Applying a Firefighter Model to UX Research Practice

Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

As UX researchers, we’ve all been there: We have our research plans meticulously laid out. We envision weeks full of fascinating conversations with users, long stretches of analysis, and actionable insights that will blow everyone’s mind and might even impact the strategic direction of the product.

Then, Important Stakeholder(s) rush into our (virtual) office, arms waving, alarm-like sounds coming from their mouths. “Drop everything! We need to completely change focus!” In other words, “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

Depending on how much we need a predictable environment in order to thrive, this situation could provoke any reaction from a groan to a clenched jaw to a full-blown professional identity crisis. “How can they expect us to do our job?” we might cry. “This was a really important project! It took us forever to tweak the set-up! We can’t just drop it.”

Instead of seeing these intrusions as a disruption, what if we apply the Firefighter Model? I’d like to propose three ways we can thrive in our UX research practice, no matter what the priority shift: first, embrace the Firefighter Model, second, practice knitting in the fire station, and third, accept our firefighter identity.

Embrace the Firefighter Model

In name, the Firefighter Model hasn’t been written about much. There’s one book chapter written by Thomas McLarty III who describes the Firefighter Model as a form of corporate crisis management, where “the strategy is to focus resources towards the most urgent need: containing the flames and preventing further damage.”

The Firefighter Model applied to a UX research practice is a bit different: The crisis, or fire, is often internally generated, by product managers/design leaders/C-level execs who opt to change direction. The disruptive and unexpected nature of the fire most impacts the makers: the professionals who have to alter the course of their daily work (developers, designers, or, in our case, UX researchers). The Important Stakeholders alert us to the fire, and we – as UX research practitioners (a.k.a firefighters) – answer the call to put the fire out.

What’s important here is framing the Firefighter Model in terms of crisis management. When we are on the receiving end of urgent instructions to abandon ship, we might feel out of control, especially when we didn’t have a say in the change of plans. Embracing this model results in two positive outcomes: feeling a renewed sense of control and utilizing our time in the fire station.

“Knitting in the fire station”

I know the thought of embracing the Firefighter Model isn’t easy. There are probably a lot of you out there who are shaking your heads, refusing to admit defeat. Determined to stick with those plans. Maybe even pulling that firefighter helmet off and tossing it across the room.

I offer a form of resistance.

Being a firefighter means you spend a lot of time sitting around at the fire station. Thankfully, fighting fires is not a constant part of the job.

“Knitting in the fire station” is code for doing the job we thought we had as UX researchers. In essence, it means we agree to fight fires, but we spend the rest of our time anticipating and avoiding them.

This is where we draw on our UX research expertise. We can build up our research operations. We can spend time creating a panel of participants to contact when the fire alarm sounds – we’ll put out the flames that much quicker. We can create templates for sharing rapid results – a fire hose of actionable insights.

We can do research, too, even work on that low-priority project that our stakeholders failed to prioritize, but we know better. Despite everything we still celebrate the researcher’s mindset and trust our process, even if it doesn’t match mandated timelines. Who knows? Those “trivial” insights might just serve as a fire extinguisher in next month’s big blaze.

We can meet with our fellow firefighters to discuss how we are adapting to the model. Sharing frustrations and exchanging knitted goods – er, best research practices – are both great ways to bond with our community of practitioners.

“Knitting in the fire station” means, in other words, spending our non-firefighting time creating things that make firefighting easier and less painful. McLarty calls this approach the Fire Marshall Model: “…their primary responsibility is to focus on prevention strategies – establishing and enforcing fire codes and educating citizens on fire safety.” Our incidence of fires may drop considerably, just as it has in the real world.

Accept our firefighter identity

Acceptance: It’s the last stage of grief, and it’s a necessary part of embracing our firefighter identity. I know it’s tough.

Remember: In the Firefighter Model, a fire is an emergency that needs immediate attention. When there’s a fire, and we’re firefighters, our job is to put it out.

The existence of the fire is beyond our control, especially in COVID times. There’s no use in arguing about whether it exists. It does. Why not put the Serenity Prayer on mental repeat? “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Now: This doesn’t mean that a digital product company – let alone a UX research practice – could or should operate in a constant state of emergency. However: when there’s a fire, our stakeholders are going to alert us, and they’re going to be relieved and grateful if we help to put the fire out. Being asked to participate is a massive validation of our worth. It shows our contribution is meaningful. Otherwise, why would we hear about the fire in the first place?

If we can learn to embrace the Firefighter Model, we might start to see ourselves as the heroes that we are.

You can also read this article on Medium.