From Zoo-X to U-X: My UX Career Origin Story

Photo credit: Flickr user BurgersZoo 



I’m a UX Research Director. People contact me via email or LinkedIn asking how to break into UX. I’ve also spoken on a lot of podcasts. Often, podcasters ask me to share my career origin story with their audience. This article will explain how I found myself working in a UX career.

TLDR Summary – I went to school. I worked in a jail. I went to more school. I did research in museums and zoos. I went to more school. I worked more as a researcher. A colleague/friend referred me to a digital design firm. Intuitive Company hired me. I had the right work and education experiences. I knew the right people at the right time. You can do this too. But it isn't easy.

The Beginning

I didn’t grow up interested in design. I wasn’t skilled at creating things. I never built Lego castles. I didn’t draw up blueprints time machines. What I have always been, is curious. I love to learn. I love to read. I love to understand things and make sense of the world around me.

My mother encouraged me to read and write. She bought me journals and scrap books. She told me I should record my experiences. I didn’t do a great job of this. Eventually I realized a passion for writing. I wrote short stories and poetry in high school. Sometimes I shared what I wrote with others. I always held high regard for published authors. I wrongly assumed they were rich and famous.

I wanted to own a business, be a journalist, and write a book when I grew up. I knew I’d be filthy rich.

My Education and Work Experience

I can’t separate my work and education experience. I had three children during the course of earning my bachelor’s degree. I worked throughout college.

I Went to School

I didn’t take any art or design courses in high school. I didn’t take any art or design courses in college. I studied people and learning. I received my Bachelor’s and Master’s in Education from The Ohio State University (OSU). You have to use the word “The”. It’s part of The name. I intended to teach middle school language arts or social studies.

My course load focused on people, communication, and learning. I took classes in anthropology, education, psychology, and sociology. I also took courses in comparative studies, history, human development, and social work. I learned how people tick, from a textbook perspective.

I Worked In a Jail

I worked at county jails as a jailer for a total of three years. I had other jobs, but jailer is the most relevant. Why’s that? I learned how people tick, from a real life perspective.

As a jailer I learned and practiced:

  • Observation – my job required me to observe and record my surroundings. I conducted inmate head counts hourly. I searched bunks and rooms. I watched common spaces for signs of trouble. I kept a written log of all activity during my shift.
  •  Interviewing – I was a booking officer. I interviewed each person committed to jail during my shift. I had to learn why the person was arrested. I evaluated their personal and health information. I told them how things went in general population. I also interviewed inmates on a daily basis. Inmate insight was key to running a smooth experience.
  • UX – I didn’t know it at the time, but I was responsible for the UX of the inmates. As a jailer, I determined the frequency of outdoor activities. I scheduled trips to the library. I coordinated other activities we engaged in. I made sure everyone ate and received medical care when needed. I helped maintain a safe and clean environment. Bad UX meant trouble. Bad UX might mean violence.
  • Respecting others – I learned the easiest way to receive respect is to give respect. Inmates were still people. Their punishment was to serve time. I was not responsible for inflicting more punishment. I was responsible for making sure they served their sentence. (Apply this to UX – your job is to respect users, not inflict extra punishment.

I got a PhD and did a lot of Research

I developed a passion to learn more about how the natural environment impacts learning. I knew I wanted to continue in school. I wanted to research how people communicate about the environment. OSU accepted me into a PhD program as I completed my master’s degree.

I enjoyed getting my PhD. I studied how people interpret communication about the environment and environmental issues. I had a hands-on PhD program. I conducted dozens of studies in settings like natural history museums, science centers, and zoos. I took courses in psychology, public policy, organizational studies, and many research methods courses.

Literature reviews are a critical piece of PhD-level research papers. I conducted many literature reviews on psychological topics. I became familiar with research on influence, persuasion, and behavior change. Three key areas of psychology.

I studied people visiting informal learning settings for my PhD research. I worked with visitors to natural history museums, science centers, and zoos. I conducted interviews. I administered pen and paper surveys. I observed and tracked people interacting with exhibits. I analyzed qualitative and quantitative data.

I took on side projects with my PhD advisor. We worked with local informal learning organizations to study their visitors. The Columbus Museum of Art hired me as a visitor services researcher while I was in school. I conducted dozens of studies for the Museum.

