UNLV Anthropology alumni engage in a wide array of professional pursuits. In this exchange, let's hear more from Elysia Wells, who earned BA degrees at UNLV in Anthropology (2007) and Fine and Studio Art (2008). Elysia is currently UX (User Experience) Researcher at Digital River in Minnesota. UX is a hot field for social science graduates, making Elysia's insights particularly timely.
Could you please tell us about yourself, including how you landed as an undergraduate student at UNLV?
My dad was a professor at UNLV so it felt only natural that I would go to UNLV. I liked that the school wasn’t a party school and was close to home. It felt safe and like I could get a good solid education. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I started, but my brother had taken an anthropology class and told me I would love it. I did, and he was right. I fell in love right away.
What is one of your fondest memories from your undergraduate UNLV Anthropology experience?
I loved my cohort of students and I adored the classes. Learning together and getting different viewpoints was a great and worthwhile experience. I also was a big fan of the physical anthropology laboratory. Learning how to tell someone’s story from their remains was one of my favorite parts of my undergraduate career.
How did you travel from Anthropology and Art to a career in UX Research? What skills or background from your undergraduate years helped prepare you for this path, and are still relevant today?
My journey to UX wasn't a straight line. It was a wandering path, not a road.
In my last year as an anthropology student, I was watching a video on the people of Mongolia. They were using tires for their carts. The tires kept getting flats and they would have to patch them. I realized that I wanted to help them, that there must be a better way of making a wheel that would serve them better.
At the same time, I realized I didn’t want to be a struggling artist and didn’t want to spend time in remote areas. I wanted something that gave me a solid 9-5 with a work-life balance.
I wanted to do something that let me be both creative and analytical. UX lets me do this.
I didn't go directly to UX. I didn’t know about human factors research, the physical product side of UX research, or even UX when I was at UNLV. I did know about industrial design. The school I pursued to learn about industrial design had classes on UX design and UX design research.
So much of UX Research is applied anthropology. At work, I figure out how humans interact with a computer program. The human always comes first in UX Research. We are adapting things to fit with human needs, not the other way around.
Different cultural backgrounds and different life experiences change how you interact with a design whether it is a physical object or a program. For example, a red light and a beep will have different meanings depending on the languages you speak. Tones are more meaningful to some languages, frequency is more important to another. A red light could mean done, stop, or even start depending on what your cultural background is. If someone has only been exposed to something, say a piece of medical equipment, because of a TV show, they will have different expectations than someone who is new to the object. You must have a basic understanding of culture before you test a design.
If a current student is interested in UX Research, what advice would you share with them?
I have basically 3 tips.
It is important to get some training in UX design and UX Research. You don’t always need a full master's or an MFA, but you should take classes and get certificates. You must learn some basic UX design skills and some basic programming skills to be able to communicate with your team. Some basic graphic design and communication classes don’t hurt either. You don’t have to be an expert in any of these areas; you just need to know the basics.
You should do your best to be patient with yourself. Each company is looking for a different type of UX Researcher. The industry is full of 6 month contracts so it might take time to get fully integrated into the field. Do your best to roll with it. Sometimes these things are out of your control and being gentle with yourself is a must.
Make a good portfolio. When you are ready to look for a job and build a portfolio, I would recommend that you do some independent research studies on different websites or objects. I did a mock card sort, I did a usability test on a random retail chain, and I did a fake tree test. I asked my friends, paid them in pizza, and I got a beautiful portfolio that shows off my skills.
You were active as an undergraduate student and participated in both Anthropology Society and Lambda Alpha. As an alumna, what suggestions would you offer to current students seeking to get the most from their UNLV experience?
Do as much as you can. Join clubs, help out, but don’t wear yourself thin. Know your limits. You get more out of clubs and activities if you are able to be fully engaged with them.