In our young industry, the path for growth is widely unpaved. A plus side to this is that we each have an opportunity to dictate our own direction. Whether you’re stepping into your first UX interview or writing a proposal for department expansion, we’ve created this guide to meet you where you are and help you take your next step forward.
Table of contents:
Chapter 1: Landing a job in user research
If you’re just getting started in research, one thing to keep in mind is that a majority of user researchers have “non-traditional” backgrounds. Even if you have not directly worked on a UX team, you likely have transferable skills that can apply to user research.
For someone continuing their UX career, this chapter can be a useful tool for updating a resume, presenting a case study, or preparing for a whiteboard challenge. We’ll walk through a common interview structure and identify key questions to ask yourself beforehand.
Getting “real-world” user research experience
If you’re looking to land a job in UX, without any direct experience, you’ll need to build up some industry acumen and showcase your transferable skill.
To do the former, find a space where you can volunteer your time. Look for places where you can practice your skills and offer them up, without waiting to be invited to do so.
Say you volunteer at a local animal shelter; you could offer to run some usability tests and partner with whoever designed and built it to make changes. Then you can have tangible experience with real-world context, even if it’s not a paid project. Maybe you found a problem that's preventing people from donating and suggested a change. You can then make an estimate about a real world impact. In your research you found that 20% of the people you tested weren't able to find the donation button and the site visitors last month were a thousand people. If that 20% of people had donated the average donation of $50, you can do the math and justify the impact.
This shows that you understand research doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that you know how to integrate research actions with actual business impact.
Another great way to get ahead? Showcasing the “soft skills” that are essential to user research success. For example, collaboration is key to work as a UXR. Researchers are often the bearers of bad news—telling others that their design didn’t work the way they wanted it to.
Teams would rather hire a researcher who’s new, but can collaborate on tough discussions, than hire someone who’s academically rigorous, but difficult to work with. If you have a solid history of collaborating with people, convincing them of things, telling stories about data and connecting with others—ensure this shines in your resume and cover letter.
For more advice on entering the field, read our full discussion with Amanda Stockwell, research mentor, instructor and Principle at Stockwell strategy. She also discusses your “first big” career steps (in-house vs. agency? Freelancing before your first full-time role?)
Optimizing your UX resume:
Your research resume needs to show off both your research skill set, and your overall impact in your former roles. Ideally, you’re able to highlight your capacity across the entire user research lifecycle (ex: planning, conducting, sharing), and include skills outside, but related to, user research (ex: facilitation, leadership, collaboration).
Hiring managers are looking to understand:
- How you approach research projects and problems
- Your thought process behind the research lifecycle
- Why you choose specific methodologies, participants, etc.
- 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
Communicating all of that in a brief document can be tough. To get there, we recommend walking yourself through a basic brainstorming process. Here’s a 9-step guide:
- Write down your goal. Are you starting from scratch or are you looking to update your resume? Which parts would you 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. Think about 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 about what you did on a day-to-day basis, what your primary responsibilities were, and what were some of your most notable achievements.
- For each job, list out all the challenges. You may not include this in your resume, but it’s good fodder for a portfolio piece or to discuss during an interview.
- List out all specific examples of work/experience. Write about concrete examples of your work experience, and your major accomplishments, including numbers (ie. how many research sessions you conducted throughout the time you were at the company).
- 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.
- 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.
See a few examples: How to Optimize Your User Research Resume
Prepping for your first interview
Prepping for a user research interview usually means you’re actually prepping for a series of interviews, or interview stages. You often start with HR or a recruiter, then meet with a manager, and end with a panel interview or a few small group interviews.
What to do before the first few interviews (HR or Recruiter, Hiring Manager)
- Know the company's mission and values. Look up anything you can on the company's mission, what they are trying to accomplish, and why. See if you have any values or guiding principles that resonate with your experience and prioritize these stories.
- Look up the person (or people) you’re interviewing with on LinkedIn. It’s always valuable to try and better understand the experience of the person you’re interviewing with; it may give insight into how they work and what they expect. This also allows you to see if you have any mutual connections.
- Have specific work examples ready. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in an interview is being “vague” in your answers. Having a set anecdote or example in mind of how you worked well with stakeholders or chose the right method for a tricky research request can differentiate you.
- Prep your own questions: A recruiter might not have in-depth knowledge of the research process. But your first interview is a great time to ask about things you couldn't find on the job description or missed when you were researching the company—ie. what the relationship is between product and research (or UX) is, or what the culture is like. You’ll likely be able to dive deeper into your potential “day-to-day” with a hiring manager.
Get additional information on what to do prior to applying and how to prepare for the last stage of an interview: How to Prep for (and Nail) a UXR Job Interview
Developing and presenting a case study
During the interview process, you’ll likely have an opportunity to present a case study (or multiple case studies).
When creating a presentation, cover as many points on the job description as possible and show a detailed end-to-end example. Usually, you have about 30-60 minutes. It’s a good idea to ask the initial contact exactly what to prepare, and to have back-ups, just in case. We recommend preparing both a generative and evaluative presentation, if you have examples at your disposal.
Ideally, your case study will include the following elements:
- Context. Give a small introduction to yourself and give context about the organization from the case study. Briefly introduce the project topic.
- Your role. Cover your role in the research project, who you worked with, and how you worked with them.
- Timeline. Explain the overall timeline of the project. Consider breaking down the different parts of the timeline (e.g. recruitment X weeks, research Y weeks, analysis Z weeks).
- Research statement and goals. Address the research problem/question that you were trying to answer. It’s worth mentioning where that question came from (ie. previous research, management), what the goals of the project were, and how you got buy-in for the research project or given research approach.
- Research methodology. Explain the methodologies you used for the project and how you chose them. You’ll want to be as specific as possible here, and explain the execution thoroughly. Were other stakeholders a part of the research? How long did the interviews last? How many were there?
- Recruitment criteria and process. Explain who you recruited for the study and why, how you recruited them, what incentives were like, and example screener questions.
- Sample questions asked or usability tasks. Show some examples of your questions from a moderation guide or tasks you asked during the usability test. If possible, you can link to the actual moderator's guide.
