43. Leanne Waldal returns

In this episode of Dollars to Donuts I catch up with Leanne Waldal, five years after she first appeared on the podcast. She’s now a Principal in User Experience at ADP.

A couple of years ago, I realized I know things. We all know things, but sometimes we go through life thinking there’s always something more for us to know, or we don’t know as much as others. A couple of years ago I was like, oh, I know some stuff. I could share it. If I think of myself at 23, 24 years old, I had people who were my age now who were telling me things that I listened to and got advice from. I’m that person now. I can be the person who like gives people advice or says, I don’t actually know everything, but here’s some things I learned over the years that might help you. It makes me feel good to do that. It boosts my confidence. It helps me feel like I can actually do something that’s not just my craft or not just my job for a paycheck or not just this, but I actually have something to offer. And that’s a great feeling. – Leanne Waldal

Show Links

Help other people find Dollars to Donuts by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts.


Steve Portigal: Welcome to Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I talk with the people who lead user research in their organization. I’m Steve Portigal. In this episode I catch up with Leanne Waldal, 5 years after she was first on Dollars to Donuts.

But before we get to that, I updated my classic book, Interviewing Users, to incorporate what I’ve learned in 10 more years of being a researcher and in teaching other people. After the book came out, I spoke about user research with Karen Lynch on the Greenbook podcast. Here’s a short clip.

Karen Lynch: I mean, there’s even some frameworks for creating a knowledge management platform for yourself, you know, how to have a database of your own research. So excellent applications for a smaller shop that might not have access to platforms and tools. But here’s a way you can kind of create your own hub, knowledge hub. You did a very—a good job, solid job, an important job of also providing different—you know, here are some forms. You gave structure to the field is what you did. You know, here’s some forms that you can look at for, you know, debriefing your interviews after you conduct them. Here are some kind of, like—I don’t want to call them templates. But here’s the framework that you can do for creating your discussion guide. Here’s some tools you can lose—use to synthesize your data. So you were—you’ve given some very tangible tools in this book for anybody who is really trying soup to nuts to go off on their own for the first time or just get to know the field that maybe they’ve been hired in, really practical, tangible things that researchers can borrow from. I mean, again, having been in the field for a long time, some of this was—you know, some of this was a part of my practice. But I’m like, “You know what? That’s a great debrief form. That one really stood out to me.” For example, Interview Debrief Form, where it’s not just take notes on what you just experienced, but it’s prompting your brain to think through what it means. So kudos to you on that. Is that just a practice of yours? Or did something kind of stimulate that thought that you’d might want to include those?

Steve: Well, you know, there’s this interesting part of research where it’s collaborative and facilitative. I mean, it’s not just what, you know, I, as the researcher, or me, as part of the research team, learns. It’s, you know, the people that we’re working with. And so I have an obligation to them. Boy, that sounds like—it sounds very—more moralistic than I mean. Like, I can do a better job if I can help them learn something and take something away. But, if I also—if I hear what they’re taking away, especially—I’m, you know, I’m not the domain expert. I work as a consultant, so I come into an area that somebody else inhabits. And so they’re going to always see things in the research that I won’t see. It’s really helpful for me to understand what didn’t they hear that person say. Like, if there’s a gap in what they took away, then I now know I need to kind of emphasis that because it’s—there’s a takeaway that’s obvious to me that isn’t to them. So that needs to be surfaced as I share back. So I can get that out a debrief. And, when I hear what they heard and what surprises them, I understand, yeah, how they’re framing the world, what’s relevant information. Like, I’m getting this indirect feedback. So, you know, I—like, it’s not my natural way of being to have a template for an activity. I’d rather just chat. And sometimes that suits me well, and sometimes I need to put a little more structure in it. So, I think, you know, writing up a debriefing guide—well, I think there’s—having something formal like a template or a tool you can use sort of reminds me that this is an important part of the process. I need to make time for it and mental space for it, and I need to tell the people I’m collaborating with that they should leave time for it. And guess what? This is a serious activity. I don’t—I’m not just trying to, like, get coffee with you and, “Hey… what did you think?” I’ve got a document here. So there’s a little bit of a theater. And I don’t mean that in an unkind way. But there’s a little bit of a, you know, a formality to it that reminds me to take it seriously and that shows my collaborators that I value what they have to say and that I, you know, I’ve got some format for that.

That’s from the Greenbook podcast. I’ll put the whole episode in the show notes. And I hope you’ll check out this updated edition of Interviewing Users, and share it with all of the people in your network. You can help me and help the book by writing even a tiny review on Amazon.

So, let’s get to my conversation with Leanne. She’s now a Principal in user experience at ADP.

Well, Leanne, thank you for coming back to Dollars to Donuts after, I guess, five years

Leanne Waldal: Good to be here.

Steve: or so. It’s nice to talk to you again. It’s nice to talk to you again for this podcast. That introduction presumes that you and I have not spoken in the intervening five years,

Leanne: We have.

Steve: but we have.

Leanne: Yes, indeed.

Steve: We have. The secret is out. Let’s talk about some of the things that you’ve been up to professionally in the last five or so years. We can kind of start anywhere and go anywhere, but I think that’s one of the things we’d like to cover and just hear what some of your experiences have been and what you’re thinking about nowadays with user research.

