You’ve got an idea or perhaps some rough sketches, or you have a fully formed product nearing launch. Or maybe you’ve launched it already. Regardless of where you are in the product lifecycle, you know you need to get input from users.
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You have a few sound options to get this input: use a full-time user researcher or contract out the work (or maybe a combination of both). Between the three of us, we’ve run a user research agency, hired external researchers, and worked as freelancers. Through our different perspectives, we hope to provide some helpful considerations.
Should you hire an external user researcher?
First things first–in this article, we focus on contracting external user researchers, meaning that a person or team is brought on for the duration of a contract to conduct the research. Here are the most common situations where we find this type of role:
Organizations without researchers on staff: It would be great if companies validated their work with users during every iteration. But unfortunately, in real-world projects, user research happens at less frequent intervals, meaning there might not be enough work to justify hiring a full-time researcher. For this reason, it sometimes makes sense to use external people as needed.
Organizations whose research staff is maxed out: In other cases, particularly with large companies, there may already be user researchers on the payroll. Sometimes these researchers are specific to a particular effort, and other times the researchers themselves function as internal consultants, helping out with research across multiple projects. Either way, there is a finite amount of research staff, and sometimes the staff gets overbooked. These companies may then pull in additional contract-based researchers to independently run particular projects or to provide support to full-time researchers.
Organizations that need special expertise: Even if a company does have user research on staff and those researchers have time, it’s possible that there are specialized kinds of user research for which an external contract-based researcher is brought on. For example, they may want to do research with representative users who regularly use screen readers, so they bring in an accessibility expert who also has user research skills. Or they might need a researcher with special quantitative skills for a certain project.
Why hire an external researcher vs. other options?
Designers as researchers: You could hire a full-time designer who also has research skills. But a designer usually won’t have the same level of research expertise as a dedicated researcher. Additionally, they may end up researching their own designs, making it extremely difficult to moderate test sessions without any form of bias.
Product managers as researchers: While it’s common for enthusiastic product managers to want to conduct their own guerilla user research, this is often a bad idea. Product managers tend to hear feedback that validates their ideas and most often aren’t trained on how to ask non-leading questions.
Temporary roles: You could also bring on a researcher in a staff augmentation role, meaning someone who works for you full-time for an extended period of time, but who is not considered a full-time employee. This can be a bit harder to justify. For example, there may be legal requirements that you’d have to pass if you directly contract an individual. Or you could find someone through a staffing agency–fewer legal hurdles, but likely far pricier.
If these options don’t sound like a good fit for your needs, hiring an external user researcher on a project-specific basis could be the best solution for you. They give you exactly what you need without additional commitment or other risks. They may be a freelancer (or a slightly larger microbusiness), or even a team farmed out for a particular project by a consulting firm or agency.
What kinds of projects would you contract a user researcher for?
You can reasonably expect that anyone or any company that advertises their skillset as user research likely can do the full scope of qualitative efforts—from usability studies of all kinds, to card sorts, to ethnographic and exploratory work.
Contracting out quantitative work is a bit riskier. An analogy that comes to mind is using TurboTax to file your taxes. While TurboTax may be just fine for many situations, it’s easy to overlook what you don’t know in terms of more complicated tax regulations, which can quickly get you in trouble. Similarly, with quantitative work, there’s a long list of diverse, specialized quantitative skills (e.g., logs analysis, conjoint, Kano, and multiple regression). Don’t assume someone advertising as a general quantitative user researcher has the exact skills you need.
Also, for some companies, quantitative work comes with unique user privacy considerations that can require special internal permissions from legal and privacy teams.
But if the topic of your project is pretty easy to grasp and absorb without needing much specialized technical or organizational insight, hiring an external researcher is generally a great option.
What are the benefits to hiring an external researcher?
A new, objective perspective is one major benefit to hiring an external researcher. We all suffer from design fixation and are influenced by organizational politics and perceived or real technical constraints. Hiring an unbiased external researcher can uncover more unexpected issues and opportunities.
Contracting a researcher can also expand an internal researcher’s ability to influence. Having someone else moderate research studies frees up in-house researchers to be part of the conversations among stakeholders that happen while user interviews are being observed. If they are intuitively aware of an issue or opportunity, they can emphasize their perspective during those critical, decision-making moments that they often miss out on when they moderate studies themselves. In these situations, the in-house team can even design the study plan, draft the discussion guide, and just have the contractor moderate the study. The external researcher may then collaborate with the in-house researcher on the final report.
More candid and honest feedback can come out of hiring an external researcher. Research participants tend to be more comfortable sharing more critical feedback with someone who doesn’t work for the company whose product is being tested.
Lastly, if you need access to specialized research equipment or software (for example, proprietary online research tools), it can be easier to get it via an external researcher.
How do I hire an external user researcher?
So you’ve decided that you need to bring on an external user researcher to your team. How do you get started?
Where to find them
Network: Don’t wait until you need help to start networking and collecting a list of external researchers. Be proactive. Go to UX events in your local region. You’ll meet consultants and freelancers at those events, as well as people who have contracted out research and can make recommendations. You won’t necessarily have the opportunity for deep conversations, but you can continue a discussion over coffee or drinks!
Referrals: Along those same lines, when you anticipate a need at some point in the future, seek out trusted UX colleagues at your company and elsewhere. Ask them to connect you with people that they may have worked with.
What about a request for proposal (RFP)?
