Career Paths in UXR: Where Do I Go From Here?

Summary: Despite the concern that career progression is limited for UXR professionals, there are countless opportunities to grow in the industry. Here’s what user experience researchers should know about their potential paths toward leadership.

Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

I’m slightly addicted to converting people into becoming user experience researchers. For anyone who absolutely loves researching, being a UXR means getting paid to do what you love. What could be sweeter?

But as our profession continues to grow in numbers, I can’t help but think of what comes next for many of the people I encouraged on this UXR journey? As everyone naturally starts looking to evolve, mature and grow, how will the profession and opportunities do likewise?

I know there has been some concern amongst senior researchers that career paths within UXR have limited potential and room for growth.

To dispel this concern, I gave a talk at the UX Live 2020 conference with a very simple title: Research Can Lead. One of the core points from my talk was that I truly believe that user experience researchers belong in cross-departmental leadership positions. However, having navigated my own career in the UX field, I’ve also learned how difficult it can be to map out your future career progression within an organisation.

UXR is fluid and flexible, there are opportunities everywhere

I would describe my own career in UX and UXR as perhaps more fluid, with bends and curves instead of hard edges. I have stepped out to be an specialist or an entrepreneur, stepped into an organisation as an employee because I loved a product or team, wanted to grow something, or just wanted a change of pace.

I’ve been able to do this because UX and UXR is such a flexible field. It’s one of the reasons I love this profession. You can bend and flex, exit, re-enter, pivot, go up, go down, across. It all depends on where you are and what you want or need.

You can also move across subject matter areas, so your knowledge can be quite broad as well as deep. One project you are working with frontline medical care, another could be children educational toys, and next you are considering the needs of employees across a global system.

There is so much room to be a knowledge specialist within UXR. We have method-based skills and many natural user research leaders emerging who are building impressive qualitative, quantitative and mixed-methods functions that are adding deep value to organisations (just take a look at Spotify).

Not to mention, I’ve long considered UXR itself to have three distinct areas where leaders emerge and manage very different types of user research work: tactical, operational, and strategic.

Diagram by A.M. Lewis

Making an impact involves defining what leadership means to you.

Many grapple with progression in UX; it’s not just researchers. Our colleagues in design and content may find some resonance here. Some of us may already be in leadership roles, you might even be managing others or a large team. However, if our roles remain solely focused on managing other UXR experts or budgets, we’re missing experience that is “pivotal” for leadership growth.

To make a real impact, to evolve as a discipline, we must start elevating UXR toward true leadership — we must think beyond the UXR tribe. We love our craft, so this must be tough to read, but we must move beyond our knowledge comfort zones without fear or hesitation. This is where leadership begins.

If you feel you have plateaued or that your skillset is no longer expanding, all is not lost. Take this time to explore your leadership skills, because it is those skills that might be incredibly valuable elsewhere — in another industry (non-digital) or even other disciplines (so leaving the product and design world).

So my biggest suggestion and recommendation is that you take the time to explore what leadership means to you, and that means doing your research. Hint: leadership is not just management. Second hint: your leadership journey and style will be unique to you, but it’s great to learn from others. Also, start exploring roles outside of UX and User Research. Shocking? Yes. But it’s also necessary. Remember, comfort zones.

Research can lead; we just need the courage to go for it.

For any recruiters reading this: If my advice to promising UXR leaders shocks you, then I must ask, why? UXR leaders are key evidence and knowledge holders in organisations, so an ideal foundation for strategic work.

For senior hiring managers concerned with my suggestions, then I encourage you to consider how powerful leading with empathy has proven to be for organisational success and loyalty. Wouldn’t a UXR be the perfect person to lead your company in thoughtful ways?

Let’s flood the leadership job market with UXR leader CVs and resumes. Let everyone know UXR as a discipline is here to stay and our talent can be helpful, well, everywhere.

To UXR seniors who may be hitting a glass ceiling or feeling stuck in your career, I say start thinking about that pivot. What will be your leadership journey? Start applying to leadership roles, first comfortably in product design but then go boldly into other fields and areas. Don’t be afraid — all your research knowledge is the perfect springboard for strategic and leadership roles.

UX research brain with a user-centred view of digital, design, and product development.