40. Gregg Bernstein returns

In this episode of Dollars to Donuts I welcome Gregg Bernstein back for a follow-up episode. He’s now Director of User Research at Hearst Magazines.

The thing that I always come back to is that there is no one way to do research. And I also think there’s no one way to do research leadership. So often when I post a video or write something, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to something somebody else might have said that I feel like is going to discourage folks or paint this industry in a negative light. I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, but I love this field. I think it’s invaluable. I think more companies should have a research function. And so anything that I write is usually meant to show that there’s opportunity, there is value in this work. – Gregg Bernstein

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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.

Today, I’m chatting with Gregg Bernstein, nine years after he first appeared on episode one of Dollars to Donuts. For context, here’s a tiny clip from that episode.

Gregg Bernstein: And I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t start this interview off by saying this is two Jews talking about customer research.

Steve: But before that, did you know that there’s a new edition of my classic book interviewing users? The modern day book tour seems to be in fact the podcast tour. And so recently I chatted with Mike Green for his Understanding Users podcast. Here’s part of my conversation with Mike.

Mike Green: And you mentioned the world of work and how it’s changed. And the one thing that we haven’t touched on so far is obviously the pandemic and the COVID years, if I can call them that. I’m interested to get your sense of how that impacted user research as a discipline. So speaking for myself, obviously the work has continued and it’s continued at pace. But I can’t remember the last time I sat in somebody’s office or place of work or even their home and actually interviewed them face to face. Which, you know, some ways it speeds up research. You can get more done remotely. People are perhaps more relaxed if they’re sitting in their own homes on Zoom. But there’s a loss, I think. As a researcher, I find not being in the context of the individuals surrounded by what’s on their walls and what’s around them and the kind of movement of the environment. It’s harder in some ways to get the insights. But I’m interested to know kind of what’s your perspective on how the pandemic changed for good or ill, kind of what we do.

Steve: I mean, 100 percent to everything that you just said about loss. I mean, that’s the word that I use. I mean, I don’t know that it’s permanent. I think the world of work is continuing to change as we’re sitting here on this day. It’s the beginning of the year where we’re talking. I haven’t seen 800 RTO articles, return to office articles. But it seems like, you know, there’s a constant discussion about that. And it’s interesting because like for sure the pandemic changed work. But it also triggered lots of bigger and more uncomfortable sort of discussions about power like bosses and property owners that, you know, have a stake in how work takes place and where it takes place. And worker power kind of pushing back on that. And depending on where you live and what industry you’re in, you’re going to see that more or less. So like I’m saying that remote research is being affected by these much larger shifts that I don’t have any sort of brilliance on. But I think the work continues to be in the middle of.

So I have not sat with someone in their place of doing whatever it is that they’re doing and interviewed them. And I just said at the beginning of our conversation, embrace how other people see the world. Well, that’s the way to do it, right? You let go of your thing and go to their thing. And it is harder. And it’s harder for me, they’re clients. But for other people, it’s their colleagues. It’s harder for us as researchers to facilitate that, oh, kind of reaction that we’re going for. We want people to know that their assumptions are wrong. And you can get these really jaw on the floor moments that we work to facilitate. We work to create those, you know, uncover those narratives and have our teammates let go of their biases and their assumptions and their aspirations. And that’s hard to do without taking people out. It was not only what we got to do, which meant that we could connect with people. We could see stuff that we didn’t know we wanted to ask about. We could be uncomfortable. We could be forced as researchers. And then we could create, I think, effective experiences for other people to also make the work transformative. And that’s a big fancy word, but we’re all changed by doing this.

Yeah, I really miss doing that. You know, I have peers that are like, oh, someone today was talking about some overseas trip they were doing to do field work. Like, I don’t even have to go to some exotic environment, like different than my own. I just would like to sit in an office or, you know, walk around a firehouse or something like that. So I think these things are going to continue to change. But I think there’s two fronts is what I’m trying to say here, right? What do we experience in the field, but also what do we experience with our collaboration and facilitation of the people we work with? And I think this also happens after the field work. If everything that we do takes place in a remote workspace and not, you know, more often is asynchronously, we’re also having fewer of those.

I mean, I can think of just times where I’ve had like clients and colleagues and we’re off site. We’re spending several days in a room going through this stuff and trying to make sense of it and just having like life changing insights come up. And that is so grandiose, my language. I mean, when someone comes up with something that riffs off of something that someone else says, and you can just sort of like feel a bunch of ideas come into alignment. Like it’s a really powerful intellectual, creative moment. And I haven’t had that for a while since I’ve been working where my participants are in a Zoom room and my colleagues are, you know, before and after the research. And so I don’t know, personally, I’ve struggled with the work feeling a little more transactional. And I think that is sort of coincident with other pressures on the work of research.

