18. Kathleen Asjes of Schibsted Media

This episode of Dollars to Donuts features Kathleen Asjes of Schibsted Media. In our conversation, we talk about what happens when research need exceeds resources, the importance of keeping the knowledge inside the organization, and the benefit of diversity in a research team.

It’s not so much about which university do I go to and which master program do I follow, or which kind of courses do I need to pay a lot of money for. It’s more about reading up on it and trying to get started and trying to get it into your every day work. Or if you’re a designer you can be doing it. If you’re a product manager you can be doing it. But also, if you’re working in HR, you can start trying it out, experimenting. You just need to do it a lot to get good at it. And you can come from any kind of background to become a user researcher really. You just need to get started. – Kathleen Asjes

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Steve Portigal: Welcome to this episode of Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I talk to people who lead user research in their organization.

I’m going to be teaching two public workshops about user research, coordinated by Rosenfeld Media. The workshop is called Fundamentals of Interviewing Users and will be held May 20th in New York City and September 13th in San Francisco. You can find more details about the workshop and register at http://rosenfeldmedia.com/public-workshops. I’ll put the links in the show notes. You can send people from your team, or you can help me out by recommending the workshop to someone else.

I also run user research training workshops for in-house teams as well as work collaboratively with teams to run user research projects and bring new insights into the organizational culture and decision-making processes.

I enjoy making this podcast, and I appreciate your support in hiring me – and in recommending me – that helps make it possible.

I was in Amsterdam recently and in preparation for the trip I did a little bit of research about interesting dessert options that the city had to offer. It had been ten years since my last visit and I already knew I wanted to head back to Original Stroopwafels at the Albert Cuyp Market. But what else was there? Looking online I found multiple enthusiastic posts about a chocolate cookie bakery. The reviews were breathless hyperbole — the best cookie you’ll ever eat, and so on. So on our first day, jetlag notwithstanding, we walked over to Van Stapele Koekmakerij. We found it on a tiny street, with a small line of people across the street, and a cookie bouncer, maybe more of a butler, keeping people in place, and letting people into the store, in small groups. The store itself was also quite tiny, and it turns out they only sell one product – just this chocolate cookie, filled with white chocolate. The main option we had is simply how many of this cookie we wanted to buy (with a secondary option around what you put the cookies in – a regular bag or box, or a gift tin).

The store itself was beautiful, with a classic logo on the window, and lots of wood and gilt and glass, just what I pictured an old Dutch bakery would look like, the kind of place that has a time-tested recipe. We bought our cookies and then stood on the street corner to meet a local friend. Meanwhile a passerby – an expat Brit – heard us speaking English and stopped to ask us about the cookies. Are they really that good to justify the lines of people that she’s always seeing in this neighborhood? We thought they were pretty good, and we only waited in line a few minutes. We didn’t tell her this but it’s hard for any cookie to live up to the Best Cookie Ever hype that we found online, but it was a good cookie! Anyway, this woman went on to explain that this store was pretty new, like in the last couple of years. I was very surprised, as the appearance of the space, and the overall narrative, led me to assume it was someplace that had been doing this one thing – selling only one kind of cookie – for decades if not longer. The cookie was still good, but this took away a small bit of the magic away, this idea that that we had finally connected with a long-standing Best of Amsterdam experience.

It got me thinking about authenticity, that slippery topic. This bakery created a seemingly authentic experience, implying a time-worn history – even though it’s very new and only tourists shop there. The fact that the truth belied my assumptions suggests that it was somehow inauthentic, but I would still put them on the authentic side of the equation. T hat the place looked and felt (and tasted) authentic, even though technically, it isn’t?

I’m reminded of one of the most fun aspects of user research, trying to tease apart these underlying meanings, when even the words we use are inadequate to fully capture or communicate the nuance. Imagine trying to interview someone about their experience with this bakery and how you would go about unpacking their interpretation of the value proposition. I should note I am available for this work and I may be willing to accept payment in the form of desserts.

Moving on from philosophical cookie musings, let’s get to my interview with Kathleen. Kathleen Asjes leads the user research team at Schibsted Media in Sweden. Alright Kathleen, thanks for being on the podcast.

Kathleen Asjes: Thank you for having me. Great to be here.

Steve: Let’s start with an introduction. Who are you? Where do you work? What do you do there?

Kathleen: So, I work at Schibsted Media in Sweden, but I’m originally Dutch. I moved to Sweden around 8 years ago and before that I also moved around quite a bit. So, been here and there. And I lead the user research team at Schibsted. We are 9 people altogether right now.

Steve: Nine?

Kathleen: Nine researchers. And yeah. I manage the team. I make sure that we advance our research practice. That the research maturity of the organization kind of advances. For those who don’t know Schibsted Media, which is basically the whole world, we are a media company based in Scandinavia and it consists of – it’s a conglomerate of all kinds of online newspapers – on and offline newspapers – media houses basically. And they are the biggest ones in Norway and Sweden. Eight altogether, but also some like regional, coastal newspapers. So, it’s a mix of both national and regional newspapers as well as other niche products that we have.

Steve: That are not newspapers?

Kathleen: Yeah. So, in total we work with around 34 product teams. Some of our teams – there’s many, many different kinds of product teams. Some of them are related to these newspapers, but others are like Scandinavian Weight Watchers and price comparison sites and so on.

Steve: That are all part of this media conglomerate?

Kathleen: Yeah, yeah. And Schibsted consists of both media and marketplaces. So, it started out as a Scandinavian company, I think 200 years ago almost. It’s old, old, well-established, but it also has marketplaces all over the world. So, in France, in Spain, in South America even.

Steve: What’s a marketplace in this context?

Kathleen: Oh, it’s online selling and reselling of used goods.

Steve: And are these all different brands? There’s not a global, international marketplace brand?

Kathleen: No, no. This is all kind of local brands. Local marketplaces that are like national marketplaces in these different countries, but they are all hosted by Schibsted.

Steve: Okay. Now what’s – this is a broad question, I guess. What’s the mix of things that were acquired – I guess how does this media conglomerate come to have such a more diverse portfolio than you’re describing?

