What Makes a Great UX Researcher (and How to Become One)

For aspiring or junior UX researchers, it might be difficult to fully grasp the requirements for this role. It is even more challenging to understand what goes beyond the basics and makes you really good.

You see, aiming to break into UX research is just an early step. The real goal is to be great at what you do and provide real value to organizations you work with.

I have been thinking about it from time to time and trying to answer these questions:

• What makes you really good at UX research?
• What makes you stand out?
• Most importantly, how can anyone achieve that?

I came up with a shortlist of seven characteristics. From soft skills to hard skills. From research-related to not directly related to research.

The full list is here:
#1 Strong command of key UX research methods
#2 Ability to combine creativity with analytical skills
#3 Curiosity, empathy, and an open mind
#4 Collaboration and communication
#5 Willingness to take research leadership
#6 Strategic thinking
#7 Willingness to teach

Continue reading to find out what makes a great UX researcher and what you can do to improve yourself on each of the seven characteristics.

#1 Strong command of key UX research methods

Let’s begin with the inevitable. Someone who has the word ‘researcher’ in their job title must know how to conduct good research.

Ideally, a great UX researcher should have a lot of knowledge in developing research designs, planning and conducting research, as well as analyzing results and extracting meaningful insights from the pool of evidence gathered.

It begins with knowing the selection of UX research methods (techniques) that are available to you and understanding how and when to use each of them.

How to improve your command of key UX research methods?

I would begin with mastering the Big Three of research methods: interviews, surveys, and usability tests. These alone can get you very far. Of course, it's good to have a working knowledge of a variety of the usual suspects, from ethnographic field studies to card sorting.

My best advice is simply to start reading books about research, watch tutorials, or take online courses, and as soon as you have the basic knowledge, get some hands-on experience.

If you cannot get a job, a freelance gig, or an internship right away, seek other opportunities. Look for a mentor, do a university project or write your thesis about some aspects of user experience, or simply choose a product and conduct a case study in your free time. Test it with friends or strangers, analyse the data, and prepare some evidence-based recommendations. You can even send it to the company which makes the product you selected. Who knows, maybe they'll invite you for a chat and have something nice to offer.

#2 Ability to combine creativity with analytical skills

Creativity and structure are often seen as opposites. Some people like branding themselves accordingly. Are you good with numbers but have never written a poem? Are you a creative person who absolutely hates math, physics, and finance?

Having such limitations does not work well in many cases and definitely not if you are a researcher. Great UX researchers manage to use both the creative and analytical sides of their brains. Creativity helps them think of the best approach to each study and how to communicate their results, while structure helps them make sense of all the data collected.

To become great in this field, you need to be a words person as much as a numbers person.

How to to combine creativity with analytical skills?

The question is, how do you do that? The good news is that both creativity and analytical thinking are skills that can be acquired with practice.

To get more creative, I would suggest three things. All of them include giving yourself a break from time to time.

First, allow yourself to consume some good quality creative work done by others. Read classic literary fiction, go to the theatre, or watch a mind-bending movie.

Second, do something that too many grown-ups would find stupid or not worth their time. When was the last time you played with legos or drew a surrealist picture?

Third, simply rest and wander. Getting enough sleep, taking the time to be lazy, and walking slowly in nature can also help you get out of your serious grown-up head.

Now to learn analytical thinking, you first have to understand why you need it. If you're reading this article, you either conduct research or want to become a researcher. Analytical thinking is used to explore trends in data: look at each of the scattered pieces, identify patterns, and draw the big picture. This is a vital part of the research process. Therefore, analytical thinking is a must-have for you.

One way to improve this skill is simply by learning it in the usual way: reading books and taking courses on the subject.

Another way is constant mental stimulation: for example, playing chess or logic-building games.

But the quickest way to improve this skill is by spending time actually analyzing and synthesizing things. If you're using my advice from before and conducting a case study or writing a university thesis, make sure that you will have enough time to play with the data collected and look for patterns and trends that are not obvious at a first glance. They might be hidden somewhere in those numbers or words, and your job is to uncover them. Allowing yourself some time to seriously work with data is always a very good learning experience.

#3 Curiosity, empathy, and an open mind

Curiosity, empathy, and an open mind often come together. Their importance is huge because they lead to collecting information that is objective and interpreting it accurately.

To succeed as a UX researcher, you need to be curious. You need to care about how the world works, where this specific product fits in this world, and how it can help people and make their lives easier.

