This is an interview with Natasha S. Chowdory, a User Researcher Consultant at Methods in the UK, done by Naomi House of INALJ. This is part of INALJ’s 2020 series on non-library jobs for library workers.
On User Researcher Work :
an Interview with Natasha S. Chowdory
Q1: Thanks so much for taking the time to help us better understand what User Researcher work is and what a UR does, and how LIS folk can get into this field. First could you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you got your MLIS (or your educational background) and what you do?
Hi! My name’s Natasha and I’m currently a user research consultant at Methods (a consultancy based in the UK). I’ve been in the role for nearly a year and it has been an EDUCATION to say the least. It’s definitely been a journey to get to a point where I do a job that brings me joy in an industry that is largely there to create better experiences for users (in this case, the public).
Before this, I was a Critical Evidence-Based Information Specialist at University Hospitals (CEBIS), Coventry and Warwickshire Trust hospital. And before that I worked at Oxfam as an Information and Communications Officer. Before that I was at Microsoft (MS) as a Librarian for five years. I actually started at MS as an Assistant Librarian with zero library-specific qualifications. The only thing I had was a stint as an intern at a charity that had a library and I remember speaking to the guy that managed the library and I took those insights with me into the interview.
It should be apparent that my general bent is working in roles that better the world around me. Whether it’s directly helping people or contributing to bigger projects that directly impact community well-being. It took me a long time to realise that this is very much a fundamental part of who I am, and it has definitely started to inform the types of jobs that I look at and which industries I want to work in. But this is something that comes with time, and aside from people who go into the medical profession I don’t think it’s something you *know* when you’re in your early 20s.
I worked in the role as an assistant for a year before realising that I was actually pretty good at it. Imagine an ability to memorise a lot of information, taking a genuine pleasure in talking to, and helping people plus a propensity for logical analytical thinking made a good fit for a librarian job? I was incredibly surprised. With the support of the company I decided to go for my MSc in Information and Library Studies with Robert Gordon. To be totally honest, I did not enjoy the experience at all – I had just finished an MA (Critical Discourse, Culture and Communication) and it had been great! And then to go onto a course which just wasn’t up to par… was disappointing to say the least. I think what made it harder was that I worked in a specialist commercial library and the course did not cater for that. It was definitely a struggle to finish and I don’t think that the course I did added any value to my working practice.
In terms of salary – I started on £20K and after I completed the degree, I went up to £21,650K (or something thereabouts). Bear in mind I was 25 so I was making peanuts compared to my peers at the time who were all on £35k+, but then I was in a job I actually enjoyed for the first time and after a lot of internships and job rejections I was happy to take what I could get. (This has definitely changed now though!!) My salary has steadily increased now, and I’m firmly in that £35K+ bracket which has been great. Librarianship as a whole (outside of law firms and universities) does not pay well *at all* and it always makes me question the value that people purportedly say libraries have and then refuse to pay the commensurate rate? (That’s a conversation for a different time) ….
Q2: Now can you tell us how You personally got into doing this type of work?
I should caveat this by saying that I’m a User Research Consultant so it’s a very different pace of work compared to someone that is working in a company. My work is project-based, and we work around specific phases of work (Discovery, Alpha and Beta) and I work solely in the public sector (which I love) I could be working with the Department of Education for 6 months, Public Health England for 3 weeks, or even a Local Council for 2 months. This will usually involve a lot of travel – I definitely clocked a lot of train miles on my first project! Although because of COVID-19 this is not the case and we’ve gone remote. It 100% depends on the needs of the organization and what we’ve been able to bid for. It is definitely very fast-paced, and I had to hit the ground at a sprint. My constant pivoting through jobs over the last few years has helped prepare me for this.
I think I have pivoted so much in my life that this just seemed like a natural move. First of all, it is very much a job change of circumstance – my job at CEBIS had only been for a maternity cover contract and as it’s the NHS there wasn’t enough money to keep me on. Which was gutting to be sure and it is probably the most fulfilling job I’d had to date (my whole family worked in healthcare, so it seemed like a very fortuitous job). Before this, we had moved to a new town for my partner’s new job and I quit my then job at Oxfam (it was much too far away for me to commute to) and ended up with a very crappy temp job in Birmingham. (I’m generally more focused on paying rent than finding jobs that are ‘just right’ in these situations tbh).
