Team Collaboration

How to become a user experience researcher

4 minute read

Throughout my career, I've always had questions about what I do as a user researcher and how others can have a similar career journey. However, becoming a researcher is much more nuanced than just having conversations, and there are so many paths to having a career as a researcher. This series will share more about the context of who, what, and how of researching.

With full-time research relatively new compared to design, product, or engineering, it's an exciting opportunity to join and help influence an industry as it grows in maturity. One of my favorite parts about being a researcher is that there is so much diversity in researchers' backgrounds, so I always feel like I am learning something new from whoever I meet.

Becoming a researcher

Anyone can (and should) be able to have research as a skill, but if someone has decided to take the vow of dedicating their life and career to analysis, there are two main ways you can become a researcher:

Traditional path to research

Generally, a conventional path will include someone who has experience in a related field that requires either a lot of work around analysis or understanding people such as user experience, design, consulting, psychology, information services, or innovation. Academically, someone may study anthropology, psychology, technology, design, or library studies.

Researchers in these fields will generally transition from having part of their role focused on research, to having their full role dedicated to research. They also may get their foot in the door with more tactical or evaluative research (e.g. usability testing), before transitioning to more strategic or foundational research approaches.

Non traditional path to research

If someone decides halfway in their career that they are interested in pursuing research as a career and don't have any (or a lot) of prior experience with the skillset, they will generally complete a short course. You can find these courses at General Assembly (e.g. in digital marketing or user experience) or another certification program (e.g. NN/gpost-grad certificates) to understand the theoretical skills and methodologies required to be a researcher, and give them credibility in the market.

However, researchers going down the non-traditional path generally struggle with getting an industry job after graduation from these courses. Most hiring managers will look for some level of experience in hiring a researcher to show how they can practically apply methodologies to a problem or business challenge.

Researchers will also look for opportunities to build up their portfolio by running projects for non-profits, startups, and small businesses; or doing 'spec work' by creating hypothetical problems and sharing how they would complete the project.

Being a researcher

Once someone gets a professional job as a researcher, they will own research within a domain or topic. Junior researchers will generally have a clearly defined scope (e.g. a specific product or UI) that doesn't include any ambiguity in the space. If there are other researchers in the team, junior researchers may be delegated projects for managers or more senior researchers to execute.

As researchers become more senior, they will be responsible for a broader work scope with more ambiguity. They will need to spend more time understanding the problem space(s) they are working in, determining stakeholder perspectives and priorities, and developing opinions on project sequencing.

The primary responsibilities of a researcher generally include:

  • Research projects: Planning, execution and synthesis of research activities.

  • Stakeholder management: Building and managing stakeholder relationships to understand their explicit and implicit needs, roadmaps and priorities.

  • Influencing product & design: Working with teams to leverage research for product decisions.

  • Knowledge sharing & awareness: Building eminence of previous work with broader groups (e.g. presenting at all hands, lunch and learns) and ensuring that existing knowledge is stored and leveraged appropriately across the organization.

  • Research operations: Managing all the work behind the scenes to get research done. Responsibilities include recruitment, participant management, incentive management, knowledge management, vendor and tool management, and equipment setup / maintenance. There may be a specific 'research operations' role or team in larger organizations to take over these responsibilities.

Although the harder skill and craft research skills are essential, the more successful researchers will generally complement these with a robust soft skill set.

As I have progressed through my career, the ability to communicate my findings through presentations and influence clients or stakeholders have become more critical to ensure that outcomes don't become 'shelfware' or are never used or leveraged by stakeholders.

About the contributors
Jess Nichols
User Research Leader and Experience Strategist
Strategic researcher and bourbon nerd.
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