I am the Lead UX researcher and instructor at UXSavvy, a company focusing on helping professionals transition into a UX career. My students often ask me: What’s it like working as a UX researcher? So I decided to write a blog post that covers the day-to-day responsibilities of a UX researcher. It also touches upon realistic salary expectations and career opportunities.
As a UX researcher, your main goal is to de-risk development decisions. You do this by getting feedback from real users throughout the product or service lifecycle. Without this research, the development team can not base their decisions on evidence. So they may end up creating a product or service that is not needed. Alternatively, they may find themselves stuck, unable to continue at all because they do not know which version of the prototype to run with. Either of those scenarios can lead to unsuccessful products or services as well as create unnecessary expenses.
Working as a UX researcher comes with a diverse set of responsibilities
At UXSavvy, I work on several projects, some of which are for central government. So each day is different. But since most of my projects use the agile methodology, my days usually start with a stand-up meeting. This is a ritual where the researchers, designers, business analysts, product owner, scrum master, and others each take turns updating the team on their progress and discussing bottlenecks.
As a UX researcher, I have the most diverse set of responsibilities of any team member. Throughout a product or service’s lifecycle, I need to conduct a wide range of qualitative and quantitative research activities in order to understand the user’s behaviour and provide the rest of the team with actionable insights.
I regularly conduct interviews with users and stakeholders and arrange focus groups where users can discuss their experience with a product or service. I design and send out questionnaires and test with participants with methods like card sorting, tree testing, A/B testing, and more. Depending on the project, the research methods might include contextual and ethnographic studies. In these cases, I have to spend time away from the office, observing users in their ‘natural environment.’
Different tasks at different stages of development
Each project moves through four separate stages. And each stage comes with its own set of tasks for the UX researcher.
At the discovery stage, the product or service is still in its infancy. The team knows very little about the potential users and what their specific needs are. So the research methods used at the discovery stage are primarily qualitative, for example:
- ethnographic research
- contextual interviews
- in-depth interviews
- focus groups
- diary studies
- card sorting
Qualitative methods allow researchers to uncover reasons, behaviours, and motives. For example, why (as opposed to how often) do people switch insurance companies?
At the alpha stage, the team has a little more background information on its users. Now, they can start creating prototypes for UX researchers to test with users. Consequently, the main research methods used at this stage are:
- usability testing
- A/B or multivariate testing
- focus groups
- card sorting
- guerilla testing
Researchers may also invite users to take part in co-design workshops. Co-design workshops bring users and designers together to collaborate on wireframing a prototype.
At the beta stage, the product or service has been released. However, it can only be used by a limited number of users. This allows the UX researcher to continue to gather insights into user behaviour, primarily by collecting quantitative (measurable) data. The main research methods used at this stage are:
All products and services:
- A/B testing
- usability testing
- contextual research
- call-centre data (if available)
Digital products and services:
- Google Analytics
- in-page feedback
- eye tracking
- tree testing
The design team, too, can use the beta stage to finetune and make further improvements. These will be implemented in the final product or service.
The final stage is when the product or service goes live, i.e. it is released to all users. The UX researcher’s job, however, is far from over! Just as before, at the beta stage, the users must be studied with regards to their interactions with the product or service. The difference is: now, the number of users is much higher. So you have access to much more quantitative data.
Where to start
At the beginning of a new project, the following steps can help you to plan the research:
- Set up meetings with the team and your stakeholders. These will help you to better understand the project’s goals as well as the specific areas the research should focus on.
- Conduct some desk research with the team. This will help you to better understand the questions you are trying to answer and the assumptions/hypotheses you need to test.
- Conduct both desk research and interviews with stakeholders to gain an understanding of who the users are.
- Identify deliverables and artefacts.
- Discuss and determine a realistic project timeline with the scrum master and/or product owner.
Once I have completed the five steps listed above, I usually hire an agency to recruit study participants as this saves me both time and money. All I have to do is specify the profile and the number of study participants I require. For example, 5 male test users between 35 and 45 years old who have been smoking for at least 15 years.
