Immersion and influence—the work of the modern UX researcher | by Nick Stiles | Jan, 2024


The frustration UXRs feel when nobody heeds our insights and the amount of impact we have can be improved if we view our role as having two primary jobs:

(1) to immerse oneself in the product domain and user’s world until it’s second nature and

(2) to influence the minds and behavior of stakeholders in the service of business and user.

The user researcher’s fallacy: ‘My job is to learn about users.’ Truth: ‘My job is to help my team learn about users.’

Caroline Jarrett, Forms and survey specialist

Think about the last time you started a new job. How long did it take for you to feel comfortable with the daily tasks or tools you used? When did you have a good sense of the company’s culture and inner workings?

There’s always this “honeymoon” phase when starting a job, where you need to learn the ropes and aren’t quite sure what’s going on. During this time, you’re making sense of the new environment, identifying patterns, mapping out relationships between people. And then, after some time, you look back at your past self in amusement at how naive you were.

When you look back at your past self in amusement.
Gif of Matthew McConaughey in “Interstellar” yelling at his past self. ” (created via

This novice-to-expert process also happens in our personal lives. My wife knows me better than anyone, but there was a time when we were just strangers. That deep understanding was learned, as she’s spent time with me and seen me in different situations.

When people learn something new, like a new job, they use more brain power upfront as they’re learning; over time, the brain areas used to do the tasks become more refined, and less energy and focus are needed. For example, learning to drive is difficult. But once you do it for a while, you find yourself driving without even thinking about it. Nearly everything is hard at first and then, with practice, it gets easier until one day you wake up and it’s not.

A similar change happens when we deeply understand someone. For example, thinking about friends and partners shows more overlap in brain areas involved in self-reflection than when thinking about strangers. The same is true when we watch someone experiencing physical or social pain (e.g., exclusion or rejection). At the level of the brain, then, we see strangers as distinct from ourselves but those we know best are, to a degree, brought into the fold of “self.”

The sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein must have known this when he coined the word “grok” (grawk) in his 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land: “to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed — to merge, blend.” When we know someone well, it’s easier for us to put ourselves in their shoes and see the situation from their perspective; we draw from our knowledge of them intuitively.

Stranger in a Strange Land is about the first human who is born on Mars. In the book, Mars is a developed planet with nations, governments, societies, and cultural practices. The protagonist goes to Earth as an adult and is shocked by how humans run their institutions and what they practice culturally. Having spent his whole life on Mars, he believes the Martians have a lot to teach humans. He begins spreading Martian ideas and practices, even his own religion.

Modern user researchers are kinda like this guy. Humans living on Mars, visiting Earth to help them do things the way Martians are used to doing them.

User researchers immerse themselves in the user’s world and product space, trying to influence colleagues and stakeholders to do things we believe users prefer.

Immersion: Snooping, sleuthing, and engaging


to deeply engage or involve oneself in a particular activity or interest, or to be completely surrounded by a particular environment. It often implies a deep mental or physical involvement.

The first job of the user researcher: To immerse oneself in the product domain and user’s world until it’s second nature.

Just like nobody expects an employee to know how to do the job the first day, nobody expects a user researcher to be the source of truth when they first enter a product space. But by the 60th or 90th day, colleagues and stakeholders will have questions. We need to be ready to answer them, explain how to get the answers, or point to better questions.

As the ex-Airbnb/Meta UXR leader Judd Antin puts it, “A good researcher is like the repository of insights you need to grow.” Presenting study findings will only take a user researcher so far. It’s the little nudges though—chiming in during workshops, sharing insights in a Slack thread—that help keep the user-centered wheels on track. Immersing oneself in the user’s world and product space allows us to contribute more deeply and with a broader perspective.

Immersion is actually easier than ever. The widespread use and adoption of remote research is one way it’s become easier, but there are others. For example, we can do a kind of digital ethnography.

User communities exist online—e.g., LinkedIn, Slack, and Reddit—that we can snoop on or even engage with. We can listen to podcasts. Watch conference or training videos on YouTube. Attend user meetups, either in person or remotely, where we can mingle with and observe the user community (maybe even recruit participants?). In many ways, the abundance of digital content and online communities makes this a heyday for user researchers.

It has never been easier to sleuth.

This isn’t what typically comes to mind when we think about doing user research, but it’s vital. This “background work” allows us to gain a deep understanding of our users and domain. We must be able to confidently answer questions about our users and product space at the drop of a hat. If we can’t do that, then we can at least pull from a trove of insights we’ve collected throughout our time in the product space to get answers quickly.

Not everything requires a study, or at least it shouldn’t. Immersion helps us avoid these unnecessary studies and helps show how research can, contrary to popular belief, actually speed things up.

