25. Juliette Melton of The New York Times

In this episode of Dollars to Donuts I speak with Juliette Melton, Director of User Insight and Strategy at The New York Times. We talk about updating the old “design research” label, user research in a journalism culture, and the role of coaching.

I think that researchers can bring a kind of brightness into a space and a kind of optimism for a team and a sense that we can learn these things together. It’s a bit intangible as a quality, but when we bring on new researchers that’s really something we look for. Like is this person someone who is excited about making connections across an organization? Excited to share what we’re doing? There’s something about bringing energy into research which I think is really important. – Juliette Melton

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

There used to be a restaurant in San Francisco called Heaven’s Dog, and one of the items on their cocktail menu was called “freedom from choice.” Rather than choose a specific cocktail, you’d tell the server your preferred spirit, and a bit of direction on the flavor, and they’d make you something to fit those criteria. While once freedom from choice would only have been seen negatively, here outsourcing your choice to an expert became a positive. The menu still had all the cocktail options for people that knew what they wanted, but for patrons who didn’t know what they wanted, there was an option for them as well.

A number of years ago we started using a meal kit delivery service, first Blue Apron and then later Sun Basket. In case you aren’t familiar with services like these, they deliver everything you need, once a week, to make some number of meals, in our case three. When Blue Apron started, they offered very little choice, we could opt for vegetarian or not, but otherwise, they just sent us three meals. Eventually we could opt out of pork, or fish, for example, and then they began offering a larger number of meals we could select from about a week before.

We immediately loved Blue Apron. It eliminated the planning and deciding, something that we just weren’t good at. Or that we avoided, because we didn’t enjoy it, and so we’d just make the same set of meals based on what we had done before. Using Blue Apron reduced the shopping, but not entirely as we still needed fruit, milk, bread, juice, and so on, for the rest of our meals. More interestingly and most meaningfully, it totally changed our meal prep activity. Where previously one person would have decided and cooked, and the other have cleaned, now the whole process was something we could share. Rather than anyone “owning” or controlling the preparation process, we had this well-designed, visual recipe on it’s own peice of paper. With the Blue Apron meals, we cooked together, easily weaving between chopping and heating, each person taking responsibility for a each task but no assigning, no delegating. We would discuss ways to improve or alter the recipe to suit our tastes (less lemon juice, more red pepper flakes).

Sometimes we’d take the meal kit over to someone else’s house, friends who were also Blue Apron customers, having planned to save a common meal to prepare together, playing out the group cooking activity with a larger group.

I was mixed about the results, some meals just weren’t that tasty, some meals required a lot of work for little result, and I felt like my own cooking wasn’t improving, as following the instructions didn’t give me much insight. We looked on social media to see what Blue Apron customers were saying about a particular meal, in case that gave us insight into choices we could make. Eventually, we switched to Sun Basket for more choice and better quality meals. But most of my satisfaction came from the preparation activity, rather than the actual meal itself. That wasn’t necessarily a failure; it’s worth taking satisfaction and reward where you can find it.

As with any product or service that I use, I often wonder if the producers understand the ways it’s being experienced, and how that inform the choices they make in configuring the service. I don’t know what Sun Basket or Blue Apron do or don’t know about their customers.

Anyway, after several years, I happened to be visiting someone out of town and over several nights we had delicious turkey burgers, and then really great chicken thighs. And I was overcome with a sense of regret, that I had been settling, that I was missing out on eating like this every night. The freedom from choice had been great, but now I was missing out on freedom of choice.

So when I got back home, we changed our approach again. To address the “what to make for dinner” – the problem that these services had solved for us – we made a spreadsheet. Entries included some basic examples like “tacos” but also meals from Blue Apron that we liked (with a link to the recipe), and most of the recipes torn from magazines or printed out that were sitting in a folder. Now we had our repertoire in one place, and we could refer to that rather than thinking oh wow what to make?

We began planning out a week (or part of a week, at least), discussing what to make in front of a computer (or two), opening up the recipes and updating our online grocery list based on what the recipe called for and what we didn’t have on hand. And then putting the URL for the recipe into our shared calendar for the night we planned to prepare it.

Our shared approach to cooking the meal itself of course was no longer tied to Blue Apron or Sun Basket, and we still do that. And we update the spreadsheet with the date we made a particular recipe, and any changes we would make or if we’d even want to have it again.

I subscribed to a bunch of recipe newsletters from the New York Times and elsewhere and have regularly been adding new things to try.

So we took back a significant part of the work – the planning, and the list making, and the shopping, but the results – the meals themselves – are so much better, and the experience is just as enjoyable. Indeed, the work of planning is not a chore, it’s now tied to feelings of excitement, anticipation, challenge, and discovery.

How we eat and how we feed ourselves is enormously personal and a rich vein to mine; it’s why I often ask workshop participants to practice interviewing on this particular topic. My point here is not to offer a recommendation about how you should be managing your meals, it’s to illustrate that the way we experience products and services can be different from what is intended, or what is assumed. That meaning can be a bigger driver of behavior than say “value” or “time saving.” And that perceived benefits or limitations shift and become reframed on a regular basis.

There can be a lot of nuance to uncovering this with your customers. If this sounds like something you’d like to explore, get in touch. Supporting my business is the best way you can support this podcast. And if you have any feedback in general, you can email me at DONUTS AT PORTIGAL DOT COM or find me on Twitter at Dollars To Donuts, that’s d o l l R s T O D o n u t s.

Let’s get to the conversation with Juliette Melton. She is the Director of User Insight and Strategy at the New York Times. Thanks for being on the podcast. I’m glad to get the chance to chat with you.

Juliette Melton: Thanks. Yeah, it’s nice to see you again. It’s been a while.

Steve: It has. Why don’t we start with just an introduction?

Juliette: Great. Hi. My name is Julie Melton. I’m Juliette Melton on the Internet and yeah, I’m a design researcher here at the New York Times. My title is officially the Director of User Insight and Strategy. We have in some ways moved away from the design research label, which I think is also something to maybe talk about today. But, yeah, we’re here at the New York Times. We’re sitting in a conference room just off of the newsroom where the news gets made.

