March 6, 2018

Career Path: Alison Decker, Manager, Product Research and Design at Liberty Mutual Insurance

What does the career path and a day in the life look like for the Manager, Product Research and Design at Liberty Mutual Insurance

We interviewed Alison Decker to find out.

Career Path

Where did you grow up?  What did you parents do for work?  What was your very first job?

I grew up in Newton, MA next to the border of Waltham, where my Mom has been a nurse for over 35 years and my Dad has been everything from a vitamin designer/ingredient sourcer for forward-thinking nutritional companies, to a personal investor, self-employed construction worker, and Zamboni driver. Both of my parents are lifelong learners who think outside of the “conventional box”. I believe these traits have proven to be wonderful assets for me, but do need to be tempered with purposeful focus, which, can be difficult for a human factors researcher; I tend to see limitless opportunities for how we can better support not only our customers but also essentially, our coworkers and team members.

My first job was at a local ice cream store. I started working at the age of 13 because I wanted a job and went out and got one. I later learned that, legally, I shouldn’t have been allowed to work until I was 14!

Why did you decide to attend Fairfield University and what did you study there?

I decided to attend Fairfield University because of the reputation of its business school, the Dolan School of Business. I wanted to be sure that after spending so much time and money in college, that I would leave with tangible skills. My Dad always said I had a knack for business, and I wanted to learn how to help influence the world for the better, through the lens of business.

Little did I know that Fairfield University highly focuses on ethics across all of its programs. I, fortunately, received an education where we explored the impact of “everyday” business decisions not only through the defined and typical stakeholders, but also through the “forgotten” or extended members of pipelines, such as the employees at vendor companies, or, the local/global environmental impacts of business.

At Dolan, I went into the very small information systems management (IS) program because I saw how tangible, valuable, and real the skills were in that space, and also because the professors were enormously inspiring. The professors and leaders of the IS program had been working with local and global non-profits for years, both in their own time and also through the partnership with the university and students. For just one example, I had the opportunity to travel with members of the IS program to Managua, Nicaragua to work with local business students to help create a more sustainable system to transport pottery from local ceramic designers to a defined market in Washington state. Being able to see such a real impact of technology management, was profound.

After starting your career as a Business Systems Analyst at Liberty Mutual Insurance, how did you make the transition into user experience?  

I made the transition through the relationships that I had built as a Business Systems Analyst and in researching the field and position in advance. At the time, user experience (especially user experience research) was not a popular or well-known field, but I could see that the human-centered information it was providing could become the cornerstone for making not only smart product decisions but also for building short and long-term business strategy. Even though my MBA courses at Bentley University never explicitly addressed it, I saw a pattern emerge across all the course materials over those three years; the influence of information gained from people (when accurate and used correctly) was almost always at the foundation of any successful innovative or strategic business decision from the small, to the industry rocking. It was at that point that I knew I should pursue a full career in user experience, founded in research.

What advice can you share with someone who is looking to pursue a career in user experience?

I would advise them to go for it! However, there is now a lot of interest in user experience, with many programs offering three-month programs to become a UX designer. I not only encourage any learning opportunity, but I would advise those that are interested to think carefully about the breadth of the UX field before perhaps choosing a particular job family that is becoming more saturated. Consider your personal strengths and weaknesses, and try to choose a path within UX that perhaps may not be as ‘popular’, but creates significant strategic value. I still see that User Research is significantly underrepresented in most organizations, and in the future, I would expect even that focusing on human factors psychology would be of enormous value to companies, especially as artificial intelligence progresses.

Can you share the high-level responsibilities of your current position at Liberty Mutual Insurance?

As a manager of User Research and Design, I’m responsible for helping to create a positive environment for both the research and design leads, as well as for our stakeholders and products. Creating a positive environment consists of everything from triaging product opportunities to assess fit and impact, to helping create highly flexible yet supportive processes for the teams, to advising on how to reduce bias in research, and assisting design challenges. I also look into how to develop new environments, or programs, for us to partner with. Often, these are internal functions of our 50,000 employee company, such as legal, finance, security, technology, or human resources. Outside of my direct responsibilities, I’ve found the UX Community, which is a grassroots organization that spans across the entire company and takes on important human-centered initiatives. For example, we are hoping to launch our company’s first-ever ‘accessibility design sprint’ intended to spread awareness of the importance and know-how of designing UIs that are accessible across our physical diversities and neurodiversities. This past fall, we hosted the first annual UX Summit and had 100 UX evangelists attend in-person and over 500 attendees online.

Alison Decker Liberty Mutual

Day in the Life

Coffee, tea, or nothing?

Right now, it’s homemade coffee with a dollop of ice cream. :)

What time do you get into the office?

Somewhere between 7:45-8:30

Every day is different, but can you outline what a typical day looks like for you?

  • Morning: I love exercising in the morning, but it’s tough to get out in the winter at 6 AM for a run in the blustery and cold dark mornings. Sometimes I get lucky and catch a moderately warm and quiet morning and get to see the sun break through the clouds before all of the city bustle picks up.

  • Afternoon: I usually use the afternoons in one of two ways; I’ve either carved out 3 hours of time to focus in on a challenge like a design or research gap in product strategy or training opportunities or, I save the afternoons for smaller 30-minute product check-ins or 1:1s with team members.

  • Evening:  When we have the chance to, cooking dinner with my husband is my favorite part of the day. Fortunately, it’s becoming more of the routine for us!

Do you log back in at night or do you shut it down completely?  

I shut it down completely. I tend to work longer days because I prefer to create a clear headspace outside of work. I enjoy what I do and the teams I work with so it can be hard to shut off, which makes it especially important to not log in when I’m off work.

Any productivity hacks?

I’ll let you know as soon as I figure out some for myself! I have always found though that when faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, that taking a 20-minute break to walk, stretch, or go for a run, has always helped to provide much-needed perspective and often, answers.

What are the 3 apps that you can’t live without?

Yelp to find and look at great food in the city, Google Maps to zoom in and out of the world, and Lyft.

What professional accomplishment are you proudest of?

The professional accomplishments that I am proudest of all relate back to the teams and individuals that I work with. Building trust among colleagues and team members that I collaborate with is the most rewarding aspect of what I do. Achieving product success is phenomenal, but there’s nothing better at work than being surrounded by inspired and energized team members. Plus, helping to cultivate this energy and support is a moving target, so there’s always more that can be done to improve it! To that point, I don’t necessarily have one particular professional accomplishment that I am proudest of, but there have been a variety of circumstances where I have stood up for the value of different individual’s unique skill sets, perspectives, experiences, and/or other personal characteristics in ways that have allowed that individual gain a better platform share, utilize, and grow their strengths. I’m particularly proud of those moments.

Who do you admire or call upon for professional advice?

This is a tough one! Everyone has a perspective to share, so depending on the challenge, I’ll seek advice from particular people; from interns, to team members, mentors, current and former managers, and well as family and friends who are both in and out of “the corporate” world.

Keith Cline is the Founder of VentureFizz. Follow him on Twitter: @kcline6.

Images courtesy of Alison Decker.