33. Julia Nelson of MOO

This episode of Dollars to Donuts features my interview with Julia Nelson, the Director Of Research at MOO.

All researchers say to some degree that they don’t necessarily have a traditional background when they come into the research field. But I think there’s a lot of strength in welcoming people with different perspectives onto your team, so someone who used to be a designer or someone who comes from a more academic background or someone who comes from a completely different application of qualitative research, there’s an element of resilience and perspective that that lends to a team which is the sum is greater than the parts, and that’s something that is crucial to seek out on a research team. – Julia Nelson

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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.

Over the past few weeks many of us have spent a lot of time on Zoom, on FaceTime, or Google Hangout, or whatever, for work, for meetups, for catching up with family and friends, for celebrations and holidays, and for other newly urgent reasons. I’m not referring to relatively passive consumption of all the “new” experiences, from film festivals to talks, museums, fundraising comedy festivals, musical performances all in addition to the television and Netflix and Hulu, but rather these active conversations when you are participating, where you are seen, and heard.

On one hand, we have turned to this alternative form because we must, we feel an imperative to connect with others, to support each other while also drawing strength from each other’s mediated glitching presence, and in the crises, this is the only way. And maybe there’s even a bit of the trend at work here, because this is just what we’re doing now.

Perhaps you’ve heard the term Zoom fatigue, especially acute for those who are expected to follow a work schedule like the one from the before times, all online, and then find themselves using their off-work hours in the very same mode. Because it’s hard. I mean, really hard.

It’s hard when people who can’t stop talking for hours when hanging out on a back porch find themselves staring at each other through a screen and just don’t know what to say, and don’t have a clue why that is.

It’s hard when members of a group have different levels of familiarity with the norms the technology demands, such as knowing to mute yourself so that the video doesn’t switch over to you when you rustle papers, even though someone else is talking.

It’s hard when convenors of our online meetings don’t know about those norms either, and don’t know the additional facilitator labor required to ensure compliance so that one person can’t accidentally stomp all over the fragile emergent communal vibe.

And on and on.

I went to a professional meetup that included a fascinating recap of many of the technologies over the decades that have tried to connect people remotely over video so that they can collaborate. And yet the meeting began with the familiar fumbling aloud in search of the sharing screen button, the host squinting away from the camera, at a second monitor, navigating the intricacies of the interface while we waited patiently but increasingly felt disconnected instead of connected.

I went to a community meeting where someone gave a spiritual musical performance full of commitment and enthusiasm. I imagine that many of the attendees felt this was a beautiful gift, but honestly I was terribly self-conscious, knowing that I was on-screen myself and had to manage my own performance, my own reaction to something very intimate that I just was not prepared for.

I joined a family celebration where one house had such terrible latency (of which they were entirely unaware) that the conversational disconnect spiraled repeatedly into something highly comical and highly frustrating.

The flawed assumption that we can simply use this technology as a replacement for the ways we used to connect is more clearly revealed as time passes. As with anything, rather than replicating experiences, the technology transforms experiences. Right now we the users are mostly in problem-solving mode, and the problems we are solving are mostly implicit. The problem is the technology, but also it’s the user interface, it’s the intended use case versus the emergent use cases, it’s the social constraints and norms, and a whole lot more.

And this is what researchers do. We don’t come with answers, but we come with ways to look at complex problems that involve people, systems, and other people. My litany of complaints is an invitation to both incremental and innovative changes, but those changes have to be based on a deep understanding of the issues, and that’s the work.

And this is one of the things I do for clients, well, really, it’s what I do WITH clients. We unpack the hidden aspects of their products, current and future, in order to prioritize their next steps to delivering the kinds of experiences that meet their goals.

And this is something I can do for you and your team. I’d appreciate you reaching out to me to find ways that we can work together.

And now, my interview with Julia Nelson, the Director of Research at MOO.

Julia, it’s really excellent to have you on Dollars to Donuts. Thanks so much for being here.

Julia Nelson: Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here.

Steve: So let’s start. Yeah, talk about the work that you do and maybe talk about MOO, which is sorry, I don’t get to say very.

Julia: Absolutely. I know it’s an unusual name. Um, so mu is an online printed design company. We’ve been around since 2004. based in London, that’s where the company was started. But we have several offices in the US and we operate globally. And we’re mostly known for business cards, but our real passion is product design, particularly physical product design. So we’ve been expanding over the last few years into new things like notebooks and postcards and flyers and other things. things you can do with paper. We are a bit unusual, I think, in the sense that we in two ways in terms of how we’re structured as a company, so one is that we’re completely vertically integrated. So we control all of our manufacturing. And in fact, that is a core part of some of the, the software that we build and maintain is our own sort of infrastructure for communicating with our manufacturing operations. And we’re also a very flat organization in terms of how we’re physically structured so the headquarters in London has tech and product teams, but also most of our online marketing all of our in house industrial design team. We also have our own creative team who do all their photography, photography, videography, and customer services in house which is great because it’s super easy to walk over and drop in on a customer call anytime of the day. So I’m director of research. I’ve been at mu for about three years and four months now, I started as a head of in January of 2017. My team is quite small. Over the years, we’ve fluctuated between myself and one other researcher up to about four people in total. And I think we’ve had a bit of an interesting arc as a research team. So when I joined the company, we were more of a user research function. We reported into the design organization, which sat within the product team. And we were primarily focused on evaluative user testing on the website, but over my tenure there we’ve explicitly shifted the function to be much more of almost a research and insights function. So we not only handle user research website, but also cover design research from physical products. So in forming innovation around the things that our industrial design team is creating, and then we have sort of taken over a small portfolio of market research as well. So everything from claims testing to market sizing comes within our purview.

