according to the instructions. Finally, when presenting their findings, user researchers must be able to persuade stakeholders that the information is correct and their recommendations will solve the problems. As their team designs and develops the product, researchers must persuade designers to make design decisions that will best meet both business and user needs.
It’s important to go into user research with an open mind and objectivity—minimizing cognitive biases such as confirmation bias, in which people seek out and interpret data that confirms their beliefs, while downplaying data that doesn’t conform to their preconceptions. So the best user researchers tend to be open-minded rather than especially opinionated. That doesn’t mean user researchers don’t have opinions, but they’re able to see shades of gray in most issues rather than seeing everything as black and white. Perhaps this is why answers to questions about the user experience so often begin with it depends.
During a study, user researchers look for trends and patterns, but try not to jump to conclusions. They strive to keep an open mind until it’s time to analyze all the data. While some designers feel defensive about their designs, a good user researcher tries to think independently and be indifferent about designs during research.
Open-mindedness also applies to research methods. The best researchers don’t assume that they know everything or their methods are the only way to do things. They’re open to new ideas and to trying new methods.
Ability to Learn Quickly
User researchers need to be quick learners. Researchers who work for agencies or who are consultants continually work on new projects and often with clients in different industries, or domains, and on different types of technologies. With such varied subject matter as the focus of their research, user researchers must have the ability to learn quickly. They don’t need to become subject-matter experts, but they do have to gain basic knowledge about a new domain or technology rather quickly, so they can understand the users and their tasks when conducting research.
Organizational Skills and Attention to Detail
Because user research requires managing a lot of complex elements, good organizational skills and attention to detail are important during each phase of a study. Planning involves listing, organizing, and prioritizing tasks and questions. Contacting, screening, recruiting, and scheduling participants requires the ability to coordinate many people’s schedules. When conducting research sessions, researchers need to coordinate materials, manage recording equipment, handle observers, and interact with the participant, while carefully observing the user’s interactions and taking notes. Analysis requires focusing on the details in a large mass of data from many different participants—eventually organizing them into common patterns and themes.
User research is a type of activity that could easily expand to fill whatever time we allot to it. Since there’s often less time than we’d like for user research, good time-management skills are necessary to accomplish effective research within the allotted timeframe.
User research is most effective when a team conducts research as a collaborative effort. It’s least effective when a researcher conducts the research in isolation, and the rest of the team learns about the findings only through a report or presentation. Stakeholders learn the most from user research when they actively participate in research as a collaborative effort.
The best researchers involve clients, designers, and other project team members in helping to plan the research, observing the sessions, and analyzing the findings. It’s especially important to involve designers in user research. In the best situations, researchers and designers work together on both research and design, instead of just passing information from one role to the other.
Empathy is key to understanding people and their needs. Empathy enables user researchers to be more observant, ask better questions, and discover deeper insights. Without empathy, a researcher can gather facts about what people do and say during a session, but cannot truly understand what those facts mean. The ability to empathize helps researchers to connect those facts and truly understand people’s behavior, needs, and goals.
Of all the roles on a project team, user researchers have to interact with the widest variety of people—clients, stakeholders, project team members, and research participants. It’s important to seem friendly, likable, informal, and nonthreatening. This doesn’t mean researchers have to be especially extroverted. Many researchers are introverted people. But researchers must like people, and other people must feel comfortable talking with them.
To avoid biasing research participants, user researchers must maintain a neutral demeanor and avoid displaying positive or negative reactions to what participants say or do. That doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions, but they’re able to hide them behind a neutral exterior.
Trying to be both friendly and neutral at the same time can be difficult to balance. It’s kind of like trying to be Oprah Winfrey and Sigmund Freud at the same time. On the one hand, researchers want to be like Oprah—friendly, welcoming, empathetic, and understanding—to get participants to feel comfortable and be willing to open up. On the other hand, they need to be like Freud, the archetypal psychologist—neutral, simply listening dispassionately, not expressing judgment. Going too far in one direction or the other can make participants feel uncomfortable or even bias the research findings. So researchers must strike a careful balance between these opposite demeanors.
User research primarily involves observing and listening. But researchers aren’t simply human recording devices, absorbing sights and sounds and quickly writing them all down on paper. Researchers must also be able to mentally process the large amounts of data they are seeing and hearing, perceiving what is important, filtering out extraneous information, and focusing on the important elements. Perceptiveness is especially important during research sessions—as opposed to realizing something later on when reviewing notes—because it enables researchers to ask questions in the moment, about things they’ve just observed.
