UX Research as a Viable Career Option for Anthropologists: Insights from 12 UX Researchers with Anthropology Backgrounds
This article presents the field of user experience (UX) research as a viable, potentially lesser-known career option for new anthropology graduates, especially those with a socio-cultural focus. For this article, 12 UX Researchers with a background in anthropology were interviewed over a period of two months in winter 2019. They were asked for their opinions regarding their experience transitioning from anthropology to UX research, transferable skill sets that anthropologists bring to a UX research career, skills that those with anthropology training may need to gain to enter the industry, and tips for moving into UX. The article presents transferable skills such as empathy and a deep understanding of context, cultural relativism, and systems-thinking; command of qualitative methodologies; as well as synthesis and storytelling skills that anthropologists likely already have to bring to the field. This article also presents skill gaps that new anthropology graduates may need to fill in order to be competitive UX research candidates, skills such as: business training, usability testing/design, research operations, and skills in quantitative methodologies. These interviews bring to light the need for more focus on UX research as a career path for anthropologists — it’s clear that anthropologists already have many of the skills and mindsets needed for being successful UX Researchers.
*NOTE — Researchers were interviewed pre-COVID-19, which has drastically shaped and changed hiring trends due to a global recession.
Anthropologists’ Interest in UX Research
The idea for writing this article grew from my participation in the American Anthropological Association Conference’s Career Expo in Vancouver, Canada in November 2019. During the career expo, I had a booth and talked to soon-to-graduate and recently graduated anthropologists about careers in UX research. My booth was covered with giveaways emblazoned with the Delta Dental of Washington (where I work as a Senior UX Researcher in Seattle) logo and I also presented a running PowerPoint presentation on “What is UX Research?” My booth was completely packed with inquisitive students the entire day. They asked mostly the same questions — “What is UX research? How do I get involved in UX research? What skills do I need to get into UX research?”. Their knowledge of UX research varied — some had heard a little about the field, others knew nothing but were intrigued. This conference was the genesis of this article. After that day, I knew other anthropologists, like I once did myself, desperately needed to be informed of UX research and its satisfying, viable career potential for anthropologists.
My Background and Discovery of UX Research
I had no prior knowledge of UX research as a field or possible career option as an anthropology undergraduate at the University of Connecticut from 2006–2010,. I jumped between thoughts of getting my Ph.D., or at least M.A. after my BA; enrolling in the Peace Corps; enrolling in Teach for America; going back to school to become a teacher; getting my MPH. I ended up teaching English in a Spanish secondary school through a program administered by the Spanish Ministry of Education and thereby immersed myself in Spanish culture. After living in Spain, I worked full-time for the employer where I previously interned for, the Institute for Community Research (ICR) in Hartford, CT. At ICR, I received hands-on, applied anthropology training. I taught participatory action research (PAR) programs to youth, giving them the skills of primary research to gather data on topics of concern so they could create change in their communities. I was one of the lucky anthropology graduates — I was employed immediately in my field and conducting fieldwork for a community-based non-profit, surrounded by brilliant Ph.D.s of anthropology as my supervisors. My primary mentor while working at ICR was Dr. Jean Schensul, Ph.D., the institute’s Senior Scientist and Founding Director and Adjunct Professor at the University of Connecticut Department of Public Health Sciences. Dr. Schensul is also the author of the “Ethnographer’s Toolkit,” a 7-volume series dedicated to teaching novice fieldworkers the steps for conducting ethnographic research. Dr. Schensul’s books are even cited in the back of Erika Hall’s “Just Enough Research” for further reading on UX and ethnography (further demonstrating the applicability of anthropology to UX research!).
While at ICR, I eventually decided to switch to technology and business. I felt I’d need a higher degree eventually if I wanted to continue working at ICR and I wanted to be more financially comfortable. After working in various start-ups and software companies in communications, training and product development roles for a few years, I eventually learned about UX research. It was the perfect field to encapsulate my interests and prior experience; I consider my discovery of UX research to be later than I would have liked.
I hope this article teaches anthropology students about UX research a lot sooner than I learned about it. I hope it inspires students to investigate the world of UX research and to bring their plethora of skills to the field. In this article, I’ll investigate learnings directly from 12 diverse user experience research practitioners with a background in anthropology. Most researchers elected to remain anonymous. Throughout the article, I’ll share direct quotes from these researchers on the overall lack of emphasis on UX research in academic programs as a career fit for anthropology graduates, the skills that anthropologists already have to bring to the table in UX research jobs, what skills they would need to acquire in order to likely be a competitive candidate for their first UX research role, and general tips for getting started in the field. The researchers interviewed work at a wide variety of companies — from large technology firms to smaller agencies focused on improving user experience. It is my hope that through this article, anthropology graduates are inspired to learn more about UX research and bring their human-centric thinking and rich methodological training to the workplace.
