Product designers and UX researchers have different mindsets, skills, and communication styles. Managing these two roles requires an understanding of both roles and the ability to foster good conversations and build understanding between them.
☕ Managing designers and managing researchers
(Thanks for the topic idea, Dávid Udvardy!)
For most of my time as a design leader, I’ve been managing both researchers and designers. People management is pretty similar between the two roles, but there are a few notable differences.
Organizations might define these roles differently, but there is a kinda consensus in the industry about what they do.
Product designers are responsible for how the product behaves, including all elements of a product the user interacts with. This might go beyond the immediate product and extend to things like service design or product marketing. UX researchers on the other hand are focused on understanding the needs, behaviors, and preferences of users, including creating artifacts that facilitate understanding for the wider team.
There are also differences between mindsets, skills, and how each role communicates their work.
Researchers are typically more curious and data-driven, while designers are more creative and solution-oriented. This difference in mindset can lead to different approaches to problem-solving, which can sometimes be a source of conflict. However, it can also be a source of great collaboration, as researchers and designers can learn from each other and come up with innovative solutions.
Researchers need to be skilled in data collection and analysis, while designers need to be skilled in visual communication and user-centered design. This difference in skill sets means that researchers and designers can complement each other well, as they can bring different perspectives to the design process.
Researchers typically communicate their findings through reports and presentations, while designers typically communicate their findings through wireframes, prototypes, and mockups. This difference in communication style can make it difficult for researchers and designers to understand each other’s work. However, researchers and designers need to be able to communicate effectively with each other, as this is essential for the success of the design process.
Beyond role definitions, research and design skills often flow into each other. Most designers have some research skills, while researchers often make capable interaction designers or information architects. At the minimum, both roles should have enough knowledge of these skills to give informed feedback on artifacts. However, it’s more common for designers to do some research, while it’s quite rare for researchers to do design. The researcher is usually a more specialized role.
A large difference between these roles comes from how the org is set up. This sets their expected duties, abilities, tasks, and who they should work with closely. The setup influences also how the management should be different.
Managing these two roles is quite similar for the most part. The common approach on how to be a good coach applies to both. Things like having 1on1s, helping people grow, working together on career development (separate career ladder is helpful), handling performance, balancing direction, aligning and empowering, providing context, or building trust and safe spaces should be common practices as a manager. Hiring should be adjusted, based on the org setup and practice differences.
Where things start to differ are craft, role responsibilities, and value creation. There is also a strategic difference in the overall design team’s impact between designers and researchers, but that’s more related to how the team is set up and what are the role expectations.
Craft is simple - managers with researcher reports should have an understanding of how good research is done, what are the available methods, what’s doable, and what’s not. These help to support researchers well. With designers these are similar, but obviously for design activities and artifacts. In short, the manager should be able to jump in and at the minimum be able to ask good questions and help people find answers.
Role responsibilities are more difficult to handle well and are often a source of conflict. Designers mostly work in product teams, while researchers might support multiple teams or other orgs. Researchers focus on a more macro level and the problem space, as they work with the journeys of users. Designers focus more on the context and the solution space, as they work on new features or pieces of the experience.
The difference in focus creates friction that is sometimes desirable (as it leads to better results), but if communication fails it leads to conflicts. Working more closely together helps in removing some of the friction. Pair design is helpful, as it enables both roles to build on their strengths. Structuring the design process helps, using practices such as design critique helps. The primary thing however is to make sure there are good conversations between people.
Managing the two roles together needs active listening and building an understanding of the other role’s methods, and empathy for different ways of working.
Value creation is the most difficult part. For designers, it’s usually easier. Even on lower maturity levels, the wider org will have a good understanding of what they do, how they contribute to creating products, and the value they deliver is usually pretty visible. Designers have rarely problems understanding their impact. Help is mostly needed on how they can increase their impact.
Researchers are more tricky, the value created (for example lowering the risk of building the wrong thing) is less visible. There are usually fewer resources for research, and more vagueness on goals and what a good outcome looks like. They need support to better understand stakeholders, and to make it clearer how the insights they deliver channel into larger goals and more visibility of their work.
🥤 To recap
- Product designers are responsible for product behavior, while UX researchers focus on understanding user needs and behaviors.
- These two roles have different mindsets, skills, and communication styles. The differences can lead to conflict, but they can also be a source of great collaboration.
- Managing UX researchers and product designers requires an understanding of both roles’ mindsets, skills, and practices.
- Beyond the common people management approach, there are differences in craft, role responsibilities, and value creation.
- By working together, UX researchers and product designers can create truly user-centered products. The key is to foster good conversations and build understanding between the roles to ensure successful collaboration.
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🍪 Things to snack on
The better understand the role of a design leader, Coach, Diplomat, Advocate, Architect: The Four Archetypes of the Design Leader is an awesome talk by Peter Merholz. The first part talks about being a coach and managing people. It gives a great overview of the role of being a leader specific to design teams. This is useful for managing both researchers and designers.
Intercom’s How to have impact as a designer by Paul Murphy gives a good framework to think about designer’s performance, though this can be used for researchers too. Impact considerations (this is where the article focuses) and collaboration expectations should be fairly similar for both researchers and designers, while leadership differs, in what can be considered the quality of work.
The most important part of managing UX researchers is making sure they get questions that they can answer, as Yaron Cohen argues in How to manage UX researchers. This means helping shape questions, making sure there is available data (for example ensuring a budget to recruit participants or enable access to users), and providing a context for their inquiry. The article has a few more rules of thumb regarding performing research.
Thinking about what usually doesn’t work is a good exercise to figure out what to focus on, and this goes for helping designers. John Zeratsky wrote a nice list of issues designers face in 8 common dysfunctions of design teams—and what to do about them. I liked polishing a brick (working on small details of a product with uncertain value) and starting with solutions the most, seeing these often at work in designers’ work.
Jim Ross writes about skills important to researchers in Qualities of Effective User Researchers, both soft skills (like pragmatism or ability to learn quickly) and research skills (like effective note taking or writing skills). This is a good starter list to see what to focus on when coaching researchers.