How to break into UX Research?

Shrut Kirti on transitioning from Cognitive Science academic research to UX Research (Originally published on https://blog.adplist.org/post/how-to-break-into-ux-research-2)

The most common question I get asked over LinkedIn is how did I get started in the field of UX Research? How did I make the transition from academia to the UX Research industry? And then following my answer to these questions is another series of questions wanting to know how can someone coming from a background such as Psychology/ Cognitive Science/Neuroscience/Software engineering/Marketing/Journalism, etc. break into UX Research?

So, in this blog post, I will be talking about how I, a Cognitive Scientist, learned the ropes of the domain and how I landed my first role as a UX Researcher.

Let me start from the beginning of times when I first learned about the role of UX Researcher.

I. Understanding the role and fit

The first time I heard the role of UX Researcher, I could only grasp the latter part of the phrase i.e. “ Research” which of course was a familiar field to me, but I had no understanding of what UX meant. So curious to learn more about it, here’s what I did:

  1. I googled the role. I looked for “UX” simply. Innumerable websites, blogs, and courses came up explaining the term. I learned that role isn’t very different from what I have been doing in my academic experiments i.e. learning about human behavior and its interaction with the product(in my academic research it was human behavior and environment). I assume a lot of us looking to transition might do the same thing.
  2. Next, I typed in search terms like, “Who is a UX Researcher?”, “What does a UX Researcher do?” Again bazillion links, websites popped up. The gist of what I learned is it’s a fellow who provides insights into the product user’s behavior and guides design. Now, given my educational and professional background, I was confident in delivering insights and discovering user behaviors but I didn’t know the ‘D’ of design. I preemptively concluded that’s a huge gap in my learning and working of the role. Now, it was design for me, but for someone transitioning from journalism, it might be both research & design.

💡So, identifying the gap in your skills early and acknowledging the demands of the role helps orient better in the transition to UX research.

3. Moving on, a simultaneous search I ran on LinkedIn, looking for UX Researchers just because I wanted to know how prevalent is this profession both in India and abroad. Interestingly, at that time(that’s 2016 I am talking about), the list of UX Researchers in India was a 1 pager but I found that abroad there were quite a few pages long list of UX Researchers and also the job listings showed quite detailed job descriptions. And I feel, this is one of the smartest things I did, though just out of curiosity because:

  • The search helped me understand the geographies in the country where most UX research roles were concentrated: Big Corporates? Start-ups? Who is basically hiring this role? It immensely helped me find mentors. And then eventually for jobs as well because I could craft my search and filters as per the geographies.
  • The second thing I learned from these listings was what were these companies looking for the person to do for them. This helped me understand what will a UX Researcher’s day-to-day work look like.
  • Finally, going through the profiles of UX Researchers, I learned the kind of skills people in the field possess that make them excel at the role. I would recommend:

💡Gauging the scope in the field is as much important as following the passion that drives it.

4. After I have searched the internet quite a bit, a typical researcher me, mapped out my own skills against the skills sought for the role. I tried to determine the delta between what I am capable to do right now vs. where I need to be to become a decent UX Researcher.

This gave me three kinds of understanding:

  • Is transitioning to this role something that can be achieved in the time frame I have set for myself or the kind of current work situation/life decisions I have to make?
  • How much effort and work is it going to take on my part to acquire skills that will help me land an entry-level UX Research role?
  • And after knowing the time frame and effort I need to invest in, most importantly, deciding if am I committed to putting that kind of hard work to kick-start my UX Research career and then later have it flourishing?

In many mentoring sessions, I do for people who are thinking of transitioning into the field of UX Research, I find there is this lack of purpose and understanding of why they want to transition? Most of the folks, blissfully unaware of the tenacity and rigor the field requires, commit to this long road of constant learning throughout their career. It is only after a couple of projects they realize the kind of perseverance and resolve a UX Researcher role requires.

Therefore, basis my learning here’s a tip to anyone planning to transition to UX Research:

💡 “Ascertain if the role is to your liking? Determine if can you put in the time and effort that it will take you to reach a point so that you have a flourishing career? Ultimately, do you understand what skills are being asked from the role?”

