The (Non-Traditional) Way to Break Into UX Research

Emma McCabe
Apr 17, 2018 · 7 min read

I’ve often been asked how I became a UX researcher and I tend to tell folks my journey was not a traditional one. By “traditional,” I mean I didn’t study social science in college. Yet somehow, here I am.

What I understand now is that UX research is a wide-ranging field with room for many different backgrounds and skillsets.

I decided to write this piece for those of you who are passionate about getting into UX research, but like me, aren’t coming from an academic setting. I’ve been in your shoes and I’m going to share my story of how I became a researcher, as well as some straight forward tips to help you do it too!

But first, some background.

What does a “non-traditional” path into UX research look like?

After being fascinated by the internet and how it worked as a teen, I studied Web Engineering in college. In all honesty, I hated college until my 3rd year when I took two new modules on Applied Research Methods and Usability. Suddenly the trajectory of where I was going in life changed. I had discovered something called “UX” and I was hooked.

My first job was as a UX designer and while I felt like I’d hit the jackpot, something was still missing. It wasn’t until I finished a challenging project, where research helped us to course correct that I knew I wanted to transition into working in research full-time. It was like a lightbulb had been switched on in my mind and I couldn’t turn it off.

In a weird twist of fate, the week I realized I wanted to become a researcher, I saw that Intercom, a customer communications start-up, was looking for their first product researcher. I had followed the founders since college and was always intrigued by the tool they were working on. I loved that their mission was “to make internet business personal” and stayed up all night writing my application. Although I was plagued with self-doubt about my qualifications, I was determined to get this job.

After working there for 4 years, I still sometimes can’t believe I landed that job! Now that I’ve moved on from Intercom, I’ve had time to reflect on my journey and want to share some tips to help answer the question…

So, how can I break into UX research?

My short answer here is “grad school is the quickest way.” I felt I had a LOT of catching up to do when I first started and learned fast that UX research is not just testing prototypes and customers calls. From deeply understanding the principles behind human behaviour to knowing how to design surveys, it’s meticulous work. However, as you just read above, there many successful researchers that are primarily self-taught. Here’s some practical advice for those of you hoping to take that path:

Tip: Listen/Watch/Read as much as possible

The UX Research community is full of resources — always keep learning!

Of all the researchers I’ve met, we all tend to share the trait of being naturally inquisitive (and no, I’m not biased!) and are always looking to learn about the latest method or process improvement. Although it can sometimes feel like there’s not enough hours in the day to consume the amount of content out there, start small by using your commute to read blog posts and books or listen to a podcast while cooking. There’s a wealth of knowledge being shared by the best in the field. Some of my personal favourites are:

  • Erika Hall’s “Just Enough Research” (book)

Tip: Conduct research in your spare time

If you want to gain more research experience, but can’t do it at your current role, try looking for volunteering opportunities. Reach out to your local tech incubator, find startup founders in your area and ask to help with research in exchange for mentioning them in your resume or in a blog post about what you learned. If you can find projects that have social impact or are for a non-profit, then it’s a win-win situation. :)

Tip: Use online courses to fill knowledge gaps

While online courses can’t replace a full-time program, they will help you to learn some of the fundamentals behind UX research such as various types of cognitive bias or the psychology behind decision making. Legitimate online courses and books like Sam Ladner’s Practical Ethnography are a good way of filling knowledge gaps.

Platforms like Coursera, Udacity and Udemy have online courses on a range of topics from social science to cyberpsychology. Read through reviews, see which institutions are providing courses, and find the best one for you. University of Washington and M.I.T. run 6–8 week online HCI courses throughout the year too (note: these will cost between $1–3k so check if your companies L&D budget can help with the cost).

Disclaimer: There are lots of shitty online courses out there that will say you can master UX research in a few hours. For the love of Ben Shneiderman, stay away from anything that claims “Research is easy!” or “Learn everything you need to know in 2 classes!” NOPE. NOPE. SNAKE OIL. NOPE.

Tip: Don’t be afraid to ask someone to take a chance on you

A lot of job postings for UX researchers are looking for folks with 3+ years of experience. If you are serious about wanting to join the field, don’t let this be a deterrent! Put your name into the mix and use your cover letter as a way to stand out from the crowd. Convey succinctly why they should take a chance on you. If you don’t have relevant experience, put together some “faux case studies” that show how you would approach a design problem with research. Clearly outline your thought process and how you would work to get to a solution. Another option is to look for paid internships at a company you admire and apply there. If you don’t ask, the answer is always “no.”

Tip: Use a related research role as a stepping stone

Many large companies (such as Dropbox, Facebook, Amazon) are often on the lookout for UXR recruitment coordinators. Roles like this can be an alternative way into a UX research role as you can learn what it takes to prep, recruit and manage research studies. If you do get a role like this, communicate early on that you would like to grow and transition fully into UX research and ask if you can shadow the researchers on their studies. This is a great way to learn on the job and see first hand what goes into being a researcher. Once you’ve been in the role for a while, be bold and ask if they will let you moderate a study. This can be a great opportunity to showcase what you’ve learned and communicate your value to the team!

Tip: Join the community

Community groups are a great way to learn and share first-hand experiences

There are some awesome Slack groups dedicated to research and UX that have daily discussions and put on A.M.A. (ask me anything) sessions with some of the best researchers in the field. I’m a firm believer that if you want to do well in your chosen field, you should partake in discourse and learn from others in the community. Some Slack groups of note are:

We’re incredibly lucky in UX to be part of an industry full of kind, empathetic people who want to give back. Make the most of platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn and Slack to get to know folks. You’ll be surprised how accommodating people are to meet for a coffee or have a call.

Some Final Thoughts

While there is no quick fix to becoming a researcher, we need passionate people in this role to be advocates for change, ensure the user voice is heard and that the design isn’t based on assumption. UX researchers hold the key to that possibility and although we have come far, the tech landscape is still crying out for more qualitative insight.

Hopefully the tips in this post will help those of you thinking of taking the leap into UX research. If you have tips of your own, we’d love to hear them! Our industry is ever evolving and we can all learn from each other’s experiences, no matter what path we’ve taken to get here.

Enjoyed this post? Give us some 👏!

To learn more about UX research, join our community of over 3000 UX researchers in the Mixed Methods Slack group. 💬

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Mixed Methods

Interested in the hows and whys of user experience research

Emma McCabe

Written by

Experience Researcher. Frank Ocean enthusiast. On a quest to pet every dog.

Mixed Methods

Interested in the hows and whys of user experience research

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