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The Lone UXR: Being a UX Research Team of One with Izzy Nichols

Going it alone can be good for leveling up your skills, taking the next step in your career, and finding out what you really want.

Being a research team of one isn’t easy. When you’re the only researcher at a company, you have to do every type of research, recruiting, planning, and analysis by yourself—all without the resources of a large team. But for Imani “Izzy” Nichols, being a UX research team of one is an exciting challenge. She’s been a team of one twice now and has learned a lot from her experience. In this episode of Awkward Silences, Izzy talked about how being a team of one allowed her to focus on championing research, leveling up her career in meaningful ways, and growing her skills. 

Izzy talked about…

  • How she finds mentors and a sense of community.
  • How to educate your teammates about the differences between market and UX research.
  • How to conquer the inevitable imposter syndrome that comes with being the first and only researcher.

Listen to the episode

Click the embedded player below to listen to the audio recording. Go to our podcast website for full episode details.


[4:16] Doing UX research as an introvert.

[9:20] Level up by finding good UXR mentors outside your organization.

[13:55] The biggest challenge of being the first and only researcher is educating the company about what UX research is—and why it matters.

[17:53] There are a lot of benefits to working in a team, like each member having expertise in a specific area.

[23:21] Conquering imposter syndrome.

Resources mentioned in the episode

About our guest

Imani “Izzy” Nichols is the Founder & Principal Researcher at Yzzi Research. There, she uses her research skills to help businesses understand her customers. She also coaches aspiring UX researchers to help them break into UXR and has her own podcast. She has also worked at WeWork and Octane.

Clarification: Izzy was still employed at Octane at the time of recording.


Erin: [00:00:00]Hello everybody and welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today we're here with Imani Izzy Nichols. She is a UX researcher and she's the founder of Yzzi Research. She's running a UX research consultancy. She's a career coach for aspiring UX researchers. She also hosts her own UX research podcast called Yzzi Research.

Erin: [00:00:49] So thank you so much for joining us Izzy.

Izzy: [00:00:52] Hi. Thank you guys. I'm happy to be here.

Erin: [00:00:54] We got to JH here too.

JH: [00:00:56] Yeah. First pod of 2021 and the world is solved and everything's perfect. And let's get

Erin: [00:01:01] going.

No drama whatsoever. well, Izzy thanks for joining us excited to talk about this when we were talking about what we should talk about and you had mentioned, I've done this being the first UX researcher a couple of times before. I'm like, surely we must've talked about that before and then.

I realized we hadn't. So I'm so glad we are. Cause I know that this is some position. A lot of researchers find themselves in whether it's their first or second or third go around, you know, doing UX research. to get things started, you have done this more than once, so I'm going to assume you didn't hate it the first time, but um, you know, would you recommend it to a friend?

Izzy: [00:01:45] Yeah. So I have been a lone researcher, twice, a team of one twice. I am extremely introverted and I prefer to work alone most of the time. If someone has a similar temperament to me, then yes, I would recommend it. I would especially recommend being a lone researcher for younger UX researchers, because they would have a chance to learn a lot about different research methods in a relatively early part of their career.

And it's really important to have a variety of exposure to different methods. So early on. So that way you can decide what you want to focus on. Do you want to be a quant researcher, a qual researcher. Do you want to specialize in interviews, focus groups, usability testing, et cetera. You get to explore a lot very early that allows you to narrow down what you want to focus on later.

Now, if someone is a little bit more extroverted it may be difficult and a bit isolating for them, but overall, I would recommend it. If you have the temperament for it.

JH: [00:02:34] And just for some additional context, when you were the first UXR in those two different situations, we're sorry. You were the only, were you also the first did you come in and get research going in that org or were you replacing somebody or what was the broader context around it?

Izzy: [00:02:48] Oh, yes. J H I was the first and only at both of them, which was like a double pressure so the first time I was a lone researcher was at a library and they didn't even know what UX research was. It's a funny thing because although. I was a UX researcher there that wasn't my formal job title.

We all had very generic job titles, like assistant or associate. But I was doing UX research there. And then a few years later, I worked at a FinTech company, a FinTech startup, and there I had the formal title of UX researcher and that was the first and only UX researcher there as well. When I started at the FinTech company the UX designer.

