So you want to be a UX researcher? Taking this path can be intimidating and ambiguous for a lot of people. A UX researcher is multidisciplinary. There are no single or definitive guidelines to becoming a UX research specialist. And unlike other tech roles, UX research is not just something you can learn from books and courses alone.
With those being said, yes, it’ll be a long and challenging journey to work in the UX research field, however, with will and dedication, anyone who is interested can become a UX research specialist.
In this article, How To Become UX Researcher, we will take a deeper dive into unpacking the proper and actionable steps that you can do to build your career in the UX field.
What does a UX researcher do?
UX researchers gather and study qualitative and quantitative data. When we say quantitative, this data is measurable while qualitative is not.
For example, the number of visits per page is quantitative data. On the other hand, why do people click the exit button on the page, is an example of qualitative research.
Aside from these, a UX research specialist also follows one of the three key methods of research. These are observation, understanding, and analysis. Let me further explain below:
As a UX researcher, you need to observe people’s actions and behaviors toward the product to better understand what people think of the product.
In understanding your users, as a researcher, you need to know what your user’s mental model is.
Simply put, a mental model is a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all of the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks.
Applying this one in UX, when a person visits your website, they are supposed to act according to their mental model. For example, when users click on your logo, they expect it to direct them back to the homepage. Another example would be when users click on the magnifying icon, they expect it to open the search feature.
By understanding the mental model of your users, you are also properly fulfilling the consumer’s expectations and use of your product or website.
Aside from observing and understanding the consumers, a UX researcher should also interpret data. This is where analysis is needed. As a UX research specialist, you need to analyze your findings to identify any patterns and trends that can be used and shared with the rest of the UX team.
A UX researcher should also have at least a background in one or more of these relevant fields: marketing, cognitive science, psychology, economics, and behavioral science.
How do I become a UX researcher?
If you are interested in launching your career in the UX industry, now if the best time to do it. Why? Well, there are a lot of high-quality materials readily available to you.
Another thing is, a lot of companies and organizations are looking to hire smart and motivated people who are interested to work in the UX field.
With such availability of good content and materials for learning and upskilling, and with the rise in the number of companies looking for user research talents, there is never a good time but now to head start your career in UX.
Before we jump into the details on how to get started with your UX career, I have to properly stress out that there is no right or wrong path when it comes to becoming a UX researcher.
Most of the UX researchers that I know did not have any degree or certificate in UX. Some of them just jumped into the career path after being assigned to a relevant task or a similar job to UX research.
Having said that, it is very plausible to become a UX researcher with no experience at all.
The purpose of this article is to guide you with steps that you can take to achieve your dream of becoming a UX researcher.
The research team in Userpeek has compiled you all the best resources and recommended materials plus some relevant information and insider tips useful for you in your journey to UX career.
Building the foundation of your UX career
There are several ways and different paths in terms of building your UX career. However, before even starting a new career path or learn new skills and knowledge in UX, you need to ask yourself this: Is UX research a good career for me?
This is an important question to you since dedication and willingness are the two important factors that you need to have in your career path to UX.
Here are several resources for you to check out to know whether or not a career in the UX research is right for you:
Watch Khan Academy’s presentation and interview of Aidan Braynt, UX researcher of Google:
This handbook is a perfect choice for both undergraduate and graduate students, as well as UX professionals. It contains a very comprehensive review of the different types of UX careers with concrete tips on improving one's career in the UX field.
Here are also good YouTube videos to better understand the UX industry and what a UX researcher does:
Built in partnership with Google, this program mixes theory and practice to show students how to transform ideas into market-ready products.
This is a discussion of the different research methods involving the audience in user experience design and development.
This talk shows how it is possible to advance user research in large organisations even when they’re not used to this way of working. Katy shares the steps they took to create space for people to do their best work, and how they built a vibrant user research practice in one of the great departments of state.
Most people who like to become a UX researcher or switch their career in UX, have no money or time to spend on formal training. Thus, most of these people like a viable option for them to seek proper education at their convenience.
Where do you go when it comes to accessing high-quality information taught by known and experienced professionals in the field of UX? Look for online learning courses offered by top-ranking institutions.
Here are some great online learning resources perfect for those who are just getting started in UX:
SwitchUp Winner of "Best Bootcamp Award" with a student rating of 4.79%, the curriculum covers topics and discussions on UI/UX design. The course is beginner's friendly with no design experience needed.
The course offers lessons on how to create a digital user experience that is ready to be handed off for development. It teaches students familiarity and fluency with design research fundamentals to identify the user and the solutions they need. One of the best things in this course is students will be able to complete projects that can be incorporated into their UX portfolio at the end of the program in order to showcase their capabilities to future employers.
The course is facilitated by Devin O'Bryan, creative director for Project Whitespace at IBM. The course is perfect for starters who like to learn user-centered methods and mindsets. The course highlights everything about the user: user's voice, the importance of that voice, and how to create better experience for thet user.
