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How to Become a UX Researcher in 2023: The Ultimate Career Guide

Want to become a UX researcher? Here’s everything you need to know about getting started with a career in UX research.

There’s no hiding from the fact that becoming a UX researcher might seem like a gamble right now—especially when researchers continue to get hit by the wave of tech layoffs and more companies are relying on democratized research to keep up with increased demand for user insights.

While no job title is 100% recession-proof, there’s no doubt that demand for user insights and UX researchers will remain in high demand. After all, companies still need user insights to help them weather the storm of uncertainty and bounce back stronger than before.

Whether you’re looking to start a career in user research, transition into a more research-focused role, or #OpentoWork, UX research is a flexible and fulfilling career path that will continue to grow and evolve—even through challenging times like now. 

So how do you become a UX researcher? There’s no cookie cutter path to start a career in UX research; UX researchers come from different backgrounds and experiences. But the common denominator shared by UX researchers is that they’re hyper-curious and have a deep understanding of human behavior. 

In this guide, you’ll learn which skills, education, work experience, certificates, and more you need to start a career in UX research. Here’s what you’ll find:

  • How to break into UX research
  • Educational requirements and alternatives for UXR
  • Skills required for each UX research career path
  • Additional UXR career resources to help you get started

✨ Looking to network and upskill with experts in UXR? Check out the Best UX Research Conferences and Events in 2023.

How do you get into UX Research?

If you were looking for a step by step map to break into UX research, you won’t find it here. There isn’t really one set way to get into UXR.

“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.” 

- Jud Vaughan, Lead UX Researcher at Toast in How 3 Researchers Landed Their Dream Jobs with Jud Vaughan, Khalida Allen, and Christianne Elliott of Mailchimp

You can find your way to a career in research through academia, design, product, writing—the possibilities are honestly endless. But, as we talked to people who work with UXR and researched how they go about their jobs every day, here are a few common traits shared by most successful UXR professionals.

UX researchers are:

  • Deeply interested in human behavior and thought processes
  • Well-versed in various research methods
  • Detail-oriented yet big-picture thinkers who help facilitate large-scale change

Check out the ✨The State of User Research 2023 Report✨ for real insights on user researchers.

Start with an interest in people

One of the things that binds user researchers together is an unending curiosity about people. What makes them tick, why they chose one option over another, what their lives are like outside of your research project.

User researchers are responsible for bringing the voice of people who use the product every day to their teams. In our 2021 State of User Research Report, we found this was one of their favorite things about the job too, with 35.2% reporting their favorite aspect of research was bringing the voice of the customer to the team. In our 2022 report, we found that organizational structure and bureaucracy had the greatest impact on researchers’ sense of job fulfillment.

Check out the ✨The State of User Research 2023 Report✨ for real insights on user researchers.

If you’re hoping to get into a user research career, lean into your hyper-curiosity. Whether you’re transitioning from another role to a user research centric one or making a fresh start after earning a degree (congrats by the way! 🥳), continue building your interest in people. You can practice UX research skills in your everyday life by asking detailed questions, consciously avoiding bias, and getting comfortable talking to strangers.

You can also take this curiosity about those around you and build relationships with people in the UX research community—we’re generally a pretty friendly bunch! Some strategies to get involved include:

  • Join Slack groups like Mixed Methods and Designer Slack Communities.
  • Strike up conversations about things you’re interested in learning about and contribute to conversations that are already happening.
  • Reach out to people who hold the positions you hope to one day occupy and ask them how they got where they are.

Forming these relationships and embedding yourself in the community will not only help you find the right job, you’ll learn more about the user research world as a whole.

A quote image about networking
“Network as much as possible and learn about the role from people who are doing it. It's useful to help you understand if UX research is the right role for you and also to build connections that can help you in your professional development or job search down the road. The UX research community is still fairly small, so it's likely you'll encounter many of the same people during your career.”

– ‍Christine Berry, Lead Experience Researcher at Airbnb

Here are some of the other best UX research communities you can join to start networking:

🏆 Looking for more ways to learn and connect? Follow these Top UX Research Leaders on Linkedin.