So I don’t know, I’m throwing everything into like a big, hairy, ugly ball of smooshed stuff together. And I think when you bring up like remote and pandemic, it like, oh yeah, there’s all these things that are kind of connected to that. And I don’t know how to tease them apart in a sensible way. I think I’m, you know, I’m being buffeted by those forces, I guess the way everybody else is. But yeah, I miss it. I think that’s my bottom line is exactly what you said. Like there’s a loss there. And I hope we can evolve to a point where it is a necessary part of what the researchers do, what the team does, and to kind of have those experiences, which are so inspirational.

Again, that was me on Mike Green’s Understanding Users podcast. Check out the whole episode, and of course, pick up a copy or two of the second edition of Interviewing Users. To learn about my consulting work and the training that I offer to companies, visit portigal.com/services.

Now, let’s go to my recent conversation with Gregg. He’s the Director of User Research at Hearst Magazines.

Gregg: This is Gregg Bernstein, and you’re listening to Dollars to Donuts.

Steve: Could we get a two Jews talk about research? You think you would do that?

Gregg: Again, me from nine years ago, not the sharpest tool in the shed when it came to naming things. But sure, you’re listening to two middle-aged Jews talk about research. Everyone’s favorite podcast. [laughter]

Steve: All right, well, what a way to begin. Thank you for that. When we talked nine years ago, you were working at Mailchimp, and I think you were the maybe second or third person I interviewed for this podcast, but you were the first episode that was published. So it’s really cool to have you back and talk about what’s changed for you, what kind of things you’ve learned. So thank you. Do you want to talk maybe about some of the different places that you’ve worked and maybe compare and contrast what work was like and what you’ve kind of seen in that intervening time?

Gregg: Yeah, first of all, Steve, it’s a pleasure to be back on your podcast.

Steve: Great. Thank you.

Gregg: So when you and I first spoke nine years ago, I was the research manager at Mailchimp. And it was my first time as a research manager.

Gregg: And I also, I don’t think I realized at the time just how unique the Mailchimp situation was for a researcher. And what I mean by that is, I had an almost unlimited budget to hire videographers to film our customers and make short films. We would create these artifacts of personas that we would hang up around our office, so everybody would learn. We had a CEO who was a designer before he was CEO, who understood the value of designing for people and knowing who those people are. So he supported research. He wanted us to make the best designs, which meant knowing our customers. And I was spoiled rotten. And I realized in subsequent jobs that that was not how most research roles are.

And I think when I left Mailchimp, I joined Vox Media. And we went from being really precious about the deliverable of the research to being scrappier at Vox. And I don’t mean that we were precious. It’s not that we weren’t precious about how we did research in either organization. We were thorough. We made sure we spoke to the right people. We asked good questions. We did solid research. But I think the difference was we wouldn’t — at Vox, I spent much less time on a project. If maybe I spent a month on a project at Mailchimp, I would spend a week on it because we had a very long list of projects that needed research. We had a pretty — not aggressive, but we had a quick-paced cadence of work. And so I learned very quickly that I had to work faster. I didn’t have to spend as much time creating these amazing artifacts as long as I was answering the fundamental questions and putting them in Slack or even a very poorly formatted Google Doc. As long as people were learning from the research, that was great. That was the gold standard. Did we learn from this? Did we make good decisions from it? If yes, move on. So that was a huge change in how I thought about research.

And it also made me, I think, a better research manager or leader because I realized budget is not commensurate to quality. You can do amazing research fast, scrappy, on a budget. You don’t need those unlimited resources. And that’s not to say I would love a bucket of money to be at my disposal. If I had to choose, I would take the high budget all the time. But I had to quickly learn how to get by with less, less time, less money. And you know what? It was a great experience, great learning opportunity. And something that I feel like made me a better researcher.

Steve: What are the circumstances in which putting that effort into the deliverable is, I don’t know, necessary or appropriate? I think you’re listing the times when it’s not. There’s a big demand and people are willing to kind of consume it in the form that it comes and act on it.

Gregg: Yeah, that’s a great distinction you’re making. At Mailchimp, I think it was necessary to put so much effort into the presentation of materials because it was a young company that was growing fast.

And so, yes, we wanted people to learn from the research. But we also wanted people to understand who our users are. So if you’re an engineering manager, if you work in accounting, you still need to know who we’re serving every day. Like what is the reason we’re coming to work? And I think that that knowledge was maybe not distributed evenly. And so putting films together, creating posters, and making everything so public and investing in it sent a signal. Like you need to know who we are working for. Your job depends on it, directly or indirectly. And I think for that time in the company’s history, it was absolutely the right call. And just like at Vox when I joined, moving fast and just banging out study after study and saying this is what we need to know, okay, this is what we need to know. And saying, okay, now we know this. Let’s build a thing and move on. That was the right approach for where Vox was when I was working there.

Steve: So that’s a little about Vox and kind of the change in culture and already a big impact in your approach that was suited to how you all worked and the people you needed to have impact. What was the next sort of major role where you, maybe your practice evolved yet again?

