I graduated from Carnegie Mellon’s MHCI program in August 2017, and moved from Pittsburgh armed with in-depth knowledge about user experience research. I’d taken classes and conducted studies with classmates and participants from around the city, and I felt excited to use what I’d learned. Within a few months, I’d joined the UX team at Marketade, and was running my first batch of UX studies for clients.

As I look back at my first year post grad, I’ve been able to appreciate some of the differences between the research I conducted in grad school and the work I do every day:

Research in the real world is fast and furious.

In grad school, many of our research & design projects stretched across an entire semester, leaving us two or three weeks of planning and recruitment time before we’d actually sit down with a user. Our analysis period was equally long, often allowing for multiple sessions of post-it arranging before delivering results to a client or professor.

The first thing that surprised me at Marketade was the quick timelines of some of the research that we do; I’m often conducting interviews within a few days of learning about a project. As a result, I’ve learned to think on my feet and adjust my interview approach on the fly. It’s also helped emphasize the importance of talking to users as soon as possible – thinking back, a lot of the early planning I did for my projects in grad school could have benefited greatly from getting a user’s perspective on a service right from the start.

Users are everywhere. Creative recruiting pays off.

In school, our target users for research were often general population users or consisted of an audience that closely resembled our own social groups: students, tech workers, or people who used technology frequently. Recruiting through Craigslist or our social networks was a breeze, and we rarely encountered a project for which it was difficult to find ideal sets of participants.

That’s not the case at Marketade – the nature of some of our projects requires recruiting panels of people in certain roles or with particular life experiences, and I often wouldn’t be able to find those people in my own social networks. Sometimes I don’t know where to begin – but I’ve learned to recruit on the fly quickly, and the creativity it takes to find quality participants is a skill I’ve been able to quickly hone. There are times when it’s been difficult to find even a single user willing to talk to me about a service, but I’ve learned to seek them out by being creative: finding places on the internet or in real life that my target group might go, and even approaching them more gently using long-term strategies like email engagement campaigns that eventually ask them to participate in a panel. The imagination this takes has turned out to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the job, because it requires a sense of intuition about people’s interests and tendencies that transcends technical knowledge or training. I’m often just as proud to find a great participant as I am to hear about their experience, especially when the criteria is really specific.

See the big picture. But focus on the details too.

Finally, learning to analyze user research and prioritize recommendations realistically has been entirely different from my experience at Carnegie Mellon, where we’d spend a much longer time analyzing results from research. Then, at the end of the process, we’d frequently make significant design recommendations that could alter the interface design or even change the core of the value proposition.

I’ve been lucky enough in my role at Marketade to use some of the results of user research that I conduct to give recommendations about large pivots in a client’s overall strategy. On the other hand, I’ve been consistently surprised at how some of the smaller changes I uncover through UX testing have had significant impact. The results of sessions sometimes demonstrate that the most impactful change we could make is for a sidebar to go in a different place, or to have a button work slightly differently. Getting a chance to help implement those changes is always really exciting. That said, we always look at these systems and experiences as a whole, so I get to offer the big picture insights too.

The principles I learned in grad school are applicable every day in my job but have grown leaner, faster, and more intuitive with time. Not everybody who ends up in UX possesses an advanced degree in it, and I don’t consider it a necessity – but it was an experience that helped me to build empathy with users and to trust in the research process. I would encourage anybody considering graduate school to try and find a program that involves real-world research projects – it’s only then that you’ll be able to apply what you learn in your classes in practical ways.