One small step for a UX designer, one giant leap for UX design Jeremy Thomson, former lead UX designer at EA Sports, on moving his career from Canada to Japan

UX new frontiersIn many ways, leaving a job at a world-renowned gaming company – a job which you love – to start again in a far away land, isn’t unlike leaving earth to explore space.

OK, it’s not as cinematic… but you trade comfort and familiarity for adventure and new possibilities.

This is especially true if you’re a UX designer working abroad. Jeremy had spent (literally) years building the influence of user-centred design and research within EA Sports, in Vancouver, Canada.

He worked his way up to the position of lead user experience designer, helped launch a hugely successful Fifa app, won awards and recognition… all while educating his colleagues about the value of user experience.

Then he quit his picture-perfect job, simply to do it all over again… in Japan.

When Jeremy sent me an email about writing an article on user-centred culture, I sensed there was a more thrilling and informative story bubbling beneath the surface of the man himself. So I interviewed him about his adventure instead.

This article and accompanying audio interview explores:

  • Jeremy’s role in bringing UX to prominence at EA Sports
  • The challenges of driving UX in a company as established as EA Sports
  • The move to Japan and the changes to which he had to adapt
  • His advice to others hoping to practice UX internationally or trying to promote UX within their companies

Liftoff: bringing UX to prominence at EA Sports

Jeremy knows of no other UX designer that was brought into EA Canada before himself – in all likelihood, he was the first.

He’d been taking on the digital world since the days of GeoCities (launched in 1994). Then he moved to web production. Then web design. Then online marketing. And eventually UX.

The point is, he watched this whole digital shindig evolve before his eyes. So, when he arrived at EA Sports in 2011, years of UX experience under his belt, there wasn’t a better person to help the company understand the value of this “UX thing” it was trying to embody.

The first project Jeremy worked on was a supplementary web app for the company’s largest franchise – Fifa. It lasted 6 months and involved a small team.

I started out small – including trying to integrate into the formal game development framework that EA (already) had.”

EA Sports UXThis was apparently key to Jeremy’s early EA career – going after the relatively small victories and integrating, as much as possible, into the company’s existing structures. Causing a huge disruption seemed unlikely to be helpful, in a thriving company that was experimenting with the UX process.

Time would vindicate Jeremy’s approach. He got his shot at a much bigger project soon after. He worked on the conceptualisation and launch of a mobile version of a Fifa game. He held 2 roles during that project – UX designer and producer. This project had a 20-man team and the game got several millions of downloads within the first 6 months.

But Jeremy’s EA career wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Our intrepid hero had to bob and weave through a few asteroids along the way.

Thrust: overcoming the hang-ups weighing down UX development

The biggest challenge Jeremy faced at this stage of his career was earning the trust and attention of producers who were used to being ultimate decision-makers.

These producers had decades of experience each and were used to following specific processes for launching successful games – EA wasn’t exactly in tough times. Then all of a sudden, there was a whole new way of thinking to contend with.

Jeremy explains that even though his immediate team had a great desire to be more customer-centred, the reinvention of what other colleagues considered to be the wheel wasn’t easy.

Why turn the creation of games into rocket science by overcomplicating it with UX design?

“…You know, I was with EA for 4 years and we made significant leaps and bounds in those years. But the culture is still continuing to change… It wasn’t finished when I left – in terms of the positivity, understanding (and) buy-in towards user experience.”

Jeremy stresses that even though things had progressed significantly by the time he left EA, they were by no means perfect. He stresses that getting buy-in and increasing the influence of UX is an ongoing process – don’t expect a finish line.

As for the progress that was made, Jeremy credits going to the grassroots – remembering to remind everyone else about the aspects of UX that seem elementary to you.

UX burdensHe explains the importance of staying positive – which isn’t easy if you feel like a broken record – while explaining things like the importance of testing prototypes or the business case for user experience.

People buy the attitude behind your message as much as (if not more than) the message itself.

We often contradict an opinion for no other reason than that we do not like the tone in which it is expressed.”  Friedrich Nietzsche

Jeremy went as far as helping organise, with 3 other people, EA’s first global UX Conference – an event which has become a yearly affair. According to Jeremy, it was all about education in the first year.

