23. Michele Marut of CBRE Build

In this episode of Dollars to Donuts I speak with Michele Marut who leads user experience research at CBRE Build. We discuss the curation of research repositories, using research to go beyond fixing things, and building processes and tools that can be used by researchers and people who do research.

The philosophy is that the trained researchers should be taking on the most critical, the most risky projects. That’s where they can add the most value. Are they going to lose a lot of money? Is this a totally new workflow? Is this really new to the world? So, really focus trained researchers in that area. – Michele Marut

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Steve Portigal: Thanks for joining me on Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I talk with people who lead user research in their organization.

As a consultant, I find myself collaborating with very different types of organizations in terms of the amount of experience they have in doing user research, or learning from user research, or acting on what we learn from doing user research. There might be strong leadership in user experience design, or product design, or service design…or that might be a completely foreign concept. That’s a significant challenge in my work as a consultant, ensuring that I’m in a position to assess and respond to that diversity. It’s also something I really enjoy, and I see working on this podcast as part of that journey, something that I’m able to share with you. And so, the best way to support this podcast is to support my own consulting business. You can hire me to lead user research projects or to coach your own team as you talk to users. I help organizations put together research roadmaps so they can prioritize their limited resources. And I run training workshops to level up fieldwork and analysis skills. Please get in touch to see what we might do together.

Otherwise, if you have feedback about this podcast, email me at DONUTS AT PORTIGAL DOT COM or write me on Twitter at Dollars To Donuts, that’s d o l l R s T O D o n u t s.

I was intrigued by a story on NPR last month about program created at a VA hospital in Madison, Wisconsin, called “My Life, My Story.” In this program, staff and trained volunteers conduct open-ended interviews with veterans about their lives, letting the patient decide what they want to share about themselves. The interview is turned into a thousand-word biography that the patient reviews and revises, and then is included in their medical record. Patients also can share these stories with friends and family. This particular VA hospital has been training other hospitals in the VA system over the past few years. The article describes the benefit to the patient, and the different caregivers, both in the act of telling the story, and in having this kind of softer information available for review in their medical record. The article also explains the evolution of the “My Life, My Story” program, and how they “tried having patients fill out surveys, which were useful but still left the team wanting more. Next, they tried getting patients to write down their life stories themselves, but not many people really wanted to. Finally, an epiphany: Hire a writer to interview the patients, and put what they learned on paper.”

This is a primordial form of user research; there’s no sense-making of patterns across groups of users; the data gathered from a user of the system only has value when applied directly to that user’s specific experience. I mean, maybe there’s a cultural shift that comes from making this kind of information available in the medical record itself, maybe it invites providers to be hungry for this kind of data, maybe it changes the conversations internally around patients as people with rich and messy lives beyond their medical conditions. And I want to dismiss it as unscaleable – this idea of interviewing every single user, rather than a sample, but – look at the implementation here – it’s absolutely about operationalizing it so that this service, asking open-ended questions about a patient’s life, is a component of the experience for each patient.

In some ways, it’s a bit threatening to user researchers, that the simple act of just asking people about themselves can benefit the delivery of services so significantly, but on the other hand it also suggests that the potential value researchers can bring is well beyond what we usually say it is. If you’re looking towards the future of user research, this may be an early signal for possible directions.

Let’s get to the interview, with Michele Marut, who is leading user experience research for CBRE Build in New York city. Thank you for being on the podcast.

Michele Marut: Happy to be here, Steve.

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

Michele: My name is Michele Marut. I am currently a lead UX researcher at CBRE and I’m working to build up a research center of excellence in the sales office.

Steve: What kind of business is CBRE?

Michele: CBRE does commercial real estate. You’ve probably seen their names on buildings, especially if you’re in bigger cities. But if you’re doing retail or industrial and logistics types of work you might see them. And if you’re searching for office space you might have encountered them from a broker and advisory perspective.

Steve: What part of CBRE are you working in?

Michele: I’m working with a group called CBRE Build and it sprung from an acquisition that happened approximately 2 years ago when they acquired a company named Floored that specialized in 2D and 3D visualization tools that were really helping brokers to help sell their buildings and spaces. And so those tools are still in existence, but since then my manager has been tasked with creating more of an innovation group and they’ve created other tools that complement the original 2D and 3D tools, as well as tools that help people calculate and anticipate space that they might need. Tools that help work with test fits and that can be used by people beyond brokers and landlords and more for helping you really figure out the right space for your needs. It’s still focused on commercial real estate.

Steve: So, is this kind of a product and tools part of a larger real estate organization?

Michele: It’s a digital and technology section of a larger company that’s focused on commercial real estate. A fun word to talk about is proptech, or property tech. We are very much in the property and proptech space if you see that. Some people might think it’s a buzzword, but it’s what’s happening with other parts of the industry as you’ve seen other groups – financial went through this, health care is going through this, even consumer – commercial real estate, as well as other parts, even in your home and consumer real estate is finally getting more interactive. It’s more tech savvy. And so, some of these things are finally coming to commercial real estate.

Steve: I think the New York Times keeps writing about how companies like Zillow will now buy your house as well as tell you what it’s worth and there’s some technology that makes that happen.