- Analysis and synthesis process. Cover how you analyzed/synthesized the data and the types of techniques and processes you used. Include examples and screenshots, even if that means you have to blur out sensitive information.
- Outputs/Deliverables. Discuss how you shared the research and socialized insights. This is another great place to include examples and screenshots.
- Impact. What was the impact of your research on the team, the organization, and the business? Who used the insights, and how did they use them? What changed because of your research? What were the business implications of your research (e.g. impacting business metrics/KPIs)?
- Reflections. Reflect on the research project. What went well? What didn't go as well? What challenges did you face? What would you change/improve for next time?
See some common case study mistakes to avoid and get a free template: How to Write and Present a Winning UXR Case Study
Crush your next whiteboard challenge
Whiteboard challenges sound simple, but feel stressful. Usually, you’re given a prompt about the company and a research problem or ideal research outcome. You’re given a set time frame to document your thoughts, which you’ll then present. Because each organization will give you a different research problem, we won’t go into the exact process for answering. Instead we’ll walk through some things to think about before you’re presented the question.
One thing to keep in mind is that whiteboard challenges are about showing a company how you process; they generally care less about your solution, and more about your individual capacity to problem solve. So instead of a prescriptive “how-to,” here’s a framework for you to apply to your experience.
- Take the time to truly understand the statement. Really process what’s specifically being asked before taking the marker.
- Define the problem. Reframe what the company wants to accomplish into a research problem. What are they trying to learn at a high level?
- Identify the business impact. Think about what KPIs are related to the research problem, and what stakeholders you’d want to meet with before pursuing your research.
- Determine your research objectives. Write 3-5 objectives based on your research problem that break down your problem statement and will be met by the end of the project.
- Decide on your methodology, and be sure to give your reasoning.
- Think about how you’ll recruit. If you’ve done your research beforehand, you’ll likely know the general demographic the company might be targeting. You can also detail recruiting processes, tools, number of participants, etc.
- Include some sample questions, if your methodology is generative or interview based. Include some tasks if you’ll be usability testing.
- Touch upon your analysis techniques: what processes you’ll use, how you’ll work to make the insights actionable, who you’ll collaborate with.
- Give some potential deliverables. Interviewers really appreciate this step, because it helps you tie the output back to the overall objectives and research problem.
- Include next steps. Outline if you think any follow-up research will be necessary, and what it will look like.
Some whiteboard challenges, even for research positions, will want you to sketch out some design ideas. Use this time to write some potential user stories, create some user flows, or do some rough sketching of solutions related to your problem. More guidance on that: How to Ace the Dreaded Whiteboard Challenge.
Chapter 2: Transitioning your research career
Just as every entry into UX is unique, no user research career path seems to look the same. That means yours might feature a lot of transitions—from public to private sector, from academia to tech, or from full-time to freelance. Here’s some basic guidance on how to weather those changes, grow as you pivot, and carve out a niche for yourself within the field.
Making the switch to UX from academic research
UX research and academic research aren't completely different worlds—but if you're transitioning from the former to the latter, you can expect a significantly different “day-to-day” work environment.
Some things worth preparing for as you make the transition:
- Learning how to communicate differently. Rarely, does user research culminate in a neat, tidy, lengthy report. Be prepared to present your findings visually and creatively—charts, bar graphs, video and audio clips, photos, etc.
- Tech/design language and concepts. Agile, Scrum, sprints, waterfall, lean, user stories, requirements, prototypes, generative, usability testing. A new world means learning a new vocabulary, and there is a lot to learn. Read as much as possible about product, tech, and business environments to learn the jargon.
- Meetings. Since you’ll be a bridge between the user and the different areas of the company, you’ll be pulled into meetings to understand what each team needs from you. From there you’ll likely be meetings to share findings and ultimately have 60-90 minute research sessions on top of that.
- Working with many different roles. Unlike some academic research, user research doesn't (and shouldn't) work in a vacuum. Not only do you learn about user research, tech, and product when you start in a UXR role, but you also have to familiarize yourself with many different departments.
- Learning about business. The business world is on a completely different spectrum than academia. The cool thing about user research is that it can work on many different levels—from more tactical to operational to strategic. With this, however, it is vital to understand how businesses operate and how user research fits into that larger world of business. We covered the business basics every user researcher should know in this webinar.
A few tips for landing your user research role:
- Look at job postings and scour the responsibilities. You may be more familiar with some research methodologies critical the field (ie. In depth interviews or generative research) and less familiar with others (ie. usability testing). Get a good sense of your experience and your gaps.
- Go to meetups and meet user researchers. Connect with others in the field and ask them how they got into user research. Networking is also fantastic for finding internships or potential opportunities.
- Seek out companies that have an established research team or a senior researcher. It's hard to start out in a new space without a mentor. Working somewhere with an established research practice can go a long way towards your success in the field.
Shifting from academia to UX research can be tricky. We’ve created a brief guide to help ease that transition with more tips for landing a new role.
Checking in on your career direction: Finding your UX niche
Working in user experience typically leads you down a path of increased specialization. You may start out as a generalist or “jack of all trades” with skills in both UX design and UX research, but many of us ultimately narrow our interests and shift into a specialist role.
Taking the plunge into a specialist role often starts off with a key question, “Do I prefer qualitative or quantitative research?” Or simply, “Do I prefer words or numbers?”
Quantitative: Numbers galore
If you’re drawn to analyzing data, identifying patterns, and digging into the factors that determine a user’s experience or action, quantitative research may be right up your alley.
Quantitative researchers are typically less interested in sitting in user research interviews or trying to predict what users will do next. They seek to gain insights into the intent of people’s product usage and bring together common trends in numbers to help answer questions or propose new research ideas.
Qualitative: Listen up
Qualitative researchers are focused on answering the why behind user action and decision-making processes. Their primary focus is listening to what users say during interviews and identifying patterns to better understand user behavior and motivation. Rather than proposing new research ideas, they identify how to improve current user experience and use this to determine what can be built next.
Whichever path you choose you’re not necessarily turning your back on the alternative. A quantitative researcher may find themselves sitting in the occasional user interview, but most of their day-to-day work will consist of data collection and analysis. Ideally, you possess a majority of skills in one area and are still able to operate in the other to ensure the research is comprehensive across the board.
