Nikki Anderson is an independent user research consultant, instructor, author, and speaker. Nikki uses her background in education and psychology to mentor people and organizations on the value of user research. And now, she’s written a book to help them build up their research operations. That’s the focus of our conversation today.

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Jorge: Nikki, welcome to the show.

Nikki: Hi, thank you so much. I’m super excited to be here today.

Jorge: I’m excited to talk with you.

About Nikki

Jorge: For folks who might not be familiar with you and your work, how do you go about describing what you do?

Nikki: Yeah, I actually try and describe it in a way in which my mom would understand because she still has no idea what I do. And it’s been about ten years that I’ve been in the user research field. So I originally started as an in-house user researcher and I have moved around to different companies from super small startups of about twenty-five people to really large companies of over 15,000.

And I also did some user research consultancy in between those transitions with the “grass is always greener” syndrome, right? So I bounced between that full-time in-house work and consultancy. Now, at this junction in my life, I consult here and there for companies on user research, but my main time goes into coaching researchers to uplevel their career, to feel more confident, and to really understand that they aren’t alone in their struggles. So that’s a huge passion of mine: coaching user researchers, and it’s where I put the majority of my time now, as well as creating content because, for me, writing is life.

Jorge: And we’ll get into that because you have a new book on the subject. This phrase that you said, “you’re not alone,” resonates strongly with me. I also teach folks in my area, my chosen area, which is information architecture.

Nikki: Yeah.

Jorge: I recently launched a one-on-one coaching program, and the headline I used is “you are not alone.” Why do you think that research professionals feel alone like this?

Nikki: Yeah, that’s a really great question. Honestly, I felt super alone as I was growing up in user research, for lack of a better way to describe it. It felt like Google was my best friend, and I don’t think anybody wants to be best friends with Google because Google is quite confusing and overwhelming. I think one of the reasons why we can feel so alone as researchers is both a blessing and a curse. There is no standard way of getting into user research, right? There’s very little standardization. There isn’t one perfect way to do user research. There’s not one exact path into the field, unlike so many different professions. I would say outside of product and tech.

If you want to become a lawyer, sure, you can specialize in certain types of law, but you go through the same courses that everybody else does. Same with being a doctor. And I think that from my side at least, that lack of standardization is beautiful because you get so many perspectives, but it can also leave people feeling very lonely and very lost as to what they should be doing or how they should be doing it.

And that’s something that I felt a lot throughout my career and really am trying to help people avoid feeling that overwhelm and feeling that loneliness.

Jorge: These are what I think of as relatively young disciplines, right? In my own case, I studied architecture, which is one of these disciplines that has been around for a while, and you go to school to study architecture, and when you graduate as an architect, you have this identity in architecture, and there are other architects around the world who self-identify as such.

So, I can see that, right? It’s almost like your discipline comes built-in with a sense of community that isn’t there for newer disciplines like UX research or information architecture. But let’s circle back to, I don’t remember how you phrased it, but, that you have a particular focus on writing.

I was hoping that you would tell us about writing in your work because before we started recording, you said that you had a passion for writing.

The Role of Writing in Nikki’s Work

Jorge: What role does writing play in your work?

Nikki: For me, writing is storytelling. My biggest passion in life is fiction writing. I am a huge fan of reading fiction, specifically horror, and I’m obsessed with Stephen King. I am trying to make it as a fiction author on the side of everything else that I do. That is my absolute dream job. But I do find that as a user researcher, and to be fair, in so many other roles, being able to effectively communicate is essential. And so, I have found that throughout my entire career as a user researcher, being able to write and articulate my thoughts and break them down in a way that other people can not only understand them but take action from them, has been absolutely critical in terms of my success as a researcher because we can all write things like insights. But there is some magic that can come when your insights are not just understandable and interesting, but— I hate using the word “actionable,” because “actionable insights” is such a buzzword— but when people can digest them in a way that lights a fire, or that builds momentum or engages them in a way that they actually want to do the work.