Steve: How did that change come about?

Julia: Um, I think that’s a really interesting question. I think it’s a combination of two things. One was sort of an internal desire within my team to make sure that we were doing more generative, more strategic work that had more of a role in setting product strategy within the company and eventually company’s strategy. So it was something we explicitly work towards, in the ways that we work with our Stakeholders internally was pushing towards that more generative research. But also we got really lucky, we had some sponsors within the company who really understood the potential of what our research function could be and really championed us with senior management. So we lucked out in that sense. But I think the combination of those two things and sort of over time being able to show people how you could leverage research insight earlier in the process earlier in the design process, or even more broadly into business decision making. It’s a it’s been part of just demonstrating the value of what we can provide and how we can provide it in different ways across the company.

Steve: All right. So you’re talking about kind of two key factors here. One is the team themselves identifying, hey, we want to work you know, If we have more than we can bring here, we want to Yes, work in this way. And then sponsors, people who, you know, were in influential decision making positions, who saw, as you said, saw the potential here.

Julia: Absolutely. Yeah. And I think it’s not just about potential, but I think I’ve been really lucky. I’ve worked with both people who have intimate knowledge of research and have worked with researchers before. And I’ve also reported into AI reporting to someone who isn’t a researcher but is really open to sort of having a dialogue about research and the value that research can bring and then scouts for opportunities for us to move into doing more strategic work that is more about core business strategy, about product strategy, etc. So I think it’s, it’s possible to have allies who may not fully understand what you do but understand enough to kind of be on the lookout for ways to leverage what your team can offer to the company.

Steve: Right. Well, when you say, I understand what you do, it makes me think about how, I mean maybe this is true of every group of professionals that have a shared practice, whether they’re accountants or engineers or you know, farmers, but I don’t know if this is unique for researchers, we like to talk about the how and not like the, the process and not the outcomes. Hmm. I don’t know if that’s if you agree with that characterization.

Julia: I do think we love I think researchers are people who love details and who enjoy the mechanics of the work. You know, I think most people I know who get into research love the process, because that’s part of what fulfills them. So we naturally gravitate towards talking to talking to the process. And I think, I think when you’re talking to people when you’re talking to state holder’s from, you know, whether it’s people in different departments or senior managers, I think you picked up on something right, which is the language of outcomes? What is it going to deliver? How is it going to help us? What choices that going to enable us to make? How is it going to reduce risk speaking in the language of business tends to resonate more? Right? It’s the How will this be applicable to this challenge or problem or decision that I have to make, as, you know, the VP of marketing or the VP of product, etc.

Steve: And this comes up, I think, a lot in you know, when researchers get together they talk about, you know, having impact and having influence. Mm hmm. What you’re saying is, you know, probably the number one opportunity for researchers to do better, but I want to go back to one of the things he pointed out, I think, which is the is the consequences of doing that. Well, I guess I don’t, I don’t want to imply causality. causality to say that but you’re describing Where people may not know what you do, but they know what kinds of outcomes you can provide. And they’re on the lookout for those opportunities. So it’s not we should get those folks to do some research. It’s those folks can provide this kind of information that we need right here.

Julia: Absolutely. I think that’s exactly the right way to think about it. And you’ve articulated it more clearly than I have before. Yeah, it’s the knowing what, what’s this? I don’t want to say tangible because research can be quite an intangible thing, but it helps articulate that outcome that it’s going to give them that way. It’s going to enable their work. So even if they don’t understand the mechanics of how the research will get done And I think that’s almost easier for some people to some people, for other stakeholders to run with, you know, even if they can’t explain how the research will be done or the method or the you know, sample size or any of that. Being able to say this will help us do x within the business I think is incredibly powerful and persuasive not only for them, but for them to make the case on your behalf to others. So I often when I talk about the value of research, I often talk about risk and decision making. Rather than what specifically we might be doing.

Steve: I mean, I so I agree, and then I feel anxious when I

Julia: Ah, okay.

Steve: And so some of this is just I can make statements like as researchers, we and I may just be talking about my, what my bad habits are. But I don’t think we can just dig into this, sir, the framing here because I feel like I or researchers, you know, we do talk about the details of the process as a way to I mean, sometimes we call it we call this quality or sometimes we call it, you know, yeah, rigor. Mm hmm. Because there are so as a researcher, you know how to make process decisions that will get to the right. The right outcomes. Yes. And, and I think we’re often given requests that include process details.

Julia: Yeah.

Steve: Here’s the kind of people we want you to talk to, here’s how many, here’s how quickly, here’s what we want you to do with them. And so you can find yourself pulled into a process discussion. You know, if we don’t do this, then we’re obviously setting people up to be give us favorable responses this way. You know, that’s the guidance that we’re asked to provide.

Julia: Absolutely.

Steve: So, what’s my question for you? Is and maybe you’re just Describing a more more mature state where not having those conversations where the, you know, the request is for outcomes, and the responsibility for process decision falls to you.

