5 top skills a user researcher needs

We don’t just design services for users – we aim to design services with our users. User researcher Garrett Stettler shares his top five skills for user researchers, which help keep them focused on finding out what the user really needs.

Garrett says: “Good user research is not straightforward. It’s a specialist profession that requires a suite of skills and experience that can take practitioners years to develop. I’ve broken this down into my ‘top 5’ specialist skills user researchers need.”

1. An understanding of the problem

We practice user-centred design and work in agile ways to reduce risk. This helps to ensure we’re building services that meet users’ needs. Good user research is the foundation of this approach. User research reveals who the users really are and what the true problem space is. By taking note of both what people say and what they do – which don’t always match – user researchers can identify hidden needs that can completely change the understanding of the actual problem.

Graphic showing a person looking at a white board covered with data

2. The ability to empathise with the user

User researchers need to be sensitive to participants’ situations and emotional states. DWP deals with some of the most vulnerable members of society who may be going through stressful life events.

The responsibility to adhere to ethical standards needs to be taken seriously. In government, it’s critical that we consider everyone who might use a service, including people with access needs, those who are vulnerable and people who might be at risk of being excluded from the service in some way.

Graphic showing a person and 3 bubbles depicting various users

3. Be an expert at conducting research

A key part of the user research role is in crafting research questions at the right level to help learn about the users and test hypotheses.

Fieldwork is considerably more complicated than just talking to people. A skilled researcher will be trained in cognitive biases, and will have learned that an interview is not the same as a conversation, and that keeping quiet and allowing for an awkward silence is often necessary to surface insights.

Sometimes situations in the field differ from expectations. Anything can happen at any time. A good researcher will be able to quickly adjust, keeping research questions in mind to get the information needed in a way that is seamless to the research participant.

Notetaking is another skill that looks easy on the surface, but actually requires training and practice. To be useful, notes need to capture information at the right level. The key pieces of information should be recorded verbatim. An expert researcher will not interpret or making assumptions while notetaking.

Graphic showing a magnifying glass focused in on data

4. Be knowledgeable on analysis and synthesis

Fieldwork yields an enormous amount of data. One of the key skills a user researcher must have is an ability to sift through a lot of data and make sense of it. The researcher will approach the data with an open mind and synthesise it in a way that aids understanding. Group synthesis activities are important for building the teams understanding, so a skilled user researcher will often facilitate them.

Graphic showing a person at a kanban board covering in data

5. Have a talent for storytelling

For user research to make an impact, the user researcher needs to engage the team members and stakeholders with the research findings. Storytelling skills bring research to life.

The user researcher needs to know the audience and tell the story in a way that helps the entire team understand and empathise with the users.

Graphic of a person reading from a large book


Want more tips like this? Subscribe to our email newsletter.