Robot with kid

What qualities does it take to be a good user researcher? Empathy, curiosity, active listening, (re)framing, persuasion, patience, experimental-mindset, neutrality, and tenacity. The ability to be comfortable both when the data are unclear and when one must make solid recommendations. The ability to suspend judgment, and to courageously serve as the voice of the user.

But aren’t these just qualities of being a good human? I think so.

A friend doesn’t call on your birthday? Wait to judge, perhaps they‘re having a crappy day. Your manager doesn’t agree with your argument? Reframe the problem, taking in account what she cares about. Yoga pose too difficult? Experiment with what you can do.

To be a better human is to understand not only those around you, but also yourself. How do you engage and relate to others? How can you get more out of your friendships and relationships by recognizing your own behavior?

The line between being a good human and good researcher can often seem blurry. Some years ago I worked for a group that disliked one of an adjacent team’s product features. They talked incessantly about how that other team didn’t understand what good product was because of a particular “annoying” feature. I then asked to do a part time research project for that team— poring over quantitative data and conducting user interviews. And what I found surprised me: my own team wasn’t being fair.

What the “annoying feature” team didn’t need was criticism, they needed help. When I showed my results to this team not only did they feel understood, but my research allowed them to see the problem anew, from a different, more refined angle. This gave them energy and allowed them to move forward in improving that feature.

Designers can be notorious in their criticism when Twitter or Uber or Facebook or Apple changes something visual or UX-wise, but they often don’t have the full context for why something was done, or the months and months of research that went into making that change happen. Don’t get me wrong: constructive criticism is OK, but simply tearing down others without asking questions and considering the possibility of good intentions is not.

For me, one of the most important qualities in a designer is empathy — not only for users, but for their engineering and product colleagues and their wider community. I’d like to think that everyone is doing their best to make a positive impact on others’ lives through putting better technology in the world. But perhaps that’s just the user researcher in me, trying to empathize, trying to understand.

Not all user researchers are good humans, and user research is not the only discipline that helps people become better. But I truly believe: to be a better human, think like a good user researcher.

Thanks for reading! If you’re ever in Zürich, let’s get coffee. ☕️ 😎