Who had already been there for about a year or two. He had done maybe about eight or 10 interviews a year before I started. And that was the extent of the UX research they did. So yes, I've been the first and only twice.

Erin: [00:03:36] Amazing. I'm going to take us on just a brief tangent here, but you mentioned, as an introvert, it's fitting and great to be the only person on the team. I'm curious, because I hear this a decent amount with the UX researchers. Obviously you get UX researchers who are all over the spectrum of extrovert introverts, but not rare to get introverts as UX researchers.

And I think it's funny, right? Cause you're spending a lot of time interviewing people and talking to people. And I'm just curious how , you know how that ends up being a good fit for you, the craft of UX research in the context of, being identified as an introvert.

Izzy: [00:04:16] I've always had a really easy time talking with people and people have always felt comfortable talking to me almost to the point that at some point I wanted to be a mental health professional because people just come to me naturally with things. So although I am more introverted and I need time to myself, it's always been easy for me to talk to people and for people to talk to me.

And for me, those conversations, having good conversational skills are the basis of UX research. So regardless of what method you use, you're always talking to people. So that's the thing, that's probably the part that's probably the best part of my personality that helps me be a researcher, is being able to talk to people. Now with the introverted, with the more introverted element of my personality.

I just need a lot of time to reflect afterwards.  Let's say. Today actually, I had a really packed day in terms of  pitching potential clients, doing some user interviews and I enjoyed it all. I really love it. However, once I'm done for the day, I'm probably going to take a bath, probably make some cookies and probably just be alone for about two hours.

We definitely need our time to decompress afterwards. So being an introvert hasn't hindered me from being a UX researcher, but it definitely, I have to be more conscientious about taking a lot of time out for myself after I'm done researching.

JH: [00:05:25] that makes sense. So you were, in these situations, it seems like some of the benefits that you've experienced have been having that time to reflect and process what you've learned. From research solo also getting all that exposure to different methodologies and responsibilities since, you're the only one there.

And so you're getting a lot of chances to learn and grow. What are some of the other things like, are there other aspects of it that have been really enjoyable, like working independently within a UXR role?

Izzy: [00:05:48] absolutely. I think the big part, one of the big benefits of being a solo researcher, a solo UX researcher, is that. In and of itself, it is a career accelerator, right? So when you're at a team and when you're at a company on a team you're the only researcher there. So you don't have any competition for promotions at a lot of companies, if there are more UX researchers or more of any PR.

Of any person doing the same role. Everyone is not always guaranteed a promotion, right? Sometimes you may have to compete for that. And I haven't had that experience thankfully. So whenever I want to be promoted or  be elevated in some way, I was able to do that with relatively little pushback. And also as part of being a career accelerator, being a solo UX researcher allows for a really huge capacity to define what your role is, especially if you are the first and only you're coming in and you really are defining your role and not only will that help you at the company you're at.

But also when you move on to different companies  you can keep those future steps in mind , when you're currently a researcher defining your role. So let's say if in the future you want to focus more so on quant methods, you can definitely do more AB testing for example, or incorporate data science into your practice as well, keeping it in mind that you want to do something else afterwards. So I think that the big benefit is that it's a career accelerator and also a second benefit. Is that you're viewed as being a leader, right?

So you're coming in and being the first person in some cases, the first and only researcher. And then just by default, people will see you as well, a UX research leader. And I think that's really good at the company because you get elevated into. You could elevate it into these different spaces and meetings that you probably wouldn't have been in otherwise.

And also externally it's good because when you are applying for other jobs or trying to pitch clients, and you can say, Oh yeah, I built a research program from scratch, or I  built a team from scratch. That's pretty impressive too. So I would say the big two are that it's a career accelerator and also, it's good for leadership development.

Erin: [00:07:39] Izzy that all makes a lot of sense. I'm wondering Those are some of the benefits, and we're going to talk about some of the challenges, but there's something that comes to mind for me is you have all of this autonomy and control and ability to set your goals and priorities. But at the same time, when you think about how you level up, how do you grow in your craft.

