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How to build a UX research team from scratch - drawing of a person holding a pen looking up at a timeline

How to Build a UX Research Team from Scratch

Congrats—you’ve just been hired as a UXR leader! Here’s what to do in the first 90 days to build and manage an effective user research team.

The 6 foundations of effective teams

You’ve been tasked with building the UX research practice at your new company. In smaller organizations, you might not have the budget or leeway to hire other team members—but you’ll likely have to work with other teams and people who do research (PwDRs), such as product managers, designers, and marketers. A deep understanding of effective team dynamics will help you design a high-powered collaborative environment for research. 

J. Richard Hackman, Harvard psychology professor and expert in team dynamics, wrote at length about what it takes to build and lead an effective team: 

“Research confirms that the presence of the five conditions—real team, compelling direction, enabling structure, supportive context, and competent coaching—enhances team performance effectiveness.”

Later, he added a 6th condition: hiring the right people. Let’s break down what he meant by each of these conditions. 

  1. Real team: A ‘real’ team, as defined by Hackman, is a stable group of people who 1) work together to achieve a common goal, and 2) know who is and isn’t on the team. We’ll discuss creating a real UX research team under the ‘People’ header in the next section. 
  2. Compelling direction: A team with a compelling direction has a clear, ambitious, and impactful purpose to inspire its members. We’ll discuss setting your research team’s direction under the ‘Strategy’ header in the next section. 
  3. Strong structure: Teams with strong structures have the right size, process, function, and guardrails within their organization. We’ll discuss creating effective research team structures under the ‘Process’ header in the next section. 
  4. Supportive context: Teams with a supportive context exist in environments that recognize, enable, and reward the team’s impact. We’ll discuss nurturing a supportive context for research under the ‘Culture’ and ‘Tools’ headers in the next section. 
  5. Competent coaching: Teams with competent coaches have leaders, members, or external mentors who can offer sound advice for improving the team’s impact. Since you’ve been evaluated and hired for the job, we’re going to assume that you already have the skills and knowledge you need to be an effective coach, so we won’t cover this condition in-depth in the next section. 
  6. Right people: Finally, teams need the right people with an effective mix of technical skills and collaborative skills. Depending on your org’s structure and research needs, the ‘right’ mix of people may differ. We’ll discuss choosing the right people under the ‘People’ header of the next section. 

Although Hackman noted that these 6 conditions could not guarantee team success, his research was clear that they significantly increased the likelihood of success. Three of them—real team, right people, and compelling purpose—are essential to your team’s success, while the other three—strong structure, competent coaching, and supportive context—are accelerants for your team’s success. 

If you can get these conditions right, you’ll set your research team up for its best, most sustainable work. 

The 6 team conditions, according to research. Three of them—real team, right people, and compelling purpose—are essential to your team’s success, while the other three—strong structure, competent coaching, and supportive context—are accelerants for your team’s success. 
From 6 Team Conditions

Building blocks of a successful UX research practice

Now let’s take a look at what those foundations look like in the context of a brand-new UX research function. 

You’ll need to consider:

  • Strategy
  • People
  • Process
  • Culture
  • Tools

Below, we’ll discuss these building blocks in more detail and provide questions for your reflection as you’re putting each block into practice. 


Great UX research teams need a compelling direction—a clear, ambitious, and impactful purpose. 

To create a compelling direction for your UX research team (whether you’re a team of one or quickly growing into a large, cross-functional enterprise team), you need to define the strategy, vision, and core objectives you’ll focus on moving forward. You should also be able to clearly articulate these to your team and stakeholders. 

A UX research strategy should be:

  1. Connected to core business goals: In a business context, you won’t be doing research for research’s sake. Consider the goals and outcomes that the business is trying to achieve, and develop your strategy to support those goals. 
  2. Compatible with the team’s current research competency: Even without a formally-established research function, other teams at your company may have been doing some form of research with varying levels of research maturity. Your strategy should strike a balance between meeting these folks where they are and pushing the org to a more sophisticated research model. 
  3. Informed by an up-to-date understanding of the customer: What do you currently know about your target customer? Evaluate the existing data and identify gaps. Your strategy should be focused on progressing this customer understanding to inform and benefit future decisions. 

