Like many user researchers part of my research journey has involved transitioning from academia to user research. Whilst user research and academia have much in common, there are also some differences. The most obvious similarities include: user research is still research, both include a critical mind-set, both require consideration of ethics and both require rigor. The key difference is speed. It might seem obvious but, because user research is part of an ongoing process of research and development, the findings and insight need to be timely. It needs to be conducted quickly enough to be able to inform the wider design or development project that it is part of. It also needs to be good enough to influence positive change that will help make the product or service better, this is why user research is sometimes referred to as just enough research.
Before moving into user research I was in somewhat of a transition. Most of the research I have conducted since completing my PhD has been real world research. Throughout my research career it was important to me to conduct research that was related to real world activity. Much of this was evaluation research. I conducted evaluation research for a wide variety of projects, including: a whole systems, public health project (GM Moving), a health education project (assessing the impact of the ACP support package project in South Yorkshire) and the evaluation of a community contact tracing project. Other applied research was more about scoping, for example, I conducted research into the potential impact of assistive technologies to improve the employability of people with disabilities in Kenya to inform a funding / development project brief. Given my background in applied research the step into user research from academia was perhaps less of a leap for me than in is for some. I already had a good solid understanding of research principles and I knew how to conduct research that was focussed on real world activity.
For the last seven months I have been working as a senior user researcher in a UK government department. There was a lot that resonated with the insights I’d gained during my PhD study. For example in this context, it was clear that harnessing the potential of digital technology was hampered by outdated top down hierarchical structures and by organisational politics. It quickly became clear that in this role there was a lot that I could contribute beyond simply doing and communicating research. I could see that along with the other researchers / designers employed through the IT consultancy I was working for, I could help with the process of culture change. Part of the role of a user researcher is, where appropriate and with evidence, to speak truth to power. Because we were not part of the internal organisational structures, it was easier for us to highlight and challenge narratives when they hampered change and innovation.
The toolkit that I took with me into user research, was not simply the skills and expertise that I’d developed in research roles, it also included all that I’d gained through ten year career in management / business development roles and even expertise gained in the arts roles that I’d been employed in many years before. My management experience was invaluable in preparing me for stakeholder engagement and organisational politics. Networking and developing stakeholder relationships are very much part of my comfort zone. The communication skilled I’d gained as a circus and street theatre artist continue to be an asset when it comes to connecting and communicating.
The renowned user researcher, Tomer Sharon, in his book, “It’s Our Research” states that:
“When people ask me how a typical workday looks for me, I always say that 50 percent of my time is devoted to research planning, execution, or analysis, and the other 50 percent involves politics.” (Sharon 2020).
Given Sharon’s insight it is hardly surprising that I have found that my roles have included politics as well as research. Luckily for me a decade in management that included roles on countless boards and management committees has given me a solid foundation for engaging in organisational politics. I wouldn’t exactly say that organisational politics is my comfort zone, or even that its part of the role that I relish, I think few people would say that they enjoy organisational politics. Ten years in management plus an organisational development PhD however, means that I have sufficient insight to understand what good looks like and I can see when someone is attempting to manipulate a situation. I also have sufficient confidence and good enough communication skills to stand up for the interests of users and to advocate for change based on research, regardless of what barriers I may face.
The rigor that comes from conducting academic research is not always apparent to people who have entered into user research from a different route. If you don’t have academic research training you may not be consciously aware of the philosophical and methodological choices that you are making in your research and what their implications are. I find it almost embarrassing that so many user research articles and even some books on user research use the terms method and methodology interchangeably. Understanding the philosophical position that you are conducting from and applying this to put together a methodology conducting of methods that is appropriate to the research need being addressed does not require extra time. To an experienced researcher this should be second nature. Having an academic research foundation does however give researchers such as myself the ability to apply different methods in a cohesive manner that some researchers without an academic foundation can struggle with.
A Critical mind-set
A skill that I enhanced greatly during academia was my ability to think critically and to critique the work of others. During my time in academia, I became a lot better and quicker at spotting contradictions and weaknesses in prior research. As a user researcher I have found this ability invaluable. Being able to build on prior research can avoid duplication and save a lot of time. However, if the research being built on is flawed this can be problematic. The value of critical thinking in user research, however, goes a lot further than this. It has also enhanced my ability to constructively critique project plans and designs. Being able to quickly identify gaps and weaknesses in proposed solutions has enabled me to better articulate areas where user research findings can add value.
A part of user research that I enjoy and excel at is facilitation. This is one area that my performance background enables me to really come into my own. I love the creative process of engaging a group of co-researchers or research participants. Whether this is part of the data collection or analysis I find it’s an area that I can apply creativity with communication to create an environment for people to share ideas to either understand a problem or even to think about solutions. I know that ideation is starting to move away from user research and into service design. The combination of my creative and research backgrounds, very much puts me on the boundary between user research and service design. In terms of facilitating workshops or analysis sessions I am just as comfortable working remotely using tools such as Miro or Mural as I am delivering face to face.
One difference between user research and academic research that I really like is that user research is more collaborative. User research should be a team sport and that suits me well. I love working with other researchers and with designers to plan, to deliver, to communicate as part of a team that is ultimately focussed on helping to make products or services work better for their users.
In my transition from academia into user research I have found that not only have I been able to bring with me a lot of expertise from my research background, but I have also been able to apply understanding from management roles and facilitation skills from my performance background. I find that some organisations sometimes fail to understand the value that an academic background can bring to user research, some can even see it as a weakness for fear that it could lead to lengthy convoluted practices that are not suited to the faster paced pressures of the real world. Whilst I fully accept that danger exists, the strengths that an academic background can give user researchers should not be understated.
I firmly believe, although admittedly with some bias, as I have, that background myself, that the best user researchers have both a solid understanding of research principles and real world experience. I am not saying that academia is the only way to gain an understanding of fundamental research principles, simply that researchers from other backgrounds need to develop them if they have not done so already, much like researchers from academic backgrounds need to gain real world experience. To become an excellent user researcher, one way or another, it is necessary to gain both a solid understanding of the fundamental principles of research (that can be gained from academia) and also experience in conducting user research. Both should be considered equally valuable and for higher level user research roles, equally essential.
I have received a lot of positive feedback as a researcher, I firmly believe that this was very much due to the wide variety of skills and experience I brought with me, expertise that included, but was not limited to expertise in academic research. My latest user research contract finished last week (at the end of July). Feel free to contact me if you have user research or services design roles that you think I may be interested in. I am particularly interested in roles in digital health, public health, social care or other areas of local government / public sector where I may be able to draw on my management and creative backgrounds to help understand and address complex problems.