User Research Onboarding: A Quick Guide

Magda Janowicz
15 min readJan 23, 2024

Stepping into a new design team, role, or job is a thrilling chance to connect with design minds, embrace novel design adventures, and acquire brand-new design skills. It might feel a bit overwhelming at first, but these User Research-focused tips and onboarding strategy aim to guide you and your team through those initial weeks or days with design flair and a people-centric mindset. In such a dynamic environment, the ways of working play a pivotal role in ensuring a smooth transition and individual growth. Tapping into my digital journey as a User Researcher (UR) across private and public sectors, I've put together a few insights to amp up your onboarding adventure.

Let’s explore how to blend into a new digital-focused environment, making a lasting impact, and the importance of a holistic onboarding experience for URs.

* In this post, I’ll use UR (“user research”) and UXR (“User Experience research”) interchangeably, since there are subtle differences. User research is broader, possibly beyond product design, while UX research focuses on enhancing a user’s experience with a specific product. Job titles like “user researcher” and “UX researcher” are often interchangeable in searches, implying minimal distinctions in responsibilities. In practice, these terms are largely interchangeable, with context being crucial.

Empathetic Onboarding: Building Meaningful Connections from Day One

A room with people working together using post its.

Establishing Clarity:

First of all, it is imperative to understand that in the dynamic realm of UR, establishing clear expectations is crucial for both the business and the researcher. As technology trends evolve and researchers bring diverse backgrounds, defining a precise role becomes essential for aligning with the unique needs of the business. This nuanced understanding, not only ensures realistic expectations but also proves invaluable during the onboarding of new URs. This clarity from the outset allows for a smooth integration of the UR’s specific skills into the business context, facilitating a more effective collaboration that caters to the distinct needs of the evolving tech and design landscape.

Joining a new team is an opportunity to get immersed in a vibrant design community. The kickoff, inspired by agile rituals and Agile Manifesto, offers a fantastic opportunity to not only introduce new team member but also to present the wider team and discuss ways of working.

New Joiner’s Experience in UR Teams:

A smooth onboarding experience falls into the realm of UR leads. It’s their responsibility to set up or inform new joiners about the team’s ways of working, tools, UR maturity, ethics, app landscape, licenses, subscriptions, and the need for any process revival. Additionally, they should clarify the presence (or lack) of a Research Operations (ReOps) team or auditing processes.

Entering UR onboarding is a collaborative expedition. UR lead and Agile managers act as experienced trailblazers, guiding new joiners through the diverse terrains of Agile and User Research practices. Each part of the journey presents a different challenge or opportunity, shaping new team member’s understanding and expertise. Leads should stay adaptable and open-minded as they embark on the continually developing process of UR onboarding.

I prioritise genuine connections and hands-on experiences, all the while being conscious of steering clear of cognitive overload. Instead a new team mate can join a “lean coffee roulette” for casual chats and connect with the tribe. Also, I value the importance of demos, that offer concise and comprehensive insights into specific products and services. But it doesn’t stop there — one should get a real feel for the project/s by attending ongoing user research sessions or watching past UR recordings. It involves delving into the heart of the work, focusing on the essentials rather than navigating through extensive documents or deciphering cluttered whiteboards.

Human-Centred Design (HCD) in Action:

My personal strategy is to apply Human-Centred Design (HCD) to onboarding. Whilst at UKHSA, my team used the HCD approach in a co-design project that involved the entire organisation. We didn’t just use it in one way; we tailored it to match UKHSA’s main theme: addressing all health threats. So, you see, HCD is a flexible tool that you can use based on what fits the situation. In this particular project, we applied HCD to actively involve people in the process, aiming to provide maximum benefit for the members of the public.

On the other hand, the idealisation of HCD or approach often falls short in practical application, lacking a true grasp of the contextual realities. Processes and approaches are frequently contingent on business dynamics, leadership styles, client requirements, and project objectives. Achieving the right understanding and balance is paramount in navigating the intricacies of HCD in real-world scenarios.

Things change up a bit with remote, in-person, or the mix of both in hybrid settings — each bringing its own mix of good stuff and challenges. In-person settings cultivate spontaneous collaboration and richer interpersonal connections but may limit flexibility. Remote work offers flexibility but may face challenges in communication and team cohesion. Hybrid settings aim to strike a balance but may require meticulous coordination. Understanding these variations is important for cultivating a human-centred approach that resonates with the diverse landscapes of today’s work environments.

The Power of Reflection, Learning and Observation

Do stuff. be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. stay eager.

