Moving into UX

I have an anthropology degree, and I believe that working in User Experience (UX) research is one of the most meaningful applications of that training. I started my journey into UX a few years ago when living in Washington, DC. Exposure to the many and far-reaching issues that our government deals with everyday made me realize that I needed a career that had more impact. There’s a lot of good work to be done in the world. I trained in anthropology because I want to conduct research that is accessible, actionable, and immediately beneficial to a large number of people. Working as a user researcher at Ad Hoc has helped the government build the services that millions of people rely on.

People from our research team collaborating during a whiteboard session.

Until very recently, UX wasn’t a major in college, and programs teaching human-centered design and research are still relatively rare. Most UX professionals enter the field from tangentially related careers, making either an intentional or accidental shift into user research or design. It has become common to get post-educational training through bootcamps or micro-degree programs, which provide a crash course of research and design fundamentals to those preparing for a career change into UX. For the majority of new UX professionals however, they have to learn how to leverage their non-UX experiences and training to get hired into their research or design role.

I know and work with folks who have entered UX from a variety of paths. Some come from product or project management, marketing, or business analytics. Others have more traditional backgrounds in fine arts or graphic design. My research team holds degrees in history, anthropology, and internet studies. I know two people who have entered UX design from a background in architecture. Each of these fields has something unique to offer UX. The social sciences like psychology, sociology, and anthropology, with their focus on human motivations and the underlying mechanisms that drive society, provide a solid background for UX researchers. Computer sciences offer an understanding of information architecture and programming, which helps to speed up design production and aids translation between dev and design teams. It’s no coincidence that most designers have at least a basic understanding of common programming languages.

Why UX

Regardless of where people entered UX, the why is almost always the same. User research is regularly listed in the top 100 jobs of the year. It made number 39 last year. UX has a high median and starting salary with large growth potential. While most positions, especially those in tech-focused cities and hot job markets require graduate level training, entry-level positions are open to those at the bachelor’s level. But those reasons aside, all the people I know in UX choose the field because of the direct impact they could have on the products and services that people need and want.

Given my background, a shift into UX was not a large, illogical jump. Indeed, the day in the life of a user researcher is not drastically different from that of an anthropologist in the field. In fact, a user researcher is more regularly in ‘research mode’ compared to academics who rely on grant funding and might only get to conduct field studies during the summer. This is a crucial difference, particularly if you want to make a large impact with your research as I do.

The typical user research project involves building relationships with both users and stakeholders, designing research methods using best practices, distilling  research into actionable insights, and continuing to research a product or service after those insights are instituted. Clearly, the work of a user researcher is not different in terms of the impact it can have on the community it serves, and functions nearly identically to that of any practicing anthropologist working in the public or private sector. The only difference is some user researchers work in tech, rather than academia. Ethnographic methods, contextual observations, structured and informal interviews, and focus groups are all as applicable to user researchers as they are to anthropologists.

Now that we’ve established why UX is an awesome career, I’d like to talk about how to make the transition into UX. If you’re already in the field, perhaps I can give you some ideas of how to speak about what that transition into UX looks like with your advisees or mentees.

Transitioning into UX

As I became interested in moving into UX, I approached the process like an anthropologist. Essentially, I leveraged what I already knew how to do: ethnographic research. I spoke to a lot of people who are user researchers. Emailing and seeking out introductions from mutual connections became my way of life for three months. Through these conversations, informational interviews, and connections, I came to understand the field - what the current trends are, how I could best position my skills to align with future trends, and what I could expect in interviews as well in career trajectories. I read a lot of books, articles, blogs. I wanted to know how people in the field talk about their work, and I wanted to know how the research cycle in UX, especially in an agile process, differed from anthropological research. I taught myself how to code, because I wanted as a UX researcher to be as much a jack of all trades as I had been as an anthropologist. If anthropology teaches you anything, it’s how to know as much as possible about as many things as possible. I built a brand and a portfolio website, as much for the learning process as for the exposure. I joined meetup groups and UX bootcamps to craft projects that I was proud to display in my portfolio. And I applied what I was learning to my day job, creating an ad hoc UX position for myself at my 9-5.

Once I felt comfortable in my understanding of the field and what it involved, I started the “participation observation” portion of my research. I started applying for jobs. I interviewed with a number of places and learned a great deal about different UX sectors and what I wanted out of my next position.

It was a long process, as it is anytime that you’re making a career pivot or moving into a new sector. But it was worthwhile. I have a position now where I work with the federal government to help hospitals improve their quality of care. The research that I design and conduct on a typical day has to potential to affect millions of people, and ease the burden of an already overburdened healthcare system. That’s amazing and impactful, and that impact is why I think UX is such an attractive and interesting field to work in.

Pay it forward

Part of the process of moving into UX is relying on mentors and other resources. Now that I’m in the field, I’m active in paying it forward and sharing my experiences with others. Aside from speaking at conferences and producing articles, I regularly offer advice and share my experiences with people who are moving into UX design and research. This year I’ll be guest speaking in an anthropology class for a professor who believes that the best way to prepare students for the current job market is to offer a wide range of career options and advice. I’m excited for each person who sends me an unsolicited LinkedIn message (you can friend me on LinkedIn here) or email (you can email me here), because I have been on the other side of that equation, and appreciate how challenging and wild it feels to embark on a journey into UX, and how rewarding it is once you have made the transition. The advice I offer to those that ask: figure out how to leverage what already know, and learn how to frame your background and experiences in a way that lets you stand out. Remember that the point of UX is to advocate for your user, and in order to do that, we need the field to represent our user populations as best as it can. Having UX designers and researchers from all walks of life and a variety of experiences helps us better understand and design for our users’ needs.