Kirk Rodgers is an experienced research leader, who has worked on titles such as the Halo series, Apex Legends and Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.
As an experienced hiring manager, he has a lot of great insight into what teams are looking for when hiring researchers. He was kind enough to give up his time to talk about his approach to assessing candidates.
We covered the skills that he looks for in candidates, how those skills are assessed and the need for patience when trying to get your first games user research role.
I started by asking what research skills he looks for in candidates.
I am looking for experience with research design really. It doesn’t have to be UX research, but could include significant experience in designing studies for humans in other context. So for example, I’ve hired neuroscientists, I’ve hired psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists.
Any one person is not going to have all of the skills that you need to be UX researcher. Even the people that go to school to become UX researchers aren’t going to have all those skills. I look for somebody that is really good at one thing and is able to add that knowledge and experience to the team. I want them to be really good at one thing and I want that one thing to be complementary to the other skill sets in the team.
For example, I look for somebody to be a survey expert, and I look for somebody else to be an ethnography expert. Having a team of people with different expertise allows them to educate and support each other without necessarily needing everybody to know everything.
Academic study is one way that people can get that academic experience.
People that tend to have the most success have some sort of graduate degree, whether that’s a masters or a PhD. Usually, a human subjects facing PhD or masters that gave them exposure to different ways of designing studies, some understanding of stats, or a really deep immersion in some sort of qualitative ethnographic method.
One thing to keep in mind is that UX research uses all these things. My practice uses ethnography, it uses contextual inquiry, we run playtests with statistics. It uses large scale surveys with statistics, it utilizes behavioural observation. UX research pulls from all sorts of fields.
But it’s not the only way in which that research experience can be gathered, and there are some supporting roles which can offer a great start…
There’s a number of other ways into the industry if you don’t have any experience at all with either research methods or game development. One is joining a research operations teams, whether it’s moderation, or even recruiting, or being a contractor. Those roles tend to be more willing to take educable people and give them the opportunity to learn some of the skills that they would need. I’ve worked with a fairly large number of people that used to be moderators somewhere. It’s a really good way of getting into the door.
My first UXR gig was a contract at Microsoft. there were good things and there were not so good things about contracting, but it did give me a really clear education about how to do UX research. And it let me put Microsoft and Halo on my resume, which opened doors.
I am seeing hiring managers being a little bit biased towards hiring people with some experience for full-time roles. I think the reason for that is if someone is truly entry-level, it’s really hard to know if they’re going to be a good hire if they’ve never done this before. So I think it’s a risk reduction approach to try and hire people that have had some of that introduction already.
Finding culture fit
Research skills are important, but are not the only thing you need to succeed as a researcher. I talked to kirk about what else he looks for
There are a lot of people that have the skills you need to be a UX researcher, so you have to really focus in on culture fit, focus on how people communicate, and what they add to the team.
One of the things that we’re honestly looking for in the interviews is candidates treating everybody with respect, or treating interviewers from diverse backgrounds equally. Unfortunately sometimes applicants don’t treat interviewers very well. If somebody only speaks to the man in a paired interview with a woman, that tells me a lot about who they are, right, about the biases that they’re bringing to the table.
I also like to dig into things that have gone wrong, or difficult relationships, or areas of conflict – everybody has them. How the applicant talks about those areas of conflict and how they frame them to themselves and to you also says a lot about them.
If somebody takes a very “us versus them” mentality when describing stakeholders, then that’s a red flag. If somebody is talking about their stakeholders as partners and we didn’t agree, but I understand why they held their perspective and I respected it, and we ended up figuring out a way to get to a mutually agreeable solution, or we escalated respectfully, that’s much better. I’m looking for people that are not seeing us versus them.
Other attributes for successful candidates
We discussed what other attributes help an applicant stand out.
The other thing I’m really looking for is someone that knows how to self-teach.
There are so many methods that a researcher is going to have to learn over the course of their career. Some they will do once or twice, some they will do every week. There will always be opportunities to be learning new things, you have to learn to play new games of genres you don’t know, you’ll have to become really good at them, you’ll have to learn how to do ethnography if you’re a quant specialist.
