Career Advice for User Researchers

By Jim Ross

Published: December 5, 2011

“The first thing you should decide is what you want to focus on.”

Recently, I celebrated my 11-year anniversary in user experience. Ten years is supposedly the time it takes to become an expert. Though I don’t necessarily feel like an expert, because I like to think that I’m still learning and gaining experience. Nevertheless, 11 years seems like a good point at which to reflect back on the things I’ve learned over my career and pass on some advice to those who are just getting started in the field of user research.

Do You Want to Be a User Researcher, a Designer, or Both?

The first thing you should decide is what you want to focus on. There is a great variety of roles in user experience. Some UX professionals are generalists who do everything from user research to UX design—and sometimes even software development. Others specialize on a particular aspect of user experience such as interaction design, visual design, content strategy, or ethnography. And many fall somewhere in between—for example, a UX Architect who conducts user research and is responsible for every aspect of UX design except visual design.

“Be careful not to get boxed into a too specialized role too early in your career.”

Be careful not to get boxed into a too specialized role too early in your career. Wait to specialize until you’re sure what aspect of user experience you want to focus on. Beginning your career in a role with a wider scope lets you experience more variety and growth. It’s much easier to narrow your focus to a more specialized role later on than it is to expand your role once you’ve defined your role too narrowly. For example, if you start out as a generalist who does both user research and design, it’s easy to later transition to doing only research. But if you start out as a user researcher, it may be difficult for you to start doing design without any prior work experience. So be careful which path you choose early in your career.

Who Do You Want to Work For?

When you’re looking for your first job, it’s easy to forget that you should be evaluating potential employers as much as they are evaluating you. In seeking that job, your first step is to consider who you want to work for.

What Type of Employee Do You Want to Be?

“Would you rather be part of an in-house UX team, work for a consulting company, or be an independent consultant, working for yourself? Each of these situations provides a very different experience.”

Would you rather be part of an in-house UX team, work for a consulting company, or be an independent consultant, working for yourself? Each of these situations provides a very different experience.

As part of an in-house UX team, you may work on your company’s Web site, products such as software or devices, or intranet. Although you may work on a variety of different projects, the overall scope of your work is usually limited to a particular application or Web site. The advantages of working in house are the stability and the in-depth experience you get in your area of focus; the disadvantage—you may find that limiting and boring after a while.

Working for a consulting company is very different from working as in-house staff. Consulting and user research are two different sets of skills. You need both of them if you want to be a user research consultant. As a consultant, you’ll experience much more variety and gain a lot of experience by working for multiple clients on a wide range of projects. But, there’s also a lot of pressure that goes along with consulting. You constantly have to prove yourself to new clients and overcome skepticism—and sometimes hostility—from your clients’ in-house employees; and you have the pressures of maintaining positive client relationships, making sales, and getting the next deal. Sometimes you have to juggle multiple projects and clients at once, and consulting can involve a lot of travel. It’s not a job for everyone.

Working for yourself as an independent consultant provides the ultimate freedom, but also carries the most responsibility. In addition to being a user researcher, you have to be a salesperson, a client relationship manager, a project manager, and an accountant. Your job won’t come with benefits, vacation days, or a 401K match, either. It’s not something most people do when first starting out in the field. It’s better to move into being a consultant after years of experience working for a company.

What Type of Projects Do You Want to Work On?

Do you want to work on projects relating to the design of Web sites, intranet sites, applications, mobile devices, products, services, or something else? Do you want to specialize in one of these areas, or would you rather have variety in your work? It’s an important decision, because your initial choice can limit your future opportunities. For example, if all of your experience is in mobile devices, it may be difficult for you to transition to working on Web sites. Luckily, because user research techniques and the principles of human psychology remain the same regardless of the type of product you’re studying, it’s easier for user researchers to make transitions to other types of projects than it is for designers.

What Value Does a Company Place on User Research?

It’s easier to work for a company that truly understands and values user experience and user research. Is user research a key part of their design process…?”

Unless you really like a challenge, it’s easier to work for a company that truly understands and values user experience and user research. Is user research a key part of their design process, or is it merely a minor side activity that is the first thing that gets cut when there’s not enough time or money for a project? You may relish the challenge of trailblazing and evangelizing the establishment of a UX culture in a company, but it’s much easier to start in a company that already has those values.

Where Does a Company Draw the Line Between Research and Design?

Find a company whose definitions of user research and design roles match your interests. For example, if you enjoy doing both user research and design, you’ll probably be dissatisfied in a company with a strict division between research and design roles. Usually the smaller a UX group, the more you’ll need to be a generalist. Larger groups can afford opportunities for more specialization. But don’t rely on job titles to make this distinction. The responsibilities for the same job title can vary greatly from company to company.

