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Sometimes the winding career path is the best one
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.
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.
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’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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
Erin: This is Erin May.
JH: I'm John Henry Forster. And this is, Awkward...
JH: ... Silences.
Erin: Hi everybody and welcome back to Awkward Silences. We are here with a first-ever format, we're super excited about. We have not one, not two, but three guests, all of them MailChimpers. What do you call yourselves? They all work at MailChimp and they're all UX researchers.
Erin: But they have very different paths of getting there, and we're going to talk about that. We're going to talk about the many different ways of finding yourself in a UX research career, and what that looks like at MailChimp. So thank you so much for joining us. We have Jud Vaughan.
Jud: Hey, Erin.
Erin: Hey. We have Khalida Allen.
Khalida: It's a pleasure to be here.
Erin: And we also have Christianne Elliott.
Christianne: Hello everyone.
Erin: And JH is here, as always.
JH: I am, since it's a podcast with MailChimpers, I just need to get this out of the way: Mail-Kimp, I felt like I had to say it before I got too far in, so I'm done. I apologize.
Jud: Thank you so much for getting that.
JH: It's like a requirement.
Erin: Yeah, the MailChimp podcast connection is strong. Great, thanks so much for joining us. We again, are just so excited to test out this new panel format.
Erin: This one began, as this is not the first time, with a Tweet. Jud you tweeted, I think this is from LinkedIn, your experience at MailChimp, several years there, and the kind of trajectory of how you got there, and it caught my attention.
Erin: I thought, "Wow, we hear all the time, that people end up in these UX research careers in so many different ways. And that struck me in your kind of quick resume, as well. So, I said, "Hey, would you be interested in talking about that?" And that's how this episode was born. So, thanks for going along with the idea.
Jud: Yeah, thanks for finding me.
Erin: I'm nothing if not a good internet stalker. So, I would love to hear from all of you. We'll sort of start at the end, I guess, or maybe midway, depending on how you look at it. But, when did you first know in your career, that you were interested in research? And UX research, specifically. Whoever wants to start.
Jud: I can go ahead and start. So, I think, in terms of research, I didn't have an initial urge to get into research. I think I associated research mostly with academic research, which didn't really appeal to me, after getting to know some of my professors in undergrad. You hear a lot about the politics of academia, and how it's very slow to get your stuff published.
Jud: I was actually an English major, and I studied journalism too. So I was interested in digging deep, especially in secondary research, interviewing like that. I don't think I knew that UX research was a thing until, and I'm in the room with Christianne and Khalida and they're both nodding. Just an alert, part of our journey is not knowing that it was a thing until a few years probably before we even probably started doing it, or less.
Jud: I didn't know it was a thing until I started working at MailChimp as a customer support agent. And I started seeing posters of personas go up. And newsletters about insights that are being uncovered. And I thought, "Wow, this is really interesting that this work is being done." So that's where it first started for me.
Khalida: Yeah, similar to what Jud was saying, I had no idea that UX research was a thing. I actually was a psychology major, Georgia State University, and it was my senior year of college that I actually worked as an RA, at a neuropsychology lab.
Khalida: It was really that time, that I was really mostly interested in the medical field, and so it was actually the partnership that the neuropsychology lab had with Children's Healthcare of Atlanta that actually most interested me. Because I thought it would be a good thing to put on my resume.
Khalida: But it was actually during that time as a research assistant, that I became more intrigued with our brain tumor participants, and how cognitive assessments measure their ability to problem solve, and their working memory and verbal comprehension, and how our participants improved over time. And so that was really my first introduction into research. In particular, more so, academic longitudinal research.
Khalida: But with UX, I actually didn't know it existed. It wasn't until I had graduated, and I had gone through different career tracks, and I finally figured out that I wanted to do a start-up, but it was really just working through all of the different possibilities in Atlanta, that really finally made it a possibility that UX research was even a thing.
Erin: So Jud, you sort of went from research sounds boring and political to there are these cool artifacts hanging around, what's this? Whereas Khalida, you kind of got interested in research by doing it, and then learned about this other kind of version of research, UX Research, later on.