Hone your researching skills

While there’s no one right way to make your way into user research, you will need some experience conducting research to get a job as a dedicated user researcher.

  • If you’re still in school, consider a research-focused course.
  • If you’re transitioning your career, see if there are any research studies at your current company you can get involved with.

Either way, starting to hone your skills with generative interviews, usability testing, user analytics, and other kinds of research will help you immensely.

Don’t know where to start? Reach out to your local tech incubator, startups, or non-profits in your area. Volunteer your time for an opportunity to hone your research skills and work on research projects you’re excited about. You can also continue building your skills through free resources, like UX research and design books, blog posts, and the User Interviews Field Guide.

A quote image about strong research methods knowledge

“I think the most important skill people will need to get into UX research is a strong research methods foundation. In the day-to-day work, you need to be able to understand what type of research will best answer your team's questions and be able to weigh the tradeoffs of different approaches. If you have a good research foundation - regardless if from psychology, economics, business, or other disciplines - you already know most of what the job entails.”

Christine Berry, Lead Experience Researcher at Airbnb

You don’t have to be a full-time researcher.

You don’t have to be a user researcher to be involved in user research. Just like there’s a wide variety of ways to get to a user research related role, there are many different roles that involve user research and do lightweight versions of UX research.

Some of these roles include:

  • ReOps managers
  • Designers
  • Product Managers

In our fourth annual State of User Research Report, we found that a fifth of our survey participants are people who do research (PwDRs)—people who spend at least 10% of their job on user research, but are not User Researchers in name. Most of these PwDRs were in UX design or product teams and learned their skills on the job.

If you’re not sure about doing research full-time, you can consider becoming a lightweight version of a UXR through decentralized research. You can start in a UX-related field to get experience with lightweight studies or at least get involved with user research.  

If you choose this path, you’re not alone. In our 2023 State of User Research report, people who end up working with user research regularly came from various different fields. We surveyed user researchers, designers, product managers, marketers, support/ops professionals, and even developers/engineers. About 59% of ReOps professionals learned to do UX research on the job, as well as a majority (40%) of PWDRs.

So even if a full-time research position doesn’t sound like your jam, there’s a place for you in the research-sphere.

Quote image about always being curious in your career
“Always be curious and ask questions. Regardless of where you are in your career, there is always something to learn. The worst thing you can do is to think you know everything and stop yourself from growing personally and professionally.”

– ‍Tiffany Eaton, Interaction Designer at Google

Educational requirements and alternatives for UX researchers

One of the first questions that come to mind when choosing a career path is: do I need to go to school for this?

It’s a valid question, considering how much time and money formal degrees can cost. Here’s what you need to know.👇

Do you need an advanced degree to become a UX researcher?

The short answer is no, you don’t need a master’s or PhD to become a UX researcher, but a majority of UX researchers do have formal education or training in user research. According to the 2023 State of User Research Report, 42% of UXRs primarily acquired their skills and knowledge through a formal university education in user research or a closely related discipline.

While most researchers might have a formal degree related to user research, the beauty of the UX research career path is that it’s flexible enough for professionals in other industries to transition into UX research with transferable skills, experience, and proven work experience.

We also learned that a majority of ReOps professionals and PWDRs in user research primarily learned about user research on the job, picking up skills to meet an immediate business need while working in another capacity.

So not every UX researcher has an advanced degree. What’s even more surprising is that 77% of UXRs actually started their career in a different field and transitioned into UX research later on. When we break it down a little further, we found four main careers that transitioned into research—design (21%), marketing (20%), education (13%), and anthropology/sociology (11%).

“Your work experience in applied research (i.e., your strength in research methodologies, analysis, write-ups/presentations, and explaining the implications of your research on product strategy and/or product design) is more important than the level of your academic degree.”

– ‍Tatiana Vlahovic, UX Research & Partnerships Lead at Reduct

However, having a formal education with an advanced degree can help establish you as an academic researcher and connect with others who share a passion for research.

Certainly I’ve known many people in this field who are very successful and yet don’t have an advanced degree. But I think that having an advanced degree in a relevant field increases the likelihood of your success as a UX researcher, especially in today’s environment.