Susan Sontag

Learning and observation are cornerstone UX skills, especially during the onboarding phase. As a new joiner, use your initial days to observe design sprints, user interviews, and collaborative ideation sessions. Embrace and understand the team’s unique design language, nourishing a collaborative design culture.

Scaffolded Approach: Navigating the Unknown with Support

Given my background in social and educational psychology and research in game-based learning, I draw inspiration from learning theories, particularly the concept of scaffolding. Scaffolding, rooted in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) — a theory developed by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky — he proposed that individuals learn best when they are guided through a task that falls within their ZPD — the gap between what they can do independently and what they can achieve with support. The support, or scaffolding, is gradually faded as the person becomes more competent, knowledgable, familiar, and confident.

ZPD resonates strongly with my approach to promoting effective learning experiences. In the context of design, this philosophy should be integrated into the onboarding processes, recognising the diverse skills and experiences of team members. Rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, a succeful onboarding strategy can benefit a lot from a scaffolded framework. Teams can acknowledge the diverse skills, personalities, and working styles of new and other members. This approach ensures that the onboarding process is tailored to the individual, offering support where it’s needed and allowing autonomy where it’s preferred.

The speed of onboarding is relevant in regards to learning about the project and design processes quickly enough so that people know when to start contributing. During this process, information overload is inevitable. New people should allocate time to learn about the design domain, technology, and all relevant user research (past, present, and planned for the future). If time constraints exist due to design commitments, a design team should provide help to prioritise and focus the new team member on essential tasks and topics. Consider dedicating extra time in the morning for design trend research.

When it comes to User Research (UR) projects, the time and scope are crucial factors that require careful consideration. Highly experienced and skilled UR professionals with high levels of energy may excel in shorter timeframes, delivering quality insights efficiently. However, it’s imperative to ensure that the project’s goals and objectives are clearly outlined to mitigate any ambiguity, preventing URs from feeling challenged or caught in last-minute chaos during meetings or final playback sessions. Leadership should be particularly mindful of the well-being of URs when hiring them for ad hoc, short-term, and intense projects. Prioritising clear communication and setting realistic expectations not only supports a positive work environment but also enhances the overall success of time-sensitive UR projects.

As a newcomer, I encourage you to actively join the initial pre-onboarding and onboarding sessions and standups. Take a moment to immerse yourself in the rituals and communities of practice that shape your team dynamics. Your participation is not only welcomed but essential to the collaborative spirit.

These informal and formal gatherings play an important role in shaping the team culture. Beyond the structured activities, you can initiate casual conversations, explore topics like research methodologies, design philosophies, data experiences, and anything that fits your unique context. Participate in huddles or collaborative ideation sessions to fast-track your integration and become an integral part of the tribe.

Avoiding Micromanagement: Autonomy and Individual Style

Micromanagement can stifle creativity and hinder personal growth. It’s good if company’s ethos revolves around trusting team members to navigate their roles with autonomy. Management should understand the importance of striking a balance between guidance and freedom, allowing individuals to explore their unique strengths and working styles. Recognising the distinctive skills and experiences each team member brings to the table, an onboarding process should be designed to match their strengths with the right opportunities. Whether one thrives in collaborative brainstorming sessions or prefers to tackle challenges independently, a new team member may want to ensure that the onboarding journey aligns with their comfort zone while gently nudging new joiners toward growth.

Encouraging Self-Organising Teams: Harnessing Collective Brilliance

While I appreciate the value of self-organising teams, I acknowledge that achieving this balance requires open-mindedness from the senior leadership and management. A good recruitment process places a premium on emotional intelligence, inclusivity, psychological know how, and empathy, ensuring that the team dynamics lean towards collaboration, open communication, and shared responsibility rather than rigid hierarchy.

At the core of my preferred ways of working is a commitment to inclusive and empowering leadership. I strongly believe that stimulating a culture of inclusivity and adaptability is key to embracing diverse working styles. This approach not only encourages individuality but also empowers team members to contribute their unique perspectives and share their craft, creating a dynamic, innovative, and happy work environment.

Flexibility in Roles: Evolving with the Individual

Recognising that individuals have diverse backgrounds, personal stories, they grow and evolve, a company’s approach to roles should not be static. It is helpful to encourage an ongoing dialogue between team members, line managers, and product delivery leads. This ensures that roles can adapt to the changing project objectives, skills, preferences, circumstances, and aspirations of each team member, encouraging a sense of fulfilment, wellbeing, and continuous improvement.

