UX Researcher / Product Researcher / Design Researcher / Market Researcher / Research Scientist… Which one am I?
Part 2 of the Social Science to Trust & Safety Series
TL;DR: A good role fit is not just about having the right method skill set, it’s also about having the right thinking style for the role. To set yourself up for career success, identify your thinking style, let it guide your job search prioritization, and add it to your self-description.
So you’ve applied for a research role within the Trust and Safety industry, now let’s imagine that you have a call with the recruiter who asks you “what type of researcher are you?”, what do you say?
Research roles in the field of Trust and Safety are often advertised based on the hiring manager’s preferred methodology for the open position (e.g., Qualitative Researcher) or in combination with the generic “UX Researcher” title (e.g., UX Researcher, Qualitative). However, within this field, there are many different types of research roles. As a quick reminder, the goal of Trust and Safety teams is to set the rules and prevent, detect, and combat the harmful use of products. As such, Trust and Safety teams cover a wide breadth of work, as do their researchers. Thus, it isn’t necessarily your methodological skill that makes you a good fit for an open role; often, it is how you think.
What do I mean by “how you think”? To illustrate, imagine a recruiter has two open roles, both are advertised as “Qualitative Researcher”. One role involves partnering with the policy team to evaluate and update the platform’s policies while the other role involves designing and evaluating a user-facing safety product. In both cases, the hiring manager has determined that the majority of the projects are likely to be qualitative in nature, however, that doesn’t mean that the roles are equal or that the same qualitative researcher could be equally successful in both roles.
For instance, the former role, partnering with the policy team, may involve research to identify and define problematic use of the platform, explore what a legitimate and defensible policy for the problem would be, as well as evaluate the success of the policy post-implementation. The latter role, partnering with product teams, may require an in-depth understanding of how people interact with product features, how design and content elements can influence behavior, as well as how to compare the viability of one proposed design over another. As such, though the research may be the same methodologically (i.e., both qualitative), the context within which and the stakeholders for whom it is applied can be very different, warranting different thinking styles.
Why should you care? Knowing what your research thinking style is in advance of talking to recruiters and hiring managers may help improve your long-term success within the company. Communicating your thinking style within the application process may help to optimize your team placement and/or set correct expectations in advance about the types of research projects you can execute successfully in the near term.
In this article, I will outline some common Trust and Safety researcher thinking styles, what titles they correspond to within the industry, and why it’s important to reflect on your personal thinking style prior to applying for a new role. Please note that this article is not intended to be a scientific or exhaustive analysis of researchers’ cognitive thinking styles, it is intended as a guide to help aspiring Trust and Safety researchers understand how they fit into the industry.
The Four Thinking Styles
For the purpose of this thought exercise, let’s choose spam as an illustrative case that can apply to several online products, and let’s define spam as any kind of unsolicited digital communication that is sent out in bulk.
Imagine that you work for a company that has just launched a new online product. Shortly after the launch, the Product Manager contacts your team, the Trust and Safety team, and says “it seems that we may have a significant problem with Spam on our platform”.
What are your first thoughts on how you would approach understanding this problem further?
If you are primarily a policy thinker, you may first think to yourself —
“How do we define spam?”, “How harmful is spam?”, “How common is it?”, “What should our stance on spam be for our platform?”, “What would be a defensible enforcement protocol for spam?”
If you recognize this style of thinking as one of your primary responses, policy research may be a suitable role for you. Policy researchers gather the necessary evidence for policymakers to make evidence-based policies (rules and enforcement protocols) about a given problematic use of the product. Generally, there are four core characteristics of policy research:
- Basic: Understand and define the problematic behaviors of people on the platform
- Technical: Identify the size and associated harm of the problematic behaviors
- Actionable: Make evidence-based recommendations for which problematic behaviors to focus on as well as recommendations on how to deal with them
- Evaluative: Evaluate the effectiveness of the policy and protocol, identifying gaps and unintended consequences
As you will see in subsequent sections, policy research is a critical foundation upon which almost all other researchers’ work builds. Because it defines the problem, it also, therefore, directs system and product development.
Common Advertisement Titles: Public Policy Analyst, Public Policy Manager, Research Scientist, UX Researcher, User Experience Researcher, User Researcher
(Note: Policy Researcher is not a commonly used title in the industry, roles that require policy thinking sometimes combine research and policy development. Other open roles may use generic titles and provide more information in the description or hiring process).
If you are primarily a system thinker, you may first question the way that the spam detection system has been designed or how it is operating —
“Are the signals feeding into the spam detection system accurate?”, “Was the detection model trained appropriately?”, “Is the way our system is designed incentivizing spammy behavior?”
