Whether you’re starting a new job in a new field, or just want to learn something new for fun, here’s how to master any new field, fast.
Imagine it’s your first day at a new job. You know all of the ins-and-outs of the job function. But you’ve spent the past few years working in the dogfood industry, and now you’re working at NASA!
Your first assignment? Write an educational guide to rocket science.
“Woah. I remember a little bit about the solar system unit from 8th grade science—but that’s about it. How am I supposed to become an expert rocket scientist in a week?”
-Probably most people in this situation
Sounds scary, right?
While that specific scenario may be slightly melodramatic (I’m a theatre kid, I couldn’t help myself), I’m sure you’ve faced something similar before. I know I have.
Whether you switched career paths, industries, or just got a new job in a similar field, starting at a new company means there’s a lot of learning to be done.
In fact, the very reason I’m writing this is because a little over a year ago, I started a new job in a field that I wasn’t well acquainted with: UX research.
I’m a marketer, coming from Drift, which just so happens to be a marketing platform. So the learning curve wasn’t as steep since I was already knowledgeable about marketing. This made jumping in and delivering content from the get-go a lot easier.
But when I started my new job as a content creator at User Interviews (woohoo! 🎉), I knew I couldn’t start writing about something I knew so little about, so I wanted to ramp up and learn the basics as fast as possible.
Fortunately, I had an awesome manager, Erin May, who understands the importance of learning, who told me something at the beginning of the week that was both reassuring and inspiring:
“The first 90 days on any job are all about learning. You’ll contribute as you learn, but you won’t get that time back. So it’s ok to spend a lot of time these next few weeks doing a ton of research, reading, and learning.”
So that’s exactly what I did.
There are no shortcuts to learning. It takes hard work, time, and experience. But, a couple of weeks into the job, I’m proud to say I knew a heck of a lot about UX research.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a UX researcher, a marketer, or a rocket scientist. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first day or 15th year on the job: There’s always more to learn.
Want to be a self-learner? Here are the 8 things you can do to learn any new skill or field, fast.
#1 – Use Google Search to Be a Researcher
The internet is your friend! This is going to sound incredibly obvious, but start by doing a broad google search of your topic, and get a general feel for the subject or field. And start with the simplest search possible. For instance, I started by searching: “What Is UX research?”
I know it’s tempting to try to take shortcuts and jump right into the weeds with what you’re trying to learn, but you have to learn to walk before you can run. If you search “how to build a fuel system in a rocket ship, chances are you’re going to miss some things if you don’t know how a rocket ship functions as a whole.
After you know what a rocket ship is and does, you can learn about the different parts of the rocket. Pick out the key subjects from the articles you read in the beginning stages of your online research, and search each of those key things individually. Once you understand each part, you’ll be able to put the pieces together and understand the subject more thoroughly, as a whole.
You’ve learned the basics. You know about all of the subjects, parts, and ideas within your general field. Now you can start getting as specific as you’d like.
#2 – Try Explaining Your Topic To a Friend
The best way to learn, is to teach! You just did a bunch of research, but how much did you actually retain?
When I was researching UX research (how meta!), I started to feel a little overwhelmed with all of this new information, and it was hard to gauge what I was retaining and where I needed to put in some extra time. So, I called my mom who’s never even heard of UX research and tried to teach her about the topic. Even after just 10 minutes of conversation, it was clear that I had a grasp on research methods, but needed to spend more time learning about research deliverables.
Find a friend who knows nothing about the topic and see if you can explain it to them. This will help you figure out what you’re understanding and what you still need to do some more research on. Plus, the conversation may even spark new questions and ideas that you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.
#3 – Talk To An Expert
Once you’ve talked to a novice, you’re ready to talk to someone who knows a ton about the topic you’re learning!
There are thousands of people out there who are already experts in whatever you’re trying to become an expert in. Whether it’s someone you admire in the field, a colleague, or even the author of something you read online, reach out to someone who already has knowledge and experience in the field you’re studying.
I ended up video chatting with three different UX researchers, and my conversations were invaluable. Talking to them reinforced what I learned online, opened my mind to new insights and ideas, cleared up things I misunderstood, and answered some questions that had been on my mind.
I also recorded my interviews with them and had the videos transcribed, so now I can go back and reference the conversation the same way I would a book or article. (If you’re looking to do this but don’t know how, I used an app called Snagit to record the video chat and Rev for transcription, but there are tons of different tools out there that accomplish the same thing.)
It may seem scary to reach out to a stranger, but I promise that someone, somewhere will respond and help you out. If you’re not sure where to look, a great place to start is at your very own company! My manager Erin, knew tons of UX researchers that were thrilled to speak with me.
Even talking to Erin herself was a helpful tool. Chances are, your coworkers are experts themselves. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and have one on one conversations with people on your team. They’re there to guide you!
