In order to develop products that satisfy user needs (and delight them in the process), you first need to know who your user is and what that person’s needs are. That’s where user experience (UX) research comes in.
UX researchers systematically study target users to collect and analyze data that will help inform the product design process. In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at what UX researchers do, how they do it, and what steps you can take to start or advance a career in this in-demand field.
One of the first steps in designing a new product or improving the user experience of an existing product is to start thinking about your users. Who are they? Where are they from? What do they want? Why do they want it? How can your product help them get what they want?
As a UX researcher, it’s your job to answer these questions. Instead of making a best guess based on your own subjective experience, you’ll design a research strategy that will empower you to answer these questions in a data-driven way. In a way, you become an advocate for your users, giving them a voice in the product development process.
As a UX researcher, you generally work with two types of research, qualitative and quantitative. We’ll take a brief look at each type (and when it might be useful).
Quantitative research focuses on numbers and statistics. In terms of usability, this might mean measuring how long it takes an average user to complete a task, what percentage of users successfully completed the task, and how many errors or bugs they encountered along the way. These numbers tend to be most useful when you have something to compare them to—either a previous design or a competitor’s product.
Qualitative research examines non-numerical insights, such as why users had trouble completing a task or how they felt while using a product. If quantitative research gives us the “what,” qualitative research gives us the “why.”
Another distinction made between types of research is that between behavioral and attitudinal research.
Behavioral research methods examine what users do. Where do they click on a page? What navigational path do they take through an app?
Attitudinal research looks at a user’s feelings and attitudes toward an experience.
One aspect of your role as a UX designer will be deciding which research method is appropriate for answering which questions. The UX research tool chest contains a variety of options to help you glean information from your users.
Card sorting: Study participants organize topics into groups that make the most sense to them and create labels for these groups. With this information, designers can create apps and websites that are more intuitive and easy to navigate.
Usability testing: Participants try to complete a task with a product while you observe. This lets you measure how successful users are at completing a task, how quickly they complete it, what problems they encounter, and how satisfied they felt with the process.
A/B testing: This tests two versions of a product against each other to see which the target audience prefers. This can be done with a live product by showing different versions of a webpage to different visitors or sending two different versions of a mailing to different recipient lists.
User interviews: Interviews conducted face to face (either online or in person) offer a quick and easy way to get insight into what a user wants from a potential product or collect qualitative data regarding an existing product. When these interviews are conducted with more than one person at a time, they’re often called focus groups.
Surveys and questionnaires: You can design a survey or questionnaire to return both qualitative and quantitative data. By using the same questions and conducting multiple surveys, you can track the improvement of a product throughout its development and lifecycle.
Diary studies: Target users keep a log of their day-to-day activities over a defined (usually extended) period of time. This gives you insight into behaviors and experiences in the real world. You could learn when during the day a user typically engages with your product or how often they use it over the course of a day, a week, or a month.
Contextual observation: Instead of interviewing users in a lab, you’ll observe them in their natural context—at home or at work maybe—while asking questions to better understand how and why they do what they do.
First click testing: This type of user testing examines what a target user clicks on first on a website or app interface when trying to complete a task. You can do a first click test on a live site, prototype, or wireframe.
Now that we have a better understanding of what user experience research is, let’s take a closer look at what you might do in your day-to-day role as a UX researcher, as well as what skills and tools you might use to get the job done.
A day on the job as a UX researcher will likely vary based on the project you’re working on or the company you’re working for. These are a few of the tasks you may perform on the job:
Collaborating with designers and stakeholders to understand research needs
Defining research questions and selecting appropriate methods of data collection
Developing budgets and timelines for research projects
Recruiting participants for research studies
Conducting design research studies and analyzing the data collected
Transforming your findings into easily understandable insights
Presenting your findings to designers, developers, and other stakeholders
Successful UX researchers often develop a set of skills to help them effectively gain insight into current and prospective users. If you’re considering a career in UX research, these are just a few of the skills you can start focusing on now.