Steve: Does news get made?

Juliette: Well, the news gets typed.

Steve: Can you unpack your title a little bit? Maybe that will feed into some of the themes you’re already teasing.

Juliette: Sure. So, we purposely changed the name of our group a while back and to talk about user insight and strategy. It becomes a little more broad and a little bit more impactful than I think just calling it design research because I think – in the IDEO context, design becomes a very large word. In many other places design is a little bit smaller and speaks really towards a specific function within product. And I think it’s important that research can transcend the product team because we can offer much more in an organization and we can do much more in an organization. So, by calling it user insight and strategy it puts the focus on the people who we’re actually understanding and not the end result and I think that that’s really powerful as a reminder to us and to the organization about what we’re here for.

Steve: I’m going to just back up on part of that. What does product mean in a media organization?

Juliette: That’s a good question. So, here, it refers to essentially the websites, the apps, the newsletters, all of these digital expressions of what we’re doing here. And there is some church and state separation here between what happens on the news side and on the product side. So, within the newsroom there are people who are interactive news producers, and they have a very different job than the people who are building the apps and the websites and the newsletters. It’s essentially a separate kind of function. We think about engagement with the news and how do we package, present, share everything that we’re going. And we’ll talk a bit more about it, but my current role is not really news focused. I worked on other stuff here. So, my group is called New Products and Ventures. I’m the Director of Research for these other businesses that the Times has been building. So, that includes NYT Cooking, Crosswords and we’re very proud to talk about Parenting which is a new digital product which was just released a couple of weeks ago. So, these are separate businesses. These are places where the Times is hoping to expand its audience, expand its reach, do some new things, stretch some new muscles. So, it’s really fun from a research perspective.

Steve: Are there other – without asking you draw the complete sort of corporate org chart, but those are three separate businesses. Are there others? I’m just wondering how big is the set of businesses that comprise kind of the Times universe?

Juliette: Well, that’s kind of hard to answer. There are a lot of different brands here. You know there’s The Daily, The Weekly, which is the new TV series, and then there’s other brands that sort of become part of what we do like Modern Love, for example. And these are all things for the – the organization can spin off into these different entities.

Steve: It’s interesting from the outside. I guess it’s the same with so many different kinds of multiple touchpoints, as we like to talk about businesses, where if you’re consuming a bank, for example, you – what do they say, don’t ship your org chart? So, I guess as a consumer of The Times media I might be aware of a lot of different brands, but that doesn’t necessarily map to – I think part of what you’re saying is they could be structured as businesses, or as – or not, depending on what makes sense internally. It’s invisible to me as a reader.

Juliette: Exactly. And so the things that I’m working on, I think, would be visible as separate businesses because you could subscribe to them separately. And so literally you could just subscribe to NYT Cooking, or you could just subscribe to Crosswords. Parenting doesn’t have a paywall at the moment, but down the road that could be something that you would pay for separately as well. So, yeah, there is some experience differentiation there. As opposed to you’re a reader of Modern Love – that is part of the nytimes.com world. So, that is just part of what you’d get from a Times subscription.

Steve: I’m sorry, can you say the name of the area or the division…

Juliette: That I’m working on?

Steve: Yeah.

Juliette: It’s called New Products and Ventures (NPV).

Steve: Alright. So, some could be products and some could be ventures.

Juliette: It’s sort of a catchall, yeah. I think the interesting thing there is it’s a spot for us to be innovative in a different way. To be innovative around business models as well as what we’re doing from the content side. And I think that that’s been really good for the organization and pretty interesting as a researcher.

Steve: So within sort of nytimes.com you can provide different kinds of content, but it’s always going to be under that business model because that’s the Times subscription model.

Juliette: Right, exactly.

Steve: But if you have a separate piece – like you said, you can subscribe to the Cooking app separately, so you can have that as a separate part of the business. And so that’s a business model shift.

Juliette: Yes. Exactly.

Steve: Okay.

Juliette: I don’t know how interesting this is for people. You know one shout out here is I’m a big fan of subscription models as a way to exchange value for the web. You know I’ve worked in the past with a couple of other subscription-based services and I think there’s something really honest about it. You know like someone pays you because they get value. Right. It’s just a very direct value exchange which is different from working with an organization that makes money in somewhat – in ways that are somewhat more hidden to the consumer, whether that’s through advertising, or some other kind of data brokerage. Like, yes we do have advertising at the Times, but the subscription is really like the core of the value exchange. And yes, I just like it from like an ethical perspective. I think that it’s a really like nice way to be doing business. But then also it’s fun to be working on these other smaller businesses because you can really measure success. You can measure outcomes because people are paying you. And so as a researcher it’s just really satisfying to know, okay, we did this thing and then this resulted in this much revenue. And just that direction connection I think is really – it’s good feedback.

Steve: So, as a researcher how are you using research to support the organization?

Juliette: Well it comes at a lot of different moments in the lifecycle of one of these products. For example, I did work last year with our strategy department to understand a new vertical and whether or not there was opportunity for us in that space. Looking at that from the market size perspective, from user needs, from how much brand flexibility we had, we decided eventually not to do it, but that’s a case where research can come in on a more very, very early stage, very strategic level. As you move through the phases of the design process we can be involved in very early stages of discovery. I’d mentioned briefly about the work that I’d done in Canada. I spent several years here working with our global expansion team, understanding, around the world, what might we do to expand our reader base? And that includes everything from payment models to partnerships to hiring additional people in different countries and building our new bureaus. And so it had a lot of different kinds of ramifications around what we’re doing as an organization to meet these needs. So, that all kind of starts to feel like the beginning of a process. And that’s where a lot of the work I did at IDEO, for example, comes into play – different thinking, understanding people’s needs from more of an opportunity space perspective. What might we do in this space answering some of these bigger questions? But then, you know, we’re building and we’re shipping and so the questions continue to get a little bit more specific as you go. So, it’s, you know – how exactly do we meet this need? Right. What do we do for this audience? So, for Parenting the team learned that there was this gap in – actually I don’t want to talk about that – scratch that. To speak in broader terms, because I don’t want to get too specific for the purposes of going public here, it’s about locating an opportunity and then designing for that opportunity and then along the way checking to make sure that you are designing that properly. And so that’s basically the cycle of generative to evaluative research and our team really does all of that.