Kathleen: I have no idea, to be honest. I think it just, as a media house it’s in their DNA to experiment and to be first and to be fast. Actually, kind of like agile. So, when it comes to kind of new products or new opportunities they act fast and they experiment and they, yeah, widen their horizons and do it in a very sustainable way. Like focus on growth and kind of maturing products.

Steve: Have you – during your time there, have you seen them move into a new – not product category, but sort of geographic region? Like a part of the world where they didn’t have any business before?

Kathleen: Yeah. So, they do this all the time, especially in the marketplaces, but now also with kind of personal finance and borrowing money services and so on. So, yeah, they’re expanding and looking at new regions all the time.

Steve: So, in those examples, that’s businesses that they’re already in and then how can we do that in another territory?

Kathleen: Yeah. How can we take this to a neighboring country? Or how can we expand this in a different regions? We see opportunities somewhere else, what can we do?

Steve: I’m starting to see a little why there’s so many different product teams that you’re working with.

Kathleen: Yeah, but this is only – like, I’m only on the media side. I’m sorry, I should be really clear about that. All the marketplaces stuff, I’m not in that group. My colleagues are.

Steve: Do you have peers who do research in that part of the business as well?

Kathleen: Yeah. So, they’re researchers. My team is based in Oslo and Stockholm, but there’s also researchers based in London, Paris, Barcelona, South America. So, altogether, I think, in Schibsted wide there are around 25-30 researchers.

Steve: So, you’re involved in the media side.

Kathleen: Um-hmm

Steve: I’m just wondering sort of how many clusters are there? Media is one.

Kathleen: And marketplace is the other. They’re like the big two classes.

Steve: So, you’re 9 and they’re – I’m doing math now in my head – so that’s about 16 people probably in the marketplace.

Kathleen: It’s a community of researchers where you make an effort to see each other every year which is good.

Steve: So even though the things you’re working on are quite different – different industries, different businesses – there’s still a sense of trying to keep connection?

Kathleen: Yes.

Steve: What are you trying to accomplish by bringing these different researchers together?

Kathleen: I think since user research is not a new kind of field, but is ever evolving and it’s really important for us to make sure that we evolve as user researchers. And you do this in dialogue. Like this is why we attend conferences, and this is why you explore new methods and new things and you want to share these things of course. So, I think that’s why it’s important that we meet and talk about these things face to face because from that kind of dialog you get a very different experience than just seeing a presentation or talking to each other online. So, to have a community, to have your peers, to have others that give feedback on work and they make you reflect on what you’re doing and what’s going well and what maybe isn’t going that well, I think it’s really crucial to kind of advance your practice and to become more mature in your research in the organization you’re in.

Steve: How are those conversations different when you’re in person than through all of our collaboration platforms that we work in?

Kathleen: I think, as always, it’s not always just in meeting and having an agenda and talking about certain things. It’s also the discussions that you have during breakfast if you’re staying at the same hotel. Or after work while you’re having a drink. As well as also, well we hosted during our last meetup – we met in Budapest where we also did a visit. We visited another company and talked with their user research team and talked a bit about okay, what are you struggling with? What are we struggling with? And then you start asking each other questions and you get these really brilliant discussions going. So, one of the questions there was someone asked like okay, when it comes to really, um, keeping track of all the research, all the learnings that you have to know in an organization, how do you do that? Like, what is a good database or platform to store your insights? And we were like darn, we have the same issue. We were looking for a solution as well. And basically, everyone in industry is looking for a good solution to do this over time. And if anyone knows, please let me know. Reach out to me. I’m happy to hear.

Steve: Let’s maybe switch topics back and go back to setting more context. How long have you been in this role?

Kathleen: I came to Schibsted around four years ago, I think, and I came in as a consultant first on a very kind of different – one of those niche products. I worked with lifestyle which was like online fashion and interior decoration – really strange, but fun to work with. And then after doing that for almost a year my manager said okay we would like to have you board, would you consider becoming a permanent employee here? And I said, ah, only if we can make sure that this is like pure, like a research role. Before, as a consultant, I would kind of be – often be hired as a UX designer. Like the industry in Scandinavia was not that ready for user research as a profession, or expertise. Often when I would say, like 6/7 years ago – it was like oh the user research people – “like what?” I said, “oh you know finding out about user needs and really tailoring the product to meet their needs.” And then like, “okay, but that’s what you do at the end, right? So, what else?” We need someone at the beginning. You really had to explain well actually it’s at the beginning where you start and where you need to really understand what you’re doing and who you’re doing it for. So, often we’ll be hired as a UX designer and have to wing the design part most of the time, but do all the fundamental research kind of early on. So, I said okay. I was the one of the first user researchers in Schibsted. I said, okay, you need to make this a role and it needs to have – I see that all the teams need to be doing more user research, so I want to coach them and train them and make sure that we become more mature. So, that’s how it kind of started and I’ve been changing my role about every year. So, from research lead, working by myself, then I got like a small team to work with, with two other researchers. And then last year we finally kind of combined all the different researchers that were in media, but were working with their own separate kind of product, into one kind of – one team that works more independent of the different product teams and works more like okay, where are we needed? Where can we add most value? Where can we add most impact?

Steve: Was there a change in title for you when that happened?

Kathleen: Yeah. So, that’s when I became head of research and got the 8 or 9 people team up and running.

Steve: I’m curious about – I don’t know if it’s a fair question for you, but at what point do you think organizations go from – like there’s some evolution here of we’re doing research, or we have people that have the title of researcher, to now we have someone who is responsible who is a leader. That’s, I think, sort of the evolution that you described. But what is that point? I don’t know, is there a point at which that becomes clear that we’re ready or it’s time for leadership in research as opposed to sort of just the function being staffed?

Kathleen: Yeah. I think it depends a lot from organization to organization and I think it depends a lot on how – you know who is there? Like in the organizational leadership you need to have those people who want to promote it and see the value and really want to kind of make sure that research becomes leading in so many ways. And one way to get there is to really show your impact again and again and again. And do a lot of that lobbying and showcasing and communicating. Another thing can be that one of the senior VPs or someone who comes in has that experience from another company and goes like, “okay, I see where we’re struggling. What we need is professional user research. Let’s bring those people in or promote people into those roles and structure it more.” So, it can be bottom up, or top down. It can go both ways. I think in our case it was more bottom up.

