Important lessons I learned in my first year as a User Researcher

Tom Smee
WMCA Digital and Data
9 min readAug 3, 2021

--

On 27th July I had my 1st birthday as a User Researcher. It’s been the most challenging, interesting and rewarding 12 months of my career.

Different coloured post-its spread across a brick wall showing observations from a user research session.

My background is in web development, which is what I spent 5 years doing at a small agency. That’s where I learned about hunkering down when you’re against the clock, meeting tight deadlines and delivering on your word.

Over the last 12 months, I’ve faced new challenges and learned new lessons. I’ve worked in an Agile team for the first time. I’ve had to navigate working remotely from my team (whom I still haven’t met in person). On top of that, I’ve had to learn a completely new skill in identifying what user’s REALLY need from a service.

Learning anything new is a challenge, and you often need all the help you can get to make the wheels turn faster. This year I picked up a lot of tips, tricks and precious advice from experienced researchers. But I also learned from my own experiences, achievements and mistakes.

I want to share a few things that I’ve learned this year so anyone involved in user research can find value in it.

Lesson #1 — You learn more by doing

I started my first job in user research in the middle of a global pandemic. This is when user research was going through a big change. Use researchers had to learn how to identify user needs only online. I liken my own experience of being a ‘remote user researcher’ to learning to swim in the middle of a storm.

The water is choppy and unpredictable. Veterans have honed their skills over the years and can adapt — they already know how to swim. Newcomers need to learn the same — but fast and effectively, learning from their mistakes in a new and daunting environment.

Now I’m quite a reserved and introverted person. I don’t like to have eyes on me or be the centre of attention. I’m much happier being a ‘party to’ rather than ‘the party’. I’ve never had a lead role in an organisation before. I’ve and never had to take the lead — always follow. I’ve completely outgrown this description of me in the last 12 months. But it’s because of my natural makeup that I felt my first 3–4 months of being a user researcher were rocky.

I asked a lot of stupid questions that had obvious answers. I was happy to facilitate usability sessions with external users. But, I took a backseat in internal sessions where the team captured assumptions and sorted observations.

It wasn’t until January 2021 when I started to take the lead on these research sessions. That’s when my confidence got a huge boost. I got more involved in the sessions and made mistakes. Mistakes frustrated me at first. I felt that I should’ve spotted the issues in my process or bad survey questions. But the more mistakes I made, the more I learned about what not to do next time around. I started learning from them, and my output got much better. I was no longer scared of making mistakes. I was embracing them, learning from them, and becoming a better User Researcher.

My tips for first-year user researchers who are learning the ropes:

  • Invest in resources*. You’ll learn a hell of a lot more by doing, but you shouldn’t dive into something completely blind. Learning from the right resources will give you the best chance of making the least amount of mistakes.
  • Be curious about your organisation. Ask questions about its’ structure, the goals of different functions and who ‘owns’ the various services. Knowing these things will help you involve the right people in your research.
  • Mingle with more experience User Researchers. If you work in local government in the UK, you can join the Local Gov Slack channels. This is a great place to ask questions, get feedback and learn more about the discipline. LinkedIn is also a great place to connect with user researchers.

*Just Enough Research by Erika Hall is a great resource for juniors. It provides a thorough explanation of the various research methods you’ll come across in user research, as well as how to execute them.

Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research by Elizabeth Goodman Ph.D., Mike Kuniavsky, & Andrea Moed has everything that Just Enough Research has, but features a much more detailed walkthrough of the key user research techniques.

The UX Teabreak YouTube playlist by David Travis. This digestible video series answers a lot of the questions you’ll ask as a junior user researcher. Listening to David dismantle the importance of preference testing in UX was particularly helpful for me this year.

Lesson #2 — Deal with ‘research fatigue’

I’d never really felt burnt-out in my career until I became a user researcher. It’s a hands-on role where taking a backseat isn’t an option. There’s always room for improvement. And where there’s room for improvement, there’s a need for research.

Even if everything goes to plan, research iterations can take weeks to plan, execute and analyse. I can recall times when I’ve scrambled to find new participants minutes before a session, because my first choice dropped out. There are times where I’ve worked into the evening after a 12 hour day of back-to-back usability tests. I’d do this to make sure observations are ready for the morning’s affinity sorting session.

Now I’m not complaining. I love talking to people about how they use public transport services so that we can make them better. User research is a discipline that strives to solve problems for people, and I’m feeling pretty fulfilled one year in.

But loving what you do doesn’t mean it won’t burn you out. Quite the opposite. Applying your passion and enthusiasm towards something can tire you out. At least that’s my assumption.

This year I’ve:

  • Worked late into the evening after doing a 12-hour day.
  • Double and triple checked usability tests on a weekend
  • Logged on when I was a little too under the weather to keep my research moving along

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t do these things to stay on schedule. And I’m certainly not putting the West Midlands Combined Authority in the crosshairs. The WMCA is an organisation that’s driven by making public transport services better for users. But neither the WMCA or my team have ever put pressure on me to do any of the above.

