Psychology at Thomson Reuters (feat. Paul Bruening)
Alumni Aloud Episode 73
Paul Bruening has a PhD in Psychology from the CUNY Graduate Center and is currently Director of UX Research and Insights at Thomson Reuters.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Paul does a deep dive into the principles and methods behind UX research and how GC students can both prepare themselves for the field and stand out while job searching.
VOICEOVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with the GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
MISTY CROOKS, HOST: I’m Misty Crooks, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the Graduate Center and a fellow in the Office of Career Planning and Professional Development. In this episode of Alumni Aloud, I interview Paul Bruening, who graduated from our program in Psychology and is now Director of UX Research and Insights at Thomson Reuters. He does a deep dive into the principles and methods behind UX Research and how GC students can both prepare themselves for the field and stand out while job searching.
Would you mind giving us an overview of your organization’s mission and what your role is there?
PAUL BRUENING, GUEST: Yeah so I work for the fifth largest publisher on the Internet that no one has ever heard of. We’re called Thomson Reuters, and many people have heard of Reuters, especially in New York. That’s one of our media headquarters. And that part of the business is obviously journalism. We’ve got gosh, 20,000 journalists around the world. A lot of those journalists are photojournalists, so we win a lot of awards for photography and, of course, writing. That’s really exciting to be part of that organization. But, like every cool media organization, they have by-laws that protect them from bias. There’s a reason that Reuters is considered to be the least biased large news source on the planet, at least it’s rated that way in little polls. Because back in the 1800s they had the vision to indicate that they would never be owned because ownership is a moment of bias, and so, even though we are Thompson Reuters, that’s a totally separate organization. We don’t really share anything with them. We direct traffic to their website when people come to ours looking for them, for example. But that’s about the extent of it.
So what I work on is the user experience, you know the people on the other side of the screen, for all of our products and we make thousands of products. We make so many products that when I first came, I did a research project to try to figure out if anyone could even categorize our products. And they weren’t able to, even people who had worked here for a long time, because our products are very specific to a certain job type. They also are really, really deep resources and that’s what makes us such a huge publisher. We’ve been publishing the law since the 1800s and if you imagine how many laws have been written, changed, how much has been written about those laws every day. And we have a huge writing and editorial staff so if we were, if Thomson Reuters was a law firm, we’d be the largest law firm in the world. We employ that many attorneys, and those lawyers are constantly riding on the line. People rely on us. So what’s interesting is, if you go to law school, you actually use one of our products. It’s part of your curriculum and people love it. When they get out of law school, they’re like that costs what? Just like everything when you leave school, you couldn’t believe what your university was giving you and how fabulous it was when you try to actually access that on your own. Adobe Suite costs what?
It’s the same with our products, but that’s only one of thousands. How do we let people know that we built something for them that makes their job much more effective, makes them more influential in their career, and cuts down on the time that they perform little tasks? We have tons of patents on AI that searches the law. We have a product where you actually upload an argument you’re going to make to the court just before you do it. And our AI system goes through and says, nope you’re going to get crushed on that one. Nope. You can also upload opposing counsel’s brief and what they’re putting in. And it’ll say, hey they misquoted the authority here, you have an opportunity. Imagine having that at your fingertips as a solo practitioner. That’s the attorney you want working for you because every one of our customers has someone counting on them deeply, and our products need to deliver on that. We also need to service that. That’s what we do.
Essentially, what my team does is we research from a very human level what people actually want to achieve by visiting a web page. What was the outcome they expected? Or, what is the exemplar they have in their mind, so that we can build that expectation and then build that site based on that expectation reconstructed. So that’s what the team does. We go up and down in size, depending on pandemics. We have the research organization as a whole is around 40 or some people. We’re spread out around the globe. We’re mostly in Dallas, Minnesota, and Toronto, Canada, and those are our big technology kind of hubs. And then we’re in every city in small ways everywhere, in London, New York, places like that.
CROOKS: How did you get interested in the field of user experience?
