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There are more jobs than there are user researchers to fill them. This has encouraged people working in academia to switch from their discipline to user research. This includes psychologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, statisticians and social scientists.

But doing research in industry is very different to doing research in a university. Here are some of the issues we've seen people struggle with who are attempting to make the transition.

But first: the culture shock

When you leave an academic environment, you'll bring with you a mental model of the way research is done. Universities are organised around disciplines (such as psychology). Within those disciplines, teams are led by a domain expert (i.e. an academic) who has labs, students and ideas. The main measure of success is publication: the number of papers published, with bonus points if those papers end up in journals with a high impact factor.

We've worked with hundreds of organisations, but not found one organised around the same model. Business has its own silos, but these are mostly structured around business functions, such as sales, marketing and engineering. Teams are much more likely to be cross-functional and focused on a product rather than a discipline. The 'leader' is usually a product owner, usually in the role because of their project management and leadership skills (not because they are an expert in the product domain). The main measure of success is product delivery: in virtually every product team, speed of delivery is prioritised over quality. (It's not that quality isn't important. It's just not as important as speed).

Related to this issue of culture shock is that you are now the expert. You will become the go-to guy for all things user related. In academia, you may have a Nobel prize-winner along the corridor that you can approach for advice. In business, you're expected to be the Nobel prize-winner. Expect a barrage of questions that you either need to answer immediately, do research to answer this week, or deflect.

Product research moves at pace

It's often said that academia is all thought and no action while business is all action and no thought. There's more than a grain of truth in that.

Academia can move at glacial pace compared to the lighting pace of business. We're reminded of an anecdote from a colleague that captures this difference. He had just started his first job in UX having spent the previous seven years in academia researching pretty much the same question.

In the first week of his new UX research role, and having never seen a UX study, he was asked by his boss to write an interview script for a usability test. After a couple of days spent wondering how to get started his boss came by and asked him how long he thought it was going to take. Having no real idea of what was required or of any timescale he smiled weakly and made a hopeful stab in the dark: "About six weeks I should think."

Thankfully his boss, an ex-pat American, simply laughed and assumed this was just a case of the British irony he'd heard so much about. "How about you have it ready by this afternoon?" he said.

In an academic setting, you may spend several months planning an experiment and collecting data and then several more months, even years, analysing the results. In contrast, in business you need to get comfortable with the idea of 'rounds' of research targeted at very specific research questions. These are iterative and often carried out every few weeks.

Product research questions are relatively shallow

The speed with which you are expected to do your research has a predictable impact on its depth. Research questions in business tend to be predictable, formulaic, repetitive and, though important, are seldom as interesting as the research questions in academia. UX questions tend to stay the same; it is the industrial design, the user interface, the product or the service that changes.

As a researcher in business, you'll work with people whose idea of research has been set by popular media. This means research requests will often be conflated with research methodology. For example, you'll often get common requests like: "Do a survey to find out if users like this design more than that one". You'll need to take this demand and re-phrase it into a research question that yields a robust answer. You'll need to push back and point out that it's not what users like but what they do that matters. You'll need to encourage the team to do the right kind of research rather than seat-of-the-pants studies. This means steering your product team away from opinion-based methods like surveys and focus groups and towards behaviour-based methods like field visits and usability tests.

Another trap, especially when the product idea is in its early development phase, is getting drawn too much into the product. In academia, it's always the big question that matters. Even when you're studying the mating display of the Congo Peacock, you always have one eye on the big picture about evolution and game theory. But product teams wear blinkers. Team members have little to no interest in academic developments. Worse, they may not even be aware of a related product being developed by a neighbouring team. This means there's a real risk of carrying out UX research that has already been done, at least to some extent, by people in academia or by people in your organisation.

Part of your job is to encourage the team to see the big picture, the 'meaningful activity' that users engage with when they use the product. One trick we've found that helps is not to talk about your 'research question' (which can sound overly academic) but instead talk about the business problem. When asked about their research question, we've found that teams think we're after the questions they want us to ask research participants. Getting them to articulate the business problem — why the research is being carried out — helps overcome this and achieves the same goal.

Product research is throw-away and transitory

Academic research builds on a body of knowledge and lives on after the study has finished. UX research is typically 'just in time' with findings living as long as it takes to move through a design cycle.