Getting introspective: finding your user research philosophy
As you continue navigating your user research career, you have an opportunity to dig deeper and explore your beliefs of how to operate within the field. Defining your user research philosophy sets a foundation of principles that can help guide you through decision making. A philosophy helps you understand and articulate what you interpret are the best approaches to research and reminds you of why you are a user researcher.
Some questions to help you get started in defining your philosophy:
- How do I think? Is my set of beliefs based on past experience, personal ideals, surrounding knowledge, schooling, classical ideas, etc?
- What is the purpose or value of user research?
- What is my role as a user researcher? What am I trying to achieve?
- How should I evangelize and share user research? Do I transmit information to teams or take a facilitator approach?
- What is the role of the company in user research? How can each department respond or help me with conducting, analyzing, and sharing user research?
- What are my goals as a user researcher, both inside and outside of a company? How do I contribute to the user research community?
- Why am I a user researcher?
Taking some time to answer these questions can help you better understand your thinking in your career and possibly even your day-to-day life.
Learn from someone who has tried it: How to Define Your Research Role and Philosophy
Becoming your own boss: Shifting from full-time to freelance user research
Mysterious in both alluring and treacherous ways, making the switch from full-time to freelance work is challenging. For many, it’s extremely rewarding and seen as one of the best career decisions they’ve made. In other cases, it’s overwhelming to do your work as a researcher while also taking responsibilities like project management, billing, and time management.
Before taking the plunge and leaving your current organization behind, consider a quick self audit and ask yourself these questions?
- What is the goal I have in becoming a freelancer?
- Am I senior enough in my role to know what to do with little guidance and mentorship?
- Where do I live? How does this impact my finances? Are there others around me (in the immediate area) doing freelance? Is the market there?
- Who else am I supporting? How does that affect my finances?
- What will the change be like in my income?
- What are the top three day-to-day changes that will happen when I go freelance? (Try to include positive & negative) How will I handle these changes?
- How will I feel being my own boss and making my own schedule?
- Do I have enough money to support myself for 6-12 months if, for some reason, I can't find work?
- Am I okay taking on the extra paperwork freelancing requires? The potentially higher taxes? Are there additional healthcare costs where I live?
Once you’ve thought the this through, here are a few next steps to getting started as a freelancer:
- Define your brand: Take at least a full week to define your brand and how you’ll position yourself in the industry. Collect ideas, inspiration, and articles in one place you can reference easily. Then, define your mission and brand aesthetics (ie. logos, colors, typography). You’ll want to look into your “competitors” and build a website with an easy-to-spell domain.
- Define the scope of work you’ll take on: Create a services list—what you love to do, and what you're best at. Also decide on what work feels outside of your expertise.
- Consider payment options: The two main options here are to charge an hourly rate for your work, or to estimate your hours for a given project, and charge a by-project rate.
- Learn to negotiate and to define boundaries. Client relationships require some finesse. We could write an entire article about this, but instead we recommend picking up a copy of "Never Split the Difference" by Chris Voth.
Read Nikki’s story on how she found her first freelancing jobs and some tips on mistakes to avoid.
Building a solid research proposal
Proposal writing is an invaluable skill for both in-house researchers and freelancers. For in-house user researchers, proposals help you define why a research project should be prioritized and conducted. If you’re a freelancer, proposals are a way to convince stakeholders why you should get hired for a particular project and what you can bring to the table.
In a lot of ways, the format of a proposal reflects the necessary criteria of a solid case study—one is a “before” and one is an “after.”
We’ve put together a brief overview of a research proposal’s key components:
- Date of creation, points of contact, and main contributors. Includes the date the proposal was created and the main points of contact and contributors to the proposal.
- Important dates to keep in mind. When recruitment begins, when the study starts and ends, and when the analysis begins. It is okay if these start as approximate dates, but keep them updated as the project evolves.
- Background of the project. Highlight why you are doing this project from a business and research perspective. Ideally, you will pull in data from past research (analytics, market research, user research) to justify why this project is worth exploring.
- Research goals. These give the project direction, focus, and alignment. Check out this research plan template to learn more about writing impactful and effective research goals.
- Hypotheses and assumptions. These help you understand what you think you know and what information you really must validate/disprove with users. They’re the jumping off point for the questions you’ll ask users.
- Business KPIs, impact, and impacted markets. Include KPIs this research project could impact (ex: customer lifetime value, engagement metrics, satisfaction metrics), the number of teams it could impact (ex: acquisition, retention, check-out), and which markets (ex: geographical location, personas) this project will impact most.
- Methodology/methodologies. Describe the methodology you will use and why that methodology makes the most sense for this project
- Tools. Highlight the different tools you will use for the aforementioned methodologies.
- Recruitment process, participant requirements. The process you will use for recruiting participants, including any screener and demographic criteria.
- Estimated budget. Take into account the recruitment, incentives, any back-up participants, and additional costs from any tools. Anything extra this project is costing you, especially if it requires a new tool, should go in this section.
- Expected deliverables. List the expected deliverables for the project, but make sure not to put anything that is not realistic. For instance, if you are looking at a benchmarking project, this is likely not the time to also try to build personas.
- Additional resources for the project. Placing any relevant links for people who want additional context. Linking to other documentation on the project such as: the interview guide, the notes, the report, and any deliverables that come out of the study.
Get more information on who should create the proposal and when to use them most effectively: How to Build a User Research Proposal
Embracing new challenges: How to level up in your UX career
If you find you often ask yourself things at work like, “What position is next for me?” or “Am I challenging myself enough in my role?” You are most certainly not alone. It can be overwhelming to plan out the next phase(s) of your career. Taking a step back and recognizing your current level can help set the path of how you’d like to evolve.
We took some time to dig into each of the UXR career levels. Defining each role, highlighting the skills needed, and categorizing them based on their impact at a company level. If you believe you are at one level but the skills aren’t matching up, keep in mind we all have different journeys and every organization has a different structure.
Once you’ve assessed your current level, there are a number of steps you can take to identify where you could see yourself next and ultimately make the shift.