Patience is necessary to sit through many sessions, with similar people, asking the same questions, hearing similar answers, and observing the same tasks over and over again. At times, conducting user research can be a monotonous, repetitive, and mind-numbing experience. Field studies offer more variety than usability testing, but even then, the tasks aren’t always fascinating, especially when they’re repetitive. Don’t get me wrong. Research is often fascinating and interesting, but enduring repetitive research sessions without showing boredom or becoming frustrated requires a lot of patience.
Facilitating a user-research session can be extremely complicated and requires the researcher to balance many different, sometimes competing demands. Effectively handling all of the following activities at the same time requires extreme mental agility:
determining whether and when to ask questions
determining how to formulate questions
assessing how well a session is going
keeping track of time
recording the session
Having the native ability to make quick decisions is helpful in handling all of these activities, but researchers can learn and improve with practice. For further advice on this topic, see my column “Handling the Competing Demands of Field Studies.”
Flexibility and Adaptability
The activities I’ve just listed under “Mental Agility” are only the standard activities that a user researcher needs to be able to handle during a research session, assuming everything goes exactly as planned. But researchers must also be able to handle the unexpected issues that may arise during a session. User research rarely goes exactly as planned—especially field studies. Researchers must expect the unexpected and need to be flexible to adapt their approach when unexpected issues arise.
Having a good memory is important for user researchers—both when facilitating a research session and during analysis. When facilitating, researchers can’t continually refer to a list of questions, but need to be able to remember the questions they wanted to ask and the tasks they wanted to observe. Of course, new questions occur throughout a session, but there’s not always time to ask them immediately. So researchers need to be able to remember those questions and ask them at a later point during the session.
A good memory is also helpful when reviewing and analyzing notes during analysis, when researchers need to remember the details of what they’ve observed during the sessions. Even if a researcher is able to take very detailed, accurate notes, it isn’t possible to capture everything. Much of what a researcher hears and observes will remain only in memory. While session notes provide effective support for their memory, a good memory is necessary to understand shorthand notes and fill in the gaps.
Next, let’s examine the hard skills—the skills that we traditionally associate with conducting user research.
The ability to take notes quickly, accurately, and effectively—capturing the important details—is essential. Taking too many notes can distract researchers’ attention from observing and listening, interfere with their ability to interact with participants, and make it difficult to make sense of their notes later. It’s better to perceive and note the important things rather than trying to write down everything. If researchers tend to rely more on recording research sessions than on taking notes, they should be aware that they won’t always have time to review the recordings. So good note-taking skills are essential.
Good analytical skills are necessary to make sense of the huge amount of data user research generates. This is especially true of qualitative user research, for which the data consists of what participants said and did. Analysis is the process of examining the data, determining what’s important, noting patterns, and coming to conclusions. Good analytical skills are necessary to distinguish the important issues and problems within the data.
User researchers can’t just point out the issues and problems they’ve found. They need to make recommendations for solving those problems. Otherwise, the research findings are no more than interesting information. So researchers need to have good problem-solving skills to devise effective solutions to the problems they identify. Ideally, researchers and designers should work together to understand the users and design solutions to address the problems they discover.
Of course, many UX designers also conduct user research, but even user-research specialists need to have some design skills. That doesn’t mean all researchers have to be designers, but all researchers need to have at least a good sense of design. The whole point of conducting user research is to gain an understanding of users’ needs and what to design to satisfy them. Making effective design recommendations requires an understanding of design principles and best practices.
User researchers do more writing than any other role on a project team. So they need good writing skills to effectively convey their findings through research deliverables such as reports, presentations, personas, scenarios, and use cases. Perhaps even more important is the extremely careful wording that is necessary in writing recruiting email messages, screeners, surveys, questionnaires, interview questions, and usability-testing tasks. Researchers also use their writing skills in evaluating the content in user interfaces, including labels, instructions, error messages, and Help text.
Because user researchers interact with so many different types of people, they must possess excellent communication skills. When communicating with clients and stakeholders, they must be able to explain their methods, persuade them of the importance of conducting user research, and clearly communicate their research findings and recommendations. When communicating with research participants, they must describe what will happen during the research session, clearly explain what they want participants to do, and ask the right questions.
How Did You Match Up?
This may seem like an intimidating list of characteristics that a user researcher should have, but there are very few people who would score highly on all of these attributes. Fortunately, that’s not necessary. Each of us has both strengths and areas in which we could improve. This is a list of qualities that a user researcher would ideally have. If you fall short on some of these soft and hard skills, just consider them areas for potential improvement and work to improve them. In the meantime, focus on what you do well and remain positive.
Jim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University. Read More