Erin: And then Christianne, what was your experience like?
Christianne: Yeah, similar to Khalida, I was a psychology major in undergrad. I didn't really know what I was going to do with that. But I got an opportunity to work with a professor on a research project. And I just remember like reflecting and thinking, "Oh, this kind of work makes me feel good. I feel like I'm making a positive impact on the community." And I really fell in love with the rigor of the research process.
Christianne: So I remember thinking, I feel like I can do this like after I graduate. And so I just kept going with that. Unlike Jud and Khalida, I did know about UX research in undergrad. But, once again, I got the opportunity and just did a lot of self-reflecting, and I was like, "I'm really happy, and I like doing this kind of work." So that's how I fell into research.
JH: There's a theme there, everyone's kind of mentioning that, they didn't even know this existed as an undergrad. Anyone have ideas on why, or whether that seems like that's going to change going forward? Like it seems like people who are Psych majors, knowing about these types of roles within tech companies. Feels like really good career paths, potentially, in a lot of cases. It seems like kind of a shame, that there's probably a lot of kids out there, that don't even know that it's something they could explore and look into. Do you guys have any thoughts of why that might be?
Khalida: I think UX Research, to some degree, is still a relatively new field, when you compare it to other psychology professions, such as being a counselor, or a psychologist, or maybe a teacher. And so those are the ones that our professors are more privy too, just because those were the professions that they were aware of during their time. So I do think that there is definitely much more work that we could be doing to allow future students, or students to be aware, that UX research is a career pathway. And it is a really great pathway, specifically for psychology students.
Erin: How many UX researchers are there at MailChimp?
Khalida: We have about 17 UX Researchers on our team. 18.
Jud: Including managers, I think.
Khalida: Are we including managers and interns, as well?
Erin: Yeah, sure.
Khalida: We have about twenty on our team.
Christianne: Isn't that amazing?
JH: That's pretty amazing.
Christianne: Yeah, we have a pretty-sizable team, really, for UX research. At least from what I've seen.
Erin: We got 15% of the team right here, so that's pretty good. So you've got about twenty people at MailChimp. Any idea, I'm digging deep here, how many have psychology degrees? Is it just the two of you, or this even more well-represented phenomenon?
Jud: We're all like signing to each other, "Is it one or two or three?" At least we know that the Senior Manager, who's kind of above our group, has a background in Psychology. We also have a market research function here, and a lot of them have psychology backgrounds. So it's definitely not uncommon.
Erin: So PSA if you're listening, psych undergrads. Cool. Right, so back to the psychology piece, so 2/3 of you have psychology degrees. We talked a little bit about how you found research as an eventual career opportunity. But did you have a different plan in mind initially? Or were you like me and Jud with our liberal arts degrees? Just hoping that things would work themselves out?
Christianne: I would say all of the above. Originally, I started out as a bio major, because I thought I was going to go to medical school, and then I was like, "No, I'm not." And I took a psych course and I thought that material was very interesting. So I switched over to Psych and still like didn't know what I was going to do with that.
Christianne: But I had like an advisor, and we're talking about the traditional paths that you can take. Go and get your Master's, or your PhD. So I was aware of the different kind of paths I could take, but I guess I just didn't feel compelled that any certain path was right for me until I kind of landed on that research path. And I was like, "Okay, this feels right."
Khalida: To Christianne's point, I just want to add something here. I think that psychology is really kind of catch-all bucket. If you're really not sure what career you want to start with, especially when you get into college, I think that psychology is a good way for you to understand humans a little bit better, to understand yourself a little bit better.
Khalida: Psychology is just such a great way of just understanding and investigating human behavior, their motivations, their goals. Through observation and questioning. And that's what really helps us kind of build that pathway into UX research.
Khalida: But to answer your point, Erin, I had a general idea of what I wanted to do. I was also pretty sure that I wanted to go into medicine. But there was also this interest, it was kind of like nagging interest, of doing something in visual arts, as well.
JH: Jud, you moved from a support role at MailChimp into a research role, is that a common thing? Have other people done that or did you kind of blaze that trail? Or how did that come to be?
