Why autistics make great UX researchers.

Odette Jansen
10 min readDec 28, 2023
Autistic UXR’s working remotely as generated by Dall-E

Introduction

Twelve years ago, my journey into the realm of User Experience (UX) began, not knowing it would lead me to a profound personal discovery. I started in design but was quickly captivated by the world of UX research. The clarity and concrete nature of research, as opposed to the often vague realms of design, resonated deeply with me. This affinity was a beacon, guiding me towards a career that not only fulfilled me but also played to my innate strengths — strengths I would later understand as part of being autistic.

My path took a turn towards educational research, where I found my calling in developing tools and strategies to aid autistic students overwhelmed by the educational system’s complexities. It was in this environment, surrounded by students who faced challenges I intimately understood, that I began to see a reflection of myself. This led me to delve deeper into autism, focusing my research on learning and development. The more I explored, the more I found alignment between my experiences and those of the students I was helping. Two years ago, after a lifetime of navigating a world that often felt misaligned with my intrinsic nature, I was officially diagnosed with autism. This revelation, though late, brought clarity and understanding to my experiences.

Before my diagnosis, I faced numerous challenges in the workplace. Like many, I pushed myself to conform to conventional work environments, often at the cost of my well-being. The long hours, social events, and the constant push to be what the company needed led to a cycle of burnout and recovery, a pattern I repeated for years. It was not until the advent of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic that I discovered a work style that truly suited me. This shift allowed me to work in a way that conserved my energy, focusing on my tasks without the draining demands of office social dynamics. The diagnosis was a turning point, enabling me to understand and advocate for my needs, particularly the importance of working in an environment where I could thrive.

With this article, I aim to dismantle stereotypes and challenge the negativity surrounding autism, particularly in the professional world. The unique way our brains function as autistic individuals is not a hindrance but a valuable asset, especially in the field of UX research. I want to encourage companies to recognize and embrace the distinct skills and perspectives that neurodivergent individuals bring to the table. Equally, I hope to empower autistic individuals to see their condition not as a limitation but as a source of strength and uniqueness, driving them to pursue their desired career paths with confidence.

In my experience, a lack of understanding about autism often leads to hesitation and avoidance in professional settings. However, embracing neurodiversity isn’t just about accommodating differences; it’s about valuing and leveraging these differences for the benefit of all. This article is not just about the challenges; it’s a celebration of what autistic individuals excel at, especially in UX research. It’s a testament to why we are not just competent but exceptional in what we do.

Autistic strengths aligning with UX research

Autism brings a suite of traits that not only align with, but profoundly enhance the field of UX research. Here’s how:

Meticulous attention to detail

In UX research, attention to detail is paramount for setting up, collecting, and analyzing data. Autistic individuals’ propensity for meticulousness ensures the thoroughness and validity of the research, avoiding critical errors that could skew results. This intrinsic thoroughness ensures that every facet of the research is carefully considered and executed.

My personal experience In a project where I was responsible for setting up user testing protocols, my attention to detail caught several minor errors that could have significantly skewed our data. This meticulousness is a hallmark of my autism, ensuring the integrity and validity of our research findings.

Deep focus

The ability to deeply focus is invaluable in UX research. It ensures the integrity of testing protocols, method preparation, and data analysis. This intense concentration allows autistic researchers to produce quality work, garner valid data, and uncover deeper insights, all while maintaining a high level of efficiency and quality.

My personal experience: I recall a complex data analysis phase where my ability to intensely focus enabled me to sift through vast datasets without distraction. This ‘bubble’ (as i’d like to call it) of concentration, a characteristic of my autistic nature, allowed me to derive insightful conclusions efficiently and accurately.

Exceptional pattern recognition

Autistic UX researchers excel at identifying patterns in large data sets, whether from user interviews, surveys, or analytics. This skill is crucial for drawing meaningful, actionable insights, enabling researchers to identify significant trends and patterns that others might miss.