For example, here is the UX research mission that our VP of User Research, Roberta Dombrowski, set in her first 90 days at User Interviews. She and her team continue to reference this mission when prioritizing research activities:

“Develop an ethical, scalable, efficient, and decision-driven research practice that enables us to discover and find insights about our customers. These insights are not only used to inform our customers' current and future experiences but also push our wider industry forward.”
“Develop an ethical, scalable, efficient, and decision-driven research practice that enables us to discover and find insights about our customers. These insights are not only used to inform our customers' current and future experiences but also push our wider industry forward.”
UXR Team Mission at User Interviews

🤔 Questions for developing a high-level strategy for your UX research team:

  • What is the business’s history and goals? 
  • How can UX research help the company achieve those goals? 
  • What is the current state of research at the company? 
  • What are stakeholders’ hopes and expectations for research? 
  • What are the top 3 areas you need to focus on in your first year?
  • How can you communicate the value of those objectives to stakeholders?


Effective UX research teams need the right people in the right roles. 

At first, you might evaluate the company’s research needs and determine that no additional hires are needed at this time. That’s great—you’re the right person in the right role! 

However, as your research practice grows, you’ll eventually need to welcome new members to the team.

Hackman noted that “stable” teams—those that stay together over time—tend to perform better than those with high turnover rates. Of course, you can’t (and shouldn’t) force team members to stick around after they’ve decided to move on, but you can influence the stability of your team by making thoughtful hiring decisions (in addition to nailing the other building blocks of a successful UX research team). 

Some of the roles you might consider hiring for are:

When to hire full-time user researchers

User researchers are trained specialists who conduct qualitative and quantitative research to help teams answer business, product, and customer questions. They’re responsible for bringing the voice of the customer to the team.

Depending on your own area of expertise and the company’s research needs moving forward, you might consider hiring different kinds of research specialists—for example, mixed methods researchers, qualitative researchers, quantitative researchers, etc. 

We recommend hiring full-time user researchers when the demand for research exceeds the potential output of your current team. For example, if you’re a research team of one with the ability to manage 2–3 research projects per quarter and you start getting 6–8 viable research requests per quarter, it might be time to start looking for your next hire. 

When to hire research operations managers

Research Ops is a specialist role focused on creating infrastructure around research recruitment, tooling, and insight management. 

Some teams choose to split ReOps responsibilities among researchers, but the 2022 State of User Research Report found that teams with a dedicated ReOps manager are happier and more successful overall. 

In many cases, we’d actually recommend hiring Research Ops first to establish best practices and positive outcomes early on. In fact, our own VP of User Research, Roberta Dombrowski, hired a ReOps manager as the first person on her newly-established team. A dedicated ReOps function can make a massive difference in creating a supportive context in which your team can thrive. 

When to hire UX research interns

Research interns perform many of the same tasks as full-time user researchers, but with additional training, guidance, and oversight from others on the team. 

You probably don’t need to hear this, but: Providing internship opportunities is not about exploiting cheap labor. Instead, hiring interns is a chance to give back to your industry, get extra help during especially busy periods, and build a pipeline of potential hires for future entry-level roles. 

Teams often wait to hire interns until they’ve grown significantly, both in size and sophistication. However, we think capacity is a better indicator of intern-readiness than team size; you’ll need to set aside about 10–20 hours per week to provide meaningful training and help prepare an intern for a full-time role. 

🎁 Pro Tip: As you evaluate prospective hires, consider each candidates’ potential to provide competent coaching, both within the team and across the org. As Hackman noted, coaches don’t need to be in official leadership positions to make a positive impact on team performance. 

