A user experience researcher sitting at a desk, working on a laptop

What Does A UX Researcher Actually Do? The Ultimate Career Guide

Raven L. Veal, PhD

Uncovering user behaviors, needs, and motivations in order to design products and services that provide value is the crux of user experience research. When performed correctly, these methods have a huge impact on business. As such, the role of the user experience (UX) researcher is becoming more prominent, more specialized, and more in-demand.

According to Payscale, the average UX Researcher salary is $82,565 per year with an estimated 10-year job growth of 19%. Within this role, you have the opportunity to make a significant impact—not only on the business, but also on the products and services that people interact with every day.

So how do you become a UX researcher?

In this guide, we’ll take a look at how to navigate a career in UX research. Although there is no singular path, there are four main steps that will move you forward in the right direction: expanding your knowledge of the user research field; obtaining the foundational skills; crafting a portfolio; and building a network of industry peers.

We’ll go through all of these steps in detail, and more! We’ve broken this guide up into the following sections:

  1. What does a user experience researcher do?
  2. What skills are required for a career in UX research?
  3. How to expand your knowledge of the UX research industry
  4. How to obtain the necessary foundational skills
  5. How to craft a convincing portfolio
  6. How to build a solid network of industry peers
  7. Wrap-up

1. What does a user experience researcher do?

The purpose of the UX researcher (also referred to as “user researcher” or “design researcher”) is to unearth human insights in order to guide the application of design.

According to a recent job posting by IBM, as a design researcher, you will “help provide actionable and meaningful data-driven insights that represent the voice of multiple users. You will collaborate across development, design, and marketing teams to evaluate current and upcoming user research needs that help to improve product definition and drive business goals.”

Some typical tasks and responsibilities of the UX researcher include:

Research Planning and Recruitment

  • Develop a well-crafted research plan with clear research objectives.
  • Write usability research screeners and discussion guides.
  • Recruit targeted end-users for specific research studies.

Data Collection 

  • Moderate one-on-one basic usability sessions.
  • Help develop and implement quantitative surveys.
  • Conduct stakeholder and client interviews.

Data Analysis

  • Extract insights about user behaviors from web instrumentation tools.
  • Translate user insights into actionable recommendations for the product team.

Presentation of Insights

  • Craft personas and other “information radiators” (e.g. journey maps) to communicate insights across the design and development teams.
  • Present design research findings to the larger team in a clear and organized fashion.

Strategy

  • Work closely with the product team to identify research objectives.
  • Establish and implement an overall research strategy.

These are just a handful of tasks that belong to UX research. Ultimately, your job as a UX researcher is to build up a picture of your target users based on their needs, wants, motivations, and pain-points. These insights enable the wider design team to create user-friendly products based on real user feedback—not just your assumptions.

As with most UX design roles, the UX researcher means different things to different companies. To learn more about what might be expected of you as a UX researcher, browse various job sites and see how different companies advertise and describe the role. Here are some useful job portals to help you get started:

A UX researcher conducting user interviews

2. What skills are required for a career in UX research?

Now we’re familiar with some of the key tasks and responsibilities, let’s consider what skills are required for a career in UX research.

As such, being a UX researcher typically requires knowledge or experience in a relevant field that studies human behavior, such as cognitive science, behavioral economics, anthropology, sociology, or psychology. Ultimately, it’s important to be adept at reading people and empathizing with the user, and equally at home handling data and analytics.

Ideal candidates are typically “passionate, curious, and self-driven team players” who have experience working in fast-paced environments while applying both generative and evaluative research methods to build a larger understanding of users.

It’s also important to have a solid understanding of the design thinking process, as well as a passion and know-how for influencing design strategy. Obtaining these skills can be done through identifying research opportunities with a current employer, volunteering for a design project with an external organization (e.g. VolunteerMatch), or completing research for a personal project of your own. Overall, practice makes perfect, and refining these skills as often as you can will prepare you for your future role.

3. How to expand your user research knowledge

As already mentioned, there are four key steps to forging a career in UX research:

  1. Expand your user research knowledge.
  2. Obtain the foundational skills.
  3. Craft a portfolio of experience.
  4. Build a network of peers.

Let’s start with that first step: Expanding your knowledge of the UX research field. In addition to browsing job descriptions, there are plenty of things you can do to learn more about the industrybut where to begin?

Start with the basics. What is user experience (UX) design? What is UX research and why is it so important? From there, learn about the difference between qualitative, quantitative, attitudinal, and behavioural research. Next, you can familiarize yourself with some common UX research methods, such as card sorting, usability testing, and user interviews. You’ll find an introduction to some of the most important UX research methods in the video below.


