How to Optimize Your User Research Resume
Looking to make the next big career move? Start by dusting off your resume and optimizing it for success.
I can’t even begin to count the number of user research jobs I’ve applied to in the past seven years. Some of the roles I was qualified for, others I was grossly underqualified (gotta shoot for the moon, right?).
There were times when I got rejected outright, or never heard back, just based on my resume.
Over the years, I have honed my user research resume to increase the likelihood of hearing back from a company. The secret to a good resume? Understanding what recruiters and hiring managers are looking for.
Your research resume needs to show your skillsets while telling the story of the impact you’ve had at organizations.
Why your resume is crucial
Resumes are the first (and sometimes only) thing recruiters and hiring managers look at to determine the next steps of an interview process. A good user research resume has more than the keywords and methodologies you have used in the past (although keywords are also relevant). It is more than just a list of tasks or responsibilities you held during your time at an organization.
Your research resume needs to show your skillsets while telling the story of the impact you’ve had at organizations. It is essential to highlight your capacity in the entire user research lifecycle (ex: planning, conducting, sharing). Also, including skills outside, but related to, user research (ex: facilitation, leadership, collaboration) can help boost your chances of that first screening call. Showing all of this in a resume is not easy, but it is possible.
For this, I will take you through the evolution of my user research resume and the key ways I have improved it. I had to dig through quite a lot of embarrassing files to find this old example, but I believe it will be worth the cringe-y chuckle most of you will experience.
What recruiters look for in a research resume
What do recruiters want? Definitely not the resume above.
Recruiters and hiring managers are looking beyond a simple list of the responsibilities you have had at previous companies. They are looking to understand:
- How you approach research projects and problems
- Your thought process behind the research lifecycle
- Why you choose specific methodologies, participants,
- How you would integrate with a team (for example, with product managers, designers, developers, and other departments)
- Tangible examples of the impact your work has had at an organization
- Modesty and honesty-being transparent about challenges you’ve faced and times you may have
They want to see a story about how you made a positive impact at previous organizations to extrapolate the work you could do at the company you’ve applied to. In a way (and I know I say this all the time), hiring managers and recruiters become your users. You have to understand what they need and the goal they are trying to accomplish:
Hiring managers and recruiters are looking to find the best possible candidate who fits into the current organization. They want someone who can make a real impact and empower teams to make better decisions. You have to convince them that it is you who can do this.
Getting all this information into a short-form style, such as a resume, requires creativity, prioritization, and patience.
How to create a resume recruiters love
Whenever I teach people how to create a resume (or think about updating mine), I go through a specific process. In this case, I will pick apart my old resume to reflect on how I would improve it. To get started, get yourself a whiteboard marker and whiteboard, or a pen and paper. We are taking this entirely offline!
(The number one reason I suggest people step away from brainstorming digitally is that it is easy to get lost in the design or aesthetics of things. If you can separate the two, feel free to use a computer and Google Docs.)
- Write down your goal. What are you trying to achieve with this exercise? Would you like to redo or update your resume and which parts you would like to improve?
- Write down the goal of the hiring manager/recruiter. As mentioned above, recruiters and hiring managers are scanning your resume to see if you would be a good fit for the company’s challenges and structure. If you know the goal and structure of the top 1-3 companies you are applying to, write this down here too.
- List all of your skills. This is the section you can list all of the different skills you bring to the table, such as methodologies you are confident in, tools you are comfortable using, and deliverables you are familiar with.
- List out all your jobs. List the jobs you had (even if they are internships or assistant positions, especially if you are starting in the field) and the dates associated with them.
- For each job, list out all the experience. Write down all the experiences you had during each position and all the responsibilities you had. Write about what you did on a day-to-day basis, and what were some of your most notable achievements.
- For each job, list out all the challenges. This section is essential for modesty and honesty. You may not include it in your resume, but it will be necessary to touch upon the different challenges you faced in a portfolio piece or during an interview.
- List out all specific examples of work/experience. Write about concrete examples of your work experience, including numbers. For instance, how many research sessions you conducted throughout the time you were at the company. This is where it is important to get into the details of your work. I often highlight my most significant accomplishments and pieces of work I am most proud of.
- List out everyone you worked with. Part of being a user researcher is showing your aptitude to collaborate with others. I like listing out all the different roles and departments I worked with, so I can show this in some of my concrete examples. User researchers can have a bigger impact than just the product and tech teams.
- Brainstorm any numbers and business metrics. Business metrics can be difficult to attribute to user research work but are a great way to signify impact at an organization. If you aren’t able to tie your work into business metrics, don’t worry, but make sure to include numbers in other examples.
Once you have done the above (which will take a few hours), be sure to research the companies you are applying to. When you do this, you can cater your resume towards an organization’s specific challenges. I know this can be time-consuming but, I promise, if you take the time to understand how you could positively impact a team, it will show. Once I research the most coveted companies, I make a star by the experience which would be most relevant.
Through this exercise, you can highlight what makes you unique and perfect for the job opportunity to which you applied.
Now for an example
There were a lot of things wrong with the resume I posted above, and many areas I would like to improve on:
- No specific examples and no concrete impact
- Not unique, could be anyone
- Terrible graphics (using sliders to denote skillsets is suboptimal)
- No understanding of the work I did and my expertise
So, how would I improve this abysmal resume? I would use the exercise I described above (and then work on the graphics/design). See the improved example below:
A final tip: keywords
Keywords are still a thing in hiring and are a vital aspect to keep in mind when creating your resume. I try not to go too crazy with keywords, but they can be necessary if the company you are applying to is using automated software to sift through resumes. Below is not an exhaustive list, but some of the most common concepts I have encountered.
- Methodologies: generative research, usability testing, diary studies, card sorting, surveys, analytics, guerrilla research, jobs to be done, prototypes, heuristic evaluation, competitive analysis
- Workshops: facilitation, ideation, participatory design, moderator, iteration, affinity diagram
- Deliverables: personas, customer journey map, empathy map, mental models, experience maps, scenarios, research reports, mind maps
- Tools: Sketch, Invision, HotJar, Google Analytics, Firebase, Zoom, Usertesting.com
- Processes & industries: agile, scrum, lean, kanban, design systems, sprints, standups
Keep them in mind when you’re crafting your research resume—just don’t overdo it.
Best of luck in your job search. And break a leg when you get that interview