Leanne: Yeah, and the wonderful thing about the last five years is it was about four years ago that the pandemic started. And when we spoke about five years ago, it was probably six months before this pandemic started and it changed research. So I went and worked for a company and helped them understand using ethnographic research in Germany and France, what was going on with the markets that they were trying to sell into their help teams really understand what they needed to do to better sell into those markets.

And then I joined an agency. And at the beginning of 2020, I was selling a project to a company with my teammates in the San Francisco office. And we had planned out like many of us in early 2020, all the things that we were going to do in this project over the course of 2020. And then of course, the pandemic happened and we all went home. And so we had to shift the type of research we were doing from going out and talking to people in person and seeing them in person to doing everything over video and then also running some surveys.

One interesting thing that happened in the summer of 2020 is humanity got tired of answering surveys. So I was doing mixed method research in the summer of 2020 with interviews with people about their experiences. And then I also wanted from those experiences to measure them at scale with a survey to find out, well, if I talk to 20 people and then I take these things and find out, you know, how do a thousand people respond to these experiences? It was a really easy target. It was millennials in California. It took like 35 days to get a thousand responses. And that was fascinating to me because it was really easy for us at that time to get people to talk to us on video. But I talked to the panel provider we were using at that time and they said, people are tired of answering surveys. This pandemic is wearing people out. We have all sorts of personal things we’re dealing with and we’re also terrified the world’s about to end.

And so then in 2021, before the vaccines came out, we were doing some work with a startup at the agency I was at. And I realized that some of their early like Kickstarter supporters were in the San Francisco area. And I said, this is about motorcycles. Motorcycles are used outside. We could actually meet people in person. Like that’s the thing I miss the most. I’m an extrovert. For all the people who are introverts, the pandemic was just wonderful for them to a certain extent. Like lots of people I know who are introverts were happy to work from home and happy to be at home. Me, I miss people.

And so I started up ethnographic research again in 2021 by meeting motorcyclists in a park. Got some great pictures of all of us in masks standing about eight feet apart from each other handing out water bottles and shouting across the grass to each other. When I left the agency, I went to work for a startup and introduced again ethnographic research to them because they had a mobile app but hadn’t really watched people use it out in the real world. And so I started just in the San Francisco Bay area to just run a pilot, like let’s go get some people using this and see how they use it. And then got the funding to go visit some customers and visit some consumers and some other people.

So I was tromping around in the snow in Minnesota in like negative degrees following somebody who was using our app also tromping through the snow, which was super fun. And when that startup laid me off, I did some consulting. I did some consulting for a large company, also doing some ethnographic research, going into some offices of the people who use their products to show the pain points. And also then started what I started doing, which I hadn’t done in a while, which was really fun was looking qualitatively at the pain points that were happening and then going to the people who have numbers from revenue and numbers from usage analytics and figure out how much money is being lost because of the user experience or how much money could be gained from cleaning up some of the user experience.

And then I joined ADP in June of last year as a principal in user experience. And I’m leading all sorts of research, including recently some ethnographic research again with one of our clients, which is super fun, teaching people, teaching people and teaching people.

Steve: I think we like to forget things that happened during the pandemic because, as you said, people were worried that everything was going to end. So that slow survey response or slow and low survey response, do you know, has that rebounded in the time since then?

Leanne: It definitely has. So by the time I was at a startup that I was at, I think we did some ethnographic research, some interview research, and then we had like, you know, six key things that we wanted to understand from a certain consumer population. I think we got all the response we needed in like 11 days. So from what I’ve seen in that sort of consumer research and mapping survey research to qualitative research, we’ve gone back to getting people to respond to it more quickly. But if you remember the summer of 2020, we were terrified. Why would you even if you’re offered a gift card to answer a 10 question survey, like spend time on that when you’re trying to take care of your kid, dogs and yourself?

Steve: We were terrified and we also felt, I think, again, it’s hard to remember with any clarity, but there was this sense of trying to preserve some aspects of normalcy, like family and work and so on. But you could see why people would want to run a survey because that’s part of their job and they want to continue feeling normal, but it’s a really, it’s an interesting observation that people didn’t want to respond to surveys because of what everything that was going on.

Leanne: Yeah. And as researchers, we lost some of our ability to understand people’s experiences because of the pandemic and being locked down. So we were limited to diary studies that are about things like surveys and interviews.

Steve: I remember having a lot of, we had a lot of complicated feelings about a lot of things, but watching that period where research was starting to pivot to remote and I don’t know, I felt like there was a certain gleefulness in being able to guide that. I don’t want to make it like a Coke versus Pepsi thing, but it seems like there is a remote versus in-person belief system or, you know, adherence and that when in-person became impossible, the folks that could give guidance and best practices on remote, it was hard to not see that guidance being offered because it was everywhere.

Leanne: Oh, of course. It was amazing at that time for people who didn’t know how to do remote. Like the agency I was at prided itself on doing contextual inquiry all the time. So teaching people how to do things more remote, I always like to mix things up and tell people like you can’t do all remote or all contextual or all quant. You need to mix it up to understand a human experience.

