Today’s spotlight is on Anthony Guarriello, M.S., OTR/L, ATP, an occupational therapist who works as a User Experience (UX) Researcher for AnswerLab!
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What is your full name, title, and company name for your current, primary role?
Anthony Guarriello, M.S., OTR/L, ATP – User Experience (UX) Researcher for AnswerLab
Where are you located?
Where did you go to OT school, and what year did you graduate?
What did you do when you first finished school, and for how long?
After grad school, I worked as an OT for 4 years.
In what setting(s) did you work, and what types of patients did you treat?
- SNF: geriatric, complex medical comorbidities
- Outpatient Neuro: all neuro conditions for all ages, including CVA, TBI, SCI, ALS, MS, Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, brain cancers, etc.
- Inpatient Rehab: ortho surgeries, general medical rehab, neuro conditions
- Home Health: specialized in low vision therapy
- Acute Care/ICU: trauma patients, COVID, neuro surgery, ortho surgery, cardiac surgery, general medical
What did you enjoy about your early roles?
I come from a psychology background, and love neuroscience. Neuro rehab is one of my specialties, and I’ve spent the most time as a full-time OT in an outpatient neuro clinic. I loved working with all patients overcoming neuro conditions, seeing their progress, educating them and their families on principles of neuroplasticity and how fascinating our brains are, and how they usually had more control then they thought over recovery.
I also became an assistive technology professional because I loved incorporating technology into my sessions. Seeing patients’ faces light up when they learned how a new device can have immediate impact in them overcoming a barrier never gets old.
Engaging patients with video games, robotics, and VR/AR as part of treatment plans always takes them immediately out of that “patient mindset” and you see them become engaged and have fun, which warms your heart that much more knowing it will only have a positive impact on their recovery as they actually have fun doing it. They stop focusing on negatives and just live in the moment, having fun playing a game or experiencing something new with VR.
Suddenly, they feel in control again. They feel empowered. They enjoy themselves. That’s the greatest medicine. That leads them to the real gains of therapy.
What didn’t you enjoy about your early roles?
I never liked feeling pushed to do therapy for certain amounts of time to earn insurance dollars, and didn’t like the red tape in trying to get approval for my patients for necessary equipment. I never felt respected by the companies I worked for, and I felt the companies were frequently severely underpaying and undervaluing therapists.
And it’s not just pay. It was organizing and getting time off, as well as poor benefits for continuing ed and general medical care. In outpatient, I saw 8 patients a day and only had one half hour lunch break all day, which was usually spent in meetings.
I have better health insurance and sick leave now, in a consulting company, than I did when I worked in a hospital, where I just never felt appreciated. As much as I loved my patients, if I had kept going, the “big business” of healthcare was going to suck out all of my passion.
What else have you done since then, prior to becoming a user experience researcher?
When COVID first hit, I was laid off from my outpatient job. I started my own company and moved across multiple states to begin an independent contractor job for low vision home health. The content was interesting, and I really got to dive into my ATP experience, but the inconsistent hours led me to my more stable acute care job.
For the last few years, I’ve had a big love for technology in healthcare, and had imagined a role where I could design games for people to recover from SCI and TBI using my neuro rehab knowledge and passion for gaming. I continued to research, which led to my ATP licensure, but I found that ATP jobs didn’t quite scratch that itch. Many were focused on seating and mobility, and I was more interested in adaptive leisure, play, and work activities. It was hard to find a job that focused on that, which led to my eventual discovery of the field of UX, or user experience.
Once I explored a few other options and decided UX would be my path, I began a six month bootcamp and began volunteering and looking for freelance work before I landed my full time UX research job.
When and why did you decide to do something non-clinical?
Around 2020. Shortly before being laid off from my neuro job, I was already looking at how I could incorporate technology even more into my career. I was doing some clinical research projects related to technology in healthcare, and incorporated technology into any sessions I could, but it always felt like a side gig more than a full focus like I wanted.
I also learned quickly on that I just didn’t feel satisfied within the constraints of the healthcare system, unfortunately. I love OT, but I just don’t love doing OT for corporations. Something had to change.
I wanted to keep using my OT skills and education, but in a non-clinical OT role. Once I felt satisfied that I found a new industry I could succeed in, it was off to the races.
What are you doing these days?
For the first time in a long time, I really love my job!
I’m a full time User Experience (UX) Researcher for a company called AnswerLab. AnswerLab specializes in providing UX research services. We consult with major companies across all industries you can think of, both nationally and internationally, to help them design new products and services, or improve existing ones, to create the best possible user experience possible. That can include everything from ensuring ease of use, ensuring that products and services are meeting users’ actual needs, or ensuring accessibility and inclusivity for all in the design process.
My days are spent meeting with clients to learn about what they want to know from their users to improve their products or services, then collaborating on designing research studies to meet their needs, and conducting research sessions with actual users. These sessions can include anything from in-depth interviews, to usability testing, accessibility consultation, diary studies, ethnographic studies, and more.
