User Research Skill Tree?: Career Progression Paths + Quiz

Four years ago, I was doing 2 things: playing the video game Far Cry 5 for an unhealthy amount of time and onboarding an intern into the world of user research. This gave me an idea, perhaps a Skill Tree would be a good way to communicate the different branches of our research world; and with this, one could, in a fun way, illustrate relationships and progression between the different skills, tools, and abilities that are core to our practice. Four years later, I present to you a Far Cry inspired user research skill tree! (View full size Skill Tree here and take the quiz here.)

A Far Cry Themed User Research Tree

This user research Skill Tree consists of 5 branches (with the descriptive words borrowed from the main branches of Far Cry 5 displayed in “[]”), 4–5 levels of sub-branching, and 9–13 skills/tools/abilities under each branch. The main branches are:

  1. ?? Tactical [Assassin] — focused on the tactical methods of user research. Aimed at answering research questions like: “Are we heading in the right direction,” these skills are borrowed from Neilsen Norman classics, and can be described as UR bread-and-butter activities such as usability testing and move into upskilled activities such as experimentation with A/B and multivariate testing and biometrics.
  2. Explorative [Renegade] — focused on exploratory research and going into deep qual. The How’s and the Why’s and is mixed with strong foundational knowledge about how knowledge itself is created. Here, the skills are broken down into sub-branches: Base, Frameworks, Deep Qual, and World Views. Skills range from interviewing and frameworks like Jobs-to-be Done and upskill into topics such as epistemology philosopher and responsible AI practices.
  3. Summative [Prepper] — focused on summative research, diving into the world of determining success, assessing the state of the product and overall UX Health. Here the skills are broken down into these sub-branches Base, Metrics, Big Data, Statistical Analysis, and Data Driven Culture. Skills range from benchmarking to defining UX outcomes, and evangelizing success through self-serve dashboards.
  4. Ops [Survivalist] — focused on the scaling of mechanisms and strategies that put research in motion (you know, research operations). Here, the skills are broken down into these sub-branches: Base, Compliance, Brand, Insights Management, and Scaling. As these sub-branches suggest, skills range from participant management in CRMs, as well as tooling, and upskilling to skills like measuring impact, archiving, and architecting a usability engine process for increased efficiency.
  5. ⭐️ Research [Leader] — focused on skills that influence others towards elevated research practice. These skills are broken down into the following sub-branches: Product Strategy, Team Management, Coaching, Collaboration, and Thought Leadership. Base skills include influencing features, crafting strong stories, and upskilling to authorship and noted speaker.

What is a Skill Tree?

The original Far Cry 5 Skill Tree — Example: Human Fish Ability, you can swim faster and hold your breath under water longer.

The root of Skill Trees (see what I did there? skill-tree → tree → roots) goes back to physical RPG games, evolving into what are now ubiquitous elements of game systems. They aim to bring depth to your player’s development, scaffolding clear paths of progression. Key Skill Tree positives include ability to:

  1. Develop long-term strategy around your progression
  2. Scaffold the onboarding process
  3. Provide a sense of empowerment and self-expression

The make-up of a Skill Tree often includes relevant skills, tools, and abilities available to unlock via a progression system tied into gameplay. It’s important to note that while the term “skill tree” might suggest a bottom-to-top view of growth, Skill Trees can take on many different shapes (that don’t resemble trees), densities, and specificizes.

For example, above is a screen shot of the Skill Tree from Far Cry 5. The grayed-out icons to the left are skills the player has yet to unlock. In this case, the player selected the skill “Human Fish” under the Survivalist branch. This skill states that it will allow the character to swim faster and hold their breath longer underwater. As the player progresses through the game, they obtain points they can use to acquire more skills.

The Beginner to Upskill Continuum

User Research Skill Tree shows the relationship between beginner and upskilled skills.
User Research Skill Tree shows the relationship between beginner and upskilled skills.

Skill tree progression systems usually start with common base skills and expand into more specialized skills. The presented progression path from basic (left) to upskilled (right) simply suggests a potential relationship within a “vanilla” path progression.

Some researchers may acquire some of the upskilled skills first. This is expected. This is likely true with academics who study concepts like epistemology, focus on writing journal papers and rigorous analysis to contribute to the fields body of knowledge, and ultimately present their work to leaders in their fields. These are all highly upskilled activities. These researchers may need to back-track and pick up some more base skills. Fortunately, this works! Unlike Skill Trees in video games, we are not unlocking a skill to reveal the next skill, so feel free to grow in any direction!

Is the Goal to Complete All the Skills?

  1. The completionism style, where a user seeks out achieving all skills
  2. A focus on hard-choices and specialization, where the user seeks a skills path (doesn’t achieve all skills)

With 2, the system is designed without the objective of a user obtaining all the skills during a playthrough. Instead, players are given the autonomy to explore one or a combination of the paths presented to develop a unique character. Additionally, this means the player is committed to long-lasting choices, thus they should consider long-term strategy around progression.

With the high-level of commitment required to acquire the skills in the User Research Skill Tree, I designed with #2 in mind. I kept the idea of an “initial playthrough” in mind, aka the first several years of your UR career. That is, these skills should take several months, if not years, to master; thus, achieving them all is not the intention. But hey, you do you! I don’t want to hold you back; if you want, collect them all!

Why these skills? The criteria for skill selection.

  1. Exciting: What skills bring exciting change to a researcher’s awareness of the domain?
  2. Self-expression: What skills bring new ways for researchers to express themselves?
  3. Progression: What skills scaffold clear UR progression paths?

Using these criteria, the final selection of potential UR skills in the tree reflects my experience in the UR world. I certainly don’t claim this is THE view of UR skills for the industry, or what everyone’s view should be. It is simply my view.

Future Work

  1. Expand this UR Skill Tree to include more details about each skill, how and where one could upskill.
  2. Offer a “what type of researcher am I” quiz to determine what skills you currently have, suggested skills you could learn next, and generally profile you as a researcher. For example, you could have a combination of several branches, or maybe you specialize in one branch?) — Take the WIP quiz now
  3. Align the skills with Career progression paths — For example, what a Senior UR skill set might look like vs a Staff UR IC vs an UR manager.

I hope you enjoy my view of our world, and if you happen to identify a sub-branch of skills that you didn’t know about and want to explore, that’s great too. Good luck with your player progression.

Disclaimer: this article is also published on Microsoft’s UXR Medium blog. It is written for fun and doesn’t reflect any official Microsoft UXR capabilities.


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