Gregg: I think I’m going to stay in Vox because I feel like my time there — I spent four years there. And my first two years I was working on a team that was creating tools for all of our writers and editors. It was a content management system. And that was very similar to the work I was doing at Mailchimp, which was software for creating content and publishing it. At Mailchimp it was newsletters. At Vox it was content, news content. Or food content if it was for Eater. Or tech content for The Verge, to name a few of the brands we worked on.

But at the heart of it, it was how do I understand the editorial process? And how can we make a better set of tools for publishing content, whether it’s an article or a map or a video or a podcast? And that was the first time I had worked on an internal team. So recruiting was no longer difficult. I could just get in Slack and talk to anybody in the company and say, hey, I’d like to talk to you about how you write articles. You know, there was very little difficulty in setting up — in finding participants and setting that up. That was the first two years of my time there.

The second two years, my role — the mandate for my role changed from understanding how we create content to how do people discover and consume content? And, again, this was in a remote-based organization that was a little scrappier. So I really had to think about how do we build out a process of getting feedback from our hundreds of millions of visitors to our various websites? How do I work with not just my product organization but our editorial organization to understand what information would be valuable to them? How do I get support from executives to do this research to make sure that once it’s done, they will have an appetite for it and learn from it?

And so it was the first time I had to create, I guess, demand and awareness and opportunities where none existed. Because it already existed within my product organization to build the content management system. But as far as, like, doing research that would support discovery and consumption, it was research that ended up supporting marketing and sales. Because we could — if we knew more about our audiences and what they valued and what they came for, we could put ads on our pages that kind of aligned with who was coming to our sites.

And that’s not to say we didn’t have demographic data, but we didn’t really have an understanding of why is somebody coming to The Verge? What is the next action that they’re going to take after they come to The Verge? And how can we make a better experience for them? So if they’re researching headphones and they’re looking for product reviews, if we know that that’s what they’re coming for and we know that they spend a certain amount of money after the fact, we can sell ads against that. And we have a better understanding of, okay, people are — they trust us for our ads — I’m sorry, they trust us for our product reviews. We should probably think about a better product review experience. None of this really was, I guess, designed. We didn’t have a designed research process. And so for the first time, I was having to chart a new path with the support of my manager and my colleagues, but I kind of had to figure out how to make this happen within a large organization and figure out which people I needed to talk to, who I needed to get support from, who I needed buy-in from.

And it was a fantastic learning experience because there was friction. Not a lot of friction, but like I had to convince some people of why we were doing this. I had to figure out if somebody was resistant, how can I get them to support this? And then how can I ask questions that will lead to insights that don’t just benefit me, but other parts of the organization? And so I feel like that was the moment when I really understood how to — I don’t want to say lead a research function, but how to get support and buy-in for research activities where maybe that didn’t exist before. And that’s what set me up for future research leadership opportunities. I feel like that’s when the training wheels came off and I understood the bigger job of being a research leader.

Steve: Support sometimes comes out as people being blocked from doing research. And so I think you’re talking about you had your own team, your own manager, your own team that’s doing your research, but you’re trying to make connections and help people see and engage so that the work that you do is valuable and they’re gonna act on it. Am I getting it right?

Gregg: Yeah, you’re getting it totally right. So one example is on the website Eater, which is about restaurants and food culture, there is something called a map — well, it is a map, but there’s a product name for it, which is escaping me now. But you might have like the 20 hottest restaurants in New York City. Or, you know, the 10 best restaurants that you should go to in Minnesota or Minneapolis, to be more specific. And a project might be, okay, let’s make the process of building maps better. But at the same time, let’s look externally to how do people actually use these maps to understand how can we improve the user experience. So we’re trying to make a better editorial experience as well as a better user experience.

So part of that is understanding, well, why does somebody use one of these maps in the first place? What is their goal? And to do that, we might need to get support from the editorial staff at Eater, which means working with their editor-in-chief or, you know, one of the editorial directors and saying, hey, we want to put a banner on Eater that says, help us improve Eater for everyone. We need to get their buy-in so they’re not going to their website and wondering why is there a banner on the top of my page. So just taking people away from the articles that we’re publishing and pushing them to a survey or a screener to participate in an interview or usability study. So we need to get their support.

But to do that, we also need to offer some sort of carrot. Like we want to talk to people about their Eater maps experience. But while we’re talking to them, is there anything that you’re curious about? If you had an Eater reader sitting next to you, what would be on your mind? So I’m trying to throw in questions that will help my editorial colleagues, but I’m also focusing on what I need to know to improve the map experience for my team. So that’s where I need to get their buy-in and their support. And it means clearly explaining what we’re trying to do, but also saying this is also an opportunity for you to learn about your audience. And this way I’ve got their buy-in. There’s no surprises when they see some sort of banner or call to action to participate in research. And they know that they’re going to learn something. And at the same time, our product organization is going to know something and learn something. Did that make sense?

