Hey, psychology students. Consider UX as your future job!

Hello to all psychology students around the globe. I know, you are currently reading stuff about neuroplasticity, factor analysis, cognitive dissonance and anorexia nervosa. But if you have a few minutes, drop your DSM IV, close SPSS and let me introduce you to a topic which you might want to consider as your future working field: User Experience Research.

After finishing your university degree, most of you will somehow stay in the field of Clinical Psychology and maybe become a psychotherapist later on. Others will get into Organizational Psychology, meaning Human Resources within a company. Another big group of alumni will get a Ph.D. and stay in the academic field. If you consider yourself part of one of those three groups and you are super excited about that, then you can stop reading now. What I want to tell you will not bother you. If you are studying psychology but you know you neither want to get into clinical nor organizational psychology, keep on reading. You might get excited.

Just a few words about myself. I am a Social Psychologist. Well, my Master’s was called “Social, Economic and Decision Making Psychology” but I spent most of my time jumping back and forth between Social and Decision Making psychology. Today, I work as a UX researcher in Berlin. Chances are high that in your psychology department not a single person has ever introduced you to UX, so I will do that now. It is definitely worth knowing about this option.

While still in my Bachelor’s years, I had to make a decision in which field a want to specialize in the Master’s. And that decision is a tough and a major one, since this is kind of a point of no return. With a background in clinical psychology you probably will have a hard time getting a job in HR and also the other way around. Nothing is impossible, but it would make things more complicated. So make that decision wisely.

Since I neither wanted to become a psychotherapist and also I did not really bother about human resources, I let my heart decide. I was fascinated about the way humans make decisions and how their ratio is manipulated by emotions and phenomenons such as social acceptance. I wanted to specialize in Social Psychology and Decision Science and I even left the country to do that. With my family and friends living in Germany, I moved to Switzerland because in Basel I found the perfect Master’s program for me. I loved the content of this program, but I knew that I was running into the fog of not knowing what I could possibly do with that knowledge afterwards. There was no job I knew of that matched what I was going to learn. Both fields do fundamental research with basically no practical implications that companies are asking for. But while clinical and organizational psychologists kind of know the path they will walk, I was still sure that specializing in what I was most excited about could not be a bad thing to do, even though I might have to be creative in explaining companies what my value was.

UX could be your path.

So in the upcoming years I learned a lot about human decision making and social influences. My Master’s thesis dealt with the perception of star ratings and sample sizes. I wanted to know whether people take the number of ratings into account when they compare a highly rated product (let’s say 4,5 stars with 9 ratings) to a slightly worse rated product (4 stars with 80 ratings). Do people always prefer the higher rated product or do they also consider the number of ratings the product got? And if people make bad decisions, how can web stores optimize the way these information are presented so that consumers can make better decisions? Unintentionally, I wrote a thesis that had a lot to do with User Experience. And I did not even make that connection.

Most universities do not offer Human Computer Interaction or Human Factors classes to their psychology students. And even though we interact with applications and interfaces all the time, and even though we hate how some interfaces are designed, we still don’t see the connection. While in design plenty of people want to get into UX, in psychology just a fraction of alumni has ever heard of it.

Now, let’s talk about UX from a psychological perspective:

UX research is hypothesis testing

While developing a product such as a mobile application, many design decisions have to be made. First of all: What is the purpose of the app? What will users want to do inside the app and how can design help users reach their goals easily and efficiently?


Look at the app in the gif above: You can see how you can move horizontally through the different sections. The indication that this is possible is displayed by the fading words in the top left and right. By swiping left you can access your Account menu.

Now look at this app:

Again, content is sorted in a horizontal way but this time you do not swipe though them, you rather use an icon in order to unfold the menu hidden behind.

Now let us assume that your design team just started creating ideas on how to sort content within the app. One person says: “Everyone understands the menu button and intuitively knows how to use it.” and the other person says: “Swiping is so much easier and faster than reaching for an icon.”

Now, this is where UX research enters the ring. You could test both hypothesis in order to find out which alternative users prefer. This is called A/B testing. You will create a standardized testing scenario, you will invite participants, you will show them a prototype (either within or between subject design), you will interview them on their opinion. And hopefully, you will provide helpful insights into what alternative your team should prefer.

