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You Gotta Be

Soft Skills for UX Researchers

This post was inspired by the ‘90s R&B hit by Des’ree, “You Gotta Be.” You know, with the chorus that goes:

You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser
You gotta be hard, you gotta be tough, you gotta be stronger
You gotta be cool, you gotta be calm, you gotta stay together
All I know, all I know, love will save the day

Whomever Des’ree meant this song for, she makes clear that certain personal attributes are the keys to their success. Well, the same is true for UX researchers. Even if a researcher has plenty of technical and methodological expertise, her impact will be seriously limited if she doesn’t also possess the right personal attributes, or “soft skills.”

While hard skills are “things you do,” soft skills are more like “ways you are”—specifically, ways you are that help you interact better with the people and culture of your work. Research jobs depend heavily on interacting well with the people and culture of your work and specifically on your ability to adapt to and influence them. That’s why soft skills are so important for researchers and why I decided to make a list of them for all the current or aspiring researchers out there. In homage to Des’ree, here’s what a researcher has gotta be.

You gotta be organized

Research has many moving parts. There are your participants, who are a beast to recruit, screen, schedule, remind, wrangle, NDA, and pay. Then there’s your technology set-up, which in addition to a nest of wires and cords may include no fewer than five different programs running simultaneously in order to show the prototype, broadcast the session, track the user’s eye movements, and record everything. Sometimes there are vendors to coordinate with endlessly on study design, participant recruiting, schedule, price, and technical difficulties. And afterwards there’s all your data, which in the case of qualitative research may consist of hundreds of scraps of paper that will get hopelessly mixed together unless you maintain a complex system of envelopes. In short, there are a lot of little details to stay on top of in this job. You gotta be organized.

You gotta be adaptable

The best research happens under hectic circumstances. To have an impact, you need to get in there in the messiest phases of product development, when ideas are half-formed and designs are sketchy, and stuff is broken and the plan is changing every day and it’s just ugly. To do well in this environment, you gotta be able to think on your feet.

When the prototype breaks right before the session, you need to recreate a weird version of it in Keynote in ten minutes. When your team abandons the strategy your whole study was built around, you need to tweak it so it’s relevant again—or throw the whole thing out and start over (fast). You should excel at finding clever ways to fix the many surprise problems that are part of this job. You gotta be adaptable.

You gotta be inventive

One of the most fun things about UX research is you’re not just answering questions, but entirely new kinds of questions which have come into existence as a result of new technology. Although you can often use established research methods and tools to get at these questions, you are going to encounter some for which there’s just no good way to proceed. In this situation, you’ll need to invent some stuff.

Maybe you’ll rig up a freaky hardware situation in order to livestream mobile research, dream up a group exercise to understand some new thing the kids are doing, or get extremely resourceful to recruit for a weird participant profile. But you will at some point have to come up with new ways of doing your job. You gotta be inventive.

You gotta be friendly

It’s always more fun to be friends with your coworkers than not, obviously, but in research being friendly also greases some useful wheels. Friendship creates social pressure for coworkers to attend research sessions, debriefs, and brainstorms that you hold. It motivates them to share your findings with more people. It helps a lot with getting the little favors you sometimes desperately need, such as for an engineer to fix something wrong with a user’s account so you can run their session. And finally, being friends with people means you’re more likely to get information from them about what they’re working on and thinking about, which means more opportunities for you to do cool work.

If the soft skill of “be friends with people” sounds hopelessly awkward and “duh,” know that I chose to emphasize it because within the dynamic of some teams it can actually be pretty hard to make friends. When you’re a social science type rolling up on a new project all “Heyyy, gonna do your research,” the highly-technical people you encounter sometimes plain don’t know how to talk to you. So don’t be discouraged; go make friendship happen. You gotta be friendly.

You gotta be collaborative

The ideal context for research is not off by itself, but smooshed in with everything and everyone else. Your work will be much better if your team members get involved in it at every stage by suggesting research questions, observing users with you, participating in analysis, and even co-authoring reports. They’ll often have better ideas and insights than you, and they’ll definitely be more bought into your output if they’re part of your process. The most successful researchers I know are highly driven to collaborate and relish the opportunity to mix it up with people in all different sorts of roles, from engineering to marketing. You gotta be collaborative.

You gotta be aligned

This was a hard concept to sum up in one word, but basically, you’ve got to align yourself with your team’s goals, priorities, and constraints. You may think the research question you want to work on is the most important and interesting thing ever, or that your company should drop everything and pay attention to a particular problem you’ve turned up—but if your work is not contributing to whatever your team is actually trying to do, they are going to get sick of you fast.

As painful as it may be, you have to accept that you’ll only have impact if you work within the reality of what your stakeholders are equipped and empowered to do. So invest serious time in figuring out what that is and adjust accordingly. You gotta be aligned.

You gotta be assertive

Aligning with your team doesn’t mean never challenging them; in fact, a major benefit of alignment is it puts you in a better position to tell people things they might not want to hear (because they trust you’re doing it for the good of the project).

But even when you have a good relationship with your team, it can be hard to tell them bad news. It’s very awkward to tell a PM that the assumptions he’s built his whole product on are wrong, or to show a designer videos of users who can’t use her UI. It’s especially intimidating when you have to communicate things like this right when a team is driving toward a launch and the issue might delay them or even force them to start over. This is when you have to have some guts and tell the truth to some occasionally quite intimidating people.

The good news is, once you assert yourself a few times and your stakeholders see how you prevented product missteps, they will grow to really respect and value you. You gotta be assertive.

You gotta be persuasive

A lot’s been written about the power of storytelling within user experience, and stories about users can definitely be inspiring. But when it comes to convincing a product manager to change something, you won’t get anywhere without a good, evidence-based argument. Researchers, being how we are, are never without piles of evidence; however, again being how we are, we’re anxious to avoid subjectivity and sometimes end up making absolutely no arguments based on our evidence. This is a big mistake.

Evidence presented without any argument is confusing, as well as boring, and unsurprisingly has little impact. Evidence minus an argument can even go from unproductive to counter-productive, because of the ease with which tiny details of it spring free from their original context and get overemphasized or repurposed elsewhere in harmful, misleading ways. So when you present your evidence, you should always make an effort to not just inform, but also persuade with an argument. You gotta be persuasive.

You gotta be persistent

After you’ve first been assertive, then persuasive, it’s time to be assertive again. Then persuasive again. Then assertive again. Then persuasive.

Sometimes people don’t hear you the first time; other times they don’t want to hear you. Sometimes they think a recommendation is great, but can’t fit it onto their short-term roadmap and forget about it. Other times the conditions aren’t right for an idea when you suggest it, then change later on so the idea becomes feasible. But quite often, your stakeholders won’t absorb what you’re saying until the third time you say it.

At times you’ll feel like Jessica Chastain’s character in Zero Dark Thirty when she keeps writing on that guy’s window—I’ve also heard researchers complain of Cassandra syndrome—but you’ve got to keep at it. You gotta be persistent.

And there you have it: a new chorus, in which the words do not fit the meter:

You gotta be organized, you gotta be adaptable, you gotta be inventive
You gotta be friendly, you gotta be collaborative, you gotta be aligned
You gotta be assertive, you gotta be persuasive, you gotta be persistent
All I know, all I know, soft skills will save the day

What about the soft skills you use in your work? Are they the same as these, or different?

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