Finding a Voice as a Non-Traditional UX Researcher
What I learned during my unconventional career transition from architecture to Google UX
Four years ago, I was a graduate student in architectural theory, researching shopping malls and eyeing an academic career. Three years ago, I started working on early-stage projects at X, Alphabet’s moonshot factory, as a research associate. Today, I am a qualitative UX researcher (UXR) on Google’s AIUX team in Mountain View, working to make machine learning more human-centered.
Over these four years, my path has involved a few big leaps, several unexpected turns, and an appreciation for this meandering journey. I get many questions from students and new graduates who are considering similar transitions and want to know how to break into UX research from a non-traditional background.
There’s a lot to be said about stepping into an unfamiliar industry, discipline, and role. In my own journey, I found an abundance of resources on the tactical aspects of UX research — portfolios, bootcamps, and methods. But it was much harder to find advice about the intangible, personal side — finding work, carving an identity, and developing a voice.
Having gone through this process over the past few years, I wanted to share six valuable lessons I’ve learned:
1) Hone your lens, not just your skills
In the transition from academic training to a professional role, there’s a heavy emphasis on technical skills. I‘ve since learned that UX research is defined by much more than technical ability. At its core is a human-centered point of view and approach to problems.
While research skills are important, over-indexing on them can be limiting and misleading. Being a stats whiz doesn’t make someone a great UXR.
Instead of just skills, focus on your lens — the unique way you see the world and the types of questions that excite you. Your lens reaches laterally, transcending any one discipline, job description, or skillset. It’s the worldview that threads your varied interests.
Methods and skills become tools to operationalize and express this worldview. If you’re fascinated by large-scale patterns in human behavior, you’ll need survey skills. If you want to dive into individual lived experiences, you’ll learn ethnographic methods. Your skills are acquired and shape what you do; your lens is innate and shapes why you do it.
I discovered my lens in an undergraduate architecture course, with a professor who made me redo my project repeatedly for the sake of aesthetics. During one critique, I realized I’d designed a ceiling that sloped too low for human occupancy. When I preemptively told the professor I’d redo it, he seemed surprised. “The design and your drawings look great,” he said. “Can’t you just shrink the scale figures to make them fit?”
Taken aback by that suggestion, I realized that this professor and I operated through starkly different lenses. To me, the human figures that peppered my drawings weren’t just afterthoughts to illustrate scale, but drove the way I designed in the first place. In fact, I cared more about the human experience than about the way my design looked. Over-indexing on my drafting skills may have led me down an unfulfilling career path.
2) Cultivate “people + data” experience
I’m often asked about the best way to get a research role with no prior experience. My answer is always: To gain relevant experience, your title doesn’t have to be “UX Researcher.” My personal strategy was to develop experience in two areas, which I loosely labeled people and data.
People experience includes anything involving deep interactions with people and understanding their needs. Do you work with patients in a clinic? Volunteer as a peer counselor? Write in-depth profiles for a campus publication? Make documentaries? No matter what field you’re in, get deeply comfortable investigating humans.
Data experience includes collecting and making sense of data (qualitative or quantitative). Graduate theses, research assistantships, and MBA internships are all ways that I’ve seen people gain data chops. Personally, my data-centric experience came from my design research projects and working as a research assistant in a cognitive psychology lab.
When you’re assembling a portfolio, remember that your experience is more about the “how” than the “what.” Speak to the problems you solved, your approach and process, and the impact you had.
3) Reach out and ask organizations how you can add value
Conventional job-seeking advice encourages applicants to tell companies why they’re the best fit. But if you’re like me and entering a new industry with few connections, you may have no idea what a company is looking for or where you’d fit.
So, just ask.
I cold-emailed team leads and recruiters at various organizations. None had open UXR roles, and I didn’t tell them why they should create one. Instead, I explained my interests, asked about their biggest problems, and let them tell me whether and where I could add value.
I got offers at a hospital, a “Big Three” management consulting firm, and a retail innovation lab (among others), with titles ranging from “experience consultant” to “digital design analyst.” All of the job descriptions were almost identical to my current one as a UX researcher.
I learned that it pays to explore openly without being married to the UXR title. The organization can assess you against its needs, you face less competition, and you might be surprised by an opportunity outside of your current awareness.
4) Think “UXR + ________” and lean into your background to find your superpowers
UX research revels in plurality. The strongest researchers I’ve seen are able to combine their research skills with another discipline or angle.
A non-traditional background equips you with tools from another domain that can help deepen your impact on products and teams. Leverage these synergies as your superpowers to position yourself for a role.
I will probably never be a usability-focused researcher. But my background in theory and design makes me equally comfortable tackling ambiguous (and sometimes philosophical) research questions, and ideating with designers on tactical details.
For others, it might be using a sociology background to introduce a new method, a language skill to conduct research in a new country, market research experience to influence product strategy, or improv training to lead workshops.
5) Own your new identity (even when it’s uncomfortable)
One of the most unexpectedly daunting parts of transitioning to UX research was coming to terms with my new professional identity. I had spent six years identifying as an architectural designer and researcher. At Google, I suddenly needed to clarify that “architecture” referred to buildings, not computers.
I struggled to articulate who I was. I’d never practiced, so I couldn’t call myself an architect. I didn’t come to Google for the technology, so I didn’t (and still don’t) identify as a Silicon Valley techie. And I’d done exactly zero UX research, so I felt like an impostor in my job title.
For several months, I called myself a “design researcher,” an authoritative yet comfortably vague title. I didn’t fit my own preconceived notion of a usability-testing-UXR, and I was afraid of losing my old self. In hindsight, I sold myself short (and probably confused some of my stakeholders).
I’ve since learned to lean into the UXR title without hiding behind it or erasing my past. Even if I’m outside of my comfort zone or interpret the role differently than others, it still captures where my interests lie — with our users.
6) Speak up — Don’t assume different means wrong
UX researchers all have different approaches to their work that are colored by their own lenses.
Before realizing this, my self-confidence wavered wildly depending on who I worked with. When I jived with an anthropologist, I’d feel competent. When an HCI-based UXR suggested an alternative approach, I’d question myself and scratch my whole research plan.
As a new UXR, it can be both useful and comforting to learn by imitating others. But it’s equally important to develop a unique voice, and be able to justify and stand by it. It’s crucial to identify when there’s a real methodological problem, and when an approach is simply different but not wrong. Get multiple perspectives from senior peers, and appreciate where they’re coming from.
Finally, one of the best ways to cultivate your voice is by speaking up. Speak up when your thoughts seem completely different from the other thoughts in the room. Speak up when you’re the new person in the room. Speak up when you’re the most junior UXR in the room. And, most importantly, speak up when you’re the only UXR in the room. That’s when your voice matters the most.
Illustration by Kortni Bottini.