Before I started working in UX, I worked on online surveys for social policy research. You might automatically think of the Google surveys you throw up for quick user feedback, but when you make surveys for a living, they’re a product. There’s effort that’s put into making a survey and ensuring the quality of the data you’ll get from it. There’s a wealth of research on how to craft surveys with the right look and feel to get the responses you need from people, and get people to finish without them getting bored (expected) or frustrated (to be avoided at all costs).
In my case, I worked on large research and evaluation projects that could last a week at a time, or could last years. That meant that these surveys required a lot of prep work, design, and development to make them successful.
It was this experience that eventually led me to considering UX as a career, even though I never heard the term used while I worked on surveys. I want to share what I learned as a survey researcher that I still use as a UX designer/researcher. Hopefully this won’t just be introspective navel-gazing, but also offer some useful tips for those starting out in UX design, or designers looking for a different perspective. My list, in no particular order:
1. Use prior research
As a designer, you have moments on projects when you‘re short for time to do the research you want to do, or need a place to start asking research questions. When you’re working on a survey, it (usually) isn’t just done on a whim; you’re expected to reference past research to explain the reasoning for your survey. Hence the long introduction sections and reference lists that you see in academic journals and research articles.
Thankfully designers don’t need to do all of that, but what do you do when you’re trying to figure out next steps on a design? While user research should be in your toolbelt, make sure you leverage all of the research that is already out there that you’ll need. That includes keeping track of the research others have done. Think broadly, it’s not just about looking up Medium articles; keep track of the news, use Google Scholar, look at what other people are sharing, and talk to any subject matter experts you know. And if you want to design ethically, you need to do the work to find out more about the context that your designs will exist within. Overall, leverage your resources, and don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to.
On top of looking for past research that’s been documented, make sure that you keep track of the research you’ve already done. This requires good documentation of your past research. Give your future self a present and keep track of what you learn during your research sessions. Find a way to collect this info across your team. Others have written about how to internally track user research, but you can choose and/or create whatever system works for you and your team. However it’s tracked, go back to refer to that research as much as you can. The best research is the kind that gives you answers (and new questions) again and again.
2. Go beyond keeping stakeholders in the loop
One thing that I did as a survey researcher and a UX designer is collaborating with clients/stakeholders. Especially when you’re working on a project involving a lot of domain-specific knowledge, your stakeholders are going to be experts in their field. And that means that they’ll find issues with your designs that you wouldn’t even think of. As a survey researcher, I could give feedback on how surveys should work technically, and details like whether there should be a progress bar, but stakeholders understood their field, and their brand, audience, and how they wanted their survey to be perceived. They could find parts in the flow of the survey that were confusing that I wouldn’t see. They were a crucial part of the QA process, and often there was time built in for them to QA test surveys and log issues.
The same thing goes for design. You might be tempted to hand stakeholders a “perfect” (eyeroll) product that’s ready to go live, but your product can’t even be “perfect” without their input. That means more than status updates and meetings and demos. Make sure they are a part of designing and testing as much as possible.
The key to making this work and not devolve into micromanaged chaos is to keep their role very defined, purpose-driven, and documented. Let spreadsheets be your friend if you need to. Plan our their role in the design and QA process. It’s almost guaranteed they’ll find something critical that you missed.
3. Talk to users
This goes without saying for both designers and survey researchers (even if you don’t always get time to do so). As a survey researcher, I talked to the people that would be the target audience and incorporated their feedback into surveys before the developers started their work. Especially for domain-specific surveys, it was important to make sure that terminology used, the flow of questions throughout the survey, and the presentation of the questions would make sense to participants. It’s a key part of survey design: in order to ensure that you’re getting quality data, you need to make sure your questions are working as intended and understood by your participants.
The same goes for designers. If you want your design to elicit a specific response, or have a specific impact on users, you need to test it and get feedback. Intention doesn’t equal impact, and intention never guarantees that a design “works”. Especially when I’ve had to design products covering subjects that I knew nothing about, I did the same as I did for surveys on topics that I knew nothing about: ask questions, assume nothing, and work towards understanding their needs and perspective.
