​Do UX Researchers Need In-depth Domain Knowledge?

Hosted by the UX Researchers’ Guild
Moderated by Danielle Green and Jess Vice
View the full video presentation here.
Session 5 – February 21, 2024

Do UX Researchers need in-depth domain knowledge to do their jobs effectively? Or can researchers deliver valuable insights without understanding a product’s details or industry jargon? Danielle Green and Jess Vice dove into the pros and cons of this important topic in their most recent Research Rumble.

Domain Knowledge in UX Research

Most people would agree that if a particular project involves a technical or jargon-heavy product, a researcher who knows the industry space will work more efficiently than one who doesn’t. But are there benefits hiring managers are not considering that come with a researcher who is new to a field or product? 

In the top 20 industries that employ UX researchers, such as those involved with hardware and software experience, healthcare, e-commerce, and finance, there is an overwhelming preference for domain knowledge.

Pros of Hiring Domain Expert UX Researchers

This issue of prioritizing domain knowledge might be one of the most important factors hiring managers use in deciding who to hire. In addition, some managers are willing to trade years of experience and expertise in certain methodologies, in favor of industry knowledge. On this pro side, then, what benefits do hiring managers get from domain knowledge that keeps them seeking specialized researchers? 

Domain Knowledge Improves Operational Efficiency

The number one benefit is operational efficiency. A UX researcher who knows the internal jargon or team structure of a company in a particular industry will be able to quickly pick up internal operations at a new company within that same industry. If you worked for a health insurance company before, for example, you know there’s going to be a different team for the website, the member portal, and the provider portal. You have this mental model of how teams may be structured and the different products that may already be at play for that organization.

Domain Knowledge Increases Validity of Data Collection

The next is the validity of the data collected, especially qualitative data. If you know some of the language the user base uses, you can create better surveys and interview experiences and therefore collect better data. Qualitative interviews are also a great example here – a domain expert won’t have to ask participants basic or clarifying questions.

On the flip side, if you don’t know what feature the user is talking about, it’s difficult to ask probing follow-up questions to determine if that feature meets that person’s needs. You can take the naive approach and ask the user to define things for you. But in doing so, you risk losing important details they might provide if you could show that you understand their context. 

Domain Knowledge Improves Qualitative Data Analysis

Domain knowledge can produce better outcomes when it comes to analyzing qualitative data. For example, if you don’t know that two terms are related, you could fail to prioritize a finding or report on a theme that’s more prevalent than you would have otherwise thought.

Danielle had an experience with this when the name of a competitor for a company she was working for was also the name of an app in their suite of products. It took her longer than she would have hoped to realize that users were talking about turning to the competitor product rather than another application in the suite of products, all because she lacked domain knowledge.

Domain Knowledge Promotes Competitive Advantage

Suppose you have extensive experience with a user base or a product space. In that case, you’re able to detect indirect competitors and other market-level issues more quickly than someone without this knowledge. A classic example of indirect competitors is mattress companies, whose biggest competitors are melatonin and other supplements for sleep. So, if you’ve already worked for a pillow company, then you might already know about some of those types of competitors when you go to work for a mattress company. 

Domain Knowledge Enhances Empathy for Users

The next one is empathy for your users. It takes time to build empathy and get to know someone before you step into their shoes. If you have spent time with that user base before, you’ve already begun to cultivate empathy for them.

Danielle worked in telecom years ago and did a lot of field research for contact centers. She realizes now that she is a bit kinder to every customer service rep she has spoken to on the phone since. Developing that empathy for a user base will translate to other industries or companies. 

Domain Knowledge and Its Effect on Data Patterns and Best Practices 

Sometimes researchers with a lot of experience in a particular industry have seen many data patterns and design best practices which can give them a good intuition or first guesses about things. Danielle shared the following example: 

“I once worked at an e-commerce company and the VP they hired over product had worked for many online retailers for over a decade. While he hadn’t worked in anything in our unique situation, he was familiar with much of what we were doing. He remembered a lot of their experimentation results, such as pagination, breadcrumbs, or when to pop open another tab when you click on a product. Some things that worked for previous companies did not work for ours, but many of them did. His knowledge of the space allowed us to quickly get some growth on the team by implementing those changes that were not obvious to us.”

Cons of Hiring Domain Knowledge UX Researchers

Jess Vice learned about the connection between domain knowledge and UX research on their first job interview with a marketing agency:

“The hiring manager was impressed with my writing skills but added that I didn’t know anything about marketing. Thankfully, he said, ‘But, we can teach you that. You seem like you can learn.’ By taking a chance on me, this sort of defined the trajectory for my career.”

How Much Domain Knowledge Makes You an Expert?

The first thing to consider is how to define an expert in any given industry. When is enough knowledge enough, and how do we know what expertise means? 

Malcolm Gladwell made famous the 10,000-hour approach to expertise even though the original study showed that that figure was an average of hours of practice to reach domain expertise, not a precise number. For some people, mastery came after 25,000 hours, whereas others reached that level of expertise with just 4,000 hours. All this is to say that there is no agreed-upon measure or standard to say what expertise is. 

