Becoming a UX Researcher: What Skills You’ll Need

Leigh KunisLeigh Kunis | 7 minute read | September 27, 2018
How to become a UX researcher

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Google, Airbnb, and Amazon all have one thing in common: an incredible user experience (also known as UX). Their principle websites are straightforward and easy to use, and many (including Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia) attribute the success of these “startup unicorns” to strong UX design.

CNNMoney’s 100 Best Jobs in America list for 2017 includes both UX designers and UX researchers. The ranking was based on growth rate, salary, and job satisfaction. User experience researchers came in at No. 39, with a median annual salary of $106,000 and an estimated 10-year job growth of 19 percent. User experience designers were No. 99, with a median annual salary of $85,900 and an estimated 10-year job growth of 13 percent.

So, what’s the difference between a UX researcher vs. a UX designer?

First, a step back. UX can be defined as “the experience a user has while interacting with a product” and UX design as “the process by which a designer trie[s] to determine what that experience will be.”

One of a UX designer’s mains responsibilities is to make websites, apps, and other pieces of technology as easy to use as possible. In order to do that, they must understand their target market: what the consumer wants, what motivates them, and what turns them off. This is where a UX researcher comes in.

Want to know more about how to become a UI/UX designer? Visit our comprehensive job guide to UI/UX design here!

What Is a UX Researcher?

What is UX research?

UX researchers are akin to data scientists: rather than hypothesizing about what a consumer may like, they analyze actual consumer behavior and form data-driven insights to address the needs of these consumers. UX researchers replace guesswork with informed insights and then work with UX designers, engineers, and product managers to turn these insights into actionable, consumer-centric results that resonate with the audience.

When asked about the difference between a UX researcher and a UX designer, researcher George Kalyvas said people in his role “should be able to conduct in-depth and advanced research both in qualitative and quantitative methods. It is important to be able to understand the research objective and what type of research or combination of research approaches you will use.”

He lists his primary responsibilities as “designing, conducting, analyzing, and reporting on user-centered design research and usability testing. My main responsibilities include identification of user needs and goals, task and workflow modeling as well as unmoderated usability testing, and more formal, in-depth testing. I also conduct usability research both online and in the field and provide recommendations for improvement.”

The key difference between a UX researcher and UX designer, Kalyvas said, is that the purpose of the UX researcher is “to conduct research and set up the scope of the study according to the research objectives. The outcome of the research is the application of design… [T]he UX designer is expected to design according to principles… while keeping in mind the mental models of the end-user.”

TalentLyft, a recruiting software that provides job description templates, lists the primary responsibilities of an entry-level UX researcher as follows:

  • Manage and conduct user research and concept development
  • Research buyer personas and investigate buyer behavior
  • Lead users throughout the process of proposing, wireframing, and implementing UX improvements
  • Work closely with marketing and product management teams to identify research topics
  • Work broadly with design, product management, content strategy, engineering, and marketing
  • Participate in recruitment activities for user research
  • Plan and implement the overall user research strategy and methods

What Skills Do You Need to Become a UX Researcher?

What makes a good UX researcher?

If you’re wondering how to get into UX research, UX Planet says it’s beneficial to have a background in a relevant field such as marketing, cognitive science, psychology, economics, or information science.

You’ll need to have an analytical mind and know how to read data, but soft skills are important as well, as you’ll need to know how to read people. UX researchers need to be collaborative and know how to work well with all types, as a UX researcher works closely with not just UX and UI designers, but engineers, product managers, and project managers as well. Last but not least, it’s imperative to have an understanding of the overall design process.

TalentLyft suggests the following requirements and specifications for an entry-level UX researcher:

  • BA/BS degree
  • Some experience as a UX research specialist or similar role
  • Comfort launching and iterating quickly and using data
  • In-depth understanding of UI design
  • Experience conducting user research
  • Experience with qualitative and user-centered design methodologies
  • Working knowledge of quantitative, behavioral analysis and statistics
  • Critical-thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Team player
  • Good time-management skills
  • Great interpersonal and communication skills

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What Does a UX Researcher Do?

