Whose Job is User Research? An Interview with Amy Santee

Almost every time I give a talk, I get asked how people can convince their companies to adopt more user research or pay attention to the research that’s being done. I’ve always given various answers, ranging from “quit and go to a better company” to “try to make research more inclusive,” but I realized that I was giving advice based on too small of a sample set.

So, earlier this year, I became obsessed with finding out who owns user research in functional teams. I’ve asked dozens of people on all sorts of different teams what makes research work for them, and I’m sharing their responses here. If you’re someone who is very familiar with how user research works on your team and would like to participate, please contact me.

Recently, I asked Amy Santee, an independent UX research consultant, some questions about who should own research. She trained as an anthropologist, and she’s been doing user research for several years for companies ranging from healthcare to insurance to hardware and mobile tech companies, so she’s seen what works and doesn’t work in a lot of different models.

Who Owns It

“For internal teams,” Amy explains, “researchers and designers who do research should ‘own’ the research process in the sense of being the go-to people responsible for driving its fundamental activities: planning and budgets, coordination, research design, recruiting participants, conducting sessions, and disseminating the results. It’s not so much ‘owning’ it but being the point person for getting things done.”

One of the themes I’ve seen so far in these interviews is the strong difference between the responsibility for conducting research and the ownership of the results. Regardless of who is responsible for getting research done, research results and participation should be owned by the whole team. The researcher or designer might be driving the process, but everybody else on the team should be along for the ride.

It’s not just direct members of the team who need to participate, either. “Stakeholders in design, product, engineering, business, marketing and other areas should share in this ownership to the greatest degree possible,” Amy says. “That’s why they’re called stakeholders – they have (or should have) a stake in the game when it comes to incorporating research into their processes and decision-making.”

To be clear, in Amy’s model, the stakeholders aren’t just interested in the outcomes. They should be active participants in the research. They can offer important perspectives from their respective business areas, and they should contribute to the research process itself by observing sessions, brainstorming ideas and solutions, and helping to synthesize the results.

The benefits of this sort of participatory research, Amy says, are clear. “The more this is done, the more value people will see in being involved, and the less the researcher needs to ‘own’ research by him or herself. Stakeholders might even learn how to do research so they don’t always have to rely on a single person or team to do it.”

Researching without Researchers

Of course, not all teams are lucky enough to have dedicated researchers or designers who are trained in user research methods. Amy has some suggestions for those who decide to do research without any experience on the team.

“My preference is for internal researchers because they have an understanding of the company and product from the inside,” she explains. “They are able to really get a sense for how research fits into the design process and business strategy. They can build relationships with other business areas and roles in order to figure out how research can bring the most value, when to do it, who to get involved, how to communicate most effectively, and possibly make more effective recommendations.”

That said, there are reasons to bring in experts from outside. “Training from an expert who has the right background and experience can help a team get started with the fundamentals and avoid the inappropriate execution of a research project (e.g., wrong methodology, misinformed research questions, etc.),” she says.

Sometimes, combining an external expert with internal trainees can even yield certain unexpected benefits. For example, outside consultants might have a fresher look at the questions the team should be asking. They might be able to bring up things that team members wouldn’t feel comfortable saying because they don’t have a bias or agenda. And, of course, they’ll typically have experience working with many different teams, so they’ll be able to spot patterns that less experienced researchers might not see.

Whether you’re working with internal experts or external coaches, the important thing is that the people on your team are engaged in the process. Making research a collaborative effort means more people in your company will learn from users, and that’s good for your product.

Learn More

For more information about Amy, check out her website, find her on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.