A Guide to Getting Started

Whether you’re looking to start a career in user research, transition into a more research-focused role, or just want to brush up on what’s going on in the field, you’ve come to the right place. It’s a pretty exciting time to be in user research, with more and more companies seeing its value. In fact, UX research was rated #39 on CNN Money and Payscale’s top 100 jobs in 2017. The rise of practices like design sprints and jobs to be done have brought user research to the forefront of the building process, and more companies are bringing in dedicated user researchers.

In this post, I’ll outline what sets researchers apart, career paths outside of “user researcher” that involve doing some user research, and what typical salary ranges and job fulfillment for those job titles look like. Since I’m not a user researcher, designer, or product manager, I called in some support from people who have been there, done that. They were kind enough to provide some advice for people looking to start their user research careers, or just want to learn more about UXR as a field.

How do you get into UX Research?

If you were looking for a step by step map to break into UX research, you won’t find it here. There isn’t really one set way to get into UXR. You can find your way to a career in research through academia, design, product, writing—the possibilities are honestly endless. But, as we talked to people who work with UXR and researched how they go about their jobs every day, we did find several common threads in the experiences and qualities of successful UXR professionals we think will be instructive for anyone looking to build a career in the field.  

Check out the ✨The State of User Research 2021 Report✨ for insights on UXR salaries, job experience, methods, and more.

Start with an interest in people

One of the things that binds people who work in user research together is an unending curiosity about people. What makes them tick, why they chose one option over another, what their lives are like outside of your research project. User researchers are responsible for bringing the voice of people who use the product every day to their teams. In our State of User Research Report, we found this was one of their favorite things about the job too, with 35.2% reporting their favorite aspect of research was bringing the voice of the customer to the team.

If you’re hoping to get into a career in user research, you likely already feel that you belong in that hyper-curious group. Whether you’re transitioning from another role to a user research centric one or making a fresh start after earning a degree (congrats by the way! 🥳), make sure to continue building your interest in people. You can practice UX research skills in your everyday life by asking detailed questions, consciously avoiding bias, and getting comfortable talking to strangers.

You can also take this curiosity about those around you and build relationships with people in the UX research community, we’re generally a pretty friendly bunch! Join Slack groups like Mixed Methods and UXDC. Strike up conversations about things you’re interested in learning about and contribute to conversations that are already happening. Reach out to people who hold the positions you hope to one day occupy and ask them how they got where they are. Forming these relationships and embedding yourself in the community will not only help you find the right job, you’ll learn more about the user research world as a whole.

Network as much as possible and learn about the role from people who are doing it. It’s useful to help you understand if UX research is the right role for you and also to build connections that can help you in your professional development or job search down the road. The UX research community is still fairly small, so it’s likely you’ll encounter many of the same people during your career.

‍Christine Berry, Lead Experience Researcher at Airbnb

Hone your researching skills

While there’s no one right way to make your way into user research, you will need some experience conducting research studies to get a job as a dedicated user researcher. If you’re transitioning your career, see if there are any research studies happening in your current company and offer to help. If you’re still in school, consider a research-focused course. Either way, starting to hone your skills with generative interviews, usability testing, user analytics, and other kinds of research will help you immensely.

Don’t know where to start? Reach out to your local tech incubator, startups, or non-profits in your area. Volunteer your time for an opportunity to hone your research skills and work on research projects you’re excited about. You can also continue building your skills through online courses, books, and blog posts. You might want to check out this big list of 55 book recommendations from the UX researchers and designers featured in our User Research Yearbook of 2022.

Find a good mentor who is at a place in their career where you want to be a few years time. Read up on your theory and keep up to date with the latest tools and methods. Help a startup or start your own project that you can proudly add to your portfolio.

Nicolaus Tenhue, UX Design Manager at Google

I think the most important skill people will need to get into UX research is a strong research methods foundation. In the day-to-day work, you need to be able to understand what type of research will best answer your team’s questions and be able to weigh the tradeoffs of different approaches. If you have a good research foundation – regardless if from psychology, economics, business, or other disciplines – you already know most of what the job entails

‍Christine Berry, Lead Experience Researcher at Airbnb

Consider every outcome

You don’t have to be a user researcher to be involved in user research. Just like there’s a wide variety of ways to get to a user research related role, there are many different roles that involve user research.

In our first annual State of User Research Report, we found that there were many different career paths for people who end up working with user research regularly. We surveyed user researchers, designers, product managers, marketers, support/ops professionals, and even developers/engineers. All of them spent more than 10% of their day devoted to user research. So even if a full-time research position doesn’t sound like your jam, there’s a place for you in the research-sphere.

Always be curious and ask questions. Regardless of where you are in your career, there is always something to learn. The worst thing you can do is to think you know everything and stop yourself from growing personally and professionally.

