How I Found My Way to Design Research

I have talked to 40+ design/UX researchers from around the world since the beginning of this year. I found out they came from all walks of life—I’ve met teachers, marketers, journalists, just to name a few. It was inspiring and encouraging to get to know how everyone came into the field with their unique path.

As I took a leap of faith to step into design/UX research, I figured it might be fun to record my journey and hopefully encourage those who are on the edge of transitioning their career to embrace this messy but beautiful voyage of discovery. Ready for a ride? Hop on!

My Background in a Nutshell

I started playing piano and pipa (a Chinese lute) since I was five. I grew up singing in choirs and playing in orchestras. So going to college and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in music was a no-brainer to me.

During college, I was heavily involved in a global youth leadership organization called AIESEC. I learned a lot about global social issues, built a wide range of organizational management skills, and met like-minded young people from around the world.

A snapshot of my musical upbringing and how I embarked on a global journey to discover my career interest. Illustrations by Tosha Bapat.

While I realized I have a brain for business, my heart stays with the arts; I wanted to use my business knowledge to support artists behind the scene as they focus on honing their crafts and shine on stage.

I decided to pursue a master’s in arts administration and worked at one of the major orchestras in the US as a marketing intern for two years. A lot of conversations were about audience engagement — how we could curate a fruitful and seamless experience for our patrons, both in-person and online.

The Turning Point

During my second year of grad school, the orchestra I interned with assigned me projects that gave me a sneak peek into the user experience (UX) world. I analyzed email analytics and tried out A/B testing for its newsletter; During the website redesign process, I gave feedback on its information architecture and assisted with quality assurance.

I discovered my passion for UX through non-profit arts marketing and slowly figured out my expertise within UX through further education. Illustrations by Tosha Bapat.

On the side, a friend invited me to build from scratch an event search and memory log mobile app for the performing arts. I taught myself all about UX, got so fascinated, and never looked back.

I then extended my master’s studies into professional writing and data analytics and started to figure out what exactly do I want to do within the UX field. In the first semester, a course assignment required me to write a profile for an English alumnus. At the end of this profile interview, the conversation drifted to my career aspiration and he recommended I check out Live Well Collaborative, a design and innovation consultancy that his workplace partners with.

In Summer 2020, I reached out to the executive director at Live Well and showed my interest in design thinking and getting involved in projects. (I’m so glad that I sent that cold email.) They took me in as a technical writer to document the team process and let me see how I like it.

The Validation Stage

In the last twelve months, I went from testing the water temperature in the ocean to confidently swimming in it: from exploring the field to knowing what I’m good at and what I’m seeking.

The two semesters I spent at Live Well Collaborative confirmed my interest in design/UX research. I was assigned to large studios with two Fortune 100 consumer goods and travel companies. I started out as a technical writer observing the team, giving suggestions to our leadership team, and then slowly getting more involved as a researcher in the design process.

I took a deep dive into design research, worked with multidisciplinary teams at Live Well Collaborative, and put my skills to good use in the civic tech space. Illustrations by Tosha Bapat.

In spring, along with 30 other junior researchers, I joined the Lookback Jr. Researcher Fellowship. I got the chance to speak with industry leaders and started thinking about my unique positioning as a researcher. I learned a lot from the fellowship and was happy to have found a group of peers that speaks the same language and shares similar concerns as we navigate into our career as UX researchers.

This summer, I joined the internship program hosted by Coding it Forward and was assigned to serve as a design researcher at Austin Transportation Data & Technology Services. I was first anxious about going into the convoluted government space, but I was once again reminded of what I truly love doing and what I’m good at.

I love talking to stakeholders and understanding their pain points and needs. I enjoy dropping my assumptions, being the listener, and providing a safe space in which stakeholders can share their thoughts without hesitation. My supervisors also told me I have this natural instinct of asking good, undrafted follow-up questions.

Moving Forward

Not only did my previous experiences enrich my design and research skills they also helped me realize what I am looking for specifically in future opportunities. This is what I’m envisioning:

  • Finding challenging projects that make my heart race — They usually scare me a little but also excite me a lot. They keep me humbled and push me to keep learning and growing.
  • Joining a multidisciplinary team with individuals from diverse backgrounds
  • Receiving professional guidance and mentorship from seniors and that the organization values research
  • Upleveling my skills in design research and strategy in order to pave my path towards design or innovation strategy
  • Contributing my nonprofit arts management skills as a volunteer during my spare time

How You Can Get Started

For those of you who are intrigued to make a career move into UX research, read on. While there are tons of resources for career switchers out there, I’m going to highlight three things that worked best for me.

  1. Talk to researchers in the industry
    This is the easiest and fastest way to find out whether you are a good fit or not. Learn about the day-to-day responsibilities, get to know the industry reality, and ask for learning and networking resources. UX Coffee Hours is a good place to start with—You get to schedule free chats with industry practitioners.
  2. Work on pro-bono projects
    We learn and grow the fastest when we actually do the work. Start to build out your portfolio by doing projects that you’re interested in. UX Rescue connects design practitioners from around the world to help organizations in need. Most hackathons (e.g. Adobe Creative Jams) are free to join as well.
  3. Keep learning through professional sources
    Always refer to trustworthy resources as you expand your research skills and try out new research methods. It’s also important to keep informed about industry practices and issues. Check out Nielsen Norman Group, Learners, People Nerds by dscout, and Method in Madness by Dovetail.

The design/UX research field has become a lot more competitive in the last few years, so most early-career researchers struggle to get their foot in the door. However, do not let that discourage you from pursuing a career that you love. It may take some time, but it will be so worth it.

I hope you find this article helpful! Drop a comment below if you have any questions or thoughts. I’d love to hear from you!

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Janet Chu

Janet Chu

Design Researcher + Storyteller who stands for the arts and environmental sustainability. Check out janetchuhl.com/