UX researcher career – Q&A with Gregg Bernstein

On September 13th, UXinsight hosted a Q&A with Gregg Bernstein about his book “Research Practice: Perspectives from UX researchers in a changing field”. During this meetup, Gregg shared his thoughts on many burning questions, and we had a great group discussion with the participants! Did not attend the meetup? No worries – we summarized the most important learnings and tips. There were so many useful insights that we split them into two parts.

This article focuses on UX researcher career and professional development, covering tips for UX research job hunting and growing into the role of research manager. Our previous article focused on Gregg’s advice related to having impact as a UX researcher, such as dealing with lack of buy-in and educating stakeholders. Below are the quotes from Gregg Bernstein and, occasionally, others who contributed to the discussion.

There’s no one path to UX research. Do you foresee a future where the path to our role becomes more defined?

‘I don’t think it’s going to be more defined. I did not have a formal training as a researcher. Most of the people I worked with or hired didn’t have it. They came from random graduate programs, or they came from a design background.’

To say that there’s a more defined path – we are pulling up the ladder behind us and not giving other people the same opportunity to come into this field as we had.

Gregg Bernstein

‘Every organization has different needs. To say that there should be a clearly defined path would be a disservice to organizations that need different flavors of researchers. You see different UX certificate programs and courses – that’s helpful and it’s good training. But that doesn’t mean it should be the only way to get into UX research. People who get hired at IBM go through a mini university to learn how IBM does design research. But the way IBM does research may not apply for media or other software organizations. So, I don’t think there’s one way. And I like the variety of people I get to work with.’

How can you stand out in the application process to be invited to the interview?

Make sure you check the job application and deliver on specific requests

‘When I would hire, I would put a request in the UX researcher job posting for something specific. For example, “Tell me about the last thing you learned and why you learned it”. Or, “Tell me something you recently taught somebody else and why you taught them”. This was a screening mechanism because I wanted to see who is paying attention. It was astounding how many people missed the detail. I wasn’t asking for a lot – just a couple of paragraphs.’

Connect your background to what the job posting asks for

‘Explain your background in the cover letter but then actually connect it to what the job posting is asking for. For example, it may say “We need somebody who’s great at understanding why people subscribe to newsletters”. Even if you’ve never studied how people subscribed to newsletters, you can at least point to something in your past that indicates why you might be the person who could take this on, what skills you have, what you’ve done that may be somewhat analogous to that. As a hiring manager, it makes it easy for me to not have to guess if your skills are a match for what we’re looking for.’

Your cover letter should say: My skills are a match, and here’s how.

Gregg Bernstein

Don’t use a generic cover letter

‘Find one or two things in the job posting that you can deliver on and explicitly share that in your cover letter. This will put you ahead of other people who use a generic cover letter saying “Here’s what I’ve done, hope to hear from you soon.’

Make sure you get the company name right ?

‘One last thing. Most people are applying for multiple jobs. I got so many cover letters at Vox that said: It would be my dream to work with you at Google. They just copy and paste the cover letter and forget to change things. This happens all the time. Just make sure that you send the right letter to the right hiring manager.’

What questions do you recommend UX researchers to ask during the interview process to set themselves up for success?

Get to know your manager

‘Something I’ve noticed from my own job searches in the past few years is that you might not interview one on one with the person who’s going to be your manager. So, make sure you’re clear on who your direct manager would be and that you have a chance to speak to that person.’

Try to understand the context you’ll be stepping into

‘I like to ask why did this role open up in the first place? When did you decide you needed a researcher? And if they say “We had a UX researcher but they left”, ask why they left. You want to cover not only the job but also the scenario in which you’ll be stepping in. Is this a place that has trouble promoting researchers? The company may not tell you this. But you may want to uncover as much context as possible about how your role originated, and what success might look like. I like to uncover how decisions are made – is it top-down or collaborative, who’s involved in decisions and what are the sources of truth. I want to know all the details that I’ll be facing on day one.’