🤔 Questions for choosing the right people for your UX research team:

  • What are the company’s current research needs, relative to the capacity and output of existing researchers? 
  • What kind of research does your company need to conduct, and does your current team have the expertise to do it? 
  • Is your team’s size or output large enough to justify a ReOps hire? If not, is there a strategic advantage to hiring for ReOps early on?
  • Do you (or others on the team) have the capacity to offer training and guidance for entry-level and internship positions?


High-performing research teams have strong structures and processes to guide their work. 

By standardizing and documenting key processes within your research practice, you can uncover opportunities to:

  1. Improve efficiency, impact, and collaboration
  2. Clarify expectations (for both team members and stakeholders)
  3. Reduce the risk of low-quality or reputation-damaging work
  4. Provide helpful onboarding to new team members

Some of the areas you may need to define processes around include recruitment, methodologies, insight management, and collaboration. As you orient yourself within your new organization, make note of which of these are currently having the biggest impact (positive or negative) on research effectiveness—these are the areas you should prioritize in your first year. 

In the words of our own VP of User Research, Roberta Dombrowski

“I believe that it is part of our jobs, as Research Leaders, to explore and create systems, structures, and processes that empower not only ourselves but our teammates (full-time UXRs and others alike) to conduct research that will enable better decision-making for our companies and customers.”


Recruiting participants is one of the most universally painful tasks for researchers—and yet, it’s also one of the most easily streamlined with the right tools and processes. 

Whether you’ll be in charge of all recruiting or people who do research (PwDRs) will be managing some recruitment on their own, you’ll need to define the processes around recruitment, including:

📚 For help developing effective recruitment processes, check out our actionable, all-encompassing guide to streamlining research recruitment. 


As a researcher, you already know how important it is to adhere to strict processes regarding methodology—it’s the only way to be certain you’ve collected good, usable data. 

Processes surrounding methodology include:

If you’re planning to grow the research team significantly in your first year—or if research is already commonly practiced among non-research teams—consider creating internal educational materials or playbooks for each methodology. These playbooks, if created and socialized properly, will ensure standard, high-quality research practices, no matter who’s performing them. 

Insights management 

Insights management refers to the processes and platforms you use to collect, store, and search for user insights and other research data. 

The way you share and archive insights can stunt or extend your impact as a researcher. If no one ever references your research for decision-making (or worse—never knew it existed in the first place), then all of your hard work will have been for nothing. For research to have lasting effects on your company’s processes and decisions, it needs to be easily accessible, sometimes even long after the research is complete.

Some of the processes you’ll need to think about regarding insight management include:

  • How to collect and store participant data in a secure and compliant manner
  • Whether or not to create and manage a formal research repository
  • How to create an effective taxonomy for tagging and organizing research data
  • Who should and shouldn’t have access to historical data, and to what extent
  • How to share relevant insights with the right people immediately following a study

🎧 Listen and learn on the Awkward Silences podcast - What Librarians Can Teach UXRs about Insights Repositories with Nada Alnakeeb of DoorDash and Joanna Perez of Netflix


User researchers have highly collaborative roles. Whether you’re collaborating with other full-time researchers, stakeholders, or people doing research outside of the core UXR team, you need to think carefully about the best ways to work together. 

Consider defining collaboration processes like:

For example, our VP of User Research, Roberta Dombrowski, established a collaboration framework for research-enabled projects, led by people who do research (PwDRs—like marketers, PMs, PDs, or others outside of the core research team). Throughout the study, the UXR team joins to help with:

  • Planning: The PwDR prepares the first draft of the research plan using templates from our internal playbook, and then meets with UXR to refine it. 
  • Recruitment: The PwDR sets up the project in User Interviews and reaches out to UXR with any questions or QA needed.
  • Facilitation: The UXR reviews the PwDR’s usability test, survey, or interview questions and runs a mock session with the PwDR. Then, the PwDR facilitates sessions. 
  • Analysis: The PwDR writes and shares a research summary or artifact and the UXR spot-checks it before it’s shared with the wider team. 

