Jo Evershed - Psychology BSc
Current job title: CEO and Co-Founder of Gorilla Experiment Builder
Congratulations on being named one of Computer Weekly's Rising Star Women in Tech! What does this recognition mean to you?
I’ve been leading the team at Gorilla Experiment Builder for 8 years now, and it’s truly humbling and serves as a powerful affirmation of the innovative work being done by me and the team at Gorilla. We know we’re creating best in class software for experimental psychology and behavioural science more generally, and it’s invigorating for that to be recognised. I think the Computer Weekly award highlights the importance of embracing technology to tackle human problems, and challenges us to push further in our mission to revolutionise the research landscape both in academia, but also in industry.
For me, it’s also a validation of a strategic decision I made in 2009 to go back to university (UCL), retrain, and build a life that allowed me to be a good parent and have a rich and rewarding career. This was a scary step. At the time I had a good job, but looking into the future I couldn’t see how I could create the work life balance I’d want. They say the only thing that’s worse than an unbearable job is a bearable one, because you stay when you should go and find meaningful and rewarding work that lights you up. Looking back, I’m proud of my past self for having the courage to make that leap!
Can you tell us what the Gorilla Experiment Builder is and how it came about?
Gorilla is a SAAS platform for creating and running behavioural studies online. It allows you to create questionnaires, reaction time tasks, navigation tasks, games, shops, multiplayer tasks and more - and then combine them all together into a controlled experiment without needing to code! It's easy enough for students and powerful enough for professionals. All while saving your precious time, so that you can focus on the science and discovery!
Gorilla empowers experimental psychologists and behavioural scientists at all career stages and across industries who want to collect data on human behaviour at scale.
Whether you’re a student running your very first practice study, a commercial company looking at consumer behaviours, or a professional researcher that’s leading their field - we make creating your protocol easy.
It was my own struggles collecting data that drove me to create Gorilla. When I was studying at UCL, that meant learning to code in MATLAB. Now, I was up for that as I have a background in engineering, but it definitely wasn’t possible for everyone in my cohort. Then, so that I didn’t have to test participants 1-by-1 in the lab over several months, I persuaded the Director of the Science Museum to let me set up my lab there, so that their visitors could participate in science, not only consume science history. I got parent and child dyads to do an Implicit Association Test to see if they shared semantic representation of food / weight / healthiness. In 3 weeks, I had collected data from 200 parent-child dyads. It was exciting!
When I graduated - so that others could do what I had done with ease - I set about creating a modern online research suite that covers the wide range of tools needed by Experimental Psychologists. And that’s how Gorilla came to be born. We started with the simple tools and then added more innovative tools. It’s been hugely successful as Psychology Departments and Behavioural Science Consultancies across the world want to collect data at scale.
As an aside, the reason it’s called Gorilla is because while chatting to UCL’s Prof Daniel Richardson about how to improve the teaching of research methods, I said “Oh! So you want a bigger and better Survey Monkey?” And he said, “Yes! I want a Survey Gorilla!” and the name stuck. Daniel has gone on to embrace these new possibilities for teaching research methods to undergraduates; he is an award-winning visionary when it comes to inspiring students.
“What we’ve managed to do with Gorilla is give students the tools and templates to make their own experiments, with minimal supervision. Students can go out and test a hypothesis via social media. Results flood in from all over the world, and they’re creating this incredible range of studies. It’s a much richer learning experience.” - Professor Daniel Richardson, UCL
What are your hopes for the future?
We’re only just getting started. Looking ahead our vision is to continue being a dynamic company that delivers best in class research software. We have big plans for 2024; including extensions to Gorilla’s capabilities, improvements to Gorilla’s ease of use and some improvements to our Open Science workflows. Ultimately we hope to continue to equip researchers with even more powerful tools to unravel the complexities of human behaviour and drive positive societal change through data-driven insights.
What course did you study at UCL and how did this shape your career path?
I studied Experimental Psychology at UCL. My background was in financial modelling and decision analysis, and I’d got curious about maths education. So, I considered doing a PhD in mathematical cognition; I was keen to create evidence-informed maths games that develop kids’ maths and problem solving skills. But, I realised that the experiment design tools were so limited that this would have been really painful. So I ended up creating Gorilla, in order to solve that challenge.