Communication skills: Much of the job involves working with a design team and communicating with research participants to answer research questions.
Empathy: Understanding a user’s expectations, frustrations, goals, and reasoning process can help you develop solutions to real user needs.
Design thinking: Each stage of the design thinking process—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test—offers opportunities to learn more about our target users.
Problem solving: Thinking critically about what questions you’re trying to answer with your research can help you select the appropriate methodology.
Curiosity: A sense of curiosity can prompt you to ask insightful questions and discover meaningful insights.
Collaboration: As a UX researcher, you’ll often be working alongside developers, designers, product managers, and other stakeholders to bring the best possible product to market.
Research is just one aspect of UI/UX design. If you’re interested in the field, there are some other positions to consider.
UX designers are responsible for making products usable, useful, and enjoyable for users.
UI designers create the visual elements of computer and electronic interfaces.
Information architects organize and manage information to make it intuitive, accessible, and understandable.
UX engineers, more commonly known as developers, translate designs into usable code.
Interaction designers focus on the moment of interaction between the user and a product. This can be its own role or part of a UX/UI designer’s job.
Get started in UX: Google UX Design Professional Certificate
If you’re a naturally curious person who enjoys working with a team, a career in UX research could be a good fit. It’s an in-demand job in a well-paying industry.
More than half of user researchers make $88,600 or more, according to the Onward Search Salary Guide for 2020 . Three quarters of UX researchers are reported to make more than $79,300.
User researchers rank among the most in-demand digital creative professionals in 2020, according to digital creative staffing agency Onward Search . CNNMoney’s 100 Best Jobs in America list predicted 19 percent job growth from 2017 to 2027 .
UX research, like many areas of UI/UX design, is a relatively new role. As such, you’ll find that there isn’t one established path leading to a career in UX research. Some UX researchers are self-taught, others transition from other careers. As you pursue your own career path, consider these tips.
Most UX researcher positions require candidates with at least a bachelor’s degree, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a UX-related field. Earning your degree in a field related to technology or behavioral and social science could be beneficial.
Aside from a degree, you’ll find numerous ways to learn about the tools and techniques of user research while developing your skills in the industry. Depending on your learning style, you could take advantage of free resources, like blogs and podcasts, or take the more structured approach offered by professionally-taught courses or UX bootcamps. Some universities also offer UX research certificates or specializations for non-degree-seeking learners.
Browse job postings for UX researcher positions, and you’ll sometimes see related work experience listed as a requirement. You don’t have to wait until you get a job to start gaining hands-on experience. If you’re pursuing a degree, talk to your university’s career center about possible internship opportunities. If the company you work for has a UX research team, ask if you can sit in on one of their sessions.
Your portfolio demonstrates your skills and experience to potential employers, making it a key element of your application. As you take classes, complete projects, or volunteer your time, keep track of your work and include your best and most recent projects in your portfolio.
To brush up on your skills or add to your existing portfolio, consider the Using Google Forms to Analyze User Research Data Guided Project from the Coursera Project Network. In about an hour, you can work on creating surveys, gathering results, and presenting insights.
Start building a network of people in the UX industry. This could include coworkers at your current job, UX research organizations, or online UX communities. Networking is often an effective way to find out about new opportunities and meet potential employers.
Whether you’re curious to learn more about UX research or are ready to start learning new skills, the User Experience Research and Design Specialization from the University of Michigan could be a good place to start. This series of six courses covers topics like principles of user experience, understanding user needs, usability testing, and conducting UX research at scale. During the capstone course, you can carry out a research and design project for your portfolio.
1. Onward Search. "Digital Creative Salary Guide 2020, https://onwardsearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Onward-Search-Salary-Guide-2020.pdf." Accessed March 25, 2021.
2. Onward Search. "Digital Creative Salary Guide 2020, https://onwardsearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Onward-Search-Salary-Guide-2020.pdf." Accessed March 25, 2021.
3. CNNMoney. "Best Jobs in America, https://money.cnn.com/pf/best-jobs/2017/list/index.html." Accessed March 25, 2021.