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Finding Your UX Niche: How to Define Your Research Role and Philosophy

The UX field is changing, and we’re changing with it. Take a second to check in on your career direction—and to find a research specialty that inspires you and inspires growth. 

User research has changed.

Before: companies often hired a sole UX generalist. Job descriptions looked “one-size-fits-all.” Now, the amount of specialities, niche qualifications, expected prior experience, and methodological know-how a position calls for can be hyper-specific—and occasionally confusing.

That’s especially the case for the large swath of us who get into user research through a non-traditional path. I started my career wanting to be a psychologist. I ended up (happily) as a UXR. Although psychology and user research play well together, I certainly didn’t receive any product or tech training in school. And eventually in my career, I hit a roadblock.

Every “next-step” job had varying degrees of needs and responsibilities. Some of these roles felt more general—broadly requiring UX design skills. Others honed in with a shorter list of high-level skill sets. Either way, I knew I needed to make some decisions moving forward—to better define what I wanted to do.

Here are some considerations I’ve developed for those looking to find a specialty they love.

Generalist versus specialist

Working as a UX generalist

Oftentimes, your first major decision comes down to deciding if you want to be a “UX generalist” or a specialist in the growing field. Personally, I wasn’t interested in UX design—so specializing on user research was a natural choice.

When companies look to hire UX generalists, they most commonly refer to as someone confident in both UX design and UX research. Generalists are usually responsible for:

  • User research
  • Interaction design
  • User experience design
  • Information architecture
  • Usability testing
  • Visual design (sometimes)
  • Front-end development (sometimes)

Being a jack-of-all-trades can be a definite advantage for gaining a vast breadth of experience, as you encounter many different areas of a project—which opens up a wider pool of career opportunities. The amount of variety a generalist encounters day-to-day is much more than that of a specialist. People who have gone this route successfully are usually “jugglers” who enjoy the ability to use multiple skill sets.

However, being a generalist can have some downsides. Although you can be involved in many different aspects of a project, you may have to solicit a specialist’s advice when you have a more advanced methodology or scenario to work through. And there’s a possibility that you might get pulled in many directions—doing “fill-in-the-gap” work, rather than owning specific areas or projects.

Choosing to specialize in user research

Sometimes, like in my case, specialization may be a better fit with your particular background. My psychology background led me to be primarily interested in the research and discovery aspects of UX and design.

As someone who specializes in user research, I’ve gained so much knowledge and depth of experience within my specific field. This has armed me with the skills to work on projects that interest me the most, and has also led to me finding opportunities in other areas—such as writing and teaching.

On the other hand, there are many times I wish I could design, or even code. And as a specialist, it can feel like my impact is limited to my area of focus. Naturally, my day-to-day can get a bit repetitive, but ultimately, there is nothing else I would rather be doing.

That being said, it is crucial to consider the pros and cons of being a generalist versus a specialist. Do you enjoy designing and researching (and even coding)? Would you prefer to seed your input throughout a project, or hone in on one stage of a project? Are you in love with a particular focus area, and want to learn more about that specialty?

That being said, it is crucial to consider the pros and cons of being a generalist versus a specialist. Do you enjoy designing and researching (and even coding)? Would you prefer to seed your input throughout a project, or hone in on one stage of a project? Are you in love with a particular focus area, and want to learn more about that specialty?

— Nikki Anderson

Types of user researchers

If you decide you want to specialize, the next big categorical decision you’ll make is: qualitative versus quantitative user research.

To be clear, this isn’t an “either/or” choice. I strongly believe in the marriage between qualitative and quantitative research. However, there comes a time where you decide to build upon your skill set by mastering particular methodologies.

Most user research job opportunities seek out specialists who are “80-90%” qual or quant, with 10%-20% reliance on the other. Decide what type of research you’ll want to be doing on a day-to-day basis. Do you want to work more closely with numbers or with words?

Quantitative: working with numbers

Intuitively, quantitative user researchers are much more focused on analyzing data, rather than sitting in user research interviews. This doesn’t mean they will never sit through a research session, but their primary priority is numbers-focused. They seek to gain insights into the intent of people’s product usage through patterns in the data they collect. It’s less about predicting what users will do next (which moves into the realm of data science), and more about better understanding the factors underlying a user’s experience or actions. Quantitative researchers will also spend time measuring the quality of a product’s experience using surveys or behavioral data. Mainly, they look at data patterns and bring together common trends in numbers to help answer questions or propose new research ideas.

Qualitative: working with words

On the other side, qualitative user researchers are focused on the words users are saying during interviews. They will bring together the patterns of what they hear across a discussion on the product, with the primary goal of understanding user behavior and motivation. Qualitative researchers are focused on answering the why behind user actions and decision-making processes. This helps teams answer questions about how to improve the current experience and what can be built next.

Ideally, you possess a majority of skills in one area but are still able to operate in the other. Although I have a background in statistics and data, I’ve been won over by the power of qualitative insights. For me, the thrill of talking directly with a user and entirely concentrating on what they are saying is the heart of research. And helping teams work through problems with those research insights has been the most fulfilling part of my career.

As we progress through our careers, we shape our own understanding of user research processes and develop patterns to how we approach problems. We spend a lot of time piecing together different knowledge sources, but have we taken time to define our own process?

— Nikki Anderson

Your user research philosophy: audit your role and purpose

Finally, once you have an idea of what type of UX-er and researcher you would like to be, a great exercise is questioning and exploring your beliefs of how you operate in that given field.

This helps you develop your philosophy of user research—the foundation and principles that guide you through decision-making at work. It helps you understand and articulate what you interpret are the best approaches to user research, and reminds you of why you are a user researcher. This also may very well help you define what specialty you want to take on within the field.

As researchers, we naturally do a lot of reading and learning. We try to understand the best techniques for the given situations, discuss different methods, and list best practices for every aspect of the research process. Bottom line: we ingest a lot of information. What do we do with that information? We put it into our practice to see if it works.

As we progress through our careers, we shape our own understanding of user research processes and develop patterns to how we approach problems. We spend a lot of time piecing together different knowledge sources, but have we taken time to define our own process?

Questions to help define your philosophy of user research:

  1. How do I think? Is my set of beliefs based on past experience, personal ideals, surrounding knowledge, schooling, classical ideas, etc?
  2. What is the purpose or value of user research?
  3. What is my role as a user researcher? What am I trying to achieve?
  4. How should I evangelize and share user research? Do I transmit information to teams or take a facilitator approach?
  5. What is the role of the company in user research? How can each department respond or help me with conducting, analyzing, and sharing user research?
  6. What are my goals as a user researcher, both inside and outside of a company? How do I contribute to the user research community?
  7. Why am I a user researcher?

The act of formally sitting down and answering these questions was immensely helpful for me. I was able to better understand where my own thoughts, perceptions, and biases come from, as well as additional ways to approach problems outside of my own.

Aside from user research processes, it also helped me remember why I became a user researcher and all the things I love about this profession. I felt confident that I was, in fact, on the right path in my career. Reflecting on how I want to practice user research was an invaluable exercise that helped me reinforce my choices and allowed others to better understand who I am as a user researcher. Hopefully, it’ll be just as affirming and insightful for you.

Nikki Anderson

Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.

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