26. Jesse Zolna of ADP

In this episode of Dollars to Donuts I talk to Jesse Zolna, who leads the User Experience Research Team at ADP’s Innovation Lab. We talk about driving change as an experiment, exposing the organization to how customers solve problems, and engineering psychology.

One of the challenges we face is getting “credit” for the work that we’ve done. A lot of what we do is help people understand the problem space better and understand these things that their users aren’t able to do, or want to do, or whatever. And oftentimes it’s not going to be brand new. Rarely do you come up with something that nobody’s ever thought of before. A lot of times we help solidify or better articulate those problems, which then you can attack much better. – Jesse Zolna

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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.

Northern Soul was a musical and cultural movement in the UK in the late sixties and early seventies. It was all about obscure soul music from America. The movement really was a scene, with clothing and dance styles, and clubs hosting dance parties, but let’s just focus on the music. For people in the UK in the 60s it wasn’t easy to get music from the US. In fact, this difficulty figures into the origin story of the Rolling Stones, where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards reconnect during a chance meeting on a train platform, and one notices the other has possession of some rare and desirable albums from the US. Anyway, Northern Soul started in that context initially, the difficulty of getting any of this music and then went on to specifically emphasize the rarities. Remember that there was no consumer music duplication technology – you had to have the 45. Many of the songs that became Northern Soul legends were commercial failures, failed artists, failed labels. And yet, these 45s, these songs found a second life, across a time, across an ocean, across cultures.

Decades later, we have the Internet, and we have globalization, and we embrace consumer enthusiasm. So there’s a cafe in Beijing modeled after Central Perk, from the TV show “Friends.” Mexican-American lowrider culture has been taken up in Brazil and New Zealand.

I find these examples fascinating, and given the frequency that these stories appear, I’m not the only one. Given the work that I do, my interest is specifically because these stories typically involve people going around the brand. The producer makes certain products and provides them to a certain audience in a certain marketplace. Sure, it’s a statement of identity to watch “Russian Doll” on Netflix, but your effort to both discover and consume is minimal. But to buy authentic parts for a product that isn’t made any more, from another country, for example, takes a lot more effort. Even with the Internet. This kind of lead user consumption is interesting.

So that’s the consumer side, going around the default path laid out by the company. And on the producer side, larger companies seem pretty intent on managing both globalization and localization. You can go to a McDonald’s in 101 different countries, but the menu will be different. Outside McDonald’s in Thailand, Ronald is posed giving the “wai”, the traditional Thai greeting of a slight bow with hands pressed together in front of the chest. Even though the McDonald’s brand spans cultures, the Thai experience is specific and self-contained within its own environment. McDonald’s redefines itself within the boundaries of the national border and even though we know Ronald can be found everywhere, this Ronald reminds a Thai customer that he is specifically in Thailand. Ronald is trying hard not to be the tourist who awkwardly adopts the local customs in order to seem “down” but actually someone who has moved in and become part of the scenery. Of course, brands, their symbols and indeed their products change meaning when they move from one culture to another, but we can consider the bare minimum meaning, just the fact of its existence in any particular culture.

Earlier this year, McDonald’s in the US introduced a limited-time “International Menu” featuring Stroopwafel McFlurry, the Grand McExtreme Bacon Burger, the Tomato Mozzarella Chicken Sandwich and Cheesy Bacon Fries from respectively Netherlands, Spain, Canada and Australia. Linda VanGosen, McDonald’s vice president of menu innovation said in a statement that “We know our US customers are curious about McDonald’s international menu items.”

It doesn’t matter if these are any good. And these aren’t intended to be authentic representations of the cuisine of these other countries; they are presented as authentic exemplars of McDonald’s in these other countries. The point here, the fascinating thing to me, is that McDonald’s is acknowledging, at least to its American market, that seams exist, that the way you experience the brand is limited by your geography, and another variation of McDonald’s – a non-American version – is out there. This is a very contained action by McDonald’s but the way it breaks the frame by pointing to something outside what they so carefully control and design is huge.

The homework for all of us is to keep our eyes open for how and when producers acknowledge in any way what lies outside the set of things they are providing to us. I believe this will continue to change. And for those of us who are in the business of producing things to be consumed, McDonald’s is signaling here that we have more choices than we might have previously thought possible.

This is an important aspect of the work that I do, helping companies to unpack these shifts in culture and consider the ways they might respond, in terms of what is appealing to the marketplace and what is authentic to the company itself. My clients have a lot of deep knowledge of what they have been doing, but they often need help getting outside that, and I help teams to build a new shared perspective and a plan to move forward. And so, the best way to support this podcast is to support my business. Hire me to help you bring a nuanced external perspective to how you understand your current and future markets. Get in touch and let’s discuss what we might do together.

I’d also love to hear how this podcast is helping you in your work. 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 interview with Jesse Zolna. He leads the User Experience Research Team at ADP’s Innovation Lab. Jesse, welcome to the podcast.

Jesse Zolna: Thank you, Steve. Thanks for having me.

Steve: Let’s start by having you say a little bit about who you are and what you do and we’ll go from there.

Jesse: Okay. So, I lead the User Experience Research Team at ADP’s Innovation Lab, is one of the ways I put it. ADP has a sort of complex arrangement of business units and I fall within what we call shared products. It’s the stuff that runs behind all the different business units. I end up interacting with a lot of the different front end products that ADP makes. And so, just as a short term I say the innovation lab. I started here about 5 years ago when we opened the Innovation Lab. So, ADP made the decision to invest in UX and agile and design thinking, sort of all at the same time. I think I was hired #18 or 19 in the group. So, I’m leading the UX research team here in the lab.

Steve: What are some of the business units that – your lab works across these different – for those of us outside of the organization, what things could we learn about that ADP makes that you’re kind of working to inform the design of?

