The Rise of the UX Researcher

What do all successful businesses have in common?

They cater to their users.

They don’t just guess at what the customer wants. They use dedicated methods to find out, and then design their products and services accordingly.

This is what’s known as user experience research. When carried out correctly, this crucial step in the UX design process has a huge impact on the business — as more and more executives are beginning to realize.

2017 report into the user research industry found that 81% of executives surveyed agreed that user research makes their company more efficient. 86% believe that user research improves the quality of their products and services.

No wonder, then, that UX research is increasingly seen as a specialist role. With that in mind, let’s explore what a UX researcher actually does, and how they deliver such immense business value.

What does a UX researcher do?

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. Without sufficient research, design decisions tend to be based on hypothetical personas — personas that often represent the company’s “desired” user rather than their actual customers.

A dedicated UX researcher eliminates the guesswork and does away with unfounded assumptions. They will work with the designers, engineers, product managers and developers to create an experience that truly resonates with their audience.

UX research methods and techniques

UX researchers rely on both quantitative and qualitative research. Quantitative research is basically anything measurable: How many users visited a certain page on your website? What percentage of visitors made a purchase?

Qualitative research focuses on the reasons or motivations behind these actions: Why did they click? Why didn’t they purchase?

UX research techniques are all grounded in one of three key methodologies:

  • Observation: UX researchers will observe the user to pick up on unspoken signals or behavioral clues as to how they are feeling.
  • Understanding: Throughout their research, they will seek to understand the user’s mental model. As explained by the Nielsen Norman Group, the user’s mental model is what the user believes about the system at hand. This informs the actions they take, so it’s important to factor these mental models in when designing a new product.
  • Analysis: UX researchers will then analyze the insights they’ve gathered and try to identify patterns and trends. These can be shared with the wider team and used to drive logical design decisions.

Within these methodologies, there are numerous techniques that UX researchers will use. Some of the most common techniques include:

  • Face-to-face interviews: These may be directed, with the researcher asking specific questions, or just a free-flowing conversation. In an ethnographic interview, the researcher will observe the participant in a natural setting to see how they go about certain tasks.
  • User surveys: Researchers may send out surveys and questionnaires online in order to target a broad user group. This is a low-cost way of collecting a high volume of responses, but on the downside, there is no real interaction with the users.
  • Card sorting: This is a great technique for seeing how the user perceives different information and content in terms of hierarchy. The researcher will ask the user to categorize different terms, either providing set categories or leaving the user to come up with their own.
  • Usability tests: To gauge how user-friendly a product really is, researchers will recruit potential or actual customers to use the product. They will observe this interaction, either by sitting with the user and getting them to talk through their actions, or by asking them to share their screen as they navigate through a clickable prototype.

You can find a comprehensive guide to UX research methods here.

The business value of user research

When user research is done well — i.e. thoroughly, and right at the beginning of the design process — the business impact is huge. It essentially means the difference between getting it right from the start or having to go back and fix your mistakes when you realise that, actually, the product you’ve designed doesn’t resonate with your audience.

The story of the Heinz ketchup bottle is a classic case-in-point. The original glass bottle design turned out to be completely at odds with its function and its primary users (kids), but Heinz only discovered this decades later. Had they conducted extensive user research before designing their bottle, they would have come up with a much more user-friendly design from day one.

Quite simply, UX research is good business. It boils down to the basic tenets of UX: designing for the user. Not only that; UX research helps to avoid costly design mistakes that can seriously harm the bottom line.

What does it take to become a UX researcher?

The UX researcher role came in at number 39 on PayScale’s top 100 jobs for 2017, with a median yearly salary of $106,000 and an estimated 10-year job growth of 19%. As a UX researcher, you have the chance to make a genuine impact — not only on the business, but on the products that people use every day.

A role in UX research generally requires knowledge or experience in a relevant field, such as marketing, cognitive science, psychology, economics or information science. You need to be adept at reading people and empathizing with the user, and equally at home handling data and analysis. The UX researcher collaborates closely with UX and UI designers, developers and product managers, so an understanding of the overall design process is also key.

UX research: The future of good business

In today’s data-rich world, mastering quantitative analysis is more crucial than ever. While complex customer research used to be reserved for marketing teams, understanding the user is now a business-wide concern. Without extensive UX research, it’s impossible for design teams to cater to the user — which can ultimately lead to a product’s downfall. The value of understanding the user cannot be ignored, and UX researchers will have an increasingly pivotal role to play in the future of design.