Definitions of UX Research and Anthropology
UX research is defined as the “systematic investigation of users and their requirements, in order to add context and insight into the process of designing the user experience. UX research employs a variety of techniques, tools, and methodologies to reach conclusions, determine facts, and uncover problems, thereby revealing valuable information that can be fed into the design process.” (Interaction Design Foundation 2020) UX Researchers draw on mixed qualitative and quantitative methods to get insights directly from users — employing a wide variety of methodologies such as contextual inquiry, card sorting, interviews, surveys, diaries studies, among others.
Generative UX Research
UX Researchers may be responsible for generative or “discovery” research and/or evaluative research (usability testing is included in this type of research). This largely depends on the role, team, and company structure. Generative research is an open-ended exercise focused on learning deeply about a problem space or set of users; uncovering user mental models; and discovering broadly about user motivations, attitudes, perceptions, beliefs, frustrations (termed “pain points” in the UX world). The overall aim of generative research is to discover something new. This is important, since knowing deeply about users’ lives impacts the way teams build a product or service (Anderson 2019). Generative research often employs ethnographic, qualitative-heavy methodologies such as interviewing or contextual observation in real places of living and work. It lays the groundwork for what new, innovative solutions (in the form of products, tools, services, etc.) the teams will build to solve user pain points. This type of research may be undertaken not only to help inform new product development but to understand what to improve in an existing product, tool or service. Nikki Anderson, Senior UX Researcher at Zalando SE, founder of the User Research Academy and regular DScout (recruitment and qualitative research platform) contributor sums up generative research well:
“Generative research tells us why people are doing things and what they are thinking in a given moment. It takes us out of the product and into the lives of the people we are trying to help. We can easily get stuck in a box when we think about a product, and, with that, we can become quite short-sighted. We only think about things within the product, instead of the greater impact. Generative research helps us break those boxes in order to come up with a truly delightful and helpful solution to a user’s problems. Instead of starting with a solution, and trying to work backward, you are actually entering from the problem-space. This style of interviewing allows us to uncover the deeper motivations and actions behind why users are doing certain things. It’s really easy to look at quantitative data and see what people are doing on your website or app, but it is literally impossible to know why they are doing those things through this data. This is where the qualitative bit of user research comes in, and where generative research really shines through.” (Anderson 2019)
Evaluative UX Research
UX Researchers test the assumptions and learnings uncovered through generative research with evaluative research techniques. Researcher Nikki Anderson goes on to explain, “Evaluative research is about assessing how a product/service works when placed in front of a user. It isn’t merely about functionality, but also about findability, efficiency, and the emotions associated with using the product/service.” (Anderson 2020). This type of research helps to validate generative findings with methods such as surveys with larger sample sizes or rapid, iterative, and ongoing usability tests with small sets of users. In short, generative research helps teams answer “what do we design?” and validation research helps teams answer “did we design it right?”
Research for Change & Improvement
The combination of quantitative and qualitative data that UX Researchers collect through generative and evaluative research is fed directly and continually into the evolutionary UX design process. The process is led by product teams often consisting of Product Managers, UX Designers and UX Researchers. UX Designers develop designs for products, tools, or services based on the research that UX Researchers conduct. These early designs, called “wireframes” (early non-interactive designs) and “prototypes,” (early interactive designs) are then tested by the UX Researcher with users. It’s also possible that on smaller teams with fewer resources, UX Designers may also function as UX Researchers (although, there are potential issues here with inherent biases). UX Researchers take wireframes and prototypes, of varying levels of fidelity from “hi to lo,” out in the world and elicit user reactions through systematic studies. In the most ideal situations, UX Researchers also go directly to the environments where users actually live and work to see them interacting with these wireframes or prototypes in context.
Feedback and insights directly from users are collected on an ongoing basis by a UX Researcher; this data is what enables product teams to iterate and continually improve designs with the overall goal of producing services, products and/or tools that serve real human needs, based on a thorough understanding of users. In UX research processes, participants are the experts and UX Researchers are there to ask the right questions, empathize, listen, and synthesize. This deep listening is what eventually makes products and services user-centric and hopefully, makes our user’s lives easier with less overall friction.