My personal experience: During a user interview analysis, my innate skill at recognizing patterns helped identify a crucial user behavior trend that had been overlooked. This insight, born from my autistic trait, led to a pivotal change in our product design strategy.

Logical thinking

Logical thinking aids in anticipating the course of user interviews and deciding on the most impactful research areas within project timelines. It also facilitates logical decision-making in team settings, guiding projects to successful conclusions with practical and well-thought-out approaches.

My personal experience: In numerous user interviews, my logical thinking has been instrumental in guiding the conversation to extract deeper insights. This autistic trait ensures that our research stays on track and is aligned with our objectives.

Consistency and reliability

The preference for routines and consistency translates into a systematic approach to UX research. This not only allows autistic researchers to thrive but also provides a sense of predictability and reliability to teams and stakeholders, ensuring a clear understanding of processes and expectations.

My personal experience: My preference for consistent routines has proven beneficial in establishing reliable research processes (ReOps). In one instance, this approach not only streamlined our workflow but also provided clear expectations to stakeholders, enhancing collaboration and trust.

Honesty and directness

Autistic UX researchers often exhibit a refreshing honesty and directness, crucial for presenting clear, unambiguous insights derived from data. This trait enables them to communicate findings effectively and assertively, ensuring that stakeholders receive straightforward, data-driven feedback and guidance.

My personal experience: My natural inclination towards honesty and directness (combine that with the fact that I am also Dutch) has been key in communicating research findings. I remember a project where this trait enabled me to provide clear, unambiguous feedback to stakeholders, ensuring that decisions were data-driven and objective.

Innovative problem-solving

In the dynamic field of UX research, where unexpected issues can arise, the problem-solving abilities of autistic individuals shine. They adeptly turn challenges into opportunities for innovation, ensuring that projects adapt and succeed regardless of unforeseen hurdles.

My personal experience: When unexpected obstacles arose in a project, my autistic problem-solving ability shone. I developed an innovative research method to gather additional data swiftly, turning a potential setback into a successful outcome.

Passion for Special Interests

When an autistic individual channels their deep, passionate interest into UX research, they bring an unmatched level of dedication and continual improvement to their work. Moreover, when working within a domain they are passionate about, their enthusiasm and commitment are amplified, bringing an extra layer of engagement and expertise to their research.

My personal experience: My deep interest in educational UX research has not only fueled my professional growth but also brought a passionate energy to my projects. This enthusiasm, a product of my autism, has led to groundbreaking work in developing tools for autistic learners.

In essence, the neurodiverse strengths of autistic individuals not only meet the demands of UX research but elevate the field with unique perspectives and capabilities. Far from being a hindrance, these traits enable autistic UX researchers to deliver work of exceptional quality and innovation.

Navigating challenges and embracing strengths as an autistic UX researcher

My journey as an autistic UX researcher has been marked by distinct challenges, each requiring a personal approach to navigate and overcome. As many autistics experience challenges in their worklife, I too experienced challenges such as social interactions, sensory sensitivites, differing communitcation styles, etc. Here’s a closer look at my experiences based on common challenges autistic employees experience:

Navigating Social Interactions: The everyday social interactions in the office, like small talk and team events, were more than just awkward — they were draining. I learned about the ‘spoon theory’, which resonated deeply with my experience. Each unnecessary interaction was like losing a spoon, depleting my energy until I had nothing left for my actual work. Embracing remote work was my solution, creating an environment where I could conserve energy for what truly matters — my passion for UX research.

Spoon Theory as generated by Dall-E

Sensory Sensitivities: The sensory overload of an office, with its jarring lights and cacophony of sounds, used to be a daily battle. Working from home, I could finally control my environment — no more battling against sensory assaults like bright lights and weird smells. This change was more than comfort; it was about preserving my ability to focus and think clearly.

Need for Routine and Predictability: My reliance on routine and predictability was often at odds with the dynamic nature of the workplace. I remember feeling panicked and stressed when unexpected changes occurred. It took time, but I learned to give myself the space to adapt to new routines, a process that required understanding from my colleagues and a bit of self-compassion.

