Updating My Career Advice for User Researchers

Practical Usability

Moving toward a more usable world

A column by Jim Ross
November 7, 2022

There are many articles online offering advice about how to get into UX research. Eleven years ago, when I was in my eleventh year as a UX researcher, I wrote just such an article as part of my UXmatters column Practical Usability, “Career Advice for User Researchers.” But what about advice for people who are already deep into their UX research career? Now that I’m in my twenty-second year in UX research, it’s time to give you an update and provide career advice for established UX researchers.

Determine Where You Want Your Career to Go Next

If you’re already a well-established UX researcher, congratulations! As for most people, your initial focus was on getting your first job in the field of UX research. Then you had to get used to your new role and make sure that you did well on your first few projects. Finally, after you’d gotten a few years of experience in industry, you had established yourself as a UX researcher.

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So, at this point, you might be asking yourself, What’s next? Where is your career heading? At first, when your entire focus was on just breaking into the field and gaining experience, this might have felt like a strange question. But, at some point, you might need to think about whether you want to stay in UX research roles or move into related roles. Let’s look at some possible roles that you might want to consider.

Principal UX Researcher

Some people enjoy conducting UX research and want to keep doing it for the rest of their career. It’s what they do best, it’s what they enjoy, and they’ve become experts at UX research. However, you don’t want UX research to become a dead end for you. So, if you want to continue focusing on UX research, work for a company that has positions for very advanced researchers, such as a Principal UX Researcher role. While people in this role usually continue to spend most of their time conducting research, they’re also responsible for pioneering new research methods within their organization, helping with sales and strategy, mentoring more junior researchers, and publishing and presenting on UX research topics.

UX Management

Another career path you could consider would be going into management, either of a UX Research team or a UX team comprising both researchers and designers. Such a role would keep you involved in User Experience and UX research at a high level, but you probably wouldn’t have time to conduct UX research anymore. Consider whether you would miss having direct involvement in research. For a management role, you also need to be good at and enjoy managing people and leading a team. If you’re not interested in management, avoid working for companies whose only path for career advancement would be to become a manager.

UX Strategy or Sales

Another option would be to use your UX expertise to go into a related field such as UX strategy or the selling of UX services at an agency. You could use your deep knowledge of User Experience to plan research and design at a more strategic level or make a complete change and sell UX services. Often, the best people to sell UX services are those who know the most about them.

Avoid Getting Stuck in a Rut

Once you’ve become established as a UX researcher, it’s all too easy to get lulled into the same, comfortable routines, working for a company that has well-established processes, research methods, and deliverables. Once you get used to these routines, you might begin to see them as the only way to conduct UX research.

Plus, it’s easy to get so busy with your own work that you don’t take the time to look outside your company at what others in the field are doing. You might even begin to think that you’ve learned everything there is to know about UX research. If you find yourself thinking there is nothing new to learn, you’ve gotten yourself stuck in a rut.

Attending UX Events

A great way to break out of a rut is to attend conferences and local UX events to learn what other UX researchers are doing. It’s always interesting to see how other researchers are solving similar problems, using techniques that you hadn’t yet considered. Learning about new methods breaks you out of your preconceived mindset about how UX research should be done and inspires you to try new techniques and methods in your own work. Plus, meeting new people who are just as enthusiastic about UX research as you are can be inspiring and reinvigorate your interest in UX research.

Of course, after a long day at work, it can be hard to get motivated to attend local UX events, whether in person or online. Plus, it can be intimidating for introverts to attend such events alone. Try to get a colleague from work to go with you. If you go with another person, you’ll be more motivated to attend and feel less nervous about it. But, if you don’t have anyone else to go with you and you’re feeling nervous, remember that many others in attendance are in the same situation as you. They might not know anyone else there either. Consider going to the event slightly late, toward the end of the networking session. That way you could still do a little networking if you’d like to, or you could just attend the presentations.

Keeping Up with the Latest Trends in User Experience

Try to keep up with the latest trends, thoughts, and methods in UX research and design. Set aside time to read new UX books and articles and listen to podcasts. If you’re very busy at work, this can be more easily said than done. Sometimes, the last thing you want to do after spending most of the week doing UX research is reading about UX research. That’s why I recommend listening to podcasts while you’re doing something else such as driving, exercising, or walking the dog.

