What You Should Know Before Joining a Startup as a UXR
UXR leaders who joined as one of the first 50 employees at high-growth startups share their experience and advice.
This piece is part 1 of the series “The Rise and Rise of the UXR.”
UXR has suddenly become high in demand across every company size and industry imaginable. And we’re on a journey to uncover why. To do so, we’re heading straight to the source: UXRs.
We’re beginning with the natural entry point — startups — and will continue exploring all corners of the UXR world like B2B, B2C, and more in our series “The Rise and Rise of the UXR.”
We’ve interviewed UXR leaders who joined as one of the first 50 employees at high-growth startups and went deep into their lives — why they decided to do UXR at a small startup vs. a larger company, what the culture looks like for user research, how they measure success and impact, and advice they have to impart on UXRs looking to make the jump to early stage companies.
In this blog you’ll hear from:
Why did you decide to join a startup as the first Research hire?
- The ability to communicate and interact directly with others. “A smaller space allowed me to interact directly with the designer and the engineers and then directly communicate findings myself.” - Silvana
- Chance to build a function from the ground up. - Megan
- Fast & continuous learning. “You wear so many hats and research so many different avenues, the rate at which you learn is just so much faster.” - Brett
- A license to have more creativity. “At an already established company, you’re coming in to do a specific type of research and there is really no kind of room for creativity.” - Damecia
- Have a seat at the table. “I was hungry to be really close to a company’s core product development process and have a seat at the table where major product & business decisions were made.” - Megan
- Experience immediate impact. “I was looking for a smaller place where I could feel really connected to the product.” - Lindsay
What does the Research culture look like at your startup?
Hiring a UXR at a small startup often means leadership already cares about research. “Everyone is already bought into investing in research — they know that our users are what matters most,” said Brett. At Scribe, where Brett is the Head of User Research, “everything we do is focused on fulfilling the needs of our users.”
Megan had a similar experience early on at Outschool, “everyone wants more direct connection with customers, so I rarely faced the challenge of needing to ‘sell’ research.” Many UXRs at small startups are embedded into the team meaning “you get to work more iteratively and closely with decision-makers” and “you’re less likely to have to rely on a single presentation to a distant leadership team to make your case.”
While not every startup is a dream environment right away, UXRs have the power to change that, just like Silvana did at LunchClub. Silvana encountered issues with her team understanding and accepting the value of research early on. Initially “no one really cared about anything” and research “wasn’t something people were thinking about.” But over time, she gained more experience, confidence, and the trust of the CEO, and “that’s when people started listening and leveraging my findings.” Now, she said, research is a need.
Mark encountered similar roadblocks when joining a somewhat larger company. “I did have to be kind of loud in the beginning, since research wasn’t a habit yet. I had to push myself to “overshare” findings and bring interview clips into different conversations to make research top of mind.”
What was unexpected about transitioning to a startup as a UXR?
- Research is impulsive. “You might not always follow the product roadmap.” - Damecia
- A high level of autonomy and trust early on. “Unlike larger organizations with lots of red tape, I really got to set the vision for the UXR function at Outschool and was given the resources and encouragement to realize that vision.” - Megan
- There’s a strong community of UXRs in startups. “It appeased my fears of going from a very robust UX practice at a big tech company to the first UXR at a startup.” - Brett
- Sometimes it’s all about the numbers. “And not about the experience the user is having. I didn’t expect that when we communicate findings, people would pretty much override our findings with ‘the numbers don’t show that.’” - Silvana
- It takes a lot of work to fit into an organization. “Building trust and relationships across your organization is crucial, and it takes work – especially when everyone is remote.” - Mark
- Becoming invested in the users. “It’s easy to become invested and can be challenging to manage those relationships and users’ expectations and listen but not make false promises.” -Lindsay
What’s the best part about doing UXR at a startup?
In a startup, you’re close to everything — you’re right at the core of the product, the team, and the decision-making. “At agencies and larger orgs, researchers can be pretty removed from the impact their findings have on product or business decisions. At a fast-paced startup, a researcher might be the one actually making changes directly to a Figma file or PRD (Product Requirements Doc) based on study findings — the impact can be that immediate and real,” said Megan.
And when helping make decisions, startups provide the opportunity to be creative, something Damecia pointed out. “I can import mixed methods and I can think of projects and get them approved. I have the license to do what I want.”
For Mark, being a UXR at a startup “is a bit of a superpower.” Using conversations with users and then sharing those insights, Mark is “able to change the minds of people who are making these decisions — pretty powerful and exciting.” And that power and excitement? It’s contagious. And propels Mark and other UXRs to keep sharing more and more research and encouraging teammates to utilize it.
