If you’re reading this, chances are you’re considering a career in the user experience (UX) industry. Or maybe you’re just curious. Whichever is the case, in this article you’ll find all the basics you need to know about one crucial job in this area: UX research.
We’ll begin by looking at what UX research is, then we’ll dive a little deeper into what a UX researcher does, and finally give you some tips on how to become a UX researcher.
Did I mention we got a bunch of experts to weigh in on these topics? No? Well, looks like you’re in for a treat. Let’s get started.
What is UX research?
First and foremost, I’ll tell you what UX research isn’t: UX design. It’s easy to confuse the two (and sometimes businesses will bundle the two roles together, like sales/marketing). UX design is the process used to create products and services that provide a positive experience for end users. Designers conduct research to understand users, define problems, and develop solutions.
UX research, on the other hand, involves a deeper understanding of the research process, which typically involves getting hands-on with building research studies, analyzing the results, producing reports, and making recommendations.
These research projects gather insights about users behavior, pain points, and wants and needs using techniques such as interviews, usability testing, click-testing, and more.
With the above in mind, let’s get into the details on what UX researchers do, including their roles, what skills they need, and how to get started.
What does a UX researcher do?
Despite the core nature of UX research being, well… research, the experts we spoke to have a few different ideas of what it actually means to be a UX researcher.
Some, such as Natalie Thomas, Director of CRO and UX Strategy at The Good, stick to the core idea:
“A UX researcher is someone with the ability to design and execute studies that either generate insights about users (actions, behavior, motivation, etc.) or evaluate proposed solutions.”
Nour Abou Alwan, Chief Experience Officer, elaborates on the broader sense of the role:
“Through research, a UX researcher identifies the needs and motivations of a user from a product in order to translate them into actionable insights to drive a product design, making it more useful, delightful and enjoyable.”
Drawing on his experience as an UX researcher turned Founder and CEO of Bankly, Allan Stolc describes the role of UX research as being critical for business success:
“UX researchers serve as a bridge that connects businesses to their intended market. They help companies fully understand their audience's behavior, which includes observing purchase patterns, knowing the latest user trends, and collecting customer insights. Put simply, UX researchers are the eyes and ears of every organization to ensure that what they offer aligns with what the market demands.”
As you can see, our experts demonstrate the core purpose of being a UX researcher is to build and execute UX research studies and to ensure products meet the needs of customers.
The weight of the role might sound intimidating, but we also asked our experts what tasks and responsibilities UX researchers have on a daily basis to get a better understanding of what the job entails.
What tasks and responsibilities do UX researchers have?
If you’re the type of person who just ‘has to know’ things, or you possess a particular talent for figuring out patterns from data, UX research might suit you.
For example, in her role as a senior UX researcher, Anna Loparev says her days often involve digging through data to identify trends, among other tasks:
“Aside from core study-related tasks like planning, running, analyzing, and presenting UX research, my days often involve digging through analytics to identify trends across qualitative and quantitative data sources, optimizing research-related processes and tasks (sometimes through writing code), representing the voice of the customer in various meetings, and mentoring colleagues and members of the UX community on UX research best practices.”
If looking for patterns and trends doesn’t quite quench your thirst for challenge, UX researchers are also tasked with figuring out the best way to approach problems, as Nour Abou Alwan suggests:
“The responsibility of a UX researcher starts with their ability to understand the problem that is being solved and judge the best way to research that problem in order to gather actionable insights to contribute to the solution.”
Another area you might not have thought about (at least not right away) is sourcing qualified participants for your research studies. As Allan Stolc describes, this is an important task:
“One critical task of UX researchers is to look for qualified prospects to participate in their research studies. The selection, though random, should not be made without a reasonable basis. That means UX researchers must ensure that the participants have relevant experience with the subject under study. This allows researchers to gather reliable data to help the design team create customer-centric products.”
While research analysis and problem-solving seem to make up the bulk of the tasks and responsibilities involved in being a UX researcher, Anna briefly brought up the social aspects of the role, including mentoring and representing the voice of the customer to the business.
