What’s the difference between a UX researcher and a UX designer?

Welcome back to our semi-regular series of UX beginner’s guides, where we ask the questions that you’re too shy or embarrassed to ask!*

*We had to add ‘UX’ here, not for any SEO reasons, it’s because we’ve previously gotten into trouble for offering questionable advice on matters relating to rash medication, child-raising and making bathtub gin.

cheers between two people drinking coffee

“Okay, we’ll get on with each other, but AFTER coffee”

This week: what the heck is the difference between a UX researcher and a UX designer?

Sure a UX designer might scoff and say, “oh please, these are a obviously vastly different disciplines, get out of here you buffoon!”

And I’ve had personal experience of a UX researcher replying to my question with, “Wait, seriously? You don’t know? How long have you been working here?”

But what about the newbie, thrust into the world of UX without any experience whatsoever? Who do they turn to ask? Yes that’s right, it’s your learned friends at the Be Good To Your Users blog!

And don’t worry, I won’t personally be answering the question, because like all fundamentally lazy semi-smart people, I’ve surrounded myself with people who are much smarter than me and asked their opinion instead.

First of all, let’s look at it from a UX researcher’s point of view.

The UX researcher’s point of view

I asked our own in-house UX researcher George Kalyvas (who has spoken very eruditely on the subjects of mental models and persona research elsewhere on the blog) a few questions on whether the roles need to be defined and what the hell he does all day.

Do you find that people get confused between the roles of a UX researcher and UX designer?

george kalyvas“As UX testing gains ground and senior management begins to see the benefits – such as an increase in engagement, sales, etc – they tend to find it difficult to distinguish the roles of a UX designer and the UX researcher.

There is a false understanding where they say, “Let’s hire a UX designer, so they can deliver a UX site that will be UX compatible! WHAT A BARGAIN!”

However the field of Human-Computer Interaction (where all UX jobs are coming from) requires specific research methodologies that aim to understand user perceptions, solve usability problems and enhance user satisfaction. So since we’re talking about attitudes and perceptions, the findings and applications are dependent on the audience, and therefore results aren’t universal.

In other words, there is no universal rule of law for UX like there is in natural sciences.

Of course there are best practices and principles that UX designers should follow, we must not forget that the existence of these design practices are a product of research.

This is the purpose of the UX researcher: to conduct research and set up the scope of the study according to the research objectives. The outcome of the research is the application of design.

On the other hand the UX designer is expected to design according to principles, such as heuristics and Gestalt principles while keeping in mind the mental models of the end user.

Both the UX researcher and designer are expected to have a common ground and understanding. However, the roles are different in the same way that an ophthalmologist differs from a neurologist. Both are doctors and have a common understanding of medicine, but their professions are different.”

What skills do you think set a UX researcher apart from a UX designer?

As a UX researcher you should be able to conduct in depth and advance research both in qualitative and quantitative methods. Of course it always depends of the type of the project. A mix of both qual and quant methods is common in the industry.

It is important here to be able to understand the research objective and what type of research or combination of research approaches you will use.

A combination of high academic skills and work experience is needed in order to provide high quality results that would allow the developing team to design/improve the product.”

Can you succinctly describe what you (a UX researcher) does?

“I am primarily responsible for designing, conducting, analysing, and reporting on user-centred design research and usability testing.

My main responsibilities include identification of user needs and goals, task and workflow modelling as well as unmoderated usability testing, and more formal, in-depth testing. I also conduct usability research both online and in the field and provide recommendations for improvement.

I also:

  • Present the results to clients (designers, strategists, managers)
  • Work with project business representatives and team members to test business requirements using heuristic/qualitative methods
  • Determine user needs by conducting task-focused analyses.
  • Coordinate, conduct and moderate research
  • Engage with project teams to determine needs and the best way to test for those needs, create test plans, run the testing (moderating), analyse results, and compile reports.”

That’s very thorough and succinct. Did you just copy and paste your LinkedIn profile?

“Yes.”

So according to George: the researcher sets up a study according to certain research objectives or problems that need solving. The results of this research is then put into action by the UX designer in whatever nice and usable website/app/product/interface they’re building.

But as George points out, these aren’t two entirely separate disciplines. UX research is pointless without a UX designer building the website/app/product/interface at the end of the process. And UX design without proper research will lack any user insight and will likely be an unworkable pile of time-wastery.

The marriage of UX design and research 

elizabeth chesters

I asked Elizabeth Chesters, friend of the blog and user experience consultant, her opinion on the intersection between UX design and UX research.

“The difference between a UX designer and a UX researcher is… not much.

These days it seems to depend on the company and budget. You could argue UX designers don’t do research, based on the fact that you shouldn’t be testing your own designs. But any designer needs to empathise with users to get there in the first place.

