Having impact as a UX researcher – Q&A with Gregg Bernstein

On September 13th, UXinsight hosted a Q&A with Gregg Bernstein about his book “Research Practice: Perspectives from UX researchers in a changing field”. During this meetup, Gregg shared his thoughts on many burning questions, and we had a great group discussion with the participants! Did not attend the meetup? No worries – we summarized the most important learnings and tips. There were so many useful insights that we split them into two parts.

This article covers topics related to having impact as a UX researcher. Gregg shared tips for being UX research team of one, educating & training stakeholders, dealing with lack of buy-in and partnering with other insight functions. Next article focuses on UX research career and professional development, covering tips for UX research job hunting and growing into the role of research manager. Below are the quotes from Gregg Bernstein and, occasionally, others who contributed to the discussion.

What would you advise to someone who is the only UX researcher in the organization?

Find your tribe

‘If you don’t have other researchers in your organization, find the Slack groups, find the people who are going to offer you support or be a sounding board. That is tough when you don’t have anyone to check your work or say “Yeah, that’s the right approach”, or “Maybe consider this methodology”. You need to find buddies who can help you. Otherwise, you are going to constantly second guess yourself.’

Plant a seed that you need another researcher. Start by hiring an intern

‘I also think that every organization that has a team of one could obviously use more research. There are never enough researchers. We’re the last function that’s hired into a team. Usually, there are 5 designers and 1500 engineers when they think to hire a researcher. Start planting a seed that you need another researcher.’

My backdoor way of getting headcount was bringing in interns.

Gregg Bernstein

‘As soon as they proved that there was a demand for more research and they were doing great work, I would say “We can always convert this intern into a full-time employee”. There was a need for it and people were valuing the work. So, the argument has already been made that we need more researchers. At least in the US, interns are the best backdoor way to secretly get more headcount and hire more researchers.’

Don’t be afraid to deviate from best practices

‘What you might read in a book about research or design practices will not always apply in your unique situation. Often what is documented is what worked in one organization at a specific time. I say that as somebody who has a book out: what you read here might not apply to you and might not scale to every organization. So, you have my permission to deviate from what might be considered the best practice. You may see that the framework that worked in one organization is not applicable to every situation. Find your tribe and you’ll find out that you’re doing things right even if it feels wrong.’

As a UX research team of one, what is the balance you strike between research advocacy vs doing research?

Focus first on showing impact

‘Advocacy has to come after you’ve done good work, especially what you were hired to do. If a researcher comes in and is immediately advocating, but without projects to demonstrate how research helped, that would be a bit premature. Focus on the work itself for the first 3 to 6 months, however long it takes to do some projects, and then you’re in the position to advocate how we can scale this.’

What is your advice on building & promoting research culture in a company where there was no UX research before?

Share your work widely across the organization

‘When I started at Vox, I was hired to be embedded with one team, working on one project. Selfishly, I also wanted to work with more researchers and for everybody to want research in the organization. It took a lot of sharing of what I was doing in Slack channels, Lunch & Learns, at All-hands meetings.’

Understand what stakeholders care about & bring them relevant insights

‘I was setting up 1:1s with different product managers, design directors, and learning what was valuable to them, what they were working on. And then going back to them whenever I heard something interesting or found something that was applicable to their unique product line or part of the company. I’d say “Here are some things our audience is saying about this thing that you work on”. Eventually, they started asking more questions and reaching out for help. So, suddenly there was a demand for research. That’s when you get to make an argument about opening the headcount for more researchers.’

Be vocal about research practice

‘If you are a team of one trying to build a research culture, you need to be very vocal. You need to shop the research around, show people what we’re hearing, what we’re doing and educate people about the practice.’

How to handle defeats as a UX researcher? (e.g. UX research doesn’t have desired impact)

Stay optimistic, but if your research is ignored too many times, it’s time to look for a new role

‘I had situations where my team had recommendations backed up by strong audience research that would go nowhere. At first, I was very optimistic. I thought at some point we will revisit this, and we will pull out this research and it will still be relevant. After that happens 30 times, you get a little cynical and realize that maybe your research will not be useful.’

I tend to think that my research will eventually be useful, until it’s been ignored often enough that it’s obvious research will not impact company strategy. That’s when you start to look for a role where you will be valued, where research can have more impact.