Tom Tullis, Former VP of UX Research at Fidelity in Five Tips for a Successful Career as a UX Researcher

There are many UX researchers who have chosen to start their careers from other industries or specialties, like this one researcher named Summer who embarked on a 6-month journey to break into UX research with no prior experience.

What kind of degrees do UX researchers have?

People can study all kinds of things and end up in user research roles. From our very first State of User Research Report, we found that our user researcher respondents held a wide variety of bachelor degrees, ranging from business administration to industrial design degrees. Nowadays, it’s common for people to study psychology, statistics, human-computer interaction, information systems or a related field for a bachelor’s degree if they plan on building a UX research-related career.

People who are specifically pursuing graduate degrees with the intention of working in user research after they graduate typically choose fields related to Human Factors, Human Computer Interaction, or more formal academic research like psychology. Our past research confirms that these are popular majors of many who end up with user research related careers, but so are a number of other disciplines.

Many of our respondents had earned degrees in Human Computer Interaction, but just as many had earned graduate degrees in Library Science. The top three graduate degrees among our respondents were Human Centered Computing, Human Factors, and Psychology.

As the UX research career continues to evolve, it’s exciting to see how future researchers choose to shape their careers. Find more updated information about UX researcher education and work experience in our new 2023 State of User Research Report.

While it’s not required to follow the same path and choose these majors, studying research-related disciplines can help establish a strong academic foundation for building your research knowledge. If you’re still in school or about to start a graduate program, consider taking courses related to these majors.

But don’t worry if another degree isn’t feasible for you; some people don’t even find out about UX research until years into their careers. Plus, UX research is a highly flexible field that a lot of professionals transition to from other fields.

How to build your UX research career without going back to school

An advanced degree may not be an option for everyone, considering the time and money required. But the good news is, there are many ways to build your research skills without heading back to school.

Here’s an overview of what you can do to get started:

  1. Build a UX research portfolio. Be ready to showcase any mock case studies or real research projects you were involved in.
  1. Network with other researchers in online communities, conferences, or events.
  1. Take online courses and get professional certificates. Online courses and bootcamps aren't for everyone, but taking UX bootcamps can be a great supplemental source of education to formal UX training. Some courses even allow you to audit the lessons for free before committing to it, and they offer professional certificates once completed.

Here are some online courses and certificates relevant to UX research careers:

What kinds of jobs are available in UX research?

There are tons of ways to have a career in UX research. You can be a researcher, a product manager, a designer, a writer, a marketer, a developer, or any number of things—who can keep up with all the changing titles out there these days? Here are some of the most common roles.

✨ Looking to start applying now? Browse through our Remote UX Research Job Board: an updated list of 50+ remote UX research job postings

What is a UX Researcher? 🔍

UX or user researchers are responsible for bringing the voice of the customer to the team. They may conduct qualitative and quantitative research studies to help teams answer pressing business, product, and customer questions. A UX or user researcher should be well-versed in research practices, have a genuine interest in people, and a deep understanding of human behavior.

Want to be a UX/User Researcher? Check out the #jobs channel in the Mixed Methods Slack community.

What does a UX researcher do?

User researchers often work with design and product teams on things like discovery and evaluative research. The insights they uncover help companies make smarter business and product decisions.

While researchers conduct qualitative and quantitative research to uncover user needs, pain points, and behaviors, UX research isn’t just about doing research. There’s so much more that goes into the research process.

UX researchers also spend their time planning research studies, running sessions, organizing research studies, working with cross-functional teams, analyzing the results, and presenting them to stakeholders.

What skills do I need to become a UX researcher?

UX researchers need strong research skills (plot twist, we know), but that’s not all it takes to be a great researcher. UX researchers need to be relentlessly curious, analytical, well-organized, and deeply empathetic.

Companies are looking for UX researchers who have experience in:

Recruiting & Scheduling - Finding participants for research and scheduling their sessions.

Generative Research - Research conducted to generate ideas for a new project.

Usability testing - Research conducted to evaluate the usability of a product, service, or feature.