- 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. Check out people on LinkedIn both at your level and the surrounding levels. See what their experience and skill sets are and then compare that to your current situation. Don’t be afraid to reach out and network with 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.
- Choose your skills. After you’ve identified an area you’d like to pursue, find three skills necessary to get you to the next level that you can hone in on. 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! A good place to start learning new skills is to go through the process of reading articles, books, and case studies. Then, try applying 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 on some milestones to measure your progress. One thing you could ask yourself to measure progress is, “Do I feel confident explaining and teaching others what I am learning?”
- Always look for feedback. Colleagues, mentors, friends, and bosses are all great resources to turn to for input on how you’re doing. Especially if you’re having any feelings of imposter syndrome, feedback can provide great perspective.
“I've been doing this work and in the field for eight years, which doesn't sound like a long time, but it's long enough that I have to think about what am I going to do next as I get older? Am I going to top out as research manager or is chief research officer going to be a thing that is more common? Or is teaching going to be the pathway that a senior research leader in an organization has to go to next?”
Gregg Bernstein, Author of Research Practice | Read: What Research Looks Like Now
Chapter 3: Core skills to learn throughout your research career
User research is a fast-evolving field. That means there’s more than enough room to grow, but not a lot of clear direction on how to grow.
In this chapter, we outline some of our best advice for career progression in a nebulous space: building in room for self assessment, creating opportunities for feedback, and shifting from a “mentee” to a “mentor.” role. Any of these opportunities can be applied today.
Hosting structured user research reviews (or, "retrospectives")
Asking for feedback from others is a great way to grow in any career, and it is especially essential in our role as user researchers. When you explain a concept or idea to others, you more easily find opportunities for improvement. You get a diverse set of perspectives on a problem you are struggling with or approach you are unsure about.
It’s common for user researchers to work independently, so it can be difficult to bounce ideas off others or get feedback on your work. If you find that you don't have a team of researchers at your organization, you can look to designers, product managers, and developers for their thoughts.
In addition to learning from others, it is also imperative to learn how to give others feedback. This skill is helpful if you are interested in becoming a manager and something that will help you throughout your entire career.
One way to structure research reviews is to provide feedback at each of these stages:
- Research brief review: Completed once a research brief has been created, but before any research has started. Best if stakeholders have aligned on the research, but also okay if reviewed before. A subset of this can also be a discussion guide review, where the researcher can ask for feedback on their discussion guide questions.
- Research session review: Completed after at least one research session has been completed and can occur during or after the project is completed.
- Analysis review: Completed before the data has been analyzed to get ideas for analysis or after the data has been analyzed to retrospect on what was done
- Presentation & research deliverables review: Completed after a presentation deliverable has been drafted or made, but before the research has been presented to stakeholders.
- Stakeholder management review: Completed during or after the project is completed. For this review, the presenter will talk through how they managed or are trying to manage stakeholders during the project.
Get more in depth information on each stage: How to Start a User Research Review Practice (And Why Your Team Should)
Assess your user research interviews
As researchers, we spend a substantial amount of time prepping for interviews to ensure that we give each participant all of our attention. Afterwards, we rush to gather our insights, remember all the juicy details, and inform our teams of the best actionable steps. We spend so much time prepping and synthesizing, we can easily forget to reflect on the interview itself.
Going back through and reviewing your sessions can help evolve your research skills and evaluate areas where you got the answers you were looking for and areas that needed some clarification for the subject.
To help with your self-evaluation, we put together ten principles of a good interview. Each criteria is designed to give yourself a rating of one through five (one meaning that you didn’t fulfil the principle during the interview and five being you went above and beyond to satisfy the principle). To make it even easier, copy our full template here for your own evaluations.
1. Familiarity with the topic
You have researched the domain you are about to enter, including industry trends and jargon, and awareness of potential competitors if applicable. If you are conducting usability tests, you have a functional knowledge of the prototype or product you will be testing.
2. The interview was structured
You start the conversation by explaining what the participant can expect and lay out the purpose of the discussion. It’s important to keep in mind that if the participant feels you are robotic and reading from a script, they may have a hard time opening up to you.
On the flip side, if you don't adequately explain what the research session is about, you leave the participant in the dark, which can feel very unnerving.
3. Everything was clear
The questions you asked were short and straightforward, which is especially crucial in usability testing where we want our questions to be as open-ended as possible.
We recommend using the TEDW method, "tell me about…/explain…describe…walk me through." These open questions lead to stories and conversations, which can give us much needed context and right insights, versus asking them a continuous stream of yes/no questions.
4. There were few or no interruptions
You allow participants to finish what they say. One tactic to ensure that you aren’t cutting off your participant, is to wait three seconds after the interviewee has stopped talking. This gives them time to finish their thoughts and doesn’t make the situation feel rushed. The three second wait-time can be especially helpful on remote video conferencing where there is often a delay.
5. There was a sense of empathy
You listened to the interviewee with all the attention you have. For those thirty, sixty, or ninety minutes, whatever the participant says and does is the most crucial thing.
Even if what they say seems mundane, it is still imperative for us to care about the person in front of us. When we build empathy for participants, we can walk in their shoes, and understand what is significant.
With this, we can give context to the insights we gain, and appreciate the person we are speaking to. On this level, we can create truly impactful solutions to their problems.
We walk through five more principles including interview flow and interpretation here: 10-Principle Framework to Assess Your Research Interviews
"Non-UX" skills that are essential for success
We recently asked People Nerds across roles "What non-researcher skill should any human-centered researcher have?" Here’s a handful of their responses:
1. System thinking
Being conscious of how parts of organizations, institutions, culture, etc. come together to make up an ecosystem. Seeing the system is important to truly spot formerly unseen connections and possible opportunities for change beyond simple products and services or solving a known problem.
Wider and wider circles around a system can inform true transformation and identify new people to invite into the solution. Engaging everyone in the total system can ensure that all potential stakeholders, allies or resistors are invited to be part of a solution affecting them. New connections, personal relationships, and exchanges of information, ideas, empathy, and insights between never before connected people can transform a system.
