GuidesUser experience (UX)What is a UX researcher? Roles, skills, and best practices

What is a UX researcher? Roles, skills, and best practices

Last updated

18 January 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

Did you know that 84% of people consider their experience with your brand as important as your product or service, according to a recent report? What’s more, 83% of respondents chose “quickly accomplish what I came to do” as the most important factor of user experience (UX).

But why does UX matter?

Not only does it play a significant role in customer service and satisfaction, but it also informs your design decisions and brings more value and trust to your brand. To do this properly, employers count on the skills and expertise of a UX researcher.

Here's everything you need to know about the position of UX researcher.

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What is UX research?

UX research involves collecting, organizing, and analyzing data about the users of a company's products or services to inform the product design process and enhance user experience. It can be used to:

  • Understand a targeted demographic

  • Clarify priorities

  • Understand pain points in an existing process

  • Flush out new concepts into clear wireframes

For anything in a production process that needs clarification or validation, there is a UX research methodology to help.

What is UX research used for?

To better understand targeted users and their needs, UX researchers conduct a wide range of data-gathering tactics such as:

  • Surveys

  • Ethnographic studies

  • User testing

They relay that information and insight to the product team who, in turn, can deliver a seamless experience to users.

Learn more about UX research platforms

Does UX research require coding and other specialized knowledge?

Knowledge of coding languages, such as Javascript or Python, is not necessary for a career in user research. However, many UX researchers have found it beneficial to have a basic understanding of both development and UI/UX design, since they often work closely with all members of the team.

Additionally, it’s helpful to understand the feasibility of a concept or feature, the existing design architecture, and business objectives and limitations. A good UX researcher doesn’t just deliver insights but also knows how to interpret them into useful and actionable data for their team.

What are the benefits of UX research?

UX research offers the following benefits to help lead a company to success:

  • Improved understanding of users

  • Development of a predictable, organic lifecycle of users

  • High ROI (UX investment can generate a 9,900% ROI)

  • Informed design-thinking process

  • More business objectives are reached with more predictable outcomes

Customers benefit from UX research in the following ways:

  • Better user experience

  • They can quickly locate what they're looking for

  • Trust in the business brand; feeling that the company “gets them”

  • Needs are met and, in many cases, exceeded

UX researchers benefit too:

Best practices for UX research

Like any scientific role, UX research requires team members to follow expert practices identified as the most effective and efficient.

Let’s look at three of the most important UX research practices.

Go beyond what's right in front of you

One of the best things you can do as a UX researcher is to look beyond expected user behavior and what’s happening in front of you. User feedback and interviews can give you direct insight into why a typical user may behave a certain way. However, why are the other 20%–30% of users behaving differently?

There are other ways to go beyond the obvious. For example, sometimes during user testing, users express things that contradict their actions. They may say, “This is so easy to use,” while taking a long time to find the button to complete the task at hand. A good UX researcher will recognize discrepancies like this and investigate, without bias, why it’s happening.

In short, constantly look out for the unexpected and dive deeper into why surprising behaviors occur.

Early and frequent user feedback is essential

The sooner you discover what your users like and dislike about your products or services, the sooner you can make improvements, saving significant time and money. It may even become clear that users don't like what you’re offering.

The benefit of testing early and often is that you become aware of these issues early enough to stand back and reevaluate your offer. This can save millions of dollars in development and resources and will keep you ahead of competitors in terms of speed and user intelligence.

In return, you have the unique opportunity to bring something bigger and better to the table, increasing customer satisfaction in the process.

Conduct research at every stage

Conducting UX research at every step of a product's development and design cycle is crucial for a successful user experience. Carrying out this research during phases of discovery, development, introduction, growth, maturity, and decline will provide you with a more holistic view of your scope and an in-depth understanding of how to meet your customers’ expectations.

Conducting research and collecting insights at every stage from people who represent your ideal user also allows you to examine progress over time and ensure you're on the right path. Usability naturally changes over time, and you want to address issues and concerns (especially those that need quick and easy fixes) as soon as possible to prevent terrible user experiences and costly, unnecessary reworking.

What is a UX researcher?

User experience researcher jobs are very user-centric, as they examine the ideal user journey and identify ways to improve a customer’s experience.

They carry out tests and analysis on a specific group of people that have been identified as belonging to a targeted persona. Collecting this data can help to determine the worst problems that users experience, so the product team can rectify them.

UX researchers need to do the following and more to gain this insight:

  • Question the specific type of people or persona

  • Analyze data into user stories

  • Identify user errors and suggest improvements

  • Create objectives to assess a pass or fail of the product or service during testing

  • Obtain insights and metrics from business strategy

  • Evaluate the effectiveness of design improvements

  • Listen from a user perspective

  • Build personas to help identify shared characteristics of ideal users

Is a user researcher the same as a UX researcher?