Jesse: At the simplest level, ADP has sort of three business units – small, medium and large businesses. And we make essentially payroll products for those businesses. That’s our core product and then on top of that we layer what we call HCM products, so anything that’s related to HR really. And then a lot of that will feed into payroll. We have what we call core HR which is all about people’s data, about who they are, where they live, and that stuff impacts the taxes that we take out of your paycheck. We have time products within each of these business units. You’ve got to record your time and obviously that calculates your pay. We have retirement services products, so like 401(k) stuff. Medical benefits, that kind of stuff. So, if you think about the paycheck as sort of the center of our business and then all the sort of – we have lots of different products that sort of feed into that center of business.

Steve: What does HCM stand for?

Jesse: Human Capital Management. It’s the newer term for HR.

Steve: I’m old enough to remember when it was called personnel and then that got outmoded by HR and now I’m going to be a dinosaur if I say HR.

Jesse: So, back then HR were bean counters and the just a cost center – the people were just a cost center. Now, today, people and talent are a company’s most valuable asset.

Steve: Okay. So, the term reflects kind of a different mindset.

Jesse: Yup.

Steve: Having heard it from you I’m sure I’ll now be recognizing the term when I come across, but I haven’t heard that before. So, I’m wondering, you described some of the different services that are provided – you’re providing services to companies who use these products to do all the human capital management and payroll for employees. How much of these different services do the employees themselves interact with? Do you know what I mean?

Jesse: Yeah. So, the initial project that I worked on when I came here is what we call the employee and manager experience which is essentially both a desk and web app that the employees use. Until ADP decided to focus on that, that was sort of an afterthought. We were building products for the HR and payroll managers that worked at our clients and an unnecessary evil was things where the employee needed to be able to go look up their information or enter their time or whatever. You know if employees wanted to get paid they’d figure out how to use our time products, so we didn’t invest a lot in that. But then as part of the decision to focus on that they realized that actually 99% of their users were employees and managers because each company has 10 HR and payroll people and 10,000 employees, or something like that. So – and it was also sort of a push into realizing that technology was changing and people were expecting better from everything that they use on a day to day basis and getting basically complaints from our clients that their employees found our products hard to use which would then reduce productivity, for both the employee who was trying to figure out how to enter their time, or figure out what medical benefits they want rather than working. And then the HR, the payroll person, had to fix errors, or help the employee navigate the system instead of do like more strategic work that they should be doing within like talent management.

Steve: So, the customers are identifying – your customers are identifying changes they want to see in the products you’re delivering to them, or the kinds of experiences you’re creating.

Jesse: Yup.

Steve: Which is not a signal to ignore.

Jesse: Yup.

Steve: So, this is the innovation lab. So, what does that mean? Those are both sort of very loaded words. For ADP what was sort of the – what was created at this kind of transition point?

Jesse: In the beginning it really was an experiment in choosing sort of the ratio of UX to development and at the same time moving to an agile development process. So, what they did was they hired all new people from different places. I came from Barnes & Noble. Worked on like their E-commerce site and the Nook device. A designer who came in at the same time he came from a media background, so had worked for NBC and MTV in the past, on their like web properties. So, they were trying to bring people in from different industries and think differently about what consumers want? And they hired about, I think, 100 people in the early days and 20 of them were UX people, whereas at the rest of the company there were probably 10,000 developers and less than 20 UX people. So, it was an experiment and if we really invested in this like will the outcomes be different. So, we had the employee and manager experience as one of our first projects and we sort of proved that you can move faster and get better results with that new ADP innovative way of thinking. So, the idea was to be an example to the rest of the company. So, now the rest of the company has seen what we’ve done at the lab and over the last 5 years has really adopted a lot of those practices and hired a lot more UX people in each of the different business units, each of the different groups and transitioned to agile development process. Both of those have been more successful in some places than others, but everybody is trying to move that way.

Steve: It’s interesting that you frame this as an experiment. What did that feel like kind of in the early days. You were, as you said, one of the early people to come into this. What did it feel like to be something that was framed as an experiment in a company this size, and I think with a big history, or long history?

Jesse: It was exciting because there was the opportunity to jump right in and have a large impact because there are so many clients and so many people using our products, yet we could start from scratch at the same time. And that’s how they sold it to us, like a startup within a big company, and we already have scale. And the other thing was we could do whatever we wanted kind of. We thought that was the right thing to do. We could do that. You know we didn’t have to go through all the red tape that the rest of the company had to do. So, we could just, you know, spend money on recruiting. We could have a very simplified NDA. Talking about research processes, that would just make it easier for us to get our work done and not have to get approval from legal and GSO and everything, which these days we have to deal with a lot more.

Steve: So, over these 5 years, as you said, the things that only were happening in the lab are now starting to, or have started to, happen in other parts of the organization. That seems like one measure of success for the experiment. It’s kind of creating models for practices for the organization to adopt. I wonder what does that then create, or open up space for the innovation lab itself to them move into different kinds of work, sort of after having birthed some processes and have them been taken up – what’s shifted for you all?

Jesse: I would say at the beginning we were really focused on our one product and proving that the user centered design process could work and you could get rapid feedback and it didn’t slow down development, and then you would see the effects on the market. And now other teams are doing it, and as you said one metric for success. Another one is that we’ve sort of changed the organization’s thinking around UX and what user centered design really is. So, the sort of simpler application of UX research is usability testing, or more evaluative, or maybe even like concept testing, like lean UX testing. When I came in, lean UX testing was like really all they thought research was. So, we’ve established also a program of ethnographic research where we do sort of foundational stuff that doesn’t necessarily have what changes can we make to this product to make it better, but broader, like what changes can we make to this quite of products and understanding how our clients are using our products within a greater context, to look for the “white spaces” and that has really opened up the organization’s eyes in terms of how research can help strategically too. You know strategy used to be the domain of only product management. They would come up with a strategy – you know based on what our competitor did, now here’s our new strategy. By the way, the competitor probably just copied us, so there’s a lot of like circularness to that. So, we’ve been able to bring in new thoughts and new ideas which I think has helped us rethink the way that we’re approaching providing tools to our clients to manage their human capital.

