The UX Researcher role, interview with Roxane Lacotte

Vasilissa Kulikova
February 17, 2021

From UX Design to UX Research! After talking to UX Designers from different companies, we take a look at the enigmatic job of the UX Researcher. What is his mission? What is its role in product design? How does one become a UX Researcher? You'll find the answers to all your questions as well as some valuable advice in our interview with Roxane Lacotte, freelance UX Researcher.

Let's start with the question that is surely on the lips of some of our readers: what is a UX Researcher?

o define this job, I usually use unconventional terms, because I don't come from an academic research background at all. I see myself as the gateway to my clients' users. I am there to help them identify and understand the problems their clients are experiencing. Then I work with people who are more involved in design (product designers, UX/UI designers) to provide them with an assessment of these problems, so that they can find the best solutions. As a UX Researcher I don't work so much on the solution, but rather on identifying them and understanding user behaviour and needs.

How do you think this job came about?

That's a good question. In my opinion, it was born because we created a lot of solutions and we also turned innovation towards the solution. Except that we realised that these solutions are often imagined by someone who doesn't know his clients and that they have never been confronted with the reality of the market or its uses. There are institutions, notably IDEO, which have started thinking about this question: "we design, but for whom?", and I think that UX Research is the result of this process. The idea is to first identify the users' problems and then propose an adapted solution, and thus avoid wasting time, energy and money.

Tell us about your background: what led you to become a UX Researcher today?

I came from a marketing background. Digital marketing came very late for me - I started doing it in the last year of my master's degree, when I went to the United States and then to Paris during my end-of-study internship with a group that manages underwear brands.

I joined the company in the Trade Marketing Retail department, in particular for the DIM and Wonderbra brands, and my role was to design the window displays. To know which products to put forward, I had to rely on statistics and sales projections, and spend time in the shops with the saleswomen. In the end, it was really this second point that inspired me the most, much more than Excel tables. So I started to wonder if this thing had a name and if there was a job behind it.

There, I understood that Customer Experience existed and that there were agencies specialised in it, so I applied to Axance, an agency specialised in User Experience and more oriented towards digital products.

I joined them first as a UX project manager. For two years I coordinated projects: I supervised UX designers, UX researchers, data analysts on our clients' projects and my goal was both to ensure that the team had enough space to work and that the clients' needs were met. In this agency I was fascinated from the start by the UX Researcher job, they were super creative and very dynamic and their way of doing things inspired me enormously, so I thought "this is exactly what I want to do!" So I asked for a job change and became a UX Researcher at Axance. I started working directly on large cross-functional projects, including my first one at Air France, where we did a big "discovery" phase: internal interviews on problems reported by customers, observations at the airport, user tests on the Air France website... This enabled me to examine a number of research methods. I spent another year at Axance, including 9 months as an internal UX Research coach for the client. Finally, this autonomous work inspired me to set up my own business.

I left the big groups, and now I exclusively coach start-ups and scale-ups that need to move fast and want to understand their users in order to provide them with the solutions that best meet their needs.

In the first question you talked about your collaboration with UX designers, let's talk a bit more about that: how does it work? Where does your work end and the UX designer's begin?

I'll continue with the example of my work in an agency. The designer comes to observe this "discovery" phase, he listens to some or all of the interviews to really immerse himself and understand the problems raised by the users. Then, we debrief together, think about possible solutions and test our initial intentions. The test takes place either on a wireframe or on more elaborate models. Here again, the designer accompanies me in shadowing.

The idea is that the designer with whom I collaborate should really be present when I do research so that there is no need for me to argue afterwards, and so that he can be fed and feed his design directly with user feedback. For me it's really a hand in hand job, and the interest of this collaboration for the UX designer is to remove the bias of his own judgement on his work. It's very difficult to be the judge and arbiter of your own interface and the role of the duo is to be able to move forward more serenely. UX Research does not simply validate the work of the designer.

UX Research doesn't just validate the designer's work, but allows us to ask questions that will teach us whether we've made the right decisions so far or not.

We understand that the human factor is at the heart of this job, but can you tell us a little more about it: what are the elements that you like most in UX Research?

What I really like, as you said, is the human factor. At any point in the project - there's a lot of communication. UX Research is a job of listening and I love to think that I'm in a privileged position because I'm going to be able to discover a little bit of a person's life and problems and then find solutions for them.

It's moving and sometimes it makes a difference: for example, as part of a study for a banking application, I was interviewing a woman and it was difficult to get her to verbalise her feelings and put them into words. And it was only at the end of the interview that she admitted to me that she couldn't read. It was very interesting for me to see how someone who can't read manages on a site - what he or she will look at first, what elements he or she memorises to orientate himself or herself on the site, etc.

