Nannearl Brown’s job is kind of meta: As a UX researcher, she’s responsible for understanding people who use Figma, the main tool that folks in UI/UX (“user interface” and “user experience”) use to collaborate and design digital products.
In other words, Nannearl is a UX researcher for a product that UI/UX people primarily use to prototype and finetune the UI/UX for other products. It’s not as confusing as it sounds: “When people first find out about Figma and start to try and explore the tool, I am one of the researchers who’s trying to make sure you can actually figure out how to use it,” she says.
Though Nannearl is in the thick of the UI/UX world these days, she says that her journey has not been at all straightforward. She studied biomedical engineering as an undergrad, then went to work at the Pentagon as a technology analyst in the office of the Chief Information Officer of the U.S. Army. After getting her master’s in systems engineering, Nannearl went into management consulting for government agencies.
“That’s when I learned how to facilitate workshops, talk to people, and interview,” skills that would eventually carry over into a career in UX research, Nannearl says. “I was coming in, assessing what was going on, what the problems and pain points were, and then taking that back to my team, coming up with solutions, and figuring out how to benchmark different things.”
Nannearl picked up UX on the side, taking on projects to start building a portfolio and networking with other people in tech who needed UX help. During the pandemic, she started a YouTube channel about UX called “Unpacked Angles.” And in June 2020, she joined Figma.
Here’s what it’s like to be a UX researcher at Figma who helps other UI/UX designers work efficiently, and what you need to know to get a job like this.
What got me interested in the job
“I didn’t know that UX jobs existed. I had been in all of these technological spaces, and that’s cool, but I didn’t see a lot of Black people, and I didn’t see a lot of women. I had experienced that throughout my education, just being in engineering classes. I didn’t think that I was a rocket scientist or anything, but I just wanted to figure out how to create more opportunities and get more education out there.
I moved across the country to LA to go to school, where I studied nonprofit leadership and management. I was still very much connected to the tech space. I interned with a nonprofit that functioned like a startup, so that’s where I got to learn the different kinds of positions that make up a tech startup.
At the nonprofit, I learned about product management, and I was also learning about UX, too. I thought I was going to be into product management, so I took a product management bootcamp during my last semester of that program. I realized I don’t like product management, but I love the UX part of everything.
I really enjoyed getting to ask people questions, and then seeing how they responded. I figured out that there is an art to asking questions and getting to the right question — that’s a fun challenge for me. I also liked breaking down what people said, because a lot of the time there’s meaning behind the words that people say that they don’t say explicitly.”
How I got in the door
“I used to go to meetups, so people kind of started to know me as a UX person — even though I hadn’t held a UX title.
At the time, I was the Los Angeles city lead for this organization called Black Tech Women. We held a happy hour where I met this woman who was creating her own beauty tech startup, and we ended up talking. I did some work for her as a consultant, just reviewing her screens that had been designed by an agency without any UX applied. I assessed what was there and she liked my work so much that she actually asked me to join as a co-founder and director of user experience for her startup.
That was a learning experience, for sure, because I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I learned on-the-go while I was working. After a little over a year, I took a break to recover from early startup life, and then I started applying again to jobs. The pandemic happened, and that was scary. I was looking for a job, like, I guess I’m never going to get employed.
I was talking to my mentor, and I had been feeling down, and she was like, ‘Why don’t you consider creating short-form Instagram content? I think people will watch it.’ I was like, You know what, I’m going to do YouTube. Let’s just go for it. I was making YouTube videos on the side while I was applying for jobs. I was putting those out there, keeping myself busy, and also having fun with it.
I finally applied to Figma and I went through the interview process, which was great. I actually didn’t get the job that I applied for, because I didn’t have enough experience. But instead of giving me a ‘no,’ my now-manager gave me an opportunity to get experience.”
What I actually do every day
“My typical day depends on what stage I’m at in a research process.
If we’re in the middle of a study, then I might be doing some interviews. If we’re on the tail end of the study, I might be analyzing what we’ve learned and synthesizing the information in order to create a story to tell the rest of my stakeholders. Or, if it’s closer to the beginning, I might be leading a workshop and facilitating the formation of ideas and hypotheses that we want to look further into, and then planning how we’re going to actually get answers to the questions that we came up with.
Sometimes I’m in a bunch of different stages, because there’s more than one project going on. That’s a part of it that makes it really cool; the days don’t really look the same.”
Here’s what you need to get started
UI/UX roles typically don’t involve writing code, but since UX researchers work closely with engineers, it helps to be able to speak their language.
If you want to be a UX researcher, you should be familiar with the fundamentals of UI/UX design. In Codecademy’s course Intro to UI and UX Design, you’ll get an overview of UI/UX theory and common design methodologies, plus hands-on experience using Figma to create your own wireframes and prototypes.
- If you have zero coding experience and want to work in UI/UX, you should start with HTML and CSS. Check out our HTML and CSS courses to start building websites.
- Drawn to UX research, specifically? Our Principles of Data Literacy teaches you how to collect, interpret, and analyze data, which are really valuable skills to have in research. (Nannearl also recommends reading the book Just Enough Research by Erika Hall.)
The tricky thing about breaking into UI/UX is that getting hired relies heavily on your portfolio, Nannearl says. “It’s oftentimes required that you have a portfolio when you submit a job application, so it’s tougher for people who are just starting out,” she says. For example, Nannearl’s portfolio mostly consisted of her work from the beauty startup, plus some school projects.
Take a look at the projects and teams you’ve worked on in the past: “Sometimes we don’t think our previous projects map to UX research, because it’s not called ‘UX research,’” Nannearl says. “But any type of research, if you can figure out how it maps to what one might do as a UX researcher, still applies.” Similarly, you might have experience honing the soft skills that make a successful UX researcher, like compassion, curiosity, flexibility, and listening, she says.
Building a portfolio is just one step — presenting your work in an interview is another. “Knowing how to communicate about it and actually tell the story is something that people are going to be looking for,” she says. “Because that’s literally what you have to do in your job as a researcher.”
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.