Quantitative research - Research conducted to gain statistically significant, data-based findings. Things like A/B tests, heatmaps, and first click tests are part of this work. ‍

Synthesis - The act of gathering your findings from research and synthesizing them into something your stakeholders can understand. This can include data analysis, coding interview notes, and creating research repositories.

Reporting - Sharing your research findings with stakeholders. This can include formal research reports, clips from sessions, or presentations.

For a more detailed description of the skills you’ll need at each point in your career as a UX researcher, check out this list by Nikki Anderson.

How much do UX researchers make?

According to The State of User Research 2023 Report—a report unpacking the findings from our annual survey of researchers at all experience levels, in dozens of industries, from more than 50 countries—the majority of UXRs (based in the United States) make between $100k–$200k per year.

On Glassdoor, the average salary of UX researchers with 4-9 years of experience in major tech cities is $131,889 as of March 2023.

While these numbers are only estimates, it’s important to do your own research on UX research salaries for your specific experience level. We’ll get more into UX research salaries in a future post (👀) so sign up for our newsletter to be notified when we share the most updated salary estimates of 2023.

✨ Want to become a UX researcher but you’re having trouble finding jobs to apply to? Check out our Remote UX Research Job Board for 100+ job openings (we update this frequently!).

What is a Research Operations Manager? ✍️

Research Ops is just as the name suggests: the operations behind user research. ReOps professionals are responsible for creating scalable, repeatable practices for sharing, storing, and presenting research to the rest of their team.

What does a Research Operations Manager do?

Commonly, they focus on participant management, governance, knowledge management, tools, competency, and advocacy. Some of the responsibilities of ReOps managers include helping researchers to:

  • Plan and schedule research sessions
  • Recruit and manage participants
  • Coordinate collaboration and democratization
  • Analyze, report, and share insights

While it may seem like Research Ops operates behind the scenes most of the time, one of their key goals is to make research visible and accessible to the wider organization. ReOps managers help research teams communicate the value of research to the organization.

What skills do you need as a ReOps Manager?

Like operational roles in other industries, ReOps managers need to be systems thinkers. You should be skilled in evaluating the day-to-day rhythms of how research is conducted and implement strategies to increase efficiency and impact. Since this role typically works closely with research, product, design, and data teams, you’ll need sharp collaboration skills as well.

Brush up on some of the core skills and ideas you need as a Research Ops manager👇

How much do research operations managers make?

According to Glassdoor, Research Ops managers with 4-9 years of experience in major cities earn an average of $117,460 a year.

What is a UX designer? 👩‍🎨

Designers can come in lots of different forms. Just like there are a lot of ways to be involved with user research, there are a lot of ways to be involved with design. UI, UX, product, the list goes on. We’ll focus on UX designers and product designers for the sake of brevity in this section.

Many designers, especially UX, UI, and product designers, conduct user research. For some designers, they are the sole source of qualitative research within a team. So if you’re looking to combine your love of design with your love of research, a design position might be your cup of tea.

“Make context as essential a deliverable as sparkly hifi mocks. The context of a problem proves whether or not it should be prioritized, the context of research proves whether or not solutions should be pursued, the context of your chosen solution proves its impact towards the long term vision.”

Allison Milchling, Product Designer at Atrium

What do UX designers do?

A UX designer is someone who designs and creates user experiences. UX designers use research to ensure their designs are useful, usable, and accessible to users.

What skills do I need to become a UX designer?

To be a UX designer, you’re going to need some design chops (another shocker). UX designers think about usability, flows, and user feedback. To be a great UX designer, you’ll need skills in ideation, lo-fi design, hi-fi design, implementation, usability testing, and quantitative research.

Brush up on some of the core research skills you need as a UX designer 👇

What do product designers do? 🧑‍💻

A product designer is someone who designs and creates digital experiences. Depending on where they work, their day to day can look very similar to that of a UX designer.

This article from CareerFoundry does a good job of breaking down the difference between the two roles—the biggest one centers on priority. For UX designers, usability trumps all; product designers often balance user needs with those of the business, cost, and brand.

What skills do I need to become a product designer?

