How do you hire a UX researcher?

13 Mar 2014 - 8:31am
2 years ago
6 replies
5242 reads
Brett Christenson

Anyone have advice on hiring a user researcher? We have UX designers but having someone focused on research would really round out our team. Having a design background it is easier for me to interview graphic/interaction designers but interviewing researchers has felt awkward. 

I am wondering:

1. How important is the PHD?

2. Are there strong differences in personality types Research vs. Design?

3. Are there specific items we should drill down on during interviews?

4. What should I expect to see in a Research Portfolio?

Any  assistance is greatly appreciated.



13 Mar 2014 - 11:16am

1. Not that important b/c most people in the field come from other disciplines.  At this point, it's all about experience.

2. Not sure what you mean by personality types

3. How have they been able to accomodate various time and budget constraints? Let's be honest, research isn't always a priority at the beginning of any project and when people realize they need it it's usually at the last minute with the few dollars they have left in the budget.

4.  A variety of tatics the person has used.  For example, is there a good range of usability moderated 1:1 to remote unmoderated?

Good luck!

- Lisa

13 Mar 2014 - 1:47pm
Lil Tydings

Hi Brent,

That's a great question and seems to always come up. 

What I've learned so far
There's a fundamental difference between academic researchers and professional researchers, in my opinion. What I've observed is flexibility and ability to quickly adapt to ongoing changes.

I think this stems from these two scenarios:

  1. Within academic environments, researchers have X amount of years to define research scope, refine research focus, synthesize, score, and generate insights.
  2. Within professional environments, researches have to accomplish all that but typically have smaller to no budget and much tighter timelines.


After working within both environments over the last 6 years, I've observed the following:

  • Traditional researchers: they prefer to rely on quantitative data and methodology (which is very expensive) and provide insights only after they feel 150% comfortable with their recommendation (sometimes it takes a lot of time to get there).
  • Designers who focus on research: they are more comfortable with early decision making (tends to be faster), are used to working within shorter timeframes (tends to be cheaper), and take a more open, holistic approach to scoring, and insights generation.


I am not saying that academics can't make great professional researchers or that professional researchers come with the depth of expertise when it comes to research methodologies. What I am saying is you should base your decision to hire with the needs of your organization.

What to look for during an interview
When interviewing them, ask what lead them to a particular insight? Did they look broadly across many points, or did they spend 5 years focusing on a particular area? The quicker, and more broadly someone looks, the most efficient they will be as professional researchers.

What to look for in a folio
What I look for in their "portfolio" is quality of insights. It's easy to generate data. It's hard to do data correlation. Even harder to make meaningful decisions and generate insights that contribute to the bottom line.

If you access that your needs are mostly around professional research, look at a new generation of designers with MBAs. These will be T shaped individuals that can work across the spectrum of business, data analysis, design, and research. 

If you want to learn more:
I am actually doing a workshop in May in this particular topic at If you decide to attend, you can use UX14LT to get 15% discount.

And if you're local to the DC area, I will be teaching a class on "User Research on a shoe string budget" in April:

Hope this helps!

Feel free to ping me if you have more questions.

All the best,

13 Mar 2014 - 9:21pm
Mitchell Joe

Hi Brett, 

I'm no expert in hiring UX researchers but I do have experience doing both UX design and research and watching others do both and my experience has been that they involve different enough skill sets that good designers don't always make for the best researchers and vice versa, but that's not to say that you couldn't find someone who is good at both. I'd say that the main thing to try to assess is whether the candidate is good at having a really open mind, or a blank mind. Are they good at asking non-leading questions? Are the the waiter who asks, "Is everything good?" or the one who asks "How is everything?"? Can they empty their head of thoughts that would make them jump to conclusions about users too early? You want to make sure they don't think they know the answer before they observe users. You also want someone who never turns information about users away--someone who values absolutely any information about users, even if it's not relevant to the current product or hypothesis. You want to avoid the person with a hammer in her hand who sees everything as a nail. Chuang-tzu said, "The good traveler doesn't know where he's going; the great traveler doesn't know where he's been." You're looking for the great travelers. And people good at reading furrowed brows and interpreting or asking about every silence and sigh. 
Hope that helps some.
14 Mar 2014 - 5:16am
Sean Pook

A quick note on research portfolios - they're still relatively new, I'd say > 50% of UX researchers don't have one. NDAs are particularly problematic for these professionals. So don't rely on having one to review, chances are there won't be one. 

14 Mar 2014 - 11:06am
Brett Christenson

Thanks everyone for the input. It has been helpful. Please keep them coming.

Lil shed some light on what I was observing - Academic vs. professional researchers. Many of the candidates that I would identify as academic have been the most challenging for me to interview. When asked how they determine what needs to be studied or which method to use for a study they respond with well I have a PHD so I know what to look for or how to do it.

I'd say we are more interested in the professional researcher - PHD not required. Can you identify the area to be researched, define the test/study method, perform the study, quickly analyze, and report actionable finding? Like Mitch says, an open minded individual able to see what’s happing in a test and capture observations. 

I understand that Research portfolios are new and often difficult to provide. I wonder if there is good way to get samples of thier work. I think this is important because knowing how they communicate findings is critical to this position. Will I get a 70 page report that I need to drill into every page to determine what the issues are? Are the findings really actionable? I have received findings reports in the past where researchers spent a good amount of time to include recommendations that for one reason or another we could not even use.

I guess this is a different question around reporting findings... Wouldn't it be better to just identify the issue and note the impact it has on the users? Then bases on priority work with the design and dev teams to create a recommendation? Beacuse we might not be able to get to everything so why specd time on it? Maybe this question is a result of working in an Agile environment for so long. ;)

Thanks again


15 Mar 2014 - 11:52am
Tao Zhang

I think the difference between academic and professional researchers are somewhat exaggerated. It is all about the projects/researchs an invidual has been through. In academic environment, a researcher still faces the constriants of time, resource, cost, etc. similar to a professional environment. For example, I worked on UX research for a research repository website and I had to complete the user interview and usability evaluations in a month. And I did not have team members to help me. 

Admittedly in academic environment business and operations are less important than getting research results published in scholarly journals and conferences. But I think the research process, methodology, results analysis and presentation should be the same and should have the same evaluation standards in both academic and professional environments. 

I like the idea of creating research portfolio and being able to clearly show the research process and quickly identify insights and make design decisions. To some extent, a researcher in the academic environment is better at doing these things, because he/she needs to publish and all the papers have been through a rigorous peer-review process. 

Slides about the research design, methodology, results, and recommendations maybe more effective than full technical reports in a job interview. However, I feel the full value of a research should not be determined simply based on whether you can or cannot use the research findings. Maybe it is not because the research is bad, but it is difficult for you to implement the changes, especially when you think of doing some research only at the end of the project?  

Just my 2 cents.

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