What’s it Like to Be a User Experience (UX) Researcher?

PathMatch Intern, Liam, is going to be a senior in the fall at Miami University majoring in marketing and minoring in information systems. Liam has an interest in furthering his career in UX Research and has been assisting PathMatch with this during his internship. As part of his internship, he had a chance to connect and interview with the following UX Researchers - Sharma from American Express, MacRae from Adobe, and Engel from Facebook.

WHEN SCANNING YOUR LINKEDIN, WE FOUND YOU HAD A REALLY INTERESTING CAREER PATH COMING TO (INSERT COMPANY HERE). COULD YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR JOURNEY?

Sharma (American Express) - I started out as a psychology major at USC and then got a Master’s in Software Engineering at Chicago. This is where I first became exposed to UX Design and Research.

My career started out as a hybrid design and research role in a fintech company. I’d apply a lot of the principles I learned from the UX community. I then moved on to New York where I worked at a few different agencies, which were good for me to see agency life. I ended up at Citibank for a year and a half before this opportunity opened up at American Express.

MacRae (Adobe) - It’s a weird path. I graduated from James Madison with a degree in English, panicked, and went straight to grad school. I studied Technical Communication and then ended up in Rosetta Stone within a nebulous position. User Experience Research was needed in my role and it sort of took over my job. Over the years I’ve educated myself on it and made it into a job.

Engel (Facebook) - I’ve had an unorthodox career path, with my Ph.D. being in Cognitive Neuroscience. I wanted to understand the brain and then how people make choices from the basic level to society.

I found academia was not the path I wanted so I began consulting in various public sector health companies to design analytics systems. Then I found myself working in global health working on ways to measure behavior and methods to maximize datasets. I wanted to give more depth to the analytics of these public sector organizations.

This brought me to Facebook in the end since I was looking for similar insights around how people interact with products and how they behave in general.

WHAT DROVE YOU TOWARDS UX RESEARCH?

Sharma (American Express) - When I approached design I always had a rough time getting started since I didn’t know where to start. I would always dive down on the person we’re designing for which I found out was its own career. Understanding human behavior from psychology definitely tied into this also.

MacRae (Adobe) - I really like interacting with our users, learning from them, and watching them use the products. Initially, it was mainly about the usability of the products and being able to bring the feedback back to the team. I don’t do as much of it in my current role but I do enjoy it when I have the chance.

WHAT'S YOUR DAY TO DAY LIKE?

Sharma (American Express) - A normal day starts where our research is working on projects that will help create American Express 2.0. We’re working on expanding our platforms and services so our teams can maximize what they use.

MacRae (Adobe) - I manage a team of two other researchers and we sit within the larger UX team. We do team meetings, one on ones, and any other project conversations we need. It’s all about communicating priorities and directing, but they are fantastic so I have very little day to day management. My role is more about giving support to my team nowadays.

Also communicating with my director about the direction as well as understanding where our team as a whole fits into the organization and where we can add value. I try to maintain a balance of where I influence as we need to stay grounded in product work while also working on user needs.

Engel (Facebook) - A typical day might start by meeting with my product partner, either an Engineer or Data Scientist who I am working with on a research project. Depending on the stage of each project I will typically be doing work at every stage of the cycle each day. 30% of my days are working in groups or meetings and 70% is my own work.

WHAT HARD AND SOFT SKILLS WOULD SOMEONE NEED TO SUCCEED IN THIS ROLE?

Sharma (American Express) - Understand what you want your career to look like early in the search process to know what you want. Practice nonstop for hard skills. The more you learn the better you will be and there are so many ways to build out your own portfolio.

MacRae (Adobe) - There are better defined hard skills now, a good background in research methods and biases are some of the most important hard skills. A good foundation in research theory will always help.

Patience and communication will always help as soft skills, especially with users, Observation skills are needed to read between the lines. Teamwork is important since you need to work between the design team and the user side.

Engel (Facebook) - Hard skills that are best learned early are quantitative skills. Understanding, hypothesis testing, finding a sample size - these are much easier to learn in university than afterward.

Communication skills are extremely important. In academia, I didn’t find this stressed enough so work on communication skills early. Give presentations as much as you can to work on this skill.


DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE TO THOSE STARTING OUT? TIPS OR CLASSES?

Sharma (American Express) - It’s more about understanding what skills apply to your section of the industry, so get an idea for the kind of work you’re going to be doing and what environment you want.

MacRae (Adobe) - Explore the field to understand the different facets since it’s different at organizations of different sizes. Think about what you want out of a career and align yourselves with the opportunity to move in that direction. For anyone starting out, its 50% skill and 50% knowing how business works. Take your time to learn from your mentors who understand the industry and this is true for any industry, not just UX.

Engel (Facebook) - I’d never say to take one class for one job but to help you in the long term. Take classes that develop your quantitative skills and have you working on actual studies. Reach out to people in the field with specific questions you might have, people you wouldn’t expect might respond to you.

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