Taking a leap of faith in choosing a career path and investing in research with Jing Jing Tan
Meet Jing Jing Tan, a psychology geek currently leading user research as a UX Research Manager at Uber Eats based in Toronto, Canada.
Meet Jing Jing Tan, a psychology geek currently leading user research as a UX Research Manager at Uber Eats based in Toronto, Canada. She shares her journey into studying psychology through Human Biology and the leaps of faith that helped her navigate her way into the tech startup world. Additionally, she breaks down how and when leveraging user research can give early signals during product development to help decision-makers focus on the right problems to solve, thus narrowing in on the right solutions and offering more efficiency in the overall process.
Interviewed in March 2022
Tell us a little bit about yourself. First and foremost, I am a psych geek. I love channeling psychology to be the bridge between the people using products and those making decisions about those users. That's what I've been working on for the past decade.
Growing up in a typical Asian household, I had two choices for a career: being a doctor or an engineer. So I decided to pursue pre-med at university and enrolled in Human Biology. I volunteered at hospitals, started clubs, and got good grades. I was doing all the right things to become a doctor. Unfortunately, then a quarter-life crisis hit.
In my third year [of university], while volunteering and doing biology-related research, I had a breakdown realizing that it was not the path I wanted to continue. Which led to a soul-searching conversation with my mom because I knew she hoped for me to get into med. She ended up being supportive of what I wanted to do. Luckily, I was able to finish my Human Bio courses, added on Psychology at the end of my third year, and managed to graduate on time. I loved the additional year and a half I got to specialize in psychology.
Those courses opened up my perspective on my world views and how we behave in the world. Views included how we interact with each other, geographically and internationally and how there are differences in people's behaviors based on cultural upbringings. I loved every single second of it.
After graduation, I was interested in the international element of interacting with people and applying the knowledge I learned. So I taught English in Korea for a bit and then did my Master's degree in Ed-tech. That was my first foray into Tech overall, which opened my eyes to how psychology can be applied in a tech startup environment. Since then, I've been working in Tech and stumbled into UX research by accident with the help of a mentor at the first tech company I worked at. And I loved it. That's what got me into this field.
You mentioned that you initially only knew of two career paths: being a doctor or an engineer. How did that happen? Mostly because my mom was a doctor and my dad was an engineer [in China]. But, unfortunately, both had to give up their stable jobs to come [to Canada]. It breaks my heart to see really smart, qualified people like my parents having to start from zero. Their experience made me anxious about moving into psychology because there's little certainty about that path.
What was your experience of putting a stake on the ground and declaring, "I'm going to chart my path," instead of going for what was expected of you at that moment? It was not easy at all. I had a crisis while working in a research lab. I was mating worms and doing genetic experiments to see which genetic markers crossed over. One day, I walked into the lab, thinking the worms had died and I would have to start the experiment all over again, and I was like, "I'm so tired of working with dead worms!" So that day, I walked into the university's Counseling Center and broke down.
The front I was trying to put up with for myself and my parents was breaking down. Speaking with the counselor and bawling my eyes, I told her, "I don't know what I'm doing. I don't want to do this anymore." I was worried that I was wasting time. She reassured me that "what you learn is never a waste. The way you learn to break down problems, think about experiments, and how human biology ties into psychology and behavior is not a waste. Knowledge is buildable rather than being a waste."
So that was the reframe I went to my mom with as well. I was upfront and shared, "Mom, I'm not happy. I don't think I'm cut out to be a doctor. And here are some of the reasons..." She was torn initially because [being a doctor] is the only thing she knew about that would provide me a stable path. But over time, she realized that my happiness was more important than certainty and stability. And so, I was able not only to convince her but myself that it was the right path to move forward.
I remember feeling like a huge weight lifting off my shoulders after those conversations, and having her support meant a lot to me. I'm happy that we both took a leap of faith, and things are working out now because we would never have thought this job [user research] existed.
Would you say that happiness contributed to your ability to find a future that could be more fruitful for you? Perhaps my mom thought stability leads to happiness. But I thought differently—that happiness could lead to stability. While you're doing things you enjoy, you will find ways to make it work. You will find that nowadays, people have different side hustles. People have much more freedom with what they decide to work on in life.
While you're doing things you enjoy, you will find ways to make it work. You will find that nowadays, people have different side hustles. People have much more freedom with what they decide to work on in life.
