Strategy: hiring a user researcher

Building a strong team is the most important thing a research manager can do. And it takes an enormous amount of time and effort. We can, however, focus our time and attention on a small and effective set of actions.

Here, we’ll look at a strategic approach to hiring a researcher and making sure they can succeed and grow.

Richard Rumelt’s “Kernel of Good Strategy” (see: Good Strategy, Bad Strategy)

This is Rumelt’s Kernel, and it’s a useful shorthand for a strategic approach to problem solving. (Without too much effort, one can map the work of developing strategy to design processes or Boyd’s OODA loop.) There are 3 elements in the kernel, and they’re all essential. Diagnosis isn’t enough, nor is setting the approach enough, without a follow-through of aligned action.

Here is how strategy with Rumelt’s Kernel unfolds: for this case study, we’ll review the challenge of hiring for a specific research role at PlanGrid.

1. The challenge at hand

Given our growth, our product goals, and our existing staffing, we’re able to open headcount for another user research team member. Our end goal is to bring a strong team member on board and make sure they’re set up to be a successful, influential driver in pushing the product forward.

The position is for our Field group: they serve a set of construction workers who use PlanGrid on mobile devices to access plans and contract information, complete routine reports, track their progress, and manage the issues and constraints that pop up throughout the construction process. The team has lightweight, frequent user exposure but hasn’t yet worked with a researcher.

PlanGrid in the field, well into the construction process

In order to meet our goal, we need to consider:

  • how our research team is structured,
  • the current market for researchers,
  • our outreach and sourcing,
  • our partnership with the HR team,
  • our new team member’s salary and compensation,
  • the hiring process itself,
  • our users in the construction industry,
  • the problems our researcher will work on,
  • the team they’ll work with,
  • the technical and soft skills required for the role,
  • our company’s culture and diversity,
  • our opportunities for researcher career growth,
  • the team’s goals,
  • the big outcomes we hope our researcher will achieve, and more.

Identifying these factors and then understanding what to highlight as primary concern and what we can address secondarily is the first challenge in “doing strategy.”

A good diagnosis turns our situation from a complicated set of needs and constraints into a simple, provocative frame to focus our attention. For example, we have a strong HR team with a fair and generous leveling and compensation framework, so we focus our attention on other factors. We consider widely, constrain and reframe our scope, and define our point of view for the challenge at hand. (One might say that we’ve moved through the first diamond of two in the classic Double Diamond process. One may also contend that we’ve Observed our situation, and now begin to Orient.) And so:

We are looking to hire a user researcher.

  1. We have a cross-functional product team, not staffed with a researcher, with difficult-to-access users iterating based on regular, lightweight user exposure.
  2. The researcher who joins this team needs to jump into an iterative software development cycle and add structure to a shorter-cycle evaluative cadence while balancing longer-term foundational projects to drive our Field team forward.
  3. Our researcher needs trust and influence with the Field team to be a meaningful partner in evaluating the customer impact of projects, carrying them out, and bringing everyone along.
  4. Our researcher will join a rigorous research team that enjoys theoretical & strategic discussions that drive real impact and learning.

This limited problem context opens up the arena in which we play. We know we’re looking for a teammate who’s creative with recruiting, one who can quickly build internal relationships with teams like sales and consulting to get in touch with key customers. They’ll need to know how to work in partnership with designers, engineers, and product managers. They should be able to run “quick and dirty” evaluative research, as well longer-term foundational work. Finally, we are looking for a teammate with a learning mindset who can learn from our experience, and teach us new ways to approach our own work.

2. Our approach

So, how do we actually address the situation? We don’t immediately act on the diagnosis — generating a fixed set of actions leads us into a rigid mindset, and potentially mis-aligned effort. Rather, following Rumelt’s Kernel, we prescribe a guiding approach that ensures our efforts unfold in concert and reinforce each other.

Our principles draw inspiration from the diagnosis. Even more so, they emerge from our past successes and failures. They embody the successful types of behaviors we see in line with our culture and work ethic.

I. Respect candidates like they are a part of the team

We need to be as straightforward as possible in our communications and interactions, and always respect the difficulties in the time & scheduling time for interviews. We prefer direct contact and scheduling with our candidates where possible, so our new team member will be working with us from the start. Doing this well requires a clear hiring process coordinated with our team, the interview panel, and our HR team so it all works smoothly.

II. Look for mutual growth

We will find a candidate who we can help grow by aligning their goals and ambitions with the role. We must understand the broad trajectory of the work and projects running within the Field group. We also want to find a team member who can lead us through new paths down the marsh of strategy-research-design-product. Along with myself, we have two amazing researchers on board. Christiana works through ambiguity with a technical rigor and meticulous eye that results in marvelous clarity. Joe’s workshops, conceptual modeling, and sketch-storytelling are building out powerful frames of action for our customer problems. We know our next researcher will add a new layer to our skills; we’re excited to learn what that layer may be.

III. Set candidates up for success

In its most straightforward form, this means we strive to give candidates every opportunity to prove themselves in the hiring process: clear expectations, open honest communication, fair and unbiased evaluation. But the work really starts the moment we recognize the need to hire a researcher: the team our researcher will staff must be open to new ways of working. They need to have a strong sense of what we’re looking for, how we’ll evaluate candidates, and what the work will look like down the road. As our Field team builds literacy in research before there is a researcher, a whole set of new-researcher challenges will never-have-existed for our incoming team member.

