Nancy Frishberg

Career Profile: Experience Research

The Career Profiles in Linguistics section regularly highlights career paths taken by linguists. If you would like to recommend someone (including yourself) for a future profile, please contact Career Linguist.

I wanted to know more about the world of User Experience Research, so where better?  I came here to the Bay Area to start asking questions!

And first, we need to get the terminology down. I wasn’t sure if I was asking about “User Testing” “Usability Testing” or “Market/Customer/User” Research.”   Turns out that mostly market research happens in Marketing departments. Customer research is sometimes valuable for the design team, when there is a clear distinction between who makes the purchase decision and who uses the product or service.

So maybe our best terms are the broadest and most general terms to capture what we are wanting to learn more about is “user research” or usability testing”

Nancy Frishberg, who I met through participation in Linguists Outside Academia is a trained linguist who works in user experience, applying principles of user-centered design to a variety of products with attention to processes that promote quality.

Her mini-bio
Frishberg earned the Ph.D. from UCSD in linguistics for her work on historical changes in American Sign Language. She has held research and teaching positions in academia: at NTID (RIT), at Hampshire College, and at NYU‘s Deafness Research and Training Center (which moved to University of Arkansas, Little Rock, in 1980). During several years of consulting on topics related to deafness, sign language teaching, and interpreting, she wrote the book Interpreting: An Introduction, (1986 and 1990, 2nd edition) published by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). The book is still in print, and forms the basis of the required written examination for certification of sign language interpreters by RID.

In about 1985, her career took a change as she moved from academia and quasi-academic consulting into the corporate sector. The skills she developed in posing research questions and designing activities to address the questions, in conducting field work and experimental studies, in evaluating individuals and programs, and in designing instructional activities have served her well in the corporate world

As it turns out, she is EXACTLY the person that I needed to be talking to about this world.

Some of Nancy’s favorite bits of nomenclature:

  • usability engineering
  • user experience research
  • user design

Basically, the work is about learning more about the market, the customer, and the user (who may or may not be the customer), and specifically getting at how people interact with the product.  Where the problems are.  What the opportunities might be.

A helpful example from Nancy
“My usual example is a sleep monitoring machine. The market (because these pieces of equipment are quite expensive) is hospitals and clinics. The customer is the purchasing agent or perhaps the medical staff’s advisory committee (i.e., doctors) to the purchasing department. The user is the sleep technician who attaches the patient to the machine and needs to prepare the read out for the doctor who makes a diagnosis or reports back to the patient.”

Nancy and I had a great conversation about the process of structuring and designing interactions that help you get information about how your user interacts with your product. She blogs about focus groups, and shared with me some new ways of thinking about focus groups (they are not bad per se), but that there are also different ways that you might go about putting people together into game interactions that are not like focus groups so that one person cannot dominate the conversation, and so that not only one person is talking at a time.

As a researcher and performer of improv, this was about the coolest thing I could imagine!

Nancy shared with me that she uses her linguistics background every day as part of her work. She looks for patterns and tries to quantify them, she is often called upon to think in terms of type/token (which she quickly recognized she is trained to do in a way that her colleagues who do not have a linguistics background are not). “Basically,” she told me “this work is ethnography – but you have to move from thinking about ethnography on the scale of years and think about how you can distill and compress that analytical complexity and richness into an hour or two (or maybe a day or two) of really meaningful interaction with people who are impacted by (or who impact) the use of your product or service.” Nancy is a regular participant in the Ask-A-Linguist section of Linguist List, so if you want to go learn more about her skills as an outward-facing linguist, check her out there!

Some other resources that she shared:
Her website

Her slideshares

Have experience in this world? I would love to hear all about it! Tweet at me @CareerLinguist

Return to Career Profiles in Linguistics.

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