Steve: Right. You hear stories about people were brought in with the intention of building up a function capability.

Kathleen: Yup. Build a team. Build a function. Change the organization. I never had that mandate to begin with. I created it.

Steve: You didn’t have the mandate, but it sounds like you had that trajectory. I mean in the conversations you had about taking a fulltime job versus being a consultant, it sounds like – I’m inferring from some of what you said that you’re looking towards more robust establishment of research that you would want to champion and drive.

Kathleen: Definitely, definitely. I think it’s so important because user research, for us as a function, as a role in the organization, we’re there to make sure that everyone in the product teams makes better informed decisions. We do a lot of gut feeling and looking at competitors and just coming up with stuff. We need to make those decisions more robust and we need better insights. So, that’s what we’re doing and for that to really get to a professional level and a good level you need to have it embedded in the organization and have it at decision making levels. Yeah. So, it’s always been – like I see where it’s needed, and I try to make sure it gets there.

Steve: So, part of the evolution that you were describing was there were individual researchers working on different product teams and then you reorganized so that you’re all working together and then putting research – you’re looking for where it’s needed and then putting research where it’s needed.

Kathleen: Yes

Steve: And I find this, and maybe you do as well, this is like a – this is a hot topic. Are researchers embedded, or are researchers centralized, are the terms I hear used most often.

Kathleen: Yeah. So, we’re in a matrix organization and then you’re a bit of both. So, every product has UX designers, product managers, developers. And then you have all the different – yeah, brands, across the other side of the matrix. And then yeah, we feed research into each of these kind of product teams, wherever it’s needed. So, you’re half embedded and half not. And ideally, of course, it would be wonderful if I had 34 researchers. Then yeah, everyone could be embedded. But I don’t see anyone granting me that kind of capacity anytime soon.

Steve: At least 34 right. Maybe there’s work for more than one researcher on that team.

Kathleen: Definitely. Let’s go for 40 or 50. Yeah, I would like to, you know, pose that question to the CEO or CTO, or whomever is making the decisions these days. And I’m not going to get at all, no. And I’m not sure if we do a better job at that scale because now what you see is when you work with multiple product teams is that they have similar challenges, similar issues, similar audience. So, you have more of that dialogue going on between the product teams and you’re facilitating that as a researcher because you have an overview of all the different issues and the similar issues that they’re trying to deal with. So, I think in that sense, yeah, we’re usually understaffed, as always, and there’s way more requests than there are people on my team, for sure. At the same time, it makes you make really tough decisions on okay, where can we add most value? Where do we add most? But also, you’re spread thin, so you need to make sure that teams do their own research, but you support them doing it. And actually, I think they do – I think the outcomes are used more and better if teams do it themselves. With your help, obviously. But yeah.

Steve: Would you have a theory as to why?

Kathleen: Well it’s all about that kind of firsthand experience. You know if you talk with your audience or users directly you’ve shaken their hands. You’ve seen what they struggle with. You know what’s happening to them and you will use that in your everyday decision making for the product. And also, you know, you can do a study, for example working on news consumption patterns. Like how often during the day do you access online news and which sources do you look at, for example? But during those conversations maybe really interesting things are coming up about subscription models. Or when you are willing to pay for news, or not. And if the product owner, or the designer, has those conversations themselves with users, then in the next project that comes up where they’re actively looking at subscription models or changing those, they will have that knowledge in their back pocket and take that up again. Whereas, you know, if I write a report, or share information about news consumption, that information about subscriptions will not be in there. Like that’s in my mind. So, if I’m the expert who knows everything and has all the conversations and all the interviews and gets all the raw data and starts analyzing that, and I’m the only one doing it, then I am the expert of everything. But I can’t be there for their everyday decision making, or their backlog grooming, or they’re deciding on the next step for their product strategy. So, the more they do themselves the more all those insights will feed into their everyday work.

Steve: So, can I just try reflecting back? So, a team that does its own research, one has the benefit of direct experience and two, has the things that seem extraneous to your initial question, these sort of weak signals, these other bits and pieces that you hear, that that rests with them, where they’re more likely to reuse it in the future when it comes up.

Kathleen: Yeah, definitely, definitely. And then you do have – on the flip side there’s the challenge of synthesis, data analysis. You know that’s quite – can be quite advanced and of course not everyone has the capacity to do so, both in time as well as mentally. So, it’s a fine balance between grooming and training them to do their own things – we’re still keeping an eye on it and helping them in the places and spaces where they struggle.

Steve: So, something like synthesis, which is advanced, what do you do to help a team that has not been…

Kathleen: Yeah. So, I would sit in on those sessions with them. So, for example, I myself support two product teams now and we’ve been doing this for around a year and a half, so they’re pretty good at writing their own kind of discussion guides, doing their own interviews and so on. But I noticed like, okay, when it comes to the analysis part they’re still – you know the findings are still kind of superficial. So, I would just try and sit in on those sessions. So, we’re listening to one or two of the interviews and sit in on the session, look through the raw data with them. And we start digging. And then you know, when people jump to conclusions too quickly – so, like “okay, where did you get that from?” It’s like, “oh the fear of missing out. It’s here and there.” “Well, actually no one every said that. It’s a term we use a lot when it comes to filter bubbles and so on. I don’t think I’ve heard any users say that in interviews.” And then make them dig to find the evidence and they go, “oh, no, I jumped too quick there.” Like “okay, let’s step back then and look again at what we did find.” So, yeah, but it’s different for every team really, what they need and where they’re at and some are at that basic level of okay what do I ask and how do I ask it? And others are a bit more advanced.

Steve: So, what’s your decision-making process in allocating your own resources?

Kathleen: Yeah.

Steve: Across these different teams where maybe a researcher in your group is going to do the research, or is going to support this other team doing the research themselves? You know, how do you plan all that?

