"How did I get so lucky to have a day job like this?" ... In her first year as a UX researcher, Janet reflects on challenges, growth, and unlocking the art of balancing business goals with user needs.
I graduated from school in December 2021 and started working full-time in January 2022 as a UX researcher at EchoUser, a San Francisco-based UX consultancy. In the last year, I worked primarily with a client that makes software products and services for the architecture, engineering, construction, manufacturing, and design industries. I also worked part-time as a Qualitative UX Researcher at Code for America, supporting the Cantonese segment of GetCalFresh’s language equity research in H1 2022. (Another blog covering this particular experience coming soon!)
Freshly graduated from school, I had no strong feelings towards any product domain, and that’s precisely why I decided to join EchoUser—I want to gain diverse product experiences to find out what I like and dislike. Signing up for an agency role often means being extremely flexible and adaptive. You would be assigned to any client in any domain, and you got to familiarize yourself with the product space and stakeholders swiftly.
I was embedded into my client’s team briefly after joining EchoUser. I had close to zero knowledge of the architecture, engineering, and construction industries. To get myself up to speed in the first two weeks, I surfed the internet and read industry news, watched product tutorials on YouTube, chatted with architect and engineer friends from school, conducted stakeholder interviews, and dug through internal documents to better understand the products that I was working with. It was challenging but the knowledge surge fed my curiosity well. I love that I was being paid to learn something else from another industry.
In a persona and journey mapping study, I collaborated with another researcher, interviewing 30+ users and identifying their use cases and workflows for two new(er) platforms of our core product. The study had high visibility among the leadership as the outcome would define the platforms’ value propositions and help the wider team better understand our target users. Synthesizing that gigantic amount of qualitative data was no easy job, especially when each user approaches the tool differently. It was through multiple rounds of affinity mapping, pattern-seeking, and trial-and-error that I finally made sense of the data in order to create personas and workflow diagrams. We then validated our personas through quantitative surveys. The study lasted for several months and wrapping it up truly felt like a milestone.
I had heard experienced researchers talking about the gist of UX research lies in balancing user needs and business goals. This advice set me up for success in my first year — understanding the business well not only empowers researchers to identify more relevant product implications and suggestions but also increases research impacts and facilitates your stakeholders to make better decisions.
I’m an introvert and socializing often drains my energy. I have long wondered why I would want to talk to people all the time at my day job. I couldn’t make sense of this paradox until I read a blog my manager Chloe Markley published that discusses the exact same topic. She mentions how having concrete goals, a structured framework, and well-prepared questions empower her to probe into responses and lead conversations with ease. And that is why she, also an introvert herself, enjoys the job.
I absolutely love talking to participants and understanding more about their jobs, lives, the tools they use, and what they think about a user interface. I love uncovering information that will become pieces of a solution. It is really so much fun.
Being a UX researcher grants me a legit reason to talk to strangers and give them a task to work on while I observe them and listen to what they have to say. Liberating myself from “having a stance” in a conversation allows me to focus on the interviewee’s opinions; Holding no judgment empowers me to uncover perspectives and insights that may have otherwise been ignored.
Whenever people ask me about my job and how I’m liking it, I say this, “I got to talk to people from all walks of life around the world, most of them I wouldn’t have met if I weren’t doing this job” — a Louisiana-based engineering professor who treasures 1:1 time with his students, a San Francisco-based Chinese immigrant who lost their job during the pandemic, a Portugal-based architect who tried so hard to express his thoughts in English, a South Africa-based software developer who tutors students for fun — just to name a few. Trying out different research methods is fun, but talking to users remains the favorite part of my job.
However, an introvert is still an introvert. During project weeks, I often find myself laying on the floor, almost dying after an intense day with three or more user interviews, all on top of regular meetings. But when administrative tasks get mundane, or an analysis gets daunting and overwhelming, I find myself continuing to grind away, instead of complaining about it or giving up. The sign is pretty obvious — I couldn’t be happier with where I am at. I’m so lucky to have found a job that I genuinely love.
I used to look for big leaps as indicators of growth, but this year taught me otherwise — It’s in incremental and habitual growth that we truly master certain skills.
