7 helpful tips to get your UX research career started

I began my undergraduate degree with utmost certainty that I was going to be a medical doctor, and I committed 6 years of my life to doing clinical research. Yet, here I sit, working as a User Experience (UX) Researcher for the world’s largest travel website, giving you advice about how to start a career in business.

The most common question I get asked is “how did you switch from sports science to UX research?”  to which I reply, “That’s a great question.”

Truth be told, it wasn’t easy to make a switch. There were mistakes I made, interviews that I tanked, and most importantly, things that I learned along the way to help initiate and propel my career to where it is today. If you’re looking to get your career off to a start, whether you’re a student, intern, or someone who’s just looking to make a career switch, I’ve listed out the most helpful things that I learned along my path to becoming a UX researcher.  

Below are my tips for getting started.

1. Read up

Already have a degree in a UX research related field or currently working on it? You may likely up to speed on methods and purposes of why they’re conducted in the workplace. Go ahead and skip to Tip #2.

If you’re looking to start your UX career from scratch like I did (no formal UX education, no connections to the business), like it or not, you do need to have some idea of what you’re getting yourself in to.

Let’s start with the basics: Wikipedia. There, you’ll find just a scratch of what kind of methods that are common in the profession, and a link to methodologies and how they’re conducted. Wikipedia doesn’t do a great job at really telling you how to do most of these methods, but it does give you a general idea of some of methods are used in the workplace.

As an introduction to UX, the best book textbook I can recommend is  The Elements of User Experience, it's easy to follow, intuitive and breaks down the field in to multiple levels that are great for beginners in the field.

Another key UX blogs to browse is the Nielson Norman page, which posts insightful UX articles about once a week.

2. Be a participant

Want to see how the pros do it? Volunteer to be a part of a study! Usertesting.com is always looking to expand their panel, and all major tech companies have user experience researchers that are looking to talk to customers. See how it’s done and see what it’s like from the participant’s side as well.

3. Start conducting research – nobody is going to stop you

Is there a website that you absolutely hate? Maybe an app on your phone that you need to use, but always run in to issues when using it? Those are perfect places to start.

When starting a research report from scratch, I recommend writing about a website or app that you’re passionate about. You can write up a full end-to-end user experience, and put yourself in a scenario of a customer or user of that website or app. For example, you could look at a travel business and go through from start to finish about the purchasing process to buy a hotel, or if travel isn’t your thing, you could sign-up for a new fantasy basketball team, conduct a draft and manage the team for a week. Along the way, ask yourself: What snags did I hit? What mistakes did I make? What made it really helpful/easy to use? What elements of the interface were hard to find? What was misleading?

Start answering those questions, and look at you go! You’re doing research!

If you're stuck, you can always rely on Neilsen Norman's 10 usability heuristics for guidance to help you write your report.

You can also reach out to those websites (smaller startups as well) and send these reports that you wrote, and you can use them to build a personal portfolio (highly recommended).   

Regardless of the stage of your career, there really is no excuse to not starting your own research. You may not get paid right away, but you will get experience.

4. Partner with recruiters

The majority of entry level jobs for UX Research that I’ve seen are through a contracted (vendor) role, which is most likely sourced through a 3rd party contracting company. These companies use recruiters to bring candidates to them, so that they don’t have to spend the time and effort to finding a needle in a haystack. For their efforts, the recruiters get a commission bonus for finding the right candidate, and the vending company gets a cut if you get hired as well.

Because of this, you’ll often get a mix of amazing, personalized recruiters at specific companies, and you’ll also get recruiters who spam your inbox with subjects such as “Hi [insert name], amazing opportunity!”

In my experience, once you find a good recruiter, they’ll look out for you and continuously submit your application for multiple roles. Search the job boards (Indeed, Glassdoor, Linkedin), and get in touch with the recruiters. Check in every 3 months to give updates, stay connected, and it will pay off. The first ever recruiter who reached out to me was the also the one to get me my first UX role 8 months later (Thanks again, Tyrel)!

5. Be prepared to relocate

Of all the tips I can give, this is certainly the most difficult to accomplish to start a career, but I cannot stress the importance being a local candidate. This is particularly important for contracted roles, which are the most common entry-level positions there are. These types of positions often do not have a funds allocated to relocation, and therefore they often do not consider candidates outside of the local area. While relocating is not necessary prior to landing a job, it’s quite helpful to be local to land a quick interview.

6. Find a mentor

If you’re new to UX Research, finding a mentor isn’t a suggestion; it’s a necessity. The best mentorships that I’ve had (and given) stem from those who do not have personal involvement in my current role, as it allows candid discussions about career intentions, goals and directions moving forward. I’ve often found that direct managers and team members have a tough time openly discussing careers, salaries or expectations, however those in a different company or without any personal ties to your success can make a suggestion based on their experience with much less bias.

Reach out to someone, offer to buy them a coffee or a lunch, and get to know them a bit better! These connections and mentorships will teach you more than a classroom ever could.

7.  Show your strengths, but most importantly, identify your weaknesses

When starting a new role, you may have a certain skill set that you’ve built from your various jobs or educational background, but also may certainly lack in other areas. It’s absolutely essential to recognize those areas that you’re weakest in and make them a strength.

While I was on the Microsoft Store team, I recognized that I was becoming incredibly comfortable with usertesting.com and conducting remote studies, but did not have any experience running an in-person, in-lab usability study. Once I recognized my biggest weakness as a UX Researcher, I did something about it; I switched teams and relied on other experts in the field to help teach and guide me in the methodology I was least comfortable with. Today I can confidently state I’m an “expert” in in-lab usability studies because of my willingness to recognize my weaknesses as a researcher.