My career path to becoming a User Experience Researcher (UXR)
Updated: Mar 21, 2020
This blog post is about my career path to becoming a UX Researcher. I discuss what I have learned through my experiences and chat about what it is like (thus far) working as the second User Experience Researcher at Crunchbase!
Lets talk about my background
TLDR: My education/career path was not linear but I found my way!
I have a BS in Psychology and a Sociology Minor.
In high school, Young Alex aspired to be a Forensic Psychologist. I shadowed District Attorneys, interviewed local Crime Scene Investigators, and worked with Social Workers. I listened in to local cases in child sex crimes, domestic violence, and saw photos of brutal murders where I lived...I was absolutely fascinated and wanted to learn as much as I could so I could grow up to help people who are involved in these heinous crimes.
In college, I studied psychology to learn more about human behavior and understand why people act in certain ways. I took sociology and criminal justice courses to understand more specifically why people turn to a life of deviant behavior.
First, I wanted to work on court cases but I realized I couldn't be the person who decides whether someone should be sent to prison
Then, I wanted to work with prisoners and their rehabilitation...and I realized that I wasn't keen to change my lifestyle to live near prisons.
After, I met a professor who studied Terrorism Psychology. However, with that job, I learned that it meant lots of traveling for work. Even though I love traveling, I did not want it to be my life. I also wanted to [eventually] have a family and learned that travel is not conducive to that life...or talking to terrorists all the time 😆
As a psychology major, I knew I wanted to do research...which meant going to grad school. To dip my toes in the water, I found a Research Assistantship in the Public Health department to learn more about the research process. Upon graduation, Young Alex had no idea what to do next 🤷🏻♀️
In between undergrad and grad school, I took a gap year
to figure out what I wanted to specialize in and learn more about what I am truly passionate about and what I wanted to devote my career to. I also needed a break from my education, since I literally spent my entire life in school. After a year living in South Africa 🇿🇦 , volunteering at a Husky Rescue Center and working for a super small Marketing & Promotions company, I learned that I wanted to focus my education on the intersection of technology & psychology ~ two of my greatest passions.
I was accepted into the PhD Engineering Psychology Program at Georgia Tech (GT).
After a year of being in the program, I learned that it was not the path I wanted to take.
Experimental psychology is much slower and requires putting participants in a lab setting, watching them from afar, writing long academic papers, and being scrutinized on every aspect of my research. Though this type of research is INCREDIBLY VALUABLE and foundational to understanding human behavior, I learned that I wanted to do more applied research with immediate impact. I wanted to be out on the field with more face-to-face interaction.
At my lab, I didn't have many research opportunities since my advisor was tenured and had very little research that needed graduate students. I have always told myself if I was somewhere where I was not learning or growing that I need to seek opportunities elsewhere. Find those lemons 🍋 !!!! Therefore, I sought a Graduate Research Assistantship in another lab to gain experience. I had the opportunity to work in the field at local hospitals conducting lab simulations with healthcare workers to improve Ebola Epidemiology, which I LOVED doing.
At the time, the Engineering Psychology program was dwindling and research opportunities were few and far between...which brought me to look at the job market. From my perspective, I saw very few job opportunities for Human Factor Engineers and evaluated whether this was worth sacrificing another five years of my life, given that I may not be able to find a job afterward.
Jumping ship 🛳
Not too soon after realizing this, I met a few students in my Engineering Psychology course who were in the MS Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) Program at GT. After speaking to previous PhD Engineering Psychology students turned MS-HCI students, current MS-HCI students, alumni, and the director of the MS-HCI Program - I made a difficult decision to leave the PhD Program and took a risk to do something that I felt I may be more passionate about. Fortunately, Engineering Psychology and Human-Computer Interaction overlap so transitioning between programs was not an issue.
After an additional 1.5 years, I received my MS Human-Computer Interaction degree with a psychology specialization. After all of that time, blood, sweat, and tears, I have to say that it was worth it and I absolutely love what I do.