I have always been a deadline fighter. In college, I turned in my papers within the last hour before the deadline. I knew myself well enough to first procrastinate, then leave enough time to work on any assignment before deadlines. I never missed a deadline, so that worked really well through school. I thought it’d be the same at work, except that doing things last minute really doesn’t leave room for polish. I know I always deliver quality work, but what if I leave time for feedback and make it top-notch?
Time management was something I actively worked on throughout the year and with my manager’s help, we witnessed some improvement over time. I learned to break the analysis process into smaller tasks so that I don’t get overwhelmed by the sea of data, and I’m still experimenting with different tools and processes that would fit me the best and enable me to work more efficiently.
A few months into the job, I realized I have a talent for facilitation. I’m good at asking questions on the fly and I can easily build rapport with users. But I didn’t know how to dig deeper and not be satisfied with users’ superficial reactions. My manager would attend some of the interviews that I hosted and took notes of when I could probe more and ask more “why.” With time and practice, I got better at probing into responses. I understand now we’re not just trying to understand what users do, but why they do what they do.
Staying with the same client in the past year allowed me to better understand the industry, the business, the products, as well as the team. By connecting and internalizing sporadic information about the company and the products, I learned to ask more technical questions when I talked to users and got deeper insights into product implications.
I also built deep and meaningful relationships with my client’s product team. Getting to know my stakeholders’ work styles and preferences allowed me to communicate my project deliverables and research findings more effectively. With their trust, I became more confident in leading projects and articulating my decisions. And when my research findings are being challenged, I’m now more opinionated and affirmative in explaining my approach and decision-making process.
Moving forward, these are the top things I’d like to work on and bear in mind.
I’ll continue to hone my craft in UX research. This includes increasing rigor in execution, increasing my efficiency in the analysis process, diving deeper into insights, as well as elevating my storytelling in both graphic and spoken presentation.
I challenge myself to do an even better job at client management. From understanding the client’s team dynamics and working style to building trust and communicating effectively, I strive to meet my clients where they are. I set out to thoroughly understand their goals and pain points, align our expectations, and help them solve problems with a pair of fresh lenses.
As I receive projects from different clients, I’ll dive deep into their problem space and domain, think about how different products and strategies intertwine and use my system thinking to consider the implications of the future of work.
And when I’m new to the unknown or when things are beyond my knowledge level, I hope I’ll be even more comfortable with admitting that I don’t know before I seek advice and solutions.
As an ESL (English as Second Language) speaker, I naturally empathize with users who speak slowly and have a hard time expressing themselves in English. Oftentimes, I patiently wait for them to finish speaking, and then ask questions for clarification. My Cantonese and Mandarin language skills also allow me to conduct research with underrepresented populations in the US, like the GetCalFresh language research I did with Code for America.
Having a background in arts marketing and professional writing empowers me to communicate my research findings in an articulated manner. My clean and precise writing leaves little room for confusion. With my business training, I also understand products’ business implications and collaborate with other teams in the organization better. I’ll continue to hone these skills that came naturally to me.
Research eats up a lot of brain cells — Having to frequently communicate with different users and stakeholders as well as conduct analysis to make sense of data is not easy. UX Researchers who are often highly empathetic have a hard time saying no and taking a pause when they experience burn-outs.
I’m learning to be more comfortable with taking breaks. Taking care of my mental health is part of my job because only when I take good care of myself and show up fully would I have the energy and empathy banked in for my users and clients. Working on “life” makes me better at work.
When I was still in school, I had been jumping between different roles and projects, without actually slowing down. During the onboarding of my current job, one piece of advice that was repeatedly given to me by my managers and colleagues was — Take your time to learn. Don’t rush into projects.
While I did hear the advice, I wasn’t 100% convinced at first. I wanted to get the most out of everything and not waste a single opportunity. But three months in, I learned that certain things just take time. Malcolm Gladwell's famous rule says it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to achieve mastery of complex skills and materials. To be so good at something simply requires time and patience.
I also learned to coach myself to be comfortable with not knowing what my UX superpowers are and what kind of researcher I am. It’s about trusting the process and taking things in as they come. At times, this makes me extremely anxious. Other times, it’s weirdly humbling to accept that we don’t always take full control of our journeys. But as long as I keep doing the next right thing, I know I am and will be in a good place.
Looking forward to many more years of being a UX researcher! For fellow UX researchers out there, what was your first year like? What do you wish you knew back then? I’d love to hear about your experience and thoughts.
Published on May 4, 2023