Here are top-rated UX courses for beginners on Coursera:
The course brings a design-centric approach to user interface and user experience design. It also offers practical and skill-based instruction with focus on visual communications perspective. Students will be given a chance to demonstrate all the stages of the UI/UX development process which starts from user research and until developing sitemaps and wireframes.
The course teaches students on how to create great products by understanding the users and their needs. It also teaches students on how to create prototypes and how to evaluate design concepts. Students will also gain hands-on experience in taking a product from initial concept through user research until user testing.
This course teaches students on how to design technology, generate design ideas, and prototyping techniques among many others. The course also covers principles of visual design, perception, and cognition that inform effective interaction design.
A free course on User Experience Design (UX). This course teaches students to design artifacts that meet the users' needs in the most efficient manner. It is a good introduction course for beginners. It includes lessons on techniques in gathering of information and in designing.
Joe Natoli's course covers lessons on how to effectively create web sites, mobile sites, and mobile applications that encourage conversions. The goal of the course is to have a successful web presence. It covers guides on the critical elements of user experience, which is strategy, scope, structure, skeleton, and surface. This is a good beginner's course for web designers, mobile designers, web developers, and anyone who is interested in effective web design and applications.
This is a good beginner to intermediate course for UX and UI professionals. The course covers how to create personas, best practices in user research, the basics of design system, best practices in design resumes and design protfolios, how to set goals, and the ouline of a good UX study among many others.
The course is up-to-date (2020 edition) for anyone who is looking to jumpstart their UX career. The course outline includes topic on user-centered design framework, user's mental models, card sorting sessions, field visits and user interviews, create personas based on user stories, red routes, and user journey maps. This course is perfect for beginners and UX professionals alike.
This is a good course for beginners in UX design, UX/UI researchers and designers who like to upskill, business owners and managers interested in understanding UX, and UX professionals who like to refresh their knowledge in UX. The course topics include basics of user testing, user techniques for gathering information, UX tips, and tools for UX tests.
The course is for UX professionals or people with experience in UX design and process. It covers basic topics like the definition and scope of user experience, what makes a user experience good, the principles of a great user experience, UX roles, and many more.
Please note that some of these courses cannot fully replace a full-time course in UX. However, these are still helpful in learning the fundamentals behind UX research. Also, please stay away from online courses that promise you a good foundation about UX in just a few hours. These will not give you the quality information in mastering UX.
When it comes to books, definitely there are a lot of good books out there. On Amazon alone, the choices for UX research topics are endless. But of course, with the volume of reading materials out there, it is quite overwhelming to pick which ones are worth reading and which ones are suited to upskilling your UX research career.
So, here are our recommended UX-related books, which you can easily access and purchase online:
A guidebook of trusted research methods that can be implemented right away. The book includes competitive advantages, spotting blindspots and biases, and understanding and harnessing one's findings.
This book provides UX researchers invaluable interviewing techniques and tools that will help you conduct informative interviews. Readers will be taught how to uncover powerful insights about people.
The book is a practical guide on how to use the vast array of user research methods available. It covers all the key research methods that include face-to-face user testing, card sorting, seveys, A/B testing, and many more.
The book challenges readers about preconceptions on user experience (UX) and at the same time encourages users to think beyond the obvious. It covers and discusses how to plan and run a UX research, analyze data, and persuade teams to take action on the results and build a career in UX.
The book bridges the gap betwen the UX researchers/designers and the users in terms of product development. It tackles how UX professionals should better understand the users' wants and needs from the product. It offers real-world experience and a good amount of practical information. The readers can gain in-depth coverage of user experience techniques, which helps in better product development.
This book teaches how to recruits subjects quickly, cheaply, and immediately. It also tackles how UX professionals can observe users' behaviors in their natural form. This book is filled with studies on how you can design and conduct remote research with as little as just a phone or a laptop.
This book presents a diverse compilation of war stories and personal accounts of researchers in the field. Readers can learn from these experiences that are laid out from a comically bizarre to astonishingly tragic and came with very valuable lessons from the expert Steve Portigal.
This book is a definitive guide to empirical UX research which includes historical context, the human factor, interaction elements,the fundamentals of science and research, and methods for conducting an experiment to evaluate a new computer interface or interaction technique. This book also provides hands-on exercises, checklists, and real-world examples.
This is a comprehensive guide book on customer-centric culture, helping organizations and companies do service design to improve the quality and interaction between service providers and customers. It includes topics and guidelines on how to run workshops, perform all of the main service design methods, implement concepts in reality, and embed service design successfully in an organization.
While reading materials like books can be time-consuming, you can spend your reading time a few hours each day and set it on instances where you are mostly free like reading a book while commuting or spend an hour or two reading before you go to bed.
Conferences and bootcamps
Since there is career growth in the field of UX, more and more conferences and boot camps have also sprung over the years.