In reflecting on instances where I faced challenges with project objectives, it has been a valuable learning experience. The struggles often stemmed from unclear or evolving goals, emphasising the critical importance of establishing well-defined and stable objectives from the outset. It is crucial to define whether the focus is on exploration, generating findings, stakeholder requirements, marketing, or conceptual ideation. Without a clear understanding at the leadership level, challenges can arise, particularly if there’s a lack of strategic vision or a working environment characterized by chaos, busy schedules, and insufficient communication. The lesson learned is that a lack of support and clarity in objectives can lead to confusion, misalignment, and inefficiencies throughout the research process.

Moving forward, I recognise the significance of investing time upfront to collaboratively define and solidify project objectives with key stakeholders. This ensures a shared understanding and agreement on the project’s purpose, scope, and expected outcomes. Regular check-ins and communication with stakeholders also emerge as crucial practices to maintain alignment and promptly address any evolving objectives.

Ultimately, the takeaway is that a strong foundation of clearly articulated objectives is fundamental for the success of any research endeavour. It serves as a guiding force, aligning the efforts of the entire team and providing a roadmap to navigate challenges effectively.

A group of people is gathered around a table, reading content inscribed on colourful post-it notes.

Context is Key: Understanding Expectations Beyond the Brief

A new design team member is typically briefed on responsibilities and expectations. However, the key to success lies in understanding the nuanced expectations. The new joiner should take the initiative to align with their design lead or line manager. This clarity can significantly influence ones approach to daily work, interactions with colleagues, and prioritisation of design elements during the onboarding process.

In my experience, it really helps to proactively track planned user research and design sessions and document ongoing learnings in a shared space or backlog for future reference.

Questioning for Design Curiosity and Learning

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

Albert Einstein

Questioning design conventions is a great way to innovate and elevate the user experience. It’s important to keep in mind that design conventions exist for a reason, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be improved upon. By questioning the status quo, we can identify areas for improvement and create better experiences for users. As the famous designer Paul Rand once said, “Don’t try to be original, just try to be good.” So let’s keep questioning and improving!

Embrace curiosity as a catalyst for design learning. As a newcomer, during design critiques, collaborative workshops, and UR huddles, ask questions. Exercise discretion to avoid disrupting ongoing work or discussions. Remember, asking project-related, research, and design questions is not a sign of weakness but a commitment to continuous design learning.

Design Ownership and Craft: Demonstrating User Research Responsibility

Exhibiting design ownership and responsibility from the very first day translates into having made the effort to know as much as you can beforehand. As a newcomer, once you feel confident, ask for user research tasks that you can accomplish autonomously. This will establish your reputation for taking a proactive and UR-forward approach — qualities highly valued in a UCD-driven team.

Setting the Stage for Success

Beyond the immersive team experience, holistic onboarding involves proactive measures before the new member even steps through the virtual doors. A comprehensive onboarding package, including easy-to-read materials and informative videos, can be sent in advance. This not only provides a sneak peek into the team’s culture but also helps the new member arrive prepared, with a basic understanding of processes and expectations.

Tailored Workplace Adjustments: Empowering URs for Success

Recognising the individuality of each UR, the UR leads should actively encourage open communication regarding wellbeing and workplace adjustments. Whether it’s specialised equipment, ergonomic considerations, or a modification of their work environment, company’s commitment should be to provide the necessary resources for URs to thrive. This customisation ensures that URs can perform at their best, cultivating an environment where their skills are utilised to their fullest potential.

Team Diversity: Success or Conflict?

Diversity has to be managed well to get a consistent positive return — what I call the Return on Inclusion (ROI). That’s when the magic happens.

Randall S Peterson

In his World Economic Forum article, Randall S Peterson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, challenges the common notion of a direct link between team diversity and success. He introduces key team role types, from Imagineers to Agilators, emphasising that understanding these roles is crucial for steering diverse teams towards brilliance or preventing potential failure. He talks about the myths around team diversity and success, focusing on managing conflicts, achieving a positive “Return on Inclusion (ROI),” and unveiling the dynamics of optimal teams. Effective team dynamics demand a careful balance, jointly managed by team leaders and HR. Once there, the team leader must handle conflicts well, keeping everyone focused on shared goals for ongoing success.

Championing UR Craftsmanship: Advocacy for User Researchers

Effective leadership amplifies the voices of User Researchers (URs). A dedicated and supportive leadership team champions sustainability, inclusivity and accessibility, recognising the strategic significance of URs in achieving successful outcomes. This goes beyond mere words to tangible support, ensuring URs have the tools and environments for impactful research and strategy implementation. It is crucial to strategically plan for both the short and long term, being transparent about the research methods that will yield the most optimal results. Avoid sticking solely to standard interviews and usability testing; instead, respect the craft of URs by discussing research debt and keeping detailed notes in the backlog for retros and business analysis. Elevating the UR role creates a culture where their contributions are not just acknowledged but highly valued.

