An exclusive interview with Adam Lobel, who has been a user experience researcher at Blizzard for two years. We discussed meeting new people in the workplace, turning a PhD into a games job and spotting opportunities in the data that others miss.
How have you found your first two years at Blizzard?
I’ve really liked it. It’s been great being part of something where there is a wealth of knowledge and experience all around me and also a culture that celebrates the idea of just talking to people, getting to know people.
I’m generally a very social, extroverted person and I like that talking to people is part of my job. I have a go-to intro email I can send to say who I am, a little bit of context about what I do, why I want to get to know them, and it generally has an optimistic tone to it. Back in the “old days” we would ideally do something in person, I’d just hop to someone’s desk and say “do you want to grab a coffee or lunch?”.
The culture is receptive to those kind of approaches “let’s get to know each other and talk about what your role is and understand it”. Blizzard has a set of core values and one of them is Learn and Grow. So when someone is showing that they want to learn and grow there is generally an acceptance from people and the culture.
How did you find out about games user research and how you got into it?
When I was a PhD candidate in psychology, one of my mentors recommended that I check out the Chi conferences. It shows you how siloed the academic world can be as I hadn’t even heard of it. I got a poster accepted and then just turned up and introduced myself. I went out to lunch with some leaders in the area of games user research. On one lunch an industry veteran just grilled me about all the questions a recruiter in the industry would be asking me which I didn’t yet have the answers for.
From there I would do a lot of cold calling, I would go to conferences as much as I could, watched a lot of things on Youtube, I was basically seeking knowledge wherever I could get it. I found that people were very generous with their time. However it was finally being in job interviews that I found most useful – being in the hot seat, being asked questions and working out the practical dynamics of the job from there.
When I finished by PhD I did a brief stint at a university in Geneva, Switzerland. My job was to design a set of games which would be beneficial for a children’s emotion regulation skill development. Even though I knew game design wasn’t my ultimate passion, I dedicated myself to learning about it in the analogue game space so I could better understand what designers have to think about when they are digesting user research findings.
Was practising game design helpful for being a user researcher?
Absolutely. It was only towards the end of my PhD I discovered that being a user researcher at a games company was a viable career. As it was coming to a close I applied to any company left and right, that had an opening – Steam, Playstation, Ubisoft, etc. and it was just rejection, rejection, rejection or no reply.
The role in Geneva came up – and I wanted to understand the needs of my stakeholders. What are some of the issues that game designers face and what does it mean to develop something to a certain point and then get feedback and what are the types of problems that arise. That was a conscious choice to do that in a games design role and I was very lucky that there were people that were interested in that.
Then about a year later I started applying again for user research roles. By that point I had defended my thesis so I had a title which I think helped and I had experience. So I was applying left and right again, and still getting rejected, but at least I’d had an interview or two.
Honestly it was through the interview process that I understood what a user researcher at a video game company really is and learned what they are really looking for, and so all of those eventually culminated in a successful application at Ubisoft and they took a chance on me, bringing me into the industry.
Did having a PhD make a difference to you getting accepted for jobs?
I absolutely think it makes a difference in terms of the profile that you fit. I’ve come to learn that the recruitment process, particularly for bigger companies, often involves a third party outside the company, who don’t often know a lot about this area so can often fall back on old recruitment methods. Someone who has a fancy degree is going to stick out; I do believe that this is the case and that it helped my application.
Don’t do a 4-5 year PhD just so you have a slightly better chance at getting noticed by a recruiter, only do it if it’s something you really want to do and you’re deeply interested in the topic. However I do believe that it can be a benefit.
Does having a PhD help in your role?
The answer is yes, but it is changing. My background in psychology was very rigorous in terms of methodological rigour, so it was important in reinforcing the different study and statistical methods – but my first role incorporated a lot qualitative approaches where I was lacking experience in. The stream of information and also the skills to get qualitative data properly and all that was extremely new to me.
Nowadays I’m still finding the balance between the hyper rigour of my background and a newfound appreciation of the value of qualitative work. There is a value in having a cohesive story that you feel as a researcher is true and that has value for your stakeholder, and having more and more experience of just using your gut.
My training as a researcher for my PhD was super beneficial to help me contextualise all of the new methods that I was learning – it was useful to me to have a compass to try and form those stories in a relatively quick and dirty way compared to what I was doing before. My training also helps me keep certain scruples that I have which I think are very important. As a researcher I find it important to be honest to stakeholders about my degree of confidence in the story I am providing them, and coming from a research background that has a good amount of rigour, I think I am able to more accurately depict reasons for my own self scepticism that is fair.
I’ve delivered presentations with bar charts, and I sometimes explain to my stakeholders what confidence intervals are and I wouldn’t have been able to do that well if I hadn’t come from the background I have.
Are there any surprises about moving from an academic background to industry?
I am still surprised at how little t-tests or other similar statistical methods are utilized. I understand that when you have a long list of research objectives – which is often the case – it can seem tedious to incorporate statistical testing into your analysis; but it’s nice to have those tools in your back pocket. So comparing means or running correlations is a habit at the back of my mind.
For example, if you are saying something is true based on two things being correlation, then I would expect some sort of test to link A & B. It’s an easy statistical test, so I am surprised that things that I would consider quite simple aren’t generally thought about to be used.
I also see colleagues that do market research who I feel fall short sometimes in analysing the data. For example it’s common for market research to produce a graph of all game’s features mapped on showing satisfaction (y-axis) by importance (x-axis) i.e., asking someone how satisfied people are with a particular feature and how important it was for them. These visualizations are a good starting point but when you break down a game into all of these features and all you have created from that is just one graph, it just feels like there is so much more data here. This inspired some collaboration with them where we ran some regression analyses to better understand the links between features. I was somewhat surprised that there are often low hanging fruits if people take the next step.
Do you have any advice for someone who is studying a PhD and is looking to become a games user researcher?
Networking is so important, it’s a small community, and people are very kind in general so don’t be shy about reaching out to people. Try to understand game design as well. Those were things that benefited me a lot; being a lifelong gamer isn’t enough, it helps to formalise things and think about what it is to be designer. Doing a PhD is where curiosity is really honoured, you can ask any question and people won’t laugh at you, take advantage of that, ask away, and don’t be shy to reach out and learn about the craft of making games.
Also my advice is to keep trying. I refined my approach and came back again, it wasn’t an immediate success. Games and games user research are incredibly diverse in terms of the backgrounds which people have. There are a lot of different entry points that might exist because of this. I have a psychology background and quite a lot of people might have this same background, but people really do come from all over. Games user research is a very grassroots field, so it means that there are a lot of different people to learn from. It is a rich nest, there is a variety of expertise and it breeds cross pollination. So keep reaching out to different folks, because I’m sure that everyone has something different to teach.