UX Uncensored is a series of blog posts published by NomNom in partnership with Designer Hangout, a Slack community with over 9,000 product and UX people. We asked the UX community to share their secrets and learnings completely anonymously. In five open ended questions, we explore war stories, industry misconceptions, and practical advice.

The time has come to wrap this series up. In analyzing survey responses from over 100 members of the UX community, we learned what advice they’d give themselves five years ago. We saw how they’d spend their ideal budget if money wasn’t an issue.

We learned why and how they get their teams involved in the user research process. And we looked at the five biggest misconceptions they face about user research, and how the UX community can work together to turn those perceptions around.

For the finale, we asked the community to share the most helpful piece of advice they’ve received so far in their career. The results were a mix of valuable insights gathered from a wide variety of experiences and years in the field. Read on for more!

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What would you say if I asked you:

When it comes to product discovery and user research, what has been the most helpful advice you’ve received?

Though the responses varied, we found six main themes evident among them:

  1. Any research is better than no research, start early
  2. User research has business value, it’s our job to prove it
  3. Get your stakeholders involved in the research process
  4. Test often, iterate always
  5. Avoid biases, be an advocate for the user
  6. Ask open ended questions and listen intently

One participant nicely summarised these lessons into one overarching piece of advice:

“Be curious when investigating, be humble when learning from the users, be open to being wrong at any time but rock solid to defend the position you have and the responsibility you have toward your users.” — UX Researcher — 600+ person org.

Below, we break down each theme to highlight the top takeaways passed down through continued learning, mentorship, and experience.

1) Any research is better than none, start asking questions asap

The majority of respondents have been told that starting small is better than not starting at all. Even guerilla tactics can be effective initially. And by starting small, if you make mistakes (and we all do), you’ll have lessons to apply to your work as you grow your research groups.

More importantly, you’ll spot issues with your product early on, rather than down the road when you have hundreds or thousands of people using it and threatening to churn. Insights from your earliest users will validate (or not) your ideas. Get to know the people you have available and how they’re using your product as soon as possible.

We asked the community: what has been the most helpful user research advice you’ve received so far?

“Early on ideation and validation will save you tons of meetings, headaches, and time.” — Product Manager — 15 person org.

“Any research is better than no research. Do what you can in the time you have.” — Lead User Experience Designer — 200 person org.

“You just have to do it. That even in a suboptimal environment, the biggest issues also come up in a test.” — UX Designer — 350 person org.

“The best thing I have read so far is that user research is needed in any company, and that the time to investment ratio on it is very well weighted to research.” — Product Designer — 3,000+ person org.

“Speak with real end users if possible. Do it early, and be as thorough as possible. Also, really plot out the pain points and potential obstacles.” — UI/UX Designer — 5,000 person org.

“Prototype early, fail fast.” — UX Researcher — 350K+ person org.

“When in doubt, validate with a handful of users.” — 200+ employees, Senior UX Designer

“When your sample size is too small, it’s best to get gut checks from interviews but not use them as the north star. As soon as your sample size is large enough, however, you need to very quickly adjust your mindset and process, which can be hard for a lot of designers.” — Lead Designer, 40 person org.

“Products based on user needs rule over products created and then driven by marketing.” — UX architect — large corp.

“Measure twice, cut once.” — Art Director — 10 person team.

2) User research has business value, and it’s your job to prove it

We’ve already heard from the community that demonstrating the ROI of research is critical for getting stakeholder buy-in but it’s worth repeating. We’ve all seen designs flop when launched without the proper research to validate them. We’ve seen designs morph and change to meet users’ needs throughout the research process. The data and stories are there. Getting buy-in is all in how you tell that story to your stakeholders.

Here’s what the community had to say about user research’s impact on the bottom line:

“That user research helps you build the business and customer metrics needed to determine the outcome of what you’re building.” — Senior UX Designer — 30K person org.

“The cost of bad design or reworking design is far greater than the cost of doing generative research.” — UX Researcher & Design Strategist — 10k person org.

“Use data (namely ROI) to backup your argument to convince stakeholders and get required investment from them to perform these.” — Product Designer — 10 person org.

“That you have to be able to communicate the value of discovery and research to organizations that may think they don’t have the time or the resources to conduct it.” — UX Manager — 6 person startup.

“Building trust within your organization is helpful. Treat your product/service team like a client. Show you understand their time/resource constraints and prove that UX research can fit into their timeframe.” — UX Researcher — 5,000 person org.

For tips on how to best communicate research’s value, check out part three of this series.

3) Get stakeholders involved in the research process

Throughout the series, we’ve heard effective user research should not be done in a silo — it’s a team sport. When your team or clients see users struggling with their product, they’ll understand that changes need to be made, and the value of user research. Getting team members involved by contributing questions and sitting in on sessions will also speed up the design process by flagging any issues sooner than later. Here’s what the community said.

What has been the most helpful user research advice you’ve received so far?

“Bring stakeholders and PMs into the field to actually experience/hear what customers say. If that’s not possible, get an audio recording. If that’s not possible, get quotes.” — Design Director — 200+ person consultancy.

“Bring another non-UX member of the team along with you for the research session.” — UX Designer — 12k person org.

“Adopting continuous product discovery practices across the organization. Building teams, not just products.” — Freelance UX Consultant

“Get the team to engage with the research by sitting in on sessions and helping with the analysis.” — Sr. Product Design Researcher — 1,000+ person org.

“Bring the client along with you on the journey. You cannot go dark or try to tightly control the process.” — Lead Researcher — 100 person org.