The image below illustrates UX research and how it intertwines with the product development process lifecycle to help inform product decisions:
UX Research and the Tie to Anthropology
Like UX Researchers, anthropologists often focus on a mixed-methods approach, with a particular emphasis on qualitative research methodologies — such as interviewing and contextual observation. According to the American Anthropology Association, socio-cultural anthropologists:
Explore how people in different places live and understand the world around them. They want to know what people think is important and the rules they make about how they should interact with one another…Anthropologists want to listen to all voices and viewpoints in order to understand how societies vary and what they have in common. Sociocultural anthropologists often find that the best way to learn about diverse peoples and cultures is to spend time living among them. They try to understand the perspectives, practices, and social organization of other groups whose values and lifeways may be very different from their own. The knowledge they gain can enrich human understanding on a broader level. (American Anthropological Association, 2020)
Both UX Researchers and Anthropologists aim to learn deeply about people — their motivations, pain points, beliefs, attitudes, behaviors — through systematic inquiry. UX research applies these insights to build concrete solutions based on human-centered data. By juxtaposing a description of UX research and the work of socio-cultural anthropologists, we can see how UX research and anthropology are a natural fit. UX research calls for a breadth of methodology; anthropology brings a strong command of mixed methods, with an emphasis on qualitative methodologies. UX research calls for empathy for user experiences; anthropology brings this plus techniques in ethnography and immersive participant observation to truly understand users in context. UX research calls for user-centricity; anthropology brings a holistic focus on people and their values, perspectives, practices, culture, and worldviews. The field of UX research may also bring a refreshing change of pace for anthropologists accustomed to conducting research within academic settings. Instead of long research timelines that can be slow to produce change; UX research focuses on quick, iterative improvement and actionable recommendations to product teams based on research conducted within rapid timeframes. For example, it’s typical that a usability test schedule may run two weeks total. The first week may involve study plan development with stakeholders, user recruitment, communications development, testing asset (prototype, wireframe) development, screening and scheduling. The second week may be entirely dedicated to data collection, analysis and rapid deliverable development to the team. This allows research to fit within a two week sprint cycle and provide user feedback quickly to the design and development team. This feedback is then incorporated into future designs. In UX research, ideally, teams and users can see the immediate impacts of user feedback on a product.
UX Research as a Growing Field
UX research is also a developing field that is ripe for entry by more anthropologists. “Of course, this migration to the industry makes sense, as ‘traditional’ anthropology jobs in academia are becoming more scarce, while a ‘new’ type of anthropology job, UX Research, is growing.” (Fleming 2019). Likewise, according to User Interviews, a leading UX research operations and recruitment service, “Search intent for ‘user research’ has risen 4.25x in the last 10 years.” (Boyd 2020) There is a huge opportunity within the field of UX for anthropologists. According to the Nielsen Norman Group:
“2017 to 2050: the UX profession is expected to grow from the current about 1 million people to about 100 million people. A growth factor of 100…I’m predicting that we’ll be 100 million UX professionals in the world by 2050. This corresponds to 1% of the world’s population. Is it realistic to expect that an entire percent of the population will be occupied with something as esoteric as user experience? Yes, because UX won’t be esoteric in the future. It will be a key driver of the world economy. I think it’s completely realistic to expect 1% of the population to work on figuring out what should be designed and then designing those products (and services). The remaining 99% of the people can then work on building, selling, and servicing what we have designed.” (Nielsen 2017)
Lack of Knowledge of UX Research as a Career Option
Most of the UX Researchers interviewed for this article mentioned in some form that they did not know UX research was a viable career option while they were anthropologists in academia. For example, Aysha L. Preston, Ph.D., User Experience Researcher noted, “UX Research was never mentioned in my graduate program. I found that it was expected for grad students to stay in academia and work towards a tenure track career. When I discovered the field I had to connect the dots between my grad program and academic research experience to UX without much support from my academic advisors. It just was not on my department’s radar to my knowledge.” (Aysha L. Preston, Ph.D., pers. comm) As to why this is the case, Gillian Bowan, User Researcher at Atlassian noted the same, and went on further to explain that it may be due to the “myopic focus on publications and the precarious conditions many people are employed under (in academia) mean that most early career and established Anthropologists don’t have time to focus on anything other than trying to supervise their students and publish their work.” (Gillian Bowan, pers. comm) Multiple UX Researchers interviewed commented on the “precarious” situation of academic employment and short-term fieldwork stints, suggesting that industry roles may be more stable but still were not often discussed in their graduate programs. A UX Researcher at Facebook, remarked when asked if UX research is positioned as a possible career fit for new anthropology grads, “Going into the industry is still a dirty word, which is ridiculous given the state of the job market in anthropology. Professors don’t know about it as an option…they don’t encourage their students to branch out into new areas.” (Interviewee 7, pers. comm) Yet another researcher who was interviewed commented, “Academic departments and professors do not have a clue what UXR is, and academic culture does not train students for the reality of mainly applied jobs.” (Interviewee 8, pers. comm)
Despite the possible lack of emphasis on UX research careers in anthropology departments, this article will lay out why new anthropology graduates are well-suited for careers in UX research. The next portions of this article will examine themes from the interviews regarding the transferable skills that anthropologists likely already have such as empathy and a deep understanding of context, cultural relativism, and systems-thinking; command of qualitative methodologies; as well as synthesis and storytelling skills. This article will also address themes heard from the researchers on skill gaps that new anthropology graduates may need to fill in order to be competitive UX research candidates. Some of those skills that will be covered include business training, usability testing/design, research operations, and skills in quantitative methodologies.