Having a track record of teaching themselves how to do hard things is a really important thing that I look for. Even if it’s like, yeah I taught myself how to do guitar using YouTube videos, that tells me a lot about somebody.
Another really important thing that I look for is the ability to persuade people to take action based on research findings. You can do the most perfect study in the world, and if no one does something about it, it might as well not have existed.
So I look for people that are focused — a bias towards taking action based on findings. I’m fine with people doing fewer studies and getting more impact out of them.
Doing the task
Many hiring managers set tasks as part of their hiring process. I asked Kirk about his approach.
Applicants are told about the game that they’re going to be looking at prior to the interview.
They’re not really told exactly what the task is prior to the interview, but we do want them to know what the game is so they can go and play it and judge their own experiences.
A recent exercise we did was we asked people to think about how they might design a study to assess a new first-time user experience from an early prototype. And asked them to come up with an approach to help the team decide whether it’s worthwhile to invest in fully building that prototype.
So the end decision is do they build the full version of this prototype? And of course, the smart researcher starts asking, how are you going to make this decision? What design goals does this need to accomplish in order for us to feel like it’s a worthwhile investment?
It’s less about which methods they choose – there are a lot of ways to approach this that are all relatively valid. But I really care about how they think about the problem, how they set their metrics and what they’re going to measure, what hypotheses they and the team would have, and how they falsify those hypotheses or not.
Mistakes people who want to become games user researchers make
A mistake that I see a lot is people that are blogging about the UX of other people’s games. There nothing inherently wrong with this. But if the tone is “how on earth could these people have made these decisions? This is so stupid” then that sets off warning bells for me.
Every game is a series of compromises. It’s almost never that people didn’t know that there were costs and consequences to the choices that they made. They almost always do know. But sometimes, it’s too late to change it. Or maybe by changing it, you break something else.
An example is, I’ve seen people rag on Doom Eternal for the “interstitials” that show up, that they slow down the flow, and are lots of text, and everything like that. And people say — “you know, you need to teach by doing”. Yeah, you do. But what if there was no opportunity to teach that by doing? What if the only way to give the player the information they needed to be successful, based on the development schedule of this particular title, was to do those interstitials. Do you do them or do you not?
What I see is a lot of people trying to break in, is they’re trying to sound smart and that they understand what’s going on with the UX. But they end up shooting themselves in the foot by showing they don’t understand that these games are made by groups of people that are compromising, and that they have the best of intentions.
You have to be patient to get a career in games user research
I wrapped up by asking Kirk for his tips, and he explained the importance of patience.
And literally like 15 years ago I was in that same boat. I was a grad student. I read that Wired article about Halo 3 and I literally spent the next three years trying to get into the industry. Applying for jobs, writing to people in the industry and trying to get mentorship.
And it was really disheartening at times because I wasn’t making progress. I ended up going to GUR-SIG conference on my own dollar.
Eventually I got a job – a three month contract at Microsoft. I moved across the country on my own dime to do this, and it was either the stupidest thing in the world or the best thing in the world – luckily it turned out okay.
I would say ‘give yourself time’. Because that whole process, beginning to end, was like 4 or 5 years of trying to get into the industry. And that’s frustrating. But there’s a lot of people that want this job.
Be patient, build up your skills, build up your resume, find ways to work. There are lots of indie teams out there that just would love someone to come in and help them with some light UXR. You get experience that you can talk about. They get a better game, so everybody benefits.
Look for opportunities to participate or give to the community. For example, there are people that I’ve worked with on the North American summit committee that are students, and I’ve already seen that they can work and they can commit and they can do things and they can deliver. That puts them actually a step ahead of everybody else that submits a job application. Because I know that they can do work. I know that they can deliver what they say they’re going to deliver.
Be active in the community. Be respectful and constructive in your conversations. Don’t give people red flags to wave. Don’t wave red flags in people’s faces.
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