Steve: But that doesn’t work with our desire to make a single declarative, this is the best way to do it, Leanne, what do you mean, what do you mean mix it up?

Leanne: Oh, we all combine complexities in our experiences and how we do things. I find it really hard to stick just in one camp.

Steve: And I think it’s interesting, you talk about being an extrovert kind of driving you to, if I understood, yes, extroverts suffered from lockdown, but that as a researcher who’s also extroverted, you really were, I think, creative in trying to find ways to do some portion of context and kind of get yourself out there and get to where people were.

Leanne: Yeah, I felt really lucky to be working for this agency in San Francisco where we had an office where the windows open. So we were coming back to fully masked with all the windows open, standing apart from each other just to see each other. Do something on a whiteboard together, sit in a room and talk together just to, because you can’t just like one thing about the difference between desk research remotely and seeing someone in person is you can’t see the Post-it notes around the monitor. We all got Post-it notes around our monitor. We all got things, you know, I’ve got stuff here today to remind us of what to do.

And if you have a workplace, you’ve also decorated your space. So, you know, we’re decorator crabs, basically. We bring in pictures of our family and someone brings us back, you know, a token from some trip and we put it on our desk. And you know, the team all goes out and does something fun together and we put a picture on our bulletin board and you can’t see that. And recently something interesting I noticed was that, which I hadn’t thought of before is that with this remote, like you and I just look at each other, you know, on video, if I shared my screen with you, you can only see one screen at a time. Well, a lot of people work with two or three screens now. So how do you in a remote world see how they’re comparing things across two screens? Like they could, I could share one screen with you and then another, but you couldn’t actually see my experience of, you know, comparing this Word doc with this Word doc. So that fascinated me. I was like, Oh, amazing. The world has also changed that monitors are cheap and we can have multiple now.

Steve: I would have to ask whether or not you had multiple monitors and ask to see them.

Leanne: Remotely, you might just assume your screen is your screen. Like think about if you’re doing research with engineers, you know, you and I are both of a certain age. So you remember when we only had one monitor and it was like a big thing, the two of them on a desk, there’s no way you could have two monitors. Well, now if you go look at any software developer who’s working, they’ve got a couple of monitors or three monitors. They’ve got curved monitors. You know, we just sort of surround ourselves with all this stuff to look at. And you can only see that if you go see people in person, we don’t yet have a way with any of zoom or any other video technology, be able to see across all of those monitors all at once. So I think that’s an interesting point of innovation for these video companies.

Steve: And we’re still talking about research where the thing we would be looking at would be something that takes place on a screen.

Leanne: So I want to be able to see what you’re doing. Also, you know, motorcyclists can’t see their motorcycle. If I talk to you on video, maybe you can bring like your phone or something out to show me your motorcycle, but I can’t get that giddy experience you have about talking about it person.

Steve: Sorry, did you say the giddy experience?

Leanne: Yeah!

Steve: Who’s giddy in that example?

Leanne: The motorcyclists. Motorcyclists feel very, very strongly about their motorcycle. And I also noticed, because I’d been doing in the consulting gig I did before where I’m working now, I was doing some remote interviews. And then where I’m working now, I do remote interviews and go out and talk with people. And I’m noticing this distinct difference between how vulnerable someone will be with me and how much they’ll share with me in person versus on a screen. And that, if you think about it, just makes human sense. We can sense each other better and share things better when we’re in person than when we’re on a screen.

Steve: When you and I did the previous episode of this podcast, I came to your office and we sat in a room holding microphones to do it.

Leanne: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Steve: Technically, I guess we could have done that again, but I think we rely on this technology. We’re using remote screen-based recording, blah, blah, blah, that has become the default, even when it’s not the only option.

Leanne: Yeah, and I think it’s fine. This gives us opportunities to talk to people we can never talk to. But I think we have to make sure we remember the importance of doing things in person. Humans are people who sense things off of each other, and it’s important to make sure that’s there in the mix with everything we’re doing.

Steve: And you set up off the top to teaching and you talked about going with your colleagues

Leanne: Mm-hmm.

Steve: and teammates and clients and so on into the field. We have a number of different parties that have a different experience.

Leanne: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Steve: So the motorcyclist who’s giddy, us the researcher, and I mean, I’ll just say like,

Leanne: Mm-hmm.

Steve: I need to be in the room with that giddy person. So I need something that I’m missing from the remote. But then there’s also the people that you’re taking out that you want to give them a sense

Leanne: Mm-hmm.

Steve: of their customers and their users. What’s been your experience over these few years in trying to do that for your clients and stakeholders?

Leanne: Well, for that sort of work, bringing marketers, salespeople, engineers, product managers, designers, et cetera, out into the field for consumers or customers, B2B or B2C or B2B2C, it never fails to surprise them. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s the same thing over and over. And I love that sort of teaching moment of bringing someone out to an experience and just saying, I’m going to run the camera. If you don’t know what to say, I have no problem keeping the conversation going and saying, tell me more, tell me more, show me more. What about that? You get to just observe, or you can participate. It’s all up to you. There’s no rules, really. And I’ve never had someone say that they didn’t or weren’t surprised by something that they saw or they heard or observed. And usually, the things people are most surprised by are the environments that people are in. Because if you only see me in this room, like right now, I’m in a phone booth in a WeWork. I probably look like I’m in a sauna. You have no idea what’s going on around me. And so to see the vast experience of someone’s house or of someone’s business or someone’s office or following them along while they do something out in the world, usually people I’m with are as surprised by that as they are by the things in the product or the service or whatever it is that trying to understand the experience of. Well, for B2B, when I’ve worked in B2B,

Steve: What is it that these folks are learning from these experiences?

