3. Reach out to a former colleague or make new connections.
As creatures of habit—who are subject to the law of inertia—people tend to go with the flow. When it comes to staying in touch with the people we know, we usually communicate more frequently with those who are most visible—either physically or digitally—in our daily lives. Are there any friends or colleagues with whom you haven’t talked in a while, who you’d love to catch up with? It’s easier than ever to reach out through social networks, email, and phone calls, so set goals such as reaching out to a cherished, past colleague or an old friend once a month or every other month.
In a more business-focused, but similar vein, you should grow your UX research network. Attending in-person or virtual meetups or joining a local UXPA or IxDA chapter could provide an opportunity to meet others in your field—either in your region,or around the world. You might also want to mentor others who are more junior.
If you’re new to UX research, you might feel intimidated about networking or mentoring others. But, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember that even the most seasoned UX researchers and leaders started off as interns or in entry-level jobs. When they were in your position, they most likely networked and found mentors who provided guidance that has led them to where they are now. Even as a fairly junior UX researcher, you could reach out to organizations you were part of in the past—such as your college or high school—and offer to mentor or speak about your post-graduation experience.
If you’re looking for advice on your career or even answers to specific questions about how to deal with particular situations, consider becoming a mentee. Your manager can provide advice and might suggest others in your company with whom you could speak. You could also reach out to individuals who are more senior at your company, with whom you’ve become acquainted by collaborating on research or working on projects together. However, if you want to make connections outside your company, don’t be afraid of looking for new connections on LinkedIn—especially if you want to find and speak with someone who’s in a specific industry or city. Regardless of who mentors you, keep in mind that many experienced professionals look forward to sharing their knowledge and experience. Plus, they also get to learn about you and your views on UX and industry trends.
4. Plan your research streams in advance.
As a UX researcher, you constantly face the need to balance doing reactive versus proactive research. Different situations call for varying levels of each approach to research. We can’t judge either approach as good or bad. As with most things in life, it’s usually best to balance both of these approaches. There are at least two good reasons you should aim for this balance, as follows:
- Ensuring that you can study users’ needs in an appropriate way. If there are too many research requests from team members who are not researchers, focusing on reactive research might cause you to miss out on addressing vital research questions that stakeholders have overlooked during product development. But, even if you’re initially reacting to a stakeholder’s research request, you can still proactively offer feedback on goals and methods. Although stakeholders might suggest a quick usability study because of their familiarity with that method, a much more in-depth contextual inquiry or ethnographic study could be a better fit for your research goals.
- Managing your workload as a UX researcher. If you have proactively planned your research projects with stakeholders and can block off your research calendar for those studies, it becomes much easier to negotiate timelines with stakeholders when they come to you with additional research requests.
In my experience, it’s very common for UX research teams—especially newer, in-house teams—to focus primarily or almost exclusively on reactionary work. We can likely attribute this trend to the fact that research teams often receive more stakeholder requests for studies than they can lead or support. No matter how well established your research team might be, you should reflect honestly on the research you’re doing. Take a look at all the studies you conducted last year and consider the following questions:
- Which studies did your team propose because of knowledge gaps you identified regarding user needs?
- Which studies did your team conduct because you received stakeholder requests? Were there any research studies that other teams or agencies conducted instead of your team and, if so, why?
- Did you have to postpone any studies? If so, why did you delay the studies and how far in advance were you able to predict that you would need to push back a study?
At the beginning of a year, many product teams might be proposing new features or drafting their product roadmaps. Often, they focus on achieving feature parity or developing differentiating functionality when establishing such timelines. This leads to at least two goals or opportunities for you and your UX research team:
- If your research team isn’t already part of such discussions, get involved! Meet with the project manager or team lead to explain the various ways in which your team can provide value—especially to help uncover user needs or shed light on assumptions the product team has made.
- If you’re already part of these planning meetings or workshops, consider planning a separate, UX research–focused workshop. Hold a workshop to set research goals, define product KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), or establish timelines. In my experience, very few product teams say no to research teams that reach out to them to ensure that they conduct research in a timely way and address the product team’s goals. However, I have run into product teams who rejected that type of planning because they lacked insights from leadership on the direction their product should take. Or who didn’t see the value in planning research far in advance because their timelines often changed. In such cases, I used my best judgment to decide whether I should push the team to provide more concrete detail, wait until later in the year to do the planning exercise, or focus a workshop on a specific feature, user group, or audience segment. No matter what you decide to do, try to identify leaders on your product teams who advocate for user research. If you can plan a long-term, research roadmap for a specific product feature, you’ll end up with a great case study for the leadership team that would help you to address their reluctance.