Of course this was just one of plenty examples where UX research helps designers making their decisions. You will interview groups of people regarding certain features, you will test concrete aspect of a product, you will measure eye movements, etc. You get the point. You as a psychology student know how to setup a standardized testing, you know how to test hypothesis. And most importantly: You are not emotionally attached to the product you are testing. At the end you don’t care which alternative will make it. Your argumentation is based on data, not on personal preference. That is a huge advantage.

UX research is interaction with real people

When testing products, you have to recruit and test random strangers. You let them interact with the products you are testing, you prepared certain tasks which they will try to solve (e.g. “delete all your favorites”). Sometimes, you will not meet them in the lab, but outside, in their natural environment, in their homes. You will spend many hours talking to people about your products. This is a whole different way of collecting data than sending around online surveys. In UX research you do not test 200 people, but maybe five or ten. Your job is to listen very carefully to what they say, every detail, every glimpse of enthusiasm and disappointment can lead to very fruitful discussions on how to improve your product. You as a psychologist spent years both participating and running experiments with humans. Who else could do this job better?

UX research is data analysis

While you as a psychology student spend most of your time with quantitative research, a lot of UX research is qualitative. Most of your data is statements and behavior of your participants. You have to find patterns, create cluster, define issues based on what you have experienced while interviewing people. Of course you will use surveys and some ratings on “how much did you like this and that?” but the way of doing analysis is different. Still, if your background is quantitative research, you have an advantage because you watch out for standardization, you ask appropriate questions such as “is this a valid way of testing that?”, “will we get reliable data based on this?”, etc. And every time you are collecting quantitative data (e.g. when tracking eye movements or having big online surveys) you can grab a coffee, start SPSS or R, take a deep breath and say “Baby I am home!”

UX research is communication

Now, as I said, you are testing other people’s work. You personally are not emotionally attached to the product you are testing. But there are people who are, namely the designers who spent weeks on that stuff. It will happen that you have to tell them that users did not like it. Or that they did not understand it. In these moments remember what you learned about empathy before you open your mouth.

Make “why” your favorite question.

When testing the usability of products, you measure how intuitively understandable and predictable the navigation though an interface is. “Before clicking, what do you think would happen if you click on that button?” Now in case most people expect something completely different than what really hides behind the button, then you just found a usability issue. Now we can dig deeper: Why did they misinterpret the button? Without giving them the feeling they are stupid, ask your participants why they think that is. Have they seen that button before in a different app with a different meaning? Was it the design itself which they misunderstood? Do not only tell your designers that stuff did not work. Try to tell them why. I usually use four categories of usability issues:

Intention: The person misunderstood the task. They were looking for something completely different than they should have. You can not blame the participant for that. That is rather a moderation issue.

Perception: The person did not see the correct path. Either because it was hidden (they should have slided up to unfold the menu) or whatever, if you notice they just do not see the solution, this is clearly a perception issue.

Interpretation: The person misunderstood the correct path. Their expectations are completely wrong. People tell you about what they expect to find behind a button and that is absolutely not what they will find. In this case, design is misleading.

Feedback: The person took the correct path but wonders whether it worked. In case people actually took a correct step but then struggle, then the product did not give a proper feedback. Take an easy example: “Is it sent yet?”.

When getting back to your designers provide insights into why stuff failed, why people did not like it. You as psychology students know better than anyone else that Stimulus-Response is almost never the case. In behavioral science, most y can be predicted by multiple x.

Get started. Today.

UX is not an entry level job. Most companies hire people with a great amount of prior experience in design and/or research. If you consider getting into UX research, prepare yourself way before writing your first application letter for a job in this field. Take classes on design principles, cognitive science, anything you can get on perception and judgment. In another article I explained how you get started with UX. All you need is a laptop and a brain:

Want to get into UX? Just open the laptop and do it!

How to get a job in UX research.

UX is a wonderful field to work in. Dear psychology students: Conisider it as your future job. Good luck!

If you have any questions, please get back to me on Twitter: @k_minus_e or drop a line under this article. I highly appreciate any kind of feedback.