Getting Into the UX Field — part 1

People often ask me about my career path and how I got into UX. Many people are interested in transitioning into this hot field, and I think hearing others’ stories helps us figure out things we can do to get in. I share my experiences and tips often, and I thought it was time to share them with you too.

In this 3-part series, I will discuss

  1. How I got into the UX field
  2. What you can do to get into the field
  3. Tips for your interview

Part 1: How Jen RB got into the UX Field

But first…What is UX?

Let’s first start with what UX even is and what my role is. UX stands for User Experience, and when people talk about “the UX field,” they are usually talking about research and/or design. To be sure we are all on the same page, let’s keep in mind that “users” need to be part of your job if you are truly a UX’er. For example, if you are designing and you are never putting those designs in front of users, then you are not a UX Designer. You are a Designer. UX Designers and UX Researchers are concerned with how users behave and how we can make products better for users.

Ok, so now that we have that out of the way, I can share my role as a UX Researcher. I am not a Designer. Sometimes the same person will have both of these roles at a company, and sometimes two (or more) people have these roles. At Facebook, we have Researchers, and we have Designers. We work together to make the experiences better for users. Usually it goes like this: The Designer creates, then the Researcher puts the creation in front of typical users (i.e., study participants) to understand what they think, what they expect, and how they interact with the design. We learn what works well and what doesn’t work well for the users by observing them and by using our experience in psychology (that’s me, anyway. UX Researchers come from all different disciplines, and their background usually influences how they interpret findings.). We also use our years of experience testing many other products to infer why things work well or do not work well. We then work with the Designer and stakeholders to improve the designs — we share findings, videoclips, quotes and data to demonstrate the issues, and the Designer edits the designs, and then we put the revised designs in front of new participants and test again — and this process repeats until we have learned enough to move forward with the design or until some deadline has approached.

In the lab, the moderator can see and record the participant’s mobile screen (left) and in the field, talking to a participant about her experiences (right).

This is the ideal process, and it is a bit different everywhere. It’s different for each project too — we use similar methods to test live sites or competitor sites. The goal is the same: to learn from the users.

In this piece, I am going to focus on how I got into UX Research.

Let’s go back…way back…

My parents are small business owners in CT — they make and sell marble and granite counters, and they used to import ceramic tiles, marble and granite from Italy. I grew up in their stores, helping people design their kitchens and bathrooms. After trying my hand at many jobs (like being a florist at Stop and Shop, a sales clerk at Weathervane, a sandwich artist at Subway, a waitress at Denny’s, a telemarketer at Action Siding and Windows), I returned to their business, and I thought I was going to stay in the family business. So I decided to go to college to learn about business “the real way” instead of just what they had taught me.


In college, I quickly learned that I loved psychology, and after taking a couple electives, I changed my major from business to psychology. One of my professors, Dr. Mate-Kole, invited me to do research with him on successful cognitive aging. We studied how a cognitive intervention program could improve memory, reaction time and other cognitive skills. I quickly fell in love with this line of work — it was so rewarding to work with older adults and help them improve their cognitive skills! When I was about to graduate, I was contemplating what to do next. I thought I might go on to get my Master’s degree, since I loved learning so much. One afternoon, I was discussing my future potential plans with Dr. Mate-Kole, and he pointed his finger in the air, and in his heavy Ghanaian accent, he said to me, “You are getting your Ph.D.”

This was crazy. A Ph.D.?!! That is for smart people! I was just a curious person; this is not the same thing as smart! There was no way I could get a Ph.D.! After arguing this with Dr. Mate-Kole, it was clear that he was not backing down. So I said I would apply to some Ph.D. programs, and I would apply to Master’s programs too, for back up (because there was no way I was getting into a Ph.D. program!). He said, “No; you are getting your Ph.D.”

I have Dr. Mate-Kole to thank for that push, because if he did not believe in me, I don’t know which path I would be on today. Thanks Prof!

Graduate School

After applying to 12 programs and being accepted to 3, I made my decision to move to Washington DC for grad school where I continued to study successful cognitive aging. I had not yet found UX — for example, my dissertation work was about how life-long bilingualism leads to healthier cognition in older adults. In my last year of grad school, there was a posting for an internship circulating around the psychology department. The internship was at the US Census Bureau in the Usability Lab. I had no idea what “usability” was, but the job posting talked about running studies with participants, writing up and presenting findings, and using eye tracking. I knew I could run studies well, and I didn’t know what eye tracking was, but it sounded interesting to me. So I emailed about it.

My email to Betty at the Census Bureau about the internship.

