I'm the type of person who hates to love doubt. I always question what I am currently doing with my life. The majority of days, I love being a user researcher, but some days it isn't so black and white.
I sometimes dream about abandoning work to go back to school or to drop everything so I can seriously focus on my fiction novels. Sometimes I want to be a teacher, and some days I wish I had pursued my interest in joining the FBI.
After a while, I took stock of my current career. I had been in the field for about seven years and had been a solo researcher who built up practices at several companies. I was used to coming in to create a foundation in which user research could thrive and grow. I had been an individual contributor for my entire user research lifetime. It was time for a change.
And, especially recently, I haven't been the only one with these thoughts on my mind. One of the top five questions I get asked is, "How do I level up? What are my next steps?"
Planning the next one, three, or five years of your career is never easy, but knowing what your current level is, and where you want to go with your user research career helps you make sure you are in the best role for growth.
User Research Career Levels
First, let's start with some definitions of the different user research career levels. These definitions and titles may not be all-encompassing, and the years of experience can vary.
I have seen people in roles with much less or more experience than is generally "recommended." I believe an employee's skillsets and level of maturity are far more critical in determining a career level than the number of years someone has been in the field.
- Research coordinator: Supports the product team throughout the research life cycle, including scheduling, recruiting efforts, participant communication, streamlining research operations, and team communications.
- Junior user researcher: Embedded in a team to carry out user research activities. They have some practical experience but need regular guidance and training to produce their best work and develop their skills. They generally work in combination with a more senior user researcher.
- Mid-level user researcher: Embedded in a team and responsible for planning and carrying out user research activities. They can work independently in a group without too much guidance.
- Senior user researcher: Able to plan and lead user research activities in larger teams and on more complex services. They build user-centered practices in new teams and align user research activities with broader plans to inform service propositions. They may supervise and develop other user researchers to assure and improve research practice.
- Lead user researcher: Leading and aligning user research activities across several teams. They ensure that teams take a user-centered, evidence-based approach to service design and delivery. They develop and assure good user research practices.
- Head of user research: Leads user researchers in an organization and attracts and builds talent. They are an expert practitioner who can define and assure best practice, influence organizational strategy, and priorities, and collaborate with colleagues.
I have measured these levels against the following areas of impact a researcher could have on a company level:
- Operational: Deals with the day-to-day function of user research
- Organizational: Handles how the company understands and ingests user research
- Strategic: Aids the company in making strategic decisions based on user research
If you believe you are one level, but the skills aren't matching up, don't get discouraged. We all have different journeys. Consider your past experiences, roles, and responsibilities. For example, when I was starting, I was a UX Research intern but was expected to operate as a more junior/mid-level. With this, I was able to gather different skills and experiences that pushed me almost straight from Intern to mid-level. It is essential to consider this.
How to Level Up
Here are steps to take when you are looking to level up in your career:
- Audit your skills. Start by listing out all of your abilities and level of confidence in these skills ("low, medium, high" works well). List the skills you would like to learn next, that you find essential for moving to the next level
- Understand the skills in the different levels. Look through the skills in the level you think you are, and then the levels directly below/above. Stalk people on LinkedIn at your level, and the surrounding levels. See what their experience and skill sets are, and then compare that to mine. Network and talk to researchers at all levels. Doing this will give you a more concrete idea of what each of these skills means in the context of day-to-day work. For example, maybe you have medium confidence in reporting. Talking to others can give you new ideas on how to enhance and improve your reporting skills.
- Choose your skills. Based on the above steps, find three skills necessary to get you to the next level that you can hone. I recommend choosing two from the core skills list and one from the soft skills list. By focusing on three skills at a time, you can deepen your knowledge in those areas and not feel overwhelmed in improving too much at once.
- Learn! There are a few different ways I learn new skills. Generally, I go through the process of reading articles, books, and case studies on the new skill. I like to see or hear about how others have implemented the ability. Once I do this, I practice. Through practice is how you learn. You can read all the books in the world, but doing is learning. Try some aspects of what you are learning at work. If you are unable to try them in your organization, consider a side project, volunteering, or joining a hackathon to practice.
- Test yourself on the skills. Make sure you decide how you know you are making progress with the skills you chose. I base this on how well I could teach someone else the new skill. Do I feel confident explaining and teaching others what I am learning? Once I can answer yes, I know I have progressed. Once I run several workshops, and people truly understand the concept, my confidence in the skill is much higher.
- Always look for feedback. Ask colleagues, mentors, friends, and bosses for input on how you are doing. I share with people what I am looking to improve and then ask how I am doing. By getting this outside perspective, you can balance out how you are feeling. Many of us experience imposter syndrome, which might make it challenging to assess ourselves accurately. Get others to help you out in this.
One more resource
Another resource I tell people to check out and use is the Research Skills Framework. This framework is much more detailed than my chart and allows you to grade yourself against 47 skills of a user researcher. I highly recommend checking it out. I fill it out and reassess myself with it every six months.
What am I leveling up?
- Leadership skills. Recently, I have decided to walk away from the individual contributor role and into a management position. The biggest question I asked myself when deciding on the switch was: "do I want to help others develop the skills I have, or do I want to continue to hone my skills as a research practitioner?" To level up in this area, I have been reading different books on management and asking previous managers for their most prominent pieces of advice. The next step for me is to get some reports and begin practicing the techniques I've been reading.
- Jobs to be Done. I had previously read a lot about JBTD and practiced this way of thinking at several companies. My confidence level in this area was a "medium." Since then, I have read Jim Kalbach's new book on JTBD, and have started brainstorming how to use JTBD at a strategic and organizational level.
- Business knowledge. As I move into a managerial role, business knowledge becomes more relevant. It isn't only about the user anymore. It is about the people I manage and how we all positively impact the business. I am trying to understand business terms better and how user research can affect KPIs and OKRs.
- Quantitative data. I specialize in qualitative user research. I moved away from the quantitative side of research after my MA program. However, I want to improve my ability to work with quantitative researchers and analysts. I don't want to become a quantitative user researcher (or even a mixed-methods one), but I want to understand better how to engage with others in the space. I just bought Sam Ladner's book on Mixed Methods.
- Burnout. Outside of the core and soft skills, I have other areas I need to work on. My biggest weakness and concern at the moment is burnout. I frequently work into the night and on weekends to keep up (it's a Saturday as I write this). As difficult as it is, I am trying to be better at saying no to overcommitting myself. I am also disconnecting on the weekends much more than before.
I recommend doing this at least twice a year, as it will give you a better understanding of where you are and where you can go in the future. Assessing your level and goals is a great practice to do for yourself, and if you are looking to go towards the managerial track, it is fantastic practice for your future reports!
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.