IV. Leverage our strengths and personality

Our team is rigorous and technical, we act strategically, love good discussions of theory, and have a small and growing connection to the larger community of research practice. We aim to approach the challenge of hiring our next team member much as we’d take on any other project. It’s a tough market for hiring researchers, but everyone wants to work with a strong team they can feel proud to be a part of. Exposing some of our operations up front make it easy for our candidates to understand what they’ll be stepping into, and if this sounds like the right place to be for them.

3. Following through

In the third phase of strategy, ‘coherent action’ is the ongoing process of shepherding rightly-focused effort that aligns with our principles, based on a focused understanding of the situation. We spend our efforts on actions that reinforce each other and work together to address the situation while following our principles.

If the challenge diagnosis lays out the board, and our principles set forth our rules of approach, it’s in this third phase of strategy where we are actually engaging in the game, acting on moves, plays, tactics. Here is our opening sequence:

1. Identify clear, criteria for success in the role.

When we understand the environment and projects our researcher will take on, we can ensure we’re evaluating our candidates based on the most important criteria for the role. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of excellent researchers—only some of them are right for this specific role. In line with a fit for mutual growth and setting up our candidates for success, we owe it to them, and ourselves, to have a clear understanding of what they’ll need to do.

In this case, we see the major work responsibilities as outlined below, pulled from our Field team’s business goals and higher-order project roadmap.

  • Re-frame problems for the team in partnership with product and design
  • Turn problems into clear and actionable research questions
  • Create effective research plans in response to these research questions
  • Recruit and work with hard-to-reach enterprise users: folks whose day-to-day is onsite on the construction job
  • Set a lightweight evaluative research process that fits into our product development cycles
  • Plan and carry out longer-term foundational research: build models of our users and their work that the team can use for months or years to come
  • Bring the team along: set up studies and involve Designers, Product Managers, and Engineers throughout the process
  • Prioritize key results and tell compelling stories about findings and implications
  • Shepherd research outcomes all the way through into live product
  • Close the learning loop: evaluate impact after launch, feed findings into the next round…

Given the work, in context of the team our candidate will support, we can structure a hiring process to evaluate the specific skills and experience our candidate will need to succeed in the role. This scope of responsibilities implies ownership of and familiarity with the bulk of the research process. Knowing roughly how long it takes to build out these skills (see again The researcher’s journey), we can also use the “upper Mid-level” or “Senior researcher” labels along with ~4 years experience as a rough first-pass filter for evaluating candidates.

2. Set up an efficient and thorough hiring process.

While assessing the skills and experience that a candidate needs to succeed, the hiring process also pulls from our design team’s past success and our recent experience hiring researchers. We structure our process into a first introductory phase of two separate discussions, and a half-day interview process designed to assess the needs we laid out in our diagnosis, and the specific criteria we’ve laid out in the first play.

Our goal is to be as thorough and efficient as possible. We need to be able to feel strongly positive about a candidate, without taking up too much of their time. Because we have a smaller team, and are targeting a specific role, we can plan in advance who will participate in each part of the process, and who will sub in. This also means that we can train our interviewers on the very specific criteria they’ll be looking for as candidates move through the process.

Finally, with clear criteria (rubrics not laid out here) and a well-defined process, we can very quickly decide if a candidate meets the bar and send an offer. We don’t vacillate or play candidates off against each other—once a candidate has made it through our process, has met our criteria, and we see the right fit for mutual growth, we send that candidate an offer. We’ll continue the process with any other candidates in the pipeline, but let them know that an offer is sent. When an offer is accepted, we immediately end the hiring process for all other candidates, let them know exactly what’s happened, and make a note of everyone in the pipeline who we’d like to speak to when the next role opens up.

3. Convene a hiring council with the Field team to kick off the role.

There’s something very special about being part of a formal Hiring Council. And it doesn’t take much more than an initial email and a kickoff meeting to say, “Congratulations! You are part of our hiring council!” Our hiring council is our existing research team, and the product, design, and engineering leaders from the Field team.

our simple Hiring Council Kickoff agenda

Naming the Hiring Council, and creating a formal kickoff, creates a sense of ownership and buy-in in the same way that stakeholders interviews bring cross-functional team members into the research process. It’s also a crucial point of alignment—we set our teammate up for success when our expectations for the work match those of the team into which they embed.

4. Work as a team to coordinate with candidates directly.

The health and the strength of our research team as paramount, so we prioritize our time for working with future team members directly in the early part of the process. It’s an opportunity to learn about our candidate’s communication style and personality early on. It gives our candidate the chance to learn about us: they have direct access to the research team they [may] want to join. (Nicely enough, this effort flows directly from our first principle.)

We do treat our time carefully. For example, when it comes logistics like coordinating the time and day for an onsite portfolio presentation + interview, we pass the ball to our HR team’s coordinator, Katherine, who we trust entirely as our scheduling-and-coordinating wizard.

5. Share our approach for hiring a researcher.

In line with all four of our principles, and in a tough hiring market, we will showcase our work, be open and up-front about the nature of the challenge, and help curious candidates find our role. As a first attempt, this effort will take shape as a blog post about our strategy and process for hiring a researcher. Good candidates will have a clear look at the interesting work ahead, see how our team operates, and understand how to best frame their experience if applying for the role.

war stories in the field

And it goes on. As we act on the process as above, and update our sense of the situation, the key factors of our diagnosis may change. Our hypotheses about successful effort will change. We maintain the goal and learn, re-evaluate, and continue with updated and rightly-principled effort for finding the next researcher who will join our team.

Of course, if you’re interested in seeing how it all works, there is a role open at PlanGrid that you may want to take a look at. The Mixed Methods slack group is a great place to find us.

A special thanks to my team: Christiana Lackner & Joe Kappes; and also to David Nyman in Stockholm who taught me about Richard Rumelt’s work.