Working professionally in the world of user research is an exciting and evolving career choice. Luckily, there’s a path into a research career for people from any background—even for those with zero experience!
As a researcher myself, I’ll start by introducing you to what researchers do and the skills that will help you succeed in the field.
What a Researcher Does
- Research Operations: There’s much more to the profession than conducting research. Research operations surrounds all phases of research work and includes process creation, project planning and organization, recruitment, and participant and data management.
- Conduct Research: Once a solid research plan is created, we conduct research based on planned methodologies. For instance, depending on the goals, subject, and budget, we might conduct surveys, personal interviews, or usability studies.
- Analyze Research: With our raw data collected, researchers then evaluate the data and generate insights using tools such as Tetra (in fact, Tetra Insights was founded to make this part of the process easier for qualitative researchers).
- Present Research Insights: Nothing matters more than effectively presenting your research results. It’s essential that your stakeholders understand, care about, and act upon the insights you’ve unearthed—this is what makes you valuable to your organization. Learn more about this critical phase where we expand on the science behind influential research.
- Manage Research Repository: As your volume of research projects and insights grows, you’ll need an organized and shareable place to store and access it. We use a range of technologies—including the Tetra platform—as research repositories. Learn more about optimized research repositories.
Critical Researcher Skills
Both practical and soft skills are critical components to being a successful user researcher. While these aren’t exhaustive, the lists below do cover some of the most important skills of effective user researchers.
- Participant management
- Survey creation
- Research planning
- Quantitative data analysis
- Qualitative data analysis
- Research repository management
Research as a First Career
If you are new to the workforce, a common starting point is within research operations, helping to design and plan for research projects. This can be a jumping-off point or a full career specialization, depending on your career goals and interests.
If you choose to move into other areas of research, you’ll likely begin in a junior-to-mid-level tactical role where you will focus on conducting research. Then, if you have the desire and required experience, you can continue on to the strategic level where job titles include Senior Researcher, Lead Researcher, and Head/Manager of research.
Research as a Career Change
Research is somewhat unique in that it is a field that welcomes people from other disciplines. Someone, for instance, who comes from psychology, education, or even retail can bring extensive value to research projects. In this case, you might begin somewhere in the mid-level area of research depending on your experience and skill set. If you are considering a career change into research, ask yourself what skills you have from your previous experience that are also valuable as a researcher.
There is no necessary or perfect combination of education requirements for a successful research career. However, here are some options to improve skills and experience as a researcher depending on your experience level:
Formal Education Opportunities
- Common master’s degrees:
- Human-Computer Interaction (HCI)
- Interaction Design
- Communication Design
- Information Systems and Design
- Research bootcamps
- Online courses and learning in research methodologies
- Conferences for researchers
- Free online resources
- Nielsen Norman Group
- UX Collective
- UX Mastery
- Slack Communities
- Ethnography Hangout
- Hexagon UX
- UXR Collective
- Hands-on Learning Experience
- This is a hugely valuable and fast way to ramp up research skills.
- Often challenging to find starting out, so consider volunteer opportunities if needed to gain experience (Try Catchafire.org, local communities, and organizations in need).
If you are interested in a career in research, I encourage you to seek out the communities listed above and begin participating in them. This will give you an insider perspective on what it’s like to work in the field. And, user researchers are usually very excited to help out those who are interested in joining the field, so don’t be shy about asking questions!
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