So, I think throughout my entire career, writing has always been so important to me for sharing and breaking down information and as well for learning. So, whenever I write things down, I learn. I learn a bunch of things when I’m communicating with other people. I learn how to better communicate these ideas and concepts, and I refine them.

I just recently wrote an article on qualitative usability testing. And it was super interesting to write because I realized that my thoughts on how I conduct qualitative usability tests have changed dramatically over the past ten years, and it’s just so interesting to me how I can continue to learn, and I do that as well through communicating these concepts and ideas.

Jorge: I can totally relate to that. There’s something magical that happens, at least to me, when I sit down with kind of ill-formed thoughts and then try to communicate them to others through writing. It’s a forcing function, right? That, at least for me, forces me to put my thoughts in order and somehow, I discover what I actually think because the thinking is happening via the fingers and the screen and the keyboard somehow.

Nikki: Yeah, it’s amazing what writing can do, and I think that I have a lot of people reach out to me that ask me, “Hey. I don’t know. I want to write, I want to start writing about user research, but I feel like everybody’s already written something about usability testing.” And I always come back to them and say, “Nobody has written about usability testing from your experience, from your perspective, with your unique set of skills and moments and scenarios that you’ve encountered.”

And so, I think it’s super important for people to remember, just like in fiction writing, everything’s been written, but it’s never been written from your perspective. And so, I think it’s just a great way to share your thoughts and perspective with the world and also to help you think through your own thoughts and how you want to articulate them.

How Researchers Can Impact Organizations

Jorge: That’s a great segue to talking about your book. This book came out relatively recently, right? I think it was last year.

Nikki: December 18th.

Jorge: We’re recording this in February. So it’s still relatively recent. The book is called Impact. Can you tell us what the book is about? I don’t think the title gives away what it’s about.

Nikki: No, not always. So, I feel like a big common gripe that user researchers have is that they feel like they don’t have an impact at an organization. And so, one of the things that I wanted to do was showcase, “Hey, we can have an impact, and here are all the things that you have to set up in order to help you make an impact in an organization.”

Because I think that there’s a bit of a misconception that we can just go into a company and run a research project, and suddenly we have all this information that magically transforms the product into something perfect—nice as that would be. And I think that we would be hired everywhere and paid a whole lot of money if that was the case.

Usually, what has to happen is there has to be a lot of education and foundational pieces placed before we can start having an ongoing, continuous impact in an organization. And I see a lot of researchers struggling because of that misconception of, “I should just be able to come in here, talk to people, and deliver great results.” But there’s still a lot that you have to do first, or on your way to doing that, in parallel, that will help you continuously deliver true impact to an organization.

Jorge: You mentioned at the top of our conversation that you’ve done work internally in organizations and also independently. My sense, when reading the book, was that the primary focus here was on developing a kind of an enterprise research practice. There’s a point toward the start of the book where you say that there aren’t many organizations with a standardized user research practice in place.

Nikki: Yeah.

Jorge: And the way that I read the book was that it was trying to fill that gap. Why do you think that many organizations don’t have user research practices in place, and then why do they need to?

Nikki: Yeah, I think that, kind of what we were talking about before, user research is new—it’s newer, in the scope of different roles within product and tech. I think that as a field in general, we’re still trying to figure that out as well. We’re still trying to figure out our processes, our standardizations. We’re still trying to figure out what works best and what doesn’t work as well, because all of that takes time, and it takes iteration, failing, and experimenting. And so, I think that oftentimes user research can come as an afterthought because it’s not as baked into the general product development process.

If you think about developing a product and shipping it, it’s just not as top of mind. And of course, we also have this whole concept of democratization, which then means, “Hey, do we really need user research if the CEO has already spoken to 10 people who might want this product?”

So, I think that sometimes we think of user research as more of an afterthought and as more of coming in, “Hey, we’ve created this product and now we want validation,” which I don’t. I hate that word, and I think it’s the worst word in the whole entire world. But we want validation that our product is great, and then it can get a little bit rocky.