Michele: Yes, yes.

Steve: So, is that proptech?

Michele: That’s proptech. Proptech can be consumer, if you’re looking for a house or an apartment. And it’s also in commercial real estate. So, it’s all different things. Anything that helps take data, technology and information and make it more innovative and probably disrupting the status quo of what you’ve probably been buying and selling real estate for hundreds of years the same way. We’re kind of at that inflection point for tech now, for real estate.

Steve: Okay. That’s great context. And then you mentioned center of excellence? Is that right?

Michele: Yeah.

Steve: What does that mean?

Michele: So, some of the centers of excellence are business terms that have been around. Here what we’re trying to do is one, build a group so there’s more researchers. There was only, I think, a researcher who had come from support. Before I joined there was one or two people in the other parts. We’re certainly adding more trained and skilled researchers as part 1, literally building the team. Part 2 we are creating templates and processes so that anybody, whether they’re a trained researcher or a person who does research (PwDR) can actually leverage some of our tools. They can get started very quickly. They can find the right participants. They can use our templates. They can use interview guides. And they can probably execute a basic research plan on their own. And then the third component is understanding who else in the company is doing research, making sure that we’re connecting them and building this community so that we can continue to grow our research center of practice, but also to share like if we’re actually talking to brokers and the same people across the company. We can share what we’ve learned and we can start to share journey maps. We can start to share new insights and then try to really understand does it differ by geography? Does it differ by region, or something else? So, that we start building on a shared platform of insights and not redoing work that somebody else already did.

Steve: What’s the process? When you come into an organization you want to find – I don’t know, these sort of pockets or different areas – how do you go about doing that?

Michele: So, somehow I was able to connect with the person in Seattle who introduced me to somebody in Dallas and we initially just said we’re going to have essentially a meeting. That meeting that I thought was only going to be 3 people is now been a monthly meeting that’s grown to 5 – probably 5 to 8 with a few people – we’ve now had designers who are basically doing research. We have a product manager who is actually doing his own research and is a huge advocate for research, who is attending that. And so, based on those meetings and others they’ve invited us – in one case we spoke at a lunch and learn. In another case we were a guest – we were kind of a guest speaker, or guess attendee, at other meetings and people have started to find us and either say, “oh we have 73 personas on this topic.” Or, “we don’t know. We think we have 73 personas. We can’t find them, but you should talk to this person.” It’s been, I would say, very grassroots, but we’ve established kind of this monthly meetup and we at least know a handful of people that are here and who to reach out to and we’re getting the word out. People sometimes reach out to us.

Steve: So, does that step outside of – originally you were sort of describing where CBRE Build is, sort of what its mission is. Are you now making these connections outside of that?

Michele: Yeah. So, I’m making the connections – outside of CBRE Build my mission is definitely to establish the New York City office as a center of excellence for user research, but also in so doing, because we’re under the same umbrella, the digital and tech team umbrella, that part of that is just elevating everybody else. And also, to do our job, so it makes sense for us to talk to people in other locations and other parts of the business because of the overlaps.

Steve: What was going on at the organization where there was – in the time when you were talking about being part of CBRE Build there’s obviously some desire, or hunger or some sense that something’s – there’s more that we could be doing. I know that’s sort of before you were here, but like I’m wondering what are the conditions that set up for a willingness to drive the kind of work that you’re doing for them now?

Michele: I think that the company has always embraced user centered design and understanding the users. All the product managers that I interviewed with and spoke to, they were doing the best that they could with user research. Sometimes they certainly hired outside contractors to execute research. So, there was already that interest in user research. People were doing their own jobs to be done. They were ready. Again, doing their own interviews. And some people have taken UX classes, or had some background in user research and similarly there were designers here that were also doing what we would call user research. And so, there was already I think a good platform having product managers and designers who were trying to make their products better for the user, not just a technology play. And so, I think that that was really exciting. It was also – what attracted me is that it’s not – it wasn’t simply the end side of a project that they wanted. They also wanted help starting to develop MVPs and being more experimental. Like is the – we have some insights, can we make something? Is this really the right fit? Okay, great. You know it is, or it’s not quite, we need to go back to the drawing board and tweak that a little bit and then get into building it right. So, the fact that they were talking a lot about that and doing more innovative processes and were open to experimentation, that made me want to come here.

Steve: That makes me think about like what’s – you know when researchers are looking at organizations to see if they want to join them, some of the things that you mentioned were about – were not research specific, but how are products being made.

Michele: Right, right.

Steve: So, you’re looking for sort of the context that’s going to make the research that you want to do…

Michele: Yeah, yeah. So, were there designers here and actually at the same time they are since hiring – they are going to be hiring a new design director, but there was already the foundation of the designers in this office. And then there was – I had a sense of there might be other designs in other pockets of the organization. I didn’t know to what extent, but the fact that they – I’m not sure when I heard about it, but I definitely understood they were trying to improve product development on all levels research, from formal design as well as product management. So, they had those tools.

Steve: You mentioned one of sort of the three different things you’re doing was around building tools for people who do research (PwDR). Do you have a perspective on – I think this question of who does research and what do we do as researchers to support that – is there a philosophy or a goal kind of beneath that for you that you think about?

