Real talk from a UX researcher
I was chatting with a colleague the other day about a couple of team members who are at odds with each other, and she told me that I possess a quality she’s never been able to achieve: I’m diplomatic.
That was a first.
After some reflection, I think that as a researcher, that’s sorta my default mode. I want to get all the information out on the table without judgement and look at it through various lenses.
I do my best to avoid bias and understand everyone’s perspective. I have learned how to take it all in and weigh the pieces, and whatever conclusions I draw, I do my best to be conscious of how the news will be received.
But fuck all that for this post; the diplomacy hat is coming off.
I’ve been in the field for 10 years, and I’ve started mentoring lately. In the last year I’ve gotten more and more requests to offer recommendations, look at portfolios, and critique first-timers’ resumes.
I sometimes wonder if these newbs (yes, condescending, I told you that I took off my diplomacy hat!) really understand what they’re getting themselves into.
So here is my least diplomatic way of explaining what it’s like to be a UX researcher.
You have to connect the dots, because people suck at it
Yeah, okay, so if you’re a professional researcher, chances are good that you’re better than most people at looking at all the little pieces of data and finding the connections, themes, trends, patterns, etc.
But those aren’t the dots I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the stakeholders across the business, product management, design, and development.
All of those people are their own little dots. Silos. Islands. They’re out there, doing their design thing or their business thing. And they miiiiiight be interested in what you’re doing on your research island.
But getting them to actually care about what you did and apply it to what they’re doing is so much harder than you might think.
I’ve talked before about the importance of research leading to action, because I don’t want to do research just for the sake of doing it. I want to watch the research light a fire under my stakeholders’ asses so they go fix the damn thing that customers just spent hours bitching about.
And to get that to happen, I’ve had to spend way more time understanding the politics, funding, and motives underlying my projects. I’ve had to ask questions that sometimes feel super disconnected to the project I’m being asked to do. I’ve had to think through the audience I’m reporting findings back to and figure out what they control and what pressures are on them so that maybe they actually DO the thing that the research says they should do.
It’s tedious and sorta exhausting, but when you take those extra steps, you can connect the dots between what you did and what they need to do. It gives your work more power and impact.
You will be an emotional whipping boy, because empathizing with users kinda sucks
I’ve conducted moderated interviews for years. I’ve watched hundreds — honestly, it’s probably thousands — of unmoderated user tests. I’ve read thousands of open-ended comments on surveys. I even used to get occasional direct messages from members of a customer panel I managed.
Sometimes I get a few stakeholders to observe interviews, but it’s never 100% attendance; most show up to about 25% of sessions. I’ve had one — literally, ONE — product manager ask me for the raw data from a survey so they could read all the open-ended comments for herself (and I think she’s a rock star for it — go, Bianca!).
But the researcher does the bulk of the work connecting emotionally to users.
Occasionally, users say something wonderful, or they react positively to whatever site, app, or prototype is being tested, and I love those moments. I still remember a gentleman who was using a note keeping app to organize his adoption documents with his partner, and how we literally cried when I wished him well at the end of the session. I still wonder if he ever got to be a parent, and hope like hell that it was everything he dreamed it would be.
But of course most UX research is focused on rooting out pain points, and that means you have to experience a lot of emotional pain by proxy.
I’ve had customers lose their shit in user tests. Sometimes I have to give interviewees a minute to collect themselves when we cover sensitive topics. One tester spent literally 18 minutes of an unmoderated test completely STUCK, because she overlooked a tiny carrot icon in the upper left corner of the screen; I was shouting FOR her by the time she finally found the damn thing. Testers have lectured me on how the company ought to run things, and they harp on how shitty they’re being treated. I’ve even been accused of taking food out of their kids’ mouths.
And most of the time, they’re not even wrong. I get where they’re coming from. I feel their pain.
I achieve empathy (or at the very least, I sympathize), and then I have to turn around and make all the shitty bits more palatable for stakeholders.
