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From Academia to UX: Understanding User Research Lingo

While research is a key proponent of both areas, how it’s conducted and communicated differs widely. Here’s what you need to know to succeed in the space.

Words by Janelle Ward, Visuals by Thumy Phan

The UX research profession is filled with talented individuals from eclectic backgrounds. While some hail from other parts of tech–product management, design, or engineering, others move from research-based industry roles, like market research.

There are also folks who come from that strange land of academia, where they earned master’s degrees, PhDs, or spend significant time in an academic career before making the transition.

I’m one of those academic oddballs. I spent 15 years as an academic researcher, first obtaining my Ph.D. and then working for ten years as an Assistant Professor before making the move to UX research.

Like other academics contemplating a career change, starting over from scratch was a demoralizing thought. The vast majority of us (soon to be) ex-academics love being researchers, but for whatever reason, don’t feel satisfied with the academic research environment.

What initially attracted me to UX research was simple: although it took place in a very different context, it was still a profession centered around research. It also appeared, throughout my early investigations, that a great deal of my research expertise gleaned in academia could transfer.

There are many commonalities between academic and UX research. Most crucially, all researchers possess a researcher’s mindset, one that questions everything, lives comfortably in a grey area, and champions empathy. UX and academic research practices also align especially when it comes to crafting a research design.

These parallels are all fine and grand, and crucial to articulate when reflecting on what your academic background contributes to a UX research career. But, learning the lingo is also up there on the list and it goes beyond knowing the correct words to use in a given professional situation.

Understanding UX terminology also represents a crucial part of the professional culture shock that academic researchers will go through when they transition.

Case in point, here are three statements I never made as an academic researcher that are now daily utterances in UX research-land.

1. “It's on the roadmap”

Planning is a must-have in the tech world. Leadership needs to identify the most pressing needs for the company and plan strategically how to get there. UX research should be aligned with these broader needs, and create a complementary roadmap of their own, with a focus on research projects.

In the academic world, there is planning, of course. Every summer we got our teaching schedules for the upcoming year, and we planned our research time around that. Research time mainly consisted of grant applications, research projects to conduct, and research to write up and submit.

The key difference in planning style is that in academia, the vast majority of my research activities were based on my judgment of what I should be focusing on. It was my decision to apply for one grant over another or to divide the insights from a particular project into articles in several journals.

My colleagues were extremely helpful as peers—they advised on what to expect from certain applications, or had insights into the particularities of a journal’s editorial board. But I didn’t need to compromise on the focus, or, other than taking into account application deadlines, how quickly I needed to accomplish something. That was my call, based on my expertise.

Now, when I sit in meetings with cross-functional stakeholders, my ideal version of how research should go is only one factor to consider as I also need to keep in mind the broader goals of the company.

My research isn’t happening for the sake of knowledge in the field, it’s happening to help my stakeholders make insights-driven decisions. What’s our goal? What’s the strategy to reach our goal? What steps will we need to take to reach it, and what milestones will we identify along the way to know we are progressing successfully?

Once those questions are answered, I can use my research expertise to plan my team’s work for the quarter. Then, when someone asks when we’ll be prioritizing their pet project, I can say, “It’s on the roadmap.”

2. “Let's iterate on this”

Iteration did not exist in the academic world. Peer review of journal articles is a form of iteration, where you submit a manuscript, then get an R&R (Revise and Resubmit) and modify your paper to fit the wording and references your reviewers demand.

But once that article is published, that’s it: There’s no going back. It’s out there in the world, forever fixed in the form in which it was published. I rarely dared to read my articles once they were in print, knowing there would be something I’d want to change, but couldn’t.

Coming from an academic environment, my perfectionist tendencies were at first shocked then soothed by the concept of iteration. Iteration comes from UX design and essentially means that we take what we’ve learned from testing a prototype, modify the design, then rinse and repeat until we arrive at a design that meets our users’ needs in the best possible way.

We shouldn’t try to get it right the first time. In fact, we are expected not to get it right. Some ideas won't work, and that doesn’t mean failure—it just means that you understand the problem better. It’s just like that proverb, If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again!

“Let’s iterate on this” is an encouraging way to let people know they’ve taken a step forward, but things can be improved. It’s like saying “let’s do a retro” i.e. let’s look for ways to continuously advance our work.

This concept works beyond design and usability testing and has been a breath of fresh air when engaging in research activities, from finding the optimal way to kick off a research project with stakeholders to experimenting with modes of collaboration with our design counterparts.

3. “What are the actionable insights?”

In academia, a research project consists broadly of the following stages:

  1. Come up with a compelling question.
  2. Craft a research design and conduct the research.
  3. Analyze the data and write it up.
  4. Finally, we send it off to a reputable journal in our field.

From there it is blind peer-reviewed (if we are lucky revisions are minimal) and then the article is published. With that, we have officially contributed to our field and we can add an all-important line to our publication record.

If a lot of people reference our article after it’s published, fantastic. We build up our expertise by publishing multiple articles on the same topic, which increases our chances of obtaining the elusive academic research grant. “What are the actionable insights?” The “action” associated with our research is, in essence, the publication.

In UX research, the process is not so straightforward. From the outside, there is no clear indication of what will be valuable—that is, actionable—for your particular stakeholders at this particular company in this particular moment.

If you have advanced degrees that required developing expertise in empirical research, you are a pro at crafting a research design and conducting flawless research. It’s an art, isn’t it? Being able to justify your choices to other experts, and get their seal of approval.

But in UX research, none of that matters if you don’t connect the insights from your research to the needs of your stakeholders. This is the greatest and most important difference between academic research and UX: research insights only count if they contribute to decision-making and eventually, mindset shifts, and these contributions are entirely outside of the expert crafting you did to make the project happen.

It’s important to keep in mind as you shift into UX that you’ve been hired, in part, for your research expertise. But it’s your willingness to plan, iterate, and find valuable ways to collaborate with non-research stakeholders that will be an essential part of succeeding in your role.

Janelle Ward has led experience research at digital product companies, both as a founding lead and as a manager, upskilling and growing research teams. Before moving to industry, she spent 15 years in academia, teaching and conducting research in the field of digital communication. You can find her on LinkedIn, and read more of her work on Medium.

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