Since I became a UX research mentor on UX Coffee Hours, I met many bright and motivated people aspiring to transition into the user research field. While there’s no right path to get into UX research, some common pathways include (from Gregg Bernstein’s book “Research Practice”):
- a transition from academia
- via university course or program
- shifting from adjacent fields (e.g., design, development) or fields where you apply similar skills (e.g., marketing)
- by accident or necessity (e.g., need to understand how to improve product at a startup)
For those trying to break into UX research, here are some tips and personal examples that I often share in mentorship sessions.
How I got in UX research
When I started my Communication & Media studies, I didn’t know anything about user research. I was on the path to work in marketing. But then, I was lucky to go on a student exchange program in Singapore. By accident, I took the user-centered design course offered by the Communications department there. As I started learning, I found my passion in shaping how products are built, instead of promoting them. So, I decided to change direction.
My career path has been privileged in many ways – starting from being a white woman without disabilities to having the opportunity to get a university degree (in a foreign country) and enough means to sustain myself (due to financial support from my family). My path was probably smoother than others’ without these privileges. While your circumstances and journey may be different, hopefully these tips may help you in one way or another.
5 Tips to get into UX research
#1 Identify which relevant experience you already have & tailor your background to UX research
- Start by understanding which experience and skills you need. For example, you can review UX researcher job descriptions, learn about relevant skills from UX researchers, and check existing research skills frameworks.
- Translate your current experience. On your CV, focus on showcasing the knowledge, key responsibilities and achievements that are relevant for UX researcher job. You probably already have relevant skills that you could apply in user research. Pay attention to the keywords and tailor your experience to the job description. Companies may use the so-called applicant tracking systems that scan your resume for specific keywords before it even reaches recruiters. If you didn’t have a ‘UX researcher’ title, add something about your desire to transition in UX research – it may increase your chances to get past ‘resume robots’.
How I did it: When I was trying to get into UX research, I wasn’t starting from scratch. My Bachelor of Communication Science gave me knowledge and practice with both qualitative and quantitative methods. On my CV, I highlighted interviewing experience in previous marketing roles (while the purpose was different, the skills were relevant). I also highlighted the collaborations with multi-disciplinary stakeholders (e.g., as a marketing manager, I worked with design & development). Finally, I showcased experience with communications and creating artifacts (e.g., blog articles, reports, infographics). These skills are transferable and could help with storytelling and communicating research findings.
#2 Get real-world UX research experience
This is relevant if you lack (UX) research experience or want to build examples for your CV, portfolio and hiring interviews. Getting experience doesn’t mean you have to land a UX researcher job – you could, for example:
- Do some UX research projects on the side. Think of volunteering for an organization, freelancing, doing projects for friends & family or startup hubs.
- Incorporate some design thinking & UX research practices into your (current) job. If your role and organization allow for it, do small things on the side like running usability testing or interviews with your target audience. Or, get creative: e.g., treat your team as users, understand their experience, needs, pains, and suggest improvements to internal processes. In one mentorship session, I met someone who focused on improving the internal processes of their quality assurance team. They interviewed team members, identified their pains, opportunity areas and, ultimately, changed the processes (great example of impact!). Someone else from academia applied design thinking to improve students’ classroom experience.
- Sign up for user research training or course that has an applied aspect. This means that you get to practice (besides learning theory), or even do a UX design/research project.
How I did it: I was lucky to follow a user-centered design course during my studies which gave me the opportunity to do a UX research & design project to build a mobile application. This helped me build a UX research case for job applications. When I worked in marketing, I also conducted research (e.g., interviewed the target audience, analyzed user behavior with Google Analytics). These are some examples of incorporating research activities into your role.
#3 Immerse yourself in UX
Get familiar with the UX field, its terminology, the product/tech context, different roles UX researchers work with, etc. This will also help you to effectively translate your current experience and tailor it to UX research (Tip #1). There are plenty of resources and ways to engage with the community. Choose what suits your preferred learning and interaction approach:
- For a more synchronous approach, sign up for meetups, conferences & events (many are free, and you can also sometimes get a discount if you are, for example, a student/unemployed), join a UX research community, find a mentor (e.g. UX Coffee Hours, Ladies that UX) and talk to people in the field.
How I did it: The first UX book I read was “Designing Interactive Systems: A comprehensive guide to HCI and interaction design”. It offered an extensive introduction to the field and was part of the reading materials for the user-centered design course. Since then, I wanted to ‘absorb’ it all. So, I started reading one after another articles and books about UX, research and product development. I also connected with the professor teaching the course (later, he ended up at Google) asking for tips and feedback on my CV/motivation letter. Among the things he mentioned was “See if you can highlight more how you are going to combine your past work in marketing research with user-centered design”, or “Emphasize your ability to work in cross-disciplinary teams”. His feedback helped me a lot to improve and prepare for the job search.
#4 Apply even if unsure/imperfect fit
The worst that can happen if you apply is that you get a rejection, but there’s at least a chance to be invited for an interview. With every application, you increase your chances. If you don’t apply, there’s no chance.
- Apply even if your experience doesn’t fully match the job requirements. Sometimes, companies can take a chance on you and hire based on potential. However, you do need to effectively translate your current experience (Tip #1) and have a solid motivation. Craft an engaging motivation letter, if you are particularly interested in an organization.
- Apply even if there’s no position available. Consider open applications, especially for organizations that you’d be particularly excited to join. This means reaching out to an organization even if they do not have an open role. It’s how I got into the field (see below).
- Apply for a non-UX research role & enter the field indirectly. It might be difficult to jump straight away into UX research, so consider starting off in a different role. There may be potential to grow in the future, or opportunities to learn from UX researchers at the organization.
- Apply for a traineeship/ apprenticeship/ graduate program. These are (often, year-long) programs where you get on-the-job training, so you don’t need to have a lot of experience in the field when applying. Depending on the program, you may explore different disciplines, or rotate across products/departments. If you don’t find UX research programs, consider those in adjacent fields (e.g., UX design, Product management, Data analytics, etc.).
How I did it: After taking the user-centered design course, I was trying to get a UX research internship. At that time, there were no such internships available (in Europe). So, I decided to make an open application. For example, I noticed that Booking.com had many UX research roles open for hiring, so I figured they needed user research resources (a win-win for them and me!). I reached out wondering about the internship opportunity and offering my candidacy. Later, I was lucky to become the first UX research intern in the company. 6 months after, I was offered a junior UX researcher role.
#5 Get into an organization with existing UX research team and practice
While this may not help to get into user research, you will learn much faster and get the support you need at the start of your journey. Alternatively, if you start in an organization that does not have existing UX research practice, you can look for mentors/coaches externally.
How I did it: When I worked in marketing at a startup, this was among my first jobs, and I was the only one. I did my best with the knowledge I had at the time, but felt that my growth was stalling, as “you don’t know what you don’t know”. During the UX research internship, I had the opposite experience. I could learn from my mentor and other UX researchers in the internal community. I feel that it would have taken me years if I were figuring things out on my own.
Read this article with Gregg Bernstein’s tips for UX research career and professional development and this article for advice related to having impact as a UX researcher, such as dealing with lack of buy-in and educating stakeholders.