The 7 habits of highly-effective UX researchers
How to take your UX research chops from good to great.
We all know that a good UX researcher should be methodologically sound, ethically-minded, and curiosity-driven. Those are table stakes.
But what are the qualities—and more specifically, actions—that the most effective UXRs regularly embody? What sets apart someone whose research is valued in theory from someone whose research is valued in practice?
1. Define and align
2. Horse before the cart
3. When in doubt, triangulate
4. Forget show and tell; involve
5. Tell a damn good story
6. Never stop at the what
7. Careful who you exclude
1. Define and align
Craft and clearly communicate your research plan early on.
Getting everyone on the same page at the start of a study is never an easy task, but it’s potentially the one with the highest ROI if done right.
Often when research projects go awry, it’s because no one really had a clear understanding of why the research was being conducted in the first place.
A study will wrap that ends up not addressing the team’s actual curiosities, or it’ll turn out that the research requested can’t really be acted upon.
To avoid situations like these, be thorough about defining the goals, hypotheses, and success metrics of a research effort upfront.
Your stakeholders may not always know how to articulate the objectives of a study, or may only be able to do so in vague terms—and that’s okay.
This is yet another opportunity to put your researcher hat on and do some digging until you get to the bottom of what they’re really trying to learn. You got this!
Questions to ask yourself (and your stakeholders) include:
- What are we trying to learn through this research? What are our burning questions? Which of them are most urgent/important/non-negotiable?
- What does success for this project look like? What will we need in order to feel confident about moving forward with a decision?
- What types of decisions will we make with the data we get? What is out of bounds and can’t be changed, regardless of what we uncover?
Once these are defined, make sure you’re aligned with your stakeholders on what’s expected and in what ways everyone will be engaged. Ensuring that the goal (i.e., the “why” of your research) is crystal-clear and well-communicated (and therefore well-understood) will pay dividends.
“A goal properly set is halfway reached.” — Zig Ziglar
2. Keep the horse before the cart
The research question should drive the method, not the other way around.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “garbage in, garbage out”. And as researchers, it’s up to us to try and avoid that situation as much as possible.
One of the easiest ways to end up with a garbage outcome? Choosing the wrong method for a research question.
It can be tempting at times to jump to conclusions about which method you’ll use for a study, even before you really have all the details down about the context.
Maybe there’s a method you’ve been itching to try out and what better time than now? Or maybe there’s a PM or designer that is convinced a survey (it’s always a survey, isn’t it?) would be perfect.
But choosing a method prematurely is putting the cart before the horse. Instead, your methodological decisions should be driven by:
- Your study goals and research questions
- How you hope/intend to use the data you collect
- Relevant constraints you’re working within and necessary trade-offs
While you want to choose the best method for the job, it’s also crucial to be adaptable. There are times you’ll need to strike a balance between being rigorous and scrappy.
There are times when you’ll have a perfect method in mind but there won’t be enough time, money, or access to make it a reality, so you’ll have to compromise.
And there are times where one method won’t seem to fit the bill and you’ll need to remix methods. People’s needs don’t fit into neat boxes, and the methods you choose don’t have to either.
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” —Abraham Maslow
3. When in doubt, triangulate
Make sure you’re getting the full story by seeing how data converges (or doesn’t).
That being said, no matter how thorough you are when selecting a research method, every method has its limitations.
A survey might be able to provide you with quantifiable data, but might not help you gauge the emotional state of the people you’re designing for. Meanwhile, interviews may allow you to pick up on key nonverbal and contextual cues, but wouldn’t make it easy to capture a sense of scale.
For especially meaty research questions, triangulation can be a godsend. Leaning on multiple sources of data—often a mix of quantitative and qualitative inputs—can help you overcome the inherent methodological flaws in any one approach.
Looking at what you’ve learned from various data sources, you can begin to ask yourself: Do they tell the same story? Where are there gaps?
