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So you wanna be a UX researcher?

Posted on May 9th, 2008 by Cyd Harrell
273 comments

It’s May! Time for graduations and job hunts, and while B|P isn’t hiring right this minute (we have an awesome team and are busy refining our practices) we will be again, before too long. It seemed like a good time for a post on what I look for when hiring user experience researchers, so here goes, in reverse order of importance:

#4: Education. If you have less than 3 or 4 years of experience, I’m looking for a degree in a related field, and that really can be anything from cognitive science to anthropology to HCI to…well, surprise me, I can be convinced. If it’s from a top school in our field, that’s cool, but it’s no big deal if it’s not. A Master’s is nice for showing a commitment to the field, but doesn’t tell me much about you as a practicing researcher. And whether you do or don’t have a related degree, you’ll definitely grab my attention with interesting people-oriented research projects during your education. (If you have more than 3 or 4 years of experience, I don’t much care where you went to school or what you studied—I’ll be evaluating your professional record exclusively.)

#3: What you’ve done. This is the most important piece of background, and it’s not the number of studies I’m looking at so much as the role you played, the impact your research had in the real world, and whether the research demonstrates a creative approach. If you’re an experienced professional, I’m interested in as many details as you can share on the research you’ve done lately. If you’re less experienced, well, one student applying for an internship here shared a college project where he documented the decision-making flow of getting dressed in the morning and proposed products to improve it. It was creative and well-illustrated, so even though it wasn’t a real-world project, we were impressed and brought him in. Others have excited us with their passion for particular aspects of video game control, or a fascinating story about a behavioral study on swimming pool chemicals.

#2: The ability to analyze and synthesize. Really, honestly, a robot can follow a script to the letter and identify the hits and misses on each item. My questions are: can you do more than state the flat findings of a piece of research? Are you skilled at drawing together examples from various arenas? Can you assess problems with a protocol and change it on the fly? If you come for an interview with me, I’ll expect you to be able to discuss good and bad user experiences you’ve encountered in your life, why they strike you, and what you’d do to change them…and I’m looking for you to surprise me and make me think. The fact that Amazon checkout is pretty good won’t be a revelation to me, but if you have something to say about why and how (or conversely why not) that I haven’t heard before, then I’m all ears. I’m going to want to know where you’ve encountered difficulties on projects (let’s face it, all projects have issues) and how you’ve worked through them, and not just “I was right and I persuaded people to agree with me”. How about one where you realized you screwed up the study design? You can be sure it’s happened to me before so I won’t be judging—but I’ll be really interested in how you made things work. Basically, the more different ways of cracking a problem we have on our team, and the more perspectives we have on understanding human behavior, the bigger impact our projects will have for our clients (and ultimately for our company’s goal of transforming the role of technology in society).

#1: The ability to communicate with people. This one is “you got it or you don’t”, and it matters on several levels. First of all, if you don’t write a revealing, conversational, grammatical cover email, then I don’t even read your resume. We’re a small, highly specialized company in a communication-oriented field, and our website gives a pretty clear idea of who we are—if you send a formal letter that would have been suited for the HR department of a major corporation back in the 80s, I know you’re not “getting” us and I assume you won’t “get” our clients or participants as well as we need you to, either.

Second, those participants—we interview people of all stripes doing all kinds of tasks that matter to them. You need to be able to have a friendly, engaged-yet-unbiased conversation with just about anybody on just about any subject; and because B|P specializes in real-time research with remote methods, you should be able to do it over the phone. Ideally, this is something you really enjoy.

And third, same goes with our clients—we work with people in all sorts of job functions at all sorts of levels in all sorts of organizations. If we’re to help them make real change (which is, after all, the point) we need to listen to their stories, engage them in a process that may be far outside their past experience, explain things we’re passionate and knowledgeable about without either mystifying or talking down, persuade respectfully and, last but not least, make the experience of working with us fun. If you show me you can do those things, well, shoot! When’s my next req coming up?

(Photo by Dani Lurie via Flickr)

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