Finding answers to these questions is the first and foremost step in the journey of becoming a UX Researcher.

II. Learning the basics and finding how it is different from your current field of work

I had figured out very early, that I need to learn design and develop product thinking. I might have had a thorough command of research methods, best empirical and qualitative practices to plan, run a study, and synthesize data. But when it came to offering recommendations and transforming the findings to insights and, making them more relevant to guide design, I realized my understanding of design is not at par to let me create an effective UX Research report with actionable, design-oriented suggestions and recommendations. Therefore, to fill this gap in my knowledge of the field:

  • My personal preference was to rely on books. My go-to learn medium was books which I had ample access to in the Institute Library. Some of the early books I read were “Observing User Experience”, by Mike Kuniavsky, “Just Enough Research” by Erica Hall, “Don’t make me think” by Steve Krug, and “Universal Methods of Design”.

So, here’s a tip,

💡 Find a medium to learn the basics of research, design, and product thinking.

Now, for me, it was “books”. For you, it might be an online MOOC or watching tutorial videos on YouTube, or even deciding to take up a degree course in Design/Design Research, related fields. Listen, watch, read as much as possible.

  • The next great source of learning and staying up-to-date in the field is Medium. I cannot talk enough about how quickly Medium helped me get ramped up and filled the gaps in my design and product knowledge. From books, I learned the know-how of UX Research and Design. From Medium, I learned from the experiences of researchers elaborating practical contexts, challenges, pain points one faces when running an actual usability test and delivering results in front of stakeholders. Thus, books provided me with theoretical know-how of User Experience and Medium helped me learn practical experiences of UX researcher professionals who were knee-deep in the field.

Here’s the tip,

💡 Find a medium to learn, discuss and chat about the practical workings of the field of UX Research.

For me, it was Medium. For you, it can be joining a UX Research community such as Hexagon UX, Mixed Methods, Research Ops+, etc., attending Meetups, following interesting threads of UX Research Specialists on Twitter, listening to podcasts.

Here’s an article to help you find some ideas.

III. Getting your hands dirty with real-world UX Research problems- Pilot projects and get your UXR Portfolio ready

Once I had a fair idea of the UXR theory, I wanted to apply my learning to real-world projects. This was because I wanted to know how things can be similar/different from academia to industry and clients. My first mock project was a heuristic evaluation of the magicbricks.com website. I used the heuristic principles I have learned to perform an evaluation of the website and formulated a report. The next in line of my experimentation was a usability study of Godrej nature’s basket app. I developed a discussion guide, reached out to users who were the users of the app, and came back with a sea of information to analyze and report.

So, here’s what I recommend,

💡 Do not just learn the UXR theory. It is equally important to practice the methods on real-world problem statements to understand the practical constraints, evolving business goals, and prioritize various aspects of the research process & insights.

Here’s an article that articulates the importance of carrying out real-world design projects. Fortunately, the same applies to UX Research as well.

Here are some of the ways you can find real-world projects.

Also, here are a few platforms that post social-impact design projects where you can volunteer as a UX Researcher and gain practical experience working with designers, project managers, and clients.

IV. Finding a mentor who guides and provides feedback

While I was adding projects to my portfolio, I realized I need someone to review my work and evaluate if I am doing the right thing, the right way. In my case, I reached out to an acquaintance in IIT who had been working as a UX Designer (I couldn’t manage to find a UX Researcher at the time because there were so few and I was lowly connected).

Thus, here’s my recommendation:

💡 Begin networking with expert professionals in the field from an early stage as it pays off in the long term. Meeting and getting to know people who can potentially help you and engaging with them to find opportunities is one of the fastest ways to land a job in any field.

Nowadays:

  • You can reach out to professionals on LinkedIn and ask for guidance
  • Or you can also join mentorship platforms like ADPList.com, UXCoffee Hours, and many more where you can easily find mentors and book mentorship sessions.