Steve: And is there a connection between the success you had with these initial efforts, in terms of changing the mindset of the organization? As you say, ideas only came from these kinds of places and now – obviously we know that ethnographic research can provide the kinds of new ideas that you’re talking about, but the change that’s happened here is that – I think you’re describing that people are receptive to that? They’re like oh yeah, this is another source for us to think about what to do. So, is there a connection between that mindset which is new and then the – was that driven by the work that the lab started off with?

Jesse: Yeah, well it’s related to what I said earlier about us being able to do what we think we should do because we think that’s the right thing to do. So, in the early days we were working on payroll and, aside from the employee/manager experience, I was helping with the payroll product which again is our core product. And I realized that like we knew a lot of people – we had people who knew a lot about how the time product works and how they gather that information and then it gets sent into payroll. We knew a lot about how payroll would process that. We knew a lot about how core HR data would influence that. So, we had people who understood those silos really well. But there was no understanding of how those things all kind of worked together. So, I proposed that we do some site visits where we just go watch people during their payroll process and just like say, “teach me how to do payroll from your company.” Because also every company kind of does it differently. They all have ADP payroll, most of our clients, but then they might have our time system. They might have somebody else’s time system. They might have somebody else’s compensation management system, or ours, or whatever. So, everybody kind of does it differently. So, we went to visit a bunch of different clients and like try to find the themes across and what we came back was information that was very surprising to the people internally and actually our first – we presented it several times and the first few, their reaction basically was give the name of that client, I’m going to go show them how to do it right. And I was like well, I can give you the name of all 12 clients we visited, but then what about the other 99% that we didn’t visit, are you going to go train them too? And they like didn’t quite get – they wanted to go solve it for that client that’s like very solution oriented, rather than understanding the problem and thinking about how can we work together. And they literally didn’t believe me that clients would double and triple check the time data before they put it into payroll and then after they put it into payroll, and spent hours doing this. Like literally going through Excel spreadsheets. One of the funny things the researcher on the project came up with, she used to call it the rulers of payroll. We literally had clients that would use a ruler, like on the screen, so they could look across these really long lines of data. And somebody else would be on the other screen and they’d say whatever, 1,400 – I don’t even know what the numbers were, but they would like call and respond to make sure that the like thousands of lines of data – and they were like why would they do that? It just imports automatically. But I mean the answer really was ‘cuz one time in the last year, or whatever, or maybe 20 times, I don’t know, there was an error and that caused like somebody to not get paid. And the payroll person thinks maybe they won’t be able to pay their mortgage because they didn’t get paid. So, they want to be super sure. So, anyway, it was like this idea of understanding things across these silos, coming up with these new insights that we never would have seen if we didn’t look across those silos. And so since then we’ve done probably 8 or 9 of those projects. And really we kind of started off with here’s a big domain that we kind of want to really understand deeply and we don’t necessarily have a specific piece of the product that we’re going to improve from that. And I think it gives everybody a better understanding and it gets the silos together. We actually – that research program we have has three stated goals. The first is to get people from different silos working together and to understand our users in the same way so that when they talk they have like an equal understanding and like the same vernacular and things like that when they do try to get together and work together. Number two, is just that – we call it the foundational understanding of what are our clients doing? What are the biggest pain points? How can we help them? And number three is to include non-researchers in the research process as well. So, when we go onsite we aim to have one researcher and two or three like developers, product managers, designers as like observers and note takers. So, they get to participate in the research process, understand it, see how it works. Maybe bring some of that – not only bring that empathy back home with them, but bring some of that research process and understanding too so they can think about when might be another time to do research as well.

Steve: Lots of really fascinating things. I want to pick one thing to go back to. So, when you started to present back these kinds of behaviors that you observed, like the triple checking and so on, it was surprising. “I’m going to go fix that.” What do you do after that? What do you do to sort of bring – to help these stakeholders understand what you learned and what it means and a better way to think about it than sort of fixing each of your thousands of clients?

Jesse: Actually that initial reaction was why we decided to include the third goal which is to get them out there because I figured if these people were there and they saw it they wouldn’t not believe me. I was lucky that we had some of the people who helped to establish the innovation lab and really believed in user centered design and research and are of the mindset that they want to learn. I think that makes a difference too with researchers working with people who want to learn versus people who don’t necessarily want to learn, or just want you to prove that they’re right or whatever. That’s a whole other topic of conversation. But luckily we had a few people there who from an executive level, or air cover level, were able to – I remember literally one woman said to me – you know, I told her don’t shoot the messenger, like listen to him. Like try and understand what’s going on and try to work with that and not – you know so that was super helpful to have like some believers that could help them kind of work through it really. And it took time too. Like you know just like the initial reaction was that’s wrong, like no way, let me call them. But over time I think these people were able to realize, oh wait, maybe I should like look into that. And maybe if they did look into it they could see some evidence that helped them believe and understand it better too. Because also having gone and done this ethnographic research, you know I get a super deep understanding and I can only present so much of that data and like try to tell that story and purposely try to tell it at a high level so they can understand it all. And it’s really getting those deep details and those, almost the anecdotal evidence that really brings color and life to it, that again the reason that we came up with that third goal to get those people out there.

Steve: So, if you think about someone who – it might be someone – I mean I think your caveat about they want to learn – someone who wants to learn but maybe is inclined a little bit to say well I better intervene and fix their erroneous behavior – what changes for them when they see the behavior that we’re talking about versus they hear about it from you? Like what is – I think there’s something fundamental that’s different for them. What is that?

