• Eric Russell

An Inexperienced User Experience

Updated: Aug 10, 2019

Let me start this first post by stating that when it comes to writing, I am much more skilled in an analytical style than I am in this particular medium. I guess that's why I have titled this first post "An Inexperienced User Experience," because all of this still feels so new to me.

Let me provide you with a little background. I have had some very rewarding experiences in my past, and I am beyond thankful for the opportunities that have been bestowed upon me; from my time at Maryville College pursuing my undergraduate degree in neuroscience with a focus on cognitive psychology, to interning at Cole Neuroscience Center at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, to working as an education specialist at Helen Ross McNabb center in East Tennessee, I can truly say I have had some incredible, rewarding opportunities. I have met so many intellectual individuals along the way, and I have learned so much about neuroscience, social work, and psychology. More importantly, I figured out who I am as an individual. Having said that, there had always been something that was missing.

I come from a small town community and a loving family that values compassion, kindness, and working hard. That last one, working hard, has always been both an underestimated value and an unbelievable struggle for me. It's not because I'm not a hard-worker, but rather because I'm what some would call a perfectionist. I am very critical of my own work, and my high standards often cause some unwarranted stress. However, I believe my need for having a career, or perhaps I should say a lifestyle, that is meaningful to me is rooted in this value of hard-work. In all of my previous endeavors I have always felt like I wasn't pushing myself enough. I like to explore challenges and figure out creative ways to solve them. Don't get me wrong, the work in most of the positions that I have held has often been paired with its own set of struggles, but I was always craving something more.

It wasn't until October 2017 that I caught a glimpse of what I had been searching for. Two of my professors from Maryville College, Dr. Lori Schmied and Dr. Chad Schrock, approached me with a research-based internship opportunity. By this time, I had already graduated, and I was working in a job that I was not well suited for, so I was 100% on board. They told me that the research would involve investigating how students interacted with a computerized gaming software geared towards marketing and business classes. At first, I wasn't too sure if I would enjoy the work because I had never done anything like that before, but that quickly changed. After having a few initial meetings with the two other students that I would be working with (one was an undergraduate neuroscience student from Maryville College, while the other was a graduate business student from the University of Tennessee), I discovered that I would be using eye-tracking and facial recognition technology to explore how students interacted with and felt when engaged in the marketing game. A few research sessions went by, and I was hooked. From examining the hot-spots of where their visual attention was focused on during the game, to summarizing the frequency of certain facial emotions, to actually scheduling the students to participate in the study, I had experienced a high that I never felt before.

Now this may seem strange and probably a bit nerdy to you, but to me it was eye-opening. I immediately began doing my own research trying to figure out how to make this sort of thing a full-time career. It was then that I first read about user experience research and design. At first, I thought that those individuals who work in the field of UX are more like web developers than they are empirically driven researchers. However, as I kept digging I discovered the related field of human factors psychology. I started to develop my own definition of human factors psychology based on what I had read: the area of psychological research that is geared toward applying cognitive science and ergonomics to problems in order to create solutions that are efficient, understandable, and easy to incorporate into the situation. I had found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

I immediately began searching for programs that were focused on this area of research. I have always enjoyed academic environments, so I naturally started my search for programs in higher education. I started looking in my local area. There were a few groups that offered certificates in UX research and design, but nothing in human factors research. I then tried to find something within the state of Tennessee. Nothing. The closest schools that offered any kind of human factors programs were Georgia Tech and Clemson University. So what did I do? Nothing. That's right. I waited because it all felt like this was all happening so fast. I had flooded myself with this information, and I was getting a bit overwhelmed. I was trained in the domain of neuroscience, and I had always thought that I would end up being a neurologist or neuropsychologist. What was I doing looking into research that connected human interaction with developing products and technology?

I started thinking back on my previous experiences and why I never felt satisfied with them. I was never able to take my own research and apply it to something tangible to solve a problem; it was always more theoretical or academic. Then I thought about how much fun I had conducting research on a computer game in order to potentially create a product that was efficient, effective, and easy to use. I told myself to step out of my comfort zone and talk to some of the professionals in the field. So I did. I learned quite a bit more about human factors psychology, and how related it is to user experience research and design. I decided that I wanted to take the next step. Rather, I took a huge leap and did something that was far outside of my comfort zone. I applied to a PhD program that is over 400 miles away from my hometown: the Human Factors and Applied Cognition program at George Mason University. I spoke to a professor about a potential opening in a lab, traveled to Fairfax, Virginia to meet some of the current students and take a tour of the campus, discovered the caliber of the research that was going on within the program, and before I knew it, I was accepted. Woah.

So here I am. My wife and I packed up our stuff from little ole Seymour, Tennessee and moved to the super busy and super crazy D.C. Metro area. My wife has become a powerhouse in her career, and I am studying human factors psychology, researching visual attention with Dr. Matthew S. Peterson, and figuring out each passing day that UX research and design is my calling. With that being said, here's to the future, wherever that may take us! Stay tuned in as I write-up more posts about my current experiences, research, and potential job opportunities. Thanks for reading!

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©2019 by Eric Luke Russell.

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