All of this applies internally as well. Immersion means deeply understanding the internal dynamics of personalities, teams, stakeholders, and organizations. We should know about and understand any backend technical constraints and limitations from an engineering standpoint. We should know the history of the product or service in question, or at least the company’s history with it. We have to speak with folks outside of the product bubble like consulting, marketing, sales, and client success.

Internal immersion work will also help with the next core job of a user researcher: getting people to think like you.

Influence: Holding sway


to affect or impact the behavior, development, character, or decisions of someone or something. It can refer to a person, idea, or situation that has the ability to shape outcomes or change conditions.

The second job of the user researcher: To influence the minds and behavior of stakeholders in the service of business and user.

When push comes to shove and the financial belts tighten user research is expendable in its current form. This may be a reflection of company values. It’s also a reflection of how valuable user researchers have shown user research to be.

Traditionally, we’ve leaned on usability tests to show worth. Usability tests hone in on that sweet spot where business and user needs overlap. The business wants to build something; we make it more user-friendly by uncovering usability issues. Win-Win. We’ve built a name for ourselves doing this work.

But the unfortunate truth is products will ship with or without usability findings; they may even ship despite them. Of course, usability tests aren’t all we do. And we should keep doing them, whether we’ve been in the field for 6 months or 20 years. However, if we’re being honest with ourselves, large portions of our time are spent doing reactive research where we are asked to come in at the end to QA the product or, worse, validate someone’s idea.

Validation is not what we’re about; falsification is. We don’t do usability tests to validate the choices our team has made. It feels this way. Everyone might think this is what we’re doing, but really what we’re trying to do is prove ourselves wrong. As a product team, we want to know if we’re wrong about what we think we should build. Knowing which routes are dead-ends will save us time and money.

It’s also surprisingly easy to prove yourself right.

Usability tests, then, are a valuable tool in the UXR toolbelt for testing hypotheses, but not everything requires a hammer. Diplomacy and social capital are paramount to the modern user researcher. We have to be able to influence those around us to take a more user-centered position. We have to nudge them toward the decision that will be good for both the business and the user. And to do that, we need to build trust.

Trust-building happens all the time. When we have a 1:1 with a colleague or stakeholder. When we’re in a team meeting or chatting in the hallway. When we’re at happy hour casually chatting about work or presenting study findings.

We’re always signaling that we are trustworthy sources of information, that we’ve done our homework. When we gain trust, our suggestions mean more and we have more impact. As Erika Hall put it, “The work is so much about building relationships, analyzing power dynamics, and having the right fights. I’m not sure people are being taught this in the design schools and bootcamps.”

If influence is a key piece of what we do, soft skills become essential when hiring UXRs. Knowing when to be quiet and letting others have a voice is just as important as being able to give the TL;DR of a study. If we do good work, there is a snowball effect that happens.

We don’t need to influence every single colleague and stakeholder. We just need to influence enough to get buy-in from key individuals in the team, organization, or company. Once we obtain buy-in from some people, they become UXR advocates and make it easier for us to hold sway. More doors open. More meeting invites start coming in.

The modern user researcher doesn’t leave research impact to chance. We don’t assume stakeholders will feel the same level of empathy for the user or have the same depth of knowledge about the domain. If we’ve done our job right, they won’t need to.

Formal study presentations are but a fraction of the work we need to do to drive impact. They can help energize stakeholders and get buy-in, but fanning the flames of that energy with influence will be vital. As David Travis and Philip Hodgson say in Think Like a UX Researcher: “The most successful UX researchers don’t just attend training courses and do the work day-to-day. They consciously and deliberately reflect on their work.”

Broadening our scope

As much as we’d like to be (or as much as we were in a past life), we’re not anthropologists, psychologists, or academics. Instead, we occupy a more nebulous space. It borrows from these and other fields, applying that multidisciplinary skill set within a business context. When the business grows and user research is involved, that gives us influence. It gives us the freedom to do the work we really want to do.

There is an elusive sweet spot in user research: The middle of the Venn diagram between business needs and user needs. Historically, we’ve given more weight to the latter. The more we uncover this overlap, though, the more value we bring to the business and user. To do more for the user, we must do more for the business.

Our colleagues and stakeholders all have ideas about what user research is, and nobody seems to have the same one. Is that because we ourselves are unsure? Unsure of our scope, like what methods we can and can’t use or what insights and data are or aren’t on the table.

We are a relatively new field. There’s so much room to grow as a profession. There’s so much potential for experimentation and innovation—if we’re willing to evolve and change how we view the profession. If we’re willing to step back and ask: What does it mean to be a user researcher?


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