Jesse: I think it just becomes more real. It’s no longer a rumor, or somebody else saying this. They like see it. It’s no longer a PowerPoint slide, or even – and this is why you use quotes and videos in your presentations, right, like that makes it real too. It’s no longer words on a page. It’s a person feeling pain in front of them and it’s just like more – it just becomes more real and tactical and you know I think it just fills in all the details that you need.

Steve: It reminds me of – I guess of a minor failure a few years ago where we were – our users we were looking at were people who were “unbanked” is the phrase, or “semi-banked.” And a tech company where the team themselves, that was not their lifestyle and we went out in the field with them and they were so affected by the experience, but then they asked us to – I think we didn’t do a good job sort of understanding the request, but they wanted an edited video of an extremely tight running time to like use in part of a meeting. And I think it emerged later on that the objective was for people to have the same emotional reaction from that that they did being in the field. And I get where they’re coming from. Like this really changed us and we want the rest of the organization to have this. Eventually I realized oh, you can’t get that from a video. Even though, as you say, videos sort of bring it alive more than words on a page might, but this experience of being out there – I think you’re right about sort of the anecdotal stuff. There’s the facts, sort of the details of the narrative, but you just saw things that I think those people were very moved by what happened to them in the field.

Jesse: Yeah. I think part of it too is they might not go to all of the visits, but they see one person and then when you present to them like the theme, the summary, then they can say, “oh yeah, I saw that in Joe.” So, they just understand it sort of one level deeper. And that’s what like as a researcher we often do that, like we have these themes and we understand it at a really deep level, but it’s hard to get that deep understanding. It’s hard to express that without showing all the data, but you’re trying to do – you know, just like these people in this meeting only had a certain amount of time, you know you only have – you can’t have everybody go participate in the entire research project the entire time. So, you have to summarize for them. It’s part of what we do is we go learn things and we summarize it for people so that they don’t have to go learn it themselves. But you just can’t get all of your learnings across. It’s hard. Which is part of the reason, on another subject, why, no offense, but I personally prefer being like an internal research person and like having worked on these projects for 5 years, like I feel like stuff comes out from 3 years ago that I can go back to. And I think there’s that sort of institutional memory which I realize now it’s ironic because 5 years ago when somebody would say, “oh well this is how we’ve always done payroll” I would like want to strangle them and be like that’s the worst thing for a researcher to hear is that we already know it. Like we don’t need any new information. Now, when people come to me with questions I’m like well I already know the answer to that because we did research 3 years ago. So, I have to actually consciously make sure that I’m always open for learning too, having been here for so long. So, maybe that’s the negative of being an internal person. As a consultant, you can always come in with fresh eyes and be willing to learn something new.

Steve: Right. I mean, I don’t know, the thing I like about consulting is – I mean, I’ll say the same thing you’re saying – the thing I like about consulting is being able to come into something that I haven’t seen before and try to figure it out. It’s often usually overwhelming, but I rely so heavily on people that are, that understand the problem space, so that I’m not trying to like reinvent the wheel. And I have admiration and a little bit of jealousy for people that stick with something for a long time because the time horizons for – I mean the kinds of change you’re talking about making, it’s very long. I don’t work that long term with somebody. My rationalization is we need both. You need people that live in the problem space and facilitate new ways – that hold onto the depth and sort of advocate for that depth of insight. And you need ways to keep getting fresh insight that you have with your changes over your tenure. I think we agree and you’ve got to find the role that you can sort of thrive best in, I guess.

Jesse: Yeah, totally. Yeah I mean even as an internal person I like to go into a research project as naïve – maybe not as naïve as possible, but relatively naïve so you could naturally ask the question when – well what do you think it should be – sort of in the research process. Or, how would you want it to go? Instead of like knowing the answer to that and possibly being somewhat biased or explanatory rather than questioning.

Steve: I shy away from getting into like technique too much in these conversations because I think we’re looking at the organization, but that being said, you said something that kind of intrigued me and I just wanted to ask a little more about it. When you described these ethnographies you said going into these organizations and saying, “teach me how to do payroll.” I don’t know what you literally said in the actual interviews, but any thoughts about the framing? Like there’s lots of ways to get to learn what people are doing and I wondered if you had a point of view about “teach me” as sort of the mode of inquiry?

Jesse: Yeah, I mean in that case we were purposely trying to, um, understand – uh, figure out what we don’t know. You know you don’t know what you don’t know. And we were trying to get the user’s point of view on it. So we didn’t – in that case we did not want to kind of structure the interview very much at all in a certain way because we wanted to see sort of what came out from them. We were possibly overguarding against imposing our own sort of biases in understanding and structure in it, but I mean that was essentially why we chose that sort of line of inquiry. And I do think there were literally like 4 or 5 questions we used there. And will say that – so my – we started to talk about my background, but my first job out of undergrad was for a marketing research company and their technique was literally one question and they would do one-on-one interviews and it would just be like tell me your thoughts and feelings about how “X” impacts your life? Or tell me about your – something like that. And it was literally one question. And then you were only “allowed” to repeat a word they said, or like say – we would either ladder up or ladder down. So, it’s either – so if they’d say like, “it makes me feel tired.” “Well, what happens when you’re tired.” Those would be like laddering down. Or like what does tired mean to you, or something – I think that was laddering up. It was a long time ago now, so I’m probably butchering it a little bit. But like literally one question and then like never say a word that they didn’t say yet. So, that’s kind of the technique. That has driven sort of my discovery type research, exploratory type research ever since, is like never impose your own words or structure or anything on it and just let the person you’re talking to teach you.

Steve: I’m so self-conscious of whatever word I use now, or whatever question I ask you. The reason I’m curious about the “teach me” question is I think you could ask them – since we’re talking about what are these kinds of questions we might ask, is there a difference between how do you do payroll and teach me how to do payroll?