Michele: The philosophy I think is that the trained researchers should be taking on the most critical, you know places, the most risky projects. And that’s where they can really also add the most value. Are they going to lose a lot of money? Is this a totally new workflow? Is this really new to the world? So, really focus trained researchers in that area. I believe that once people are more familiar with some of the usability basics and they under – they really – if they really embrace – like we really want to understand which concepts are resonating better, which aspects of the concepts, and they do it with an open mindset that they can start to get feedback on a concept. One of my favorite stories involves a designer where originally I think I’d led several of the sessions, so he kind of understood my script for one point and then he was able – we set him up. So, he was going to lead the sessions with these other participants who were recruited. They already met the criteria. And I remember him coming back and he said he just showing them the concepts. And I think it was probably 3 or 4 and then he said they just weren’t getting it. And then he kind of – he commuted on the bus so they went home on the bus and he like redid something based on all those things and he redid the concept based on the feedback, so I think – and then eventually it worked. It tested better. But the fact that he, even on his own, exposed 3 or 4 people without me saying like can you do you this, can you do this? And like 3 or 4 people couldn’t and he finally understood there was some issue with the concept and it wasn’t about him and it wasn’t about them, but that he needed to take out information and redesign it. Like that’s my favorite story because we set it up, he had my original script, he didn’t have to find the people, but he got that insight and redesigned it. So, that’s my favorite story is someone maybe who isn’t trained, but being in the right circumstances and then being able to act on it. Was able to do that.

Steve: That’s great. I mean that is a good example of sort of setting people up to be successful. And you didn’t need to be there for that, so you could do something else.

Michele: Right. But he was also very aware and the fact that he was then motivated to be like oh wow, it really, really isn’t working. You know, let me see how I can rework this? And that he was humble enough to say – not have the ego or anything, but to really say okay, something doesn’t make sense. You know.

Steve: Right. Because you can experience those research sessions in different ways. Like even that phrase, they aren’t getting it starts to point outward.

Michele: Right. But I think it was that he had to do – the fact that he also persisted and did all the sessions and then realized okay there’s some – and maybe – and I don’t know. Again, this is several years ago, but I remember the essence of that and so I think that if you can help set that up, I believe in helping find participants. I’ve done this in other cases where we’re going to say it is easy to find participants. Sometimes you might have a dedicated recruiter. Sometimes you have a research ops person. Or where I do believe there’s still skill involved in getting the right people, but that having some of that infrastructure around can help say, okay, everybody doesn’t have to worry about that, but I don’t think that other people should be necessarily taking on – there’s a lot of skill that is involved in recruiting, so I think research or research ops can say we’re going to help find the people, we are also going to help you write your script and if do this – and essentially this is what you’re looking for. And also having enough people in the room. I also believe in watching, having people that are going to do it – if they’ve watched professional researchers do this, if they’ve been in enough sessions, they understand essentially, hopefully what they’re looking for and what they’re not. I wouldn’t throw somebody in without any training. They also can reuse scripts. Like in some cases I’ve done a lot of automated usability testing. And so, again, usually designers and product managers love that because they can watch the people do things on a real screen. They’re not even having to worry about writing their prompts. They’re maybe reusing or rewriting a prompt that I wrote or another researcher wrote and then they can go back and watch that. And usually those are also really insightful for the designers to watch that and also to watch it – what I feel – this is making me think is another thing where it’s very focused. I think that other people doing research, some automated research is really good, or even their own, if it’s super focused. It’s very ABC. Could they get from A to B to C? No, they got lost. Okay. That is easy to identify. Where it gets really complex, where I think there’s a lot of interactions, that’s where you probably need a team. You need more dedicated researchers. But I definitely think that things like that can be – people can be trained to do that.

Steve: So, what are some of the most impactful tools or processes, or things that you’ve set up to help these folks?

Michele: So, we’re still in the process of setting up – we’re calling it kind of like a research Wiki. Off that research Wiki we start – we’re having templates. We have past surveys and details that you can reuse – or surveys with the details of like sample questions. If this is an automated study, if it’s a survey, here’s what those questions look like so that it’s starting to be a little bit more self-serviced. We’re starting to link any journey maps, any personas that were done for projects that actually this might relate to your project. So, we’re trying – we’re making sure – we’re not calling it by the project name or a code name, but calling it here’s this type of person, making sure that anybody else can find that. So, we’re setting – basically hacking Google Docs to make a series of mini-Wikis, but it seems to be working. And then on one project we actually have gone so far as, we’re using Airtable and making Airtable to kind of capture some of the feedback from key elements. That’s something that’s still, I guess, under development, but the product manager actually loved Airtable and she had set something before and because Airtable is really like a giant spreadsheet I was able to say well here’s where I would put in a few recordings, here’s some clips, here’s some evidence that I would also add as I find it and we were doing something that lasted over several months and we got into the habit of at least trying to add one or two lines with maybe keywords that we could do – that we could put into Airtable. And what a really nice outcome of that is we’ve now been able to link those Airtable nuggets and pieces of information to Clubhouse tickets which is where there are design and engineering tickets and so we’ve been able to re-look at what’s in Airtable and say oh these things all relate to a certain topic, or a theme, we can create a link and then when an engineer and designer is working on that we can send them that link that it literally has all the evidence, at least at a high level, and if they ever wanted to know more they can go back to here’s the entire survey, here’s this entire research report or something like that, but it’s all off that link. And so, I think that that was exciting for me because of the impact of finally having a process, at least on one project, where things – sometimes in the past they’ve gone into repositories, but they weren’t always linked at the time to a design or an engineering ticket. Sometimes there was a lot of rewriting and so this is something that’s in progress. We hope we do a blog post and share it out, but it’s working for this one project. If it’s scalable we’d love to share some best practices and learn from that.