If you are genuinely interested in answering such questions, you will be empathetic and open-minded. You will remain objective in your research. You will get real answers to your questions instead of just confirming what you already believe.

How to be curious, empathetic, and open-minded?

Curiosity, empathy, and open-mind are deeply embedded in our personalities. They are not easy to build (or get rid of). I can tell you how I work on retaining my curiosity, empathy, and an open mind.

First, I always ask a lot of questions, both to myself and others.

Second, no matter how much I believe in something, be it a business issue or even a political or a moral issue, I consciously try to suppress my beliefs and get objectively familiar with arguments from different sides. I try to put myself in someone else's shoes.

This builds empathy and opens your mind, which is crucial for UX researchers and everyone in the field of UX. 

Let me tell you an example. 

Maybe you are young and healthy. Maybe all your colleagues and friends are young and healthy. Maybe even most of your users are young and healthy. Thus, you may forget to make your website easily accessible to the visually impaired. It's a hassle, after all.

But I can guarantee that after you participate in several interviews or usability tests with people who are blind or whose eyesight deteriorated because of old age, you will see that accessibility is a real problem which affects a lot of different, very real people, including some of your users. You will understand how one small change in your product can make their experience infinitely better. You will open your mind and stop seeing the matter just from your perspective.

#4 Collaboration and communication

Collaboration and communication are also very much related. Both focus on working with others.

You might be able to do a nice study alone if you work in academia, but in UX research your study’s quality very much depends on input from others. Besides, your colleagues or clients (not you) will make the final decision about the products and their design.

Thus, knowing how to collaborate and communicate your insights will directly affect whether your research has any impact. Great researchers do not just state the results of their research. They tell a convincing story of how these results matter in the context of a specific product.

How to improve your changes of successful collaboration and communication?

Research by Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson suggests that team members collaborate more easily and naturally if they perceive themselves as being alike. Maybe that is all you need to know. 

If the organisation and its people just don't seem to be the right fit for you, it's better to find another job or another client. Being unable to collaborate and communicate effectively will reduce the quality of your work and might prevent you from growing into a great researcher.

#5 Willingness to take research leadership

Great UX researchers take research leadership in their company and even in the worldwide UX research community.

Taking research leadership means generating new ideas on how to make the UX research field stronger and more impactful. It also means developing new practices, methods or frameworks.

How to become a research leader?

There are no shortcuts for this one. You have to spend your 10,000 hours conducting UX research. 

But you can start small even today. 

I think the key is to always try something new and allow yourself to experiment. Always be looking at products, designs, and UX research field from new angles. If you find something interesting, share it with others.

#6 Strategic thinking

Great UX researchers are not only interested in research. They understand the whole ecosystem around their organization, including the thematic field, the stakeholders, and the competition. They know everything there is to know about the organization they currently work with and about the industry they work in. Because of that, great UX researchers see what others cannot see.

How to be a strategic thinker?

Strategic thinking can be improved through effort. Allow yourself some time to think. Investigate areas that are related to your products, even if distinctly. Ask yourself strategic questions and then discuss them with others. Learn from strategic thinkers around you.

#7 Willingness to teach

I believe that to be truly great, you need to help others. Great UX researchers share their knowledge, experience, and ideas. They help others grow.

How to teach UX research to others?

Everyone chooses their own way to do this: you can write articles, create YouTube videos, or teach an online course. You can teach at a university. You can become a mentor to aspiring researchers who are less experienced than you. There are many ways to share what you've learned.

That’s all, folks! If I missed something important on what makes a great UX researcher or how to become one of the greats, please let me know!

Would you like to discuss this post? Tweet or share it, tag me, and I will gladly join the discussion!

@arnasaleks on Twitter, Arnas Aleksandravičius on LinkedIn

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Structured, Semi-structured, and Unstructured User Interviews: Which to Choose for Your UX Study?

There are three types of user interviews: structured, semi-structured, and unstructured. Let me explain the difference between the three types and suggest which type is best for UX research.

Three types of user interviews

Structured interviews consist of a set of questions prepared in advance. The interviewer uses only the list of predetermined questions and in particular order. Sometimes structured interviews may even provide options for the respondent to choose from. Thus, structured interviews can be classified as both qualitative and quantitative research methods.

Semi-structured interviews also consist of questions prepared in advance, but not only. During semi-structured interviews, the interviewer can also ask extra questions based on previous answers. This deep-dive can lead to an interesting discussion or the respondent elaborating on something that is critical for the interviewer to know.

