21 May 2019
10 Mins Read
Career and Life Lessons from 2 Years as a UX Researcher
I have been a UX Researcher for almost 3 years. In that time I have worked on over 30 products, written multiple articles, run almost 10 workshops (with over 120 people), and given 4 talks. Along the way, I’ve learned some lessons and would like to share some of them with you.
Plan before you start, and document your plan
Research plans have made my life easier. Before I started using them, it was hard to keep track of what I was doing. A written out research plan helps guide the entire process from defining objectives and research questions, to who to recruit and how to recruit, determining research methods, creating screeners and scripts, budgeting, identifying required resources and equipment, timelines, and milestones. This is your source of truth for what you’re doing and what’s happening with a particular research project, and this ensures that everyone is on the same page.
It especially helped when I started freelancing because I was able to clearly define the work I’d be doing and not underprice my work. I was also able to clearly define outcomes and deliverables for clients.
Always do a pilot
So you’ve made your infallible research plan and everything is perfect. You have all your questions and your script is tight. You launch into your session. Then 10 minutes into the session, you realise that nothing is going according to plan or you’re asking irrelevant questions.
Piloting your studies will help you identify whether you’re asking the right questions, using the right methods, and help you catch mistakes or issues. Always test everything, whether you’re doing remote usability tests, surveys, interviews or any other method. It’s best to pilot with someone from your target group, but you can pilot with your colleagues or friends.
Participant recruitment is not as easy as it seems
Because my first project was redesigning the company’s website and all the stakeholders (management, employees, and community members) were somewhat internal and easy to access, participant recruitment wasn’t something I considered until I had to work on my first client project. It’s easy to think that participants are everywhere, just waiting for you to snap them up, especially when you’re giving incentives, but I’ve found that this is often not the case.
You have to think about how you’ll recruit participants, where to find them, how you’ll reach out to them, if you’ll be giving incentives, what the incentives will be and more.
Recruitment can take a considerable amount of time to plan depending on a number of factors including user group, location, research method you’re using, session length and so on. These also influence the size of the incentives you’ll have to give. Always factor this into your research planning, and if you’re a freelancer, factor this into your fee.
Not all deliverables are relevant all the time
UX research is probably the least flashy component of Design and deliverables are one way to visualise the work that we do. Think personas, customer journeys, user flows etc. There’s the temptation to always have the same deliverables for every project that you do, but that’s not necessary. You have to think of the best way to relay information gotten for each study you run. You also have to think of who you’re sharing this information with and what the best way to present it to them would be,
Embrace awkward silences
It’s tempting to want to jump in when your participant becomes quiet, but you might lose valuable insight. Participants are more likely to continue talking if you just wait a bit. Staying quiet will also help you avoid talking over the participant.
Always take notes, even if you’re recording
Technology won’t always work the way you expect it to. Things will crash, restart, or just not work. So write your notes and don’t rely on video or audio recordings.
Another reason to take notes is that there are some things that you might observe that won’t be picked up by the recordings, and there’d be no way to get these insights if you’re not writing them down. If you can manage it, have someone else in the room to take notes so you can focus on the participant.
Remember Sod’s law
Everything that can go wrong will. People won’t show up for their sessions. Equipment won’t work. Recordings will erase. Prototype won’t work as planned. Only 1 person will show up for a 7-person focus group session.
There are three things you can do when things go wrong: (i) use your contingency plan (ii) work around the issues, (iii) call it a day. There’s no hard rule for what to do when things go wrong and you can only get better through practice
Practice, practice, practice
The best way to get better at conducting research is by actually conducting research. No amount of reading articles and books and watching video tutorials and taking online courses can equate actually getting out there and doing something. It can be terrifying the first time, but it gets easier, and the more you do it, the more efficient you become.
Try to practice different methods and not stick to the same two or three for every project that you do.
General life and career lessons
It’s not who you know or what you know, but who knows you know what you know.
I first came across this quote a few years ago, and it has become especially remarkable in the last 2 years. All the jobs I’ve gotten (both full time and freelance) were through referrals. Someone who knew me or my work contacted me or recommended me. If you’re great at what you do and nobody knows it, then you might not get far. There’s the myth of the silent genius who focuses only on working and never toots their own horn. In my experience, life rarely works that way.
If you want to be top of mind when someone with your knowledge and expertise is needed, asides from being good at what you do, you have to be visible. Give talks, write articles, create videos on YouTube or Instagram around your topics of interest, tweet. Find the platforms you’re most comfortable with and take the first step to put yourself out there.
You can’t take every opportunity — get over your FOMO and learn to say no
Being visible means you get a lot of opportunities—job opportunities, speaking opportunities. You can’t take everything for various reasons. Sometimes, they’ll overlap, you might be unable to attend because you’re ill, it might not be the best fit, or you want to be with your family or friends instead. Or it might be something else entirely.
It’s important to think deeply about the things that are important to you and why. This will help you filter out the things you don’t care about and help you say no more easily. It’s okay to turn down opportunities. I’ve personally turned down an offer to another organisation because it didn’t fit into my interests at the time, and I was happy with where I was. I also turned down speaking opportunities because they were not paying speakers or providing transportation and accommodation.
Be flexible—start somewhere and take everything one step at a time
Before becoming a UX researcher, I was a writer, social media manager, and content creator. 6 years ago, I didn’t know this path existed, I only stumbled into it by chance. I was curious about tech and figured that I’d probably work as a Psychologist at a tech company or write blogs for tech companies or something similar. Up until Usable, I had never heard of the field of UX or Design in tech. As far as I knew, to be part of building products, you had to become a software developer. I was also convinced I was going to immediately go a do a PhD in Social Psychology after university.
But then I discovered UX, gave it a chance and loved it. I don’t (and I’ve never had) a 10-year or 5-year career plan. I only know the things I enjoy doing and the things I don’t, the things I’m interested in and the things I’m not, and the things I’m curious about.
Don’t be stuck on dreams you set for yourself 10 years ago, and learn to go with the flow.
Keep track of what you do
It’s possible to lose track when you’re working. What I did to help me keep track of my work was to create a document I updated with highlights (1/2 lines) and pictures of what I did and the impact. That way, I wouldn’t have to struggle to remember when I’m rewriting/updating my resume or creating a case study.
To be honest, I don’t always do this, but I try to as much as possible.
Another thing which I started recently was to create a sheet with all the products I’ve worked on, talks I’ve given, and workshops and masterclasses I’ve facilitated. Keeping track of my previous work history made it easy to compile this document.
Another example from my work is that keeping track made it easier for me to create a handover document when I was leaving my previous role.
Keep learning and experimenting
It’s important to open your mind to the opportunities that exist around. Imagine if I had closed my mind to UX and insisted on going to do a PhD in Psychology. I may or may not pick it up again in, say, 3 years from now, but I’ve decided to focus on Design for now.
Different things work for different people. What works for you might be to have a strict plan to follow, but that has never been my thing. Know yourself. Know your strengths. Know how you flourish. There’s no one way to break into most things. Find what works for you and stick with it regardless of what other people are doing.