Steve: That’s a great clarification. Do you have any examples of overcoming hesitancy or uncertainty in those folks that you were needing their support from?

Gregg: The hesitancy is usually just around, let me understand what this is going to look like. So showing an example of this is what a banner might look like on your website for a mobile user or a desktop user. So that there’s not — there’s this fear that maybe there’s going to be a screen takeover. And it’ll say like, don’t read this article, click here and take a survey, which we’re not trying to create a bad user experience. So it’s, I guess, demystifying the research process and showing, hey, this is what we’re going for. This is the goal of the study. This is how we’re actually — this is what it’s actually going to look like on your website. And we’ll work with you on the language we use, you know, help us improve Eater or make Maps better for everyone.

Thinking further, like sometimes we would do these big studies of our audiences where we would need the editor-in-chief of one of our sites to write a call to action. Like, hi, I’m Nilay Patel, I’m the editor-in-chief of The Verge. We’re doing an annual survey to help us improve our site, not just the coverage that we’re writing, but also the user experience of visiting our website. And we need your help. So if you read our content or listen to our podcasts, help us out. So it’s always a matter of over-explaining and saying this is exactly what we’re going for. This is an opportunity for you to learn as well. Let’s work together. And this way we’re all going to learn something. And worst case, we get a bunch of responses that maybe they’re not exactly what we wanted to hear, but we’re still going to learn from real humans who read our content or listen to our content or watch our content. And we’ll be able to learn from it.

Steve: When you started off describing these last two years, the train of wheels came off, and you ended and I didn’t really pick up on it. And I went back to the earlier stuff, but you ended with saying something to the effect that this was really where you learned about design research leadership. Does that take us into the next role?

Gregg: I think it does because I joined Condé Nast as their research lead. Condé Nast is another publishing company. And the job I interviewed for was to be research lead for just their subscription brands, which are brands like The New Yorker, Bon Appetit, Wired. But shortly after I joined, in talking to my boss, the vice president of product design, we realized that I was the highest ranking researcher. And so if we were to have a holistic research process for the entire product design organization, we couldn’t just focus on subscriptions and subscription products. We needed to have user research across the board, across all of our brands and divisions. And I was able to articulate that this is what the role should be. You need to have somebody who is looking at subscription products, but the other parts of the company, like commerce, which means selling products through product reviews, which is something that Vogue does. Or some of the other fashion magazines where you’re not just selling a subscription to a magazine. The magazine makes money by reviewing products and saying, like, here are the 10 best bags to wear or backpacks or high heels or computers. The company makes money through that type of content.

And so going back to what I was saying, I was able to articulate that we should have research in subscriptions, but also in commerce. But also having one research leader in charge of all research means that we can instill quality control. We can make sure that the researchers are collaborating so that a researcher who’s looking at commerce and a researcher looking at subscriptions, they’re not working in a vacuum. We’re not a siloed organization. We’re one research team that can collaborate or maybe move people around as needed based on what are the most important questions of the day. So I was able to see how getting buy in, putting processes in place, managing a team, how I could take what I had done at Vox and apply it to Condé Nast and kind of create a larger role for me at Condé Nast that was really necessary to make sure that the research was holistic and that the researchers were collaborating and that insights from one part of the organization were making it to other parts.

Steve: You’re describing this point at which you go from having pockets of research, for example, to building a role that’s a leadership role where there’s a person responsible for taking care of and ensuring all those kind of qualities of research that you described. And that sounds like a point of evolution, a point of transition in the overall organization’s research maturity.

Gregg: It was because it was a point where I was able to work with my manager to look at the entire organization, all the content that we publish, and see where the gaps were in our knowledge. So I had a researcher who was embedded with The New Yorker. I had a researcher embedded with Vogue. That left something like 25 other magazines that there wasn’t research, at least not user research. And so I was able to make the case that we really should hire somebody to look at all commerce. How do we sell products? What would make for a better commerce experience for our users? I was able to make the case that we should have somebody who is looking at our subscription brands like Wired and Bon Appetit. And then make the case that we should have somebody who’s just looking at the member journey because when you have so many different titles and so many different ways people are selling content, it takes some effort to know what’s going to resonate with somebody who they’re either thinking of buying content for themselves or to buy a gift for somebody else. Do they want a digital subscription? Do they want to actually receive something in the mail? So working with my manager and with the other design leaders, it became clear exactly where we needed to have resources in order to make sure we’re learning and supporting the designers and the product managers and the engineers to build the right product for the right people. So it was an inflection point. And it was personally great because I got to hire some really awesome researchers to fill those roles.

Steve: What are some of the ingredients or elements that you are uncovering and articulating when you are making the case for those kinds of structural changes or role changes? What does that include?

Gregg: I mean, first there’s pointing out that maybe we have a number of designers and engineers and product people working on a product with little to no contact with the humans who use that product. So just pointing that out and saying there’s an imbalance here in staffing. Or pointing out that a lot of designers and product managers are asking for research but not getting it because there isn’t the headcount or enough hours in the day to support those efforts. So those are usually the two places to start.

