Training apprentices and building teams
Solving problems of my past, present, and future self with one vision
While I have not yet gotten to create the UX research team I envision, I want to tell you about it.
Getting a full-time UX research job for myself took training, of course, but the hardest part was getting experience. At each of my three workplaces—places that hired me as a designer, not a researcher—I needed both luck and persistence to secure opportunities to practice UX research.
In my first job, I didn't get any first hand usability research experience until we teamed up with some Googlers using their 20% time to help our team with a huge project. Later, at other jobs, I had to regularly remind project leads that I wanted to do research work for them.
Years into leading successful research projects, I finally got the job I'd sought because I had a manager, Libby Bawcombe, who believed in me enough to coordinate the organizational maneuvering it took to make it official.
Throughout it all, as I practiced alongside folks with backgrounds and research approaches both similar and different from mine, I noticed two problems in the world of UX research jobs.
First, everyone I've talked with has had trouble getting hired for UX research experience when they don't have any, nearly regardless of their training. My own struggle getting research experience wasn’t an anomaly. I know of so few places that hire entry-level researchers, that I have more than once lamented, "Where do they expect people to get the experience from??"
Second, the more expertise a researcher gains, the less they want to do the high demand research—usability studies, usability studies, usability studies—and the more they want to do the not-yet-well-enough-sought-after research, such as exploratory interview studies. This can mean that the researchers who are lucky enough to have likeminded peers, well, they end up choosing between languishing in repetitive projects or clambering over one another to get exciting projects.
These two problems were shared by my peers and by my past and present selves. Soon, I set theses problems alongside one that I could feel in my future: what should I do next, now that I was confident in my research role and yearning for a new challenge?
A clear vision emerged: build a research team from entry-level apprentices up, and make my workplace into a respected source for skilled researchers.
If I succeeded, our team would establish a rhythm over the years. We would host interns regularly; some of them would be hired; and those who were hired would continue to gain experience as full-time staff. As they gained skill and confidence, I would gently encourage them to find new adventures in all those other workplaces that value research enough to hire people with 2 or 3 or 5 years of experience. And those interns who weren't hired by us would at least be more qualified to get full-time jobs than if we hadn't apprenticed them. Our team would have more novices than experts, and we and our alumni would thrive because of it.
I got to start the process of building this team at NPR. In fall 2019, after I had mentored both full-time staff and interns alike for several years, Libby once again used her organizational powers so I could hire my first UX research intern. And the experience fantastic.
From a group of incredible applicants, we selected one amazing human. Through our hiring process, Libby and I could tell that Eleni Andris had the composite skills to be an excellent UX researcher. She only needed the opportunity to put them together in the right context.
Across three months at NPR, Eleni did just that. I had imagined a progression of projects I might want her to complete to learn the fundamentals of UX research, but I knew we'd have to go with the flow of our teams’ agile work processes. In the end, with her and our colleagues' enthusiastic collaboration, she conducted usability, interview, and contextual inquiry sessions; planned a study with only as much input as I’d give any other colleague; and presented her research findings each time.
After that our first success and returning from parental leave the next year, I got to select my next intern… and then I left NPR the month before his start date.
My experiment is unfinished.
While I don't expect to return to building a UX research team in the near future, I keep thinking about this vision. I know that the apprenticeship model for training UX researchers is both effective and rewarding. And I know that teams do best when we share a growth mindset and the right amount of work to give us each meaning.
I don't know of any place that uses this model yet, but perhaps it will happen someday. If you're excited to participate in something like it, I hope you'll go for it.
And if you do, please report back, so I can celebrate with you.
Mentioned in this issue: Libby Bawcombe and Eleni Andris, to whom I each owe so much. You can read more about the vision for the apprenticeship internships and what Eleni and I did during her internship on Medium.
PS: A quick epilogue: Today, thanks to her hard work, Eleni is now a sought-after, full-time researcher at NPR. I count my time working with her, both as an intern as a staffer, as a highlight of my career. Apprenticeship works!