As you get deeper and deeper in UX design you realise your design skill cannot reach its full potential without UX research. In the end, UX design without users is not really user centered design, more like user excluded design.
If you want to improve your design skills you eventually need to get better at UX research as well. So how do we get better at research as a designer and what skills are the most important? This is the topic that I wanted to cover.
My approach for figuring out what are the most useful UX research skills and qualities for designers is very practical: I asked design and research leaders about their recommendations for designers. These tips and insights will cover what you need to know as a Product or UX designer to be able to fuel your design decisions with research insights.
Let's get started.
The most important skill for anyone conducting research is developing the right research question. A common mistake is understanding that it's important to do research, but not understanding what it is you're actually trying to learn and how you're going to apply it. For anyone who's trying to get better at this, ask: what decisions is this research meant to help us make? Knowing what you want to do with the research will tell you what research you actually need.
Being rigorous in how you conduct research is important to getting good information, but if you're not asking the right question, it won't matter how well-designed your research plan is.
I strongly believe in demystifying research - instead of using buzzwords that make it look like magical quantum physics, it's so much more relatable to help teams realise: what research helps you to do is to ask questions in a smart and systematic way so that you can find the answers you need and as a result, solve the problem you have and make informed, smart decisions. This is why it's important to make it clear for any product and design team that research is not an additional skill and it shouldn't be an overhead - it's step 0, by default. This is why our approach at Skyscanner is to enable teams to spend 90% of their time and focus with identifying and understanding the right problem, and to help them learn how to ask the rights questions - because if we do this right, finding the right solution requires only 10%.
Skyscanner now has open positions for Senior User Researchers to join their global team, leading the global transformation to modern and sustainable travel.
The most useful skill for a product designer conducting research is not being precious about their designs. You're researching to figure out if this works for real people, not whether you can get real people to work with what you've made. Being open-minded and keeping bias out as much as possible goes a long way in being successful in research.
And if I can add a close second - making sure you're asking the right big question of your research. What are you really trying to find out? Making sure you don't narrow the focus of your research from the get-go is extremely important to capture the whole picture.
Anna Zsófia Csontos
For UX and product designers to excel in customer-facing research everything starts with the mindset. Research skills can only be developed if someone has the motivation to learn and get involved, as well as the openness for new perspectives and ideas. Sometimes testing your own ideas and designs can be hard, so as a starting point I’d advise them to let go of their preconceptions and approach customers and users with curiosity and humility. That could help designers to hold back the defensive comments about the design, refrain from explaining the functionality of the interfaces, and avoiding to ask leading questions. Instead, watching closely with a curious and empathetic mindset, enables anyone to pay attention to all the behaviours, verbal feedback of the users, ask open-ended questions, know when to just listen and observe. If you keep this mindset, these skills follow with practice. All in all as researchers we all need to take a secondary role while still leading, guiding and structuring research activities that lead to the most invaluable insights. Let the customers be the lead characters while being the director in the background.
Independent UX consultant — LinkedIn
I expect to find my comments surrounded by people talking about empathy. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I’m wrong. But in case I’m not, I’d like to address the fact that we talk about empathy way too much. Not being a psychopath is not a skill. You either are one or you aren’t. From a user research point of view, it’s good not to be a psychopath.
Now that we’ve covered that, I think an ability to maintain curiosity beyond what you think is relevant to the reason you’re carrying out the research. You need to be able to set aside the reason for the research to a great extent and be curious about people at an individual level. Relevance often becomes apparent later on. It is a real skill knowing how far to go with a conversation or observation which doesn’t appear to be immediately relevant to your work.
Then there is deciphering what is important and what isn’t. The thing that separates me most from my less-experienced self, other than a comically high hairline, is my ability to better judge the reach and impact of my findings. It’s very easy to reel off a list of things that are wrong with a product. It’s a lot harder to put your name on the thing you think a company most needs to work on. To be honest, much of this comes from the experience of hanging around long enough to understand the impact of the decisions which are taken off the back of the research.
Péter Balázs Polgár
I found most designers can be trained on basic user research methods. After getting through the first 10-15 studies most of them can get to a reasonable level. Provided they reflect frequently and keep track of lessons learnt. By reflect I mean after each interview, test and study spend some time on what went well (important to nurture your confidence) and what can be improved. This can be 5 minutes and some notes in your design diary. Ideally, take some time with your team members and ask for feedback on the learning plan, on the execution of sessions and on synthesized results.
Sr. Research Scientist at Carnegie Mellon University — LinkedIn
Being willing to receive critique is essential for a designer’s mindset and having your design usability tested is even better. When actual users attempt to complete their tasks using your design via a usability study they very quickly help you see areas of potential confusion, forgotten details or confusing wording. Usability studies are the best learning activity you can do, as they always bring new insights to teams, and are engaging to observe. These types of studies enable you to really get to know your users and to improve your design work.
I believe the most important user research skill for product designers is plain old curiosity. A longing to understand people, products or even why Game of Thrones became so successful. A close second for me would be the ability to identify assumptions one makes while designing and being able to come up with ideas on how to validate them.
In my opinion the most useful skill a user researcher has is to “push back” in a constructive manner. People in your organisation will ask you to do all kinds of spurious research and will try to make you focus in on tiny things that don’t really matter. The real value a researcher brings is a broad perspective. Broader than the current feature or sprint or compartment of stuff that your stakeholders care about. You only get the space and time to do that if you, your team and your manager works hard to get it. Real research delivers surprises, and that makes it political. So - you have to work for the right to do real research, and then you have to work to get your findings recognised and actioned. Good luck.
According to David Pasztor, the founder of a UX portfolio platform, the most useful research methods for designers are customer interviews and usability tests. There are more complex research methods out there, but all of them build on these basic skills. Interviewing and testing can help designers gain more customer insights and do significantly better design work.
Getting started doing user research is simple, but doing it well can require a lot of skill. Learn how to make sure your users feel comfortable enough to fully open up and share their true experiences with you.
Our team works in the health space, which makes this even more important because a lot of our users have very challenging personal circumstances (like managing a chronic illness) that can be difficult for them to talk about.
As a practical tip, remote user interviews can be a great way to help people feel more relaxed. Rather than having to travel to an uncomfortable location and sit in a testing lab, that can have a conversation with you while they’re relaxed and in their own home.
Openness and curiosity are the two most mentioned qualities that you'll need to successfully bring research into your design project. I hope these tips will help you push your design research skills a bit further, and ultimately be useful in becoming a better designer.