There’s a demand or there’s an imbalance and a vacuum of user contact. I also have used interns as a way to gauge demand for research. So if I bring in a summer intern and I put them on a project with a team and then the intern goes away, the team will suddenly realize that void in their life where a user researcher used to be. So then you can make the case, hey, this team got used to working with a researcher. It’s really not ideal for them to go back to trying to do research on their own. If we were to open headcount, this is where researchers should sit as a backfill for the intern that we lost. So that’s something I’ve done that at Mailchimp, I’ve done it at Vox. It’s a good tactic to test the waters and build demand for hiring a permanent researcher.

Steve: Yeah, that’s kind of brilliant. It’s almost like a prototyping process.

Gregg: I’ve also seen it where the intern did a great job, but maybe after they left, there wasn’t as much demand as we might have guessed. And while I always love to make the case that I want to hire more people, sometimes that proves that maybe that wasn’t the right place to hire. So it is like a prototyping process.

Steve: I’m curious if you have any perspective on Condé Nast culture in terms of how work was being done, about how you were engaging with different stakeholders or anything about research that is a compare and contrast with the first two companies we talked about.

Gregg: I think what I can say about Condé Nast is it was the largest company I had worked for at that point in my career. So culture, I realized, is not set for an organization. Culture is maybe at the team level. So that was a, I don’t want to say a shock, but it was very different where you realize that other teams have very different ways of working, of communicating, of supporting each other. And so I feel like I was able to instill a really strong culture for my research team. I feel like, you know, among my design manager peers, we had a really nice relationship, but I would not want to generalize the culture based on just the people I was working with. It was large and, you know, your mileage might vary depending on who you spoke to on any given day. I’m trying to be diplomatic, Steve.

Steve: I like hearing you how you’re unpacking it because, yeah, culture is this big label we kind of stamp on things. This organization is this culture, these type of people have this culture. But it is more local than global.

Gregg: I would say that I was able to create this very supportive, warm, amazing culture. And I mean, partly it was we would get together, you know, every three to six months. So you would get to have human contact, you know, real life contact with people. But somehow I don’t even, if I could replicate it, I would. Even remotely, there was such a feeling of these folks have my back and I have theirs and I would do anything for these people. And that made its way into how we hired. Like, I don’t want to bring somebody in who is going to ruin the feeling of this organization. So let’s be really rigorous in how we hire. Not that we weren’t rigorous elsewhere, but it takes a special set of skills to communicate warmth and empathy remotely in Slack messaging, over a Zoom. And that’s something that I really cherished and something that I’ve been really mindful of ever since.

Thinking about culture is a good way to transition to where I am now. I joined Hearst Magazines, yet another publishing company, in January of 2023. So I’ve been there for a year and two months. And what stuck out immediately is the warmth of every single person I’ve spoken to or spoke to in the interview process. And since I’ve joined, it’s such a warm organization, which is a massive organization. Hearst is huge. It’s 130 some odd years old. But from our legal team to our president to our executive leadership, everyone is just, they seem to care. And that’s what stood out to me from the moment I started speaking to the people at Hearst to people I’m still meeting. I mean, it’s a giant organization. I’m still meeting new people a year and two months into this job.

But culturally, I feel it’s the closest I’ve felt to what I had at Vox, where I know that the team cares about each other. They care about the work. They’re invested in making a great employee experience, and they really want to make a great user experience. And when you can find people who care, not just about the work, but the people they’re doing the work with, it’s special. And I have a great set of colleagues, and I just, I feel like I’m in a great spot, which means you know that in like two months, people listen to this podcast and realize we have layoffs or something, and I’m no longer there now that I’ve jinxed it. I’m kidding. I’m kidding. It’s a great place, but it is weird because it is such a huge organization with so many tentacles, and I’m not quite sure how the company has managed to achieve it, but it’s a pretty special place.

Steve: As you talk about culture, I hear this attribute of, my words, not yours, like welcoming to humans. And I think a theme of this podcast and part of this conversation is culture that is welcoming to research. And I like what you’re kind of getting at, that people care about each other and they care about the product and the experience that they’re making. I’m paraphrasing you badly here.

Gregg: I think that comes from company leadership, and I realize this isn’t going to be the same across the board, but having a president of the company who says, “I really want us to know our users.” And to have the highest ranking executive in the company say that, it gets buy-in, and it makes everyone realize this is important, and it just makes embracing research that much easier to achieve.

And so that’s the reason my job opened at Hearst was our president saying we need to know our users and the company investing in a user research function. And it also means that everybody I work with is curious to know how to incorporate user research into their processes. And so for the last year, process is what I have been focusing on because we have the mandate, we have the buy-in, okay, now we need to put the pieces in place. And for me, the pressure is on to deliver because it’s different than other jobs where research had existed in Condé Nast. Research was something that we were doing at Mailchimp. At Hearst, there wasn’t user research at scale when I joined, which meant we had the mandate, but we didn’t have the ability to do it or do it well.