Julia: Yeah, I think we’ve been really lucky in that sense. I think that’s been one of our triumphs over the years that I’ve been there is really consistent. I didn’t mean to negate the need to speak to process. But I think we’ve managed to, in some ways, educate our audience that what we really need to be asking ourselves is what do we want to know? And what are we going to do with that information? And we’re happy to talk your ears off about process but we’re going to go away and make a decision about the options for that process that are rigorous enough to give us confidence and in the quality of our output. And there’s always trade offs, right? They’re always time pressures, there’s always resource pressures. So our job as researchers is to help Deliver the insights that you need to address the questions that you want to answer. But also to figure out the how of how to do it and how to how to getting off track here a little bit. Let me restart on my answer there. I’m sorry, said that not to negate processed in it. And I think I’m speaking to more of the advocacy around research. So I think arming people to speak to the outcomes that we can provide, to make the case for the role that we can play within the organization is a different thing from speaking of what are the goals of the research process, or goals of research and the process behind it? So I didn’t say that to negate the importance of the process aspect. But yeah, I think that’s been one of our successes. Over my time there is we actually have gotten people to to let go of process a little bit more We certainly get pressure around time that sort of everyone always needs their insights yesterday. And we have to manage that as researchers, but I think I had a just illustrate it. I think that’s one of our successes within the culture. So I was in a meeting where another researcher was talking a group of stakeholders through a sort of brainstorming around, you know, the research objectives and the research questions and then spoke a bit to potential process. And I’m saying if you see the word ethnography, I get really excited. So I started geeking out and every single stakeholder in that room, who is not a researcher turned around and said, Julia, you lecture us about not prescribing process, you’re not allowed to prescribe process here. So we’ve kind of managed to at least train them a little bit to let go of trying to design the process for us. And to trust that we’re going to walk them through how and why we chose the approach. If we need to go for something lean Where we’re making decisions about how to take a leaner approach, etc. And I think that’s been a bit of a cultural win on our part. I hope that answered the question.

Steve: Yes. And I note that you don’t keep them out of the loop around. Yes,

Julia: absolutely not. Yeah, the more they’re in the process, the better. Not only, you know, just keeping we walk them through the research design, but we try to engage our stakeholders as much as possible in the process, I think is every every research, you know, here, I’m gonna generalize community, but there’s so much power and having those stakeholders in the room. So as much as possible, we try to encourage them to get involved.

Steve: Right, well, so I think you’re, you’re identifying it’s not a contradiction, but it’s an interesting challenge. And maybe this is why we’re not it’s not accountancy or so. other profession? Because I don’t know, because you’re very clear, this isn’t a black box. Right? It’s not we want these outcomes. Okay, we’ll go get them for you know, and yes to collaborate and have them participate helps the results for all the reasons that we know. But you’ve maybe, you know, as you talk about this education process has clarified where the responsibilities are where the what your value add is here, what your unique skill set is, is not is in being able to plan how to best meet their goals.

Julia: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Steve: So this is I mean, I feel like we’re hearing the, you know, the evolution towards a really strong positioning, which is still collaborative and still engaging but is relieving them of the responsibility relieving stakeholders to the responsible for things that just make their job harder, and that are actually, you know, within your, within your skill set.

Julia: Yeah. And it’s not been instant, it’s definitely come over time. It’s definitely a trust that we had to build. And also, you know, a lot of the stakeholders who we work with in different parts of the company, we’ve now been working with them for one or two or three years. So we’ve managed to, they’ve seen enough of the process and they’ve seen enough of our decision making, and we’ve walked them through a lot of that to I think, have a level of, of confidence that we’re going to define something that is both that is rigorous and will deliver what they need to know. So it’s an earned trust. It’s not an instant trust. And people are still anxious about process. I think we try and take time to explain why we’re taking the approach that we’re taking. Why we’re not considering something else, or why We feel this is the best option. So I think really speaking to that, why have we made these choices is really helpful in building their confidence around our decision making around how we design the work that we do

Steve: this this dynamic, you know, the, the trust that you’re earning, and then how you, you know, take ownership of getting towards outcomes, but you engage them in the way that you see variations. I mean, in our conversation so far, you’ve described like, a range of types of business that the organization has, and yeah, different and different work that you’re doing towards those. So, you know, how might it be different if you’re working on the industrial design of a, of a notebook versus maybe something more strategic versus something on the websites, etc, etc. Does that lead to variations in what we’re talking about?

Julia: Absolutely. I mean, I think I think there’s different cultures within a company, right? And there’s different points at which people start in their understanding of design and of design or user research. So I think we struggle. I wouldn’t call it struggle. I think we have a natural sort of common language with folks in UX design and product to have a specific experience around user research and the role that it can play in product development. Whereas the language that I speak with industrial designers is sort of, we have a similar understanding of process from in terms of the framework of design thinking and the need for sort of deep customer empathy to inform your ideation and prototyping etc. But a lot of industrial designers don’t necessarily come from a human centered design background. So even within our industrial design team, they have different levels. have experience doing research with users of a product or buyers of a product from a market research perspective, so, you know, with there’s different sort of pockets of education that need to happen there about how do we translate what we’re understanding into choices about form and the tactical experience of a product. Which are different conversations that I would be having elsewhere, partially because of subject matter, but also because they’re starting with a different understanding of some of the basics of Human Centered Design, etc, and how it plays out in practice. Whereas on the market research side, you know, they have, there’s parts of the company that are much more used to market research surveys, focus groups, etc, which isn’t necessarily what we do. Although it’s, you know, it’s parallel in some ways. Many of the techniques that we use are also used in more market research. But you know, their understanding of what research is and how it can be used and what do you get, what’s the insight you get out of it is it is entirely different from the industrial designers and the product design portion of the company. So I think we have different conversations and also different challenges with those different cultures within the company in terms of how we communicate and advocate for what we do. And also speak to the limitations of what we have what we can deliver.