Steve: In some organizations the narrative of research is about – you hear phrases like buy-in or advocacy or evangelism where it’s a newer process that is trying to support or integrate in things that the company is doing. So, now I’ve set up a very leading question. For you, what’s sort of the appetite or understanding or kind of engagement with these different areas of the organization that you have found here?

Juliette: I think that advocacy is always there. I mean I think that that doesn’t go away. I was on a panel a few weeks ago and someone came up to me afterwards – you know because we’d been talking about advocacy on the panel – and she said when does that stop? When can you not have to do that anymore? And I said like I’ve been doing this for 20 years and – and he’s like 18 – it’s like that doesn’t stop. You’re always explaining what you’re doing and why and what the impact is, what the outcome is. But I think overall this is a place that really gets it. We’ve been doing a really good job for a long time now and I can say that as someone who came in just 5 years ago. It’s like predating me I think the research team was really strong and so we just – we have a really good track record here and this is an organization that, you know, we seek to find the truth, right. And I think that that permeates the culture here. People are very curious. They really want to know what’s going on in the world. And you know when I’ve worked with journalists it’s been amazing. You know, our methods are sometimes different and the outcomes have different purposes. But so much of it is so similar to journalism that they get it right away and love it. So, it’s been very, very easy to build advocates in the newsroom because of that. And then on the product side, once you start working with a team and they get it, they just want more and more research. And I think that that ends up being more of the challenge here than people not wanting research. It’s just like bandwidth constraints. Like there’s only so much that we can do as a team. And so for us the challenge is more working with the different teams to figure out where our work can be the most impactful and where we’re going to be the most useful.

Steve: What kind of things might someone look at to assess where they’re going to have the most impact? Or to make priorities?

Juliette: One thing I always ask is – like let’s just play this out. What if we heard “X”? What if we heard “Y”? What do you think we would do about that? What could we do about that? Because sometimes what I’ve found is that people want to do research because they’re curious, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s flexibility in terms of what they will do. And if they say look, we’re going to do this regardless, then I’ll say, that’s great, I don’t think this is a place where research is going to be that helpful. So, making sure that there’s bandwidth for that team to do something about it and the will to change course based on learnings. And if those aren’t in place then it’s probably not the best use of research resources.

Steve: If bandwidth was unlimited would you have a different perspective on people that start off with sort of an intractable request?

Juliette: You know, honestly, probably not because I want for research to be seen as a strategic function that leads to better outcomes, that leads to teams that feel more secure and more enlightened. And if it were something that you could just sort of sprinkle everywhere, I think the power of it might become a little more diffuse and I want for it to be like a powerful, useful tool and not just like an oh I wonder about this or that, you know.

Steve: Yeah. So, there’s a scarcity in value – that’s not really what you’re saying. I think I’m changing what you’re saying and reflecting it back to you.

Juliette: That said, I would love if we hired 10 more researchers, yes. I think that would be great.

Steve: But that still wouldn’t give you the bandwidth though…

Juliette: To answer everything for everyone? No, it would not.

Steve: What’s the size of the team right now?

Juliette: Well, so the overall insights team – I think it’s interesting here because we really encompass what would be considered market research, what would be considered product or UX research? We all sit under the same group which I think is a very positive, good thing. I’ve worked with a bunch of organizations that have separate market research and UX research functions and that just gets really messy, right, because then it’s like who owns the truth? Who owns the insights? And you don’t want to be at odds with each other. I think that when you fly in formation it just like makes so much more sense and there are very powerful research methods that have come from both the market research side and from design research/UX research. So, being able to play in all of those sandboxes, however you need to to address your clients’ needs is pretty fantastic. So, that said, yes, our research – our overall research team encompasses all those different functions. The group that I sit in we do more on the qualitative side and probably more on the product side and there’s 5 of us. And then I’m going to kind of spitball here, I think there’s probably about 15-20 altogether and, like I said, that encompasses all these different insights functions.

Steve: So, when you say 10 more – it would be great if you got 10 more people, I just wonder sort of the context of what does that mean? It’s about a 50% overall increase.

Juliette: Yeah. I think that would be lovely, but here it’s the booming newspaper industry.

Steve: So I hear.

Juliette: It’s a good time to write things on paper and sell them.

Steve: So, you’re talking a little, maybe directly or indirectly, about where – you said you work a lot with product teams, but I think you sort of said in one way or another that there’s a potential here, or just an opportunity to work across the organization in a broader way. And I don’t know if I’m putting words in your mouth or channeling something that you said, but…

Juliette: You’re channeling. You’re doing a great job, Steve.

Steve: Good feedback, thank you. You’re doing a great job as well. Good.

Juliette: Um, yeah, no I think that’s right and the work – in the same way that we can play in the different sandboxes of market research and product research, you know I work, particularly with new products and ventures, I work with the marketing teams and the designers and the product managers. So, I work with everyone, right, because from a user perspective it’s one experience. It’s like how do you relate to this organization, whether through that they tell you, what they show you, all of that is a singular experience. And so being able to be more holistic about that I think is really powerful.

Steve: I wonder sort of what parts, and I don’t mean your organization, but just organizations in general that have research kind of lurking somewhere, maybe tied to product, but I wonder what sort of – what’s the next big thing that research will be doing beyond sort of where we’re seeing right now? I don’t know. And again, I’m not asking you to speculate about your own organization, but you’ve seen a lot of different things. Do you have a – what should we be doing?

Juliette: Here’s my hunch. And this is also an equivalent about me, I’ve been doing coaching training and have been doing some personal life coaching, a few clients, to build those skills because I think that working inside of organizations, working with people here, is something that is very natural for researchers to do and I think for us to build these coaching capabilities is really helpful. You know, understanding the people who are around us, what are your unmet needs? What is this really about? What are we doing here? Asking and answering some of these deeper questions. It doesn’t have to be just about the consumers of our products. It can also be about what we’re doing inside an organization. So yeah, I’m really inspired by that and that’s why I’ve been building my own coaching muscles and that’s been super fun. And I would love to see down the road how coaching and research start to come together as – you know does that become something that looks more like org design? I don’t know. So, that’s a place that I could really see some benefit down the road and it’s been interesting to see other researchers or product people move more into coaching and therapy roles. You know, things like that, grounding the human experience in a somewhat different way.

