User Experience Research Career: An Introduction

Published by Jan Ahrend on

This article provides an introduction to what job roles exist for conducting user research in the industry. 

For someone who recently completed their studies or is about to finish their studies and considers starting a career in User Experience Research (sometimes called ‘Design Research’ or User Research), you may ask yourself what job roles exist in the industry. This is the information I wish I had when I finished my Master in Human-Computer Interaction and I hope it is helpful for you too. 

There are two job roles that are most common for conducting user research at tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and more: 

  1.  Scientific (User) Researcher. The scientific researcher works on broader research questions that are often not specific to a product. Their foundational research often gets published and are on cutting-edge research topics. If you want to continue doing research similar to the projects you may have done at your postgrad, then the role of the scientific user researcher may be best suited for you. They work closely with fellow researchers and Engineers. 
  2. User Experience Researcher (UXR). The User Experience Researcher works closely with the product manager, engineers and designers often on a particular product and feature and helps to drive product and design questions. They take an active role in improving existing products and form future products. If you want to work with real-world products and directly impact (millions of) users then the role of the User Experience Researcher may be best suited for you. 

1) Scientific user researcher

The scientific (user) researcher is following a similar role like researchers at Universities or other academic research bodies. One difference is that research projects are chosen and designed in the hope that it will find its way into real-world applications of its company. Companies like Google may look for scientific researchers who are expert in a specific area (e.g. data science) but also generalist roles exist. Tech companies are looking for people with an academic background who are, have been or would excel at conducting research at Universities and want to switch over to the industry. Preferred qualifications often include a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), Computer Science, Statistics, Engineering, Data Science, Mathematics, Physics. Internships for scientific user researchers often exist too for this role. If you like to (continue to) conduct research similar to University, then the role of the scientific user researcher may be the right career path for you. 

Useful links: 

2) User Experience Researcher (UXR)

The other common career path for conducting user research in the industry is the ‘User Experience Researcher’, which may also be called ‘Design Researcher’ or simply ‘User Researcher’. User Experience (UX) Researcher helps the team they are working in focus on the user and their needs. They work closely with product managers, UX designers and engineers to help answer critical design and product questions. The studies they propose and design are enable the team to develop more quickly, fail faster and provide users a better experience overall. Research methods commonly used are usability studies, surveys, field visits, ethnography and log analysis. 

The UX Researcher represents the voice of the user within the company and enables the team to create useful, usable and delightful products and features that people love. 

Responsibilities of a UX Researcher

  • Proposing, designing and conducting user research throughout the product development cycle.
  • Collect, analyse and report on user behavior and user attitudes using lab studies, field visits, surveys, log analysis, A/B testing, ethnography and more. 
  • Closely work with Product Managers, UX Designers, Engineers and other User Experience Researchers to prioritize and design research projects, and socialize research findings. 
  • Incorporate technical and business interests and constraints into the research. 
  • Socialize research and socialize findings to direct and indirect stakeholders via research reports and in-person presentations. 

Tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook typically hire for:

  • Generalist User Experience Researcher: A UXR who is a generalist – capable of doing both qualitative UX research and qualitative UX research but who has not specialized in one area or does both types of research extensively. 
  • Qualitative User Experience Researcher: A UXR who (almost) only applies qualitative UX research methods like usability studies, ethnography, surveys. 
  • Quantitative User Experience Researcher: A UXR who (almost) only applies  quantitative UX research methods like log analysis, A/B or multi-variate testing, advanced surveys like Conjoint analysis, MaxDiff. Requires a very good understanding of (and preferably University background in)  statistics. 

It is possible and common to switch between UX Research roles. For example, I joined Google as a qualitative UX Researcher due to my PhD program in which I only applied qualitative research methods. At my first years at Google, I went after opportunities to grow my quantitative research skills and sought projects where I could apply them (e.g. Conjoint Analysis, MaxDiff, leading the metrics work, and more). Through my first promotion I became a (Senior) UX Researcher – my qualitative specialization fell away. 

Commonly required qualifications for User Experience Researchers

The qualifications that companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and other tech companies are looking for when hiring User Experience Researchers can vary dependent on the level (i.e. how senior the role), the way UX research is done at the company and other factors. Common qualifications include: 

Common minimum qualifications for UX Researchers

  • Bachelor’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), Anthropology, Human Factors, Psychology, Sociology, or a related field or equivalent practical experience (e.g. a Bachelor degree in Computer Science with user research experience through side-projects).
  • Experience with research design for methods like usability studies, surveys, ethnography, log analysis. 
  • Experience designing 

Preferred qualifications for UX Researchers

  • Master’s degree or PhD in a relate field (see above). 
  • 3+ years experience as a UX Researcher, HCI or applied research settings. 
  • Experience in relevant product spaces or academic settings. 
  • Experience in collaborating with cross-functional partners (e.g. Product Manager, Engineers, UX Designers) to work user research findings into the product. 
  • Strong understanding of the different research methods, their strengths and weaknesses and when to apply which during the development cycle. 

The amount of experience (in years and/or projects) largely determines how senior the UXR job opening is. 

In another article, I wrote up how to find open UX Research jobs online. 

Useful links: 

I hope this article was helpful – we went through the two major user research roles in the industry: Scientific Researcher and User Experience Researcher and their differences, what different types of UX Researchers exist and what common qualifications are that tech companies look for. 

Feel free to reach out to me at mail >at< janahrend.com if you have questions. I mentor 10 young professionals each year in their journey to become a UX Research professional. Let me know if you are interested!

Disclaimer: I work at Google as a Senior User Experience Researcher. Content and opinions are my own and not by Google. 


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