Interviewing for User Research Positions / by Gavin Lau

I originally published a version of this on my blog, which I’m embarrassed by now because it is old and janky looking. Medium looks so much better! I’ve gotten feedback that this post was really helpful to a lot of people, so I decided to give it an update and post it again here. When I wrote the original post, I was new to UX Research and was actively trying to break into the field. Since then I’ve been on more interviews, both as the interviewer and interviewee. I hope that this post will help you prepare and know what to expect at your next User Research interview!


Typical Interview Process

Screener Call

These calls involved me explaining my research background and I talked about why I was interested in the company. It’s definitely good to ask questions during this phase. Not all of these “screener calls” were with the recruiter. Some were with a team member or the hiring manager.

A note on recruiters — some are knowledgeable about the position they are hiring for, and some are not. It can at times seem like they are speaking another language and you are not talking about the same job. Don’t be discouraged — press on and talk about how your experience is applicable!

This hasn’t happened to me yet (I don’t know why!) but I know several companies have you do a short homework assignment before coming in.

On-Site Interviews

These can be anywhere from two hours to all day!

A few companies had me present a portfolio review to several team members before going into smaller group interviews.

A consultancy I interviewed at had me come in for an all-day final round interview. I did a mock usability test, analyzed my results, created a PPT presentation, and presented to a group of people. This one was exhausting!

For most of these interviews, the last person I met with would be the recruiter or the HR director. This is the time when they would ask me how I was feeling about the company, if I had any concerns, and they asked me what my salary requirement was. I usually mentioned that I was interviewing with several companies. This put a fire under them to get back to me quickly!


Questions they ask

Why are you interested in X company? I’ve been in interviews where I didn’t have a great answer for this, which was a warning sign that I was not really excited about that company.

Tell us about a time when something wasn’t going right at a project and you had to be flexible. I personally am not good at remembering examples of situations like this, although I know I’ve constantly had to pivot and be flexible in research projects. I don’t always pick the *best* example, but instead the most recent.

If we had X question that we wanted to answer, how would you go about researching it? If there’s not enough information, make sure to say “I’d want to get more information first, so I would meet with X to try and define the research question more specifically.” Always talk about how you would include stakeholders.

What if you had less time? This is your chance to show how you would be scrappy and creative to solve the problem!

How do you keep up on the latest trends in the field? Talk about books/blogs you read, influential people you follow on twitter, and events you attend.

What tools do you use? Lately I talk a lot about using ! It’s awesome! It’s also good to talk about tools and skills you want to learn more about. For instance, I still want to learn more about creating personas.


Questions you should ask

What are the challenges that this position faces? You want to find out the real dirt about what is good and bad about the company. You can also ask “tell me one thing you like about your job and one thing you would like to change.”

Is the company bought in on research? It’s a good idea to find out if half your job will be convincing stakeholders about the value of research. If the interviewers are asking you what the ROI (return on investment) of research is, then they might not see the benefits of research yet. They should know that research leads to better products and better products lead to more profits.

Where do research requests come from? Try to gauge the politics involved in getting research done. Are they bottom up or top down?

Can you tell me a little bit about the culture? This might also be a good time to find out if the company cares about diversity.

Do people have work/life balance? You probably want to know how flexible your schedule will be.

Basically, just make sure you have a lot of thoughtful questions to ask! Think about what is important to you and make sure you ask those questions. Like I said before, you are interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you.


Hot tips

Use the Product

You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve interviewed who have never tried out the product! It stands out and makes them seem less interested in the company. Make sure you familiarize yourself with the product and maybe even do some quick research of it beforehand with friends/family.

Interview the Company

Don’t forget that you are interviewing the company as well! Some of the companies I interviewed at were highly organized and gave me a detailed schedule of who I would be meeting with and when. Many made sure that I was “checked on” and that my interviews were not running long. You could tell that my time was valued and respected. One company I interviewed at, however, despite getting a detailed schedule, I was left in a conference room for 40 minutes and not checked on. I had to go to the front desk (on another floor) to ask the receptionist what was happening. Then I was interviewed in a conference room and we went 30 minutes past the scheduled end time. At no point was I asked if I needed to be somewhere else or if I was okay on time. SAD FACE.

Tailor Your Cover Letter

For each job I applied to, I tailored my cover letter extensively. This is more simple to do than it sounds — read the job posting and try to speak to it specifically. Think of examples of how you’ve demonstrated whatever the posting has asked for. Get a real sense of what it seems is important to the company and emphasize those things. One of the job postings I read said that people who work at that company are a little bit weird. I literally added in this sentence: “I would love to sit down and discuss the details of my diverse research history and also measure exactly how weird I am.”


I had more advice on this before, but I now think this doesn’t matter much. On my last interview, I wore black jeans and a black sweater over a collared shirt. I threw on some silver oxfords because all black seemed really boring. This was at a startup where I knew that everyone interviewing me would be in jeans. Know your audience though. At a research consulting company, I dressed up a bit more because they were client-facing and they seemed to dress up at work.


Say Thank You

I think this is just a nice touch. After each round of interviews, I sent thank you e-mails to the people I met with. I asked the recruiter for their e-mail addresses, or asked that the recruiter forward on my messages to the team.