Five Tips for a Successful Career as a UX Researcher

“Formal” usability testing isn’t the only thing that a successful UX researcher should be able to do!

After 40+ years of doing human factors, usability, and user experience (UX) research work, I thought it might be helpful to reflect on and share some of the tips that I think make for a successful career in this field. So here they are, in no particular order.

  1. Set Goals for Your UX Research Career

Many years ago, I set a goal for myself of publishing (or presenting at a national conference) at least once per year. When I first set that goal the web didn’t exist, so it meant publishing an article in a journal or presenting at a refereed conference. In retrospect, I’ve achieved that goal most years. Now it could also mean writing online articles like this one. This goal in particular does several things:

  • It makes you think about what you’re writing or presenting, giving you a chance to reflect.
  • It contributes to our larger UX community and the knowledge we share.
  • It gets your name out there as someone who’s thinking about these issues.

Of course your goals could be something very different. But I’d suggest you consider a goal, like the one I adopted, that can be a career-long goal instead of a one-shot deal.

2. Participate in UX Conferences and Organizations

Notice that I said “participate in” not just “attend”. There are a host of these types of conferences to choose from, even just looking at the national or international conferences. I have a few personal favorites that are particularly relevant to UX research:

  • User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) Annual Conference: I think this is the most practical conference out there for a UX researcher. It used to be called the Usability Professionals Association (UPA) and that heritage still shows through in many of the presentations. I come away from every UXPA Conference having learned something useful. And if you can only make it to a one-day conference, it’s hard to beat the UXPA Boston Conference.
  • ACM’s Annual CHI (Computer-Human Interaction) Conference: I like this conference because it lets you see where things might be headed in a few years in terms of how people interact with systems and how we study those interactions.
  • Human Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES) Annual Meeting: This conference lets you see how people do user research in a wide variety of fields, perhaps very different from the one you’re currently working in. Maybe a study that looks at how Army Tank Commanders make decisions might have some ideas relevant to a study you need to do about how financial advisors make decisions.

Participating in conferences could, of course, mean giving talks at them. Many conferences have poster sessions or “10-minute” talks which offer a great way of getting started with these kinds of presentations. There are also other ways of participating, like blogging about the conference or perhaps giving a “best of” presentation after the conference to your company or local UX organization.

Most of these organizations have active local chapters with monthly meetings and speakers. These can provide great networking and learning opportunities as well as the chance to practice your presentation skills with a smaller audience. (One of the first conference presentations I ever gave was at a CHI conference to an audience of 400+ people! I’m surprised I ever gave another one!) Cory Lebson wrote a great article for UX Magazine about the benefits of participating in UX organizations. At some point, you should consider running for an office at either a local or national level in a UX organization.

3. Consider an Advanced Degree

This is perhaps a controversial tip. I’ve often been asked whether you need to have an advanced degree to be a successful UX researcher. Certainly I’ve known many people in this field who are very successful and yet don’t have an advanced degree. But I think that having an advanced degree in a relevant field increases the likelihood of your success as a UX researcher, especially in today’s environment.

So what kind of educational program or degree am I talking about? Let’s look at the three main categories that I know of. (Full disclosure: I frequently teach classes in Bentley University’s UX Certificate program and their Master’s program.)

  • Certificate Programs: There are many of these available, including in-person and online. There’s a very good blog by Martha Andrews about many of the certificate programs available. I think certificates like this are great if you’re new to the field or aren’t sure yet if you really want to do this UX stuff as a career. As a former hiring manager, I definitely gave weight to candidates who had a UX certificate from an organization that I could recognize.
  • Master’s Degree Programs: There are quite a few of these available now too, including some from universities that also offer certificates. Many of the programs are focused on Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and are offered through Computer Science, Information Science, or Psychology departments. Some are more broadly focused on UX. There’s an excellent article by “GB” Lee about many of the Master’s programs in the U.S. When I was wearing my hiring manager hat, I gave more weight to a Master’s degree in a UX-related field than a certificate. It shows a real commitment to learning about the field. And I think there are some things that you just don’t learn unless you go through an intensive Master’s program.
  • Doctoral Programs: So do you really need a Ph.D. to be a good UX researcher? Short answer: I don’t think so. And, yes, I have a Ph.D. (in Engineering Psychology from Rice University). I worked for about six years doing human factors/usability work after I completed my Master’s degree. The main reason that I went back for my Ph.D. is that I wanted the flexibility of moving into an academic career if I ever wanted to. A Ph.D. prepares you to do Research (with a capital “R”) but that’s not the same as what most of us refer to as UX or user research. In retrospect, I’m very glad that I did get a Ph.D., mainly because I’ve combined a career in industry with a “side job” of teaching at the graduate level. (And what I learned in the stats courses taught by my advisor, David Lane, definitely helped when Bill Albert and I were writing Measuring the User Experience!)

