How I went from being a Museum Educator to a UX Researcher

10 years ago I moved to NYC to become a Museum Educator. This post is about how my passion for informal learning led me to working as a UX researcher.

I‘m interested in the motivations and processes of people exploring the world they live in. I’m particularly interested in the learning process, and as a result have focused my education and career trying to understand that process. Not only the learning you do in schools, where in most of America students go into a school building, sit in rows, and learn about subjects they may or may not have any interest in, in a method that may or may not suit their learning style.

I’m interested in understanding the kind of curiosity that leads to people exploring and learning about the world they live in. I’m interested in the kind of self driven learning that might involve everything from watching educational programs, visits to museums, participating in the marker movement, falling into wiki-holes, reading the news to find out what’s happening now, or in my family reading faded historical landmark plaques on road trips. This learning is based on an intrinsic, self motivated inquisitiveness in the world you inhabit. I’m interested in understanding the motivations and processes behind that exploration, in all contexts, including in person and online.

For most of the last 10 years I’ve explored the topic of learning primarily in museums, and nonprofits that work with museums, first as a museum educator and then as a researcher. Museums as that broader category of spaces that collect artifacts of the world, display, and interpret them with the goal of public service and education. This includes museums, libraries, zoos, aquariums, science centers historic sites. These are the places where you visit to access information about the world past and the present. Historically, unless you were wealthy enough to build your own collection of books and world oddities, these were the places you went to explore and learn. That is until we began to access this kind of information online, and through our smart phones.

I became interested in the in the impact of technology on this kind of learning when conducting exhibition evaluation at the American Museum of Natural History in 2010. As a researcher I was conducting timing and tracking evaluations of an exhibition on explorers to the Antarctic. The goal of the research was to understand if visitors could navigate and access the content of the exhibition, and were able to pick up on primarily themes. Incorporated in the exhibition were a number of digital interactives that brought to life maps, videos, photographs, timelines. Visitors of all ages had to quickly learn how to use the devices- navigate the unfamiliar screens, determine the tapping and swiping necessary, all in order to unlock the content. If the device proved too difficult to use, after mere seconds of tapping around, visitors would quickly move on. These digital interactives could easily become a barrier to unlocking the content contained within.

This pattern repeated itself as I worked with museums and nonprofits around the country- with touch screen exhibition elements, apps, and digital games. If visitors couldn’t quickly and intuitively learn how to navigate and interact with whatever the technology was, the content was lost. Blocked by poor user experience visitors would miss out on whatever the video, images, or text that they had initially showed interest in learning about.

Card sorting at the Met to determine features to include in our App

Luckily, at least within the museum’s walls, we were able to relatively easily observe and help address these struggles. But, what was happening as these learning experiences were being increasingly available to those far beyond the museum building, on a range of devices? How could museums ensure that the content of whatever their new website or app wasn’t made inaccessible by the user experience? It was this interest that eventually led me to move toward researching experiences that were entirely online as a User Experience Researcher.

These days I’m working as a Senior UX researcher at Babbel. In this role I conduct research related to helping users successfully learn a new language. For our research to impact learning success, we have to take into consideration more than just the language lessons. In the User Research team we look at all of the touch points on the user journey including the onboarding, navigation, design, interactions, and the methods to encourage deeper engagement. I’ve seen up and close how easy it is for these aspects of the digital experience to distract from the learning experience.

Sure, the path from Museum Educator to UX researcher might not be obvious to everyone. But for me, I’m glad I have this background in Museum Education. Museum Education is the foundation I draw on when I work to understand our users experiences exploring the world they live in- whether it’s learning where the menu button is, or learning to speak a new language.