Illustration by Erica Fasoli
UX research is a growing field, and with an average salary in the $85,000 range, the opportunity to impact tech and products, and the chance to work on interesting challenges, more and more people are looking to become a UX researcher. Whether you’re curious about the day-to-day duties and responsibilities, the skills and attributes that make a great UX researcher, or what the best way to get started is, this article’s for you.
Tammy Le and Alec Levin have both seen the growth of the field through their own careers and from their work in the UX research community. They were both involved in the founding of the UX Research Collective, which has gone through several evolutions as a meetup, conference, and now a learning platform with content for researchers at all stages of their careers. In 2018, the UXRC conference had 400 attendees, which grew to 1,000 attendees in 2019, with people coming from all over the world to attend.
The UX Research Conference in 2019, which was attended by over 1000 researchers from all over the world.
We asked Levin and Le to share their thoughts on UX research career paths, what to expect in a UX researcher role, and the skills and qualities that help UX researchers to really succeed.
UX research careers are not linear
People come to UX research from a wide range of backgrounds, including more academic fields such as sociology, ethnography, psychology, as well as marketing, communications, design, and technology. “When I think about my team, there are so many people from different backgrounds,” says Le. So the good news is that, if you’re hoping to become a UX researcher, there is no singular path or background. Levin agrees, “no one is going to invite you to the career of your dreams, so you have to create that path for yourself.”
“No one is going to invite you to the career of your dreams, so you have to create that path for yourself.”
One of the biggest challenges getting into UX research is that the field is fairly young and doesn’t have well defined career paths. Both Levin and Le describe their own career paths into UX research as messy, and facing plenty of setbacks. Levin studied human biology, and found his way to research by trying to be useful at a startup. He figured out that one of the ways he could add value was to get feedback from users on the product, and found himself diving in. “A lot of the stuff I did was research, but I didn’t even know that type of role existed.”
Le had a few false starts studying fine art before discovering an interaction design program. There, her love of design and research flourished. “When I graduated I really wanted to work in UX research, but I got rejected from every research role I applied to! So I had to start off in design, and then transitioned to research roles over time.” Le took time to build her skills and network, before contracting as a UX researcher and exploring the types of work and team she wanted to be part of. Le is now a senior UX researcher on a product team at Loblaw Digital, which creates experiences for Canadian customers of online grocery, PC Optimum, Shoppers Drug Mart, and Joe Fresh.
The day to day of a UX researcher
Knowing what to expect day to day in a UX research role will help you to understand whether the role is for you. Broadly speaking, the work can be chunked into three buckets: spending time with your colleagues and co-workers immersed in the context of the business, conducting the research work (such as interviews, usability testing, creating surveys), and finally the analysis and sharing of the research findings.
Tammy Le working with a team in a design studio setting. Image credit Tammy Le.
“Researchers tend to like to over index on doing the actual research work,” says Levin. “You should be spending a significant amount of time just focused on the relationships that you have with your co-workers.” He adds, in order to create value as a UX researcher, it’s important to understand how people are using the information from your research. “Spending time with decision makers in the org can provide you with critical lenses on how a piece of research you do can have a cascading effect. It allows you to focus your research on stuff that really matters.”
This understanding will help you to plan the research. Le highlights that the day to day may vary depending on the structure and make-up of the team, but that hopefully, as a more junior researcher, you are working with someone. This gives you the chance to learn how they conduct the research, take notes, and document the sessions, and gives you the chance to be involved in the synthesis, analysis, and structuring of findings from the study. “The best format for sharing the findings will vary, and you have to find effective ways of sharing the information with all of the different stakeholders.”
Deep listening, critical thinking, and self care
Understanding the foundational methods and tools is an important step in becoming a UX researcher, and there are many great books that can kick start this learning – for example, Just Enough Research, User Research: A Practical Guide to Designing Better Products and Services, and Mixed Methods. In addition, you might be curious about other opportunities to learn UX research online or through boot camps – this post contains a comprehensive list.
UX Research Methods. Image source Nielsen Norman Group.