5. Explore ways to address process gaps and optimize your research tools and workflows.
Earlier, I described possible goals for research planning because it is important for all UX researchers to consider planning in depth. Of course, research planning is part of a much broader research workflow on which you should also reflect. Let’s consider a set of questions that you should ask yourself, whose answers could lead to your forming research resolutions. If you’ve created or are part of a new research team—one that has existed for less than three years at your organization—reading the following list of questions from top to bottom would likely be most helpful. However, if you belong to a more established research team, the questions in the middle or bottom half of the list might prove more relevant. Of course, you could still benefit from reviewing the earlier questions, which could unveil other opportunities.
- How are you evangelizing UX research?
- How much do your stakeholders know about UX design and research in general? How about UX research specifically?
- If your UX researchers are embedded on product teams rather than part of a central UX research team, do you and your product team know about studies other product teams’ researchers have conducted? How are you collaborating with those teams, if at all, in determining what types of research take place?
- How do you store and share research reports? Do you have a repository that makes it easy to access and understand the reports’ findings?
- How are you communicating your research findings?
- Do you have report templates that help you provide insights quickly, consistently, and concisely?
- Do all product teams have the same needs when it comes to the level of detail you provide in your research reports? Are there ways you can provide different deliverables for different teams?
- Do you email your final deliverables and expect team members to read them? Do you present the reports in meetings and discuss them? Do you know which approach your stakeholders prefer and why?
- Who do you include in email messages or readouts that communicate research results? Are there any opportunities to include other stakeholders?
- Do you include quotations or videos, if available, to portray user feedback in a salient, memorable manner?
- How do you track research findings and determine their impact on the product? Do you track findings using the same tool in which developers maintain their work backlog?
- Who is doing UX research?
- Would it be possible or desirable to have team members who are not UX researchers conduct certain types of studies to help researchers manage their bandwidth?
- Are there other teams in your organization who conduct research that could provide valuable partnerships—for example, Market Research, Voice of the Customer, or Data Science?
- If you work with multiple UX researchers on your team, how are you collaborating and assigning research? Might there be other ways of divvying up research that could make researchers and product teams more successful?
- Who organizes the logistics for your research studies?
- If there isn’t a person or team dedicated to recruiting and research operations, what barriers exist for hiring and onboarding such a person or team?
- If your product is for a niche audience or has an audience for which it’s harder to recruit, do you have an internal user panel that you could leverage for future studies?
- What tools do you use throughout your research process?
- Do you use any online platforms for recruiting participants? Are you leveraging local panels for in-person research?
- Depending on your company’s size and the types of products you work on, would it be feasible and ecologically valid to recruit employees as participants for certain types of studies, as a way of cutting costs and reducing turnaround time for research?
- Do you use any online tools for conducting research? How could such tools help you conduct moderated or unmoderated testing or more quantitative research methods?
- How many of your usability studies involve moderated versus unmoderated testing?
- What is your team’s philosophy regarding and approach to these different methods?
- If you used an unmoderated platform to recruit your target users or audience for any of your studies, could you use it consistently?
- Would it be feasible or desirable to invest in a platform to make it easier to do one or both types of testing?
- How do you measure UX research success?
- Does your product team have UX-related KPIs or OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) that you have tied to your research studies?
- Are there any questions that you consistently ask across all of your research studies so you can compare feedback to some degree—for example, to use in determining a product’s SUS (System Usability Scale) or NPS (Net Promoter Score)?
- Do you conduct quantitative studies when appropriate—for example, unmoderated quantitative usability studies, tree tests, or card sorts?
- Do you have a way of triangulating the following types of data?
- research findings from studies you’ve conducted
- design changes you’ve made based on research findings
- changes in a product’s usage based on updated designs—for example, sales data, analytics data, A/B testing data, Voice of the Customer (VOC) surveys, other feedback, or logs of customer calls or complaints?
- What level of involvement did upper management have in creating any UX KPIs? Have they bought into the concept and the process? Do they refer to these metrics and UX design and research in broader organizational meetings?
6. Set goals outside of work.
Although this article has focused on your professional development as a UX researcher, it’s equally important that you make sure to devote time to achieving your aspirations outside of work. Perhaps you want to learn how to play guitar or revisit an old hobby you had in the past. Developing any skill, even if it does not relate directly to UX research, can help you stay open to learning new perspectives. If nothing else, such pastimes provide great value in terms of relaxation and eliminating stress.