That mental shift was something that [my mom and I] ended up having. My mom is from an older generation, so she didn't have as many opportunities to build the life she envisioned. She had to choose a path and believed that it continues to be the path that brings happiness. But I think between her generation and ours, there's now a shift. There are more opportunities; there are a lot more ways where we can design our own lives. So I'm happy that she took a leap of faith with me.
So why psychology? I've always loved psychology in high school. I knew psychology was something I needed to do and enjoyed. So I ended up double majoring in Human Biology and Psychology within the same four years, and everything worked out.
People often fear that they might be unable to move forward with something new and have to "start over." But you have a great example of how your initial work contributed to something even more than what you initially did. "Starting over" was a different way to continue to build on top of something you started and into your career. There's so much optionality out there. Until you've made that conviction to pursue your passion, you might not be aware of those options. So that was the first step: having that courage on both my mom's and my sides to say, "I want to pursue this."
There's so much optionality out there. Until you've made that conviction to pursue your passion, you might not be aware of those options.
So how did you decide after graduation to pursue your next leap of faith by going to teach English in another country? I went into psychology knowing that future career options meant more schooling, getting a Master's degree, and eventually getting into therapy or academia. However, I didn't feel like I wanted to pursue that path.
I spent all of [my time at] university living at home, which meant hating the two-hour commutes back and forth. So it was another leap of faith to decide to build my own life and start to develop my independence and perspective. The leap of faith into studying psychology was the first step. Now, I was ready to take my second, which was moving as far away from my family as possible. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I had always been interested in teaching and living abroad. I chose Korea because it worked out much quicker than other options.
What was that transition like to Korea? Korea is very technologically advanced. At that time, there was a smart board in every single classroom, so you have many tools to incorporate technology into your teaching as a teacher. I loved education tech from that angle. From that experience, I started planning small steps to explore ed-tech further.
To get into the ed-tech field, I felt I needed to know the foundations and theory and build a network. So, I got a Master's degree at Harvard's Graduate School of Education in the United States, where I fell in love with tech. Through exposure to hackathons and startups, I decided, "here's an upcoming field that I would love to explore and see if there are opportunities to apply psychology to it."
Now that you've completed your Master's, how did you make it to the first few roles in the industry? Did the program help open you up to the various work you could apply psychology to, or was it more "I'll take what I can get, then maneuver my way through?" There were a couple of paths I was looking into during my Master's program.
One path was Instructional Design. It's very similar to product design, except you design training materials. Another path forward was going full-in on startups. During my Master's, I was involved with the startup community and hackathons. I loved the energy of it. I love the idea that a small group of people could get together and make something out of nothing within a weekend. It's wild, and this was back in the days when Tech was not sexy. We were building stuff on really dated platforms.
After graduating, I looked into both instructional design and the startup path and applied to many jobs. The one that worked out was this startup, a storytelling platform for teenagers. I loved that there was an educational angle to it. Millions of teenagers around the world are reading, writing, and crafting their fantasies on this platform. The job, focused on Trust and Safety, was entry-level, and I didn't have any experience. It focused on resolving disputes between users. That was a very transformational experience because it opened my mind to the kind of psychology and fantasy that people have around this platform, its characters, and different worlds. This role was where I got into UX research.
At the time, I had no idea [UX research] existed. In Canada, we had limited roles in this field. It was thanks to my manager at the time that pushed me into this role that I didn't know was possible.
What were some things you learned about the field while in this role? The magic of research is that there are people who use a product and people making decisions about the product. Often, there isn't enough visibility between the two parties. Pinpointing the motivations of the people using your products, the "whys" behind the behaviors, goals, and what's not working are all things that shape the success of a product. The first step for a product to succeed is for people to want and need it. Desirability is the first step.
Pinpointing the motivations of the people using your products, the "whys" behind the behaviors, goals, and what's not working are all things that shape the success of a product.
Fast forward, I worked at the storytelling platform for four years. Then I went into a healthcare-related startup, then a consultancy, and now at Uber.
But overall, this theme that I keep seeing is there are different misconceptions about research. For example, some folks think of research as fortune-telling: "we'll talk to users, and our product will be 120% successful because we talk to users." Check the box! Teams tend to think that users are showing us what they want.
