UX Research seems to be one of those careers: everybody in it is a life-long learner. It’s a great fit for the naturally curious, and for people with a strong investigative bent. I’m lucky to be part of a UX research team at HubSpot whose members strive to collaborate, share lessons learned, and teach each other different ways of working so we can all grow. And as we all remember what it was like to be starting out in the field, we also love to mentor junior researchers as they learn and mature in their career.
But I also frequently hear from people who are outside of the UX Research field and are wondering how to break into it. More often than not, these people are ready and willing to put in the time to study up (did I mention it’s an attractive career field for people who love to learn new things?) — it’s just that they’re not sure where to start.
In this post, I’ll share the advice I usually give to folks who are on the path towards their first job in UX Research. That advice comes in two flavors: talking the talk, and walking the walk.
Talking the Talk
Like most careers, UX Research has its own unique vocabulary. If you’re an aspiring researcher, you can give yourself a leg up by learning some of the key terms from the field. Learning the lingo does more than just boost your own awareness and understanding of this type of work — it also lets you have more informed conversations with UX professionals when you’re networking or interviewing.
Here’s a quick cheat sheet of useful talking points you’ll hear often in this line of work:
UX Research Methods
Methods are the processes or procedures a researcher applies to a particular problem space or research question. Becoming acquainted with the following methods is a great way to show you’re familiar with the day-to-day duties of a UX Researcher:
- Usability testing
- Ethnography (or Field Studies)
- First-click Testing
- Card Sorts
- Tree Tests
- Diary Studies
Remember: when you’re just starting out, it’s OK (in fact, it’s great) to talk the talk before you’ve walked the walk. For instance, here at HubSpot we’re thrilled when a junior UX Research candidate can give us an example of a method they’ve never used, but that they’d like to try (and why). Even if you don’t have experience with all the methods in the list above, understanding what they are and when you might employ them means you’ll be ready to act when a research project comes your way.
Types of UX Research
UX Research can take many different forms based on the project’s goals and stage. You’ll often hear about three key types of research:
- Generative or Foundational Research
- Strategic Research
- Evaluative Research
It’s worth reading up on these types of UX Research from other sources, but one way I like to explain these three stages is by pairing them to the kinds of research questions they answer.
Generative research helps product teams answer questions that fall into the scope of “What should we build?” or “Who are we building for?”
Strategic research is the type of research that tackles the the question “How should we build it?”
Evaluative research is more retroactive, looking back at a product that was built and released to users. Evaluative research asks “How well did we build it? How effectively did we solve for our users?”
UX Research Stakeholders
UX Research isn’t done in a vacuum. One of the most important parts of being a researcher is partnering with the rest of the folks who, in their own way, bring a product to life. They need your research expertise to improve their product, and these stakeholders are intimately affected by and have a stake in your research findings.
The particular roles your stakeholders will have vary widely depending on your context as a researcher. But if you’re interested in working in a tech company, like we do at HubSpot, you can probably expect to work closely with folks with the following titles:
- Product Designers
- Product Managers
- Front-End Engineers
- Back-End Engineers
- Data analysts or Product Analysts
As you learn about the field of UX Research, it can be just as valuable to network with people in the roles above as it is to network with current researchers. Discussing how they work and how they like to work with a UX Researcher can give you a valuable sense of what it’s like to fit in as a member of a product development team.
Walking the Walk
In most conversations I have with prospective UX Researchers, there comes a point when they ask: What can I do to get some real experience with UX Research? They want to know how to start walking the walk as well as talking the talk.
It may seem daunting to get your first taste of user research before landing a UX Research role, and in fact, it’s not strictly required. UX Research is a career field without a single standard way of training. Many people are able to successfully land a first UX Research role through combinations of self-study, taking some classes, or making the case for how their skills and experiences are transferable to UX Research.
But if you’re raring to go and want to learn about UX Research by doing, there are some simple ways to practice your core skills, and to show prospective employers that you’ve taken the initiative to do the work on your own. Here are three ways you can get some experience with relevant UX Research skills and methods before landing your first gig.
Conduct a Heuristic Evaluation
You might be ready to brush up on user research skills, but not quite ready to put the ‘user’ in user research by studying or observing other people using a product. And that’s okay — you can start by applying some systematic and analytical thinking to the assessment of a website or application by yourself.
In a Heuristic Evaluation, a site or app is rigorously evaluated and rated against a particular set of guidelines or “heuristics.” One well known set of heuristics used in the field of usability and UX Research are Jakob Nielsen’s 10 Usability Heuristics. As an evaluator in this kind of project, you’ll systematically work through all components of an application and rate them against your chosen heuristics to arrive at a conclusion about how well the application meets those standards.
Nielson is a well-known figure in the user research field and just familiarizing yourself with his work will make you a well-read prospective UX Research candidate. But regardless of the heuristics you might use, conducting an evaluation like this gets you thinking clearly and systematically about the design and functionality of a software product. In other words, it gets you thinking like a UX Researcher.
User Test Your Favorite App
Just because you don’t own a particular website or application doesn’t mean you can’t study how people interact with it. Have a favorite app or website? Or maybe one you don’t think is that great?
Get a feeling for how it could be improved by asking some friends to be your users in a usability test of the site. Before you test, familiarize yourself with all the ins and outs of that site or software. Ask yourself what actions are most important to be able to take inside the application. Then, ask to observe your friends as they try to complete those tasks. That’s the structure of a very basic usability test.
Bonus points for sending your findings in to the maker of the site or app to provide them with some usability feedback!
Offer Your Services to a Local Business or University Business Club
If you really want to act as a formal researcher for a project, and have the chance to partner with stakeholders, learn about a team’s research questions, and then tackle those questions as their researcher, there are many worthy projects out there for which you can volunteer your time.
Many businesses don’t have the budget or time to employ a UX researcher, but any site, product or software application can benefit from user testing and study. Reach out to local small businesses and find out if they’d like to get a better understanding of how visitors are interacting with their website, and how well they can find the information they need. Or, contact your local university and connect with business, startup, or entrepreneurship clubs. You might find the founders of tomorrow’s next big startup waiting there, looking for someone to help them understand their prospective users or usability test their first product prototype.
Be creative, and don’t be shy about letting people know that working together can be a learning experience for you and for them.
I hope some of these tips are valuable to aspiring UX Researchers out there. Are there other tips you'd like to add to the list above? Let me know what you think in the comments, feel free to reach out with questions, and stay curious!