Transferable Skills from Anthropology to UX Research
Empathy, Context, Cultural Relativism, and Systems Thinking
UX research requires deep empathy and a laser focus on users, or colloquially “putting yourself in the user’s shoes.” UX research also demands an ability to navigate complex political business environments with conflicting priorities, potentially rapidly shifting timelines and resource allocation. Anthropology also requires empathy, building rapport and establishing trust with both participants and stakeholders; a people-centric, systems-based mindset throughout the research process; and a deep understanding of context and cultural relativism. UX research requires empathy not only for users but also the ability to cultivate that same empathy for users in stakeholders who are potentially primary decision makers. This requires a type of finely tuned cultural sensitivity that anthropologists are skilled at.
As one UX Researcher commented, “Anthropology brings the ability to understand, respect, tolerate, and get insights from users in a deeper way. As an anthropologist, you also get the ability to catch info from the context.” (Interviewee 6, pers. comm) Deep emphasis on viewing motivations, beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, and frustrations within context also colors UX research and anthropology alike. Additionally, “training in understanding complex social systems helps us find empathy for different perspectives.” (Fleming 2019) The Founder & CEO of Seattle-based agency Anthro-Tech, and Affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering noted the same:
“I love to hire people with an anthropology background and it’s two things — one is the mindset and the other is a skillset. The mindset is the curiosity, the ability to see the world from someone else’s shoes, to place yourself in their frame of reference, and relate to what they’re thinking and feeling. And to me, that’s not so much a skill set as a mindset, an awareness, that you have your own lens and frame of reference and it’s not the only one. The other one is a skillset, as anthropologists we are taught to not make assumptions, we’re taught to observe and we’re taught to listen to understand rather than to listen to respond. We are taught qualitative research techniques and analysis techniques, facilitation skills. All of those are directly transferable to the field of UX — both the mindset piece and the skill piece, in my mind. And that’s what I’ve seen and experienced hiring people from the field.” (Interviewee 11, pers. comm)
Another researcher that I interviewed echoed a similar sentiment, emphasizing the non-judgmental, cultural relativistic nature of many trained anthropologists:
“Cultural relativism is something that anthropologists bring to UX research, possibly more so than other disciplines. I have found that product teams sometimes have a perception that there’s a right way to use their product or feature, and that our customers aren’t ‘doing it right.’ I think having a grounding in anthropology helps me bring the perspective that there isn’t a right or wrong way — our task is to understand why a customer uses a product the way they do, or how customers interpret their experience through their own worldview, and what that means for the experience we’re designing. Anthropologists, and any good UXR, can help their stakeholders understand the broader context in which our users interact with our products, features and experiences.” (Interviewee 10, pers. comm)
Additionally, systems thinking and an understanding of the importance of rapport building can also not only help researchers with navigating participant interactions during data collection and synthesis but can also help researchers navigate complex political environments in the business world. At its core, UX research requires encouraging stakeholders to understand their users — who are likely very different from them. It is critical for UX Researchers to understand the contexts of not only their users but also the environment in which they conduct and report out research. “Getting stakeholder buy-in” and managing stakeholder push-back is such an important topic in the growing and developing world of UX that there are entire books written on the subject (see “It’s Our Research: Getting Stakeholder Buy-In For User Experience Projects” by Tomer Sharon). For example, there may be difficulty in getting access to participants due to complex, sensitive client relationships. In this situation, there is not only a need for the researcher to build rapport with users, but to also build rapport with stakeholders. These business colleagues must trust the UX research process and have confidence in the researcher in order to be open to giving the researcher access to participants. Likewise, business stakeholders may not see the need to conduct research with their users. They talk to their users regularly, potentially have been in their shoes in the past in previous positions, and generally have a handle on their needs. It’s important to note to stakeholders in these situations that we all have assumptions about what we think products and services should provide to users. UX research provides a systematic way of gathering information from customers that can help inform the development and improvements of these products and services in a structured manner. It’s also very unlikely that we know everything about our users — there is always something new to learn.
