The role of a user researcher

The relevance of user research

Over the past years, public awareness of the importance of user research grew. User researcher became a specialist role within UX, which is reflected in the Zebra Salary Survey 2017-18.

“For the first time since we launched our Salary Survey, we’ve allocated a separate section specifically for User Research due to the ever-demanding increase for both permanent and freelance positions.”

The education of a user researcher

87% of the researchers have a degree (67% have a master's degree and 6% a PhD), and 45% of surveyed researchers (Zebra People Digital Salary Survey 2017-18) were not UK citizens, which is high compared to other disciplines. The number of researchers with PhD even doubled in the last two years, because in the latest survey, already 12% of user researchers in the UK have a PhD; the average in other disciplines is between 1 and 2% (Zebra People Digital Salary Survey 2019-20). You can download the latest Zebra salary report.

The user researcher usually has an education in Psychology, Social Sciences, HCI, Computer Science, or Design, sometimes Arts or Philosophy. Key capabilities of researchers are, of course, research, but also writing and presentation skills. Nielsen Norman Group have created a persona for user researchers:

How a user researcher works

The researcher has to validate assumptions about users and answer questions from product, business or marketing. To answer these questions, the researcher creates a research plan. The research plan starts with stating the problem and goal and formulating the research questions. Based on that, a suitable method is chosen, and the user recruiting criteria (sample size, demographics, required characteristics or experience) are defined. The timeline and deliverables are specified together with the client or the internal stakeholders.

A user researcher uses mainly qualitative methods, like in-depth interviews and behavioural observation. The sample size is usually smaller. If quantitative data from Google Analytics or Hotjar are available, it is beneficial to integrate them. They give further evidence for findings from qualitative research. But quantitative data cannot provide information about users’ motivations or context. These data need to be combined with qualitative insights. Sometimes the user researcher works closely with data analysts.

Based on their research, user researchers create personas and journeys. Personas represent the users or customers and help to empathise with them. Personas are derived from actual data about users, and any available quantitative information like segmentation or customer data is integrated. With user journeys, the researcher shows what users do, think, and feel in each step of a service or a customer or acquisition journey, and identifies opportunities for the product.

The user researcher within a team

User researchers work closely with UX designers and product managers/owners. Ideally, user research is driving product development. User research identifies users’ needs and pain points. These needs are then fed into the requirements of a new or existing digital product or service.

In addition to a product manager/owner and developers, an agile team consists of a user researcher, a UX designer, a content designer (copywriter), and often a business analyst. All work closely and iteratively together, in 1- or 2-weekly sprints (UK Government Service Manual).

Usability & User Experience Book

Text book with UX basics for exam preparation.

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User Research & Agile

How can we integrate user research into agile? NHS Digital case study.

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Contextual Research

Why we need to research in context to deliver great products - 3 case studies.

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