How do you, if you're doing like all of the methods available to you, how do you get really good at the ones that you maybe don't have as much experience? And obviously, some of that happens, from experience and just doing it, but have you found ways in these situations of being the only researcher, particularly if you're early in your career to learn from others and to have people who can help you, improve your craft over time?

Izzy: [00:08:28] Yeah, so I'll actually backtrack. That's a good question. So I started, this will tie in to answering your question, but when I was in college, I went to university of Virginia. And when I was there, that's where I became, I don't want to say hooked on, but that's where I became introduced to research. So I started as a research assistant for a marketing professor, and that was maybe my sophomore year. And I've been doing research ever since. So all of my adult life research is all I've done around the time that I was approaching like my junior year or my senior year. I applied for some sort of mentorship program with alumni of UVA.

And I was matched with a woman who was a UX researcher. And she was a good match because she was, she had applied research, but as a full-time career. She would tell me about her job as a UX researcher.  I didn't really understand what she was saying. Initially it went over my head because UX research is so specific if you haven't done it, but she had really piqued my interest.

And from that point on, I was really interested in pursuing UX research as a career. So to fast forward now in more present day, when I'm thinking about how I can level up or upskill or advance as a team of one, I think that having career pathing conversations with my manager and also being really conscientious about talking to UX researchers that are more senior to me, just like I did when I was in college. Talking to people more senior to me about what their career path has been and asking me for advice from them. Because as you mentioned earlier, quite a few UX researchers have found themselves as the first and only. And I think that talking to them and asking, okay how if I was working in a nine to five environment, how do I level up?

How do I pitch myself for promotion? I'm the only one here, but what if I get pushback? What do I do? How do I position myself for that? So I think definitely having mentorship and being intentional about seeking mentorship from people that have more experience than me is always a good starting point.

JH: [00:10:15] Just and to follow on that quickly, you mentioned a with your managers, like who were you reporting into when you were the only researcher?

Izzy: [00:10:21] So I had a general manager when I was at the FinTech company. And then when I was at the library, I didn't really have one. It was more so the director of the library she was, it was a small library to maybe about 10 people. So I reported to her.

Erin: [00:10:34] Yeah. And just to dig a little deeper into the the mentorship aspect, did you have like a formal pavement form always sounds so formal, doesn't it, but a process for identifying communities, finding mentors, finding communities and people to bounce ideas off of, or to extend your team of one to the broader community of researchers, how were you able to do that?

Izzy: [00:11:00] Yeah. So I've always been nicknamed the networking queen even in college. So I'm always talking to people. And of course, now that I'm fully engrossed in UX research, a lot of those people are UX researchers. So I'll just, we'll just have conversations like how we are now, more casual conversations.

And then they'll suggest, Oh, have you heard of this Slack group? So for example, have you heard of hexagon UX? Or have you heard of designers for good, or have you heard of the design researchers, mailing lists on Google, et cetera? They'll just say, have you heard of this? And I'll say no, and then they'll send me an invite.

I'll join it. And I'll introduce myself. And usually someone will like DM me and say, Hey, what you're doing sounds interesting. Or if you need help with X, Y, and Z, I'm here to help. I'm also good too, for just reaching out to people on LinkedIn. I will cold LinkedIn message someone in a heartbeat.

I have no qualms about doing that. And so that's been helpful as well. And also when I can apply for formal mentorship programs like I did in college, I don't do that as much. I go for more informal relationships now, but yeah, I. Try to, I talked to a lot of people, cold message.

People were cold emails. People have conversations there. And also if I can, I'm doing some more formalized mentorship programs, but being a part of so many different slacks has been so helpful for me because there are so many researchers who have so many different experiences. And sometimes when you are a solo researcher, it feels it feels like you're experiencing things for the first time. However, of course, someone else has experienced it before you, and they have a, they have some framework or some template or some kind of way of thinking to help get you past that point that you're at. 

 JH: [00:13:13] At User interviews. Erin was the first marketer. I was the first product person. And I think a phenomenon we both felt was this struggle of being like the player coach of having to figure out the marketing strategy and do all the implementation or the same sort of thing on the product side.

Did you experience that dynamic um, when you were, you know, the only researcher, like having a plan, the strategy or the processes while also just like executing and how did you manage that kind of dynamic?

