“UX bootcamps don’t always show the reality of the UX field”
We sat down with Dr. Sam Ladner to learn more about how UX boot camps show a rosy picture of the field, how you need to understand how research fits into the bigger picture and the UX researcher role is continually evolving.
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Sam Ladner
Workday Principal Researcher, Strategy (ex-Amazon/Microsoft)
Apple & Banana
How did you get into the UX field?
Sam Ladner

I started my career as a tech journalist for CNET, doing lots of tech writing while I was also building websites at the same time.

Back then, we hand coded everything whereas nowadays we don't actually have to “build the plane as we're flying it.” Now, given advancements, we can just think about what the plane should look like.

I wasn't really satisfied with the work that I was doing as a tech journalist, because I was eventually asking fewer questions, and spent less time building the platform.

All I did was write stories and to me, the stories were not good enough.So I decided I was going to go to grad school to understand technology better. 

What gave you the push to go back to school?

I told myself that I didn't have to keep doing it if I didn't like it, but I ended up really liking it. I did my master's degree and I took a year off and then started my PhD. where I was looking at technology in the workplace and how people were using it.

And I was about halfway through my PhD, and I ran out of money. And I was like “Okay, how am I going to do this? Like, how am I going to keep going?”

I really did want to finish my PhD. and I thought, “You know what? I have all these tech skills and now I have these research skills, so I'm just going to go get a job.”

I became the Director of Consumer Insights at Critical Mass, a design agency, where I had both researchers and designers reporting to me. It was a great experience that taught me a lot about managing the work and the team.

Afterwards, I went back and finished my PhD, thinking I was going to go become a professor, but unfortunately, there was no job waiting for me so I started my own research company! 

Apple & Banana
What was it like, working for yourself?
Sam Ladner

It was tough but interesting work. Very quickly I learned that if I didn’t secure any customers, I wouldn’t eat! So I hustled. Hard. It taught me a lot about how to market the value of research, an important skill. 

Around that time, I was living in Toronto and had realized that the local market wasn’t big enough, in terms of consistent clients.

I was thinking about maybe opening an office in Chicago to get more US-based clients when I stumbled upon a Senior User Researcher role at Microsoft.  

Moving to the States is a big decision. How did your family take it? 

I said to myself that this was the perfect job. I called my husband and told him about this great role at Microsoft in Seattle and that I was going to apply for it.

He told me later that he talked to his buddy at work about me applying for the role. His buddy said that I would never get it but my husband had 100% confidence in me and just said “Oh, she’s going to get it. It’s exactly what she should be doing.” 

I got the offer and I took it in a heartbeat. That was actually the first time that my title had the words “UX researcher” in it!

Were you nervous or scared about applying to big companies? 

I'm not too worried about failing. If I'm going to shoot my shot, I don't really worry too much about it.

I just say “Well, I think I could add value here and I think I could get value out of it myself. So would I kick myself if I didn't even try? Probably. So maybe I should try.”

After Microsoft came Amazon? 

Yep. After Microsoft, I became the Principal UX Researcher at Amazon because that was another great opportunity that I’d regret not going for.

Amazon is an amazing place in many ways, but it burns you out. It happened to me so my husband and I needed to take a break.

We went home to Canada, stayed close to friends and family, enjoyed everything in life. After we felt recharged, we asked that familiar question: what are we going to do now? 

So what did you do next? And where are you now? 

I put out a few feelers and got a couple offers in the Bay area that I turned down. While great roles, they just didn’t feel right for me. 

But my offer from Workday to be the Principal Researcher with an emphasis on Strategy was really interesting.

An opportunity to research the future of work and bake that insight into the Workday product suite? Sign me up!

I remember pulling over in my rental car on the way back to the airport where I called my husband. I asked him how he felt about moving to California. He said “Let’s do it” and now we’re here in the Bay Area!

Apple & Banana
What advice would you give to UX professionals early on in their career?
Sam Ladner

I would say for beginners:

“You should focus less on the reading (e.g., books, blogs, LinkedIn posts, etc.) and more on how to take in information, filter it, make it make sense to you, and connect it to what you already know.” 

I had a professor who once told me, it’s not from the reading that you learn things — it’s from the re-reading. He was right. Going back and reflecting is really how you learn.

Learn more about strategy. And by that, I mean literally like MBA textbooks. You don’t have to get into the weeds of accounting or management but understanding strategy is vital. 

Look at careers like management consulting. They’re expected to drop into companies, analyze them quickly and provide solutions all in 12 weeks.

It’s remarkably similar to the work that researchers have to do, but usually within one company for a longer period of time.

Getting a clearer understanding of how strategy works and how research fits into that picture is something all professionals should get better at, especially newer UX professionals.