Unstructured interviews do not have questions prepared in advance. Usually, the interviewer will have one or several topics to cover and will lead an informal conversation about them. The questions will depend on the respondent’s thoughts.

Pros and cons of different types

The main advantages of having user interviews that are more structured are that they take less time (to conduct, to transcribe, to analyse) and make it very easy to compare answers between different respondents. Yet, their main disadvantage is that they are less flexible. Because of that, they provide limited data.

The main advantage of user interviews that are less structured or unstructured is that they provide deeper insights. However, they can take a lot of time, they are hard to analyse (the data you get is quite messy), they do not allow for comparisons (every interview is different), and they are hard to do. You will have to practice.

Which type to choose for your study

Consider everything mentioned before. It becomes clear that the best way to go almost always is to take something from both sides and conduct semi-structured interviews. You will win because:

  • This way, you will always have a list of questions to follow which is useful in making sure that you ask everything. Also, it helps if you are having a bad day or the respondent is not very talkative.
  • You will not limit yourself. You will still have an opportunity to ask additional questions, e.g. to elaborate about specific experiences.

The question is, how much structure is recommended in semi-structured interviews?

Naturally, you want to be explorative if you are starting out with your product or service, especially if you only have an idea of what you want to build. If this is the case, you can have less structure. Prepare several major questions in advance and focus more on building from what the respondents have to say.

If you are interviewing in later stages, and you already have a product or a service running (or at least a prototype), then you may want to introduce more structure. If this is the case, prepare more specific questions. But remember this. You do not have to limit yourself by following this structure fully. If the respondent mentions something of interest, go ahead and ask them more about it.

By clicking here, read my other article about how to prepare for user interviews.

Would you like to discuss this post? Tweet or share it, tag me, and I will gladly join the discussion!

@arnasaleks on Twitter, Arnas Aleksandravičius on LinkedIn

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Should We Learn Both Qualitative and Quantitative Methods?

Most researchers have a stronger side: some are in love with numbers, others find their passion for texts, concepts, symbols, and interpretation. Sometimes the fondness for one and the contempt for the other is so strong that we start to ask ourselves: what if we only focus on the favourite and ignore the disliked?

It is true that you can have a good research career by focusing only on one side. There are tons of job ads supporting that statement. For example:

However, putting all your eggs in one basket would mean that you are limited. You may end up in a situation where you cannot design and execute the most suitable methodology because of your limited skills. If you aspire to become a great researcher—instead of a good researcher—this limitation is unacceptable.

In my opinion, there is only one truly great path. And my advice is to follow it.

Build your expertise in methods you are good at. Master them. However, do not completely ignore your weaker side.

Get familiar with methods that seem daunting now. Try to incorporate them into your approach to UX studies.

Triangulation (studying the same object with multiple methods) is crucial to verify that your findings are meaningful. Mixed-methods studies which involve both qualitative and quantitative research achieve more. They build on the strengths and eliminate the weaknesses of both qualitative and quantitative data. Together they answer both major questions: the what and the why.

You can have your favourites. We all do. But you will thrive as a researcher by denying yourself the comfort of being limited.

Would you like to discuss this post? Tweet or share it, tag me, and I will gladly join the discussion!

@arnasaleks on Twitter, Arnas Aleksandravičius on LinkedIn

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How to Prepare for Your First User Interview

The key to conducting interviews successfully is simple: preparation. You can take a shortcut sometimes if you are experienced and skilled, but nothing beats being prepared. In most cases, I would rather have a well-prepared newbie than a too-busy-to-prepare senior researcher conducting the user interview. There different types of user interviews, click here to learn more about them.

In this post, I lay out my suggestions on what you can do to prepare for your first interview. Continue reading to find out.

Understand the purpose

You can increase the chances of success significantly by reading documentation. Learn a lot about the product or service you will be discussing. Understand the purpose of the study you will be conducting.

This investment of time will let you feel confident. You will know what you are doing.

You need to be able to answer the following questions before the interview:

  • What is your research object? Define the product or service you are studying. You should be able to explain it to others clearly.
  • What do you need to find out about your research object? This question focuses on the major objectives of your study and aims to reveal why you are interviewing in the first place. The answer will largely depend on the development stage you are in.

Prepare the detailed interview guide

The interview guide is your safety net during the interview. You can always go back to it to make sure you are on the right track. If this is your first interview, I recommend that you have a very detailed interview guide, not just a questionnaire.

