Why organizations hire user researchers
I was hired into my last two roles because designers and product managers had more questions than time to answer them. The products became complex, the number of users grew, the risk of making the wrong decisions increased, and the list of work to be done never seemed to diminish. Something had to give, and I was hired to provide missing perspective and minimize risk by studying users and testing ideas.
In my survey to the research community, the need for researchers to provide missing perspective emerged as a dominant reason for hiring. For some organizations, that missing perspective is solely to better understand customers. For others, the missing perspective is intrinsically tied to the design process. And in some cases, companies might not even know why they hire researchers.
The wide range of responses, loosely grouped below, speaks to the variety of reasons for hiring researchers. But something to keep in mind in reading these responses is that organizational needs change, and jobs evolve alongside them. The reasons why a researcher is hired often look different after they settle in.
To validate decisions
“Organizations hire user researchers mostly to do usability testing,” says Ram Kumarasubramanian. But that is a failure of imagination, as researchers can do so much more. Anja Maerz speaks to this: “User researchers are often hired to validate product decisions but should really rather be hired to define product and service roadmaps and help define how to build products and services.”
To help designers
Usability testing is typically part of a design research regimen. Anna Macaranas explains, “Organizations hire user researchers to mature their own in-house design practice. Usually this can stem from a usability mandate or a market research type mandate.” To Soumia Fares, research isn’t just about usability, but rather unlocking design’s potential: “A majority of orgs primarily hire researchers to unblock their design or product teams with answers. More human-centered orgs hire researchers for foresight and zero-to-one product creation.”
And Irith Williams shares how design teams get to the point of opening a researcher role: “In my experience, organizations hire researchers because UX designers are sick of no proper research being conducted and they manage to convince a stakeholder to allocate budget.”
To achieve business goals
Though our job is to study users, the organizations we work for are businesses. For-profits, non-profits, educational institutions, boutique software companies, enterprise software platforms, and media organizations are all businesses, and all working to remain operational by meeting business goals. The goals may differ—increased sales, greater awareness, more donations, and so on—but they’re goals nonetheless. Dennis Nordstrom links the work of user research to business goals:
Typically organizations hire researchers to achieve a business outcome. Perhaps if the org is an e-commerce business, the mandate is to reduce checkout friction and make it easier to purchase something. If the org is a process-heavy business it is to create internal systems that cut down on operating cost. Sometimes it is to create a product that has a competitive advantage over competitors. Whatever it is, it typically comes down to reducing cost or increasing revenue.
To provide missing perspective
Like me, many researchers see jobs materialize because an organization identifies an information gap. This might be a realization that guessing isn’t a sound strategy, as JonDelina “jD” Buckley writes:
Eventually, most technology companies get to a size or market maturity where guessing (or the highest paid person in the room’s opinion) is not enough. They then start moving through the stages of UX maturity and generally end up bringing in user research.
As Dilan Ustek shares, the job might open after an organization identifies the missing perspective but concludes that the job needs to be done both properly and consistently:
After realizing the importance of making decisions based on user data, organizations typically start doing user research with designers and product managers. After a while, they conclude that they need a professional to do high-quality research and do it consistently. The first researcher is usually there to both conduct research and democratize the craft of user research; that is, to ensure designers, product managers, and others who are doing research are conducting unbiased and intentional research.
Peter Parkes warns that just because an org wants evidence-based decisions to become the norm, the researcher can’t enact change without a mandate from leadership:
Product or design leaders hire user researchers because they see the value in an evidence-based approach to decision-making. But this mandate to use research to influence product and design decisions within that part of the org doesn’t automatically result in everyone else in the org seeing the value in research. To succeed in this, research teams often need to secure top-down directives or mandates from the CEO or other senior leaders as well as facilitate broader education around the value of user research.
Raffaella Roviglioni also hits on the theme of building better products through innovation:
They hire because they want to understand more and deeply who their customers are, and how the organization can evolve and innovate based on that knowledge. Their mandate is to frame the right research questions, help shape the research strategy, manage the research, and produce reliable and thick data out of it. Also, they will be the customers’ advocate inside the organization, evangelizing colleagues about the importance of user research.
More, Rachna Tiwary introduces the business cost of not conducting research when she says:
The cost of bad design can be high. Including customer-centricity early and often in the design and development process can keep orgs from paying high costs for design pitfalls and failures later in the process.
It happens organically
Not everything results from a carefully constructed plan. Rob Tannen explains:
Some organizations do not explicitly hire user researchers, but the role emerges organically out of a gap in designer skills and bandwidth. Those organizations evolve into directly hiring researchers as processes, structures, and teams are defined and gain traction.
Or, as one anonymous survey respondent said: “In my experience, organizations don’t hire user researchers. You need to infiltrate them and just start doing it.”
They often don’t know
Sometimes organizations open roles because they think they should, perhaps because it’s an industry trend or someone has a vague idea in mind of how the role might work. Alec Levin offers his perspective:
I think a lot of orgs are hiring right now because research is trendy. Lots of folks are talking about it, and they want to be cool too and have their own researcher. Some hire a researcher because their UX is bad, or their product retention sucks, but ultimately I think the vast majority of hiring managers do not understand the full potential of the role.
Lucas Wxyz echoes Levin’s comments: “Sometimes organizations seem to hire researchers because it is the flavour of the month, but they don’t know what to expect.” Or perhaps they have vague expectations but can’t articulate what those expectations are, as an anonymous respondent participant writes:
Sadly, many places I’ve worked have hired user researchers because they thought they had to, yet had no idea how to create a healthy working environment for them. The good orgs understand how vital it is to learn from their audiences and customers as they endeavor to design and create products and services for them.