So I’ve spent the last year in many meetings with our legal team just to put a process in place to get consent from people who visit our websites to engage them in research activities. I’ve been having a lot of meetings with our tech team on where PII will be stored, which of our products should we use to even do research that will be secure, where recordings will not end up in somebody’s hard drive that they shouldn’t end up in, or in a cloud service where maybe it’s not locked down to our preferences. So this has also been a learning experience for me because I have spent so much time doing operations work just to make research possible. And it’s also been a little bit stressful because everybody wants research and I’m constantly having to say, let’s hold up because we don’t have all the pieces in place yet. We can’t put an intercept on our website. We can’t email a user because we shouldn’t have their PII in our individual Outlook or Gmail accounts. We need to use the right tools to engage with them that is secure, where we’re not just going to be leaking email addresses and phone numbers in the wrong places. So let’s really get buttoned up and dial this in so that we are protecting our participants, but we’re also protecting the company. And we’re not putting the entire notion of user research at this company at risk because we’re making mistakes.

Steve: At what point did you, when you sort of started on this journey of yours to build this scale, did you do so with the expectation that operations was gonna be a key order of business for you?

Gregg: I did not. I also thought maybe this was me coming in with a little too much confidence. I thought that because I had created consent forms in the past, I could just email my legal team and say, hey, we’re going to start doing user research. I’m going to put an intercept or a call to action on our websites. Here’s the consent form I created in Google Forms. And immediately my legal team said, timeout, why don’t we talk through this? And it was a setback because I thought we were ready to go, my second week on the job. And it turned out that we were many, many, many months away from actually being able to do anything at all outside of maybe a platform where we’re not using our users. We used platforms like User Testing where we could research with a panel of random people. But as far as engaging with our known users, that took a lot of logistics. But it was also a great learning experience. And I have some amazing legal colleagues who were really helpful in pointing out ways that things could go wrong and working with me to come up with a process that we’re all happy with to some degree or, you know, to the most part.

Steve: Is there anything about your industry or the culture that even though you had this support and this collaboration, is there anything that might have led to the amount of the scale of the effort that you’re describing to get there?

Gregg: I don’t know if it’s media or just legacy enterprise, you know, historic organizations. Because Vox was a media company, but it was a new media company. It started in the digital age. There was never print magazines. And so it very much operated like a startup where, you know, if there was budget and I could get my manager’s approval, we would just buy a product with a credit card. Here at Hearst, that is not how things work. Like we’re not just going to click through an agreement and agree to some random SaaS company’s terms and, you know, suddenly we’re using their product. Everything has to be examined and negotiated and approved. So things move slowly. I think that might just be because it is such an organization — such an old organization that wants to be around for another 100, 200 years. So the mindset is let’s be slow but sure. You know, it’s better to take our time rather than get sued for a million dollars because we violated somebody’s privacy or we, you know, we used a product that we shouldn’t have been using. So I think that’s the whole idea of the community thing.

Steve: Well, I love hearing you describe slow in a way that is like deliberative and collaborative. I think, you know, there’s sort of an archetype of, oh, I want to get this thing done, but I couldn’t get, I couldn’t get anyone to help me or legal drag their heels that, but you’re, and maybe you’re being diplomatic, but I guess that the perspective I’m getting from you is that it’s not resistance to overcome. It’s the natural, you know, culturally appropriate way to do things, which is, which does take time. And another company might be faster, another company might be slower, but for different reasons, less, you know, more passive resistance. And here you’ve got slow, careful support, which is an interesting kind of way to have it be.

Gregg: Yeah. It’s never no, we’re not going to do that. It’s yes, we could do that, but let’s think through every step of this process to make sure that we’re not overlooking something fundamental. So this will sound maybe tedious to people listening to this podcast. I apologize in advance. But if you think about a generic news website, okay, you go to an article. Let’s say there’s a call to action. Like you’re looking at a recipe on your favorite cooking website. We want to improve our recipes. If you have three minutes to spare to answer three questions, click here to take a survey. Okay. What survey tool are we going to use that we have an enterprise agreement with where we know that all of the data that’s collected is collected in a way where we know it’s secure? Because we have a license that we negotiated where we know exactly where the data is stored and who can access it and who has liability if there is some type of data leak. Okay. So there’s the survey tool. Okay. Maybe we want people who took the survey to opt into a follow-up interview. So we can add that question. Are you interested in joining our recipe feedback panel? If so, click here. And, you know, it takes you to a page where you can add your name and your email address. Okay. Where is that going to be stored? Who’s going to have access to it?