The same story is a good sign that you’re onto a durable insight. Gaps reveal that there’s still more investigation needed. Perhaps the greatest benefit of triangulation lies in that contradictions between sources pave the way for understanding differences that could be game-changing to uncover.
Triangulation doesn’t just have to be a matter of looking for patterns and deviations across qualitative and quantitative findings. It can also include:
- Considering more than one theoretical framework to approach a problem
- Having multiple people observe, synthesize, and help analyze findings
- Using both primary and secondary research to inform understanding
In other words, avoid an overreliance on one type of research when possible. Mitigate blind spots in one source by leaning on the strengths of another.
“What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.” — Margaret Mead
4. Forget show and tell; involve
Make your stakeholders active participants in your journey.
Okay, so admittedly, that’s a slight exaggeration. Don’t not show and tell. Definitely keep your stakeholders informed of your research findings via updates, artifacts, reports, and presentations (the more engaging, the better).
But don’t stop there. You level up and increase your impact by making your stakeholders care about your research and its implications.
Involving your stakeholders throughout the process sounds like extra work. And truth be told, it is. But believe me, it’ll be time well spent.
The more involved your stakeholders are in the work you’re doing, the more invested they will be in the outcome.
And the more invested they are in the outcome, the more likely they’ll be to believe what your research reveals, even if that means grappling with some hard truths.
They’ll consider evidence that may conflict with their preexisting notions instead of dismissing it as irrelevant. And they’ll actually use the research in decision-making. Isn’t that why we do it in the first place?
So what are some ways to actually involve stakeholders? Here are a few:
- Before the research begins: Ensure your research plan reflects their goals and accounts for their anxieties. Get their feedback and buy-in on the research methods and instruments you plan to use.
- During data collection: Invite them to sessions, with the expectation that they will attend at least a few. Make them active participants vs. passive ones; have them take notes about specific workflows or categories of observations if possible.
- When you’re sharing findings: Find ways to make shareouts interactive. Instead of just sharing what you’ve learned, ask them for their reactions. What surprised them most? Where do they see the greatest areas of opportunity? What questions do they still have?
Encouraging involvement does not apply to just one phase of research; it is a hallmark of success throughout. By involving your stakeholders, you make them co-owners of the investigation—instead of simply critics of what it uncovers.
And being involved and invested will make learnings memorable for them in a way that not even the best report on earth could.
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” —Ben Franklin
5. Tell a damn good story
Storytell your research results for maximum impact.
It’s a tale as old as time (no pun intended): storytelling is everything. But what does that actually look like when it comes to research results?
Some tips to ensure you’re set up to tell a good story include:
- Tailor to your audience: Like with any good story, figure out who you’ll be sharing your findings with. What do they most need to learn to move forward in their decision-making? What will they care about? Which pieces of the experience do they have direct influence over?
- Prioritize ruthlessly: As tempting as it can be, don’t share everything you uncovered in your research. Boil your findings down to the most salient insights and deliver them with intention and impact. Trying to include too many observations—however interesting—will detract from the narrative.
- Appeal to both logic and emotion: As the saying goes—morbid as it is—one death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic. To tell a story well with data, intertwine quantitative data (if you have it) with the “story behind the numbers”. Show people who those numbers represent. Communicate why they should care.
Strategies you can use to shape stronger narratives include utilizing analogies that map well to the problem space and taking a “day in the life” approach to build empathy. Both of these can help shift your audience’s mental models.
Lean on verbatims, videoclips, and visuals when you’re trying to illustrate the intensity, importance, and even scale of problems you’ve uncovered.
For instance, let’s say you wanted to communicate that there were about 100K complaints lodged about a specific feature.
To make that more concrete, you might consider including a slide with the backdrop of a packed football stadium to demonstrate the scope of the problem. That way you’re both showing and telling—the best one-two punch.
Don’t forget to adjust levels of zoom, too.
The altitude of your narrative should match your audience’s roles, understanding of the topic at hand, and the kinds of decisions they’re trying to make. A shareout to senior leadership should look considerably different than one intended for your design team.