Jud: That's a really good question. It's happened a few times, we have one fellow researcher on the team, who came through support along with me. His name's Brian. One of the original researchers, named [Jen Downs 00:12:17], actually came through support as well. So I had a couple examples, to follow and come up with. But, I'd say for the most part, we're pretty out numbered, so it's not too-too common.
JH: Cool, I was asking, because we have somebody internally at User Interviews who started on our operations/customer support team as well, and moved into a product role. I think just what's dawned on me, in thinking about that transition, is somebody who's in a support role, and is on the frontline with users, is like almost forced to build empathy with what they experience. So it does seem like it's pretty well suited for transitioning into other roles within the organization. So, that's cool that other people have been successful within MailChimp.
Jud: Yeah, absolutely. I'm totally an advocate for people in support getting into UX, because they are, like you said, truly on the front lines, experiencing those moments of pain, right there alongside the user, whether it be on a phone call or chat or email. And also, coming through an organization through support, you get to know the product and the users really well.
Jud: I feel like that kind of baseline was really, really important for me understanding, like where the break was between the product and the user. A favorite phrase I said for a long time was, in support I tried to help users understand the product, and I want to help the product understand the user a little bit better.
Jud: A lot of those skills, there's continuity there, asking open-ended questions and not making assumptions, and going into a session, leaving your emotions at the door, and really just letting someone be heard.
Erin: One of the things we talk a lot about at User Interviews when we try to bring user research and empathy and voice of the customer to everyone, is listening to all of the kind of passive data we have coming in. In addition to the more active research we do.
Erin: Whether that's coming from support or from sales, or from MPS surveys, whatever it might be. I'm curious Jud, if having that experience, coming from support, if that's impacted how research and support work together on an ongoing basis to kind of share that information, and the full profile of the customer, or how you guys work together?
Jud: Yeah, totally. It's funny that you bring that up. Because I'm actually working on a project right now that's helping to connect with support. Because, like you said, passively there's so much data coming through to us. Like, in a quantitative sense, because there's hundreds of tickets, coming through a day. And a qualitative sense, that if you dig in, you have people describing their problems and in a way that provides real color to what's actually happening.
Jud: So when I was in support, one of the things that got me ready for this kind of role was I started taking more active role as a voice of customer, because I was managing support for kind of a side product of ours, called TinyLetter. And, I was able to sort of take that more active role in working with the developer and saying like, "Here is what's really causing pain right now. Here's what changes, I think, we should make." Making recommendations before I knew that I was making recommendations from research.
Jud: Recently, I've been working a lot with, we have a role called SPAs. There are no, bathrobes involved. They're Support Product Analysts. And, I've been working with them, we've actually been implementing a usability checklist that our team came up, it's kind of a heuristic review tool.
Jud: And we've put together a task force of support agents who can actually tag when usability issues are coming up in the moment, so then we can collate that, along with the support topic and dig deeper. I'm such a big fan of this program, because it allows us to make use of that data that's just sitting on the table, but is a little too unwieldy to get your hands around. It also gives the support agents some extra UX knowledge that they can hopefully apply to their careers.
Erin: Very cool. Christianne, you're kind of on the other end of the spectrum from Jud in the sense that you've had a lot of different research related roles. So what's that been like, and how's that evolved over your career?
Christianne: So I started in academic research, and I was just learning how to do research and observing. Basically, by working with an expert in their field. So I learned about the grant-writing process, and how to kind of execute research over an extended period of time. And then, I transitioned to UX research. That was all about learning how to do research in a business setting.
Christianne: It was also like, "Hey, Christianne, you'll also be able to drive your own research and identify opportunities to do research." I was like, "Great, now I get to actually do research." And so, my role kind of transitioned to, "Okay, here's how I plan, and here's how I kind of execute and bring a team along."
Christianne: I started my UX Career Research at Home Depot, I was working in their San Francisco office, and then I moved to their Atlanta office, where I took on kind of like a hybrid role of a designer and a researcher. And so that role, the focus was, "Okay, how do I learn design principles and design basics. And then how does research kind of influence design.