Leanne: I’m trying to help people understand the humanity of the people who are using the product. That it’s not just someone using a credit card to pay for a subscription, or it’s not just the buyer and their team who are at work and using your product in their work. It’s not just a job. There’s a human behind all that who’s got needs and has got friends at work or has colleagues or people that influence or don’t, or they have other products they’re using around your products that you can’t see from your usage analytics. So I’m trying to get them to see the giddiness of the motorcyclist, not just like, “I am this demographic and I’ve got this much money to buy this kind of product,” but look at how they feel about it. That’s what brand campaigns and marketing campaigns do. They get into our feelings. And so I try to get the product side of a company to understand that piece, that you can get more engagement in your product.

You can get people to use it more if you get them to feel good about it. It’s like Kathy Sierra’s book, “Make Your Users Badass,” or something. I probably just mangled that. Something like that. You want your users and your customers to talk about you at a cocktail party after two drinks. You want them to remember you so well. And then that Maya Angelou quote about, “I don’t remember what you said or did. I remember how I felt.” That’s the human. And so in companies, marketers know that. Brand people know that. I try to help product and design people remember that because they know that too. We just don’t remember that when we’re focused so much on usage analytics. It’s like, yeah, usage analytics and revenue analytics are important, but they aren’t important in a vacuum. You have to also make people feel good and feel smart when they’re using your product. Yeah.

Steve: Have you seen any shift in the appetite for the kind of, you know, understanding that you’re enabling people to gain?

Leanne: Research and design appetite has gone up and down in the tech industry over the past 20, 30 years that I’ve been in it. Right now, there’s a lot of people out there saying nobody has appetite for us. I’m like, well, maybe they have an appetite for a certain type of work that we do. We don’t have an appetite for all the work that we do. And that appetite ebbs and flows, just like the appetite for anything else. It’s just humans and trends and businesses and business decisions. And my advice to everybody has always been like, you can create an appetite for what you provide. It’s a sales technique. Understand what somebody needs, meet them where they are. Instead of being like, here are the five things I do. Here’s the checklist, sort of like McDonald’s, like here are the things you can order from me. Oh, you don’t want any of these? And instead say, what are you looking for? What are you trying to achieve? What are you doing? How can I help?

Steve: I want to clarify, or I’m trying to think about this as a question and not a statement, but I might just go with a statement. There’s a difference between, you know, when you say, find out what people need and then help them achieve it, that doesn’t mean if they don’t ask for contextual research, you don’t do contextual research. And maybe this is where the McDonald’s thing breaks down for me, or needs like another metaphor layer on top of the metaphor. Because if you ask what they need, no one needs research, they need the information or the decision or whatever they’re going to do about it. And so you have a lot of ways to get to that outcome. But if you say to them, hey, I do research, to your point, right, if you say, hey, I do research, do you want research? No, I don’t.

Leanne: Yeah, exactly. Or also like waiting for someone to ask you for a certain kind of research. When someone who doesn’t know the breadth and the depth of what you can do with research, asks you for something, they might not know what they need or want. They’re only asking based on their own knowledge. So I always find it’s better to figure out what kind of research to do or how to prioritize it or where to be by hanging out with people and finding out, say, what are you working on? What’s coming up? What do we know? What do we not know? Here’s these analytics. Do we know why these analytics look this way? Well, we could find that out this way, or we could do this this way, and see which one of those things that I start proposing to them based on what I heard them say they’re working on or what they’re trying to achieve, sort of like sparks a conversation. And then research is desired and wanted and valued and invited to the table. But I see a lot of researchers, and I coach researchers on this, not going in with like, I’m going to run a survey on this, or we’re going to do some interviews, or I’m going to do this unmoderated. Nobody knows what unmoderated research is outside of the research community. So stay away from the methodology. Stay away from like, I’m going to do this and stick with like, I’m your partner and I want to help you out

Steve: The labels that are always anchored in my mind is the difference between proactive and reactive. And you’re talking about being proactive. And even I get a picture as you kind of talk that there’s a relationship and there’s something over time. And I kind of hang out with them and see what they’re thinking about and what they’re talking about. That is not a — this is sales, it’s not a sales call, it’s a relationship-based sale.

Leanne: Yeah. And that’s why, as you and I have talked before, I don’t want to
go back to run a consulting firm. I don’t want to be a consultant unless I have to, for, you know, to get revenue in my life. I enjoy being a part of a team to like, nurture relationships and get collaborations going and work with people so we can do something together, because I don’t like being a lone wolf. I don’t like being a single point of failure. And, you know, I want to do things together.

Steve: In some of the conversations we’ve had where you’ve said — made these comments before about, you know, the relationships, I get the sense, and you can correct me here, those relationships aren’t handed to you. You’re seeking them out.