The skills that anthropologists bring around empathy and a deep recognition of the importance of context, cultural relativism and systems-thinking will only serve to deepen the field of UX research. Anthropologists can bring their training in “contextual richness and representation of cultural diversity” to the practice of UX and ensure that the field does not become a “homogenizing force” that acts to “ ‘distill’ the outside world” (Amirebrahimi 80, 87, 86) Anthropology encourages the active examination of “how people live in the ‘real world,’ with ethnographically informed theory and practice — as subjects of the state, colonization or capitalist expansion; gendered; raced, and classed bodies; or spiritual/religious ideologues” (Amirebrahimi 83). Anthropologists will ensure these complex historical and cultural contexts are taken into account as part of the research findings that ultimately help teams truly understand their users and develop products for them. A foundation in this type of holism lets researchers see the big picture of user and stakeholder interactions, social/cultural influences, user behavior, and environments. As one researcher said, “I look at things holistically. I have also been told that I ‘see’ things other people don’t notice.” (Alexandra Mack, pers. comm) Gillian Bowan, User Researcher at Atlassian pointed out, “This (holistic understanding) is the silver bullet that anthropology brings, not empathy, not fieldwork. The best qual research in UX gives teams a holistic understanding of 1. The problem space and 2. User behavior and expectations at any given point in time. This is what they need from us, and this is what anthropology implicitly teaches.” (Gillian Bowan, pers. comm)
Command of Qualitative Methodologies
Anthropologists typically employ qualitative methodologies to conduct research, as do many UX Researchers engaged in both generative research and/or usability testing. Anthropologists already have the interviewing skills required for conducting open-ended, in-depth interviews. As a Lead User Experience Researcher pointed out when asked what are the most critical skills for UX Researchers now: “Interviewing is always going to be the most important research skill: keeping it conversational while hitting all of the key points of a discussion guide. More broadly, working effectively as part of cross-functional teams, understanding how the other members of the team think and operate, is crucial if you want your research to go anywhere.” (Interviewee 5, pers. comm) Similarly, UX Research Consultant April Moreno, Ph.D., commented that her anthropology background informs her work by “being aware of how to ask semi-structured and open-ended questions, making as few assumptions as consciously possible, understanding my own subjectivity.” (April Moreno, Ph.D., pers. comm) Many of the researchers interviewed noted that interviewing was a critical methodology for UX Researchers that was gained through training in anthropology. Interviewing is a skill that takes time and energy to hone, “there was this recent well-known UX design community article that stated that interviews were a cheap and easy process of a few simple questions to get user feedback. But as anthropologists, I think we would disagree. It takes a level of skill, self-awareness and technique to ask the right questions.” (April Moreno, Ph.D., pers. comm)
Additionally, anthropologists oftentimes have a robust training in ethnography which will only serve to deepen the methodological toolkits of UX Researchers. Anthropologists bring a focus on ethnography and participant observation or as a researcher mentioned, “the understanding of the need to meet people where they live. Recognition that user’s (or people’s) mental models are heavily contingent on who they are and the context in which they’ve developed these models.” (Interviewee 12, pers. comm)
Synthesis and Storytelling Skills
UX Researchers are often responsible for study design, data collection, synthesis of findings and report out. “Anthropologists are good at synthesis because they are used to moving from details to abstraction, quickly and with many different sets of data. This thinking helps with pattern recognition and pulling insights from disaggregated and qualitative data, and in making connections between different data points.” (Fleming 2019) In a business setting, researchers must work quickly to bring user insights to teams that will, ideally, use them to create change to products or services. Synthesis skills are critical in UX research as they allow researchers to see themes and generate meaning out of large amounts of raw data efficiently within rapid business timelines.
UX research, like anthropology, has a focus on storytelling as a means to communicate findings and “lead with the heart.” (Interviewee 11, pers. comm) Aysha L. Preston, Ph.D., User Experience Researcher, noted when asked about what anthropology brings to UX research that other social sciences (such as psychology and sociology) may not, “At the core, all of the listed social sciences focus on the individual or groups of people. What makes anthropology different is the methods and how we look to connect with people to identify a problem or tell a story. In my short experience in the field, the other disciplines do not emphasize the individual experiences as much or the power of qualitative research. Numbers are important, of course, but so are the stories and experiences that really bring people to life.” (Aysha L. Preston, pers. comm) Ross Mitchell, Research and Strategy Lead at Woah Agency, echoed this sentiment, “Anthropology provides the greatest training in telling stories about research. That is a lot of what anthropology is, after all. And ultimately in research for a business context, if you’re going to be successful, you have to know how to tell a compelling story.” (Ross Mitchell, pers. comm) Storytelling is a vital skill for UX Researchers — these stories are the seeds of change that can alter and influence stakeholder opinions, shape a product manager’s decisions around a new feature, etc. The ability to tell an engaging story is important not only for general communication of findings, but also for persona development and task/scenario development for usability testing. As Founder & CEO of Seattle-based agency Anthro-Tech, and Affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering explained, it’s important for a UX Researcher to be able to come into an organization and “help people understand there’s a human behind all of our research — many, many humans.” (Interviewee 11, pers. comm)
Potential Skill Gaps for Anthropologists to Fill
The next part of this article will examine skills that anthropologists may need to acquire in order to be competitive candidates for UX research positions. These skills were typically noted simultaneously as important for UX Researchers today. These specific areas include: business training, usability testing/design skills, research operations knowledge and quantitative methodologies.
