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My Career as a Microsoft User Researcher: Human-Centered Design & Engineering

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What is Human-centered Design & Engineering?

It’s exactly what it sounds like. Human beings are kept at the center of both design and development in technology. It heavily considers the role of tech in human activity and how groups of people interact through sociotechnical systems.

Human-centered design is multidisciplinary. It falls at the intersection of computer science, psychology, and design. The engineers have an understanding of social sciences, mathematics, and fine arts, applying this knowledge toward the creation of products, features, and experiences that solve real human needs.

Using the human-centered approach, engineers strive to develop experiences that are both usable and useful. Success metrics focus on the person who will ultimately be interacting with the system, including measures such as satisfaction, accessibility, and sustainability. At the end of the day, this discipline emphasizes the human—not the technology.

Education in UX Design

The field of human-centered design is growing rapidly and formalized programs are popping up at colleges and universities across the world. Many schools offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in this field.

When exploring your options, you’ll likely come across different names for the degrees, so you’ll want to start your search broad and be sure to dig into the types of courses offered and the focus of the program. Examples of degree names include:

  • Human-computer interaction
  • Human-centered computing
  • User-centered design
  • User experience (UX) design
  • Engineering psychology
  • Systems engineering
  • Systems design engineering
  • Applied psychology
  • Human factors psychology
  • Human factors engineering
  • Human factors design
  • Ergonomics and human factors
  • Applied cognition
  • Psychology ergonomics

Courses in these programs usually encompass a variety of topics spanning the computer sciences (e.g. programming), social sciences (e.g. psychology and anthropology), and fine arts (e.g. visual design and prototyping). For example, I attended the University of Washington human-centered design and engineering program. There, I had the opportunity to take fascinating courses including:

  • Navigating design in organizational contexts
  • Usability studies
  • Information visualization
  • Interaction design and prototyping
  • Designing for behavior change
  • Inclusive design
  • Computational concepts
  • Physical computing and prototyping
  • Digital fabrication and the internet of things
  • Computer-assisted communication
  • Web design studio

Jobs in UX Design

After completing a degree in human-centered design, graduates fill roles across the technology industry within the professional field of user experience—often abbreviated “UX.” User experience practitioners typically fill roles across computer science, content experience, research, or design. Common job titles across these categories are listed in the table below.

Because formalized higher-education programs are somewhat new, most practitioners enter the field with a variety of backgrounds. In my experience working in the field, successful college graduates have at least a master’s degree, and they have chosen to focus their schooling on one of the four subspecialties: computer science, content, research, or design.

User Experience Category Job Title
Computer Science
  • Front-end developer (i.e., client-side)
  • Back-end developer (i.e., server-side)
  • UX developer
  • Design developer
  • Web developer
  • Mobile developer
  • Data scientist
  • Program manager
  • UX product manager
  • User experience architect
  • Product owner
Content Experience
  • Technical writer
  • Content writer
  • Content strategist
  • UX Copywriter
  • Digital content manager
  • Content marketing specialist
  • SEO specialist
Research
  • Design researcher
  • User researcher
  • Business designer
  • UX researcher
  • UX strategist
  • UX analyst
  • Usability engineer
  • Usability practitioner
Design
  • User interface (UI) designer
  • UX designer
  • Interaction designer
  • Product designer
  • Information architect
  • Visual designer
  • Graphic designer
  • Digital designer
  • UI artist
  • Instructional designer

UX Professional Salaries

In October 2018, the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA), published a survey on the progress and evolution of UX industry careers and salaries. As summarized by the blog UXBooth, this online survey with 1,326 respondents—primarily from the United States—found:

  • A greater number of professionals entering the field
  • More representation outside of the U.S.
  • An increase in jobs in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest
  • More UX professionals holding senior-level, supervisory roles
  • A closing of gender-based salary gaps
  • A median annual salary across all UX jobs of $95,000

Those at the beginning of their career (i.e., two years or less professional experience) were earning a median $63,000 per year, whereas those at the end of their career (i.e., 21+ years of experience) were earning $141,000 per year.