4. Content is King, but so is Whatever you plan to get from your users
“Content is King” is often used as a reminder to designers that the prettiest site in the world is nothing without a reason to look at it. But what you get from users matters just as much for many sites. For surveys, there are specific rules that help to ensure that people are easily able to give you information. Doing things like reversing scoring also help ensure participants aren’t just blasting through the survey and giving you useless info to get a gift certificate.
As a designer, it’s tempting to focus on optimizing the presentation of content. I’d argue that designers also need to think about getting quality data. Beyond crafting designs that make users are trusting enough to give you their information, the designs of forms, or any other interactive elements meant to capture information, also need to be considered carefully. Whether it’s purchases, signups, donations, comments, all of those things need to be presented in the right way.
As a researcher, it also means accounting for how participants will give you information, and not just focusing on crafting your prototype to be just right. Try to make sure they’re comfortable, and able to be candid with you about their opinion. Keep assuring them that you’re listening to them, and that you’re not looking for some magical answer. Talk a LOT less than you listen.
Whether you’re designing an interaction or setting up a research session, aim to make things convenient for your users before yourself. Think of it as someone giving you a gift, and in return you make sure their experience is as pleasant as possible.
5. Understanding the front end AND back end of your product matters
As a survey researcher, I would plan out what information would need to be collected, and the data needed for any planned analyses. I had to think of how data would be stored, and how it would be collected, merged, anonymized, and updated over time. Designers are usually asked to consider front-end development, but I’d argue that designers also need to consider what will happen on the back end. A good example is designing a checkout experience. What will you have users fill out first? second? third? What will be shown to them based on the information that’s collected from them? And how long will it take the back end to get that data? Will that amount of time impact the user’s experience? How will you make sure that users enter the data in the correct format?
A decision as straight-forward as whether to ask users for their full name vs first and last in separate fields also needs to consider these implications. You want to have customers enter their full name instead of first and last? Wonderful! But if you ever need to reference only their last name, then you need to account for that still being possible, based on how customer data is stored (or decide if you need to at all).
Not every designer needs to also be a data analyst or back-end developer, but understanding how data works can be very helpful, and save a lot of grief when you have to scrap a design because it’s just not possible to present the information needed (ask me how I know this).
6. Ethics are important
Last, but definitely not least, is the importance of ethics, and having a structure for teaching professionals in the field about their ethical obligations. Whenever I worked as a survey researcher, I had to take an online ethics class and get certification. If I didn’t do it, I didn’t work, period. There are many arguments to be made about the effectiveness of this, but the fact is that there is at least something that exists, and some awareness and accountability is expected.
As designers, we don’t have that expectation (and I’ve written before about how I think we need to do something about that). It’s a part of the larger conversation about ethics in the tech industry. We need to do something about it, and we should do it soon, or a small and large scale. Even something as simple as making sure you use consent forms when you do user research is a step in the right direction. We can’t wash our hands of responsibility, and we need to take time as an industry to learn about ethics and set guidelines.
These conversations are starting to happen; we talk more about accessibility, and there are established rules and policies. There’s also more discussion about the social implications of digital products. As a survey researcher, I learned very quickly that studies are done from a particular point of view, even if there is a myth of neutrality. And that means taking responsibility for how your do your research, and what you put out into the world. Digital products are the same, and if designers are the ones advocating for users, it also means 1) accounting for that point of view, and 2) taking a certain amount of that responsibility when collecting data from users, speaking with them, and displaying content to them. We can’t just pass the buck to PMs and CEOs that get the final say on product decisions; we need to account for working ethically in our day-to-day design practice.
Wrap it up
Overall, I think that UX has a lot of career-switchers for a reason. There’s a lot within designing digital products that overlaps with many different fields. As a field, I feel that we’re just beginning to understand what we do, and how to learn from the history of other professions. And we might as well, since “tech” isn’t some weird, far off bubble, but a part of every industry as our global society technologically advances.
What lessons have you carried over from your previous career that still serve you well as a UX professional? It’s something to think about not just as a nice exercise, but also to understand the potential impact of what you do, and what kind of designer you want to be.