From academia to UX research: Why mentorship matters

In the UX industry, someone we see today as a total beginner could be 5 years from now a speaker at a UX Research conference. Let’s hope that over the next 5 years UX leadership similarly evolves to build teams differently by adapting hiring practices for long-term growth and investing more in Learning & Development.

In an effort to open our minds to other ways of doing, rather than stick to the standard “success story”, I’d like to focus on those whose careers are still “in process“. I hope to increase empathy for what it’s like before we have it all figured out. Not that any of us have it all figured out, and that’s the point.

You’ll find below some excerpts from a conversation with Touhid Kamal, an early-career UX Researcher with previous experience in finance and academia. His story helps highlight the importance of mentorship and the power of unexpected discoveries.

What attracted you to UX research?

Curiosity about Human Behavior

‘From an early age, I thought about how we as humans can do things better, and I have often experimented in different aspects of my life. Whether it was talking for hours with my friends to solve a difficult puzzle in a video game or kicking a football in a different way, my curiosity to learn the fundamental truths was always there. I love learning, especially things related to human behavior.

During university, I had very little guidance as to what I should study; however, that openness to experiment and desire to understand better why people do what they do (and don’t always do what they say) did lead me eventually to UX Research.’

How did you enter the UX research field? What did you learn?

Unexpected connections

‘There was a fair bit of experimentation in what I did. While studying Anthropology at the University of Münster, I was invited to play drums as part of a Dutch-German Embassy program, and later on as an attendee of the conference, I asked a smart question about team dynamics. Another conference attendee Ataur Rahman took note and suggested we talk further together.’

Mentorship opened many doors

‘Getting to know Ataur through the years has taught me so much:

  • The importance of having in your life someone who is wanting to help you grow. Someone showing interest and offering guidance can make a critical difference.
  • Also through Ataur, I was able to build off of small UX projects and get hired for larger UX contracts with clients.
  • Ataur has also helped re-direct my master’s thesis (which ended up being about “conducting remote research”).
  • He helped me keep my spirits up when I felt stuck by the developments of the pandemic, and
  • Shift my thinking from the book-learning focus of an academic toward more of the action-oriented mindset of a UX practitioner.’

How did the pandemic impact your career journey?

Lost internship opportunity

‘COVID has had a very significant impact on my career transition. In mid-March 2020, I was looking for a place to move to in Amsterdam. I’d been accepted already into an internship position (to which Ataur had referred me), and my wife had arrived days before. We were ready for the next adventure.

Within a week, everything turned around. My internship offer was rescinded. My Master’s thesis proposal was cancelled. And though I reached out to many different companies, the hiring priority shifted toward senior-level UX professionals in Europe because their teams no longer had capacity for training. The stresses of pandemic lockdown etc were simply too much for most teams to handle.’

Pivoting master’s thesis toward UX research

‘Fortunately, Ataur stuck with me, and with his help I pivoted my thesis toward “Remote Research.” Though it was frustrating to have to start all over with the thesis, I’m proud of it now. Later on, it even helped me get a remote contract with a healthcare company – so I’m grateful for that. With the help of my mentor I’ve found several other UX contracts so I’m connecting dots between theory and practice.

Despite these successful pivots, there remain other obstacles that I am still navigating. It is not easy. Still, I will do whatever it takes.’

What would you like to tell your UX research peers?

The big difference mentorship makes

‘A lot of people are transitioning to UX Research from academia. There are even Facebook groups called “Phd to UX.” We need support to make this transition because it takes time to shift mindsets.

If you google “UX” you’re going to see a long list of books. And you could start reading the summaries and maybe buy a few to read the whole thing. But that won’t really help you shift mindsets. I hope mentorship will become more commonplace.’

Focus on practice

‘To understand how processes fit into the broader business model, it takes practice. The more you do it, the more it becomes part of you. Just as a footballer plays their game, a UX person plays their game. It takes months and years of practice.’

Find ways to receive feedback

‘Having a mentor that can give feedback on a usability study you are doing … is far more useful than reading a book on the topic.’

Build your support system

‘My mentor’s guidance and care opened my eyes to a profession I didn’t see before. My mentor also helped me persevere when I had trouble getting started.

I’m so grateful to have the support of others, and that includes the community at UXinsight. With a supportive community around me, I’m able to enjoy the game more. I feel less pressure and am OK making mistakes, because it is all part of the process of experimentation, growth and learning.’

Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

Jeffrey Coleman

Jeffrey works as a project manager at Amplinate, an international UX Research agency that promotes cross-cultural understanding and authentic human connection. He is also a freelance career coach partnering with others to help make tech more inclusive. If you’d like to start (or continue) a conversation, he’s always open to connect.

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