My Path to a Career in UX Research

By Christine Berry, M.A.2

When I began grad school in 2008 to pursue a degree in Counseling Psychology, I planned to become a practitioner, possibly a professor and academic researcher. To be honest, that’s all I knew about psychology – I didn’t realize there were so many more career options. But as I finished my M.A. in Counseling Psych at Loyola University Chicago, I knew that therapy wasn’t for me. I decided to pursue an additional research-focused degree and enrolled in another M.A. program, this time in Human Sexuality at San Francisco State University. If you’re going to learn about research it might as well be on a fun topic.

indifferentAs my second degree came to a close, I was tired of being a broke student. I loved doing research, but the thought of another 4-6 years in grad school pursuing a Ph.D. was too much. Living in the most expensive city in the country was taking its toll, and my student loans were already sky-high. I needed a job – preferably one that pays well.

thinking-faceI was also disenchanted with academic research. I disliked that it took years to finish a study and it seemed the results, while meaningful long-term, weren’t immediately making an impact. But what I really hated were lit reviews – designing studies and analyzing data were much more fun. I dreamed of a job where research moved fast, results were immediately clear and actionable, and lit reviews were a thing of the past. I didn’t think such a role existed, but I was about to stumble upon it.

When I began job searching, most relevant jobs I found near San Francisco were in User Experience Research, or UX Research as it’s called for short. UX Research is a relatively new and fast growing field, with a background in understanding how people interact with machines. Through qualitative and quantitative methods, UX researchers inform the design of websites and other digital interfaces. Although many UX Researchers work for technology companies, there are lots of opportunities beyond that. For example, retailers, banks, and healthcare companies often have teams of UX Researchers who help them optimize their websites, mobile apps, even ATMs and healthcare equipment.

I had heard about UX Research on an APAGS career panel in the past but hadn’t considered it. Now, with my home so close to Silicon Valley, it seemed a great option. My research training provided all the right qualifications for the job, but how would I get in? I barely knew what UX Research was and had no computer or Internet background. Who would hire me?

Allow me to throw in some advice here: You need to network to get hired. Applying to jobs without networking is like tossing darts in the dark; you might get lucky, but the odds aren’t in your favor. I learned this the hard way by applying to every UX Research job I found, without taking the time to make connections. Now matter how perfectly I thought the job matched my qualifications, I never once got a response.

jazz-handsOn the suggestion of my professor, I eventually turned to LinkedIn. LinkedIn can be an incredibly useful networking tool – if you actively use it. I updated my profile and connected with everyone I knew: every old childhood friend, every ex-boyfriend, everyone who had ever given me their business card or email address. And finally, when I found yet another job I was thrilled about, LinkedIn told me that a friend of a friend worked at that company. I reached out to my friend, he made an introduction, and I had an informational interview the next day.

A month later, I started my first job as a UX Researcher at AnswerLab, a San Francisco based UX Research Consultancy. Over the next three years, I conducted research for companies like Google, FedEx, and Target. I had found the job I dreamed about: I led over 60 studies in these three years, watched websites change based on my recommendations, made decent money, and – best of all – didn’t have to do a single lit review!

heart-eyesToday, four years after graduating, I am a UX Researcher at Facebook and couldn’t love my role more. I get to do interesting research all over the world, through qualitative interviews, ethnographic research, or online surveys. I help my team understand cultural differences and unique behaviors that might impact how we design, build, and change Facebook features across the globe. It’s incredibly fun and rewarding.

At Facebook, we have almost 200 UX Researchers, most of whom have Ph.D.s and M.A.s in psychology. Many came to Facebook after being associate professors, graduate students, or research assistants. Some of them continue to publish research in academic journals or UX specific publications. If you’re interested to learn more about Facebook’s UX Research team, click here to check out our website.

If you are interested in a career in UX Research, here are 5 tips based on my experience:

  1. Learn about UX Research. Take an intro course in human-computer interaction at your university, or check out a free course from coursera.org.
  2. Network. This is the most important thing you’ll need to do. Get on LinkedIn, go to relevant Meetups, and talk to people who work in the industry. The best way to get a job is to know someone who has the same job and can make an introduction to the hiring manager or recruiter.
  3. Join a Professional Organization. Many cities have professional UX organizations, such as UXPA, IxDA, IAI, STC, HFES, CHI, and AIGA. They’re happy to have students join or attend events, and it’s helpful to network and learn more about the field.
  4. Take classes in related disciplines. I didn’t do this myself, but you might find courses in design or computer engineering interesting and relevant to UX Research. After all, these are the roles you’ll be working with most closely.
  5. Get experience. Many companies offer summer or semester internships to graduate students. It’s a great way to get some experience and see if you’ll like the day-to-day work.

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