Through these interviews with researchers, it became clear that research in the business world is very different from research in the academic world. Researchers transitioning from academia to industry have to adjust to rapid research timelines and potentially adjust expectations of research rigor in order to serve the main purpose of helping product teams make quick product decisions. Researchers in a business setting also need to focus on the reporting of key insights, not just the reporting on process, theory, or findings. As the Founder & CEO of Seattle-based agency Anthro-Tech, and Affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering noted:
“In terms of skills that are necessary to help an anthropologist transition to the UX world — a big one is compromising. How do you make research work within the business world where there are many stakeholders, and timeline and budget constraints? We need to strive for progress and not always excellence. You have to reframe your idea of success sometimes. I have worked with anthropologists who came in with more of an academic mindset and said, ‘I am studying this problem, and I’ve got to have the perfect research.’ In the business world we do research to drive design and business decisions, not to prove a theory. So it’s a balance of just enough research, being able to compromise with what the business needs to get out of it as well.” (Interviewee 11, pers. comm)
Research in business settings not only has to happen quicker than in academic settings, but this research is also used by other colleagues to create change and impact decisions. For example, a UX Researcher at Facebook, noted, “There is something about (and I never realized I cared about this) doing research that is focused on changing something about the world that feels so refreshing. In academia, we did the research for the sake of theory, but I think we had often forgotten why the theory was developed in the first place. Now, I am acutely aware that my work is driving change. This isn’t the same as being applied, but it does acknowledge that we live in a world that needs activism, and I’m now part of that.” (Interviewee 7, pers. comm) Researchers in business settings must not focus only on “describing problems” and must instead “find solutions and recommendations.” (Interviewee 8, pers. comm)
In order to help product teams develop solutions based on their research, a researcher must also have a basic understanding of product management and technology. Switching from an academic setting to a business setting likely involves learning the world of business through immersion — something that anthropologists are well equipped for. Structuring study plans that address business goals and KPIs (key performance indicators) is critical for UX Researchers as it helps establish direct value to the business and increase UX buy-in. Some KPI examples that may tie to UX research plans include: positive Net Promoter Scores, increased customer satisfaction and retention, reduced call volume, etc. As one researcher put it, the skills important for UX Researchers today include, “strategic product training; maybe some business analysis so they can speak the language of MBAs. I wish I had all these skills now and am scrambling on the job to learn them.” (Interviewee 8, pers. comm)
Usability Testing and Design Skills
As much as the business world may be strikingly different from academia, design and usability testing may also be foreign to anthropologists looking to get involved in UX research. Anthropologists may have to learn more about the research and design process, how research can influence the design and the different types of testing that can occur at various stages of product design fidelity. When asked about the major difficulties that anthropologists may face when trying to get into UX research, one researcher responded to the challenge to be, “Lack of a tech or design background. Take some courses and don’t just rely on your anthropology background. Read articles, get to know the lingo. I realize looking back that I was so green when I first made the transition that I must have sounded like a child! Luckily, I was blessed with kind co-workers- who didn’t point out some of my biggest blunders- and a curiosity to learn, so I quickly saw my missteps and corrected along the way.” (Interviewee 12, pers. comm)
Design skills are not only important to understand the product development lifecycle, agile processes and work directly with designers who use the outputs of UX research to develop wireframes and prototypes — they’re also critical for the development of quick-to-read, consumable deliverables for stakeholders. As a UX Researcher myself, I’ve relied heavily on tools such as Canva to help create visually appealing infographics with usability testing findings for my stakeholders. As one researcher put it, “It doesn’t hurt to learn some graphic design. Stories are told visually in business. You won’t be writing essays.” (Interviewee 9, pers. comm) Another researcher agreed that “learning some basic design — color theory, graphic design principles,” (Interviewee 12, pers. comm) is necessary. Depending upon business structure and position, UX Researchers also may be responsible for their own wireframing and prototyping. In this case, graphic design, wireframing and prototyping skills would be critical for the success of the researcher.
Research Operations Skills
Anthropologists and UX Researchers alike need to have solid project management skills, as research involves juggling many moving parts: consent/ethics approval and review, recruitment, email communications, screening, scheduling, instrument development, data collection, documentation, analysis, reporting to stakeholders, panel management and ongoing management of findings in a research repository. The image below highlights key steps in the UX research process, and possible software/tools or methodologies that can be used for each step.
Managing these moving parts is oftentimes the responsibility of UX Researchers, especially those without a research operations team or coordinator to assist in the project management side of making the “magic” of research happen. As Lead User Experience Researcher put it, “None of my anthropology colleagues have any experience with actually running or participating in research operations. Coordinating software, recruiting, collaborating with stakeholders, etc. etc. — all of the day-to-day business of making research happen in a corporate context — are crucial and completely outside the purview of academic anthropology.” (Interviewee 5, pers. comm) Additionally, the prior point on the need for a switch in mentality when working in a business setting — “progress and not always excellence” — is important here (Interviewee 11, pers. comm). UX Researchers oftentimes have to learn how to balance research operations with managing and conducting actual research. Note, however, that these duties vary widely depending upon the size of team and stage of UX research maturity and buy-in within a company; larger research teams may have more resources dedicated solely to research coordination.
