How I Changed Careers from Journalist to UX Researcher

I became a UX strategist and researcher in my typical klutzy Kristine fashion — purely by accident. Oops.

I discovered the journalist in me at a fairly young age — around 14 or 15. It seemed more interesting to me to tell others’ stories rather than make up my own.

In high school, I had my sights set on becoming a NYC magazine editor.

After college, I parlayed my journalism degree into a pretty awesome job as a writer and editor for Best Buy internal communications. I wrote about the latest cutting-edge technologies, corporate initiatives, and company news as well as managed several newsletters.

But I was 24. I wanted to see if the grass might be greener somewhere else, so I quit and moved to another city 600 miles away. In 2000, I was hired as a web copywriter. (Which still blows my mind. That was the golden age of dial-up, people.)

All writing isn’t the same

Around the second day of my new job, I was given my first writing assignment: an email promotion for women’s clothing. In addition to giving me a list of adjectives to work from, the marketing director described the target audience as “someone in her 40s or 50s, but thinks young.”

Ahh… I knew next to nothing about marketing or advertising. (Except that Gap commercials ruled, of course.) I was a journalist, afterall.

Write a promotional email? I don’t think I had ever EVEN SEEN ONE before. People barely shopped online. HTML email didn’t exist yet.

Apparently my copy was so bad, I wasn’t even asked to write a second draft. Fun fact: copywriting and content writing are 2 entirely different skillsets.

So instead of copywriting, I settled in as a web producer (in today’s vocabulary). I published and managed product copy and images around the clock for 9 different websites.

Then the dot-com bubble happened and 5 of the 9 websites folded.

And then I was fired.

And then I was hired back.

My UX career begins

But this time, I was put in charge of redesigning the still-standing websites. I don’t recall how that came about, but am sure it had something to do with my persistent begging. I just knew the websites were not user-friendly, but all I had was intuition.

Luckily books like “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug and “E-commerce User Experience” by Jakob Nielsen came out around that time. Nielsen quickly became my idol, and I consumed everything he wrote (or anyone he was associated with wrote).

Over the next several years, I learned a ton about building, optimizing, and marketing websites. SEO, paid search, email segmentation, affiliate marketing, predictive analytics, multivariable testing, multi-touch attribution. My 3-person team grew to 25. Online sales grew from $1MM per year to $1MM per day.

During those formative years, I became fascinated with usability testing. I loved talking to customers and watching them use the site. They would become confused in ways I had never imagined. It was exciting to discover problems and then solve them.

When I returned to Minneapolis in 2007, I positioned myself as an information architect. I hadn’t heard the term “UX designer” yet.

I quickly learned the ropes for what it meant to be a UX strategist — interviewing clients and their customers, reviewing competitor and analogous sites, sifting through analytics, and then synthesizing it all into a findings and recommendations deck.

Later, I expanded my research toolkit to include focus groups, ethnography, diary studies, card sorting, and others.

Journalist skills are UX researcher skills

Today, I use the same research, storytelling, and critical thinking skills as I did when I was a journalist / writer — but now, they’re applied to serving the needs of customers, not readers.

Prepping for Interviews

  • Learning about the topic beforehand
  • Identifying research objectives
  • Outlining interview questions
  • Mentally rehearsing questions

Interviewing Skills

  • Focusing on the subject, not me
  • Being empathetic, but objective
  • Asking probing questions

Building Rapport

  • Smiling + making eye contact
  • Nodding + active listening
  • Using an open posture

Interview Structure + Pacing

  • Ordering questions + topics for flow
  • Moving through fact collecting quickly

Note-Taking

  • Typing notes while maintaining eye contact
  • Recording sessions
  • Tracking my sources

Storytelling

  • Pulling out anecdotes + visuals
  • Identifying themes or patterns
  • Identifying most important ideas

Related Articles

10 Hacks for Writing Strong Blog Posts & Web Content
UX Is Everywhere, Even in User Research
6 User Research Questions to Ask & Understand Your Sales Funnel

Author: Kristine Remer

Kristine Remer is an independent UX researcher & strategist in Minneapolis. Connect on Twitter @kristineremer