🎁 Pro Tip: Process is important, yes—but be mindful that you don’t over-focus on processes to the detriment of your team’s agility. As Hackman said: 

“If all team performance processes are dictated by technology or pre-specified operating procedures…. It is the difference between a jazz musician and a section player in a symphony orchestra: The former has lots of room to improvise, whereas the latter must follow exactly a detailed score, and do so under the direct and constant supervision of a conductor. Team leaders should be more like jazz musicians.”

🤔 Questions for defining effective UX research processes:

  • Which processes are currently documented, and which are done using ‘tribal’ knowledge? 
  • What are the most common methods used by people who do research?
  • Which methods would, if incorporated into the research process, enable company goals and learning objectives? 
  • How are people sharing, searching for, and discovering user insights across the org? 
  • Which other teams should be involved in the research process?
  • Are there any tasks or processes that could be automated or streamlined with tooling? 

If your collaboration processes include regular team meetings, check out these free UX meeting templates for better agendas, documentation, and follow-up.


Successful research teams operate within a supportive context. That context consists of the overall company culture, the research team’s operational model, and the tools and resources that research has access to.

Specifically, a supportive culture around research is one which recognizes, enables, and rewards research’s impact. Let’s break that down:

  1. Recognize

Cultures that recognize research’s impact are those in which research is valued as an essential decision-making tool. Product teams are eager to work with you to validate and prioritize their roadmap, and company leaders want to use real, concrete customer insights to drive their strategy. 

Other teams know that the research department exists, what it does, and why. The research repository may be widely accessible to (and actually used by) the rest of the company. When marketers, designers, executives, or other team members have a question about customers, research is the first thing that comes to mind. 

  1. Enable

Cultures that enable research’s impact are those in which research has the tools, processes, resources, and permission to do good work. Your team is at a healthy size relative to the current demand for research, and you have access to the tools you need to perform efficiently and the budget to recruit and fairly compensate research participants

Red tape is kept to a minimum; other teams trust you to interface with customers in a professional manner, and any necessary bottlenecks in the research process are dealt with as quickly and effectively as possible. 

In some cases, an enabled research culture involves the wide-spread facilitation of research on other teams. This research model (commonly referred to as democratization) isn’t for everyone, but it can go a long way toward building a research-positive culture. 

  1. Reward

Cultures that reward research’s impact are those in which the results of research are clearly tracked and communicated to the rest of the team. Product, design, marketing, and other teams directly reference research to support their decisions, and there’s a strong feedback loop between evidence-based decisions and the actual user response to those decisions. 

When insights lead to better decisions or prevent bad ones, you hear about it. If you need more budget or other resources to work more effectively, you have the data and leverage to justify that request. 

🎧 Listen and learn on the Awkward Silences podcast - How to Build a Healthy Research Culture with Gregg Bernstein of Condé Nast

🤔 Questions for creating a supportive culture for UX research

  • How does the company currently feel about research?
  • How often (if at all) are user insights referenced across the company to inform important decisions? 
  • How can you measure and demonstrate the impact of your work? 
  • Would you team benefit from an enabled or democratized research model? 


Finally, a strong research practice requires the right tools and platforms to work effectively. Without the right tools, you’ll struggle to create a supportive context for research, and your processes may suffer from inefficiency and error. 

When you join a new company, you’re probably going to be presented with a number of tools that the team is already using. As the leader of a brand-new UXR practice, it’s your job to evaluate these tools for research use cases and determine if any tools are missing, underutilized, or ineffective for your team’s needs. 

