Charged Chats is a series of interviews featuring inspiring voices from the pros. What motivates them, what inspires them, and what can we take away from their stories to charge ourselves up.
Dr. Elizabeth Allen is a UX researcher, cognitive psychologist, and cat owner based in Toronto, Canada. She is the founder of Brazen, a UX research consultancy that helps companies identify and solve critical UX problems in digital and physical products. Over the course of her career, Elizabeth has conducted research for a wide variety of companies including Shopify, United Airlines, Mozilla, and Discover, and has helped shape the design of websites, apps, electronic hardware, signage, and conversational interfaces. Elizabeth also has a love of teaching that began when she was a lecturer at The University of Chicago while completing her PhD in Cognitive Psychology. She currently teaches two courses on UX research methods for O’Reilly Media and has lectured on similar topics at the University of Waterloo and the Pratt School of Information.
Brazen is a boutique UX research and strategy consultancy based in Toronto, ON. With a focus on helping companies deeply understand who their users are and what they need, Brazen uncovers insights that fuel smarter decision-making about design, marketing and branding. Brazen’s growing list of happy clients includes Mozilla, Wealthsimple, Holvi, and ZS Associates.
Tell us about your career path. How did you get to where you are now?
Seven years ago, I was living in Chicago and finishing up a PhD in Cognitive Psychology. Up to that point, my plan had been to stay in academia and become an experimental psychologist, continuing to study human visual perception, attention, and memory. But 6 months before I graduated, I started having massive doubts about whether staying in academia was right for me. The academic job market in my field was (and still is) really tough, and I would probably have to move to a not-very-exciting location for a low-paying postdoc position before even thinking of becoming a tenure-track professor. Ultimately, I realized I just wasn’t passionate enough about what I was studying to make all of that worthwhile.
I started frantically Googling what else I could do with my experience, and that’s when I came across UX Research. I was immediately drawn to it because it seemed “sciency” enough to satisfy that part of my brain, but didn’t have the horrible constraints of academia.
I was incredibly lucky and ended up landing my first job at Centralis, a UX Research & Design consulting firm in the Chicago area. The team at Centralis taught me SO MUCH and helped me understand how to turn my academic research skills into UX research skills. And as a bonus, I also learned so much about how to interact with clients and do other “businessy” things that were brand-new to me at the time.
After a few years at Centralis, I decided I wanted to move to the Bay Area, and I got a job as the first researcher at a fintech startup called Prosper. A year later, I moved back home to Toronto to take a job at Shopify, and a few years after that, I started my own business!
Describe your current role?
I run a very small (read: mostly just me) UX Research consultancy called Brazen. I lead all of Brazen’s research projects, and I also do all the other stuff that comes with running a business: marketing, bookkeeping, hiring, etc.
Getting to work with clients of many different sizes and industries has been so awesome, including clients I can visit here in Toronto like Mozilla, Shopify, Wealthsimple, Integrate.ai, and Borrowell. I’m incredibly lucky to have a great network of friends and colleagues in the tech industry who have made introductions for me and helped me land projects (especially in the early days). As I go into my 3rd year of doing this, I can say my business is truly thriving!
How do you stay motivated when you’re going through a rough patch?
I’m a big procrastinator, so having deadlines really helps motivate me to get things done when I actually feel like doing absolutely nothing. They key for me is to share that deadline with the client, because if they’re expecting something from me on a certain date, there’s no way I’m going to let them down.
Do you have any words of wisdom for anyone looking to follow in a similar career path?
If you’re in academia and trying to break into UX Research, don’t sell yourself short on your skills. I think it’s really easy to feel like you have “no experience” if you haven’t had a job in your field of interest yet, but there’s so much you learn in a Master’s or PhD program that carries over nicely – especially “soft skills” like writing well, speaking in public, explaining complex topics to laypeople, and collaborating with others. There are definitely ways in which your academic experience may actually put you at an advantage, so long as you sell it as such when you’re interviewing for jobs.
Best piece of advice you’ve received?
Not sure if it’s the best advice I’ve ever received, but it’s something I do think about a lot:
“There’s no growth in the comfort zone, and no comfort in the growth zone.”
It’s actually something I first heard from a karate Sensei!
I’ve found that it’s easy for me to focus on landing projects that are very much in my “comfort zone”, but I know that I won’t grow if never take on anything more challenging. Since I work mostly by myself, I have to be really intentional about growing as a researcher or business owner because there’s nobody there to remind me to push myself. That little mantra keeps my mind open to growth opportunities, and reminds me that real growth should feel a bit uncomfortable.