Pursuing Other Interests

Spending all your time working in User Experience, attending UX events, reading about User Experience, and listening to UX podcasts can lead to UX overload. You’ll need to get away from your professional focus at some point, so be sure to spend time pursuing other interests and hobbies that have nothing to do with User Experience.

Keeping Up with Your Connections

User Experience is still a relatively small field, so you’ll probably run into the same people at local events, online, and at conferences. Be sure to stay connected with your contacts, especially those with whom you’ve enjoyed working. Over time, you’ll discover that you know former fellow students, coworkers, and clients at many different companies, giving you an inside advantage in getting a new job. For example, over the years, I’ve kept in touch with my former manager who hired me for my first UX job in 2000. He was a great manager and we enjoyed working together. Then, in 2019, I provided an employee referral to him, for a UX research job at my current company, so now we’re working together again as colleagues.

Contributing to the Field of User Experience

As you gain more experience, you might want to contribute more to the field of UX research. This can provide good exposure for your company and yourself. It also looks good on your resume and is another way to meet people and make new contacts. There are several ways to contribute to the field, as follows:

  • publishing UX articles—It’s easier than ever to publish your articles online, either through UX magazines or your own Medium account.
  • presenting at UX conferences—Although this can seem intimidating, it’s well worth the effort.
  • teaching—Many UX professionals get side jobs teaching classes at local colleges or universities.
  • mentoring—Providing mentoring and helping more junior UX researchers to advance in the field—whether those in your own company or people you meet at professional events—can be very rewarding.
  • volunteering—Organizations such as UX Rescue connect UX professionals with organizations who are in need of UX research and design, but can’t afford to pay for it.

Cultivating Your Online Presence

Maintain a professional online presence, and be very careful about what you post on social media. Limit your posts to purely professional, very neutral topics. When people search for your name and UX, you want your experiences as a UX professional to come up—as well as your profile, publications, and presentations. Assume that coworkers, employers, and clients will see everything you post online. Therefore, it’s much better to err on the side of being boring rather than risk getting involved in a controversy.

Managing Your Anxiety

One of the great advantages of having many years of experience in a field such as User Experience is the wisdom that you acquire through conducting job hunts, working for a variety of companies, working on many different projects with many different people, and enduring the difficult times you’ve experienced. I’ve learned a few valuable lessons from all my experiences in UX research.

Don’t Worry If You Suffer from Impostor Syndrome

Impostor syndrome, doubting your abilities and feeling as if you’re a fraud who is just waiting to be exposed, is a very common feeling among UX researchers and designers. I still feel that way occasionally myself. However, it’s helpful to remember that these are natural feelings and you’re not alone in having them. Plus, you’ve probably felt this way before, and you’ve still achieved success. So, when you feel this way, keep things in perspective, remember your successes, and use your fear as a motivation to be extra well prepared.

Don’t Freak Out About Change

Early in my career, I used to worry too much about company changes and the possibility that negative consequences might result from them. Some such changes included my getting a new manager, company reorganizations, merging with another company, the introduction of a new performance-management process, and employee layoffs.

While some of these turned out to be serious issues, most of the time I wasted my time and energy worrying about things that never came to pass. Either the change didn’t really happen, didn’t lead to the bad consequences I imagined, got replaced by something else, or wasn’t really a big deal after all. So don’t waste your time worrying about what might happen. Instead, deal with what actually does happen.

Although Getting Laid Off Is Scary, You Can Get Back on Your Feet

In my UX career, I’ve been laid off twice by companies that went out of business or departments that went away. Yes, it was very scary, but luckily, in both instances, I was able to get a new job rather quickly and continued my career. The worst part of getting laid off is fear of the unknown and anxiety that you might never get a job in your field again. Such fears can be crippling and make it difficult to focus on your job search. While it’s not realistic for me to tell you not to be afraid in such a situation, try to remember that it’s very likely you’ll get through it and get a new job soon.

Preparing for Your Next Job

At some point, you’ll either want or need to look for a new job. It’s definitely easier to move to a new UX research job once you have a few years of experience and when you’re already employed in the field than when you were first trying to break into the profession.

