How to start a UXR practice from scratch in 90 days

Caitlin Sullivan
October 19, 2023
How to start a UXR practice from scratch in 90 days

In 2016, I was thrilled to become the first head of user research at a SaaS startup. I had no idea how hard it would be to set up a UX research practice from scratch. 

It was so hard that I’ve spent the last five years helping other startup teams avoid all the things I did wrong.

I had never before had to make so many new decisions in so little time.

I took too long to show value from research. 

I didn’t make the right internal partnerships soon enough. 

I spent days crafting a strategy — before understanding how the team needed me to support them.

I did whatever the startup’s partners and founders told me to do, because I didn’t know what was right or wrong, or where to begin.

Since then, I've advised nine startup teams setting up research practices. I’ve observed and supported some of the best UX research leaders on how to set up their practices better, and faster.

The problems you’re likely facing at the start:

  • Lack of time to do everything that feels important
  • Lack of team understanding of UXR and what it does
  • Skeptics who aren’t sure the team needs UX research
  • None of the right tools or processes in place
  • Siloed teams that don’t share work often enough
  • Different ideas about who the customer is across teams
  • Confusion about who to create alliances with in the team
  • Little to no budget for research

There’s an extra blocker these days. In the wake of UXR layoffs in tech, we all feel increased pressure to deliver value in a measurable way. Unfortunately, few new solo UXRs show value clearly and fast enough.

I always aim to make an impact in the first two months after joining a team, and I’ll explain how below.

7 steps to starting a UX research practice from scratch

1. Understand the team’s context & how UXR will fit in

(Weeks 1-2)

Before we dive into research, it’s crucial to understand four things about the team:

  • What the team currently believes about UX research
  • How they communicate today
  • How the business makes money
  • What the goals are for the business

Your first job is to get an overview of how the team and business operates. Understand the team’s beliefs about the customer. Then determine how teams expect UXR to support their goals, and how the business makes money. Your output as a UXR should improve business operations as well as the user experience.

I quickly gather the lay of the land by asking teams a few questions at the start:

  • How does the business make money? What’s the business model?
  • How is UXR expected to make an impact on the business?
  • Which teams is UXR expected to benefit most, and how?
  • What are the specific goals of those teams?
  • How would you describe your ideal customer profile? And what information is that idea based on?

Ask those questions to a few key stakeholders — ideally, the person you will report to, and at least one C-level executive.

In the first week, I also suggest sending out a survey to the full organization. Use this survey to ask two questions:

  • Describe in your own words: what is UX Research, and what does it do for a company?
  • Do you expect UX research to help you in your role? Why or why not?

These questions help you gauge the team's research understanding today, as well as their expectations moving forward. 

Does the team already have a grasp of UX research, or are there misconceptions you need to clarify? Are they eager to use UX research as a resource, or do many people question why it’s there?

Finally, audit how the team communicates today. If the team uses one main platform, plan to embed research sharing there. Avoid introducing a new communication tool that colleagues will need to adopt. They most likely won’t.

The timeline for this phase should be 1-2 weeks. Yes, it’s speedy!

We want to understand the team as fast as possible, and take meaningful action.

By the end of week two, use any scheduled full-team meeting to introduce yourself and the new UX research role. Ask for 10-15 minutes to present the following:

  • What you heard from the team — their beliefs and misconceptions about what UXR is and does
  • Clarify what UXR is and does, in any way that is different from the team’s beliefs (give them an aha moment)
  • Share a very short case study of UXR supporting innovation in a well-known org (ex: Airbnb, Uber, etc.)
  • Tell people how they can reach out to you
  • Let them know you’re taking support requests from any team in need of insights

2. Make the right “friends”

(Weeks 2-4) 

Make the right connections early, and you’re more likely to make an impact. 

But who should you build early relationships with?

Roles like customer support, sales, and marketing have direct, regular contact with customers. Align with these departments to avoid figuring out customers from scratch.

In return, you’ll promise to keep them in the loop about your own customer insights along the way.

For impact in the product team, find product managers who are already eager to make evidence-based decisions. They will become your partners in creating internal case studies to show your work’s value.

3. Systemize & automate early

(Weeks 4-5)

In a startup, everything you do needs to be optimized for speed. In today’s economic climate, even big, established firms feel pressure to learn and ship fast.

Systemizing and automating parts of the UX research process helps us move fast and maintain consistency.

There are a few things I believe you must systemize and automate:

  • Recruiting and booking user sessions
  • Basic templates for common research methods as a faster starting point each time
  • Taking requests for research support and prioritizing them
  • Synthesizing insights with a framework to check how much evidence supports each insight
One caveat: In the first couple of months, systemize but don't automate research requests. Take requests for support in a live conversation with your stakeholder. 