In the inevitable clash of decision-making between strategists and URs, facilitate open communication and mutual understanding. Emphasise the importance of collaboration and seek compromise, ensuring that the unique insights of URs are valued.

At UKHSA, I was introduced to the concept of Radical Candor by a colleague, sparking discussions on how to make it more inclusive and empowering. Radical Candor emphasises the need for data-backed insights to validate workforce behaviour theories universally. While still a relatively new concept, the available research underlines the strong correlation between positive comments and team success. In a study of business teams, the best-performing teams received 5.6 positive statements for every negative one, whereas unsuccessful teams had 0.36 positive statements for each negative one. The success of Radical Candor may hinge on achieving the right balance between positive and negative feedback, and further research could unveil this optimal equilibrium for widespread effectiveness.

Strategic Support for Cognitive Well-being: Mitigating Information Overload

The nature of UR responsibilities involves constant cognitive engagement — from strategizing and planning to processing copious amounts of information. To support their well-being, teams should prioritise strategies that mitigate cognitive overload. This includes the promotion of mental health practices, offering resources for mindfulness, and a collective understanding of the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance. By actively addressing cognitive well-being, leadership and teams can contribute to a sustainable and supportive work environment.

Team Collaboration: Agile Support for URs

For URs engaged in substantial projects or working across various workstreams, collaboration is fundamental. Agile teams’ structure is normally designed to provide support, ensuring that URs can efficiently collaborate with multidisciplinary teams. This collaborative approach not only enhances the quality of research but also cultivates a sense of unity, where URs are integral team members contributing to the collective success of the project.

For new researchers entering the field, or joing a new project, the eagerness to contribute and make a positive impression is both commendable and understandable. However, it’s crucial for you to strike a balance between enthusiasm and practicality. While the desire to please and overcommit may be driven by good intentions, it’s equally important to understand the context and recognise one’s limits and prioritise effectively. Understand your unique project context, seek support and work as a team!

Continuous Learning and Improvement

Understanding that URs are at the forefront of emerging trends and methodologies, leadership and teams should prioritise their continuous learning and professional development. This involves providing access to relevant training, mentorship opportunities, and platforms for knowledge-sharing. For example, a commitment would be to empower URs to stay at the cutting edge of their field, developing an environment where they can contribute meaningfully to projects while continuously enhancing their own skills.

URs working on big projects or jumping between tasks? Teamwork is the key. Teams can be set up so everyone can work together smoothly and get stuff done.

I strongly agree with Leah Tharin, a product-led growth and scaleup expert, who suggests a different approach than traditional 30–60–90 day plans for onboarding. Instead, she focuses on the critical element of building trust in the first 90 days. In the initial month, she advises to establish connections and demonstrate reliability. The following 60 days involve seeking external feedback, creating a strategic plan, and aligning it with company goals. By the 90th day, growth plans are solidified. Leah underscores the importance of adaptability, emphasising that success is built on transparency, support, consistency, and a culture of mutual trust within the organisation.

The Human Touch: Introducing Line Managers and Key Buddies

Onboarding, besides documents and processes, is mainly a human experience. A key part of this is introducing the new member to their line manager and a designated buddy on the team. The buddy bridges the gap between HR and the line manager, offering unwavering support and a listening ear. Their role extends beyond the initial weeks, evolving into a continuous mentorship, creating a welcoming and supportive environment for the new member. While User Researchers may find that working in pairs, preferably with another UR (sometimes it’s a UX, Interaction, or Service Designer, sometimes it’s a Business Analyst, or another Agile team member), enhances their effectiveness, it’s not always feasible. Evaluate what works best in your specific context, adapting your approach to ensure optimal results for your team and projects.

Embarking on a UR onboarding journey? Find out more secrets on crafting contextualised onboarding, personalised documentation, navigating pain points, and curating an optimal day plan. From week-one tasks to ongoing growth and happiness focused activities!

Atlassian — Employee Onboarding https://www.atlassian.com/teams/hr/guide/employee-onboarding

Explore exclusive resources for onboarding in user research roles:

Aquent Talent — A human-centred approach to onboarding

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UX Matters

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  • How To Lead an Impactful User Research Team: Read Here

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Gov.uk

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  • What unique challenges do user researchers face in Agile design teams during onboarding?
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Magda Janowicz

Passionate about #UserResearch, #HCI, #Psychology #InclusiveDesign, and #Accessibility | #UXStrategy #Leadership #HumanCentredDesign