How to get a job in UX research

Hello from the usability testing lab in my office in Berlin Mitte.

It is January 2016. And I have the pleasure to have this awesome job as a UX researcher, to be able to test our digital products, dig deep into design decisions and see how stuff evolves until it is finally released.

It is January 2016. And 12 months ago I didn’t even know that UX research was a thing. 12 months ago I was working as a research assistant at the department for Social Psychology in Basel, Switzerland. I just started writing my Master’s thesis about the influence of star ratings and sample size on consumer judgments. I knew that only 6 months of my studies were left until I had to find a job. I loved research, but I always associated working in research with getting a Ph.D. and I was not sure whether this was my thing. I wanted to do something more colourful, work in a fresher environment than University, but I still wanted to spend my time with testing hypotheses, figuring out stuff, working with data, gaining knowledge in testing methodologies. That I found my open job position on LinkedIn was a very lucky coincidence, probably one of the luckiest ones in my life yet.

Now, a few months later, I keep reading from people asking how they could get a job in UX. I spend a lot of time on, and almost every day people ask the same questions. This is why I want to share my experiences in what helps getting a position in UX research.

1. Keep asking “Why?”

Stay interested in our modern world and try to learn from observation. Why is everything surrounding us designed the way it is? Why are the keys on a keyboard sorted in that particular order and why do they differ between countries? Does that have something to do with the frequency of letters in our languages? Why do most screens by default have a greater width than height? Does that have something to do with the natural visual field of our eye? Why do we get easily distracted by moving objects? Why do we read an analog watch faster than a digital watch?

As a UX researcher, you permanently have to test hypotheses on why stuff works well or does not work well. In this specific context, we ask users for their expectations on where inside the app they would expect a certain menu point, how they access a certain feature, what this icon means, whether stuff makes sense to them. It definitely helps having a routine in analysing objects around you, asking “why is this designed the way it is?”.

2. Don’t be scared of numbers.

Even though a lot of times UX research is based on qualitative methodologies, you need to be able to read and analyse data, identify patterns and find out whether an issue is actually an issue, quantitywise. We do a lot of eye-tracking in our labs and in order to manage the raw data, you should be confident with at least some basic statistics. You should know what a t-test and a correlation is, you should understand what a standard deviation is and how it differs from a standard error, and which of both you place on a bar plot. UX research is not rocket science, but you have to know the basics.

3. Speak the languages of design and research.

At the end, your work will influence the way designers work. Your recommendations, based on your research, have the power to change the look and feel of an application that many people will use. And your job is to make sure that all the users will love the way this app is designed. Not only is this a great responsibility which you should be aware of when you analyze your data and write down recommendations, but also is recommending stuff to designers not the easiest thing in the world. Designers speak a different language than researchers. If you have a pure research background, definitely get into the basics of design, understand their principles, read their guidelines. If you have a design background, use that advantage to communicate. On the other hand, do not get too involved into everyday design work. One of the biggest strengths of a UX researcher is that he is not emotionally attached to the product he is testing. He does not want certain aspects of an app to succeed or fail.

4. Be a creative analyst.

Your job is to get strangers into a specific mindset. When testing your product, you need your participants to understand the context in which they would use the app or website or software of whatever. Create a useful cover story for your participants so that they understand in which situation a feature improves their life. Give them an introduction. And let them talk. Listen to what they say, what they would expect to find behind a button. Digg deeper without guiding them into one direction. Try to find the core of their expectations, their excitement or disappointment. If people don’t understand what you mean or if they try to hide that they did not fully understand a message on the screen, keep asking them about it in different ways. Do you need to be a psychologist to do this job? Certainly not. But do you need to have a feeling for human behaviour and reasoning? Certainly.

5. Have a great looking CV.

Who does that guy think he is? Yeah I know, but unfortunately, that is business reality. In UX, even junior positions are given to people with a lot of prior experience in research and design, so you need to show your skills. I personally was working in advertising and marketing for many years while studying. I was an ad writer before I moved into research. I spent many years in other countries working and living (the US, Eastern Africa, Switzerland; I am German btw.), my English is fluent, I have a M.Sc. in psychology. On paper that was good enough to get my junior position here with NO prior experience in UX. Was all of this needed for this job position? I guess not. Maybe it was a mixure of it all. Anyway: Show your skills.

UX research is a tough job, especially when you do nothing but testing. And especially when you have to tell a group of designers that users did not like their work. But besides that this is probably the most amazing job for people, who want to do practical research, who are interested in why designs work and fail, who are able to ask the right questions and apply the correct methods.

To anyone who is willing to get a job in UX: I wish you all the best of luck!! To anyone who already has a job in UX: What are your experiences? What would you recommend to do?

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.