How I became a UX designer: Marisa Gallagher of Amazon Music

In Music
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Welcome to our series  where we’re digging into the stories of accomplished and influential people and finding out how they got to where they are in their careers. We’re finding out what their biggest challenges, their biggest passions and their biggest pieces of wisdom are — for you.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited.

Music is a way of life for most of us, and Marisa Gallagher has the best of several worlds alongside it.

Marisa Gallagher. (Photo: Amazon)

As the head UX (user experience) designer and head of user experience for Amazon Music, she spends her days innovating and improving how the service looks and feels to users. Before making her way to Amazon, Gallagher worked on CNN’s digital team, strategizing content for everything from Disney to Visa, running design and user experience, and even copy editing.

USA TODAY College caught up with Gallagher to chat fancy coffee, playlists and sabbaticals.

What’s your coffee order?

I’m not a morning person, but I like to get a jump on things, so it’s usually a big cup of straight black coffee. Whatever is around, fancy to swill. Day-to-day it’s all about caffeine and the morning ritual, but on the weekends, I’ll get all into it. I’ll even hand-grind beans and the like, and embarrass myself a little. Context is key.

Who’s your biggest mentor?

Peggy O’Keefe Umanzio. She’s a brilliant management consultant. She attended Harvard, began her career at McKinsey, and went on to build her own company as an executive consultant and confidante—the whole nine yards. As a kid, I was lucky enough to live down the street from Peggy. I did bookkeeping and odd jobs for her throughout my high school and college days.

She taught me what a strong and powerful, yet kind, thoughtful, compassionate leader and human being looks like — and she’s not done yet. She also made me see how important options are, and that creativity is a resourcefulness that breeds confidence, because it keeps you from fearing change. You know you can adapt and make something out of it. It is so unusual, humbling so, to get that kind of role model in your life.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done?

Taking a sabbatical for six months. It forced me to be a little braver. To be uncomfortable. During that time I was able to walk across Spain with my Dad — the Camino de Santiago. It was an experience that allowed me to face up to both the joy and the difficulty of being someone’s kid, and also being an adult that takes themselves too seriously sometimes.

I also spent time in LA. The myth-making, always sunny, canyon-filled city of Los Angeles. That’s just hard to beat.

What does a typical day look like for you?

It’s usually a mishmash of emails and meetings and intense debates and silly laughter. I’m involved in a lot of discussions around strategy, and how we can continually improve and innovate the Amazon Music experience for our customers. We decode customer data, review creative work and look at patterns to connect the team to other groups or to the next puzzle pieces. It’s a mad-dash from 10:00 a.m.—5:00 p.m., but I’ll find time before and after where I can put on my headphones, rock out a little — the Amazon Music playlist “” is my go-to right now —catch up, and plan.

How would you describe your job?

My team explores the role of music in people’s lives, and how we can design a service [Amazon Music Unlimited] that meets their desires.

Today, that means bringing the voice experience front and center—we’re in a new ‘voice’ age — with the Amazon Music listening experience on Alexa.

Music is an epic part of everyone’s lives. We may not all like the same artist, band or genre, but we all have that song, album or playlist. The one that gets our head bobbing or makes the dinner party never end or gives us a little more swagger when walking down the street. I’m so proud to work in music, and it’s so exciting to be on the forefront of how voice can make the music listening experience even better and more fun.

When listening to Amazon Music on Alexa, customers can find that soundtrack of music that they want, at that exact moment, easier than ever before. It’s as simple as talking to your best friend.

What’s the best advice someone’s ever given you?

Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end (hat tip to John Lennon for the quote). Persevere – challenges are just plot points in the bigger story.

What does your career path look like?

That’s what great about Amazon, and Amazon Music. There are so many paths to take and areas to innovate. It’s so exciting to learn about how music works in people’s lives and to build a service tailor made for that, to bring passionate, epic music to more of us – and who knows what will arise out of that process? You do right by the customers and make it a sustainable business – other good things tend to come.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

Learning about how music works for different kinds of people, at different times of day, in different stages of their lives, in different cultures. It gets me giddy just thinking about it.

What advice would you give someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

Listen to and study people. Test and explore ways to reach those people. Pick research like cognitive psychology or organizational behavior or anthropology that gives you a deep, empathetic curiosity about people. Then, marry that with action where you have to apply it — mediums and/or technologies to connect with those people. Painting, writing, photography, filmmaking, industrial design, motion, code—whatever calls to you.

When in doubt, choose the hard road. The one that scares you, but makes you sigh, and throw in a little business to it, too, just to keep grounded and focused.

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