For more tips on how to get your team involved in the research process, check out part three of this series.

4) Test often, research at every phase, iterate always

User research should never stop. Your users’ needs will evolve and change, as will the market. To keep your finger on the pulse of what your users need, keep talking to them and watching how they use your product. Test every product change or new feature, even if it’s with a smaller group of users. Sound familiar? This has been a major lesson for community members, as they mentioned it in several different areas of the survey.

What has been the most helpful user research advice you’ve received so far?

“You have to go out in the field and talk to people early and often.” — Sr Director, Product And UX — 200+ person org.

“That it can be done iteratively and at a lighter weight than is what typically expected. Gorilla testing etc.” — UX Designer — 500 person org.

“Test often and get your work out in front of people as soon as possible. Working in a vacuum is very detrimental.” — Director of UX — 3 designer team.

“To test as often as possible, even if minimal changes have been made to the product. Just test with five users at a time, it will be enough to give you useful feedback” — UX Designer — 100 person team.

“Work off of something and then evolve it as you go.” — Director of UX — 70k+ person org.

“Talk to your users now, at any stage in the process.” — User Experience Lead — 20k+ person org.

5) Avoid biases, be an advocate for the user

“You are not the user” may sound obvious or even condescending. But it’s a lesson that’s easy to forget when you’re heads down working day in and day out on a product. We (as UX professionals) become too close to what we’re building and develop biases based on our current needs and moods. We become emotionally attached to it and what it’s future should be. At the end of the day, you are not the end user paying for the product and don’t always know what’s best without asking.

Advice handed down from the community:

“You are not your user.” — UX Designer — 30k+ person org.

“‘You are not the user’ is a good one, but add to that ‘You are A user.’ Most people try to separate themselves too much from other human beings as if they are truly on the different side of some invisible consumer line. — UX/UI Designer — 500+ person org (recently acquired by IBM).

“Be a user advocate.” — Freelance UX Designer

“Make no assumptions, be mindful of your biases.” — UX Lead — 80 person org.

“Focus on goals, needs, behaviors, and frustrations.” — Senior UX Designer — 5,000 person org.

“Understand the journey, don’t make assumptions or stereotypes.” — Lead of UX — 25 person org.

6) Ask open-ended questions and truly listen

We’ve talked a lot about why user research is important, what type of research to conduct, and how to get started — but then what? The type of questions you ask our users is incredibly important. Just as you want to avoid our own biases, you also want to avoid users’ biases. For honest, open answers, ask honest, open questions. Most importantly, really listen and absorb what users are sharing, whether through words or actions. Read on for what type of questions the UX community has found most effective throughout the years.

What has been the most helpful user research advice you’ve received so far?

“Listen to their solutions; hear their problems. — Matt DeSio” — Sr. UX Designer — 50 person org.

“It is important to dig deep to find the underlying issues.” — Freelance UX Designer.

“Ask good open ended questions and make making observation a priority.” — Self-employed UX Designer.

“Keep all your questions as open-ended as possible (i.e. no “yes/no” answers), always have someone taking notes or recording so you can focus on the conversation.” — User Experience Designer — 3,000+ person org.

“Don’t ask leading questions.” — UX Designer — 1,000 person org.

“Leave silence to allow users to elaborate.” — Director of UX — 150 person org.

“For me personally, how to use the skills I had acquired in journalism (asking open-ended questions, listening, probes). Or the book Humble Inquiry.” — Freelance UX Designer.

“When discovering, frame questions to reference the past to invoke a truthful story as opposed to a hypothetical situation.” — UX Team Lead — 5,000 person org.

“The qualitative methods can help in formulating the questions on WHAT to use the quantitative methods for. — Interaction Designer — 8,000 person org.

“Interviewing people in their natural environment (i.e. home work work) is a MASSIVE improvement in terms of how they talk about their lives and how you can help them. With user research, always make notes on what the person is saying, not what you think it means.” — Product Design Lead — 35 person org.

Bonus: Tactical advice from the community

Not all user research advice received by UX community members has been high-level. They’ve also heard tactical, everyday tips you too can apply to make projects move smoother and faster. Here’s advice for planning, continued learning, and execution passed down from the community.

Planning:

“Make sure to understand the scope of what’s needed, and aim to create value within the scope. Don’t go overboard and create unnecessary steps/deliverables.” — UX/UI Consultant — 200+ person org.

“Find a scope when there’s too much ambiguity.” — Freelance UX designer

Continued learning:

“Go to Mule’s design presentation course.” — UX/UI Designer

Frameworks:

“The Jobs To Be Done approach seems to be the most comprehensive, as it goes beyond the product to ask: what is the job your product is being hired for?” — UX Designer — 400K person org.

Execution:

“Translate the research into tangible feature goals by mapping the experiences during observations to more than ‘usable’” — Director of UX and Product Design — 2,000+ person org.

The final wrap up

No matter where you are in your career, you’ll gather plenty of advice moving forward. You can never learn too much and will always be improving your process. Ask your peers what books you should be reading, who you should be following, etc.

Most importantly, test what you learn, take what works for you and get rid of the rest. There’s nothing wrong in adapting parts of someone else’s lessons to your own process. Every project will be different, every scope will have its own limitations and opportunities. Consider yourself a permanent student of your craft.

Still have questions about user research? Shout at us anytime!

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Previous posts:

UX uncensored: What UX and Product people say when nobody’s looking — Part 1

UX uncensored: UX and product people talk money — Part 2

UX uncensored: How to get your team involved in the research process — Part 3

UX uncensored: The 5 biggest misconceptions about user research — Part 4