Jesse: Um, yeah I think there is. Um, I mean I don’t know if this is necessarily true, but if you say how do you do payroll they might say this person is from ADP, I’m going to tell them how I use ADP products. Or, I’m going to tell them the right way. Whereas if I say teach me they’re going to show me the real way in a way. You know what I mean?

Steve: Yeah.

Jesse: Like it’s almost like you go to a university course on how to do something and then you go in the real world and you try to do it. It’s not exactly like the book says. Right? So, maybe it’s how do you do payroll – they would give me the book version. And teach me how to do payroll and they’d give me like the real life version.

Steve: That’s a really nice distinction between the two. So, we’ll switch gears a little bit. So, as part of this effort to bring more people out in the field and get them kind of exposure to the lives of customers and really participate in research – I think you talked about note taking and other kinds of roles that you’re giving to them. So, they are – at one level they are performing some of the tasks of research. I guess I’m wondering what’s – is there more? Is research happening that doesn’t involve you? Are they doing some of this on their own? I don’t know who “they” is?

Jesse: So, it’s related to the idea of the innovation lab sort of teaching the organization how to do these things. And so, I mean, because we’re getting different people from different groups together too – it’s not always a group that has like a robust UX function, right. So, they might go back and if they want to continue to be – to learn, they might have to do it themselves. And yeah, I think that’s happening. I do think there’s sort of the constant debate everywhere, and certainly internal within ADP. You know we have different answers in sort of different parts of ADP is like who should do the research, or whatever. And you know my team are all like dedicated researchers and we have our design partners that we work with and the design partners certainly help shape the research and we certainly help shape the design, but we’re sort of two different people and we think that splitting the sort of lead responsibility is more efficient and we can get a lot more done. Some places, even within ADP’s organization, they say that designers should do the research. And you know I’ve observed also, sometimes some people say designers should only do like evaluative research, like prototype testing type research because that’s sort of more straightforward. You know you get a task, you ask people to do a task. It’s a lot harder to like, I don’t know, lead people, I guess. But some people might argue that they might be biased and they might interpret – if they love their design too much. Again, it goes back to are they really willing to learn, or do they just want to like collect data to show that they’re right? It’s just like different ways that different people are. So, some designers probably are great at doing that and some designers might not be. And then some people might say designers actually should be part of the exploratory research so they can understand it more deeply and really – you know like we talked about earlier, having collected the data you understand the data more deeply and really understand the pains that they’re designing for better when they get to the design process. I guess you could add those together and say designers can do any kind of research. And I think that’s probably true. And then, not only designers, but product management, could also do that stuff too. We definitely encourage everybody to get out there and talk to clients and understand what they’re doing. Sometimes I worry that if you get out there and talk to one client you might overcompensate for their unique need, or pain, or whatever, which could ruin it for the other 99,000 clients or whatever. So, we do, in that program I was talking about, try to force people to participate in more than one data collection point.

Steve: I think there’s just lots of interesting issues around this. And you’re right, this is a very common topic, or question or debate, or just issue. I mean I just wonder long term – I mean right now there are people with the title researcher who have sort of expertise in all the things that you’re talking about. You listed a bunch of different aspects of what researchers are doing and I wonder sort of where does it take us, and I don’t know whether it’s 2 years or 50 years, where we’re holding on to some part of it and we have a belief that we bring value by doing that and we’re empowering other parts of it. And we believe that that adds value. Sort of wonder what will that ratio be? Or what should it be? Or will we have a role with this title in the future? Or is it a process that then gets handled a different way? I don’t know. I don’t know if you have a perspective on the misty futures?

Jesse: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s a tough question for sure. I guess while you were asking that question it reminded of – I heard a great quote recently from, I forget his name. You probably know his name, the guy who leads the design team at InVision, his quote about design thinking was “the worst part about design thinking is the word design” because everybody should be thinking this way. Obviously empathy is the number one step in design thinking. Everybody should be thinking empathetically. And we definitely have groups within ADP too where you – where you “UX” has matured enough that everybody is thinking empathetically and they think about UX as sort of everybody’s role – development, product. You know we have the triad formation – UX, Development and Product – and they work together on things. In some places all three of those people are really thinking empathetically and about end user needs. And also in most places the UX people are thinking about is this feasible or not, right? And trying to understand the tradeoffs in terms of like can we still get to the same sort of meet the user need in a different way that might be more feasible, or easier to do, or whatever too. I mean I think you’re really being successful at “design thinking” when everybody is doing all that stuff.

Steve: It reminds me of just the evolution from human resources to human capital management. There’s a fundamental shift in the belief of sort of the value of something that we used to optimize and now we want to enable and that you’re talking about sort of how products get developed and this idea of empathy being something that everyone can and should have, not sort of one group is helping another group, but that it’s a shared value or principal. So, I wonder if there’s just opportunities – this is not ADP specific, but just the profession in general to rethink how some of this stuff is structured, to get to that kind of organizational culture, or shared value and belief. Because there’s a skill aspect, right? I mean some of what you’re doing is teaching people how to do some of the mechanics of research which is – I don’t know, I’m talking more than I’m asking. Let me try for a question. Does teaching people sort of the processes and tasks of research, is that a way to help illustrated these other principles like empathy and human centeredness?

Jesse: Yeah, I mean I think the good processes and tactics for research come again from that – I don’t know if selflessness is the right way – the right word, but like the willingness to learn and the ability to admit that I might not be right, or I might not already know what needs to be done. And again, I think everybody needs to think that way. But even going back to the example of the way that I ask questions without saying somebody else’s word, like part of that is because I can’t assume that I know what you mean by happiness, or whatever, right? And so I think teaching that sort of instinct to not make assumptions is a big part of teaching the tactics for doing research. And it’s very much related to the reason Product and Development are asked to take notes during the site visits is because in my experience Product will do just what this woman did when I tried to present the ruler thing to her and say, “oh let me show you how to do that.” Like, in response to a question of how should I – I wish I could do something rather than say why would you do that? Or, how would you like to do that? They would say “here’s how to do it.” And that’s like not going to help you learn anything. It might help them learn for that one moment, but if you can learn what’s – you know ask the 5 whys? I love the 5 whys? Ask the 5 whys and bring it back and understand that and like build towards the 4th or 5th why. I think you’re in a lot better shape.