Communication Differences: The directness and honesty in my communication often led to misunderstandings. I recall times when my straightforwardness was mistaken for insensitivity. Over time, I’ve learned to clarify my intentions and educate my colleagues about my communication style, which has led to more harmonious interactions. On top of that, remaining open to feedback on my communication style has helped create better relationships with my colleagues.

Stress and Anxiety Management: Dealing with stress and anxiety, especially when my routine was disrupted, was a significant challenge. Remote working allowed me to create an oasis of calm. I could step away, practice yoga, or take a walk, managing my stress in a way that was impossible in the confines of an office.

Advocacy and Accommodation: Advocating for my needs, like avoiding travel due to a fear of airports and flying, was often daunting. I’ve learned the importance of voicing my needs, despite the fear of being misunderstood or dismissed. It’s a continuous journey of self-advocacy, one that I hope paves the way for more understanding and accommodation for autistic individuals in the workplace.

These personal challenges, while daunting, have not defined my career but rather shaped it. They have taught me the importance of self-awareness, the value of a supportive work environment, and the power of embracing my autistic identity. My journey is a testament to resilience and the unique strengths that autism brings to the UX research field.

Guidance for companies on hiring autistic UX researchers

The integration of autistic professionals into the UX research field is not just about inclusion; it’s about tapping into a deep well of potential that can revolutionize the way we approach user experience. Based on my experiences and observations, here are key strategies for companies:

Creating an inclusive environment: Companies need to cultivate a culture that embraces various communication styles and problem-solving approaches. From my experience, this cultural shift can significantly enhance creativity and innovation in UX research, as it did in my projects.

Clear, structured communication and inclusive culture: Autistic individuals, including myself, often excel where communication is clear and structured. An inclusive culture that is open to different ways of thinking and working is essential for fostering a thriving neurodiverse team.

Providing adequate support and resources: Traditional HR may not fully understand the needs of neurodivergent employees. Companies should consider appointing advocates or specialists who understand these unique needs. Mentorship or buddy programs can also be instrumental, as they provide a direct support system and aid in professional development.

Training for managers and teams: Training in neurodiversity awareness is crucial. When managers and colleagues understand the diverse needs and working styles of their team members, it creates an environment where advocating for one’s needs becomes easier and more effective.

Valuing unique perspectives and creating space for contribution: Companies should create spaces where autistic individuals can contribute to innovative solutions. For example, instead of fast-paced meetings, allowing for follow-up inputs through surveys or smaller group discussions can be more inclusive. This approach has often allowed me and others to provide valuable insights that might otherwise be missed in larger, more dynamic settings.

Leveraging attention to detail and analytical skills: Employers should facilitate access to tools that streamline data collection processes. This support has been crucial in my work, allowing me to focus on delivering insightful and high-quality data analysis.

Empowering autistic researchers to develop processes: Allowing autistic UX researchers to build and refine research processes plays to our strengths in consistency and reliability. In my experience, when given the opportunity to shape these processes, the efficiency and effectiveness of the research have significantly improved.

Through these strategies, companies can create an environment where autistic UX researchers don’t just fit in but thrive, bringing their full range of unique skills and perspectives to the forefront. My journey has shown me that when companies embrace these practices, the entire field of UX research benefits from the rich, diverse insights that come with true neurodiversity.

Conclusion

Embracing neurodiversity in UX research is not just a step towards inclusivity; it’s a leap towards harnessing a broader range of skills and insights. My experiences as an autistic UX researcher have revealed the immense value that different perspectives bring to this field. As companies adopt more inclusive practices, we not only foster a better work environment for autistic professionals but also enrich the quality and depth of UX research. This journey towards greater understanding and accommodation is key to unlocking the full potential of every researcher and driving innovation in user experience.

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Odette Jansen

Lead UX Research @Nordhealth ⭐️ I write about UX Research practices, and share templates & workshops. Passionate about games, education and healthcare.