I have to soften the tones, avoid using certain clips, or maybe blip out bad words to keep stakeholders from getting defensive or casting the user aside — because they’re obviously an outlier. I end up swallowing down the hardest bits of feedback because they get in the way of the team taking action.
You have to learn how to be a mediator, because you’re brought in to settle disagreements between team members
It happens a few times a year: leadership doesn’t like the direction a design is going, or the product manager is skeptical that the most important element will be overlooked, or a hedge case someone didn’t think of brings a whole project to a screeching halt.
People disagree, start picking fights, and obsess about all the little what-ifs until someone says, “let’s get some actual users to look at it.”
Then they bring me in to scope out the project. I start to get a lay of the land.
But when the tension becomes clear, I’ve got to set up side conversations and chat threads and email chains. I once was involved in a chain of emails that got so complicated that the boss’s boss’s boss had to tell everyone to stop replying to the thread and pick it up Monday. (I never thanked her for that. I really should.)
I’ve learned to sniff out when research actually IS what will break the stalemate and get the ball rolling again. It’s nice when that happens. But that’s usually only about half the time.
The other half of the time, I end up feeling caught between 2 parents who aren’t speaking to each other. I have to treat certain team members more carefully and layer in my extra-strength diplomacy skills to break the tension.
I’ve had to learn how suppress the urge to roll my eyes and shout, “Why can’t we all just get along?!” Get ready for that.
You have to change teams or change jobs every 2–5 years, because the “known knowns” never get addressed
I did some testing for a fancy food delivery company — the kind of place where you might buy a big box of steaks and pre-made sides for Father’s Day or gourmet lava cakes for your sister’s birthday.
Every tester got to checkout and immediately complained about the pop-up offer trying to upsell them on adding 1–2 more things to their cart. We pretty much all hate those things, they’re a pain in the ass.
But when I reported it back to my stakeholders, they were basically like, “We know, we hear it all the time. But it works; people DO add more at the last minute and boost the average order value.”
Cue my eye roll.
It’s a fair point. We don’t just build what the end users want. We also have to consider what the business wants.
Unfortunately, that means that UX researchers have to listen to the same complaint, again and again, with the knowledge that their complaints will never be addressed.
At one job, we referred to these pain points as the “known knowns”. They had their own page in our internal web site.
After a while, you go numb to it. You get tired of hearing it. You get frustrated with the fact that the pain points aren’t addressed. So you move on and find a new customer base. You last a couple of years before the same ol’ known knowns start showing up, and then you dust off the resume.
So why am I still a UX researcher?
Bottom line…I’m good at it.
I’ve got a higher-than-average emotional intelligence score, so I’m good at reading people and responding accordingly. (Testers and stakeholders alike.)
By extension, that means I have an easier time understanding my stakeholders and crafting stories and deliverables that meet them where they’re at.
Not only am I good at connecting dots, but I genuinely enjoy doing it. There’s something deeply satisfying about staring hard at data and teasing the answers out of it. There’s something immensely gratifying when you see recommendations from your research show up in the product roadmap.
My skills of diplomacy make it easier to manage stakeholders and tease out the underlying influences and impacts a project will have.
And because of all of that stuff^, when I talk, people listen. I interviewed for a job a couple years ago, and after presenting some examples of my work, one of the interviewers told me, “You made me NOT want to multi-task!”
It might be the best compliment I’ve ever received.
Put your diplomacy hat back on, FFS
Okay so look, if you’ve made it this far, there’s a good chance you’re an aspiring UX researcher. And if I haven’t frightened you off, GOOD. Go kick ass.
If the reasons I like being a UX researcher don’t sound like you, NO WORRIES. There are lots of researchers out there that are awesome at their jobs and absolutely nothing like me. Go be one of those, and kick even MORE ass.
And to all readers, I’d like to thank you for reading this unfiltered take on my work. I hope it’s been entertaining, and that I haven’t caused offense. You have my genuine apologies if I did. I promise to keep my diplomacy hat on for most of my other posts.
Most, but not all. ;)