Steve: You mentioned repository and that seems to be sort of a trigger word in the user research field right now.

Michele: Yeah. So, I think a research repository is definitely a trigger word. I had the opportunity to work with Tomer Sharon who started Polaris at WeWork and I was one of the people that did not create Polaris as much as tried using it as a dedicated researcher and providing tweaks for some of the early information that was in there. Some of you may or may not know is that Polaris started as an Airtable base before we created – at WeWork that we created a homemade tool. And so, I believe that some of the lessons that I learned from working on Airtable there and learning from working on the homemade tool Polaris, I was able to apply here. What I took from that was still making sure there are single line items that can stand on their own as kind of a summary or key word. Like, you know, the participant did not understand this word. They used this word instead of that word. Things like that. Things that are very self-explanatory to anybody reading. And then if there is evidence, is it a screenshot? Is it a record – is it a link to a recording, even with a timestamp. Sometimes we can put in a little bit of a clip of like hey, the user really had trouble doing that. But that went into Airtable. And then at least being able to search by keywords. Sometimes I was prioritizing it by impact to user. Was it critical? It’s really going to be a showstopper? Is it moderate? They’re going to kind of muddle through, you know, but it’s not a show stopper. And then minor, it’s going to impact them and irritate them. And so, putting in, at the very least. And then also what the designers and the product manager loved is making sure there was an area for notes or ideas because sometimes people have ideas and I think that you should be able to capture that at the time. Maybe it’s – you know we really, we don’t have this in help, and not that you want to rely on help, but in some cases it could be like we want to make sure that they’re looking for this keyword in help because they all use this keyword. So, make sure it’s there. Or, we really – they use this other competitor tool, here’s the ideas. We should really – or they used a consumer tool and the consumer tool reminded them of this tool, we should look into that. So, making sure we can capture all that. I think it’s not – because of how it is it hasn’t been, for me it’s been a challenge. We have some verbatims from surveys that was great to add into Airtable, but I also had to add high level summaries of surveys or items that were maybe not as conducive to Airtable, so essentially hacking Airtable to make this repository and for that reason that’s why I think it’s not complete. I still kind of have a research Wiki which is really like oh you’re looking for the personas for the project. You’re looking for – oh, here were some key things that we did. I did a biofuture type of workshop once with some participants to really help us prioritize other features. That didn’t lend itself well to Airtable, but we have the people recorded saying hey this is valuable or it isn’t. So, I feel like the research repositories bog down because there isn’t a good – the way – in order for them to be useful, 1) you have to fill it and 2) you’re not always getting the same types of input. Sometimes it really is observing people and even if you’ve got the transcript you still need the context of what feature were they trying to buy, to add like really, really meaningful things, if I was to do that into Airtable, and for it to make sense at some other point. So, I think like there’s room for growth in terms of research repositories, but at least I have a link to say hey we did this. You know if anyone is considering these 10 features go back and at least look at some of these notes. We have people prioritizing that. So, I think that there’s so many different types of research and the repositories, to make it perfect, I don’t know if it’s possible.

Steve: Are there processes that you need to put in place, either on the – I don’t know, is it fair to call it production and consumption – the sort of different users of these repositories.

Michele: So, I think, yeah, a lot of it was tasked with, again, definitely the product manager who already left Airtable and myself trying to be – what I wound up doing is making sure if I had verbatims that would add value that at least those verbatims got into that. I know that it’s challenging. I think what will help is making a form for if people do have other things. We do have kind of our – some of our engineering and production teams who are catching bugs and catching other feedback, or even something that doesn’t seem right. So, there’s a way to create a form to add that and that’s been really good too. I think also – I know that other product managers are using Airtable, but I’m not sure how they’re doing that and I think that also – I know it’s time consuming, even if you – you know, like I said, even if you get the transcript you still have to translate it into something that’s meaningful. So, I think, you know making sure that it’s useful. It’s not going to weigh you down as you do your projects. So, having every product manager enter it, I don’t know if that’s reasonable. As a researcher I certainly can’t enter everything either and that’s what I’m saying. Like I’m linking, hey we did this awesome biofuture priority exercise but I did not – we have like spreadsheets, we have videos. I didn’t have time certainly to do that. And also, we’d moved on. I think that’s the nature of some of the repositories. Like, oh great, we did that week, we prioritized, we learned from it, there’s some high-level takeaways. But to go back and put in all these nuggets, it’s frustrating to me because I’m sure there’s nuggets that could be used in like 5 months, but it’s also not time pressing for me to do. I need to help like the project teams move on. So, I think that that’s been a – that’s a challenge. So, I’m pretty sure time is a challenge. And then also just making sure – I think that everyone, like you said, can access it. We – like other teams we have Google Docs. We have Outlook. We have Airtable. We have tons and tons of tools and so staying on top of that. The reason I wanted to put the feedback into Airtable is because the product manager was already using Airtable and I linked the – I add the links that have my research evidence in Airtable to Clubhouse because the designers and the engineers are using Clubhouse. And so, what I’ve found in the past is you have to link it to wherever the teams are. And so that’s – in some cases I’ve used Wiki – Wikis and Confluence and other tools to do that, but I think that that was a challenge that I had. We definitely had that sometimes with Polaris. Like people could find information when it was either kind of given to them, but it wasn’t directly linked potentially to where – when they started those tickets, or they were aware of it. So, I think this is kind of step forward that as a researcher I’m actively helping to put that in. I know other colleagues do that. They put things into Jira. They put things into the Wikis, wherever designers and engineers are going to need to be acting on it.