Kathleen: Well, it’s really hard and actually lately there have been – I wouldn’t say conflicts, but there are – you know different teams are fighting with each other for who has access to which resource, which of course is a terrible situation to be in. But we do it in a way where – we’re 9 people now and we make sure that each researcher has multiple product teams that they focus on and they’re the first point of contact for. So, all the requests and so in come in for them and they follow a product team and the kind of research roadmap on what they’re doing. And then when a new request comes in it comes through me and then I’ll have to just, yeah, interact with the team and ask, okay, who has space? Do we think this is more important than something else? Do we need to prioritize this? And then we prioritize based on several things. So, first it is like where do we have most impact? Like where do we think we can generate the most important insights that are really needed for a team, but also where are we at ourselves in our professional, personal development and what kind of opportunities come with this research assignment or challenge that will help this or that person in our team grow personally?

Steve: Can you give a generic example of what that would be like?

Kathleen: Yeah. So, for example, we had an assignment coming up and we saw like okay, well looking at it we saw that okay this kind of challenge requires a diary study. And then there was someone on the team who really wanted to do a diary study and never done it before and wanted to come to try out that as a method. So, we said okay, well this is a great opportunity for you to work this out and experiment with this. So, now we put that person onto that assignment. So, it’s a big mix of different things really. Like where can we have most impact, but where can we also learn new things and try and challenge ourselves and grow, both as a team and as well as research professionals.

Steve: If you don’t have resources for the request that comes in, I’m sure – there’s a couple of things that could happen. That research could just not happen? Or it could be done by the team? I don’t know what – maybe I should put it as a question. If you can’t handle something, what happens to it?

Kathleen: I don’t think it’s done. It doesn’t get done. Or, we hire external agencies to do it, which I think often is the worst thing to do. And this is why I’m happy that we kind of came together as a research team because I think around 2 years ago it was like every individual researcher would be stuck doing a lot of tactical validation or kind of research and be really busy with that kind of everyday work, really trying to make sure that product teams look more at these kinds of insights and validate whatever they push out. Um, and at the same time we were thinking like okay we need this really big, strategic research done on the whole – you know what is the ecosystem in Scandinavia for both news consumption as well as online marketplaces and selling and reselling of used goods. And then we hired this agency to do this for us and spent loads of money on it. And then so all the really challenging, really big research questions are done by an external agency that deliver a report, but then all the super useful insights that are in extra information kind of – you know they stick there. They don’t really reach us. Or at least not into the organization. And we can’t do it ourselves because we’re too busy. That’s, of course, a terrible place to be in.

Steve: It sounds analogous to when a product team does research versus when the research team does it for them.

Kathleen: Yes. Yeah. So, it’s even one step further removed. It’s not even in the organization. So, some consultants know a lot about media consumption and the whole ecosystem in Scandinavia. Good for them. They got paid to do that as well.

Steve: So, as someone who works as a consultant, I’m definitely sensitive to – when you hear that your way of working is the worst possible option, that definitely makes my ears perk up.

Kathleen: I hope I didn’t offend you.

Steve: No, I’m not offended. It seems to me, in my experiences, that the mitigation for that is to have it be a collaboration, which is a different way. I think you were even talking about this in the way that you’re supporting your internal clients versus kind of doing it for them. I think for consultants, this is my opinion and my experience, like it’s a go take the research – to go take the tasks, execute it and report back on it. As a consultant, that’s not very fun. It’s not very rewarding. I don’t think it’s very effective. But I’m interested in sort of finding collaborative models. Again, just kind of like sometimes with your teams you’re coaching them, but they’re handling it and sometimes you’re in there doing the research with them. I think these kind of hybrid – they’re more blurry kinds of collaborations. Because I don’t want to know everything about some topic and then…

Kathleen: No, no.

Steve: That doesn’t suit my objectives. That doesn’t suit my clients’ objectives.

Kathleen: No, exactly. But that’s why you as a consultant need to have a really thorough discussion about that at the start, right? Like how can we make sure that these findings and insights kind of land in the organization and are usable by everyone. Rather than it just being the deliverable that then kind of goes from one’s inbox to another inbox. And then four weeks later it’s forgotten. Or in some kind of drive somewhere.

Steve: Right. Your point earlier about trying to help them have some experience where something sticks with them. Like that’s definitely the model of my own business and I think as researchers we’re capable of facilitating that experience in a way that – I mean this is all what you were talking about, setting up these teams to be successful. So, how do you help them have those experiences? It sounds like that’s what you’ve been working on a lot.

Kathleen: Yeah, definitely.

Steve: I think we agree more than we disagree.

Kathleen: We do. We do.

Steve: Let’s see if we can loop back to something you mentioned before. You were talking about one of the advantages of this kind of matrix model is that researchers have experience across different products and different product teams and they’re able to bring something that they’ve learned into a different context.

Kathleen: Yeah, exactly. And also, I think our – we try to make sure that our product teams do kind of continuous research, or rolling research, whatever you want to call it, so that they bring in their end users every month – at least every four weeks or so. And then, you know, you have a batch of 5/6 people coming in every month for all these different product teams. So, it adds up to a lot of people in the end. And over times it adds up to talking to very many people across time. So, we try to make sure that they have some kind of fundamental questions that they ask everyone. So, across these different product teams that we all ask about media consumption habits. Like just to really understand, okay, you are reading Svenska Dagbladet, the Swedish national newspaper, but which other sources do you have for your information? And then it might turn out that well actually I’m also daily visiting Aftonbladet, which is the other big national newspaper that we also own. And how do these two compliment each other? To ask about which other products are you using? How does this complement each other? Are there competitors there? So, these are the kind of questions every product team asks and that we can also kind of look in across, or over time. Do we see things changing? Or do we see like across the board to kind of see overlap, or learn things that other product teams should know about. While talking with Svenska Dagbladet readers, what do we learn about? Aftonbladet at the same time.

