Categories
Interview

Joe Florey – Senior User Researcher at PlayStation

Joe Florey is an experienced user researcher, working in PlayStation’s European user research team. In this exclusive interview, he explained how mentoring helped him join the industry, and his experience converting a psychology PhD into a games user research role.

To keep up with Joe’s work, follow him on twitter.

What is it you currently do at PlayStation?

I am a Senior User Researcher in the EU user research team. I spend most of my time planning and running play tests with Media Molecule.

What was your journey into games user research?

I started out doing a Psychology undergraduate degree, then a perceptual psychology PhD. A couple of years into that degree I realised the academic life wasn’t for me long term and started looking for other opportunities. I discovered GUR was a possible role and that people with Psychology PhDs could do it (I still have an email I sent Mike Ambinder from Valve, who had a similar academic background at that time asking how to get into the industry, he sent a nice helpful reply). Over the course of the last year of my PhD I joined the GUR-sig mentoring scheme and worked with a mentor (big thank you to Bob Tilford!) to work on specific games user research skills. I was fortunate that PlayStation were hiring not long after my PhD ended and I managed to get a job as a Junior Researcher in 2017. 

What did you find the most challenging step of getting a role working in games? How did you overcome that?

The hardest step was just getting enough of an understanding of what GUR actually is and what skills are most important for getting a job. Initially I struggled with a lot of googling and reading but there weren’t many places with real detailed information (stevebromley.com was still in its infancy). The biggest help with this was joining the GUR-SIG mentoring scheme. Being able to talk directly to a researcher in the industry, especially one with a similar academic background to me, gave me a really clear direction of what I was already good at, and what I would need to work on to get a job. I also attended the London GUR-sig Conference as a volunteer, which allowed me to talk to lots of active researchers in the industry and see first hand the research that was going on. 

Did your experience in academia help with getting a job in the games industry?

Definitely. Games user researchers are still researchers, and the skills and experience of designing, running and reporting on research I gained through my PhD gave me plenty to talk about in an interview. Academia also gives you good practice at discussing research methods and results objectively, something which is essential for a User Researcher.

What would your top tip be for someone looking to become a games user researcher?

Join the GUR mentor scheme and Discord. The GUR community is really welcoming and are happy to help people who are passionate about games and research.


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Interview

Adam Lobel – UX Researcher at Blizzard

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.

Categories
Interview

Tyler Sterle

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.

The games user research mentoring programme
Games User Research Mentoring

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.

Rezplz

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

Thanks Tyler!

You can keep up with Tyler through his contact details below.

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Interview

Charles Somerville – User Researcher at Bethesda.

Charles Somerville is a user researcher at Bethesda. I caught up with him to ask about his journey into games. He talked about some great topics including applying academic experience into the games industry.

What is it you currently do at Bethesda?

I’m a user researcher, and my job is to conduct and facilitate user research at the publisher level for the many talented dev studios in the ZeniMax Media family. This means that while the actual science of designing and executing user research is the core of my job, it is equally (if not more) important that I also help maintain positive relationships with the many stakeholder groups Bethesda’s UR team interacts with.

What was your journey into games user research?

The abridged version of this story always starts in the same place at GDC 2018 in San Francisco. While attending graduate school in southern California, I had scraped up enough money to attend my first GDC, and by that time I was still unaware that games user research was a field. When exploring the various talks being given, I discovered the roundtable discussion on user research in games chaired by Ben Taels, who would end up being my boss a year later.

Fast forward to 2019 and many, many rejected applications later, I landed a contract role at Epic Games as a UX Lab Analyst, helping to moderate Epic’s lab and support the talented UX team there.

In the middle of 2020, right after the pandemic began, I knew my contract was expiring soon and began exploring full-time opportunities. Fortuitously, a user research role opened at Bethesda, and I applied with all due haste. Many interviews and several months later, I began my first full-time role as a mid-level user researcher.

What did you find the most challenging step of getting a role working in games? How did you overcome that?

The first step is always the hardest, and that is absolutely true for landing a job in the gaming industry. I had several advantages when I started applying specifically to GUR roles – my location in California meant that I was close to many studios, and my recently acquired graduate degree in social psychology was a good way to prove my research acumen.

However, the biggest gap in my history was, funnily enough, displaying a passion for games and doing so in a way that coincided with some kind of work history or academic project. I did what I could to remedy this by working with my academic advisor on incorporating games into my doctoral studies while also doing independent research on the side.

Did your experience working in academia help with getting a job in the games industry? How?

Yes and no. Academia taught me the fundamentals of research and the importance of the scientific method, especially when dealing with something so subjective as games. However, academia never adequately prepared me for the sheer speed at which GUR operates. Turnaround time has varied at both the companies I’ve worked for and across different projects, but I think anyone else in the field will agree that there is an expectation that results are due sooner rather than later. Academia just really doesn’t prepare a person for that – or at least my experience didn’t.

What would your top tip be for someone looking to become a games user researcher?