I think when a researcher comes in—and I’ve experienced this before, and I’m like, “Hey, guess what? It’s not that good. We’ve messed up a lot.” So, I think that it’s just not thought of as intuitively as other roles within product and tech, but it is super necessary because it can help people see beyond their blinders.

I think that’s something that user research is super great at, is giving you so much more knowledge that you might not have even known that you’ve missed. That’s okay that you’ve missed it, but it’s also really important that you acknowledge that you might have missed a lot of things when you were thinking about this awesome product idea.

Jorge: I’m hearing that, and I’m wondering the degree to which that lack of awareness of the importance of research is evenly distributed. We didn’t talk about this in your intro, but you’re based in Europe. You’re in Jersey, and I think that you work remotely, right?

Nikki: I do. Yeah.

Jorge: And I know, being myself from a part of the world that is not the US, originally, I know that the level of understanding of the need for this kind of thing is not the same everywhere, right? I’m talking to you right now from the San Francisco Bay Area, and I would imagine that here, there’s a higher level of awareness, right? Like, tech companies have understood the importance of research, for the most part. But it’s not evenly distributed. I just wanted to make that note.

Nikki: Yeah, of course.

The Importance of User Research Frameworks

Jorge: I want to get into the framework. You talk in the book about a user research framework and the importance of having a framework. Why do you need a framework and tell us a bit about yours?

Nikki: Yeah, of course. So, generally speaking, for me, frameworks are foundations. So, if you go to build a house and you don’t lay a foundation, bad things might happen to your house. It might rain, and you might discover that you’ve built your house on mud and dirt that just turns into mud, and suddenly you don’t have a house anymore.

So, if we go in, and this is what I was talking about before, when we run into an organization and just start doing research without setting up that foundation, we might find that we’re on really shaky ground, right? We might find that we’ve done the wrong research, or we might find that people, in fact, don’t care about research or don’t know enough about research so that when we go to present something, they don’t actually understand what we’re saying, right?

And so, what I’ve realized, because I made that mistake so many times, I am a bit of an impatient person, to put it kindly towards myself. I’m a bit of an impatient person and I really like to just get going. I hate blockers so much. They annoy me immensely. And so, whenever I joined organizations, there were two parts of me. I was impatient and I wanted to get this research done. I wanted to start doing research. I wanted to start talking to people, and the other part of me as a researcher, I think inherently because people, we can feel like people don’t really appreciate our craft. We want to start proving our value as quickly as possible.

That’s something that I hear from everybody in the research field: proving our value. “How do we prove our impact? How do we prove our ROI,” right? And so what happened is, I ran into these companies and just started doing research without setting the foundations of educating stakeholders or thinking about, “Hey, do we actually have access to these participants that we need?” Or when stakeholders come to me and they ask me to do this research project, is this the right research project to do right now, or should we be prioritizing something else?

And because I didn’t set up those foundations, there was a combination where I essentially got super burnt out because I said yes to everything because I didn’t have any sort of prioritization process or intake process or roadmap. So, I got super burnt out saying yes to everything. And then, I realized that I was just running around doing all this stuff and at the end of the day, I couldn’t really tangibly talk about my impact because I was just trying to do fifty thousand things at once because I hadn’t set that foundation down and that framework.

And so, for me, at least after a lot of trial and error, I learned that setting up those frameworks, even though it’s frustrating and you’re sitting there thinking I just wanna do research. Why do I have to think about recruitment first? Why do I have to create this intake document or this prioritization process in the end, it helps you a lot. That’s why I find it so important to put that framework in and that’s why I collated all of these different resources.

And my book is meant to be that guide, to help you with, “Hey, I either did the same thing and ran into this without setting that foundation, and now I’m trying to backtrack and set up that framework.” Okay, then I’m a guide for you. Or, “Hey, I’m new to this organization and I need to set up these frameworks and foundations.” Okay, here we are. Let’s go through this together.

