The UX Research Career Path

Many new designers want to learn more about the UX research career path

That’s why the Austin-based meetup group, UX in ATX, hosted a paneled discussion in July 2020 with UX Research experts to talk about the research career path.

Watch the UX in ATX meetup recording


  • Meg Kemp, Alma Major
  • Babz Jewell, Verizon Connect
  • Archie MS, The Design Futures Initiative & GE

UX research methods

In UX research, depending on the project goals, both qualitative and quantitative research methods are used. Qualitative research methods are great for observing behavior, uncovering emotion, and generally are key to becoming familiar with the user. While quantitative methods are great for providing metrics and numerical data to help validate. The two methods supplement each other and have equal levels of importance.

Choosing a research path depends on personal strengths and hard skills held by the individual. Some of the skills recommended for qualitative and quantitative researchers include:

Qualitative research skills:

  • writing skills
  • data collection skills
  • emotional intelligence
  • active listening
  • empathy
  • critical thinking
  • communication

Quantitative research skills:

  • interpretive skills
  • critical thinking
  • writing skills
  • able to manipulating numbers
  • statistics
  • algebra
  • can interpret data into actionable steps

Typically, qualitative and quantitative researchers have different roles within a UX research team, though there are also mixed method researchers. To learn more about UX research methods, check out the article ‘Qualitative and quantitative user research’ by Dominic Rogers.

How to have successful interviews

Think of interviewing as a conversation with a good friend. It’s important to be present in the moment and to listen. It is helpful to set in a goal versus just having a script. Having a script to lean on is important to ensure research questions are being addressed. Though, try not to feel held back by it. Let the conversation flow naturally. Listen carefully, then ask questions to gain more insight. It is also important to let the participant pause to think, as being silent can encourage more feedback.

A few tips to remember are:

  • be present, stay in the moment, and listen
  • write a script to guide the conversation – but it’s ok to not to strictly stick to it
  • open-ended questions that are unbiased lead to more well-rounded answers
  • stay open to the ideas, sometimes an assumption or hypothesis does not always match participant needs

How to cultivate participant comfort in an interview

An illustration of a two part interview

Be yourself. Being goofy and making mistakes is human! It’s ok to connect and to find common interests. Being yourself increases the chance for connection and opens the participants up. An interview is not a sales pitch and it’s real with them to make them feel at ease. Also, it is important to exude empathy to ensure that participants feel comfortable. To do this, consider tonality, make eye contact, and speak slowly.

Try not to interrupt and don’t rush them. Let them be heard. It’s best to start with easy questions or some icebreakers to make it fun. As soon as anyone feels on their heels, they don’t tend to give an honest answer. Continue to develop empathy skills by practicing your techniques with a friend or by watching a recording.

There are also some tactical things you can do before the interview to create comfort such as:

  • touching base before the interview either in person or by calling
  • explain the purpose of the interview and why the data is important
  • make sure you have informed consent

Interviewing difficult participants

There will be times when a participant will not open up. Remember, you can’t always make people talk to you and there is a lot outside of your control. Sometimes, a participant may be distracted or there may be external factors that can’t be addressed. It is ok to ask a question multiple times in different ways so you can answer a research question.

Another way to promote conversation is by using the distraction model. If the user isn’t opening up, it’s ok to ask a random question to get the user interested. For example, ask about their outfit. It’s ok to venture off-topic to keep the conversation going.

Cultivating professional growth

Mentoring vector illustration. Personal or career goal achievement strategy advice.

It’s important to always be learning to ensure that current methods, techniques, and tactics are being used to achieve the best outcome. Some ways to do that include:

  • participating in a research study to learn by experience
  • read books to further your skillset
  • practice interviewing with friends or family
  • take a course that interests you

What kind of background is needed for UX research?

In UX, career background doesn’t matter as much as people can come from various backgrounds. Sometimes, they are traditional – meaning you studied some type of research process, but it’s not essential. Anyone can become a researcher, whether you have an undergrad degree, a Masters, or a Ph.D. Unique perspectives create value and differences are a positive thing in the workplace. Unique life experiences provide a fresh lense to plan, conduct, and analyze research. As long as you have the soft skills necessary to become a researcher, such as critical thinking, communication, and listening skills, they will take you a long way.

Having a passion for work is also important. Being passionate about learning and dedicated to growing your skillset will help grow your career. It’s less about a degree, but more about what kind of skills and methodologies you can contribute on day one.

How to demonstrate value to your company

When starting out, mentors and allies in the workplace can be tremendous for growth. Finding an ally that knows your worth and has influence can help pave the path. In meetings, an advocate and create space for you to speak and be heard.

On the note of being heard meetings, it’s important to be cognizant of the audience. Consider how you chose to present data by learning how to speak the audience’s language. Typically, project managers and stakeholders prefer quantitative style presentations because they can easily relate to numbers, percentages, and the financial impact a decision has on the business. Illustrate the impact a decision has on the companies bottom line.

How to build business acumen

Building business acumen is important because it allows for stronger communication between teams. Here are a few resources recommended by the panelist which helped them along their journey:

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