How to Become a UX Researcher (No Experience Needed)
If you have a knack for understanding people and figuring out what makes them tick, a career in user experience (UX) research might just be the right fit for you. In this article, we’ll show you how to become a UX researcher and give you a few insights into what career training opportunities and job prospects are available in the field.
UX researchers give businesses, designers and developers valuable insights into user behaviors and psychology; these detective-techies tease apart the rationales that drive people to think, feel, and act in specific ways when encountering a website or an app or even a piece of software. It’s an exciting gig for the right person — so if you think you might be a good fit, keep reading.
User experience research has become crucial to running a successful modern business. As designer Jacob Gube explains in an article for Smashing Magazine, “Websites and Web applications have become progressively more complex as our industry’s technologies and methodologies advance […] but regardless of how much has changed in the production process, a website’s success still hinges on just one thing: how users perceive it.”
UX describes how people feel when they interact with a system or service and encompasses several factors including usability, design, marketing, accessibility, performance, comfort, and utility. A person’s experience when they visit a website can dramatically impact and even change their perception of a company or a service — for better, and for worse.
Think of a banking website. Consumers expect their virtual financial experiences to be crisp, intuitive, and as formal as any in-person interactions would be at a physical branch. How odd and off-putting would it be to expect that level of professionalism and instead find the casual quirkiness of a gaming website? What works for one audience and intent certainly won’t work for all!
As UX guru Don Norman once shared in an interview, “Everything has a personality; everything sends an emotional signal. Even where this was not the intention of the designer, the people who view the website infer personalities and experience emotions. Bad websites have horrible personalities and instill horrid emotional states in their users, usually unwittingly. We need to design things — products, websites, services — to convey whatever personality and emotions are desired.”
This isn’t just theory; it’s backed up by facts. When companies invest in UX research and design, they tend to see higher levels of customer acquisition and retention as well as reduced support costs because their products and services are more intuitive and easy to use. These companies also tend to enjoy a higher share of the market for their industry. In 2018, researchers for McKinsey’s report on the business case for good design found that companies that scored in the top quartiles of the research firm’s Design Index outperformed industry benchmarks by two-to-one. As the report’s authors write, “Top-quartile MDI scorers increased their revenues and total returns to shareholders (TRS) substantially faster than their industry counterparts did over a five-year period — 32 percentage points higher revenue growth and 56 percentage points higher TRS growth for the period as a whole.”
Predictably, this high potential for gain has kickstarted an intense demand for UX professionals. In 2019, researchers for Onward Search’s Digital, Creative and Marketing Professionals Salary Guide ranked UX designer as the second-most in-demand job in the marketing and design sector, while user interface (UI) design came in third, and user researchers hovered in 14th place. The data is in: if you want a satisfying and in-demand career, you can’t do much better than UX.
Let’s talk about how you can become a UX researcher and kickstart your career in this high-potential field.
What Do UX Researchers Do?
It’s a no-brainer: all businesses want to appeal to their customers. Their survival depends on doing so — and given this, companies have long tried to craft an experience that their customers find pleasant. With the meteoric rise of e-commerce and consumers’ increasing interest in living more of their lives online, UX research has become a specialized profession in its own right. In 2017, a research initiative that sought to investigate the business benefits of user research found that 49 percent of surveyed executives believed that UX research made their company more efficient, while 56 percent believed that it improved the quality of their products or services.
These benefits are the result of UX researchers’ work to gather insights and information about what customers need, what they prefer, and how they react. UX researchers use both quantitative and qualitative methods to examine and improve the user experience. These research methods encompass everything from simple online surveys to full-scale prototype designs.
For example, UX researchers might use observation to determine user behaviors and feelings or understand consumers’ mental models (i.e., what they believe about the website or software). They might send out impersonal surveys to user groups, run face-to-face interviews with users of a site or product, or carry out hands-on usability tests to assess customer preferences. Then, after the information-gathering phase is complete, UX researchers can analyze the collected data to identify patterns and trends that will then guide design and development decisions for digital products, software, or websites.
