User research is perhaps the least well known of the standard user experience (UX) triumvirate of roles, overshadowed by the more well-known disciplines of interaction design and visual design. This is perhaps due to the fact that user researchers are often very active in the early phases of a design thinking project, before there is even a first sketch of what the user interface could look like. They help product teams get requirements from end users in a structured and open way and guide the team through the process of translating that information into actionable insights for the product they are working on. As the user interface begins to take shape, user researchers may again be asked to assist in the usability testing of prototypes, but this work is also often successfully done by the project team itself if they are sufficiently trained in usability testing methods, without the expert assistance of a user researcher.
If you are looking to onboard one or more user researchers, here are a few things I keep in mind when I am hiring.
• What is the candidate’s educational background?
A degree in psychology, sociology, or cognitive science is definitely a plus for a user researcher. You shouldn’t underestimate how much knowledge people with this profile bring with them to the job. During their studies they learn how to get unbiased information from people as well as, and this is very important, also how to analyze that data statistically and turn it into something that can actually be used by a product team to improve the final product. Their training in interview and observation techniques helps them get the information they need, including getting information without asking people directly.
That said, not all user researchers must have a background in these areas, but it really does help.
• Is the candidate empathetic so as to be effective in a multi-disciplinary team?
User researchers act as bridge between users, product owners, developers and designers. In order to do that well, they need to be able to put themselves in the shoes of people with a very different mindset and set of priorities. To be effective in their work, they must often moderate between different roles in a project team.
As the users’ advocate, user researchers need to communicate the users’ needs clearly and convincingly. The empathy required here is not only for the end user but also for the wide range of people (from developers to executives and many people in between) who need to understand the users’ point of view.
• Is he or she creative and open to adapt existing approaches and methods?
Not all projects are the same. Each project has its unique set-up and needs. This means that user researchers need to be flexible in applying the methods they use based on the research questions the team has and the “personality” of the team. User researchers often need to look for new ways and methods to meet the unique set-up of each individual project. That’s actually a big challenge, but also a very interesting part of the job!
Having a trained user researcher in a project team is incredibly helpful in order to get the end user’s perspective into the final product in a structured and effective way. Getting the right people onboard for this job is just as important.
Note: To get some great insight from a personal perspective on this very interesting role, I highly recommend this interview with Eva Ruegenhagen, one of the user researchers in my team.