Whose Job is User Research? An Interview with Steve Portigal

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  • steve.portigal.jpgThose of us who conduct user research as part of our jobs have made pretty big gains in recent years. I watched my first usability test in 1995 then spent a good portion of the 2000s trying to convince people that talking to users was an important part of designing and building great products. These days, when I talk to companies, the questions are less about why they should do user research and more about how they can do it better. Believe me, this feels like enormous progress.

    Unfortunately, you still don’t see much agreement about who owns user research within companies. Whose job is it to make sure it happens? Who incorporates the findings into designs? Who makes sure that research isn’t just ignored? And what happens when you don’t have a qualified researcher available? These are tough questions, and many companies are still grappling with them.

    So, I decided to talk to some people who have been dealing with these questions for a living. For this installment of the Whose Job is User Research blog series, I spoke with Steve Portigal, Principal at Portigal Consulting. He’s the author of Interviewing Users, which is a book you should read if you ever do any research on your own.

    You still don’t see much agreement about who owns user research within companies.

    Steve has spent many years working with clients at large and small companies to conduct user research of all types. He also spends a lot of his time helping product teams get better at conducting their own research. Because he’s a consultant, he sees how a large number of companies structure their research processes, so I asked him to give me some advice.

    What Does It Mean to Own User Research?

    “There are two aspects to ownership,” Steve says. “One is about owning the need. The other is about owning the actions where we build on what was learned in research. It doesn’t seem like there’s any perfect model for how research ownership works.”

    As Steve points out, the concept of owning research is much more complicated than a single ownership model can describe. At a minimum, somebody needs to determine which business questions should be answered. Somebody needs to figure out how to get those questions answered. Somebody needs to figure out what to do with the results of the research. It’s not often the same somebody.

    In fact, the different people involved in the research frequently are not even from the same department. Company org structures vary widely: researchers might be their own group or they might be part of marketing, product, or even engineering. The people requesting research and using the results might be product managers, ux designers, or marketers. That’s not even addressing the times when research is done by outside firms or by team members who aren’t trained in research.

    There’s a reason this is so confusing. Despite the fact that various forms of user research have been used to develop products for decades, the widespread adoption of user research in the tech industry is still relatively new. Steve says, “People have more dogmatic theories about best practices, but I’m seeing so much variety and so much iteration as people try to figure it out.”

    Hopefully with a few more iterations we’ll get a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. Although it’s likely there will never be one single answer. The best configuration may always depend on factors like company size, industry, and type of research that needs to be done.  

    Who Should Do the Research?

    Despite the fact that Steve is a highly experienced research expert who conducts research for clients, he’s very upfront about the fact that internal teams should be heavily involved with the research. Often they should be doing it themselves. This is one of the reasons he teaches people how to be better at research and why he wrote a book that explains how to interview users more effectively.

    Not every research study requires an expert at the helm. Quite a few products would benefit from having somebody on the main product team who could quickly get feedback or answers to simple questions. “Even a newbie researcher should be able to answer some factual questions about what people are doing or might want to do. They also have the opportunity to reflect on what assumptions they were holding onto that were incorrect,” Steve explains. “You’ll always get more questions to go with your answers, but hoo boy–it’s better than never talking to users and acting with confident ignorance.”

    There are some questions you’re better off bringing in an expert, though. “The more help you need in connecting the business problem with the research approach and connecting the observations to the business implications, the more expert help you need,” Steve explains.

    We should all know by now that things like usability testing make our products simpler and more intuitive for our users. There’s also a huge amount of information to help you run a basic usability test. But when you’re getting into some of the trickier questions around generating or validating business ideas–or turning early customer research into innovative solutions to problems, an expert can help guide the research process and make these complicated research studies run more smoothly.

    How Do We All Work Together?

    Of course, none of this answers the question of how we all work together. Steve feels like there’s not a single answer to this question, but it’s very important to decide this ahead of time so that everybody knows what to expect.

    For example, consider where researchers live in relation to the people who need insights to inform product design. When your company has expert researchers, they may be part of an in-house silo, embedded in the product team, an outside consultant, or some hybrid of any of the above. Wherever they come from, you should determine five things as part of your research planning process:

    • What do we need to learn?
    • Who are we going to study?
    • What will we do with the outcomes?
    • How are we going to work together?
    • How will we define success?

    A standard predictor of success is how much the client is able to join the fieldwork.

    “Negotiating these elements is part of what a good research person should be doing,” Steve says. “The team structures, the availability of stakeholders – these are all inputs.” In other words, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to determining how research projects should happen.

    According to Steve there is one constant: “A standard predictor of success is how much the client is able to join the fieldwork.” And he’s right. The best type of research is the research that people use to make better decisions. The more involved your team is with conducting the research, the more likely they will understand and pay attention to the results.

    Learn More

    Want to know more about conducting research well? Check out Steve’s book Interviewing Users for practical, easy to use advice on getting more out of your research sessions. Or join us this October for a one-day remote conference User Research for Everyone–featuring 8 of the most respected experts in the field.


    Laura Klein is a Lean UX and Research expert in Silicon Valley who teaches companies how to get to know their users and build products people will love. She’s a Rosenfeld Media expert and author of UX for Lean Startups (O’Reilly). Her newest book, Build Better Products, is set for release later in 2016. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her blog and podcast at Users Know.

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