Your company may require you to specify your need in the form of an RFP, which is a document that outlines your project needs and specifications, and asks for bids in response.
An RFP provides these benefits:
- It keeps the playing field level, and anyone who wants to bid on a project can (in theory).
- You can be very specific about what you’re looking for, and get bids that can be easy to compare on price.
On the other hand, an RFP comes with limitations:
- You may think your requirements were very specific, but respondents may interpret them in different ways. This can result in large quote differences.
- You may be eliminating smaller players—those freelancers and microbusinesses who may be able to give you the highest level of seniority for the dollar but don’t have the staff to respond to RFPs quickly.
- You may be forced to be very concrete about your needs when you are not yet sure what you’ll actually need.
When it comes to RFPs, the most important thing to remember is to clearly and thoroughly specify your needs. Don’t forget to include small but important details that can matter in terms of pricing, such as answers to these questions:
- Who is responsible for recruitment of research participants?
- How many participants do you want included?
- Who will be responsible for distributing participant incentives?
- Who will be responsible for localizing prototypes?
- How long will sessions be?
- Over how many days and locations will they be?
- What is the format of expected deliverables?
- Do you want full, transcribed videos, or video clips?
It’s these details that will ultimately result in receiving informed proposals that are easy to compare.
Do a little digging on their backgrounds
Regardless of how you find a potential researcher, make sure you check out their credentials if you haven’t worked with them before.
At the corporate level, review the company: Google them and make sure that user research seems to be one of their core competencies. The same is true when dealing with a freelancer or microbusiness: Google them and see whether you get research-oriented results, and also check them out on social media.
Certainly feel free to ask for references if you don’t already have a direct connection, but take them with a grain of salt. Between the self-selecting nature of a reference, and a potential reference just trying to be nice to a friend, these can never be fully trusted.
One of the strongest indicators of experience and quality work is if a researcher has been hired by the same client for more than one project over time.
Larger agencies, individual researchers, or something in-between?
So you’ve got a solid sense of what research you need, and you’ve got several quality options to choose from. But external researchers come in all shapes and sizes, from single freelancers to very large agencies. How do you choose what’s best for your project while still evaluating the external researchers fairly?
Larger consulting firms and agencies do have some distinct advantages—namely that you’ve got a large company to back up the project. Even if one researcher isn’t available as expected (for example, if the project timeline slips), another can take their place. They also likely have a whole infrastructure for dealing with contracts like yours.
On the other hand, this larger infrastructure may add extra burden on your side. You may not know who exactly is going to be working on your project, or their level of seniority or experience. Changes in scope will likely be more involved. Larger infrastructure also likely means higher costs.
Individual (freelance) researchers also have some key advantages. You will likely have more control over contracting requirements. They are also likely to be more flexible—and less costly. In addition, if they were referred to you, you will be working with a specific resource that you can get to know over multiple projects.
Bringing on individual researchers can incur a little more risk. You will need to make sure that you can properly justify hiring an external researcher instead of an employee. (In the United States, the IRS has a variety of tests to make sure it is OK.) And if your project timeline slips, you run a greater risk of losing the researcher to some other commitment without someone to replace them.
A small business, a step between an individual researcher and a large firm, has some advantages over hiring an individual. Contracting an established business may involve less red tape, and you will still have the personal touch of knowing exactly who is conducting your research.
An established business also shows a certain level of commitment, even if it’s one person. For example, a microbusiness could represent a single freelancer, but it could also involve a very small number of employees or established relationships with trusted subcontractors (or both). Whatever the configuration, don’t expect a business of this size to have the ability to readily respond to RFPs.
The money question
Whether you solicit RFPs or get a single bid, price quotes will often differ significantly. User research is not a product but rather a customized and sophisticated effort around your needs. Here are some important things to consider:
- Price quotes are a reflection of how a project is interpreted. Different researchers are going to interpret your needs in different ways. A good price quote clearly details any assumptions that are going into pricing so you can quickly see if something is misaligned.
- Research teams are made up of staff with different levels of experience. A quote is going to be a reflection of the overall seniority of the team, their salaries and benefits, the cost of any business resources they use, and a reasonable profit margin for the business.
- Businesses all want to make a reasonable profit, but approaches to profitability differ. Some organizations may balance having a high volume of work with less profit per project. Other organizations may take more of a boutique approach: more selectivity over projects taken on, with added flexibility to focus on those projects, but also with a higher profit margin.
- Overbooked businesses provide higher quotes. Some consultants and agencies are in the practice of rarely saying no to a request, even if they are at capacity in terms of their workload. In these instances, it can be a common practice to multiply a quote by as much as three—if you say no, no harm done given they’re at capacity. However, if you say yes, the substantial profit is worth the cost for them to hire additional resources and to work temporarily above capacity in the meantime.
To determine whether a researcher or research team is right for you, you’ll certainly need to look at the big picture, including pricing, associated assumptions, and the seniority and background of the individuals who are doing the work.
Remember, it’s always OK to negotiate
If you have a researcher or research team that you want to work with but their pricing isn’t in line with your budget, let them know. It could be that the quote is just based on faulty assumptions. They may expect you to negotiate and are willing to come down in price; they may also offer alternative, cheaper options with them.
Hiring an external user researcher typically brings a long list of benefits. But like most relationships, you’ll need to invest time and effort to foster a healthy working dynamic between you, your external user researcher, and your team. Stay tuned for the next installment, where we’ll focus on how to collaborate together.