Steve: Just yesterday someone was asking me about their organization and describing – they put it as very siloed research and they were feeling frustrated as a researcher – I think they were a designer who’s doing a lot of research – that they were seeing things that they knew could apply elsewhere and they didn’t know what to do with them. And you’re kind of describing sort of a proactive structure for that. That there’s some things that are going to come up and you’re going to intentionally ask in a lot of different research.

Kathleen: Yes.

Steve: And then, I guess this would be the challenge for this other group – then you have to put the time in to say well what does that tell us?

Kathleen: Yeah, exactly. And then not just keep it on the shelf, but actually use it. And I think there we still have a way to go, to be honest. Like we try to make sure these things are in place, but to actively spend time digging through it and making sure it’s useful. Like I think we can take extra steps there. Yeah.

Steve: At one level it’s there if you need it, to go look at it, but to be proactive you would have to go and say well what are we learning?

Kathleen: Yeah. What did we learn this quarter? What did we learn this half year? We compile all that data.

Steve: One thing I’ve heard people talk about is – you know you’re describing managing these different requests that are coming in and prioritizing them based on these different criteria. I’ve heard people talk about one thing they can do with those requests is say, “we already have that information.” Like recycling data, or recycling insights, as opposed to redoing the research.

Kathleen: Yeah, exactly. So, often it is often about seeing like okay, you want to have information about willingness to pay for online use and so on. We know from your counterparts in Norway that they’ve done this in this study, have a look at that and see if you can reuse some of those insights, or if you think they apply to you, or if you can build on that. So, there’s a lot of that kind of cross-functional learning. But then still it becomes – I’ve been there for four years now, so I’ve seen and heard quite many things, but then still the way – you know what is the one central database or place where you will know that that information is there, even if people have left. Or what if I leave? Like where does all that knowledge go?

Steve: That’s a theme I think we keep coming back to. Sort of where does knowledge go?

Kathleen: Yeah.

Steve: Right, the external consultant? Or you delivering the report? The kind of matrix way of working for the team and then where does that live? It seems like this is a really significant challenge. As you said, the folks that you met with in Budapest, that was also an issue for them.

Kathleen: Yes. I think it’s an issue a lot of people struggle with. Like across everything. And then, yeah, do you need an organizational Wiki or database or, I don’t know? Do you have the answer? Have you heard the solution?

Steve: I had a really interesting conversation with someone about this and what she said to me was yes you can have the infrastructure, whatever database tool you want, but they hired basically like a reference librarian role. In her experience it would fail unless you staffed it. This is a job and it takes time and it takes effort. So, that you have somebody there…

Kathleen: And is it worth it? Because what is the shelf life of each insight or thing over time? You know things are changing rapidly. Sometimes I wonder a bit about that. Like things that happened four or five years ago and it’s still relevant for us now. Is that insight still valid? Or have things changed?

Steve: That’s interesting for a 200 year old company. Some things clearly are changing very rapidly around us, but what are the fundamental things that – I don’t know. I don’t know how you even kind of assess that.

Kathleen: Yeah, but if you think about reading news online and something that for many of us is an everyday habit now, but 5 or 10 years ago it wasn’t.

Steve: But the role of – the role of news in being a citizen, I mean has that changed?

Kathleen: No, no, no. And that’s also what’s so interesting about working in this field. When I graduated I wanted to be a journalist actually because I thought it was really exciting and really such an important thing. Free and independent journalism is such an important thing in society. Now, all these years later, I get to work with journalism. So, I’m almost there. Just in a different kind of capacity. Yeah. So, that’s quite good.

Steve: Right. Is there a sense among the team that you are – I mean do you all identify as working in the news industry?

Kathleen: Yeah. I think that mission that Schibsted has about really providing free and independent journalism is really important for most of us. People really align along that mission.

Steve: I think there’s something about the work of research – as someone who has worked as a consultant, you get into just a wide variety of industries and topic areas and I feel like among researchers that’s a bonus.

Kathleen: Yeah.

Steve: Sometimes I’ve had this conversation with people when they approach me about some research problem they have and exploring if there’s a possibility to collaborate? They’re describing something they’re doing, and they say, “is this interesting to you?” I’ll have to kind of laugh because…

Kathleen: It’s all interesting, isn’t it?

Steve: It’s all interesting, right. And so – but you were describing maybe the opposite. And then obviously there’s thousands of problems, even within the space that you’re in, but I guess it’s breadth versus depth that you’re in an industry and you’re sort of focused on the commitment to that mission. Whereas if you’re sort of a journeyman researcher like myself you move across very different kinds of things. And that in itself is rewarding, but I don’t have the mission thing that you have.

Kathleen: But I’ve been there as well. I’ve also worked as a consultant and I’ve worked with offshore engineers that have high voltage cables across the North Sea and so on. And who would have thought when I came out to Sweden that I would be working on this factory site with a yellow helmet on my head and looking at what these engineers are coming up with and what they’re doing and so on. But that’s an amazing thing, isn’t it? You get to really explore things you didn’t know about were happening and what they’re like and get to ask all the dumb questions to really get a good understanding. But after doing that for four or five years, I also at some point felt like yeah, often you are asked to be there at the end where things have failed, or things are not going well. How interesting would it be to be there along the way? Like I said really helping teams be better informed and make better decisions. For that you need to stick around for a while. That’s also super interesting right now. Yeah.

Steve: So, as you’re talking a little bit about some of the career – elements of your career path, can you maybe step back even further and talk about what you pursued in education, when you were thinking about journalism and then where you ended up in the work world and sort of what led you to where you are now?

