FAQs about User Experience (UX) Research

I am often asked questions about UX Research, by academics and others interested in getting into the field. Here are a few answers to frequently asked questions about how I’ve applied my experience as an academic anthropologist to my current role as a UX Researcher.

Q: What is UX Research?

A: This is a bigger question than it seems, and one I’ll probably spend much of my career trying to answer. For present purposes, I’ll say that UX Research is the process of conducting research that answers questions so that a team can build a product/design an experience that best fits its users’ needs. Early stages include generative research, from coming up with product ideas, to figuring out who users of the product might be, to mapping current processes and pain (or happiness) points. Later stages include evaluative research that tests design prototypes or analyzes usage data. Generative research is often qualitative, including observation, interviews, workshops, and surveys; evaluative research can be qualitative and quantitative, from usability interviews and testing to large scale surveys and data analytics. People in UX Research often come from social science, design, information science, or human computer interaction backgrounds.

Q: How can I make myself more hirable as a UX Researcher?

A: This depends on where you’re coming from, and what role you’re applying to. For a recent PhD, I would say the biggest challenge is to reframe the research you have done in a way that speaks to your track record in collecting and analyzing data and to your applied problem solving skills. You’ll also need a couple of case studies with typical UXR deliverables (more on this below). For someone in graduate school, you could apply for a UX internship with a large company or a startup while you’re in school, or do your dissertation in partnership with a company, or take some courses in design/HCI/data science/business strategy/agile product management depending on what you’d like to do eventually. Also, do an independent project while in school that shows your ability to collect and analyze the type of data you want to work with later, whether ethnographic, interviews, surveys, statistics, or analytics. For a recent UX Design bootcamp graduate or someone making a career pivot, how can you build on your past experience to show why you chose UX, and can you further your experience with a UX case study beyond what you did as part of the program/or show you can do a UX case study independently?

With any internship or volunteer/limited payment work opportunity, learn about the industry enough to be aware of what skills you want to learn in that position. Do you have a lot of generative research already on your record and need some evidence of evaluative research, or vice versa? Do you want to show you can design and conduct a research project on your own, as is required in most jobs? Do you want to learn the full process of how a digital product is made, or how a service is designed, or how a consulting firm works? Your time is valuable; set a time limit on these opportunities. Be strategic.

Q: What do you actually produce as a UX Researcher?

A: Because my particular experience has been with a small digital agency and now at a product accelerator, my work has been more focused on the early stage or generative side of product development. This means much of what I do is try to discover and present current experiences to figure out where the pain points are that a digital solution could address. For a new project, what I do chronologically generally includes: stakeholder interviews, subject matter expert interviews, desk research, identifying user types, writing screeners and recruiting, writing interview scripts, conducting user interviews, analyzing qualitative data (many methods), creating personas and journey maps, and presenting risks/mitigations, product recommendations, and prioritized features. I sometimes use affinity mapping, empathy maps, top task surveys, other surveys, and 2x2 matrices mapping features on importance to users to development effort or feasibility, for example. I also work with designers to create design prototypes, then write scripts for usability testing with these prototypes, conduct/document the tests, and present recommendations based on these findings. It’s important to note that much of the work I do falls beyond project work, such as education about UX research, mentoring, facilitating discussions, and aligning our processes with other teams.

Q: How do you make a UX Research portfolio?

A: First, some history. Qualitative research has been part of organizations outside academia for a long time. For cultural anthropologists working in the business world, qualitative research may be called corporate anthropology or corporate ethnography, business anthropology, organizational anthropology, or other things that reference a researcher observing and talking to people to learn about what they’re doing and what they think. We also do a fair amount of strategy because we are systems thinkers, which is another topic in itself. More recently, digital product development that uses design prototypes considers this type of research to be linked to the UX Design process in the stages of idea generation and concept/prototype testing. Designers are expected to have an online visual portfolio that presents case studies of their work; thus, UX Researchers are currently often expected to have the same.

I have to admit, the process of making a research portfolio was good for my ability to describe my background as a series of case studies. For my portfolio, I followed the common format: 1) What was the problem?; 2) What methods did I use to approach the problem?; and 3) What were the results? Depending on the project, I put in several steps and used lots of visuals throughout, especially of me conducting research myself (note: take pictures of yourself conducting research!). I included sticky notes and hand drawings. For my client projects, I asked my clients for testimonials on my LinkedIn, then asked directly if I could put those on my portfolio; they all said it was fine. I also asked a designer on my team and my manager to do the same. I did not include the designs that came out of my research, because they belong to the designer who made them and to the client.

Having seen a few candidate portfolios, I like to see how someone approaches questions and makes research decisions through these case studies. They are an opportunity to see how someone tells a story. I also like to see a few deliverables that clearly present their findings and recommendations. See below in “Resources” for more links about portfolios.

Q: How can I make my LinkedIn profile better?

