Progressing as a user researcher

When I started my dive into the field of user research, it took me 70 applications and a lot of frustrating moments before I secured my first UX Research internship seven years ago. By some miracle, I was lucky enough to get that internship. I’m so appreciative because it kicked off a career that I could’ve never imagined.

From the days of having to Google ‘How to run a usability test,’ I have learned that being a great user researcher goes far beyond simply running research. There are a diverse set of skills that can set you apart and make you an exceptional member of any organization.

Continuing to grow

I’ve learned a lot since then. And now, I help others get into or advance in the field of user research. After years of experience, I have observed the many different skills user researchers can have. There are the typical areas of empathy, patience, and context-switching, but I believe there are more uncommon skills a user researcher can always improve. These skills distinguish a good user researcher from an excellent one.

Skill 1: The ability to cultivate emotional empathy 

There is a vast difference between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. As user researchers, we are generally skilled in cultivating emotional empathy. This type of understanding allows us to stand, walk, run, and jump in our customer’s shoes.

For stakeholders, cognitive empathy is easier to cultivate than emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy is more of a rational and logical understanding of people’s needs and experiences. The differences can be subtle, but emotional empathy allows us to connect and share experiences with users, increasing our desire and willingness to help them.

With reports, personas, and journey maps, we help our stakeholders develop empathy. However, these deliverables only go so far and aid much more in cognitive empathy development instead of emotional understanding. We need to iterate on how we help others in organizations feel emotional empathy. Some great ways of doing this are:

  • Having stakeholders observe live research sessions
  • Showing video clips of prominent quotes (ex: users expressing negative emotions such as frustration, sadness, anger)
  • Reduce the “us versus them” bias by bringing users into the “us” group
  • Writing stories about users in addition to more formal reporting

Skill 2: Delegate and operationalize

To advance your career, you have to learn how to delegate the skills you have mastered and focus on building new ones. If you have mastered recruitment and screener surveys, move on to a new area to learn. Sometimes we can get stuck in doing the same thing we are good at or comfortable with, which stunts growth. Delegating or operationalizing will allow you to open up to new possibilities and give the company the value of a multi-faceted user researcher:

  • Look for software that can operationalize menial tasks (ex: recruitment)
  • Templatize as many rote tasks as possible (ex: recruitment emails)
  • Find ways to include others who are interested in or trying to develop user research skills
  • Hire an intern!

Tip: there is a fantastic Research Skills Framework that helps you grade your different skills in user research. It runs the spectrum from more traditional usability testing skills to less natural business acumen. Grading myself on this framework was an excellent next step for me as I moved into the management role. One of the traps I wanted to avoid when starting this new role was continuing to be operational at the same level as before. 

Skill 3: Know how and when to democratize research. 

There are mixed feelings on whether user researchers should train product managers, engineers, and designers to conduct user research on their own. I am a huge proponent of teaching others how to do user research. I believe teaching others the basics of user research not only sets them up for success but also cultivates a user-centric mindset. 

Training non-researchers to do research, however, has its limits. For instance, I am not trying to teach engineers the rigorous practice of generative research in one training session. Generative research is a particular skill that is honed over a longer period of time. It took me months to nail down the art of generative research, so I wouldn’t expect a stakeholder to learn it in one or two days.

Instead, I am helping those close to the product learn how to conduct usability tests. I am also teaching them how to correctly write recruitment criteria, screener surveys, and general surveys. They can also learn how to write properly framed research goals and questions. All of these training sessions are not to diminish the hard work I have put into my niche craft as a user researcher. Instead, teaching these skills helps me scale research, and, more importantly, cultivate an emotionally empathetic mindset.

  • Start a training initiative at your company for basic user research skills (ex: usability testing, recruitment)
  • Have stakeholder shadow you during research sessions to learn more
  • Create templates and frameworks colleagues can use to learn (ex: how to write an appropriate research question)
  • Avoid teaching more rigorous and specialized skills such as generative research (unless the person wants to move into user research)

Skill 4: Apply tactical empathy with stakeholders. 

As I spoke about emotional empathy above, it is essential to work on your tactical empathy with stakeholders. You need a relationship based on trust to get through to your stakeholders, to gain insights into the arguments and motives, and to negotiate. When you build tactical empathy with stakeholders, it is easier to negotiate with them on the value of research, budget, research projects, and much more.  

To gain tactical empathy, you must:

  • Set aside your assumptions of the person. Don’t make the stakeholder your enemy.
  • Use silence and active listening to make the stakeholder trust you understand their perspective
  • Use the skills of mirroring, labelling, and paraphrasing to get more information from that person and prove you get them
  • Ask questions that start with “how” and “what” and that are inclusive, using words such as “us” and “we.”

If you are interested in learning more about tactical empathy, feel free to purchase my webinar recording.

Skill 5: Visualize the impact 

It can be hard to see the impact user research has on an organization. This lack of visibility can be discouraging for an individual or a team. Including metrics in user researcher, especially qualitative research, can help tie back the impact to the business. 

There are several common frameworks, such as the HEART framework by Google, but you can also create your own. Surfacing this impact can help you show user research value across an organization and get you more buy-in for future research. The visibility of impact also helps a team grow and understand how their work is valued. Being able to point to this value is especially crucial for promotions!

  • Consider using a predefined framework (ex: HEART framework)
  • Learn essential business metrics (ex: KPIs)
  • Understand the business strategy and brainstorm ways user research can positively impact it
  • Include success metrics in each project that tie back to business KPIs and analytics (ex: time per session, click-thru rate)
  • Create internal research metrics that help determine the user research maturity across an organization

If you’re interested, check out my talk on measuring user research’s impact at an organization!

Skill 6: Be creative

My final piece of advice is to be creative in all aspects of user research. Find time to innovate within your role. We can quickly get stuck in repeatedly using the same research methods. User interviews and usability tests are not the only methods out there. Slidedecks and papers are not the only reporting methods. Static personas and customer journey maps are not the only deliverables a researcher can create. Get creative and be willing to explore the different possibilities of user research. Creativity is how we move this field forward.

  • Don’t be afraid to fail and learn – we are not perfect and deserve to try different approaches 
  • Explore other, lesser practiced methodologies, such as card sorting, mental models, and participatory design. Learn how they can help answer research questions 
  • Look at different ways to create reports. Words are powerful, but video clips are superheroes. Take a look at Canva for creating infographics for usability test results
  • Consider making deliverables more dynamic by letting people draw or place sticky notes on exciting areas. Instead of just creating a persona, take a look at creating a “Choose Your Own Adventure” deliverable

Many skills can take a user researcher from good to fantastic, and this list doesn’t encompass them all! Keep being curious and creative and never stop learning. These skills are the key to continued growth and development, which will help you, your organization, and your users! 

Nikki Anderson

A qualitative user experience researcher with about 7 years of experience in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Nikki is also the founder of the User Research Academy and popular author on Medium and People Nerds.


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