Initially I thought I might go back to mathematical cognition, but actually it’s more rewarding to support great experimental psychologists across the world. Incidentally, with Gorilla, I have had the great pleasure of working on maths games with Professors Brian Butterworth and Diana Laurillard who are developmental mathematical cognition experts at UCL. A government (not ours!) is now discussing rolling these games out across all their primary schools. So - in some ways - I got to do both!
It’s not an overstatement to say that studying experimental psychology at UCL has been pivotal in shaping my career trajectory. Not only in terms of the science I learnt, but also it gave me an visceral appreciation for the struggles of experimental psychologists and I’ve formed lasting relationships with inspiring faculty members.
Without UCL it would not have been possible for me to create Gorilla and power online research methods for over 1000 universities around the globe.
What advice would you give to psychology students looking to get the most out of their time at university?
The first thing worth knowing is that the product of a degree or PhD is you, not the science, not the grades. It’s how you change and grow and learn that is more important. So, allow the experience to stretch and change you.
To all the budding psychologists out there, I would emphasise the importance of research methods. The subject matter knowledge will always be changing and growing, but if you master research methods - in particular experiment design and data analysis - this will take you far. With great methods, when you don’t know the answer, you’ll always be able to say “But I can find out!”.
I’d also recommend exploring career opportunities both in academia and in industry. There are lots of companies now hiring experimental psychologists to do a wide range of roles including: user research, experience design, data science, behavioural consulting, human factors engineering and more! Think broadly about how your skills can be applied to make the world a better place. You’ll get more out of your degree if you know what learning experiences will prepare you for your next adventure.
Did you always know that you wanted to build a career combining your passions for psychology and technology?
Goodness no! I’ve had a very mixed career.
Technology has always been core to my interest. When I was little, my Dad and I used to program computer games to teach me times tables or spelling. He made a very basic version of Wordle (the 5 letter word game) when I was a kid in the 80s! But it took me a long time to find the second piece of the jigsaw with psychology.
My childhood was very challenging, and one big motivator for me is to make the world a better place, so that people don’t suffer as much. There are researchers studying addiction, depression, learning, neurodiversity, vaccine denial, climate change, prejudice and more on Gorilla. I hope that with better data, we’ll be able to make better interventions that promote health, happiness and education. It is quite a thrill to witness the widespread impact of Gorilla on the research community.
Fundamentally, I think I fell in love with the idea of empowering researchers across the world to get the data (facts) they need to create knowledge. With the optimistic hope that eventually this knowledge will be used to create a better world for humans to thrive in.
What advice would you give to young girls looking to pursue a career in STEM?
We have an unfortunate cultural prejudice that the humanities are fun and interesting and creative, while STEM subjects are dry, hard and boring. But the whole point of science, technology and engineering is to make things that didn’t exist before. And when you take your STEM skills out into the world you get to be a part of creating the most wonderful and interesting things. It’s not just creative, it’s creating. A new technology platform, a new vaccine, a new car, a new material, a new energy capture process. The possibilities for meaningful impact are endless!
For young girls, there are a few specific messages.
Firstly, don’t buy into the idea that STEM subjects are not for women. Women have been pioneers in STEM subjects throughout history. If the sciences light you up, then go for it. Life is too short to waste your time living someone else’s life!
Secondly, we need you! Across domains designers continue to design for the average man, and this puts women at a disadvantage or risk. Read 'The deadly truth about a world built for men - from stab vests to car crashes' for an appreciation of just how big this problem continues to be.
If there is a shortage of women in STEM, then there is a shortage of people solving women’s problems. These problems need fixing! If not you, who?
Thirdly, if you want practical advice, then it’s study maths. The problem solving and thinking skills (rather than maths skills) you develop while studying maths transfer to many other domains; they really are a super power.
When not working, how do you like to spend your time and 'switch off'?
I have two young kids (8 and 4) so I spend a lot of time enjoying them and doing art, music, maths and boardgames.
I’m not sure you’d call it switching off, but I like to push myself every day to become better through reading, meditation, music and exercise. It’s been extremely hard to become disciplined about personal growth, but it’s also exciting and rewarding. A recent breakthrough was finding exercise I enjoyed! Last year’s New Year’s Resolution was to find regular exercise, and I got a daily walk in, but it wasn’t enough. This year’s New Year’s Resolution was to find a regular exercise that I enjoy! And I found it. I now go horse riding (dressage) nearly every week. It’s hugely challenging and physically demanding, but it strengthens my whole core while developing my self awareness, self control and leadership skills.
My husband and I enjoy playing music together. I play piano and he plays the guitar. It’s a fun way to unwind at the end of the day.