Wondering what a “user experience researcher” does all day? Meet Larkin Brown, who works as one at Pinterest. She studies how and why people use Pinterest, a site where users search for products and ideas ranging from this afternoon’s lunch to a maybe-someday dream house. In her role, Ms. Brown determines which features on the site need improving or what should be added to improve a consumer’s visit.
Ms. Brown’s story kicks off a new column for The Wall Street Journal called “How’d You Get That Job?” In it, we’ll take readers inside interesting jobs and share details about how people landed them.
What does a User Experience Researcher do, exactly?
Qualitative researchers—this is what I do—spend time doing user interviews and field visits. I go inside people’s homes to see how Pinterest is coming to life for them.
For example, I went to France to try to understand how to localize Pinterest there. We had done a really good job translating the entire app [to French] and we were feeling really good about it. Then I interviewed people there and they said they could understand the site but told me they had done a search for “gâteau” and a bunch of cakes came up, but they weren’t French cakes. The cakes were American birthday cakes with many layers, often with blue frosting and sprinkles. They said a “gâteau” is a French cake with one layer, brown, ugly but delicious. That moment made me realize it’s not enough to just translate; it’s about the importance of having local content.
Do you know how to code? Do you need that for your job?
I collaborate a lot with data scientists, and they’re the ones who are experts in coding. I can do the basics.
What were the key steps you took to find this career path?
At Northwestern University I studied communication and psychology. On a whim I took a class called social network analysis. It’s an emerging field that combines sociology, psychology and systems engineering. I was so interested in it that I badgered my professor until he let me work in his lab. I applied to Google and they put me on a sales team. I sold online advertising at Google for 11 months. While I was there, I met a qualitative researcher who was working on social products, this was right before [social network] Google Plus launched. I told him I think what you do sounds awesome and I want to learn how to do it. I really owe it to my boss at Google who taught me the ropes of how to do usability research.
Can you explain what usability research is?
When you have a prototype or a version of the app that isn’t quite done yet, you need people to play around with it. Often you bring people into a lab complete with a double-sided mirror. The product managers and engineers and designers sit behind the mirror and watch people interact with the prototype. I’m there with the participants. We figure out what’s working, what’s not, what’s confusing and what needs to be improved.
What led you to Pinterest?
While I was working as a researcher at Google, I also was building a freelance personal-styling business. I’ve always been interested in that. After I spent a couple years at Google developing my research skills, I wanted to be more aligned with my interests. Pinterest was building their research team and I think they hired me because I could do very fast, scrappy research. At Pinterest, I learned how to do more strategic research and forward-thinking work like how beauty and technology will work together in the future, and what we should do about it.
Where: Pinterest, San Francisco
Title: User Experience Researcher
Time in the job: Five years
Education: Communication and psychology at Northwestern
Training: On the job, with help from bosses and mentors
Key skills: Strategic research and forward thinking
Best perk: Meeting the ‘Pinners’ who use Pinterest
Salary: Average U.S. salary for this job is $91,366, according to Glassdoor
What’s your favorite part of the job?
Meeting Pinners, that’s what we call people who use Pinterest. It’s so inspiring to see them live the mission, which for us is discovering and doing the things you love.
Do you need particular education or training for this role?
All of my training was on the job. It was really from having great bosses and mentors who showed me the ropes. The social network analysis research training in college helped me get the job because it was interesting and analogous, but ultimately the work I am doing now is quite different from what I was doing in that lab.
What’s the best thing you’ve learned on this job?
The power of diversity in decision-making. At Pinterest we call it ‘knitting’—it’s our term for cross-functional collaboration. Decisions should be made with a bunch of different roles in the room. I’ve also seen how having a diverse set of genders and ethnicities in the room make better product decisions.
What do you wear to the office?
I wear things that make me feel strong, powerful and best represent me. Today, it is an oversized blush jacket that I got on a research trip to Seoul, a mustard yellow sweater, a vintage skirt and some embroidered loafers.
Do you have a pre-office morning routine?
After I wash my face and brush my teeth I listen to NPR’s Up First, a 10-minute-or-so podcast that covers the most important news. I eat a handful of almonds and have a glass of water with vitamins. Then I do my makeup, which for me is very meditative; I get incredible joy out of it. I get dressed and take a photo of my outfit every day because I’m doing a documentation project to help with a tool in development at Pinterest.
Write to Ellen Byron at [email protected]