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Leveling up: Progressing in your UX Research Career

How it all started

Several years ago, I left my job as an HR Manager and decided that I was going to switch careers into UX Research. Over the years I've used UX research to improve the experience for people and increase company revenues by millions of dollars. I've also had the good fortune of being able to grow my career. So, I'd like to share that progression and help others who may also be looking to progress in their career.

This is what I've learned and will cover how I've created and grown research programs within a company and how I've progressed in my career to a Senior Design Researcher.

This is going to be a living post, so if you have questions ask me on Twitter @marisamorby. As questions come in, I'll add more sections to clarify information and add more nuance.

Creating and growing a research program

For many people starting out in UX research, they are likely hires on a team of researchers, or a research team of one. In my case I got the good fortune of working with another researcher and we worked together to create a research program where we worked. In my current role, I was hired as the sole research and am currently building out the research program.

These are the most important things I've learned about growing a research program from scratch.

Be clear about what research is and what it isn't

If you're growing or leading the research program at a company that is new to dedicated research, it's important to explain what research is, and what it isn't. Doing this as one of your first projects within the company is important because it sets the groundwork for all the work that you'll be doing later.

It also establishes that people can come to you with questions, gives people an initial map to work off of, and creates a shared vocabulary within the team. All of these things are important to growing a new practice because you'll need to get buy in across the entire company.

In my own role, I've often used Emma Boulton's research framework as a starting point for explaining how research works like a funnel, taking a wide view of the whole industry and slowly narrows it down.

I then tailor this framework to the team I'm working with. Based on the size of the teams, what types of research methodologies can we reasonably support that will have the highest impact?

If you are a very small company, the methodologies you choose will be different than a company that has multiple teams and areas of responsibility.

Identify the highest impact area and research that

After you've set up the initial framework of research, now you get to do some initial internal research. What are the most glaring issues that you see right now? It's best to pick the quickest fix that has the highest impact. That way you'll have something to present to the team when you're done and also show improvement.

Empower other teams to learn and do research

I'm a big proponent of the "everyone's a researcher" mindset. I don't believe that research is a gate through which all products or features must pass. I believe it's a way of thinking about your product, your business, and your users.

You don't "do research" and then you're done. Research is a growth mindset. It's asking questions at every step of the process to learn more. It's being honest with yourself about what is and isn't working.

At all the companies I've been, one of my main goals has been to empower other teams to ask questions and participate in research. I want them to ask questions and become part of research. My job is to make sure the research gets completed, collect insights, and ensure that we're asking good questions. Then, at the end of the day, we're not a research team of one... in fact, our whole company is a research team! That creates systemic improvement that lasts because as the company grows, each new person learns this skill.

Create and share actionable insights

Of course, part of completing research is sharing the insights. I make it a point to share the smallest piece of actionable feedback that I can, and break down research studies so that they are easily understood.

That means starting with a summary that lists the main changes we need to make in order for the product or feature to be successful. Only after making sure the top level needs are explained do I dive into details with video highlights, quotes, and supporting data.

Much like the research framework is set up like a funnel that starts big and gets very, very specific, my research reports give you the main information and then drill down into very specific details.

The teams you work with are your users, too

It's important to remember that the team you're working with are also your users. It's important that their experience with research is positive. And that means you get to be very meta with your research because you should be doing periodic audits of how the research team works with other teams... research on research if you will.

The most important thing to consider when checking on the health of your research program is to consider if expectations for our team members have been set and met. If expectations are properly set and continuously met, you'll be able to grow the program and create trust.

Deciding your career path

So, I've talked a lot about how to create a new research program, which is part of the journey of growing in a UX research role. For those that are interested in how to grow specifically in their careers, I've got some thoughts on that as well.

Two main paths: Manager or Individual Contributor

In my experience, there are two main paths you can take with UX research roles. You can grow into people management, or you can grow as an individual contributor. In a Senior UX Researcher role that's focused on people management, you'll likely be hiring out a team, managing that team, delegating work, and working cross functionally to hit business goals.

