In the week leading up to Mid-year Commencement 2021, we got to chat with ACSHF PhD recipient Natasha Hardy and hear about her journey from starting the program in Spring 2011 to accepting her current position with a multi-billion dollar, publicly-traded company. Read along to learn more.
Hello Dr. Hardy – First and foremost, congratulations on successfully completing your dissertation and earning your PhD degree in Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors (ACSHF) at Michigan Technological University. Before we get into specifics, can you briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
I’ve always been very driven to grow and improve myself and I’ve pursued education with an almost single-minded determination since graduating from high school. Looking back, I can’t believe I made it through but my first mentor – Dr. Wayne Wright – always said, “I didn’t come this far to turn back now” and I took that philosophy very much to heart.
I started in the ACSHF program in Spring 2011 and began working and going to school full-time in 2014. In that time, I’ve had 7 jobs with 5 employers and I’ve grown from an entry-level analyst with a small non-profit to a senior level researcher with a multi-billion dollar, publicly-traded company.
Q: When did you first realize this was the type of career you wanted to pursue?
A: My catalyst for coming to Michigan Tech was working on my capstone thesis for my Master’s degree: I was so inspired by researching adult learning theory I really wanted to find a program where I could better understand the psychology of learning. I was fortunate to meet Dr. Cokely and begin my journey at Michigan Tech.
Q: What excites you about your work and/or the field of behavioral research?
A: Understanding the way people think is so fundamental to living – it helps us understand the choices people make, the things they say and do – and I just find it so incredibly interesting and inspiring. Whether you are sitting down with one person and hearing their personal story and diving into key decisions in their life or looking at a nice big fat excel file of data and seeing those decisions in aggregate numbers, there’s just no end to what we can learn and interpolate about people and how they do things. I was inspired to work in UX because every day we encounter things that are unnecessarily challenging due to poor or sub-optimal design.
Q: Looking back, can you tell us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way?
A: There are too many lessons to count, honestly. I have been heart-broken and sobbing, scared, angry, and frustrated beyond reason at some point in my academic journey. Everyone’s path is different, but I think the most important thing I had to learn was to take care of myself and my mental health. There was a point where the anxiety and pressure I felt ate away at me until I was physically ill. I’ve had to learn not to bottle up my thoughts and feelings and instead rely on supportive relationships to help me through hard times. Working with Kelly [Dr. Steelman, advisor and CLS chair] was one of those supportive relationships that carried me through some of my most challenging times.
Q: What piece of advice would you like to give to a first-year psychology / human factors student?
A: Statistics is the most important class you will take, embrace it! I think a lot of people are inspired to come to psychology because they want to have a positive impact on people’s lives. In order to know if you are having an impact, you need to be able to measure, compare, and predict. I use statistics constantly in my work and have had to learn many new statistical techniques. Even though I find it very difficult to learn and understand statistics, it’s also incredibly rewarding.
Q: What do you see for the future of human behavior and design / human factors?
A: This field is going to continue to grow. In industry there is both a top-down and bottom-up push to improve user experience. I think there are two paths you can take. One is creating experiences that inspire people to use them and the other is creating experiences that reduce failure. So, for example, my work with Rocket Mortgage focuses on understanding how people think about and approach home ownership – from the time they start looking at houses through purchasing and into maintaining. This information drives how we design products and tools that help people achieve that goal in the most frictionless way possible. In this case, a good UX should be unnoticeable at worst and delightful at best. On the other hand, my husband built and coded a process to reduce pacemaker failure by improving anchoring coils to give more torsional stiffness but not reduce flexibility, so the anchors wouldn’t break inside the human body. In this case, product failure can be deadly. Which one of these inspires you?
Q: How do you practice a healthy work-life balance?
A: First, I want to acknowledge that being able to say, ‘No’ to work is a privilege. Some people absolutely do not have that luxury. I also know that as a mid-career professional I can probably be more pushy about what I want from an employer than someone who is fresh from school. I stop working at five to prepare dinner for my family and I also always take my vacation time that I earn at work. Only you can decide what is good and appropriate for you. And you should do that proactively so that you know what to look for in an employer.
Q: What is next for you on your life journey?
A: I have so many projects I want to work on! I’m planning to get a certificate in plant-based nutrition from Cornell next – I’m so inspired by the health outcomes associated with plant-based nutrition I just want to learn more. I’m also moving to a new job at Indeed as a UX researcher for their data platform.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
A: Navigating people is central to successful work in UX. It’s not about you, it’s about other people and how they think, feel, and act. As a researcher, it’s important to seek to understand the mindset of others by asking questions and challenging your own preconceived notions.
Congratulations to all Fall 2021 graduates and best wishes for your future! Please stay in touch.