Fully recognizing that reaching out for mentorship might not be a comfortable experience for everyone, here’s a resource that can help you with finding professionals for mentorship as well as craft your first request for mentorship.

For me personally, slack channels and communities such as mixedmethods.com, research ops community, hexagon UX, user research academy, etc. have been the most useful source of connecting with professionals and leaders in the field. These have dedicated channels for methods, recruitment, mentoring, research ops and so much more.

Here are some tips for you to decide on a mentee-mentorship route that may suit you best:

  • Determine your mentorship needs and accordingly find mentors who specialize or exhibit experience in particular areas.
  • Articulate your mentorship needs & expectations early on in your discussions with your mentor so that they can provide you feedback for short-term vs. long-term professional goals.
  • If you have trouble finding the right mentor(s) for you, platforms like ADPList, UX Coffee hours, etc can help you find and schedule the right mentors very easily.
  • Assess your comfort levels when reaching out to people. If you are someone who finds it extremely difficult to reach out and connect with people, you can share your work on the research communities listed above and can ask for feedback, ask questions.
  • Be patient with finding mentors. You might face rejections, delayed responses, or no response at all. Remember these mentors are professionals who are agreeing to guide you on top of their 9 to 5 roles in most cases.

If you would like to be mentored by me, feel free to book a session here.

V. Prepping to launch: Customising resume that speaks the UX Research role, hunting opportunities & landing a role

In my case, I was fortunate enough to directly land a job in the field and you can bag one too. However, after living through my first year as a UX Researcher, many mentoring sessions, and hiring UX Researchers, my experience suggests that often doing a couple of internships/volunteer projects helps one understand the inner workings of the field, learn the collaborative nature of the role and align their interests better in their career journey. So, here’s my recommendation:

  • Reach out to experts and seasoned researchers in the field and shadow them for some days to a week.
  • Network and share your portfolio with hiring managers/research team lead in companies and request internships or even better apprenticeships.

But nonetheless, before you embark on a job search, it is extremely important that you rework your resume and make it look, feel and talk like that of a UX Researcher. Here’s an article that suggests how you can do that.

Hunting opportunities:

Searching for a job always takes up considerable mental space. In my experience, LinkedIn has been the best job search platform to get hired in a UX Researcher role (specific to India).

  • During the job hunt, if you would like to know what does a UX research interview looks like, leverage UX research channels on Youtube and look for commonly asked interview questions on Medium to know what to expect and prep better.
  • Leverage your educational and professional expertise to let the recruiter and hiring manager know what you can bring uniquely as a UX researcher. For example, a data scientist can leverage their analytical skills and elaborate on why and how uniquely they can contribute as a UX researcher.

If you face rejection, ask for feedback from the hiring manager. Ask them what they were looking for, where did you fall short? Don’t be disappointed because not every team has the bandwidth to hire and train a new researcher. Sometimes, the rejection might not even be because of your skills but maybe because of the fitment of the role and your skills weren’t right. Thus, one last tip:

💡 Don’t forget to ask the why behind rejections. Knowing where you fall short and acknowledging the shortcomings makes you not only a humble being but also helps plan your future efforts.

Lastly, here is an exhaustive list of resources that can help you get started in UX Research:

📚 Resources and materials to get started

To Sum Up

Be patient and consistent in your efforts. Finding your first UX Research role requires grit and determination. But after some years have gone by working as a UX researcher, those transition journeys are always beautiful to reminisce, give ourselves a pat on the back, and appreciate how far have we come from where we started!

If you liked the article, clap to shower some love.

If you would like to know more about the field, find some more resources/tips on how to grow in the field, get your resume/portfolio reviewed, or simply want to chat about your challenges, feel free to book a session with me here.

Alternatively, you can reach out to me at LinkedIn or Twitter.

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UX Researcher. Strategic Thinker. Customer and user advocate. Lifelong learner.

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Shrut Kirti, Senior Experience Researcher @Adobe

Shrut Kirti, Senior Experience Researcher @Adobe

UX Researcher. Strategic Thinker. Customer and user advocate. Lifelong learner.

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