Some people walk boldly into a job interview claiming to be an expert, then prove themselves wrong in short order. It’s important to remember that practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect. In expertise, are we talking about quantity or quality, and how well or broadly someone learned a domain? This will not be evident through the interview process alone. 

There has been research that shows after about three years of doing something, we get bored. It can feel like mastery because our brain says, “Enough – I’ve had it. I know everything. I want to move on.” Is it mastery or boredom? It’s hard to tell at times.

If domain expertise cannot be clearly defined, perhaps it should not be a critical factor in the hiring process.

Domain Knowledge and Its Effect on Analogous Thinking 

Interestingly, the last point of the pros is the second point of the cons, showing that the analogous thinking experience in a different field can be a benefit and a con. In the example on the pro side, the new VP had high-level pattern observation across a series of industries that were replicable or applicable to what was being done. Analogous thinking from someone who has no direct experience, but sees patterns clearly may drive innovation and discovery.

However, analogous thinking in the way of a beginner’s mindset is not necessarily beneficial or something to promote. Doing so can greatly delay processes and project timelines rather than pulling on previous experience to find patterns and threads for a thoughtful analysis.

Domain Knowledge and Risk of Decreased Collaboration

Expecting researchers who come into an organization to also be domain experts can create knowledge silos and potentially decrease collaboration. 

Look at it this way: when a company expects an individual researcher to be the expert resource for how a process works, and then asks them to also make continuous discoveries, that puts tremendous pressure on their shoulders. 

Jess shared an experience they had when working in commercial real estate:

“I didn’t know anything about brokerages and how to broker a mortgage on a 700-apartment building. That was way beyond my domain. However, I had bought a house, had been through paperwork for a single homeowner, and had a frame of reference. When I talked to the brokerage team and demonstrated that I had analogous experience in something similar, they were much more willing to open up to me.”

Jess had heard that other researchers approaching the brokering team had negative experiences. But by showing a little bit of ignorance and analogous experience, Jess was better able to collaborate with them. 

“We ended up building a cross-team dependency where they welcomed me coming to them to get the right answer, rather than me assuming that I knew how the industry worked and making best guesses.”

Domain Knowledge: a Barrier to an Exploration Mindset?

Not having domain expertise can encourage an exploration mindset. Think about our previous example of a person who claimed to be a domain expert in an interview: when put in a room with clients, they are less likely to say, “I don’t know,” or to ask for time to explore and to understand more thoroughly. They’re more likely to say, “Here’s the answer; this is what we should do.” They are trying to cover up their lack of knowledge and confidence.

There are many reasons people might respond this way, but do we want someone who comes in with full confidence even if they might be wrong? Or do we want someone who admits they don’t have all the answers but is willing to do the hard work to discover the best path moving forward? 

A key attribute everyone appreciates about a UX researcher is curiosity. When we ask people to be domain experts, are we encouraging them to be curious or to rely on what they already know? In this way, requiring domain expertise might push researchers in the direction of too much knowing and not enough curiosity.

Risk of Focusing on Details Rather than People

As Danielle shared, empathy can be a point for requiring domain knowledge. But this same attribute can be a point against.

When we have domain experts who know something inside and out, they may lose sight of the people they are trying to serve. UX research is all about understanding people and remembering the humans and environments affected by the work being done. 

Jess recently pitched a client on a big project explaining that they needed 6-8 weeks to do research. The liaison representing the client responded by saying, “The CEO says he’s been doing this for 20 years; you can just interview him.” While he may have been doing this for 20 years, he was not an accurate representation of all the people involved in the industry. He is one person in one industry in one particular company with a personal bias and limited experience. Trusting one or two people as authoritative domain experts, as knowledgeable as they may be, can harm the process rather than help it. Researchers must never forget that every field has a mix of people who all have valuable insights.

Factors that Affect the Need for Domain Knowledge

So, do UX researchers need domain knowledge? The answer—a favorite for the industry—is, “It depends.” Whether domain expertise is needed depends on the size of the company, industry, and team. Position level also needs to be taken into consideration. Are we talking about juniors? They probably don’t need domain knowledge and expertise. What about senior directors who are leading others? They probably should have more. The goals of the project should also be looked at. Do we want specificity or speed? Many compromises need to be made and as hiring managers, thinking about the level of expertise needed in a role has a lot of peripheral context that should also be addressed.  

As a researcher who is considering entering an industry, it’s important to think about the context you’re pitching yourself into. Do you need to be a domain expert, or can you make a case for learning once you’re hired? Do you want to create something brand new or are you trying to keep a thing on its wheels and going? There’s a lot of context that defines the need for domain expertise. 

Discussions from the Breakout Rooms

Benefit of Pairing Domain Knowledge with Analogous Thinking

Perhaps it’s best to have two people working side by side: one who is a domain expert and one who brings cross-domain knowledge and more open-mindedness and avoids those biases.

