Training an army of (non)researchers

Eduardo Gómez Ruiz
Feb 5 · 8 min read
Image credits to TechBeacon

An increasing demand for UX Research

More and more multinational tech companies like Google, Facebook or Uber as well as large financial firms are internalizing the UX Research function because of a) it is less costly than hiring a research agency and b) it allows to build internal expertise to define innovative growth strategies and improve quality of their products and services. A 2017 report into the user research industry states that 67% of UX professionals were in-house employees.

There is an increasing research demand and testing frequency, as stated on the report above and in this article written in the blog of by the qualitative research tool dscout, making “not enough time” and “not enough bandwidth” two of the issues that come up the most in conversations with user researchers. Research teams learn the hard way about their need to prioritize projects as they cannot support all — in my experience, barely half — of the research request asks.

This has certain implications for the business:

  • Smaller markets or less strategic themes get deprioritized, not getting enough attention from the in-house research team
  • Research studies (and therefore the company’s innovation focus) become too short-term oriented as UX Researchers struggle to balance out numerous short-term priorities (often times usability testing on incremental innovation) with longer-term foundational studies

How can this problem be addressed? How can you increase the efficiency and strategic impact of your UX Research team?

There are obvious — and costly — options like hiring more UX Researchers or outsourcing more agency work, however, in this post, I share a “smarter” alternative that I have put in practice several times already: training internal employees on how to do UX Research.

Throughout my career, I have completed 7 simultaneous multi-market studies — ranging from 4 to 7 markets each — and trained executives, MBA candidates, and Marketing and Operations employees on how to do UX Research. There is no magic recipe, but let me share my best performing one.

1. Start identifying the right project that can be led by non-researchers

I have failed twice to set up UX Research training programs for non-researchers. And while many would expect the pedagogy to be the root cause of the failure, I learned a more counter-intuitive lesson: the main cause of failure was not including a real project in the training that was both appealing to the researchers to-be as well as to their managers.

We found multi-market studies or studies that require a larger sample size to work best as they can effectively leverage a larger research team with a standardized process. As in any other project, start by listing the context, learning goals and planning of the project as if you had the necessary resources to run it and make a business case to get them from within the pool of internal employees.

2. Identify people eager to learn and with bandwidth to dedicate consistent time

When I explain the role of a UX Researcher to my friends and relatives, they often ask me “What do I need to do to get your “cool” job? What skills and knowledge do I need?” As I said in my previous post: yes, UX Researchers get paid to ask the right questions and learn about people and we often travel the world to do so.

Can anyone become a decent UX researcher? The short answer is “yes” although it took me more than a year failing to feel confident about the positive answer.

Who to train? You need to identify the right set of people: those who are curious about people and technology, and who are capable and willing to learn new skills and commit to becoming a part-time researcher.

How to convince them? First get to know them and learn about their passion and interests. Some may feel stuck at what they are currently doing, some may be curious about a new way of working and some may want to make merits for their next promotion. In your pitch to the group you want to attract as trainees don’t forget to mention “what is in it for them”. It could be professional development, ownership and impact potential.

How many trainees? Start with a manageable number, keeping a maximum ratio of 5:1 employees per each UX Researcher in the project. I have trained groups of 1–4 people in a project and a group of 15 (along with 2 other UX Researchers).

Training to Uber Marketing & Operations team in Chicago, where they shadow several focus groups with actual users and participated on a debrief about the moderation techniques.

3. Get their managers’ approval

Completing a UX Research study is not something you “master” in a 10 hours course. Practical experience is essential to internalize key concepts and skills as well as to deliver value. UX Researchers to-be need to dedicate at least 20% of their time in order to do a decent job, so you need their managers’ approval to plan accordingly. Consider including developmental growth and expected return of the project when you pitch this ask to their manager.

4. Build detailed Playbooks but give flexibility

In the first project, the trainer needs to elaborate multiple detailed resources: the project plan and proposal (required in the first 3 steps), product walkthrough, moderation guides, templates for note taking and analysis, and different training materials. You need to anticipate any potential question or difficulty they may encounter in the process and create useful tools that bring consistency when comparing the research findings. It’s a lot of work that may pay its returns after the second project.

