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How to build a UX research role & practice from scratch

Becoming the first UX researcher in an organization can be challenging. In order to be successful, we need to properly define our role, and implement research practices from scratch, while understanding what to do and how to do it. The challenge becomes even bigger if that’s also your first UX research role.

In this article, I’d like to share the methodology and techniques I used in order to become the first UX researcher at my company, and how I implemented them. These tools can help you define your research role from scratch and build research processes by utilizing a research mindset that can be shared with those you work with. In the end you will find a list of the templates discussed in the article.

Apply a research mindset to your practice

As the first UX researcher, you may be wondering: Where do I start? You might be eager to run your first research project with users. Yet you might consider starting off with another research project. Apply your research mindset to define your role and share this mindset with your teams to establish the practice.

Research mindset for me includes three main things:

  • Think like a researcher – challenge your assumptions, be methodical and organized
  • Be aware of your initial intuition but also be critical of it
  • Look for measurable proof of your ideas to help test your hypotheses

Your first UX research project: define your role

Treat this like any other research project. Taking advantage of our research mindset helps organize our goals, workflows, and desired outcomes.

Setting goals and planning ahead

Good research starts with planning and asking questions. It’s a way of inserting order into an otherwise unclear situation. And also, it’s what we do best.

  • Define your goals. For me, it was to understand why am I doing this, and what value my UX research role can bring to the company. Understanding the value helps to communicate with stakeholders later on.
  • Create your research plan. Start with your research questions: What are the main responsibilities of this role? Where does research fit in company workflows? How to promote user-centered and research-based deliverables? Don’t forget to outline your hypotheses.
  • Consider what you’ll do next. For example, what you learn, and the findings you’ll collect can, later on, be translated into the specific job requirements and responsibilities that will help you get started as the first UX researcher.

Conducting research

While I used several methods, I would like to share two methods that, for me, provided the most valuable insights:

  • Job description analysis. See what companies want, what they look for, and what skills or experience they ask for. Think broadly and try to find different companies from different domains that offer a wide range of products, both B2B and B2C. This can help see the bigger picture. I used a ‘Rainbow spreadsheet’ to organize my learnings 🌈. In it, each row represents a responsibility, skill, or requirement, and each column represents a company. This way, I ended up with a colored heatmap that highlighted key topics and recurring themes.
  • In-depth interviews. Find people who you can learn from and ask them to share their experiences. What do they like or dislike, what’s hard to do vs. what’s easy to achieve, what a day in the life looks like, etc. I interviewed several UX researchers I contacted via social media to learn more about how they perceive the role, what they do, and what suggestions they have for me. It was a great experience and I learned a lot.

An unexpected outcome of my interviews was learning that I’m not alone and that everyone deals with similar issues.

Synthesizing

I placed everything I learned on the Miro board and identified the main themes that came up. These themes became my responsibilities and job description that I shared with the relevant stakeholders when I started my role. They include things such as:

  • Creating diverse thinking using different research techniques
  • Engage employees from all fields and on all levels by sharing research and key insights, in order to build consensus regarding our users’ voices
  • Standardize a research protocol and contribute to a repository of user research tools
  • Conduct research throughout all of the product phases – formative, iterative, and evaluative

Strengthen the research mindset in your teams

After defining your UX research role and aligning it with the relevant stakeholders, focus your next steps as the first UX researcher on building the practice itself. Create research workflows, enablement, and awareness.

Standardize your research process

Being the sole researcher meant I had to share knowledge and delegate responsibilities since I couldn’t be hands-on in every step of each project. This meant acting more as a research facilitator who empowers and helps others do more research more accurately.

A good starting point here is to invest in templates.

Be critical about what you find online (research mindset, remember?). Tweak it to make it your own, and act as a curator of knowledge to facilitate the right workflows. I created a Miro research template that covers all steps of the research, starting from research questions, hypotheses, choosing the appropriate methods, collecting data, and synthesizing it into insights and conclusions. It was built together with the team and we amend it according to usage and feedback.

Visualization of the research template created in Miro

If the steps of the research are laid out clearly, it’s easier to remember to think critically. And if the tools are right in front of us, it’s easier to use them and be more user-centered.

Align your teams around measurement goals

When we at Imperva started using the analytics tool Fullstory it created a huge spike in the amount of data we collect. In order to make sense of all of it and help the teams get aligned on their desired (user-centered) outcomes we had to organize it. To do that, I utilized Google’s HEART framework to create a predefined structure to define relevant metrics for each product in my organization, and a consistent language that everyone knows and understands.

Together with the designer, we created a dashboard for each product to track the relevant metrics for it (defined with HEART). This framework helped us organize our analytics data and create a place to track, analyze and investigate user patterns and behaviors to see how new features are accepted by our users and how they use existing ones.

Example of the Fullstory Analytics dashboard built using the Google HEART framework

Make research data accessible

Research can be done by different people on different products. This makes the data distributed and easily misplaced. Also, it’s hard to know if someone has insights on an issue close to or relevant to the one you are working on. Documentation is the way to preserve data and make it more accessible. You can document data from different perspectives:

  • User feedback repository. I created the repository based on Tomer Sharon’s ‘Nuggets’ framework. A nugget is the atomic unit of research insight and consists of evidence, observation, and tags. This repository helped us group all the data together in a single place and made it easy to find user feedback that is either product-related or specific research question related. I built the repository using an Airtable template and adjusted it according to our needs. It helps prioritize research by surfacing issues that arise often. It also makes it easy to find previous insights that can be related to the current project at hand.
Dashboard based on the Airtable research ‘nugget’ repository
  • Research projects repository. The second angle of documentation is documenting the projects themselves. Having a single place that stores all research projects increases visibility of research and also allows others to see if previous research can be applicable to the one they are currently conducting. The repository I created is a simple spreadsheet that includes the research topic, when it was done, key questions and findings, and links to the relevant assets such as findings, presentations, recordings, and more.

Final thoughts

By utilizing a research mindset I was able to manage being the first UX researcher at my company and handle the new responsibilities. It allowed me to increase the amount of research done, and be an advocate for user research. Being critical and methodical is what helps us perform our research role better and offer the best outcomes we can. Here are a few things that helped me during my journey:

  • Work together. While doing it alone is completely possible, if you can, sync and brainstorm with others. Ask for help and feedback. Ask the community. This will help you focus your ideas and make sure they are the right ones for your problems.
  • Start doing. Even if you’re not 100% sure, start doing and iterate as you go. It’s a lot easier to fine-tune something we have than to stare at a blank page.
  • Start small. Work towards creating a simple habit that becomes automatic as time goes by and that helps increase the research mindset.

Templates

Here is an overview of the templates shared in this article that I created or modified with my team:

Images in the article created with the help of Moshe Sabach and Sher Agami.

Cover photo by Silvia Brazzoduro on Unsplash

Ori Dar (he/him)

Ori is a UX researcher and designer. Coming from the field of psychology, with an M.Sc. in cognitive psychology and human factors engineering, Ori believes that anything can be researched, including research itself.

Ori designed experiences for different products for a wide range of domains including banks, retail, cyber security, and more. For the past three years, Ori has been building and advancing the UX research function at Imperva. By working alongside a team of 10 amazing designers, he aims to make all design decisions more user-based.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/ori-dar/

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