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The Practical, No Nonsense Guide to Starting a Career in User Research

There is no "right" path for becoming a user researcher. We walk through tips for accumulating the skills you need to get started in UX with a flexible budget and schedule.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Allison Corr

When she isn't busy supporting clients as a freelance UX researcher or teaching a series of UX LinkedIn courses, Amanda Stockwell is often asked questions regarding career and professional development within the industry.

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Amanda to unpack her perspective on everything from career paths and skill-sets to bootcamps, tools, and cover letters.

dscout: You’re well-versed in a lot of things related to career and professional development in UX. Say you're someone hoping to break into this space, what are some things you’d recommend learning or experiencing as you’re getting started in this field?

Amanda: For better or worse, UX is one of those professions where there is no one path that will guarantee you a foot in the door. That can be tough because it's hard to navigate, but it also means that there are a lot of ways in–you just have to be a little craftier about it.

I think something that is really common right now is that there’s a disconnect between the many people who want to get started in UX research and a lot of companies who are looking to hire mid to senior level people. But what organizations mean when they say they want somebody with “three to five years of experience”, is really that they want someone who doesn't need a lot of hand-holding to get the basic components of the job done.

If you can do that with a year of experience or five years of related professional experience and a little bit of training, that's great. That's mostly what they mean. I always try to tell people to look for transferable skills and you almost certainly have them from something you've already been doing. For instance, people who are in customer support have an awesome groundwork for listening to people, staying calm under pressure, and navigating tough conversations. You can almost always find something that you’ve done that’s applicable.

When you’re considering a career shift, start by finding the kinds of roles that you want to do. Then, match the things that you already know how to do that are applicable and talk about those when you present yourself. UX roles involve a host of broad—but important—skills like message framing, audience analysis, on-time work completion, and organization. These are skills learned from a bevy of non-UX roles, from success and sales to retail and marketing.

We put a lot of pressure into documents like a cover letter, resume, and portfolio. What advice do you have for constructing these documents to better position yourself for getting an interview?

Let me firstly say that I fully recognize UX career titles make no sense. I have been a UX designer, a usability project manager, and a user researcher. In each of those roles I did the same exact things. If you’re looking at a job post and the title doesn't make a lot of sense, focus on the tasks underneath. I know people say this all the time, but if you only have 60% of what the job description says, go ahead and apply, because most job descriptions suck.

Your resume and portfolio are important because they are essentially a product that you’ve built and the person you are building it for is whoever's going to hire you. Keep in mind that your “user” is likely a super busy recruiter who may not be extremely familiar with UX, but has been told they need to hire five of them in the next three weeks. Much like you craft a website or an application to your user base, you craft your resume and portfolio for a human who is trying to fill a need on a team.

If for instance, a recruiter was hiring for a UX research role and the first dozen or so resumes had a lot of references to visual design, interaction design, and UX work, but not a single reference to speaking to people, they would likely get discarded as candidates. You may be a great designer, but if they’re looking for a researcher and the first five bullet points on your resume talk about design work and don't mention research, they’re going to assume that research is not your focus and they’re going to pass. Hiring managers and recruiters are very likely seeing dozens, if not hundreds, of resumes. You need to make sure the first part of your resume speaks specifically to the role.

It is also important to note that your resume is not just documentation of everything that you've ever done. You don't have to put everything you've done if you don't want to do those things anymore. Prioritize the things from past roles that do represent what you want to do. Your resume should be a story about yourself, the things that you can do, and the things that you want to do.

I think especially in research, people have a really hard time figuring out what to prioritize and how to build out their portfolio. You may not have beautiful visuals, but you have a screener that you could probably take a screenshot of or an example of how you've laid out a report. You can tell the story of the whole project and identify what the project was, where you got involved, and the problem you were trying to solve. Then, explain the methodology you used to solve it. Present some screenshots of the screener, the moderation guide, and whatever else you have available to explain your experience.

In interviews, be very clear on what you did and how it impacted the team. For example, I never say that I designed this product. I’ll say: Here's the first iteration of this product or feature that was built, here are the recommendations I made, and here's what it looked like afterwards. As a researcher, you are not responsible for pushing pixels, but you do have an impact on them.

The thing is, no one actually cares that you ran a usability test if they don't know what the outcome was. It's the same idea with your resume. You're not just trying to document everything you've done. You're trying to tell a story about how your work impacted the team and how it was meaningful. Did you find a usability problem that was costing the company thousands of dollars every day? Write that sh*t down! Tell people about it!

Your resume is not just documentation of everything that you've ever done. You don't have to put everything you've done if you don't want to do those things anymore. Prioritize the things from past roles that do represent what you want to do.