Steve: Is there anything that – what do you have to do to create conditions where people are going to say, oh I have this question, let me go see if there’s any research that speaks to it?

Michele: So, I think it’s two – I think the first stop would be probably talking to a researcher and saying are you even aware of that and a researcher might say, yeah, I know we did some projects like that. Or talk to so and so, I think that they did that. I think creating – what I’m trying to do is create the research Wiki so that hopefully it could at least be by – if those topics emerge or the personas that – again, because we’re in commercial real estate there’s a lot that deal with brokers, but helping you find that right one, at least maybe – at least there’s going to be here’s the place to start and then here’s people you can talk to. I don’t think sending someone to an Airtable database is the right way. I think that there’s some type of – we’re working – we also have something in the works that we’re going to be creating essentially a curated repository and this is something that the other researchers and other people wanted where it is – here’s journey maps, here’s personas, here’s information that we’ve all agreed is okay to standalone. So, someone who wasn’t on the project can use and find and then that we’re going to put that on more of a public – not a public, but an internet site, essentially linked to user research. And so – but it will definitely be curated and I think they might start there. So, that’s one more place.

Steve: So, even people being willing to say oh I have a question, I should approach either researchers or internal researchers, as opposed to, I don’t know, doing nothing.

Michele: Yeah. I think the first thing was is there a researcher or someone on your team, or product team, that’s probably been doing that? They probably know, or they can probably be a resource to get in touch with other people because again, we do monthly meetups. We’re in touch – even designers might know if a project has been done, or if you focus again on what was the user type and not the project, and the code names, then you might actually say well 3 years ago we did this type of work and you might find value in that. And that’s where eventually we want to do with almost creating these – as I said, talking to the other designers and research people that there would be an area that’s curated is really important to us because I think that there’s a thought that you could find all these random usability studies, you can find draft reports, but 1) they may not have value to other people – again, 5 months ago, even the usability test I ran last week, the menu that we were testing has already changed in a week. It’s almost not – you know the insights aren’t relevant and that’s fine because we actually changed the menu and that’s great, but I don’t know that anybody needs to be able to access that forever. The project – it’s lagged on the project team, but putting that into a research repository or something, accessible by anybody, I don’t think is going to add value at this time.

Steve: I like the verb curation kind of attached to research repository. It starts to make sense given the complexity of the context you’re talking about.

Michele: Yeah.

Steve: Can you talk a little bit about how the team has evolved in your time here?

Michele: Sure. So, in terms of the broader team, so when I started in November of 2018 there was someone who was working part-time. She had been – as a researcher – she’d originally been in support. She’d been here for 2 ½ years and she’d kind of learned user research and she was awesome, but it was also very self-taught, but it was great that she had a user mindset. I asked her to give me kind of like just a background on what was happening and what tools we had and I asked her – and we started with well what tools is everybody using? Even like – even identify oh there’s Airtable. Oh, one group was using Optimal Sort. We have licenses and information. So, okay, again, this kind of confirmed people are doing things for user research, but maybe it’s not organized or something. So, we started to 1) create that list so we understood what tools do we even have access to? Do I need to buy tools? And then at the same time they started recruiting – or they’d always been recruiting for that design director, as I said, who will start later in the summer. So, that was new that there would actually be again a design director. Designers had been reporting to a lead or a group product manager, but that was a change. So, um and then also working more closely, I think, with Seattle, instead of me just being focused on building out New York as a center of excellence, really trying to work – there was a lead researcher who had been in Seattle who has since gone on to become a UX manager. He hired another research there so there’s – for, um – you know for a few days we had, I think, three or four people that were actually dedicated researchers, people who had titles that were different changing and I’ve been – just last week we had another researcher start here in New York City. So, depending on how you’re counting it there’s probably four or five people. Some people are part time in different levels, but there’s – within this Build group we kind of have finally the start of an actual user research team. And I say team loosely because we’re not necessarily all reporting into the same people. We’re reporting up to the same SVP, but that’s why I also see us more of a center of excellence. We’re working to – we have now some Wikis. We have shared tools. We have a Slack group. When someone actually got a demo last week about a new tool we were considering, she was like oh I’m going to put this right into this tools folder and I was so excited because we had that and we didn’t have anything like that six months ago. And the other thing is it’s been really exciting to see the product managers take interest, that I’ve worked with like some of them have been doing jobs to be done. They’ve been doing different types of projects. But to see what they’ve been doing with their research – and in one case we were able to also help create a journey map that one product manager saw and was like I can take this to my clients. So, I think the impact on the team is like starting to actually say here’s what research can do and in ways that you didn’t anticipate that maybe we could do that. So that was – so, we’re starting to change just the mindset potentially.