So glad you asked! I see a lot of sub par LinkedIn profiles these days. Consider this one opinion in many, but here goes: 1) Have a professional looking photo! This should be mainly your face in good indirect lighting (not in full sun), in something you would wear to work. 2) Choose an interesting background photo. Many people choose colorful buildings, an interesting design, or a landscape that matters to them (this is what I chose, I have a mountain photo from Colorado). 3) Use your current title instead of a general title unless you don’t have a job or you are so senior it doesn’t matter where you work. 4) Write a short, engaging blurb about yourself in the description. Some people have a couple of paragraphs, but I chose to write just 2-3 sentences here which helps with skimming. Include a link to your portfolio directly in the description (you can also it add as a link). 5) Have work related stuff in your “Activity” section. Repost cool stuff about UX or comment on interesting articles, or broadcast about events you’re involved in. This makes you look engaged in the field. 6) If you are job hunting, you can call yourself “User Experience Researcher” at “Independent.” Maybe you have some consulting gigs during this time, but I think this is LinkedIn code for “I’m looking for a job.” 7) List your jobs in a succinct way that shows you have experience for the job you’re looking for. Don’t lie. Ever. But if you’ve done UX Design under different titles, and you want a UX Design job, list your title as “UX Designer” in every position where you were doing UX Design work. This makes you look consistent. 8) List your volunteer work or side work, but don’t overdo it. A few makes you look like a good person who has interests outside of work; too many makes you look overcommitted. 9) Make sure your resume and LinkedIn are consistent with each other.

Q: Do you have any advice for interviewing?

A: The most important question for me when interviewing a candidate is: Can they think through a UX research problem and clearly show me how they do it, using examples from their experience? Beyond this, my general interview advice is commonplace: 1) Give short (2-3 minute) answers; 2) Answer the question; 3) Use concrete examples; 4) Practice your answers out loud 2-3 times before your interview (better yet, have a friend do a mock interview with you). When I interviewed for my current role, the first round was a series of typical interview questions about my background that included talking about and showing case studies from my portfolio. I didn’t have access to the designs from the projects I was on, but I could describe how my research affected my design recommendations and show a few that were public websites. The second round was a workshop with a hypothetical UX Research question. I had to design and describe my approach to it, including timeline, activities, and deliverables in detail. It’s useful to be comfortable with writing this kind of plan out on a whiteboard and being able to speak about decisions from experience. Also, be a good ethnographer and do some research on the company and the people who might be interviewing you. Expect to be able to connect with designers, developers, managers and/or project managers in addition to researchers.

Q: Why would an anthropologist go into UX Research?

A: The simple answer to this question is methodological: Cultural anthropologists are trained in qualitative research methods, including ethnography, participant observation, fieldwork, interviewing, noting responses and observations, qualitative data analysis, and perhaps some survey/larger data set work. These are methods that are often used in UX Research, and these skills are a match for UX Research positions, so therefore an anthropology to UXR path is fairly common. Of course, part of this equation is that the academic job market for anthropology is pretty terrible and getting worse, from everything I hear, so other forms of stable employment are looking more attractive. (Side note: Applied anthropologists with a background in archaeology and biological anthropology are less likely than cultural anthropologists to end up in UXR for tech as opposed to CRM, museum work, or conservation, while linguistic anthropologists have a more straightforward connection to language processing work that is a big part of tech right now.)

However, I think there is a more complex and interesting answer to this question: I would argue that an anthropology background teaches a kind of thinking that is particularly useful in UXR. (Disclaimer: clearly, training in thinking/analysis is a feature of research in all disciplines, and is not unique to cultural anthropology, but this is the discipline I know best, so I’ll talk about it specifically here.) First, cultural anthropologists are used to moving from details to abstraction, quickly and with many different sets of data. This helps with pattern recognition and pulling insights from disaggregated and qualitative data, and in making connections between different data points. Second, we are systems thinkers and therefore are adept at strategic thinking. Our training in understanding complex social systems helps us think about how different pieces of a product or experience come together, and how to position it best for users/customers. Third, we understand the importance of building personal relationships in an organization. We cannot get anywhere in the field without cultivating trust and real relationships with the people around us; the same is true in an organization. Fourth, we know how to listen. This skill is key whether interviewing users or interacting with colleagues at work. At times, I’ve had to remind myself to stay in “researcher mode” when interacting with co-workers; listening is so important to building relationships, and this can be part of our contribution to an organization’s culture. Fifth, product work is about understanding how to prioritize certain work over other work, and anthropological thinking trains us to ask “why” constantly, which helps get to a product’s core value proposition. The way we ask questions can thus show which area of effort is most important for a product.

Q: How did you go from a PhD in Anthropology to a job in UX Research for tech?

A: This is a long one. As an academic, I was interested in both more theoretical research questions and applied approaches. I did a BA in Anthropology and a Masters in Urban Planning. I gained some applied experience in economic development and was working for a research center on urbanization when I realized I wanted to study questions of livelihood and place as an anthropologist, so I returned to school for a PhD. About halfway through my program, I started reaching out to applied anthropologists working mainly in technology, learning about their journeys and current experiences. I learned about design thinking and read some foundational books in the field. The organization EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference) and the design consulting firm IDEO are good places to start.