In the West Midlands it is very hard to find ‘information professional’ jobs that are at the level I would have wanted. I did make it through to the final round of interviews at Warwick University for the information team in the medical school, but so did my far more experienced team-mate (no way was I going to even try competing with her). I did get interviews at Coventry University, but well, I’ve never fancied academic librarian-ing and after I’d been rejected after two interviews there I was like…hmm not sure I want to go through the effort of preparing a presentation, prepping a hand out and doing questions again – knowing that I wouldn’t get the job because there’s nothing on my CV that says ‘good fit for academic environment’ aside from multiple degrees. I definitely had to sit myself down and ask myself if I was applying for jobs because I wanted them OR if they were ‘logical thing to do’. Answer – it was the latter and I promptly stopped. I think I realised after my CEBIS job, which had been solely research and the occasional workshop, that I was done with ‘standard’ library work, and I didn’t want to manage, which seems to be the only alternative!
So, where did that leave me? As I’ve worked over the past few years, some non-negotiables have cropped up i.e. not wearing a suit to work, not having a commute longer than 1.5 hrs (HA!), working on a diverse team, being some of them. I signed up to LinkedIn Premium and the first job I was matched with was the User Researcher role at Methods. I submitted my CV and some blurb, and I got called in for an interview. It was a really nice interview – they made me feel very comfortable, were really kind and as a result I was able to be my best self. On paper I do not have ‘what it takes’ to be a user researcher (more on this in the next question) but the hiring manager has an incredible skill to see between the lines and what makes people tick. And she realised off the bat that I would be an asset to the team, so on that day when I went into Birmingham for my interview and then came home – that evening they offered me the job!
I was also very lucky in that I was able to score a rejected place at UXLIBS V in London in 2019 which gave me a library-centric view of user research and while it skimmed a lot of what I have learnt to do since, it definitely gave me a good foundation as to what goes into user research. I definitely learnt a lot from this two-day conference that I was able to take into the new role.
I wish I had a better answer for you, but as is always the case with life, it was a combination of hard work, timing and being in the right place at the right time.
Q3: What makes this a great field for LIS workers and likewise, what do you think makes LIS workers strong candidates for hiring managers in this field?
I know I’ve mentioned it before, but half of good UR work is being able to communicate effectively and take people (users) and stakeholders on that journey with you. I had been doing this for so long when extolling the virtues of libraries in my jobs and skills I could offer, that it’s something that I have as a muscle now. I guess all those presentations at library job interviews had to be good for something? I even wrote something for my current company about this here and I’m very keen for anyone in the profession who may be struggling to realise that their skills have immense value elsewhere.
The act of talking to users and drawing information whether face-to-face or remotely is something that I think all librarians can do and is of immense value in the UR field. I also think that the fact that you’re still helping people, still creating services/products that place users at their heart means that mentality-wise it’s not a big shift. An ability to sift through swathes of information to find the most meaningful and also then to share these out in an accessible way is also a big part of the job – whether as a presentation or a report. The list goes on!!!
Being able to understand the affinity between types of information is a great skill – if you’re someone that has done a fair amount of cataloguing and classification this will be an easy fit for you as well. I definitely did not get into an argument with someone at a ‘Intro to User Research’ workshop because she was putting something into the wrong place based on her view of the world instead of how a user would view it. (Bahahaha) I’m also learning how to use some of the core skills I have around information management and classification to great effect and I’m hoping to show the company how having good information management is just as important as the quality of the data or the research! I used my network at SLA to tap into the taxonomy know-how to help me with that.
I think, on the whole, UR is a very rewarding profession regardless of where you do it because everything you do is about the users and using empathy to create better things. I think being a librarian (in most fields) equips you with a level of empathy, of being able to sift out needs vs wants in a way that is integral to being a UR. That’s not to say that you can’t do bad things with it…. (I recommend Evil by Design <- great book) there’s a lot around choice manipulation etc. that if you are so inclined that is the ‘darker side’ of UR.
Q4: What is the best way to get your foot in the door or your first User Researcher job?
Repackage your skills to the job description (boring I know), but also research the type of company it is. A lot of government departments now have URs on their teams, whether it’s the Department for Education, Land Registry, Home Office etc. But there are a lot of very large companies that are building out their teams to make their services more user-centered, especially as we move into a more remote-managed world. Being open to working on anything that is ‘user centered’ would be a plus as well and having knowledge of specific areas would be good too.
My specialties are very much around Education and Usability Testing and anything around infrastructure – I have a genuine interest in understanding how users interact with the world around them and I try and emphasize with what their needs might be. Yours might be around accessibility, or content design or even the more technical aspects of website design (UX Design). One of my first internships was actually at the Department of Education when I was in my early 20s and it was very gratifying to go back there and sit in the same office nearly 10 years later as a consultant! (Also, that I already knew my way round.)