2. Multi-stakeholder collaboration
Skills to bring diverse groups together to collaborate, co-create, and action plan, skills to handle group dynamics, personality styles, corporate hierarchy, social class, gender, race, ability, age, language, culture, and other diversity & inclusion issues that can trip up group work, totally apart from the task at hand.
Most of us are not used to working with people very different from ourselves. We get caught up in our professional or expert hierarchies, or social divisions and badges of belonging to them that keep us from truly empathizing with, being curious about, and benefiting from new people’s perspectives.
We need to develop conscious awareness of how our thought patterns, speech, and behaviors can hinder true free flow of ideas and creation in groups. There are many techniques, methods, and best practices to master and this skill should not be taken lightly.
3. Communication and persuasion
Knowledge, vocabulary, and skill to engage stakeholders, influencers, and decision-makers at different levels in generative future-orientated conversations and decisions. Researchers with these skills can support or even drive decision-making and influence to make their insights and recommendations to improve experiences and human conditions become reality.
HCD Researchers create first-hand knowledge about the human conditions, opportunities to change, and recommend design innovations. Why shouldn’t they be using this felt knowledge to speak extemporaneously with authority and conviction to decision-makers to bring that change into being?
Projects fall apart and join the dust pile when decision-makers can’t make hard decisions or be persuaded to reprioritize their normal priorities and habitual responses in the hurly burly of business and public life. The people with the right knowledge, pathos, ethos, and logos can shift habitual patterns and inspire leaving comfort zones or taking risks. Otherwise, a suit will have to do it. They should be part of it too, anyway. They have different skills and knowledge. It is a team sport.
4. Social and emotional learning, dealing with ambiguity, incomplete information, fear, resistance
Knowledge and practice to grow personally and to help others grow through challenges and adversity (and tough conversations), understanding what moves forward or holds back individuals and groups from being able to change mindsets, skills, conscious and unconscious attitudes and behaviors.
Plenty of us learn technical skills to do design research, or we create designs that get A’s at school. We learn how to source and process data about humans to generate insights and strategies for improved human experiences, new products, or services and service models. We learn how to present strategies as stories that can move audiences to say: "Yes, we want to change." What we don’t learn at school is how to work with humans to really adapt to change, and to overcome our true unspoken motivations to stay exactly the way we are.
We don’t learn to grow self-awareness about our own effects on others around us and the systems we could influence positively if we only would try, and effectively be able. This is why we fail or get stuck in a mid-level career.
5. Divergent thinking
Understanding the difference between divergent and convergent thinking, when they are appropriate, and embodying practices to encourage each. Educated and skilled people in workplaces are conditioned to provide answers and solutions quickly as a mark of professional achievement or value.
This conditioning generates bias toward convergent thinking and action before exploration, discovery, and consideration of new and wide-ranging evidence that truly leads to novel ideas and innovations. Convergent thinking before divergent thinking leads to groupthink and marginal improvements at best, big mistakes or missed opportunities at worst.
HCD Researchers are probably conscious already about this in themselves. Their colleagues trained and conditioned in other fields may struggle with this. Being able to stand in the middle of a group and guide and encourage different types of thinking requires knowing how to respond to people, generatively, in the moment, in your bones.
Discover 15 more skills they recommended: 20 "Non-Research" Skills All User Researchers Should Develop
“How do you actually get from one place to the other, how do you make that connection between those places, and mentor up and mentor down and move forward as a community? The first part of that is recognizing that sometimes these distances that seem so great are really not that far apart.”
Aryel Cianflone, Host of Mixed Methods podcast | Read: Becoming a Better Researcher and a Better Human
Becoming a better mentor to new user researchers
As we get more experience in the space, it often becomes more difficult to remember/understand a new UXer’s point of view. UX definitions, concepts, and methodologies can be abstract for someone getting started in this space. What may seem like common knowledge might be challenging for someone new.
Some things to keep in mind as you begin working with or mentoring a less-experienced user researcher:
- Practicing UXR ≠ Theory of UXR. Encourage new UXRs to go out and practice what they read over and over again, even if they’re unsure if they’re doing it right. Spending hours looking up how to build a persona can be helpful, but figuring out how to do it requires putting one together.
- “Simple” concepts are tough. When you’ve been doing a particular project for years, the concept may become obvious, but it isn’t for someone new to the space. These concepts can be challenging to explain to new UXRs who don’t have the context yet. As they’re getting started, suggest books or articles that speak in simple language. Reading academic books can serve a purpose, but the lofty language can make it challenging to apply later.
- Follow-up on participant responses during generative research. When presented with a, “How do I keep the conversation going?” question during a generative research session, the best answer may not be, “Just keep asking follow up questions to better understand what they mean.” Encourage them to think about it as a conversation, not an interview. They should ask participants what they mean and to elaborate on their thoughts, just as they would with a friend who is telling a story.
- Three things that make up a "good" research session. Who doesn’t love a good top three? If a new UX researcher asks what makes up a good research session, here are three to have on hand:
- You ask open-ended unbiased questions. Encourage new researchers to form most questions in an open-ended way. They will likely get participants to open up and tell you stories.
- You stay silent. New UX pro tip: Wait three seconds after a participant finishes their thought, which helps you make sure they are done articulating and reduces the number of interruptions, especially virtually when there is often an audio lag.
- Make the participant comfortable. Take the first 5-7 minutes of a research session to introduce yourself and the project, and do a small warm-up. If it’s a researcher’s first time in a study, it can help ease any tension and produce more honest responses.
- You don’t need an advanced degree (unless…) There is a vast, expansive difference between academic research and user research in rigor, pace, and environment. While an advanced degree may help you in some ways, it is not necessary to transition into the field of user research. The exception would be if you are applying at a more competitive company such as Facebook, Google or Amazon. In these situations an advanced degree could benefit you throughout your application process.
Find two more lessons in our full piece: 7 Lessons Learned from Mentoring New UXRs
Chapter 4: Working collaboratively with stakeholders, other departments, and remotely
As user research as an industry continues to grow, our influence as researchers is expanding. Collaboration with decision makers becomes increasingly important as we work to be a key driver in product development and organizational growth.