Some of the most common tool types you’ll find in a UX research toolstack are:

  • Participant recruitment and management: Tools designed to help you find the right participants for your research and automate operational tasks related to recruiting, like incentives distribution and scheduling, e.g. User Interviews
  • Active research: Tools used to conduct studies with participants to answer a specific research question or enable a particular business decision, e.g. Maze, SurveyMonkey, or Optimal Workshop.
  • Passive insight collection: Tools that are used to collect data and insights while users interact with your product, independent of any specific research project, e.g. Sprig or Chameleon
  • Insight management: Tools for storing, organizing, and analyzing data collected through user research and passive insight collection methods, e.g. Dovetail or EnjoyHQ
  • Creative thinking and design: Tools that enable researchers to collaborate, ideate, and create visuals that help you get feedback from participants and your team, e.g. Figma or Miro

Of course, researchers use many different types of tools, both within and beyond these broad categories. It’s up to you to decide which tools are the best fit for your needs and goals. 

If, in the near or far future, you decide to hire a dedicated ReOps manager to support your team as it scales, you may give them the task of reevaluating your toolstack—but in the first 90 days of your new role, the main thing you need to do is make sure you have all the tools you need to do research effectively. 

🧙✨ Discover more tools in the 2022 UX Research Tools Map, a fantastical guide to the UXR software landscape.

🤔 Questions for building an effective UX research toolstack

  • Which tools does your organization currently use? 
  • Do all of the tools speak to each other? How easy is it to securely transfer data from one tool to the other?
  • Is your current toolstack missing any key integrations
  • Are there any existing tools that are underutilized or unfit for their intended purpose?
  • Are there any tasks or processes that could be automated or streamlined with tooling? 

Milestones to hit in your first 90 days as a UXR leader

Now that you understand the building blocks of an effective research practice, it’s time to put them in place. 

Here’s a suggested timeline for achieving necessary milestones in your first 90 days, with quick, practical tips to help you along the way. 

How to build a UX research practice from scratch: Checklist and timeline

👩‍🏫 The first 30 days: Learning and high-level strategy

Goal #1: Learn the business’s history and goals.

Here are some activities you could perform to help you learn more about the business’s history and goals:

  • Create a Lean Canvas: What is the business model, value prop, marketing channels, key goals and strategies over the next 1–5 years? 
  • Survey the team on their research skills: What is the internal team’s current research competency? What are their research needs?
  • 1-1 stakeholder interviews: What challenges are stakeholders facing in their roles? How can research ease those pains?
  • Sit-ins on sessions with the product, success, and sales teams: What’s actually happening with customers, and how does it compare to how each team is describing what’s happening?

Goal #2: Understand the product and customer experience.

Here are some activities you could perform to help you learn more about the product and customer experience:

  • Try the product yourself: What is the user experience like, as a newcomer? Can you identify any issues? 
  • Voice of the customer interviews: What are the customers’ perceptions and pain points of the product?
  • UXR Maturity workshop: How do the product and leadership teams rate the current state of research? Where would they realistically like to be in the future? 

Goal #3: Build relationships with other teams and stakeholders. 

The activities and conversations mentioned in the previous goals will help with this, but here are some other activities you could perform to help you build relationships:

  • Introduce yourself: Your company probably has a general Slack channel or one dedicated to introducing new hires—use it to introduce yourself and briefly describe the purpose and expected impact of research moving forward. 
  • Schedule casual 1-1s: Reach out to other folks in the company—especially those you know you’ll regularly be working with—and schedule a quick 15–30 minute chat to get to know each other. 
  • Join social events: Most companies have parties, watercooler games, or other events to help employees connect with each other. Don’t skip them!

👀 The first 60 days: Evaluation and vision

Goal #1: Evaluate research needs, processes, tools, and culture.

Here are some key questions to investigate:

  • What is already known about the customer? What questions are still unanswered?
  • What are the most common methods used by the team? What methods would they benefit from incorporating into their regular practice?
  • Are any tools causing friction in the research process? 
  • Which essential tools are missing from the stack?
  • How are folks sharing, searching, and discovering insights across the org?
  • How does the team currently feel about (and use) research?