UX researchers employ a mix of quantitative and qualitative research. Quantitative research is measurable, while qualitative is not. How many users visited your homepage is an example of quantitative research; determining why 500 people abandoned their carts at checkout is an example of qualitative research.

UX research techniques follow one of three key methodologies:

  • Observation: UX researchers observe people interacting with a product and look for behavioral (i.e., unspoken) clues to understand what a person thinks of a product. Do they find it easy to use? Did their behavior reflect what the UX designer intended them to do?
  • Understanding: UX researchers seek to understand consumers’ “mental model.” According to Nielsen Norman Group, a mental model is “what users know (or think they know) about a system such as your website.” When a person visits a webpage, they act according to their mental model. If they click the magnifying glass icon, they expect it to open a new search; if they click on your logo, they expect it to direct them back to the homepage, and so on. Thus, it’s imperative that a product’s design is well aligned with a consumer’s mental model.
  • Analysis: UX researchers must not only be able to observe and understand consumer behavior, but they must also be able to interpret it as well. They need to analyze their findings to identify patterns and trends that they can then share with the UX design team in a digestible way.

Common research practices utilized by UX researchers include:

  • Face-to-Face Interviews: These can be one-on-one or via focus groups comprised of multiple people. The UX researcher can ask specific questions, simply engage in conversation, or, in an ethnographic interview, observe the participants in their natural settings to see how they interact with a website or product.
  • User Surveys: Researchers can send online surveys to a targeted group to get their thoughts on a product. While this is a cost-effective way of eliciting a high number of responses, the downside is the lack of behavioral clues. As a researcher cannot physically see her target, she misses the chance to pick up on things that a survey cannot.
  • Usability Tests: Researchers can share prototypes with a target audience to see how they interact with them. This can be done either in person or online, and the tester is encouraged to talk through their thought process as they navigate the product or site. This is a great way to gauge whether a customer’s mental model aligns with the actual design.  

How to Become a UX Researcher

UX research is a relatively new but growing field. You don’t need a specific degree to be a UX researcher, but you should have experience with technology and an understanding of people’s behavior.  Common backgrounds include, but are not limited to, psychology, anthropology, sociology, marketing and communications, and information science.

If you’re wondering how to get into UX research, start by reading as much as possible. Sixty-five percent of UX designers are self-taught, and many UX researchers are as well. User Testing, a website that helps companies get feedback on their websites, apps, and prototypes, recommends the following books:

Podcasts such as UIE Brain Sparks, UXPod, and Boxes and Arrows are also good resources.

Once you have a firm understanding of what it means to be a UX researcher, try to talk to people in the field. Networking is one of the best ways to land a new job.

If you’re employed and your company has a UX research team, see if they’ll sit down and talk to you. Ask if you can join one of their moderated sessions and take notes.

If your company doesn’t have a UX research team, talk to your UX design team, market research team, or marketing team. Ask if you can shadow them on an upcoming research project. You can also contact local universities that conduct UX research or applied research and discuss volunteering with them. Similar to an internship, shadowing and volunteering to help UX researchers will provide you with proven experience that you can build a portfolio with and show to prospective employers.

Lastly, check out the User Experience Research Professionals Association to see if there are any upcoming events you can attend.

Final Thoughts

UX is a growing and lucrative field. While a UX designer is more concerned with the consumer-facing final outcome of a project, a UX researcher focuses on the customers’ wants and needs.

Observation, understanding, and analysis are the three key methodologies employed by UX researchers and can are done via face-to-face interview, online surveys, or usability testing.

A UX researcher should have a solid understanding of analytics and the design process as a whole, but they also need soft skills such as adaptability, an understanding of human behaviors, and a willingness to collaborate.

As a UX research degree is non-existent, the best way to break into the field is to immerse yourself it. Read as much as you can on the topic, network with people in the field, and either shadow or volunteer on projects in order to build a portfolio that you can later present to prospective employers.

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Leigh Kunis

About Leigh Kunis

Based between NYC and Madrid, Leigh is a freelancer with a background in e-commerce marketing. Having spent her career in startups, she specializes in strategizing and executing omni-channel campaigns.