There are two types of user researcher

In my years in this field, I’ve worked with a lot of different user researchers / design researchers, and in my head I see two general…

There are two types of user researcher
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In my years in this field, I’ve worked with a lot of different user researchers / design researchers, and in my head I see two general types or researcher. I think this is applicable to design too, and lots of other disciplines, but I’m focusing on research now because it’s where I have most experience.

Discipline or academic focused researchers are most concerned with the craft of research and all its complexity and nuances. They want research to be scientific, rigorous , pure, thorough. They believe research should be done by people who have the right training and qualifications. They tend to be researchers with PhDs or Masters degrees, but not always. They want time to think about theories and concepts and their relationship to the research. They often find it hard for their research to be pigeonholed into two-week sprints.

Delivery focused researchers are most concerned with doing the best research they can within the constraints of the job or product team. They are focused on delivering value and having impact through research that is trustworthy but also pragmatic, quick and lean. In Erika Hall’s words, it’s about doing just enough research. They are ok with reasonable shortcuts. They customize and adapt their research approach to the cycles of the team, although they also might struggle with fitting it into sprint cycles.

It’s important to note that I don’t think researchers are either/or — I think all researchers are a mix of both. There are some researchers who beautifully balance both equally (my former manager Lorna Wall is an example of this,) but I think most of us lean more towards one or the other.

I also don’t want to give the impression that one type is better than the other. They’re both incredibly valuable. Just as good research needs both quantitative and qualitative qualitative methods, the research discipline needs both types of researchers.

Where I’m at on this spectrum

I lean very strongly towards a practitioner focus. I’m not an academic — after my bachelor’s degree, I purposely chose a practical, hands-on design course over a masters degree because I preferred the focus on doing design rather than thinking about design.

I find talking about theories and models and frameworks boring. I have no interest in complex definitions or diagrams of how people think the world is or should be — I want stories and data, what has been tried, what has worked and has not. I tend to focus on real, lived experience and anything else can become noise to me. I welcome broad and out-of-the-box ideas but I want to know the practicalities of how this will be implemented, what we think the real life outcomes will be. And I want this info to be conveyed in a way that is concise and powerful, in a language that anyone can understand. Sometimes I worry that these preferences make me seem unintelligent, but I know I bring value to the table in my own way.

And yet- even though I value practice over theory, I really value working with those do come an academic or theory-focused background.

I’ve learned so much from the academic researchers I’ve worked with and for. Their focus on things like ethics and speculation and rigour have made my own approach to research much more thoughtful and thorough. They’ve made me question how I think about my practice and made me aware of aspects I hadn’t considered before.

Working with academic researchers can activate my imposter syndrome — despite years of experience, I can sometimes feel like I can’t keep up with their thinking, their big words, their rigorous approach. In the society we live in, the letters behind their name indicate that they have a higher ranking than I do. On the other hand, I suspect that they may balk at my willingness to fit into the cadence of digital teams that plan around software development over user needs, my focus on quick wins over perfect implementation.

We both have strengths, and we’re stronger when we realize this, lean into it and work together to enable and empower each other.

Why am I sharing this?

I’ve long held this framing in my mind, but wasn’t able to articulate it. It created a kind of “me” vs “them” mindset that made me feel out of place in the professional circles I work in.

I’m obsessively self reflective, and understanding this framing has helped me overcome some my self-doubt and be honest about both the strengths and blindspots I bring to the table. Now that I know which side I lean towards, I can think more honestly about what might be missing from my practice from the other side.

And I hope in sharing this, it might spark something similar in you.

I would love your feedback

Do you agree with this? Does it match with your experience? If so, which one are you?

And, what are the names you would use to define each group? Is it worth defining at all?