Steve: Can you explain the 5 whys?

Jesse: So, the 5 whys is a technique of interviewing where you just basically – somebody says something and you say why? They answer that and you say why, why? Basically, it’s getting from the surface level, like tactical, like I can’t do this, to why they can’t do it, or what they would want to do? Because then you can – maybe they don’t actually need to do that. Maybe there’s something an hour ago they should have done. You know what I mean? And you can solve their problem that way. It helps broaden the potential solution space, I think, by understanding the root problem, as opposed to the surface problem. But yeah, I mean I think the 5 whys is really about understanding the root of the problem and that’s what research is about is understanding the root of the problem, especially more like say discovery or exploratory type research, where generative type research is digging deeper into the root of the problem.

Steve: And there’s a lack of presumption that you understand, I think. Right, maybe a sort of question/answer thing is ask, “what are you doing?” “Oh, it’s this.” But I think you keep coming back to this principle of – it’s the willingness to learn of us, but also the not presuming that we do understand what the people we’re interested in are doing. So, the more you ask why the more you’re – it might even just be an interesting signal to yourself, the more you say it’s okay to keep asking why the more you give yourself permission to not know something and then not know something else and not know something else.

Jesse: And I actually – I set that expectation. Like if I’m doing an interview, part of my standard sort of interview introduction is I’m probably going to ask you some stupid sounding questions, I’m just making sure that I understand what you’re saying. You might feel like you just answered that question, but I’m going to ask it anyway. Please just like forgive me in advance, bear with me on that. And so it gives me permission to ask some really dumb sounding questions, but sometimes I get surprised and it’s like the best question I’ve asked all day.

Steve: You know back to our consultant and internal person thing, one thing that a consultant can do is not – I mean I guess you can set up this way – you are likely, I’m guessing, to be from ADP a lot of these times?

Jesse: Yeah, totally. I think that’s definitely like going in naïve is a great thing because you can genuinely ask a stupid question.

Steve: Do you have to overcome this sort of ADP relationship in setting up that kind of framing, to say I’m going to be asking dumb questions?

Jesse: Yeah, I mean I think – I mean I think for me it comes kind of naturally and maybe from my training, or just the natural way that I am, but I think – and like I said, I set it up at the beginning so that it doesn’t seem weird.

Steve: So you mentioned a little bit about – you mentioned your training. Do you want to say a little more about – you mentioned this market research you started off working in, but maybe you can go back before that?

Jesse: So, I went to Tufts University because they had engineering and a good psychology program and I didn’t know which one I wanted to do. Little did I know there was such a thing as engineering psychology. And Tufts had some courses in that. I ended up just doing psychology and then – so then – the story I like to tell is I went and interviewed for like psychology jobs, like – and realized I have enough problems of my own and I don’t want to deal with somebody else’s problems. So, I ended up finding this market research firm that was rooted in what they called Adlerian psychotherapy technique which this idea of just like not ever saying anything and just letting the people talk and talk and talk and talk. So, really, like enjoyed that and around that time like there were new technologies coming out. You know I got a Palm Pilot as part of my work and it was just really hard to use and I learned about this thing called human computer interaction and Tufts had just started like a certificate program in human computer interaction. So, I took some night classes. Thought it was really interesting and like the perfect combination of my psychology and engineering interests. And obviously that was in Boston. I grew up in Syracuse. Both very cold, snowy places. So, I decided to go to Atlanta and get out of the snow for a little while. I went to Georgia Tech and studied what they call engineering psychology, or human factors, and really learned a lot about like social science and statistics and like hypothesis testing and like really like hard core academic research which I don’t necessarily use today, but like I think having that basis helps me think about how to create a research project too. Even the exploratory stuff, I still kind of like have a hypothesis testing orientation to that. Even the qualitative research where I just had people talk and talk and talk. It’s not the same as collecting like hard data like I would have in school. And then, yeah, so from there sort of got into human computer interaction. You know they have a great Master’s program. I went to the engineering/psych PhD program because they would pay me rather than me paying them. That was another sort of thing that brought me along there. And then ultimately knew that like I was going to return to New York at some point so came back up here and got into the industry. So, I mean all that – so, it’s very psychology heavy. It’s very social science and like experimentation heavy, my background.

Steve: Yeah. And the team here – what’s the team look like?

Jesse: My team are 6 researchers and we have a mix of backgrounds. So, it’s not all psychology people. You know over the years I’ve taken people from biology programs, which is also scientific, but not – you know I’ve taken people from like design programs and they’ve all been good, you know great people. I’ve had people with human factors backgrounds. You know. So, we have six researchers and basically we’re like semi-embedded in like the products within shared products. So, like we – each of them sort of has a product that they focus on and they have their design and product management partners that they like do a lot of work with and collaborate with a ton and basically they are on that product team, but we all come together every week for our team meetings, but also in addition to let each other know what we’re doing and share ideas and help – you know bounce ideas off each other. And I think, you know, we kind of have the best of both worlds within our little product of being like embedded – you know part of the product team, but also centralized where we can help each other and get support from other researchers. I’ve been a researcher of one at places too and like that’s great. You get to do everything and like nobody questions you or whatever. Or they question you, but you get to design all the studies. But I’ve found that I wish there was somebody that I could like ask advice on this stuff, like research design or something. Like what do you think you would do? Or like help with analysis, or even just like take notes and like put two heads together at the end. Like what was the biggest theme that we found here? So, we get a little bit of both. We get to be a part of the product, but we also have this sort of small research community. And then at ADP there’s another, I don’t know, probably 30 or 40 researchers actually and some of them are two within a group of 10 UX people. Some of them are larger. So, it runs the gambit. But that’s how my team sort of is structured.

