Getting into User Experience Research: 3 Senior Practitioners Share Their Stories

One thing I love about the field of User Experience is that it’s full of passionate, curious and talented people with a wide variety of professional backgrounds. In addition to the more traditional UX disciplines of human-computer interaction (HCI), human factors, information architecture (IA), psychology, web design and user-centered design (UCD), the social sciences, arts, humanities, computer sciences and other disciplines have core skills approaches with direct application to UX research and design. A human-centered perspective and related methods are the common thread.

In this post, I profile three senior UX researchers, who share how they got into this line of work and what they love most about it, along with their favorite UX resources and tips for getting into the field.

Elise LindElise Lind
Senior Research Strategist at Thug Design
@elind448, LinkedIn

I’m currently the senior research strategist for Thug Design, a user experience design agency in Portland, OR. I’ve spent the past 25 years as a practitioner of the techniques that were once called human factors or usability, and are now part of UX. I began my career at Intel and moved to agency life in 2001. Since then, I’ve worked on projects for dozens of organizations, both private and public, including HP, Symantec, Intel, SolarWinds, the U.S. Forest Service, and the State of Oregon. My background includes a BS in mechanical engineering and a MS in human factors psychology.

How did you get into UX?

Like many people who worked in high tech in the early 1990s, I wanted to find ways to stop writing 100-page manuals to explain products and start making those products easier to use before release. My background was in engineering, so I decided to educate myself about the human side of the equation. I took some seminars on usability testing, and I went to work in Intel’s usability lab while I finished my master’s. This gave me an invaluable combination of theory and reality all at once.

What do you love most about working in UX research? 

I love the challenge of getting people to introspect about their real experiences with technology. I spend a lot of time interviewing people, and I consider it a big success when I can elicit those nuggets of insight and emotion that ring true. I also like thinking that what I do might help new technology serve real human needs in a positive way. I want us to understand those needs well enough to make sure technology serves us and not the other way around.

What are your favorite UX research resources?

There are practical-tool resources and learn-new-things resources. For learning new things, I am a big fan of Jared Spool’s UIE seminars and podcasts, and a regular consumer of articles on UXmatters.com, Jeff Sauro’s Measuring Usability, and ACM’s Membernet, and IDEO’s DesignKit “Method in your Mailbox” emails to learn about new research methods. Two of my favorite practical resources are VassarStats.net for brushing up on my statistics as needed, and Randomizer.org for automated randomization schemes.

What advice do you have for people who want to do UX research?

If you are just entering the field, I strongly advocate taking a university-level course in research methods. At the very least, take advantage of online resources like UIE and UXPA to learn best practices. If you have the academic background but lack practical experience, do a volunteer project for a friend’s business or a non-profit organization. Whatever projects you take on, do a great job of documenting your process. The final design is not nearly as important to a prospective employer as showing them you could apply your knowledge in a future project.

Zara LogueZara Logue
Senior UX Researcher at AnswerLab
@autologue, LinkedIn

I’m currently Senior UX Researcher at AnswerLab, based in San Francisco. Some of my recent clients include Honda, Google, Instagram and FedEx. Previously I ran a boutique consultancy (read: I was employee one and only) and worked with everyone from universities, non-profits to artisan food producers and multinational athletic companies. My undergrad degree is in art and my master’s is in design.

How did you get into UX?

I was a secretary in the art department at the University of Oregon and wanted to improve the application process for students. It was long and convoluted with zero feedback throughout. We instituted a tour program specific to the department, streamlined the admissions process, and redesigned all of our forms and website. It was essentially a huge service design project but I had no idea what I was doing or what a project road-map was. All I knew was that I was empathizing with a group of people in order to improve their experience and I wanted to do more of that. I went to grad school and met some amazing mentors in design research, and now I’m here.

What do you love most about working in UX research?

The variety of projects and the range of clients and participants.

What are your favorite UX research resources?

Um, you’re one! You are constantly launching good UX links in the Twittersphere. [Editor’s note: “Thanks!”] Steve Portigal is another. AnswerLab CEO Amy Buckner Chowdhry is a UX evangelist and always knows what’s coming. And I recently worked with Kerry Bodine, author of Outside In, who is amazing at synthesizing insights from research. I find many of the most brilliant UX people don’t do social media very much, so it’s important to get face time with them. I also think it’s important to track interests outside of the UX lens, so I love stuff like We Make Money Not Art, which is art and technology and futurism all squished together.

What advice do you have for people who want to do UX research?

Anybody can do this work, but you have to truly be interested in people and their problems, even if their problem is the inability to add an item to their shopping cart. The most important qualities a UX researcher needs are this and empathy. After that is the ability to synthesize truly relevant findings from mountains of research. That’s the harder one.