In a Senior UX Researcher role individual contributor you'll likely help mentor more junior roles, identify and work on strategic initiatives, and make sure the research program actually runs.

Of course this will vary at different companies, and this is just my experience from the companies where I've been.

I want to be very clear that a management path does not equate to a leadership role. I believe that anyone can be a leader. A good manager helps ensure the health and growth of the team toward business goals. A leader inspires a team to be better. A good manager should also be a good leader, but everyone on the team should practice leadership.

Questions to ask yourself before deciding your path

I've been both Head of Research, where I managed a small team of researchers, and a Senior Design Researcher, where I managed the research program. My responsibilities were very different in each role, and these are the main differences I noticed.

In a management role, I was responsible for making sure the team was productive. If they weren't, I would be held accountable for that. As an individual contributor, I'm responsible for making sure my own work is done and that I'm empowering other team members.

In a management role I helped shield my team from unnecessary pressure. I acted kind of like a filter to make sure only the important bits of information reached the team. Was our CEO panicking for some reason and putting a bunch of pressure on us? Okay, I would take that pressure and dilute it for the team so that they understood what was happening but didn't send everybody into a spiral. If everyone is feeling pressure, we get too overwhelmed to actually work. Alternatively, in an individual contributor role, I'm in a lot of conversations but don't have quite as much visibility into what's happening at a higher level since that information is filtered for me.

In a management role I was responsible for the hiring of new team members and also making sure that they were able to grow in their role. That meant doing leveling work with them, performance reviews, and one on one meetings to help them grow. It's really cool to help people grow! As a senior individual contributor, I'm less directly involved with the person's growth, although there's opportunity to mentor and guide people.

Some commonalities in all senior roles

Even though management vs. individual contributors have different day to day activities and require different strengths. In my opinion, since a senior role comes with experience and time, there are some things that overlap regardless of whether you choose a manager path or an individual contributor path. The traits I list below are what I think all senior roles should display.

Navigating through the growth process at your company

It's all well and good to have an idea of where you want to go, but how do you actually get there? What do you need to do to nail down that Senior UX Researcher title?

Ideally you'd be at a company where they level you appropriately based on the work you've done. Yes, those companies exist... I currently work at one!

But if you're having to make a case for yourself, here's what I've done in the past and what worked for me.

Create an overview of your work

Creating a portfolio of all the work you've done is a good practice to remind yourself how you've grown and show the breadth of your experience.

Show the impact your work had

Pick a one or two of your most impactful studies and create a story. What was the problem, how did you identify and solve the problem, and what was the outcome? You want to create a hero story where you're the hero! Stories resonate with people far better than data alone... but since you're a researcher you've got both the quantitative and qualitative data to back up what you're saying.

Do your own role and salary review

Look at job descriptions for the type of role you want to be doing, even if you haven't done all of it yet. Use your portfolio to show how you're work has grown and how it will continue to grow. Because you're a valuable and impactful member of the team, a promotion into a senior role is an investment in you and an investment in the company.

Since I have a background in recruitment, I also do my own salary search beforehand. I go into salary negotiations with a range that I know is fair based on my market research.

I hate doing salary negotiations, but it's an important part of the growth and career process, and if you're going to transition into leadership you need to be ready for (even if you're not fully comfortable with) those conversations.

Find allies to support you

Lastly, find allies and other team members to support you. Since you've put together a list of your most impactful research, reach out to the people you worked with and get their internal recommendations if you can. I don't typically use these in a presentation or negotiation, but I do use the conversations as a way to boost my confidence and remind myself I actually know what I'm doing. Confidence is important when advocating for yourself.

What else do you want to learn?

I hope this was helpful, and a good jumping off point if you're trying to grow your UX Research career. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I'm happy to clarify and answer additional questions, which will then be added to this post. Send a tweet to @marisamorby and I'll answer your question and make updates!

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