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Navigating the world of UX Research: What I wish I knew in grad school
5 pieces of advice for aspiring & early-career UX researchers
What advice would you give your past self? Recently I was preparing for a guest lecture to a group of students about lessons I’ve learned working as a UX Researcher. When thinking about what to share, I asked, “What do I wish I could have told myself in grad school?”
For context, I attended NC State University's graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Human Factors. I entered the program knowing that I wanted to work in the UX Research industry, and would choose to do it all again if I had to. The close relationship between the fields of HF and UX, the exposure to interdisciplinary perspectives, training in usability theory & evaluation, and experience applying research methods gave me skills and knowledge that directly transferred to a role as a UX researcher.
Even still, there were a few things I could have done to be better prepared for my industry career.
Five pieces of advice
After looking back at my time as a PhD student, I realized there were five pieces of advice I wish I had followed sooner. Whether you’re considering UX research as a profession or starting your career, I hope these reflections resonate with you and help you navigate the road ahead.
1. Get comfortable explaining research to non-researchers
In grad school, I was surrounded by really bright researchers. Day-to-day conversations included chit-chat about what we were working on in our studies. This environment gets you used to speaking about research with a knowledgeable audience. One thing I wish I had started practicing sooner is explaining research to less expert audiences.
Learning to communicate research and UX concepts to those from other backgrounds is an essential skill for many reasons:
Multidisciplinary Teams | UX research is a collaborative effort that involves working with designers, developers, PMs, and other groups who may not have a background in research (or user experience). Effective communication helps bridge potential knowledge gaps between these roles and ensures your project teams remain on the same page.
Buy-in & Impact | Your UX research can have a significant impact on product and business decisions, but only if you can communicate well. The more clearly you can communicate, the more likely non-research stakeholders will agree to your project proposals and act on your findings.
Advocacy | Depending on the maturity of your organization, you will spend some portion of your time simply advocating for the value of UX. Learning how to communicate what UX is, how it benefits users, and how a product with a better user experience benefits the business is a skill you can use to build support for UX initiatives.
When UXRs effectively explain their ideas to people who might not have the same level of knowledge, it helps them work on multidisciplinary teams and ensures their work reaches its maximum impact.
2. Learn to speak about business value
One skill I wish I had started to develop earlier in my career was the ability to connect the value of a good user experience to business value. Articulating the relationship between excellent UX (and happy users) and business goals is a crucial skill for a UXR. Learning how to communicate the value of UX to stakeholders will help build support for your UXR practice.
When planning research, you should demonstrate how projects align with the organization’s goals and objectives. By aligning your research objectives with organizational objectives, you’re more likely to get stakeholder buy-in.
After you have executed the research, communicate the implications that your findings and recommendations could have on the business. To do this well, you’ll need some help from your analytics team.
For example, say your organization gets too many support calls for things that should be easily found on your website. You run a card sort and a tree test. Based on the card sort results, you propose a revised menu, and through the tree test you find that the new menu reduces how many people fail to locate key features.
If your analytics team can provide figures for website traffic and average cost per call, you can calculate the hypothetical ROI of switching to the new menu.
By demonstrating potential impact like this, stakeholders will be much more likely to implement your suggestions.
Initially, learning how to connect the value of good UX to business outcomes can seem difficult. I’ll share two resources that I find useful:
Cost-Justifying Usability: An Update for the Internet Age is a classic text that presents processes, guidelines, and case studies demonstrating how to justify investment in usability and demonstrate ROI.
The 21st-Century Metrics Model presents a four-tiered framework for connecting UX metrics to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).
I was drawn to UX because I was fascinated with the problem of making technologies better for human users. I didn’t fully appreciate how user value goes hand-in-hand with creating business value until later. Had I learned to articulate this earlier in my career, I’m sure I would have made a stronger impact in my first few positions.
3. Ditch your CV
Like many PhD students, I kept a curriculum vitae (CV). In retrospect, I would advise my past self to ditch the CV altogether. The problem was that I rarely used my CV and developed bad habits that carried over into my resumes. I found myself including information that wasn't relevant to a resume or would be better suited to a portfolio, resulting in resumes that were two pages (or more).
My advice for anyone starting a UX Research career, especially for those currently training in graduate programs, is to forego the CV and focus on constraining yourself to a 1-page resume.
When creating your resume, there are many things to keep in mind; limiting it to one page, making good use of white space, including impact statements, highlighting what you’ve accomplished and not just what you’ve done, etc. I've included a few helpful resources here for those struggling to create an effective resume or translate their CV into a resume format.
Inna Tsirlin’s LinkedIn post — Provides a breakdown of how to structure a resume and how to translate your CV into this format.
The essential skills your UX researcher application should highlight by Lawton Pybus could also be read as “the essential skills your UX researcher resume should highlight.”
Many universities have CV-to-resume guides. For example, here is Yale’s. I liked this one, in particular, because it models language for how to write results-oriented statements about your experience.
With these considerations and resources, early career UXRs can create a well-crafted resume that will showcase their abilities and put their best foot forward in a job search.
4. Don’t spend too much time learning tools
At the time, I thought listing these on my resume would make me seem like a more well-rounded candidate to hiring managers — the truth is that I’ve rarely used these tools and found most UXR roles to be specialized. I realize now that the time spent developing a basic grasp of these tools would have been much better spent deepening my UX research skills via personal projects.
I encourage aspiring UXRs to spend their time wisely. Don’t invest significant time in learning tools unless you have identified direct relevance to your role as a UX researcher. Knowing how to use design tools, write code, or set up analytics tags won’t be useful if your UXR role doesn’t have design, dev, or analytics responsibilities. Remember that tools change, but foundational research skills, like a deep understanding of methods, when to use them, and experience applying them, will be relevant for your entire career.
To help you understand what hiring managers are looking for in candidates, see these articles that analyze the topic:
What employers want from UXR candidates, from Pybus
2021 — In-demand skills for UX Researchers, from Varnagy-Toth
5. Network more often, more broadly
Finally, I would tell myself to network more often. As a grad student, I was hesitant to network because I didn’t want to come across as a needy job-seeker. I was also worried a more experienced person might not see value in speaking with me. That hesitancy was a total mistake on my part. I find that most folks are eager to share their experiences in UX and enjoy speaking to people with shared interests.
My advice to the early-career/aspiring UXR is to network broadly. An important note: networking isn't about getting a job and shouldn’t be a means-ends exchange. At its best, networking is just a platform for people to share ideas, knowledge, and resources, which can lead to new opportunities, partnerships, and collaborations. Approach networking with a spirit of sincerity and respect, and you’ll find the benefits invaluable.
So, go out, talk shop, and let serendipity do its thing. If you’re struggling to find avenues for networking here are a few suggestions:
Follow & connect with folks on LinkedIn
Search for “UX” on Meetup
Slack groups — ex: Mixed Methods
Early-career UX researchers should focus on:
Developing the ability to communicate research & UX to people from different backgrounds
Learning to articulate how good UX and business value relate to one another
Maintaining a 1-page resume that showcases their relevant skills and experience
Prioritizing honing their foundational UX research skills over learning tools or skills outside their specialty
Networking with others in the field to expose themselves to diverse perspectives and open possibilities for collaboration.
By following these tips early-career UXRs can position themselves for success and stand out in today’s competitive job market.
Until next time.