Having written Mobile App software for the initial part of my career, being offered the option to make a career in User Research set me thinking. Being a software developer by training, it was a confusing situation for me - I wondered how it would shape up my career trajectory. I needed to make a decision to choose between coding and user research.
Even though I continue to be in a dilemma, somewhat perplexed and frustrated, I got some relief in the form of psychological support from this quote:
“Never cut a tree down in the wintertime. Never make a negative decision in a low time. Never make your most important decisions when you are in your worst moods. Wait. Be patient. The storm will pass. The spring will come.” — Robert H. Schuller
To make a decision ‘to be’ or ‘not to be’ got me discussing with my colleagues. They suggested that it was worth spending efforts to explore and find out more about the option, yes...User Research!
In the days that came by, I read numerous articles, watched Videos on YouTube, browsed through web journals in my quest to understand what User Research is after all. I must admit, the more I learned, the more it gave me ardentness to plunge into User Research.
I finally decided to write this piece hoping that it would help those who are transitioning their career into User Research. Hopefully, it is helpful for you to make an informed decision. This is plain experience sharing. Even if these are basic principles and may sound like common sense, it could serve as good support for someone in a similar career situation like I once was.
Before I get to the questions that one must ask when venturing into User Research, it’s important to get a feel first, of “What Is User Research?” For a person naive to User Research, I recommend this simple read User Research: What It Is and Why You Should Do It.
In summary, User Research helps to place “The User” of your product at the center of your Design and product development process.
Finally, here are the points I have been holding to myself.
#1 Where do I begin?
For me, it was vital to comprehend the importance of 'User Research' profoundly also the history behind it. I became more acquainted with some well-recognized sites for User Experience (UX) articles like IDF, Nielsen Norman Group, usability.gov, uxmatters.com and so on, which gives the pertinent material about this field. Perusing is the best approach to investigate any field so I read as much as I could about what is user research and how it is related to the Design process.
#2 Why is User Research needed?
Often the motivation behind developing a product is to create a solution for a specific problem which the people have. It is imperative for you to create a solution which needs to be fault-free. Here user research plays a vital role to provide this legitimacy. In developing a product, the teams often get caught up with technical, costs and timeline challenges. In an organization which is yet to be user-centric, the teams would imagine/act as a User at the minimum. Products thus created are more to the tune of ‘dancing with lady luck’, simply because the User wasn’t involved.
With User Research, the discovery and validation of product concept and definition are done with users, your target audience. If a product that is created is based on user validation, the success of such a product is not by chance. It's all about the experience that users get while and after using your product which will drive them to come back again.
#3 What are the different User Research methods?
The above chart illustrates that there are mainly two types of distinguishment in user research methods: Attitudinal vs. Behavioral and Qualitative vs. Quantitative. The first distinction can be summed up by contrasting "what people say" versus "what people do" (very often the two are quite different). Attitudinal research represents the people's stated beliefs where behavioral research based more on what they actually do when it comes to practical implementation. In Quantitative research, the data about the behavior or attitudes in question are gathered indirectly, through measurement or an instrument such as a survey or an analytics tool and in Qualitative research gives answers to the ‘Why’ & ‘How’ to fix questions. Several User Research methods come under these categories like Interviews, Card sorting, Surveys, Focus Groups, A/B testing etc.
#4 What skills does a User Researcher need?
Empathy is the most important virtue for a wannabe User Researcher. Patience, Listening power, Ability to observe, curiosity to find out more in-depth are the other skills that make a good User Researcher. Other very relevant soft skills are the ability to start with a blank mind canvas and clear communication. As User Researchers grow in their career, influential skills play an important role to convince the stakeholders about the importance and outcomes of Research. In my case, I did have some of these skills in bits and pieces. I have made a dedicated effort to get better at these skills. The good news is, these skills can be acquired and developed at times.
#5 How to acquire User Research skills?
Skills can’t be acquired in a day or week, it takes a whole lot of practice and efforts to develop these attributes in you. Practicing user research with friends and colleagues while following the standard methods and processes, improving the soft skills by altering self-discipline are some of the ways which I found helpful.
#6 What’s the kind of work I’d be doing as a User Researcher?
As explained by Wikipedia: “User research focuses on understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, task analysis, and other feedback methodologies". UX researchers systematically gather in-depth insights into the customer’s needs, building up a context within which the design process can take place. UX researchers replace guesswork with informed insights and then work with UX designers, engineers, and product managers to turn these insights into actionable, consumer-centric results that resonate with the target audience.
#7 How long it would be until I can call myself a User Researcher?
Call yourself a user researcher as soon as you want :-) Jokes aside, developing the ability to command respect as a good user researcher is time-consuming. It needs a hell lot of practice and discipline. Only gaining sufficient knowledge about user research terms, processes, methodologies, etc. is rote-learning which is not going to help as much. Volunteering to organize as many user research as possible, challenging the findings, citing evidence to support the findings and re-interpreting the research findings are some of the things that would set you up as a great User Researcher.
#8 Would I be able to go back to coding?
There goes this saying:
“If you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life.”
-- Marc Anthony
Here is my belief! If I can shape myself to be great at what I do, going back to coding is not going to be that big a challenge. With Artificial Intelligence projected to do a bulk of programming and onset of new technologies like Low-code and No-code, I believe the “switch” if needed at all, would be easier than ever before.
#9 Would I be willing to go back to coding?
After 2 years in the role of a User Researcher, I would ask myself “Why” followed by many more Why’s about shaping up my career. In case I end up deciding to switch back to coding or another career, my choice would be well thought of. I would have improved my thought process towards making decisions based on ‘What to do’ and ‘Why is it required to be done’ rather than mindless execution in view of various external biases.
The Universe is a powerful force. All the answers that you’re looking for already exist out there. You simply have to pull them out, they will come as long as you search for it.
Each of the characteristics that are needed in User Research, will eventually also make you a better individual. You will begin breaking down each circumstance in real-life and make efforts toward analyzing each and every aspect of it. You’d actually conduct a deep-down analysis of who you are and what you want out of life to ensure that your decisions are in harmony with that. Decisions made that way end up being good because they are based on facts, your values, and beliefs.