On this debut episode of Beyond the Stacks, we hear from Gemma Petrie, a user experience researcher at Mozilla. Join us as we discuss the pathway from librarianship education to UX research, what it’s like to work in the field, and the feeling you get when you travel to another country for a research visit in a stranger’s household.
Length – 16:20
See below the fold for a full transcript of the interview.
Derek: My name is Derek Murphy. I am the Fellow for Dean’s Initiatives at the Simmons School of Library and Information Science. I’m here with Gemma Petrie, a senior user experience researcher at Mozilla. She focuses there primarily on mobile technology. She also organizes the Chicago user experience book club and is the cofounder of chiDUXX, a networking and mentoring group for Chicago women in technology. She has a background in nonprofit development and an MLIS degree from the university of Illinois. She’s been honored as one of Crain’s Tech 50 in 2013, and she’s one of Chicago Reader’s People of the Year. Hi Gemma.
Gemma: Hi. Thanks for having me!
Derek: No Problem! Today we’re going to be talking about the cool side of getting an MLIS degree, and why it’s a fascinating field to enter into. Gemma, could you tell us a bit more about what you do at Mozilla?
Gemma: Sure. At the moment I’m primarily leading user research projects for Firefox for mobile. We have a Firefox browser for Android, and we’re also currently working on a Firefox browser for iOS, which we expect to release at some point this summer. I work on both generative and evaluative research projects. The generative work is usually about emerging issues in the field, and how we can think about addressing those in the future. And then the evaluative work is about testing our current products and our updates to our products.
Derek: That sounds fascinating. Gemma, could you tell us… I understand you’ve gotten your Master’s in Library and Information Science before you went to Mozilla. Could you tell us a bit about that background, and why you decided on that route?
Gemma: Sure. I have my BA in Philosophy from Reed College, which is a small liberal art school in Portland, Oregon. After my undergrad, I worked for various Chicago area nonprofits, primarily in publications and development roles. And then after that, in 2010 I enrolled in the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences.
Derek: Great. Why did you choose the University of Illinois specifically?
Gemma: It’s a little bit of a longer story, but I had the opportunity to work with the state of Illinois’s Digital Divide Grant Program while working at a Chicago-based nonprofit. Trough the program, we were able to fund community computer labs in nontraditional spaces, where we offered digital literacy courses to a community of primarily low-income immigrants. I was certainly aware of digital divide issues before this experience, but seeing a community-based digital literacy program in action for the first time had a really profound effect on me. So some of the things that happened during this program… I watched adults email far away loved ones for the first time in their lives. I saw young kids helping their parents fill out English-only and online-only job applications. And there was even a middle school kid who went from essentially no computer exposure to opening up an online skateboarding shop in the course of one summer. It was really amazing to see these incredible stories in action, but then also reflect on the privilege that I had, with having access for so much of my life. So I decided that I wanted to focus my career on information access and digital literacy.
I began exploring some options for an advanced degree that might help with that. I considered getting a degree in HCI [Human Computer Interaction], but at the time the schools that I looked at seemed primarily focused on deliverables, and not what I thought was the big picture. So I ended up deciding to pursue my LIS degree instead, because I was attracted to the social justice foundation of the field, and the commitment to information as a public good. And I knew going into graduate school that I wanted to help research, design, and build digital experiences, so, much of what I’m doing now. And graduate school absolutely helped me refine my commitment to the social justice of information access, and that definitely still serves as the foundation for all of my work today.
Derek: While you were in school, was user experience design something you were particularly interested in, or did that come about later?
Gemma: I was very much interested in it. I spent a portion of my time at the University of Illinois designing my own independent studies and pursuing my own internships. A lot of the course work was wonderful and I’m so happy I had the chance to go through it, but it wasn’t necessarily directly applicable to the types of things that I wanted to do for my career. So I knew that in order to leave with a good footing to find the type of job that I wanted, I needed to at least build that expertise in a portfolio of work while I had that time in school.
So, one of the coolest things that I was able to do while I was at GSLIS was, I had the chance to intern with my friend Jenny Benevento, who was working at Sears as a taxonomist at the time. Jenny is also a graduate of GSLIS and she’s a highly skilled taxonomist. It was incredibly valuable to me to have that professional experience. Along with her I was able to work on a full user research project. And then once I graduated and began looking for a job, that real-world experience at a really well known company I think definitely made me stand out.
Derek: Could you tell us a bit more about that user experience project you worked on in school?
Gemma: Sure! Sears sells tons of different products. They have physical stores, but they also have a really large online marketplace. And the project that I worked on along with Jenny, who was obviously the one running it, was to refine the taxonomy for both the shoe and jewelry departments. So essentially, the faceting of how the different products are arranged within the website as a whole. So how people are able to find a specific product. In order to refine these, we did user research with real recruited participants who came in to the research space at Sears. We talked with them about their shopping habits, about their browsing habits. We did a usability test with the site to uncover any issues, and we did a very large card-sorting project, where people had images of shoes, jewelry, or even some unrelated things, and we asked people, without a whole lot of constraints, to group them in ways that made sense to them.