To be a product designer, you need to have both creative and analytical skills in abundance. Product designers think about the business impact of design choices as well as the user experience. To be a great product designer, you’ll need skills in ideation, lo-fi design, hi-fi design, usability testing, and quantitative research.

Brush up on the research skills you need to be a product designer 👇

How much is a designer’s salary?

According to self-reported salaries on Glassdoor, UX designers in major tech cities with 4-9 years of experience earn a salary of about $122,332 a year, on average.

Product designers in the US earn a salary of $95,220 a year, on average. Junior product designers earn an average of $73,212, while senior product designers earn an average salary of $141,481.

✨Feeling compelled to start creating user-centric designs? Check out the DesignerNews job board.

What is a Product Manager? 🤹‍♂️

Product Managers are responsible for, well, managing the product. That means they have to decide how to create the best products for their users, coordinating everyone involved in creating the final product.

What do product managers do?

The product manager (PM) profile is a notoriously slippery fish—since product managers sit at the intersection of so many departments and stakeholders, the scope and focus of a particular PM role varies greatly from company to company. But to oversimplify: Product managers are in charge of making sure the right things are built at the right time. They do this by organizing teams of engineers and designers to create impactful features and user friendly products that meet business expectations.

A quote about how product managers use UX research
“As a PM, one of your jobs is to understand the problem that you're trying to solve for a customer. Fundamentally, in order to understand a problem, you're doing research in some way, shape, or form. To me, research is really about, how can I better understand my customer and how can I better understand what they're trying to accomplish in their job?”

- Maggie Crowley, Product Manager at Drift

What skills do I need to become a product manager?

To be a product manager, you’ll need organizational skills, high emotional intelligence, and some technical know-how. To be a great product manager, you’ll need experience running design sprints, prioritizing features, defining and tracking success, conducting generative research, running usability tests, and gathering quantitative research.

Brush up on the research skills you need to be a product manager 👇

How much do product managers make?

According to Glassdoor salary data, the average salary of product managers in major tech cities in America with 4-9 years of experience is $152,261. Entry level product managers (often called associate product managers) earn $76,715 annually, while senior PMs earn $173,972 a year on average.

So managing products sounds like your kind of thing? Check out MindtheProduct’s job board, or the #jobs channel in their Slack group.

What is a UX Writer? ✍️

UX writers are a fairly new phenomenon, and there’s already a lot of growth in this field. The UX writer is responsible for creating all the copy surrounding a product or experience. Typically, UX writers possess stellar copywriting skills, a love of user research, and a collaborative mindset.

Sound like your kind of thing? This newsletter sends out UX writer jobs weekly. Plus, it includes links to great UX stories around the internet. You’re welcome.

What does a UX writer do?

According to Coursera,

“A UX writer plans and writes the microcopy in apps, websites, and other digital products users need to navigate a product.”

Basically, UX writers craft small pieces of writing for users. Some examples of microcopy might include:

  • Menus
  • Definitions
  • Buttons
  • Labels
  • Chatbots
  • Error messages
  • User instructions

As a UX writer, you can test different pieces of copy, do user research, and interact with product teams to make sure the copy you write is effective.

What skills do you need as a UX writer?

UX writers are great at writing clear and concise copy. This field of work is different from copywriting because you have to know how to communicate a message clearly with very limited text space.

Here are other skills you should develop as a UX writer:

  • Technical skills: Understand technical concepts and communicate them in simpler terms for users.
  • Content strategy: Be aware of writing goals and have a plan for your writing.
  • Collaboration: Be ready to work with designers and the product team on a regular basis to make sure your copy is user-friendly.

Other jobs that involve user research

Developer 💻

What do developers do for user research? While a developer’s main job is writing code, they need to problem solve to get there, and user research can be a valuable part of that process. Conducting user research, or being a part of the process, can help developers identify with customers and create better products in the end.

Do lines of code make you excited to wake up in the morning? Check out DevItjobs, a job board for developers in the US, UK, Switzerland, Romania, Netherlands, and Germany.

Marketer 📈

How do marketers get involved with user research? Whether you’re working to understand jobs to be done to impact product positioning, to hear how users and customers explain their pain points and hopes and dreams to craft relevant messaging, or better understand your market to inform pricing—user research is one of the best ways to create marketing that actually works.

