I never thought I’d become a user experience (UX) researcher when I was in college—in large part because I didn’t even know the role existed! I happily stumbled upon the role while working at an eight-person startup where I had many responsibilities, including translating user needs into design thinking and recommendations to improve our product.
Luckily, UX researchers come from many different backgrounds. If you’re innately curious, enjoy getting to know and understand others, and have an eye for design improvements and a knack for product thinking, this could be the job for you.
Keep reading to find out more about what a UX research is and does and how you can make your way into the role.
What Is a UX Researcher?
A UX researcher’s job is to understand people and uncover insights about a user group to inform and improve a product, its overall design, and the user's experience with it. For example, let’s say you’re gearing up for a relaxing evening with your favorite Netflix show. Understanding all of the steps that go into the process of finding a show you like, hitting play, and maybe even binge-watching the whole series in a night could have been the perfect project for a user researcher.
A researcher might want to explore what kind of mood you’re in when you fire up Netflix and how easy it is for you to find the right show to match your mood. They might want to understand whether you find it confusing to add subtitles if a film isn’t in your native language, or if you noticed, cared, or loved that the next episode was cued up for you as soon as you finished the first one. They might drill into specifics like whether a button or action on the site was confusing or explore topics as broad as what counts as entertainment vs. education in your point of view. (Is the Taylor Swift documentary both?! That depends!)
What Do UX Researchers Actually Do and What Kinds of Skills and Qualities Do They Need?
How do UX researchers tackle projects like the Netflix example? They need to:
The goal of user researchers is to understand people in order to make products better, so researchers must work hard to get to know their research subjects, or participants. There are many ways to learn about a participant, but one of the most common is an in-depth interview, or IDI. IDIs require researchers to hone their interviewing and listening skills: to establish rapport with a complete stranger in just a few minutes; to know how to ask good questions; to listen for when a participant has more to say; to bring empathy, humility, and curiosity to the conversation; and to manage a discussion when it’s at risk of going off track.
Know and Choose the Right Methods
These conversations are meant to help answer research questions, but they’re not the only way to do it. In addition to IDIs, researchers can also get creative, using methodologies like surveys, card sorts, concept testing, field research, and more. Because there are so many ways to answer a question, researchers must learn how to identify the right tool for the job.
Be Familiar With Best Practices
UX researchers also need to develop an understanding of best practices in user flows and product design. For instance, a researcher knows that in a given user flow—say, the process to sign up for a new email account—it helps to give users a sense of where they are in the process and what comes next. Incorporating progress bars that show how far a user has made it and how much is left to go; allowing a user to save and exit part way through the process vs. losing everything they’ve done so far if they need to hit pause; or even keeping a sign-up flow short, to the point, and with clear guidance on why certain information is being asked for are all important considerations. These best practices can be learned formally (through classes) or experientially (on the job or through mentorship).
Influence Their Teams
Lastly, researchers must learn to influence their teams to incorporate their insights into the product. This is especially important since sometimes researchers are the bearers of bad news: A team may be very excited about a feature (say, voice activation), and a researcher may learn it’s simply not needed (or even confusing) and have to gently but convincingly influence the team to change their plans and abandon this feature.
The most effective researchers influence by ensuring they are involved at the right time of a product’s development: If a researcher discovers a feature isn’t working after it’s been built, it will be much harder to convince a team to abandon it than if they share these insights before a project has been started. Having the right timeline for insights (not too early and not too late in the product development life cycle) goes a long way, as does the way this news is communicated. The best researchers know how to tell compelling stories that build empathy for users and convince teams to sacrifice things like speed to market for quality experiences.
How Do People Become UX Researchers?
There are many paths to becoming a UXR (an abbreviation we often use to describe our role). On every team I’ve been part of, the backgrounds have been very different. The part that ties it all together is a deep empathy for others and a curiosity to get to know them. Here are a few common paths people take:
“Traditional” Majors for UX
The most traditional path into UX research is to study Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) or psychology in college, since these disciplines help build a foundational understanding of products and people. These degrees can help you get a foot in the door for opportunities like internships, apprenticeships, and entry-level research roles.
Other Humanities and Social Science Majors
Personally, I didn’t know HCI was a major until after college, and many researchers I know don’t have this background either. Other common backgrounds include the humanities and social sciences: I know researchers who were archaeology, art history, and even literature majors, like myself.
Though these degrees seem pretty different, the throughline is that each helps you to learn how to look closely at people and their way of being—whether through a physical site, a painting or author biography, or even a work of fiction—and understand how their needs drive their behaviors. This is a core skill for UX researchers, who apply this understanding to product strategy and design thinking.
Statistics Majors or Backgrounds
Quantitative UX researchers who work primarily in survey and behavioral data analysis typically come from stats backgrounds.
Bootcamps and Courses
Less traditional paths are absolutely possible. That could look like going to a bootcamp, though keep in mind that most bootcamps focus on design skills with a brief chapter on research, as opposed to prioritizing research. Still, a bootcamp can signal to a hiring manager that you’re serious about committing to a career in research. When I was breaking into research, I took a UX immersive class, and though it was far more design than research oriented, the manager who took a chance on me told me that was one of the line items on my resume that tipped him from maybe to yes.