Anthropologists have a strong focus on qualitative methodologies, most UX research positions require mixed methodology training. For example, researchers often must have the ability to develop a survey, conduct an interview, and potentially analyze complex user data from analytics tools like Google Analytics. Behavioral data, like those from analytics, helps researchers understand how a user is interacting with the website without relying only on their self-reported data. This data serves to further bolster product team decisions. Multiple researchers interviewed noted that anthropologists may need to learn more robust quantitative skills and potentially also basic data science. This may be due to a potential future increase in partnership among UX and data science teams — further marrying “quant and qual.” As one researcher said, “The ability to triangulate thick data with big data is huge” (Interviewee 10, pers. comm). Data science techniques (A/B testing, statistical modeling, data tracking) that can answer the “what” and yield behavioral, non-self-reported insights can help complement, support and provide deeper insight into qualitative, attitudinal data that attempts to answer the “why.” It’s important for researchers to prepare themselves for “partnering with data scientists and knowledge of data science techniques like machine learning; technological architecture basics/options.” (Interviewee 8, pers. comm) UX researchers can look at problems from multiple angles with the help of data science teams. In the future, qualitative researchers may more often partner with data science teams in business settings to further triangulate and demonstrate support for key findings. Likewise, Founder & CEO of Seattle-based agency Anthro-Tech and Affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Department of Human-Centered Design and Engineering noted:
“As anthropologists, we have a big focus on qualitative research methods. I recommend that someone transitioning to the UX field broaden their mastery of methods to include quantitative and get really good at mixed methods research design. Consider using surveys, analytics, focus groups, and understanding which methods are the best match for your research questions. Don’t put all your eggs in one type of research method (basket). We always triangulate. In the business world, we are trying to make investments and changes to a product or service, and sometimes the people who make those decisions aren’t going to make them based on 20 participants’ input. They really want to make sure that they’re acting on solid recommendations grounded in research that comes from more than one method. To feel confident spending thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars building a service out clearly your research needs to support that there is a real human need.” (Interviewee 11, pers. comm)
Key Recommendations for Transitioning to UX Research
Anthropologists can take concrete actions to move into a UX research career and utilize many of the applicable skills learned through their anthropology training. Some of the key recommendations for transitioning to UX research heard directly from the 12 interviewed UX Researchers include: taking classes to fill skill gaps, joining a local UX community, participating in UX research studies with services like Dscout and User Interviews to get a sense of the process and see UX research in action from the user’s perspective, building a portfolio of UX research case studies and lastly, getting an internship in UX research.
Take a Class to Fill Skill Gaps
There are many online programs now that offer free or inexpensive remote classes, like Lynda and Coursera. Supplementing previous anthropology academic coursework with UX research specific courses is important to be a competitive candidate. UX Researchers may be responsible for developing their own wireframes and prototypes with the absence or limited resource allocation for a UX Designer, in which case researchers need to know how to use programs such as Sketch, Invision and Framer. One researcher noted, “Taking coursework in Human-Computer Interaction/HCDE would be a good start.” (Interviewee 10, pers. comm) Additionally, courses in business and product management may help fill skill gaps in business functions. Based on the 12 interviews conducted with UX Researchers, it also appears as though a degree of familiarity with artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), voice technology, and data science will be important for UX Researchers in the future.
Join Local UX Communities
Joining a local “UX community” can mean many different things — attending events or local UX meetups, joining professional organizations, networking with individual researchers on LinkedIn, and establishing relationships via mutual mentoring, joining an official mentorship program, etc. These groups and organizations may not be specific to UX research — it would be important for aspiring UX Researchers to search for groups not only focused on UX research but also UX design, design thinking and product management as UX Researchers are often represented in these groups as well. Gillian Bowan, User Researcher at Atlassian encouraged, “Go to meetups, apply for internships and be fearless. Design has been cashing in on a connection to Anthropology for years without really extending the substantive opportunity to Anthropology grads. This needs to change and anthropology students need to put themselves forward.” (Gillian Bowan, pers. comm) Attendance at these professional and/or social groups will likely help increase one’s network and general exposure to the field.
Participate in UX Research Studies
UX research operations and recruiting tools such as Dscout.com and Userinterviews.com as well as local UX research agencies allow willing participants to sign up for UX research panels. “I always recommend that aspiring UXRs participate in user research as a participant by signing up for panels to participate in surveys and focus groups, signing up as a Dscout participant, etc. This way they start to see how it works and will ultimately have a better understanding of the participant’s point of view.” (Interviewee 10, pers. comm) This kind of participant observation can help new UX Researchers understand first-hand usability testing methodologies and begin to learn the tools of the trade.
Find a Mentor
Mentorship programs such as Hexagon UX help new UX Researchers break into the field. I participated in the Hexagon Mentorship Program which included a mentorship/mentee matching event and three months of bi-weekly mentorship with a Senior Researcher. Possible mentors come from diverse backgrounds and maybe focused currently in design or research. The value of a mentor, especially one in a formalized program like Hexagon UX, with an expected cadence, cannot be underestimated. Gillian Bowan, User Researcher at Atlassian expressed the value of mentorship, “ The researcher who trained me had been an archeologist, then a technical writer and much later, an interaction designer. She was a brilliant mentor.” (Gillian Bowan, pers. comm) Personally, I’ve worked for six months with my mentor Nikki Anderson, Senior UX Researcher at Zalando SE who runs the online User Research Academy. In this program, mentees can work with Nikki in a variety of ways: interviewing practice, 1:1 UX research mentoring tailored to specific topics of interest, job interview prep, user research document review, among other services. Working with Nikki has been critical to my professional development, especially as a UX research team of one at Delta Dental of Washington.
