What Does a UX Researcher at Res.im Do?
When I started telling people I got a new job doing UX research I got this question a lot, not just from family and “folks back home” but people already working in and around the industry.
What is UX?
As a very brief intro, UX stands for user experience. In addition to user interface (UI), which focuses on what the user touches, sees, and hears, UX is concerned with what the user thinks and feels. Is the product useful? Does it solve a problem or fulfill a need? Is it easy and enjoyable to use? Does it inspire affinity for the organization or brand it represents? Does it fulfill and set the right expectations for other interactions? Those are the types of questions UX people try to answer.
UX Research vs. UX Design
There’s a compelling argument in the UX community that you can’t truly design an experience, you can only design for an experience. You can design an interface but you can’t design people’s thoughts and feelings in the same direct way. The best we can do is make informed predictions, observe the results, and hypothesize ways to improve — which is essentially a research mindset.
No amount of visual or technical savvy can save a project from flawed early assumptions. Research addresses that. Since research is critical to UX, and UX is critical to Res.im’s projects, I come in every day thinking about research, knowing I’m accountable for it, just as we have someone who comes in every day thinking about design and other critical roles.
What I Actually Do
Most of the hats I wear relate to “fuzzy front-end” work, followed by validation and testing, plus healthy doses of collaboration and consultation as projects move forward.
Before getting into research I help the project’s experience planner clarify the client’s vision. Taking time to do this early on helps produce more relevant insights in the research phase and mitigates later-stage project risks – especially the biggest risk on any project, the risk of building the wrong thing.
Who’s going to use this, and why? What problem are we solving? What value will we provide? How will we measure success? Where does this fit in the landscape of competing and complementary products and services? Establishing a core vision helps us manage uncertainty and change that inevitably creeps in, especially on innovative projects.
User research takes up a big chunk of my time and uses the core research and facilitation skills from my previous role. It also makes good use of knowledge of psychology and other fields from past years of research. I work with internal and client team members to define hypotheses and questions to investigate before we spend time on design and development. Then we use a combination of surveys, interviews, group sessions, field research, analytics, and secondary research to get a clear understanding of user needs and any other factors that could affect user experience.
Since we start the research process with product strategy and well-defined hypotheses, we’re able to quickly turn the results of our research into decisions and recommendations.
Putting our product in front of people to see if they use it the way we expect them to is key. Usability testing helps us discover small changes that make big differences. Early in a project we do benchmarking to see how people interact with comparable or competing sites and applications. If we ask the right questions this often reveals opportunities to provide a better user experience than people are getting elsewhere.
Later in the project we look at how users interact with what we’re building to make sure the aim of providing a better user experience is being met.
Our initial research-based recommendations usually include high-level structure and flow. This includes which functions and types of content should be included, where they should be found, and what they should be called in the navigation scheme. In one case I applied portfolio rationalization techniques to recommend how to consolidate more than a dozen satellite sites.
After formalizing functional and content recommendations I brief team members and we start to collaboratively develop low-fidelity wireframes and paper/whiteboard prototypes. At this point the designer takes on more responsibility for UX and I move to more of a consultative and support role.
Copywriting and editing are often cited as core UX skills. As with visual design, labels and copy can be a major point of contention. Names used within an organization might not make much sense to people outside it, and language that works from a straight usability perspective might not work for marketing, etc. So I’ll often combine my writing background with our findings to recommend alternative ways to say things.
Writing and presenting is an important part of my role as UX researcher. This includes communicating project-specific research and building our UX knowledge base. It also includes packaging our findings to share with the broader community of practitioners, on the principle that knowledge breeds knowledge.
But research isn’t just about one person putting out reports. Findings and insights are easier to share with people who are actively involved rather than passively receptive. So my responsibilities include trying to tighten feedback loops between research, design, and other project activities.
Methodology and Process Improvement
In addition to refining how we collaborate and share research, we’ll continue to expand our repertoire of quantitative and qualitative research tools. We’ll also keep refining how research and user-centered design fit into our whole process.
This being the tech industry we know better than to expect things to stay the same, technically or culturally. Research helps us see those unexpected changes sooner.