Steve: Whether it’s here or in other roles that you had, I’m wondering about when you look at people that are potential to join your team, what kind of things strike you about perspective – about researchers that might be perspective new colleagues?

Michele: Um, I think you have to be super inquisitive and analytical. So, are you going to just take – hey these are the top three problems and is that a given? I think that researchers and UX people tend to say well no that’s not the – you know we’re going to poke holes in that. So, I think, that’s number one, being inquisitive and analytical. I also want to understand if they have – you know do they have that user mindset? Are they able to understand different perspectives? Have they done different types of projects where it’s not just following somebody home, but it’s like literally spending the time working with them. I’ve had the fortune to work across different types of product industries. In one case, working for a medical company, I was able to – I spent all day driving along with an oxygen delivery person and just knowing that you’ve had that chance to do field studies and that you haven’t just been in a lab is something that’s really important to me that you have – ideally you have wider experience than sitting behind a desk.

Steve: How do you – like what are sort of cues of like the user mindset? How does that exhibit.

Michele: Well I usually – I definitely like to understand, if they’re presenting their portfolio or a case study, what was – you know what were you really – what were you asked to do? What was the actual request and then what did you decide to do? How did you interpret the problem? And then what was – who did you decide – like how did you decide to approach this? But then who – like what were really those key insights that really – what was the impact to that user beyond moving – again, not from a usability perspective, but from probably a higher level of like here’s really where they were having these issues. They couldn’t figure something out; they were struggling to do that. Like did they really then advocate as that key change kind of thing. Something’s not right. We saw that pain point and then that became ideally one of the key insights that they hopefully informed a project about. And so maybe they had that big impact. So, that’s what I’m trying to say. It’s like could you see – can you see some of the challenges? Or even if it was like something that a user loved that you were able to take it from another place and say we’re going to impact this project or projects with that because that’s so valuable. They get really excited about that. We don’t want to ruin it. We want to make sure they can keep doing that or do that better. And did they have that user mindset, that user insight, that they were then able to be that champion to take it through the project.

Steve: You know that’s such a good point. I think we all, and myself, certainly get caught up in we’re about finding problems and fixing them. But your point, we find things that people love, those are huge opportunities to either protect, or celebrate or upstand.

Michele: Right, right, right.

Steve: Yeah. It’s easy to get lost in the fixing – we’re here to fix stuff.

Michele: I think so and I think like – and then also having that freedom is suddenly sometimes different. It’s like oh, we don’t have to only just fix stuff. We can make this – they love it, let’s give them more. You know that might not be a bad idea. Like can we make it so they can spend more time – I think in this case, like for a lot of the knowledge workers, let them do more time analyzing. Like if they’re really good at coming up with these insights, they want to find the best office for their clients, well like they don’t want to be just entering the data. They want to be reviewing the images that we’re providing, the analysis, and let them do that. And that might be something that they love, that type of things.

Steve: Right. It reminds me of projects where the assumption going in was we were going to kind of remove steps and save time and remove effort and that you find that there’s parts of problem solving, or all sorts of weird parts of our lives, that people find satisfaction or even like joy and delight in.

Michele: Yeah, right.

Steve: And that our job isn’t to just eliminate stuff. Like you said, there’s parts of the work that are…

Michele: Right, right. I remember interviewing someone when I was working on like a – I think it was a small business. And she was like well I love paying the employees. Like it took a lot of time, but at the end of the week like she felt successful. She was happy to pay her employees. So even doing – like understanding that step, like when she’s using our product, but she’s happy. It’s not a chore. It’s – you know it’s not a chore. Like she’s happy to pay her employees and she wants to reward them. So, like I think having some of those insights and saying like oh, this is a potential delighter, how do we build on that, is potentially something to keep in mind.

Steve: Right. That seems like a potentially big reframe from small businesses don’t want to spend money. Every loss is a loss. Every outlay of money is a loss. And this person is finding meaning in that.

Michele: Yeah.

Steve: Because of what it symbolizes to them and what accomplishment there is.

Michele: Yeah.

Steve: That’s great. I love those things in research.

Michele: Right.

Steve: Because you can understand what you’re really providing.

Michele: Yeah.

Steve: So, you’ve mentioned a couple of different contexts like delivering oxygen and so on. Can you talk about some of the other roles, or maybe even just how you got into this work? Maybe we’ll start back there.

