Interesting Careers

An interesting career in psychological science: User experience researcher for a toy company

By Kathleen Kremer

Kathleen KremerKathleen Kremer

PhD  (2002) -  Experimental Child Psychology - University of Minnesota
MBA (2012) - University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Senior Manager, User Experience and Digital Play
Fisher-Price, Inc.
East Aurora, N.Y.

Think back to your early childhood. What was your favorite toy? Do you remember how excited you were to receive it? How did you feel playing with it? Do you still have it years later? When people hear that I work at a toy company, they immediately think that my job is all "fun and games." That certainly is a large part of what I do. However, toys are much more than just entertainment. People also develop a strong emotional connection to — even fall in love with — their favorite toys. My job is to use my background in psychology and research to help develop toys and digital experiences that children will love. It’s very rewarding but also a lot of responsibility. After all, you don’t want to be the person who ruined a child’s Christmas or birthday by making a bad toy.

Like many research psychologists who end up in industry, I started out thinking I would become a professor. I first became interested in research as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. While there, I completed an honors thesis on early conceptual development under Dr. Susan Gelman. I then went on to receive my master’s degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, where I worked with Dr. Rochel Gelman on early conceptual and perceptual development. Both professors had won American Psychological Association (APA) early career scientist awards and thus they could provide me with a strong background in research methodology and child development. I researched and published as expected, but increasingly realized I did not want an academic career.

At this point, I was conducting research on young children's ability to use perceptual cues to distinguish real objects from representations. I had thought television would be an excellent medium by which to further study this topic and so began to read prior research on children and television. In doing so, I stumbled upon industry research used to develop early educational programs such as Sesame Street. This research opened my eyes to the fact that there are many settings outside of academia that could benefit from someone with a research psychology background. I also came to realize that my own passion lay in conducting research to inform the design and development of consumer products.

Choosing an applied career as a research psychologist involves a large leap of faith into the unknown. You are trained to be a professor and to measure your worth largely by how much you publish in scientific journals. You may even fear that if you mention your applied interests, you might not receive the support that other students receive. When I did tell my professors, as a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, I found that they were largely supportive and wanted to help me. However, they didn't have the background to tell me what specifically I could do with a PhD in psychology outside of academia, how to prepare for and obtain these jobs or even who to talk with to get this information.  

I decided to approach this challenge as a researcher. First, I gained experience in applied settings through a series of internships (at the Children’s Defense Fund, Educational Testing Service and a local PBS station) as well as by moonlighting as a consultant researcher on a variety of television shows and films. Second, I sought out and talked with people who had interesting careers outside of academia in various sectors (e.g., public policy, government, industry) to find out what they did and how they got to their chosen career. Third, I became active in the Center for Cognitive Sciences at the University of Minnesota. Being there allowed me to collaborate on research with others outside of my field as well as be with other students who did not always want an academic position. Finally, I helped form an applied certificate program at the University of Minnesota for other graduate students interested in learning about applied research. Because of these efforts, my professor Herb Pick recommended me to be a graduate student representative to the APA's Science Directorate. I served in this position for several years, which included participating on a task force aimed at educating scientific psychologists about nonacademic employment options.  

When it came time to receive my doctorate, I searched for positions via job fairs at professional conferences and through contacts. I ended up accepting a position as a development scientist at the Educational Testing Service. In this role, I performed a variety of functions, including developing and evaluating e-learning products and assessment tools. Yet, I still wasn't working on consumer products. Thus, when a position became available at Fisher-Price, I jumped at the opportunity to apply. I've now worked there for eight years in design research, first in their Play Lab and currently as head of the User Experience (UX) group.

User Experience at its core involves understanding people. You need to know their wants, needs, abilities, constraints and behaviors. You then need to use this information to figure out what to make and then how to make it. In doing so, it is important to research/test early, iteratively and often in order to make or confirm design decisions in a timely and cost effective manner. Thus, a psychology background is an excellent starting point.  However, it is not enough. For example, user experience research is not the same as academic psychological research. It is done to answer design questions rather than come up with general truths. It also is typically very quick, small scale and flexible. Furthermore, it is important to have a strong understanding of design (such as human-computer interaction and game design) and problem solving skills in order to provide guidance on how to act upon your findings. For toys, it includes having a strong intuition of what is fun. Finally, you need to be able to advocate for the user (the child or parent) and convince others when necessary to act upon your results and suggestions. This requires being able to work with people from a variety of backgrounds as well as having strong persuasive skills. 

Working with young children is very rewarding but at the same time adds further challenges due to limitations in what they can do and know. Many traditional methods used in user experience (such as think aloud  and interviews) do not work with this population. As a result, a lot of creativity and flexibility are required. I'm proud of the work that our UX team has done at Fisher-Price. We are an integral part of the entire product design cycle, and in 2011 we were awarded the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society’s Product Design Technical Group Award for best example of incorporating user centered research to inform product design.

In any professional career, it is important to keep learning and growing. One way I have sought to do this is by recently completing a Master’s degree in business from the University of Massachusetts. I decided to pursue this degree in order to broaden my background in a wide range of business topics such as operations, finance, accounting, marketing and management. Having this broader skill set is useful for better understanding how research fits into broader business functions and how to manage people more effectively.

My advice to those potentially interested in applied work is as follows:

  • Follow your passion . Work is a large part of your life, and so you should do something that you truly enjoy.  

  • Gain applied experiences , such as through graduate internships. This is very important in helping you build the skills you will need for this kind of career as well as making personal contacts. It also will help you determine if this is the kind of work you truly want to do. For instance, industry tends to be much faster paced, more tangible, more interdisciplinary and more collaborative than academia; at the same time, you may have less job security and limited freedom to choose your projects. 

  • Develop breadth . Strong research skills and understanding of psychology are paramount. However, other skills may be essential for success such as problem solving skills, persuasive skills and written/oral communication as well as knowledge of design, business, lifestyle trends and popular culture. 

  • Network . Attend professional conferences and get to know people in your desired profession. 

  • Market yourself . Don’t assume that your skills will be obvious to a potential hiring manager who may not have your background. Make a case for why you best meet the company’s unique needs. In doing so, realize that these needs may be ones the company is not yet aware it has (in which case a new position may be created for you).  

  • Don’t be afraid to take the leap . Think of going into an applied career as opening new doors rather than closing old ones. You may not end up with as many publications in an applied job. However, other things may take their place such as patents, industry awards and having people use and fall in love with your products. Knowing you made this kind of impact on people’s lives is a powerful motivator. 

The views expressed in Interesting Careers are those of the authors and do not reflect the opinions or policies of the American Psychological Association.