UX Researcher — Combining Analytical Skills with Empathy and Intuition

Anyone who at least once tried to explain what does UX researcher do had tough row to hoe. There are many definitions of UX and many conceptions of what UX specialists should actually be responsible for. What’s more, there are different types of UX-related work that is done by different people, including interaction designers, visual designers, web developers, UX testers, content specialists and many others. All those roles, however, couldn’t be done right without a proper research, which should be treated as a main source of knowledge about the users and their goals for all UX professionals.

There’s a growing need nowadays for user experience design in more and more different fields. This means the requirements for different UX specialists are changing from one project to another and differ from company to company. Therefore, we can assume that UX jobs will be even more demanding in the near future.

Since UX research should embark on stage at the very beginning of UX design process, preparing the fertile ground for other specialists, it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what UX researcher does and what makes their work essential.

Two types of thinking involved in UX research

There’s a bunch of methods that UX researchers should be familiar with and proficient at: card sorting, interviews, surveys, conducting experiments to name just a few. This is the basic requirement for all UX researcher vacancies. What makes a really good UX researcher isn’t, however, connected only with the knowledge of those methods or the experience in the field. Choosing the right methods actually depends on the type of work, the industry, specific project and the problem that needs to be solved. What is common for all UX research are two types of thinking involved. These stem from the fact that research may be quantitative or qualitative. While the former demands logical thinking and analytical skills, the latter is connected with soft skills such as empathy and intuition.

What distinguishes UX researcher from other specialists from the field is therefore the ability to combine in their work both — analytical and creative thinking. Those two are either logic or intuition-based and are handled by different sides of the brain. Creative thinking works by using mostly the right hemisphere while logical thinking uses the left one. Working on a particular project, it is quite a challenge to switch your brain from logical, black-and-white thinking into intuition-based approach that allows different shades of grey.

Of course all UX-related professions demand both types of thinking but when it comes to UX researcher, the quality of their work really depends on the ability to be logical and creative nearly at the same time during the project.

Let’s take a closer look at three phases of the research in order to see how logical and creative thinking intertwine throughout the whole process.

Planning user experience research

When taking part in UX project, many things must be foreseen and planned in advance. The knowledge of different methods and deep understanding when and how to use them is a necessary component. Recently when planning a complex experiment on positive reading experience with my team we decided to apply social science methodology. We wanted to make sure that everything was done by the book, so that we were able to analyse the results using proper statistics. It meant stating specific hypotheses, defining variables and preparing the instructions for the participants. At this stage, planning UX research demanded logical thinking and so called hard skills.

On the other hand, preparing a scenario for a focus group would require different approach. A UX researcher, trusting her or his intuition, must predict various situations and think out a plan for all of them. Imagine preparing a scenario for a focus group interview. What would you do if only half of the participants appeared? And what if one of them came to your precisely planned meeting accompanied with a little child? UX researcher should be able to predict different scenarios, even the most unexpected ones, and be prepared for all of them. The ability to make one-the-spot decisions based on intuition is something crucial in this case.

When my team was preparing a CX survey for a web-development company, we first had to do several brainstorms to come up with ideas what questions should we ask. This involved creative thinking, but then we needed to put those questions in a logical order and predict different scenarios. For example, we assumed the users won’t have much time to answer the questions so we decided to make most of them closed-end. That in turn, posed another challenge because we had to formulate them in a way that would bring valuable input into our research.

Planning is one of the most important things in user experience design. Since the whole process involves many different people from team members and stakeholders to users and customers, it should be done carefully. Therefore, combining logical with creative thinking is paramount at this stage.

Conducting user experience research

The methods of user experience research have one thing in common: they all involve users, real people, which means the proper communication with them is a key to success. Only then it is possible to gather exact information and test the hypotheses. In the case of working with a group of potential users, the role of UX researcher is to facilitate interactions and react to different situations that may happen in groups. This means engaging rather the right side of the brain that is responsible for language, creativity and imagination.

Conducting user research is about observing people’s behaviour. It can be either observing users in the real-life situations or in the laboratory. What is equally important for both is the researcher’s ability to recognise and appropriately label different reactions. Imagine that during a usability test with a talkative user suddenly there is a silence. Is this a sign of hesitation, being lost or maybe your user started reading something that interested them? While following the plan, UX researcher must be able to catch the whole image of the situation. Again — logical and creative thinking are of great importance.

At this stage emerges one more thing that is specific for UX research — empathy. It’s not enough to know users’ needs and goals, the researcher should truly understand them and be able to adopt the users’ perspective. It means that when conducting user experience research, a professional should, to some extent, involve themselves also emotionally.

Analysing user experience research results

Logical thinking plays a very important role at this stage. The results from research, especially quantitative, demands skills to make statistical analysis and the ability to draw right conclusions. After conducting the survey or the experiment, UX researcher needs to decide what type of statistic to use in a particular case and, considering possible measurement errors, refute or accept the hypothesis.

This is not the end of UX researcher’s struggle during the process. The last thing to do after the research is presenting the results to the others. It requires an ability to convince different people, including a client and other UX team members, that the results have influence on further work and should be taken into account.

Conclusion

It is nearly impossible to explain briefly what does UX researchers do. Is he or she analytically thinking master of statistics? Communicative moderator, full of empathy? Is their work intuition or science based? Well, a good UX researcher needs to combine all these. Being a UX researcher is really demanding but at the same time extremely rewarding. There’s nothing better than the feeling that your work has contributed to better user experience.