Sometimes you discover that people have different ways of thinking about categorization than the designers in the room might have. Being able to see that in action, and to test those against each other, is a really great way to make sure that the user is coming first in those experiences and that people can find exactly what they’re looking for without a whole lot of headache or a lot of time.
Derek: Definitely. That sounds like a fascinating project.
Gemma: It was really fun, yeah. It was incredibly valuable and I felt very lucky to have that experience.
Derek: The work that you did with Sears, did that make it to their website?
Gemma: Yeah! Again, these are sort of smaller faceting changes, but they are in fact in action on the website. It’s pretty gratifying to see even something that small make it into the real world where millions of people are interacting with it.
Derek: Definitely. That’s pretty big for a research project in school.
Derek: I know that with user experience, people can pursue that field via a variety of means. In undergrad I studied Cognitive Science, and I knew a lot of people who went from that into User Experience Design eventually. And you took it from a library science background. I’m curious how common that is, and how much of a foundation, or I guess, how smoothly that degree led you there.
Gemma: Mhm. For me, transitioning into the field with the background that I have in library science, it makes perfect sense. I know that when people hear that I have a library background, they assume that I’m a career changer, not that it was an intentional degree for the work that I’m doing.
I know that technology changes very quickly. The things that we’re using today are going to rapidly be replaced in our lifetimes. For me it’s less about specific technology that is in use at the moment, or the specific ways that we’re delivering ideas, how we might be making a wireframe… It’s more about this bigger picture thinking, around: what does information mean, what are the politics around access and privacy and security, and how can we create individuals to take jobs where they’re actually advocating for the public good for all of these issues? I truly think that the information sciences are a fantastic foundation for that work. You can certainly attain that worldview in other ways, but I do think that from the programs I’ve seen that are more strictly geared towards design work and user experience work, I don’t think that piece is always there. I don’t think that social justice training is really part of the worldview people are coming out of those programs with. And again, they probably are getting this in other areas, but I really do like that it’s part of the basic curriculum for library and information sciences.
Derek: Definitely. You can really get into the theory. You have the time to.
Gemma: Indeed, indeed.
Derek: So now that you are working as a user experience researcher, could you tell me a bit about some of the coolest projects, or things you’ve been able to work on in your career?
Gemma: Sure. I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over the United States and many parts of the world to interview people about their lives and their technology usage. Sometimes I like to say that in many ways my work is almost similar to a traditional reference interview, but it’s on a much larger scale. In graduate school I had assistantships in archives and at reference desks. Those situations really taught me a lot about how to be both supportive and curious about individual information needs and situations.
The work that I do now, sometimes we do our research remotely. But oftentimes we really like to do contextual user research, where we’re going into somebody’s home or going into their office, and seeing their context of use. And so many things can be missing when you maybe just do a video interview. It’s obviously better than nothing, but when we have the chance, being immersed in somebody’s world is a much richer and more useful data point for us.
I was actually just in both Taiwan and Japan. We’re currently working on a large study on task continuity. Essentially, how do people move content and tasks and information between different devices or between contexts? Where is the line between work and personal? How do people share devices while also managing their personal content? All of these related issues.
So I did the first part of this study along with my colleague Bill, earlier in the year in the United States. We went to four different cities and conducted interviews. We recently went to both Japan and Taiwan to expand that same research project. It’s really amazing to get to see parts of the world that a lot of people don’t get a chance to see, but it’s also really incredible to be welcomed into somebody’s home in a place that’s far away from my home. It’s a really unique experience. Sometimes when I’m traveling from work, I’m very busy, so it can be somewhat frustrating… You know, I can’t go see the famous museum down the street because I have to work all day.
But on the other hand, I’m able to have an experience that I would never be able to recreate as a tourist or on a vacation. It’s that really intimate experience of being invited into somebody’s home and into their world to learn about their lives and how they’re using technology and the things they’re trying to accomplish. It’s really incredible, I feel very lucky to do the work that I do.
Derek: Yeah, that is really cool. You’re seeing personal stories, and you’re seeing, kind of societal factors as well. A sociological point of view.
Derek: That’s neat. Do you see a lot of variance between different countries in the way that people use their devices?
Gemma: Yeah, definitely. I think a lot of the variance has to do with infrastructure issues, or how things like the telecom industries maybe develop differently in other parts of the world than they did in the United States, or a lot of North America. So I think that in terms of the behaviors and the things that people are trying to accomplish, humans are often quite similar. But the tools and the resources and the infrastructure that they’re trying to accomplish those within is often vastly different from one place to another. And those are the details that we try to tease out and compare to each other and then try to support whatever those behaviors and desires might be that people are telling us about.
Derek: Definitely. That’s about everything I had today. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share related to the MLIS being a cool degree, or cool field?
Gemma: I think LIS is a very cool field, and I think that… I wish more people knew that they can sort of make out of it what they want. I know a lot of people that I think would probably really get a lot out of graduate school for LIS, but probably are not really clear on the value that it would provide to them. So I think it’s great that Simmons has been organizing conferences and podcasts like this, discussions like this, where hopefully there’s a little bit more exposure. I think that acknowledging that librarians work in a lot of different settings and that their title is not always Librarian, is a great start.
Derek: Awesome. Thanks so much Gemma.
Gemma: Yeah, thank you!