Christianne: And so, I spent a lot of time learning the craft of design. But, by no means was that my passion, or really I felt like the driving force behind like, "Okay. Now, I'm going to be a designer." I was ready to come back to research. That's what brought me to MailChimp, where I'm now, once again focusing on the rigor of research for a product. So, it's kind of my path.
Erin: Very cool. I think you hear a lot about people who start kind of on the design-side of things, and then get into research. So interesting to hear the starting on research, and then learning design as a, I don't want to say a means to an end, that takes the romance out of it. But you weren't trying to become that. It's useful to ultimately wanted to do to understand design. Great.
JH: Khalida, you've been on the design side in a previous role, and moved into research? What was the catalyst for that transition?
Khalida: Yeah, that's a really great question. So when I was on the design side, it was more so, based off of the past history that I've done with being a freelance designer, quite a bit. Doing a lot of visual components, some UIs, some UX, and then when I started my start up, which was a career discovery startup in Atlanta. That's when I actually had that ability to do something that Christianne kind of mentioned where I can do both design and research.
Khalida: Since I was really the only UXer on our team, and it was kind of a needed skill. It really can be pretty taxing to do both. All of the research, understanding users pain points, and motivations, and their needs. And then having to translate all of that into design. You have to really be able do a little bit of like soul searching, and understand what it is that really motivates you, and really excites you.
Khalida: So, after that, in the threes years of working in that realm, I was looking at UX Research in particular, and I really liked the thought of just working on an experience, and honing that experience. But, being able to bring all of the insights from that experience of working with users, that social aspect, and really psychological aspect, from my background, and applying that, and bringing those insights to my team.
Khalida: So, when I started this role at MailChimp, it was just great to be able to focus specifically on research. But then you still, of course, have that design aspect to some degree. Because you are working on interfaces and products to make someone's life better.
JH: All right, quick awkward interruption here. It's fun to talk about User Research. But you know what's really fun? Is doing User Research, and we want to help you with that.
Erin: We want to help you so much that we have created a special place, it's called UserInterviews.com/awkward, for you to get your first three participants free.
JH: We all know we should be talking to users more, so we've went ahead and removed as many barriers as possible, it's going to be easy, it's going to be quick. You're going to love it, so get over there and check it out.
Erin: And then, when you're done with that, go on over to your favorite podcasting app, and leave us a review, please.
JH: I have kind of a speed question for all three. So, there's going to be a couple of different winding paths that you've all taken to get into user research. Do you think, that those experiences have strengthened it, and made you a better researcher and you're happy to have had them?
JH: Or is it, I love User Research and I wish I'd known about it earlier and gotten here in a more direct route. Can we be like, each person kind of just go by and pick their vote.
Jud: Yeah, I would say I would not replace my career path into research with an HCI degree or some more direct pathway, because 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 know you've asked for a speed round question. But without that, I wouldn't be able to do my job, in the exact way that I do it, and so, I would not change.
Erin: I love that you call your past experience your superpowers, I'm going to steal that.
JH: Cool, what's the rest of the group think?
Christianne: So I would have just also, I'm for the windy path. I think just the perspective and the different kind of situations, and just building empathy for human by just working with humans in all different capacities have really, it's been a great fit, and a great foundation for a UX research career.
Khalida: I'm going to go against the group and say that I wish I've done UX research first. No, I'm kidding.
Christianne: Got me.
Khalida: They're really is no substitute for having really a winding career path. Trying to understand what all is out there, but then trying to understand yourself, because it's really a process where you're doing both at the same time.
Khalida: If you're only just focused on UX Research, and everything that comes from that, you're missing out on some of the writing skills that came with Jud's background, as being an English major. Or the really understanding humans and human behavior and motivation through psychology like Christianne and myself's background.
Khalida: Or the visual aspects, to really being able to understand like heuristic principles, which came from my background, as well. And Gestalt principles, from visual design background. So, there really is no other alternative that makes the most sense in my mind for really being able to pursue UX research to your fullest ability.
JH: Okay, I'll show my cards. I had a hunch everyone was going to pick the winding path and the experience being valuable. And the reason I ask is, I agree. It makes a ton of sense, all of these contexts and experience, you've all gained in your careers is super valuable.
