This month I’ve been really lucky to talk to Jason Schklar, industry veteran and co-founder of UX Is Fine. Jason has worked in the industry for over two decades with both game publishers and development studios, including Microsoft Games, Big Huge Games, Zynga & Disney Mobile.
He shared his experience making the business case for research, how research informs iteration and advice for people looking to start a career in UX or games user research.
What do you currently do at UX is Fine?
I am one of three co-founders at UXIF. Neil Edwards heads up UX, Dave Inscore heads up UI, Look & Feel, Art, and Brand Identity.
I try to stay out of peoples’ way. We have awesome talent here (currently over 30 contractors) and the most important thing I can do is help them feel fulfilled, excited to work on cool projects, allow them to grow, and spare them the misery of the all-to-familiar ship and close the studio circle of game dev life.
Oh, and I also am in charge of getting and retaining clients so everyone gets paid 🙂
How did you get started in games user research?
Like many of my colleagues at Microsoft Games User Research back in 2000-2001. I burned out of grad school after completing my Masters and Prelims and couldn’t possibly imagine an academic career any more.
I had done research on how judges and jurors evaluate complex scientific evidence using both observational and survey research methods. This was a natural fit for the Games UX Research team, and they were happy to hire me in September of 2001.
Discovering the MS GUR group was a chance occurrence, however. My employer at the time (SPSS) sent me to an HCI conference in Seattle. I went to a Microsoft hosted happy hour and saw a couple of people demoing Dungeon Siege — a game I was super interested in at the time.
Turns out they were grad school dropouts like myself and encouraged me to apply for a job.
The rest is history.
How did that role change as your career developed?
I didn’t actually have a very long career in user research. A couple of years at Microsoft in 2001-2003 and a couple more years as a consultant in 2008-2009.
The role changed because I quickly learned that a lot of my value was in working closely with development teams to help them understand and act on user research findings. Specifically I developed ways of doing research that fit with their development cadence.
Big Huge Games was my first real project. It became clear that my role as researcher was best handed off to another researcher so I could sit with the team, evaluate observational and quantitative data in real time, and help them make implementable solutions quickly.
I loved the speed of iteration. We’d make fixes between subjects (easy obvious misses) and between days (deeper think pieces, or relied more tech to fix).
It made sense, at that point, for me to join Big Huge Games as a producer who also kept an eye on UX and UXR strategy.
Has your background in games user research helped in your UX roles since?
Yep. The value of quick iteration during early development, the way to mitigate risks to quality and schedule by having the right cadence of feedback, and the deep integration into teams from both the developer and publisher side of the business.
Starting out on the publisher side that already had a small but growing UXR department meant that there was a cohort to debate and grow with. This was before the amazing community of GRUXers existed and I would have likely floundered around, felt lonely, and developed bad habits if left on my own.
Has anything surprised you about working in the games industry, compared to other industries?
It amazed me, at the time, that people who made games were so hesitant to engage UXR. I mean I expected it (sadly) from enterprise companies with a legacy of selling to procurement folks instead of end users. But in games? It made no sense.
The business case for UXR was harder to make back then when awareness was low, perceived value was lower, and it was just seen as another box to check off in terms of publisher demands.
Times have changed for the better, that’s for sure.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for people joining the industry now?
The bar is much higher now for people looking to join the bigger GRUX departments. People actually want to choose it as a career while they’re in college and grad school. There is a glut of talent (embarrassment of riches?) and not enough positions.
There are opportunities at smaller indie devs, but this isn’t ideal. Often you’ll have to spend most of your time in another role (not enough budget for a full time hire) and then you risk becoming so invested in the project, and so hesitant to make changes based on feedback because that work falls on your own shoulders, that you aren’t really fulfilling the role to the best of your ability.
Do you have any advice for others looking to work in games user research or UX?
There will always be a need for people who love games, think deeply about games, and who have a background in scientific and research methods.
Case studies (even made up ones) help a bunch for juniors — but be sure you get feedback on methodology, interpretation, and recommendation details.
For academics who want to break in, research on accessibility and inclusiveness are super hot right now because they are desperately needed in our industry.
We also need more diversity in the field. And I say this in the broadest sense. There are still many underrepresented groups in the field. And there is always room for people who are interested in playing and working on games other than the standard casual, midcore, and AA/AAA games that get most of the attention.