UX researchers may not necessarily design their own solutions based on their research, but in UX it feels like that’s researching for research sake. In this instance, solutions created by those who didn’t do the research have second-half empathy, which is nowhere near as impactful.

Both disciplines have their place in the industry, but they need to be married together. The Ying to their Yang.

After all, if a designer isn’t speaking to users, it’s not UX. And if a researcher doesn’t use their research then it’s a dead end.”

The UX designer’s point of view

Because a good researcher (and *ahem* journalist) finds multiple and varied sources to get to the bottom of the truth, let’s ask a UX designer the same questions that I asked the UX researcher above. And we’ll breeze nonchalantly past the fact that I back-door-bragged about being a good researcher and journalist.

Please welcome Peter Hornsby, UX designer, researcher, author and very good friend of our UX Slack channel.

Do you find that people get confused between the roles of a UX researcher and UX designer?

peter hornsby“Where I’ve worked I’ve not tended to use either term. ’UX designer’ has been the most common term, and research is just part of that brief. However, if I can expand on the question, I feel there is too much job terminology around UX: a UX person does design, research and testing. They do prototyping. They write user stories if they’re in an agile environment.

Frankly if the biggest user experience issue is crappy documentation and they can’t yet change the system to improve the UX, they rewrite the documentation. UX is problem solving.”

What skills do you think set a UX designer apart from a UX researcher?

“I’ll tackle this by addressing the UX person in a design mindset versus a research mindset.

When I’m in a research mindset: I typically have fewer ‘solid’ pillars of understanding: most things are up for challenge. Sometimes it’s like those old WW2 movies, with the soldier testing the ground in front with a bayonet to check if it’s solid or if there’s something about to blow up in his face. So in practical terms this means that I not only have to figure out what I want to know, but if that’s the right thing to be digging into (hence lots of open-ended questions) and to test my approach (by piloting whatever method I choose to use).

When I’m in a design mindset: there is usually more ‘solidity’ to my understanding. With a redesign, some of that solidity may come from elements of the system that cannot be changed (for all immediate practical purposes). With a straight design that’s built to meet needs, then the understanding comes from the requirements, user research and so on.

These are the main challenges I see when working in a design context:

  • The fundamental understanding of users changing. What if the balance of user needs shifts? For example, a sudden influx of users from a different background, forcing you to shift from a ‘recognition’ basis to a ‘learning’ basis
  • Internal feedback. I used to get quite frustrated when I would design something, and someone internally would say ‘Yeah, but what about <this audience>?’
  • A failure of requirements. It happens far more often than I’d like, even now!
  • Feedback overload. As a design takes shape, it’s quite common to get more and more feedback. I think that sometimes seeing a design take shape prompts people to reflect on what they want and that changes their view. Similarly I think people can feel the need to say something about a design just to be part of the conversation – but because design can be very personal and subjective, that can slow things down.”

Can you succinctly describe what you do?

“Solve problems, hopefully.”

NOW THAT’S SUCCINCT.

The rise of the UX generalist?

Perhaps as the disciplines become more wrapped up in each other, the definitions become meaningless and budgets expand and contract on the whim of business concerns, you may find yourself having to deal with the full spectrum of UX research and development.

So does that mean a UX newbie may be better off placed as a UX generalist?

becca kennedyHere’s Becca Kennedy, a human factors psychologist and cofounder of Kennason, a UX consulting company, with some final thoughts on the subject:

“A lot of people tend to think UX research and design are folded together, but being a researcher does not automatically make you a designer, or vice versa.

You can deeply specialize in either research or design, or you can be a UX Generalist who does a little of both. I identify myself as a UX Researcher, because although I enjoy designing solutions, my deeper skills are in generating and interpreting user research insights.”

So this investigation wasn’t quite as straightforward as you or I may have expected. Job titles that didn’t even exist a decade ago are a constantly moving target, from team to team, from business to business.

My advice would be that if you’re looking to specialise in either design or research – or want to explore both and become some kind of ultimate UX champ – talk to as many people from both disciplines as you can and learn from their experience, just like I did! They’re a nice, friendly bunch, I promise.

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Christopher Ratcliff
Christopher is the Content Marketing Manager of WhatUsersDo. He's also a filmmaker and the editor of wayward pop culture site Methods Unsound. He used to be the deputy editor of Econsultancy and editor of Search Engine Watch.

One Response to “What’s the difference between a UX researcher and a UX designer?

  • Great article, I have read too many articles which discuss the difference between UX and UI without really getting to the nub of the issue. I think you do that very well in this article and it is especially interesting to hear practitioners discuss the difference themselves. Thanks, Brian

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