But Jeremy eventually achieved high-profile successes – evidence that his approach worked. He explains:

“I worked with another UX specialist on FIFA to roll out a major overhaul to the user interface… all the navigation and menus. That was actually called out in over (I think) 30 significant, gaming-related online sources – including PlayStation Magazine, IGN etc… that was the first time I’d seen a video game called out not for its gameplay, but for its interface and its experience.”

Things were on the up… so why did Jeremy leave EA?

Jettison: letting go of EA and heading to Japan

UX JapanI should mention that Jeremy is business-fluent in Japanese language – he also has a BA, Double Major in Japanese, East Asian Studies from The University of British Columbia.

He’d previously lived in Japan before heading back after his EA adventure, so he wasn’t a newbie to the country. Still, this would be his first time working as a fully-fledged lead UX designer in Japan.

Jeremy loved EA but the pull of conquering a new frontier was irresistible. His first job in Japan was at a mobile gaming start-up, as lead UX designer and scrum master for agile development.

Jeremy talks a bit about his venture into project management during our audio interview. For this article, I’d like to focus on the cultural differences he noticed between Japan and Canada, professionally speaking.

The first difference Jeremy mentions is that North Americans tend to be freer with their opinions than Japanese people are.

“Compared to North Americans, the Japanese tend to be more introverted – at least in terms of not openly, regularly expressing their opinions.”

This meant Jeremy had to figure out 2 things:

  1. How to judge what colleagues really felt about some of his suggestions
  2. How to get valuable, unbiased feedback from users when conducting usability research and tests

This was a demanding but rewarding challenge, according to Jeremy.

As soon as you mention test, even though it’s a test of the product not a person, people clam up, right? And so in Japan, even more so, you know, it was a challenge to reassure consumers that were coming in, spending their time, testing a product.”

Jeremy also found that his workplace in Japan was at a similarly early stage of discovering UX as EA Sports was, back in 2010. His career had come full circle, in a sense.

Jeremy says the biggest difference in terms of software is that applications in Japan, and to a certain degree websites and games, follow a certain formula. Crucially – that formula works and it sells.

UX formulaSo, even though there’s room for innovation in Japan, there’s lots of resistance when it comes to actually implementing changes, based on UX methodology. This issue is slightly different to a lack of buy-in though, according to Jeremy.

“It’s not a matter of the buy-in wasn’t there for UX as a whole. It’s more a matter of, ‘Well, we’ve done it this specific way and this works. So, we could take the risk of doing it in a different way or we could do it the way it has worked and it’ll probably be successful then.’”

 

I ask Jeremy whether he has some super-secret tips for overcoming challenges, such as the ones he has faced in Japan. His answer is that there aren’t any.

He says, “I don’t think that, you know, I have some secret formula (unfortunately).” His solution was to have a lot of patience and do everything he’d done at EA Sports all over again. He went back to what he calls “the grassroots”.

Jeremy does have a message for UX designers trying to make headway in companies, anywhere in the world:

“I think the reality is, regardless of what country you’re working in as a UX designer, there are some organisations that, no matter how much experience you have (no matter how much actual qualitative and quantitative data you present)… they’re not going to believe.

Don’t burn any bridges but if you’re at a career dead end, don’t be afraid of changing jobs and moving onto a lane that offers a clearer path to success.

Landing: establishing an outpost for helping others launch UX careers internationally

Jeremy’s move to Japan wasn’t necessarily ground-breaking – but in the companies where he created UX converts, he broke new ground. People like him are helping proliferate the message of user-centred design, around the world.

That’s why Jeremy wants to establish himself as a resource and helping hand for anyone who wants to launch a career in UX, abroad.

Thinking of moving from home? Learning a new language? Contending with a new culture and workplace habits? Jeremy wants to answer your burning questions and give any advice he can.

Email us any questions you have for Jeremy, about moving and launching a career in UX abroad.

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Timi is a London-based copywriter and full-time marketing sceptic – there are now more unvalidated opinions out there than ever.

He became a UX testing enthusiast after seeing its power while working at TUI – the world’s largest travel, leisure and tourism company. He then joined WhatUsersDo to sharpen his UX knowledge and work side-by-side with the field’s best and brightest.

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