UX Research – A dedicated role, or a skill everyone develops? The answer: Yes.


Over the holiday break emerged a Twitter discussion about the role of design research. It started here:

To which Jared Spool responded:

And which spawned a spider’s web of @s and quoted tweets, with folks debating the merits of a dedicated UX research role. Forthwith, my take.

User Research is a skill

I agree that user research is a design skill – it’s one of the 8 core skills we identified in Org Design for Design Orgs. At Adaptive Path, we had no dedicated user researchers – all designers conducted their own research, and then were expected to derive insights through analysis, and then define solutions to the issues that arose. Very much what Jonathan Lupo describes in his tweet.

UX Researcher is a role

It should be noted, though, that Jonathan Lupo’s experience is based in design consulting. Like him, I would have never considered dedicated user researchers at Adaptive Path. Design consulting is project-based, and the research that is conducted is specific to that project, so the designers conduct the research, derive the insights, and drive to new solutions. In house, work is typically less about discrete projects and more about programs that flow. Also, research doesn’t need to be bound by the needs of a single team. Here’s how we wrote about the role in Org Design for Design Orgs:

In leading technical organizations, it is common that once they reach a certain scale, often around the time they have five or six designers, they bring on a dedicated User Experience (UX) Researcher to do everything from out-in-the-world field research to user testing of interfaces.

…This role seeks to understand the totality of the user’s experience, and the insights drawn from such research will inform work across marketing, sales, product, and customer care, as well as design.

The key responsibilities are generative and evaluative research. Generative research, typically field research such as in-home observations or diary studies, leads to insights for framing problems in new ways that stimulate the development of innovative solutions. Evaluative research tests the efficacy of designed solutions, through observing use and seeing where people have problems. Strong organizational skills and keen attention to detail are required, as much of UX research is operational management: screening and recruiting participants; scheduling them; note-taking and other data collection; and analysis and organization of that data.

This role is also commonly called “User Researcher ” We prefer “User Experience Researcher,” as it sounds less clinical and vague, and highlights what about the user is the subject of study—their experience with the service.

Developing a dedicated user experience research function does not absolve others from taking part in research. Researchers who work on their own, delivering reports filled with findings in hopes that others take heed, will find their impact blunted. Instead, the UX research team should remain small, highly leveraged, and supportive of everyone else’s ability to engage with users directly. For larger, more robust studies, involving travel or time-consuming observation, it might not make sense for marketing and product development staff to take that much time away from their primary duties. In these cases, UX researchers will conduct the work. But within an iterative design and development context, most research efforts should be conducted by designers, product managers, and even engineers, with help from the UX research team.

At Snagajob, my design team has within it a UX and Market Research team, staffed with two dedicated researchers. Along with their responsibility of enabling product teams to conduct research, they also Go Deep on issues that cross not only product teams, but marketing and sales as well. Last year we conducted a two-week diary study, an effort that’s too big for a product team to take on (with their delivery expectations), and which has lead to insights and the development of personas that are spanning product and marketing. Later they spearheaded a two-week online community study around the subject of underemployment. They made sure to get marketing, design, and product management involved, but this kind of deep research, which has lead to insights many teams are already taking advantage of, simply wouldn’t have happened without dedicated people.

Respecting the skill of user research

One reason that the online community study wouldn’t have happened is simply the bandwidth required to conduct such an activity is greater than most folks have time for. But another, and perhaps more important reason is that it was the brainchild of our lead researcher. When posed with the general research question of “how do we better understand underemployment?” she reached into her toolkit and identified this method, which was new to me and our organization. Dedicated researchers hone, refine, and expand their craft just like any other practitioner. Designers, product managers, and engineers don’t have time to continually grow their user research skills alongside their other responsibilities, and will default to familiar practices. Dedicated researchers can try new things, and that exploration can identify methods that are better suited to answering certain questions.

Something I found ironic in the Twitter discussion of “user research as a skill” was the lack of respect for deepening the practice of that skill, seeing it as simply a phase in a designer’s process. User research can do way more than just help designers solve problems. Dedicated user research teams have an opportunity to deeply impact an entire organization’s awareness of its customers.