Erin Mahoney grew up in Columbia, Maryland and received her bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Science from Yale University. Her career began in higher education market research and consulting in Washington, DC, advising colleges and universities on academic program planning and strategy. Following this time, Erin shifted back towards cognition-centered work by earning her master’s in behavior and learning sciences (Ed.M. Mind, Brain, and Education) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She recently became the newest member of the Innovation Strategy team at Essential.


What might people not know about you?

I’ve made it a life goal to attend a game at every major league baseball stadium! So far I’m at 17 out of a total of 30 teams, although a few have moved to new stadiums in the last few years. My favorites will always be Fenway (Red Sox) and Camden Yards (Orioles), but it’s been cool to see how different they all are.

erin mahoney at red sox

Erin (right) pictured with her brother (left) and fiancé (middle) at the American League Division Series (ALDS) game 1, just before the Red Sox won the World Series in 2018!


You started your career in higher education. How did you end up in design?

My experience is very heavy in academic research and science, plus market research. I’ve always been obsessed with everything related to human cognition and behavior (hence both of my degrees!), but much preferred applied/industry research to the academic setting. Whereas most of my classmates in graduate school were focused on applying learning and behavior sciences to traditional education settings, I’m interested in the experiences of “students” more broadly as “students of life” - consumers, users, and learners of all environments. Working in design feels like my chance to understand user behavior and cognition, and to use that knowledge to make real differences in everyday experiences.


What is your favorite thing about your role?

The variety! Both in the topics I’m researching and the ways I’m approaching each research project. Growing up, I had so much admiration for people who knew even a little bit about a lot of different things. As an adult, I think that’s one of the biggest reasons both of my degrees have been inherently interdisciplinary; I feel strongly that having experience in a variety of disciplines or topics makes you smarter at seeing different perspectives and addressing each new problem. One of the things I’ve loved in my career so far is the chance to immerse myself in a new field or industry for each new project. I love that my role at Essential allows me that chance.


Tell us about your favorite college courses.

Too many to pick just one! In undergrad, I took a seminar about dialects in American English and how speech (both grammar and vocabulary) differs throughout the country. I also loved the classes I took in computational language and language cognition. In grad school, I took a course in behavioral science, which was a fascinating chance to study methods of generating behavior change for social good. I also took a statistical computing class that made for some really awesome data visualization projects, and a constructivist learning class that allowed me to design and build a prototype of an escape room!

erin mahoney clue escape room

Components of the Clue-themed escape room that Erin designed and built in graduate school.


What product or experience would you want to redesign? How would you fix it?

I’ve always found public transit systems really fascinating, and would love to redesign one. I don’t pretend to have the magic answers to how (I’d want to do a bunch of research first!), but I’ve thought a lot about how the ideal system is designed for both tourists who have never used the system and don’t know the city, and commuters who use it every day and know where things are. And I’m guessing that the system usage data, ideally broken down by station and time of day/week, would be a gold mine of cool insights!


Do you enjoy any other creative outlets?

In my spare time, I’m really into photography! It’s something that’s been passed down through generations in my family, so I took a photo class in college and have gradually been teaching myself more and more, and volunteered as a photographer for a non-profit while I lived in DC. Dream side-gig of the future is definitely to be a wedding or event photographer!


What's a memorable project that you've worked on in the past?

While I was a grad student, I interned for an educational technology company that builds chatbots to talk with college students. I worked on their effort in researching higher education admissions and retention drivers, and added in my background in behavioral science to identify principles of cognition and behavior that could be leveraged to help students get to and through college. We delivered a pilot version of a text-based campaign to help students succeed throughout their first year of college. It was a really cool experience getting to directly apply my work in behavior change to real students’ experiences.


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