Leanne: The startup I last worked for, after I got laid off, customers of that startup were still texting me up to like, three or four months after I left the company, because they didn’t know I’d left the company. Every time they text me, I’d have to let them know. But I’d gotten such a good relationship with them that was beyond just like, I want to know how you use this product. It was like, I want to know how to use this product. And how did you start this business? And, and tell me about your family and this little town you live in. And where’s the best place to get lunch? And, you know, I would get invited over for dinner with their families. And you want that sort of relationship, which is very much like a sales tactic, because that’s what people who sell want. They want to get under your skin a little bit to um, understand you better, because that helps them sell to something that you need. And that’s all about relationships and collaboration.

Steve: What things, if any, are different in the sales relationships and collaboration that you want to nurture with users, customers, versus the colleagues, the people that you work with that you’re also wanting to do collaboration with?

Leanne: Well, you have a different goal when you’re a salesperson. You’re trying to hit a number. You’re trying to get someone to buy something. My goal with anybody is, I want to help you out. I want to see if there’s something you need that I can help you with. I want to see if, you know, you know, the types of skills that I have and the types of things I can do and the craft I have can help you. And if it can’t, I’m not going to, I’m not going to waste my time, you know, doing something if it’s not going to help you. I don’t know that all researchers or research teams see themselves as a service organization, but we basically are a service organization. We’re providing a service to and with people who hopefully will use and are interested in using the insights and the learnings they can get with us, from us, to build product, to design things, to market something, to sell something.

Steve: Hearing you talk is really refreshing for me because I think it’s easy for us, or for me at least personally, to get sucked into all of this as adversarial. I don’t know, we hear a lot of stories from each other, you know, in this work, we tell a lot of adversarial stories, persuading, getting permission, convincing.

Leanne: Do you pay attention to the subreddits on research? Because it’s full of that. Yeah. I just watch it and read it.

Steve: And sales, I mean, being a consultant, you know, I have lots of peers where we talk about sales, and the more — even though I’ve been doing this for a long time, I still keep learning and relearning that sales is not a persuasion adversarial kind of work. It is a — it’s all the things that you’re talking about, it’s relationships and how can I be of value to you? And that way of being is — I think you live that way, and so you work that way.

Leanne: Well, I learned it from running the consulting company. And then when I was at Dropbox and they were creating a sales team, I sort of like did a swap with the sales team. I was like, you teach me how to sell things because I actually want to know this more. Like I see, I see value in knowing these techniques. And, you know, you teach me that and give me access to people you’re selling to, and I’ll teach you about them. And that was a really valuable collaboration then. Because Dropbox was just getting into the enterprise. We were just starting to sell to larger customers. And I was working with all of the new enterprise account managers to basically learn what they did, but then also learn who they were selling to, and then feed that back to them to say, you know, I think you could sell this customer this, or this customer needs this.

Steve: What kind of things did you learn for yourself about sales from that?

Leanne: Well, that was when sort of like a chandelier went off. And I realized that like techniques we use in research to understand someone’s experience are the exact same thing sales people do. So a lot of researchers will be like, nobody does research like we do. Product managers don’t do it. They ask leading questions. Sales people are just trying to sell. And I’m like, hmm, I’m starting to see that. And this was back then. So about 10 years ago when I was like, oh, salespeople are actually doing a lot of research and product managers are actually doing a lot of research. Why does it matter how you ask the question? If what you’re trying to do is discover something or understand something, as long as you get to the end goal, the path you got there doesn’t really matter.

Steve: And did you learn anything about — again, you’re using sales in this very elevated way to describe how you work with colleagues, for example. Is this the point at which you started to develop those skills further?

Leanne: Yeah, that was the job where I grew up. I had run my own consulting firm for 17 years. So from when I was in my mid to late 20s until I was in my early 40s. And when I took my first job after that long consulting period at Dropbox, I was like, oh, I’m going to learn how to be an adult inside of a corporation now. It doesn’t matter what age you are when you learn how to do that. So it went through that learning curve there.

Steve: The idea of growing up is really — that’s a big one.

Leanne: Well, I don’t think we all ever grow up. We just grow up in certain ways. It’s like, oh, now I know how to behave professionally. I didn’t know how to behave professionally before.

Steve: I mean, you ran a consultancy for 17 years, so you at least were able to survive in that time.

Leanne: But you know this. It’s a different sort of professional to service clients and manage clients and sell things than to learn how to behave and how to manage the politics and the relationships inside of a corporation. There’s this really great book called Orbiting the Giant Hairball, which I go back to every once in a while, because it’s just all about the humanity in these large corporations or in these mid-sized startups and how do people get along and work together and make decisions and collaborate and get things done. It’s very different from running your own thing.

Steve: You mentioned just offhand, I think, that you talk to researchers and people are reaching out to you for advice, and I’d just love to hear kind of what that’s like, and I don’t know what’s coming up for people right now that you’re talking to them about.

Leanne: So what’s coming up is questions about how to, particularly for researchers early in their career who maybe started doing research in 2020, they’ve never done contextual inquiry. They’ve never done ethnographic research. They’re working at a company where they don’t have a manager or a leader who’s encouraged them to do that. They started remote. A lot of these people went to college remote, graduated in 2020 or 2021, got a job as an early career researcher, and they’ve just never done this. And so I basically start with the basics, like here’s how you observe someone. The other thing I noticed, and I also talked with some people recently about what they’re seeing of people who are earlier in their career who went to school during the pandemic and now are coming out, that it’s the same thing that those of us who are older went through in the pandemic.