What Is a Company’s Reputation or Prestige?

Some companies are more impressive and look better on a resume than others. When you’re first starting out in the field, you should aim high and shoot for your dream job, but also be realistic. Prestigious companies are the hardest to get into. You may have to settle for getting experience in the best job you can get and later try to move to your ideal employer. Six months after I started my first usability job in 2000, at what some might think a boring bank, all of the exciting dot-com companies I had interviewed with had gone out of business. My classmates were struggling to find jobs, while I was learning a lot and gaining great experience in my seemingly boring job. By the time the job market improved, I had the experience to qualify for the better positions that became available.

Does the Job Title Matter?

“Job titles in user experience mean both nothing and everything. They mean nothing because they vary so much that the titles don’t accurately represent what we do.”

Job titles in user experience mean both nothing and everything. They mean nothing because they vary so much that the titles don’t accurately represent what we do. For example, in the last 11 years, I’ve been a Usability Analyst, a User-Centered Designer, a Human Factors Analyst, and a Design Researcher; yet the activities that I’ve done in each of these jobs haven’t varied much.

On the other hand, job titles mean everything because they influence what people think you do. For example, on my first job, the title Usability Analyst limited our group; it made people think we did only usability testing and evaluation. When we changed that title to User-Centered Designer, people realized that we were generalists who could do both user research and UX design.

So the lesson is: don’t get too caught up in job titles, but be sure that your job title accurately describes what you do and doesn’t convey any negative connotations that limit your opportunities.

Where Do You Want to Work?

Unfortunately, user research positions aren’t as common as positions in other occupations, and they aren’t located everywhere. Unlike teachers, doctors, accountants, or lawyers, you can’t decide where you want to live first, then find a user research job there. As a user researcher, you often have to go where the work is, which may mean considering jobs anywhere in the country—or the world.

When you consider a job offer, it’s a good idea to think ahead to the next job. When you eventually leave the job you’re considering, will there be other jobs in the area, or will you have to move again? The more ties you create in life—marriage, kids, home ownership, furniture—the harder it becomes to move. So take advantage of the mobility you have when you’re young.

How Do You Break into the Field?

“You need to have experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience. With so many degree programs churning out UX professionals, there’s a lot of competition….”

User research is not immune to the old catch-22 that you need to have experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience. With so many degree programs churning out UX professionals, there’s a lot of competition, and many companies require a degree and at least a few years of experience. Here are some ways you can try to break into the field or make a career change.

Go Back to School

Since user experience is a relatively new field, in the past, most people transitioned into user experience from a related field. Some of the best researchers bring experience from a wide variety of fields. So you don’t necessarily need a degree, but a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Human Factors, Human-Computer Interaction, Design, Psychology, Anthropology, or a related field certainly helps.

A PhD is impressive if you’re seeking a management position, want to work as a consultant, or want to stay in academia. However, having a PhD without any actual work experience can actually work against you, giving people the impression that you may be too academic in your approach and lack practical business experience.

Another advantage of earning a degree is the connections you make in school. Spending a few years surrounded by people with similar interests gives you a great network to tap for potential work in the future.

Get Certified

Professional certification is another option in many fields. Unfortunately, there is no official certification program for usability professionals. Private companies like Human Factors International offer their own certification programs for a fee, but the value of these private certifications is debatable and opinions about them vary from one company culture to another. If a company where you want to work values these certifications, if you feel you’ll learn from the courses, or if your company is willing pay for them, it’s worth getting certified. Otherwise, a degree is definitely more valuable.

Do an Internship

“As in many other fields, internships in user research are a great way to get your foot in the door and gain experience, but you have to make the most of the opportunity.”

As in many other fields, internships in user research are a great way to get your foot in the door and gain experience, but you have to make the most of the opportunity. An internship is what you make it. If you treat an internship as a temporary, menial position, that’s what it will be. Of course, you may start out doing low-level work. But if you demonstrate that you are dependable, competent, hard working, and eager to take on new responsibilities, it’s likely that somebody at the company where you’re doing your internship will give you more meaningful work. Eventually, you may find that you’re doing the same things an entry-level employee would do. Interns who have already proven that they have what it takes to do a job often get hired for staff positions at the same company.

Reshape Your Current Job

If you’re having difficulty finding a new job without user research experience, try to incorporate user research into your current job. For example, if you’re already a Web designer, begin doing user research or usability testing in addition to your design work. This might require putting in some extra hours, but eventually you’ll be able to change your current job to the job you want.

Do You Need a Portfolio?