Steve: Yeah. And I’ve definitely seen. I mean I’ll just confirm my N of one. Like I’ve seen this as well, just with people that I know. I want to ask a couple of clarifications here. Is this something that you’re doing on your own versus as part of the role you have here?

Juliette: It’s both honestly. So, it’s partly like my own passion on my own time. The non-working time. But it’s partly something that I do bring into work as well, working with different people on my team and working with people on other teams, doing kind of informal internal coaching here. And so that’s been super rewarding, but I would love to make that more official. And I do feel like as researchers that’s something that becomes natural for us and could be more codified and more supported.

Steve: I just in the last couple of weeks have had a couple of informal conversations with people about is that something that I do. But then, just in a self-serving manner I want to ask if you can put a little definition around coaching. It’s like a term that we all think we know what it means and I’m honestly not sure I know what that means?

Juliette: Well, it can mean a lot of different things. And when people ask me, well what kind of coach – I mean it’s kind of a life coach, but I hate that term, right. So, I think that we need better terminology around it for one thing. But how I see it is it’s about people understanding where they are now, where they want to go and how they might get there. And it overlaps quite a bit with more kind of standard therapeutic approaches which tends to be more about where I came from and what does that mean about where I am. I think everyone probably needs both a coach and a therapist. They’re very complimentary. But I think particularly in organizations, to understand where I am now, where do we want to go and how we might get there? I think researchers are set up really well to be able to ask some smart questions to help people develop this understanding of their own and help support them through that process.

Steve: So in research there’s an interesting tension and I don’t – we’ll see if it’s true for coaching as well, about – put it this way, are we in the recommendation business, or not? Do you know what I mean?

Juliette: I know exactly what you mean and no, we’re not. I strongly believe that? I think that our role is to unpack relevant truths so that teams can collectively make better decisions and yeah, I think informally, sure. Like I can be part of those discussions and kind of help guide them in some way. But I don’t think that research is about recommendations. And the same way, coaching is not. I think I have a bad habit of giving advice when it’s not asked for and I do hope that by going through the coaching training that I have I do less of that, right. I want to be able to know when to ask the right questions so that people develop their own insights, their own understanding. Because that’s what sticks. That’s what works. And I don’t know – if I were your coach like I wouldn’t – I don’t know, what could I tell you about what to do with your life? Like you know your life. I don’t know your life. But I could ask you questions that could help you unpack for yourself what’s relevant for yourself, in a way that it’s kind of hard to do without someone else there with you.

Steve: So, I think this is true for researchers and I think for coaches as well, I think that the choice of our language can change the frame. I think right, you’re probably not going to say to me, Steve, you should do this. But you might – and I don’t know how this applies to coaching, but I think in research we might say other people in analogous situations have done this, right. Here’s a benchmark or here’s a different case. Or we might say when I was in a similar situation I made these choices. Or, if I was in this situation myself I would make these choices. I don’t know…

Juliette: As a coach I wouldn’t say any of that. No. If someone flat out asked me, like have you been in this situation before, then I would sort of gauge whether or not that would be appropriate at the moment. But no, I wouldn’t think I would do that. And even with analogous research, I think it would be presented more as like a hypothesis. Like it seems that this other way of solving the thing could be useful for us. Like what do you unpack from this? What do you see here? And I could offer this is what I see here, but I wouldn’t say this is what this means and this is what this means for you.

Steve: Right. I think – and I hope you are – we’re just kind of bouncing between these two things which we’ve set up as analogous here, between the researcher and their client and the coach and their client. I hear from researchers that if they don’t sort of provide more recommendation or advice then they lose out on attribution which is not about ego, it’s about – it’s about advocacy. It goes back to that advocacy thing. If you’re not seen in a tangible way as the work that you’ve done has led to these changes, right – I mean there’s something about helping people come – maybe you come up with the idea, but you help them feel like they came up with it. And then it’s going to go. It’s not going to go if you tell them – I think that’s also the limitation of advice. But then it introduces this attribution and sort of impacts advocacy and so on.

Juliette: I think that’s a perennial question for us, you know. And I want for my coaching clients, and the teams I work with, to feel like – like they own their insights. I want for them to feel like they’ve been part of a process that they have directly contributed to that has resulted in insights coming forth that help them make better choices. And I might have had in my head that that’s what they should do anyway, but like – yeah, if I told them that, like it’s different, right. You want for people to come to their own understanding. And yeah, you lose credit. And it’s something that on the research team we talk about. You know like what is – like you have to be okay with some ego loss there, right. Like research is not the thing to go into if you want like the billboard with your faced on it, right? Like ideally the things that we learn become so embedded in the DNA of how an organization works that it’s not really attributable to a person, even if you were the one who made that happen. But yeah, that becomes tricky when you’re wanting to advocate for what you’ve done, right, and ideally you just have really good working relationships with the people around you and they’re kind of aware of your magic powers. Like, when this person is in the room smart, good things happen. And I feel like I make better choices when this person’s around, right. And ideally that’s what happens.

Steve: So, that’s attribution about the relationship or about the collaboration.

Juliette: Right.

Steve: But not attribution for we took action “X” because of input “Q”.

Juliette: Sometimes it is that direct, right. I mean sometimes coming out of research, like we’ll have a very clear understanding of what to do next and then we do it and it succeeds and you can like trace it very cleanly and that’s always very satisfying when that happens. Other times it’s more of a slow burn. You know it’s like you hear something in research and people start to internalize it and then they kind of start to believe it and then they start to act on it and then it becomes like a new thing and I could point to several different mindset shifts that have happened here that originated in research, that I think that – that I know that’s what happened, but I think the folklore in the organization would just sort of describe it as oh now we think this, now we believe this.

Steve: Right. So, there’s something about taking your ego out of it.

Juliette: Yeah.