Whether user research and UX research are the same depends on whom you ask. Some people consider them the same thing. Others separate them by categorizing user research as a broader examination of consumer behaviors and UX research as consumer experience with a product/service.

UX researcher vs. UX designer

Despite the common confusion, a user experience researcher and a user interface designer are different. A UX researcher conducts studies and interviews to examine the best ways to enhance the user experience by better understanding prospective users.

A user interface or UX designer, however, deals more with the aesthetics and visual design of the product. They work closely with the development team to put the insight they've acquired from the UX research team into action and tend to focus more on the pixels.

However, a flair for design can be useful to a user experience researcher. They can help create the design by developing wireframes based on data, or even implementing existing elements from a design library.

They also require a good amount of design thinking to address the needs of their users and explore the best ways to meet them. A designer uses this insight to improve the experience, so having a fair amount of design background can go a long way in improving the design experience, despite UX researchers not being as hands-on in the design process.

UX research methods and approaches

There are two important approaches to take in a user experience researcher job when conducting your research: quantitative and qualitative. The first approach answers the question “What is happening?” while the second answers “Why is it happening?”

Quantitative

Quantitative research refers to methods that are number-based and universal. These will be the tests that deliver measurable results.

Quantitative methods include:

  • Surveys

  • In-app data collection (such as Google Analytics)

  • Online polls

  • Systematic observations

Important skills you need to conduct quantitative research include:

  • Basic knowledge of statistics

  • Survey design

  • Survey analysis (Python or other data visualization coding a plus)

  • Proficiency in data analysis tools (Google Analytics, Tableau)

  • Ability to communicate results and give actionable suggestions (reporting)

Qualitative

Qualitative is more individual and personal than quantitative data collection. It focuses on an individual’s unique experience to assess and color the quantitative data.

Quantitative calculates how many/how much, what is happening, and how often. Qualitative addresses the ever-important “why” behind user behaviors to better know what to do about it. This approach can be used for many reasons, including:

  • Assessing “why” a problem keeps happening

  • Ensuring that  a user’s motivations are front and center

  • Identifying missed details and opportunities that quantitative capturing can miss

Common qualitative research methods include:

  • Face-to-face interviews

  • Focus groups

  • Ethnographic research

  • Cognitive walkthroughs

  • Diary study

  • User testing

  • Voice-of-customer sessions

To properly conduct qualitative research, experts recommend the following skills:

  • Empathy

  • Staying curious

  • Understanding and recognition of all types of bias

  • Quick establishment of rapport and trust with users

  • Listening with intention (active listening)

  • Qualitative interviewing techniques

  • Ability to communicate results and give actionable suggestions (reporting)

  • Ability to find the relationships between qualitative findings and quantitative

  • Advocating for users

UX researcher role and responsibilities

A lot goes into the role and responsibilities of a UX researcher. Let’s look at the most important aspects.

Research planning and recruitment

Every great researcher begins the research process with extensive planning. This includes:

  • Creating a solid problem statement

  • Defining business objectives with measurable goal metrics

  • Aligning the proper research methods with those goals

  • Selecting participants who align with the business’s personas

  • Crafting your test plan

  • Locking in the timeline of your research project

  • Presenting your results and findings (prepare ahead of time so you can use the appropriate channels for your stakeholders)

Recruitment of users is a crucial part of UX research to get right because you don't want to base research insights on the wrong people. Multiple tools and skills are needed for this stage of the process, especially the skills to build relationships with end users and communicate effectively.

Data collection

Your role will require a mix of methods for data-collection strategies. This goes beyond gathering data from user interviews and surveys. It also includes, but is not limited to, assessing information from:

  • User testing

  • Survey results

  • Diaries from diary studies

  • Card sorting

  • Social media polling

  • Qualitative session recordings

  • Partnering with customer service teams for their insights

  • Social media posts

  • User-forum posts

  • Help section behaviors

  • Net Promoter Score (NPS) or other micro surveys

  • In-app paths and behaviors

  • In-app search queries

  • Google Analytics

Data analysis

In UX research—or any research—data analysis is the key to data-driven success. Collecting data is fine, but if you can't inspect, cleanse, and transform the data you retrieve to define actionable suggestions, you won't get the most reliable results.

You can have all the data in the world, but if you don't know how to turn it into helpful insights, it won't do the company (or user experience) any good.

Presentation of insights

The presentation of your insights can come in several ways, including reports, slides, and other online tools. Which data and the method you choose to present will depend on whom you're delivering your findings to, as you want to ensure they fully understand the results and insights you've uncovered.

