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

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UX Is Everywhere, Even in User Research
6 User Research Questions to Ask & Understand Your Sales Funnel

Author: Kristine Remer

June UX is led by Kristine Remer, a CX / UX research and strategy consultant in Minneapolis. She helps companies drive significant business outcomes by finding and solving customer problems. When she's not creating customer journey maps and user personas, Kristine is either kayaking or watching her kids play soccer.