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Dealing with impostor syndrome as a user researcher

13 April 2021
Nikki Anderson

A few years ago, I was sitting with a group of junior user researchers in a Starbucks in New York City. We had set up bi-weekly user research chats, where I provided some structure and mentorship to help these new researchers navigate the tricky world they just recently entered. I sipped my hot chocolate and listened to them talk through picking methodologies and begging colleagues to come to research sessions. 

There was a collective sigh from the group when one of them turned to me and said, “It must be so nice not to feel like an impostor. To not feel like you’re constantly messing up. When do you think we will feel that way?”

Seven pairs of shiny eyes stared back at me, and I knew what I was going to say would disappoint them. I took a deep breath and said, “Honestly, I still feel like an imposter sometimes. Yes, it occurs less often now, but there are days where I wonder and question my skills.” Although that wasn’t what they wanted to hear, I think it offered a sense of relief for them. Anyone who is feeling imposter syndrome is never alone.

What is imposter syndrome?

Impostor syndrome, otherwise known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome, or impostor experience (fun, light names), is a “psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments, and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud,’ despite external evidence of their knowledge.”

Impostor syndrome can particularly impact perfectionists, experts, and people who try to do it alone (soloists). However, everyone can (and most do) experience impostor syndrome when trying something new, transitioning to a new field, changing jobs, graduating from school, and many other similar experiences. As you can see, this phenomenon can happen to anyone, even if you are experiencing a small change.

How does this manifest in user research?

I started feeling impostor syndrome when I decided to transition into the field of user research. I secured a master’s degree in psychology and went through a certified boot camp at General Assembly. I was ready to jump into becoming a user researcher!

A few months and 70 failed job applications later, I felt like a fraud. I asked myself questions like, “Why did I think I would be good at this job?” or “why did I think anyone would want to hire someone like me?” I went down this rabbit hole for a few weeks, constantly second-guessing myself and any applicable skills I had learned. Eventually, I clawed my way out with a successful interview and secured an internship as a user researcher.

However, impostor syndrome does not just go away when you get a job. Through the years, I have encountered impostor syndrome throughout my entire career. I believe it is widespread in the user research space especially.

As user researchers, we get hit constantly with contradictory information on our practice. One day the NPS should be used as a measure of satisfaction, the next day, the NPS is the worst indicator, and we should be using better metrics. For a while, focus groups were a cool and valuable method, and now they are frowned upon. Also, we should, ideally, be taking two hours to synthesize a one-hour interview. Still, we also need to be fast enough to provide teams with actionable, digestible, nugget-sized information every week. 

We are also questioned so many times along the way. How can we be sure about insights when we only have a sample size of seven? How can we know whether people will use this feature if we don’t just ask them?

These situations can weigh on you as a researcher and make you constantly question yourself. And that can be exhausting. With this pressure, it isn’t a surprise that we can feel like a fraud or undeserving of a particular role or responsibility. I remember being so nervous about presentations because I didn’t want to explain the number of participants I recruited or justify why colleagues should listen to my results. I wished that user research just meant talking to users and not reporting on the results.

How it feels eight years later

Some good news; it does get better! Hurrah! But I do still feel glimpses of impostor syndrome, especially when I am joining a new company or stepping into a new type of role.

Over a year ago, I let go of my operational research responsibilities and made the leap to be a manager. I was terrified. Before starting, I questioned whether or not I would be a good manager and if I was deserving of the title. I was concerned I wouldn’t be good enough and would ruin someone’s development and career. I asked myself why this company hired me to do something like this.

There are also days where I question basic research skills, like writing a good research question or helping stakeholders go from business needs to user problems. I look at some big presentations and wonder if they are impactful or effective. Just the other week, I asked myself if a big project I was taking on even made sense. 

The thing is, eight years later, I still question myself as a user researcher; I still wonder if I am doing a good job or doing things the “right” way

However, the biggest difference now is that I know it is okay to have doubts because there is no “right” way to do anything. 

How to embrace inclusivity in UX research

Feeling like a fraud?

Let me start by saying you are never alone in this feeling. About 80 percent of people will encounter imposter syndrome at least once in their lifetime. However, this is not an emotion that can necessarily be solved by “strength in numbers.” It is generally a feeling you keep to yourself. Most people with impostorism feelings suffer in silence. No one wants to talk about it because part of the experience is the fear someone will find out they are a fraud.

However, most importantly, there are ways to ease this feeling and embrace the fear of failure:

  • Try a different method or push yourself to present research in a new way. Think of your actions as experiments. That way, it can be easier to deal with when they might not work out perfectly.

  • Learn how to take feedback in stride. It is okay if someone didn’t like something you did. Take the time to understand why and consider how you could improve it for next time.

  • Own and celebrate your achievements and successes as a user researcher—even the small ones!

  • See yourself as a work-in-progress. No one is perfect and knows all the answers to everything. I Google things, too, every once and a while. You are constantly learning and evolving, so it’s okay not to know the answer to everything.

  • If you don’t know, ask for help. It’s okay to seek help from managers, colleagues, mentors, and even strangers! If you are struggling with a particular project, there is likely someone out there who can help you work through it.

  • Remember you are the expert on this subject. If colleagues have opinions on what or how you should be doing something, that’s great to keep in mind, but ultimately, you are the expert, and the decisions you make are valid based on your knowledge.

Keep your head up and follow the golden rule of user experience: iterate, fail, iterate, fail, iterate, win for a bit, iterate, fail, iterate, succeed a little more. By doing this, you are not an impostor. And, you are never alone.

Written by Nikki Anderson, User Research Lead & Instructor. Nikki is a User Research Lead and Instructor with over eight years of experience. She has worked in all different sizes of companies, ranging from a tiny start-up called ALICE to large corporation Zalando, and also as a freelancer. During this time, she has led a diverse range of end-to-end research projects across the world, specializing in generative user research. Nikki also owns her own company, User Research Academy, a community and education platform designed to help people get into the field of user research, or learn more about how user research impacts their current role. User Research Academy hosts online classes, content, as well as personalized mentorship opportunities with Nikki. She is extremely passionate about teaching and supporting others throughout their journey in user research. To spread the word of research and help others transition and grow in the field, she writes as a writer at dscout and Dovetail. Outside of the world of user research, you can find Nikki (happily) surrounded by animals, including her dog and two cats, reading on her Kindle, playing old-school video games like Pokemon and World of Warcraft, and writing fiction novels.

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