Steve: So I’m thinking about, you know, maybe two dimensions here one is time, and you’ve kind of talked about, you know, the Earned trust over time. And the other is maybe the horizontal axis of in my in the chart, I’m waving my hands to illustrate. Yeah, I mean, one way, maybe I’ve screwed it up because time should be horizontal and the, the, the different parts of the organization that are at have different cultures and sort of think differently about it. And so you approach each of them differently. And this is all evolving over time. Yep. So, in the moments in any particular moments where you have to you and your team have to bring something different to bear maybe more patience or simplification or more speed and more camaraderie or kind of shared language, as you said,

Julia: Yeah.

Steve: How do you do you have a way of keeping that all in balance or, you know, the word that comes to mind for me, is, uh, is around patience. But that’s, that’s my, that’s overlay on to what your experiences mean. How do you When, when, when things go when there’s probably an optimum situation here, these people are easiest to work with and they have been? Yeah, you know, once you’ve tasted Did that and sort of, you know, achieved something, you know, like a micro Nirvana for the researchers role. You know, how do you remember? How do you create for yourself the long view? I mean, you’ve been doing this for a few years in this organization? How do you kind of put the individual experiences in context of that long view that you’ve been working towards?

Julia: Oh, that’s a tricky question. Tell me more about what you mean, my long view.

Steve: The, you’re describing a change over time, when you talk about trust, yeah, means at a point in time a, it’s going there’s gonna be more stress or concern in the party, collaborating. And you might be thinking, yeah, you know, I’m here right now with this team, and I Want, again somewhere else with this team in the future? And I mean, you’re kind of saying when you say earn trust, yeah, that makes me think there’s not a shortcut you have to work and kind of get better and get better and get better.

Julia: Yeah.

Well, I think sometimes it’s just about a lack of experience with research. It’s sometimes hard to visualize what something can tell you before you’ve, you’ve been through it. So try to think about how we’ve tackled this. I mean, I think we’re lucky in that one victory makes you more confident about the next victory. But I think I think what helps me is putting it in the perspective of the field as a whole and I talked to a lot of designers about this. Which is that in some ways design, while also very old is a very young function for many companies. And similarly, although user research or design research is an established field and is establishing many companies, it’s not as ubiquitous as like, as you said accountancy or HR are easy to understand in a way because they’re sort of ingrained in the institutions we work in. Whereas research and design are I want to say younger, but maybe more amorphous for people. So I think thinking about the fact that this is a field that is still new for many companies, that is still new for many people in the workplace, who maybe haven’t interacted with researchers before. And then it’s also rapidly evolving. I think that helps me get a bit of perspective on you know, when I may be feel challenged, working With a set of stakeholders is to just put it in that context of, we have different levels of experience with a, with a, with this arena or this discipline. And that’s, that helps me step back to, you know, I have to start with the baby steps, I have to start with ensuring we have shared assumptions and shared language and a shared understanding of what user research or design research can be and can do. So I think, I think that for some reason, that helps me with the frustration to step up to the bigger picture. And to put it in context to the wider discipline as something that is not as embedded or institutionalized as an HR function. And just to be a bit Kinder about you know, it’s it’s going to take time to educate people and for people to wrap their minds around it.

Steve: Right I think your point about the hit the youth or You know, duration of the field versus in the particular company? Yeah. Right. And, you know, movie said 2004, I think, right? Yes, it’s a 16 year old company, which is, maybe for a lot of people, an old company in a lot of it. Hmm. So you could be a researcher in a company where your career as a researcher exceeds the duration that company has been in existence.

Julia: Exactly.

Steve: And maybe the professional life of the people that you’re working with? Yeah, cuz we have people of all ages working in companies. So if for five years, your colleague may only have been out of school for two years. Yep. So yeah, I think that that’s a really good point to kind of contextualize where everybody is at.

Julia: Yeah. And it goes both ways, right. I think on the marketing side, there’s a much more Establish discipline around market research, which shapes certain expectations around the nature of the qualitative research that we do, which aren’t, you know, people come in with preconceived notions of what research looks like because of experience with that discipline. So it’s not always that they don’t have experience with the field, you know, they might be younger, but it’s out to that they might come from maybe a more traditional background or have less exposure to a more agile way of working or to, to the discipline as a whole.

Steve: So what are ways for, you know, people in the come up in the design research or user research tradition and people in the market research tradition? What are ways for them to collaborate and coexist effectively?