JH: But if somebody was starting out earlier in their career, and they just graduated with their psych degree, and they're interested into getting into UX Research, do you think there's a path where they can go right into it?
JH: Or do you think it's better for them to be like, "Hey, find an interesting company and get into a product or support role, or design role in any capacity, and figure it out later? Or what kind of advice would you offer somebody, kind of weighing those two things?
Jud: I think there is a path, and I've seen people do it. Where they've gone straight from undergrad and found a great company and been able to demonstrate they have the skills to jump right in. And we have great researchers here that learn pretty early on that they want to do something like this. I think it's all about if you, the type of person you are, not trying to force like a square peg into a round hole, if you feel like you're going to be frustrated by that initial breakthrough moment, which I think will be kind of hard to jump right in.
Jud: Like we've been talking about, we've gained all these skills along the way. So, if you do that, just make sure that you're focusing on the ways that you can make yourself a little different from the rest. I think that a lot of that just is through doing what we've did, following your own curiosity, and you're own interests and building that into your practice.
Khalida: Yeah, I think it also depends too, on the amount of experience someone has had throughout school. Because, a lot of times we see people who are really just psychology majors, and that's all they do, is just take their classes. And so they are not really getting those internships or having the mentors or actually having some job experience.
Khalida: I really, I personally am a believer that you have to have some of that tangible experience and that on the job experience to be able to know and to compare different types of professions and to see if it really works for you. So I do think that it really does depend.
Christianne: I'm a huge proponent of internships. So what've seen in recent years, in the UX Research field are internships opportunities, like we have here at MailChimp. We've had some interns come through here who are now associate UX researchers. So there is a path, and I think there's an opportunity to try it out.
Christianne: So you can try out a UX research internship, a lot of companies have them. And if it's not for you, then, great you've learned early enough to pivot. But, yeah just seek these experiences in undergrad because they're out there.
Erin: You're all talking about an idea that I find interesting, which is, and I haven't thought of before, which is UX research is this interesting role in that, sure you could study HCI, or get a lot of academic knowledge, but there's something so experience-based and cross-functional, and the psychology and understanding people. Life experience is valuable in this role, right.
Erin: It's valuable, obviously, in any kind of role. But especially in this one, which is making me the think of something we talk a little bit on this show, which is this continuum between let's say rigor and getting the research done. Between academic research and just getting it done. Between everyone should do research, and only people who know how to do it, "right", should be doing it.
Erin: Where do you land on that continuum? And has your past experience beyond being an academic researcher informed that perspective?
Christianne: So, I'll speak to that, a little. Kind of like you said, it's been a struggle for me, because I did start in academic research where it was super rigorous and there were a lot of rules and regulations. It's very stringent. And then I moved over to the UX research side, and it was a bit more fluid, and it was a bit more like, "We trust you, to make the best decisions." And I was like, "Wait? What? Where's the protocol?"
Christianne: I'm more adept now to just getting the research done. But doing it, like in a way that I think is true to our craft. So there is rigor in UX research, and I think that it's important to call it out, and to kind of follow the rigor. But it's not black and white, I don't think. It's pretty gray.
Christianne: I think there are times when we have more time to really be rigorous and to really be stringent with the protocols or processes. But there are times when we really do just need to get the research done, so it's about what's best for users, what's going to help our product teams move forward, and that's up to the researcher to really decide.
Khalida: Yeah, I definitely agree with what Christianne's saying.
Khalida: Back in June I ran a workshop called Yes And a soft skills for improving UX research abilities. I've found from working on that, but just also life experience, it really is a two-pronged approach. So you do have to have those soft skills that are honed really from being able to have interpersonal relationships, and working together in groups, being able to collaborate and empathize, and apply active listening.
Khalida: So those are things that you really can only learn through life and through working with different types of individuals. But then there is that rigor that is so necessary and so needed. It's the reason why throughout our research practice, we specifically find specific times where we are just focused on the research at hand. So this could be times where we are analyzing research and synthesizing, so that we can share it, with our teams.