Leanne: We lost a certain amount of social ability. And most of us, or a lot of us, got that back in the

Leanne: last year or two. We started meeting people in person again. We started going to dinner parties. We started going out to bars, went to concerts. Some of us went back to offices and figured out how to be in an office again. But there’s a lot of fear of, “I don’t know how to do this, and I’m scared to do this, and I’ve never done this before,” that a lot of it I attribute to the pandemic. And I think those of us who do mentoring and coaching need to be aware of that and teach people how to do that. I know someone who is teaching people how to dress to go to an office, how to wash your hair, how to have conversations with people. And that’s something that’s really specific to this point in time that didn’t exist before. So say, like, 2016, what was I mentoring and coaching people about? It was more relationship coaching. Like, how do you get along with a product manager who disagrees with your research results? Or how do you have influence? Or how do you learn a new skill? Or you’re a junior researcher, you want to become a senior researcher, what do you need to do to show that so that you can get that promotion? I’m not hearing that so much anymore. I’m hearing more around, well, one, how do I get a job? But then also, sort of like, how do I do these things that nobody ever taught me to do and I never had a chance to do before, and I want to try to do them now? Some of these people I’m coaching are the only researcher in a company. So they don’t even have someone to sort of like manage them or say, this is how we did it in the past, 2019 and earlier. So yeah, I just I like to help people out that way. I sort of feel like the things I can do right now are improve relationships among different teams. And I can also help out people who are trying to grow up in their career.

Steve: What else is coming up in these mentorship conversations you’re having?

Leanne: Presentation skills. So a lot of people come to me and say, I’ve been giving presentations, you know, over Zoom for years, and now I’m being asked to give a presentation in person. And I thought, how do you not know how to give a presentation in person? I’m like, oh, you’ve never worked in an office where you had to stand up in a room in front of a table of eight people with a pointer, you know, remember how we used to plug like a USB thing into our laptops, and then that we’d have a clicker and then presentation would show up on screen? Well, people are being asked to do that again. But that’s another soft skill that nobody’s taught them how to do. And one thing that is an advantage of presenting over video is you can have notes. You know, nobody can see that you’ve got your PowerPoint and like presenter view with your notes, or nobody can see that you’ve got like a notebook, you know, with like, oh, this is what I say on this slide. When you’re in a room, you’re on stage. And I think a lot, a lot, a lot of us forgot how to be on stage, who used to be on stage. But some people have never been on stage. And now they’re being asked to be on stage. And they didn’t get that practice at college, because you always presented your papers and everything over video or in a small classroom. I’m really glad that my daughter started college in person and is in college in person. So she’s getting that like those that like social growth that you need before you start to turn into a young adult trying to get yourself into the workforce.

Steve: It’s a fascinating observation that maybe is obvious to everyone, but I had never really thought of this. There’s a significant cohort of people in the workforce who have never, who don’t have a pre-pandemic norm to return to around research, presenting, business travel, any of those kinds of things.

Leanne: Yeah. Just like professional skills, how to get along with people. Yeah.

Steve: It’s interesting that at least the people that you’re in contact with have some awareness that they have a gap. Seems like that would be the first step to addressing it is knowing that it’s missing, that there’s a thing that is expected of you.

Leanne: Yeah. Yeah, there are a couple people I mentor who come to me in panics, like, I have to do this, and I’ve never done it before. And I’m like, oh, it’ll be okay.

Steve: Yeah, what do you tell someone who hasn’t done a business trip before, who hasn’t worked in an office? What’s the granularity of advice here?

Leanne: That even me in my early 50s, I still have new things I have to do every once in a while. And we can all do new things and hard things, and you will actually be okay. And then we can get down to brass tacks and go through the tactics. What, how do you pack? Or how do you like memorize things or practice? A lot of people who give presentations over video don’t practice first, because you’ve got all these supports around you to do it. You’re wearing your sweatpants and you put on a button down shirt, but you’ve got sweatpants on. You’ve got all your Post-it notes nearby of what to say. And so without all of those supports, what are you going to do? Well, you have to practice more. You have to think ahead. You have to plan, make lists if that’s your thing. And I think it’s really surprised people that they need to do that.

Steve: What’s the guidance, this is decontextualized, I guess, but what’s the guidance for a person who’s new to in-person research?

Leanne:Well, I say, you know, go find someone to bring
with you who’s done it before. So you aren’t, you and everybody else isn’t brand new to it all. It’s this, you know, it’s something like, you don’t all want to be new to doing in-person research on the group that’s going out to do it. See if you can find someone who’s done it before. Or find someone from marketing sales, who’s done something similar. Who’s at least like gone to visit customers or has gone to conferences and meet with customers. Your first pancake of the first time you do anything will always be a little rough. So it’s always good to have someone there who, you know, can advise you a little, or, you know, steer you in a slightly different direction when they see you going astray. And if you don’t have that, then, you know, just be gentle with yourself. Whatever you’re doing is the best you could possibly do.