Kathleen: Yeah, good one. I studied – well first, I managed to study psychology for about 3 or 4 months when I came out of high school because I was so interested in people. I thought oh I need to – that will help me understand the world and people better. And I got super frustrated with it in more time and I thought the course in statistics was more interesting than the introduction to psychology. So, I noticed very quickly like okay, if statistics is more interesting than actually the introduction to the thing that I’m supposed to study for the next 4 or 5 years, then I’m in the wrong place. So, then I switched to political science. So, I have a masters degree in political science which has really given me a really good fundamental basis in research methods and skills, both quantitative, as well as the qualitative side of things, which I think is really great, now in hindsight. Because, you know, after studying for several years you start hating statistics after a while as well. But I’m happy I did it because it’s given me good insights into mixed methods and how you need to combine both qualitative and quantitative data to really, yeah, validate your own findings, as well as make your findings kind of – and insights stronger and have more impact, which is something that we really need to do as user researchers. Because we’re still being questioned about okay, why did you only talk to five people? I had that the other day, like why are you only – and I was like oh, these questions, are they still coming up? Interesting. So, I studied political science and after that I worked in research, like just plain academic research as well as in policy research for a municipality, but I noticed that I was more interested in technology and what it does with people and how people use it and how it enables people. So, after a while, also moving around from Holland to Australia and coming back again, managed to find a job in the Library for the Blind where we were producing materials for visually impaired people. And there we spent – I was a product manager for a while and I noticed that we were building things and making things – and I was in the research and development department – and we were spending lots of money and lots of our time on things that were actually not really helping visually impaired people at all because we were stuck kind of thinking in old ways, or thinking that we know what visually impaired people need, whereas we didn’t know anything, really. We were just doing it out of goodwill, thinking we were helping. But actually, things change. So, that’s where I started to really focus on user research and looking at how do we develop these products, how do we develop an online library for visually impaired people and what do they need in their everyday lives to access things online? What devices do they use? So that was when I really started to focus on user research.

Steve: Were you thinking with that label, user research, at that point?

Kathleen: No, not at all. In the U.S. I think user research is more established than what’s in Europe and it wasn’t until, I think, six or seven years ago, I was at a conference in the U.S. where actually someone, I asked them, “so what do you do?” And she said, “oh I’m a user researcher at Google.” I’m like, user research, that’s what I’m doing. We talked about what her job was and what she was doing, and I was like that’s exactly what I’m doing. So, now I had a title for it and actually, you know, a good understanding of what it was and what you could call it. But then no one else in the industry got that yet, in Europe. So, it’s a bit behind in some ways.

Steve: So, what happened after the working on Library for the Blind?

Kathleen: So, after that, I managed a team for a while to really become more user centered. I did it for 3 years almost and then we moved to Sweden, from Holland to Sweden and then had to reinvent myself and what I was and what I was doing. And then I started consulting. So, I started consulting and working with UX (user research) in different industries). So, I’ve done everything, like I said, from offshore engineers to 3D kitchen modeling comparison. I’ve done a very interesting study on heating systems, heating pumps and how to explore interfaces for that. It was a really fun and weird assignment. And ended up doing an assignment for Schibsted and stuck around because they’re interesting to work with.

Steve: You know your whole journey is – I love that you were doing research and didn’t know that it was called that. That you had sort of found your way to it without the benefit of that label or that identity or some of the professional community stuff. It just makes me think about – I think your example is common. If you look at sort of trajectories over time – and I think you’re right, geographically it’s different – U.S. versus Europe versus other parts of the world – but there was a time where anyone who was in user research was there through an indirect – I don’t even want to say non-traditional because there was no alternative – but everyone was there through a mostly somewhat kind of indirect path. And as time moves on and the research industry grows there are people who identified that early on, chose an educational path that would sort of prepare them for that.

Kathleen: You can study it nowadays.

Steve: You can study it, right. Whereas we remember when people would say, what is that? That’s not a thing. I don’t know, so what are the – as time moves on and we have a mix of people that have studied it versus people who have – I don’t know. This is a little pretentious, but been called to it because we identified it – I guess you can study it and be called to it. But someone like me that – I was not trained. I found my way like you did. What does it mean for the practice, kind of collectively, as we have this mix – as that mix changes, I’m going to guess more people are being training in it now. The mix includes more people who studied than it did in the past. That’s a hypothesis.

Kathleen: Yeah. I think it does, but at the same time I don’t think it should. I think the richness of our practice, research practice, actually comes from people with different backgrounds and different kind of previous experience. So, that’s also what I look for in my team. Like everyone comes from a different background and when I recruit for my team then I also actively seek people that come from something else. Different nationality, different professional background, different academic background, different place in life from juniors – really junior – I just hired someone straight out of, psychology she studies – to more senior and have been around for a while and have all that expertise from just industry or academically. And I think that’s how you as a team, and as a person, can grow most, through that mix. And that’s how we can do our best work. I would not want to have a team of nine trained user researchers.

Steve: Why?

Kathleen: Best quality comes from diversity, quite often. That’s been proven time and time again. From the more different angles you can look at a problem the better your answer or solution will be. And I think that’s the same for a user research team. You need, you know, a qualitative research expert. You need quant research experts. You need people who are more experienced in design so that they can come with really good recommendations on how to solve problems. You need people who have you know – yeah, different – my team as well. There are some anthropologists, psychologist, someone who comes from product design, like physical product design, or from digital product design, human computer interaction, UX – you know we’re a bit of everything and we actively want to be – the more diversity, the better. The more we can learn from each other then the better we will get at what we do.

Steve: Do you think there’s any connection between – you know you mentioned before that people are still asking the sample size question. Is there any question between that, as kind of how well research is understood or not understood, and – your diversity of thought, your diversity of educational background is not – I don’t think that’s an unusual way of articulating it. And I’m with you that that’s a strength, but I wonder – you know a practice that is made up as kind of a conglomeration of different types of thoughts and educational background, are we creating challenges for ourselves in being understood by others because we have that? I mean diversity – I agree, diversity is a good thing, but there’s sort of almost like a ragtag aspect of it. Like oh, we’ve got a psychologist and a product designer and someone from political science. It could be misconstrued as sort of a lack of intentionality or standardization.

Kathleen: The more well established it is through education and in like product development processes, the more standardization there is the easier it will be to get recognition for what you’re doing. At the same time, if you really deliver high quality insights and really can also show the impact of these are the insights, this is what we’re learning, this is what the product team is also changing based on that, this is how it’s changing our revenue, this is how it’s changing our product, this is how it’s really improving the user experience, then yeah, it’s in that proof and in showcasing and also labeling it, naming it. Like we got here through this and this insight and this is how we managed to change things around. And people can also get there. But that level of understanding and acceptance of we talked to six people and we know more now than we know from just staring at our bellybuttons and looking in-house to ourselves or our competitors.