I also really enjoy being an advisor and a neutral person when I arrive at the client's home. I bring the users' needs and information about what they like or don't like, and it's never my personal opinion.

I wanted to ask you a question about this: how do you see, as a freelancer, the way the position of the UX Researcher is seen in companies? Is it always listened to?

Obviously it's not always listened to and it won't be for a long time, it's still a very new profession. There is still a lot of work to be done and a lot of dust to be removed before we can put a new dynamic into the companies so that they are really centred on the user in their approach. Today, for me, it depends on the profiles I work with: is the company user-centric and if so, what methods are used.

Afterwards, it's normal that the results of my research are not accepted in their entirety, because afterwards you also have to align yourself with the company's objectives. This is where my marketing training has been very useful, because we want the experience to be beneficial and positive for the users, but that doesn't mean we don't want to sell. To do that, you have to balance everything: the data I bring to my clients and their business objectives.

As a freelancer, I accompany my clients for a certain period of time, but sometimes not long enough in a company to be able to convince them over the long term.

So if the elements I identify are important to me, but not in line with the business vision, my power to act is unfortunately quite limited!

In your opinion, has the level of acceptance and understanding of the approach increased in recent years?

Yes, completely. Especially the acceptance, less for the understanding of the process. Often, as a freelancer, we hear: "ah, we have to do UX Research! We need to talk to our clients. That's already a good point, but when you ask them why they want to do it and what they want to know, the answer is: "just because everyone else is doing it." So for now and for some, it's still a fad! It's slowly waking up, but it's hard to change the orientation of a company's processes to be user-centred, so it makes sense to me that it takes time. It's a whole new organisation to put in place.

What is your vision of the future of UX Research and the role of the UX Researcher?

For me, what will gain in power is the idea that everyone can and should be a UX Researcher. All the teams around the product must have in mind the question: "Who am I doing it for? What need am I meeting?"

Today there is a lot of talk about "research repository", which gathers all the information about users, marketing, sales, etc., and this is quite complex to set up at management level. The role of the UX Researcher is to be the guarantor of this knowledge and to distribute it to the right teams, so that it comes out naturally from the product team and feeds the others. Personally, and having spoken with other UX researchers and product managers, I don't think that the data repository tools [editor's note: such as Dovetail or Condens] offered today are self-supporting.

Why not?

Because implementing them means, on the one hand, changing old methods and habits, and on the other hand, creating new ones: it takes time, and you can't ask employees to be autonomous on a tool right away. So I think you need to have someone doing research management (otherwise known as ResearchOps), and UX researchers can take on this role. Beyond that, I also think that in the near future, as UX Researchers, our role will go further than simple tests such as usability testing, and will focus more on the "discovery" part.

I agree. Now we've talked about the big companies, let's talk about young entrepreneurs, who want to do UX Research. What advice would you give them?

First of all, the most important thing is to know what you already have: read the reviews that people leave you, the comments on social networks, do quick surveys among your community. There's no point in starting from scratch.

The second piece of advice is to go and see the customer service department, which is in direct contact with the users, to find out what problems have been reported. Afterwards, when you have to start, it's better to do it with a researcher by your side, so that you have structured methods and don't bias the research. I think it's better to go slowly: it's better to take a big problem and break it down into several sub-problems and solve them one by one, rather than seeing the situation as a huge mountain that you can never overcome. I know this is difficult, because at the beginning of my freelance career I didn't follow my own advice :)

What advice would you give to people who can't convince others in their company to use UX Research?

This is the story of my life. Sometimes I found myself in a company where people didn't believe in UX Research at all. My strategy was to find people whom I helped, almost "discreetly" in their tasks at a purely operational level by my research resources, whether it was the product or marketing team. On the other hand, we communicated a lot about the results: "thanks to UX Research we have achieved...", and this made it possible to democratise the approach within the teams.

What advice would you give to a new UX Researcher?

I would do what I did: get coached and mentored by inspiring people in UX research. Because for me the academic route gives you a lot of theoretical knowledge about how to remove bias, etc., but it's really by seeing that you learn. For example, the person who inspired me was Céline Yao (now Senior Customer Research Manager at HSBC), with whom I worked at Axance. I think you have to go step by step and start as a duo or even as a note-taker with a UX Researcher.

And the second thing, and this also concerns life in general, is that you have to be extremely curious, open-minded, listen to different opinions and be prepared to receive them without being biased by your own judgement.

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