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 understanding the problem, 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.

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 and be more creative.

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). But 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 own 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 designs.

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 within UX research or similar fields. 

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.

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