Izzy: [00:13:35] Yeah. So I had to plan to execute. And also there's another piece too J H I had to educate as well. So at both of these companies, when I was the first person there, there wasn't because there was no formalized UX research function or program. There are a lot of people, like a lot of the PM, some of the web designers, engineers didn't quite know what UX research was.

They may have heard of it in passing, but they didn't really know what it was. The big question I got and this question. Low key triggers me is when people would say, what's the difference between that and market research? I'm like, Oh, they're different. So having to educate on things like that having to educate on why UX research samples are smaller than market research or data science samples, for example.

So there was a lot of education that I had to do as well. And that kind of caught me off guard because I just assumed that people knew enough about UX research and that I can come in. And then do my job and that was it. But I found myself having to do quite a bit of workshops and presentations, just to make sure that everyone was on the same page.

that was something, again that caught me off guard. And it was tough because UX research, it can be hard to explain to people if they haven't done it because it's so specific. In my opinion, market research is something that's a little bit more general and more accessible to people, but UX research isn't as mainstream.

So having to educate, in addition to conducting research, in addition to planning, research, and getting stakeholder buy-in and managing budget and incentives and recruiting people, because that's always the hardest part of research is recruitment, right? Doing the screeners, the guides, the analysis, the journey maps, the personas, it was a lot to do, but  the hardest part for me definitely was the education part.

Erin: [00:15:13] Not to put you on the spot, but having been in this surprising scenario so many times, have you come up with a kind of pithy elevator pitch or definition for UX research?

Izzy: [00:15:24] Yeah. So since a lot of people get UX research, confused with market research, I always start my presentations with, okay. What's the difference between these two, like UX research is more specific to the actual, it's hard to, it's hard to not use UX mission of it, but like w what the person is the app or the website is experiencing as they're using it.

Where are they clicking first? Are there any bugs that we don't know about that we can uncover in the usability test? For example, can we reorganize our menu using card sorts, for example? So using, trying to explain. Plain, what UX is in terms of methodologies and how that differs from market research, which should be fair.

Market research uses a lot of the same methods to interviews, focus groups, surveys, but they apply it very differently. So prior to being a UX researcher, I was a market researcher for about a year and a half at WeWork and market research, just, it never really made sense to me. I get the use case for it, of course, but it just felt very.

General, like we would work on these projects. I'm just like, okay, what happens as a result of it? At least with UX research. I know. Okay. If I make recommendations, some change happens to the product roadmap or to the product itself as a result of my findings, but with market research, that wasn't always the case.

So I try to use that as an example, too. So I always start by doing the UX research versus market research, and that usually helps people get a grasp initially.

Erin: [00:16:41] Yeah, absolutely. And you extra should have just applied by definition, which I haven't necessarily thought of it that way, but that's an interesting way to think about it as opposed to market research, which can tend to be like, Oh, we just want to know, it'd be interesting for general awareness.

Izzy: [00:16:56] Yeah, it's very upstream. And also market research reminds me of academic research, quite a bit of scholarly research, which is how I got my start. So of course I was undergrad. So I wasn't like leading anything by myself as a doctoral student would, or as a professor would, but I was helping them with their research and I will always ask, Hey, what's going to happen once you publish this book with all the research I helped you with?''

Who w what happens afterwards? And they're like, Oh it's just,  knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I'm like, that's great. I appreciate that. But I'm just like, I'm more of an applied researcher. So yeah, that, that was a point of not contention, but that was something that I didn't like about academic research and market research is that it doesn't really seem applied to me.

JH: [00:17:35] Yeah, that makes sense. There's like the kind of old cliche saying of, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. When you've been doing research solo versus doing it in more of a team setting, have you found that you're actually able to go faster and get to insights quicker and stuff?

Or does that not hold up and I'm in like a research capacity?

Izzy: [00:17:53] Yeah, I do think that having a team helps so much for one, I don't have to know everything, right? Like when you are in a team of one, there's an expectation or an assumption that, every method and you're an expert on everything. I'm not, and I'll be the first to say that there are certain methods.