Jorge: The analogy that comes to my mind in hearing you talk about it in my little corner of the UX universe is when people jump to design screen level stuff without having thought through the conceptual model and the information architecture, right? and, more importantly, connecting those to actual business outcomes, right? So it’s like, “What is this in service to?” Something that I’ve noticed a lot, again, in my part of the domain here, is that people fall in love with the craft aspect of these things and less so with the more strategic and messier — more political, more “soft skill”-type of issues.

Setting Research Goals

Jorge: Speaking of that, specifically, you talk about goals as being very important to research projects, right? I think you say that the most important thing in our research project is the goals.

Nikki: Yep.

Jorge: How so? Why do they matter and how do you go about defining goals as a researcher?

Nikki: I just wrote a 6,000-word article on this. So I’m geared up and ready to talk about goals. So for me, there were so many times throughout my entire research process and I hear so many user researchers do this because I have a membership and in my membership, we have a community space where people ask questions and respond to each other and get feedback and get advice on their projects.

And like, one of the number-one questions that I get and one of the ones that I had all the time within my career was like, “What do I do next?” Or, “What should I include in this research report?” Or, “What deliverable should I do?” Or, “What survey should I do?” Or, “What should I include in this survey?”

There are just so many questions that can come up where we get super stuck thinking about and trying to read people’s minds, which is actually really funny because as researchers, we love asking questions. We tell everybody that we need to ask more questions, right? So we’re like, “Hey, stakeholders, don’t ever assume things. Don’t just sit there and try and read people’s minds, ask users questions.” But then we, as researchers, forget that stakeholders are a form of our users and we forget to ask them questions. And so, what can happen and what happened to me so often is I would go about running workshops or creating deliverables without actual goals.

So, when it came down to trying to figure out what information should be in the deliverables or what activities I should be doing, or how I should be running a research project and who I should be talking to, I was at a loss because it’s the same thing I ran forward without thinking about the basis of what I was trying to accomplish and why I was trying to accomplish it. And so, for me, goals give you all of that direction, right? If you sit down and define your goals for whatever it is you’re doing, you will have so many fewer of those moments in which you question what’s next or in which you’re lacking direction or structure.

So for me, when it comes to writing user research goals, especially for studies, I sit down and I talk with my stakeholders because the worst thing in the world that I have ever experienced is getting to the end of a study and presenting information that’s useless because I didn’t align with my stakeholders and I just said, as somebody said to me, “Let’s do a usability test.” And I said, “Sure, yes.” Without really understanding why we were doing it and what we were trying to accomplish and what my stakeholders needed from it.

So that’s why, for me, goals are so incredibly important. They just give you so much structure, so much direction, so much scope, and they help you not get lost, honestly. So yeah, that’s why they’re so important to me. I love them. I think they’re amazing.

Jorge: The word ‘goal’ can mean different things, right? And there can be different levels of goals: there can be the goals for the business this quarter, at that level. There can be the goal for the product team that has commissioned the research work or whatever, right? Can you give us an example of the types of goals that we’re talking about here?

Nikki: Yeah, as you said, there are so many different layers to goals. For me, when it comes to defining a research project, the first thing that I ask somebody is like, “What are we trying to accomplish and what is the ideal outcome of this? What decisions are we trying to make and what information do we need to try to make those decisions or to move forward in a certain way?”

Because with that information, then I can determine, “Okay, so for instance, if we’re working at a travel company, and we’re saying, ‘Hey, we want to understand the top three pain points that people are having when traveling. So we’re trying to improve our product and create a few new features to increase satisfaction and potentially retention, maybe even acquisition, so we’re looking to increase these very important business metrics.’”

So, those are some goals in and of themselves. So, if my stakeholders come to me and say, “Hey, we want to create some new stuff that helps people,” then for me, one of the huge goals of my research is to uncover and highlight these main, major pain points, right? Because without that information of the major pain points of when people are booking travel, we can’t make that decision. We can’t do anything.

And this is where that action part comes in, right? So, if I just deliver a bunch of information because I ran out and spoke to people about how they travel, that’s not going to be helpful for what the stakeholders actually need from me, which is very specific, particular information about people’s pain points. So, that’s the level of goal that I’m talking about is within the scope of what is the information that we need at the end of the project to make whatever decisions we’re trying to make to move forward in whatever way.