BRUENING: No one walks straight into this business. We all kind of fall in upside down and sideways. And the reason is, it used to always happen outside of anyone’s view. I was working at a company called Hallmark.
I was in the back room, cleaning and coding data and I got an opportunity, because someone got sick, to conduct some in-person research. I discovered the voyeuristic world of research and it got me so excited because it was a whole new deeper level of performance art I hadn’t ever considered. And so I asked my boss at this company, how do I do this. He said, well, you need to go to New York and you need to find somebody who does this for a living and you just need to hang out with them. And that’s what I did. And then 9/11 happened, and no one wanted my opinion on what people in New York were thinking about, so I went to Brooklyn College to get a degree in experimental psychology because I had heard on the radio that the only person who could answer some question they were talking about on NPR was an experimental psychologist. I was like ooh, I would like someone to say that about me someday. I’m going to go find out, so there were two programs. One was at Brooklyn College. I went to Brooklyn College and discovered that the head of the program is this like 19th most cited person in the history of psychology. I went to Brooklyn College. While I was there, I took cognition and a professor there said she wanted to offer me a fellowship, a seat. So that required that I become a PhD student, so then I was accepted into the Graduate Center. And I did both degrees simultaneously. I finished my masters and defended my dissertation.
We all know that story, right? But the one story that’s really unique about the Graduate Center is that myself, my cohort, we were all working. We weren’t just like you know at fraternity parties. We were all doing a lot of work to support ourselves financially. The fellowship that I was offered helped immensely, but I still had to run a research company that I had already started. So that work evolved very quickly, like once I learned scientific method, because before I was just winging it. Once I actually got into it, learned scientific method, learned the basis of a lot of things, like cognition. It was very early in those days, but we were studying behavioral economics. It was very, very intriguing. I started applying that to my work. The marketplace still is catching up. That was a long time ago, but to be somebody who’s implementing these kind of things in the real world quickly, you become a very valuable player. So I had already been there, so it was easy adaptation. I just started applying it slowly to my work. I was having some wins, having lots of losses. Clients are like, that’s not what we hired you for what did you just deliver to us, things like that. We can’t even read this. But, over time, I got it cooked down to something that I can actually hand over.
And that’s what brought me through many different paths. I worked for myself for a very long time, had a great run, worked in almost every kind of product category from healthcare to motorcycles to anything that you could put on your body, ingest, or use, I’ve probably studied on some level. And then we had this thing called the trade embargo, which only seemed to have affected me, like no one else. But all my work died overnight, because I had built up a huge international clientele and they moved all of their research work to China because they knew they could get value from it instantly. And I was dead in the water, so I found a US based company that was really interested in this. I had done UX back in the day, but UX had moved from being something that was kind of being discovered to something that never got a lot of credit. And it was being given to anyone who could use a computer and I’m not exaggerating. Because if you had any kind of knowledge or skill, you were immediately deemed like the expert and then there was no value in it, right? So my work changed a bit, but I always kept my toe in UX and I always had customers that would do UX. It didn’t pay the bills, but you know it was like three or four projects a year. And that kind of kept my chops and I saw how the marketplace evolved and didn’t evolve.
That’s the interesting part. So UX is frozen in time. It’s still very much systems based and not humans based. And that’s the advantage that someone like myself with a background in psychology or someone who has a background in anthropology brings immense value. But the one thing that I learned at the Graduate Center, and this may have been just my mentor, was that there are problems everywhere to be solved. The reasons you’re not working on them is because you haven’t figured out how. And that’s it and I’ve applied that since that day to every problem. That’s the way I got into it. That’s the way I kind of evolved in it. But it would be interesting to talk about the methods that I deploy now and how those grew out of what I learned in psychology, experimental psychology because I think that is what’s been, for me, the biggest revelation in my work.
CROOKS: It sounds like, in addition to that what you just said, you’re seeing potentially a sea change in the field?