This means you need to become comfortable with carrying out 'just enough' research. It's unlikely your results will have statistical significance so do you have enough confidence to say which way the wind is blowing? It's the nature of academics to hedge their bets and point out that further research is necessary. But in business, you'll need to make that decision before you've had time to collect the data you need.

At times like this, the nature of product development is your friend. Because product teams are now universally agile and iterative, you'll get a chance to test out your decision in the next round of research. All you can do is stack the deck in your favour.

Another risk with the throw-away nature of the research is that business rarely documents research findings in an easily-searchable archive. Don't expect your company's intranet to be like Google Scholar. Most past research lives in the email archive of product team members. You'll discover this research through your social network, not through your computer network.

In business, your insights are more important than your methods

Academic research undergoes rigorous scrutiny. Reports (papers) are rewritten many times in order to undergo peer review, with the main objective being publication. For the academic researcher everything is about publication because publications are the measure of success and progress.

UX reporting is much less formal and may take any form from word-of-mouth sharing over coffee, a 20-minute show-and-tell PowerPoint presentation to your product team, a PowerPoint presentation to some high-ups or, very rarely, a report, usually written in PowerPoint. (Get used to PowerPoint. It's where product teams document everything). The goal is to present your work in the most persuasive way, not necessarily the most scientific or comprehensive way.

As an example, when preparing academic research for presentation at a conference, you'll probably spend most of your time fretting over your methodology. You know this is where your fellow academics will pick holes in your research.

But this is not what product teams want. Instead, they want to know what your research findings mean. Research methodology in business is seldom scrutinised (unless it has an impact on the delivery schedule). Stakeholders just want to know your top handful of insights so they can make decisions and move forward. One person we spoke with while writing this article commented: "Coming from Oxford to a non academic research environment meant that I did not have to maintain the extremely high standards of Oxford. While there, everything had to be 110%, and everything was scrutinised by world leaders. In a more non academic setting, I often find that there is less pressure on me to deliver 110% all the time."

Still interested? Here's what to do next

If you're an academic looking to make the transition to business, and this article hasn't put you off, here's some suggestions for making the leap.

Find a company that could use your specialised technique in user research. Perhaps you've developed a method for analysing sentiment in social media posts. How might you apply this to analysing product feedback, or posts in product forums, or field study transcripts? Perhaps your unique technique, backed up by academic rigor, can give your company a competitive advantage.

Find a company that would benefit from your unique domain knowledge. Perhaps you're an expert on the factors that drive mobile phone adoption in Ethiopia. Where else could you apply that specialised knowledge?

Another asset that you may have is teaching or training experience gained as a lecturer or as a graduate assistant. This makes you well placed to train your colleagues in social science research and could add to your value as an employee.

But be prepared to adapt. Within a few months of taking a job, the firm you work for may get acquired, the person who interviewed you may have left and the direction of the business may have changed (there's nothing a senior manager likes more than a new initiative).

This is important, because the academia—business transition tends to be one-way. Many academics move into the business world, but few people in business move into academia. Whether this is because academics lose touch with their field and its publications or because they lose some of their thoroughness and rigour is an open question. So if you make the leap, keep in close contact with your colleagues in academia, just in case.


Various people on Twitter and LinkedIn provided insights and comments on this article including @colmcq, @DBarrios_RyP, @davidofyork, @SebastiaanPeek, Vaughan Dutton and Steven Wall.


About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher. If you like his articles, you might enjoy his free online user experience course.

Philip Hodgson

Dr. Philip Hodgson (@bpusability on Twitter) has been a UX researcher for over 25 years. His work has influenced design for the US, European and Asian markets, for everything from banking software and medical devices to store displays, packaging and even baby care products. His book, Think Like a UX Researcher, was published in 2019.

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David Travis Dr. David Travis (@userfocus) has been carrying out ethnographic field research and running product usability tests since 1989. He has published three books on user experience including Think Like a UX Researcher.

Phillip Hodgson Dr. Philip Hodgson (@bpusability on Twitter) has been a UX researcher for over 25 years. His work has influenced design for the US, European and Asian markets, for everything from banking software and medical devices to store displays, packaging and even baby care products. His book, Think Like a UX Researcher, was published in 2019.

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