Michele: My degree, I got a Masters of Science from Cornell. It’s like in human environment relations with a concentration in human factors and ergonomics. And so, when I started the Internet was just getting started. I think I did my thesis which related to actually some household tasks and products. And it was more about physical design, but I remember like I hand coded my survey because HTML was just kind of starting out and I was literally – they didn’t have Survey Monkey or anything. So, I was doing things like that. My first job after grad school was working for Kohler Company. They do kitchens and bathtubs, but I had the chance to work with a lot of really talented industrial designers. Eventually my career included working for the Consumer Products Safety Commission and that’s where I learned a lot about safety and some hazardous issues that could have been prevented because if usability and design had been better – and the work there was more focused on standards writing and reviewing and it was really informative for me, but I wanted to go back to product development.

Steve: What is the Consumer Product Safety Commission?

Michele: This is a federal agency. You might know them because they do all of the recalls. They also are the people that tend to put those warning labels on different things that come out. There are a lot of voluntary standards that you might – they happen to appear a lot on consumer products. Maybe baby products in particular, but they affect a lot of different products. I remember looking at a gas grill that I think you bought on an infomercial and it kept kind of tipping over and the human factors and the usability perspective of that was that it looked like you could light it in one place, but that actually where you could light it. Again, this is probably a really cheap grill, but the reality is, from a human factors and design perspective, why wouldn’t you light it in this one place? And when you lit it there it actually caused accidents. And so that had to be recalled. But that was a really different, I think, experience than a lot of my colleagues have had. And so that – I was grateful for that experience, but I wanted to get back into product design. I eventually made my way to a medical products company which was exciting because it was starting to blend the physical, like products like sleep apnea and oxygen machines which also had some digital screens and different – you know just different types of products that I think today we take for granted, but back in the day it seemed like things were either all digital and very, maybe archaic, or they were almost all physical with just some lights or something. And so that was where I think it preceded the mobile phones, but I had a sense of designing with kind of physical and digital at the same time, what we would call hardware and software today, but it wasn’t always called like that. I was working with industrial design and product designers who were physical product designers at the time.

Steve: How did you find your program – your school program? How did you find your way to that?

Michele: That I think was a fun story. I did my undergrad – I wanted originally to study architecture. I spent a little bit of time with kind of the intro to architecture classes. I decided that actually I didn’t want to be an architect. I wanted to study the psychology and I think I somehow understood more about designing for the people, but I didn’t know anything about what it was called. And so, I finished my undergraduate degree in psychology and eventually I started just talking to people. I think the OXO Good Grips that come out – I think I did an interview – I think I did like an informational interview to say what is this? This seems really interesting. I think I called somebody and I think I got some leads and eventually I remember just talking to everybody until somebody finally said we think this is your field and I think that there was a program – one was at Cornell and one was in Wisconsin. And eventually I think I just found these programs that said this sounds like what you’re doing and I applied and I was lucky enough to get in and then I found that program and that’s how I did that. It was definitely a researcher doing research to do that, but also really using your network and just saying I think there’s a way to make all these things easier. It seems like people are doing this. I know there’s something related to psychology and design. I don’t know what it’s called, but I think there’s something here. People seem to be doing this type of thing.

Steve: If you – hindsight is, of course, 20/20, but would you – is there a different path – given where you are now, is there a different path you might have taken?

Michele: I don’t know. I mean – yeah, from psychology, I mean in terms of – I think, like I said, I wanted to apply it. Definitely I could have gone to law school. Like could have done really, really different things. But I don’t think – I think it would have been great if the UX program had been more – if I’d been more aware of the UX programs if things today had existed. But I think I kind of had to make my way through the career and I’m happy that I got a chance to, again, like work on physical and digital and mobile products and things that I think it’s – because it was sort of me trying to figure it out and maybe that’s not as different from other UX people that oh this seems interesting, maybe I can go work in this area, or there’s ways to apply this. I think it worked out okay.

Steve: I’m sure there’s some analysis we could do of kind of when you were in school or when you were sort of looking for your jobs what you were aware of in terms of what kind of work there was, and what kind of educational options there were. Because, right, maybe if you’re starting now you have access to certain choices. If you started when you started, or when I started, you and I were doing different versions of finding our way with some serendipity and some sort of opportunistic research, but the context was so different.

Michele: Right. I think I would also add, I think the assumption was I had this undergrad degree in psychology. I think I just got a job – like I wasn’t doing anything in the field. I was working in a publishing agency, which was great, but it wasn’t – I was really doing that to pay the bills essentially. I didn’t – had I been able to be an apprentice, had I found something else, maybe I wouldn’t have gone to grad school. I think the assumption at the time was there’s something out there. I think I probably assumed you had to get training and go to grad school. And so that’s the path I took. But potentially, in this day and age, you might do more of an apprentice, or you might join a bigger company and see if you can get training on the job in that sense.

Steve: Just hearing you talk reminds me that there’s a history of this profession. And relatively speaking we’re still talking about recent times, but it seems like the field goes back longer than we might – maybe be collectively forget the history.

Michele: Yeah. Definitely, I mean, I think that’s an unknown right, that it goes back to people working on the planes and the pilots – you know that the controls were in the wrong places and then they had to standardize, but that was really kind of the field originally or human factors. I think a lot of the work they were also doing, as I understand it, probably with the early computers, even with NASA and things in the 60s, that was definitely pioneering the work of human computer interaction which sounds today so goofy to say human computer interaction, or human systems interaction. But it definitely goes back decades, way before us, and generations.