Steve: And what’s your role? What’s your sort of leadership role within that? What does that look like for research?

Jesse: So, I help with prioritization of the projects across – like I said, they’re semi-embedded, right. So, if one person is way overwhelmed I might say, “hey, Joe, go help Jane on this project,” because like they’ve got a lot to do and that’s important to my boss, right? Like I help them make sure that we’re focused on the things that are more visible and more strategic for the company and the group as well. That’s not necessarily the part I like the most. The part I like the most is sort of helping people think through their research plans and projects and understand like – so, this person came to me with this problem, but like what does that mean? What should I do? For me the most fun part about research is sort of translating like the request – “oh will you do a survey on this” – to like what we actually should be doing and like designing that project. I really like – to me it’s a nice challenge to do that. So, I institute some, also like processes or whatever, like define the research goals. But it’s mostly to help me help them, but also to make sure like they’re not going into a project unclear with their stakeholders of what they’re doing. Because I’ve also been at ADP long enough that I know most of the people that they’re going to be working with and I know their strengths and their shortcomings and how to like work with those. So, I think that’s another big part is like I’ve learned the ADP culture and like what works here really well. Like establishing the research goals is huge because many times I’ve been burnt with, “well I – well, did you find anything about this?” Well no because we didn’t go looking for that. You know what I mean? “Well why not?” Now I can be like because we agreed that this is what we want to do. It’s a little bit of a CYA, but it’s also like to make sure that maybe they had that in their mind at the beginning, they just didn’t say it to me. So, like working through that with the stakeholders to make sure that I know everything that I need to and now the people on my team know everything that they need to.

Steve: What’s the process for extracting those goals for a research project?

Jesse: Yeah, I mean, so, like I said they’re semi-embedded. So, for the most part they sort of understand it naturally just like in day to day conversation, or like working together and that kind of, you know. But, I mean the process we have like a little bit of a research plan forum and there’s like 5 or 6 elements that we have to fill out. You know the research goal, the guidance is 3 to 4 bullets that explicitly state what we’re trying to find out, but it isn’t so generic – like just 3 or 4 bullets, right? So, not too specific. Also not so generic that it could have been the last project you did. You know what I mean? And then like timing is you know an important one. Kind of what are we going to do with this? So, once we answer these questions like are we going to take an action on that because if there’s no answer to that we probably shouldn’t bother doing this project. Or we can deprioritize it if we have another one that has a big action. What else goes in there? Oh, like the different kinds of materials we need. So, like if we need a designer to build a prototype, like we make that explicit and get everybody’s agreement that like there’s somebody that’s going to help us do that. You know that has the time to do that. Off the top of my head I think those are the main things. The other big sort of process that I try to – try to get everybody on the team to do which I think has been really successful at ADP is in the presentations. So, we do like a classic presentation where we show a picture or like talk about the thing we were trying to understand if it’s more exploratory and there’s not like a prototype and all the things we observed or whatever. But then at the end we summarize what we call our insights table. So, it’s all the insights restated, so it’s our summary. But it’s pretty detailed. And we have our insights framework which is the observation, which is basically the data. Like nobody can argue with that. Then we have a recommendation which usually follows really logically from the observation. And sometimes it’s like so obvious it’s kind of like why’d you even say it. But again, as a researcher, that’s why I ask dumb questions and I say dumb things just to make sure that we all sort of agree on things. And then the action, and that’s we workshop with the team at the end of the presentation to establish the action. So, the recommendation, the guidance there is it should be descriptive, not prescriptive. So, it’s not like make the button a brighter color so people can see it. It’s make the button more visible. And then like you can make it larger. You can make a brighter color. You can put it in a different spot or whatever. Like the team figures out like what’s the right way to do it, that fits in with the rest of the product and is feasible and blah, blah, blah. Because we’ve had a lot of times where like we would make a very specific recommendation and there’s some thing in the background we don’t understand that makes that impossible. So, then everybody is “can’t do that” and they’re just like “I guess we can’t fix that problem.” But like, you know that’s not a good – we’ve got to work through the right answer to that problem. So, and then we have that framework and depending on the team we’re working with, you know some teams might want the prescriptive action filled out. Like they might want us to make a specific recommendation and then talk about it. Some teams, if you make a specific recommendation, they’re going to react negatively and not really want to hear anything else. So, we leave that blank. Sometimes we fill it in, or whatever, and it helps us be – also be very explicit at the end of the presentation. Like, what are we going to do now? And then we take all those and we add them – you know everybody takes their little table and they put it into – we have an Airtable that houses all of our insights from the year and I can then report to my boss, you know we had 750 insights and 350 of them like actually had impact on the products. And that’s the kind of stuff he cares about most.

Steve: I love this separation between sort of the qualities of the solution and the specifics of the solution. These sort of last two columns. And I think I’m probably misaligned in terms of my own language versus yours because I feel like there’s a column missing, which I’m sure isn’t. But if you’re saying sort of observation, like where is interpretation or synthesis?

Jesse: Yeah. So, the observation is like this thing doesn’t fit people’s mental model.

Steve: It’s in there.

Jesse: Yeah, it’s in the interpretation.

Steve: So, that thing that you’re not – I mean there’s a rawer form of data that’s like outside that window that’s like the left most column.

Jesse: Yeah. That would be on the previous slide that has like a picture and like an arrow and like…

Steve: Here’s what’s happening and then your first column observation. Okay. So, that’s our misalignment. I would give that a different label, but I see what you’re saying.

Jesse: Yeah. Each of these observations is like a thing that we saw a few times, or like a theme maybe or something like that I would say.

Steve: I think we get so messed up on these words. What’s an insight? What’s an observation? What’s a theme?

