A recipe for a good user research job

I love my job at Skyscanner. I don’t mind saying it. Those of you who know me will know I don’t say things I don’t mean. Not even for my employer.

I wouldn’t have come out of self-employment to work for just anybody, so I’ve recently been thinking if there is a recipe for a good user research position within a company. Here is what I’ve come up with.

A good subject

I’ve researched rather a lot of subjects in my time as a usability specialist, the list goes from watching telly programmes through to suicide. One of the reasons I joined Skyscanner was because I enjoyed researching the subject of travel so much.

This makes a big difference to me as a full-time employee of a company. Researching the topic of suicide was very interesting but after a couple of weeks I was a bit of a wreck if I’m honest. As a user researcher you need to empathise with the people you are researching and the circumstances they are in. This leaves a bit of you open that a health professional probably needs to close in order to function from day-to-day.

Other subjects are frankly a little bit boring. You can care about them because they are novel, but not for too long. I’ve been full-time at Skyscanner for a few years now and feel I’m only just scratching the surface of this subject.

People tend to fall into two types when planning holidays. They either like/love it or they hate it. Most of the people I talk to to love it because Skyscanner’s target users tend to be more allocentric and perceive less risk in doing their own research. They are excited about going on holiday and for many the holiday experience begins at the planning stage. It’s a lot easier to get feedback from people when the topic excites them.

Access to lots of data

It’s easy to get too comfy with the same research techniques as a user researcher. Quite often that can be usability testing and that can lead to an over-reliance on qualitative data. Having access to the numbers behind the user experience can be a very grounding experience because the things you thought were turning users away in droves often don’t in reality.

I’ve come to realise researchers have a tendency to prioritise the obvious issues which happen to the few over the subtle issues which happen to the many. I’ve become much better at my job for having had access to so much data and I’ve been able to realise when I’ve been wrong a lot more which is great for my development.

A challenge

It would be a bit boring if every bit of research I did led to people running around trying to act on every finding that came out of it. Instead it’s good for me to feel that more could be done. A heavy reliance on data here often gets confused with a heavy reliance on numbers. The two aren’t the same and it’s a challenge for me to get people to remember that.

Some freedom

My remit when I arrived here was to ‘be David’. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get a job description as good as that again. Ever. But we were a smaller company at the time and have more than trebled in size since. We need more user researchers now and so the scope of my role might reduce in time.

Having some freedom and autonomy is however a very good position for a researcher to be in. Some of my best work has been on things that nobody asked me to do.

A good researcher tries to get the project team to understand users rather than simply aiming to become the oracle on the subject. But nonetheless the researcher will see things that the project team don’t or perhaps aren’t immediately interested in. Having some freedom allows you to follow up on some of the things you’ve seen even when nobody else seems to care yet.

Skilled colleagues

When the standard of designer in an organisation is quite low then the researcher often needs to go as far as designing things for them. When you are surrounded by good designers, you simply need to help them understand the data and then leave them be to do what they do best.

I am very used to hearing and ignoring the phrase “we can’t do that”. But I don’t hear it very often round here. It’s sometimes frustrating how long it takes to hire an engineer here, but the quality is very high for that same reason. People here want to do difficult things, nobody is hiding.

Approachable leaders

Despite us nearing 700 employees, I can still email the CEO with a question or observation and this isn’t because I’m in some sort of privileged position. Anyone here can.

Of course some of the CxOs are more responsive than others and you don’t always get a reply. But our teams here are often very focused on the thing they are immediately trying to deliver so when your research throws up something with a bit of a deeper or wider impact then it helps to have avenues available to get these things in front of the people who need to see them.

Ask me again next year

Reading this back it comes across as a recruitment advert. There are still things that annoy me and I often get frustrated. But if I ever think of moving on, I’ll need to assess the next role for some of the stuff I’ve listed above.

Let me know what your recipe would be.

Five years later…

I’ve since moved back to being an independent UX consultant so I can go back to a role where I get to ‘be David’ again. My time at Skyscanner was the most enjoyable permanent role I ever had or ever expect to have again.

It was essentially the loss of autonomy and the eventual lack of progress being made in the product which led me to realise my best days at Skyscanner were behind me. I’m now back to freelancing and loving it.

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