Steve: That’s the lesson for everything, right? Let’s just be gentle for yourself. What do you get out of mentorship?

Leanne: Well, a couple of years ago, I realized I know things. And, you know, we all know things, but sometimes we go through life thinking there’s always something more for us to know, or we don’t know as much as others. And it was a couple of years ago when I was like, oh, I know some stuff. I could share it. You know, maybe it would provide some value to people who, you know, like if I think of myself at 23, 24 years old, I had people who were my age now who were telling me things that I listened to and got advice from. And it just sort of popped into my head. I was like, oh, I’m that person now. I can be the person who like gives people advice or says like, you know, I don’t actually know everything, but here’s some things I learned over the years that might help you. So, and it, it makes me feel good to do that. It boosts my confidence. It helps me feel like, oh, I can actually do something that’s not just my craft or not just my job for a paycheck or not just this, but like I actually have something to offer. And that’s a great feeling. Yeah. And then you’re sort of surprised, like, oh, I actually know how to do this.

Steve: I don’t know if this happens for you this way, but sometimes I don’t know what I know until I’m in a situation where I’m asked to help somebody out.

Leanne: Yeah. And other people will say to me, like, well, Leanne, we see you as an expert and everything. I’m like, yeah, but I don’t see myself that way. Yeah. Yeah. And for me, it meant I was taking it on in a way that felt comfortable for me. Like I don’t need to be or want to be the expert who, you know, gets on stage everywhere or has the big title or anything like that.

Steve: But to choose to be a mentor is to partially take on the role of the expert. The theme of some of your earlier points about creating good collaborations around research are understanding what somebody needs and how you can be helpful to them, and that you like to be helpful. And that seems to manifest in mentorship as well.

Leanne: But I do like to help people. Yeah. And that’s that being a helpful person is something that’s often attributed more to women than to men. And I used to when I was younger, sort of like sort of like push away things that were like, oh, that’s stereotypically female. And I’m like, OK, so what if I’m doing something that’s stereotypically female? I like it. It makes me feel good. Makes me feel strong. People appreciate it. And so I’m going to own it. But there are those of us who are Gen X feminists who grew up in a time when you had to sort of reject things that were stereotypically female. So I’m starting to embrace more of it now.

Steve: Is that Gen X at 25 and Gen X at 50 are approaching life differently?

Leanne: Yes, I was bald at 25 with an attitude.

Steve: There’s so many good follow-up questions to the statement, I was bald at 25.

Leanne: I’d come out of the closet probably like, I don’t know, three years before, two years before, something like that, and declared myself to the world as a dyke. So I shaved my head and I wore everything rainbows. And yeah, it was fun. I look at that part of myself and I’m like, oh, that was awesome. I don’t need to do that now.

Steve: The part of you that we’re talking about that likes to help, how did that part of you manifest when you shaved your head and wore rainbows?

Leanne: Oh, it didn’t manifest itself at all then. I was angry at the world. Yeah. Yeah. It was not an easy world to come out in 25, 30 years ago. I was, let’s see, 25.

Steve: When did you start your consultancy?

Leanne: I was working for AT&T at that time. AT&T Wireless, because I’d worked for a startup cell phone company. I was in Seattle. I moved to San Francisco in 1996, and that improved my life immensely. So I worked for a little startup called Organic Online in 1996. It’s now a huge company, but at that time it was like 30 people. Left there and worked for a startup that was started by Howard Rheingold, if anybody remembers him. And they ran out of money, so it got laid off. And then I was doing, people were asking me to do contract work for them. And at this time I wasn’t doing research at all. I was doing QA and server performance load testing. And so I was doing contract work and someone said, oh, you’re getting so much contract work, you could start a company. So I started a consulting company in the fall of 1997 at the age of 26, where I was very brazen and thought I could do anything. And yeah, and sold, just sold projects to all sorts of startups and tech companies. 1997, ’98, ’99, the money was falling off trees and started selling research when a company had asked if we could do it and I didn’t know what it was. And so I went and asked some friends and someone told me and I was like, oh, well, let’s figure this out. In the late ’90s in the web and tech industry, if you just basically said you knew how to do something, someone would pay you to do it and then you just found other people and figured out how to do it. Sort of fake it till you make it.

Steve: Is there a point professionally where the seeds of what you’re talking about now, because I think you’re describing a way of being, that’s about finding out how to help people and doing that. Can you identify some of the seeds of that? When you were angry and wearing rainbows, that was not present there, but where did it start to emerge and how you worked?

Leanne: Oh, yeah. When the NASDAQ crashed. So do you remember the NASDAQ? NASDAQ crashed in the spring of 2000, which was actually a bigger deal for those of us in the San Francisco Bay Area than the terrorist attack in 2001, because it had a bigger effect on our life here on the West Coast. I had to lay off a considerable number of people at my startup company, at my consulting company. And I had never done that before. I didn’t know how to do that. I was a terrible manager. I was like running. People who worked for me then thought I was great, but I look back at that and I’m like, oh, compared to me now and having gone through management training and everything, I didn’t know what I was doing. And I wished at that time that I could be able to do more for people who had relied on me for a source of income to pay their rent and pay their bills to support them better when we just lost tons of clients and revenue streams all at once after the NASDAQ crashed. Yeah, probably started then because then the company turned mostly into a research company. We still did QA probably until about 2010 or so, but we were primarily doing research projects and I was primarily hiring people who were in research.