“As a user researcher, you don’t really need a portfolio—at least not the same type of portfolio a designer needs.”

No, as a user researcher, you don’t really need a portfolio—at least not the same type of portfolio a designer needs. A design portfolio is easy to view and evaluate quickly during an interview, but user research deliverables aren’t as easy to evaluate quickly, because they mostly involve writing.

A potential employer wants to know about your user research, analytical, and writing skills. So a researcher should have writing samples from each part of the research process: planning, analysis, reports, and presentations. But don’t expect prospective employers to spend much time reading them. The fact that you have work samples, that they look professional, and that whatever short segment an interviewer actually reads seems well written is often enough to get by.

Unless you get permission to show your work, be sure to scrub your work samples of all references to clients and any sensitive information. If you don’t do this, prospective employers may wonder whether you would protect their sensitive information.

Cultivate Your Online Presence

You may have heard the saying “Google is your resume.” Despite the official version of your resume and the work samples that you present to potential employers, the digital trail you’ve left over the past few years may provide a more accurate picture of who you really are. Publications, presentations, and involvement in industry organizations are impressive. Your activity on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+ shows your connection to others in the industry, gives prospective employers insights into your thoughts, and shows how well you keep up with developments in the field. So it’s a good idea to monitor and cultivate your online presence to ensure that the search results that appear when potential employers google you is impressive rather than embarrassing.

What Do You Do Once You Have a Job?

Once you’ve found your first job and overcome your career’s initial hurdles, there are some things you should do throughout your career to ensure you achieve greater success.

Establish a Good Reputation for Yourself

“Build yourself a reputation for working hard, paying attention to details, being thorough, being dependable, meeting deadlines, being flexible and reasonable, being friendly, and delivering high-quality work.”

To advance in your profession, be the person who other people want to work with. Build yourself a reputation for working hard, paying attention to details, being thorough, being dependable, meeting deadlines, being flexible and reasonable, being friendly, and delivering high-quality work.

Keep Learning

Keep up with the latest developments in user research and user experience through books, articles, blogs, journals, and networking with others in the field. Connect with people on LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, and other social networks. Join associations like UPA, CHI, IxDA, and their local chapters. Attend conferences and local events. Keep your mind open to new ideas and techniques and ways in which others do things differently from you. Apply what you learn to your work to keep your skills sharp and avoid boredom.

Contribute to the Field

Contribute to the field by publishing articles, presenting at conferences, teaching, and volunteering with professional organizations. These are all great ways to make yourself known in the field and network with others.

Keep an Eye Out for the Next Opportunity

Once you have a job, you may be relieved that your job hunt is over, but it’s a good idea to continue to keep an eye out for your next opportunity. Most job opportunities present themselves through your connections with others. So maintain good connections to the people you work with and the people you meet at industry events.

Conclusion

Getting started in user research can be difficult, but there’s a lot of opportunity out there, especially for experienced UX professionals. As more and more companies begin to understand the importance of user experience, the opportunities will only grow. Once you get your foot in the door, you should have a fascinating career ahead of you. Good luck!

5 Comments

Fantastic, honest, and all-encompassing article! Best one I have read yet on UXmatters.

Kudos, Jim, as always! The portfolio issue is a great one to keep us talking about. Also the potential risk of further distancing research and design planning and strategy from design—something I’m seeing lots of in consulting with companies big and small—loss of translation in even the best-built bridges between UX-R and UX, IA, and HF.

Re: “No, as a user researcher, you don’t really need a portfolio—at least not the same type of portfolio a designer needs.” I would like to add that, while your portfolio artifacts may be different, you should still build a portfolio!! Companies are looking for them. Even graduate students have completed projects or studies in which they have practiced / developed their skills. Having a portfolio is expected now, so start building it as soon as you begin your education. Pull from those projects how you accomplished the interaction design and evaluations by including how you defined personas based on your interviews, sketched wireframes of what you were going to build, and your evaluation documents such as statements of intent and questionnaires. You may not realize how much you already have that you can include, but you do! Think to yourself, “How can I explain what I’ve done to my Grandma?” to showcase what you can do at a high level and organize your artifacts so you can show more when your interviewer would like a deeper dive. You may find yourself pulling out your laptop in the end, but your high-level portfolio grabbed their interest in the first place.

Hey Jim—Great article. Very thorough and accurate. I enjoyed your discussion of your experience with that “boring bank”! Thanks for mentioning HFI, too.

If you’re ever in NYC, let’s hook up and catch up.

Jeff

Thanks, this helped me see both that I am more accomplished than I give myself credit for and that I have, by chance, gotten a lot of this right. The portfolio is something in particular that I have struggled with. Very helpful article!

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