UX Research Careers: 4 Things PhDs Need to Know

What is UX research? Why are so many academics and PhDs drawn to UX research career paths?

To the uninitiated, UX stands for “User Experience.” (Apparently, we as a civilization have agreed that the word “experience” begins with an X.)

UX research is the systematic study of how real people (“users”) interact with a product. Whether it’s an app, website, power tool, or anything else, UX researchers investigate how and why people use (or don’t use) a particular product.

The UX researcher career path has attracted quite a few expatriate academics over the past few years. And once you know what UX research involves, it’s easy to see why. It’s a multifarious discipline that mixes elements of psychology, anthropology, market research, and design.

This article takes a deep dive into UX research. We’ll unravel the differences between UX research and design, investigate qualitative vs. quantitative methods of a UX researcher, and consider whether a UX research career path may have a place in your post-ac professional journey.

1. What Is UX Research?

UX research careers are easy to understand on an intuitive level but surprisingly tricky to put into words.

Oh sure, a UX researcher studies “users” and their “experiences” with a product. But wait, don’t companies already know how their products are used?

Kind of. Let’s start by distinguishing UX research/design from engineering. The main difference between UX design and engineering lies in how the user is considered during the design process. 

Engineers invent things. It’s their job! They spot a problem and design a widget, doohicky, or thingamajig to solve it.

(Who knew there were so many whimsical words for unnamed or unspecified devices?)

However, engineers typically do not consider how ordinary people experience said widgets or doohickeys. If you’re an engineer, your job is to design a product that performs a function. Is the product enjoyable to use? Can the average customer even figure out how to turn it on? Sorry, not your problem!

That’s where UX research and design comes in. A UX researcher studies what ordinary people (non-engineers) actually do with a product. Do they like using it? Does it solve their specific problems? Are they using it in the intended way? (Seriously, when’s the last time you used a so-called “pipe cleaner” to clean a pipe?)

Once the UX researcher determines how users are actually experiencing a product, the UX designer’s job is to optimize that experience while maintaining its core functionality.

UX design and UX research are two sides of the same coin. The occupations typically work in tandem and may be done by the same person. From UX research to design and execution, the goal is to determine what customers want and then provide it to them in the best way possible.

2. Where Do UX Researchers Work?

UX researchers work everywhere. Any business with a product or “solution” to sell will want UX researchers to study the target audience and make sure the product is received as warmly as possible.

Quite a bit of UX research focuses on digital products: websites, apps, streaming services, video games, etc. After all, with online customers’ ever-dwindling attention span, streamlining user experience and making the digital sales funnel as seamless as possible is absolutely essential.

D’you remember those clunky old 90s websites that looked like they were built from tin foil and construction paper and powered by kerosene? Remember the dark days of online shopping, when you had to scroll through dozens of menus, make a personal account, and sacrifice a goat to the elder gods each time you wanted to buy a used book?

Well, UX researchers are the reason we don’t deal with that stuff anymore. Their job, alongside the UX designers, is to make our experiences as customers (whether online or in person) as intuitive and pleasant as possible.

Naturally, UX researchers work at brick-and-mortar retailers as well. They study UX of both the products themselves and the process of buying those products (from the aesthetics of the store to the width of the isles, etc.). Basically, any business seeking to draw in and retain customers will employ UX researchers to facilitate that process.

3. What Are UX Research Methods?

Okay, now that we have a grasp on what a UX research career path involves, we can investigate why many academics and PhDs are drawn to the field.

One reason should be obvious: it’s research! It’s a chance to put our hard-earned research skills to the test in a non-academic setting. UX research methods generally fall into one of two subfields: qualitative and quantitative.

The qualitative phase typically comes first. UX researchers begin a project with a qualitative investigation into the target audience’s motivations, opinions, needs, and wants. This may involve field studies, interviews with test users and focus groups, etc.

A big goal of qualitative UX research methods is to spot “pain points” in the user experience. Why do users do certain things and not do other things? What problems are they seeking a solution to? What do they like/dislike about existing products?

In scientific-method terms, qualitative UX research is the “hypothesis” stage. You observe real people in real situations, apply some old-fashioned critical thinking, and hypothesize why users do certain things and what they might do in potential future scenarios.

Quantitative UX research, then, is how you test that hypothesis. Deploying analytical methods like surveys and forms, you collect concrete data on what users actually do with a product. How much time do they spend on your company website? Which pages generate the most bounces? How many hours per week do they actually use that Peloton?

UX research methods are similar to market research. Both fields combine qualitative and quantitative methods in order to glean crucial insights about customers. The main difference is that market researchers look for opportunities for new products or target audiences whereas UX researchers seek to improve the current target audience’s existing products.

Whether you’re left- or right-brained, whether you like data-driven research or talking to real people about important issues, you’ll find that UX research career paths have plenty of intellectually stimulating work to offer.

4. What Qualifications Does a UX Researcher Need?

Like many non-academic jobs PhDs end up in, UX research careers are not defined by a fixed set of qualifications. People with all kinds of degrees, with backgrounds in sales, marketing, or academia, go on to thrive in UX research careers.

Much like market research, the primary qualification for UX research is a fascination with people: how they think and speak, why they do the things they do.

Another great thing to have is a UX research portfolio displaying past studies, projects, and results of your work.

Of course, as a recovering academic looking to break into a new career field, you might not have many concrete UX studies under your belt. But you can still assemble an online UX research portfolio displaying your ability to conduct multi-faceted research projects. Your academic work (within reason) can go here, as well as any suitable non-ac projects or accomplishments. Clippings is a good online portfolio manager to consider.

UX design has slightly taller gatekeepers, but there are still ways to break in. There are multiple online certification programs (“bootcamps” as they’re sometimes called) designed to springboard people into UX design careers.

As always, if you really want to know how to break into a UX research career, informational interviews are the way to go.

Conclusion

UX research will appeal to any academic or PhD fascinated by the nuances and quirks of human psychology and culture. Anyone who loves research for its own sake—who enjoys pouring over data and micromanaging a project—will also find a lot to like in UX research.

What is UX research? At the end of the day, it’s like any other research career: complex, constantly changing, and intellectually challenging. If that’s your thing, a UX research career path may have much to offer you.

Looking for more ideas and suggestions? Here are 4 more excellent research career paths for PhDs.

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