How do you think? Long before I got this role, I genuinely thought about how people (users) interacted with the world around them. Whether it’s a door handle at the wrong height, a bra that isn’t created for women to put on easily (sports bras amirite tho?) make-up that is only made for people with lighter skin, why car headrests aren’t made of memory foam so you can wear a ponytail and still have proper neck support (my list goes on). My brain is wired to think in a very specific way – this isn’t a necessity for sure, but it’s definitely helped me with interviewing users, and when we’ve been creating prototypes. There are a lot of elements – accessibility (I am due to start a course on this soonish), and if we’re looking at AI, the diversity and inclusion around what goes into creating a truly human and inclusive experience for ALL users.
Alongside this, I can be very pedantic about use of language. I spent about 10 minutes in conversation with someone about why placing the noun in a different position in the sentence would make it punchier. This is largely due to having a degree that focused on discourse but also wanting to elicit the best reaction from the stakeholder. (I would also chalk this up to a boss who would tear my work apart, make me do it again and again until it was right <- horrible process, but I learnt A LOT).
I don’t think there is a ‘best way’ *really* more a decision and commitment on your part to make the change. Not many people start out doing ‘user research’. They have usually done something in psychology, marketing (which makes sense) and then it can be a natural progression.
Q5: Finally what are some of the most important skills / certifications / etc that LIS folk can do to prepare them? Any last tips?
Frankly I doubt that my Chartership (MCLIP) or MSc in Information and Library Studies had any bearing on my getting the job. Sorry! I think my degrees highlight an ability to consume and synthesize vast amounts of information as well as understanding the basics of research theory.
The most beneficial things to me that I had done was survey design – I have spent years reading and understanding and creating surveys and the psychology behind this was definitely a plus. I think having an understanding of working in an agile way would help – again I learnt about different types of management styles from a previous role, as well as a couple of project management short courses and that helped me to hit ground running.
Any experience of research practice, project management would be a massive plus. Anything where you have created something with an end-user in mind is perfect, whether it’s evaluating the efficacy of your service, or a specific product that your team works with. That process of assessing, synthesizing that data to present to teams is all incredibly valuable. I guess it’s not so much about qualifications (although anyone with Psychology degrees woo) but rather about your experiences and the lens through which you view your role.
Funnily enough, I’m about to embark on a PgDip (Postgraduate Diploma) course at the Loughborough Design School in the UK in Human Factors and Ergonomics. This is purely me recognising the gaps in my own knowledge around certain cognitive behavioural elements and wanting to make sure I’m future-proofed! I’m also doing courses on a site called ‘The Interaction Design Foundation’ which is a great intro to all things user-centred. And I’ve ordered a lot of books to slowly read over the next few years or so (Hooked, by Nir Eyal, The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman, Don’t Make Me Think! By Steve Krug and This is Service Design Thinking.) There is a great irony in that I spent a large portion of time in my first role recommending these books to users). Funny how life can go full circle sometimes.
Having that willingness to learn and hit the ground running will take you a long way I think. There’s a lot of stuff that I just *know* how to do because of my prior experiences and my need to learn is because my gaps are very much academic and theoretical, and I won’t be able to learn those just from work. I have also reached out to friends in similar roles at different companies to get their take on what I should/could do in line with my experiences. I take the approach that I’m always learning and that I can always be better.
Currently, Natasha is a User Researcher Consultant at Methods. She is working on improving government digital services for specific agencies within government. Natasha has worked as a librarian at Microsoft UK, an Information Officer at Oxfam which took her to Geneva, Kenya and the Rohingya Refugee Crisis in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh and a maternity cover role as a Clinical Evidence Based Information Specialist at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust. Outside of work she spends her time reading about toilets, and trying lots of different types of food.
Natasha has won multiple awards (SLA LMD Career Award, SLA Rising Star, UKeiG Early Career Award), been on the libswithlives podcast and does regular talks on professional development as well as her own experiences of diversity within the profession. She has a BA in International Relations and Politics, MA in Critical Discourse, Culture and Communication and an MSc in Information and Library Studies. Prior to being a librarian she worked abroad as an English teacher. Natasha tweets at: @InfoPro_Tasha
Pronouns: She/her/ hers.
Views expressed are those of the interviewee and not INALJ or their employer. Photo provided by the interviewee and permission granted to use it for this interview.