BRUENING: Yeah so there’s a huge sea change and the world hasn’t caught up because information spreads so fast, and there are these kind of concentrated little echo chambers, especially for UX. What has happened to me is the world is changing to a more human-focused design sense. We’ve discovered that what was considered design, we now consider dark design. What was previously considered the height of design is now essentially dark, tricking people into doing things, building websites just to capture people’s data, not being truthful with someone. I think all of us have done this and you only do it once. Like oh right, I need renter’s insurance and there’s a website that says that it can actually give me three different estimates. That’s great. I’ll put in my information and it’ll give me three different estimates. No actually when I hit the button, my phone explodes for the next like 72 hours. That kind of dark design, which is the extreme end I mentioned, there’s a kernel of that in a lot of the Internet. That is not what we need to be building.
What we need to be figuring out first is, what is the intention, what is the mental outcome that someone has built in their mind to come to this web page? I don’t care if they’ll push on a red button or orange button or green button. I just care about why the hell they’re here in the first place. And did we deliver that in under 10 seconds? That is essentially what separates the people who are successful and the people who are running usability studies because that is a muscle that we all have and we can do. We don’t need to be experts in that. That’s a system and you just press go. The one that’s really difficult is extracting what’s called jobs to be done. Have you ever heard that expression?
CROOKS: I have not.
BRUENING: Oh, so cool. So there’s a family tree of thinking that people have a job to do. They hire a product. They hire a company. They hire a website to do something for them. And that’s that end result, that outcome that I’m talking about. The famous story is that people don’t care about your company. They don’t care about your brand. They don’t even care about your product. Let’s say your product is a drill. They didn’t buy that product because of what it was. What they bought was a 3/4 inch hole in the wall. Now the quality, the preciseness, and that hole is the only thing they want. They don’t care anything about your product, right, or you. And how do you figure that out? Well, it is a really human, deep conversation because we don’t walk around all day thinking, these are my objectives. You have to run a really specific kind of interview, one where you listen, you speak very little. You let people start at any starting point and then you step them back. Start asking about the weather on a day that they made this decision that you’re interested in. And they’re like, this is ridiculous what would the weather matter. And it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter to them. But it shows this intention to really make sure that we understand everything that was going on and then all of a sudden, you find the energy.
Gosh, something was happening that day. As a matter of fact, our system went down and no way to replace it. We were all on the phones. And you hear these kind of stories, right? Or we lost a contract. Or, I got sick and then I realized I was sick because I was working too hard. Or all of these things that happened. And then they drive people to seek a solution, right. And once we know what that original thought was, that first thought as it’s called by some people in the industry, then we can build our way little steps toward everything that’s gone on since that first thought and we map that all out. We have our own map. This is what the humans want. It’s very shelf stable. It’s not like one design based. It’s like we have to hit this target, and then you cook it down to a simple phrase. That phrase can be used as the lingua franca across everyone who has to make this come to life. So they say developers make designers’ dreams come true. The design team learns from research what end state the person needs to be in. They design against that. And then the developer receives that information as well.
So what I’ve done is I’ve trained the developers to conduct these interviews. I’ve trained engineers and architects, you know information architects. The designers do it, they love it. But not because they’re going to replace research, but because they have to understand what is this data they’re receiving. Paul just gave me a phrase after doing months of research, which I’m lying. That’s a huge luxury; we only have weeks. But after doing lots of research, he comes back to us with a set of a handful of phrases like what could that mean? For me, as someone who was coding a program, well turns out, it can mean a lot. As a matter of fact, it could change a lot of the decisions you make while you’re building something because you may make a choice that doesn’t get the person to that end state. Because it was hard, because you’ve never done it before. Because you’ve been serving meatloaf for lunch every day and the audience is vegan.
