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How to start your career as a UX researcher

PostsDesign & UX
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

February 10, 2021

Isn’t it strange how something can seem amazing to one person, but a not so much to the next? It’s like when a friend recommends a book or TV show to you, and you think… what do they see in this?! It’s no big deal: You smile and thank them and never talk about it again. Case closed.

Websites can be like this too. Beautiful to one person, not so good to another. The problem is, website visitors aren’t your friends: They won’t smile and pretend to be interested. They’ll click on something else so fast you’ll only see a cloud of dust — and when you’re trying to get them to stick around, it can be a bit of a problem.

UX research is a job that focuses on making sure this doesn’t happen. How? They get to know a website’s users inside-out so the finished product lands way better than a friend’s well-meaning suggestion.

In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the world of UX research, including what a UX researcher does day-to-day and how you become one.

What is a UX researcher?

First, a quick recap for those unacquainted with the term UX. UX is short for ‘User eXperience.’ What do we mean by this? Well, if you think about design, it’s all about how things look. But the thing is, a website is not an art installation; it’s a thing to be used.

UX design focuses on the look and the feel of a website. By feel, we mean what it’s like to be in the driver’s seat. Does it run smoothly? Do pages load quickly? Is it easy to find your way around? And most importantly, does it solve a problem? This is all UX territory.

UX research is part of this process. A UX researcher studies a user’s motivations and behaviors so they can design experiences that answer their needs, including what they prioritize, how they think, and what they want. Armed with that information, the designers are far better placed to create something their visitors will love. When it’s done correctly, it can have a huge impact on business.

Where do UX designers fit in the design process?

Think of a website as being like a living, breathing thing — just like its users. It should grow and change with their tastes, moods, and needs. The design process reflects this: Once a website goes live, that’s not the end of the job. It should be tested and refined cyclically.

UX researchers touch every part of this process. They might begin with qualitative research to uncover a particular user’s needs. A little later on in the process, they might use quantitative research to test their results.

Website design should be a never-ending loop of testing and refinement (Image Source).

What does a UX researcher do?

UX researchers are empathetic individuals who can step into the shoes of another person. They do this by listening and observing, and asking questions that can be turned into actionable steps.

They are able to think critically in order to understand a problem, then to solve it. They’re also good communicators who can take their findings and share insights with the wider team in a way that inspires them to create something amazing.

Here are some typical tasks a UX researcher will do:

Research and recruitment

Research is all about discovering what is relevant to your users. It’s also about deciding which methods will yield the best results for your time and budget. UX researchers spend a lot of time delving into the details. They create research plans with clear objectives and actionable steps to achieving them. They write screening questions and discussion topics and recruit people to take part in these studies.

Data collection and analysis

Data collection is all about exploration. During this stage, UX researchers conduct interviews, moderate user discussion studies, and help create surveys. They then take all the data from these studies and extract insights taht they then turn into actionable recommendations.

UX research and data collection are divided into two subcategories: qualitative research and quantitative research.

  • Qualitative research is all about discovery. It consists of interviews, field studies, diary studies, focus groups, and usability testing. You can ask participants in-depth, probing questions and receive personal, detailed answers in return. Because of the personal nature of these methods, it’s done on a small scale.

Qualitative research can be split further into two categories: attitudinal (i.e., where you listen to what people say, such as interviews and focus groups; and behavioral (i.e., where you observe users in action).

  • Quantitative research involves gathering measurable data to test assumptions you drew from your quantitative research. Combining the two helps you discover data-driven patterns that you can apply to your audience. Blending this with deeper human insights gained via qualitative research, you’ll have a clearer view of your design problem and the route toward solving it.

Insight presentations

UX research is all about becoming the world’s leading expert in your target users and their needs, so you can incorporate these insights into the design process and create user-friendly products. Once the UX researcher has their insights, they present them back to the product team in an inspiring, engaging way. Customer journey maps and user personas are popular ways to bring the data to life and make the user feel more relatable.

In addition, a UX researcher will often be involved in planning strategies and mapping objectives that touch on every stage of the design process.

How do you become a UX researcher?

There’s no single pathway to becoming a UX researcher — and it depends on where you are in your career. Generally speaking, there are four key steps:

  1. Learn about UX research
  2. Gain basic skills
  3. Put together a portfolio to show off these skills
  4. Network with others in the user research field

Let’s unpack these in a little more detail.

Learn about UX research

There’s a lot to take in… where do you begin? Reading blogs like this one is a good first step. There are also User researcher tutorials and videos and talks to learn from. Take in all you can about not just UX research, but everything that surrounds it — including UX design, types of research, and popular research methods. Meanwhile, job sites can help you find out things like salaries and responsibilities, working environments, and the types of companies that hire UX researchers.

Gain basic skills

If you want to start your career in UX research, you’ll need some foundation-level skills. Books and online resources are a good first stop. Here are some helpful sites to bookmark:

As well as bulking up on information, it’s a good idea to get some practical, hands-on advice. There’s nothing quite like rolling your sleeves up and plunging in. If you’re already working with designers, ask one of the seniors if you can shadow them for a bit. They might even offer to be your mentor if you ask really nicely.

If you don’t have daily access to the world of design, you can offer your services as a volunteer. These gigs typically won’t pay, but it’s a good way to get some initial bits of work to start building your portfolio. You’ll also learn valuable skills on the job — something that future employers will look kindly upon. You can typically find volunteer gigs on job sites. You could also offer your services to a local non-profit.

Create a portfolio

Building a UX researcher portfolio is a must if you want to get your foot in the door. The work you choose should show the following things:

  • A challenge you solved with research
  • The research process you used to solve that problem
  • The tools and techniques you used, and why
  • The team you collaborated with
  • The outcome

Network with your peers

Networking is a great way to find mentors, learn new skills, and potentially get your foot in the door of a new job. If you’re currently employed, chat to designer coworkers about tagging along to events or sitting in on meetings. You should also be able to find talks and career workshops near you (check Design Research Society and your local career events listings).

Online communities are also great places to network. Check out UX Mastery, Designer Hangout and the Web Designer Forum for starters, as well as checking out Twitter, Quora, and Facebook for relevant discussions and groups.

Final thoughts

Empathetic, critical thinkers are increasingly in-demand in the world of web design — and UX research is an expanding and exciting field. Reading up on all things UX and learning the key differences between web design and UX roles (they do get a bit blurred) is a great first step. Next is to surround yourself with like-minded people and try your hand at some research yourself. Books and tutorials are essential, but it’s the conversations and hands-on experience that will allow you to truly immerse yourself in the world of UX research and design.



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