4. Learn and Practice a Variety of Research Methods

These days you can’t be a successful UX researcher if you’re a “one-trick pony”. UX researchers need to be well-versed in both qualitative and quantitative research techniques. Some of the methods I think you should be comfortable with are as follows:

  • In-person usability studies: These are “classic” usability studies, typically with small numbers of users. They might be done in a formal usability lab or a more informal setting (e.g., at the user’s home, a local coffee shop, etc). (BTW, here’s my version of “formal” usability testing!) And you need to be able to do these quickly, including planning, recruiting, executing, and acting on the results. The days of taking a month to conduct a usability test, from start to finish, are gone. Think more in terms of hours or a few days.
  • Unmoderated online usability studies: These are similar in some respects to in-person usability studies but they’re totally online, without a moderator. They’re commonly still task-based, but the tasks are shown to the user via some tool. And all the data collection is automated (e.g., clicks, time, success). Two of the tools that I’ve used for these kinds of studies are Loop11 and UserZoom. I find that you learn the most from these studies when you compare alternative designs. They typically involve larger numbers of users (e.g., at least ~50 per condition). You can read a case study I wrote about such a study for the UXPA Magazine.
  • Online surveys: Online surveys are probably under-utilized by UX researchers, but they can be invaluable at various stages of product development. Designing an effective survey is not as simple as some people might think, and being able to do it well is an important skill. You can read an article I wrote about Five Tips for Using Surveys in UX Research.
  • Card-sorting and tree-testing studies: Tasks that UX researchers commonly find themselves facing are how to organize a large body of content or how to design a menu system. Card-sorting and tree-testing studies are ways of helping answer these questions. There’s a good overview of card-sorting on Wikipedia and I’ve compiled a list of some card-sorting tools. Tree testing is a good way of testing candidate labels for menus as well as their organization. Kathryn Whitenton has written a good article about tree-testing. Treejack is a popular tool.
  • Focus groups: You might be surprised to see focus groups on this list since they’re more commonly thought of as a tool for market research. But they can be very useful in UX research as well, if used in the right way. I’d argue that one right way is to get information from users around what they like and don’t like about an existing product or system. One wrong way is to get feedback about the usability of a new design. I’ve often seen a design get glowing feedback from focus groups and then fail miserably in a usability test. In moderating focus groups you have to watch out for “group-think” and individuals who dominate the discussion.
  • Live-site A/B tests: If you aren’t involved in web design work this may not apply to you, but it never hurts to expand your skills. The web analytics team in your organization might already be running A/B tests and you don’t even know it. In these kinds of tests visitors to the site are randomly assigned one version or another of a page (or element) and then success metrics (e.g., conversions) determine the winner. There’s a good overview on Wikipedia and you can see some case studies on the VWO site and on the Optimizely site. As a researcher you can help shape these studies so that you learn not only which design won but also something about why.

5. Become an Advocate for Universal Usability

In your role as a UX researcher you’re one of the primary advocates for the user. That should include the broadest range of users that could be using your product. According to the 2010 U.S. census, about 1 out of every 5 Americans has some kind of disability. And many more of us have borderline issues. (Of course that’s not why I had to bump up the font size on my eReader!) With the aging population, these issues will become even more common.

Some UX people seem to think that accessibility is someone else’s problem. But accessibility is simply usability for a certain category of users — namely people with disabilities. When you look at it that way, it makes sense that a UX researcher should have a good grasp of accessibility issues. I’m not saying that every UX researcher needs to understand all the technical issues involved in making a site accessible, but you should know the basics, and when you can you should conduct UX research with some of these specialized audiences.

When I started this article it was actually going to be ten tips, but (as usual) I’ve been a bit long-winded with the first five, so I’ll stop here for now. I’ll save the next five for another article. Please let me know what you think.