Meet Mary: From Digital Marketer to UX Researcher at National Geographic Learning

Mary is currently helping to develop K-12 digital curriculum and classroom materials with a focus on accessibility.

Team Designlab
Team Designlab
Apr 20, 2021
Min Read

Mary Schwab has always felt passionately about enabling others to learn better and outside of her full-time job, she also tutors elementary school children. She attributes this experience, paired with her UX Academy education and resulting portfolio, as a key reason why she was recruited for her dream job as a UX Researcher at National Geographic Learning.

Before enrolling in UX Academy, Mary was working as a Senior Account Manager at a digital marketing agency. She worked with well known apparel brands, and managed their digital marketing campaigns with a focus on driving new customer acquisition and brand awareness. 

“While I enjoyed my digital marketing job, I really craved a new challenge, and a career that I was a bit more excited about. At the time, I was always working for other brands, and at the end of the day, I wasn't really the decision maker. I craved the ability to make something from scratch, and really own it,” says Mary.

Mary knew if she was going to change her career path she wanted it to be more tech-focused, but she also wanted to continue interacting with people one-on-one. UX Design felt like the perfect fit for Mary as she could take her communication, problem solving, data analysis, and project management skills from her years in client services and apply them to a completely new discipline.

Mary’s UX Academy Journey

“I chose Designlab for my UX design education because I could do it all online, while still working and maintaining an income. I was also enticed by the 1:1 mentorship. I felt more comfortable knowing there was an expert I could utilize as a resource, and go to them with any and all questions I had regarding UX design. Also, it was clear that at the end of the course I'd have an extensive portfolio of projects that would allow me to be considered for UX design jobs,” Mary says.

Mary thoroughly enjoyed her time in UX Academy, and she especially loved the Group Critiques every week—so much so that she’s now a Group Crit Facilitator here at Designlab! 

“I always knew I would get valuable feedback from my peers in Group Crits, while also working on my presentation skills. It was relieving to know my peers were going through a lot of the same highs and lows that I was. It was also inspiring to see their work, and how they were approaching the design briefs in a different way to me. Now that I'm a Group Crit Facilitator, I get to give back a little of my expertise to current students, and I'm also still constantly learning from them, too!”

Mary continuously looked forward to her weekly mentor sessions in UX Academy, saying, “My mentor, Sarah Harrison, had a background in climate design, so I got to learn a lot about that path and industry, which was an added bonus! Overall, the mentor sessions were invaluable. Sometimes we would talk through job search tactics and interview preparation, while other times we would dig into technical aspects of Figma and how I might use their tools to make my designs and prototypes even better.”

Mary Schwab Amazon Prime Now
Capstone 2: add a feature.

For Mary's 2nd capstone project in UX Academy (seen above) she added a feature to Amazon Prime Now to allow users to communicate their grocery packaging preferences, which allows users mirror their in-store packaging preferences. "This would help to eliminate the amount of plastic bags used to package their order, because users could communicate their preferences at the individual item level (for example, they could let Amazon know that they do or do not want their produce in plastic bags)."

Mary Schwab Bikeway
Capstone 3 project: end to end app solution.

For her 3rd capstone project (seen above) she prototyped an app balled "Bikeway". Mary says, "As a cyclist in Chicago, I often use Google Maps to obtain directions and it usually directs me on the route with the most bike lanes. Unfortunately, what Google Maps doesn’t tell me is anything about current road conditions. It is very frustrating to cycle down a street that is covered in potholes, or having to suddenly reroute because a street is closed for construction. These frustrations led me to an idea. Cyclists are constantly seeing and experiencing adverse road conditions. What if there was a quick way for cyclists to alert each other of current road hazards and conditions? Might this create a safer cycling environment, and a more close knit community, which would ultimately encourage more people to use a bicycle for transportation?"

Now that Mary has graduated the program and landed an amazing job, she has some advice for incoming, current, and graduating UX Academy students:

  • Get comfortable with the feeling of not always having the right answer (or even ANY answer). There will always be something new to learn, so be prepared to become a lifelong UX student—nobody knows it all!
  • Remember that UX design is super collaborative, so don't be afraid to lean on your peers or coworkers for feedback and advice. No designer should work in a silo!
  • Sometimes when you're stuck, or frustrated, the best option is to step away for a while and come back to your work. Fresh air or rest often does wonders! 

Life at National Geographic Learning

After graduating UX Academy, Mary worked as a UX Designer at Camping World for seven months. She then received word through an agency about a job that was too good to turn down. She first interviewed with the hiring manager directly, and then had a panel interview with the other leaders on National Geographic Learning’s  UX design team.

“My portfolio definitely helped me land the interview (and ultimately the job), as the team was impressed with how organized and visually appealing my case studies were, as well the amount of research I had conducted completely on my own. The fact that I've worked with kids a lot was also helpful.

I also felt I clicked really well with the team during the interview process. I could tell they all truly loved their jobs at National Geographic Learning, and that they all got along really well as colleagues and friends. The conversation flowed easily, and I just felt all the good vibes that you always hope for in an interview.”

Things have been going even better than Mary could have imagined in her new career, company, and role. As a UX Researcher, she enables National Geographic Learning to develop K-12 digital learning products , working on user research and usability testing projects to ensure that the product meets the needs of teachers and student users. 

“There's never been a better time to work on digital learning products (especially due to COVID), there's so much work to be done and it's exciting!”

Recently Mary has conducted user research and testing around accessibility, specifically with users who are blind or have low vision. 

“This work is extremely impactful. I've been diving deeper into accessibility principles and best practices, so I'm learning a lot every day. Accessibility is a big initiative at National Geographic Learning, so it's really great to be at a company that keeps accessibility top of mind for our users. At the end of the day, everything I do is helping students learn better and giving teachers better teaching resources.

I love working in UX because I am constantly being challenged and learning. It's so wonderful to be in a career that I'm actually excited about everyday! And the cherry on top is that the work I'm doing at National Geographic Learning is extremely impactful. 

While I've been able to dip my toe in both design and research, I know there are still so many other paths and specialties I could pursue. That's really exciting to me, I don't think I'll ever feel pigeon holed in the UX design industry.”

Outside of work, Mary still enjoys tutoring and working with kids—she’s also an avid rock climber. 

Mary Schwab Climbing New
Mary rock climbing at a local gym in Chicago.

“Rock climbing is actually pretty similar to the user experience design process. Some routes are quick and easy to solve, with the crux of the problem clear and visible. Other routes require me to closely observe others, find out what path works best for me and practice and reiterate (often several times) before I can successfully complete the route.”

Mary concludes, “I never thought I'd have a career where I actually want to keep learning about my job outside of the 9-5. I love picking up the latest UX books, or reading the latest Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) research. I guess I'm a UX nerd now!”

Learn more about Mary’s career-changing journey in our recent webinar.

Check out Mary’s portfolio and connect with her on LinkedIn.

If you’re looking to follow in Mary’s footsteps and find a program to help you learn UX research and design, we recommend exploring UX Academy.

Launch a career in ux design with our top-rated program

Top Designers Use Data.

Gain confidence using product data to design better, justify design decisions, and win stakeholders. 6-week course for experienced UX designers.

Launch a career in ux design with our top-rated program

Top Designers Use Data.

Gain confidence using product data to design better, justify design decisions, and win stakeholders. 6-week course for experienced UX designers.