I just don't like. So for example, like AB testing is very effective. If you're testing new CTAs and new placement of CTAs on an app, for example, it's great for that. But I just don't really care for it that much. But when you're working with other researchers, someone else may love that type of thing.

They may love AB testing. They may be a beast at it. So that’s good, being able to have other people who have strengths that are your weaknesses. So I would say that's one of the, one of the huge pros. Of working with other researchers. And also, additionally, I love UX researchers, we all were, we're very creative people and I didn't really realize that until fairly recently, because you can give us all the same problem, product, problem, tech problem. And we'll give you so many different solutions to fix it, or to at least approach it from a research perspective. And all of our approaches may be very different, but they still make sense. So being with other researchers, it's nice to just hear someone else's perspective and to see how they may approach something very differently than me, but it still makes sense.

So I would say there are a lot of benefits to working with a team as well, especially if you're younger. If you're fresh out of college, out of undergrad, and you have the privilege to work with more experienced researchers learning under their tutelage is so great because when you make mistakes, you have someone there who's done this hundreds of times to help steer you in the right direction.

If you don't know what to put in a research plan, you have someone there to help you modify it. If you're getting pushback from a stakeholder about why the sample size is so small, you have backup. So I definitely think that working in a team has many advantages as well.

JH: [00:19:35] It seems like if somebody else out there had the opportunity to join a company as the first researcher, it feels like high risk, high reward, right? Like it could be a tremendous growth opportunity and they come in and the company really embraces research and you get to head it up or it could be, they don't really understand research and they're doing it to check a box and the role never really gets traction or whatever.

Whereas if you're joining an existing team of maybe a half dozen researchers. It's probably going to be okay. Like obviously it could be better in some contexts or worse than other cases, but there's some signal there that like, they take research seriously based on just the size of the team.

If you're a person who's like considering being the first UXR in a company, any advice on how you try to assess if it's the amazing opportunity or if it's like the one that's a little scary and maybe the company is actually not that serious about it.

Izzy: [00:20:18] yeah, definitely one as always. So I started the conversation by talking about my temperament being more introverted. And I'm also a pretty patient person. So I would say my first piece of advice would be to assess your level of patients. Do you have patients to build our research program from nothing?

Everyone doesn't have that and that's fine because it's not for everyone, but I will start there assessing your level of patients. And then I would also say assess your career goals. So if you want to be a UX research manager, or if you want to branch out and have your own consultancy or agency like me you get to learn and lead a lot when you're a team of one and you build up so much confidence at a young age and an early part of your career.

So it can be good for your career as well in the long run. I also recommend looking for a company that has a product and a user base that you actually find interesting. That's probably obvious for any UX researcher, whether you're a team of one or not junior or senior or management, but since you'll, since you will be talking with customers on a regular basis, if you find the customers boring or uninteresting, then it will be hard to actually study them.

And observe their behavior and develop some sense of. Investment in them. And it will be harder for you to advocate for users or you're not really interested in, so I would think about that. I would also think, like I just mentioned previously doing quite a bit of discovery research before actually conducting more evaluative traditional UX research, like usability testing, for example, with users, just get to know the people at your company.

If you're working with PM with product managers, if you're working with designers, if you're working with engineers, whomever you're working with who will be a primary stakeholder in your research, talk to them first before actually conducting research with users, just to see what they know and just to see how you can fill in any gaps.

And also lastly, I would say get a UX research mentor or read literature by other UX researchers. So you feel less alone. I definitely think that even over the past few years, since I've been a researcher, there have been a lot more. I guess UX research influencers feels like a weird word to use like professionals, but, um, there have been a lot more UX research influencers.

One of my personal favorites is Nikki Anderson. Um, I had the pleasure of speaking with her one-on-one a few weeks ago and she is just lovely.  She's an American researcher living in Berlin, Germany, and she is just, she's amazing. She has her own. Like UX research education company, where she teaches people how to actually do UX research.

So I would recommend her. And there's also someone else named Kevin Liang, L I a N G. And he has a YouTube channel. I forgot the name of it, but if you search him, I'm on YouTube, he does. He provides a lot of free content about how to become a UX researcher and how to do it once you're there. So those have been to too many people that I've followed, whether reading their literature, Following them on LinkedIn or watching their YouTube content.

