The heart of user research is the stories—stories about a person or a community. Stories about a struggle or success. Stories give us enough context to make sense of the world and make sensible decisions for navigating it. When organizations make a concerted effort to gather and act upon stories, they can do great things. I know this because of an experience my family went through that changed my entire approach to this work, and led me to seek better stories.
I met my wife, Alyssa, in college. After an engagement prolonged by grad school (her) and relocations for work (me), we married, bought a house, and later welcomed our first son, Britton, into the world. A few years later we gave Britt a baby brother, Nolan. As we started 2013, we were the picture of happiness: a family of four with a house of our own. Alyssa and I were in stable, fulfilling careers that afforded us a comfortable lifestyle.
I’ve just spent a few sentences describing our good fortune, so you know something bad was bound to happen.
That summer, Alyssa was diagnosed with cancer—and not just any cancer, but an aggressive form of oral cancer that typically strikes men with a long history of alcohol and tobacco use. This wasn’t supposed to happen to Alyssa.
She had to have two rounds of surgery. After she recovered, Alyssa needed chemotherapy and radiation treatment. We consulted with local doctors, and decided to get a second opinion from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. There we met Dr. Steven Frank, who walked into our examination room holding a folder with Alyssa’s case history. He placed it on a nearby table and said, “I’ve looked at your file. I’ve read your lab reports. Why don’t you tell me your story?”
Unsure of what he was after, Alyssa asked, “What would you like to know?”
“Tell me your story,” he said. “Tell me everything. Start at the beginning. Take as much time as you need.”
For the next two hours, we told the doctor everything. When Alyssa talked about her work as a psychologist, Dr. Frank said, “Speaking to your patients is crucial to your work, and chemo and radiation therapy can make speech difficult. As part of your treatment, I want you to see one of our speech therapists.”
When Alyssa mentioned our kids, he said, “Even the best parents have a hard time communicating cancer to children. I want you to see our social workers so they can guide you and your kids through this difficult stretch of treatment.”
When Alyssa mentioned her vegetarian diet, Dr. Frank said, “This treatment makes it hard enough to eat, and if you’re not eating, you’re not healing. Let’s have you see a nutritionist as part of your treatment.”
For everything we said to Dr. Frank, he reflected back how he would incorporate it into Alyssa’s treatment plan. He designed a user experience that centered Alyssa’s needs and our needs as a family. And happily, it was the right treatment. At the time of this writing, Alyssa is cancer-free.
In search of better stories
Dr. Frank took the time to gather the context about Alyssa’s daily life, not just her symptoms and immediate needs. Dr. Frank works for an organization that reflects a truly holistic approach to treatment. The practitioners at MD Anderson are empowered to connect their patients with different parts of their organization to create the best possible healing experience.
The staff at MD Anderson practices integrative medicine—an approach to healing that places the patient at the center of complementary and multidisciplinary treatments. Specialists like Dr. Frank work with a range of practitioners to address the whole patient—and all of the unique physical, mental, social, and emotional characteristics that might affect their health. This integrated approach offers the best path toward healing for the patient, and the best chance of success for the medical staff.
I started in this field as a design researcher. I had conducted plenty of useful studies, but my work was not impactful. MD Anderson’s mission to completely, holistically understand and serve each patient is what impactful research looks like, and it changed how I approach my work in my own practice.
I decided to get the full story, every time. Not just the story that informs where we place a button on a page, but how someone came to that page in the first place, and how their story connects to the work of everyone within an organization. I wanted to capture the context that would help everyone make informed decisions.
The mission of making everyone smarter supersedes any methodology or organizational silo. Information that helps a designer also helps the sales team. Reports that a support team collects are also useful to product managers. Researchers connect the teams and the dots.
It doesn’t really matter whether we call ourselves user researchers, design researchers, or strategists; or if we come from psychology, anthropology, design, human-computer interaction (HCI), or anywhere else. We all share a mission to uncover crucial stories and make everyone smarter through better research practice. And that’s why I decided to make this book—so we can all learn from each other.
A congregation of voices
When I started teaching college design courses, an experienced colleague offered me this advice: have just one thing you want the students to learn from each class. That wisdom guided my approach to being an educator. I began each class with a short lecture about one thing—kerning, ligatures, maybe Paul Rand—and then we’d transition into a discussion or critique. After I said my piece, I yielded my time to other voices.
I started this book project to document what worked for me in scaling research practices and teams. However, in speaking to other practitioners, I learned how narrow my perspective is—what worked for me is not quite applicable to someone spinning up research for a new product or feature at a Google-sized organization. As I began to capture more perspectives from researchers working in different scenarios, I knew that these stories were best told by those who lived these experiences.
I share my experiences and ideas throughout this book, but I also open the floor to many additional (and sometimes conflicting) perspectives. The world of user research is multifaceted, complex, and sometimes contradictory. The best way to understand the nuances of user research is to learn from other practitioners, and scores of research professionals share what they know within these pages. You can learn more about each contributor in the appendix.
In putting this book together, I interviewed and solicited narratives from a variety of researchers, and surveyed professionals around the world to present the work behind the work. Read this book however you like—in one sitting or over time. You can start at the beginning, or move around based on your interest at the moment. However you proceed, you’re sure to find an interesting story.
What’s in this book
This book is not an argument for doing user research. Nor is it a tutorial or toolkit for common methodologies. It won’t show you how to run a usability session or recruit users remotely—though I will share helpful resources on those topics. Instead it captures the day-to-day of the practice itself—what it looks like to work with peers and stakeholders, to raise awareness of research, to make tradeoffs, and to build a larger team.
This book takes you inside the field of applied user research through the stories and experiences of the people doing the work. Each chapter explores a specific theme:
Finding a way in presents the various pathways people take to this field. You’ll learn how practitioners navigated from schools, the social sciences, fine arts, and beyond to a career that satisfies and rewards a passion for understanding people.
Getting started in a new role demystifies why organizations hire researchers, how to assess a role, the hiring process, and how to start when you land a new job.
Building momentum describes the different roles and teams a user researcher might work with, how to build and navigate relationships with colleagues and stakeholders, and the best place within an organization for researchers to make an impact.
Sharing the work unpacks what researchers really share by exploring how practitioners build an awareness of research, teach research methodologies, and—yes—disseminate research findings with their teams and organizations.
Expanding your practice covers how to navigate growth in both influence and headcount for practitioners, from what research leadership means to how to hire a team to when to operationalize a practice.
Overcoming challenges exposes the hard parts that no one tells you about user research, from the loneliness of being a team of one to battling imposter syndrome to advocating for change to taking an ethical stand.
Where to go next charts the pathways of a research career through an examination of possible career ladders, perspectives on when it’s time to leave a role, and thoughts on where a research leader goes when there isn’t a clear next step.
If you’re in school or considering a career switch, I want you to know what a job in user research might look like. If you’re new to the field, I want you to see where your career might go and know how to get there. If you’re expanding the size or reach of a practice, I want you to understand how others have approached it.
Above all, I want you to stand on the shoulders of giants and then chart your own path. Now let’s make it happen.