I also get to collaborate with my coworkers on research challenges they’re facing with projects they are working on, help push initiatives in my company forward, and write insights articles for our website so interested parties can learn about all the great people, knowledge, and experiences we bring to the table. This lets me focus on passion areas as well.
For example, in addition to my direct client work and coworker collaboration, I worked on an article highlighting the need for further focus on accessible gaming–particularly focusing on the need for further development in adaptive controllers. I highlighted all the great progress that has been made the last few years in this area.
I also have some ideas for Medium articles related to the need for more research in the development of VR/AR for rehab science uses, and how to help other allied health professionals transition into UX. So, stay tuned!
We have specialty task forces in our company where you can collaborate with others with similar interests and work together on projects related to those topics, so of course I naturally joined the accessibility research task force and gaming research task force immediately! I still love doing UX research for any industry, and if I can’t be on a project directly related to healthcare, accessibility, or gaming, I always have the task forces and additional side projects that help satisfy that passion. That’s the great thing about a consulting firm–I can dip my toes in multiple industries and on multiple projects at once. It’s a lot of fun!
It’s very rewarding to know I can use my assessment skills, research skills, rapport building, client-centered focus, and understanding of a variety human factors, task analysis, and accessibility factors that I learned as an OT to help promote design decisions that impact millions of users to make sure the products and services they use daily will meet their needs and enhance their lives.
Are you still treating patients, or are you solely non-clinical?
I decided to be non-clinical for now. But I’m keeping my license active for PRN work. I also make sure I’m always involved in healthcare or accessibility projects in my current role, so I feel like I’m always using my OT experience to greatest effect, even non-clinically.
How long have you been in your current role?
I did 6 months of freelance, and I’m closing in on 10 months now at my full-time job. I plan to stay here for a long time!
Did you get any special certifications or training along the way to help you become a user experience researcher?
I got my assistive technology professional license, which helped sell my understanding of product design and accessibility needs to UX companies, which included a number of assistive technology CEUs online, in addition to my experience and training in my neuro clinic. For UX training, I did a 6-month online bootcamp for UX/UI design with a specialty focus in UX research.
How did you find your job? Did you apply or find it through a connection?
I applied to over 400 jobs before I got this one! I did 6 months of freelance through my personal and professional network. My bootcamp program also provided a lot of guidance and resources for networking and application tracking. I continually edited my LinkedIn, resume, and UX portfolio, constantly seeking feedback from those in the field and learned to find my voice in helping others outside of healthcare understand not only what OT was, but how directly related my skillset was to the jobs I wanted, even though it had a different name.
It took a lot of time, effort, patience, and more long nights than I care to remember, but I couldn’t be happier now.
How have people reacted to you leaving patient care?
Most were happy for me. They knew I wasn’t happy in patient care. The only thing I was enjoying was the patients, but eventually that wasn’t enough.
Many of them were even jealous, and I get a ton of questions now about how others can do it, too!
What’s a typical day or week in the life like for you? What types of tasks and responsibilities fill your time?
I usually start by checking my emails or Slack messages to look for any updates and check in with colleagues. Then, I check my to-do list for the day.
An example day could be meeting with my current client to make sure we’re aligned on project goals and timeline. I may also have meetings with my manager or director to discuss challenges I’m working through, or how I want to focus my time to work towards my career objectives. I would either be developing a report to present to my client and their team based on research I already completed, or would be actively doing tasks to collect data for a study prior to reporting.
Research tasks typically include in-depth interviews with users or usability testing to see how prototypes will actually be used by real people and how to improve them. I’m also developing my skills in other methodologies such as diary studies and learning how to moderate studies in other languages.
We also have some fun Slack chat channels for different topics so I can take mental breaks and share a laugh or interesting conversation with coworkers. Otherwise, if not doing direct client work like project planning, conducting research sessions, or reporting, then I’m working on side projects to either help push the company forward or to develop my professional skills so I can reach the next level in my vertical and become a more effective researcher and leader. This is also when I can do things like work on articles or other projects to promote initiatives I want to work on, like accessible gaming and VR use for healthcare!
What are some of the rewards of your role? What are the biggest challenges?
I have a great team of people I work with, which is a big reward in and of itself. My company also highly values employee wellness, which has been such a welcome relief after feeling rundown in healthcare.
As far as the work itself, I love knowing I’m doing research and then being a voice for users to promote design decisions for products and services people are going to use worldwide to improve their lives in one way or another. The variety of industries and projects I work on allows me to feel that no matter what I’m doing, I’m having a positive impact somewhere for someone.
Biggest challenges are just continuing to learn best practices in the industry, and managing deadlines and expectations from worldwide teams. But that’s what also makes it exciting for me.
UX is just one of the 25 career paths we cover in Non-Clinical 101!
