The Link Between Product and Users. What Does a UX Researcher Do?

Masha Panchenko

In past years, people have become more and more convinced that UX research is not just a thing for nerds. Some may think that spending money on user research is something that only big companies can afford, but in reality, it is the opposite: the vast majority of products, including tiny startups, just can’t afford to skip the UX research. 

Knowing your users is a must. The cost of wrong assumptions would be much higher than the research cost. As a design agency, we always base our work on thorough research.

Morpheus: What if I told you... a good user experience can actually make you more money

Here we won’t be talking much about the benefits of user research. If you are looking for a UX researcher, you probably already know what UX research is and realize that it is highly important for your product. If you would like to learn more, we have another article about different types of UX research.

To put it simply, UX research is getting to know your users. But does it mean that you necessarily need to hire a professional to do only that? Do UX researchers tell designers what to do? Or they just bring in insights based on user feedback? Or maybe they gather sociological data? What is a UX researcher and what the heck do they do? Let’s see.

UX researcher roles and responsibilities

Work of a UX researcher: making research plan, recruiting users, conducting research, analyzing data - 15%, Explaining why UX matters - 85%

The main user researcher’s role is to listen to the users, gather data from them, and translate it into valuable information for the design team

The UX research process consists of collecting, processing, analyzing data, finding weak points in the product, suggesting ways to fix them, and testing solutions with the users to get real feedback.

The tasks of a UX researcher include: defining goals, setting scope, making a plan, choosing the right research methods, recruiting users, communicating with them, writing research scripts, conducting the research itself (interviews, usability testing, card sorting, and so on), organizing and analyzing the results, presenting reports. UX researchers work jointly with UI/UX designers on suggesting changes and new solutions based on the findings of user research.

Here are some of the most common responsibilities taken from real UX researcher job descriptions:

  • Design and execute custom research to support the objective of the business
  • Collaborate to define intent, development, testing, and refinement of prototypes
  • Build user journeys and personas
  • Design and execute a variety of research studies, including user testing, field studies, usability tests, concept tests, group discussions, etc
  • Synthesize quantitative data with qualitative data to help drive product and design decisions
  • Partner with design, product, and marketing colleagues to understand business needs, and design appropriate research studies to generate user-focused insights

UX researcher training and background

Education

UX researcher is one of the few researcher jobs that do not require a Ph.D. Master’s degrees in User Experience are still rare, but the number of such programs is growing every year. Graduates of UI/UX design programs have good training to work as UX researchers.

Apart from that, the offers of informal education are numerous, including online and offline courses, specialized web resources, mentoring, and similar. 

Like many modern professions without formal education traditions, UX research attracts people with various backgrounds. The most common are marketing, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other humanities specializations. These studies imply the knowledge of the research process and its rules, which is crucial for a UX research professional. A degree in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) or other tech specializations also provide a good basis.

However, all the necessary knowledge and skills can be acquired at short courses as well, so education is not the first thing you should look for in the CV of a UX researcher.

Experience

Often people come to UX research after having worked in a related field, such as UI/UX design or product design. Narrowing down the role helps them to deepen their expertise and move to working on bigger products.

While in huge companies there may be many UX researchers, in small startups it is common to have one person perform the role of both UI/UX designer and UX researcher.

That is how we work at Eleken design agency: our designers have expertise in both fields and thus can have a wholesome look at the project. In our case, the narrowing comes with the focus on one type of business: we work exclusively with SaaS products.

If you need more information to grasp the difference between UX designer and researcher, read our article What do UX designers do.

Skills

The skillset of a UX researcher must be rather diverse, however, there are not many complex technical skills. The secret of success is in the ability to see patterns in users’ behavior, which comes with experience, not just training. UX research is one of those professions where “good soft skills” mean something more than just a person being a normal human being.

UX researcher skills: User testing, UX/design thinking, User-centered design approach, Persona creation, UX mapping, InVision, Soft skills
Image credit: https://bootcamp.berkeley.edu/

Hard skills

  • Knowledge of user research techniques, such as usability testing, heuristic analysis, tree testing, eyetracking, and many more. See our list of 14 essential UX research methods to fully grasp an idea.
  • Knowledge of data processing software (small projects can work just fine with Google Workspace, while big ones require complex software)
  • Usage of user research tools, such as Hotjar, Maze, Figma, and others. Check out this list of UX research tools recommended by our designers.
  • Visual communication (at least basic knowledge is important for communication with designers and understanding how the elements of user interface work)

Soft skills

  • Communication. The success of UX research depends largely on the information obtained from direct communication with the users. The ability to express themselves clearly, pose correct questions, and endear people allows user researchers to get in good contact with the customers and get valuable insights.
  • Empathy sounds like an obvious skill for a person whose job is to understand other people better, but not all HR managers working in IT give enough attention to this quality. Empathy is what helps a researcher notice every insecure move of a user during usability tests and understand the reasons behind it.
  • Critical thinking helps to establish an unbiased approach to the research and the product.
  • Analytical skills are crucial to process large amounts of data gathered throughout the research and distill the most relevant information.

UX researcher in a team

Employing a UX researcher often means that you already have a UX team in your company. According to Nielsen Norman Group, there are three most common models for UX teams: centralized, decentralized, and matrix. Let’s see what are the differences between them.

Image credit: Nielsen Norman Group
  • A centralized UX team model is a simple hierarchy where the UX manager leads a few researchers who might work on different projects with different teams and departments. The positive side is the collaboration of many various UX researcher profiles and the downside is the separation between them, the lack of integral vision. The centralized model is common for bigger teams.
  • A decentralized UX team means that there is no UX manager on top of the UX research team. Each researcher works with a product team. The first professional joining a team would be working in a decentralized structure. 

The good thing about this model is the direct work with other professionals, which leads to a more efficient command work. The bad thing is the lack of communication with UX researchers of other teams, which means that each researcher would act on their own without benefiting much from the collective wisdom and good practices developed by the colleagues.

  • Matrix team is the combination of the two and it includes the advantages of both centralized and decentralized systems. In a matrix structure, the UX researcher reports to both the UX manager and product team lead. However, not every team manages to balance the power in this system.

At our design agency, each UX professional works closely with the client product team, while benefiting from being a part of the community of colleagues. This way, all UX specialists integrate into the workflow of the product team and get access to the deep pool of UX-specific knowledge and experience.

UX researcher salary

So, how much do UX researchers make? According to Glassdoor, the average salary is $126 k, raising over $200 k in some companies. At the senior level, the user experience researcher’s salary is on average $153 k.

Image credit: Glassdoor

The factors that influence earnings the most are years of experience and after that, the company size. In general, the level of salaries is comparable to that of a UI/UX designer.

It may take about 3 years for a UX researcher to get from a junior to a senior position. Lead UX researchers can manage big teams focusing on planning research structure and coordinating teamwork.

Do you need a UX researcher?

Each UX professional has a box of stories to argue to the clients the business benefits of UX research. In a nutshell, UX research is what saves you from making errors by creating a product that users wouldn’t like to buy. The cost of the launch of an unsuccessful product is much higher than the cost of UX research at the prototype stage.

When should you hire a UX researcher?

If you’ve reached this paragraph, the answer is likely to be NOW.

Just kidding. No pressure. Each product is unique and the research strategy has to be tailored to the business objectives. If you have any doubts about whether you need UX research, ask our professionals about UX research.

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