Besides the need for detailed documentation, you don’t want to be over-prescriptive to avoid a) overwhelming and annoying the aspirant researcher telling them exactly what and when they need to do certain activities b) restricting the ability to gather richer out-of-script findings, as a research session may develop organically. Rather than micro-manage their process, I found more successful to empower them with tools or frameworks, mentoring, and support and then trust and motivate them to do their best.

5. Give a very practical training

Budget a 1–2 days training, ideally in person. I increase the focus on the practice by sending pre-read materials in advance and focusing on the research methods of the project. Use real users — we had a lot of fun simulating being users but it was not as useful or realistic. Satisfaction surveys I conducted after project completion showed that training attendees found the practical exercises the most relevant activity and reported a 40% increase in their confidence to moderate and analyze research sessions.

Training to Bukalapak Design & Research teams in Jakarta, where I invited actual users to have trainees practice the research methods.

6. Regroup for a group analysis

The analysis part is the hardest to teach. I struggled to do this in classrooms of 50 people at IE Business School. We then moved to a more practical way of doing analysis where the teacher is a mere facilitator and the students are the ones making sense of their findings.

I always advise this part to be in-person, although I have also piloted remote analysis sessions with different tools.

Trainees testimonial

All of this is in Beta version, but here are some testimonials from people I have trained:

Josh Bear:

The training I received from Edu goes beyond a specific product or program. I’ve taken these skills and tactics to become a better listener and communicator, more empathetic, and focused on the customer experience during all stages of product and business development. I look forward to continuing to leverage these skills and experience throughout my career.”

Naima Azaiz:

“Even though I was already familiar with surveys, qualitative UX Research requires specific skills and methods. Benefiting from Edu’s training was a game changer because I felt empowered to conduct several rounds of UX research studies at Uber. The training led to a highly collaborative working environment: the research trainees community grew inside the company, we shared learnings and best practices. On a more personal note, it was such an enriching experience: I gained a lot in personal development not only because I learned new skills but also because I interacted with new functions and stakeholders from HQ.”

Yoel Sumitro:

“Edu introduced my research team to the world of generative research. In a workshop, he was able to articulate complex research methods clearly and gave really easy to understand step-by-step framework on the how-tos. He also has deep knowledge in human-centered design but what struck me most about Edu is his passion for the subject, and the genuine empathy he has for end users. This empathy definitely was spread to my team members during the workshop. I would definitely have him train my research team again.”

Alex Diaz:

“I can’t speak enough to the value of learning the research process. Not only was this a new experience, but I was given a framework that I could directly use toward our users while also building on a new competency within my role. The ability to engage with users in a 1:1 setting can be emotionally exhausting and extensive. Still, the value you get from these user feedback sessions sets you lightyears ahead of any informal information gathering. Gathering user insights is easily a new passion of mine.”

Are you planning to train people at your company? Have you trained non-researchers on how to do research? Let’s talk and exchange experiences: https://www.linkedin.com/in/eduardogomezruiz/ or eduardo.goruiz@gmail.com

About Eduardo Gomez Ruiz

Eduardo Gomez Ruiz leads the UX Research at Albert Heijn. Specialized in multi-market research studies, he has completed 7 rounds of simultaneous studies to deliver strategic insights to Uber’s Product and Business Leaders, along with building scalable processes that allow anyone in the company to become a user expert.

Prior to Albert Heijn, Eduardo has led Uber’s Global Loyalty research team and worked as a Business strategist and Service Designer in two boutique consultancy firms supporting companies like Google, Mitsubishi Electric or Endesa. Eduardo holds a MEng cum laude degree in Industrial Engineering and an MBA from IE Business School, where he facilitates Design Thinking workshops and Design Sprints.

Eduardo Gómez Ruiz

Written by

UX Researcher @Albert Heijn

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