I’m aligned to their vision of more user-centric services and I take pride in my output. I want to make sure insights are accurate, reliable and that I do the research properly. If this means putting in extra hours then so be it.

Sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the workday. But, doing a bit extra to keep your research on schedule can really help your team. Over weeks and months, those extra few hours take their toll on your body and your mind. So it helps to be aware of this, and know when step back and recharge.

My tips for managing research fatigue:

  • Stick your head out of a window for 5 minutes every hour. My colleague Gil got me onto this and it’s a keeper. You’ll see this kind of advice in every DSE training pack ever created. I’m not sure how many people follow it. Take in the scenery, let go of what’s eating you up and relax. It won’t solve all your problems, but it won’t hurt to try.
  • Get outside in your lunch hour. Yes, there’s a theme here, and yes, I love being outdoors but this is what works for me. Honour your lunch hour, step away from your computer and get some fresh air in your lungs for 15 minutes or so. You can listen to a podcast or some music. Or listen to the world. Again, I’m not prescribing this as a cure for stress, but sticking to this keeps me centred.
  • Speak about your day. I’d say that this is most effective tip in reducing stress and research fatigue. User Research is an emotionally and mentally taxing role. Some user research sessions will take you to an emotional place you’ve not been before. You’re speaking to real people about their real problems. When you end an intense session, take some time to reflect, debrief and speak your mind — even if that’s to yourself.

Lesson #3 — Try to see your mistakes as opportunities to improve.

At the risk of becoming a lifecoach, this is a valuable lesson for everything that you do.

It’s particularly valuable for anyone who’s finding their feet in a new role. This is because as you learn the ropes, you ARE going to make mistakes.

I made a lot of mistakes in my first year as a user researcher:

  • I primed participants in usability tests by asking them leading questions.
  • I forgot to get back-ups for usability tests. This meant that when participants dropped out, we lost that session altogether.
  • I missed out test instructions from invitation emails. This caused some participants to complete tests on their phones when we needed them to use their laptop.
  • I published surveys where users could only select one answer on a multiple-choice question. We actually wanted users to select as many as they wished to.

But every user researcher makes mistakes, and not just the inexperienced ones. Looking into your blind spots and learning where you went wrong is key to being a good user researcher. This is because you can identify chinks in your armour, tend to them, and grow as a researcher.

Like most Agile teams, failing fast with concepts and designs is something we strive for. It’s also something I’ve applied to my own career as a user researcher. Make mistakes early and learn from them, and then move on. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

My tips for learning from your mistakes:

  • Include a ‘what went wrong’ section in your research reports. This is good for so many reasons. This encourages you to look into any issues in the planning or execution of your research. But it also highlights the issues to project stakeholders and makes you accountable for addressing them. Learn, improve and show stakeholders that you’re improving too.
  • Watch recordings of research. It’s always a good idea to record research sessions when you can, and when participants give consent for you to do so. This is because it’s helpful for observers to watch the sessions back and build on their notes. Recordings will also prove to stakeholders that the issues you discovered are real.

· But, recordings will also let you see and hear where you can improve your facilitation skills. As strange as it is to listen to your own voice for an hour, make sure you watch them back if you want to improve.

Lesson #4 — Avoid researching in isolation

In the last year I’ve moderated over 30 usability tests. With each round of testing, I learned from mistakes I made in my planning, moderating or analysis. I was fortunate to learn one of the most important lessons after my first round of usability tests:

Always involve research stakeholders in observations analysis and affinity sorting.

The benefits of analysing observations as a team are well-documented:

  • It limits the influence of individual team members e.g. reduces researcher bias
  • Team analysis takes less time and effort
  • You can decide on the priority of usability issues as a team

Back in September 2020, I didn’t get the memo and started sorting observations from 5 usability tests. Five hours later, and completely exhausted, I was finally surrounded by clusters of key usability issues in Miro. My laptop screen looked a lot like those suspect maps you might see in a crime drama series.

I then prioritised the issues with those who observed the usability sessions. But, if I invited observers to help me sort the insights to begin with, I could’ve saved myself a lot of time and effort. More importantly, it’s less likely that researcher bias would have affected the observations.

My tips to avoid researching or analysing in isolation:

  • Get analysis sessions in the calendar a week before you run the session. Analysis is a crucial part of the research. Just because you’ve captured the data doesn’t mean analysis is an afterthought. Invite stakeholders to the analysis session as you’re planning the research sessions.
  • Let stakeholders know that they need to be there. Mention in your invitation that they’re required to attend. Analysing observations as a team is crucial to the validity of research insights.

So that’s what I’ve learned in my first year. But what are the most valuable lessons that you’ve learned as a user researcher? What tips can you give to someone new in the industry? Let me know by leaving a comment. I’d love to hear from more experienced researchers about how they dealt with the same challenges I faced.

--

--

Tom Smee
WMCA Digital and Data

UX Researcher for local government. Fail fast to learn fast.