Julia: Hmm, I think it’s about knowing about how you fit together. So it comes a bit back to methodology and to understand that difference between sort of opinion data market research and more of the user and the design experience and how they can complement each other rather than conflict. So I think having an intimate understanding, and I’m still working on this, I’m not a market researcher by training. So my growth over the past couple years has been immersing myself more in that field and trying to understand their disciplinary heritage and also understand methodologically. What can those methods bring to the table? And where does that end? And where does design slash user research begin? I think being able to speak to that and to have conversations with people about that fit, whether they’re market researchers or they’re people within your company who kind of need both, or maybe need one and not the other. I think getting really clear on how you explain that to people that complementarity and where one begins the other ends is really helpful to communicating how they fit and when one is appropriate when the other is approved. Corporate how they can complement each other, and etc.

Steve: So we’re talking, I think, I think you’re talking about processes or methods, right? Yes. complementarity?

Julia: Um, yes. Well, knowing what each of them deliver. So, you know, my market research is going to give me insight on things like, potentially, you know, stated behavior and on opinions and that sort of thing. And what is it that that can help me understand, and what are the limitations of that work? And then how can I leverage that alongside something that’s coming from more of a design research perspective? How can we leverage the strength of both of those disciplines to work together? So So yes, from a methodology perspective, but more than Uber level?

Steve: How that how those two things fit? And then how does that look from a team perspective? Have you have the activities of market research? And yeah, I mean, you can talk more about kind of what your team looks like. But is there a person who I where the market research hat and I, where’s the user research hat? Because that’s, that’s, I think, key to making, what you’re talking about happen is, is the individuals and how they can guess, you know, complement each other.

Julia: Yeah. So the current structure of my team is, is a sort of a mix of generalists and specialists. So we are, we are because we’re very small. We are a centralized research function. And also because we not only service our product teams and crews, but also we work across the company. So myself and our other core researcher, at the moment are more generalists. We work across the board on a variety of different projects. I spend about 50% of my time as an individual contributor as well as manager. And then we have a couple people who are disciplinary specialists who are who are part time and who help sort of lead or advise. They not only do the work, but they provide that methodological expertise. So we have a part time market researcher we work with out in New York, and a very experienced design researcher for physical products who we work with out of Boston. And so that kind of odd some of the the experience and the methodological, it complements sort of the more generalist skills that myself and the other senior design researcher bring to the team. They can provide that injection of disciplines specific perspective and experience.

Steve: You’ve used generalists and specialists. Hmm. This came up in a discussion I was in recently Someone was asking as a researcher, should they be a generalist or specialist and it just made me wonder, like, what do we mean by that? So you Great question. What what are those terms mean for you?

Julia: Ah, for me, um I think it’s a combination of I’m thinking about the two people on my team. So it can be either skillset or experience. So, my market researcher has a specific set of methodological skills and also skills around survey design that she brings to the table which strengthen that element of our practice. Whereas our physical product researcher has a lot of experience thinking about sort of the physical medium of design research. So he brings perspective on what we’re looking for. From a from an industrial design perspective, what we need to understand how we need to explore some of the physical dimensions of those products in ways that are different than what we would do online. So that’s a bit more less methodological and more experiential expertise that he brings to the table. So I think it can be in either of those two dimensions. I mean, I think over the course of a career, you inevitably become a bit of a generalist in the sense of at least I find that that researchers are always hungry to learn new things and to explore new methods and to understand how they can utilize them in their work. So I think I think we all have a little bit of a gelatin generalist tendency within research.

Steve: So I’m going to ask the magic wand question. Okay. Apologies for asking a researcher the magic one question. With a genie appeared and offered to wave a magic wand and said you could add You could add two people to your team. How would you start to characterize what you would look for?

Julia: generalist or specialist? Do you want me to speak more generally to how I approach hiring or more team structure?

Steve: Well, let’s start with how you approach hiring.

Julia: Hmm. Okay. How do I approach hiring? Um, I think I, and this might be a personal preference. So I think that the key things that I look for when I’m hiring someone are, I focus a lot on research design. So do people understand can they elicit the objectives of a project can they design, a process a project that will address those objections? That’s something really, really critical to me in terms of rigor is making sure that people are flexible and adept at really thinking through that aspect to the process and defining the objectives of research, developing a design that’s, that’s rigorous and and effective and delivering the kinds of insights that we want. That we need to know. And I look for but a lot of it beyond that. So certainly there’s core skills around interviewing and observing and stuff like that, which I think are were difficult to assess in most traditional hiring processes. But you get a sense of that through how someone interviews and how they interact, the questions that they ask in the hiring process and through their portfolio, but I also tend to look for A couple of intangible qualities. I look for a growth mindset. Because research is such an experiential field in some ways, certainly. It there’s a lot more formalized education around user research, then there was more than then there has been in the past, but a lot of what you learn, you learn on the job. So I think having a hunger to learn a hunger to experiment, a desire for constant improvement. I think that really set someone up for success as a researcher because it’s not ability to learn something that the desire to try new things that allows you to expand your skill set. So that to me is a really strong signal of someone who I want to have on my team because of the potential for growth that they bring to the table. I also look for people who…I think this comes back to it, but who but who turned failure into learning so that this is a bit of growth mindset as well, but who can show me that they’ve taken something, applied it and improve their practice. And then I think somebody who can adapt who’s flexible when it comes to methodology, who can think through practical challenges, like what happens if I have half the time and half the money? And, and can adapt their approach to to those constraints? And then stakeholder management is the last one is this someone who has a has dealt with challenging stakeholders, even if it’s not in a research context, but who has sort of the emotional intelligence to think through how do I meet this person where they are How do I build a relationship with this person? How do I? How do I educate and advocate with them for how research can play a role in the work that they do day to day? So I look for kind of those three things growth, mindset, ability to learn from failure, stakeholder management and adaptability.