Steve: I’ve complained about this a couple of times, a series of tweets I think that were from a talk a year or so ago, that I think is not an unusual sentiment, where they were saying my research doesn’t have value unless somebody takes action. And yeah, that got me upset because I think it’s a really high bar and it sets us up to – it’s a statement of our value, or our lack of value.

Juliette: That sets us up to do very small projects, right.

Steve: So that you’re always pointing towards.

Juliette: Yeah – I mean, yes, if you strictly do product based evaluative work then you could say that yeah my research always results in something because that something is like moving this button or moving – I mean like that’s something, right, but when you’re talking about change which is more systemic, which is on a deeper level, that takes time, you know, and that kind of research – those research outcomes, like I said, like it takes a while to be embedded in what you see from an organization. So, yeah, I mean there definitely have been some significant projects here which would I say two months later, like yes, someone you know moved this thing on a roadmap because of it? No. But I can say three years later we’re a different organization because of it. And so I think that having some patience and some – I don’t want to call it maturity, but it’s just kind of like being able to see a bigger picture from both a timeline and a strategy perspective, you can really take on bigger challenges and see the impact of those within an organization.

Steve: I wonder if people that – I mean I’m self-employed so I’m – these things manifest differently for me, but for people that are – where their promotion or their title, or just their sort of general success is tied to some of these things. I mean – your point about patience – so, I think there’s a couple of levels. One is sort of how do I feel about what I’m doing? Right, am I alright? Am I confident, or am I learning or am I growing? And am I successful in kind of a corporate structure which can only measure, reward and acknowledge certain kinds of things? And so yeah, I think I could encourage the former and I have had to learn that very much myself. Like things you think are going to be the rewards for doing this work are often other ones which maybe you have to go hunting for to see that they’ve even happened.

Juliette: Yeah. And I think that’s part of why, as researchers, again, like we don’t want to just stay embedded just in product teams. Right, like we need to know executives. We need to know people across the organization, people leading an organization so that we can understand the big problems facing an organization and they can understand what we’re doing about it, right? And I think that sometimes that just comes from relationships and being able to kind of get a read on what’s going on. But yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard. You know when we can put a dollar value on it that’s amazing, but it’s hard to do that.

Steve: You know you speak in a fairly optimistic way, I think, about not even just the potential for research – potential, so that says it’s kind of in the future. I mean it’s the value that research is bringing to – in the organizational mindset, the belief structure, as well as the products and services. You know, when you look outside your own organization, you know, between optimistic and pessimistic, what’s your assessments? Maybe it’s not that axis, but what’s your assessment of kind of what’s going on?

Juliette: You know I – the design research Google group that a lot of us are on, it’s grown from two people who started it. Now it’s like 1,000 something people. That’s a lot. You know, like our funny little profession, like we keep growing and people keep finding value in it and it’s something which is in many ways new to the world. We’re building it as we go and that creates its own challenges because it’s hard to know what does a 40 year career look like in design research. Like we haven’t really done that yet. Right. So, it’s not like being a doctor or a lawyer where you know like okay, at this point in my career I can expect to be partner. You know, so it’s less secure than that, in that way, but it’s also what’s fun about it, right. I mean like we are co-creating this profession and so like why not be optimistic? Right, I mean like our job is to make things better and I think that we do that even within our communities. And part of why I’ve stuck with research for so long is that it’s such a nice community. Researchers are nice people and they’re people who I like spending time with. So, yeah, I think that bodes well for the future of the community and future of our impacts.

Steve: So, what does an 18 year career look like?

Juliette: Well, I think I’m making the path as I go, you know. And so far I’ve – you know early on research was one slice of what I did. I was a front-end developer. And then later I did more product and then I focused on research and started on the more evaluative side and then moved to the more generative end. And so I’ve really done all of it as it currently exists. So, you know, I’ve been involved in the web since it looked very, very different than it does now. And so far so good, right. I mean we’re still here. But yeah, as I think about how to move forward, I think we make the path by walking it and I have a hunch that there’s something here about researchers looking inwards at organizations – and again, I don’t know a ton about org design. It may be already kind of covered by a lot of these other practices, but at least for my own life I feel like there’s really something about using the skills and techniques of being a researcher, combined with what you can do as a coach and specific training that you get as a coach, to do something different within organizations. I don’t know what that is yet, but I think there’s something there and so that’s the path that I’m kind of figuring out as we speak.

Steve: That’s exciting. I want to go back a little bit. Because you were just giving a nice overview, I think, of where some of us have been and where the community has been, that if you’re at 18 years and it’s all about walking the path to kind of find the path. There are lots of people sort of coming into the profession, let’s just say in the last three years, that – I mean – I feel like when I started, and maybe the same thing for you when you started, there wasn’t a lot of path.

Juliette: Right.

Steve: And I’m like you. I don’t sort of know where I’m going. I mean following the path is a much more confident way of – I might say stumbling – but, it’s just interesting that the field has grown and you just look at – there’s just a number of people and the time. And so somebody that sort of chose research, or was chosen by research in 2017 is – they’re part of a different community than you were 18 years ago. So, what it means for them to sort of learn. There’s, there’s – the terrain is different because it’s populated by people like you or there’s a path that’s woven by people like you. I’m going to take your lovely metaphor and just…

Juliette: Go for it.

Steve: Mow over it. I find that interesting. Just back to sort of my question about advising, the people who are joining the field are joining a different field than the one that I joined or that you joined.