‍Tiffany Eaton, Interaction Designer at Google

Do you need an advanced degree?

The best answer I can come up with here is, maybe? It depends on what your career goals are and what skills you currently possess. While a graduate degree or PhD is in no way a requirement for a career in UX research, for some it may be a great way to learn more about the field and connect with others who share a passion for research.

What the numbers say

In our State of User Research Report, we found that 55.7% of our respondents held graduate degrees. Our survey included people who conducted research more than 10% of the time at work, so it included both fully dedicated researchers and people who conducted research alongside other duties.

When we break it down a little further, we found three main career paths for people involved in research—UX/User Researchers, Designers, and Product Managers. In general, our UX/User Researchers spent nearly 100% of their time doing research or research-related tasks, which makes sense, because researchers. Our Designers spent between 10-50% of their time on research. Our Product Managers spent between 10-25% of their time in the research sphere.

Of our UX/User Researchers, 62% of them held graduate degrees. Our Designers tracked a little lower, with 53% reporting graduate degrees as their highest level of education. Only 29% of our Product Managers reported graduate degrees.

When you think about a career in user research, any of these career paths could involve a significant amount user research work, while of course involving other kinds of work as well. We’ll dive more into the details of these roles below.

What people say

I’ve often been asked whether you need to have an advanced degree to be a successful UX researcher. Certainly I’ve known many people in this field who are very successful and yet don’t have an advanced degree. But I think that having an advanced degree in a relevant field increases the likelihood of your success as a UX researcher, especially in today’s environment.

Tom Tullis, in his article Five Tips for a Successful Career as a UX Researcher, Tom runs UXmetricsgeek.com and is the former VP of UX Research at Fidelity.

Your work experience in applied research (i.e., your strength in research methodologies, analysis, write-ups/presentations, and explaining the implications of your research on product strategy and/or product design) is more important than the level of your academic degree.

‍Tatiana Vlahovic, UX Research & Partnerships Lead at Reduct

What do people who work with UX research study in graduate school?

People can study all kinds of things and end up in user research roles. People who are specifically pursuing graduate degrees with the intention of working in user research after they graduate typically choose fields related to Human Factors, Human Computer Interaction, or more formal academic research (like Psychology). Our research confirms that these are popular majors of many who end up with user research related careers, but so are a number of other disciplines.

Many of our respondents had earned degrees in Human Computer Interaction, but just as many had earned graduate degrees in Library Science. The top three graduate degrees among our respondents were Human Centered Computing, Human Factors, and Psychology.

Are there ways to build my skills without going back to school?

Of course! I’m so glad you ask, because I’ve had this awesome list of communities and places to learn more about UX research sitting in my back pocket this whole time.

An advanced degree may not be an option for everyone, considering the time and money required. But the good news is, there are many ways to build your research skills without heading back to school.

What kinds of jobs are available in UX research?

There are tons of ways to have a career in UX research. You can be a researcher, a product manager, a designer, a writer, a marketer, a developer, or any number of things—who can keep up with all the changing titles out there these days? Here are some of the most common roles.

UX/User Researcher 🔍

UX or user researchers are responsible for bringing the voice of the customer to the team. They may conduct qualitative and quantitative research studies to help teams answer pressing business, product, and customer questions. A UX or user researcher should be well-versed in research practices, have a genuine interest in people, and a deep understanding of human behavior.

Want to be a UX/User Researcher? Check out the #jobs channel in the Mixed Methods Slack community.

UX Writer ✍️

UX writers are a fairly new phenomenon, and there’s already a lot of growth in this field. The UX writer is responsible for creating all the copy surrounding a product or experience. Typically, UX writers possess stellar copywriting skills, a love of user research, and a collaborative mindset.

Sound like your kind of thing? This newsletter sends out UX writer jobs weekly. Plus, it includes links to great UX stories around the internet. You’re welcome.

Designer 👩‍🎨

Designers can come in lots of different forms, and they’ll probably be mad at me for lumping them all together like this (sorry guys!). Just like there are a lot of ways to be involved with user research, there are a lot of ways to be involved with design. UI, UX, product, graphic, the list goes on.

Many designers, especially UX, UI, and product designers, conduct user research. For some designers, they are the sole source of qualitative research within a team. So if you’re looking to combine your love of design with your love of research, a design position may be for you.

Advice from a pro

Make context as essential a deliverable as sparkly hifi mocks. The context of a problem proves whether or not it should be prioritized, the context of research proves whether or not solutions should be pursued, the context of your chosen solution proves its impact towards the long term vision. When you’ve done enough homework to provide rich context empathetically, you unlock the respect, trust and buy-in you need to start getting your ideas shipped.

Allison Milchling, Product Designer at Atrium

Excited about creating user-centric designs? Check out the DesignerNews job board.

