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What is a user researcher and what do they do?

16 July 2020
Jess Nichols

So you've discovered the opportunity to work with a researcher; or are looking to move onto a researcher career path – but you're not sure what a researcher does. Researchers are generally responsible for collecting, organizing, and analyzing opinions (qualitative) and data (quantitative) to solve problems, explore issues, and predict trends.

Researchers will generally fall into two broad categories:

  • Academic Research: Focuses more on an in-depth investigation into a specific topic or domain to create a new perspective to contribute to the more extensive knowledge base on that topic. The timeline for delivery is not a critical dependency as the rigor and quality of findings are more important in the output.

  • Industry / Professional Research: focuses more on finding answers to enable organizations to make decisions in their strategy or products. Timelines and stakeholders are critically important for professional research to ensure that findings are understood and applied to the product or strategy investigated.

Many academic researchers will look to transition to professional research roles at organizations after they have completed their studies, usually called "moving to industry." However, some academic researchers struggle with this transition. They have to move from the depth and rigor they are used to an approach where there is an expectation of being faster and create findings that make sense to those from non-research backgrounds (such as product managers, designers, or executives).

Key differences between academic research and professional research, shown as a table. Image from Lottie on Medium (medium.com/@phdresearchguidences).
Key differences between academic research and professional research, shown as a table. Image from Lottie on Medium (medium.com/@phdresearchguidences).

Types of researchers

Every researcher is unique. They all will have different experiences and specializations. Although someone may call themselves a 'researcher,' they may have a more specialized set of research skills, so it's essential to understand what type of researcher – or research – you need.

As many of these skills overlap, you may find that a researcher will have expertise across different research types or approaches. Outside of academic and professional researchers, some of the researcher types you may come across:

  • User / UX / Design Researcher: Focuses on understanding users' characteristics, goals, behaviors and experience towards achieving these goals. Research will generally be in service of an experience or interface, but it may be to help drive strategy or business decisions in some cases.

  • Usability Researcher: Focuses on evaluative research to determine how a UI meets or doesn't meet the user's objectives.

  • Market Researcher: Focuses on assessing a product or service (e.g., will someone buy a particular product?)

  • Advertising Effectiveness Researcher: A specialized form of market research that aims to discover which ads will be most effective with the existing and potential customer base.

Researchers may also describe themselves by the type of methodologies they generally use:

  • Qualitative Researcher: Generally runs research methodologies that focus on context and observations rather than numerical data or statistics. Research outputs usually are attitudinal (i.e. what people say). Most likely will work with smaller sample sizes. Standard methodologies are interviews, contextual inquiry (or ethnography), and usability testing.

  • Quantitative Researcher: Generally runs research methodologies that focus on numerical data and statistics. Research outputs are generally behavioral (i.e. what people do). Most likely will work with larger sample sizes. Standard methodologies are surveys or analytics analysis).

  • Mixed Methods Researcher: Someone who does both. True mixed method researchers are tough to find; generally, if a researcher calls themselves mixed methods, they have a preference or more experience in quantitative or qualitative research.

Professional researchers also may have a different mindset of how they research based on their role:

'In House' research. Based within a company and are embedded with stakeholders across various functions. There isn't a logical place where research fits within an org chart, but it generally will be based on design, product, or marketing. They are responsible for partnering with stakeholders to advocate for the customer in their products on an iterative basis.

Once research is complete, they will work across the product development lifecycle to leverage findings. Once a product or feature has been launched, they will take the learnings and incorporate it into future research projects to track work on a quarterly or half-yearly basis in alignment with broader product roadmaps. They are preferred for depth of experience within the product process.

Agency or consulting research. A separate company who will provide research services to another organization. These researchers are generally preferred to provide a completely independent perspective or not be bogged down by the client's organization's politics. These researchers will typically come in with a project scope for "discovery" work. Once the project is complete, the researcher stops working with the organization unless additional projects are available. These researchers are hired for their breadth of experience across industries or customers.

Understanding these nuances will help you have more meaningful conversations with the researchers you work with, and ensure you can partner with them in the most effective way possible.

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