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Create Personal Development Plan: A 4-Step Process for Growing as a Researcher

Advancing in your career can be as confusing as it is rewarding. To help clarify your next move, try replicating this action plan.

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Allison Corr

As researchers, we are still in a niche field. Some people in our area are pioneering where we go next. What happens after you are a senior researcher? Where do individual contributors go from a senior level? What happens after you are a Director of User Research? At some point, you wonder, where should I be going next? Since we are in a newer field, these paths aren't straightforward. Getting into user research can feel like a mysterious journey, and so can developing your user research career.

In my first role as a user researcher, I didn't have a user research lead or manager. I did some Googling and came up with areas I knew I needed help with, but often, I wasn't sure where to go next. That feeling stayed with me throughout several roles and was quite scary. When it would come down to performance evaluations or development goals, I would feel lost. What skills did I need to know for the next step? What did I need to improve?

At one point, a manager gave me tools that I still use today to guide my development and those of my direct reports. This process helps me understand where I want to be, where I want to go, and how to write an actionable plan to move my development goals forward.

Step 1: Get clear about your current situation

Before diving into writing development goals, you have to acknowledge where you currently sit. The best way to move forward is by knowing where you are now. Here are a series of questions for you to ask yourself to assess your current situation:

  1. What part of your current role do you enjoy the most? Why?
  2. What part of your current role are you struggling with? Why?
  3. How would you describe success in your current role?
  4. What did you enjoy most about your previous work experience (within this role)? Why?
    1. This question may not apply to everyone, so feel free to skip this if you are in your first user research role.
  5. What have you enjoyed least about your previous work experience (within this role)? Why?
    1. This question may not apply to everyone, so feel free to skip this if you are in your first user research role.
  6. What did you excel most in your previous roles?
    1. This question may not apply to everyone, so feel free to skip this if you are in your first user research role.
  7. What keeps you in your current position? At your current organization?
  8. What are your strengths?
  9. What are your weaknesses?

After answering these questions, I recommend looking at this checklist to understand your current skills and opportunities for you to learn. This checklist will help calibrate your general level and identify the most relevant skills for the next steps.

Step 2: Understand your future

Once you understand where you are and what you are working with, it is time to look into your future. This section is about the skills you want to learn and what you want to be doing. Just because you are a mid-level going to senior doesn't mean you must coach and mentor others or democratize.

Think about what you love to do, which will help guide you toward a role and organization that best fits you. I have had people in research roles learn that they wanted to go into service design instead! When looking toward the future, answer these questions:

  1. Describe the perfect role for you; what would it look like?
    1. Why would you like that so much?
  2. What are some hard skills you want to learn? Why is it important to know them?
  3. What are some soft skills to learn? Why do you want to know them?
  4. In the next six months, what are some opportunities you have to practice these skills?
    1. If you can't think of any, consider picking different skills or thinking about practicing these outside your current role.
  5. What are some personal goals you have (outside of your role)? How do these impact your current position?
  6. What challenges do you want to face?

Take your time on this section because it is crucial to understand how you want to progress to write effective goals. If you are looking at the checklist of skills and are uninspired while answering these questions, it may be beneficial to look at user research adjacent careers. I have seen it happen many times, and it is okay for you to find out this is not the ideal role for you!

Step 3: Write your goals

This section is where it comes together, and you bring all of the answers together into some goals. I highly recommend only focus on one or two significant goals every six months. This timeline will give you space to truly practice and make progress on large goals.

Before you write down your goals, take some time to read back on step one and two, and focus mainly on:

  1. The checklist. What skills are you "missing," and what skills do you have to fulfill your current level or get to the next level?
  2. What you are struggling with/weaknesses. Often, you tend to excel at things you're good at, so it is essential to look at where you are struggling and why. These areas are great opportunities for improvement and growth.
  3. Describing your perfect role. When you describe the ideal position for yourself, are there specific skills you need to get to this point? If you are a qualitative researcher dreaming of becoming more of a mixed-methods researcher, what skills do you need to accomplish? By looking at your perfect role, you can determine what you need to get there.
  4. What skills you want to learn. If there are a set of skills you can identify, this is an easy way to create a goal. If you know that you need to practice usability testing metrics as a skill, that is a reasonable goal to set!
  5. What challenges you want to face. By understanding the challenges you want to face, you will know which situations to put yourself in. If you want to become a better storyteller during presentations, you have to put yourself in front of an audience quite a few times. If these challenges are realistic within the scope of your job, they are a great place to look for goals.

