Finding your place on Ad Hoc's research team

In 2016, I was hired as Ad Hoc’s first researcher. At the time, research was the sidecar to our design practice’s motorcycle, which was already humming along with an established team. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to personally grow into Ad Hoc’s Research Director and facilitate the growth of our research team into its own practice with close to 20 team members.

One of the best parts of the job is hiring excellent candidates and supporting them as they grow personally and professionally. Ad Hoc researchers come from a wide variety of backgrounds from archaeology to anthropology to museums to education. We’ve also had people transfer over from Ad Hoc’s design, engineering, and product practice into the research team. The Ad Hoc research team is proudly a place where we accept and encourage the diversity of people and their experiences.

That’s all to say, even if you wouldn’t call yourself a UX researcher today, there may still be a place for you on the Ad Hoc research team and a path for you to grow into a senior research professional.

What research looks like at Ad Hoc

The most important thing about research at Ad Hoc is that it’s a valued and understood discipline. We spend our time doing research, not convincing leadership or our colleagues that talking to users is necessary to the success of a product. We do have external partners that are new to research, and successful researchers see that as an opportunity to bring the power of user research to the problems of government even if some stakeholders take more than one round of convincing.

As we work with customers, we often evolve what research looks like on their program. Showing the value of usability and subject matter expert research can open doors to doing more discovery research, and stretching our creativity to design workshops and mixed-methods projects can bring fresh insights to our customers. Researchers are part of Ad Hoc’s cross-functional teams, and colleagues from our engineering, product, and design teams will sit in on feedback sessions and bring their own skills to improve the research process.

In particular, Ad Hoc’s design and research teams work together closely. We see design and research skills existing on a spectrum, and the cross-functional nature of our teams means designers are able to contribute to research work and researchers are able to put their design skills to use.

Creativity within constraints

Being a researcher on federal government digital services does come with some constraints, and people who thrive in that environment and let their creativity find a solution are a great fit for our work. For example, while Ad Hoc staff have the freedom to use the software they need to get the job done, we’re often limited in the tools we can use when we collaborate with our government customers. This has led to some pretty amazing adaptations of Google Slides and Miro boards to tell complex stories about user journeys and research findings.

We’re also looking for team members that naturally put their creativity towards making Ad Hoc and the research practice better. That might look like designing a more inclusive hiring process, facilitating internal team workshops, or helping people outside our practice improve their own research skills.

In turn, Ad Hoc and I are committed to supporting your growth. All staff get an annual $2,000 continuing education budget, which researchers have used on conferences, workshops, courses, books, and professional organization memberships. Some folks have even used it for Toastmasters to improve their public speaking. The research practice also has a book club where we read and discuss books like Good Services and Dare to Lead.

Recently, we launched a new set of job descriptions for the research practice to help better define all of our roles and give people a clear path to advance their careers. Here’s a quick look at all of our research positions:

Associate Researcher

Associate Researchers are new to the research field and are still gaining core skills. They’ve likely taken some UX research courses or worked in fields that gave them similar experience. They will always be working on a team with other senior or principal researchers who can help them grow.

Responsibilities: We’re looking for Associate Researchers to spend time learning and practicing their research skills. Associate Researchers typically start with handling research logistics and take on more responsibilities, such as facilitating interviews, as their skills improve.

Typical week: Associate Researchers will spend time recruiting research participants, scheduling interviews, and supporting their colleagues as they conduct research. With the mentorship of a Senior Researcher, they may plan and facilitate a feedback session. They may also help a Senior Researcher take notes during interviews and assist in organizing the results.

Researcher

People at the Researcher level are able to take more ownership of a research project including facilitation and project planning. They’re still mastering a range of research tools and techniques with the support of Senior and Principal Researchers.

Responsibilities: Researchers are responsible for gathering and analyzing information and preparing reports to share that information with their team. We look to Researchers to plan and facilitate feedback sessions and use their skills to analyze data and give useful recommendations to the larger team.

Typical week: In a typical week, a Researcher may decide which research methods or tools are right for a specific problem the team is working on and develop a plan to conduct that research. They may facilitate post-session debriefs with observers and note-takers, dive into data analysis for projects, and meet with other members of the team and stakeholders to go through what they learned and possible next steps.

Senior Researcher

Researchers at this level are able to confidently plan, conduct, and analyze all of the research necessary for their project. They know what tools to apply when and are able to effectively communicate what they learn to both the project team and stakeholders. Senior Researchers may be the only researcher on their project.

Responsibilities: Senior Researchers have many more interactions with our government customers and vendor partners. They’re responsible for the overall quality of research on their project and for effectively working with their cross-functional team to provide the best possible research for the product. Senior Researchers who are team leads may also take on mentorship duties and some people management, but they’re not responsible for administrative tasks.

Typical week: A Senior Researcher’s week is balanced between conducting research and sharing results with customers and their team. They may have meetings to present their findings to senior stakeholders in our customer agencies and a 1:1 with an Associate Researcher to help them learn how to best apply a research tool to a problem.

Principal Researcher

Like Senior Researchers, Principal Researchers are responsible for major research projects for our program teams, but their sphere of influence also extends to all of Ad Hoc. I rely on Principal Researchers to help improve the research practice, interview and select candidates, and facilitate senior leadership meetings.

Responsibilities: Principal Researchers are responsible for large research projects where they may oversee junior researchers. They hire and mentor other researchers, prioritize work for their team, and collaborate with other senior folks across Ad Hoc’s practices. If they’re a lead on their program, they’ll also oversee other researchers through 1:1 meetings and performance reviews.

Typical week: After delivering the results of the research from the last sprint to their program team, a Principal Researcher may meet with other Principal Researchers to refine our interview template to help reduce unconscious bias. An Ad Hoc executive may ask a Principal Researcher to help facilitate a senior leadership meeting or refine a staff-wide survey. They will also spend time conducting feedback sessions and helping Associate Researchers grow their skills.

Moving up the ladder

As an example of this career ladder, I’d like you to meet Maria Vidart. After about 10 months at Ad Hoc, Maria, then at the Researcher level, was on a small team with a Senior Researcher supporting the Department of Veterans Affairs. Given their workload, Maria and her colleague decided to each handle the research for one subject area. It was all hands on deck for their team, which meant Maria was performing similar work with similar responsibilities to her colleague with a Senior Researcher job title.

Maria came to me to talk about moving into a Senior Researcher position and what else was expected of her to make the move. She was already doing outstanding research work, but our Senior role requires interactions with customers and other contracting companies and sharing more about our work with Ad Hoc and the world. As she does on her projects, Maria took the initiative to present internally about her work and write a blog post for the Society of Cultural Anthropology about what her research on APIs at the VA had uncovered. After 10 months at Ad Hoc, Maria was promoted to the Senior Researcher position.

Being a Senior Researcher is a vow of trust in my ability, my judgement, and the value of research in an API program. There aren’t a lot of researchers in API programs. This means I get to grow in this role and grow with the field. And this new title gives me the credibility to do so.

—Maria Vidart

I’m proud of the research team and practice we’ve built at Ad Hoc. If this sounds like a team you’d like to join, I’d encourage you to check our hiring page to see if we have any researcher openings that match your skills.