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.


Coach, Diplomat, Advocate, Architect – My talk from Leading Design

In October, I gave a new talk titled Coach, Diplomat, Advocate, Architect, where I dissect these four archetypes of the design leader, and share the difficult news that, in order to fully succeed, that design leader must embrace all of them. It’s my first new material in a couple of years, and though I ended up having to speed through it at the end (I typically put too much stuff in a new talk), I think it came out well.

Coach, Diplomat, Advocate, and Architect: The Leveraged Design Leader: Peter Merholz, Leading Design 2017 from Clearleft on Vimeo.

Pretty much every talk was worth watching. Some personal favorites include Stuart Frisby sharing his experience growing design at Booking.com from 6 to 100 (and beyond), Kim Lenox’s frank sharing of how her personal growth allowed her to become a better leader, Ben Terrett’s funny and real grappling with being the bottleneck, and Cap Watkins’ confessional on the neuroses of the design VP.

Some videos to queue up for holiday viewing!

Have better career conversations with your design team with this levels framework

tl;dr: I’m publishing a refined Design Team Levels Framework, based on what we’ve developed for Snagajob. Use it in good health.

As a design executive, one of the things I’m obsessed with is career development for my team members. We devoted a chapter to it in our book, including a levels framework which I shared in a post last September.

That framework was purposefully slightly vague, so leaders could adapt it to their org. This year, I became one of those leaders, joining Snagajob as the VP of Design. A few weeks ago, I presented to my team a new levels framework, which was a hybrid of what we had in our book, plus work that my Snagajob colleagues Rob Huddleston and Bridget Walsh had already done.

In the few weeks since sharing this new framework, my team leaders told me how it’s encouraged better conversations around professional development with their reports, how individuals on our team are using this to understand where they are and chart a path forward. I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the ways it has been embraced.

I’ve also realized that there’s nothing really proprietary about it. So I’m sharing it with the world. Here is the link to a public Google sheet:

Design Team Levels Framework

A key change from what’s in the book to this framework is the addition of an explicit Management Track. Our original framework was meant to be agnostic with regards to individual contributor (IC) or management, but through workshops and other sharing, we’ve found that it proved more confusing than helpful. Calling out a management track actually makes the IC track more robust, by showing how it parallels with management.

Also, the book focused on skills specific to software design. My team has communication design, copywriting, and video production practitioners, so this framework acknowledges those skills as well.

If you end up using this framework to guide your own efforts, we’d love to hear about it!

My chat with Stanley Wood

Over on Invision’s blog is an interview with Stanley Wood, a design director at Spotify. Stanley conducted a world tour and spoke with design leaders at many companies, and this conversations captures what he learned. I had the fortune of meeting him when he visited San Francisco, and Stanley shares what he took from our discussion:

At one point in the discussion, he said, “designers like to play together too.” It was so simple, because of course designers need to collaborate as much with designers as with non-designers; otherwise how do you ensure a consistent and delightful experience? It had always seemed like a binary choice—either sit together or sit apart—but in that one statement it was clear that both were important. There’s so much more I could add here, but instead I’ll just say the guy knows his shit and you would be wise to check out his book, Org Design for Design Orgs.

That’s an endorsement!

The whole interview is great. Read it!

The Minimal Design Team, according to Victor Papanek

In our workshop based on the book, we discuss the range of skills that need to be brought to bear for a design team (which is more extensive than what we wrote in the book):

design skills

This breadth is necessary for delivering on end-to-end service experiences that cross-channels, devices, and touchpoints. If the team doesn’t warrant having these skills on staff, it still needs to be responsible for the work done by any contract or external folks.

When we wrote this, we thought we were being quite bold in claiming design orgs should be responsible for delivery across such a gamut of practices.

Today I attended “Hippie Modernism” at the Berkeley Art Museum as part of Snagajob Design’s “Inspiration Day.”* It’s an impressive exhibit, detailing the intersection of progressive/counterculture sentiments and technological advances. There are many pieces devoted to design and architecture, and I was struck by this poster (“‘Big Character’ Poster No 1.: Work Chart for Designers”) by Victor Papanek, designer and design theorist who promoted humanistic values in design:


(Click to see larger. And give yourself some time with it. It’s worth it.)

44 years later, everything on this chart is still highly relevant to our society. Of particular note for people interested in design organizations is his proclamation of “the minimal Design Team”:

the minimal design team

So much for us being bold!

*Inspiration Day is a Snagajob Design team activity, where any team member gets one work day a quarter to go out and be inspired.

Where should designers sit?

One of the most common questions we get when teaching our workshop, and which friend-of-the-blog Todd Dominey submitted through our contact form, is “Where should designers sit?” It’s an interesting question, because it feeds a debate where there are two positions:

  1. Designers should sit with other designers in a studio-like setting, to benefit from peer critique, and learn and develop from one another.
  2. That’s stupid, because designers should sit with their cross-functional teams to better support product development.

For us, the response, as they say on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (a show you really must watch, if you haven’t yet), is more nuanced than that.

To figure out where designers sit, consider a number of factors. In a company with a new design team, a small design team, or a low-morale design team, designers should sit together. This supports designers building a sense of camaraderie and learning from one another. If designers are isolated, they may grow weary of only being around those that are different from them, bristle at the lack of growth and learning opportunities with peers, and, eventually, leave to a company where they can grow their practice and careers.

As a company builds its design team and strengthens its culture, a transition occurs, where it becomes a benefit to sit with their cross-functional teams. The community bond is strong enough and the morale is high enough that it won’t break when designers are separated. There’s a productivity benefit when designers are in proximity to their cross-functional squads. And, with a strong design culture to draw from, designers advocate for a design-mindset with their non-design peers, helping make the whole company more design-driven. 

This should not mean a single designer sitting among a sea of engineers. There should never be only one designer working on anything – the idea of a design team is crucial, even if it’s just made up of 2 people. 

There is a third way, for companies with enough office space. Designers can have two seats — a primary one with their cross-functional team, and a secondary one with their design team (or with the whole design org). That way they still spend most of their time with their cross-functional colleagues, but also get time for critique, fresh eyes, fresh thinking, mentorship, etc., from the rest of the design team. It could work alongside a weekly cadence like this:

  • Monday—cross functional team: start the week with any planning, coordination, discussion, initial sketching
  • Tuesday—with design team: more of a ‘heads down’ day, with maybe an afternoon review across the whole team
  • Wednesday—with cross functional team: show the work that’s been done so far, get feedback, input, ask and answer questions, etc.
  • Thursday—back with design team: start applying polish to work, maybe more formal critique for refinements
  • Friday—with cross-functional team; wrap things up, get things ready for production, etc. etc.

We’d love to hear what you think, what has and has not worked for you. Leave us a comment!