Whose Job is User Research? An Interview with Adam Nemeth

For this installment of my series on good user research practices within companies, I spoke with Adam Nemeth, UX strategist at UXStrategia.net, a UX research firm based in Hungary. He shared his perspectives on how teams should think about user research and when they should get help.

Why You Should Be Doing Research Yourself

There are a lot of reasons that your team should own and run user research. Most importantly, research is deeply connected to the product. “Design is essentially a plan for a product,” Adam says. “Whoever is responsible for bringing the product on the market should be held responsible for the research about the ‘true’ underlying problem, and also the for the research which validates whether the product is truly a solution for the problem.”

Because understanding your user’s problem and finding the right solution for it are so integral to the product design process, whoever is making product decisions needs to be held responsible for the research that produces this understanding.

Of course, understanding the problem and solution are important, but they don't make up the entirety of user research. Another critical part of your product is its ease of use. “Learn usability testing,” Adam says. “For God’s sake, just do it!” He even wrote a Medium post on how to do it well, in case you don’t have any experience with it.

Why You May Need Help Doing Research

But doing your own user research may be easier said than done. There are, unfortunately, some common roadblocks that teams run into, especially when starting to conduct research without a specialist. 

“Research is easy to mess up,” Adam warns. “It’s a world full of biases.” That’s very true. It can be extremely difficult for PMs, designers, or founders to get unbiased feedback on their own work without appropriate training.

Adam explains, “A startup CEO once had a hard time believing nobody needed their wonderful product, even when it came out as an unsolicited statement from the 4th participant in a row.” Research needs to be done by somebody who can deal with the bad news. Because, as Adam says, “Research bringing only good news is usually self-deception.”

Even if you’re not actively denying bad news, some research techniques can be hard to learn and perform well. “Usability testing is easy,” Adam explains. “but learning how to do interviews and field studies properly is much more difficult. You have to watch your own posture, your tone of voice, choose your words carefully, and be open to a world you know is filtered by your own assumptions, yet you must strive to get a glimpse behind them.”

To improve, Adam recommends recording yourself, not just to listen for the answers to your questions but to hear the questions themselves. You want to hear what you’re asking, how you’re asking it, and the sorts of responses it’s eliciting so that you can improve.

Also, some research is simply harder to do. It’s not all just usability studies and guerrilla coffee shop tests. Diary studies take a long time and a lot of attention. Hard to locate participants from very specific groups can make recruiting a huge task. Sometimes you’ll need to find an external person to manage bigger research projects, just to make sure that they get the attention they need.

Finally, even if you do have a research specialist on the team, they can run into an entirely different set of problems. Sadly, user researchers within organizations aren't always believed. In-house researchers can suffer from credibility issues, through no fault of their own. Companies sometimes need to hear the same results from an outside consultant in order to really listen.

So, Who Is Responsible for Research?

“It all boils down to these three factors,” Adam explains. “Who is able to argue the best for the user against a product choice? Who is able to notice a product error? Who is responsible for the product?” Whoever that person is, they’re the one who should be responsible for research.

Whoever is responsible for it, “Understanding users should be deeply embedded in the culture,” Adam says. “When I'm working with clients, I always facilitate studies. I don't believe in handed-in reports, no one will care about them and everyone will forget them soon. But making sure every single stakeholder participated in field studies, and that we watch usability test videos together - that is an experience which brings users closer to everyone within a product team.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter if research is being done by internal resources or external consultants. We’re all responsible for being involved in the research so that we can truly understand our users.