This is satire. Please do not take any of the following advice seriously.
As a socially awkward person, I don’t go out of my way to meet randoms very much any more. But every so often I find myself in the presence of those that don’t know me very well and want to dig deeper into what exactly I do with my waking hours. When faced with this situation, I pause to assess the situation (and audience) for signals on how to make this interaction as painless as possible.
One might ask, “Aaron, asking about careers is so ubiquitous and innocuous, why is it so painful?”
First, thank you for the question. Second, for many people answering questions about their career is simple. Doctors, for instance, don’t need to go into elaborate detail or explain complicated concepts to have a concise conversation about what they do. The public frequently interact with doctors, they see doctors on TV, they have friends or family that are doctors. When people meet a doctor, this is a completely real example of how the conversation unfolds:
Non-doctor: “Hey Sally, what do you do for work?”
Doctor: “I’m a doctor.”
Non-doctor: “Oh, what kind of doctor?”
Doctor: “I’m a cardiologist.”
Non-doctor: “Wow! That's really impressive and relatable because I own a heart and my friend Jacob saw a cardiologist last year. You must be so smart and talented. I’m going to tell my friends we met.”
Doctor: “Thanks, most people do.”
Let’s pause and take note that: a) the non-doctor instantly understood the concept of a doctor, b) it was very little effort for the non-doctor to grasp a complete picture of how the doctor spends their time, and c) the non-doctor had loads of ways to relate to the doctor that naturally aided move the conversation along.
For people in these types of careers generally the answer is one line and consists of a single follow up questions with very little explaining. The answer provided exactly the amount of detail the question asker expected with many ways for the conversation be enriched.
Now let’s try that again, but with a User researcher:
Non-User Researcher: “Hey Sally, what do you do for work?”
User Researcher: “I'm a User Researcher.”
Non-User Researcher: “I don’t know what that means.”
User Researcher: “Are you familiar with User Experience?”
Non-User Researcher: “No.”
User Researcher: “User Experience is an field of study where we analyze what people want to do with products, why, and design products to make them more useful and easier to use.”
Non-User Researcher: “Got it. So you are a designer…?”
User Researcher: “Well, no, but I work with designers. I study how people interact with products and services understand why they do what they do and provide that information to the team (including designers!) to improve the quality of the product.”
Non-User Researcher: “Uh huh… So, what exactly does that look like?”
User Researcher: “Well, I might interview users to find out what works or doesn’t work about a product. Or I might observe users using a product to see how they interact with it. I might also conduct usability tests to see how easy it is for users to use a product.”
Non-User Researcher: “MMk. Where do you work?”
User Researcher: “I work at [company].”
Non-User Researcher: “Ohhhhh, that's great! Let me tell you about the shitty experiences I’ve had on a bunch of products you never worked on.”
User Researcher: “Thanks for your feedback - I’ve never heard that before! I’ll have solutions to all your problems on the CEO’s desk by Monday. You're welcome!”
Let’s pause to reflect on what we witnessed. Notice that the approach that worked beautifully for the doctor took a turn for the worse for the researcher where they suddenly became a user counselor.
I typically avoid answering the “what do you do” question head on in favor of dancing around question with the ease of an injured gazelle. Here are a few made up strategies for how you might handle this the next time you are faced with this conundrum:
Strategy #1: Pretend it's your first day.
Not you: “What do you do?”
You: "I work at [Company] on the [Product] team."
Not you: “Oh, I’ve heard of that company/product! What's it like working for [Company]?”
You: "Oh, I don't know yet. It's my first day."
Not You: "You must be so excited."
You: "I see a bright future ahead!"
Strategy #2: Pretend you have a highly secretive job that requires strict anonymity.
Not you: “What do you do?”
You: "As long as there are no follow up questions, I'm a lawyer."
Not you: "Oh, how interesting - what kind?"
You: "I'm sorry - I'm legally barred from speaking about my job any further."
Not you: "Wow - impressive and mysterious."
You: "Thank you."
Strategy #3: Distract the inquisitor by thanking them and changing to unrelated topics.
Not you: “What do you do?”
You: "Thanks for asking me that question. Have you ever been to Ghana?"
Not you: “No, should I go?”
You: “Yes, let’s talk about the merits of living and vacationing in Western Africa.”
Not you: “I'm not sure how this relates to your job.”
You: "Oh I had an internship in Ghana one summer in grad school.
Not you: "Oh that makes perfect sense. Let's continue our conversation about Ghana uninterrupted from this point further."
Strategy #4: Reject the premise of the question entirely and use silence to kill the conversation.
Not You: “What do you do?”
Not You: [...]
Hopefully this article has been instructive in your personal understanding of the why being asked about your career as a user researcher makes everyone uncomfortable. With these four strategies you should be fully prepared to leave all questions related to your job as a User Researcher unanswered.