Tactical isn’t a four letter word.
The humble usability study has become maligned by UX researchers … and it shouldn’t be.
At the foundation of every UX researcher’s methods toolkit is the humble usability study. We often think of usability studies as simple but understanding when to conduct usability research in the product lifecycle, how to get answers to the questions you and your team have early in the lifecycle (and with minimal engineering effort), how to moderate sessions, and how to interpret the results and make recommendations takes a lot of time, practice, and patience. More time, practice, and patience than most early career UX researchers realize. And getting good at conducting usability research prepares you for conducting other more complicated methods like diary studies and field research.
But over the last few years, I’ve noticed that more and more UX researchers turn their nose at conducting usability studies. It’s almost as if they think they’re past that point in their careers. I’ve interviewed candidates for roles on my team who flat out tell me that they don’t want to do any tactical research.
You wanna know what I’m thinking as a hiring manager when I hear that?
I’m not exactly sure what people expect they’ll be doing when they accept a user experience researcher role at a company that makes products (hint — it’s in the job title). The bulk of the role is conducting product research and a lot of that product research will be usability focused, especially when the design, product, and engineering teams are heads down defining the product and iterating on the design. Your job as a UX researcher is to be just as involved in the details and weeds of this part of the lifecycle as everyone else on the team. A good way to do that is to conduct concept and usability research at different fidelities to help the team arrive at the best solution given whatever constraints they’re faced with.
Not only is usability research the foundation that all your other UX research skills are based on, it helps you build your domain expertise. The more people you talk to about your domain and the more people you observe using products, the stronger of an expert on your product and domain you’ll become. I can’t think of a better way to get closer to your consumers than by talking to them directly.
Tactical research also helps you build strong relationships with your team. There are going to be times when you’re assigned to a team that hasn’t worked with a researcher before … or they’ve worked with researchers who refuse to conduct usability research. Conducting usability research is a great way to show your value to the team (and how you can help them ship great products) right away. Some of the strongest relationships I’ve built with designers, engineers, and PMs are on the products where I was conducting tactical research almost every week as we iterated on the product design.
To this day, I still conduct usability research. And when I look back at the products I’ve worked on, I can point to so many things that are designed the way they are due to findings I uncovered in a usability study.
Now, if the only research you’re doing is tactical … then that’s a problem for your team and for your career. Later this week, I’ll write about the problem with teams that rely too heavily on usability research (or think usability research will solve all their problems).