Researchers are the UX glue
Last night I was talking to my (Design Leader) husband, Mark and he commented that he thought User Experience Research was seeing a similar trajectory to Design Leadership. I disagreed. I said that I don’t think ‘Research Leadership’ is a thing in the same way that ‘Design Leadership’ is a thing. I said that this is because the qualities that make a good researcher mean that researchers are often the glue in a UX team not the shining star. There are some notable exceptions who shine brightly but in general I think researchers have a different role and way of doing things compared to designers. Now of course I maybe completely over generalising but I’ve worked with a lot of researchers over the years — Audience, Market and User Researchers.
Let’s think about the qualities that make a good researcher for a moment. This is my list:
- People person
- Good listener
- Good communicator
- Team player
- Likes solving puzzles and investigating things
- Likes spending time ‘in the weeds’
- Like a dog with a bone. Tenacious
- Methodical and meticulous
- Measured and considerate
- A stickler for the details
- But also ultimately all about how the details fit into the big picture
- Can see the shades of grey and the nuances of a situation
- Takes the time to understand the nuances before jumping to a solution
- Loves to iterate and collaborate but likes to ‘hold the pen’
- Good at plate juggling and managing multiple projects
Qualitative researchers in particular need to have a lot of soft skills — collaboration, communication, facilitation — they are the ultimate team player. Quantitative researchers can often be slightly more introverted and very measured. Very few researchers that I have worked with are ‘alphas’. Those that have leadership or entrepreneurial qualities tend to rise to the top of existing agencies, set up their own agencies or consult.
“Regardless of size, every design team benefits from a single point of authority and leadership, an individual with vision and high standards who can get the most out of their team. This is the most important role on the team — and it’s the hardest job to do well. The best team leads are a combination of coach, diplomat, and salesman.”
When I was writing this article this morning, I re-read Peter Merholz’s take on Design Leadership and found myself almost changing my mind mid post! Peter talks about Design Leaders needing to manage upwards, downwards and across. This post resonated with me because his words described exactly how I needed to work at Monotype as the Research Team sat in a different silo from both Marketing and UX. I had to do a lot of managing upwards and as I didn’t have a team, I also did a lot of managing across rather than down. I think this is an exception however and in-house Research Leaders often report into Marketing (who own CX) or Design Leaders (who own UX).
So perhaps Research Leadership is a thing after all but it’s a different flavour to Design Leadership? As a Research Leader, if you report into a design or marketing leader who understands the value of research and communicates this to executives (managing up), this leaves you to focus on managing across and down — collaborating and providing the glue for the team or the organisation as a whole.
So what ‘flavour’ is Research Leadership? I think the best research leaders are similar to design leaders in that they need to be a combination of diplomat and coach* but rather than a salesperson, I think researchers are first and foremost facilitators. *In some organisations I would use the word mentor instead of coach.
“A Facilitator is a content-neutral task leader who forms a group of people into a collaborative team, supporting consensus and uses a range of processes to enable the group to accomplish their task. The Facilitator is responsible for the context.”
Facilitators are enablers and helpers. They are also responsible for creating the right environment for people to contribute. In my mind, a facilitator literally holds everything together which is what made me think of glue.
Glue can be used to underpin the foundations of something but also creatively to enhance and make it more polished — to stick to that shining star I talked about (there was a reason I chose the photograph with the child’s craft kit). Glue is often invisible but plays a fundamental role in binding things together. People who behave like glue play a key role. Without researchers, your UX team will pretty soon become unstuck! Do you agree?