How did your clinical background prepare you for this role? Which skills transferred?
In so many ways! For starters, as an OT, you have to be able to evaluate your client to determine their personal needs and desires. Two people with the same injury or illness could have very different goals for what they want to get back to doing, so the skill of an OT to uncover client needs is directly related to a UX researcher helping their client identify what questions they are trying to answer about their products or services.
Furthermore, you use this skill when working with research participants as you become a voice for the users when you go back to the client to translate their wants and needs as well. Being able to establish rapport, maintain client-centered (or in UX what is called “human-centered”) focus in all of your work is paramount.
The task analysis you learn as an OT, to help your clients adapt to their circumstances to engage in desired daily activities, is also easily transferrable to task analysis for understanding what a product or service is meant to do and how it can be done best, which comes in handy for things like prototype consultation.
As OTs, we are all about using evidence-based practice to ensure we are doing the best job possible for patient care using real science. That makes us expert generators and consumers of research. That is a great fit for UX research, which is a bit different than research you do as an OT, but with many similarities, and makes it easier to learn the differences quickly.
Our understanding of accessibility needs, assistive technology, ergonomics, and the wide variety of human factors we learn about including neuroscience, psychosocial factors, anatomy and physiology, etc. are extremely important when making recommendations to clients as well as understanding the correct questions to ask and methodology to use when working with people of a variety of backgrounds and needs–and not just in relation to disabilities and accessibility. Even “typical” human anatomy and physiology knowledge is very valuable in UX. Understanding how the hands work for interacting not only with digital products, but UX can be for hardware too like game controllers, remote controls, etc. We do work with voice interfaces, like in cars or Amazon Alexa, while working in UX. That’s not far off from how we teach patients with disabilities to use voice commands to overcome barriers. That’s just one example of a million I could generate.
As a low vision therapist, I was constantly working with patients on using screen readers, voice commands, speech to text, etc. which really enhanced my understanding of not only how those work but what people actually need for them to work effectively.
Understanding how to break down tasks for patients translates into how understanding how to organize information on apps and websites. Understanding accessibility standards helps with understanding and promoting design decisions related to ensuring use of optimal color contrast, text size, layouts, and spacing. We also understand different features users may need to have, or adjust for features like closed captioning for cognitive or hearing disabilities. We understand the importance of using clear, plain language in descriptions on websites, apps, games, etc. for our friends with cognitive deficits.
The list goes on! Therapists are very qualified for UX roles. You just need to learn to speak UX language to show this to potential employers. But the skills are there.
Editor’s note: Check out this spotlight on Kate Paolini, M.S., CCC-SLP, who is now a UX researcher at Meta!
What type of person do you think would do well in a user experience researcher role?
Definitely someone with a passion for research, or you’d just be wasting your time. Also, I think people tend to assume research means you’re stuck alone at a desk all day. For this type of research, you definitely need to be a people person. Between coworkers, clients, and research participants, I’m constantly talking to others.
You have to be able to manage multiple deadlines and conflicting priorities at once, with excellent time management and organizational skills. You also can’t be afraid to take initiative, and have to be comfortable speaking up, as you’re the consultant and need to give your advice, even if you think your client doesn’t want to hear it!
Creativity and willingness to continually learn are also vital, and you must be detail-oriented. You’ll be managing a lot of data you have to understand well and be able to translate into easily digestible highlights for your clients.
Understanding people is huge, and being able to build rapport because you want to be able to uncover the truth behind what people actually want and need, and that all comes down to being able to ask the right questions.
Do you work remotely or onsite?
I am fully remote.
Did you read any books, take any courses, or do anything special overall to get you where you are today?
I did an online bootcamp for UX and did a lot of independent research and networking. I gave myself projects to continually work on to continue learning the craft, and I always practiced my “sales pitch” of how my OT career made me a great fit for UX research.
What is a typical career path for someone in your role?
There are multiple options within my specific company. The whole company is focused on UX research, but there are different teams that support that.
For example, we have UX strategists that help us manage obtaining and maintaining relationships with clients through education and guidance on the scope and benefit of the use of UX research.
I am in the research department, so I do direct research and consulting based on research. In that category, this company starts with UX Research Analyst, then UX Researcher (my role), then Senior UX Researcher, and then there are team lead positions, Principal UX Researchers, UX Research Managers, and Directors. Then there are ladders for the other departments as well.
What is next for you? What are your high-level career aspirations?
I am hoping to prove my ability enough to be a Senior UX Researcher within the next 1-2 years, as my career has been full of research positions prior to this one and I feel ready. Beyond that, I want to be a thought leader for use of VR/AR in healthcare, and continue solidifying myself as a subject matter expert in accessibility and gaming.
Eventually, I’d like to work my way to Principal UX Researcher, leading initiatives in my passion areas. I’ll certainly be adding to the goal list as I continue to check things off!
The sky’s the limit with your career as long as you remain passionate and creative.