So there’s a real need to have everyone understand what data really is. It’s not a chart. It’s actually a phrase, and that is I think the sea change that’s happening. We’re seeing a lot, we’re hearing a lot about it. People are writing about it, but the implementation of it is hard. People look to organizations like mine and teams like mine to learn it. And the only way I was able to make a fast conversion into it and to lean into it and to figure out how to implement it and operationalize it, is because I studied psychology, right. But I studied a program that looked at things deeply and looked at things from a human behavioral standpoint, and that gave me the advantage of having this extra layer to the way that I was already literally trained to think. That’s kind of where we are. The industry is catching up. You’re starting to see it everywhere, which brings me nothing but joy because I know it’s going to be better for the humans in the end. But finding someone with that experience is hard, so what I’ve done is I find someone with the spirit, the excitement, someone I could talk to and be with. It doesn’t even have to be that, but you know someone who actually gets the ideas. Everything else is trainable through experience and through having the right tool set and then the right support. That’s the way we’re building those people now on our team.
We can take a huge data set and turn it into a sentence. And that takes a lot of effort. Sometimes we all have to come together and put in lots of hours together. We counted how many post-it notes we used for this one analysis, and we used almost 10,000 post-it notes. That kind of work requires like this constant kind of design thinking interaction all the way down to this final result. And it’s exciting, it’s fun, but it’s also going to, in the end, if everybody listens, if we get enough attention, it’s going to change people’s experiences. And if I could give someone 15 minutes of positive experience over negative frustration back in their day, I’ve literally done something. I realize that you know working in the commercial area, especially business to business, sounds pretty dry, but I think this is the evolution. You just can’t get away with building a mouse trap to capture people. You have to give them a place to be where they want to be and they feel welcome and they see themselves reflected. There’s a lot that happens when we see ourselves reflected right. That’s the long-term plan. It’s paying off so far. I’m sure there’s someone out there in the Graduate Center who knows someone 80 years ago who invented this philosophy and was working quietly and there could be hundreds of publications on it that I have never seen. But this is the way I’ve interpreted it in my own commercial space.
CROOKS: You’re speaking to I think a lot of different qualities that are helpful in your field, some of them you’ve pointed to directly. I’m wondering if you can give advice for current grad students thinking about going into this field about how they can best position themselves?
BRUENING: Yes, that is a great question because here’s the story. We have requirements. Like many organizations, we have requirements for people who work in this area that they need to have degrees. But being strongly attuned to bias, I have and continue to make the argument that we don’t want to just be hiring people in their 30s and their 40s. That makes no sense. Do we just eliminate everybody who didn’t have the money? Do we eliminate everybody who had to take a career pause, something happened in their life? Do we eliminate someone who struggled for seven years on their dissertation but did a bunch of other stuff? I think during that dissertation period of time, there’s a joke that people sometimes paint their house twice before they finish their dissertation, right. Could you imagine instead of paying your house if you are conducting this kind of work learning. There are so many organizations that can’t afford someone at your level, and those are so exciting. I mean, I’m hiring people who are standing up at charities that I never imagined could ever get funded, but they’re so important to the people they benefit. And the reason they’re doing that is because they use their UX chops to go in and build a glorious environment all around, something that functions well, that uses all the latest language and technology, but also feels like the place that you should be if you are this person.
Sometimes you show up at a website that’s built for you, but it doesn’t look like it’s really. You’re like I don’t really trust them, they don’t know me, I don’t feel comfortable here. A website is an environment. Those are opportunities. You know, you can get paid for that, of course, but those are opportunities to build those chops because you do need, in UX you need something called a portfolio. And if you’re sharing other companies’ data and you’re trying to promote yourself to me as a researcher who’s hiring another researcher, I just don’t feel you’re safe if you’re showing other people’s data that you don’t own. That’s one thing about the commercial space you don’t have the right to that information the second you release it. These projects can be published because they not only promote you, they promote the idea, they promote the organization. And maybe they’re really beautiful things and you could solve certain problems.
Number two. Definitely record your failures, because when someone interviews with me or on our team, we have a pretty high-level team. There’s a lot of modern, modern thinking on hiring that I’m introduced to every day. It opens my eyes. One of the most important things is, how did you overcome failure because part of our job is failing. That’s what research is. I always say it’s not research and until somebody gets completely screwed up. And it’s those moments that you really shine, when you either say look it’s a null result, but we learned something fantastic. Let’s stand up something different. Or, we came up with very powerful moving stuff, but the system wasn’t ready, the organization wasn’t ready. They pushed back. We didn’t influence correctly, which leads to, what did you learn, how would you influence now, and what are those things that you can use that we all have regardless of our position because I consider research to have three main roles.