According to the UX Design Institute, there are six components of an excellent presentation that shares designs with stakeholders:

  • Introduction

  • Research goals

  • Business value

  • Methodology

  • Key learnings

  • Recommendations

Strategy

You must be able to develop and implement UX research strategies that aim to enhance user experience in a given timeline. These strategies will vary from company to company, as the right strategy differs by company size, business objectives, and business requirements.

According to Nielsen Norman Group, a solid UX strategy includes:

  • Proper planning: the path you will take

  • Goals: how you will determine progress

  • Vision: the future state of your user experience

What skills are required for a career in UX research?

As the link between product and users, UX researchers need an arsenal of tools and skills. People who have natural empathy and critical-thinking skills, and who can identify and check their own bias, are perfectly primed for a career in UX research.

Design thinking

As a core component of improving user experience through innovation, the research process is more insightful and successful when backed by design-thinking skills. This is because design thinking takes you beyond user needs, to acknowledge what’s feasible for the development team to build and what your company can and should bring to market.

Design thinking helps you to understand the overarching design process, including:

  • Empathizing with your users

  • Defining the problem you plan to solve

  • Coming up with solutions

  • Testing prototypes of solutions

  • Testing and iterating until you have your solution

User-centered design research

The user-centered design process requires skills that allow you to tailor solutions to the needs and expectations of users. This puts the user at the forefront of the entire design process, including collaboration between teams to ensure the result adds value to your customers.

Persona creation

Creating a persona of your ideal users and participants allows you to pinpoint the right (and wrong) people to study and collect data from. This process requires a thorough understanding of certain aspects and how they relate to the company, such as:

  • Demographics

  • Psychographics

  • Motivations

  • Behavioral analysis

  • Geographics

Well-defined personas can start as hypotheses but should be validated through ethnographic studies.

UX mapping or user journeys

A visual representation of your end user’s experience is one of the best ways to understand where a customer may be coming from before entering your product’s experience.

You can find the answers to questions such as:

  • Are they already frustrated?

  • What do they already know?

  • Where are they hoping to go from here? 

The answers will help you patch together a UX map, also known as a user journey map, with actionable insights. This can give important relevant context to mobile solutions, such as users not having access to data when using specific features.

User testing

User testing, or usability testing, plays an important role in user-centered interaction design. You need the skills to test user flows on target users and collect feedback. This is usually done on a cycle basis, tweaking the process or design each time until results are within the desired metric or outcome.

Usability testing templates

Tooling

InVision is a tool for building and testing your prototypes and exploring concepts. It's great for rapid prototyping. The tool was created by designers, for designers, to enhance the presentation of your work and give you more control over your design.

Figma is another popular tool, which allows multiple designers to work on the same design, pull from style libraries, more easily export designs to development teams, and more. Figma also allows you to share prototypes with users for their feedback.

User research tool

Soft skills

UX researchers need to have soft and foundational skills like:

  • Strong empathy for groups you may not have otherwise interacted with

  • Communication and language skills

  • Teamwork

  • Time management

  • Critical thinking

  • Creative problem-solving

  • Ability to adapt to new or contradictory findings

  • Courage to share less-than-popular findings and data

  • Ability to navigate difficult political struggles that can come with championing your users

How to become a UX researcher

To become a UX researcher, you must pursue the right courses and obtain a relevant degree (as detailed below). You will also need to develop and sharpen your user-research skills through CPD activities such as additional training and certifications, podcasts, blogs, and more.

Research experience is also important, so consider volunteering with smaller businesses or experimenting with your own ideas to build your portfolio.

What degree do you need to be a UX researcher?

To be a UX researcher, you will need one or more of the following degrees (bachelor's, M.S., or Ph.D.):

  • Human-computer interaction or human factors

  • Information science

  • Cognitive science, cognitive psychology, psychology, experimental psychology, behavioral science, social science, or anthropology

UX researcher salary and job demand

There is significant demand for skilled UX researchers in today's job market, and this demand is expected to continue. As consumers constantly expect improved product or service experiences, companies prioritize making this happen.

LinkedIn's research suggests a growing demand for UX researchers, with 81% of executives reporting that user research makes their company more efficient and 86% citing that UX research improves the quality of their products or services.

The average salary for qualified UX researchers is on the higher end of wages in the U.S., with 50% of user researchers earning $88,600 (according to Onward Search's 2020 Salary Guide). On average, those in the 75 percentile can expect $108,300 or more. The level of salaries will vary by location, seniority, and experience. Additional research puts the most common range between $88,000 and $134,000.

In summary

A UX researcher collects, organizes, and analyzes data about the users of a company's products or services. This data informs the product design process and enhances user experience. 

UX researchers are in high demand as there is a potentially huge ROI to be gained from learning about what users want and how their experience can be improved.

If you are naturally empathic, have excellent communication skills, and can solve problems creatively, you may be well suited to the role of UX researcher.

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