Getting Started as a UX Researcher: Tips and Resources
More and more companies are beginning to recognize the importance of user-centered design. Understanding customers and designing solutions that serve their needs is quickly becoming a business priority. And because of that, the demand for UX researchers is growing.
In some situations, people who don’t have any UX research experience are falling into this role at their company. And sometimes researchers from totally different sectors of the market are being hired to do user research.
If you recently decided to make a career out of UX research, or if you transitioned into the role of UX researcher, this article is for you. I’m going to give you a few tips and resources to help you develop your skills and improve as a researcher as quickly as possible.
You don’t have to be an expert to get started
When you’re just getting started in UX research there’s two ways you can go about it. One way is to read as many books as you can and learn the proper way to do everything before you start. This is the natural approach for many people because they feel like they need to get a few basic skills under their belt before they can offer anything valuable to their team. But there’s a critical flaw in that approach.
Here’s the thing: UX research is a skill just like anything else. And when we first start practicing a skill, we’re generally not very good at it. There’s no way to avoid making mistakes when you first get started. It doesn’t matter how much you read or how many courses you take, you’re never going to be perfect.
Even if you spent six months educating yourself and learning about UX research best practices, you’re still not going to be very good at it. You’re still going to ask leading questions, be completely biased, and make all sorts of other mistakes at first — you’ll just be six months late.
Start moderating sessions right away
So instead of waiting until you feel qualified, jump right in. Start moderating sessions, observing user behavior, asking them questions, and learn as you go. You’re going to make mistakes, and that’s normal when you're getting started.
This approach might be more difficult in the short term, but it's far more beneficial in the long term. You’ll start honing your powers of observation right away, and you’ll quickly get better at identifying patterns of user behavior. And the sooner you can do that, the better UX researcher you’re going to be.
Start honing your powers of observation right away, and you’ll quickly get better at identifying patterns of user behavior.
You’ll learn what the best practices are from trying things and seeing what worked and what didn’t. You can’t read a list of best practices and then automatically understand how to apply them in a real situation. It’s something that you have to hone and practice over time. And part of that is just doing a lot of user research.
So just start doing it and don’t be afraid to completely fall flat on your face. It’s going to happen inevitably, so your best bet is to get your mistakes out of the way as early and quickly as possible.
I can’t emphasize this enough: just jump in.
Set up studies and start observing users. Watch people, ask them questions, listen to them, and write down what you observe.
The cool thing that nobody tells you is that test participants will give you just as much insight about how you could make your tests better as they do about the product they’re testing. You just have to listen to them.
Shadow experienced researchers
Most UX researchers are extremely busy, and they have a lot of extra work that needs to get done. Luckily for you, this extra work doesn’t require any technical skills --- if you can take notes, then you can be valuable to them.
Ask an experienced researcher if you can sit in on one of their moderated sessions and take notes for them. As long as you’re able to listen to directions and get the notes back to them in a reasonable amount of time, most researchers would be glad to let you help.
This gives you a great excuse to work with researchers who have way more experience than you, and to learn from them. Every time you get a chance to sit in on a session, observe how the researcher leads their sessions. What do they do? What questions do they ask?
Be like a sponge. Try to get as much information as you can from them while you’re doing the study. Ask them questions about how they think about specific problems and listen to what they say.
You can also ask to sit in on their debrief reports, so you can see how they present the information to stakeholders. Your goal here is to learn how to present research effectively so it actually gets used.
Take people out to coffee
Identify three to five people you respect who’ve been doing UX research for a long time. Set up a coffee meeting with these people and pick their brain. Ask them what you need to be looking at, what you need to be doing, and what resources they use to stay up to speed.
Listen to what they say and use their experience as a model for your own education. Figure out how you can apply what they’ve shared with you and start putting it into practice.
Do your homework
Once you’ve gotten started conducting studies, honing your craft, and shadowing and talking to other researchers, it’s time to start doing your homework. Books, blogs, podcasts, courses, and conferences can be be helpful tools for improving as a UX researcher --- but remember --- there’s no substitute for hands-on practice.
Passively consuming content is easy, but it won’t make you a better researcher. Take the lessons you learn and apply them to your work. That is what’s going to make you an asset to your team. Here are the resources we suggest:
These books will give you a solid foundation in the basics of UX research:
- Just Enough Research
- Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner's Guide to User Research
- UX for Lean Startups: Faster, Smarter User Experience Research and Design
- Quantifying the User Experience: Practical Statistics for User Research
- Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights
- Usability Testing Essentials: Ready, Set... Test!
- It's Our Research: Getting Stakeholder Buy-in for User Experience Research Projects
If you finish those books and you're also interested in learning about the fundamentals of UX design, check out these books too.
Here are a few articles about UX you should read as well:
- UI, UX: Who Does What? A Designer's Guide To The Tech Industry
- So you wanna be a user experience designer --- Step 2: Guiding Principles
- 10 Most Common Misconceptions About User Experience Design
- When to Use Which User-Experience Research Methods
- When to Test: Incorporating User Testing into Product Design
- Lessons From An Expert: What to Test
- Setting Clear Objectives for Your UX Research
And here’s a list of our favorite UX blogs. Find a couple that you enjoy and follow them.
- UIE Brain Sparks --- This is the podcast of Jared Spool, founder of User Interface Engineering. It includes interviews and keynote speeches from leading UX professionals like Brad Frost, Luke W, Jeff Gothelf.
- Dollars to Donuts --- Master interviewer Steve Portigal talks with the people who lead user research in their organization. Fascinating stories about how research is being integrated in large companies like Citrix, Edmunds, and Etsy.
- UXPod --- Interviews and thought provoking discussions about user experience, user research, website design, and usability in general.
- Boxes and Arrows --- Interviews with professionals in the field of information architecture, interaction design, and user experience.
There are active groups and local events that happen all over the country. Check these resources to find a meetup near you:
- User Experience Meetups
- UXPA Local Chapters
- SIGCHI Local Chapters
- UXNight (If you’re in the Bay Area)
If you want to travel to some beautiful cities and meet other talented and inspiring people in the field of UX, here are the conferences we recommend:
- UX Week from Adaptive Path
- Usability Week from Nielsen Norman Group
- User Interface Conference from User Interface Engineers
- 30+ Top UX Conferences of 2015
- The Design of Everyday Things from Udacity
- User Experience Certification Course from Nielsen Norman Group
- Foundation of Design Research from Lynda.com
If you’re interested in UX courses that cover topics like customer-centered design, usability and user experience (not just research), here’s our recommended list of certification programs for UX professionals.
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