Now available: Design for Impact by Erin Weigel

Whose Job is User Research? An Interview with Tomer Sharon


This is part 2 in the series Whose Job is User Research. Tomer Sharon

As part of my ongoing series of posts where I try to get to the bottom of who owns user research, I reached out to Tomer Sharon, former Sr. User Experience Researcher for Google Search and now Head of UX at WeWork. He wrote a book called It’s Our Research which addresses this exact topic. His new book, Validating Product Ideas, is also now available. He’ll be speaking at the upcoming Product Management + User Experience hosted by Rosenfeld Media, designed to help teams work together to learn more about their users.

Tomer recently announced that UX at WeWork won’t have a research department and what drove that decision. I took this opportunity to ask Tomer a few questions, and to learn what suggestions he has for creating a team that conducts research well and uses it wisely.

Everybody Owns Research

Possibly the most important lesson you can learn from Tomer is this:  stop asking the question “who owns research?” “Everybody owns research,” he explains. “Research is a team sport. What research is needed is determined based on different sources–decisions the team is trying to make, known knowledge gaps, dilemmas and arguments among and between teams and more.”

Research is a team sport. The team needs to decide what it needs to know together. – Tweet This

He encourages people to use all of these sources to generate research questions. For example, if a team has trouble deciding on development or prioritization of new ideas, then a research question might be “What are the top needs or challenges our users have?”

“Research questions are questions the team needs answers to, not questions that you ask research participants during a study,” he says. That means that the team needs to decide what it needs to know together.

By making research a key part of everybody’s job, it gets rid of the problem many teams have of ignoring research reports. Instead, research becomes a tool everybody can use to answer important questions.

Use Researchers as Facilitators and Coaches

Of course, that all sounds delightful, but it does bring up three important questions:

  • What if people just don’t do research?
  • Should we really let people who don’t have any experience do research?
  • And the most important question (to researchers, anyway) is does this mean we don’t need actual researchers any longer?

There’s good news for researchers among us. We’re still needed, and we’re not just going to let completely untrained people take over our jobs! But instead of being a service organization, Tomer recommends that researchers become mentors, coaches, and facilitators of research. WeWork’s UX team will still have well trained research professionals. In fact, those are some of the first hires that Tomer wants to make. The difference is that they will be embedded with product teams and work with everybody to help make sure research is conducted well instead of working alone in their own silo.

Of course, there are a few types of studies that professionals should lead. “In 90% of the cases,” Tomer says, “I’d prefer a non-researcher doing research, supported by guidance and mentorship of a researcher. The remaining 10% are studies such as ethnography, surveys (yes, surveys), and highly complex quantitative studies, in which I’d prefer a researcher leads the project.”

Other times when you may need to bring in specialized researchers include cross-cultural studies:  where you learn about the behavior and needs of people in a culture very different than yours. If Tomer needs to learn about the needs of WeWork members in China or Indonesia, he partners with a local design research agency (not a market research agency!) to make sure the study runs smoothly and gets insightful results. But even then, all the team stakeholders must be directly involved with the research. Learning about your users isn’t something you should outsource.

Learning about your users isn’t something you should outsource. – Tweet This

Turn Research Directly into Design

Here’s some more good news for those of you who don’t enjoy writing twenty page research reports that are never read (or creating hundred slide Powerpoint decks that colleagues suffer through). Making research an integrated part of the design process gets rid of the deliverables step.

“Research must lead to design that then leads to more research,” Tomer explains. That’s why his favorite method of synthesis and communication is the design studio or design sprint. During a design sprint, the team comes up with a shared understanding of research outcomes and their design implications through sketching, critique, and quick research on team solutions. “The researcher or key decision maker in the team or company can facilitate a discussion in which the answers to the research questions are shared.”

Research must lead to design that then leads to more research. – Tweet This

In other words, get rid of the Powerpoint, and focus on rapid synthesis of research results. Immediately turn them into ideas and designs. This can save you weeks of report writing, and it also means that your team gets a clearer idea of the problems that you’re trying to solve.

Break Down Silos (even if it’s not your job)

Obviously this is all easy for Tomer to say. He gets to build the WeWork UX team from the ground up. But what about those of us who work in companies where research is off in its own silo? Do we have to wait until we’re in charge so that we can change the rules?

Tomer offers insight on this_having spent a lot of his career working at a very large company with a very large research group. “Talk!” he says, “Approach new hires and help them with something not related to research. Teach them how to find the best parking spot or how to change their profile picture on the intranet. The key here is trust and relationship building. From there, mountains can be moved and silos can be brought down.”

Even if we’re put in silos by management, all of us, whether we’re researchers, designers, product managers, or anything else, can reach out to our coworkers and build teams that transcend silos. It’s not easy, but the results are worth it, since we end up with better team communication and products that solve a need for our users.

Learn More

Check out Tomer’s book Validating Product Ideas: Through Lean Research. Or join us on October 11 for our 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.