Knowing When It’s Time to Move On

Most people find the job-search process difficult, time consuming, and unpleasant. It often seems easier to stay in your current job—until things finally get bad enough to motivate you to begin an active job search. If you have a great job that you enjoy, there’s nothing wrong with staying. However, you should not let inertia keep you in a job long after it ceases being fulfilling. If you see alarming signs such as layoffs or a lack of projects for you to work on, it’s definitely time to kick your job search into high gear. Don’t make the mistake of waiting to look for a new job until things have become intolerable or you’ve already lost your job. When you find yourself in such a difficult position, you won’t have the luxury of making the best career move.

Keeping Your Materials Ready

It’s easier to begin looking for a new job if you’ve already prepared yourself to do so. To ensure that you’re ready to apply for any new opportunities that you learn about, do the following:

  • Update your resume with your current position.
  • Keep your LinkedIn profile up to date with your current position and any additional publications or presentations.
  • Periodically update your portfolio with your latest projects.

Keeping an Eye Out for Opportunities

When you are ready to look for a new job, keep an eye out for good opportunities. Sign up for job-search email notifications and apply to all of the especially good positions. Think about the companies you’d like to work for, and find out whether they’re actively hiring or would consider hiring new employees at any time. Look on LinkedIn to see who you know at those companies. Regardless of whether they’re hiring, let your contacts know that you’re interested in working with them, and ask whether they can give you an employee referral.

Updating Your Portfolio

While having a portfolio isn’t as important for UX researchers as for UX designers, having a portfolio can’t hurt. In my earlier column, “Career Advice for User Researchers,” I said UX researchers don’t need a portfolio. Some people disagreed with that, but I’ve never had an employer look at my portfolio. Often, prospective employers just want to see some work samples, which are usually documents that you can email to them. However, some UX research job postings ask that you submit a portfolio as part of the hiring process. So it’s probably a good idea to create one.

The most difficult part of creating a portfolio is that most companies won’t allow you to include the work you’ve done for them in your portfolio. So, instead of including actual projects, provide generic descriptions of your projects. You can still discuss the general business problem and research objectives, your research process, and your findings and recommendations. Include scrubbed deliverables that leave out company names, design details, and other sensitive project details. However, if you don’t have a portfolio ready, some companies accept such scrubbed deliverables by email to get a sense of your research and writing skills.

Creating a Portfolio You Can Take Offline

Unless you’re a freelancer or contractor who is often looking for a new job, create a portfolio that you can take offline whenever you don’t need it. For example, a Web site consists of HTML and CSS files that you can take offline and keep on your computer when you’re not actively looking for work, then publish online whenever you want your portfolio to be available. The benefit of this approach is that you pay for Web hosting only when you need it, but can still keep your Web site updated when you’re not looking for a job.

Be careful about using a service such as Squarespace for your portfolio, because it exists only online, and you have no ability to take it offline without losing everything. I’ve used Squarespace to create a portfolio in the past and using their templates made it very easy to create a nice portfolio. However, because there’s no way to download your site to maintain it offline, your only choices are to either keep paying over $100 a year to keep it online or to take it down, then have to rebuild the site whenever you want to put your portfolio back online.

Doing Work That You Find Meaningful

When you’re looking for your first job in UX research, you don’t have as much choice about where you want to work. Most novice UX researchers feel lucky to get in wherever they can. But, as you gain more experience, you’ll have more choice about where you work. Use that power to choose work that you’ll find meaningful and fulfilling. For some people, that might mean getting more challenging work, working in a different field, working on new technologies, or doing work that benefits the world. Career advancement and making more money provide fulfillment only to a certain degree. At some point, you might want to use your talents to help make the world a better place.

So, when you’re feeling harried and burnt out after a long day conducting research sessions, it’s helpful to remember that UX research really can make the world a better place. Even if you’re working on a project that doesn’t seem particularly significant, you’re helping to make user experiences easier, more useful, and more satisfying for people. So remember the good that you’re doing. And good luck in your future career pursuits! 

Principal UX Researcher at AnswerLab

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Jim RossJim has spent most of the 21st Century researching and designing intuitive and satisfying user experiences. As a UX consultant, he has worked on Web sites, mobile apps, intranets, Web applications, software, and business applications for financial, pharmaceutical, medical, entertainment, retail, technology, and government clients. He has a Masters of Science degree in Human-Computer Interaction from DePaul University.  Read More

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