Qualifications and Skills That Employers Look For
If you want to know how to become a user experience researcher, there are certain skills, qualifications, and experience levels that are essential to this field. While clients, products and research goals vary widely across roles, all UX professionals need to master the fundamentals. Below, we’ve listed a few of the most important qualifications and skills to develop when considering how to become a user experience researcher.
Design thinking might have been developed in 1969, but it hasn’t faded with the times. If anything, our growing reliance on digital experiences has made the organizational framework more critical. A design thinking approach helps designers handle complex problems and keep the user in mind at all times. It forces a UX researcher to step into their target users’ metaphorical shoes and, in doing so, empowers them to predict, define, and solve the issues users may face. UX research skills are a significant part of design thinking and are invaluable in analyzing user response throughout the process.
User-Centered Design Research
User-centered design aims to put a product’s end user at the center of all design plans. Rather than attempting to cast a wide net, this design philosophy homes in on a target user and allows developers to create a project with that ideal user’s needs, goals, and preferences in mind.
UX research is, as you might expect, a crucial part of this process. Without it, this type of design becomes mostly guesswork. Eventually, it devolves into an exploration of what the project’s developers think they would want as users — a dangerous shift, given that what appeals to the site developers might not align with the target user’s needs and preferences. The application of UX research skills is thus essential to the success of user-centered design plans.
Basic descriptions are all well and good, but when a researcher needs to define an ideal user, understanding how to apply their UX research skills to develop and use a persona is critical. A persona describes an imagined ideal or typical user of a website or product and empowers UX researchers to make sense of the information gathered through user research. A persona reflects the needs and wants of broad user groups by collating the attitudes, skills, technical background, patterns, and environment of typical users. UX researchers for a banking app, for example, might build a persona that incorporates their customers’ likely financial knowledge or probable tech-savviness. A UX researcher may even opt to include direct user information, such as specific quotes obtained through user research, into their persona.
Keeping that persona in mind, UX researchers and developers can build empathy with their users and better understand their expectations and needs. Personas allow researchers to go beyond vague imaginations of what users might and might not like and narrow in on a user’s actual experience. When applied, these personas respond to the specific context of a site or piece of software, reflecting the real users of that product and giving designers more accurate insights into what does and doesn’t work well.
What does a user do, and when? If a UX designer doesn’t have a clear understanding of how consumers progress through a given app or website, they won’t know how to optimize the user’s journey. Mapping is a critical skill for UX researchers, as it allows them to use their collected observations to create an annotated timeline of a user’s journey. A UX map provides an expansive overview of user touchpoints. It demonstrates how decisions made at these touchpoints can create diverging decision “branches” and lead to positive or — depending on the “branch” — negative experiences. Having a visual representation of the highs and lows of a user’s journey can help UX professionals identify and address the touchpoints and decisions that spark poor experiences.
Every UX researcher needs to know how to conduct usability testing. While it can be tempting for companies to avoid spending the time — and the money — that proper user testing requires, investing in the process can help project developers avoid severe pitfalls and tailor the end product to user preferences.
Put simply, user testing tells developers whether they’ve hit or missed the mark. The testing process gauges whether users can successfully navigate the site or app, complete essential tasks, and receive the information they need. It flags common user errors and notes any features that, while intuitive for developers, routinely mystify end users. As a UX researcher, you might even test competitor products alongside your own to find out how users’ experiences differ between the two. When initiated early during the development process and repeated regularly, this type of UX research can help designers and developers produce a successful, user-intuitive product.
As in any specialized field, aspiring UX professionals must know the tools of their trade. Of particular note, the popular prototyping, workflow and collaboration app called InVision is a must-know skill for UX researchers. Imagine being able to create a prototype of your incomplete app, and having the ability to conduct user tests as if your users were working with the real, fully functioning website or app. The prototypes allow instant feedback, commenting, and other specialized features that feed into an overall UX analysis. This interactive platform enables researchers to test the interactive parts of a site, rather than relying on screenshots, images, or PDFs that do not fully replicate the final experience. InVision isn’t just a collaboration tool; it also provides fully featured design software and integrates with other popular products in Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite.