But on the off chance that no one at your company can help you, or if you’re just looking to learn something on your own, a great place to look is LinkedIn. If you just message professionals you admire and tell them that you’re new to the field and would love to just hop on a 30-minute call and ask them some questions, I guarantee you that someone will say yes. After all, they’ve been in your shoes before, so they understand.
#4 – Read A Book Or Two
The internet is great and all, but if you want to really master a topic, books are a great way to do that. Books tend to go way more in-depth than articles or blog posts, and are convenient and focused since the goal is to put the best information in one place.
If you’re not sure what book to read, try asking your manager or someone you’ve reached out to on LinkedIn. Chances are, someone who’s been doing something for a while will have read a good book or two on the subject.
While getting a personal recommendation from someone is ideal, you can also try posting on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or even Reddit and see if anyone has any suggestions. You may be surprised by who has a great suggestion.
And last but certainly not least, you can always just go to your local bookstore and see what they have in stock! Skim through some books while you’re there and see if it’s what you’re looking for, or scroll through the Barnes & Noble website and look at online reviews.
Or very simply, you can google “best books about UX research”. When I did this, there were tons of things to choose from. I ended up choosing the book Just Enough Research by Erika Hall, because a UX researcher I spoke to recommended it.
#5 – Watch Some YouTube Videos
You might get tired of reading after a while, so why not try a video? There are literally billions of videos on YouTube, and chances are, a few of those videos are about your topic of choice.
Depending on the subject, visual aid and demonstration can actually help you learn the information faster, and remember it for longer. There’s a whole part of our brain dedicated to visuals, so it’s easy for us as humans to comprehend informational visually. The same can be said for the auditory aspect of video. Why do you think Netflix, Spotify and Podcasts are so popular?!
After simply searching “UX research” on YouTube, I found a couple of channels that are completely dedicated to UX research. When I got tired of reading, or had to make lunch, I found a video, pressed play, and just watched and listened. As expected, it was a great way to keep learning, without overworking myself.
#6 – Get Some Hands On Experience
There are some things that are best learned by just doing the thing itself.
I recently decided to learn Python. I read articles, watched YouTube videos, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t going to learn how to write code unless I sat down and actually practiced writing code.
While there’s plenty to learn about UX research without being an actual researcher, I definitely had a better understanding of what UX researchers do every day after conducting my very own generative research study.
Learning by doing is one of the ways humans are designed to learn. Remember in high school when you had to memorize a bunch of facts for a test, and then forgot absolutely everything the second the test was over? That’s because your brain needs to put things in context in order to retain them.
Hands on learning also lets you experience different feelings and emotions that you can’t get by reading about something. By conducting actual UX research, I got to experience the excitement of talking to participants, the gratification after completing a project, and all of the pain-points in-between.
#7 – Keep Track Of The Key Things
Throughout the entire learning process, take notes on key topics, words, phrases, or any piece of information that you think might be important down the line.
Why? Because we’re human and we forget things.
I promise you that if you rely on your memory alone, you’ll forget a lot. Keeping written notes will ensure you can go back and reference anything you found helpful or important. And if you’re a linguistic or logical learner, writing things down will actually help you retain the information itself.
There are lots of different apps that can help you organize your research. Here’s a helpful write up I found on different software designed specifically for note taking! Personally, I use an app called Workflowy. That way, I can organize my thoughts and key findings into sections, subsections, and even sub-sections of the subsections. You can also do this with standard word processing programs like Google Docs, Pages, or Word, — whatever you prefer! But keeping written notes will ensure you can go back and reference anything you found helpful or important.
Here’s an example of what my notes doc looked like after a few days on the job:
#8 – Find Ways To Connect Your Personal Expertise and Interests to Your New Field
Trying to master a subject or skill takes a lot of time, work, and passion. Hopefully the thing you’re trying to master is something you’re passionate about, but if not, it’s going to make the whole process a little more strenuous.
But even if it’s not the exact thing you’re passionate about, try to find something about the topic that gets you really excited. You may be surprised by how much you connect to something once you dig a little deeper.
Before I started working for User Interviews (I actually started here as a sales intern a few months ago), I knew next to nothing about UX research. So if you would have asked me if I was passionate about the topic back then, I would have said, “No, I barely even know what that is!”
But once I really started reading and learning about UX research, I realized it aligned pretty perfectly with one of the things that I’m MOST passionate about: human behavior.
I’ve studied screenwriting, psychology, and acting in a formal college setting, and I’ve been working in marketing for a few years now. What do all of those things have in common? They’re all a study of human behavior. So you can imagine how excited I was to find this new subject called UX research, that at its core, was also centered around human behavior!
So don’t fret if your new job at NASA doesn’t appear to have anything in common with your passion or expertise in dog food, be open-minded in your research and discovery.
Whether you’re learning something for fun or because you have to for a new job, find something about the subject that really gets you excited. Because at the end of the day, the more interested you are in a subject, the faster and easier it will be to master it.