Get an Internship
Internships allow for industry connections, testing the waters before full commitment, learning on the job while (hopefully) getting paid and time and space for learning the language of UX. One interviewee recommended that anthropologists looking to pursue UX research do so by “pursuing any route to getting practical experience, whether that’s internships or entry-level roles like recruiting coordinator or UX producer.” (Interviewee 10, pers. comm) Ross Mitchell mentioned the positives of a fast-paced workplace for learning for a new UX Researcher, “Go work at an agency to start. You will get exposed to a lot of projects very quickly on a variety of topics. You will likely be underpaid and overworked, but it can’t be worse than adjuncting.” (Interviewee 9, pers. comm) The importance of learning the world and lingo of UX research through practical experience is clear, as one researcher mentioned, “Without a solid understanding of UX principles, even the best researcher will be sunk. I think that one of the best things that an anthropologist can get, very early on, in a transition to UX is some practical, boots-on-the-ground experience.” (Interviewee 12, pers. comm)
Build a Portfolio
A lead UX Researcher who was interviewed mentioned when asked about difficulties that anthropologists may encounter when trying to enter the world of UX, “Putting in the hours, building the resume, building the portfolio, those are all things that take time — time you, presumably, weren’t putting in while in graduate school.” (Interviewee 5, pers. comm) Building a portfolio illustrating UX research case studies will involve a significant investment in time and energy, but it will allow for hands-on learning, project management skill development and experience managing client/stakeholder relationships and setting expectations or priorities. It’s oftentimes recommended for new UX Researchers and designers to find freelance projects by going to coworking spaces, volunteer groups or non-profit organizations and asking if anyone needs UX help for their company websites, and also being open to taking projects pro-bono or for reduced price tags. Building a portfolio — often a personally branded website, PDF, or PowerPoint, with UX case studies is critical for interviewing for any UX research role. Generally, portfolios should detail process and impact, and be visually appealing for quick scanning by hiring managers. Website builders such as Wix, WordPress, or SquareSpace are popular for portfolio development.
It appears as though the lack of promotion of UX research as a viable career option for anthropology grads could be mitigated by UX research agencies and technology companies further partnering with academic departments and institutions to prepare students for entering into the working world post-graduation. Gillian Bowan, User Researcher at Atlassian explained that anthropology graduates “…have 90% of what’s required already. The main barrier seems to be a lack of contacts and a lack of relevant work experience. This is where partnerships between Anthropology departments and industry can be helpful.” (Gillian Bowan, pers. comm) These types of partnerships could keep new graduates informed of career options with positive job prospects, educate and expose new grads to career options, and help facilitate internship or full-time opportunities at partner companies post-graduation.
In closing, a career in UX research would be a natural transition and fit for many anthropologists. With a strong emphasis on empathy, context, cultural relativism, systems thinking; a command of qualitative methodologies; and robust synthesis and storytelling skills, anthropologists already have much of what is required to be a UX researcher. However, transitioning from conducting research in academic settings to industry requires adjustments in research approach and pacing. New UX Researchers coming from a more academic training and background will also likely need to fill skill gaps in business, usability testing/design, research operations and quantitative methodologies. It is my hope that by early exposure to UX research as a viable career option through articles such as this one, more anthropologists will enrich the field with their important human-centered, non-judgmental, holistic and empathetic mindsets and training.
Special thanks to the following people for making this article happen! I could not have done it without all of the following people and their support.
- Dr. Jean Schensul, my forever-mentor who encouraged my attendance at the AAA Career Expo in the first place. Jay was the one who taught me the fundamentals of participatory research, the value of teamwork, and the power of research to create change and have an impact.
- All 12 of my article participants for their patience and time involved with interviewing, editing and reviewing. You’re all truly the stars of this article. Thank you all again for sharing your opinions and advice on this important topic.
- John Brett (editor of the Annals of Anthropological Practice, National Association for the Practice of Anthropology; and Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Denver) who encouraged me to write this article in the first place! We met at the American Anthropological Association and he witnessed the popularity of my booth at the Career Expo first-hand.
- My amazing UX research mentor, Nikki Anderson! Thank you for your endless cheerleading and for reviewing this article, Nikki!
- My anthropologist-turned-UX-Researcher friend and former colleague Holly Harridan for reviewing the article prior to publishing!
- My partner Evan for reviewing the article and having immense patience as I prepped for the conference and then eventually decided to write this article. He was there as I developed my questions, gathered the data, analyzed the data, wrote the article, edited the article, submitted it for review to NAPA, and eventually published it on Medium.com for greater accessibility and ease.
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