In this section we highlight different strategies for getting more involved across the organization and strategizing alongside key departments. We also dive into tips for making these connections remotely as that can add an extra level of discomfort if you’re starting some of these conversations for the first time.
How to start working cross-departmentally
Working across departments allows you to pave the way for user research to take a more strategic role in your company’s goals. The more embedded user research is in a company's culture, the more effective you can be at your job.
Some departments that can be beneficial to make a routine meeting with:
- Customer support
- Account management
- Data science
- Business intelligence
Starting a new process with other areas of the organization can be intimidating. The key is to strike a balance between not seeming too imposing and selling your valuable skills. We put together a couple tips that can help you start making meaningful connections with these teams.
Step 1: Ask broad questions
When you start working cross-departmentally, it can be helpful to sit down with internal stakeholders from every team you hope to collaborate with. If the organization is big, you can sit down with the heads or managers in the department.
The first user research project typically pertains to understanding these internal stakeholders—learning about their needs, challenges, goals, and frustrations.
To guide these meetings, you can ask them to describe their department’s goals and experience working with user researchers. It can also be helpful to provide some context into why you’re asking the questions.
- What is your definition of user research? This sets me up to the knowledge gaps or misunderstandings of user research.
- Have you ever worked with a user researcher before? If yes, tell me about the experience. This gives me more context around how you view and have experienced user research in the past.
- How do you feel about user research? This helps me better understand your fears, and brainstorm ways you can counteract them.
- Tell me what happened the last time you did user research. This gives me context for what expectations stakeholders may have.
From there, you can explain the basics of user research. It can be helpful to include how you’ve worked with that particular department in the past (if applicable), and give high-level information on methodologies and processes—especially if that group has no or minimal experience with user research.
Step 2: Ask more focused questions
In this stage, you can ask the following, more pointed, questions:
- Do you have any projects you think user research could benefit from? Here, we start generating ideas on how I could integrate into the team.
- What is your ideal timeline and approach for this project? Here, we ways to insert user research into their timeline.
- What are the most significant barriers to conducting user research on this project? Here, we begin to understand how to best fit research into their workflow, so it overcomes these specific barriers.
- If we could manage to do any user research on this project, what would it be? Here, we open the conversation up to discover what they think user research might mean for this project.
- What could be some ideal outcomes of user research on this project? Here, we highlight the potential positive outcomes of user research.
This can be done in two separate meetings. If you know the teams are familiar with the value of user research and techniques, you can ask all the questions at once because you can skip the presentation portion.
The answers to these questions give you insight into how you can use your abilities to help the department. Knowing the needs they have, the resources at their disposal, and their existing perspectives and biases is instrumental to integrating user research into current processes.
Get a more thorough walkthrough of how you can work with each department specifically: The Power of Working Cross-Departmentally as a User Researcher
“People have to recognize that you can't do all of the stuff you’d like to by yourself. You just can't. You have to be able to understand how to drive impact for someone else to prove the value of the research practice or the practice that you want to build. Then that person becomes your advocate later.”
Dave Chen, Director of Consumer Insights at Flipp | Read: To Build a Better Research Practice, Build Better Relationships
Tactics for negotiating with stakeholders
When it comes to negotiating as user researchers, we are often walking the delicate balance of pitching and begging. If you’re an introvert, negotiating can be uncomfortable and challenging.
Even though our instincts may tell us to yell or cry when stakeholders don’t see the value of UX, we have narrowed down three methods to help with negotiation.
1. Listening with silence
As we know through participant interviews, when people feel like you’re listening–they are more likely to open up and clarify their thoughts and feelings. This is true for stakeholders as well. Giving them room to speak allows them to evaluate their ideas from a calmer mindset, providing you a better chance of negotiating with them.
2. Be a mirror
We unconsciously copy each other to bond, provide comfort, and build trust. We do this by imitating body language, tone of voice, speech, and vocabulary.Mirroring signals to the other person that we are similar to them and helps build trust much faster. We are subconsciously drawn to what is similar and tend to avoid what is not. When you mirror another person, you are telling them to trust you, and that you are on the same side.
A tip for mirroring stakeholders is to repeat the last 1-3 important words the person said (or a small phrase). When you do this, you trigger an instinct, which automatically makes the person you are talking to elaborate on their thoughts.
You also establish a deeper connection. Asking "why" or "what do you mean by that" causes defensiveness. Instead, mirror the person. Sometimes people will end up talking themselves out of their own opinions!
3. Understanding by asking questions
By asking questions, we open up the opportunity for conversation, rather than defensiveness. We invite others to explain their thoughts instead of merely assuming what they feel about user research and any experiences they have.
A few questions you can ask internal stakeholders:
- Why do you feel negative about user research? Understand the best ways to quell their fears.
- Tell me what happened the last time you did user research. Understand the fears or expectations stakeholders may have
- What is your ideal timeline and approach for this project? With this, you can find ways to insert user research into their timeline.
See examples of stakeholder negotiation and more sample questions: 3 Stakeholder Negotiation Tactics for UX Researchers
Sparking stakeholder interest in new methodologies
As challenging as it is to get stakeholders initially on board with a methodology, it is almost an entirely different ball game to get them excited about a new one. Often met with, “Too expensive”, “Too risky”, or “Too much time,” it’s safe to say that stakeholders aren’t always receptive to change, even if they’re better for a new project.
To combat this challenge, we put together a plan that consists of a mix of stakeholder user research, therapy, and luck.
Step 1: Understand why there’s pushback
If you’re getting no’s from stakeholders across the board, it’s tempting to get angry and give up. Instead, try to dig deeper into the reason behind the resistance. Ask yourself: Why are they opposed to this change? What are my stakeholders afraid of? How can I address their fears?
Drawing upon these questions, you could have a conversation with the stakeholders that goes something like this:
You: Why do you feel like these methods are not the best idea for this project?
Them: We’re unfamiliar with these methodologies and are concerned about the time, effort, and money it would take to run this study. You are talking about three different methods, as opposed to using ones we know have worked in the past. It is a bit worrying when it comes to the timing, as this is an important project.
You: Okay, what is your ideal timeline for this project? And the budget for user research?
