I remember my first few job interviews for user research. I wasn't sure what to talk about or how to present my work. I bumbled through a process that I didn't feel super confident with, skipped straight to deliverables (wireframes, oh my!), and didn't ask many meaningful questions at the end. Luckily, I had plenty of practice to get better and asked many people what in the world to do during a research interview.
Now, after countless hours preparing for and being in interviews, I am super comfortable when looking for a new job. I look forward to job interviews because I find them a fun conversation to learn more about myself and others.
It took a long time, but I am finally on the other side of the job interview process as a hiring manager, and it is a fascinating and fulfilling job. I love getting to know candidates and learning about what kind of research others are doing and how they succeed in the space.
As hiring managers, I see many questions about interviews and what we, as hiring managers, expect from user research candidates.
What to expect and do at each stage
Not all interviews are the same, and not all companies go through the same interview steps. However, there is a standard process to be prepared for when it comes to full-time employment roles. Companies may combine some of these steps into one call, and some might be in a different order.
As a hiring manager, here are the most common interview steps:
- HR/recruitment call (30-45 minutes). This step is a very standard get-to-know-you call. In this call, recruiters are looking to understand your general level, skills, and competence for the role. They may ask you to explain more about your resume or talk briefly through a challenging situation. You will also probably talk through the skills you have and what type of research projects you have been working on.
- 1:1 deep-dive interview (60-90 minutes). During the deep-dive interview, you will be presenting one to three case studies to either one person or multiple people. During this time, you will explain the projects you worked on in the past and answer any questions your audience has.
- Panel interview (60 minutes). During this interview, you are presenting (usually the same) case studies to a broader audience. Sometimes the team members may be from different teams, such as product managers, designers, or developers. This step is to assess how you communicate to a larger group and give colleagues from other teams the chance to ask you questions.
- Whiteboard challenge (45-60 minutes). This step might be part of the panel interview in the sense that you will have a few interview steps lined up on one day. Companies use the whiteboard challenge to assess how you respond to a problem - either having to do with that company or completely random. This challenge can be live or take-home. If the challenge is live, you will complete the problem during the call and then present it to a group (usually researchers). If the challenge is a take-home, you will have a few days to prepare your presentation and present it to a group.
- 1:1 interview with another team member or manager (30-60 minutes). If you didn't have the chance to interview with members from other teams, you might have a separate interview in which you talk through a project. Otherwise, you might have an individual call with your manager. This call is mostly about culture fit to ensure you would work well in the company environment. They might ask you about how you deal with difficult situations, how you are used to being supported, how you handle stress, and how you collaborate with others. You might also get the question about why you want to work there, be in that particular role, and how that role may challenge you.
- Final HR/recruitment call (30 minutes). This step can come in a few different ways, such as a general wrap-up to see how everything went, an offer, or a rejection call. I have seen this done a few ways, but usually, the person who first contacted you will ask how things went and will talk through whatever next steps, such as finalizing salary, start date, and contract signing, if you are going to receive an offer. If you don't get the job, the person might call you, but I see most rejections happen over email now.
Here is what we expect during each step:
- HR/recruitment call. During this call, explain the different projects you have been working on at a high level. You can mention you do both generative and evaluative research, work collaboratively, and your role in most of your projects (ex: are you leading them, working with other researchers, in an agency set-up?). Have specific examples to explain these points. For example, if you mention that you recently did a generative project, talk about the method you used and its impact. Keep in mind specific examples of difficult situations or your favorite research projects and why.
- 1:1 deep-dive interview. The most important piece of advice I can give for the deep-dive is to explain your process. Go step-by-step through what you did and why you did it that way. In this step, we want to see how you approached a problem and why you approached it in that way so we can project how you might address a problem at our organization. We want to understand if your process aligns with the strategy we are currently using and if you think through all the different steps in a project thoughtfully. I highly recommend presenting at least two case studies - one for generative research and another for evaluative research. Take a look at my case study outline template to make sure you're hitting all the points.
- Panel interview. The same rule applies from above; it is essential to explain your process and why you approached the problem in that way. This step is also great for talking through how you've collaborated with other teams, such as product managers and designers. You can ask ahead who you will be speaking to and their roles to be best prepared. Again, the most important concept to convey is how you think through a problem and communicating that process effectively.
- Whiteboard challenge (live or take-home). Again, we assess how you approach a problem but, this time, one that you haven't had much time to think about. Like the deep-dive presentations, we want to understand your process, especially when you don't have a lot of information. It is okay to ask questions or to mention that you don't have enough knowledge and make assumptions. For example, you can make an assumption about which people to recruit for the study, but make sure you can justify why you made that assumption. For an in-depth guide on how to tackle whiteboard challenges, check out this article.
- 1:1 interview with another team member or manager. My best piece of advice for this call is to be yourself and to answer truthfully. If you end up not being a fit for the company, that doesn't mean anything wrong with you, but it could save you and that company a lot of time and stress. Be honest when answering the questions. This call is also the perfect time to ask many questions you haven't had time to ask, especially specialized questions if you're speaking to your manager. Have a list of questions ready to assess if this opportunity is good for you!
- Final HR/recruitment call. During this call, you can negotiate your salary, vacation days, start date, and all those other technical details if you haven't already. If you struggle with negotiation for compensation, check out the book Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. If you get a rejection call, always ask for feedback and then move past it.
One final piece of advice during the interview process is to write a quick thank you note to your interviewers. The thank-you can be in the form of a short email that says you appreciate their time and enjoyed your conversation. If you don't have your interviewers' email addresses, ping the HR person or recruiter.
Why did you get turned down?
There are a multitude of reasons a company may have turned you down. Some of these reasons may be legitimate, such as your experience not being a good fit for the role, not displaying the necessary soft or technical skills, or the job/role closed due to budget or the company finding another candidate.
There are also unfair reasons why a company might pass, such as not understanding what they want, their culture being too picky, or other team members not understanding your role's scope. If any of these reasons are the case, trust me, you don't want to be working there anyway.
Regardless of the company, don't take it personally. It is 100 times better to be rejected from a bad fit than to work at a company where you would not be successful.
What to do if you don't get the job (and you really wanted it)
If a great company turned you down, there are three steps to take:
- Ask for feedback. Always ask for feedback after your interviews (even if you got the job). You might not receive an answer, but you could get valuable information to help you the next time if you do.
- Keep practicing. Keep your head up and continue applying and practicing your interview skills. Again, don't take rejections too personally. Instead, use them as a learning opportunity to continuously improve.
- Reapply later. If you still want to work at that company a year or so down the road, and you believe you have gathered more necessary experience, reapply! I love seeing repeat applicants, especially those who took feedback and grew in the time in between.
Overall, the entire job application process can be arduous and stressful. However, if you use it as a learning opportunity to understand what you need to work on and bolster your skills, you can use it to improve immensely. Always remember: explain what your process is and why!
Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs.
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