Juliette: I mean it wasn’t a field at that point, right. I mean like there were a few people who were doing some great work, but it wasn’t really a community, at least as far as I was aware of. So, I think people joining now – I think it’s very cool that there is a field for them to join and they could hop on this gigantic Google group and ask a question and have 1,000 useful people helping them out. You know for people starting this now, I think they’re in a great position. You know you can actually learn this in college. Like, you couldn’t learn this in college when I was in – at least where I was in college this is not a thing. You know I studied comparative literature in undergrad and I remember telling my comparative mystical literature professor that I was wanting to go into IT, as it was all called back then, and he was like why? Why would you do that? Like just totally confused. Like that doesn’t seem like a realistic or interesting thing to do. It wasn’t really a path. So, yeah, I think it’s great that people are joining now and I think there’s more support. You know in general for all this technical, digital roles there’s been a lot more definition in terms of the different job functions and I think that that makes it a lot easier. I mean back in the day it was about like webmaster and they did everything. There aren’t webmasters anymore, right. I mean like the jobs have become much more specific. And I think that makes it easier to train, to decide like what you want to be doing to become really excellent at what you’ve done. You know, it’s a bit of a tangent, but I think that research as a standalone profession is I think something that’s also becoming more possible to do for – I’m curious your take on this as well, but I feel like the sort of broader field of UX, you know someone is like a UX person who does design and they do research and it’s all kind of rolled up into one thing – I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be a researcher and so when I made that choice 10/11 years ago to focus on research, it really limited my options. It meant that I could either work for an agency or for a really big company. But for smaller companies they really wanted more of a full service “UX” person. I’m curious if you have seen more growth in smaller organizations hiring specific – like researchers who specifically do that?

Steve: Who are researchers?

Juliette: Just researchers, yeah.

Steve: I mean this is anecdotal, of course, but… I think there are – there seems to be sort of a pattern of maybe the first researcher in an organization is – or maybe person zero is someone who is doing multiple – we have an intern or we’re going to take some of somebody’s time, they’re interested and they’re going to go do this. A product manager maybe who has kind of got the bug, or read something or saw something. But you know when companies start hiring someone with a research title I think sometimes that first person is very junior and then it has to build up to a point where there’s a realization, oh we actually need leadership and mentorship and being able to develop a function and a practice and a team. And I have a lot of concern about that person who is sort of brought in with no mentorship. I think about the person I had coffee with about a year ago who was – I think he was not too long out of graduate school. So, professionally junior, but I think educated a certain amount, and they were the only research person in this organization and they basically were sent to do something where they were told how to go about it and what to produce. And of course, if you don’t know what you’re doing there could be a mismatch. But they took the hit for this and they, I think, ultimately were dismissed because they were unable to produce the information that was needed from the method they were required to use. And we had this long conversation and this person was convinced it was their fault and that they were deficient as a researcher.

Juliette: Oh man.

Steve: Yeah. And to me that was a lack of leadership.

Juliette: Yeah. This company needs coaches and researchers it sounds like.

Steve: Yeah. Some executive coaches or management coaches who say here’s how to manage your staff to success. And that’s I think – because there’s sort of this generic perception of research, or that it’s just a thing and like you’re just talking to people, or if it’s a survey, just go set up a Survey Monkey, then it seems easy to have people that don’t appreciate the craft and the mastery of someone like you that’s been doing this, that chose this, can bring. I mean that’s a really sort of disappointing example, I think, but there’s the researcher who has the title and is not in a situation where they’re going to be able to thrive, but I mean – if your question is like are there researcher title jobs? I think a huge amount.

Juliette: I guess it’s more like is that increasing as a phenomenon because yeah, I don’t know. I’m just curious if as these other roles have become more specific if there’s been a greater appetite for researcher as a standalone function. But yeah, I mean I’ve been that person. I’ve been that junior single researcher and it’s really hard. And that’s why I take heart in some of the larger online communities that have formed because I hope that what we can do for each other is to help advocate for methods and for approaches and to kind of stand in as mentors to people who need that support and don’t have that person there with them. Like I would love for us to keep doing that for each other and I think we do that to an extent and that’s part of why I really advocate for researchers to know other people who do this. And it’s also part of why I like working here. You know I work with a bunch of really, really smart researchers and if I need to pull in someone who is an expert in running a conjoint analysis, I can do that. And it’s nice to have this deep bench of expertise just available here and that’s part of why I really enjoyed working at – not a huge company, but like a big enough company that has a deep bench when it comes to research vs. like me off on my own doing this startup. I feel like I can be a better researcher when there are people around me who I can lean on for their expertise as well.

Steve: So, you’re okay not being able to do a conjoint analysis yourself?

Juliette: Totally. We’re always learning, right, all of us are learning, but we work with people who have PhDs in statistics and like I think that’s great. That’s probably not something that I will do. I think it’s wonderful that we can specialize in different areas and I think that makes us all stronger.

Steve: You know it’s that depth vs. breadth tradeoff. You know you’re sort of asking about research as a specialty, but even that word, to your example, it comes with so many things.

Juliette: Yes.

Steve: I started off trying to position myself as a generalist a long time ago and the more that times go by the more things I realize I know nothing about and personally it’s terrifying. Maybe that’s too dramatic a word, but I sort of have to own it and then also deny it, that there’s this thing that I don’t know how to do and so I’m aware – what does expertise look like? And what does expertise look like for you as you proceed and there are things that you’re going to pull in that are not going to – you may never be a master at conjoint?

Juliette: That’s a great questions because I feel like there are things that I’ve definitely decided to not specialize in, you know, and one of those is prototyping, for example. At one point I did do much more design and now I am totally happy not doing that. I think it’s – knowing what you are okay letting go of I think is a very important professional skill. And I think it’s part of growing, is knowing like this is something that I’m going to bring someone else in for. And, yeah when it comes to live very, very complex data analysis, there was one point in my career where I was really focusing on that and was building a pretty big skillset there. I think actually last time I saw you at IDEO I was really focused on building a very deep quantitative understanding for myself and eventually I decided, no. Like I would rather lean on the person who has the PhD in statistics and I want to refocus on the things that I feel like I can more uniquely bring to the table. And for me that’s more about qualitative research, that’s more about design thinking. Like those are things that I can uniquely do that I think someone else couldn’t necessarily uniquely do and so yeah, I think just understanding what you want to do and what you don’t want to do I think is a really nice part about getting older in this world.

Steve: So, how should someone approach that? That is maybe in the first few years of a professional career.

Juliette: You know, I think the first few years like don’t go around saying no to stuff. You know, say yes. And then follow your intuition there. But yeah, I’d say probably don’t get too – I think in general in life, like be cautious about saying no to things that you don’t really understand. Like maybe kind of dig into it a little bit because there might be something in there for you that you hadn’t expected.