During my time in the MS-HCI Program at Georgia Tech
I was involved in many projects working with industry partners such as The Home Depot and MARTA (Atlanta's Public Transportation system). Through this experience, I was able to apply what I was learning in the classroom. For these projects, I was the Lead UX Researcher and Project Manager. I worked on cross-functional teams for the first time (since in academic psychology research - you usually work alone) with aspiring/past Product Designers and computer programmers, people who I never interacted or worked with before.
What I loved about the MS-HCI Program at GT is that you can cater your education and create your own path to what you want to learn. There are four paths:
Literature, Media, and Communications
Even though I chose to be in the psychology track, I had the opportunity to challenge myself with graduate-level computer programming courses to give myself a "competitive edge." Boy, let me tell you, I struggled through it...and after working as a UXR intern for a large company, I learned that companies are hiring you to be a UXR...not a programmer - so the skill isn't entirely necessary (unless you wanna work at a start-up wearing many hats) but valuable nevertheless!
Regardless, one of my favorite courses at Georgia Tech was Dr. John Stasko's Data Visualization. Even though I literally cried 😭 through many labs, while trying to learn how to code in D3 with absolutely no programming background, the class taught me more about storytelling with data: how to communicate your findings in a compelling way, which is invaluable in any job - not just UXRs. I loved Data Viz so much that I did an entire Data Viz Master's Project and I even coded for my project (gasp!).
Additionally, my program required students to take an internship between their first and second year. Unlike many of the students who had already worked in industry before accepting into the program, I had no prior work experience in tech/UX and was nervous that I wouldn't get an internship to compete with all of my talented classmates. Regardless, my MS-HCI projects and past research experience helped me land a summer internship at Uber in San Francisco, working to improve the experience for Immigrant Drivers.
I loved the challenging problem space that I worked in and the work that I was doing. I made so many incredible connections (to this very day, we are still BFFs -- hi Ben!) and learned so much during those short three months. Real-world experience is key in cementing your academic learnings. (Read more about it here!)
What I learned
My background in psychology helped me focus on understanding people from a neurological, biological, developmental, cognitive, and sociological perspectives. This became the foundation for my career, which requires building empathy and understanding human behavior.
My experimental research background taught me critical thinking skills, statistics, biases, and assumptions. This helps me leverage how and where I can cut corners to reduce the impact of limitations on my research.
My master's program in HCI taught me the foundation and best practices of research & design in the product lifecycle, the necessary soft skills to work collaboratively on cross-functional teams, how to be scrappy, and how I can harness my psychology background to research how to improve and develop intuitive technologies and experiences based on the needs and capabilities of the user with evidence-based, user-centered design.
My experiences in industry taught me how to do the best I can with what I have, how research impacts the ecosystem of a company, how to work with various stakeholders, and that every company has different processes and culture. While working in industry, I learned that there is a gap between academia and industry and I wish I would have known what skills were valuable in industry so that I could have better fostered my growth in school. However, you don't know what you don't know until you get there (unless you ask!) For example, in industry, we conduct a lot of usability studies. However, many of my projects in the MS-HCI program were mostly exploratory work and limitations due to the fidelity of our prototypes made such work more difficult.
Throughout all my experiences, I learned how to own my projects from start to finish. And (in my opinion) most importantly, I learned that I need to learn effective and concise communication (which is the opposite of academia where you have minimum page requirements).
I learned what my strengths are (how I need to harness them), my weaknesses (what I need to hone and improve), what type of environment I want to work in, and what kind of environment that I think I will thrive in. I learned that I have SO MUCH MORE TO LEARN AND ABSORB!!! Above all, I learned that I wanted to find a company that fosters my growth.
In particular, I learned that I wanted to work for smaller companies. I learned that I thrived in more collaborative environments and I wanted to work on small teams, making BIG impact. I also learned that I love exploratory research. Therefore, I searched and scanned LinkedIn and Angel's List for smaller companies for full-time positions during my last semester in grad school. (Don't get me started about the interviewing process - unless you really want me to. I can write a separate post 😂).
Before I graduated, I was lucky to receive an offer from Crunchbase, as the second UX Researcher at their small San Francisco startup. Crunchbase took a chance on this fledgling's career and I could not be happier to be a part of this team (this is exactly what I was looking for +more!)
Working as the second UX Researcher at Crunchbase
What does your day-to-day look like as a UX Researcher at Crunchbase?