Goal #2: Create a UXR vision and core objectives for the first year. 

Based on your understanding of the business and your evaluation of the above factors, determine the top 3 areas you need to focus on in the first year. 

For example, when our VP of User Research, Roberta Dombrowski, was evaluating the recruitment practices at User Interviews, she discovered 3 key problem areas that we needed to fix:

  1. Limited understanding of best practices
  2. Messy data
  3. Overlapping recruitment requests

⭐️ Learn how we overcame these challenges using our recruitment and panel management platform, Research Hub.

Goal #3: Communicate the value and strategy behind those objectives. 

When you’ve settled on your top 3 focus areas for the year, be sure to communicate the value of those objectives to the rest of your team—through a formal presentation, Slack reminders, or other shared documentation. 

🧰 The first 90 days: Ops, enablement, and strategic projects

Goal #1: Hire your first team member (if applicable).

Depending on your goals, you might consider hiring:

  • Mixed methods user researchers
  • Qualitative user researchers
  • Quantitative user researchers
  • Research operations managers
  • Research coordinators
  • Research interns

We recommend hiring Research Ops first, to support best practices and positive outcomes early on, and as your team continues to grow. 

Alternatively, if there’s no budget for another team member at this time: Start to establish ReOps practices and guidelines to maximize your impact and streamline research as it scales. 

Goal #2: Focus on strategic research projects. 

At this point, you’ve already begun leading quick-win research projects and voice-of-the-customer interviews. As your strategy and vision become more refined, shift your focus to strategic, highly visible research projects—those that will make the biggest impact in the first year. 

For example, high-impact projects include those related to company strategy, major product developments, or new target markets. 

Goal #3: Enable others to lead their own projects. 

Depending on the current state of research at your org, democratization may not be the right move for you in the first 90 days. 

  • If democratization isn’t the right move for you: Use this time to focus on socializing and evangelizing research—make sure the rest of the company understands what you do and why you do it.
  • If democratization is the right move: Determine the tools, training, and education your team will need to successfully democratize. 

💫 Ongoing: Deepening impact, efficiency, and democratization

Goal #1: Build (and sustain) a positive research culture. 

Hopefully, you’ve already laid the foundation for a positive research culture in your first 90 days—by building good relationships, developing processes for collaborating and sharing insights, and communicating the value of research generally.

Sustain this culture by creating a system for tracking your impact—including quantitative metrics like number of support tickets following research-backed design changes and qualitative metrics like stakeholder feedback. 

🎧 Listen and learn on the Awkward Silences podcast - UX Benchmarking to Demonstrate ROI with Kate Moran, UX Specialist at Nielsen Norman Group

Goal #2: Strive toward seamless operations.

As your research practice grows, regularly audit processes to identify areas for improved efficiency and effectiveness. Continue working on documenting key processes and scaling or refining your toolstack as needed. 

If you haven’t already, make your first Research Ops hire. The 2022 State of User Research found that most teams hire their first ReOps manager by the time they’ve grown to 12 or more researchers—but researchers who are supported by ReOps rate their job fulfillment higher than those who aren’t, so it might be worth considering before you’ve grown to that size. 

Goal #3: Develop more mature research practices.

A mature UX research practice achieves high results, uses a variety of sophisticated research methods, and is valued by and integrated into the rest of the company. 

As your research practice scales, consider:

From one research leader to another

Interested in hearing the real-life reflections, examples, and experiences of another researcher who built a UX research practice from the ground up? 

Check out this series from our own VP of User Research, Roberta Dombrowski, as she describes her challenges, learnings, and approach to her first 90 days at User Interviews:

Lizzy Burnam
Product Education Manager

Marketer, writer, poet. Lizzy likes hiking, people-watching, thrift shopping, learning and sharing ideas. Her happiest memory is sitting on the shore of Lake Champlain in the summer of 2020, eating a clementine.

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