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Three ways to create more UX researchers
And more reliably meet the demand for our work
Almost three-quarters of UX researchers come from about one-eighth of the workforce.
That small slice is the 13% of people (according to 2018 US census data) who have advanced degrees. This hiring strategy has worked out fine for our field in the past, and likely will for at least the near-term future. But if demand for our work grows by a factor of 100 by 2050, as has been projected, is it realistic to think that this practice will continue to work?
We should start thinking now about sustainable ways to train folks with an aptitude for applied research — and create suitable roles for them.
This article discusses three possibilities.
1. Educate would-be researchers
The basics of good research practice can be learned before graduate school.
After all, courses in research methods, experimental design, and statistics are part of the standard curriculum for undergraduates studying psychology or other social sciences.
So why aren’t undergraduates reliably prepared to conduct research on their own?
Part of the problem is emphasis. Career paths in applied research like user experience are often unknown to undergraduates. Most psychology majors, for instance, aspire to join the mental health profession in some capacity. So research-specific courses may be written off as unimportant to students’ long-term career goals.
Another problem is that the courses themselves are often rote and conceptual with little hands-on experience. For research, learning by doing is at least equally important as learning the theory. And being able to point to a relevant research project in application materials is inevitably more compelling to hiring managers than listing courses taken.
Graduate students are a good source of candidates precisely because one requirement is direct research experience. Their advantage isn’t just in executing research projects independently — which, in theory, undergraduates can do as well — but in having received the benefit of an advisor’s guidance. Advisors encourage new researchers to think through their study design more carefully, help point to related research that may have otherwise been more difficult to find, and share practical knowledge about executing a study within constraints.
While undergraduates have opportunities to work with an advisor, they may not see the need to pursue them until late in their college education, if at all. After graduation — and for those without degrees — those opportunities become rarer.
Fortunately, UX mentorship is becoming more popular for folks transitioning into the field. Perhaps mentors can help to fill this need by providing guidance to people just dipping their toes into research.
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2. Develop better certificates and credentials
Another path towards research experience could come from the growing industry of bootcamps and certifications.
Most UX bootcamps today are design-oriented, leaving it unclear how extensive or rigorous any research training may be. They can also cost thousands — or even tens of thousands — of dollars. Less expensive options include self-paced courses, of which several are research-focused. However, these typically don’t offer certifications or diplomas. Those that do aren’t necessarily recognized by employers.
UX research could move towards requiring a license to practice, as is the case with other advanced specializations like medicine and law. Indeed, there are already some options available.
The Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics offers many, including: Certified Human Factors Professional (CHFP), Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE), and Certified User Experience Professional (CUXP)
Many of these are tangential to UX research — either more directly relevant to traditional human factors work (which may require certification), or more broadly relevant to all of user experience (which generally doesn’t).
Virtually all of these options are expensive, and in practice often end up being subsidized by an employer. Thus, certifications become collinear with professional experience and have limited utility for identifying suitable entry-level candidates.
In short, there remains a yawning gap for a thorough and cost-effective training for new UX research specialists.
3. Divide up the labor of research
When I was applying to my first internships, it was rare to find research-specific roles.
Instead, most job descriptions assumed a mix of both design and research skills. So even though design was never my strength or passion, my resume at the time included methods and tools like wireframing and Axure.
Things have changed. As user experience has grown, research and design have grown further apart as distinct specializations.
There are now even specializations within the research specialization. For more senior roles, there are UX research project managers, program managers, and strategists. At the more entry-level, there are research assistants, associate researchers, recruitment specialists, analysts, and auditors.
It’s plausible that scaling teams will demand specialists for every phase of research — whether scoping, study development, moderating, analyzing data, or creating reports. At that point, additional overhead will be necessary to oversee and coordinate the efforts of these contributors.
Again, this would parallel the development of fields like medicine and law, where paralegals and legal assistants have taken on large portions of the work once done by lawyers, and medical technicians have done the same for nurses and physicians.
Far from “pulling up the ladder,” dividing the labor would add more rungs to both the top and bottom halves. As these roles standardize across organizations over time, doing so may even serve to make career progression more transparent.
We may soon find we’ve relied too much on candidates with advanced degrees to satisfy demand for UX research. So in this article, we’ve looked at three possible ways to create a sustainable pipeline of UX researchers:
Educate. Working in tandem with educators in formal settings, we should inform undergraduates and others about careers in applied research, while giving them more opportunities for hands-on practice with research projects.
Credentialize. We need an affordable research-specific training program that can reliably indicate preparation for entry roles. Current bootcamps, courses, and certifications can be expensive, too generic, or redundant with work experience.
Specialize. We can create a clearer career progression with more discrete steps by further dividing the work of research among new specialist roles. For example, each role could be laser-focused on a specific phase of the research process.
It won’t happen overnight, and it will require the combined efforts of research leaders across the field. But there need to be more opportunities to learn the craft — both in theory and in practice — and more appropriate entry points to begin accruing professional experience doing the work.
This is the second of a series. In the first installment, we talked about how current hiring practices may create a potential labor shortage in our field and undesirable second-order effects on other disciplines. And in the next, we’ll look at solutions that augment the work of researchers.
Lazy participants and science communication
French researchers published a peer-reviewed study in 2017, whose main finding (as summarized by dozens of major news outlets) was: one’s ability to be random peaks around age 25, and declines after 60.
That would have been the end of it, except an up-and-coming publication of ‘visual essays’ called The Pudding tried to replicate the finding and made an interactive feature out of it.
In both the original study and The Pudding’s replication, participants emulated a series of tasks that should have random outcomes, like ten coin flips. They were instructed to try and make the outcomes appear as random as possible.
Pudding correspondents believed that careless participants simply clicked the same response over and over again, without making any effort to appear random, thus skewing the trends seen in the aggregate data. (See the line of data points at the bottom of the graph above.) But the original researchers argued that this could be a legitimate response (and random outcome) — and so felt justified leaving the data in.
My take: There was no effort whatsoever to maintain or even measure data quality in the original study of over 3,000 online participants.
You can take the original study yourself; it’s quick — in fact, you can take it multiple times! Participants don’t appear to have been compensated, but rather were recruited using the “snowball method.” In the study limitations, the authors half-heartedly mentioned that they used an online sample. But as a psychologist trained in human subjects research, and who regularly recruits online, these are multiple red flags!
What’s perhaps more interesting is the meta-narrative this tells us about popular science communication.
The Pudding’s writers aren’t trained researchers, but they were able to challenge the findings in a compelling way — despite the fact that the original study was peer reviewed and disseminated on several major outlets. Kudos to them!
What I’m up to: guides for mentors and new researchers
I’m excited to be presenting with my colleague Jamie Skjoldager at UXPA in San Diego next month. Please let me know if you’ll be there too!
And in case you missed them, two new articles this past month, plus a podcast feature:
If you’re applying to entry-level UXR roles, not all skills are equal. Some methods are rarely used, but others are fundamental. In this article, I talk about the foundational skills that hiring managers seek in junior researchers.
Colleagues often ask how mentoring UX folks on ADPList is going. They want to help too! But getting started as a mentor can be confusing. This guide I wrote has everything I've learned from over a year on the platform.
You may recall the problem with “users” (and alternative words) discussed in the March issue. Per Axbom and James Royal-Lawson had a thoughtful conversation on the article. Subscribe to UX Podcast and give this episode a listen.
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