So you want to be a Design Researcher
A guide to getting your foot in the door for career-switchers
As inspiring and fulfilling as the Design Research field can be, it can also be a daunting field to transition to. When you’re starting out, it’s hard to know where to begin, who to talk to, which resources to invest time in, and how much investing you’re expected to do.
Below is a basic how-to guide featuring various design research groups, websites, tools, and tutorials I’ve found helpful in the process of transitioning my career from Designer to Design Researcher without going back to school.
Thanks to the researchers I’ve met in my career so far who have helped me along my path. This list is dedicated to you. 🙏
1. Meet people
The best is through friends & friends of friends, or go to local events in your area. Here are some Design Research internet groups to get you started:
- Design & User Experience Research Google Group
- Mixed Methods Slack Community
- Ethnography Hangout Slack Community (founded by Ethnography Matters, Anthrodesign, and EPIC)
2. Get your feet wet
Here are a few ways different ways to familiarize yourself with the tools, techniques, and verbiage of design research. Feel free to dive in to whichever mediums work best for you:
Read books, blogs, and publications.
- Observing the User Experience was recommended to me by a UX researcher at Google for learning about basic qualitative methods of user research, such as how to conduct usability studies and the basics of interviewing.
- Measuring the User Experience and Quantifying the User Experience were recommended to me by a different UX researcher at Google for brushing up on stats and learning how to collect, analyze, and present various usability metrics.
- 101 Design Methods and Universal Methods of Design were referred to me as solid reference books to keep on hand as you’re drafting up a research plan and figuring out which methods to use.
- Design Research Methods collection on Medium.
- Anything by IDEO Design Researchers or Google Ventures.
- Links from design researcher Anne Dolores Diaz.
- Free class from OpenSAP on the Basics of Design Research. Paid class from IDEO covering similar information: Insights for Innovation.
- Questionnaire Design for Social Surveys (Coursera) has been a helpful class for learning about the various biases you can accidentally insert into your survey design without meaning to.
- Practical Statistics for the User Experience (Udemy) has been an interesting class for refreshing my brain on statistical concepts and learning how stats can be used in real-world UX research. (Good for if you’re interested in learning more about Quantitative research, not necessary if you’re primarily interested in Qualitative research.)
- Putting Users in UX: Research Methods for Design by Usability Matters.
- How Etsy Does Research Outside the Lab by Brenna Lynch.
Listen to podcasts.
- Mixed Methods. A podcast interested in the how’s and why’s of user experience research, hosted by Aryel Cianflone.
- Dollars to Donuts. Interviews with those who lead user research in their organizations, hosted by Steve Portigal.
3. Do design research
Get out in the field and do some design research.
I’m a kinesthetic learner, so for me getting out there and actually doing design research is where I’m able to soak up and retain the most info. I use books as references and get much more out of observing other Design Researchers in action, learning from the way they do things, practicing what I’ve learned, and getting feedback.
If you don’t have the luxury of learning alongside a seasoned Design Researcher, here are a couple of my favorite toolkits (authored by seasoned Design Researchers) to get you started:
Not sure what problem to focus your research on? Contact a non-profit, or your local Code for America chapter to volunteer your time and burgeoning design research skills.
4. Keep track of time and impact
Two things people will look at most when you’re interviewing: 1) how much experience do you have, and 2) how much impact did you make?
- As you’re conducting design research, keep track of the number of hours you spent in the field and which methods you used. These will come in handy later. Here’s an example spreadsheet that I use.
- As you’re conducting design research for other people/organizations, collect stats on the on both your quantitative (e.g. increasing number of email signups by 300%) and qualitative (e.g. testimonials from people you worked with) impact.
5. Make a portfolio
For those not sure what a Design Research portfolio is, it’s basically just a website or pdf that showcases a few key projects you’ve worked on, the role you played, and the impact you made. There are two important aspects to focus on when you’re creating your portfolio: content and presentation.
Focus on content first and foremost. Answer the following questions clearly and concisely for each project in your portfolio:
- What problem did you solve?
- How did you solve it?
- What was your role?
- What was the impact?
Having an aesthetically pleasing portfolio is helpful in order for you to sell the work that you do. Some tips on the visual presentation on your portfolio:
- Tell a compelling story. People want to feel. It’s how we remember.
- Whenever possible, try to show your process (with photos/videos) vs. tell (a long paragraph)
- As few words on each page as possible, while still communicating the story you are trying to tell. There are some good presentation design resources out there that you can reference.
6. Find opportunities
Your best bet for getting your foot in the door, as with any job, is through people you know.
- Reach out to friends in real life or wherever you hang out online to let them know you’re looking.
- Go to meetups and mixers in your area. Talk to people. Make friends in the field you want to be in.
- Make a list of dream companies. Reach out directly to Design Researchers and Managers at the you would love to work for.
- The Design & User Experience Research Google Group and the #jobs tab in the Mixed Methods Slack Community are incredibly rich resources for full-time and contract opportunities. (Also worth noting: when you help other people, often times it can come around full circle for you too.)
Sometimes the hardest thing about breaking into a new field is having the confidence that you can do it. You deserve to be in this field as much as anyone. Go out there and do some great research.