So I would say my last tip would be just to get a mentor or just at least listen to what influencers are saying.

Erin: [00:23:06] Recommended so many great influencers, hashtag influencers and yeah. Slack group. So I make sure to get all those from you after, and we can link them up in our write-up for folks, cause I'm sure people will want to check those out. So thanks for sharing all those 

Izzy: [00:23:20] Yeah, I did. I did actually want to talk a little bit more about the challenges of being a lone UX researcher? I did. Referenced some of it while we were talking, but there were just a few more that I wanted to just communicate to people before they actually decide to do it themselves. And one of the big ones for me was imposter syndrome.

So when I started my job as a FinTech UX researcher I had to keep reminding myself that I know actually I actually know how to do research, hence why they hired me, but there was just something about being the team of one and being the first at a growing company. That intimidated me a little bit.

And I felt like, wait, do I belong here? How did I finesse my way into this? How did I get here? And so imposter syndrome was a challenge that I faced initially. It gradually wore off as I built up my confidence and I built up my domain knowledge and built up my knowledge about the company, but that was something I did experience as well.

And also I had mentioned previously that there's an expectation sometimes when you are a team of one to know every single method W like sometimes people in upper management expect you to know how to do everything. And I just, although that was flattering, I just did not know how to do everything.

And just sometimes speaking up and saying that can sometimes make you feel a little bit uncomfortable, at least it did for me. So those are just two other challenges I wanted to mention as well.

Erin: [00:24:38] Yeah. So you had mentioned some challenges. You mentioned a bunch of benefits. You've done this a couple of times. Now you're running your own agency. What's next for you? Are you going to run with that for a while? Or are you going to join an 80 person research team or what are you thinking?

Izzy: [00:24:52] I definitely want to keep running with my agency for as long as I can. I've always wanted to be an entrepreneur. And this over the past year with all the events that have happened in the world, it definitely presented the perfect time to go ahead and start it. Hey, why not?  Definitely want to keep pushing that.

As you had mentioned earlier in my introduction, I do provide research consulting research services. So I actually can consult on research projects, but also execute as well. So doing personas, customer journey, maps, usability tests, and user interviews, et cetera. And then also I have a career coaching program CRO program where I help.

Aspiring UX researchers. So I helped them with their LinkedIn, their portfolio, their resume interviewing, et cetera. I go really in depth really in depth with the program that's called the Yzzi Research coaching program. And I really enjoy doing that. I actually wish that when I was in college, I actually had something similar to this.

There weren't a lot of there weren't a lot of. Professional development or professional branding programs or coaching programs for aspiring researchers. So that's a part of the reason why I created that to help people as well. And also I have my own podcast too called the Yzzi Research podcast. So you can't really forget the brand, it's Yzzi Research.

That's also the website as well. So yeah I'm really excited about doing that. I really. I'm really trying to, also, not that I know now that I've got my proverbial foot in the proverbial door with UX research, my goal is to help others. To help other aspiring researchers become UX researchers as well.

So I'm hoping that's a big thing. I've never realized how big that was, but that's a really big thing that I want to do, but I really want to help people bridge that gap because breaking into the industry, breaking into this career path can be really hard. I don't know why, but it can be really tricky trying to become a UX researcher.

So I want to help with that also. So I'm just going to keep running with that.

Erin: [00:26:37] Awesome. Yeah. There's no shortage of demand for sure. Every time I, everywhere I look, people are asking about how to break in and how to level up their careers in UX research. So glad you're doing that.

Izzy: [00:26:49] Yeah, totally. And I, yeah, again, I'm just really excited about that. And just continuing to just learn the best way to learn UX research is by doing it because it's so applied, but also listening to a lot of episodes of awkward silences. It's helped me a lot as well. And again, I mentioned those influencers on LinkedIn and YouTube, so just trying to learn from other people as well, and just having enough humility to know.

Humility and compassion. You mentioned Erin having self compassion to realize that I don't know everything and I don't have to know everything. So just still taking my time to learn as I do and do, as I learn which is a fun experience too.

Carrie Boyd
Former Content Writer at UI

Carrie Boyd is a UXR content wiz, formerly at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.

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