A system thinker’s go-to mindset isn’t the individual user experience instead they take a systemic approach. System thinkers consider how the system was built, what assumptions were made, what data were used, how users interact with it, what behavior it may incentivize or disincentivize, what principles should dictate its design, and how to optimize it for success. Systemic thinking is often illustrated as an iceberg with four levels. Illustrated below is an adaptation of this iceberg concept for the Trust and Safety context.
In this example, you not only see how system thinkers strive to understand the systemic underpinnings of an observed problem or problematic trend, but also how systemic thinking connects to policy thinking. For instance, level -3 is linked to the work of the policy researcher who defines the problem.
Common Advertisement Titles: UX Researcher, User Experience Researcher, User Researcher, Customer Experience Researcher
(Note: System Researcher is not a commonly used title in the industry, roles that require systemic thinking appear to use generic titles and provide more information in the description or hiring process).
If you are primarily a design thinker, you may first wonder if there is a problem with the design of your product or something about the people using it that is leading to spam-like behavior. You may ask questions such as —
“Is the product working as intended?”, “Are there certain product features that are consistently associated with incidences of spam?”, “Is there a new user trend that manifests like spam?”, “Why would users behave in spam-like ways?”, “How might we solve this problem with design or content changes?”
Design thinking involves understanding the needs, desires, pain points, and motivations of the user and the user’s experience of the product to fuel innovation. In that sense, design thinking is arguably the most common depiction of how user experience (UX) researchers think. As the user representative in the product development process, design researchers strive to approach their work with an open mind, triangulating and summarizing insights to elevate the user experience in product discussions.
There exist several frameworks from which to understand the process of design thinking and design research. One of the most well-known frameworks is the Nielsen Norman Group Design-Thinking Framework which outlines three core design thinking phases: Understand. Explore. Materialize.
Common Advertisement Titles: Design Researcher, Product Researcher, UX Researcher, User Experience Researcher, User Researcher, Customer Experience Researcher, Usability Researcher, Consumer Researcher
If you are primarily a comparative thinker, you may first question if this problem is also present in other products in the market as well as how other companies are dealing with it. You may ask yourself —
“How are other companies approaching spam?”, “What could the dynamics of spam across different products and markets tell us about our product?”, “Relative to our competitors, how is our response to spam perceived in the market?”, “How can we become an industry leader in combating spam?”, “What market campaigns may help to mitigate the spam problem?”
If you recognize this comparative style of thinking as one of your primary responses, market research may be a suitable role for you. Market research is about knowing your product, userbase, and competitors to benchmark against others in the market. It is the comparative aspect of market research that differentiates it from design research.
Market researchers’ insights are highly important for other researchers and stakeholders as they provide the broader, often forward-looking lens guiding others on upcoming opportunities, challenges, and pivots in the product landscape. The analysis technique often used to do this is a SWOT analysis.
- Strengths: Internal factors that give your product a competitive advantage
- Weaknesses: Unfavorable internal factors that give your product a competitive disadvantage
- Opportunities: Factors or situations that can strengthen competitive advantage
- Threats: Unfavorable factors or situations that may weaken competitive advantage
Common Advertisement Titles: Market Researcher, Marketing Researcher, Market Insights Researcher, Consumer Researcher, Consumer Insights Researcher, User Researcher, UX Researcher, User Experience Researcher
Now that I’ve outlined four common thinking styles for Trust and Safety researchers, you may say, “well, what if I’m a mix of them?”, to which I would respond, great! Many researchers likely have a hybrid thinking style and if that is true for you, it will serve you well in this industry and open up more suitable roles for you to apply for. Over the course of your career in Trust and Safety, you may eventually conduct a combination of research projects with different stakeholders requiring cognitive flexibility. Nevertheless, knowing your starting point now in entering this industry is likely to help you establish your career and build self-confidence early on, putting you in a good position from which to later confidently take on new experiences.
Research roles in the field of Trust and Safety are often advertised as generic user/UX research roles or method-focused roles. It is of course important that you have the right methodological skillset for the advertised position but it is arguably even more important to try to find a match with your thinking style — Policy, System, Design, or Comparative. So, instead of describing yourself to the recruiter as a “Qualitative, UX Researcher”, how about you say “I’m a Policy-Minded, Qualitative, UX Researcher”?
FYI: To search for suitable roles in your area, use the keywords I’ve provided for each thinking style in combination with (“Trust and Safety” OR “Integrity”). If you struggle to find a perfect match, don’t despair, your social science education has prepared you well for any of the roles in this field, as outlined in Part 1 of this Social Science to Trust & Safety Series.