This month I’ve been talking to Lanie Dixon, Director of Insights at Ubisoft Montréal about her experience working in games user research, and top tips for people looking to join the industry.
Lanie is also host of the GUR Cafe Podcast, a monthly place to chat about all things Games User Research.
She shared her own journey into games, her experience starting an indie game studio + running scrappy research, and the importance of relationship building and partnership in successful user research.
What do you currently do at Ubisoft?
I started at Ubisoft Montreal in 2017 as a User Research Analyst. In 2020, I transitioned into leading our User Research Analysts across several games, including franchises like Assassin’s Creed, Rainbow Six, For Honor, and others. My role then was to mentor and coach the analysts as they work directly with their production teams to perform the research on a variety of topics.
This year I’ve transitioned into an entirely new role for our lab, Director of Insights. My role today is focused around guiding multi-expertise teams working across our various production teams. We act as their partners in building the best player experiences by supporting them in their decision making through delivery of impactful insights.
How did you get started in games user research?
I started getting interested in the idea of leveraging psychology into a career in games after a late degree switch from Finance my sophomore year of college. At the time I had no clue games user research existed, but I really wanted to find a way to get a psychology degree and work in games. I ended up in a game design course and after the second session I explained to the instructor I might be in the wrong place and if he could help. He was the one that steered me towards GUR and then encouraged me to apply for the IGDA GDC Scholarship. I was selected into the program in 2015 to attend my first GDC. As part of my scholarship I was given my first UR mentor and was able to attend GDC and meet so many incredible GUR folks that in many ways all had a part to play in helping me get to where I am today.
In the fall of 2015 I launched my indie game studio, Octothorpe, with 3 other extremely talented individuals (including my instructor from that game design course) and I suppose that got my foot in the door in a big way. From there, it was about networking and building relationships within the GUR community, and that has helped me get where I am today.
You originally worked with Octothorpe as their first user research director. What did you learn from your time there?
I was just getting into GUR by the time we started up Octothorpe, so much of my formative time learning my craft happened there.
When I look back at that time I can see how truly grateful I am that I was able to be in a situation where I needed to learn more about game design and development, not only as an owner of the studio but also so that I could teach my colleagues how we could incorporate GUR to enhance our products. It was nice to be able to have those learning opportunities for myself at such a small scale where I could really get involved and see the literal day to day, as well as learn from my mistakes. It helped me to see the value in GUR being present during the decision making process in the earliest days of conception. This helped me identify the GUR value add for our designers, and how I could communicate that value to my partners, which has been hugely valuable for me throughout my career.
I also learned a lot about flexibility and creativity. We didn’t have a lab, or really any budget for GUR most of the time, so I was forced to do what I could with what I had. This guerilla approach to research helped me learn to be okay with compromise and embrace a level of uncertainty with what needed to be done to ensure I could deliver information back to my team.
You now work with much larger teams. What skills do you think have been important to work on as your career has developed?
Relationship building and communication.
Going beyond the research and really focusing on more interpersonal skills to build better working relationships has been key. I’m forever grateful that I took several basic game design and development courses in college as even just this basic understanding has paid off many times over. Additionally, I had the opportunity with Ocothorpe to be so close to the design and designers throughout the process which taught me a greater appreciation for that craft and how I could insert GUR around it.
As you progress in seniority as a researcher, it really does become less and less about your methods and more about communicating findings, as well as the value of GUR. Building good relationships takes time and trust. For me, I quickly learned when it was important to answer the questions vs asking the right one when it came to being integrated into decision making. I’ve spoken about it multiple times on the podcast I host, the GUR Cafe podcast, but communication is key. Not only do you need to be able to communicate your findings (or even more often, what GUR is) but you will need to be able to communicate with your stakeholders which can vary immensely and listen to what they have to say, and what they need.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for people joining the industry now?
There is certainly a lot of saturation in GUR compared to 5 years ago when things still felt… small. It can be very difficult to get experience to set yourself apart from other grads, especially when you have many companies looking for mid to senior level individuals. I think at times there tends to be a hyperfocus on everyone getting the highest, most extensive research experience in their schooling. I’m not saying that this is wrong, but it really does depend on what role you want to have in GUR. Depending on your role will depend on whether a PhD or Master level research understanding will be necessary. Not all GUR jobs have the same needs so don’t feel downtrodden if you opt to not get a PhD. Join the GRUX discord, join the mentoring program, read the articles and books put out by so many in this community. There isn’t only one way in.
Would you recommend people interested in becoming games user research starting in indie or AAA?
Great question. I will forever have a soft spot in my heart for all that scrappy research I did at Octothorpe. Though I certainly don’t miss toting my suitcase/”lab on the go” around filled with phones, laptops, and my go pro, I learned so much in those early days. I think there is a lot to be said for getting started small, which doesn’t necessarily have to be indie but you should start running GUR on your own. Don’t get bogged down with having access to the fanciest tools or understanding the ins and outs of the best processes, be okay with things not being perfect and just start. Even in my early days at Octothorpe I ran a lot of heuristic/expert (whatever you want to call them) reviews on my own with nothing more than a game and an excel spreadsheet. To me “being an indie” will always be synonymous with scrappy, so I would always suggest people to start small. I’ve seen it happen too many times when juniors get sucked into all the fancy tools available to them that they forget the purpose of the research and what questions they were trying to answer in the first place and what your role as a user researcher is. So, start small and remember the questions you are trying to answer – whether that be as an indie or in AAA.
Do you have any advice for others looking to work in games user research?
I really wish someone would have sat me down and told me that it was okay to not feel confident with every method, or even know every one. Be okay with the fact that you won’t be an expert in every method – it is unrealistic and no one expects this of you. Being a successful GUR is more than methods, it’s okay to learn on the job when you’re new.
If you want to go into industry and work in GUR – remember successful GUR is about partnerships. Learn about your partners in game design and development. Take time to learn more about basics of game design, learn the fundamentals of game development, and take time to learn the terminology (I highly recommend Game Maker’s Toolkit on YouTube). Being successful in GUR is as much about being able to understand their lingo as it is about getting them to understand yours. If in doubt, take the pragmatic approach.
Lastly, just start doing it. It can be difficult at times to “break in” but there are plenty of things you can start practicing on your own. Do reviews, learn more about game design and development. On the job it won’t be only about being able to do research so push yourself to learn about everything around it.
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