Steve: I think what I’m hearing you saying is that the thing that helps advance the field is the work. The work being good, the work being relevant and kind of advocating for the work. And my thing about what kind of backgrounds do people have and so on, that’s probably not as relevant as the thing that we’re here to do, that people care about. That’s what they care about.

Kathleen: At the same time, of course, it is tremendously helpful that large companies have really professional research teams and that they actively do this and that there is education and training in this and that level of, yeah, making it more professional. That helps us, of course, as well, because then I can also say, “you know what, at The Guardian, they’re doing it this way. We could be doing something similar.” Or, they have learned this and this and we should be looking at that as well. Yeah, it goes both ways.

Steve: So, you’ve talked about just the diverse team where people have exposure to just different modes of thought, different backgrounds. And then you gave that example where you might choose how to prioritize a program, among many that you’re being asked to do, so that someone on the team – you mentioned the diary study example. And I guess, so just more broadly how do you think about the team, where they are at now and developing them. Kind of helping create the conditions that can support professional development within your team.

Kathleen: Yeah, so I think part of being – what’s so good about being part of a team is that you have people with different kinds of expertise that you can learn from and that will help you kind of grow as a research professional. And I think it’s really important. There’s a high demand for user researchers. So, they’re being poached like left, right and center if you get the opportunity. LinkedIn requests galore if you have user research in your title. Some recruiter will at some point go like, “hey, should we be talking with you?” So, to counter that you need to make sure that people are challenged in their everyday work and that they feel that they’re growing and that they’re developing, and they get to do really challenging things. And in our team we’re looking at that from kind of – we have a sparring system where every month you team up with a different person in the team and every week you spend at least an hour sparring on what am I doing, how’s it going, what are my challenges right now, can you give me feedback on this script, or this method or this approach, set up, you name it. It’s up to them themselves. But just to make sure that you get active input from not just within the team setting, but also one on one, to help you kind of get different inspiration, different feedback, all the time. And as well, besides the sparring, making sure that people get to do really challenging assignments and that we put them on kind of the research that’s not just, you know, whoever, which product team yells the hardest gets to put a researcher and get to say what they have to do. But to make sure that we focus on the team so where we can have high impact and really mean something for the organization as well as the product team as well as for the researcher themselves. So, I think there we’re seeing, compared to a year ago when everyone was in their own product, in their own silo, doing their own thing, we’re seeing lots of benefit from that now. Being a central team, of course, can be challenging because you’re getting more requests on what you can do, but at the same time you get to really learn from each other and learn from your peers, and yeah, develop yourself, your own practice, quite a bit. So, I think that’s really what’s super inspiring about being a research team, or having that. And I can recommend to everyone who is like a research team of one – because there’s many of us around – to try and find your peers and try and find a research community around you. It can be a different organization, or it can be even online. It doesn’t matter. Try and find people that you can spar with and you can talk with and learn that way.

Steve: I have to admit, I haven’t heard the word sparring used in that context. I don’t know if we have a regional difference here, or my lack of exposure to certain kinds of environments. I don’t know.

Kathleen: Maybe it’s a Scandinavian thing. I don’t know.

Steve: I think of sparring as like practicing in – like in boxing.

Kathleen: Yeah.

Steve: So, when you said the word it brought to mind something adversarial. But as you unpack it I’m like oh, this is a trusted partner that you can – I think a sparring partner in sports, in boxing, is someone that – it’s like a friend that you can hit, right.

Kathleen: Yeah. Someone that challenges you.

Steve: Yes. And you have to have trust.

Kathleen: Exactly

Steve: It’s a safe place to go outside your comfort zone.

Kathleen: Yeah. And that trust is something that has to grow over time. Because I remember when we came together as a team at first there really was some doubts and questions about so what is this going to add for me? Like why should I be part of this? So, it was hard to work to make sure that people really, you know, yeah, got an understanding for what is your expertise? What is my expertise? What are our different backgrounds and how do we complement each other and how do you add to my work and how can I add to your work? So, it took a couple of months. And yeah. It’s a lot about meeting each other face to face and making an effort to see each other every month, even though we’re in two – well, Oslo and Stockholm is not far from each other. It’s an hours flight. You can see each other. So, we do that every month and it is a mix of both professional, as well as eating out.

Steve: Right. We’re looping back to what you were saying before about just the overall research community at the company.

Kathleen: Yup.

Steve: That even within the team that’s how you sort of turned a bunch of individuals into a team was through spending time together.

Kathleen: Yeah, exactly. And then, you know, if you’ve seen someone, if you’ve met them, it is easier to reach out online and post a question and get someone to then maybe follow up and talk with you or have like, yeah, that kind of communication with.

Steve: You’re describing something that’s at least somewhat parallel to the work itself. That being in the same space with people and talking to them. You talked before about meals. Maybe you’re not literally breaking bread with somebody, but you are sharing space with them. There’s things that happen, that I think can only happen in that environment.

Kathleen: Yeah.

Steve: That’s the research, but that’s also team building and establishing a shared culture and a shared set of beliefs. I think you described going from like what’s in it for me to what’s in it for us. I’m paraphrasing you, but that kind of shift.

Kathleen: Yeah, but I think you’re right there. Yeah. And it is – yeah, it’s both. You need to – by supporting your research community you get lots back as well. So, it goes both ways.

Steve: So just looking into the future, the researcher’s future looking question, whether this is about your own personal, professional trajectory or about the organization you are in that you’re building, or the practice in general of research, you know some number of years in the future, what kind of things should we or you or your team be heading towards?

