Interview with Mary Schwab, UX Designer and Researcher

Mary Schwab is a UX Researcher at National Geographic Learning (NGL). She studied marketing and entrepreneurship in school and has been formally doing UX Design for a year now.  I wanted to talk to her because we both have previous experience in marketing and advertising and I was interested to find out which skills have been most useful in her current role.

1. You worked in marketing and advertising for many years and then decided to pivot to user-centered design. Was there something specific that sparked this change for you? 

In my previous role working for an ad agency, I worked on tons of cool brands including the sneaker brand Vans. I interacted with their e-commerce teams and would also present clients with strategy. Ultimately, it was always their decision on how the project ended up and I got burnt out on that. I felt this big need to make something with my hands and be more a part of the process and a decision-maker. In UX Design, I am acting as the expert, and involved in super impactful work.

2. Do you miss some aspects of that work or use some of those skills even today in your UX Research role?

Do I miss it? Not really. But I use all of those skills every day. Talking to people. Building relationships with other teams. Hitting up a developer to ask them questions. My boss encouraged me to talk to people within the company – “Here are the 10 people you should talk to.” People skills are very important and working in client services previously helped me with that immensely. I think you need to be yourself, and be confident. Communication and project management are key skills in this work.

3. What do you most like about working for NGL? 

It’s impactful – we’re developing K-12 learning products. It’s helping students learn, or helping teachers teach. I think education is the most important thing in the world. Plus, it’s fun to look at e-books and see these beautiful National Geographic photos.

4. What keeps you looking forward to your work every day? 

People work hard and truly love their jobs here, which is hard to find. I got that sense when I interviewed with them. It makes the environment, even being remote, so wonderful. Everyone plays a part, and every part is important. I started in January of this year, remotely, which is not easy but what do you do? People turning on their videos for calls helps. While it’s not required, it helps establish a connection and build rapport. I am feeling a bit of a funk working from home for a year now though. I miss those micro-interactions with colleagues.

5. What’s something that’s most interesting or surprising about your day-to-day? 

I am surprised how quickly things move at NGL. My accessibility project is moving ahead, I see developers looking at tickets and making a plan. A big chunk of the company is talking about it, I am hearing people talk about accessibility more, someone will bring up accessibility when discussing their work, which is great. So, I’m happy it’s sticking and moving ahead. I hear horror stories all the time – sometimes the work doesn’t go live and just sits (like at my previous job). My boss does a good job figuring out which projects are most needed and gets the business owners on board. So we’re not just doing busywork.

6. What processes or methods do you rely on in your work? 

In my UX bootcamp course, we were filling up our toolkit with various methods but now I decide when it is appropriate to use them. In school projects, you use all of them. But in reality, do I do card sorting in every project? No. A lot of my work so far has been usability testing and writing tasks, deciding which tasks are most important for the user to go through, running those sessions, and synthesizing the research findings.

7. How do you make decisions as a team?

It’s just me and my manager so collaboration is key. I definitely see us as a team. With the accessibility research project, I wrote the plan and script but pulled in my manager to review and make sure we were on the same page. She knows the inner workings of the company but I get to make a lot of decisions about the work I do.

8. What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

Getting more comfortable with not knowing the answer. I came from a career where I knew stuff like the back of my hand. I know a lot but not everything and it’s ok. I was on autopilot in my last job, while in this career, I am never on autopilot. There was a huge learning curve, and so many resources, and people to learn from. I like NN/g for research, and Dribbble for design. I think it’s really important to stay up-to-date on what’s happening in the industry, which is hard because there is so much information. It’s easy to go down a Medium hole.

9. For someone considering UX Research as a career, what should they know beforehand?

You need to be a thoughtful planner, and a really good project manager. Know your audience when you are presenting your research. The way I present to my manager is not the way I present to the CEO or whoever. Know which tools to use and when, and find that mix of what you should be doing. Knowing the right mix or cocktail for your specific research goals is important. Sometimes a survey makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t.

In addition, doing internships is great, and getting real-world experience. Those are the questions that always get asked in interviews. Your experience working with stakeholders, etc. Also, document everything you can and be organized for when you write your case studies.