The Four Qualities of Successful Design Researchers

In my four-plus years of being a professional design researcher, I’ve worked with a fair number of other design researchers. As part of my own professional development, I’ve reflected on what makes the great ones so great and the mediocre ones so mediocre. I’ve noticed that there are four personality traits that constantly crop up amongst the great design researchers I have known.

A great design researcher is always…

  1. Inquisitive – Great design researchers ask lots of questions, even when they think they already know the answers. This is true when they talk to end users, of course, but also when they talk to project stakeholders and other colleagues. A great design researcher is always learning, and must frequently set aside his own knowledge to hear what other people think and believe, or he will never develop a deep understanding of his users.
  2. Empathic – Great design researchers must empathize. They must empathize so thoroughly that they internalize their users’ beliefs, tastes, behaviors, and frustrations. A poor design decision frustrates a great design researcher exactly as much as it would frustrate a user – no less and no more.
  3. Articulate – Great design researchers accurately, succinctly, and compellingly communicate their users behaviors and pain points to product stakeholders. A design researcher may use presentations, reports, diagrams, highlights videos, or any number of other techniques to convey this information, but he always knows how to say what he wants to say in a way that deeply resonates with his stakeholders and helps the team come to the correct design decisions.
  4. Ornery – Great design researchers are passionate advocates for their users, and never let this passion falter in the face of adversity. I call this quality “ornery” with tongue firmly planted in cheek – hopefully a design researcher’s coworkers do not find him to be a generally unpleasant person. But all design researchers frequently find themselves confronting nay-sayers. It is too hard to do the right thing, they are told. Besides, the user will figure it out eventually anyway. Great design researchers know when to push back, to remind the team that even in the face of tight deadlines and seemingly insurmountable problems, they must not compromise on their commitment to their users.

Astute readers will notice that some of these qualities can be quite contradictory. It’s hard for a researcher to maintain his empathy when he must also be ornery with his product team to ensure his knowledge and ideas are heard. Likewise, when a researcher develops deep domain expertise to help him become more articulate, he may find it difficult to remain inquisitive – he may come to believe he knows the answers, and mistakenly thinks this means he can skip asking the questions.

Great design researchers must strike a balance between these four qualities so that no one quality becomes too dominant. It is a balance they must maintain throughout their careers, and it scarcely gets easier as the years go by. Perhaps this is why there are so few great design researchers.

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