Steve: So for those last those last four, how’re our people communicating that to you? How does How do you find that from someone? Hmm.

Julia: It’s a lot of behavioral interviewing, it’s a lot of talking about past experiences and how they’ve dealt with past situations. Even if again, it’s not necessarily in a research, research traditional research role. Some of it we get to through, we do do task interviews, but they’re always I dislike giving people take home tasks, because I think that’s a bit unfair. We do do a thinking exercise with them, where we talk about how they might approach different challenges in the context of designing a project. So it’s a lot of behavioral questions, and a lot of just seeing their thought process about how they might approach a problem that’s presented to them.

Steve: So the other piece you said we might explore is the composition of your team.

Julia : Sure, at the moment, it’s extremely tiny. So the composition and the structure of my team has changed over time when we started and we were more embedded within the product function. We still weren’t large enough to necessarily be embedded in crews. There were two of us for for 12 crews. So we had to take almost by default, a bit more of a centralized approach. But we did try and sort of service different sets of crews. So in that instance, we were set up more around the product structure. So with different people looking after crews who kind of work on similar aspects of our website and our creation experience, etc. So they can build that depth of knowledge around that particular element of the product in the website. As we’ve sort of shifted within the organization, we actually moved out of the product function under the VP of strategy for a while. And then under the VP of commercial planning and strategy, we’ve evolved our structure to adapt to broader changes within the business. So mu has been working hard to align the company a lot more cross functionally around some of the key outcomes that we’re trying to achieve. So now we’re structured around there’s three major outcomes the company is pursuing and there’s a researcher and Is strip at the strategic level within each of those outcomes, which have steering groups that look after the outcome. So with that person is sort of responsible for overseeing for being engaged in the thinking and the decision making of the of the strategic group that’s guiding that outcome within the business. Being able to identify research needs, being able to work to shape that research and define projects and then engage with me and with a broader team to figure out how we deliver on that. So we’ve moved into something that is a little bit as a company, we’ve transformed in a way that has sort of transformed the nature of the team. So yeah, so we’ve got those three people embedded in each of those outcomes or two, and we’re seeking a third and then the specialist support kind of sits across all three of those. So for our part timers who work on through quantitative market research and our physical product researcher, they they service the needs or they work with A researcher who’s sort of leading the work for each of those outcomes to deliver what we need to.

Steve: So the person that’s embedded in one of these outcome groups, they’re involved in planning, assessing what research needs to be done and planning for that, is that the only or the primary way that what research is gonna happen gets determined is that is that what’s happening? I would

Julia : say the majority, but not all of it. So we also get asked to do research by our Executive Committee. So there are sort of business level strategic projects, which are fewer and further between, but they will make specific requests advice. And then we also for sort of day to day evaluative research, usability testing, things that need to be done and more of the executional side of design. We work extremely closely with our UX design team, to sort of empower them to do some of the research and also to oversee the work that they do or to support them on that work, depending on the needs of the designer and their experience. With UX research there, we help them drive that sort of more tactical aspect of work, or we step in to do that where there’s, there’s not someone available to do that.

Steve: I want to go back to something you’ve said, I don’t know, maybe 15 seconds ago, when you were talking about understanding the point of view of people who maybe have less experience or just different levels of familiarity with research, you made the observation that despite its you, as a field, you commented that research is rapidly changing. And I just want to go way back to that and say, in what ways do you see it rapidly changing?

Julia : I think there’s a few different forces of change that I think about well, so independent of your context, and what’s happening. I think there is an aspect of as a researcher, you’re always evolving and changing within your own practices of researcher. I’ve often said to people that I don’t think anyone comes into this field as a full stack researcher. You don’t know all the methods. You have different levels of experience with different aspects of research. You know, you might be an excellent interviewer, but project management is a challenge. So I think even within our own practices, we are always evolving as researchers. And I also think it attracts people who love that process of learning and evolving their practices they go. I think the other ways that I see things changing are, some of them are organizational. You know, going back to what we were saying earlier about people’s understanding of design and research or innovation, there’s a cultural evolution that happens within companies with their experience with those fields. So I think as you mature within an organization that also feels like a source of change. And then I think, you know, technology wise, we’re moving into new technologies and to voice into a high into these new areas and bit sorry, not Bitcoin. I’m completely blanking on what the Bitcoin technology is. I’m so sorry, blockchain blockchain. So understanding these new contexts and these new interactions is another source. A change in evolution in our discipline, learning to how our work applies or can can enable those things, I think is another continuous education element to what we do.

Steve: You had this great line that, you know, no one comes into the field full stack researcher. Yeah, leads me to ask you, was there a point at which you learned that this was a thing? This was a field or a practice?