Them: We want the redesign to be completed in about six weeks total. We don't have too much of an idea for budget yet, especially for user research. What you have been doing for the other research projects is fine.
You: So, about 15 Amazon gift cards of $50.00 each, similar to the other studies, would make sense?
Them: Yes. What you did before was fine. That is what we mean. We don't see what is wrong with the methodologies we have already used—or why we can't continue doing more of those for this particular project. They are tried and true. They led to excellent outcomes.
You: What could be some ideal outcomes of user research on this project?
Them: Well, we would completely understand how to restructure the website and how users expect to see the content laid out. Also, we would know what content they need and when they need it. Additionally, we want to improve the overall design of the app to make it more pleasing and easy to use.
Taking note of the pain points you uncover in your conversations can help construct your rebuttal in step two.
Step 2: Uncover the business goals and metrics
Once you’ve learned a little more about their thoughts and concerns, you’ll want to dig deeper into what the business goals are for this particular project. As you likely do for other research projects, ask several stakeholders:
- What are the business metrics we are trying to hit for this project?
- What are the KPIs?
- What are the success metrics we are measuring?
Step 3: Create a research plan
After noting their budget, time, and any other concerns, you’ll start drafting your presentation to quell their fears about new methodologies.
One way of starting this is to look at previous research you’ve done and highlight overarching pain points you’ve found. This may include looking at a platform such as Google Analytics to get more data in regards to: where users are abandoning the app or site, the number of downloads in the last 6-12 months, current user retention rate in the last six months.
With this information, you can create a user research project plan that lists out the different methodologies, and the purpose each will serve. These purposes all link up to the goals and ideal outcomes the stakeholders told me themselves.
You can also set a precise timeline for the entire research project, alongside a budget. From there, strip that down to a minimal viable research plan, which is the leanest a research project can get while still achieving the objectives.
We’ve curated some additional methods to try as well: 3 Steps for Getting Stakeholders Excited About New Research Approaches
Facilitating effective workshops
The benefits of workshops are immeasurable. They engage stakeholders further with your research, they generate better ideas, they give you an opportunity to build trust, and come to a shared understanding.
A few instances where running a workshop might be most useful:
- After a usability/concept test to design new ideas and iterate. This doesn’t have to be with a whole team. It could just involve a designer, or a designer and product manager. If it is a really big project, such as a new product offering or large feature, consider including developers as well.
- After generative research to innovate on new ideas. Include a larger group in generative research synthesis, because it’s a really cool way to innovate. There is usually a large amount of data to sift through after these types of studies, so the more perspectives and ideas I can get, the better.
- When you’ve noticed findings have gone unaddressed. When I’ve been seeing a recurring issue that hasn’t been acknowledged, I will generally pull in the relevant team members to see if we can brainstorm some ideas to test.
We outline nine steps for hosting your first (or fiftieth) successful workshop here.
But here are some of our favorite pointers for what to do during a session to encourage success:
- Participate! One of the most important parts of facilitating a workshop is actually being a present member in the workshop. A facilitator’s job is not simply just to sit there while everyone else talks. Instead, you are:
- Preparing the team for the upcoming activities by explaining why you are doing them, why it is important, and what participants can expect.
- Providing examples, when necessary, as this can help those who are unfamiliar with the process.
- Time-boxing during activities as it is very easy for people to continue past an allotted time, and for the workshop to get off-track.
- Keeping a ‘parking lot’ for questions or comments that need to be discussed later, outside of the workshop.
- Read the room. It is the facilitator’s job to assess the room in front of them and keep a pulse on how everyone is working together. I have witnessed some workshops get argumentative, when teams clash over the importance of certain areas of a project or how to prioritize projects at hand. If the conversation is getting too heated, or energy is running low, I call for a 5- to 10-minute break. I also encourage participants to talk through what they are feeling if discussion gets too intense, and always reserve the right to place the topic into a parking lot.
For a full walkthrough on how to plan your workshop, and what to do with the results of a workshop, read our Comprehensive Guide to Ideating as a Team.
Taking your workshops into a remote environment
Leading any remote session can have its challenges, but creating a workshop atmosphere that encourages people to actively participate can be extremely tricky. Video meetings often make it more difficult to build trust with participants, pick up on body language cues, and utilize group tools like sticky notes or whiteboards.
Here are a few ways to combat these challenges before the workshop, see our tips for stress-free remote collaboration for more information on tackling these problems during and after the session.
- Create structure. Create a schedule for the workshop, with apparent goals and expected outcomes. You can create an external agenda to share with participants and then have a separate internal plan for yourself. The external-facing schedule can show what is happening every thirty minutes, while your private agenda plans out every ten minutes. This structure gives participants a clear indication of what they should be doing at every point and keeps you on pace with your own goals.
- Make the sessions shorter. In-person workshops could often be as long as an entire day. Remote workshops are typically shorter as there’s less small talk and it can be hard to hold someone’s attention for that amount of time on their computer. Hosting a 2-3 hour workshop can be easier to maintain participation. Even if it needs to be split over a few days it tends to be more efficient than an all-day remote session.
- Define roles. Having assistance during the workshop can be a great help. When you have colleagues helping you take notes, screenshots, or keeping time, it allows you to focus on adequately explaining what happens next.
- Pick the best activities. The activities make up the bulk of the workshop. Ask yourself what it is that you want to achieve by the end of the workshop. These expected outcomes should dictate the types of activities you choose for the workshop. Once you pick the activities, determine how much time each will take. Try to give more time than you anticipate as it is typical for an activity to run longer than expected if participants are engaged.
- Pick the right tools and test them. Take the time to consider all of the different tools you need, from video conferencing to collaboration. Make sure you have a mechanism for each activity, including breaks or any other interactions. It’s also helpful to tell your team any items they will need to download or have present before the workshop begins. Always test these before the workshop starts and make sure you have a good internet connection.
Chapter 5: Driving impact in your work
You’ve locked in your seat at the table, now it’s time for a new challenge–scaling your team. Who will be a good fit for an evolving, less-established team? How do I ensure that research is an integral part in any of our company’s future decisions? How is UX as a whole going to grow and change in the next 5-10 years? These are all questions that many in our industry are starting to unpack. In this section we look to expert user-researchers for their advice on navigating growth and change and continuously making an impact.
