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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective User Researchers

These oldie but goodie tips are totally applicable to research success today.

Have you read the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? Me neither. Stephen Covey wrote it way back in 1989, AKA the year when Taylor Swift was busy being born, and when greed was still good. I take the view that for many self-help, popular psychology/business type books, reading through the highlights gives you easily 80% of the value of reading through the whole thing. In that spirit, I’ve scoped the Wikipedia page on more than one occasion when I need a quick evergreen reminder of how to keep my life on track, or at least keep myself “effective.” What’s struck me when reading through the tips is how good they actually are for, you know, being effective. So I thought, why not adapt them to user research effectiveness. Here goes.

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1. Be proactive

In the OG 7 Habits, this is all about seeking to grow your circle of influence, and focusing your attention there, versus some other circle of concern where you do not have influence. Probably most people would agree it’s better to be proactive than reactive. Practically, when it comes to UX research, that might mean building a recurring schedule of user interviews, usability testing, or review of ongoing, incoming feedback to ensure you’re getting ahead of problems and your biggest product opportunities. Compare that to the alternative of waiting for someone to constantly come to you describing the problem or opportunity. If you want a seat at the table, you have to claim it, and setting up your research process in a way that predicts the needs of your stakeholders is a great way to expand your circle of influence, and your overall impact.

2. Begin with the end in mind

What are your goals as a researcher? Being a voice for the user? Helping your company to see the best opportunities at the right time? Saving it from disaster by avoiding launching a product no one needs? Getting your name out there? Mentoring a team? When you know what success looks like, it’s a lot easier to see if you’re on the right path, to work backward to plan how to get there. That’s not to say that career paths are exactly linear these days, but perhaps your jungle gym, to user Sheryl Sandberg’s metaphor, has a few predictable areas you know you need to hit. It’s always a good idea to go back to what excites you about the path you’re on, where you see it going, and then make sure you’re doing the right things to get where you wanna go.

3. Put first things first

But hey, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. It’s the journey, not the destination. Build your roadmap. Do you have a system for deciding what research to do when? How do you choose among conflicting priorities? Mr. Covey recommends a classic important vs urgent matrix approach, tackling the important and urgent first, not important and not urgent last. Perhaps you have another framework. The point is you don’t want to constantly be deciding how to make decisions. Whatever you choose, a system that continuously moves you toward your goals as a researcher, while keeping you in sync with your company’s goals for product and research is what you’re looking for.

4. Think win-win

Win-win thinking is sort of the heart and soul of UX in a way, right? When the user wins, your business wins. When advocating for research resources, time in the product development cycle, and a seat at the table, it’s useful to position research as a win-win. It’s not do research OR build that feature, it’s do research AND build that feature. It’s just part of the process. It needs to be, yes in different ways, at different depths and timelines and budgets, but always there. It’s not a question of if, but a question of how. Research does not come at the expense of some other thing (Time spent building the wrong thing? Or no thing at all?) but instead gives back more than it requires.

5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood

Moderators understand this as well as anyone. When you conduct an interview, or research session, your goal is not to be liked—though always a good idea to be nice—or to persuade. Your goal is to hear, to see, to understand. It’s a great place to let go of assumptions, biases, and ego. Your time to be understood is when the research is in, your analysis is together, and you need to persuade your internal stakeholders you have some valuable insights to share. You’ll be able to do that because you took the time to understand somebody first. Of course, even when your goal is to persuade, you’ll do well to understand those you’re trying to influence first. Empathy is never a bad idea.

6. Synergize

If there’s a more 80s business term than this, I can’t think of it. Yet, the meaning behind the term is certainly something any researcher should strive for. Teamwork makes the dream work. The sum is greater than the parts. Just how many cliches can I throw into one paragraph?! Researchers work in so many configurations. Dedicated roles versus “this is something I do sometimes when I have time.” Centers of excellence serving entire organizations versus embedded in squads or sprint groups. Regardless of how your research gets done, it’s certain that to be effective you can’t let it happen in a vacuum. Maximize your impact by sharing your user insights outside just the product team; chances are they may help literally every other team too, then you get more influence and can do more research and have more impact still. Virtuous cycles!

7. Sharpen the Saw

Don’t burn out. Whether “self-care” is your jam, or you have a mindfulness practice, or a side hustle that gives you life because you JUST CAN’T STOP, it’s easy for a researcher to be under resourced and overwhelmed. Taking care of you, a pause from the day-to-day, some of those hard earned PTO days, whatever it is for you, keep yourself sharp because you have a lot to balance as a researcher. Your users and business are counting on you. No pressure.

Have another habit that works for you? Keep the conversation going on Twitter and share your tips there.

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Erin May
SVP, Marketing

Left brained, right brained. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held.

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