Pants. I put them on every weekday

When I first founded the UX practice where I currently work we were too small and new to support a dedicated researcher. So I stood in as the researcher and trained the designers in the basics of usability testing and RITE method. This is pretty common for small teams. As soon as the realities of the business allowed, I shifted this responsibility to a dedicated researcher. 


It’s very common for clients to resist paying for research. Can’t a designer just do it? To that end, I recently shipped a successful app (10k 5-star ratings, 4.8-star aggregate) with designers doing all the usability testing. The answer is: “Yes, but…”


Many UX Research methodologies have roots in 19th and 20th century anthropological and linguistic field research. And those methodologies were developed by people doing their own research. Anthropologists like Malinowski and linguists like Sapir went out in the field to observe and document cultures and languages. So it’s possible. But…


I don’t recommend it. Here’s why:

  • Dedicated UX Researchers, like social scientists, have training in setting aside bias. It’s not enough to follow the steps of a methodology; it requires a neutral and scientific mindset. Most designers are B.A.s and B.F.A.s who last encountered the scientific method in high school.
  • It’s incredibly difficult to set aside your own preconceptions and ego when testing something you designed. It’s even harder to know whether or not you’re doing it. You can only focus on one thing at a time. This means when a designer is doubling as a researcher, they’re oscillating between facilitating the test and monitoring themselves to see whether they’re facilitating the test fairly. It’s too much to competently think about.
  • Conducting usability testing, the methodology most commonly assigned to designers, is only one very small corner of UX Research. There are whole worlds of generative and formative research that many designers are completely unqualified to perform. I’d hazard a guess that the majority of UX designers are unfamiliar with the math required for competent quantitative analysis. 
  • Doing the research is only one part of a researcher’s job. Prepping the study, choosing a methodology, recruiting appropriate subjects, documenting the results, and presenting them to the team are equally important tasks. In my experience, designers look at research as a way to test whether their hypothesis was right and then react accordingly, often neglecting to properly document and broadcast the results to the wider team. Or they use it as a blunt instrument to bludgeon people who disagree with them. It doesn’t matter how valid the research is if the rest of the team/company don’t know about it or trust it. UX Researchers are the Switzerland of product development. 
  • The social sciences are in the midst of a replication crisis, so maybe they’re not the best example to emulate. 


That being said, sometimes it’s unavoidable due to resource or budget constraints. In which case, the decision becomes designer-led research or no research. If at all possible, I’d advocate for at least having designers swap work to validate. The drag factor of a hand-off is worth the gain in impartiality.