Breaking In - Jennifer Ash

by DeeJ - 11/27/2012

View Image

Making a video game is not an exact science, but that doesn't stop us from trying to come close at Bungie. Before our next game makes its way into your hands, we'll run wave after wave of lab rats through its maze (that’s a metaphor, not a clue). Those beta testers will show us the dead ends and point out the tastiest pieces of cheese. One of the proctors of these wicked experiments will be this nice lady, who only recently brought her white coat into our lab…

Who are you, and what do you do at Bungie?

My name is Jennifer Ash and I’m an Associate User Researcher. In this role, I look at how people play and perceive games. I like to pick your brain. User Research for games is particularly challenging, because everyone has their own interpretation of events. Some ways we explore this are analysis and visualization of game data, eye tracking, user tests, and surveys. Through our studies, we hope to create the best game experience for you!

When you're not picking (or analyzing) our brains, how do you amuse yours?

I enjoy playing board and video games, knitting, reading, hanging out with friends, and watching movies, TV, or Anime.

Let’s talk about the journey that led you to us. Bungie is rarely the first step in a career path. What were some of your first steps?

Prior to Bungie, I was the curriculum owner of the Academic Initiative for System z team at IBM. We connected professors, clients, and students in meaningful ways to aid with enterprise skill obtainment. For the last two years, I was also attending NYU for my Master’s degree while designing educational tools and games. Before that, I was a User Experience Designer for z/OS at IBM, which meant performing heuristic evaluations, designing prototypes, and performing user testing on various parts of the operating system.

Each experience provided something that helped prepare me for this job. Both industry and academia contributed to different communication and people skills over a variety of situations, which is useful in pretty much any role. Working on school projects, academic research projects, and client presentations required me to learn new skills and adapt to new situations.

It’s hard to imagine that you chose this adventure for yourself as a child. How did these goals come into focus?

Up until Junior High, I wanted to become a teacher. I’ve always been interested in math and science, so my dad suggested looking into engineering, which seemed a good fit, so I pursued that through freshman year of college. I was particularly interested in animatronics, combining robotics with behavior. Game development was a natural progression when I found out I could combine all of my interests in one career path!

You mentioned the value of your experiences in academia. Would you be so kind as to recall your full trek to higher learning?

I have a Master’s degree in Digital Media Design for Learning from New York University, focusing on design for games for learning. My undergraduate degree was a dual Bachelor of Science degree in Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences with a concentration in Human-Computer Interaction, and Psychology, from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

I still use a lot of what I learned from both majors. Game design and user research both require pulling from a wide variety of skills, so having a breadth of knowledge from computer science, engineering, cognitive science, psychology, and game design has helped a lot.

We’re pretty lucky to have a person of your skills to help us create a game that will make sense to the player. How did that courtship start? Can you tell us how you stood out among the people who want to work for Bungie?

I used purple ink on my resume. No, in all seriousness, we don’t get told what specifically made us stand out as an applicant. If I were to speculate, it was probably the breadth and depth of my resume/experience. I’ve always been focused on game design and user research. I am knowledgeable in a variety of programming languages which helps when performing data analysis and tooling. I have experience with research and scientific procedure for user studies. While a game design focus can make you a wary candidate in user research, understanding where the design team is coming from in their decision making process can be useful as long as you can stay objective. A lot comes down to timing, and being at the right place at the right time, but knowing the company and skills necessary helps a lot.

It helps get you in the door, but it doesn’t guarantee that you can stay. You have to survive an interview loop to enjoy that privilege. What was the hardest part about your trial as an applicant?

The interview questions. Some of the questions are more about your thought process and considerations, so it’s very difficult to know if what you gave was a ‘right’ answer or not. Not to mention the interview lasts for a good majority of the day, with a wide variety of interviewers, so you never know what to expect next. It’s both exhausting and exciting at the same time.

Your exhaustion has served you well. Now that you are one of us, what is the most exciting thing about researching the user?

Seeing people enjoy the game! We get to interact with users at very early stages, and it’s great to see how people feel about the game, and the changes made over time based upon early feedback or discoveries from our studies.

You speak of how your work evolves over time, but how would you describe just one day in the lab?

I typically get into work and grab a cup of coffee and read through emails. After, it comes down to tackling one of many projects, be it prepping a study, performing data analysis/visualization on a previous study, or playing a new build of the game. Then there’s lunch, which may or may not involve a newbie lunch (for the first 6 months of employment, teams can take a new employee out to lunch for free). After lunch, its back to working on projects, with an afternoon break to grab coffee with my team. Throughout the day, there’s usually multiple discussions regarding various upcoming or past studies, or hunting down people to find out further details regarding specifics of the game. With an open floor work environment, it makes it easy to start a conversation to discuss a particular aspect.

Other than the office-less floor plan and the free coffee, what’s the best thing about working here?

The people. The expertise and talent of the people who work here is incredible. There’s a high concentration of passionate, knowledgeable people that makes problem solving and brainstorming of any kind extremely effective.

I know you just got here, but is it too early to ask about your proudest moment in our studio?

I MacGyver’d a Halloween costume in a weekend made of spray paint, Christmas ornaments, electric candles, epoxy and a black dress that people actually recognized.

Ah, yes! You were our human Dalek (ardent fans of Dr. Who can plunder our Facebook page for more details). Aside from impromptu fashion challenges, how do you plan to enrich your skills in the service of great games?

I’ve always kept myself busy with side projects and volunteer opportunities. My Master’s program stays in touch via Facebook, and that always provides a number of interesting developments across academia and industry. I’ve found industry conferences are useful, not just for the information obtained, but the people I meet and the energy and motivation from being amongst others with similar passions and skills.

I had little doubt that you would keep the tip of your spear sharp. Would grindstone would you recommend to aspiring user researchers who want to be just like you when they grow up?

Don’t rely on just school work to get you in. It is a VERY competitive industry, and breaking in is often the most difficult part. Having side projects or research projects can really help demonstrate the unique skills you can bring to a company. Understanding what skills are necessary for the position you’re interested in helps a lot. And don’t stop networking. The games industry is still fairly small, all things considered, and it doesn’t hurt to know people.

The lab awaits your triumphant return, so we will conclude what has been a lovely chat with this final question: Experience, Work Ethic, or Talent? Rank them in order of importance to your role.

Talent and Experience could be interchangeable. Experience is necessary because many best practices aren’t well documented in this field yet, so having the knowledge of techniques or analyses that work well for a particular area is useful. Talent is useful because with any study that involves subjective data, it takes some intuition to know where to push for more information and what is important. Good work ethic is necessary for any role to be successful, so not as important as the other two to user research specifically.

We have picked Jennifer’s brain enough for now. It’s time to return her to the eager test-subjects who are lining up to do their part for Science. If her story has inspired you to become one of her coworkers, but Science is not your thing, don’t lose hope. We need all types at Bungie, and you stand a good chance of finding someone with skills like yours in the Breaking In archive.