Kathleen: I think when it comes to my team and the organization I really think we’re maturing quite well in terms of how well research is established and what we’re doing and so on. But I think the next hurdle for us, or for me, professionally what I want to see is that – in the moment I’m talking a lot about how can we make sure that product teams understand their audience better and understand their user better and have that firsthand experience. And now I’m working towards the next phase which is okay, how can we get the organization to understand their audience better. So, now okay Schibsted Media, there’s a product and tech organization of around 300 people or so, and I want them to do and understand user research and we need to spend a lot of time training them and coaching them and mentoring them. Great. But there are 2000 people, employees, working in Schibsted Media, and this includes like the journalists and it includes like salespeople. Ad space, or the work with subscription. And it includes customer service. And it includes HR even. So, how can we get them to start doing user research and get them to have that kind of first kind of access. Because otherwise it’s still a silo. It’s still the product and tech silo that gets the empathy and gets the understanding. Well, what about the people that create the content on the platform? What about the people that sell it? Or sell parts of the platform? For an end user that’s all the same experience. It all goes hand in hand. So, all those people need to be involved in it. So, that’s where I see our next challenge.

We have a really cool pilot project coming up in April where in one of our media houses in Bergen, which is in Norway, we’re going to do an experiment with this kind of a pilot where in one week we will get around almost half of the employees to do all kinds of user interviews and be part of workshops and so on and to have kind of an intensive week exposure to their audience and their users and see how that impacts the organization and the product. We’ll do research on that pilot as well. Like look at it before, during and after. How do the employees of that institute, the local newspaper there, how do they think it impacts their work, their understanding? What are the short term effects? Long term effects? And how can we build on that pilot to see what we can do with it? That’s next. So, it’s not even that far in the future. It’s quite soon. Then we have to kind of take that to the rest of the organization and all the other product teams. It will be interesting to see how it goes.

Steve: It’s a reimagining of research, as you say. Moving from product – research is a thing that helps product versus research is a thing that serves the organization and the culture. That to me feels really big and very future looking and so exciting.

Kathleen: Yeah. It will be a lot of fun. Let’s hope it goes well. I’m not sure yet how we’re going to synthesize data. It still needs a lot of work before April, but we’re gearing up for it and it will be, I think – yeah.

Steve: Is there anything else I should have asked you about?

Kathleen: I was thinking about before, that people that want to shift their careers to user research always ask – what should I be reading? What should I be doing? Where do I even start? And there I think – I always recommend them like two or three books I think can be worth mentioning. I think Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research is great. But I also really always buy and share your book, Interviewing Users, with people.

Steve: Thank you. This is not a paid endorsement.

Kathleen: No, no. Not at all. But I think this is like the fundamental basics of just getting started and it’s a lot about that. It’s not so much about which university do I go to and which master program do I follow, or which kind of courses do I need to pay a lot of money for. It’s more about reading up on it and trying to get started and trying to get it into your every day work. Or if you’re a designer you can be doing it. If you’re a product manager you can be doing it. But also, if you’re working in HR, you can start trying it out, experimenting. You just need to do it a lot to get good at it. And you can come from any kind of background to become a user researcher really. You just need to get started.

Steve: What if when you were doing political science research, what if Erika’s book had been around then, or my book had been around then? Like would that have – I mean I realize you didn’t know that that was a thing that you were going to go learn from. I’m just thinking of you at the point. You’re kind of advising a hypothetical person, but just going back in time, what did you have to sort of teach you how to do the research that you were doing?

Kathleen: Yeah. Well, I think in social sciences that’s all you do. You learn research methodology and you learn to master that. But I think I would have loved to see both these books, but also online there are so many great resources – articles and so on – that show you how it’s practically applied in the industry. And it’s so different from academic research and it’s so tangible. You can see direct usage impact, change and so on. I think if I would have seen and known about that I would have switched earlier on. Then I would not have gone into academic research in the beginning at all. I would not have toyed around with should I do a PhD, or not? No.

Steve: No.

Kathleen: No way. So, yeah I think it would have been really inspiring. And I think for all these people who are in academia it is sometimes hard to – you know, what can I do with my skills? What can I do with my knowledge? But in the industry there is so much. There’s such a big need for people with these kind of skills and such a big need for that kind of expertise. I highly recommend.

Steve: I keep meeting more people who are hiring PhD and similar level academics to come into industry. And more people in academia that are excited, and a little lost, but excited about making the movement into industry.

Kathleen: Yeah.

Steve: And kind of applying – I don’t know – back in my early days that seemed like those were two camps that philosophically didn’t trust each other.

Kathleen: Yup.

Steve: And I don’t encounter that attitude anymore.

Kathleen: No.

Steve: There’s just people from both worlds are looking to embrace each other and so on. So, that makes me hopeful for just the field growing in that way.

Kathleen: But you know what’s so funny? ‘Cuz like I feel like I’ve come so far from any kind of academic style research and so on, but it was a couple of months ago that one of the designers – you know I was talking with him about how you standardize and how you can get like frequent research going and talking about the research objective and he just said, “you know what, you’re just so academic.” Just getting the basics, for some people that still feels too academic and you think like oh my, I need to do more – think more about how I share these things or what I say. Is the fundamental basics, you need to have a goal too, or an objective for any kind of study? But maybe we should hold something different because it just sounds too farfetched, or too kind of highbrow for someone.

Steve: I’m impressed that you took that as a growth opportunity or a challenge for yourself.

Kathleen: Not at first moment. At first I was just like, what, you’re kidding me? And then I thought about it a bit more and like okay, if I’m getting this kind of feedback then maybe I need to change and do my own kind of internal research. If I want them to do their own research then I need to approach them at their own level and using the words and kind of things that they can relate to. Otherwise it’s like how am I going to convince them otherwise?

Steve: Well great. Do you have anything else we should cover?

Kathleen: Don’t think so. Thank you so much.

Steve: Well thanks. This has been a great conversation. I’ve learned a lot and lots of ideas. It was great to have the time to chat with you.

Kathleen: Alright.

Steve: Thank you.

Kathleen: Thanks.

Steve: Thanks for being here for this episode of Dollars to Donuts. Follow the podcast on Twitter, and subscribe at portigal.com/podcast, or iTunes, or Spotify, or Stitcher, or your favorite podcast distribution platform. Also at portigal.com/podcast you can find the transcript and links for this and all episodes. Buy my books from Rosenfeld Media or Amazon. Thanks to Bruce Todd for the Dollars to Donuts theme.

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