Khalida: So, you have to have both, because when you think about the soft skills part, that's the part where we're constantly facilitating workshops with large groups. But then you have to have that rigor as well. So really, it's a balancing act for sure. And I'm not sure where I am on that spectrum. But definitely, I have a foot in both parts.
JH: Related kind of question, we just discussed how all three of you took the different paths to become UX researchers at MailChimp. So, obviously, unique experiences, unique skills, and all of that. But now you're in the same role. So do the three of you, like what things do you do the same in your role, and what things do you guys do differently and leverage those unique experiences and skills. Like, where are the similarities and differences across what you do now?
Jud: So I can talk a little bit in terms of what I do, and we can go around and talk about the differences. I would say, another part of my experience, after support, I was fortunate enough to be staffed to a team that really had to be sort of cross-experience and interact with a lot of different teams. That's the mobile app team.
Jud: So mobile app is kind of a minified version of the big product. It doesn't include everything, and it shouldn't. But, if it falls out of step with the experience of the bigger product, it doesn't look quite right, or doesn't feel like a continuous experience. It sort of fails in doing its job. So that was my first job, as a UX researcher, being embedded on that team.
Jud: What that gave me, kind of on my path, was that experience going across domains. So now I'm doing a little bit more of holistic research, which is cross-cutting through the entire MailChimp experience. And I was able to sort of level up that skill of working with all these different teams, going to my other research pals, and seeing what they're working on, and build relationships. Sort of using the initial research skills that I was applying to one specific part of the product, to more of the whole thing.
Erin: It sounds like when you were on one part, that was related to the whole thing. Like the mobile was different, and yet, part of the entire experience. And so that was a good segue to what you're doing now. Is that what you're saying?
Jud: Yeah, absolutely. Because we have two separate types of research here. We have our embedded researchers, on teams, which is what I was doing before. I was able to get one of those skills of cross-cutting the experience into a more holistic role then I'm in now.
Erin: Interesting. So If you have 20 UX researchers, how many are embedded, versus not?
Jud: That is a great question? We're all smiling, because as software companies love to do, we're reorging right now. So, TBD on that. I think right now, the rough estimate, we have around, a 1/3 doing fully crosscutting experience research, a 1/3 doing embedded research, and a 1/3 doing quick insights, and more day-to-day lab work.
Erin: And that's a transition from having more allocated in what direction?
Jud: More allocated in embedded model. So, until probably last month, we only had I think, two or three crosscutting researchers.
Erin: So, Khalida, Christianne. What do you do?
Khalida: Yeah, I can [crosstalk 00:35:01]. So, Speaking of the transition that Jud just mentioned, that's kind of where I am right now. So I was one of the embedded researchers for about two years at MailChimp. Now, I'm actually, just now starting to move from being embedded, focused on the specific product, or specific-user problem. And now, I'm shifting gears and focusing more on the holistic experience. It's definitely exciting time for us, at the moment.
Christianne: So I am embedded. And so I work closely with product managers and designers and engineers and marketing and other researchers, like tons of other disciplines. So my past experience really helped me just from having to work with different types of people with different personalities, and with different expertise. So all of my previous experience kind of helped me be able to work with and build empathy for, just working with people in different disciplines.
Christianne: And then Erin, earlier you asked about rigor versus just getting the research done, and that's something that I like have to ask myself constantly, by being embedded researcher. It's like how much rigor do I need to get the research done? So that way we can make data and informed decisions. The team's constantly like, looking to me, to kind of help determine that.
JH: Is that something like the researcher on each team has some autonomy over? Or do you guys try to have a similar bar and rigor across the teams.
Jud: I think it's hard to measure, like how much rigor is it being applied across the board. But fortunately, I feel like we're very collaborative as researchers, even though we're kind of spread to the four winds that is MailChimp. To investigate these different problem spaces and go deep or go wide.
Jud: We have a lot of really great ways to work with each other, and build up each others strengths. Like we have every Friday, we present research to each other. It used to be called Research and Bagels. But now I think it's called Insights and Carbs, to be a little bit more [crosstalk 00:37:10] of your favorite breakfast pastry.
