🌐 2023 Update: Georgia is co-founder of OpenUX, a collective of the most experienced UX Researchers working in the web3 and crypto space today. OpenUX delivers bespoke user research for product teams, as well as coaching and training folks to do it themselves. We see user research as a public good, and are dedicated to publishing our findings. If you’re a researcher working in the space, apply to join our community, to find peer support, shared resources and paid opportunities.
For the curious user researcher…
I’m often asked what it’s like to work as a user researcher in web3. I thought it was time to relay my own personal experiences, which may or may not reflect the experiences of others in my field. I’d love this post to trigger a conversation about the notable similarities and differences of working in web2 vs web3, and help demystify it for the people out there looking to make the leap.
My experience as a user researcher in web3 comes from 2.5 years at ConsenSys acting in an agency capacity to multiple incubated projects, 1.5 years as a freelancer doing project-work and retainers for a range of clients, and about 6 months working as a core team member in two web3 DAOs (we’ll come to those later).
Unless you’re working at a large organisation with multiple product teams, it’s rare for a web3 project to hire a FT researcher. A researcher’s capacity tends to be split across multiple projects. This makes the space ideally suited to freelance work, and that’s what this post is going to focus on. The projects are extremely varied. In the last year alone I’ve worked on NFT games, NFT platforms, DeFi protocols, developer infrastructure, wallets, decentralised identity and charitable giving protocols.
So, here’s what’s great and not so great about being a freelance user researcher in web3.
- There is an incredibly diverse range of products to work on, with an ever growing need for understanding users. There are lots of smart and interesting people to work with. This industry is not going anywhere, and more and more users enter the space every day. It’s exciting!
- The networks for finding work exist in social spaces. Almost all my work last year came from one Twitter thread I posted in Jan 2021. It’s very much about who you know; thankfully, you can know anyone by joining Discord servers or connecting with people on Twitter or Telegram. It’s actually a small world, and recommendations are a great source of work. You need to be active on Twitter and Discord to make the most of the available opportunities though.
- Currently not many user researchers work exclusively in web3, so there’s an opportunity to offer a niche service which is highly valued. Most people in web3 cannot do your job, and the smart ones know to reach out to an expert.
- Lots of projects have the funds to pay good rates for the work, due to the amount of capital invested in the crypto space.
- The methods and tools for doing user research are no different from working in web2. Yes, that’s right! Teams may want to be innovative and reinvent the wheel, but what research methods work in web2 work just the same in web3; generative user interviews to understand needs, pains and behaviours; moderated or unmoderated user testing for evaluating concepts, prototypes or live products; surveys for quant; card sorts, tree tests, etc.
- By working across lots of different projects, you have a very broad view of the user experience in the space. You soak up a lot of information from this vantage point, which becomes an added value to the client (who usually has a narrower view of what is going on for their users). You know what questions to ask, who to ask them from, and what the findings mean to the client.
- As a freelancer, you can avoid the company politics that come with working as a FT employee. As web3 teams explore new decentralised models of working, teething problems are inevitable. I supported a web3 client who was trying to redesign traditional ways of working, and every member of the internal team was burned out. Decentralised organisations are still a work in progress!
- Being a satellite entity, not part of a core team, can be lonely. You’re not in the bubble. My mental health suffered a lot during the pandemic as I felt very distanced from the people I was working with. Joining DAOs helped fill that void (but it wasn’t all peachy, more on that later…).
- Product teams look different in web3. The ones I work with, who reach out for user research support, look more like web2 companies in terms of management and expertise. They have full time PMs and Product Designers. Scrappier more ‘web3-like’ projects have professional full time engineers, but the ‘softer’(!!) skills of design, marketing and ops are delivered by community volunteers who vie for attention to be the ones delivering the work, in the hope of future reward from the company. This means that many projects lack the expertise and time to really think about users, and may be doing their own “user research” to a very low standard. Many teams are immature when it comes to product design understanding, let alone understanding user research. In the early days I spent a lot of time just advocating for this work to even exist. You cannot assume that clients know what they will get from your work.
- User research is a communications role. This should be emphasised even more in web3, where most communication is asynchronous, and a lot of it is with anonymous people. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be a good communicator, and over-share.
- If you’re not a highly technical person, it can be challenging to keep up with technical discussions from engineers, and if you’re not a forceful person it is easy to ‘default to expertise’ rather than remembering that YOU are the expert at understanding users, and what the company should be doing to build for them. There are a lot of strongly opinionated people in the space, don’t be put off by this!
- About 80% of my total income is paid in GBP, and 20% in crypto. If you receive payment in crypto, filing your tax return is more complicated. I recommend paying for crypto tax software to help you with this. Of course, you can choose not to work for projects who only pay in crypto.
Some other quirky differences…
- Web3 is a builder-centric space, so lots of users are also people building things. Subsequently, user interviews can lead to unusual places… Whereas in web2 there is a clear division between researcher and participant, in web3 your participant might ask you if you can support them with research on the project they’re working on! You never know where your next client may come from.
- Anonymity is the default for some teams. I work for a project where my colleagues use pseudonyms on Discord, and we do voice-only meetings. But for interviewing users, I always have my video on. I don’t think it’s possible to build rapport with a user if you remain anonymous and have your video off. Why would they tell you about their experiences without trusting you? That said, I do allow users to remain anonymous with me. Anonymity is cherished in the web3 space so insisting they have their video on or use their real name is a blocker to accessing insights from the privacy-centric folks. However, I have not had any issue recording sessions for analysis purposes as long as the user is asked about it well in advance. Setting expectations is always key.
- Because anonymity and data privacy are so highly valued by teams and users, there is an industry-wide lack of quant data about user behaviour. Product analytics may be sparse or even non-existent. There’s tons of on-chain data but it’s impossible to infer user motivations or off-chain actions from this (and how do you know which transactions are made by people and which by bots?). This means that your qualitative research may be the only data the client has access to about their users, and this makes qual research offerings extremely powerful, and the work very rewarding.
A tale of two DAOs…
Eighty percent of my work is with established companies such as MetaMask, Rarible, Gitcoin etc, where we all know each other’s faces, and the work process is not very different from working for a web2 client.
But 20% of my work is in Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs). I’m not going to provide an exact definition here, because I’ve not worked for a single one that operated in the same way, was truly decentralised, or truly autonomous. In my experience, the common denominator of DAOs is they have a fairly flat operational structure, most members are anonymous, and work is coordinated on Discord.
To give you a taste of how a user researcher might fit into a DAO, here are two examples based on my own experiences; one which worked well for me, and one which didn’t.
What I learned from my experience in DAOs is that the project type, team communication style, and compensation method make a difference as to how I feel working in these organisations.
I hope this has been informative for those inquisitive web2 user researchers out there!
- What other questions do you have about user research in web3?
- If you’re already a user researcher in the space, what has your experience been like?
Please share in the comments!