There are two roles someone with a background in user research / HCI can take: One is the User Experience Researcher (UER) and the other one is the scientific researcher. The User Experience Researcher works closely with the product manager, engineers and designers on a particular product and helps to drive product design questions. The scientific researcher works on broader research questions that are often not specific to a product – their work often gets published. If you want to continue doing research similar to the projects you do at University, then scientific researcher may be best suited. If you want to work with real-world products and have direct impact on millions of users then User Experience Researcher may be best suited. All notes below are about the User Experience Researcher role but I would be happy to connect you with someone who just completed his DPhil and now works as a scientific researchers at Google.
Google’s HQ are in Mountain View (MTV) and most (interesting) work is done there. There are some other offices where User Experience Researchers work, including London. I recommend applying for a User Experience Researcher position in MTV. You can only apply in NA or Europe, not both. Once you started an application for one continent you can’t switch.
User Experience Research falls under “Engineering” (fields of work).User Experience Researchers at Google are either qualitative or quantitative, or both. It’s okay to have a qual focus and not be strong in quant. Just make sure to point that out in your application and to your recruiter to manage expectations.
What kind of work you do in your internship depends on the team you are matched. I conducted eye-tracking studies, large-scale experiments, large-scale surveys, interviews and ethnographic field observations. I learned a lot in terms of methods and data analysis but also about effectively collaborating with stakeholders to operationalise research findings (something we academic researchers often have little experience in).
Some of the things that stood out to me during my User Experience Research internship in MTV was a culture where user research was understood to be crucial and highly appreciated (which is unfortunately often not common in other organisations or even Computer Science). There are hundreds of UERs working at Google and they have weekly/monthly/yearly meetups. The support for user research studies was outstanding. Google has dedicated teams that help with conducting studies (e.g. participant recruiting, legal aspects, etc.). This support goes so far that you can even have certain types of research studies completely conducted for you if you choose to. This frees up time for you to fully focus on designing studies and integrating research findings.
The infrastructure is also outstanding. Example; Google builds their own labs and fleet of user research vans all around the globe. And the financial support for studies is also fantastic. I got granted $1.000 for participant reimbursement within an hour, for example. This support is available to all UERs and interns. This lead to a role that could be described as ‘senior’ User Experience Researcher in other organisations – where you have teams working for you, to ‘enable’ your research. You can concentrate on the fun parts like designing studies, analysing and integrating findings.
The people are also genuinely nice and supportive – to a degree that I haven’t experienced in any other organisation.
One aspect that an academic researcher may be perceived as a drawback when working as a User Experience Researcher at Google is the product-centred nature of the work. While you still can publish papers, most of your work will be about improving the user experience of a product. If this is a strength or weakness will depend on your attitude/definition of ‘impact’.
To summarise, you will face a research environment that truly appreciates user research, uncomparable support in terms of infrastructure, finances and work force to conduct research studies, and interesting and motivated people.
How User Experience Research work differs from our academic work
As you may have sensed from the description above, the work focus shifts somewhat from analysing data to designing studies purposefully and feeding findings effectively back. Your main responsibility is not only to analyse data but to design studies appropriately so they will lead to impact on your product. You will need to collaborate closely with the product team and understand what research questions are most pressing, and then to communicate findings in a way that they will lead to actual impact. In our academic work, the analysis of data may be most ‘challenging’. The challenges I faced as a User Experience Researcher shifted more towards understanding what findings would be needed to drive pressing product decisions and how to effectively communicate them to product managers and engineers and work with designers to incorporate them into the product. It is not enough to have ‘interesting’ findings if they lead to no impact on the user experience.
UX and UX Research at Google
You will need a reference from someone working at Google otherwise your application will get lost. A reference will increase your chances of getting to the interview stage. You will need a tailored CV and motivational statement. A portfolio showcasing some of your work is not necessary but can help.
- Interviewing tips by Nicole Bernardi
- UX interview questions (some not applicable)
- Cracking the UER interview
I am happy to answer any questions you may have!