And I realize, like, this is not — these are not new challenges. But my simple ask of we want to do a study led my legal team to work with me to say, okay, then what happens, then what happens, then what happens? Because in previous organizations, I would just be scrappy and say, yeah, they’ll pull out a Google form, it’ll go to a spreadsheet, and then I’ll email them and I’ll send them a link to my Calendly and they’ll schedule a time. And now it’s, no, we don’t have Calendly here. You can’t use that. So what else could we use? We don’t use Gmail or Google Calendar, but we do use this other product. What are other ways that we could create an inbox and create a link to a calendar? We don’t have an enterprise license with Zoom, but we have this other thing.

So it’s really just looking at the menu of possibilities and picking the least bad options. Ideally, the better options, it would create a better user experience. But making sure that from initial contact to when we promise to expunge data, no stone is left unturned and we can account for every step of that process and know exactly what’s happening. And again, I know other people do this all the time, but for me, it was a learning experience to go from the scrappy or the let’s just throw money at this way of doing it to, okay, we really need to be buttoned up because a lawsuit is the worst possible outcome here. And I don’t want that to happen. I don’t want the company to lose money. I don’t want to ruin a reputation. So let’s make sure that whatever we’re doing is rock solid and is durable so that once we put it in place, anybody can do it and everybody can do research going forward.

Steve: Do you have a sense in your year and two months, what’s the progress indicator for you about building these processes, building these kinds of operations and infrastructure?

Gregg: I won’t claim that we have it perfect yet because it still takes a while to get an intercept on our sites just because there’s a lot of people to go through and there’s some engineering lift. It’s not just flip a switch. So I would say that doing it is not easy, but there is now a process that we can follow to do that type of research. I think the better marker of success is I’ve been able to open headcount because even with the technical ability to do research, research is still not anyone’s primary responsibility except for me and my team. So product managers are managing product. I don’t always have time to do research nor give it their 100% of their brain. Same with product designers. But because there is such demand for research, I was able to open headcount. And I think that’s the real sign that we’re making progress. Everyone wants to make better decisions, and the company has put the money into hiring humans to help us make better decisions.

Steve: I love that. Let’s switch topics a little bit as you brought us, I think, up to date and even where you’ve been successful and where it’s taking you in this current organization. Let’s talk about your book. Research Practice, Perspectives from UX Researchers in a Changing Field.

Gregg: Yay.

Gregg: That is my book, Steve. Yes, I published this book in January of 2021, so we’re now three years out from it somehow. I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands during the first year of the pandemic to publish this. But this was a book that — maybe this — I’m assuming this happens to you. So what I found is I would write a blog post or I would give a talk, but the thing that people always wanted to ask me about was how do I get a job as a user researcher coming from academia, from being a psychologist, from being a marketer? How do I make myself attractive for a user research job? What do I need to do? I’m a team of one. I don’t know how to make the case that I shouldn’t be a team of one anymore. What do I do? I’m so lonely. I also don’t have any mentorship. Or I’m a new manager at Help. Nobody knows what to tell me on how to actually be a manager in a research team. How do I make the case for more headcount? How do I manage a team? How do I hire?

Those were the questions that came in constantly. And I had my stock answers that I would give. I had articles I would point people to. I would try to anticipate what people were going to ask and write blog posts about it. But the questions kept coming. So I thought what if I created a book that just talked about what a career in UX research might look like? And I realized very quickly that I am not the person to write the all-encompassing guide to a UX research career. Because at that point, I had been a designer who transitioned into UX research. I had worked at Mailchimp. And I had worked at Vox Media. That is a small sample size to talk about all the places a UX research career might go.

On the suggestion of a very smart friend of mine named Sian Townsend, she suggested why not ask other people to contribute their own perspectives and open source this? Which was such a great idea. So the book that I had started to write about what a career in UX research might look like became a collaborative effort to get multiple perspectives on a UX research career journey. From getting the job to the challenges of the job to where you might go next. And it was a fun project to work on. I wrote my own essays. I solicited essays from many other research leaders. I worked with an amazing editor named Nicole Fenton. Nicole edited Abby Covert’s book on information architecture, which is one of my favorite books on product and research and just thinking about information. So I sought out Nicole. Nicole helped make this book fantastic, in my opinion. And it was a really good exercise in publishing content, project management, and working with a host of other research leaders to create something that would be a good and evergreen artifact for the research community.

Steve: When you’re in that role and you get these different perspectives, are there situations where you don’t agree with the guidance that’s coming in one of these essays?

Gregg: No, it might not be what I would do personally, but I also, I mean, I wasn’t trained as a researcher, first of all. So if somebody is going to talk about a rigorous quantitative research approach, then who am I to say that’s not the way I would do it? And that was the whole point of the book was you’re going to get conflicting opinions. You’re going to get different perspectives. And I guess maybe the biggest takeaway is there’s no one way to do UX research, which is also the name of a blog post I wrote last summer, because we were also seeing a lot of comments on the state of the research industry. But the more I talked to research leaders and from talking to them about this book, there really isn’t one way to do research, nor one path for UX researchers. So I wanted this book to have differing opinions and perspectives, whether I agreed with all of them or not.

