An exclusive interview with Tyler Sterle about the work he has been doing while studying to break into the games industry, essential games user research resources, the importance of networking, and the need to make your own luck!
What has been your journey into games user research so far?
About 4 years ago, I was in a focus group for a financial literacy application called “Whichway”. It was designed to teach people in high school and college about key financial literacy concepts adult deal with every day. From there, I met a UX Designer who was working on the project. Curious, I asked her about what her job is and how she does it. She took me under her wing, teaching me various methods and processes she does every day. I started to read dozens of articles on the theory of user experience and human factors psychology. I ended up working for this UX Designer as a UX Analyst/Moderator intern.
Later on in my junior year of high school, I was curious about the full coverage of where UX can apply. In a very simple fashion, I searched the internet to see if UX could be applied to games. Sure enough, it was, and had been for over a decade now. That’s when I found the GRUX SIG website and a few others. I’d found the games user research summits and watched those videos. I also found the GRUX SIG Discord server. I’m not entirely sure how it happened or why, but as soon as I found out that UX and Games was a field in itself, something clicked in my brain. Immediately, I knew this was what I had to do after university. I’ve been doing games user research ever since.
Summer 2017 came by, and my GRUX journey had come to a screeching halt. I learned that most Games User Research practitioners had master’s degrees and Ph.Ds. I wasn’t going to wait until that far in my university experience to continue with GUR. This would lead to many basic self-made studies to practice the research methods I’d been reading about. I wasn’t aiming for perfection, but I wanted to keep growing. I worked with a good friend of mine in high school by having him play the first level of Half-Life while I observed him, taking notes. We were practicing the read-aloud method where he would share his thoughts. I even interview him afterwards based on some of the comments he made. To me now, it seems very rudimentary, but it was an important growth step.
I needed more than simple tests. I needed to learn to design studies and experiments. There was one problem, how in the world was I going to find users to test games with in an unbiased manner without paying them while I’m a senior in high school? I didn’t want to just use my friends to eliminate the bias there. That and they all thought the idea of GUR was stupid (those people are not my friends anymore). The easiest way to group together lots of people around a common theme in school is a club. So that’s exactly what I did, I created a club where people could come serve as research participants for studies I devised. It was simply called the “Gaming User Research Club”. There were some regular members, and some who come and went depending on the game. I would go online searching for free indie games that were still in development and contact them to work out deals for studies. I didn’t get paid for those naturally, since I was teaching myself new concepts. But the experience was extremely valuable.
Later on in the year, I met my first mentor from the GRUX SIG Mentorship program. He goes by David Tisserand. He was the research manager for Ubisoft Montreal at the time. This is where my learning took a major positive pivot. I now had a professional who could critique the work I was doing in school. He taught me many new research methods and practices. I also continued to learn many new academic concepts from my first psychology and statistics classes.
As university came around, I continued to work with David and indie developers across the globe. Though as late 2018 came around, my 6 month partnership was ending with David. He had taught me much and told me I should continue to conduct studies on my own. To this day, David is still one of my greatest mentors, and I can’t wait to see him in person sometime, perhaps to share a drink at a pub.
At university, I continued to devise more complex and challenging studies, this time without needing a club. I simply worked as an independent consultant, recruiting people through flyers and other outlets at school. I gained many other mentors who helped me with me studies. This includes the head of human-computer interaction studies at Indiana University, Martin Siegel. I ended up taking many user experience and psychology courses at school, including one normally meant for graduate students under Professor Siegel. It was an interaction design course where we worked with a few real companies on actual design projects they were working on. One of those companies is Trello. They have a kanban style board application for productivity and organization. My team won best design for the project. A year later, our design inspired their latest major update.
The Virtual Summer Camp for GRUX was coming around, and I thought it might be a great opportunity for me to give some sort of presentation there. After speaking with many members of the community, I decided I’d talk about how I taught myself into GUR. After some guidance from David on how to create a conference talk, I shared it. It was a success. I was getting dozens of messages from junior and senior researchers about the talk. And I loved getting to finally interact with the speakers at this summit as opposed to only watching pre-recorded videos on Youtube. I made a lot of connections and new friends there.
Later on in the year, I was still working with Longneck Games who had a puzzle side scrolling platformer game called, Rezplz. I’ve already worked with them on a few projects over a year and a half. My biggest project yet was about to come. They were just about to release their title in July, so I asked them if we could try post-launch research. I ended up devising a study for RVA (review analysis) where I could look at a collection of professional reviews of the game to inform the developers for updates or reflection. As I read about RVA in the GUR Book, I realized I couldn’t do this project alone. I went to the GRUX SIG Discord and recruited 7 researchers. It was a little bit intimidating considering some of them were already in the industry working for a while. But I had to remember I was a facilitator for a project, not necessarily the de facto expert.
The project was tough, especially during a pandemic, and the fact that it was internationally connected. We had to work mostly asynchronously. It took 5-6 months of scrubbing through 18 reviews as a team, and carefully analyzing all of them. I even got a new mentor at this time named Joe Florey. He’s a researcher for Sony Playstation, and would be a great support to informing us how to run this study. After many tough months of doing this with our own work, school, caring for children, unpaid research, researchers dropping out, and life in general, I ended up completing the project in December 2020. This project if we were doing it for our job with an 8 hour day shift could have been completed in just 3 days.
So here I am now, continuously improving and studying in university as a junior undergraduate. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to afford to go to graduate school, nor am I sure I’ll need it. No matter how long it takes, I will continue to improve and build connections until I get my figurative foot in the door to the industry. That’ll be either an internship or entry level job. I’ve gotten close a few times, especially at Ubisoft Montreal where they couldn’t have international interns being the only issue. Sometimes I question myself wondering if all this effort was even worth it or if I’m wasting my time. I care about the field and this community a lot. I live for the vision of making gaming experiences worthwhile and memorable for people. It brings me joy. So for now, I’ll keep conducting studies, watching summit talks, making connections and friends, sending employment applications, studying college classes, and I suppose praying.
What have you found the biggest challenge to be so far? How have you approached overcoming that?
Having to make almost every opportunity for myself. There was never any hand-holding in my 4 years of UX. My best advice in case others have to go through a similar situation, never give up on any road-block. There’s always more than one way to do something.
What have you found the most useful resources out there for people looking to become a games user researcher?
Easily the GUR Book, GRUX SIG Summit talks on Youtube, and the mentorship program through GRUX SIG. The bulk of my knowledge came from those 3 source.
Any top tips for someone looking to become a games user researcher?
If I end up actually getting a job in this industry, I’ll let you know. Although I have learned one thing from my mother that seems to work for most industries. I live by this motto:
“If you’re not networking, you’re not working.”
- Julie Hoberty
You can keep up with Tyler through his contact details below.