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How to Hire First-Time UX Researchers at Your Startup

Don't overlook talent in a different field. Here's how to screen for applicable skills for a candidate breaking into the industry.

Words by Cori Widen, Visuals by Austin Smoldt-Saenz

When you're hiring a new UX research team member at your company, sometimes it's tempting to overlook less experienced candidates who haven't yet worked in your field.

But doing so may mean missing out on some great future team members.

Based on my own rewarding journey to UX research—and the fact that a diversity of backgrounds breeds better research—I’m very open to hiring someone from another field when looking for a new researcher to join my team at Lightricks.

Since first-time researchers don’t have proven experience from a startup environment like ours, I created a list of three abilities to screen for when interviewing people looking to pivot into the field. The idea was that this list reflects some of what it’ll take to be successful. The list could also easily apply to professionals coming from a variety of backgrounds.

If you’re looking for your first UXR role in tech, you’ll likely find some variation in terms of what each company is looking for. This list touches on issues that are likely to be important no matter what.

Action-oriented research mindset

Researchers in general tend to be intensely curious people. Researchers in a tech environment are no exception: we have to be curious about how people think and behave in order to support product development and other initiatives at our companies.

But as UXRs, the key to impact is to relentlessly pursue research questions that inspire both short-term and long-term action to further the company’s business goals. When I look at a potential research project, if I can’t imagine concrete action items coming from our findings, I don’t pursue it.

I’ve found that candidates who are pivoting from other fields tend to emphasize their curiosity as one of their main selling points. But as a hiring manager, I primarily view curiosity as a basic starting point when I’m thinking about a candidate’s suitability for the role.

Cori Widen
UXR Team Lead, Lightrix

When I interview a UXR candidate who is in love with the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, I need to verify that they’ll also be capable of pursuing knowledge for the sake of giving concrete recommendations.

These recommendations impact product development and relate directly to KPIs, even when it means that the research methodology and timelines are different from what they’re used to in academia, for example.

One candidate who I interviewed had research experience as an academic and showed her ability to connect her curiosity to real-life action—even though that wasn’t the original intention of her research. She went through case studies from her research about promoting resilience in at-risk youth, and then had a slide for each study that detailed recommended action items for relevant professionals based on her findings.

In this case, the expectation of the university was to contribute to a body of knowledge that could influence how programs for at-risk youth work in the long-term. However, she also showed that she could also take research findings and turn them into impactful recommendations in the short-term.

Ability to build strategic relationships with stakeholders and solve problems collaboratively

So much of what UXRs think about, talk about, and do involves working collaboratively with stakeholders. These stakeholders have a lot on their plates, not to mention their own preconceived notions about research and how to use it (or not).

After controlling for hard research skills, the ability to work effectively with a variety of stakeholders in an action-oriented way is arguably the biggest determinant of success for a wide variety of UXR roles. When I was hiring, this was certainly true for my team.

Experienced researchers generally come to the hiring process prepared to give examples of how they worked effectively with stakeholders in their previous roles. But this can be more of a challenge for first-time researchers.

During the interview process, I asked a variety of questions about how candidates approached work with stakeholders in their previous jobs. I was primarily screening for:


✔ Do their examples show an ability to understand, internalize, and respond to the needs of the stakeholder?

This is important. As a research team, we can’t have an impact if our research initiatives don’t meet the needs of our stakeholders.

Collaborative problem solving

✔ Can they provide examples of how they worked alongside colleagues to solve problems or disagreements together?

Great research comes partially from the ability to work with stakeholders in a way that resembles teamwork rather than consultancy.

Setting boundaries

✔ Are they able to provide examples of when they had to insist on something for the sake of quality—or another factor that was important to them at the time?

Were they able to use education or other productive methodology for getting a colleague on board (or to enforce limits in an otherwise productive way)? Even when empathy and collaborative problem solving work well, UXRs have to maintain certain methodological standards.

Sometimes we have to say no to things like, “Can we do fewer interviews so we can be done by the end of the week?” Not only that, but we have to be able to do it in a way that still preserves the relationships we’ve worked hard to build.

I found that many candidates from a variety of fields could provide examples of working with colleagues that showed the above skills. When pivoting to UXR, I recommend thinking ahead of time about instances where you exhibited the skills above while working with colleagues and stakeholders.

Even if an interviewer doesn't ask you for these examples specifically, find a way to work one or two of them in when it’s relevant. Doing so can go a long way in presenting yourself as a candidate who has high potential to work successfully with stakeholders.

Ability to admit what you don’t know—and have a growth mindset

Beginning a new role will always require you to learn new skills and processes. But it’s safe to say that the knowledge gaps are usually wider when you’re coming from a different professional background.

I knew in advance that first-time researchers would be missing skills, and that we’d need to create effective onboarding and great learning experiences for whomever we hired.

But efficient and effective learning can only work if the trainee:

  • Believes that they have something to learn
  • Is comfortable vocalizing their need for help and advice as it comes up
  • Uses constructive feedback as fuel for success

I screened for all of the above when interviewing. For example, the candidate that I ultimately hired didn’t know the answer to a research question that I’d asked. After thinking about it for a minute, she said that she wasn’t sure.

I (correctly, in retrospect) took her ability to admit that she didn’t have an answer in a job interview as a sign that she had the necessary humility and self-awareness to learn and grow as a first-time researcher.

Another candidate showed his ability to respond to constructive feedback. He told me about a time when his manager really tore apart a report that he’d written and worked really hard on. The candidate described a process where he not only made the necessary amendments to the report, but also wrote a few key reminders on post-it notes. He then put them on his desk so that he could continually remind himself of his key learnings from that experience.

I reasoned that a person who sees tough critique as a growth opportunity would be able to achieve mastery much faster than someone who resists it.

Hiring first-time researchers has been a rewarding experience for me as a manager. I can see very clearly how our different backgrounds all add something unique and important to the work that we do.

So much of what makes UXRs successful are transferable skills that can be uncovered in the hiring process. A little bit of planning ahead—and some deep thought about the best way to illustrate those abilities—can go a long way in securing your first role.

Cori Widen leads the UX Research team at Lightricks. She had worked in the tech industry for 10 years in various product marketing roles before honing in on her passion for understanding the user and transitioning to research. Outside work, Cori is busy reading books of all kinds, hanging out with her husband and two kids, and traveling.

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