Posted by Sara Awada on Apr 9, 2021

Did you come to UX research from something completely unrelated on the surface? Or perhaps you’re still trying to break into the industry while coming from a different background? Chances are your previous experiences have prepared you in more ways than you realize on your journey to UX research.

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At AnswerLab, many of our UX researchers have backgrounds in vastly different roles, industries, and academic pursuits. We believe these past experiences shape many of their strengths that help them thrive as researchers today, not to mention bring added context and diverse insights to the table. Some skills that transfer over are more obvious than others, but all are important to embrace and acknowledge. We've found that these unique perspectives, backgrounds, and skillsets enable our team to provide a deeper, more well-rounded approach to our clients' questions. We asked our team to share how their backgrounds have shaped their research skills and approach and quickly discovered there were three main categories where they’ve seen the impact firsthand. Here’s what they had to say. 

Transferable Practical Skills:

This is the most obvious one - these are the practical skills directly tied to the UX researcher role, including interviewing, taking and organizing notes, analyzing data, writing, and reporting. Here are some examples of how this has played out in the words of our own UXRs:

“My undergraduate double major was in Journalism, which has helped in interviewing, organizing notes, and writing reports and the many articles I've published about UX online over the years.” - Jim Ross, Senior UX Researcher

“I was a medical/legal technical writer, which has definitely helped me with precise wording and writing and structuring long-form reports.”-Bridget Siniakov, UX Researcher

“I have a finance degree that included plenty of economics classes. I was drawn to these academic paths due to my respect for mathematics which also translates well to quantitative work here at AnswerLab. I got into UX because it offered a much more direct view into helping others as a career path.” - Ryan Haupt, Principal UX Researcher

Valuable Soft Skills: 

This is more subtle but often just as valuable - they are the skills that help researchers build a strong rapport with stakeholders, gracefully deal with complex situations, and add that je ne sais quoi element to their work.

These skills include communication, storytelling, stakeholder engagement, business acumen, attention to detail,  learning, and resilience. AnswerLabbers have built these skills in a variety of past jobs and experiences ranging from customer service to law to branding. Here are some of their thoughts: 

“My past work as an industrial designer has impacted my thinking about business goals, how the research will be discussed and translated internally, and all the behind-the-scenes moving parts behind the stimuli.” - Brittany Lang, UX Researcher

"I came from cultural anthropology, middle eastern studies, Latin American studies—in short, an academic world far removed from UX research—and priesthood in the Coptic (Egyptian) orthodox church. All of this certainly helped me to learn how to build rapport with and come to an understanding of a variety of human life-ways, while maintaining a focus on people's fundamental joys, sorrows, fragilities, and strengths, as humans living in a world that is often shaped in ways that most of us have little control over." - Anthony Shenoda, UX Researcher

“I came to UX research from a background in mechanical engineering. It helps me stay nimble in picking up new and unfamiliar domains - my engineering program called this foundational skill "learning how to learn." - Emily Singer, Research Manager

“I come from a brand strategy consulting background where I learned you can't be everything to everyone so it's really important to constantly ask clients who they are trying to serve with a given message (or product) and hone in on that first and foremost.” - Sara Currie, Senior UX Researcher

Differentiating Industry Expertise: 

The differentiators - these are the skills that help researchers stand out by helping them specialize and lead in industry-specific research. In addition to transferable skills, past experiences and backgrounds can help UX researchers specialize in industry-specific research that can set them apart in a competitive space! Our team has backgrounds in a variety of industries from financial services to automotive to advertising that enable them to bring deep expertise and context to our clients’ research questions.

For a long time, I knew that I wanted a career in design research but I felt stuck in advertising roles. Fast forward to today when I am a UX researcher and ad tech specialist at AnswerLab. It was necessary that I shifted my perspective to see my experience in advertising as a strength rather than a weakness in an ever-growing UXR space.

“My background in industrial design, from designing physical products to understanding the phases of the design process, helps me be a more collaborative partner when it comes to prototype creation. I understand what can be done at each phase in the process and how it can be done in the least time-consuming way while still getting the stimuli I need for each research session.” - Sylvia Bargellini,  Senior UX Researcher

“My business background helps me understand the context that our research fits within and how providing insight into specific questions can help our clients and their organizations achieve their business goals.” - Sam Irons, UX Researcher

"I studied coding languages in college which I definitely think helps me understand what's going on when I'm reviewing client products or talking with developers." - Emily Moser, Senior UX Researcher

“I began my career at Bloomberg, where I worked on B2B software for financial professionals in various capacities. Over the course of my time there, I participated in many deep dive trainings on everything from stock trading to the underlying mechanics of financial product derivatives. Before I fully transitioned to UX research, I spoke with Bloomberg’s financial services clients every day and conducted in-depth interviews with executives at some of the largest banks in the world in order to build better products for them. At AnswerLab, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of our financial services clients and apply aspects of what I’d learned. When I join calls with client product teams, and they start getting into the weeds about how their business models affect consumer-facing design decisions, I’m able to fully grasp these concepts and participate without being intimidated.” - Ben Hoopes, Senior UX Researcher

So to answer the question: Can all roads lead to UX research? We say why not! Our team’s diverse backgrounds and range of perspectives help us bring a well-rounded approach to all our studies. And your experiences can too! To quote one of our researchers, Amy Lou Cluff, who came from a background in Film & Media: “Making the leap to UX was a no-brainer for me (the bigger question was what took me so long?!)”

Written by

Sara Awada

Sara Awada, a member of our AnswerLab Alumni, worked with us a UX Researcher during her time at AnswerLab where she leveraged her culturally diverse background to lead international strategic research. Sara comes from a breadth of advertising experience which allows her to partner with ad leaders to deliver insights supporting their product and business goals. She is passionate about helping others identify the hidden thread in their trajectory to inspire them in their path forward. Sara may not work with us any longer, but we'll always consider her an AnswerLabber at heart!

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