When researching the most frequently asked questions about user research for our User Research Primer, one question seemed to be asked more than any other, “how do you start a career in UX research?” There aren’t many academic paths to follow, and everyone’s journey seems to be unique. So we chatted with three researchers at Mailchimp, who all have the same title, but took very different paths to get there. We talked to Jud Vaughan, Khalida Allen, and Christianne Elliott, UX Researchers at Mailchimp.
Listen to the episode
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About our guests
Since there aren’t well laid out paths for many people graduating from college and moving into a UX research career, Jud, Khalida, and Christianne all took a little time to find UX research. They all said they had no idea a job like this even existed when they were in undergrad. Awareness of UX research as a discipline is still growing, and their professors weren’t aware of it as a career path for curious students.
P.S.—If you're in the process of looking for a job in UX research, prepare for the interview with these common UX research job interview questions and tips for answering them.
Jud Vaughan, from Support Technician to Senior UX Researcher
Jud studied English and Journalism in college and loved digging deep into problems and learning more about the people around him. He always associated research with academia, and the rigor and politics of that kind of research never appealed to him. After graduation, he started working at Mailchimp as a Customer Support Technician.
Jud was already learning more about users through his support role, and after seeing posters around his office describing "personas", he became interested in Voice of the Customer research. He ended up doing his own scrappy VoC research, partnering with developers to make recommendations and identify pain points. Eventually, he connected with the research department at Mailchimp and sat down with a colleague. She walked him through which blogs he could read to level up his skills, directed him to communities that could support him, and showed him courses that could teach him new methodologies and research practices. Two years after starting at Mailchimp, he transferred over to the research team.
Khalida Allen, from Freelance Designer to UX Researcher
Khalida’s path is a little bit different. Convinced she wanted to go into medicine, she studied Psychology and worked as a Research Assistant in a neuropsychology lab her senior year. That was her introduction to academic research in practice, and it was really exciting for her to work with patients and see how her research affected them.
After she graduated, she decided to work with startups. She also wanted to follow the nagging feeling that she wanted to do something with the visual arts. Through connecting with the Atlanta tech scene, she learned about UX research and design. It sounded like a good blend of what she had enjoyed most about her academic experience with her interest in startups. She started freelancing as a UX Designer , then worked as the Lead UX Designer for a startup, then moved into research at Mailchimp.
Christianne Elliott, from Academic Researcher to UX Researcher
Christianne, who also majored in Psychology and originally wanted to go into medicine, has perhaps the most academic research experience of the three researchers we talked to. After searching through her undergrad for something that felt right to her, she started doing academic research. She loved the way working on research made her feel like she was really learning about and helping people.
She transitioned from academic research to UX research because she wanted more opportunities to drive her own research. As a UX Researcher, she gets the opportunity to choose what she studies, which methods she thinks are best, and learn more about how she can help product teams build better things for users.
How other people find their way to UX Research
In our State of User Research Report, we found that people who do research study a huge range of subjects in college, so the different paths that Jud, Khalida, and Christianne took are not uncommon.
Everything from graphic design to political science is represented in the backgrounds of our respondents, so there isn’t one major that automatically qualifies or disqualifies you from a career in UX research. What’s important is following your curiosity, and allowing yourself to learn more about people around you through your experiences.
Using and sharing your superpower
When asked if they would rather have gone a more direct route to UX research, like an HCI degree, Jud said:
My circuitous path gave me the superpowers that differentiate me from the rest of the team. I'd say the same for my teammates, as well. Without that, I wouldn't be able to do my job in the exact way that I do it. So, I wouldn’t change a thing,
Khalida and Christianne agreed, having a vast range of experience is a superpower, and each of them uses their experience differently to help them do their job better.
Coming from support, Jud has a lot of insight into what it’s like to be on the front lines with users. He’s even working on a project right now that builds off of the project that originally got him into UX research. He’s working with Mailchimp’s Support Product Analysts to create a program that helps support agents tag usability issues as they come in. This allows the product team to better analyze trends and impact, and gives the support team more insight into the product side of things.
Christianne’s superpower is tenacity. Transitioning into UX research was difficult to do, and she heard a lot of no’s before she heard a yes. She kept pushing and eventually landed a UX research position. That same tenacity helps her push for what’s best for the users and persevere with difficult research sessions.
At Mailchimp, there are lots of opportunities for UX researchers to collaborate and share what they’ve learned from their range of experiences. They have a weekly “Insights & Carbs” meeting, where they chow down on breakfast food and share what they’re working on, what they’ve learned recently, and ask for help with things they’re struggling with. All three of the researchers we talked to loved the collaboration between researchers at Mailchimp, and said they’ve learned a lot from each other.
They also have bi-weekly team meetings, which are a little more formal and allow the teams to connect, share their findings, and help each other do better research. UX research involves a lot of knowing what you can do and feeling out what’s right for the problem you’re currently working on. Khalida said it’s really helpful to share methodologies and different levels of rigor, especially from experienced researchers to those who are just starting out.
Advice for aspiring researchers
When it comes to getting started, our three researchers’ resounding advice was to get out there and connect with the UX research community. All three of them had spoken to someone in the field before making the transition, whichhelped them learn more about what they needed to do to start their careers and what they could expect from a job in UX research.
Since I was already at Mailchimp, I was privileged enough to have researchers in the building. So for me, what that looked like was, I was in support, doing my Voice of the Customer thing before it was my job. But I realized I didn't know much about it, I was sort of just being really scrappy, and collecting data as well as I could.
So I emailed the research manager at the time. And she connected me with someone who still works here, a colleague named Carrie. I'm forever grateful to her for spending about thirty minutes with me. Just telling me all the blogs and books I should read and how I could improve my processes. In that way, I was able to level up what I was doing just then. I had consumed a lot more of the resources before an opportunity even opened up to me.
Jud on how he connected with a researcher to learn more about a career in UX research.
Once I found out about the role/title, I was like, "Well what is this role?" So I just did a Google search, and then, I started looking for UX researchers on LinkedIn. I started reaching out to people, and reaching out to recruiters, to be like, "Hey. Can you describe the role, or tell me what this role is about?" And I actually met very nice people, who were willing to meet me for coffee or just have a conversation online. People in the UX community are very welcoming. They’re very willing to talk to you.
Christianne on internet-stalking her way to UX research.
I was very invested in the tech community at the time. Atlanta Tech Village and Georgia Tech were really good ways for me to find that audience. First, it was really just the UX community. But also, I got to hone in on UX research individuals. That was helpful. Also, we have really great Meetups here in Atlanta. we have Ladies that UX, and IXDA Atlanta. just by going to those and networking, I was able to really build up a very solid support system that I still connect with to this day, and it really helped me understand UX research even more.
Khalida on using the resources in her community to connect with people.
Jud also advised “doing the work before you’re told to do the work”. While in support at Mailchimp, he was already doing UX research without really realizing it. That project helped him connect with the research department at Mailchimp and eventually move into a research role. Now, with his volunteer time, he works with nonprofits to help them with UX research projects. This can be a great way for people who are new to research to get experience and to show your interest when you go into an interview.
Christianne’s advice for aspiring researchers is to hang in there! Keep pushing, keep applying, and keep talking to people in the community. She applied for a lot of jobs before she was offered one that worked for her.