And oftentimes, in the most ideal situations, those also refer back to those business goals, such as increasing acquisition or increasing retention, or customer loyalty or satisfaction. They could be team goals or they could be organizational goals or both. So there are several layers that we try to put in when it comes to these user research goals.

Jorge: I’m going to reflect it back to you, just to try to make it very concrete and actionable for folks listening. And, hopefully, to also make it more appealing of a prospect for folks who gravitate to the craft aspects of the work. It sounds to me like one of the very first research tasks is to uncover the goals that are being set by stakeholders, sometimes perhaps unspoken, right? So it might be a research task to discover those goals, right?

Nikki: Yep. Yep. That’s why I always say remember that your stakeholders are your users, because we need to put our research hat on to investigate what are their needs. We talk about user needs, user pain points, user goals. Okay, what are our stakeholders’ needs? What are their pain points? What are their goals? And trying to uncover that information because that is ultimately shared understanding and alignment.

I have a lot of people come to me saying, “I’m struggling with this report.” and I’m like, “Okay, what’s the goal of the report? What are you trying to get people to do?” And they’re like, “Oh, I want people to take action.” And I’m like, “Okay, great. So, then if that’s your goal, then what can you share that people care about that would spur them on to take action?”, right?

That’s going back to what your stakeholders need. So if your stakeholders need to make a decision about the next feature to create, to alleviate the biggest pain point, then present the biggest pain point, and then have an ideation session to bring that problem into the solution space. So it’s always going back to those goals, and uncovering those as quickly as possible.

Empathy for Stakeholders

Jorge: I think that many people who are involved in research do have empathy for users. Part of what you are advocating here is to also have empathy for stakeholders. And in fact, at one point in the book, you say that this framework that we’ve been talking about is modeled after the product development process because you wanted something that stakeholders could be familiar with. So, you made it intelligible to them.

Nikki: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that the world is hard enough as it is, just as a baseline. Everybody’s trying to do the best that they can, generally speaking. And everybody has goals that they’re trying to meet within their own role, and everybody has struggles within those roles. And so, I think it’s really important that everybody, not just user researchers, empathizes and understands what we’re all trying to accomplish because ultimately, we’re all on the same team, right?

We’re all trying to create products that people love and enjoy using, and we’re all trying to keep businesses in business so that we can continue to be employed and have jobs and get paid and be happy and travel and do all the fun stuff that we love to do. So ultimately, we’re all on the same team, and I think it’s about really understanding and empathizing with all of the other roles and what they’re trying to accomplish and how we can all support each other with our different specialties.

Like, yesterday, actually, we were talking in my membership. We read a book for our book club, and it was about quantitative user research. And one of the resounding takeaways from that book club discussion was, “Oh my goodness. As qualitative researchers, we had no idea that quant user researchers did the scope of the work that they do. We were blown away by all of the work that quant user researchers do that as quallies, we just don’t see because we don’t practice it all the time.”

And I think that goes to show we all have to better understand each other’s roles and how we can help support each other. So yeah, huge points for empathy.


Jorge: This call for applying the mindsets and methods of research practice on research practice itself feels to me like a good summary of the approach and a good place to wrap up the conversation. Where can folks get the book and find out more about you?

Nikki: Yeah, of course. So the book is available on Amazon. I’m trying desperately to put it on other places, but Jersey is actually really difficult when it comes to being supported on like certain platforms, so as of right now, it’s on Amazon, so you can find it there. And I also write very regularly on Substack.

So if you want to see updated content, beyond just the book, I write three times a month on Substack. I publish articles and I also publish a podcast three times a month on Substack as well. So I do a lot of content production over there. And then finally, I own, gosh, it’s so weird to say that, User Research Academy, which is where I do my mentorship and my membership. So that’s another place you can find me.

Jorge: Sounds like these are all great resources for folks looking to get into research and scale their practice. Thank you for sharing them with us and for being on the show.

Nikki: Thank you so much. It was really great to talk to you.