I started my career as a classic UI designer. I quickly transitioned to UX unknowingly out of necessity. When you have to design and build an application, you either figure stuff out or fail. Over time I became a strong interaction designer, and finally, I found my home squarely in the UX researcher role. Many of my UX colleagues followed a similar path, minus that last step. In this post, I’ll explain why I’ve decided to specialize in UX research. The reality is probably not what you would guess.

Stage 1: The change beginsTimeline image detailing Trevor Calabro's UX career

My transition from design to research started in 2010. I was a newly hired UX generalist at a company that primarily made hardcore desktop statistical software used in the manufacturing industry. The product I spent most of my time on was extraordinarily complex and had over 8 million active users. Many of my coworkers where Ph.D. statisticians, so making a compelling argument hinged on my data collection and synthesizing skills. In hindsight, this makes total sense, but at the time, I was often confused about why stakeholders wouldn’t just trust my professional opinion. I found myself wondering why my designs weren’t just adopted right away. I was following all the Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) guidelines. I was using competitor’s and Industry leader’s products as references. I made sure all my patterns were based on the legacy product patterning. What was the problem? Why did I need to “prove” every little design? Over time I got very defensive, but since data was king, I was forced to dive deep with some validation research. That 1st research project in 2010 is when I learned the true definition of design.

Stage 2: Ego check

When I say I got defensive, that’s an understatement. I had over five years of experience designing great interfaces at that time. I had mostly positive feedback, and my employers loved the results. How dare a stat professor tell me that my designs “don’t work.” I kept thinking, back off, man. You stick to the math, and I’ll handle the design. I couldn’t have been more wrong. After a particularly intense meeting with a Ph.D. statistician, I was forced to run a usability test. We had a full-time UX researcher on staff, one I hadn’t work with yet, why doesn’t he just run the test and report the results to the stats geeks? I knew my design was a winner, so since this was just a technicality, I was extremely annoyed. I thought this is NOT why I went to design school. Testing is NOT what I’ve spent the last 5+ years of my life perfecting. This research project was a WASTE OF TIME! Or was it?

Stage 3: The moment of truth

I reluctantly ran the test. Every moment with every participant was eye-opening. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the process. I loved the human connection aspect of testing. I loved the “game” of being approachable yet 100% neutral even more! After the last test, I felt invigorated. I was surprised by this because my design wasn’t testing well at all. Hahahaha. There is a truism in UX research that states users commonly do things that don’t follow the ten usability heuristics. So even if you follow all the “design rules,” your designs may still be unusable. The number of variables, and how they interact, make producing great products almost impossible without testing. I learned this lesson the hard way. I followed the rules to a T and created a bad design. All the untested praise I had received over the past 5+ years was unearned. I didn’t see this new information as a bummer. Instead, I became energized. Observing real users is the only way to do good work. That’s how I got hooked on UX research.

Stage 4: The transition to research 

I was still a designer by profession, but with the research epiphany, my day-to-day activities transformed. After a few months, I was doing more research and far fewer design iterations. The more research activities I did, the less design churn occurred. I got it to the point where those Ph.D. statisticians were instantly approving my initial designs. Showing the data while pitching the design, made everything better, more comfortable, and quicker. My design expertise was finally accepted. I had finally earned the credibility I craved. The respect I fought for earlier came without effort on my part. “Proving” my work’s quality through data was the game changer for me. And for the first time, I could cite myself as a user-centered designer.

Stage 5: Full-time UX researcher at last 

It wasn’t long before coworkers stopped needing my help creating designs. I became a new UX resource on projects assigned to planning and conducting research with my other team members. I evolved into a pure researcher. Even though my 1st love was UI design, my true calling was interactive with users. I was always a “people person” that was good at design, but it took my entire career to realize human interaction came first in my default skillsets. UX research feels more natural to me. It just fits.

How did you evolve into your current job? Is your story similar to my story? Is it the total opposite? Share on social with #CalabroUX to start a dialog about the weird world of UX careers.