How This UX Researcher and Fashion Stylist Found Her Calling at Pinterest
A few years into her first job as a UX researcher, Larkin Brown realized that working on just any tech product wouldn’t do. She wanted a job where she could combine her interest in fashion and style.
“I noticed that my colleagues would read tech blogs whenever they had spare time at work, while I would read fashion blogs and save ideas on Pinterest,” she says. “I began to wonder if I could find a place where I could work on a product that better aligned with my passions.”
Turns out, she could—and that place was none other than Pinterest. Brown found an opening at the company, which was just beginning to build up their research team around that time. Almost 10 years later, Brown is now a research manager for the app.
Here, Brown talks about some of her coolest experiences at Pinterest, how UX research is making the platform more inclusive, and adjusting back to office life as a mom of two.
Tell us about your career journey. What inspired you to pursue a career in user experience (UX) research?
I studied communication and psychology at Northwestern University and, on a whim, took a class called social network analysis. At the time, it was an emerging field that combined sociology, psychology, and systems engineering. I enjoyed it so much that I hassled my professor until he let me work in his lab.
After graduating, I submitted a general application to Google hoping to find something related to that kind of work, but they put me on a sales team. I sold online advertising for 11 months while I tried to hunt down which parts of the company did this social network analysis. Eventually, I met a UX researcher for social projects—this was right before Google+ launched—and I’m so grateful that they took a chance on me despite my lack of UX training. I really owe it to my first Google boss who taught me the ropes of evaluative research.
How did you know Pinterest would be a good fit, and what has kept you there for almost 10 years?
When I applied to Pinterest, I remember telling a friend how surprised I was by the folks who interviewed me. I was expecting to see frazzled people hustling through startup life, yet everyone was warm, kind, and calm. My friend said, “Well, that makes sense. Pinterest, the app, is warm and kind and calm. The product is the people who make it.”
While the company has grown and changed since then, that insight still rings true. I’ve stayed here because of the product and the people. Pinterest is one of the last positive corners of the internet, and I’m still motivated by our mission to help people find the inspiration to live a life they love.
What are you responsible for in your current role?
I lead the research team, which means I work closely with the heads of design, content design, product, and engineering to ensure we’re building the best products and features for our “pinners,” creators, and advertisers. My days differ depending on where we are in the product cycle, but they usually involve a mix of coaching other research managers, ideating and providing feedback on product strategy, and interviewing candidates who are interested in joining the research team.
What's one of the most exciting work experiences you've had since joining Pinterest?
In my first few months at Pinterest, I went to France to shed light on how to localize the app in the French market. We had done a good job translating all the text, but as soon as we started interviewing folks, it was clear something wasn’t working. Our French “pinners” explained that although they could understand the site, it was filled with American ideas. When they searched for “gâteau”, for example, a bunch of American cakes came up—big and blue and covered in sprinkles. They explained that a French “gâteau” is brown, one layer, and ugly—but delicious! And that’s when we learned it was not enough to just translate the content; local content was critical to our success.
Years later, I was lucky enough to visit South Korea to study the intersection of beauty and technology. We got to dig into how Korea earned its credibility and expertise in the beauty space. We explored the way they merchandise and use tech in beauty boutiques, particularly to find the right product for you. My favorite part, as always, was being invited into the homes of some beauty lovers and having them walk us through their thorough skincare routines. This research influenced some of the features that appear when you search for beauty ideas on Pinterest, including skin tone filters.
What’s a project you worked on that was especially inspiring, and what impact did it have?
I continue to be inspired by the hair pattern search we launched last year. We used a participatory approach that included subject-matter experts and conducted foundational research with a cohort of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian participants to learn about how they find hair inspiration. This group guided the initial direction for how we make online hair experiences more inclusive and continued to share input as we designed and implemented our product. It’s unusual to have a consistent group of people come along the journey with us, but it helped us translate the ideas of people with lived experience into our designs.
The same team continues to push our algorithms and search features to help show a more inclusive set of results. I’m excited for what’s coming next for people who feel like they don’t see enough reflections of themselves in today’s media.
Thinking back over your time at Pinterest, how has your role and team grown and evolved along with the company?
First, we embrace creative research. My earliest mentors were experts in creative research design and I was amazed by how they could bring that same creativity into their execution, synthesis, documentation, and share outs—and how much more engaging it was for our stakeholders. As the team has grown, we continue to infuse this creativity in our research craft.
We also invest in each other’s growth. When I joined, my speciality was in quick-and-scrappy evaluative research—not the creative participatory design workshops that some of my colleagues could whip out. But our product teams needed both types of research, so we taught one another along the way. Today, we continue to prioritize peer mentorship to support personal and professional growth, teaching one another our respective super powers.
Lastly, we’re multi-disciplinary. Our research team has always been made up of qualitative and quantitative researchers, including our leaders and managers. Often the best research comes from collaborating and using different methods to explore the interplay between what people say, do, think, and feel.
What has helped you succeed as a manager and team leader?
Earlier in my management career, a seasoned Pinterest leader told me and some fellow managers: “This is your team. You might think your team is the people who report to you, but actually your peers—other managers—are your team. They are the ones going through the same things as you, and they are your best resources.”
While my peer sets have changed and diversified as I’ve grown within the company, this advice continues to be true. Now that I manage managers, I work to create a psychologically safe space where they can build the camaraderie and trust that I’ve enjoyed, which makes our teams more impactful, not to mention more fun!
In addition to your research role, you’re also a freelance personal stylist. How have you gotten to put your stylist skills to use in your day job?
Back in the day, we used to produce our own brand campaigns and I styled those shoots myself. These days, I put my style skills to use as a spokesperson for Pinterest. Last month, I went on NBC’s TODAY with Hoda & Jenna to share highlights from Pinterest Predicts, our annual trend report that predicts what “pinners” will be trying in fashion, beauty, and wellness. It’s based on months of data from our users, and for the last three years, eight out of 10 predicted trends came true! It’s truly a joy to wear my stylist and researcher hat in one place.
What book, show/movie, or podcast from the last year had the biggest impact on you and why?
Like so many qualitative researchers, I’m a fan of Brené Brown’s work and am a devotee of her podcasts. In her first episode of Unlocking Us, she introduces the concept of FFTs, which stands for “f***ing first times”. She talks about the awkwardness and vulnerability that doing something new requires, and how she works through those feelings without tapping out and shutting down.
I’m going through a lot of FFTs this year since we welcomed baby number two last spring. Because my older daughter was born not long before the COVID lockdown, I’ve worked from home her whole life! Now that our offices have reopened and my team is on a hybrid schedule, I’m learning to be a working parent in the real world. I seriously have no idea how parents pull this off five days a week. I love going into our office (the inspo, the people, the food!), but I definitely faced awkward and anxious FFTs as I figured out preschool drop-offs and pumping at work—not to mention wearing office outfits again!
What’s your favorite Pinterest board?
Today, it’s my Hair • Fringe board, which emboldened me to finally get bangs five years ago. I still use it with my hair stylist because we tinker with the shape of my bangs a few times a year. I never know the right words to describe exactly what I want but my board does the talking for me.