Why? A live, 15-20-minute chat with a stakeholder is a relationship-building opportunity. You’ll miss that opportunity if you use an automated request form right away. 

Instead, standardize the set of questions you ask stakeholders about their need for support. Later, you can turn those questions into a form they fill out on their own.

4. Set up data privacy practices

Before jumping into research, meet with a compliance representative to check how to handle customer data.

Draft a visual overview of your research processes, like a flow chart. Show your legal team or C-level executive how research projects look from a bird’s eye view. Include all the steps: from pulling customer data and recruiting, through recording sessions, compensating participants, storing insights, and logging customers you’ve contacted. 

Chances are, you’re the first UX researcher your compliance team member has worked with. They don’t know all the steps research includes.

A visual overview helps them see places where data compliance is important, that you may not be aware of.

If you’re new to your company, you may not know where in the workflow its industry requires extra compliance steps.

Follow these steps:

  1. Create a flow chart of the research process steps. Use an interview/user test process as an example if it helps to narrow it first.
  2. Book a session with your legal team, or team member responsible for compliance.
  3. Review the flow chart together. Highlight where you need tools for research, where you consume and store customer data, and any industry-specific rules.

5. Democratize

(Month 2)

From seed stage through scale-up, democratization plays an important role in developing a mature research practice.

But democratization is scary to many researchers. It can feel like we’re compromising research quality, or worse — making ourselves redundant.

As the first UX researcher, the truth is that you can’t set up and run research alone fast enough. You have too many tasks and roles to play — for too many teams — to do it all.

I’ve seen teams democratize well, and many that failed. What makes some successful? Three things: democratizing early, planning to train non-researchers, and org-wide research syncs.

Teams that democratize well do this:

  • Run workshops early to even out the team's skill levels
  • Have non-researchers observe your user sessions to show what good technique looks like
  • Establish a toolkit of templates to keep non-researchers on track
  • Support non-researchers in planning and analysis to make sure they run these steps well in all early projects
  • Set up regular syncs between all teams running any research and maintain a roadmap of all discovery activities happening across all teams

For many solo UX researchers, the idea of supporting others running research feels like a lot of work. When you start democratizing, you will need to support non-researchers at the beginning and end of projects (at least). But you can remove yourself from their process after a few months, without compromising quality.

Related read: Democratization by Researcher, Not of Research with Zoë Glas

6. Focus on short-term research with quick wins

(Month 2)

Too often, the first UX researcher starts with strategic research that takes weeks or months to deliver.

The most successful first UXRs I know find a fast project for a quick win, typically in their second month.

Look for a project you can deliver insights from within a couple of weeks. Then create a case study with your partner team that you can share with the full organization as soon as possible.

  • Find a team that’s eager for help making informed decisions
  • Find a project you can turn around in 1-2 weeks, not months
  • Create a case study showing how the results made an impact; then get testimonials from the partner team
  • Share it with the broader organization as soon as possible (ideally, in an all-hands meeting)

7. Iterating to a strategy

(Month 3)

See the process of developing a UX research practice as a product. Plan to use the team's feedback about how it’s going to iterate your plans.

Use the first two months for exploring and evaluating how well your plans have worked. With some tests and team feedback, you're ready to create a longer-term strategy.

Creating a strategy from the first month can lead to fixating on a path that misses the greatest potential impact. Keeping it flexible at the start gives you a higher chance of finding what works.

The strategy you craft after focusing on learning is the one that can drive more success.


  • A process is only worth following if you actually achieve the intended outcomes
  • Check how well the first couple of months went and stay nimble enough to try a new solution
  • Craft a strategy in month 2 or 3 instead of month 1 to leave flexibility for learning fast in that first period

You can do this in the next 90 days

Did you think starting a UX research practice from scratch would take half a year or more? I’ve watched and helped teams set up all of the above, and more, within just 90 days of joining a team. 

The timeline for your team will depend on how much colleagues and managers support you, how easily you find internal partners, and how quickly you reach customers for that first research project and case study. 

Treat this overview as a flexible guide, not a strict blueprint.

Success with setting up a UX research practice comes most from iterating along the way to find what works for your unique needs.

Caitlin is a former Head of User Research at a Spotify-backed SaaS company with 13 years of experience running research and experiments. She loves nerding out about product-market fit and helping early-stage startups test new products before launching. For more of her tactical advice, follow her on LinkedIn, check out her new Substack, or contact her directly.

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