However, anyone can follow a set of instructions, and what will set you apart as a UX researcher are some of the more intangible aspects of the craft. Beyond methods and tools, Levin and Le highlighted some important skills to cultivate.
“Critical reasoning is the foundation of great UX research. There’s a lot of focus on methods, but really, how well are you able to take complex ideas and break them down into their simplified, component parts?” asks Levin. “I think that’s where there’s a bit of a mismatch in the market right now. It’s about how you think through a problem and how you think through evidence. It’s more rare to have that starting out.” Le also mentioned critical thinking skills as integral to UX research – being able to question the why behind something.
Deep listening skills are part of what enable the critical thinking for Le. “Especially when you’re in a session, it’s so important to listen very intently to what people are saying.” Being able to listen deeply allows you to identify the things that are really important to follow up on. The critical thinking comes back into play during analysis. “You have to keep asking yourself, as you create the insights, was that something I heard, an opinion, or something I observed.”
When asked about the best way to grow these skills, both researchers mentioned it’s important to actually practice doing the work and developing your point of view. “You have to start doing the work, even if you’re not in a research role. As you do the work, you start to develop a critical mind, and ask better questions,” according to Levin. For Le, talks and books by Indi Young on mental models and listening sessions have also been really helpful.
Research can involve working across time zones or conducting sessions during evenings or weekends. In addition, it can feel deeply personal, and requires you to bring a lot of yourself and your energy to the work. “If you’re having a bad day, you can’t bring that energy into a session,” says Le. Learning the skill of being able to take care of yourself is also critical, and both Le and Levin mentioned burnout during our conversations.
An effective UX researcher
UX researchers are often people who share a relentless curiosity about humans, the world around them, and human behavior. Both Le and Levin highlighted this curiosity as a helpful attribute to cultivate. Levin also points out that “this extends beyond the day to day. It’s important to be curious about the entire organization that you’re part of, in order to inform your work.”
Collaboration and social skills are really important as well if you want to be effective in the role. Your work has value in how it informs and impacts the work of the designers, engineers, and business people around you. Both Le and Levin mentioned that being able to build relationships and trust enables you to be more effective at your work. “You need really good collaboration skills. Most of the people around you will not know what you’re doing or necessarily trust the approach to begin with, so it helps if you can make friends easily,” says Le. Levin agrees. “Social skills are super important. The ability to talk to and connect with people, not just in research sessions but your peers, other stakeholders in the business. Being able to build trust is central to the work.”
Alec Levin at the UX Research Conference.
Le also shared that having a strong voice is really important. “You feel close to the people you’ve done research with and want to represent what you’ve heard. You’re working hard to make sure that those insights come to life and drive to action.” She mentioned how this can be challenging when people doubt or debate the findings, or have concerns about methodologies.
Tammy Le presents on UX research.
“What I wish I had starting out, was more confidence to speak up and answer those common questions like explaining the difference between qualitative research and quantitative market research, justifying smaller sample sizes, the advantages and disadvantages of different methodologies.” Le recommends having memorized or canned answers to these questions, as they are going to come up!
Your path to UX research
If you’re feeling excited about pursuing UX research as a career, Levin and Le both mentioned the importance of finding your community and engaging with a network of UX researchers. That was part of how they ended up starting the UXRC meetups. “It’s so important to build your own sort of support network, whether that’s a group of colleagues or friends who also care about UX research,” says Levin. “I remember connecting with Alec, and it was so nice to talk to someone about UX research and what I was going through in those early jobs,” shares Le. There are many more online options and communities to connect with than ever, so get involved.
Levin also mentioned that one of the best approaches is to offer to help people. “Do the work – reach out to people in leadership roles in product and in design or in whatever department you think you can be useful in. Offer to do a project! That was how I started.” That hands on experience will really be important in building up your confidence, experience and point of view on UX research.
“It sounds cheesy but what I would also say to people starting out is something along the lines of you can do it, you should really believe in yourself that you can!” says Le. “People come from so many different backgrounds and skills. That was the hardest part for me, to do the inner work to figure out what I wanted and then go for it.”