When I did my masters in Sociology in Copenhagen, I wasn’t aware of anything called UX (User Experience). My fellow students and I were occupied with understanding human behaviour through researching people, society and culture. We observed bartenders to understand emotional labour, conducted surveys to analyse changing family constellations, interviewed transgender people to understand gender stereotypes and facilitated focus groups among teenage boys to understand patterns of social interactions online.

We discovered a whole lot of problems. But we didn’t design a whole lot of solutions to these problems.

In UX it’s all about designing for the user, solving their real problems and meeting their needs, while also solving business problems. This is probably the biggest difference when coming into UX from the social sciences. But don’t let your lack of design skills stop you. With a background in the social sciences (anthropology, ethnography, sociology etc.) you can bring real value to any design process. As a UX researcher you get to systematically gather in-depth insights into the customer’s needs, build up evidence, provide context for the design process and make sure to create products and services are meaningful and relevant for users. 

All you need to do is transfer those academic research skills to a design context, leverage the benefits and face the challenges.

5 benefits you can leverage!

1. Starting with 'why'

In social research we focus on understanding why people act the way they do. Why people behave, act, think, choose the way they do. We are curious people, genuinely interested in understanding what people’s needs are. We tend to eliminate guesswork about the users, question unfolded assumptions and understand what people need, not what they say they need. 

2. Focusing on the user 

As a UX Researchers we engage with users, listen to their stories, observe their behaviour and derive insights from the data we gather. This focus makes us experts at reframing common business goals (e.g. growth, improved NPS score, increase annual donations etc.) to research questions.
Example: We want to improve our Net Promotor Score becomes which part of the user experience are causing problems for the user and driving down satisfaction. Businesses are often fixed on their goals but need help understanding the user perspective.

3. Creatively mixing methods 

In every social science study we mix various quantitative and qualitative methods to get new and interesting insights and perspectives on a problem or phenomenon. The toolbox might be different in UX Research, but the awareness of when and how to use specific methods (quant/qual, opinion/ behaviour based etc.) to solve design problems will come in handy when working in UX.

4. Facilitating, observing and interviewing 

Facilitation, observation and interviewing skills are all crucial for doing UX research – and asking the right question in the right way to get insights beyond the obvious. Most social researchers feel comfortable meeting with users, visiting them in their homes (which I found is not always something businesses take for granted). We are used to talking to and involving people – also when the topic gets sensitive or tough.

5. Making sense of all the data

The ability to move from large amounts of data to extract actionable insights will help you when working with product or service design.  Personally, making sense of the data is my favourite part of any research process. Methodologically extracting findings; uncovering patterns and truly understanding who the users are; what they are trying to achieve; their motivations and what the barriers for them might be. How do they think, construct meaning, organise information, navigate and take decisions? When you’ve answered questions like these, you have a good idea what the design needs to do to work for different users.

5 challenges you might face! 

1. Focusing on business goals

While understanding people is important, it’s just as important to understand the businesses’ goals. Contrary to grounded social research, solving business problems should be high on your agenda when working in UX. What is the business trying to achieve with this product? What challenges are they facing? How does the product fit into their strategy? Do they aim to get a hold of younger users? To get more corporate donations for the charity? To reduce costs by transition to digital channels? Clarity around business objectives will provide focus to your research which you will need when working in UX.

2. Building up a different toolbox 

The UX toolbox is filled with new exciting tools, frameworks and methods that are unfamiliar to social researchers. Expanding your toolbox and getting a sense of when to use the right methods in the different phases of UX, would be my first recommendation. Personas, Customer Journey mapping, Jobs-to-be-done interviews, user stories, usability testing, remote testing, card sorts, IA testing, brand impressions, heuristic reviews, sketching, user flow, prototyping, building wireframes, stakeholder and design workshops and the list goes on.

Reading books, blogs and going to UX meetup groups are great ways to learn. But if you are keen to have someone teach you how to think and work as a UX’er and get hands on experience I would recommend doing a course – our UX Accelerator course of course J !

3. Speeding up the research  

Prepare to speed up! In UX you it is often necessary to do research quite fast, which often does have an impact on its depth. It takes a bit of practice to scale your work and do 'just enough' research that time, and budget allow. You’ve got to think about the research as fuel to the design process rather than an end result in itself (which is often the case in social research). The great thing is that you'll often get a chance to test out the design decisions in the next round of research and be part of optimising and iterating the designs. Its fast, but also rewarding!

4. Sketching and visualising ideas  

Get some paper and sharpen your pencil.

Even though you might specialise in the research more than the design as a UX’er, it’s an advantage if you love to visually explore solutions and discuss how to best meet the needs of users. Visually expressing your ideas is typically not something you learn from doing social research, but once you get the hang of it, it’s liberating to put your insights to work. That’s really what they’re there for. Whether or not you’re the one doing the actual UI work, sketches are great as a shared reference point when discussing your next step for improving the product.

5. Expanding your design skills  

Quite a few people move into UX from a graphic design background, where they’ve learned to craft attractive solutions. Coming from the research side of things, we’ve entered the field from the other end, where we’ve learned to define the problem the design should answer. Crafting the design itself and gaining skills in the world of design (interaction design, graphic design, service design etc.) to expand your skills and put your insights to work, might be something you want to explore further down the track!

Conclusion 

Coming into UX from a sociology background has been extremely rewarding, not only because research is one of the primary components of the job and I can still dig deep into user problems, but also because I can help alleviate those problems by designing UX solutions.