Those working in the United States earned more ($115,000 per year) than those in other countries (less than $89,000 per year). Within the United States, those employed in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest ($145,000 and $120,000 per year) earned more than those living in the Midwest or Southeast states ($102,000 and $100,000 per year).

Typically, those with master’s or doctorate degrees earned the highest salaries, as well as those in management positions. Job titles with the highest salaries included instructional designer, product manager, technical writer, and user researcher.

My Journey into Human-centered Design

Because this profession is new and constantly evolving, many of us have unusual journeys. On my first day at Microsoft, my onboarding buddy told me his: “I studied fish brains. A PhD in animal behavior. Then I decided to be a carpenter. And, now I’m here researching the Xbox user interface.”

Another woman on my team spent a decade as an anthropologist in a war-torn country in South Asia. Some have marketing backgrounds, others have cognitive psychology backgrounds, and even some have pharmacology research backgrounds.

My story is similarly roundabout. Like many freshmen in college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be an artist and scientist (#davinciwannabe). I studied photography and eventually became a psychiatric nurse practitioner, diagnosing and treating mental health conditions.

Working in hospitals and clinics revealed problems plaguing the system as a whole. I saw an opportunity for technology to solve these problems and improve patient outcomes. Uncertain of where to start, I began publishing articles on industry blogs, attempting to both define and elucidate these problems. I even created my own blog to create a space for nurses to access information about solving these issues and to offer their own perspective on new technologies.

Although completely unaware of the UX discipline at the time, it was through these experiences I taught myself about web development, content strategy, and creative problem-solving. I also learned more about the technology industry, including large companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, and their role in innovation.

My blog attracted the attention of Microsoft’s Chief Nursing Officer, Molly McCarthy, who introduced me to the field of user research. She cited my background in fine arts, psychology, and blogging—all of which fall within the UX discipline. A quick Google search later, I was confident this was the perfect career for me.

As I mentioned above, I ended up attending the University of Washington human-centered design and engineering program. There I learned foundational UX knowledge spanning computer science, psychology, design, and content strategy. Not only did this knowledge help improve my blogging skills, but it also supported my new career at Microsoft.

Currently, I am a user researcher at Microsoft on their Research & Insight team. When I started in 2016, I conducted usability studies—a research method that identifies design issues within a prototype that prevent people from using the experience effectively. Imagine a lab with a one-way mirror where I observe people using a product, looking for interface elements that trip them up.

My team and I eventually created a process and program around our usability method, with the goal of scaling this research service across Microsoft. Our team, called FAST, grew over a few years and continues to provide value to many product teams. You can read more about this in my Medium article, “Life in the FAST Lane.”

Because of my background in psychiatric nursing, I also had the opportunity to do in-depth, generative research on the topic of computer self-efficacy, which refers to a person’s belief in their abilities to effectively use a computer. This ethnographic research involved a return to my clinical roots (#AlbertBanduraFTW) and interviews with many people at their homes, jobs, and schools.

Most recently, I’ve been working on a company-wide culture change. My role has shifted from product research to organizational research. How do you go about changing the way an organization thinks or behaves on a large scale? What programs, processes, systems, rewards need to be in place to do that? That’s where I’m at today.

As I said, my journey to the UX profession was quite serendipitous, and I couldn’t be more grateful. I love my job and the impact I get to have on others through the effective design of technology and programs.

How to Get Started in UX Design & Research

Human-centered design and engineering is a field that focuses on putting people at the heart of whatever you are creating. It’s an important twist on engineering that requires practitioners to consider how their work will affect people, society, and the world.

Although somewhat new, colleges and universities are beginning to offer formalized bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degree programs. And, based on industry surveys, the job and salary outlook is positive.

Finally, human-centered design and engineering is currently a field full of professionals with unique and varied backgrounds. I, for example, started off as a photographer, nurse practitioner, and blogger. Even though it seems unrelated, these experiences have heavily informed and enabled me to be successful, both in the University of Washington human-centered design program and later as a user researcher at Microsoft.

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