I have been at my current role for over a month now so I am still learning the ecosystem at Crunchbase - the organization itself and also the product. As a UX Researcher at Crunchbase, we work cross-functionally and across the organization with the Product Managers, Product Designers, Product Marketing, Data Analytics, and Eng teams.
Right now, I am helping build UXR at Crunchbase from the ground up:
Creating the UXR processes for Crunchbase (What tools do we use? What tools do we need? How do we recruit? How do we keep track of our participants?)
Learning how to implement UXR into the current product cycle (How does UXR get involved? How do other teams get involved? How and when do we report our findings? Who needs to be there?)
Creating research plans, conducting exploratory/usability research, creating research reports, and presenting to stakeholders
Imbuing empathy throughout the organization, creating personas and journey maps
What is the difference between Product Marketing and UXR at your company?
Random question to sneak in, but two people have recently asked me this recently -- so from my understanding but I may be wrong, I feel like Product Marketing's goal is to understand our customers' needs to create Go-to-Market plans, positioning, and communicate externally to customers about the value of our product, how our product can solve their problems, and what sets us apart from other competitors.
However, as UX Researchers, we support our internal stakeholders (PMM, PD, PM, Eng, etc) by answering questions that they have about our users. Our goal is to understand our users - their workflows, behaviors, expectations, and pain points and to communicate those learnings to internal stakeholders. Therefore, as a company, we can cater and improve our product to best suit user needs. Right now, at Crunchbase, UXR and PMMs are working side-by-side to create personas about our users.
What surprised you about working at Crunchbase?
We hardly use email & use Slack for most of our communication!
We are all super young - all willing and eager to learn. Failure is bound to happen but since we are so focused on growth, we all learn from it and move on.
Nothing is set in stone - including processes - so it takes time to figure out what is best for everyone on the team. We move really fast. Things change so quickly. Since we work with so many people across the organization, it sometimes can be challenging to keep up. That being said, communication is crucial. To be effective, we have to keep people on the same page. On the other hand, since there are not set processes, we can try new things to see if they work...or if they don't work, we can change them.
Though we move fast like a start-up, we have the stability of a larger company, with great benefits and work/life balance. (I was scared that I was selling my soul to the man working in the industry but it's been really great! ~thankful~.)
Most importantly, Crunchbase company culture is AMAZING.
How would you describe the company culture at Crunchbase?
We are Team Crunchbase and we work as a cohesive team, encouraging and empowering one another, always looking for ways to learn how to be more efficient and effective! There's lots of room for iterations on current processes to improve how we can work together.
There is so much transparency and visibility since we are a smaller organization. For example, we recently had Executive lunches where we get together in small groups to meet a member of leadership for lunch and ask whatever our heart desires - where our company is going but also to get to know them on a more personal level. (Hi Marcus!!!)
Our voices are heard and valued. Decisions are bottom-up and our voices are taken into consideration in decision-making, no matter what level we are (senior vs. someone who started only a week ago!) We talk. Leadership listens. Things change! For instance, the other day during our weekly Townhall meeting, our CEO asked us whether we preferred unlimited PTO vs. a set number of vacation days and we all voted then and there. Boom. Decided. It was as simple as that! (We decided to keep unlimited PTO. Woot woot).
We all live by our company's values. Take initiative, be open, develop your craft, and do good. Enough said.
We are family. We eat lunch together and go on boba runs. We praise and recognize each other, we have monthly coffee chats with random people in the company to get to know each other now that we are scaling, and we care about each other as human beings.
Advice for whoever needs it:
No one has a linear path. Your experiences teach you your strengths and weaknesses - what you like/dislike, what you are looking for. Don't be afraid to do things you haven't done before. Follow your strengths and passions and you'll be exactly where you need to be.
Just because you don't have experience, doesn't mean you can't get the experience that you are looking for! Look for mentors and ask questions. People are willing to help if you ask. (A few prospective students who reached out to me on LinkedIn were nervous that they didn't have the right skills or experience. Let me tell you - I didn't have any relevant industry experience before I started the MS-HCI program and made it out alive LOL. You can too. Pinky promise.)