Regardless of which side you are on in the interview process—a candidate or interviewer—it can be a stressful experience. There is a lot to do to prepare for a user research candidate interview properly. I remember, as a candidate, scrambling to create a portfolio presentation that aligned perfectly with the job description. There were countless times that I felt I missed the mark, the interviews not going as well as I'd hoped.
After interviewing for hundreds of positions and being a hiring manager for a few years, I have collected tips to help candidates nail the user research job interview process.
Editing your resume, creating portfolio pieces, presenting a case study, doing a challenge, pitching yourself, and remembering to smile during each step—these are just some of the stressful parts of the job interview process. However, job interviews don't always have to be overwhelming and impossibly difficult. After failing so many (and asking for feedback after!), I have learned the most critical parts of the research job interview process. I still use these tactics whenever I interview.
The essential aspect of an interview is articulating your research process. As a hiring manager, if I don’t know how you approach problems, I cannot correctly assess your fit into my team. So, what does it mean to explain your research process?
I struggled with this concept for a while. At the beginning of my presentation, I used to have a slide that showed ”my process.” But, really, it was just the same as every researcher’s process. Unfortunately, this explanation didn't help people understand how I approached user research. It was too generic and vague for interviewers to assess my skills properly.
I quickly learned that explaining my process meant going in-depth and explaining why. As you go through your presentation, it isn't about telling your audience just who you recruited or which method you chose, but why you made those decisions. Here’s an example I see happen very often:
“After the interviews, I synthesized the data into actionable insights that helped the team make better decisions.”
This answer doesn't work as well because it is simply too vague. As an interviewer, I am thinking of all these questions:
Who was involved in the synthesis?
What does this person mean by actionable insights?
What are some examples of synthesis?
What are some examples of actionable insights?
I might not get the time to follow up with you. Or I might assume because you didn’t explain these answers yourself that you aren't a good fit. It’s harsh, but it happens! So, let’s try with an answer I have given in the past:
“Let me take you through my synthesis process. After each interview, I transcribe the interview into excel and start tagging the data. I use a mix of global tags, such as pain points, needs, goals, and project-specific tags related to the research goals.
After this, I do a mini-synthesis session with stakeholders after every five interviews to make the synthesis less overwhelming. We look at each participant during this synthesis session and use the global and project tags to fill in the information. We then look across the participants to see the similarities and cluster similar answers. For example, in this study, we noticed that many participants struggled with food drivers not finding their address, leading to late order arrivals or canceled orders. This pain point was a theme throughout the study.”
I would then go into how I take the synthesis and turn it into something the team can digest. So, the interview is not about the insights you learned from the study but about how you approached a problem and conducted a research study.
As I said above, having concrete examples is critical to nailing your interview. An excellent way to structure your examples is by using the STAR method, as it reminds you of the crucial components to include:
Situation: Give the background and context of the problem
Task: Describe your tasks or responsibilities in the situation
Action: Explain what you did to resolve or address the task
Result: Share the impact and outcomes of your actions
Using this method, you can show your audience what they are looking for: what you did, why you did it, and what it achieved. Interviewers are very interested in impact and how you arrived at that impact, so the STAR method is a great way to set yourself up for success. Let's look at an example.
Interviewer: “Describe a time when your research didn’t align with what stakeholders want to hear?”
Situation: My team came up with a feature idea to create different travel package tiers for one project. The feature hadn’t come from research but was an idea to drive revenue and retention. After testing the concepts, the feedback was incredibly poor. No one was interested in having a travel membership, and our offers were not valuable to our users
Task: I was responsible for delivering these results to the team and helping them decide on the next steps. They had spent a reasonable amount of time on this idea, so I knew it would be hard for them to hear
Action: I started by pulling together video clips of the feedback I received so the team could see the reactions. I then made two different lists: one which detailed what
didn't work for the users and one which had positive feedback. During the presentation, I highlighted the other areas of value the participants pointed out. Rather than just telling the team the concept wouldn’t work, we discussed what could work instead. I gave us some extra time at the end of the presentation to brainstorm what would happen next.
Result: The team switched their focus over to two major areas participants had commented on. We created two different features from that research, sharing trips with others and splitting costs on our platform, which customers heavily used. These features increased retention by 10 percent.
This method is a highly effective way for you to prove your impact!
One marker of a great candidate is the questions they ask at the end of the interview. As a hiring manager, this signifies that they are interested in the position. Asking questions at the end of the interview can also help me understand a candidate’s experience and approach. Although it doesn't mean a ”hard no,” whenever candidates don’t ask questions, I feel a bit wary. As researchers, we are meant to ask questions, so I almost expect a long list.
Asking questions is also crucial for understanding if the company is a good fit for you. It could be a red flag if they can’t answer your questions or give vague answers. Taking the time to ask questions can give you more data to make a better decision. I’ve found the more questions I ask, the fewer surprises I have once I’ve joined!
Here are some example questions I love to ask (and hear, as a hiring manager):
How does work get prioritized?
Where do research projects come from?
How do product managers, designers, developers, and the organization feel about user research?
How would you define success in this role?
What would you expect from this person in six months?
What would be the biggest challenges for this role?
How does the team/organization deal with people making mistakes?
Who are the big decision-makers? How would they impact research?
When was your last project that made an impact?
What is the user research maturity at your organization?
How do people react to mistakes?
What happens when research doesn’t align with what stakeholders want to hear?
It's so easy to get caught up in the stress of interviewing. There have been times I have put companies on pedestals. Even though they ghosted me for a month, canceled last minute, put the wrong people into the interview, and gave me no indication of the process, I still stuck with it. I believed it was my job to impress them, not vice versa.
And then, I was in an interview—a phone interview, the worst kind—and I could hear the person texting with someone as I spoke. It was frustrating, but I moved on to the next round. During that video interview, the person was not paying attention and, at one point, rolled their eyes at one of my answers. I wish I could say I stopped the interview, but I went forward and accepted an offer. I was at the company for about two months before I quit. The environment was toxic and top-down, all things I could have seen from miles away during the interview process.
Think through how the company is treating you in this process, as it reflects how they will treat you as an employee!
Overall, although going through job interviews can be stressful, we can do many things to mitigate the overwhelm, making it a more calm experience. New job opportunities and career growth is exciting, so remember to take a deep breath and try to enjoy the journey!