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Department of Psychology
University of Mississippi

Shara Barnett

Shara BarnettVice President, User Experience at Sage
San Jose, California

I strongly believe in the value of a liberal arts education. The communication skills and critical thinking that are gained will take any student far, regardless of their chosen field.

Many students and parents think they have to make a choice between psychology and STEM-based careers. I have worked in high-tech for over 25 years in Silicon Valley in the User Experience field and it is all due to my background in psychology. I continue to use the experimental design skills I learned through my education to design and conduct experiments to learn how our users react to software designs. An iterative design process has experimentation at its core. We also use contextual inquiry and other interviewing techniques to really understand the PEOPLE our software serves. This becomes important with emerging technologies such as AI where we really need to consider the human side.

Why and when did you choose psychology as your major?

I took a psychology course my senior year of high school and loved it.  I knew then that I wanted to learn more about how the brain worked and enrolled my freshmen year as a psychology major and stuck with it!

Talk about some of your proudest accomplishments while at the University of Mississippi.

While at UM, I was heavily involved in my sorority and held leadership positions as Scholarship Chair and Panhellenic Representative. I was in Psi Chi and loved my time in the psychology department where I was able to engage in hands-on research on schizophrenia and different treatment methods. This hands-on lab work was something I was looking for as I decided to continue my studies in psychology into graduate school.

Describe your educational/professional journey after the undergraduate degree. 

I continued my studies in psychology at New Mexico State University where I earned an MA in Experimental Psychology with an emphasis in Social Psychology. After I defended my thesis, I took an internship at IBM in Boca Raton, Florida where I was able to participate in engaging user research on speech recognition software, including field evaluations with doctors and lawyers who used the software for dictating patient and client notes.

After I got a taste of how to apply psychology to high tech, that is where I decided I wanted to focus. I looked for jobs working in software companies doing user research. I was hired at Claris Software in Silicon Valley which was a subsidiary of Apple Computer. I was exposed to so much and quickly saw all the different paths that a career in user experience (UX) can take. I quickly moved over to learning more about UX design and have now worked in the field in Silicon Valley for over 25 years.  Companies I have worked at include Silicon Graphics, Intuit (the makers of QuickBooks, TurboTax, etc.)  KAYAK, and Sage (largest software company in the UK.)

Speaking directly to young people today, what’s the value of pursuing a degree in psychology? 

Psychology is such a flexible degree because understanding humans and how the brain works is important to know for almost any field you decide to pursue. I also underestimated how important it is to learn about experimental design (we use this all the time in software companies to test designs) and to learn how to observe and interview people (again, we use this in user research.)  I would also highly suggest looking for internships before or after graduation. That is the best way to understand the different ways psychology can be applied and what is interesting to you.