Amanda Stockwell

That’s great advice. Could you describe other ways that folks can get real-world experience?

You have to look for places where you can practice your skills and offer them up, without waiting to be invited to do so. Say you volunteer at a local animal shelter; you could offer to run some usability tests and partner with whoever designed and built it to make changes. Then you can have tangible experience with real-world context, even if it’s not a paid project. Perhaps you found a problem that's preventing people from donating and suggested a change. You can then make an estimate about a real world impact. In your research you found that 20% of the people you tested weren't able to find the donation button and the site visitors last month were a thousand people. If that 20% of people had donated the average donation of $50, you can do the math and justify the impact.

Real-world experience shows that you understand that research doesn't exist in a vacuum. It does not matter what you do unless you do something with that information. It shows that you understand how to integrate research actions with actual business impact and you can say, “Here's the change that I recommended; they're in the middle of implementing it now.” You don't even necessarily have to have KPIs that have been reported on for a year. You just have to show that you understand the impact outside of just writing a "Usability Test Moderator's Guide" with ten questions and these tasks. That's not what people care about, they care about the overall impact.

The other thing is that a huge part of the UX researcher job is collaborating with other people. We are often the bearers of bad news. We are often the people telling others that their design didn’t work the way they wanted it to. But I would way rather work with a researcher who told me a great story about how they found things horribly wrong with everything they ever researched–but their team loved them, than to work with someone who is perfectly, immaculately, academically rigorous–but everyone they’ve ever worked with has deemed to be difficult. You have to be good at collaborating with people, convincing them of things, and telling stories about data and connecting with others.

To reverse the situation, any advice on writing UX research job descriptions or creating apprenticeship programs?

Be as specific as possible; if you actually have a really targeted job description and somebody reads it and thinks, "They very clearly want an interaction designer who has worked in the financial industry. That's not even 60% me," they probably won't apply. On the other hand, if you say that you want everything under the sun, you're going to get people from all across the board. Try to do a good job telling people what you're looking for so that they know what they're actually qualified for.

When it comes to looking for apprentices or junior colleagues, I personally struggle with this because there are times when it would be great to hire an intern to help out and get experience. But I do have to consider that it is going to take some time to integrate somebody else into my process and teach them. That doesn't mean it isn't worth it, I've done it and try to find opportunities to do it, but it does mean that you need to be prepared for that when looking for a junior researcher.

If you’re in a larger organization, you are more likely to have an infrastructure to support apprenticeships and junior-level employees as you're more likely to have people with bandwidth to train them. Hiring a junior person is awesome when you have a senior person to partner them with. It is really uncool to hire a junior person and then leave them on their own, ultimately to be upset with them when they do something wrong–that's not their fault.

I am all for apprenticeships, but do it with open knowledge that you're going to have to spend time training them. You're going to have to help them figure things out. Give them room to mess up sometimes, but also give them guidance and someone to talk to–make sure that there's time for that. Don't just hire a junior person because it's cheaper and then be aggravated when they can’t do the same work that a senior person could because that's not how it works.

Are there any resources that you've found that offer skills/exposure that would make for an attractive candidate or help someone figure out what they'd like to do?

From the perspective of someone who has reviewed hundreds of resumés, I don't care if you have any kind of certification note from a teacher or a check plus sticker from bootcamp–what I care about is experience. However, if you are someone who doesn't have a lot of experience, what is interesting to me as a hiring person is someone who clearly shows that they are trying to learn more.

If you are taking classes through LinkedIn, Skillshare, or any other group–you’re showing that you’re actively exploring and trying to learn. I understand that learning looks different to everyone. Some aren’t comfortable with in-person courses or may not have the resources to pay for bootcamp.

Bootcamps can give you a great overview, but I worry that people think that they're going to spend $20,000 and then magically get a $100,000+ paying job. I am cautious about that because there are some bootcamps that are really great. But from my experience, they're very inconsistent. If you're brand new, you're not going to know which bootcamps are the best ones. How would you know?

Bootcamps do get praise because they teach you a little bit about everything. I would argue that if you don't really know where to start with UX, you may want to consider cheaper options as you’re getting introduced. For example, Skillshare and LinkedIn Learning are super affordable. If you have a library card, the Lynda Library is also a free resource for many.

From a certification standpoint, no one that I know cares. If you have relevant experience or have shown that you're trying to learn and can identify situations where you’ve had impact, certification isn’t important. No one that I have asked has said anything along the lines of, "Yes, you definitely need certification."

When it comes to UX research, again, I care more about you putting some of that stuff into practice in a real-life context than I care about you having read about it or even discussed it in a class. Keep in mind that I'm not anti-certifications; I teach on LinkedIn and do a lot of trainings. Certifications and classes aren’t bad, but they’re not the only step. They’re a good starting point to help you move into the next applicable piece.

