Grace Phang’s interest in behavioral studies began when she was in high school. Participating in a class on evolutionary science and anthropology, Grace would go to the zoo for hours to study the monkeys and take detailed field notes on animal behavior. “I was a total nerd,” she said shamelessly. It was her first introduction to ethnography and it ignited a passion that would eventually lead to her career as a user experience researcher. To get there, however, she’d first have to overcome many of life’s challenges, including poverty and, quite literally, 18 obstacle courses.
Professional obstacle overcomer
It was 2015, and Grace had just finished a one-year contract working as a research assistant on an origami and spatial awareness learning project at Tufts University in New England. By this point in her career, Grace was quite the renaissance woman. She had already co-launched a business making unique and unconventional hats with her sister. Fab Hatters is among the top-selling one percent of merchants on Etsy, and the stylish hats have been spotted at events such as the Kentucky Derby, in music videos, celebrity photoshoots, and weddings. Fashion has always been a creative outlet for Grace, and to this day her outfit choices are one of the ways she famously expresses herself.
At this time, Grace was trying to determine her next move. She had recently graduated with a degree in neuroscience and anthropology studies from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and decided now was the time to take a break. One of her many passions is competing in obstacle races, so she created a challenge for herself and decided to compete in 18 obstacle races spread out across the continent over the course of a year. From Lake Tahoe, California; to Montreal, Canada; and from Chicago to Dallas, Grace was a Spartan and a Beast on a mission.
“I am a continuous learner and love finding new opportunities to improve myself,” Grace said. She didn’t know it at the time, but this break would catapult her career into UX.
Between races, Grace was working as a barista at Starbucks and taking courses online when she discovered a user experience design course on Lynda.com.
All her experience in anthropology, ethnography, and neuroscience aligned with this field. As part of an assignment, Grace turned her research to the obstacle race community and conducted a study on what motivates people to partake in these obstacle courses, and some of the challenges they experience along the way. This became a catalyst for a Google-maps based experience she created for her portfolio. The assignment in user research was eye opening for Grace, so she returned to academics and earned her masters in Human Factors in Information Design at Bentley University.
Now, Grace works as a user researcher at Liberty Mutual in Boston. She’s an avid part of the UX community, a member of the Ladies That UX Boston chapter, and more recently, a public speaker and mentor to the design community, who she shares her lessons, experience, and knowledge in user research with.
Grace’s journey to UX
Obstacle races aren’t the only obstacles that Grace faced throughout her life. Growing up poor in the San Fernando Valley, in a suburb of Los Angeles, Grace’s family didn’t have a lot of money. She knew that if she ever wanted to attend college and leave California, she’d need a scholarship. When she was younger, Grace had a flair for fashion, art, and dance, and many thought she’d be an artist someday. Grace was practical even then, and she saw her studies as her ticket out.
It paid off. Grace devoted herself to academics and graduated at the top of her class with a full scholarship to Dartmouth, and ended convocation as the valedictorian of her graduating class.
“Coming from an Asian background, my immigrant parents always pushed me to be the best academically,” Grace wrote in an email after our interview. “My parents thought of academic excellence, and specific fields like medicine, to be the pathway to success, and seeing their struggles inspired me to work harder towards my logical [and] academic side.”
Grace was profoundly curious, however. “I’ve been a trouble maker my whole life, poking holes in things, searching for evidence, and connecting the dots between different fields,” she said.
At one point during her studies, Grace had the opportunity to travel to New Zealand to live with the Maori people. The Maori people are indigenous to New Zealand, and their language, Te Reo, is one of the country’s official languages. The immersive experience rooted in Grace a foundation that would serve her well in her work as a user researcher.
At Liberty Mutual, Grace has worked in a variety of roles and currently works predominantly with one other user researcher in the service group, which serves users who have purchased an insurance policy through Liberty Mutual. Insurance is an interesting industry for a user experience researcher to work in because, often, something bad has to happen in order for someone to go through the insurance claim process. If you’ve ever had to file an insurance claim, you know this can be a deeply uncomfortable, emotional, and stressful time, especially if you’ve been seriously injured, lost something valuable, or worse, something has happened to someone you love. For Grace, having an opportunity to improve this process for someone while they’re enduring such a difficult time is deeply rewarding.
“I especially like working with claims because you really get to learn people’s emotional experience after they have an accident, or something like that, and you get to work on improving that experience for them. That’s the part of my job that I really like — to make products better for people. There are a lot of emotional ties to insurance because it’s an industry of risk. I find that super compelling,” Grace said.
Failure is not just possible, it’s probable
Never one to stay still, Grace is always enrolled in something, whether it’s something formal and academic like her masters degree, or something fun and interest-based like taking cooking or improv classes. As a researcher, she draws value and lessons out of everything she does, and she encourages others to do the same. Doing things that don’t appear explicitly related to one’s career are often the things that set you apart and help you to succeed.
“Obstacle course racing was an opportunity to improve myself physically. Cooking was to gain more life skills and be healthier. Improv was because I have trouble thinking on the spot, so I wanted to improve my presentation skills and rapport with other people. I find that many skills are transferable across industries,” Grace said.
“Even cooking class, I learned basic techniques, flavor combinations, and kitchen tools from which I had the option to improvise with new and delightful recipes of my choice. At Starbucks, I learned patience, consistency, and how to work and empathize with customers in a busy environment. At a computer help desk, I learned how to use new technologies, ask people questions about their problems, seek resources, and find time-sensitive solutions.”
While her journey to UX is unique, it’s easy to see how her diverse background and passion for learning has contributed to her early success as a UX researcher. She knows how to take her lessons and apply them to her next move, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. For example, Grace interned at Liberty Mutual while she was in school, and was offered a full-time job immediately after. Part of this comes down to her personal philosophies on success, failure, and taking chances.
“I put myself out there a lot knowing that failure is not just possible, it’s probable,” Grace said. “It is what led me to pursue speaking, when I’m not the most articulate; to take improv, when I don’t think I’m funny; and change careers, when I was just an obstacle racing-barista.”
Public speaking is the latest obstacle she’s crushing. Grace recently gave a lightning talk on how to prepare for worst-case scenarios when conducting user research as part of a Ladies That UX meetup in Boston, and she aspires to continue putting herself out there.
Through her involvement in meetups like Ladies That UX, Grace has become an inspiration for many. Although she said she sometimes battles imposter syndrome, she’s mostly learned to ignore it. In closing our conversation, Grace delivered some practical and timeless advice.
“Sometimes you just have to take the leap,” she said. “When you start dipping your toe into it, it becomes easier over time. I’ve learned that failure equals learning, and that it’s important to just try.”