The Internship

I got the internship! And it ended up taking me on another path that I had not expected. At the Census Bureau, I learned all about usability testing, and I loved it! I loved all of it — learning about Census Bureau websites and surveys, and new methods, like card sorting and eye tracking. Eye tracking is a non-invasive technique that records where people are looking on the screen. It allows us to understand the order in which people look at things, how often they look at things, and whether they miss things altogether. When I arrived, the team was creating heat maps of where people looked on the screen during a usability test. I thought that there must be something more to the data, and I took it upon myself to learn how to do quantitative eye-tracking analyses and how to better use the qualitative images to inform design of our products.

Little did I know that my time at the Census Bureau would lead me to two new passions: eye tracking and survey design. At that time, I would have never imagined that I would go on to publish a book about eye tracking in UX research and design, a book about usability testing for surveys, that I would publish numerous papers about both and about usability testing methods, and that I would become a leader in both fields!

While I was at the Census Bureau, my manager and amazing mentor, Betty, recommended that I attend the Usability Professionals Association (UPA, now UXPA: User Experience Professionals Association) conference. I attended, and one day, when I sat down to lunch at a table full of strangers, I met Cory. Cory was a usability consultant in Washington DC, leading his small company, Lebsontech. We got to talking about his work, about my work, and how we might be able to work together.

I had no idea that attending the UXPA conference would change my path. After returning from the conference, Cory and I stayed in touch, and I began freelancing. Cory brought me on to help him with a number of usability projects around the country, and we taught usability courses together. Through Cory, I met Mona from Motivate Design, who hired me as an eye-tracking consultant and survey design consultant on a couple projects. I continue to work with both Cory and Mona to this day — on projects, on speaking engagements, and on writing. In fact, I recently co-authored a chapter in Cory’s UX Careers Handbook, and Mona and I recently spoke on a panel together. I also got involved with UXPA after that conference — first with the DC chapter (as Secretary, then President and Conference Chair), then with UXPA-International (as Director of Marketing and Communications, then President, which I currently am still).

UXPA-DC 2014 Board (left), and the UXPA International 2016 Board, on stage at the 2016 conference (right).

I stayed at the Census Bureau for another 2 years as a post-doctoral fellow, after completing my Ph.D. But then I was ready to learn something new. I was casually exploring my options, when I bumped into Jonathan at a local DC-AAPOR (American Association for Public Opinion Research) event. Jonathan and I had met at the national AAPOR conference earlier in the year, when he was job-hunting. We were catching up, and he went on to tell me that he had just started working at a company, called Fors Marsh Group, an applied research firm, in Arlington VA. The company sounded like a place I might be interested in. I shared my resume with Jonathan, and I received this email a few days later:

Brian from Fors Marsh Group emailed me!

Now I am in UX!

I was hired by Fors Marsh Group to do something other than UX, but they quickly realized what an asset it would be to have a UX team in-house. So I got to work creating a lab, hiring and training a team, conducting tons of usability studies, and working on business development. It was an amazing experience to be at an esteemed research company, leading UX efforts, and improving my business skills.

My stellar Fors Marsh Group team in 2014 (left); speaking at an event with Cory and other UX rockstars in 2016 (right).

After about 3 years, I bumped into Curtiss at the national AAPOR conference. Curtiss and I had overlapped for a very brief time at the Census Bureau. We were catching up, and he went on to tell me that he had just started at a company called Facebook and that he was a UX Researcher. I was surprised because I always associated Curtiss with survey methodology and political polling; yet here he was, doing research for Facebook. Facebook was not on my radar at all, but I loved San Francisco, so I asked Curtiss to let me know if there was ever an opportunity at Facebook for me. About a week later, I received this email:

Email from Brian at Facebook about a job!

This was just getting crazy now. Facebook was interested in me?!!! What the heck was I going to do at Facebook? I went along with it: I interviewed by phone, and they flew me out for an in-person interview. Around the same time, I chatted on the phone with my friend Rob, who I knew from mutual contacts in Washington DC, and we had spoken on a panel together. He was now at Google in Mountain View, and there were open positions that he thought I would be a good fit for. And then I got this email:

What?! Maybe an opportunity at Google?

I started the interview process at Google, and after much deliberation, I thought that Facebook would be a good fit. I took the Facebook job and moved out to San Francisco for a year. I am now in New York, and I recently joined the Instagram team. And I love it. I travel the world conducting UX research (see my recent post about international research for people in crisis), and I work with the smartest people ever. I get to use all the techniques I have learned along the way, and I continue to learn everyday. I feel lucky, honored, and humbled to be working for one of the top companies in the world. And it is fun!

Stay tuned for Part 2 — How YOU can get into UX!

Thanks to Soumia Fares for thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this piece.

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