Jud: We get to talk to each other and to integrate, like safe space for us to say like, "Oh, so how did you come up with that?" Or "What was your methodology?" "Have you considered this, so we can sort of change things that are in-flight."
Jud: We have our team meetings once every two weeks where we really get to work with each other and to lean on each other and level each other up. So while, I don't think we could suitably say, "Like, okay if you're in this area, focus on doing it quick. Focus it on doing it quick." We try to make sure that we're all doing work that we're proud of. It's amazing to have a team that helps you do that. So the bar is kind of continuously being raised in that way.
Christianne: I just want to add, I have been here for a year now, and in the year I've been here, I've seen our team to move to a place where we have started to talk about processes and rigor, and what situation is a good situation to try this type of methodology or to run this type of workshop?
Christianne: Our team is starting to come together for different events and workshops, just to talk about like, here are some ways to share findings and here's how to be effective when you're synthesizing or bringing a team along, along your research journey.
JH: Awesome I like that. It sounds like the support system, and the collaboration is kind of what helps keep a high bar. Not like some clumsy mandate of do it this exact way. Which seems like a pretty smart way to do it.
Khalida: Yeah, for sure. We do such a good job of kind of partnering up. One of the things that we had previously was, each researcher would be embedded to a specific domain. And it wasn't just one researcher, typically you would have two researchers partnered together. So there's constantly that collaboration and that mentorship where we get to work together, and we have that checks and balances.
Khalida: But then again, as Jud mentioned, we're constantly getting together and having meetings, and workshops and activities and ways of learning and sharing information together. So, we're learning across our research team, but we're also learning from that one-on-one partnership as well.
Jud: I don't think there's anything that can speed up your development as a researcher, and this probably applies to all fields. As much as having that close collaboration, and to those times with each other. I think we were talking the other day, kind of preparing for this interview, and we're talking about how all of us reached out to someone doing the work, before we were doing the work. And getting to talk with someone in the community, is just such an invaluable way to do that. So it's great we have a micro-community here that we can use to that end.
Erin: I'm now picturing this as a buddy copy film. So you're like buddy researchers on a mission to discover the truth. Lots of Dad jokes, it would be a good one. It's a sitcom.
JH: You mentioned all reaching out to somebody doing the work, you said before transitioning into UX research, is that right?
Jud: That's right.
JH: That's an interesting coincidence. What did that look like for each of you?
Jud: Well, I can go first because I feel like I have the simplest answer. 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 to the customer thing, before it was my job. But I realized I didn't know much a lot about it, I was sort of just being really scrappy, and collecting data as well as I could.
Jud: So I emailed the research manager, at the time, Laurissa Wolfram-Hvass. 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.
JH: Cool, cool. So you had it easy. You could go inside your organization. Christianne, how did you find a UX researcher to speak to?
Christianne: So, I just started browsing on the internet, and LinkedIn. So, 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.
Christianne: I started to just 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 had very nice people, who were willing to like meet me for coffee or just have a conversation online. So, people I've noticed, in the UX community, are very welcoming. And are very willing to talk to you.
Erin: Can confirm. It's very true.
Khalida: I'll just go ahead and pop in here. Definitely the way that Christianne just mentioned, by reaching out to someone, relatively random online, was definitely a way that I was able to access a UX researcher. Also, since I was very invested in the community at the time, because I was trying to shop around my start up. It was really, Atlanta Tech Village, andGeorgia Tech, that was really a good way for me, or a first way for me to be able to find that audience.
Khalida: First, it was really just that UX community. But also, hone in on UX research individuals. That was helpful. Also, we have really great Meetups here, in Atlanta. So we have Ladies that UX, and IXDAAtlanta. So just by going to those and networking, I was able to really build up a very sold support system that I still connect with to this day, and it really helped me understand UX research even more.
Erin: I was just talking to Carrie, our content creator, and we're actually publishing a Top UX Research FAQs kind of eBook situation. By far, the most common question, that we see and we've scraped the internet and done a bunch of research to try to find, "What do people want to know?"