It’s okay to fail. This field is highly competitive at the junior level. As I said earlier on, the entirety of my 2018 and part of 2019 was spent applying and getting rejected to a lengthy list of roles (recorded in a spreadsheet I keep to this day as a reminder and confidence boost). Every rejection is an opportunity to reach out, be graceful and gracious, and learn why you didn’t make the cut. They are chances to patch the holes in the metaphorical armor of your resume and try again. Be persistent and willing to improve, and you will get there!

As a bonus tip, perhaps even more important than accepting failure, learn how to network. Attend conferences as you’re able. Go to talks. Join the GRUX SIG Discord. Our community is still relatively small, which means that good impressions are critical. Conduct yourself in a way so that your name has a positive association, and your chances will greatly improve.

Thanks Charles for the great introduction to his journey, and top tips! To hear more from Charles, do follow him on twitter. This is a popular topic, so we have more interviews from experienced games user researchers about the transition from academia to industry over the next few issues, including Joe Florey from PlayStation and Adam Lobel from Blizzard. 

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Interview

Surabhi Mathur – UX Researcher at EA Sports

Surabhi Mathur is an Associate UX Researcher with EA Sports, working on FIFA. In this exclusive interview, I asked about her experience moving from user research at Uber, and the challenges of transitioning into the games industry

What was your journey into games user research?

As a UXR I look for opportunities that will help me grow, expand my skills and pose exciting challenges. A job posting by EA was one such opportunity that I took up. 

When I switched from tech to games user research, I didn’t expect GUR to be so different and distinct. Tech UXR has a big, cohesive community which allows a general understanding of how UXR functions in different businesses. Since GUR is largely absent from mainstream UXR conversations, I was oblivious to its uniqueness. 

Even though my journey began subconsciously, I quickly realised that GUR has its own tightnit network of highly qualified and passionate individuals. As soon as I joined( and even before), I started leveraging the information shared by this community and it helped rapidly ramp up. 

What did you find the most challenging step of getting a role working in games? 

I faced two key challenges when trying to enter games industry:

  1. Since games/GUR is unique in the way it functions, the industry prefers people with prior experience in the field. Experience in playing/interacting with games is the next best thing one can bank upon. Since I had neither, I started interacting with different games to get familiar with game design. I also read as much literature as possible on GUR, Game Design etc which helped me understand how I could use my previous experience to draw parallels with the GUR process. 
  2. GUR is more inclined towards quantitative research than tech UXR (subjective experience) and basic quant skills are tested during the interview process. To prepare for this, refreshed all my quant skills before the interview and took a few classes to learn basic statistical languages (R, Python).

Did your experience working in UX elsewhere help with getting a job in the games industry? 

Definitely! Working in Tech made me a versatile UXR with the ability to conduct research in any given circumstances, methods, timelines, stakeholders etc. These skills helped me during my interviews because I was able to think on my feet and be creative with my approach.

What would your top tip be for someone looking to become a games user researcher?

  1. Get in touch with the GUR community and leverage its resources to get started.
  2. Play the games you want to work on or of similar genre: you don’t have to play the whole thing but do experience it’s gameplay. 
  3. Focus on your quant skills. 

Fantastic advice from Surabhi. I personally found the book ‘Quantifying the User Experience’ a really helpful introduction into learning enough stats to get by in most user research roles, if this is a topic you don’t feel comfortable with.

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Interview

Elizabeth Zelle – Amazon Games

An exclusive interview with Elizabeth Zelle – User Research Manager at Amazon Games. We discussed transitioning from QA into games user research, and top skills for researchers.

Elizabeth Zelle – User Research Manager at Amazon Games

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter

What was your journey into Games User Research?

In 2008 I applied to work in the QA department of Volition. At the time I had a number of friends from high school already working in QA there, and they encouraged me to apply. It was the middle of the recession and jobs in marine biology (what my actual degree was in) were few and far between, so there was nothing to lose. I got hired fairly easily, but I will admit that networking and name dropping my mom (who had worked at Volition years before) totally played a role there.

I was laid off a year later, but was in one of the first rounds of rehiring in 2010 when they started staffing up again. I was so high up the rehire list because I’d proven my skills, both in doing QA and in being a good team member, and people in the department specifically wanted me back, which felt good. 

I transitioned to User Research a little while later when I discovered it was a great fit for my skillsets and matched well with my interests. The only problem was that we didn’t have a researcher opening. So I approached the solo researcher at the company and told him that it looked like he had enough work that he needed an assistant. Luckily for me, he agreed!

My takeaway: Getting that first job was easy but also a lot of luck; getting rehired after the layoff was based on skill. Being detail-oriented, having strong note-taking skills, and being highly observant all were traits that helped me excel in QA and then transition over to UR (not surprising, since those are all skills that research work in college had hammered into me). 

My advice: Self-assess and identify which skills are your strengths, and then own them. Seek out the opportunities that you want and shoot your shot; don’t count yourself out before trying. Make friends; being someone that people value and want on their team will always benefit you.