A Researcher’s Mindset

A researcher knows that learning methods is a necessary condition to being successful. But these skills are not sufficient: Researchers must also acquire the necessary mindset in order to thrive in their practice. As a researcher who’s experienced the academic and UX side of research, I’ve seen how in both settings, a researcher’s mindset questions everything, lives comfortably in a grey area, and champions empathy.

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A researcher’s mindset questions everything

Having a researcher’s mindset means being obsessed with questions: generating questions, refining questions, answering questions, asking questions about the answers to questions. Before I got into UX, I spent 15 years teaching research methods courses to undergraduate and graduate students. The first thing we discussed was the importance of the research question. Start with its relevance: Is the question one that yearns to be answered, either by you or your stakeholders? Is the question one that can be answered using data? Then, given the scope of data on which you can draw, is the question too big, too small, or just right?

The same is true in UX-land: Tinkering with a research question until it feels solid is fundamental to the success of a research project. When a stakeholder approaches you with a topic, turning that topic into a question is the first step to scoping a quality project. If the question is researchable, answerable, guides the research process, and can be altered in the face of obstacles or new evidence, you’ve started on solid ground.

A researcher’s mindset lives comfortably in a grey area

“Yes or no, can you let us know in a week?” This kind of stakeholder question makes UX researchers take a deep breath and do some relaxation techniques. Researchers are trained to shy away from definitive answers to research questions: how can it possibly be as simple as “yes” or “no”? There’s a reason (beyond enjoying being long-winded) that academic papers are usually thousands of words long: There is no easy answer to a research question, especially a qualitative one. Research can instead reveal, in shades of grey, whether you are on the right track.

Of course we learn clever ways around this when dealing with our stakeholders (“Yes, and…”, “No, however…”) but a researcher’s mindset thrives in crafting insights until they become inspirational. This is not because we want to be difficult or incomprehensible, but because we are trained to see nuances. We recognize the plethora of elements that can affect the outcome of our research: the fit of research participants, the analysis we use, the audience for insights. We see research methods as living organisms and we imagine simple to complex projects based on time constraints. Perusing these grey areas can make things tricky but it also adds a delightful complexity to the research process. (Finding clarity in the face of these ambiguities is another skill worthy of its own article.)

A researcher’s mindset champions empathy

You Are Not the User: That is our mantra, sometimes chanted mentally as our stakeholders tell us how their own expertise is enough – no user research necessary! As researchers we also remind ourselves that we, too, are not the user: Whether academics focused on understanding attitudes towards dating apps, or UXers looking at user behavior, we conduct extensive research, perform careful analysis, craft our insights sharing, all the while remembering that our sworn duty is to be an outspoken advocate for our user’s perspective.

User empathy can sometimes be hard to remember in a meeting with skeptical product managers or leadership. This situation exemplifies another facet of our empathy: We also need to have empathy for our stakeholders, and understand their motivations, fears, pain points, and perspectives. Empathy for the user and the experience they go through before, during, and after using our product is crucial, but so is empathy for our stakeholders in order to communicate research insights in the most actionable way. The ability to champion both kinds of empathy is part of our mindset as UX researchers.

Ashley Graham talked about methods versus mindset in an insightful interview on Dollars to Donuts. She argued that others can always help you perfect your methods skills, but crafting a researcher’s mindset is the essential starting point for any UX researcher. Having such a mindset means “you speak up and bring the voice of the user to whatever context that you’re working in.”

As a UX researcher, you’re a whiz at writing interview guides and conducting interviews. You understand the intricacy of crafting solid survey design. You’re a pro at analyzing research data. But the mindset you bring to the table is what makes you a true change agent.

You may find yourself wondering: Do I have it? Can anyone adopt it, or does it require a specific type of person? What conditions must be in place for it to thrive? How could one measure it? Congratulations, you are on your way to acquiring a researcher’s mindset!

You can also read this article on Medium.