Erin: People want to know, how do they break into UX research? And so, I think you've given some really good insights on how to do that. But, anything to add for anyone listening with that question in particular?
Khalida: Yeah, I'll start. I definitely think just being scrappy. So going around, understanding your community. So I know that not everyone is going to have the resources that we do here in Atlanta. Like the really great Meetups that we have, or the incubators. But there are individuals out there. If it is just a really quick Google Search, and reaching out to someone on LinkedIn. Those tools are really just invaluable.
Khalida: The internet as a whole, is a really, really great way for you to just understand that UX is a thing. I mean, if someone is even listening to this podcast right now, then they know that UX research is actually a thing. So you have already, a really great starting point.
Khalida: So just reaching out to individuals, learning from them, and starting your own project. I think that's invaluable, because that was really what taught me. I think that's the advice that I would definitely give to someone whose interested in this path.
Jud: Yeah, just to echo Khalida, doing the work before you're told to do the work, or even in some cases, unfortunately, if they do the work, I think is really important, even if it is a practice project for something that you're passionate about. I recently, we have volunteer time here at MailChimp, I use my volunteer time to help do UX research for a local nonprofit. And that just came about from a fellow co-worker here, a developer, just reaching out to them, another cold call, and saying, "Hey, can we help you with this?"
Jud: So, whatever you can do to get a little bit of that thinking under your built, because time spent doing that project, I think is so valuable during that first interview to have. Not speaking hypothetical, saying, "Here is how I approached it. And here's how I learned it along the way." Even if you didn't do it perfectly, just having that, it makes you so much more relatable immediately to that person who's interviewing you.
Jud: Along with that, yeah the events are great. One of my favorite ways to keep up with the field right now is through Slack channels. Some of my favorites are the [Mix Methods 00:46:18], another great UX research podcast. There's a wonderful community that sprouted out around that. The UX Research Collective. You had one with the founders on recently, I thought Alec was on one of the episodes. They also have a Slack channel, most of them are in Toronto, but a lot of great general information.
Jud: The Interaction Design Association. There's an awesome Atlanta chapter, Slack channel that I follow along. That's great to just force those connections, find out about the events. Because when you're first getting into a field, you don't even know what you don't know, you don't know where to look to find everything.
Jud: If you could just be a fly on the wall, and see what people are talking about, and start clicking on links. I think that's a good start too. And then, of course, if you can find a product company that cares a lot about its users, you can find your circuitous path to UX research via some sort of customer-facing role. That could be being an account manager, onboarding professional, or support role. And getting to know the users and the product really well, I think that can position in a really great spot to, again, start doing the work before you even start doing the work.
JH: Yeah, totally.
Erin: Great. Sort of putting yourself in the way of serendipity or something.
Jud: Absolutely. Because I think, there's a lot of things that can't be replicated about my journey. Like, there's a lot of luck, and there's a lot of privilege involved in that. But there are certain things that can be. I think those things are just, taking that interest, and start doing it and forging those connections.
Christianne: I'm just going to [crosstalk 00:48:20].
Khalida: Just hang in there.
Erin: We'll add the graphic to the blog post.
Christianne: But seriously, like persist like. I heard a lot of no's before I heard a yes, but like I just kept going on. I kept reaching out to people, I kept going to interviews. And eventually, an opportunity came my way. So do not give up.
Christianne: And this is so timely, because I was like downstairs in the market yesterday and somebody literally asked me, "How do I get into UX research?" I was like, "Well, just reach out to me on LinkedIn. And grab coffee and we can talk about it."
Christianne: So, yeah, just be persistent. Don't give up.
JH: Nice, that's a good one.
Jud: Christianne's tenacity is one of her superpowers.
Erin: Well, to tenacity.
Erin: Thanks for listening to Awkward Silences. Brought to you by User Interviews.
JH: Theme music by Fragile Gang.
Erin: Editing and sound production by Carrie Boyd.
Carrie Boyd is a Content Creator at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.
Leadership & Strategy
October 31, 2019
Beth Koloski shares how to switch from a product-centric to a user-centric mindset, her favorite research progression plan, and the must-have tools she uses as a remote researcher.