How being a speech pathologist prepared me for a career in UX research
Deciding to leave my first career as a medical speech-language pathologist (SLP) was fraught with doubts, some false starts, and complicated feelings for wanting to move on from a helping profession.
It’s been over eight months since I last evaluated or treated a patient. I’ve since explored different possibilities within the world of user experience (UX), with an excitement and affinity specifically for UX research.
Since I personally know how difficult it is to change careers, I wanted to share a few thoughts on how my former profession helped prepare me with a broad skillset to support my growth and success, now as a UX Researcher.
Here are some of the parallels I’ve discovered in my transition from SLP to UX Researcher:
1. Patient-First → User-First
As an SLP serving the adult population, there were many instances in which I had to make quick decisions in highly complex environments involving business, reimbursement, and job performance expectations.
I learned that the best clinicians are those who embody a patient-first mentality, while still taking into account all of the complicating factors impacting potential for outcomes.
Similarly with UX research, it’s my responsibility to demonstrate a user-first mentality, in that my goal is to identify and solve for users’ complex needs, pains, hopes, and desires.
One specific example that I feel runs parallel in both the world of SLP and UX is journey mapping. In both realms I’ve had to take into account the user’s (or patient’s) personal scenarios, goals, expectations, emotions, and potential opportunities to better understand and represent their end-to-end experiences in specific contexts.
While it’s absolutely critical to take into account business, stakeholder, team, and product or service expectations in my research plans and executions, none of these components would exist (or succeed) without the articulated experiences and aspirations of the users.
2. Patient Advocacy → User Advocacy
Taking the patient-first mentality one step further, as an SLP it was often my duty to express my patients’ needs to colleagues, superiors, and even billion-dollar insurance companies.
Sometimes I literally spoke on behalf of my patients and their loved ones, especially when they felt they were reaching the end of their ropes in options or resources. For the sake of efficiency and clarity, I often used the SBAR model, which required me to communicate the situation and background, followed by my assessment and clinical recommendations.
As a UX Researcher, I consider myself the ultimate champion in advocating for my users. My duty is to speak on behalf of them, albeit humbly, whether that’s expressed to the team through storytelling, developing personas, or other research methodologies.
Without skillfully understanding and communicating user perspectives, we’d end up with a product or service built on internal, and arguably non-validated, assumptions.
3. Interdisciplinary Collaboration → Cross-Functional Collaboration
Medical SLPs are constantly collaborating with other disciplines and stakeholders, often including physical therapists, occupational therapists, nurses, social workers, executive directors, and marketing.
This complex experience of communicating efficiently and effectively both verbally and in writing prepared me for the challenges of cross-functional collaboration with product managers, designers, engineers, CXOs, and so on.
Similar to communicating in healthcare, my research messaging must adapt to meet the specific needs and attention of my unique audiences, whether I’m working on physical products, digital products, services, or a combination of offerings.
4. Evaluation & Treatment → Assessment & Recommendations
I worked in nursing homes, retirement communities, and patients’ homes as an SLP, which required a solid foundation of assessment and treatment approaches. I had to remain extremely flexible for unanticipated surprises.
It was my responsibility to assess each patient’s situation individually to determine a customized treatment plan, essentially by simplifying the complex relationships between behavioral, psychological, social, and medical factors directly impacting their lives.
As a UX Researcher, I have to assess (and at times generate) varying sizes of qualitative and quantitative data sets related to products or services, focusing on user motivations, attitudes, behaviors, etc.
Synthesizing what oftentimes may feel like loosely related findings into actionable and measurable recommendations is absolutely critical for product and service successes that lead to individualized user experiences.
5. Skilled Documentation → Research Documentation
In order to be paid by insurances, I had to make a case for each of my SLP patients.
What’s typically called “skilled documentation” required me to develop concise reports identifying my patient’s medical need and justification for why I recommended speech, swallowing, voice, or cognitive-communication services.
With UX research documentation, it’s my goal to clearly communicate plans, executions, findings, and recommendations so they’re easily digestible, compelling, and actionable for my cross-functional teams.
Since many, if not most, teams work in sprints, it’s all the more critical to determine optimal delivery of those research findings.
Whether it’s a two-page bulleted writeup or a 30-slide presentation deck, I have to take into account both timeliness and impact. Ultimately, how I choose to communicate my findings and recommendations directly impacts perception of the continued value in investing in product or service research, itself.
6. Ethics = Ethics
“First do no harm” is a phrase that we take incredibly seriously in healthcare.
By the nature of working with human lives, I found myself as an SLP bouncing between black, white, and gray areas when making potentially life-changing recommendations for my patients and their loved ones.
Now as a UX Researcher, I have a continued responsibility to pause and reflect on the intent when I’m asked to apply certain research methodologies, make specific assumptions, communicate user feedback, and explore new ideas.
To me, a true “user-first” mentality means following best practices in providing products and services for users, while continually supporting their wellbeing. Sometimes this perspective results in tough conversations with my colleagues, which I embrace as an opportunity for us to grow together as a team.
7. Empathy = Empathy
Since I worked with the elderly as an SLP, I was surrounded quite often by pain, rapid deterioration, and death.
To put my patients and their loved ones at ease, it required a tremendous amount of active listening and empathy.
Although as a UX Researcher I may now find myself somewhat removed from such tough topics on a day-to-day basis, my previous experiences cultivated my ability to truly listen to users’ needs, expectations, frustrations, disappointments, hopes, dreams, and desires.
In my continued dedication to understand my users, the opportunities to advocate, engage, and empower are endless and some of the most exciting aspects of my UX research contributions.