The first section of the interview guide is the introduction. Here you should write all the things you need to tell (and ask) your respondent before the study:

  • Introduce the respondent to the purpose and topic of this interview,
  • Explain how will you use the data obtained,
  • Indicate how long the interview is going to take (hopefully up to one hour),
  • Ensure trustworthiness: briefly describe your approach to anonymity, data safety and the possibility to quit at any time,
  • Ask for permission to record.

The second section of the interview guide is the questionnaire. Make sure to mark the distinction between main questions and follow-up questions. Use simple language and avoid Yes/No questions. Do not be afraid to ask the respondent to elaborate on some answers that are important to you.

The third section of the interview guide is additional comments. These comments should be visible in the margins of the interview guide. They indicate aspects that need your attention during the interview, e.g. when to click “Record” (you would hate to forget that!) or how much time you want to dedicate to each section.

The fourth section of the interview guide is the conclusion. It helps you find words to graciously wrap up the interview. Also, you can use this opportunity to:

  • inquire if the respondent would like to add something to what was already said;
  • request for permission to contact the respondent in the future;
  • answer the respondent’s questions;
  • thank the respondent.

Ensure the comfort of your respondent

The interview will be more successful if your respondent feels comfortable. This goes to both remote and face-to-face interviews. Here are three important aspects to have in mind:

  • You need to make sure that you and the respondent can find each other easily. In your email, provide clear instructions on how to connect: what app will be used, how to use it, and, of course, when to connect. Indicate if the app does not support specific devices or browsers. The same goes for face-to-face interviews: provide very clear instructions on how to arrive at the meeting place and explain where and when will you greet your respondent.
  • Be prepared that your behaviour can also make or break the interview. Try to show the respondent that you are listening: nod, comment with reassuring phrases like “OK, I understand”. Smile, keep frequent eye contact. Always wait until the respondent finishes a sentence, do not interrupt.
  • The surroundings are important, especially in a face-to-face setting. If you have a choice between a large professional-looking conference room and a cosy little room, I suggest you take the latter. Large rooms full of glass and devices are scary. Your respondent will provide an honest opinion only if he or she feels safe and comfortable.

Take care of yourself

While it is crucial that your respondent feels good during the interview, you should not forget yourself. Everyone is different so you know best what you need to feel good. My suggestions are the following:

  • Prepare for either notetaking or recording. There are two options: either you have a colleague who will be taking notes while you conduct the interview, or you record the interview. I hate taking notes during the interview if I am the only interviewer present. I need to focus on the respondent, not spend half the time with my nose in the notebook.
  • Have a bottle of water. Hopefully, the respondent will do the talking, but you can still get thirsty.
  • Don’t drink coffee before the interview. It can make your mouth dry, as well as be the cause of what is called a “coffee breath”.
  • Use the bathroom before the interview. Say what you want but I find this suggestion important.
  • Prepare yourself mentally. Breathe slowly and deeply. Users are good. In fact, most people are good. You can do this, just follow the guide and be genuine. By the way, your smile is beautiful!

A final observation

Conducting your first user interview can be scary. This task can seem super important to you now.

The truth is, one interview means very little. If it goes wrong, it is not the end of the world. Every researcher has experienced some unpleasant or even terrible interviews. You cannot think that an unsuccessful interview defines you as a researcher. No respondent is that important.

Would you like to discuss the post? Tweet or share it, tag me, and I will gladly join the discussion!

@arnasaleks on Twitter, Arnas Aleksandravičius on LinkedIn

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On Changing the World: The Siege of Tyre

The Siege of Tyre (332 BC) is a powerful piece of history. Whether you’re running a business, doing research or whatever, I hope it can be a source of inspiration and motivation.

The city of Tyre (modern-day Lebanon) was once an island city. It had a reputation of being impregnable because of its high fortress walls and a powerful navy.

During his famous campaigns, Alexander the Great needed to conquer the island as it was a stronghold of the Persian navy fleet. It was not an easy task. Negotiations with the Tyrians failed and attacking from the sea was very risky.

Therefore, Alexander decided to do something amazing: change the geography.

Macedonians spent months building a kilometre-long causeway stretching out to the island. This led to Alexander breaking through the fortress walls and finally capturing the city.

The siege of Tyre happened 2352 years ago.

Tyre has remained a peninsula instead of an island ever since.

This is a brutal example, but I like how it shows that one person’s determination can make a difference that will be seen for millennia to come.

I let this story be the introduction to my blog, where I will write about research. This blog is dedicated to whoever is interested in research, from product owners to UX designers. Whatever we work on, the role of a researcher always comes down to making a difference.

My best wishes to all who seek to change the world!

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