Gregg Bernstein

‘I stay as optimistic as possible for as long as I can. Also, I try to present this perspective to the team I’m managing so they don’t get frustrated that they spent 4 months on a project that ends up going nowhere, and feel defeated. I try to give that perspective that “No, you’ve done this work, we’ve learnt a lot, we’ve made everybody smarter, we’re not going to do it now, but maybe we’ll do it in the future”. Eventually, you might have to leave for a place where they will value research.’

Think of different ways to convey the same message to get them to listen. If it happens multiple times, in the end you need a new crew. And when you are looking for other places – listen, ask the right questions, look for the clues to tell if you will be able to have the kind of impact you want to have.

Kathleen Asjes (from the group discussion)

How to effectively partner with other departments/research teams, and break the siloes in an organization?

Get to know others in your organization providing insights

‘This is a very timely question because I’m now in an organization where there are 12000 people and multiple research teams. The first thing I’m doing is setting up 1:1s with different team leaders to hear what they do, how they serve the organization and I’m asking what’s the best way to work with them.’

The important thing is that I’m also sharing what UX research does and how I can help them.

Gregg Bernstein

‘The key is to not just think of it as what I can learn from you, but here’s what you will learn from me, and how can I share this with you in a way that will help you do your job better. Just the act of being the person who is walking around saying “You do cool work, I want to know more about you”- I’m building these bonds and trying to create a culture of sharing, or at least an awareness that we are all in the same organization and we can help each other.’

Start creating a culture of sharing, set up recurring points of contact

‘In a large organization, it will not be possible to meet with everybody and create one family of research people. But you can find points of contact and set up monthly check-ins. Or maybe even a dedicated Slack channel with the right people. That’s how you start to create a culture of sharing, if that sharing does not exist.’

Create an overview of research resources at the organization

‘Something that I did at Vox was creating a research practice inventory. Anytime I found a dashboard or a person doing some type of research, I’d add it to this document. I’d say “This is Mary, Mary does this type of research, so if you have questions about X Y and Z send a message to Mary”. This way, we always had a sense of who to go to for which type of question. This is job #1 for me in my new role at Condé Nast – to figure out what is the map & who does what.’

What has and hasn’t worked for you when setting up training programs for stakeholders?

Instead of training, make a case for hiring more UX researchers. Or, get a mandate for stakeholders to do research

‘I’ve worked with designers who wanted to incorporate research into their work. I’ve tried things like lunch & learns and setting up training sessions. I set up observation clubs where people could come and see how to do an interview or a usability test. I created so much documentation about the different processes, inventories of methods, tools and training on how to use them. I’ve done all of this, and what happens is: the designers are like “This is fantastic!”. And then they don’t have enough time to do anything that you’ve documented because they don’t have a mandate from their directors/managers to find the time to do research. I used to be all about democratization and making research accessible. And now I feel the opposite.’

The designers or product managers are never going to have enough time to do research, unless they are given the mandate to do so.

Gregg Bernstein

‘If that mandate doesn’t exist, people might do it once and never again. They might just do one interview and then not have time to do anymore. I think researchers should do the research instead of expecting designers to find 2 hours in their work week to do 14 hours of research. We should invest in more researchers.’

Additional perspectives on training stakeholders from the group discussion:

When it comes to inviting people to take part in training it’s not so much that they start doing research themselves afterwards, but that they understand your practice better and when to invite you.

Kathleen Asjes (from the group discussion)

My team was encouraged to do tactical research because I was a lone researcher across several products. I aimed for quick wins – coaching the ones who want to learn. If they can write a good discussion guide without my help, that’s one hour of my time that I don’t need to spend.

Steph Troeth (from the group discussion)

A big thanks to Gregg and everyone who participated in the UXinsight Book Club meetup! We hope that some of these tips can help you to have more impact as a UX researcher. Check out also this article with Gregg Bernstein’s tips for UX research career and professional development.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Anna Efimenko at UXinsight Festival 2021

Anna Efimenko (she/her)

Anna is UX Research Ambassador at UXinsight. With 7+ years of UX research experience, she is passionate about designing experiences informed by data and driven by empathy.

Previously, Anna worked at and supported multi-disciplinary teams by using qualitative and quantitative data to inform product design, strategy, metrics and data models. She is excited about mixed-methods research and collaborations with other insights disciplines (e.g. data science). Anna loves to learn and to contribute to the research community through mentorship & knowledge sharing.

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