Steve: Do you, like let’s just imagine the magic wand thing. You were sort of saying that if you could hire 10 researchers you wouldn’t be opposed to that.

Juliette: Right.

Steve: So, if we were to wave the magic wand and make that happen, as you would start talking to people, what kinds of things would you – I realize that we don’t have a job description – whatever – I mean what do you start to look for when you talk to people about working with them?

Juliette: Um, I like working with people who – the first thing I would say is that it’s important to hire people who bring a good energy into a room and I know this sounds like super – I did live in California for a long time, right – but I think that researchers can bring a kind of brightness into a space and a kind of optimism for a team and a sense that we can learn these things together. It’s a bit intangible as a quality, but when we bring on new researchers that’s really something we look for. Like is this person someone who is excited about making connections across an organization? Excited to share what we’re doing? You know there’s something about bringing energy into research which I think is really important, but beyond that, yeah, I mean being able to really, really listen. Being a thoughtful, humble listener to what people are saying and I can sometimes know in the first conversation with someone whether or not I would encourage them to move ahead as a researcher based on their qualities as a listener. And then being able to think thoughtfully, strategically, big picture and being able to execute. It’s hard to – it’s so hard to hire, right, because these are all kind of a little bit intangible as qualities, but yeah, looking for someone with a curious mind who truly likes people is really important. I think that’s key.

Steve: When you say brings energy into the room and is a humble listener, part of me – a part of me feels like well is that contradictory? I’m really just thinking about myself. The one is sort of an extroverted energy and one is an introverted energy, but I don’t know.

Juliette: I’ve found that most of the researchers I’ve ever worked with are true introverts and I would put myself in that same category, but we are – we are introverts who like people, you know, and I think that almost all of the researchers I’ve known fall into that category.

Steve: Maybe this is a personal issue, but why not. The bringing the energy into the room thing is interesting to me because I’m probably more of a listen first person. I mean I pride myself on being a good listener, but that also means I sort of – I watch a lot and, you know, depending on how people come across me they might see me sort of in on stage mode where I’m saying a lot and I am telling you stuff and sort of trying to bring something. But I spend most of my time sort of holding back and just waiting for those moments and I think it’s – like I feel intimidated by that description to sort of have to make an impression.

Juliette: But I think what you’re talking about is its own kind of energy, right. So, the energy that you’re bringing into a room is I support you, right. I’m here to listen to what you’re saying and it matters to me, right. And so like that’s a very particular kind of good energy.

Steve: Okay.

Juliette: Right. It doesn’t mean that you’re coming in like you’re running for Mayor, right. But it means that you’re coming into contexts and like in a positive way. You know like you’re not glowering. You’re, you’re – you’re engaging, even if you’re not saying something. And so I think that that’s – does that make sense?

Steve: Yeah. And I think just clarifying words is so important, right, because when you said energy that made me think of extroversion and speaking and being loud and “hey,” and smiling. And you’re right, there’s a lot of different ways to manifest that energy.

Juliette: So, I’m coming in as like a Reiki person and so for me it’s about like what is the thing that you’re emanating? And what is the thing that people are picking up on about you? And what are your intentions when you’re coming into a space?

Steve: Okay. So, you listed a bunch of things that you said were at varying levels of intangibility. But what are some successful ways that people could present those qualities? Demonstrate them? Whether it’s in a sort of interviewing context, or like a job interviewing context or any other?

Juliette: Yeah, I think being a thoughtful communicator is really important. And so when you’re communicating with a potential employer just paying attention to what they’re asking you for and really showing up for those conversations. I think that that’s a big part of it, right. And being able to share examples of work that you’ve done, that you’re proud of, and being able to speak to experiences that you’ve had in a really cogent way. One of the – we haven’t really talked about this, but I think one of the biggest skills that a researcher brings is a synthesis. I mean being able to look at a set of disparate facts or impressions and pulling something meaningful out of that. And so I think if you’re – if you were in an interview to be a researcher somewhere I think that you’d want to be able to speak to work you’ve done in a way that makes sense, that’s to the point, and that communicates what you want to communicate.

Steve: So, can we maybe switch sort of the who’s communicating to who scenario. So, we’re talking about people at a certain stage that are kind of approaching organizations. And then earlier on we talked about advocacy. You eluded to being on a panel about advocacy. What are things that researchers can manifest, display, whatever the verb is, for the people that are – that we want to get excited about research, that we want to sort of demonstrate the value. What should we be doing or saying or showing them?

Juliette: This gets back to our conversation on impact. Um, which again as we talked about is tricky with research because sometimes that impact is direct and sometimes it’s more indirect. But I would love for someone to be able to speak to that. You know and they could say like look we did this project and there wasn’t a direct outcome from it because there wasn’t space on the roadmap and there wasn’t budget and there wasn’t executive buy-in, but I was able to keep bringing this into the organization in ways that eventually it became part of what we did and here’s an example of it. So, you know like that’s a story that I would love to hear from someone who wanted to be a researcher because it shows that you have an awareness of the nature of reality, but that you’re able to effectively operate within complex interpersonal spaces.

Steve: So, let me change the players in this dialogue that we’re playing around with as well. So, that’s kind of a researcher to researcher thing, but now maybe it’s you, or it’s future you, and you’re talking to someone that is interested in, or has some curiosity about, or maybe some skepticism about how what you do can bring value to their part of the organization. How do you advocate for research for them? What do you highlight?

Juliette: You know it’s interesting because I feel like I haven’t had to do that for a while. You know we haven’t had to do that here because people know about success and they want some of that. So, if you can do a great job with one team at an organization other people will know about that. And so, I think being able to effectively do one good thing within an organization will help you work across the organization. Does that answer your question?

Steve: Yeah. I mean the best way to have that conversation is to preempt the necessity for that conversation by doing work that tells the story itself. I’m just saying what you said, but I said it faster.

Juliette: Yes. Thank you for synthesizing that.

Steve: That’s podcast…just repeat it back faster.

Juliette: You’re doing a good job, Steve.

Steve: Thank you. You’re doing a great job as well. So, we’re jumping around in chronology here a little bit. I want to go back to one thing that you said. Maybe two things. What did you say to your professor when they were like huh, IT, why would you want to do that?