Software skills and research aptitude will only ever get you so far in the job market. Soft skills — those concerned with being a good team member and professional — are just as vital as any niche technical capability. Given that learning from and listening to users is at the heart of UX, developing your empathy and ability to communicate is a must. If you can’t communicate well or maintain an open mind, you’ll never manage to see beyond your own opinions and identify what matters to your user. As odd as it might sound, learning how to be an empathetic, thoughtful, and perceptive person may serve you better as a UX researcher than any technical guide.
How to Become a UX Researcher
When it comes to education, aspiring UX researchers have options. You don’t need to have years of experience in tech. Those in the social sciences, for example, are well-suited to UX research because the core competencies in both sectors overlap — though they often need to step up their working pace and alter their research methods to suit the tech sector’s fast pace. Similarly, professionals in marketing and communications fields often already have the user response and interaction training necessary to segue into UX research.
As researcher Nikki Anderson shared in an article for UX Collective, “One of the number one questions I get every week are people asking me how to break into the field of user research from another role or right after graduating. I speak with people from all different disciplines, some closer to user research, such as marketing, psychology or design, and others further away, such as accountants or writers […] Getting into user research was one of the least straight-forward paths I have taken, and that is often the case for most people breaking into this field.”
Regardless of whether you’re just starting out or want to change your professional path, expanding your knowledge and skill set is essential to kickstarting a new career in UX research. Let’s dive into a few options.
Places/Methods to Learn
There are countless paths that you can take to expand your educational horizons and gain the experience you need to become a UX researcher. Which one works best for you?
While career interest in UX has grown, there are still relatively few undergraduate degree programs explicitly dedicated to UX research. There are master’s programs for the profession — but even those rarely require any background training in the discipline. That said, if you want to become a UX researcher and are planning on enrolling in a four-year undergraduate program, there are a few majors that will prepare you for the field. These include standby options from computer science and information systems to design, psychology, and even anthropology.
Of course, this is a better option for people who have never received a four-year degree or who have the time and money to go back to school full-time. People who have already graduated and want to stay in the workforce may look for other, faster options to explore this exciting career path.
Boot camps are another option that can help you complete a successful career transition into UX research. These short programs are designed to provide an intensive educational experience and quick entry into tech hiring pools. They are well-suited to learners who have either already left university or don’t have the time to enroll in a four-year degree program. Because boot camps offer a variety of full-time, part-time, and online options, they tend to also be more flexible for those who need to juggle working or family responsibilities during their academic journey. Such programs have seen a meteoric rise over the last several years; between 2018 and 2019 alone, Course Report found that boot camps grew an incredible 49 percent.
While boot camps are most often associated with coding or software development, there are also specific programs for those interested in UX research. Explore your options to see if an intensive learning program could suit your situation and career interests.
Who says that learning has to happen in person? If you’re ambitious and self-directed, you may want to use self-guided resources to structure your foray into UX research. An abundance of learning opportunities is available online, from tutorials and discussion forums to virtual courses. These offer price-conscious or time-constrained learners a chance to take their education into their own hands — and even once you enter your career, these sites can be an essential part of lifelong learning and job advancement.
Keep in mind, however, that free online self-guided resources often lack the support and structure that degree programs or boot camps provide. Do your research before you commit to an educational path.
How to Get Hired
Once you gain the education and skills you need, it’ll be time to look for a job in the UX field. Your boot camp or university may have a career assistance office that can help you land internships and interviews with leading technology companies, which can, in turn, evolve into valuable full-time career opportunities.
Do your research; make sure to check out job boards, especially the specialized ones provided by your boot camp or university career center. Networking, attending conferences, and actively participating in the UX research community can all put you in good stead to find a great job. When you get the interview you want, prepare in advance to make the best impression possible, and show off your ability to communicate and listen effectively.
User experience research is a rapidly growing profession at the heart of today’s tech industry. With tremendous upward potential and opportunities for people with a wide range of skills and backgrounds, UX research can be an exciting and rewarding career. Will online learning, tech boot camps, or a university degree be the right option for you? Explore your training options and forge a path that will allow you to become a UX researcher according to your own timeline and educational preferences.