Closing the skills gap: My quest to master user research

Like many product designers, I started my career with a decent understanding of user research principles. I could create basic interview scripts, run usability tests, and synthesize some data. However, I realized early on that there was a vast divide between this foundational knowledge and truly mastering user research. My efforts felt superficial, and I was often left with more questions than insights. This skills gap was a major stumbling block, preventing me from building truly user-centered products.

Identifying the gap

The true depth of my skills gap became painfully clear during a critical design project. I had

invested weeks developing a new feature, confident it would solve a key pain point for our users. Yet, upon launch, it did not perform as expected. User feedback indicated that the feature could have done better on addressing the problem we thought we were solving.

This experience was a major wake-up call. It was clear that my user research approach was not rigorous or insightful enough. I needed to go beyond basic methods and truly develop the ability to uncover user’s underlying needs and motivations.

The learning journey

Here’s how I approached closing the skills gap in user research:

  • Humbling self-assessment: Recognizing my limitations was the first step. I critically reviewed past research projects, identifying areas where I could have dug deeper and asked more probing questions.
  • Immersion in best practices: I sought out and studied many different resources on user research methodology. Some key staples included:

1. Just Enough Research by Erika Hall.

2. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek.

3. Think Like a UX Researcher: How to Observe Users, Influence Design, and Shape Business Strategy by David Travis and Philip Hodgson.

4. Articles and videos on research methods by Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g).

  • Learn from experts: I found mentors in the design community who were known for their user research expertise. I shadowed them during research sessions, taking extensive notes on their questioning techniques and how they established rapport with participants.
  • Practice makes perfect: I sought every opportunity to practice user research, even on smaller projects. Each session became a learning experience where I iterated upon my approach and experimented with different techniques.

The transformation: From guesswork to true user understanding

As my user research skills sharpened, a profound shift occurred in my product design work:

Reduced risk: I gained more confidence in design decisions with deeper user insights. The reliance on assumptions and guesswork decreased significantly.


User-champion mindset: I became a passionate advocate for users within my team. My research findings gave me the authority to push for solutions that truly aligned with user needs.


Iterative success: By grounding product development in user feedback, the need for major redesigns is reduced. I embraced a more iterative process based on ongoing user insights.

Conclusion

Conquering your skills gap is an ongoing journey, not a singular achievement. I will continue to attend workshops, talk to core researchers, read publications, and experiment with new research techniques in order to develop my knowledge – before putting this knowledge into action. Mastering user research has undoubtedly made me a stronger product designer and has transformed how I approach problem-solving for the benefit of end users and businesses.

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