✨Want to do some research-enhanced marketing? Check out Wellfound's (formerly AngelList) job board, full of marketing jobs at innovative startups.  

Support/Ops 👫

What do customer support and operations teams do for user research? Support and operations professionals work closely with users every day, helping them troubleshoot issues and achieve their goals.

In some teams, support and ops are the only formal link to the customer’s point of view. In larger teams, support and ops can help tell the story of what users are experiencing every day.

✨Love helping people? Check out Workable’s job board, chock-full of cool support and ops positions.  

👀Psst—before you start looking for your next opportunity, prepare for the interview with these common UX Research job interview questions and tips for answering them.

Is UX research a fulfilling career?

According to our 2022 State of User Research report, job fulfillment for UX researchers is driven by the following factors:

  • Organizational structure and bureaucracy: Researchers who are satisfied with their organization’s structure rated their fulfillment as 4,23 out of 5.
  • Research buy-in: The percentage of dissatisfaction from a lack of buy-in decreased from 20% to 14%, and then 3% in 2022’s survey.
  • Making good use of research: Researchers who are satisfied with how research is used to make decisions rated their job fulfillment as 4.19 out of 5.
  • Salary: You would think that more money = more happiness. But researchers in our 2022 State of User Research report who earned over $200,000 had lower fulfillment ratings than lower earners.

Another important factor to consider with job fulfillment is the opportunity to work remotely. In the same report, we found that the opportunity to work remotely increased fulfillment at work. People who worked remotely at least one day a week rated their fulfillment at a 5.3 out of 7. During this time, 49.9% of Product Managers worked remotely at least one day a week, followed by 48.2% of Designers, and 41.7% of UX/User Researchers.

As researchers and PWDRs continue to find new solutions to work remotely or in hybrid environments, we expect job fulfillment to continue to increase as well.

Still unsure about a career in UX research? Here’s what some real UX professionals have to say about their jobs:

A quote about the joy of being a UX researcher

“I get to discover what no one else in the company knows. I get to learn something new every day and build something to help them achieve their goals.”

– Grant Baker, Senior Product Designer at Kohl’s

A quote about engaging with people as a UX researcher
“Getting insights about worlds I know nothing about. The best part is seeing how people engage and are passionate to share their stories. I also love making sense of the data, finding patterns that surprise me. Basically - the unexpected about qualitative user research.”

Pernille Holm Rasmussen, Front-end Developer and UI/UX Designer at Lightbooth

✨Find more quotes about the joys of doing user research in our list of 70+ UX Research Quotes to Inspire Your Team

Self-guided resources to become a UX researcher

While there are various paths you can take to become a UX researcher, you have the flexibility to craft your own journey. Understanding what each job title means and knowing what specialties there are in UX is just the tip of the iceberg.

Here are some more UXR career resources to help you along the way:

Move toward opportunities, not labels

The UX research career path is diverse, from dedicated UX researchers to product managers, there are tons of ways to be involved in user research. Whether you choose to become a UX researcher or find another career path that suits your interests better, choose a path you’re passionate about and makes you excited to go to work every morning.

Here’s a great piece of career advice from Alissa Lee, UX Designer at Indeed.

“Move towards opportunities, not labels. Job titles are going to change from company to company. The best thing you can do is search by responsibilities and skills that interest you, and then work backwards to find the relevant job title that gives you the opportunities to do them”

If you need help recruiting participants for a case study or research project to start building your UX research work experience, our Recruit tool offers a pool of over three million participants— even for one-time studies.

As you become more experienced with UX research and all the moving parts, you’ll find that talking to the right participants is the first step to a successful research project. Sign up for a free account today and get started with streamlined participant recruitment.

Rachell Lee
Copywriter at Seamless.AI

Rachell is a SEO Copywriter at Seamless.AI and former Content Marketing Manager at User Interviews. Content writer. Marketing enthusiast. INFJ. Inspired by humans and their stories. She spends ridiculous amounts of time on Duolingo and cooking new recipes.

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