The Importance of Design Researchers and Who Gets to Be One

design researchers brainstorming on a whiteboard

“Nobody can give you the identity you want. You have to determine what it is, and you have to validate it yourself.”

Colleen T. Reese

Can you represent the user in a moral, accurate, and unbiased way without proper training?

Can you draw the depth and breadth in your research findings if you don’t have empathy and embodiment of passion for uncovering uncomfortable truths and latent needs?

Can anyone be a researcher?

These questions have been revolving in my head for awhile as I have moved up in my career, switched industries, and started putting more effort into networking. I’ve observed, interacted with, and worked with a number of designers, researchers, and strategists over the past few years. And all this has made one thing clear: not everyone can be a researcher. It’s a soft-skill discipline that’s hard to do well.

Mentoring a researcher

Research practice comes with having an understanding of psychology, technology, and even behavioral science. As the field grows, so are the expectations of a research practitioner. While I was still at school, there weren’t many seats for researchers in companies. The broad knowledge I gained at university as an industrial design student turned out to be a blessing in disguise—as I learned about usability, UX and UI design, information architecture (IA), and design thinking in various industries from hardware to software, human factors, sustainability, inclusive design, and more. This knowledge and experience are now serving me as a key baseline to perform my job with precision, understanding, broad consideration, and diverse thought.

That, however, is not a standard. I see more and more researchers coming from various and unusual backgrounds, even switching industries: a nurse who’s now a UX researcher or a librarian with a research word in their title is becoming quite common. And as conflicted about it as I am, I keep going back to a complex question: Can our brains and professional identities be split in multiple directions throughout our careers?

Finding the balance between the hard and soft skills

Although I often find myself thinking that researchers should mainly come from a design or humanities-related background, there is also a huge value in real-life, lived experiences because it builds the foundations of understanding. The connection between education and experience is what builds a full-rounded research mind—a mix of hard and soft skills. Rather than relying solely on one, the mix of learned knowledge and lived experiences makes for deeper, more impactful user interviews, usability testing, and heuristic evaluation. This is because researchers become more than just scholars. The information we discover flows in a new direction; instead of downstream from purely academic instruction, researchers who operate with this blend push human understanding upstream to create systems, organizations, and products that are designed from a multidimensional view of the world.

The need for such a view comes from the reality that being a researcher is a lot more than talking to people and drawing conclusions. The role requires deep observation: active listening , being truly present, and asking the right questions (or asking the questions right). You need to have a natural ability to understand people’s mental models in order to align how they communicate with the product decisions you’re looking to make. And it all happens simultaneously. 

What you learn from deep observation comes together when synthesizing and analyzing collected information and sense making. The process of interpreting off-the-cuff comments, overheard thoughts, and intentional answers to discover themes or patterns takes both time and mental effort. Leaving one last step: communication. No matter how well you make sense of it in your own brain, a researcher must then translate the research into clearly articulated, actionable insights. Failing to do so will waste the work.

We, researchers, should not mistake these desires for maximizing performance and meeting metrics as desires for a more humane and responsible world. The innate problem with this idea is that it leads only to a surface level way of observing the world and drawing conclusions. The effectiveness of research is measured in its influence. And as much as a robust research is necessary, built on those hard and soft skills, a researcher needs to constantly ask oneself: what decision (or problem) am I impacting and how important is that decision? The answer to this question determines how to approach the key translation point; driving the communication style with empathy for stakeholders, clients, and cross-functional teams, all while having an ability to see the bigger picture through managing the project.

Why having actual researchers looking at data matters

With the growth of technology there is a new core material of the age: Data. Data is just mass information driven by the human need to catalog and understand our lives. Over and over again, I have seen the misinterpretation and mistreatment of this information. Which is the reason why we need real researchers.

Properly handling and representing collected information about people in an unbiased way is a critically important ethical consideration for researchers. Letting a person who doesn’t have this muscle built naturally poses a risk to the whole project, the team members, and the researcher. Even more so, misreading data and lacking empathy for people leads to building bad products and product failures. The stories in the industry of organization’s building products that people don’t want are all built on the foundations of missing out on doing research right—responsibly and thoughtfully

Researchers, as a collective and as individuals, need to consistently and systematically take a step back and consider the impact of our decisions. It’s a complex matrix of knowledge, hard and soft skills, and pure heart to form a researcher. Ultimately, the question shouldn’t be only focused on who gets to be a researcher, but also on why it matters if the wrong person is in that role. We all have a different answer to that two-fold question; but for me, it speaks to the vital role researchers play in the product sphere.

My hope is that the notions carried in this article will help us agree on a higher standard for research practices and challenge the thinking that “everyone can be a researcher.” Stepping outside of the myth means we are open to challenging the status quo. It will require embracing the idea that we might have to give space to uncomfortable truths.

Kama Kaczmarczyk

Kama Kaczmarczyk

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