What employers want from UX Research candidates

What’s explicitly stated in job descriptions, and what isn’t

A photo of a group seated at a table taking notes on paper, listening to a speaker, also seated.
Credit: Dylan Gillis

Whether you’re breaking into the field, or looking for your next UX research role, you need to know what will make you competitive to employers.

Do you need an advanced degree to apply? Should you have a portfolio ready to submit along with your application? What tools should you be familiar with? And if you’re thinking about relocating, where’s the best place to go?

To answer these questions, I’ve been systematically tracking the UX researcher job market since July 2021, using Indeed.com search terms and filters to analyze 22,425 job descriptions.

Here’s what I’ve found.

Across all job descriptions reviewed, only 11.5% mentioned PhDs as a preferred qualification or requirement. Master’s degrees appeared more often (28.5%).

These figures are rather low in comparison with previous research. In September 2021, Utesch & Nguyen found 38.3% of job descriptions mentioned master’s degrees, with 23.8% mentioning PhDs. Compare this with Varnagy-Toth’s February 2021 finding that 51.5% of job descriptions mentioned master’s degrees, whereas just 4.4% listed PhDs.

In general, educational requirements have trended downward since the first observation in July 2021.

The proportion of UXR roles mentioning a master’s degree or PhD over time.

To better understand whether these advanced degrees are more often listed as a requirement or a nice-to-have, I manually reviewed 20 job descriptions. A master’s degree or higher was a requirement in 5 (25%) of those reviewed, but otherwise was considered optional. For example, one description said: “You could be a fit if you have: 4+ years product development experience conducting research, or a Masters degree/PhD with 2+ years of product development experience”

Although job descriptions generally don’t make advanced education a hard requirement, it may be a soft requirement in practice. In a recent survey of 437 UX researchers, nearly three-quarters held an advanced degree.

Portfolios were mentioned in a little over one in five (22.5%) job descriptions reviewed.

In a manual review of 10 descriptions, a portfolio of work samples was a requirement in 5 (50%), as in this example: “1+ years of experience in UX Research with a portfolio of work samples that showcases process, methodologies, actionable insights, and success metrics.” It was optional in 2 (20%).

For the remaining 3 (30%), the word “portfolio” referred to something other than work samples, such as: “This role serves primarily as a resource to products, portfolios, programs, and projects and secondarily to the UX Department and Technology division.”

In general, portfolios have appeared in fewer job descriptions since first reported (29%) back in August 2021.

The proportion of UX researcher roles mentioning a portfolio over time.

Though it may not be called out in the requirements, a portfolio review is often part of the hiring process, particularly for roles at big tech companies or growth startups.

Varnagy-Toth reviewed 68 job descriptions and found that 39.7% required a portfolio by using broader terms such as: “demonstrated ability to …”, “a track record of…” or “proven capacity to…”, and “verifiable experience.” His comment on the remaining 60% is worth repeating here: “In my experience, even [those] ask you to talk about your previous research projects at one point or another during the hiring process. So a portfolio is handy.”

The average incidence of various UX tools in job descriptions.

The top tools mentioned in UX researcher job descriptions are Figma, UserTesting, Qualtrics, UserZoom, and Miro.

As researchers are often hired as specialists complementing the work of designers, a design tool topping the list is surprising.

After reviewing 10 job descriptions mentioning Figma, these either used it as an example of design tools candidates should have experience using (50%), listed experience using it as a preferred qualification (10%) or a hard requirement for the job (40%). For example, one job description said: “Create sitemaps, user flows, wireframes, mid-to-high fidelity static mockups, and Figma prototypes.”

In 20 job descriptions mentioning either UserTesting or Qualtrics, 85% listed the tool among several representative of those that the researcher might be familiar with, as in: “Experience in running UX research on digital platforms such as Usertesting, Qualtrics, Dscout, Ethnio, UserZoom.”

Fluctuations over time did not appear meaningful across three months, but I will continue to review these data as I collect more. They may reflect the tech stack used at the various companies hiring at any particular time.

The most common geolocations tagged in UX researcher job descriptions over time.

“Remote” was far and away the most common listed location on UX researcher job descriptions, with the usual US suspects (New York City, Seattle, and San Francisco) following distantly behind.

The long tail shows some of the larger UX researcher hubs scattered throughout the rest of the US, including Chicago, Austin, or my home-base, Denver.

Closer inspection of 10 “Remote” job descriptions showed that 7 (70%) were indeed fully remote across US locations, though 3 (30%) had a state or time zone requirement. One said: “You can work fully remote from anywhere in the United States, but will be expected to work CT or ET hours.”

I also reviewed 20 job descriptions tagged for either Seattle or San Francisco. Interestingly, only 40% required physical presence in an office. Another 35% that listed a location were in fact fully remote, and 15% offered hybrid working arrangements. For example: “[Employees] can choose to work fully remote anywhere within the Continental United States, in-person from our Boston/San Francisco offices, or a hybrid option.”

Companies have frequently, and sometimes dramatically, changed their remote working policies over the past several years. Levels.fyi summarizes these for many tech companies — and many will make exceptions for organizations, teams, or individuals within the company.

One might expect that the availability of remote roles has increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And indeed, in Varnagy-Toth’s February 2021 analysis, only 10.3% of the 68 roles were remote. More recently, roles generally went down with the overall inventory on the market, with little variability in the most common locations.

What do employers say they require from UX researcher candidates, and what are their preferred qualifications?

These data come from a keyword review of over 22,000 job descriptions across 15 months, including a manual review of 90 specific descriptions. Results are, however, limited to US Indeed search results. In short:

  • Most roles don’t mention advanced degrees, and relatively few of those that do make them a hard requirement. Nevertheless, many more working UX researchers hold advanced degrees than would be expected from this finding.
  • Few roles mention portfolios, and they’re only required in about half of those that do. It may still be prudent to have some work samples prepared, as they may be requested later in the interview process.
  • Tools are usually cited as representative examples, though a minority do require experience with a specific application. Generalist roles requiring design responsibilities cited design-specific tools.
  • Many roles support remote work. “Remote” was the most common location tag, and many descriptions tagged with a specific geographic area were remote-friendly.

In each case, what the descriptions explicitly state can be as important as what they don’t. A potential opportunity for employers is more thoroughly reviewing their requirements to make the hiring process more transparent.

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