Juliette: That’s a good question. I think this was in like 1998. It was a long time ago.

Steve: And you don’t remember exactly what it was?

Juliette: No, I don’t. But I remember – I don’t know, I wasn’t defensive. I was just kind of like. I don’t know. I think honestly I felt kind of proud that I was doing something strange and it was like I’m an iconoclast. I’m doing my own weird thing here. So yeah, I think I was probably like – I was like a nice kid. I was probably like oh yeah, I don’t know, that’s interesting. But I think on the inside I was like yeah, I’m a rebel.

Steve: Yeah. Right. Sometimes that external perspective – you know if you’re in that sort of bubble, or that identity, that perspective that you’re breaking out of is like – you may not have felt that way until someone told you that you were rebelling.

Juliette: Yeah. I mean especially at the time. It was like the Internet was just like new and weird and juicy and I was like there is something going on over there, like I want to get into that, whatever that looks like. That is strange and that is good.

Steve: And another moment, I don’t know if you can recall any details, but you talked about sort of starting off in front end development, that eventually you got into research. And I’m wondering was there a moment or series of moments where you saw that it was a thing, or that it kind of sparked for you that – do you remember what you were doing or what you were thinking when you started to feel pulled towards it?

Juliette: Yeah. You know when I was doing front-end development, and this was back in the day when like, you know web standards were just really hitting and we basically tore apart the web and rebuilt it in a different way and it was a really like heady time, you know. Starting to use CSS in ways that hadn’t been used before. I mean the underpinnings of the web just within a couple of years like started looking very, very different. And so that was just kind of an exciting time to be doing that particular work. But then eventually I just got good at it and it was like someone could hand me a mockup of something and I could build it. Like, okay. But – I do remember a couple of times where I was building something and I thought that’s a bad idea, why are we doing that? And I realized that I just wanted a different seat at the table than that. And so that’s when I moved more into the product role which at the time I think was a little less exciting than product now. I was working for an organization that had a very long term perspective on things and we were doing things like requirements documents that would take several months to do and then a development cycle that would take several months. And it would like be a year all in, right. And so I would just be writing these like tomes and again eventually it was like, yeah, I want a different kind of seat. And I remember a moment – this was also when I was considering a move to California – was if I wanted to go more into interaction design or wanted to go more into research and could sort of see different pathways. And eventually did more on like the project/product end and then while I was at one company really pulled the research threads out of that and created a new role for myself around research. And that’s when I was like I am a researcher. So, I really built that role for myself out of more of like a project/product manager role.

Steve: Maybe it’s different – it’s definitely different now than then, but any thoughts about – like you just declared research as an identity in that part of the story and I think that’s an interesting one. We don’t talk about the identity part of it enough. We talk about sort of skills, or are you a designer, or maybe you’ve heard the phrase people who do research? I’m not even sure what my question is here. Do you have a perspective on – if I throw out the idea of research as an identity does that spark anything for you?

Juliette: If you’re familiar with Richard Scarry books, Busytown, there is like the spoof of Busytown with like the little internet creatures and there was the like innovation strategist and she was building a 2×2 framework covered in Post-its and she was wearing like a printed anthropology dress that looks basically exactly like what I’m wearing now. And I was like oh, like that’s uncanny. Maybe we do have an identity. Or like maybe there is something to this that we’ve kind of like co-created as a thing that we’re doing. So, yeah, that was the first moment where I thought huh, maybe there’s a researcher identity that’s happening. But yeah. I think we’re not as cohesive, partly because I think we’re not – we’re not that stylish. Right? I feel like I can walk into a group of people and they’re like okay those are the designers, those are the exactos. I don’t know, maybe the researchers are the ones who are like very earnestly listening and kind of like a little disheveled. Maybe those are the researchers.

Steve: Right. And you’re framing identity as an external thing which is interesting. I thought more as an internal thing, but you’re kind of saying that there’s an aesthetic maybe of certain practices and that if researcher identity is observed more by behavior than that puts it into a different space than like a designer identity which might be more about…

Juliette: Steve, you’re really good at restating things in a more coherent way. Thank you for doing that.

Steve: Thanks. You brought up Richard Scarry which I think is a very good thing as well. So, thank you for doing that.

Juliette: I’m the parent of a toddler, so, you know here we are.

Steve: Yes. Write what you know. Okay. I feel like if we’ve hit Richard Scarry we might have hit – in fact Twitter parodies of Richard Scarry might be sort of peak episode. Anything else that you think we should talk about today that I didn’t ask about or you want to get to?

Juliette: Just that I’m excited to see where we go with this.

Steve: This episode?

Juliette: No, no, with research, as researchers.

Steve: Where the community goes? Where the practice goes?

Juliette: Yeah. Like, ‘cuz no one knows. We’re co-creating this thing and I guess I would say to myself, and everyone else, like take heart. Like we will keep building this thing together and it’s going to be good and just because there’s not like a traditional career path doesn’t mean you’re not going to have like awesome things you’ll keep working on and we’ll figure it out as we go.

Steve: Do you have hopes or dreams? We don’t know, you don’t know – that’s fine – but is there a place you can fantasize about it going?

Juliette: I think what I was saying about research having like a more both strategic and emotional impact within organizations that transcend making choices about how we serve customers. I think that’s a thing that we can do.

Steve: And maybe I’ll just add to that. Maybe there’s an element where that also is explicit instead of tacit and then that wraps up some of the challenges we were talking about.

Juliette: Yes. And in fact, a plug for NYT Parenting, we’ll soon be doing a series on emotional labor. So, if you think as researchers, having a lot of the work we do become acknowledged and codified I think will be very helpful. And it’s not just the tacit, emotional labor that we currently do.

Steve: Excellent. Well, this has been a fabulous conversation. I really appreciate the chance to speak with you.

Juliette: Thank you. Thank you for coming to New York.

Steve: Okay that’s a wrap! You can find Dollars to Donuts on Spotify and Google Play and of course Apple Podcasts. On the web at Portigal dot com slash podcast you will find all the episodes with show notes and transcripts. Our theme music is by Bruce Todd.

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