What are your thoughts on networking in the UX space, especially in today's remote-first setting?

A majority of people in the UX space are really willing to help, we are empathic people; many of us have put time and energy into writing or sharing our thoughts for free. But it is common for people to reach out with large requests. Oftentimes, it feels like they didn't do any of their own homework. Last week for example, I literally got a LinkedIn message that said, "Hi, you seem like you have a good job. Can you teach me about human factors?" That doesn’t motivate me to help them if they couldn’t take the time to do a little research on their own first.

If you want help from someone, or if you want somebody's perspective on something, take the initiative to spend five minutes Googling them to see what they've already written or see what their specialty is. Then, you can ask them a specific question that makes it clear that you've put a little bit of work into asking them for help, because I have almost always said yes in those cases.

When you’re looking for a job, be mindful of who you’re reaching out to and what you’re asking them. Avoid asking questions that are answered directly in the job description. Just like you craft the experience on a mobile app or website, you want to craft the experience of hiring you. If the experience of interacting with you is that you don't read things and don't spend any time looking things up, that's not a positive experience.

On the flip side, if you pay super close attention to your user when you're creating an interface for them, you can put yourself in a positive light. All of those micro interactions where you clearly did your homework to find out who the hiring manager or researcher is and already read things that they published or watched their conference video, then it makes sense if you have a specific question to ask them. Not simply, “I want this job, what can you do for me?”

What are your thoughts on in-house vs. agency vs. freelance experience?

I typically suggest in-house for people who are new because they tend to have the largest teams. In-house organizations are more likely to have both senior and junior positions, so you have the opportunity to get in the door and collaborate with experienced researchers.

In-house organizations often have internal budgets that have less constraints than an agency or freelancing budget would have. Oftentimes, there is also typically more room to test things out. Whereas, if you get hired at an agency or as a freelancer, they’re not hiring you to try things–they're hiring you to get stuff done. In-house, you're also much more likely to have the buffer of having a team and some exploration time.

If you're a freelancer or at an agency, you are typically hired to do a specific thing. There are agencies where that thing is exploratory research, but in order to hire an agency or a consultant, a company has to come up with a specific budget that has to get approved. They have to have something tangible at the end, so the expectations are different.

Another thing to keep in mind is that in-house at a startup is different from in-house at a large corporation. Startups can sometimes feel like agencies and are their own special brand of nutty. I would say that if you are interested in wearing a lot of different hats, in-house at a startup might be a good idea. Frankly, I recommend that somebody be a little more experienced before going to a startup, because in that setting you’re constantly figuring out so many things that it’s helpful to have at least one thing that you're super confident in.

Keep in mind that an agency environment does not work for everybody. Some people get really overwhelmed or don't like to multitask or switch contexts all the time. If you're the kind of person who wants to really get to know a product line or user base and work with them for years and years, in-house at an enterprise is probably your best bet. Agencies come in many different flavors, but typically you're hired by another organization who has a specific need.

Working at an agency, there’s oftentimes one project that you're fully dedicated to for a short period of time. Then, you switch and you may or may not have any interaction with that project ever again. Now that’s not true for every single agency, some function more as external in-house teams, but in a lot of cases you’ll work on a project for three months and then never see any of those people again.

For some people, that is an ideal situation because they have a tendency to get bored and agencies provide the ability to constantly learn new contexts. For others, it's really overwhelming and stressful because the pressure in an agency role is typically higher. The organization has hired you to get the job done and do it right and they probably need to prove that it was worth the investment to hire you. There's not usually a lot of room to experiment or explore or learn new things because you're there to execute.

Consulting or freelancing is the 100X version of an agency. If you're a freelancer, the tasks for an agency-type role are still applicable in addition to the fact that you are probably on your own and doing more than one project at a time. Whereas at an agency, you likely have a project manager and at least one other person from your organization who you can partner with.

As a freelancer there are all kinds of different UX roles, but in addition to your research you have to do your own project management, time management, billing, and more. All of the additional stuff that comes with running your own business.

Some people love that, but I'd never recommend freelancing for people who are new. The expectations for freelancers are high because nobody hires a freelancer to learn, they hire a freelancer to do the task(s).

I would recommend that for your first job or two, try working at a place that has other team members and you’re not solo. It'll give you an opportunity to ask questions, collaborate, learn from peers, and see how other people do stuff. It'll help you figure out how to navigate moving forward. I can't tell you the number of people who I've talked to that have said, "Well, I've been the only UX person at my org for a while and I have no idea if I'm doing any of this right. When I go apply for another job, I don't know what I'm doing."

I'm like, “Fair! How would you know? You're the only one.”

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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