My first week as a user researcher

6 min read Optimal Workshop

My name is Ania and I’m the new User Researcher at Optimal Workshop. There are two of us, in fact! Rebecca is also a new User Researcher here, and together we are the newly formed dedicated User Research team. Hello!

Being tasked with researching the researchers is a not an easy job. I’ve always wanted to get involved directly in the UX industry, and now I’ve found myself in the very middle of it, researching our users, who in turn research their own users, making use of our user research tools. Try explaining that one to your mum!

User Researchers are lucky

Let’s dissect the term “User Researcher” for a moment. “Research” is defined as the systematic investigation of just about anything. Add users, the people who utilise our products, tools or services into the equation, and a “User Researcher” becomes an individual who tries to understand behaviours, emotions and motivations of other people, following a set plan.

It is sometimes easy to get lost in the different labels for researchers in the industry. UX Researchers, Usability Experts, Experience Design Analysts. This article provides a good roadmap for understanding how all these terms fit together. I like to think of my role less in terms of my job title, and more in terms of my function. I’m here to understand our users, listen to what they have to say, and voice their thoughts to the people who can make their experiences better, and that’s basically it.

So why then, are User Researchers lucky? Because this gives us the opportunity to not only focus on specific usability issues, but also to gain a better understanding our users. From the very specific challenges they might face—“How do I make this feature more noticeable?”—through to bigger issues like—“How do I make my results engaging for stakeholders?”. This flexibility is a great thing.

Now what to do with all this freedom?

What I know so far

My previous job title was Questionnaire Designer, and that is exactly what I did. I worked at Statistics New Zealand, helping to transform variables into simple, easy to understand questions that provided high quality data. There’s nothing more that makes you realise just how important a well designed question is than when your sample is the entire population of New Zealand.

So I do know how to write a good question. I also got a lot of experience in how to test questions and concepts with users, in seeing whether they interpret things in the same way. Above all, I know how valuable qualitative data can be, and how a 30 minute conversation with a real-life user can provide a richness of information that is difficult to capture numerically.

I still have a lot to learn

I’m new to the UX industry. While this gives me the advantage of being able to look at it from a fresh perspective, it also means that I still have many things to figure out. Knowing where our tools fit in with what our customers do is one thing, but having a deep understanding of the industry and it’s challenges is another.

There is a whole stack of research methods at a User Researcher’s disposal. It’s important to have an idea of the resources available, how they fit together and what their advantages are in different scenarios. There isn’t a formula for solving problems or tackling design related issues, so I’d like to get a better understanding of the methods used by researchers out there, and learn about new, compelling ways of finding answers.

One of the most comforting things to know as a User Researcher is that there are plenty of resources out there to get you started. Unfortunately, the amount of information can be overwhelming, and finding what might be relevant to your needs can be difficult. For someone who is starting out, here are some of the places I like to go:

When I want to understand

Books! Reading about User Research is important, but so is reading around it. For example, reading up on cognition can help you understand the mental processes people go through when they make decisions. In this way, you’re casting a wider net and adding an extra dimension to your understanding. Be curious and don’t be afraid to research things that interest you, above and beyond the things you are expected to read. You’ll find that there is a lot of crossover between the two, and that there is value in making connections across different disciplines.

Don’t know where to start? Luckily there are some clever folks out there who can point you in the right direction. I recommend checking out this useful list as a starting point. It’s been really helpful in navigating what at first seemed like an endless web of tips and resources.

When stuck for ideas, I like to look at this diagram. It adds a lot of perspective, and makes you realise just how interdisciplinary UX can be.

by envis precisely GmbH (2009, Redesign 2013), based on “The Disciplines of User Experience” by Dan Saffer (2008)
by envis precisely GmbH (2009, Redesign 2013), based on “The Disciplines of User Experience” by Dan Saffer (2008)

When I need inspiration

There are a lot of great writers out there. One thing I don’t struggle with is finding people in the industry who want to show us what they’ve been up to, share their experiences, and explain how they overcome obstacles. I recommend checking out this advice from our very own UX Agony Aunt for a useful list of blogs and influential resources worth keeping an eye on, and a handy list of UX’ers you may like to follow. There is a great community out there, so find websites, blogs and resources that resonate with you. Organise your information, keep up to date, and don’t be afraid to participate in the conversation.

When I started my UX journey I tried to follow just about everything out there. There is only so much information you can absorb, so be selective. Figure out what things interest you most, who inspires you, and let your list of ‘go-to’ resources grow organically.

If there is one thing I can say after my first week, it’s that UX is not an industry for keeping your head down. It requires you to devote some time to keeping in the know, reading, discovering and being engaged in what is happening out there. Luckily, during my first week I’ve also discovered that it is an industry full of passionate people, and it’s not often you stumble upon a group so open to sharing their ideas and experiences.