Steve: You talk about evergreen, and yet Changing Field is in the title. So what does the book look like to you now, kind of three years after it’s out? Maybe that’s what you’re kind of getting at, you’re having these conversations with people later than when you wrote the book about what the world is now.

Gregg: And I think, you know, when I think about how I would tackle the book today or what I think would be different or what I’m hearing from other researchers I speak to, there is such a drive to prove the value of research and make sure that it’s worth the economic investment in hiring a research team or a research person. And I don’t love that mindset that we have to always be proving our worth. But I think that’s a theme that comes up in the conversations I have, and it’s something I would expect to — there would be more content about that if I were to publish the book again. I also think that the financial realities of today mean that people are working leaner. They don’t have as big a research budget as maybe they once had. Teams — we all saw there’s been layoffs over the last two years. Teams are smaller. They’re sacrificing headcount or being forced to sacrifice headcount. So I think teams are also seeing that they have to get by with less, less people, less tools. So I think we have more constraints and more expectations to make the investment worth it.

Steve: I mean, you made the point that the book is lots of people’s perspectives, but you are continuing to share your own expertise and guidance in, I see you on all the online things with blog posts and videos and so on. What are you focusing on in the questions that you’re trying to answer yourself?

Gregg: I think the thing that I always come back to is that there is no one way to do research. And I also think there’s no one way to do research leadership. So often when I post a video or write something, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to something somebody else might have said that I feel like is going to discourage folks or paint this industry in a negative light. I don’t know if that’s the right way to phrase it. But I often want — I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, but I love this field. I think it’s invaluable. I think more companies should have a research function. And so anything that I write is usually meant to show that there’s opportunity, there is value in this work, and make sure that the folks who are curious about UX research maybe aren’t being sold a jaded or maybe geographically focused perspective. I think I just want to provide balance. Whether that’s coming through or not, I’m not sure, but that’s usually what prompts me is I see something and I think I don’t know if that quite captures it. I don’t know if that’s the whole story. I wonder if I have something I can say to add a different perspective.

Steve: So in the notes to this episode, we can point people to the book, but where are you writing or creating other kinds of information and guidance for people?

Gregg: If you go to my website, gregg.io, that is my blog, which I was on a roll last year when I was, it was funny, like as I was doing all the heavy lifting of putting processes in place, I was so motivated to create content and share what I was doing. So I had this streak last year of a lot of blog posts. I’ve kind of tailed off as I’ve gotten busier. But you can go to my website and I post content there. There’s also a newsletter you can sign up for, which just takes the blog posts and sends them to your inbox. I also post on LinkedIn from time to time. Those are pretty much the main places right now. I’ve created a number of videos for the Learners app, but that too has kind of tailed off as my day job has demanded more of my time.

Steve: And do you think another book is in your future?

Gregg: I don’t know if a book is in my future, but I do think that there is an update of sorts that should happen. Like I said, there’s been layoffs. People are tightening their belts and spending less on research. So I’d be curious to talk to research leaders. Although you’re already doing that, so maybe I’ll just feed you some questions to ask people. But I do think there should be an update of sorts. I just don’t know if the book is the right vehicle for that.

Steve: So you want to be like a Daily Show correspondent, right?

Gregg: I would take that job in addition to my current job.

Steve: And by Daily Show correspondent, I meant for this podcast.

Gregg: Exactly. Just put me on spot assignments and let me help, Steve. Not that you need it.

Steve: Okay. All right, all right. The syndicated media network that is giving birth to right here, everybody. This is the moment. And Gregg, what shall we brand this larger effort?

Gregg: I’ve already been thinking about the larger extended universe. So the book is called Research Practice. My newsletter is Research Practicing. So maybe it’s Research Perfecting. Maybe it’s Research Repractice. Again, I’m terrible with names. So let’s not tie me to any of these terrible names I just threw out.

Steve: All right, well, Gregg is giggling politely, and so that might be the sign that we’re kind of coming to the end of our conversation. Any last thoughts for this time together, Gregg, or anything to kind of throw in there?

Gregg: No, Steve. I just want to say, you had me as a guest nine years ago, which at the time I thought it doesn’t get better than this. And I’m fortunate to have developed a relationship with you where you provided so much good advice and an astounding board. And so to come back nine years later and do another episode with you, I’m thankful and I’m excited. So thank you for having me.

Steve: Thank you very much for taking the time. It was really great to get your perspective, and I think people are going to learn a lot from hearing you today. So thank you.

Gregg: Thanks Steve

Steve: Yes, there we go. Thanks for listening. Tell your friends, tell your enemies about Dollars to Donuts. Give us a review on Apple Podcasts or any place that reviews podcasts. Find Dollars to Donuts in all the places that have all the things. Or visit portugal.com/podcast for all of the episodes, complete with show notes and transcripts. Our theme music is by Bruce Todd.

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