It helps you understand how to research better.

Apple & Banana
What are common myths about your profession/field that you want to debunk?
Sam Ladner

Qualitative research is not scientific. It makes me crazy because doing anything “scientifically” doesn't mean using the scientific method.

It doesn't mean positivism. It just means doing it in a repeatable process.

Granted some folks might have a “design-first” approach to how they address a situation (which might be seen as creative) but researchers also do creative work. 

How do you think we discovered polonium? Marie Curie didn’t say “Oh, I'm going to do it exactly the same way that everybody else did.” No, of course not! 

She was very creative but she was also a scientific researcher and she went on to win Nobel prizes in two different disciplines (she's the only person to do that)! 

At the end of the day, everybody does qualitative research and saying it's “just an art” does the work we do a lot of disservice. 

Another myth is the lack of needing self care for researchers. I owe a lot of debt to Vivianne Castillo and her work on self-care. 

We’re big fans of Vivianne, too!

She’s fantastic! Her Medium is full of great insights on self-care for UX. 

To summarize some of her work, researchers cannot listen to “trauma” (i.e., empathizing with customers over and over again) over time without it costing you.

I don't want to conflate it with actual trauma counseling but it is a low level of trauma in some sense. 

“And on top of that, most of the work we do falls on deaf ears. Over time, you're going to feel this kind of emptiness or sadness, feeling like why doesn't anybody listen to me?”

You’ve worked so hard, trying to do the right thing and it seems that nobody cares. You're going to hit that. That will happen. It's guaranteed. 

I wish that people that go into research should realize that you’ll hit that moment and you should have a plan for it.

What's your plan for dealing with the cost of hearing about real stuff from real people, day in and day out?

I think it's very easy to be part of a bootcamp and only hear about the glory of the industry, but that’s not reality. 

No one wants to hear about the hours of “tell me about this issue” and “can you tell me about that problem” again and again. But that’s the job. 

If you care about being a good researcher, you can’t pretend to listen either. So, as a byproduct, you’ll absorb some of it. 

Couple that to when you bring it to stakeholders who don’t seem to listen (or want to fix) the problem?

Now you've internalized that problem as your own and that's going to cost you in some way. 

How do you approach self-care yourself? 

How I think about it these days is that every day is an opportunity. If you put a good faith effort, you’ll be able to look at yourself and say that you gave it your best shot. 

While the objective might not get met (that’s a core part of doing research in the real world), at least you can put in the work and not lose yourself in the process.

Apple & Banana
What do you think the future of UX is and how should today's future researchers prepare themselves accordingly?
Sam Ladner

Polarization throughout the field. 

There's a great paper about trying to classify the impact of a technological change on job loss, where it classified jobs over history into three buckets: frontier jobs, last mile jobs and wealth jobs. 

Can we grab that link so folks can read that paper? 

Here it is! To sum up the paper, last mile jobs are the jobs that technology still can't do like truck drivers.

At this moment, we can't get technology to just pop the goods in front of you. 

Then there are wealth jobs which are possible now because of the wealth that's been generated from technology change like personal trainers.  

And would “UX research” be considered a “frontier job?” 

“Yes, but it will not be forever so you have to think about how you evolve yourself to be on the frontier.”

What would you say is the “frontier” for UX?

To me, it's increasingly the enablement of human experience through technology which could go lots of places.

Obviously you've got machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) just starting to emerge.

These new technologies and their applications will create new breeds and types of jobs. What are those jobs?

I don't know but I’m confident that UX right now is comfortably in the frontier job category, but it won't be in the long term. 

How can folks prepare for that future? 

Pay attention to where your day-to-day work is changing. What is easier and easier for you to do? What remains difficult to get done?

For me, it’s easier and easier to experiment, and recruit participants, but it’s increasingly difficult to get emotional stories from actual people.

Why? What does this mean for our profession? I’m not sure, but it’s something to consider for your own future.

Apple & Banana
What has been the most impactful UX experience you've had?
Sam Ladner

Over 10 years ago, I was on a ride along to this participant’s home as she worked at home. We had a friend in common and I actually ended up spending the night at her house. 

Throughout the night, I got to know her family, her job, the extra work that she went through to get stuff done with her daughter running around in the background.

I got to truly experience how hard it is to be a parent and to be a full time engaged employee. 

Empathizing with statements like “just make this stupid thing work for me!” and “I don't have time for all this, look at my life!” was eye-opening.

Seeing how difficult it was for her to do her job and how cavalier so many of us are about building the tools that she depends on has stuck with me all this time.

connect with
Sam Ladner
Workday Principal Researcher, Strategy (ex-Amazon/Microsoft)
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