This can also involve meeting with stakeholders. For example, Riva Caburog, ex-UX researcher and PR/Media Coordinator at Nadrich & Cohen Accident Injury Lawyers, says her daily tasks and responsibilities depended on the stage of the research process:
“My day largely depended on what phase of UX research our team was in. During the initial stage, for instance, I usually spent most of my hours meeting with company stakeholders to scope our research project and define the objectives.
Within the scoping period, I had meaningful interactions with the research participants, with topics revolving around the products they were interested in.
My entire shift could be all about asking the right questions, responding to people's clarifications about the study, and ensuring I got all the information needed before proceeding to the UX research's documentation and analysis aspects.”
So not only does the responsibility of a UX researcher include building and analyzing results from robust studies, it also includes advocating for users’ experiences, managing stakeholder expectations, and interacting with research participants.
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What skills do you need to be a UX researcher?
So let’s get down to business. If the idea of becoming a UX researcher is becoming more and more appealing, you’re probably wondering what specific skills you’ll need to succeed in the role.
It’s clear that strong analytical skills are a basic requirement for doing the job, as well as familiarity with both qualitative and quantitative research methods. However, our experts also suggested the following skills are important for UX researchers:
Understanding user-centered design principles and methodologies.
Ability to work effectively as part of a larger team.
Empathy – being a good listener and sharp observer.
Being adaptable to mix and change research methods to get the best results.
Having a familiarity with programming languages to be able to communicate customer needs with developers.
These are essential skills you’ll need for the job. However, you’ll also need to consider industry knowledge – it’s beneficial to the business you join if you’re already familiar with the industry it operates in.
How to get started with a career in UX research
So, do you think you might have what it takes to be a UX researcher? Or do you think you’ll need to upskill and build your knowledge first?
We asked our panel of UX research experts what they’d do to line themselves up for a successful career in UX research if they had to start from scratch. Here’s what they said.
"Formal training in design, human computer interaction (HCI), or applied research would be a great background to bring to this work, but it’s not required. Once you’re in the industry, you’ll meet plenty of people who learned on the job or worked their way up from a customer service representative to a UX researcher.
If you have a portfolio but no work experience, don’t be too proud to take an internship. Pride can get in the way of some folks taking an entry-level job, especially if you are entering the field later than your peers, but it’s a great way to break into a competitive field. I was an intern in my late twenties and it’s where I met my mentors and learned to really speak the language of the industry.”
— Natalie Thomas, Director of CRO & UX Strategy at The Good
“Acquire a solid foundation in user-centered design and research methodologies by taking courses and reading books on the subject. Build your skills in data analysis by learning how to use tools like Excel, SPSS, or R.
Gain hands-on experience by conducting small research projects on your own, or as part of a team, and sharing your findings with others. Network with other UX researchers, designers, and professionals in the field to build relationships and learn from others.
Stay current with the latest trends and technologies in UX research by attending conferences, workshops, and online events, and reading industry publications”
— Abhishek Shah, Founder of Testlify
“I’d dig into UX researcher job postings and look for patterns of what I need to land a role. I would then use that to build personal goals and leverage mentorship opportunities, such as UX research slack communities, to work toward those goals. I would also try to find a long-term mentor to help guide me through at least the first part of my journey.”
— Anna Loparev, Senior UX Researcher at New Relic
As you can see, a common theme for improving your prospects of becoming a UX researcher is getting some hands-on experience, whether that's through small projects or an internship. As far as theoretical, academic knowledge goes, it doesn’t appear to be necessary, although you’ll still need to be familiar with the how-tos of conducting research.
Learn more: Check out our list of the top UX conferences to attend.
Is UX research calling your name?
So we covered what UX research is, what it’s like being a UX researcher, and how you can get started based on what our experts would do.
If you’re looking for more practical experience, you can also sign up for a free Lyssna account and gain access to unlimited active tests to kick-start your practical UX research experience.
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Frequently asked questions about UX researchers
Alexander Boswell is the Founder/Director of SaaSOCIATE, a B2B SaaS, MarTech and eCommerce Content Marketing Service and a Business PhD candidate. When he’s not writing, he’s playing baseball and D&D.
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