Jesse: Language is tricky. I mean that’s also like something that you see a lot, sort of everywhere, is miscommunications based on using the same work to mean different things.

Steve: So, yeah I think it obviously makes sense within a consistent practice that you run. I’m just like picking at you to translate it so I understand what it is. Thanks for doing that. I mean I really like the breaking those pieces apart and being able to help a team if they need specific action items, or empower them to make that decision themselves that there’s a way that acts on the research and that you’re being very responsive to the way that those teams work and that your process supports a variety of different teams and kind of energies.

Jesse: Yeah, I mean we also find if the team comes up with the action together they’re much more likely to actually implement that because like they can be like that was partly my idea so I’m going to make it happen. You know what I mean? Rather than somebody told me to do this and who’s this researcher? Like they’re a peer of mine, at best. You know what I mean? Like they’re definitely not telling me what to do, so I will – that’s another thing that I see a researcher’s role is supporting other people do their job better. Actually, I’m interested to hear your opinion in terms of like – so now I’m going to ask a question.

Steve: So, we’re at that point. Okay.

Jesse: Like one of the challenges that we face is sort of getting “credit” for the work that we’ve done. I think a lot of what we do is help people understand the problem space better and understand these things that their users aren’t able to do, or want to do, or whatever. And oftentimes it’s not like going to be brand new. Like rarely do you come up with something that nobody’s ever thought of before. A lot of times we help solidify or better articulate those problems, which then you can attack much better. But in the end, the product managers like look at this great idea I had and half the time I know that research definitely inspired that idea or helped to figure out how to do that, but like it’s hard to sort of take credit for it. So, that’s part of what this insights tracker is for so we can say that this action came from this research and get a little bit of credit for it. But I sort of view a researcher’s role as helping everybody else do their job better which leaves it again their job to do these things. What do you think about that?

Steve: I mean you’re just tapping into a bunch of things that I’ve been thinking and talking about and literally had some of this conversation in the 45 minutes before I’m speaking with you now. Where I was talking with someone about sort of the facilitation activity of things are stickier if people come up with them themselves, so helping them have an idea that they think is their own, and then she said what you’re saying, “well then I don’t get credit for it.” It just seems like another, beyond our language misalignment, we also are not maybe collectively aligned around what are we here to do and then how do we measure success? If we’re here to empower people then we have to measure that. And I took some umbrage recently about – there was some – I guess there was, I think, a talk happening and some people were tweeting about it and the quote that kept coming around was, “my research has no value if someone else doesn’t take action.” And, I mean it made me a little angry, but it mostly made me sad that – I mean I think researchers work very hard and are smart and passionate and are often in situations where they maybe don’t feel as valued or feel frustrated based on their expectations about what’s going to happen. My goodness, we don’t need to take that on ourselves and say what I’m doing is not valued unless somebody else takes an action because that to me is ceding all control of success to somebody else because you can’t control if someone else takes action. I mean I say this having worked on research projects for a very long time, in a variety of contexts, and having to sort of let go, or redefine for myself what success looks like. Again, as a consultant I don’t have sort of manager driven OKRs that affect my compensation. So, I might have the liberty to think about it differently. But yeah, if somebody else’s action is how you measure your own success, that just lets go of so much power and control and there are lots of reasons why other people don’t do things. And if we’re in the business of, you know – it’s back to your example of that person who was like well let me go tell them the right way to do it. I mean if you’re – and obviously you want to have a better outcome than that, but if you’re sense of worth and the quality of your work is based on that person’s choice to interpret that information that way, that’s a lot to carry and I feel like we need to redefine some of these things about what success looks like for research and like what are we here to do, right? If we’re sort of – I mean being a supporter is not the same as being an educator, is not the same as being a facilitator. Those are all adjacent words, but they are a different sense of what we contribute. I don’t know. That’s kind of a little rant from me, or a long rant for me because it’s definitely struck a nerve. So, I hear you.

Jesse: I think you said a lot of things that resonated with me too in that rant. It’s good to hear other people are sort of thinking about that too. But I really love the idea of maybe redefining the metric. So, like I said, I report up to my boss the number of insights that we’ve had, or observations that led to an action, right? Like, there’s a million reasons they didn’t happen. Or they might have done a different action that I don’t want to record because I don’t like – so, it’s not a great measure. But yeah, I mean part of it too is like can we take shared responsibility for that success of the product, right? Rather than the product manager being like look at this great product I got, or I have, and like taking all the credit for the – some product managers won’t take all the credit. Some of them will. It’s the way some people are too, I think.

Steve: Well you were pointing loosely towards a future, earlier in the conversation, where this is a mindset, and a set of processes that are sort of equally distributed across a lot of functions. So, if that were to be the case then credit also is the case and that sort of these different skills and processes are pulling together to change a product, or change a product – aspects of it that get shipped. So, then that – you know it might be more of a nirvana state that we’re sort of playing with, but that – that sort of addresses this question about where does credit go? The credit doesn’t need to be sort of parceled out because it’s about what is achieved collectively. Sorry, if that’s like a too socialist idea.

Jesse: Well, honestly, like where – like I said earlier, I think where UX is functioning the best, the triad is taking responsibility and credit collaboratively. And I think that’s great. I think that’s sort of what you’re talking about too.

Steve: Well it’s a good future vision I think that we can kind of hold on to. Is there anything else you want to talk about today?

Jesse: No. I don’t think so. Thanks for having me. It was a fun conversation.

Steve: Thank you so much.

Jesse: Thank you.

Steve: Thanks for listening! Tell a friend about Dollars to Donuts, and give us a review on Apple Podcasts. You can find Dollars to Donuts on Apple Podcasts and Google Play and Spotify and wherever fine podcasts are served. Head on over to portigal.com/podcast to get all the episodes with show notes and transcripts. Special thanks to DJ Anne Frankenstein. Our theme music is by Bruce Todd.

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