I completed my Anthropology PhD in 2016, with a project on gender in tech in India. I taught two of my own courses at local universities as contingent faculty. I enjoyed mentoring students, bringing guest lecturers doing applied work to class, and giving my students short fieldwork assignments. But I didn’t love other aspects of academia, and was open to exploring other ways to be an anthropologist. So I began to network locally with people working in qualitative research and design thinking, and found they were often in the role of User Experience (UX) Researcher or UX Designer. I had over a decade of experience in qualitative research, but I didn’t really know how to frame that in terms of what a company would need.

I began the real journey into UX Research in January 2017. On the recommendation of one of my contacts, I took a four week online course through DesignLab on UX Research and Strategy, which helped me frame the research I already knew how to do in terms of deliverables that support product development. I turned my personal website—created when I was on the academic job market—into a site for this new career, and I made a research portfolio. I went to Boulder Startup Week to learn and network. I started applying for jobs around April 2017, and made it to the final round with a few large companies, only to not get the job because of my lack of UX Research specific experience. After four months of this my student and credit card debt was looming, and I worried this career change was a terrible mistake. I decided to stop applying and start working. I reached out to two female startup founders I met at BSW, and ended up doing month-long volunteer UXR projects for them.

I continued networking and meeting people at interesting companies for coffees. It happened that one morning I had one of these coffees with someone at the Denver software design and development agency Spire Digital, and that afternoon a recruiter I had given my information to called with a contract opportunity with them. In my interview I talked mainly about my volunteer UXR work. I started the following day with a client kickoff meeting, and I spent the next week conducting qualitative research with the client on how to move an ordering system online. The clients were happy with my report, and Spire hired me full time ten days later. Agency work was good training—I learned about many different industries and how to figure out client needs quickly. I learned about working with designers and developers, and how lean and agile processes work. However, as a researcher without design training, I was hired as a bit of an experiment, and after six months they did not have enough research work for me. I understood why; they had tried to find more work for me, and it wasn’t sustainable. Still, leaving was a low point. Would I find another job?

I alerted my network that I was looking for a new role. Meanwhile, I searched for other local design/dev agencies, and I came across one that sounded interesting called Quick Left. Something the founder wrote on her LinkedIn site about agency work resonated with me, and I took a chance and reached out to her. It happened that the company had been acquired to become Cognizant Accelerator, an in-house product accelerator for a large tech services company, and they were starting a UX Research team. This was confirmed by someone in my network shortly after. I got an interview, and on the strength of my agency experience, I got the job.

I have shared this longwinded story in order to illustrate a few things. First, I wasn’t able to translate my academic skills and experience to industry overnight. In hindsight, the large companies that didn’t hire me that first summer were right—I wasn’t ready. It was incredibly frustrating to be told to get some experience before I could get hired for a job where I could get some experience; but no one wants to take a chance on someone too green. Those volunteer startup case studies were critical to showing some real product experience beyond my course project with DesignLab. Second, I put myself in situations where I could be lucky. Many possibilities did not work out, but I kept networking and pursuing new leads, and doing projects to show I was working. Saying this, I acknowledge that I am very privileged in many ways, not least that I had the time and resources to go without income for several months. Third, what I learned as an academic anthropologist is the backbone of what I do now. The thinking I learned in my PhD process gave me confidence as a researcher and training in strategic and hybrid analysis. You can learn this in other ways, but this is how I learned it, and I am thankful I was able to do it.

I’ll add more questions as they come up; please feel free to submit more on my “Contact” form.

Resources

Academia to Industry

“10 Things You Should Know about Moving from Academia to Industry,” by Nadine Levin, UX Researcher, Facebook, April 8, 2019

“Five Steps for Leaving Academia,” by Beth Duckles, Research Consultant and Social Scientist, June 13, 2017.

Also see: Beth Duckles’s Website, various resources for academia to industry.

Anthropologizing, Blog by Amy Santee, Design Researcher & Strategist with an Anthropology background, lots of great resources for academics thinking about industry and for practicing researchers.

Anthropology Outside Academia

EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference), Advancing the Value of Ethnography in Industry: Just about my favorite site for ethnographers in business; see profiles, seminars, and of course, the annual conference

Ethnography Matters: Anthropology, methods, technology--curated content on the overlaps

Anthrodendum, a blog about public anthropology: Always pushing the boundaries of academic anthropology

User Experience Research

UX Matters, a collection of some of the best current discussions in UX

UX Booth, an excellent place to start and continue UX thinking

Boxes and Arrows, a design-leaning take on UX work

UX Lady, detailed rumination on dilemmas UX'ers deal with every day

Boulder UX Research Meetup, my local

Boulder UI/UX Meetup, my other local

Portfolio

The UX Portfolio: Telling your Story (Usability Counts)

5 Hidden Sources of UX Portfolio Projects (UX Beginner)

Building and Maintaining Your UX Design Portfolio (lynda.com course)