How I got into User Research

 Since I was young, I had my sights set on becoming a vet or a psychologist. My parents laughed at the thought of me being a vet. If I saw an animal even stub their paw, I’d be in tears. I spent a brief time shadowing a vet when I was younger. I lasted about 2 hours before I ran out crying, swearing off my future as a veterinarian. I then dove into my second option, psychology.

During my Master’s program in Psychology, I worked in a mental hospital a few days a week. The patients I longed to work with had mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and dissociative identity disorder (it exists). I worked with these patients in the hospital and criminals in a neighboring hospital to get this experience. Over the two years, I completely burnt out and withdrew my Ph.D. applications.

I was terrified. I had some debt from school and no viable career ahead. All of my plans flew out the window. I grasped at straws to find the right job for me. Could I be an interior decorator? Or a motivational coach? Or maybe I could start my own business. I spoke to a few career coaches and still felt lost.

By some crazy stroke of luck, I user experience fell into my life. I was at a party (wallowing, I’m sure) when someone mentioned the user experience. They told me it was about making website and app experiences better for whoever uses them. This idea was intriguing. I went home early and looked up this potential new career.

I fell in love

The instant I Googled user experience, I couldn’t stop reading. Everything about the topic spoke to me. There was something about user experience. It felt like a beautiful mix of psychology and technology. I believed I could use what I learned during my Master’s program and apply it to user experience. I thought it would be an excellent fit for me. Plus, it gave me a sense of control. I finally knew what I could do for the rest of my life.

The only problem was I cannot draw. Not for the life of me. To this day, I can’t complete a circle (it always overlaps) or draw easy shapes. Visualization is one of my weakest points. I can see what I want in my mind, but it is almost impossible for me to put it on paper (physical or digital).

I ignored this small hiccup and figured I could learn how to become a designer. Spoiler alert: that didn’t work. However, I am so grateful for moving forward since it brought me to user research.

How did I start?

I immediately filled my shopping cart on Amazon with as many books as I could find, including:

And many more!

I then scoured the internet for any guides or blogs on the subject of user experience. I sat on Dribbble for ages, scrolling through people’s designs; I found designs on Pinterest (I still have a UX Pinterest Board — although now renamed to User Research); I read guides on how to be a user experience designer. Anything user experience, I ingested.

I then found the General Assembly. General Assembly is an education platform geared towards tech- and business-related careers, such as coding, designing, digital marketing, and data analytics. They had two options for a user experience course: a full-time immersive course and a part-time course. Since I was working, I chose the part-time course. I started counting down the days until it started.

What was it like?

The General Assembly course primarily focused on user experience design. We learned about design thinking, prototypes, and different tools such as Sketch. Finally, we came to the section on user research. User research fascinated me. I wanted to know everything about the topic. While my design skills were lacking, my background in Psychology bolstered my interviewing skills. I felt so comfortable conducting user research (although I had no idea how much I needed to grow).

That course rocketed my interest and love for user research. I didn’t get quite enough training in research, but it motivated me to continue my learning and quest to become a user researcher.

I want to make a quick note here: you don’t have to take a boot camp or expensive course with a certificate to get into user research. You don’t need a MA or Ph.D. (although for some companies such as Facebook, it makes it easier to get an interview). All you need curiosity, compassion, and a drive to learn and practice user research.

That course did not (I repeat, did not) get me my first user research job. Hard work and practice made this career a reality, and I will outline each step I took to get into the field.

What happened next?

If only the world were magical and I landed a job right after finishing the General Assembly course. That was not the case. General Assembly was great for understanding that user research was a viable career and the basics. I had a lot of work to do after that course. My immediate next step was to start applying to jobs.

But, before that, I noticed a small caveat present on almost each job description: portfolio required. My heart sunk once I figured out what a portfolio was. I had my General Assembly project, but that wasn’t going to help me with user research jobs. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but here is what I did:

1. I volunteered for a pet adoption agency and did some user research for them. I had already been volunteering for them, so I knew who to reach out to. I also did this for a few other pet adoption agencies where I didn’t have any contacts — I do so without them knowing, but it served as a portfolio piece. To get participants, I used guerilla research by sitting in a Starbucks with a sign that said, “If you have adopted in a pet in the last six months, talk to me for twenty minutes, and I will buy you a coffee and treat.” It was surprisingly successful

2. I picked two different areas I felt strongly about and researched them. The first was a video game app, and the second was a writing app. I had friends/acquaintances I could use to conduct real user research on both topics. These two topics were passion projects, and my ability to research with friends of friends helped my interview skills.

3. I joined a few different hackathons to see what it was like working with other people (and the networking was great). For one hackathon, I was able to work with a product manager, product marketing manager, UX designer, and developer. Although we didn’t win the hackathon, I felt to a degree what it was like to work in a tech company for that entire weekend.

4. I offered to do small freelance projects for friends and family. I also asked my network if anyone needed help on projects. With this, I was able to work on three small projects for others. I only added one of them to my portfolio because of the size, but it was nice to have the potential to talk about multiple projects.

With all of this work, I created a portfolio of a few different studies. I felt good about my portfolio. Was the portfolio perfect? No. Did it include everything a portfolio should consist of? No. Everyone starts somewhere. But I had case studies. I had something to present and talk about during my interviews.

Are you trying to break into user research?

These are the steps I encourage you to go through:

  1. Find a non-profit, charity, or something similar that you can create a project around. You don’t need to know any contacts at the given organization, nor do you have to tell them you are researching their website/app/platform. You can always send them any recommendations after you are done and see what happens!
  2. Volunteer for a local small business or organization to see if you can help them. I went to a few different local shops in New York City to see if they needed user research help. I had a few leads on this but, ultimately, spent my time on the non-profit organizations. Due to COVID, here is an alternative: You can also find Facebook groups on specific topics and reach out to people via Facebook or LinkedIn.
  3. Pick a true passion project and create a case study around this topic.
  4. Join hackathons (even virtual) to experience working with others you would work with as a user researcher.
  5. Reach out to friends/family, and friends of friends/family to see if you can volunteer your time to research their websites/apps/platforms.

These are actionable steps you can take to get more experience in user research before your first role, or even between roles!

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