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Part 1/2 | What is user research?

Hello lovely people

I've been working as a user researcher for nearly a year now, and alongside my work I manage this blog and talk a lot about how much of an exciting industry digital is, often on social media, and its potential to be super empowering. 

So it makes sense that I get asked a lot of questions around what it is I actually do, how I chose the job and how I got into digital with relatively little experience and degrees in social sciences. It's evident to me that so many people think digital is mostly about coding, and while that's obviously a fundamental component, there is so much more to it (more on that in another post).

To me, this shows there is still a lot of work to do to increase the visibility of what the contemporary digital/technology industry is about, what it involves and who works in it *heyyyyy*. So, I took to Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn to find out what it is people want to know. 

What is user research?

Good question. There's a lot of disparity in the industry around the definition. Almost daily, I see arguments on LinkedIn about this, people take their definitions seriously okay. Put simply user research (UR) is about making sure websites are working for the end-user.

But isn't that what testers are for? Isn't that what analysts do? 

You wouldn't be wrong for thinking those things and they're questions URs are probably faced with daily. To me, the real benefit of user research is that we can tell you WHY users are behaving in a certain way and WHY users might be having trouble with your service or system and clogging up your call centres. And even better than that, we can do it before you've spent millions of pounds developing a beautiful product that doesn't work. How do you do that, I hear you ask, are you fortune tellers? We like to think so and a seasoned user researcher could probably double up as a mind reader, HOWEVER, we don't all have special powers. Data analysts, scientists and testers may be able to tell you WHAT is happening, but they can't always tell you why. But us user researchers do love to work with data peoples, imo it's a symbiotic relationship, 9 times out of 10 if you've got the what and the why, you're probably going to be okay. 

User researchers more often than not work in sprints, we mock up prototypes (or the designers do) of potential solutions and test them with users before they're actually developed. We also spend a fair amount of time in something called discovery. This is involves figuring out who our users are/might be and then spending time with them in order to understand what the current barriers and pain points are. There may even be some things that are actually working well. Those are the things we want to find out. We do also test our websites with users in live (production environment). This is where the website is up and running and being used. 

What do you spend your day to day doing?

A day in the life of a user researcher will involve several things. Firstly, you'll be shocked to hear this one, research! We may be doing desk research, scrolling through the internet, reading articles, looking at past research someone else has done. We may be doing research with users. This could be interviewing, usability testing or (rarely) ethnography. We may even do some pop up research, or some card sorting. The methodology will likely depend on what phase the project is in (discovery, alpha, beta, live). I know that sounds like a lot, BUT, you may also find a user researcher doing some analysis. There's loadsssss of cool ways to analyse the data you've collected, it'll depend upon the methodology used and the phase. Each user researcher has their own style. The beauty of being a user researcher is the opportunity to experiment, learn, try and (sometimes) fail.

You'll hear the phrase, human-centred design (or user-centred design), a lot. It's a rather self explanatory phase, but this means developing your stuff with humans or users in mind first and always. It means considering ALL of your users or ALL of the people that may need to use your website/ service. It includes those with accessibility needs, those who may not be as digitally literate as others as well as hard to reach communities. After all, it's not really human-centred if you're only considering the users or humans that are easiest to access. So as user researchers, it's IMPERATIVE, we spend time understanding how those with access needs might use our websites. 

There's other things involved, such as recruiting participants, feeding back to the design team, prototyping, attending meetings, convincing stakeholders user research is something they need to do and so on, but that's the general gist of things. 

Oh, and one more thing

Your time as a UR will vary considerably depending upon whether you work in an agency, client side or are self-employed. I've only ever worked as a permanent employee in the public sector, so I have limited knowledge on this BUT:


  • Fast paced

  • Learn a lot quickly, get to do multiple projects, probably a different one every other week, or close to it

  • Also a consulting element (so you've got to know how to sell)

  • Possible longer days 

  • Not as much impact

  • Don't get to delve as deep into research as client side

Client side/ permanent 

  • Slower pace (you'll still be busy as hell, but you may spend 6 months on a project as opposed to a week)

  • Learn a lot, but won't get access to as many projects as you would in an agency 

  • Less of a consulting element, but you still need to be able to deal with stakeholders

  • More flexible working, less of the longer days

  • Deeper insights - spend more time on one project - possibly see it through all the development stages

Self employed contractor 

  • Lot's of money

  • Lot's of freedom 

  • Can work either agency or client side

  • But less job security, you're not really part of the business, in so far as, they don't employ you, they don't train or develop you, and they certainly don't give you a pension

  • You can be fired at any moment 

However, don't take my word for it, this is just what I've gathered from networking. Speak to recruiters, they'll know more about this. 

​Another question I often receive is How did you know you wanted to be a user researcher? but as this post is already quite long I'll talk about that in the next one. 

As always, let me know what you think, or if you'd like anymore advice. I'm always free for coffee :) 

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