Startups Shouldn't Hire User Researchers

Everybody seems to think I'm a user researcher, which is not strictly true.

It's true, I write a lot about user research, and I've certainly done my share of it over the course of my career. But I don't really consider myself a user researcher. I do enough user research to be extremely effective at being an interaction designer and product manager.

There are lots of actual user researchers with degrees in psychology and specialized training who are doing much more interesting and complicated research than I do. I respect those people. They are scientists in many cases. But I don't think that most of them should work for startups. In fact, I don't think that small startups should ever hire a user researcher just to do research.

Don't get me wrong. User research is critical to startups. How else are they supposed to understand their potential customers and find product market fit?

No, the reason people shouldn't hire people to do their user research is that learning about your customer is the single most important part of your startup. If you're outsourcing that to a person who isn't directly responsible for making critical product decisions, then you are making a horrible mistake.

I see startups do this over and over. They hire a consultant, or even a regular employee, to come in and get to know their users for them. That person goes out and runs a lot of tests and then prepares a report and hands it over to the people in charge of making product decisions. Half the time the product owners ignore the research or fail to understand the real implications of it.

And why wouldn't they? The product managers weren't there for the process of talking to users, so they almost certainly haven't bought into the results. It's really easy to ignore a bunch of bad things somebody else wrote about your idea in a Powerpoint presentation. It's a lot harder to ignore half a dozen real users saying those things to your face and showing you problems that they're having in real life.

The right way to do research in a startup is to have the people who are responsible for making decisions about your product intimately involved in the research itself. That means that product owners and UX people are designing and running the tests. Even the engineers should watch some of the sessions and hear first hand what their users are going through.

The reason I talk so much about user research is that I want you, the entrepreneurs, to learn enough about it so that you can DO IT YOURSELVES. You're welcome to hire people like me, or even real user researchers, to teach you what you need to do. But having somebody else do the research for you is not an option. At least, it's not one that you should use if you're still trying to find product market fit or learn anything actionable about your customers.

Stop thinking of user researchers as people you hire to get to know your users, and start thinking of yourself as a user researcher. At startups, you should all be user researchers, especially if what you really are is a designer or product manager.