Beware the UX unicorn

Beware the UX unicorn

For me, good UX design is built on good research. You have to first understand what users need through research before designing a solution. It’s good practice to iterate between these processes many times throughout the entire product lifecycle.

Yet organisations constantly fail to realise the importance of a good UX researcher.  

I’ve heard and witnessed the story so many times: a company comes to the realisation that UX is really important to its future and decides to invest in some talent. The problem is the company only has budget for one hire and they really need someone who can do user research, design and possibly even build digital services for them.  They send out a massive shopping list job spec to any and everyone to try and find the elusive UX unicorn – the imaginary beast that is a UX professional who is great at design, research and coding – to solve all their digital woes.

Talking to these companies I’ve often been asked, why can’t your highly skilled UX designers just do the research as well? The short answer is that they probably can, but really shouldn’t.

The most obvious advantage of having a specialist user researcher on board is the range of skills they will bring to the table. Sure, every UX designer should have some research techniques at their fingertips but most spend the majority of their time improving their design skills (as they should) and will simply not have the in depth knowledge that effective, accurate user research requires. It’s not enough to just know the methods – a researcher must also know which research questions to ask, which methods to choose and why, how to tailor those methods to the specific project at hand and and how to analyse the results so that they yield solid, actionable insights. These are complex skills that require training and experience.

The second consideration is approach or mindset. Specialist researchers focus on understanding, without leaping to design or seeking solutions while running research studies. This difference in approach may seem subtle but has a huge impact on how research is performed and how the results of this research is communicated with the team and beyond.  A good researcher is excellent at extracting and communicating insights, ensuring all stakeholders understand the problem space before focusing on solutions.

Finally and often overlooked is the importance of having one person leading design while another leads research. As anyone who’s spent time studying people knows, we are not logical beings and bring with us a big ol’ bag of biases, stereotypes and assumptions. Thus it’s important to have someone dedicated to identifying and communicating these potential landmines and how they are impacting design throughout development. Self serving bias is a prime example; people are always going find it easier to focus on praise of their work and discount criticism, so expecting someone who has designed a product to lead the objective and thorough user testing of it, is simply being naive to human psychology.

So while it’s great to have your designer hands-on and engaged with research, they shouldn’t be the one planning, running or analysing it.


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