And remember: not every shareout has to be a Powerpoint deck! Get creative with how you share your research so that your stakeholders walk away informed and inspired.
Your research results are only as impactful as they are understood, and stories make it a hell of a lot more likely that what you share will stick. So tell them!
“Stories build bridges. When the story ends and the teller’s voice is silenced, the bridge between teller and listener remains.” —Elaine Blanchard
6. Never stop at the “what”
Translate your observations into meaningful insights and recommendations.
Sharing what you found through your research is important, but it’s rarely enough on its own. To make impact, it’s crucial to take your findings and make them meaningful in the context of the decisions you’re trying to influence.
Every time you present research results, remember that the “what” is just the beginning. It’s the bare minimum. You also need to share why each finding matters and what should be done about it.
Using the what/so what/now what framework can be particularly helpful. Here’s how you can think about it:
- What: Observation (raw data uncovered through your research)
- So what: Insight (finding + critical thinking/interpretation + context)
- Now what: Recommendation (how finding should be applied/next steps)
A common mistake is to simply unleash learnings without baking in a perspective. As researchers, we’re accustomed to feeling like we need to be unbiased and objective.
And when conducting research, we absolutely should be. But that’s not to say that we can’t ever have points of view.
Researchers are not just messengers of data; they’re distillers of data as well.
This distillation should stay true to the realities uncovered during research, no doubt. But to be a great researcher, you must apply your critical thinking and pattern-recognition skills in full force.
Combine what you’ve observed with your understanding of the problem space, other knowledge about the product or service, and insights about the industry/competitive landscape.
Be a dot-connector and solution-seeker. Go beyond the “what” and also share why the “what” is important and how the business can actually act upon it.
“Knowledge isn’t power until it’s applied.” — Dale Carnegie
7. Be careful who you exclude
Consider who your research is representing—and who it’s leaving out.
And last, but certainly not least: understand, acknowledge, and proactively avoid bias. That includes not just yours, but also your team’s, your organization’s, and in some cases, even your industry’s.
It’s a research best practice to minimize bias, so this might sound like a no-brainer. But minimizing bias goes beyond making sure your questions aren’t leading and you’ve counterbalanced your responses.
It also involves caring about the bigger picture, including who your research represents—and who it doesn’t.
Who and how we recruit has an outsized effect on what we end up discovering. Even when we’re aiming for representativeness, our biases can inevitably creep through if we’re not careful.
And while recruiting participants is never an easy feat, that doesn’t mean we should settle.
After all, how can we design inclusively if we don’t do inclusive research?
Tackling this might entail asking yourself some tough questions, like:
- What are we calling a representative sample? Why? Who do we typically include in our research?
- Perhaps more importantly, who are we leaving out? People without the latest and greatest high-speed internet connections? People who are not young, or wealthy, or tech-savvy, or abled? Lefties? Folks who are gender-nonconforming? Non-fluent English speakers? Members of other marginalized communities who may already feel like we wouldn’t really care about their needs in the first place?
- Do the needs we identify and the recommendations we make unwittingly reflect a skewed population? If so, what are the implications of that?
Researchers play a particularly important — albeit oft-overlooked — role in shaping how inclusive the products and services we build are.
When we conduct research and use those findings to fuel ideation, we are making those findings the source of truth for everyone else on our team. It’s therefore critically important that we take a good, hard look at where our insights are coming from.
Which voices are we seeking out, which are we inadvertently eliminating from our needfinding efforts, and how we might broaden our reach as needed?
“It depends on each individual person as they are creating a solution to really stop, reflect and take a moment to recognize who might be excluded…Even though it may seem like an innovation for some, it may create a complete lack of access for other people.” —Kat Holmes
Originally published here
Vidhika is a UX Manager who's convinced that the best designs address people’s unarticulated needs, and that stories can change the world. She’s passionate about tech ethics, really good food, thoughtful arrangements of words, fueling human connection, and exploring new places and perspectives.