Advice on hiring UX talent
We talked to a group of user research leaders about their experience evaluating, hiring, and building ux teams. We highlighted two key excerpts below. For insights from all six–see our full piece here: Advice from 6 Research Leaders on Hiring and Evaluating UX Candidates
1. Look for “research builders”
By Alyson, Madrigan | Head of Product Research & Strategy @ Credit Karma
Research builders are folks who have a diverse set of technical skills and who may have had exposure to scaled companies, but who have that scrappy factor and a sort of inner drive to not only do the research work, but to bring a new way of being into existence.
Hiring them may look like building new practices, infrastructure and operations, self-service programs, creative types of deliverables, assets, and experiences, but it also looks like introducing certain traits into the mix, including an orientation towards impact vs preciousness, a low ego, a certain amount of ambition, high levels of EQ, an interest and willingness to really connect with cross-functional stakeholders, and to inspire, educate and facilitate learning journeys.
In many ways, this leads to eclectic teams who are builders, change agents, visionaries, educators and makers, as much as they are researchers. It is a special skill-set and character trait, and it is not always an easy journey, but it is deeply rewarding, full of exponential growth (for business and individuals alike) and often leads to life long relationships built on deep mutual respect and gratitude.
2. Focus on how they fit with company values
Heather Breslow | Head of Research @ Robinhood
On the Robinhood research team, we approach problems from a place of intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness, and so we hire people who demonstrate those qualities. Sometimes this comes through in a candidate’s storytelling about their academic path or career journey.
Other times it’s clear that someone can easily engage in a conversation about a topic they might not have thought much about. In hiring for this mindset, we’ve built a team that shows up ready to listen to and learn from our customers and each other. This helps keep our customers at the heart of the company’s decision-making, and makes collaboration and feedback easier and more obvious.
We’re also responsible for making our work, which can be nuanced or technical, understandable to non-researchers, so candidates who are clear communicators tend to stand out. All interviews are an opportunity for a candidate to demonstrate this skill, but it shines brightest in portfolio presentations when someone is talking us through work that to us is new and unfamiliar.
Being able to break down complex ideas in a way that makes sense to any audience is important both within and beyond Robinhood; it’s also how we make good on Robinhood’s mission to democratize finance for all.
“I wanted to ensure we weren't working in silos. That’s one of the big things I've seen happen in other companies. There are market researchers siloed from UX research, who are siloed from data scientists, who are siloed from customer support. And we’re all gathering information about our users—we should all be working together. So, I wanted to make sure we were working collaboratively across the organization and utilizing each other as resources to build greater, more compelling insights as a single voice of truth.”
Monal Chokshi, Head of UX Research at Lyft | Read: The UX Research Adolescence
Business strategies every UX practitioner should know
Collaboration is an integral part of being a user researcher or designer. We are tasked with collaborating with stakeholders, other internal departments, and any other decision makers involved. In order to collaborate and make effective business decisions, each team must get on the same page in understanding goals, needs, and the user base.
We sat down with Carolyn Hou (Founder of Arlo Labs) and McLean Donnelly (Principal at The Makery) to discuss working strategically with decision makers.
We’ve summarized a few pieces of their advice on strategies and frameworks into three business tenets.
1. Financial principles
Understanding your organization’s finances is a key way to “speak the same language” as key stakeholders. Discussing the company in terms of profits and bottom line can ensure that research is playing a role in those decisions.
If you’re looking for a good place to start diving into finances, read your organization’s annual report—in particular, the profit and loss (P&L) statement. Building that into your workflow will give you a solid understanding of where your company is today, and make you more comfortable with basic business vocabulary. Knowing the financial health of your company can ultimately help you better frame your research projects to drive changes that will be meaningful to your stakeholders or clients.
Another great way to get started is to schedule some time with your organization’s accountants. Buying them a cup of coffee every quarter and having them walk you through the P&L statement can help you further understand the business language and company goals.
2. Organizational structure
Understanding the way that your company organizes its teams can help you become a better cross-functional collaborator. This also helps you identify who the person who holds power is in each department.
For example, sometimes power falls within the team that has the biggest budget. In tech, that may be the product team. In consumer goods, it may be marketing. There are cases where the CEO appears to have power, but is heavily influenced by marketing, or engineering. To truly influence decision making, you have to understand how decisions in your company get made.
3. Corporate strategy
The corporate strategy is the key to understanding the business’s short-term long-term goals and helps you identify where research will be the most valuable in achieving these.
One of the best ways UX-ers can be an asset to corporate strategy is to understand (and dismantle, assumptions their coworkers may have) about people, about the market, about their users, and about their competitors. By identifying these assumptions, you can investigate them and inform a better path forward.
See examples and dive deeper into the business model canvas for financial discussions: 4 Essential Business Strategies Every UX Practitioner Should Know
Maturing your org and preparing for the future of UX
The need for research has grown and scaled over the years and research insights are becoming part of our organizations’ cores. We’re no longer solely charged with “doing good research.” Instead, we’re paving the way for more ethical, more empathetic, and more user-centric company cultures.
The growth of UX research has been invigorating, but continuing the process forward can be clumsy. For over five years, we’ve asked the People Nerd’s community, “What does research at your organization look like?” The mix of answers we received gave us a cohesive series of steps we’ve seen companies take as they expand their research practices.
We outline a new maturity model, and suggest a framework for assessing your org in our Moves to Modern Research.
- Scope: What organizations consider the purpose of research
- Approach: How research is getting done
- Talent: Who makes up research teams and what we expect of them
- Structure: Where research “fits” within our broader org structures
- Tempo: The timelines we expect for research projects
- Output: What we do with findings once a study concludes.
(For more on the moves, an advice for your org’s progression, head here).
Stevie Watts is the Copywriter at dscout. She enjoys telling compelling user research stories, growing social channels, and exploring all things video production. As a newer Chicagoan, you'll likely find her at a concert or walking her corgi, but undoubtedly heads down looking at Google Maps.