Steve: Right. You have a human factors degree. I have an HCI degree, you know human computer interaction. And those seem like rare terms. I don’t find people with that as their background as much. We didn’t have the phrase user experience, or UX, or user research, or any of those things.

Michele: No, no.

Steve: So, we were finding our way.

Michele: I don’t think I had the user research title until about 10 years ago. I think that’s also when some of the industry changed a little bit, but that people were doing task analysis. They were trying to understand the system. They were interviewing people. They were testing, whether they used the work usability testing or prototype testing or concept testing, they were essentially going through all of the things that we do today. They just might have called it something different.

Steve: I mean and some of those sort of classic examples of human factors research and some of the things that these examples, there’s just a lot of detail to sort of the decisions that are being made.

Michele: Right.

Steve: A few minutes ago, we were talking about reframing our understanding of what the problem is. So, there’s a – even that’s the – there’s other axis we consider, but just among that sort of detail vs. big picture it seems like there’s a big range of what researchers do.

Michele: Yes. I think researchers have a really key role to play at both parts of the double diamond process, if you think of the traditional, you’re trying to design the right thing and can you inform that? What are the key insights? Are we going to build the right thing? Maybe researchers are helping to take those insights into a high level, MVP, is this even the right fit? But once you’ve decided to build the right thing are you building it right? Can you test multiple concepts? Are there three or four ways that you can actually figure that out? If it’s totally new to the world, even if it’s for the future, maybe there’s two or three different ways you can do a new feature and then can you test that and iterate that? And so sometimes it gets into really detailed design, all the way down to the icons, the placement on the page, the labeling and all those other aspects that really go into refining a product and making a great product.

Steve: And you like that part of it?

Michele: I like both. You know, I think – I love the idea of really working at the upfront doing really generative and informative research and going out and saying we’ve interviewed all these people, what’s really working, what’s not. What’s their workflow? What are like – what are things that nobody’s found before and how could we maybe take this into something new? I love doing like rapid experiments to say maybe there’s something we could go based on that and taking that into what you might call an early MVP, but of course yeah, once we do it I want to make sure things make sense and that it’s really easy to use and so that’s all dear to my heart at the end of the day.

Steve: When you think about the user research profession, or the practice, whatever we kind of are collectively, do you have any hopes or goals in the sort of medium term for this field?

Michele: I hope that we work more closely with all the different, I guess you would say, factions of user experience and design. On one hand I love that there’s a zillion different meetups and I can go on Eventbrite and see anything related to UX and research. On the other hand, I get bummed out that I’m like oh actually they should have just talked to that other group. Like there’s a lot of groups – there’s UXPA. There was IxDA, I don’t know if they’re still active? But there are so many groups that have either been active or could help some of these, what I’m seeing as random meetups. And I would love if some things got a little more organized, or if there was just way to say you don’t need a new Slack channel. You can talk to all these people. There are communities. And letting people know. And maybe that’s, at a very high level, like just formalizing it. Yeah, I’ve been in the field for a while. I don’t like that we still go in circles about what the title is and so I’m okay not having the same titles and things, but I would love people to know like there is definitely a very long history of people doing this work and making sure that people have access to that and the resources.

Steve: Yeah, it seems like we – as people and certainly the technology profession, we have a short memory. We’re attracted to kind of the shiny. I mean this was already a long time ago, but I remember someone telling me a story about – I think that they were at an agency and they went in to talk to somebody about doing research and the person said to them, alright, what’s new, what do you got? And like even that idea that a thing that you’re going to be doing with research should be new. I mean obviously contexts change.

Michele: Right.

Steve: And we adapt to them, but just the idea that new itself was sort of – was a value, seems to sort of fly in the face of what you’re saying, there’s a whole history here that we’re leveraging. We don’t need to reinvent it.

Michele: Right, yeah. I’d probably be happy just to let – if there was like a blog post or a tweet that said hi, there’s an entire history, here’s fields if you’re new and getting started – here’s three or four fields that you might want to check out, related fields. Here’s – you know there’s tons of templates and resources that people have been putting out over the years, here’s 10 of them, or something like that. And here’s – if you’re anywhere in the world there probably is a meetup that’s related to what you’re looking for. It just might be called UX or HCI or research or design research, or something else.

Steve: Right. All the variations of all the terms.

Michele: Yeah.

Steve: Is there anything else you think we should talk about today? Anything I didn’t ask you about?

Michele: I think this has been really positive. I’m looking to chat with anyone else if you’re also trying to establish research as more of a center of excellence and building up the processes and the infrastructure that go beyond one team or a series of projects. I’d love for you to reach out.

Steve: What’s the best platform, or whatever, for people to connect you on? We’ll put it in the show notes for the episode.

Michele: Twitter is great.

Steve: Okay. Well, thanks very much, Michele, for a great conversation. I really appreciate your time.

Michele: Thank you very much, Steve.

Steve: Well, there we go! Thanks for being here for this episode. You can find Dollars to Donuts wherever you do your podcast listening. Didn’t we used to call that podcatching? I don’t know. You know you want to give us five stars on Apple Podcasts am I right?. Visit Portigal dot com slash podcast for all the episodes including show notes and transcripts. Our theme music is by Bruce Todd.

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