If you’re looking for ways to get started, see if you can find someone who will let you shadow them, or take notes or do videography for them. Show your value by participating in research synthesis. You will probably be able to gain more of a foothold trying to pair up with a freelancer who doesn’t have as many constraints around who they work with rather than someone at an established firm. Or conduct your own project as a case study (e.g., “How might we improve the Portland streetcar riding process for alter-abled riders?”).

Bill SelmanBill Selman
Lead UX Researcher at Mozilla
@wselman, LinkedIn, Mozilla UX Blog

I’m currently a Lead UX Researcher at Mozilla, working on Firefox for desktop and mobile, and on other Mozilla services. Before shifting to UX work about eight years ago, I worked as a software engineer using open source tools. Most of the engineering work I did was for adtech companies in Chicago. In the last eight years, I’ve worked as a UX designer and researcher on a variety of projects including clients in adtech, manufacturing, retail, and the restaurant industry. I have BA in philosophy from Bard College and a MS in computer science from the University of Chicago.

How did you get into UX?

In my career, I focused in technology because I wanted to make tools for people and for music/art projects. When I went to graduate school, there was certainly human-computer interaction, but “UX” – as it exists now as a kind of short-hand for design thinking applied to technology – was a nascent field. If you wanted to work in software and particularly on interfaces or user experience, you had to be a developer. After a few years in software, I began to feel like the way we approached building products for users was speculative and inadequate; our approach wasn’t based on understanding user needs and goals. Around 2005 or so, my brilliant friend Megan Fath (who now teaches at SVA) lent me Alan Cooper’s Inmates book. That book really unlocked user-centered design as a process for me. Through it, I saw a way to combine my interests in the social, philosophical, and design aspects of technology and engineering.

Around 2007-08, I was working as a developer at a company that opened up a UX position. After a long period of professional burnout and dissatisfaction with engineering culture, I asked if I could try out the role. They let me shift over and it was a perfect fit. I have focused on UX work ever since. I’ve learned by doing, reading, talking to people, and trying to hone my craft.

What do you love most about working in UX research? 

As someone who walks around with a certain amount of self-doubt, I’m comfortable with having my assumptions challenged. The main reason I love research is the constant surprise I experience when I’m out in the field with participants. They do unexpected and interesting things. Learning about context and motivations is even more exciting. Being surprised and learning that my assumptions are wrong is a powerful experience for me because it means I’m learning something new. Certainly, we’re not always surprised, but even those moments are valuable. For me, there is no greater feeling of joy than being able to share insights that are seemingly counter-intuitive to an audience. I’m here for the moments when I can talk to a team and say, “We had all assumed that people were doing X because of Y. In turns out, they aren’t, and here’s how we can use that.”

What are your favorite UX research resources?

In terms of keeping up with the work that others are doing, Twitter is my primary resource. I follow a few practitioners who are doing excellent work and are sharing some of their approaches and ideas. I like the give and take and the conversations that develop on Twitter. People like Sam Ladner and Ken Anderson post fantastic links.

I also subscribe to and sometimes participate in the Design & User Research Google Group and the Anthrodesign mailing list. Leisa Reichelt who runs UX Research for UK.Gov runs a Linkydink mailing list that shares excellent links.

For research resources for specific projects, my first stops are almost always Google Scholar and ACM. Reading previous studies helps contextualize and frame the questions we are asking.

What advice do you have for people who want to work in UX research?

I assume that most people will start by learning techniques and methods for conducting research. Methodology is certainly essential. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of different methods will provide you with the practical means to do the work of research. I strongly believe in learning through doing.

However, I would urge new researchers to devote themselves to reading classic sociology and anthropology texts (or even take some courses.) It’s important to know the debates and the discussion that led to the rationale behind the development of specific methodologies. A good deal of user research analysis is a creative process (yes, even quantitative analysis) where you take some paths and exclude others. Which paths should you take? Has there been previous work on the phenomena you have identified that you can hang your work on?

More importantly, being conversant in the history of social thought will give you the language and tools to participate in a larger enterprise. You aren’t dealing just with technology, features, and products. When you are engaged with the social world, you are inevitably dealing with questions of culture, class, gender, ethnicity, power, education, etc. Theory will help you to create deeper frameworks, avoid reinventing the wheel, and make more insightful analytical connections and decisions. You don’t need to cite theory with business stakeholders (in fact, it’s frowned upon in most cases), but it’s essential to have some theoretical foundation in your pocket. I was fortunate to have taken a quite a few sociology and social theory classes as an undergrad and I use what I learned in those courses almost daily.

Editor’s Note: This article was inspired by a recent Huffington Post article that profiles five UX designers/generalists and their career paths.

2 thoughts on “Getting into User Experience Research: 3 Senior Practitioners Share Their Stories

  1. Pingback: Around the Web Digest: Week of August 16 | Savage Minds

  2. Pingback: Top 10 Most Popular Posts on Anthropologizing in 2015 | Anthropologizing

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