Advanced Degrees and Academia
Others may be coming from academia and make their way into industry from a master’s or PhD program. Marcos Moldes, for example, started his career as a PhD in communications before pivoting into UX research. “When I was in grad school, I loved research. I loved the process of working through data to identify what mattered to people and why. I felt like I could apply a lot of those skills in the private sector and wanted a career that would be dynamic and fast-paced,” he says. “I love that every project brings its own sets of challenges and opportunities to better understand how people tick.” After graduating, he took some time off before landing a job in research consulting (thanks to a friend), and that eventually led him to an in-house research role at Pinterest.
You can also make a pivot from “research-adjacent” roles, like customer support, product operations, design, product management, or other roles that require deep understanding of a user in order to improve a product. If, for instance, there’s a company you’re dying to work for as a UXR that isn’t hiring for entry-level positions in research but is hiring for a designer—and you have that experience—you could get your foot in the door and then transition from there with enough time, patience, and sponsorship in the company. Or maybe you started off genuinely thinking you wanted to pursue one of those adjacent roles but realized over time that UX research was a better fit.
OK, I Want In—What Do I Do Next?
If UX research is sounding like it might be a great fit for you, here are a few tips to help you get started.
Take an online research course to understand the basics of how research works. DesignLab has classes that even come with mentor sessions. (Full disclosure: I used to be one of those mentors.) You might also take a psychology class to learn about people (try Coursera) or listen to podcasts to learn how to be an effective interviewer. (Anna Sale is a master of the craft in her podcast Death, Sex, and Money.)
Build Your Portfolio
In the beginning, it may be difficult to get a paying gig. But you can still strengthen your skill set and begin to build a portfolio by taking on projects in your spare time. You’ll gain experience, confidence, and examples you can talk about when you’re networking and job searching.
For instance, audit a website or app you love—or one you hate—and write about the experience. How could the user experience be better? What would make the product easier to use? When I first started transitioning from academia to tech, I spent a lot of time auditing apps to develop my product and UX thinking. (Here’s an example from the archives.)
You can also volunteer your time to help on a project. Is a friend launching a personal website? Perhaps you can help make sure the information architecture (how the website is set up to be navigated) is effective. Is your niece coding an app for a school project? Practice your research skills by being a “user tester” and helping make sure flows are complete. Does your local church, university, or community group have a website that could use updating? Volunteer to assess their current user experience and make recommendations on how to improve it.
Learn From the Experts
Find a mentor who can critique your work and be a sounding board as you develop your product thinking and research skills. DesignLab offers mentorship sessions as part of its UXR course, or you can reach out to UXRs on LinkedIn who might be available to critique your work (if you have a connection in common, you can ask for an intro).
Other ways of learning from the experts include shadowing researchers to understand their work more deeply. Sometimes, that might look like going into the lab to see researchers conducting sessions in action. But you can also “shadow” a researcher by reading what researchers are writing and how they talk about their work. For instance, the Facebook Research team has a trove of articles on how they conduct research. In addition, there are many guides to research online for you to peruse, such as the Google Ventures guide to research, which can help you learn best practices outside of a course setting. These are essential resources, especially for newcomers.
“When I first broke into UXR seven years ago, there really weren't a lot of formal academic programs for learning how to become a UXR,” says Brittney Reyes, now a Senior UX Researcher at Booking.com. “How I, and how many others, broke into it was by using our expertise from other fields and, truthfully, reading articles on the internet.”
Tap Into Your Network
When you’re ready, share your aspirations with others by posting on social media (especially LinkedIn) or telling friends and family that you’re interested in a career in research. You never know who might have a connection to a researcher and can provide a warm introduction for a future internship, job, mentorship, or shadowing session.
To make the switch from academia to UX research, “I had informational calls with friends, took courses, read books, and started networking in the community,” says Snigdha Diehl, now a senior UX researcher at HubSpot. “I was referred for my first job through another former neuroscience student who transitioned to UX design.”
Reyes also benefited from talking to people about her interests and aspirations. After attending a panel on wearable technology, an interest of hers, she reached out to one of the panelists and began a conversation that ultimately led to meeting a team and pitching a role as a UX researcher—and it worked! “The team ended up making a position for me,” she says.
Translate Your Story
Depending on your experience, it may not be obvious to recruiters or hiring managers that you have the skills it takes to succeed as a researcher. Remember that you know yourself best and are your biggest advocate, so take the time to clearly communicate what you’ve gained from courses, projects, and independent learning, as well as how other skills are transferable and what unique value you can bring to a team. This goes for your resumes, cover letters, interviews, and any networking conversations.
“I highlighted my expertise from both my academic and consulting backgrounds and tried to tailor my story around outcomes and achievements of individual projects,” Moldes says. Learn to speak the language of the team and role you seek, and highlight the applicable skills you have and your uniqueness. Your difference is an asset—honor it!
Learn as You Go
As you transition into the UXR field, remember that you don’t need to know everything to make your way in. Be prepared to learn on the job and remember that your energy and ambition are an asset.
“The advice I always give to new or prospective UXRs I speak with is to always say ‘yes,’” Reyes says. “If someone asks if you can do something, just say yes, and if you don't know how then you can figure it out,” she says. “I really made it a point to push myself to take on projects that I didn't necessarily have the skills for in an effort to push myself out of my comfort zone and to gain experience in new areas,” Reyes says. And don’t forget that you can turn to peers and mentors to ask for help when you need it, even once you have a UX research job!