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The Key to Avoiding Career Stagnancy in a User Research Role

Don't get stuck in your career—get uncomfortable and grow. 

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Danbee Kim

When it comes to my career, I know more or less where I would like to be in a few years—but sometimes I get stuck.

For instance, I recently took the plunge into a managerial role, moving away as an individual contributor. I also took on many more responsibilities with managing stakeholders and projects. This shift came with taking a (huge) step back from the day-to-day organizational work as a user researcher.

One of my favorite aspects of my job was conducting user research, especially generative studies. You name the type of research, and I was first in line to conduct it. There was nothing more fulfilling to me than sitting across from a participant and diving into their mind. The intricacies of how people thought through concepts and ideas, how they interfaced with a prototype and rationalized certain decisions fascinated me.

Since moving into management, I rarely do research anymore. In the last seven months, I have led about five interviews at most. From someone who used to run about five a week, that's a huge drop. Now I spend my time with my direct reports, talking to senior stakeholders, and brainstorming how to improve our team's structure and user research practice.

Why did I give up my favorite part of my job? Simple: to challenge myself and push myself to the next level.

And to do that, you need to let go of what you love and what feels uncomfortable.

Get uncomfortable

If you want to become a better user researcher, you will need to get out of your comfort zone. The things you most love doing are usually the skills you are best at. I loved conducting user research because I am really great at it. I could get a gold star for my moderation skills and leave (almost) each session with a smile on my face. I would get a lot of "kudos" and praise from people watching my sessions. Running research sessions was my comfy place and became my security blanket.

Instead of continuing to level up skills you are already good at, it is time to look at the areas you don't like. Why? These are generally areas you are less confident in and skills you can improve upon. It may feel uncomfortable to leap into the unknown or the uncomfortable, but that is how you advance in your career.

For example, I don't always love stakeholder meetings and negotiating with stakeholders. I'm not the best at stakeholder management because my personality tends to lean toward the "people pleaser" side. I hate saying no, and I believe I am burdening others through delegation. I used to overpromise and underdeliver because of my nature, which just made stakeholders angry and disappointed.

If I don't enjoy stakeholder management, why did I pivot my role, so that was my day-to-day? I could have easily stayed in the role of an individual contributor and awesome user researcher, but I knew that wouldn't get me anywhere. If I wanted to learn how business decisions were made, how research strategy was constructed, and how to push research forward in the best way, I couldn't simply continue moderating research sessions. By changing my role, I put myself in the middle of all the things I wanted to learn.

It was scary and unnerving, but here I am. I'm still alive and employed. If I can do it, you can do it. You can get uncomfortable and continue your journey to becoming a better and more holistic user researcher.

Keep in mind that you might hate and be fully proficient in some parts of the job, and you don't need to focus on that. I'm not too fond of recruitment and try to stay away from a lot of recruiting. However, I am skilled in this area, so I avoid recruitment mainly because I don't like it and (now) have the luxury of a team who helps with that. You also don't have to relinquish everything you love about your job to improve!

How to start advancing your career

If I've convinced you to take on your next challenge, there are a few steps to take to advance your career. I go through this exercise each year to assess where I am, where I want to go, and brainstorm ways to get there.

  1. Figure out what level you are. Before doing anything, you need to determine what level you currently are. This will ground you in your present reality and help you determine what your next steps will be. Without knowing where you are, you can't figure out where you are going next.
  2. List the skills you currently have. Once you know your current level and where you stand, you can audit your skills. What are you good at, and how confident are you in the skill? This will give you a holistic overview of the areas you are comfortable in and the different skills you can develop to get to the next level in your career. In this step, you can also write down the skills you wish you had and want to develop.
  3. Find what motivates you. Before skipping right to action items and next steps, it is important to first reflect on what is important to you and what motivates you. Why is this step so important? Figuring out what is important to you, what you love, and what makes you uncomfortable can be a great guide on what you should focus on next. As mentioned, things you love are generally what you feel more comfortable with, while areas you feel uncomfortable about are opportunity areas!
  4. Figure out where you want to be in 1-2 years. This about where you want to be in 1-2 years and how you want to develop. You don't have to know exactly what you want to do or what role you want to be in but think about the work you want to be doing and the impact you want to have as a user researcher. Also, brainstorming immediate challenges you are facing in achieving these goals.
  5. Figure out what skills gaps you have between where you are and where you want to be. Think through the strengths and improvement areas you have at your current level and where you are today. Once you are done with that, think back to where you want to be in 1-2 years, and list your current strengths that play to that area, and then the areas you need to improve to get to that next level. It's a good sign if there is an overlap!
  6. Decide on next steps. Create action items on how you will achieve the goals you set for yourself! List out 2-3 of your main goals, and then, for each goal, list 3 action points of how you will achieve that goal! Bonus points for including a concrete timeline!

Want some help putting this together? Check out my template that leads you through the different steps!

By doing this at least once a year, you are helping yourself grow and develop. Before I started this process, I often felt fumbling and stumbling, figuring out what my next steps were and how I could get better. I longed to improve, but I wasn't sure how to put that desire into action.

This exercise helps me understand where I am and guides me to where I want to go next. It gives me a concrete action plan that allows me to spend energy on important learnings instead of spending my brain power on where to go next.

Embrace failing

Before I leave you to grow and develop, I want to make one critical note: it is okay to fail in this process.

As I mentioned, the areas you will be trying to improve in can be uncomfortable and scary. You don't yet have mastery over these skills, and that is okay. No one is (or should be) expecting you to know exactly how to do things you are learning. You will stumble and occasionally get things wrong as you face these opportunity areas, but that is how you grow stronger. We all start somewhere.

I can't tell you the number of times my heart had been beating faster than when I joined a stakeholder meeting knowing I have bad news or knowing it will be a difficult meeting. Managing expectations is tough and disappointing people can be upsetting. There are still days when I struggle with how to communicate with and manage my stakeholders properly.

Sometimes I want to run away; sometimes, I dream about the simplicity of just going back to running research. But I know I am learning and improving with each meeting and experience. Because I put myself out there, I will be a better user researcher.

You can put yourself out there too, and, together, we can fail, learn, iterate, and improve.

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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