Common avoidable mistakes made when applying for UX Research roles and how to overcome them
Steps to improve your chance to get a UXR role
I’ve reviewed and interviewed hundreds of applications for various UX research roles. I've also coached some people on landing their next UX Research role. I will cover every phase of applying for a user research role. The suggestions are drawn from my own experience and what I have seen work. There’s in-depth coverage of the presentation and exercise portion of the application process. If you want more details about resumes and portfolio, I wrote about them previously.
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📃 Cover letter
I don’t spend much time looking at this as a hiring manager in reviewing applications. The recruiter I am working with will have a quick glance. If you were investing time somewhere, put it into the other parts of your application rather than the cover letter. Often this step is outdated.
Too long, length issue - if you must include one often I find that they are too long. Keep it to a few paragraphs.
Wrong company - I have seen this a few times, review your cover letter. Ask someone else to check it if you’re not 100% confident.
Too long - keep it to a couple of pages otherwise you’re going to lose the reviewer’s attention. Especially if you wrote a long cover letter.
Highlight methods but no impact - use your portfolio to share the methods on the projects.
This is worth reading and has more details about resumes.
Not having one ready before applying or for a role. It’s good to work on one and maintain it consistently. You'll be able to include details that you could forget in time. If anything, it's a good way to capture your work for your own reflection. Many research roles these days require some form of examples of work. For example - case studies, volunteer work, or past projects. Having one ready to go and maintained will save any last-minute scrambling for a good role that comes up. The format doesn’t matter too much -pdf, slide deck or website all work. It doesn’t have to be shared online publicly and can either be password protected or a document sent on request.
Not sharing timelines - it is always helpful to understand how long a project took. It gives the hiring manager a sense of what is your capacity and capability.
Have a summary - ensure your portfolio is scannable and has a summary and an appropriate length.
This is worth reading and has more details about portfolios.
Have some commonly asked questions answered in slides. By having slides in your back pocket that you can pull or show demonstrates preparedness. You won't have to worry about being poorly prepared.
Picking work that highlights your range. Have a good mix of complex or strategic projects and one that was challenging. Choose another project that shows other approaches or methods. Include one project that is tactical and evaluative. This will really highlight your skillset. It also depends on the seniority of the job. The more senior, the more strategic projects are expected. A common mistake researchers make is showing multiple projects which are similar. The second project doesn’t give anything new. If you’re presenting this you’re going to lose the attention of the reviewers. Having something more tactical in your back pocket is also good. It shows your range and your ability to take on whatever projects the hiring manager has in mind.
Going into too much detail about the findings. If your interviewer is only interested in your findings and they are a competitor that is highly questionable. They aren't your project stakeholder group waiting for a debrief. Interviewers will want to draw a parallel between how you worked at your previous organisation to how you might work with them. They want to know about the method, timing, communication, collaboration and business context.
Presenting work that isn’t yours. I have interviewed two researchers for the same role. They probably didn’t know that each other was going for the role but they both presented the same work as theirs. It makes it difficult to find out who did what and at least one person is doing something ethically wrong. If you didn’t own the project don’t present it as yours alone. Or state clearly what your position on the project is so that an objective assessor can understand without a doubt.
Not being clear on who does what - similar to the point above, be absolutely crystal clear about your role in the work. It makes it easier for people to assess you and ask relevant questions. A lot of people use the word “we” when talking about the project, but it’s important to be consistent. Did you do that part of the work?
Choosing recent work. It’s hard to assess what a researcher has done if they share work from a while back. It also makes reviewers wonder why no recent work is shared. Understandably there could be NDA issues. Pick something either post-launch or take out every piece of sensitive information.
Managing your time well - allow time for your and your interviewers' questions. Often this is a really rookie mistake. The presenter doesn’t know how long their presentation will take and keep on top of the time. It means other projects either get rushed or skipped. Things that you might want to highlight may get missed. Make sure you cover your key talking points early.
Briefing your audience - set up what you are going to present and mention the structure of your presentation. Let the audience know whether you want questions during or after your presentation. This relates to managing your time well as well you will know how and when you need to wrap up.
Know what you are presenting and practice it. It’s obvious to the reviewers if you don’t know your material. Especially if you don't have a good sense of timing and how much left you have in your presentation. The more you are familiar with it, the easier it is to jump around in response to questions or adjust if you’re running out of time.
Develop a speaking style that is memorable and interesting. Half the presentation is what you present and the other half is how you present it. I've seen someone's presentation where the person was full of promise based on their portfolio we reviewed in advance. Their presentation was abysmal and everyone left with a clear "no hire". Unfortunately how they talked about their work far clouded their good work. They were uninspired, with long drawn-out details in projects where the reviewers became lost. I tried to see the redeeming points of this person, but they had lost most of their audience and vote of confidence.
Have a list of questions you want to ask prepared. This is something basic you should have ready for every stage. It’s a good opportunity for you as a job seeker to assess if the company is the right fit for you. Think about what would help you decide if this role is for you and ask those questions. If you are being interviewed by potential stakeholders figure out what these people would be like to work with.
Test your internet, lighting, and clear your browser/desktop for sharing. Set up all your spaces to share your screen and present. Give yourself the best chance possible. The person who didn’t present well from the previous point also had terrible internet. There were many times we couldn’t hear them, it was hard to tell if it was their microphone or the internet. We even messaged them multiple times and they just kept presenting without making any adjustments. Obviously, they didn’t engage or read off their audience. If you’re presenting have the file ready and have a browser without tabs and bookmarks so it’s not distracting.
✏️ Research exercise
Manage your time carefully - similar to the point above.
Understand the goal/objective - your reviewers want to know how you’re going to plan and scope out a project. The exercise will see if you’re able to do what you have shared in your portfolio. It will assess your critical thinking around what method to use for the question/challenge. Choose the appropriate method and approach and show your process as a researcher. Don’t forget to include things like business data and desktop research as part of the process.
Understand the question or scenario clearly before starting. Read the question or scenario multiple times. Make sure you understand the problem space or what is being asked. If not, ask or do the following step.
Call out assumptions somewhere. If you are unsure, capture and call out all the assumptions you have made. You could also state what would you do if there were extra timeline, resources, availability, recruitment, etc needed.
Highlight what would you do if you would have more time - both in the session and in the project. Talk about other methods you would include if the timeline is more flexible.
Present it well. Related to the above point about speaking style. Share how you approach the exercise in a compelling way with conviction. Be open to feedback but also sell the approach you have taken. Be open to dialogue, discussion and critique of your work. This will also demonstrate how open you are and will take feedback.
📧 Follow up
Surprisingly very few people follow up. If you were not a good match for a role it wouldn’t suddenly make you the best candidate. It might give you a slight edge if you’re in the top two. You never really know which extra effort takes you the furthest.
Ask for feedback. It’s a great thing to help you learn for your own role or future applications. Each job application is a good learning opportunity.
Connect to the hiring managers and interviewers. Add them on LinkedIn or follow them on Twitter. You never know where connections take you in the future. If it doesn’t work out this time, by connecting with the interviewers it might be easier for them to reach out to you for other roles. I’ve done this a few times and ended up hiring someone on my team this way. The role they interviewed for was put on hold, but as soon as it was open again I could invite them back.
Hopefully, these tips will help you land your next role. It helps to do a lot of this in practice, maintenance and preparation. There are people in your network who would be glad to help or you can extend your network and ask other community members for help.
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