The problem with this is there are a lot of unaccredited boot camps and most of these are run by companies whose only aim is to profit. Thus, these result in accelerated learning, in which most students cannot possibly grasp the new concepts and knowledge in a very short time to enable them to be good in UX research.
If you are interested in attending UX conferences and boot camps, make it due diligence to conduct some research before you sign-up.
While blogs cannot give you the same in-depth learning on UX, they are still very useful in terms of filling the knowledge gaps. Another good thing about reading blogs is they usually provide you with the latest news and updates on anything about UX. By reading blogs, you get ahead of the latest news and trends on user experience.
Here are some good blogs to follow:
Gregg Bernstein is a recognized user researcher who has established user research practices for organizations. You can follow his blog to learn more about how to practice user-centered product developent.
Follow Michael Margolis' blog for anything about user research. He also shares his experiences, knowledge, and skills as UX manager in his blog. He is an expert in helping teams create novel user-centric products and services.
Founded by Tina Banerjee and Torstem Tromm, Userpeek runs a software to test ideas, concepts, prototypes and existing assets with real users in the shortest possible time and with minimal effort and budget. The blog section covers a variety of subjects on user research, user testing, and related topics on UX and UI, where both beginners and professionals in the field can benefit and learn from.
This is founded by Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, who are both experts and leaders in user experience. The site provides over 1000 articles, research findings, and guidelines on UX methods. You can also find online seminars and UX certifications in this site.
Since 2005, this site provides readers with insights and inspiring stories from experienced professionals working in every aspect of user experience. You can read articles from the leading experts, sharing topics in UX that are practical, and actionable.
This blog is devoted to the practice, innovation, and discussion of design. You can read content on graphic design, interaction design, information architecture, and the design of business.
The site is an online community of business leaders with a goal of striving to create a profitable customer-centric enterprises. The topics that are covered and discussed include customer experience, customer engagement, leadership, and technology.
Features curated articles on usability, nformation architecture, interaction design and other user experience (UX) related topics.
I firmly believe that to take that notch in your UX career, you have to be in the right crowd. With that said, it is but just practical to join related UX groups and community websites, where you can interact with experts and professionals and have that daily dose of UX conversation.
Here are some notable community sites and groups that you can partake in discussing UX related topics:
- User Experience
- User Experience Group
- User Experience Professional Network
- Design Thinking Group
- User Experience Design (UX)
- Give Good UX Company of Friends
- Ethnography Hangout
- StackExchange User Experience
- UX Mastery
If you have the time and money to spend, then why not enroll yourself to the traditional UX course learning for undergraduate or master’s program. This will be a worthwhile investment.
The traditional in-person learnings will give you more opportunities in the future because of all the ways and methods of learning mentioned here, still, the traditional learning can provide you with a very solid foundation, internship offers, and tailored career coaching services, among many others.
If this route is for you, then you may check the global list of UX Degrees here.
The next step in your UX career journey is to get some hands-on experience in becoming a true UX research professional.
Your knowledge and certificates in UX are not enough to land a job in the UX industry. You need to realize that at the end of the day, real projects, real users, and real work experiences are what matters most in your portfolio and these are the things that every employer will look into.
So where can you possibly get some work experience? Let us look into some of the following options for you to explore:
Seek opportunities in tech startups
Startup companies are one of the best places where you can get work experience in UX. Startup tech companies usually do not have enough budget to get their own UX research and design team. Some of these companies do not know the value placed in user research. You can get some hands-on experience with these companies and at the same time, gain some meaningful impact at the company you are working with.
Volunteer your way to charitable organizations or non-profit organizations
Charitable and non-profit organizations always seek volunteers to help with their projects. You can search for these organizations and choose one that is aligned with your values.
Most of these organizations do not have enough time, resources, and manpower to invest in digital footprints and user-centered designs. This is a good work opportunity for you and at the same time, you can do some good work for others.
Collaborate on a project
If the above options are not possible, then you can start your own UX project and collaborate with other UX professionals who are also interested in gaining hands-on experience.
If you work and collaborate on a project that solves a real problem, besides getting some real experience, you can also make money with this project and get some side income as well.
Just remember to properly document everything so you have good data to show to hiring employers when needed.
Utilize the UX network
Seek help from online mentorship. As previously discussed, it is a good idea to join UX communities and groups where you meet like-minded professionals. You may seek senior mentorship on these groups and ask for references, materials, and any helpful information like job postings that can help you get some level of experience.
While there are no concrete steps to becoming a UX researcher, the UX industry always seeks passionate individuals who can be advocates for change, individuals who can ensure that the user's voice is always heard, and individuals who do not base their design on pure assumption.
I hope that the tips I shared here will help you leap your UX research journey. Once you find yourself at the top ladder of your career path in UX, pay it forward. Give time to help others who are also looking to become a UX researcher. The UX industry is always evolving and we can all learn from each other’s experiences.