So on one end, some people believe that research is a fortune-telling device—which it is not. And then, on the other end, people might think research is unnecessary because data and experiments will tell us everything. Experiments will tell you behavior, but they will not tell you the why or the context. There continues to be misconceptions about how best to leverage research and insights from customers.
With these common misconceptions, what's another way to reframe how to best leverage research? The way I think about research is around early signals. When you think about product development, building and testing something in the field takes a lot of effort, and there could be 1000s of different solutions.
Let’s break down how to begin. First, is this even a problem that people are experiencing? We must first identify the right problem and distill them into a clear problem statement. Then, with so many different decisions that we could be making, before we even ship something, we should ask, "what are some early indications that we can get from customers about which are the right paths forward?" I see the value of research as being able to give early signals about where and what the problems are, in what context we're designing for, and what general direction we should be investing in for a solution.
I see the value of research as being able to give early signals about where and what the problems are, in what context we're designing for, and what general direction we should be investing in for a solution.
Research is neither a crystal ball nor completely useless. When it comes to experiments, research is in the middle. It almost acts like a guiding light through a tunnel. With the right investments, we can identify the right problems and directions for solutions, so the chances of the product succeeding will increase. Thus the chances of people using the product will increase. It's not guaranteed, but at least we have a signal that it could increase before fully investing all engineering resources into building it.
Are there other times when research is appropriate? There's comfort in data, especially concrete, measurable numerical data. But the world is messy, and people are irrational. Looking at data alone does not tell you the bigger picture of what's not being said and shown.
There's comfort in data, especially concrete, measurable numerical data. But the world is messy, and people are irrational. Looking at data alone does not tell you the bigger picture of what's not being said and shown.
I'm a little worried about the growing gap between people making decisions based on the comfort of big data without understanding the context of the nuance, motivations, and qualitative side of things. This is also why I want to be that bridge to help companies humanize their customers and not over-intellectualize on just pure data.
Would it be safe to assume that companies and teams also gravitate towards what's easier to attain and access to make decisions? People love clarity; things should be cut and dry, and that's it. They love concrete answers and hate ambiguity. And unfortunately, human behavior is ambiguous. Society is ambiguous. But that's also the magic of it. We're building products for something that may or may not land. But understanding that nuance will help us better design a product that will then sell.
Moving forward is hard if you don’t know what actions to take. Research leads to actionable insights, but we need to make that investment up front. Thus, research reduces downstream engineering time, and you’ll find that certain directions are not the right ones.
Switching gears, what advice would you give the past you who just started learning and working in the research field? Pay attention to your own limiting beliefs and work through them. The older I get, the more I'm aware of these limiting beliefs and how they affect my decisions. Many times, even being aware of them is the first step. Have conversations with yourself about whether or not these are true. Whether or not you want to take action on them. Whether or not you wish to accept them to be facts. Because often they're not. Awareness is the first step.
Pay attention to your own limiting beliefs and work through them.
Give us a list of the top 3 things you'd recommend.
These are my top favorite hiking spots:
Patagonia has the best scenery. We did a five-day trek around Patagonia, which was breathtaking every step of the way. It was also disheartening to see the glaciers break apart because of global warming.
Iceland. There isn't a particular trail I'd recommend but driving around the entire Ring Road and spending a full week. It's amazing; it doesn't even feel like you're on Earth. It feels as though you're on an entirely different planet. Every single twist and turn feels different. One area feels like Mars, then you turn and see waterfalls and crazy greenery everywhere.
Banff is just pristine. No matter what type of hiker you are, there is something for everybody. It's also very family-friendly.
What's your favorite song of the moment? Or at least something you have on repeat?
I don't listen to much music but usually listen to white noise – like rain dropping on the windows.
Continue the conversation with Jing Jing.
You can find her on Twitter @jjtan87 and Linkedin. Jing Jing also has a UX Research focused newsletter that includes deep dives on product features and UX research templates and tooling.
She’s the host of podcast “Crazy Mighty Ladies” that is dedicated to sharing and highlighting women who made powerful personal transformations. You can find her first episode on:
Jing Jing is also passionate about giving back to Ernestine’s.
Ernestine’s is a non-profit organization that provides advocacy, crisis intervention and shelter to Women, Two-Spirit, Trans, Non-binary and Gender Diverse individuals and their children experiencing violence. As part of this conversation, a donation was made to Ernestine’s.
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