Product Manager 🤹‍♂️

Product Managers are responsible for, well, managing the product. That means they have to decide how to create the best products for their users, juggling developers, designers, customers, and anyone else involved in creating the final product.

Advice from a pro

For me, it’s hard to separate out the concept of research from what a product person does all day long because I think about, as a PM, one of your jobs is to understand the problem that you’re trying to solve for a customer. Fundamentally, in order to understand a problem, you’re doing research in some way, shape, or form. To me, research is really about, how can I better understand my customer and how can I better understand what they’re trying to accomplish in their job?

Maggie Crowley, real life Product Manager at Drift

So managing products sounds like your kind of thing? Check out MindtheProduct’s job board, or the #jobs channel in their Slack group.

Developer 💻

While a developer’s main job is writing code, they need to problem solve to get there, and user research can be a valuable part of that process. Conducting user research, or being a part of the process, can help developers identify with customers and create better products in the end.

Do lines of code make you excited to wake up in the morning? Check out DevItjobs, a job board for developers in the US, UK, Switzerland, Romania, Netherlands, and Germany.

Marketer 📈

Whether you’re working to understand jobs to be done to impact product positioning, to hear how users and customers explain their pain points and hopes and dreams to craft relevant messaging, or better understand your market to inform pricing—user research is one of the best ways to create marketing that actually works.

Want to do some research-enhanced marketing? Check out AngelList’s job board, full of marketing jobs at innovative startups.  

Support/Ops 👫

Support and operations professionals work closely with users every day, helping them troubleshoot issues and achieve their goals. In some teams, support and ops are the only formal link to the customer’s point of view. In larger teams, support and ops can help tell the story of what users are experiencing every day.

Love helping people? Check out Workable’s job board, chock-full of cool support and ops positions.  

Psst—before you start looking for your next opportunity, prepare for the interview with these common UX Research job interview questions and tips for answering them.

What is a typical UX research salary?

Ah, the age old question, is there any money in it? When we broke down our own data from the State of User Research Report, we found that the plurality of people working in user research make between $100,000-149,000 a year (36.6% of our sample). Considering that this includes people with varied experience, working in different roles and departments, I figured I would break it down a little more for you. Our sample was also limited, so we brought in some data from Payscale to help paint a full picture.

User Researcher Salaries

In our report, we found that user researchers reported a wide range of salaries, with the plurality reporting salaries in the $100,000- 149,000 range (36%). According to Payscale, UX Researchers earn an average salary of $82,687. Entry level researchers reported an average salary of $76,947, mid-career researchers reported an average salary of $101,012, and experienced researchers reported $116,768 as their average salary.

Designer Salaries

The plurality of designers in our report made between $100,000-149,000 a year (37%). According to Payscale, the average salary for UX Designers is $73,056. Entry level UX designers reported an average salary of $69,582, mid-career UX designers reported an average salary of $82,644, and experienced UX designers reported $91,972 as their average salary.

Product Manager Salaries

The plurality of Product Managers in our report earned between $75,000-149,000 a year (72%). According to Payscale, the average salary for Product Managers is $81,774. Entry level product managers reported an average salary of $74,126, mid-career product managers reported an average salary of $86,562, and experienced product managers reported $95,466 as their average salary.

Do people enjoy UX research as a career?

Overall, people seem pretty happy with careers in user research related roles, giving their fulfillment a 5.1 out of 7 on average. That’s pretty darn good, considering that most people don’t even feel engaged at work. When we broke it down by our different job categories we found that UX/User Researchers rated their fulfillment at a 5, Designers rated theirs at a 5.2, and Product Managers rated theirs at a 4.8.

We also found that people reported higher ratings for fulfillment as they gained more experience in their careers. Our respondents with the least experience, 0-4 years, rated their fulfillment at a 4.8. As the years of experience grew, so did the fulfillment ratings. People with 5-10 years rated it at a 5.2, 11-20 years rated it at a 5.3, and 21+ years rated it at a 5.4.

When we were conducting our study, we found that the opportunity to work remotely increased fulfillment at work. People who worked remotely at least one day a week rated their fulfillment at a 5.3 out of 7. We found that 49.9% of Product Managers worked remotely at least one day a week, followed by 48.2% of Designers, and 41.7% of UX/User Researchers.

Final thoughts

The world of user research is wide, from dedicated UX researchers to product managers, there are tons of ways to be involved in user research. But what’s important is choosing a path you’re passionate about and makes you excited to go to work every morning. My favorite piece of career advice on this comes from Alissa Lee, UX Designer at Indeed.

Move towards opportunities, not labels. Job titles are going to change from company to company. The best thing you can do is search by responsibilities and skills that interest you, and then work backwards to find the relevant job title that gives you the opportunities to do them.

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