Number one is to influence. Number two is to provide data. Number three is to make sure that everybody understands what data is. Those are the three most important things. If you walk around and you walk into rooms and use the word data, everyone is picturing numbers. We have a little story. We have one of these little jobs to be done statements. I need to have the meal ready now so I can get to work on time so that I feel like I’m not behind every single day. We could build so much based on that sentence if we had that information and we never forgot it. It keeps the person in the story, at the center of the story. And we don’t care if that person has a gender We don’t care if that person has a race or an economic status. All we care about is the objective they have, which is a huge seismic shift. Because in UX, there used to be these things called personas. And they would have these like glamorous photographs and you know, everybody was like certain age and had a kind of job and like did all these really interesting things. And then you would read all these demographics, and I was like you were like almost enforcing bias in design through these. How about if we have three personas? We have someone who uses the thing. We have someone who buys the thing. And we have someone who administers the thing. I think that’s a great starting point. If we can get those three right, we’ve probably gotten all of the other ones about X percent right.
And I think for an industry, I think being able to understand that when we come into the scene, we have to upgrade it to a very high functioning, high thinking environment. A lot of that has to do with killing the old ways. When we deliver an insight to someone, someone gave of themselves to us. People at the end of those interviews sometimes are like on the verge of tears. They’re like no one has ever allowed me to discuss this, no one has ever allowed me think about this. There are so many important things in my life, and work is just not doing it right. The Great Resignation right. I consider that an honor that someone shared that with me. Now I protect that and I represent that in every meeting and everywhere I go. That person’s end state is the one we’re going to reach.
CROOKS: I wonder if you can give us any advice, a parting piece of advice for graduate students at the Grad Center?
BRUENING: I would recommend thinking about portfolio. I would recommend thinking about how we’re improving ourselves. I’ve done lots of research on upskilling and how people upskill because we sell products that people use to learn. There are so many options available to us. We want to add those skills 100%. It doesn’t take a lot. We do have to master them. We can’t just list them once we take the class. But I would say upskilling is really important. I would also listen to some of these organizations out there. You don’t want to quote like one of these organizations where it’s inexpensive to take a class on UX. Those are bad signs; you don’t want that on your resume. You know, the Graduate Center is prestigious. You don’t step down into like you know remote learning from a non-prestigious group, right. But you do it anyway. You take those classes. You figure out what they’re talking about and then you go and you do it yourself. Or you start writing a treatise on it, or something. And then you master those skills. I would say, those are the most important things, so you want to have tackled some of these things and have examples.
I would also say, and this is really important for everyone, this industry is well paid. Don’t screw around with the money. We’re figuring out ways state by state for people to figure out what you get paid for what, and what the person sitting next to you gets paid. I would say being worth too much in a call is something you can fix. Not being worth enough, you go off the list. And God forbid someone hires you for the wrong number. Once you lock your number, it’s baby steps from there. You gotta change organizations. So I would say, those are two important things: get the money right; it’s a well-compensated industry. We’re actually hiring you know what I mean like. And then also, make sure that you have a diverse toolkit. I studied at these schools for interviewing, these moderation schools, these market research schools. There’s no prestige in that. I learned so many fast tricks to turn a bad interview into an amazing one. Without that, I don’t think I’d be where I am today. There are lots of courses for jobs to be done. At Amazon, they call it CXO, customer experience outcomes. You might find it under that. There’s a guy named Bob Moesta, who is one of the thinkers that has simplified the discussion. And then there are lots of individuals out who are publishing on it. And in UX, there’s lots of sharing and giving so you can attend these webinars without any expense. I would definitely see what the industry is talking about on this topic.
CROOKS: Okay, Paul, great. Thank you so much for joining us today.