10 things I wish I knew as a UX research team of one

Main illustration: Becky Simpson

I’ve just wrapped up one of the biggest remote usability tests I’ve ever carried out in my time at Intercom.

To give you an idea of how big the project is, here’s some of what it entails:

  • 2 prototypes
  • 17 participants (across 7 countries)
  • 2 scripts
  • 2 offices (Dublin and SF)
  • 3 researchers
  • 3 designers
  • 1 content strategist

…and so on. It’s a doozy (and a testament to any researcher’s organisational skills!).

Being involved with a usability study of this size, with so many moving parts, I’m reminded of how it wasn’t always like this. For almost my entire first year as a Product Researcher, it was just me. The research team of one. And to be honest, I had no idea what I was doing for the most part.

So in light of this study, where I had lots of smart people around to bounce ideas off and get feedback from, I’ve put together a list that other solo researchers might benefit from (though much of this advice will be helpful no matter your research team size). So here are the 10 things I wish I knew when I was the lone researcher carrying out studies.

1. Run a pilot with a team member before testing with real participants

  • This will help you get a handle on timings and will allow you to course correct on any shaky areas (where the research objective may be too broad or too narrow).
  • Pro-tip: Try find teammates who have just joined the company as they’ll be new to your product. This will give you a closer idea to what the test will actually be like, instead of testing with someone who is in the weeds of the product (such as a PM/Designer/Customer Support Rep).

2. Opt for remote studies if you’re working by yourself

  • If you’re a research team of one, it can be dangerous travelling solo to various business or home locations to interview users. As Dana Chisnell said, you should always “pair up for safety”. If you can get a teammate involved, have them present in the room when customers come onsite for a user test/interview and have a teammate accompany you on any field visits or intercept studies you carry out.
  • If you can’t get a teammate to help out, opt for carrying out your studies remotely. You can do this cheaply by using Google Hangouts or Skype and you’ll find you can reach a much wider audience when recruiting for remote studies.

3. When conducting remote studies, Usertesting.com is your friend

  • Tools like UserTesting allow you to record all your studies as well as send participant surveys after a test so you can get extra information around perceptions and comprehension.
  • Unmoderated studies can also help free up your time – you can get quick insights by setting up a study and then come back at a later time to annotate the videos. However, be careful of relying on unmoderated studies too much. These don’t allow you to fully understand why a user does something, or say they do something, as you can’t ask them further questions while in the moment.

4. Don’t be afraid to enlist the help of a Designer/PM/Engineer

  • Building a rapport with your team is important within any company but when you’re the only researcher, it can be hard to feel you’re a part of a team. To tackle this, ask teammates to support you on some studies or come along to a couple of interviews. Not only will this help with your cognitive load (as you can have someone to bounce ideas off), but you’ll find yourself getting more and more immersed in the team as you build out these relationships.
  • Pro-tip: If you come up against apprehension from teammates who don’t wish to take part in studies, you can always bribe them with donuts. ?

5. Use tools that allow you to become a better researcher

  • I’ll admit I used to think I could be the best at my job if I could juggle moderating an interview, taking notes, and listening to key areas that needed clarifying all at the same time. I know there are researchers who still do all three in interviews, and sometimes I still do. But I’ve found you won’t end up really uncovering the motivations behind why users say they do something. You also end up not asking the right questions, and you can appear distracted and distant to your participants
  • Invest in tools like ScreenFlow ($99) that allow you to record your interviews and then review them afterwards to uncover the key insights. The pressure is then off during the interview as you can put all your focus into ensuring the research objective is attained through your questioning.
  • You can also try out audio transcribing software like AutoEdit – thanks to Gregg Bernstein who pointed me in the direction of this handy tool.

6. Make templates to free up precious time

  • You can create a template for almost any piece of research material and I guarantee you’ll use it more than once. Over time I’ve put together templates for Slack messages, insights posters, “Top findings” emails, recruitment messages, test instructions, study debriefs, research plans, etc. You name it, I have a template for it.
  • When you’ve put together your templates, make sure they’re well organised and iterate on them as you get better and learn more. The best way to do this is to set aside time once a month to review your templates.

7. Have one source of truth for all your UX research

  • When you’re a research team of one, you can spend a full day answering emails and Slack messages from all the different teams you work with. You’re constantly being asked to pull out research plans and reports for projects over various time periods.
  • Putting a simple site together that showcases your research can save you so much time and it can act as a single source of truth. You can then point to the site whenever someone asks “Hey do you have that slide deck on evaluating Feature X from June 2014?”
  • At Intercom, we use Google Sites to collate all the research that has been carried out to date. If you don’t have the time to put a site together, having a well-organised Google Drive/Dropbox folder is better than searching through a rats nest of files whenever someone pings you!

8. Reach out to your community

  • Nowadays there are Slack groups, Twitter lists and Facebook groups all with researchers in the same position as you, and who love to share what they have learned.
  • You should also check out your local UX, HCI or IxDA scene to meet like-minded folks who you can bounce ideas off and get feedback from. This also helps if you have imposter syndrome (as I once had) as you’ll learn from chatting to people that they also have no idea what they’re doing. ?

9. Go to your local coffee shop to find research participants

  • This ties into #2 (you should always enlist a teammate to go with you) but intercept studies can get you quick insights for relatively no money. It can be unnerving to approach complete strangers but if keep your research goal in mind, you’ll soon find you’re powering through the humility and social rejection. Jokes aside, make sure you’ve got clear research objectives when testing with end-users and a $5 coffee voucher in your pocket to entice the public with.

10. Make the most of all the resources out there!

  • We’re at a point in time whereby you can find almost anything to do with UX research within a few clicks. Medium is flooding with articles dedicated to the subject and the Twitter hashtag #uxresearch always has a steady stream of articles relating to old and new methodologies.
  • If reading isn’t your thing, podcasts like Dollars to Donuts and the Intercom podcast have leaders from UX Research telling their stories and sharing advice. No one ever wished they hadn’t read less when on their deathbed (that’s a total assumption but you get my drift ?) so make time to keep up to date with the latest articles, podcasts and talks. It will ultimately help you grow as a researcher and better your career.