As part of your own research into the UX research field, you’ll also want to consider things such as salary and career options. Sites like Glassdoor and Payscale provide up-to-date salary reports for a range of different locations. If you can, reach out to people who are already donning the UX researcher job title. Do they tend to work remote or in-house? What kinds of companies employ UX researchers? Again, job sites can help you out here if you don’t have any contacts in the industry (yet!).

Before you commit to the UX researcher route, it’s important to learn as much as you can about the industry and what the role entails.

4. How to obtain the foundational skills necessary for a career as a UX researcher

If you’re keen to forge a career in UX research, you’ll need to start learning some of the key skills. As with any profession, it’s important to build a solid foundation of knowledge before jumping into real-world problem solving.

Assuming that you already have some knowledge in a related area (cognitive science, sociology, psychology, etc.), there are plenty of ways to learn the fundamentals of user research. Let’s consider those now.

Books

Online resources

Industry blogs are a great way to start learning the ins and outs of the field. Some useful (and trustworthy!) sources include:

Conferences and meetups

If possible, consider attending a UX research conference or a local meetup. You’ll find a list of the top UX research conferences to attend in 2019 here, and can search for local UX research groups on meetup.com.

In addition to the examples above, finding an apprenticeship or a more senior researcher who is willing to let you shadow their process is a great way to immerse yourself in the context of a UX researcher while learning “on the job.”

A user experience researcher reading a book

5. How to craft a convincing UX research portfolio

As with any design role, a compelling portfolio is key to proving you’ve got the right skills for the job. So how do you go about creating a convincing UX research portfolio?

As you practice refining your skills, keep a record of your work to present to future employers. Crafting an online portfolio is a great supplement to a resume or CV when highlighting case studies that show hiring managers what you can do. According to Senior UX Recruiter Tom Cotterill:

“Your portfolio should show cultural suitability for the company where you are applying. Don’t be afraid to add a touch of character or your own style to your portfolio. It’s your chance to wow the hiring manager and demonstrate that you stand out from the crowd … A good portfolio indicates, in short, that this person has taken time to represent themselves in the best possible light, and they’re clued up enough to showcase their most relevant work in an aesthetic and logical way.”

Ultimately, your portfolio should include the following sections:

  • The problem or design challenge your research aimed to solve.
  • The team you collaborated with.
  • The research process (how did you go about solving the problem?).
  • The tools you used to recruit, collect and analyze data, and present insights.
  • The final outcome and handoffs.

For more insight on how to refine a great UX research portfolio, check out How to Wow Me With Your UX Research Portfolio and How to Create a Powerful Case Study for Your UX Portfolio. Another great resource for inspiration is Bestfolios, the largest curation of best UX research and designer portfolios, resumes, case studies and design resources.

Four aspiring researchers chatting in a circle

6. How to build a network within the UX research industry

You’re in the process of mastering the right skills and crafting your portfolio. Now it’s time to network! Networking is one of the best ways to meet people in the field and potentially land a new job.

Let’s consider some of the best opportunities for making industry connections.

Current Co-Workers

If you are currently employed, look to see if there are any user experience researchers in your organization, and ask them what it’s like! Also request to shadow them during a research session and take notes.

Future Employers

Informational interviews are also a great way to get candid feedback with people working at great companies, such as IBM, Google, or Amazon. Using LinkedIn or Twitter to find and invite UX researchers for coffee is a solid way to get an idea of what it may be like to work for your company of interest, and also how to get in the door.

Online UX Communities

Actively participate in online UX communities (e.g. Facebook groups) relevant to your professional interests and learning goals. Here are a few to start with:

UX Research Organizations

Lastly, join 1-2 user experience research organizations, such as the User Experience Research Professionals Association or the Design Research Society to see if there are any upcoming events you can attend.

7. Final Thoughts

UX is a growing field, and the role of the user experience researcher is becoming more and more pivotal. Equipping yourself with the necessary skills and knowledge while surrounding yourself with peers in the field who you can learn from are essential to becoming a UX researcher yourself. Overall, the value of understanding the needs of the customer cannot be ignored, and user experience researchers will have an increasingly valuable role to play in the future of design.

If you’d like to learn more about UX research, check out the following guides:

What You Should Do Now

  1. If you’d like a step-by-step intro to find out if UX design is right for you - sign up here for our free 7-day UX short course.
  2. If you are interested in becoming a UX Designer check out our UX design course (you'll learn the essential skills employers need).
  3. If you’d like to speak to an expert Career Advisor for free about how you can really get a new job in tech - connect with us here.

If you enjoyed this article then so will your friends, why not share it...

Raven L. Veal, PhD

Raven L. Veal, PhD

Contributer to the CareerFoundry Blog

Raven L. Veal, PhD is a design researcher at IBM Watson Health and a CareerFoundry UX Design Mentor. Her interests and areas of expertise include data-driven design, behavioral science, and digital health.