The idea of diverse teams is a compelling one. Together they can balance and support each other. A hiring manager needs to explore who they already have on their team and where the gaps are that they need to fill. Maybe it’s someone who thinks in patterns and across industries and excels at diverse thinking rather than someone else who knows all the details about a particular industry.

In any industry where you are not a domain expert, it’s important to communicate your role as a researcher upfront so expectations are clear. You were hired as an investigator, not to know all the ins and outs of the industry. As Jess once shared with biotech scientists on a job: “I’m going to do my work as a researcher in this space. I need you to be the science experts and tell me when I get it wrong.” 

Building a diverse team is not easy, but it can be very effective. It will require thinking about the organization or the UX team, rather than focusing on any researcher.

In-House Researchers vs Independent Consultants

If domain expertise is required to be an effective UX researcher, then are we also saying that UX research consultants are not effective, or less effective than having an in-house researcher? It may be a rhetorical question, but it still needs to be examined.

Organizations such as the UX Researchers’ Guild can help solve that problem by connecting clients with domain-expert UX researchers, thus avoiding the need for an in-house full-time person. Independent researchers with specific domain knowledge are out there and can often do the same job more effectively and at a lower cost than an in-house consultant.

Domain Expertise as a Gatekeeper

There are situations where domain expertise would be ideal, but if domain expertise is the primary factor being used to choose job candidates, there’s also a high risk that the hiring practices are not looking at a broad, inclusive pool of applicants. And there could be missed opportunities when hiring for domain expertise over character, work ethic, and thinking style.

In contrast, while having domain knowledge doesn’t mean a researcher will necessarily use that expertise in their job, it does demonstrate that they can take on technical and complex topics. And that could be very attractive to a hiring manager. 

Domain Expertise, or Lack of It, is Temporary

It’s important to understand that having, or not having, domain expertise is a temporary condition. On one side, a researcher will naturally learn and grow in an industry the longer they are involved in it. And they will learn about that industry from the inside, where it will be most helpful to the client. 

Domain expertise being a temporary condition can also go in the other direction: How long are you a domain expert in tech if it’s changing every day? Then the idea of using domain expertise as a gatekeeper for hiring can be risky in ever-changing industries by focusing on this one aspect a manager feels an applicant needs to have.

Benefits of Continual Learning in UX Research

The willingness to continue learning is critical, and that mindset is independent of someone’s level of expertise. It’s also important to not get complacent. Just because a person has worked in IT for several years doesn’t mean there isn’t more to learn. Having a passion for an industry can demonstrate a willingness to continue learning about it, but generalized curiosity about a new industry can also be a benefit to companies hiring researchers. 

It would be beneficial to all, both potential candidates and the research team itself, if managers approached the hiring process by asking themselves, “Am I offering a growth role or do I want to hire someone to come in up to speed already and get it done?” Sometimes speed needs to be sacrificed in the interest of the depth that could be brought to the team. 

Value of a Diverse UX Research Team 

Crossing domains or understanding different domains is especially important when tech is involved. Any industry is impacted by changes in technology. Managers must be aware of these changes and how their work will be affected. This is where a non-industry domain team member can be especially helpful. Being tech-savvy in an ever-changing world is crucial to stay on top. Such a team member may need time to get up to speed on domain knowledge, but their expertise in technology will be invaluable and will provide the needed balance.

But how can researchers convince companies of the value of a diverse research team and the results they can bring? That is another conversation for another day. However, it is an important element in the ongoing world of UX research.

Gaining Domain Knowledge After Being Hired as a UX Researcher

One aspect companies can consider as they look at hiring researchers is this: how is knowledge documented and shared with those who don’t have domain expertise? Do these new hires have available resources to educate themselves and get a head start on becoming a domain expert inside the company once hired? The last thing a new employee wants to do is guess every day what’s happening and where to find needed information to do their job. Having a go-to resource will allow researchers to gauge their domain knowledge level and ask informed questions about those information gaps. 

Being Your Own Advocate to Be Hired as a UX Researcher

Because of the current “embarrassment of riches” situation, domain knowledge is now required more often in the job market where there are so many applicants to pick from. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. A generalist can pull in insights from other domains. Make sure you self-advocate and articulate your skills and talents to people who might not understand your background. If your previous experience is not UXR-related but allows you to understand a client’s perspective, don’t be shy about sharing that information. Tell people what to hire you for. 

If you’re a learner and want to be a domain expert, make that clear in the hiring process so managers can see your self-motivation. If you already have domain expertise and want to stay in that space, great. Let them know. Telling people exactly what to hire you for is a thoughtful approach, especially right now with so many choices to be made.

. . .

Jess Vice: UX researcher and strategist; ex-Strategy Director at Struck. Jess also coaches people who feel like they need to get unstuck and educates on big life topics like critical thinking and making decisions.

Danielle: co-founder of the Guild and Research Director; UXR, UXRM, Professor-Applied Psychology, and the Director of Claremont Graduate University’s UX Master’s program.

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