To level up, researchers in mid-career must expand on their current capacities to grow beyond doing good research and become drivers of innovation.
Based on my experience hiring for and growing teams, mentoring junior researchers, and developing personally on the way to becoming a principal user research manager at Microsoft, I believe the following characteristics are most important for researchers to build on their way to leveling up.
The training that most researchers receive in one or more of the social sciences ensures that they are aware of their own biases and assumptions as well as those of their stakeholders and product users. This awareness is a fundamental element of good research, helping stakeholders learn how to be more people-data literate. However, at the next level, a paradox of research arises.
Great researchers understand that sometimes we conduct research to empathize and learn, and sometimes we conduct research using the scientific method for greater precision, because the decisions made from the research have higher consequence to the business or the experience design. To expand one’s capacity, a researcher needs a solid understanding of mixed-method and scientific approaches, regardless of their epistemological heritage (e.g., positivist, postpositivist).
- Read Sam Ladner’s book Mixed Methods to dig in deeper here.
A great researcher must be creative because the methods from our home disciplines don’t always conform to industry needs. Sometimes, we must design new methods to address unique customer questions pertaining to business and design. Likewise, no design-thinking, lean, or agile process can be purely adopted in every team. Researchers must adapt and integrate methods into the product team’s current way of working.
In addition, creative storytelling helps land research results — often more effectively than scientific reporting — by connecting stakeholders to customers through empathy. Great researchers bring their research to life with evocative details that allow the listener to imagine themselves in the customer’s shoes. Because the next level requires making recommendations that affect product direction, researchers who can convey results through story are more likely to create customer-driven impact from their research.
Good researchers know how to track the impact of research on product. Great researchers seek ways to measure the impact of their research on the business or design, with the goal of measuring their impact on customer experience. Tracing the impact of a research project to an improvement in the customer experience is important to understanding the exact value of user research.
- To dig in deeper, read Douglas Hubbard’s How to Measure Anything.
Researchers who only take requests from stakeholders are not proactive. Being proactive involves looking at the knowledge produced across your own research studies as well as other data disciplines (e.g., market research, data science) and filling knowledge gaps to aid design and business decisions. Conducting novel studies to fill knowledge gaps at the intersection of the business and design constraints allows researchers to get ahead of the decision-making needed for the inception of product ideas. This type of practice helps drive new ideas, and ultimately innovation.
Once researchers are great at applying the above traits, they are ready to become drivers of innovation. That is, they’re able to generate and develop new product ideas.
In practice, leveling up on innovation means synthesizing current research or starting a research program to explore customer needs and ways to meet them. Say, for example, you have evidence from multiple studies that shows why the first-run experience is resulting in an 80 percent drop-off at that funnel stage. You kick off a design sprint to find ways to solve the problem, run a user study on the results of the sprint to narrow down the best candidates, and work with the team to flight an experiment. Here, you have begun to drive innovation through process.
Finally, you measure the success of the experiment against UX metrics to help track the impact of the knowledge synthesis, innovation process, experimentation, and ultimately whether the customer experience improved.
- Check out HBR’s compilation of resources on innovation to dig in deeper.
Becoming a leader in UX research
Every practitioner brings a unique set of characteristics to the field, but speaking broadly, most researchers I know possess two to three of the above traits in mid-career. Those who grow into all five usually end up in a leadership position, whether as a manager or an individual contributor.
With the tech industry becoming more customer driven, stakeholders look increasingly to our discipline to lead product ideas from inception to release. Those who level up within UX research will have tremendous opportunities to make a difference.