Julia : Yes. And I also embarrassingly sort of was very up close to its emergence without really realizing it was there. So I did my undergrad at Stanford, and I remember cycling past the D school probably 1000 times and I think I went in there exactly once. my undergrad. So right at the height of when, you know, the D school was emerging as a voice and design thinking, I sort of missed the birth where the emergence of that is a mainstream discipline. I was there and I missed it. But I was sort of aware of design thinking and innovation and design research as a discipline, I think tangentially from that point. And I spent about 15 years in the Bay Area. So I had a couple friends who were one was a design researcher at IDEO. And the other was a user researcher, who is not quite senior in Seattle. So I think in some ways, I got exposed to the idea that this field existed through just those friendships and knowing a little bit about what they did. And I remember feeling that tweak of interest when talking to them about what they did and what they enjoyed about it. But I didn’t so I always had it kind of in the back of my head is something that I might potentially be interested in professionally, but it didn’t really click for me as something that I wanted to make part of my career until 10 years into another career. So I did my undergrad work in anthropology, specializing and looking at the intersection between culture and environment. So I was always interested in people and how people interacted with their physical environment and sort of used the natural world around them. And then I went into sustainability for 10 years working first as a consultant. And then in house in the corporate social responsibility and sustainability were my work was largely around doing extensive qualitative fieldwork. So I specialized in community engagement and community development around mining oil and gas and renewable energy projects. So I remember so I was about 10 years into this career. And I remember having a moment when I was working in house for one of the largest Canadian gold miners in the world. And my job was to go to different sites and engage in field work with the communities around these mine sites and really understand the impacts and the effectiveness of how the company was managing social impacts on these communities. And I just remember having this thought we were talking about local procurement and using procurement to encourage economic development around mine sites. And I just thought we could be doing so much more. We’re doing a lot of stuff that’s about managing risk, and mitigating impacts. But we’re not talking about opportunity. And we’re not talking about innovation. So I had a bit of an aha moment around that and just thought, I really want to be doing something that’s more on that innovation side of the picture. So I went back to school in my early 30s, and I decided to go get an MBA because I knew I wanted to do something around strategy and business and innovation and I wasn’t quite sure what it was and ended up at Cambridge, which is why I’m in the UK today. But I took a number of classes from professors there who specialized in service design and sort of innovation more broadly. And I really enjoyed that and that felt like the thing that I was looking for, and we did a few small designs. research projects in that context and not that really gave me a sense for, oh, this is a thing that I can do. I’m enjoying it. it leverages all this past experience that I have doing qualitative research in a different context. I think this is something that I want to pursue. And that was what led me to move. Well, I ended up finding something that was the right fit for taking a dive into the field.

Steve: In addition to the experience with field work that you pulled forward, are there other things from other points in your career or your education that you see yourself adapting or leaning on in the work that you’re doing now?

Julia : Absolutely. I think a lot of the business elements of what I did the training that being a consultant gave me around speaking to strategy and speaking to a business audience is something I leverage all the time. I think all of my managerial experience comes from managing teams and managing reports in that context. And a lot of the experience and guidance that I got from other people during that time is something I use a lot in managing my own team. Now, I did a lot of intensive facilitation work when I was a consultant, large cross functional, multi party, sort of international Working Group type of stuff, which I think gave me a lot of confidence around running meetings and facilitating decision making, and a bit of that conflict management elements. So all of that comes to bear in my stakeholder management. What else? I think all of that I think it gives me a bit of perspective on some of the organizational and business challenges that we face as researchers sort of like having a like a spare in your toolbox. You can draw on this different wealth of experience in a completely different fields, but that ends up being surprisingly applicable in what you do.

Steve: Is there anything different about managing researchers Specifically.

Julia : Hmm, I think I think we have some inherent organizational challenges. I think knowing what the long term career path is for researchers seems to be challenging for many of my peers, right? Talk to in the industry, like there’s the managerial path. So moving into managing researchers, but what is a career look like for someone who is an individual contributor? What is that arc of growth look like over 10 1520 years? How do we help people figure out what that looks like for them? Sometimes they hear from my peers that there’s a sense that what we can do as researchers is capped, that there’s a limit.

Steve: So you are having these conversations with your peers about what’s the career path for researchers and it sounds like this is a question mark in the field right now.

Julia : I think it does feel a little bit that way. Is that is that something you feel like you’ve heard from others more broadly?

Steve: You know, I hear phrases like career ladders. Yeah. And so on, and that these are starting to get defined for Yes, I haven’t looked at them. Mm hmm. And I don’t know that I have this sort of expertise to assess them. Mm hmm. You know, and I think about your point about the field rapidly changing, or I think about my own career where the field that I’m in now is not the field that I came into. Yes. Field 10 years ago is not the field. But I don’t know what the what the period of that transformation like. But yeah, if you say, well, what’s what is an individual contributor going to be doing in 10 years? Well, in what field? Will they be working is? Yes. Like this one? Yes. Yeah. I find that challenging. And so so I think your point is like that’s, that’s a challenge to manage a team manage individuals on your team be successful because the path for them is hard to plan for?

