Rich Ridlen is a recognised games user research expert, who started the first user research orgs at EA and Meta Quest.
In this interview, we explore Rich’s journey through the games industry, the skills needed to excel at starting and growing teams, and how to make connections as a new user researcher.
We started by talking about Rich’s own journey into Games User Research, and building the first user research at EA
I always wanted to work in games. And the first gig I had was an internship at EA, writing video game manuals. Part of my master’s degree was technical writing, and so I applied to EA to write video game manuals as an intern.
I never thought I’d get it, but I did. But user research was my focus and passion from grad school, so while there, I investigated what kind of user research they had. They didn’t have any, literally zero. They had QA people doing some playtesting that producers would tell them to do. There was no rigor or discipline to it at all.
And then there was market research, which EA had a fledgling group. I did a little bit of market research for them while doing manual writing to build a relationship and a couple years later they had headcount and hired me.
So then I did market research at EA for two years. While I was there, I got really good at surveys: writing and fielding them, and writing reports.
And also while I was there, still user research being my passion, I carved out a little room to do user research. I approached the dev teams myself and said, hey, I could do usability, you’re not doing that — just really basic, just 1:1, think-aloud usability, I could do that for you. And I did it in my free time, it wasn’t part of my actual job.
At the time, they couldn’t see the value in UXR, I became frustrated with that, and so quit and worked in survey research and panel management. Then three years later I came back and started the user research department. Still at that point, there was basically zero user research going on. There was still the people that were QA or assistant producers running some playtest sessions, but outside of that, there really wasn’t much of anything. They would hire vendors to do things, and it was mainly marketing focused, but there was no internal UXR.
When they hired me, I think what they wanted me to do was come in and run the playtest room for producers. They had monitors, TVs and PlayStations and that kind of thing set up in a room. And they wanted me to come in and just run playtests.
Little did they know that’s not at all what my plans were. So I came in and redid that room, got some budget to make it actually into a decent lab with some streaming equipment. Installed dividers and the whole basic setup we’re all familiar with.
Then I created a database of people we recruit from… Starting with like everyone at the studio reaching out to all their friends, to getting their friends and their friends and their friends, and putting ads in Game Informer and across Craigslist and in GameStops and everything. So I was doing that to generate the people to come into the lab.
But doing all of my own recruiting at that point. Then I hired another researcher, and then we built another lab that I designed, and we were continuing to upgrade all the technology..
And then we hired an actual person to manage the recruiting, and then that person ended up hiring multiple people under him to do the recruiting, and then somebody to work on the tech and manage the builds, and we hired more user researchers too.
It was great. We basically supported every dev team at EA except the sports teams.
Would you recommend taking a different role in a games studio as a path into user research?
Now I’m at Oculus, or Meta Quest, and have been for the last 2.5 years. And all in, I’ve been doing research for about 20 years, with about half of that being in games. I’ve spent time at Google and other smaller research companies. And it’s not uncommon for people to come into user research from other disciplines within the company. That’s one of the strengths I think of a user researcher, is that they come from all over the place. And it’s not just the obvious places like anthropology. They can come from economics, QA, engineering, all kinds of places.
As long as they have some kind of basic elements of what it takes to be a researcher, they can learn a lot of it. I worked with some amazing user researchers at YouTube who had no formal education in user research. And they were as good or better than some of the people that had Masters or PhDs in my opinion. So as far as executing and delivering really good research and really good reports and moderating well, they were as good or better than some people that had higher degrees.
I’ve always been really envious of researchers that have been producers or designers on a team. I always thought that kind of insight into the game development process and really understanding where you can come in, what you can do, the limitations of certain things. I mean, that’s an amazing point of view and understanding. You can get it from the outside, but it takes a lot longer and is a lot more work than just being a dev and doing the work.
What makes someone a good researcher?
This is going to sound really obvious, but it’s true — is a basic curiosity about human beings. Everyone is curious about other human beings to an extent, and that’s true, but I think it’s more the incessant wanting to ask why, why, why, all the time.