At Xplor, Lindsay has been able to build very personal connections with the users she interacts with, many of whom are small business owners who have turned their passion into a business. “You form amazing relationships where you really understand why they’re doing what they do and how we’re making their lives easier or harder.” Some of Lindsay’s best memories have been hearing her users’ stories. “It’s very inspiring and wholesome on a daily basis.”
What’s the hardest part about doing UXR at a startup?
We’ve so far sung the praises of UXR at a startup, but there are some challenges. For Megan, prioritization was the biggest. Often with 50 projects available to take on, “I had to be strategic about where I spent my time and find diplomatic ways to say no.”
In startups, there’s a common mentality of ‘move fast and break things,’ but Megan explained “sometimes you need to slow down if you want to avoid poor-quality research that can lead to biased, expensive — or worst-case, harmful — decisions.”
At times, Lindsay said she’s found leadership may have a tendency to disregard research as they feel they may understand the users better due to their proximity to the problem.
Lindsay said this challenge, though at times painful and frustrating, has taught her how to advocate for her work. “I’ve learned a lot about knowing my audience and presenting evidence that will make the most impact.”
How do you measure success/impact in a startup?
Silvana asks these questions when measuring the impact and success of her research at LunchClub:
✅ Were you able to communicate the findings?
✅ Are we learning things we didn’t know?
✅ Are we overriding a hypothesis that we have?
“As long as we are learning and are sharing insights that are brand new, that’s a win for us.” Another metric and end goal is whether designers and engineers implement changes and fixes based on research insights. While this doesn’t always happen and is sometimes hard to track, seeing designers, engineers, and PMs make research-driven decisions is what makes it all worth it.
For Lindsay, success is closely tied to engagement. “Is leadership coming to you asking for research? Are they seeking you out as the expert and the person with the information they need?”
What’s the state of research democratization at startups?
At Outschool, Megan initially tried to "hold the reins a little too tightly," but ultimately realized "there weren’t enough hours in the day to play gatekeeper, let alone actually conduct research or scale my team.”
Megan said this experience has made her realize the importance of investing earlier in research ops to “make it easier for PWDR (People Who Do Research) to self-serve when appropriate and reduce the burden on researchers to support ops-specific needs across the org.” She also said in the future she would dedicate more upfront time to enabling PWDRs to conduct their own evaluative testing, freeing up time for researchers to tackle more strategic, cross-functional projects.
At Whisk, Mark is also trying to inspire research across the company. Currently, he reaches out to various stakeholders at the beginning of each quarter, which leads to a meeting where Mark suggests potential research to support teams’ goals. “I’m really trying to spread myself as far as I can and build relationships.” But by bringing others into the process, he can’t guarantee that the research will be as robust as he would like — a challenge Mark is not alone in facing.
What is learning & development like in a startup?
Startups often lack a People team initiating learning opportunities or a robust mentorship program, so professional development and leveling up your skills have to be self-serve. Megan said this may require you to find research mentorship and community outside your organization.
Brett has done just that, focusing on community building and the people he meets along the way. Often Brett will set up coffee chats to get to know other UXRs and understand what they are working on. “I’ve even found it helpful to gather and bring problems to the table and for 15 min nit-pick each other’s solution and then think about building up to a better solution together.”
What advice would you give UXRs moving into the startup world?
- Love the product you’re building. “Because if you don’t, you’re going to go crazy. You have to be fully invested in the product and believe in it in order to be successful at conducting research.” - Silvana
- Some things will take adjusting. But “if you are the type of person who wants to continuously learn, be challenged, and try out the latest tech to solve the latest problems, I feel like that’s best done at a startup.” -Brett
- Don’t get defeated! “Respect the criticism that your research may receive.” - Damecia
- Understand your role in the organization. “You can be an expert in research, but at the end of the day, you’re in a product organization. It’s not people building a product around your research, it’s doing research to help the product team do their best work.” - Mark
- Make connections early. “And those connections with members of your team, like engineers, AEs, and customer support, will turn into advocates for you in the future and provide help and support.” - Lindsay
- DO IT! “But consider where you are in your career and what your goals are.” - Megan
🔥 Megan’s Hot Tip on Landing a Startup Job 🔥
Researchers are typically wildly under-resourced, so if you’re joining a high-growth team that already has a researcher, that person is likely very, very busy. If you’re able to show the hiring manager that you can take initiative, navigate ambiguity and build solid relationships with stakeholders with limited coaching and supervision, you’ll be a step ahead.
Whether you’re taking the leap into startups or already deep inside one, we’d love to hear how it’s going and if anything above resonated with you.
And if you’re still wanting more, feel free to reach out and chat with any of these awesome UXRs. They are all eager and happy to be sounding boards and share more advice and insight. Hit them up on LinkedIn or by email.