Ask as many questions as possible & advocate for the time to do so

‘Often, when you’re interviewing, you’re just trying to answer questions. You need to make sure that you’re asking as many questions as possible. Advocate for the time to ask questions so you’re not stepping into any unknowns.’

It is also a good way to show your research skills. If you are asking good questions, I’d assume you are a good researcher.

Karin den Bouwmeester (from the group discussion)

What traits are you looking for when hiring a UX researcher?

‘I’m looking for people who…

  • Are curious
  • Ask great questions
  • Have excellent communication skills. This could mean verbal or written or visual skills – people who can take what they learn and share it in a way that makes sense.
  • Are ok with ambiguity and have a flexible mindset about this work. The projects may differ from sprint to sprint. One quarter may be nothing but usability testing, and the next quarter is a lot of in-depth interviews. So, finding someone who is ok switching gears and projects entirely. You need somebody who is ok with this situation and knows that what’s true today may be different tomorrow.’

There are individual contributor and managerial paths in UX research. How do you know which one suits you best?

Consider a UX research manager role if…

‘Are you somebody who wants to be a professional sounding board for others on your team? Do you want to be the person who says, “Yes, this is the right approach, or let’s think about different ways to do it”? Or, somebody who protects your colleagues’ time from too many projects and requests? Do you want to be the person who’s the shield and the umbrella for them? If you’re interested in that, then it can be a sign that you may want to move into management. Some researchers need career advice and perspective on how to get to the next level.’

If you want to be a manager, that’s the stuff you’ll be prioritizing: how do I protect the time, how do I prioritize the work, how do I give advice on best practices, how do I stage the work so we are doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right teams?

Gregg Bernstein

‘If you want to do that instead of being the person running research, then management is wonderful and rewarding. Sometimes you get to do both – be a player/coach, you get to manage a team while doing research. But that often is unsustainable and doesn’t end up lasting because you end up doing one or the other.’

You can switch throughout your career

‘You can become a research manager for a while, and then decide that you want to be an individual contributor later. It’s not like you pick one thing and you’re stuck doing it forever. Generally, if you’re more interested in talking about research at large and setting the stage for research vs setting up research, doing the recruitment, doing synthesis, then research management is awesome. I love being a resource for my team, and answering questions, and working with stakeholders to figure out how we can serve their needs.’

How to create a good balance of skills in a UX research team?

Bring in specific skills based on organizational demands

‘At Mailchimp, the leadership was interested in what competitors were doing – features they launched, headcount they opened, marketing language they used. We needed someone to study competitors and organize a database of findings. To me, that sounded like a library scientist – somebody who would create a filing system and a taxonomy. That was different from a qualitative researcher who’d be doing interviews and usability testing. So, that was a specific research approach that would complement the other work we were doing.’

You want to bring in the researchers that will bring you the skillset and the perspective that you need.

Gregg Bernstein

‘I also brought in somebody from the customer support team who was living and breathing customer data. They knew the ins and outs of the product, and what was hard about it from the customer perspective. They were already sharing this research with us anyway. Why not bring this person into the research team where they can bring that perspective internally? So, I have brought in different skills just based on the demands of the team at the time.’

A big thanks to Gregg and everyone who participated in the UXinsight meetup! Check out also this article with Gregg Bernstein’s tips for being UX research team of one, educating & training stakeholders, dealing with lack of buy-in and partnering with other insight functions.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Anna Efimenko

Anna Efimenko (she/her)

With a decade of experience in the research field, Anna is passionate about designing experiences informed by data and driven by empathy. For a big part of her career, she supported multi-disciplinary teams at using qualitative and quantitative data to inform product design, strategy, KPIs and organisational structure. She is excited about mixed-methods research and collaborations with other insights disciplines (e.g., analytics, data science, customer service). Anna loves to contribute to UX research community through mentorship and knowledge exchange.

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