These experiences taught me to go beyond research and data analysis. I had to make the findings relevant to people uninterested in the academic aspect of research. I learned to translate the application of research findings to practitioners. I loved doing this.

I did more work as a researcher

I took a job as a researcher with the Institute for Learning innovation (ILI). ILI no longer exists. ILI was a leader in research and evaluation in informal learning settings. I was conducting research with people for my job and my PhD program.

I graduated with proficiency in common social science research methods: content analysis, focus groups, interviewing, surveying, observation, and tracking. I was skilled at key components of research projects:

  • Working with clients and other researchers
  • Identifying research questions
  • Identifying methods to answer research questions
  • Developing the research protocol
  • Gaining Institutional Review Board approval of research
  • Recruiting participants (often in public spaces)
  • Collecting data
  • Analyzing data
  • Making recommendations
  • Reporting findings and recommendations to academics, clients, and peers

I had four years of studying and conducting research when I earned my PhD. I also had four years of work experience as a researcher. I knew how to interact with clients, colleagues, and research participants.

I Kept Working as a Researcher

I continued with ILI after graduating. Later, I left to take a job as a Social Sciences Researcher for the State of Ohio. I conducted research and evaluation on federally funded traffic safety and criminal justice programs. I continued gaining experience in key research methods. I evaluated the effectiveness of programs designed for people. I wrote reports for an audience of policy makers and practitioners.

I met People and Stayed in Touch

During college I made connections with people who would be my research peers for the rest of my career. I met Jes Koepfler while working at ILI. She was a super star with ambition, talent, and intelligence. Jes left ILI, but she made a great impact on me. Jes started her own research consultancy in Philadelphia. We stayed in touch over time.

I reached out to Jes a few years later. I was looking for side projects. Jes told me she had a client that needed more researchers. She said it was a user-focused digital design firm. I had no idea what that meant. She was talking about Intuitive Company (IC).

I’m offered a job as a UX Researcher

Jes put me in touch with the right people at IC. IC took me on as a contractor. They offered me a full-time position a few months later. I still had no clue what UX was. But I knew damn-well what research was. I accepted the job. My fiancé and I moved from Columbus to Philadelphia.

I made sense of it all

I immediately realized how my experience was relevant to UX. I saw the connection between what I had studied in the physical world and what I was working on in the digital world. I didn’t understand the terminology of design and UX. But I quickly learned all that. I saw how psychology plays a role in design. I started writing about this. I also found sobriety. I wrote a lot more and published Design for the Mind. IC promoted me to my position as a director.

Words of Advice

What? You didn’t ask for my advice. I know. Here it is anyway.

Maintain bridges - My story highlights the importance of making and maintaining connections. I would have never known about IC if Jes hadn’t recommended them to me. IC wouldn’t have given me a chance if Jes hadn’t referred me. You never know where your colleagues are going to end up. Keep in touch.

Look for non-obvious opportunities – I had no idea how close visitor experience and user experience align. I wasn’t aware the principles of psychology I learned in school would apply to work in UX. Looking back, I see the relevance in projects I completed.

I worked with the Cincinnati Zoo. The National Science Foundation gave them money to add computer kiosks to some exhibit spaces. I tested design prototypes and did usability testing. But we called it front-end evaluation. Same tasks, different terms.

I worked with the Jacksonville Zoo. The National Science Foundation gave them money to develop a smartphone app. I stood in the Zoo and observed people interacting with the exhibits (contextual inquiry). I asked them to use a prototype of the app. I came up with design recommendations based on the research. At that time, I’d never heard the term user experience.

I set up a computer kiosk in the Columbus Museum of Art’s lobby. I asked visitors to navigate the Museum’s website to complete tasks. This is usability testing. At the time, I called it a website study.

I suggest looking at museums, zoos, and non-profit organizations for UX-type roles. They might call it something different like exhibit design or visitor research. Use this experience to hone your UX skills and create connections.

I see a lot of parallels between my past and present work. Apparently, others have also transitioned from museums to UX. I hope my experience provides insight into ways to get into UX. Please share any advice or experience you have with getting into a UX position.