Depending on the project, I may decide to start with some observational research such as an ethnographic study. Other times, for example, when a product is already on the market, I start with participatory research sessions like usability tests or A/B tests. Let’s take a closer look at these two very common methods:
Usability tests can be conducted with low-fidelity prototypes such as wireframes as well as with high-fidelity prototypes that closely resemble the finished product. The testing should be carried out with a representative sample of users. On average, I like to conduct five sessions with five users in total. In my experience, those numbers are ideal for testing a particular version of a prototype.
Usability testing can uncover pain points, i.e. features users struggle with. These insights into user satisfaction with a product or service are invaluable. The method can also be used to validate or invalidate assumptions the design team made when creating the prototype.
Before conducting a usability test, I prepare a script with questions and tasks for the users. The script includes:
- an introductory paragraph in which I introduce myself as a researcher and explain what the session will entail
- a consent form for participants to give their permission to use their feedback in analysis
- general questions for the participant such as computer skills or level of education
- specific questions related to the prototype and tasks participants should complete using the prototype
- a focused questionnaire about their experience using the prototype with rating scales and multiple-choice questions
- open questions about the prototype
Before you carry out the actual usability test, it’s a good idea to pilot test your study with a colleague. This will ensure that what you are asking of the users makes sense and that any auxiliary technologies and materials you will be using actually work. A usability test with an electric torch, for example, may require a set of charged batteries.
This method involves creating two (or more) versions of the prototype and getting feedback from users. This can be done at the lab. But it can also be done remotely, for example, at the users’ homes. Testing remotely has the advantage that it is easier to recruit test users as they do not need to come to your business on a particular day or at a particular time. A/B testing is also done on live websites, showing two different versions to two sets of real users.
A/B testing is frequently used when the designers need feedback on a specific element on a webpage. For example, the designers may need to decide whether they should make a button red or green. This may seem trivial. But different colours can evoke completely different emotions in the user. Choose the wrong one and you could cause users to leave the website before completing the conversion because they fear that clicking on the button will take them someplace they don’t want to go.
A/B testing is most insightful when conducted with a large sample of participants. Ideally, upwards of 10,000. Whenever possible, I invite other, non-researcher members of the team to observe research sessions with users and to participate in data analysis. This helps to build empathy with users and increase appreciation of UX research.
Analysing data is a big part of the UX researcher’s daily business. After you have carried out a study of any kind, you have to start looking for patterns. Did multiple users mention the same issues in their feedback? Group these issues by topic. For example:
- content issues
- design & layout issues
- technical issues
As briefly mentioned in the insurance company example, quantitative data tells you how something is happening, qualitative data tells you why. So, ideally, UX researchers should use a mix of both quantitative and qualitative methods to get the most accurate insights. Quantitative research methods such as online surveys, remote card sorting and tree testing, or eye tracking can produce large bodies of data. Data analysis software like R, Python, or SPSS can be very useful in these cases.
After I have analysed the research data, I host a good old-fashioned show-and-tell session. Usually, I present my research findings to the team in a particular way:
- my top five positive and negative findings
- highlights such as important quotes from the users as well as their page by page feedback
- my data-driven recommendations
Following the presentation, we brainstorm as a team. What actions could we take to address the newly-discovered pain points? How can we improve the user experience overall? Once the proposed changes have been implemented, more testing is conducted with the users. This is the iterative process that eventually leads to better and better products and services.
Working as a UX researcher is rewarding
Importantly, working as a UX researcher is really fun. I get to meet and talk to different people every day. I get to be a part of improving their quality of life. Contributing to the creation of user-centric products and services is stimulating and satisfying.
Furthermore, the demand for UX researchers is on the rise and most jobs pay quite well. The average salary for a UX researcher is:
- £33,370 in the United Kingdom.
- $83,018 in the United States
- €50,629 in Germany
It is worth noting that most positions in the UK are contract work, meaning UX researchers can make up to £ 600 per day.
If you are interested in becoming a UX researcher, you do not necessarily need to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in human-computer interaction. A recent job postings analysis revealed that employers welcome applicants with a wide variety of backgrounds, for example:
- general psychology
- cognitive psychology
- experimental psychology
- social sciences
- information science
- information architecture
- human-centred design
I, myself, have a Master of Arts in Politics and International Relations and a Master of Science in Anthropology, Environment, and Development. So I know first-hand that it is possible to make the switch to UX research. And, today, I help other people do the same.