And then what you can learn – how to interview somebody, how to ask why in ways that you can get what you need out of it, and then how to build experiments and pick methodologies in order to get at that why. I don’t think you necessarily need school to learn this and get good at it.
For someone who wants to end up in your role leading a research team, what skills do you recommend they focus on?
You’d have to have a drive inside you. I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve landed in two companies where there was a vacuum of user research. Zero to one is fun and challenging and it’s rare to get the opportunity.
And I was fortunate enough that I landed in two companies that I got to do that in games. So that’s just luck. A lot of life is luck. But I was prepared. You’ve got to have a drive and a want to build things. And part of that is you have to know your stuff and be able to execute well so that the finished product, the output of what you’re doing, is impressive and impactful.
The next part is you have to be able to go out and convince people to even give you a shot and that user research is valuable. And that is a different discipline. That involves being a diplomat. Putting yourself out there, exposing yourself a little bit, feeling vulnerable sometimes, because you’re going to get rejected, that – you’ll hear we don’t want what you’re selling — which is basically saying the skills you’ve acquired are not valuable to me.
You’ve got be okay with being rejected. Be very curious, not judgmental about why they’re rejecting you.
Work out what’s going on? Do you not understand what I do? Or did you have a bad experience? Or are you worried about how this could affect the bandwidth of the development team? There’s a lot of things that could affect their opinion of UXR.
And it can take a while. It’s not an easy thing. So I mean with both EA and with Meta Quest, it was me doing everything by myself in the beginning. And then after a year or two years, then they see the value, you keep delivering it, and they say we want more and you say great, I need to hire people.
A part of the building thing is talking to people above you. A lot of managing up. There’s a lot of talking to VPs and directors that are not just product, but all over the place, to get their buy in and their understanding.
And these are things that a normal user researcher doesn’t do in their job. So you have to go really high up and talk to these people. Even if it’s just you letting them talk to you for 30 minutes about what their philosophy of user research is. That’s valuable. They saw your face, they saw that you’re interested, that you’re doing the work, and you get to hear their point of view.
Six months later, when they get headcount, they’ll remember that. Usually.
What is your advice for someone looking to get their first role in games user research?
What’s awesome is that there are so many more opportunities now than there were when I think you and I were both starting out. It was pretty closed. Now it seems like most studios have at least one user researcher if not more. So that’s a really positive thing. So it’s a lot easier now to get in.
So how would you get in now? I think you just got to do it. I mean, my route was just to see what was out there and to get a foot in the door. If they’re not hiring user researchers, but it’s really your passion, coming from different angles, just like we talked about, that can give you a point of view that you might not have had before. For example being an assistant producer.
But if you have like a Master’s or a PhD and want to get into games, internships are a big deal. Or doing stuff on your own that you can show people, or doing work on your own.
There’s a challenge with getting participants, but you can just get ones that are your friends. Or you could do a heuristic review. You know? There are ways that show that you’re thinking about these things in a way that can be valuable.
Interested in learning more about how to get user research experience from outside the industry? See Steve’s talk on How To Get User Research Experience without a job
Also be part of the community, and try to interact with people. This is something I did back in EA when there weren’t a lot of us, I would just reach out to people in our field and just have conversations with them. I still do it now. So like I’ll just find people on Twitter and go, oh, hey, you work at wherever, I’d love to do a thirty minute call with you, just so we can talk about whatever and connect. And I’m open to people reaching out to me for the same.
I think that that could be a great thing to do if you’ve never worked in games user research. Just find those people on Twitter. And say — hey there, do you have 30 minutes to talk about things? You might not get a job, but you’re getting out there, you’re getting ideas in people’s heads, and they might connect you with somebody that they know. So I think just making those connections and trying to meet people, and create relationships. It’s all about relationships. All of life is, right?
Many jobs aren’t advertised. And even if it is advertised, if they remember you, you’re a foot above the other ones, right?