Julia : Yeah, I think so. And I think I think it’s also quite individual. And this might be because of the nature of research as a distance. To plan so if you were working in say, operations or in factory work or as a lawyer, there’s a very defined sort of ladder that you might go up if you’re a lawyer, you know, you start as an associate and you work your way up to partner, Managing Director, you know, that’s very well understood in a very clear sort of hierarchical path. I think for researchers, there’s, there’s many, the career path might look a little bit less linear. There’s certainly like a hierarchy of experience and potentially responsibility if you’re on the managerial side. But I think something that I find both sort of freeing and challenging when matching researchers is it’s very individual what you find fulfilling and motivating, I think to a greater degree in the field in our field rather than another fields because of the breadth of what we do. You know, you can grow in your skills constantly. You can grow into new skills, you can develop experience in new areas you can try out new methodologies. But because there isn’t a defined career path to sort of hang your aspirations on, it becomes much more individual to figure out what motivates you as a researcher, are you motivated by learning how to manage others? Are you motivated by the advocacy element of what we do? Are you motivated with by the joy of learning new methodologies that you can apply to your work? Are you more excited about being able to work in different products or different aspects of the business? So it ends up being? I think it’s both joyful and also challenging when managing a team of researchers to support that diversity in people’s aspirations and to create opportunities for their growth that are going to look different from person to person. So to make this more concrete, I have managed researchers who Junior researchers who’ve realized that they’re much more interested in the ideation and maybe a little bit of the design element of what we’re doing and so for them focused On ideation skills is the thing that motivates them on a day to day basis. I’ve had researchers who’ve gone into UX design because they realized they were passionate about not only getting the insights, but the translation into a solution. And I’ve had others for whom you know, what motivates them as being an expert. So what they want to do is be given opportunities to master something new. So I think learning to support those ambitions and to carve out opportunities that support those different ways of growing is a bit more challenging in our function than maybe in more traditional fields,

Steve: in maps really well to what you said about looking for a growth mindset in meeting candidates and you listed a number of different ways that that candidate might have shown in the past or indicate currently that they are interested in growing and I think this is something that’s, that’s extended even further, you listed even more ways that someone could grow and I’m sure nowhere near an exhaustive list. Yeah. You know, when you describe this, and makes me want to create this really awful matrix, which is like some grid of all the expertise is that a team? We’ve been given the challenges and so on, so that it’s balanced and you don’t? Yes. And you have like a bit of everything. Yeah. And I say awful because you made a really important point that this is very individualized. So yes, you can’t put people in those little slots of that grid. So your your team ends up looking more organic, or there’s a different model that comes out of helping individuals follow that, yes. seems too hard to plan for or control or undesirable to control.

Julia : Yeah, but I think there that’s also where the magic of how you build a team comes in, right? We know while there’s sort of, to me, there’s more of an individual, maybe career pathing that that tends to happen. It’s also about identifying what are the complimentary skills that each member brings to that team and how do you bring in people who bring who filled I don’t To say gaps, because they’re not necessarily gaps, but who add that additional, whether it’s expertise or skill set or experience that complements the other people within the team. So I think that’s where you’re not just helping guide people down their individual career paths, but you’re also playing conductor for the team as a whole and figuring out how do you bring together those different strengths and and leverage them as a group so that you take advantage of how they can complement each other and how they can fill out your practice as a whole.

Steve: Is there anything that we should talk about today that we haven’t got to?

Julia : The ideal question, I think, I feel very passionately about encouraging people who don’t necessarily have traditional backgrounds to jump into this fields. I think all researchers say to some degree that they don’t necessarily have a traditional background when they when they come into research, but I think there’s a lot of strength in it. welcoming people with different perspectives on to your team. So someone who used to be a designer or someone who maybe comes from a more academic background or someone who comes from a completely different application of qualitative research, I think there is an element of resilience and perspective that that lens to a team, which is sort of the sum is greater than the parts. And I think that’s something that is crucial to seek out on a research team because I think it’s strengthens you and strengthens your practice as a team.

Steve: Certainly, I see a lot of I’m trying to transition into into UX research. And what comes after that usually is how do I do that? Yeah, you’re pointing out that it behooves the team to welcome those people. Is there more like how does how does the field create that welcome?

Julia : How does the field create that welcome, I think there’s a lot more we can do to create opportunities for people to get their feet wet. So I’ve started to see a lot more Associate researcher, we’ve created sort of a more junior level within our career level of associate researcher, something that makes it easier for someone to to get experience within the field we’ve taken on interns or an intern, which I think is is a nice door into the discipline. So I think creating some of those formal opportunities, but I think being willing to mentor as well facilitating connections for for people who are just trying to get into the field, even if it’s just for informational interviews, or maybe informal projects is something else we can definitely do. And I think also, as someone who came in from the outside, I think it’s possible to I think we underestimate how much it’s worth really sitting down with someone who has been a week. When you’re on the outside, it’s a bit more difficult to understand what this wall looks like what the day to day looks like. What are the skill sets. So when you’re trying to think about what are my transport skills that bring value to this field that will help me transition into design or into research. I think just being able to talk to someone who is a researcher who works on the day to day and to have a conversation with them about how your skills fit into this picture is completely invaluable. So I think making yourself available to people who are really trying to understand what this work is about how they can leverage the skills and experience they already have, making it concrete for them and helping them figure out how to articulate that value is a big part of giving them the confidence to take the leap and an understanding of how they can they can bring those skills over the fence into research.

Steve: That’s great if some very concrete advice I think for people in the field and looking to get into the field. I think that’s a great place for us to to wrap up here. It’s been really interesting and enjoyable to speak with you Julie. I really appreciate you sharing so much with us.

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