When we begin our careers, we often cannot imagine where the road will lead. For some of us, the path is winding, with each stop along the way providing experiences to help us navigate the next opportunity around the bend.

As we’ve shared before, there is no singular path to product design. Similarly, there is no single path to Design Research. For many on the design research team at Dropbox, their path to research was full of twists and turns, forks and merged lanes.

Most of our team didn’t start their careers in research. But the diversity of their backgrounds have given them rich and unique perspectives that only elevate the design research practice.

The skills that shape an effective Design Researcher may very well be skills you're honing at this moment, though the experiences that may seem unrelated.

Relating past experience

"I was in my thirties before I even realized UX research was a thing. So it's never too late! And I never in a million years thought I'd work at a place like Dropbox." – Marian

Our design researchers have degrees ranging from Religion to Physics, Behavioral Neuroscience to Fine Art, Social Work to Engineering.

Some went on to gain graduate degrees from both the “expected” fields (like HCI and Cultural Anthropology) and the “unexpected” (like Vision Science, Mental Health Counseling, and American Studies).

Meet Teresa, a Design Research Manager on our team. Teresa studied Brain and Cognitive Science and has worked in a variety of jobs. But while her experiences as a Research Technician, Freelance website designer, and stage manager may seem disconnected, Teresa sees the common thread between them. “Cognitive science, user research, and theater and art are all aspects of the same challenge—how do we better understand and interpret how people respond to different experiences? How do we better understand who we are in our own world and how we relate to each other?

Jackie is a Design Researcher who recently joined Dropbox. Her previous experience as an outreach coordinator for NASA and summer camp director helped cultivate her curious nature. As Jackie shares, “I think a skill that I developed early in my career and before I started doing research (even before research in grad school), was seeing problems and situations from multiple, sometimes disparate, perspectives.

The skills in a researcher’s toolbox

In the practice of Design Research, we are detectives, trying to understand the landscape we find ourselves in. On any given day, this means we might be trying to uncover a user’s behaviors and motivations, analyze a product’s performance or define a problem space for our teams.

The skills you need to do this are many and varied. Here are just a few of them:

  • Empathy: The ability to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” is foundational for anyone working in UX. For every user problem you consider, it should be second nature to think about your users’ motivations, previous understanding, and anxieties. What are they trying to do? How will they expect to do it based on their previous experiences? What reassurances might they need to do it confidently using your product?
  • Storytelling: As a researcher, you will find yourself working to translate many people’s individual stories into one story that represents all or at least most of them. Your stakeholders don’t have time to listen to every individual story. Your job is to tell them a story that helps them understand and empathize with the multitude of stories you have heard.
  • Persuasion: There is controversy around whether researchers should try to persuade. Some believe researchers should deliver data dispassionately and not voice opinions. At Dropbox, we believe researchers have unique insight into users, and should actively lobby for solutions. The truth is that even if you believe researchers shouldn't make recommendations, you will still need to be able to persuade your stakeholders that your data is valuable, and help them understand how it should and shouldn’t be used. Writing is a big piece of this. Knowing which data to highlight, and expressing that data accurately, persuasively, briefly, and in language that will resonate with your audiences is crucial to a good research practice.
  • Strategic thinking: As a researcher, you’re uncovering user needs and lobbying for solutions. But what users need is just one dimension of a successful business. The more you’re able to understand the other levers that drive business decisions, and frame your work in that context, the more impact your research will have.

So what about card sorting and surveys and SUS scores? Yes, being well-versed in research methodologies is an important part of being a researcher, and you can learn those things in books, blogs, and boot camps. The highlighted skills above are a few of the skills that you may have picked up working in other disciplines that are applicable to a career in design research.

Preparing to make the leap

So you’ve identified parts of your experience that relate to Design Research. Now what?

Here are a few steps you can take to grow your understanding of the field and prepare you to make the leap into design research.

Connect with community:

Learn the craft:

Eduardo shares, “My time as a recruiting coordinator kind of served as a crash course on Research 101. You learn to empathize so you can communicate with and ask better questions that get to the heart of what you’re trying to learn in a brief screener call. This experience taught me how be self-sufficient and recruit for my own studies.”

Tell your story:

  • Take a look at your own journey and the skills you’ve learned in each experience.
  • Pull out those skills and highlight them at the beginning of each job description on your LinkedIn profile and in your resume.
  • Make it super easy for recruiters to understand how your past experience can apply to research! “My time as a recruiting coordinator kind of served as a crash course on Research 101. You learn to empathize so you can communicate with and ask better questions that get to the heart of what you’re trying to learn in a brief screener call. This experience taught me how be self-sufficient and recruit for my own studies.”

Your journey has just begun

The Design Research team at Dropbox includes a former journalist who honed her love of storytelling, a former research technician who brought empathy with human experiences into each role, and a former camp director who developed a passion for curiosity and problem solving, to name just a few of the diverse experiences.

We believe is made more rich by the varied and unique backgrounds researchers bring to it. We are testaments to this at Dropbox. What might your unique perspective offer to the world of research?

Special thanks to: Eduardo Ramirez, Jackie Wong, Teresa Hernandez, and Andrea Drugay

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