Once you review the above, you can ask yourself this question:

What do you want to focus on in the next six months?

Again, only focus on one or two goals every six months. They should be large enough that you need about six months to complete them. If you find yourself achieving your goals quickly, look to create larger goals.

Once you ask yourself what you want to focus on, write the goal you want to achieve, and then use the steps below to put it into action. When I write goals, I use the user story format:

As a researcher, I want to be able to ______, so that I can _______.

Two examples:

As a qualitative researcher, I want to be able to incorporate metrics into usability testing (ex: time on task, task success) so that I can better establish usability metrics and use more quantitative data when reporting.

As a qualitative researcher, I want to be able to use more storytelling in my presentations so that I can impact stakeholders more, and they will listen to and act on my insights.

Step 4: Create an action plan

Now that you have one or two goals, the most critical part is to put that into action by filling out an action plan. This plan allows you to break a large goal into smaller pieces and track your progress over time. An action plan consists of:

  • Tasks: These are incremental steps to get you toward your larger goal. A task is something that you can do to start working toward that goal. Each goal should have as many tasks associated as needed - as long as it can be tackled within a six month time frame.
  • Due date: The date (or date range) the task is due.
  • Blockers: If there is something that can get in the way of doing the task, record that here.
  • Outcome: What is the result of the task? What will you be able to do after you finish the task?
  • Steps: What are some key milestones you can include to measure progress?
  • Time investment: Approximately how much time will it take you to do the task? You can record this in hours or days, depending on how difficult or time-consuming the task is.

An example:

Action plan

As a qualitative researcher, I want to be able to incorporate metrics into usability testing (ex: time on task, task success) so that I can better establish usability metrics and use more quantitative data when reporting.

Tasks

Dependencies

Due

Outcome

Measurable steps

How much time will this take?

Understand the different metrics for usability testing

Need to find reliable resources

June 1st

Be able to explain usability metrics to others

1. Find resources for metrics

2. Dedicate time to reading about metrics

3. Explain metrics to a colleague/manager

5 hours

Write a practice usability test script with metrics

Getting feedback on the script

June 15th

Be able to write a usability test script with metrics

1. Find a previous usability test script that I could have used metrics in

2. Write down practice metrics

3. Do this for three tests

4. Get feedback

10 hours

Practice several dry runs of usability script with metrics

Need dry run participants

July 1st

Feel more comfortable conducting usability tests with metrics

1. Find dry run participants

2. Record the session

3. Run the session

5 hours

Assess own sessions and get feedback on usability testing sessions

Feedback from others

July 20th

Be able to assess my own tests and get feedback from others

1. Listen to recordings and assess my own interviews

2. Ask others to assess my interviews

3. Get feedback from others

4. Review and highlight improvements

5. Run more tests, if needed

10 hours

Learn how to report on usability tests with metrics

Need to find reliable resources

August 15th

Be able to report on usability tests with metrics

1. Find resources

2. Create templates

3. Get feedback on templates

10 hours

Learn about sample size

Need to find reliable resources

September 1st

Be able to confidently talk through sample sizes

1. Find resources

2. Practice sample size exercises

3. Explain to a colleague or manager

5 hours

Conduct several usability tests with metrics on participants

A study that needs usability testing metrics

September 15th

Feel comfortable doing usability tests with metrics

1. Find a study that needs usability testing metrics

2. Write the script and get feedback

3. Run the study

4. Get feedback on the study

25 hours

Create usability testing report and get feedback

A completed usability study

October 1st

Be able to report on usability testing with metrics

1. Create the usability testing report

2. Get feedback on the report

10 hours

Present the report

A completed usability study

October 15th

Confidently report on usability testing metrics to stakeholders

1. Set up meeting with stakeholders

2. Create presentation

3. Get feedback on presentation

4. Present to stakeholders

5. Get feedback from stakeholders

15 hours

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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