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To Be Good at UX, Study More Than UX

Updated: May 5

After a decade in User Experience (UX), I’ve made a list of things I would tell my college-age self. They were an English major, hoping to one day write a decent novel, and they never would have dreamed we’d end up working in tech. And while they did a lot of things intuitively that gave us the skills and insights we’d need to be good at user experience, there were a lot of things they couldn’t have known.

This list is for College Jess, but also for current students, folks looking to pivot to UX, UX folks looking to deepen their expertise, and for anyone who wants to center people more firmly in their work.

A scientist looks down at the camera through safety glasses and a PPE mask. Their gloved hands are holding a slide of little test cells between them and the camera. Some of the cells are electric blue.

UX is a scientific process.

While it is the study of human experiences, and it draws heavily on empathy, UX in practice is also these three things:

  1. Observation We need to be really sharp at seeing. Facial expressions, body language, patterns, behaviors… keen observations of both the facts of an experience and the human story of that experience. We also need to be able to articulate the problem, and be certain we are articulating the real problem. Quantitative data can point us in the right direction, but that observational, qualitative research helps us get to what’s really going on. As Malcolm Gladwell so aptly points out, people often tell us one thing but then do another thing entirely. We learn to listen, but more importantly to watch.

  2. Investigation We also need to know how to ask questions and hunt for answers. Diverse research methods, active listening skills, a stockpile of resources, and peers we can compare findings with or bounce ideas off of are vital to this work. Growing the list of tools we have in our research bag and honing our sense for how and when to use those tools takes time and practice, but is incredibly valuable. (We can also practice these tools on non-UX queries to flex those muscles more.)

  3. Experimentation We need the creative space and freedom to imagine new solutions, imagine a user’s needs; but we need the scientific rigor to be able to test those solutions accurately, to variation test until we find the winning combination, the solution that solves for the most people. We need the insight to realize when we’ve taken a wrong turn and the courage to pivot back into alignment.

If we agree that UX is a science, a basic statistics course becomes invaluable. There’s more data in usability testing and research than one would often expect, and it’s easy to misrepresent data if we don’t have much practice with it. Also, when a client asks if we should test to statistical significance, we need to know what that means and how to answer appropriately. Some basic science courses wouldn’t hurt either — understanding the scientific method and how to execute complex testing scenarios and report accurately on our findings goes a long way in UX.

Close photo of a small child. Their eyes are open wide, and their mouth is open like they are laughing or about to talk.

UX is a psychological obstacle course.

Not only are we regularly talking to people — already pretty emotional and idiosyncratic themselves — but we’re humans too. And we just as regularly need to observe our own inclinations and tendencies so that our inner lives don’t interfere with the work. It’s hard to listen to a test participant worry about a problem in their life and not give them advice. It’s hard to catch that voice in our heads that offers a snap judgement about someone and instead hold an open space to listen, be curious, and hear their story. It’s hard to look at an experiment that failed and wade through our own feelings fast enough to find the learning, to move to the next step.

The core of UX is solving problems. But this often involves asking people to recount the pain or frustration they experienced in the process. In some cases, where UX intersects with highly personal encounters or sensitive environments, asking a person to walk us through what happened can re-traumatize them and it can trigger us. In most societies, dealing with other people’s pain is not taught or modeled well; this aspect of UX can feel particularly perilous. How do we decide when to be a rigorous researcher and when to break the structures of a test to offer compassion to a fellow human?

Having some personal experience with therapy is immeasurably valuable — a therapist can model for us how to ask open-ended questions, how to let the silence ride, how to listen and reflect so that we’re hearing accurately. To be honest, we could have learned to meditate sooner, too. The ability to notice a reaction or response happening inside us, to choose a deep breath and a pause, and to recenter on the problem in front of us before responding is absolutely priceless.

Barring therapy and a mastery of zen meditation, a couple exploratory courses in psychology that go beyond the requisite 101 might add value to the human aspect of UX. We need to use that primary skill of observation in pattern recognition — noticing someone’s behavior and having language around the underlying psychological mechanisms we may be witnessing.

Photo of a row of people in business casual clothes with notebooks open in their laps.

UX is public relations.

We see lots of technical articles on how to conduct an interview or how to execute the perfect survey or how to test design iterations with actual users. But that lens, focused tightly on the end user, crops out the larger landscape: UX is a cog in a machine full of people.

User experience takes direction from business leaders, strategy heads, and user research. UX builds solutions in collaboration with design, development, and specialized teams. UX reports results and findings to C-level teams, heads of departments, and clients. And they work closely with project managers, vendors, third-party research companies, and the list goes on.

We need honed communications skills to frame problems accurately, convey research insights, guide user research, sell solutions both internally and externally, and report back on our successes or learnings. We need storytelling skills to build empathy and alignment across a company and keep the focus on our users. We need a content strategy mindset to frame our messages for the audiences we want to receive them, whether that’s design and dev learning about customer journeys, the CEO and CFO approving a new strategic direction, or app users seeing a new feature rollout.

A communications course, a couple writing courses, and maybe even a rhetoric course could set us up to be comfortable with language and sharing ideas in addition to reporting on data. Other ways to gain this experience could include presenting at a local PechaKucha or similar open-mic event; writing articles and thought pieces and welcoming critique; or taking speech and debate classes.

Picture of a crowd of diverse people in casual clothes raising their hands and cheering or yelling at a focus point behind the camera.

UX is humans, at their best and worst.

One of the most immersive ways of deepening our UX expertise is by being around people and employing those first three steps: observation, interrogation, experimentation. Working retail (specifically customer service) and serving in restaurants are some of the quickest ways to see how we humans operate in our most honest moments. When we take the time to watch a person’s choices, ask about their intentions or goals, and then experiment with our own behavior in response to them, we can learn volumes about human fundamentals.

For those of us with full time jobs, volunteer opportunities can support this continuing human education: work with kids (they’re new here and think very differently). Work with the elderly. Work with refugees or non-native English speakers in ESL classes. Work with special groups like Deaf parents, wheelchair athletes, after-school programs. The key is: to understand people, we have to immerse ourselves in them — their day-to-day lives, their experiences and perspectives, their goals and needs, their rich emotional lives.


Becoming an adept user experience researcher, designer, or strategist is a process, like everything else in our lives. And since learning exists on a spectrum, too, there is plenty of room to add more inputs or try new areas of interest. But the best thing about user experience is the ubiquity of us humans — go where the people are. Observe, investigate, experiment. Feel, empathize, create.

This post was first published on Struck's Medium account.

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