And I also had got married and had a kid and it changes your life. So in 2004 was when Gavin Newsom made marriage legal for 45 days in San Francisco and my wife was pregnant. And so we got married when she was pregnant, told her dad he should bring a shotgun to city hall because it was a shotgun wedding, bought a house, got a letter from the California Supreme Court saying our marriage wasn’t valid so we had to run down and get domestically partnered before the kid was born. And for all of us, it’s usually things like that that happened during our life that help us gain a little more empathy for experiences in other people. It’s just the act of being human and growing older and having experiences that makes you understand other people’s experiences. And oh, everybody holds pain and everybody holds things that they won’t tell you about and we’re all here to help each other.

Steve: And just hearing you talk about it, even thinking like the layoffs, how we handle endings, I’m reminded of something that you and I talked about, not on this podcast, but just years ago. And I was catching up with you during a period of time where, I guess you were leaving a job and you were thinking about how you wanted to leave everything. Would you mind kind of describing some of what you did and how you thought about it?

Leanne: Sure. I had been laid off because a company was reorganizing and the organization that I was overseeing no longer existed. So there was actually no place for my role anymore. And I was given time. So it wasn’t like the startup that laid me off a little over a year ago where it was just like, you’re done today, turn your laptop in. It was like, here’s the package and you’ve got this many days and you can still come into the office but you don’t have to do work anymore. Being told that you don’t have to do anything anymore, I was like, lots of people depend on me here. I have lots of relationships I need to pass on to someone else. So the initial sort of angry or hurt response to being laid off, I was like, okay, I can have this angry or hurt response because I love this job. But I also understand the business decision behind it. And I also understand that there are people who will need things from me before I leave. So one of my colleagues actually said when I met with them on the last day and said, here’s the budget for the team and here’s the things, I documented all the things that we were doing. Here’s all the people that we had relationships with. I already sent out email intros and made sure everyone had them. What they said to me was like, they’d never seen someone leave that way before. And I said, well, why would you want to burn bridges?

The tech community is really small. And just like when I’ve been harassed or mistreated at a company, I haven’t been the person to want to sue the company because this tech community is so small and I don’t want to be that person. So I want to take other ways to file a complaint or make something known or make sure that things are documented. And so it’s the same thing with leaving, whether it’s my choice to leave, when I’ve made a choice to leave a company, I’ve done the same thing. I make sure everything’s documented. Everybody has a relationship pass off and everyone’s going to be taken care of. So like when I’ve left companies, you know, and given like 60 days notice, I’ve made sure that whoever is reporting to me, they knew who they’re going to report to next. We had like closed off our relationship. You know, I told them how to get in touch with me outside of the company. You know, if they want any coaching or mentoring in the future, because as long as I’m working, I want to make sure I maintain good relationships with everybody. I think that’s the most important part of work, is relationships and colleagues.

Steve: And I think when we talked about it, you said, these people, you may manage them in another job, or they may manage you in another job, or they may interview you for another job, or you may interview them for another job.

Leanne: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I mean, I have had people who worked for me in the past who will just say misbehaved and then applied for a job on my team, you know, at another company I was at. But just like that thing, like, I don’t remember what you said or what you did. I remember how you made me feel. I look at their resume in a stack and I’m like, no, like you did something that really harmed my agency or you did something that was really professionally inappropriate. You know, I can’t have you working for me anymore. That company that laid me off, the next company I was at, I was working with the sales team and they wanted to sell to that company that had laid me off. And I said, sure, I know people there. I can, I can help set up something. And we, so we set up this whole lunch. We were going to lunch at a restaurant in San Francisco and waiting in line to be seated was the person who had like, laid me off. And, you know, we gave each other a hug and I was like, you know, we’re okay. Like there doesn’t need to be an adversarial relationship when there’s business decisions made and when we all live in the same town and we’re all in the same tech community.

But people do set things up that way sometimes. And I think the harm it does is to yourself. It’s sort of like, I tell people, you have a choice of what you’re going to do with the feelings you have right now. You’re feeling frustrated. You’re feeling overwhelmed. You’re feeling disrespected, undervalued, whatever. Okay. Those are feelings. What are you going to do about it? Like you have control over your actions and your next steps and what you say and what you do. This is no longer about research. This is about being a human in a workplace.

Steve: Yeah, which is the core of research.

Leanne: Yeah. Well, and it’s also how to show value in research is to be that human who’s professional and can manage situations and keep a certain sort of like emotional regularity.

Steve: You know, the successful researcher or leader or manager who does a great transition when they’re laid off is also the person that is good at understanding what people’s needs are and proposing ways to help them accomplish it so that they collaborate and research together. It is the same set of values and life skills that you’re talking about. I mean, I think we went someplace really interesting and I like what you said, you know, these are human skills and I do think this is about research even though it’s about being a human.

Leanne: Well, that’s what I coach people who are looking for a job is to focus more on like, what is the hiring, like use your research skills. What is the hiring manager looking for? Does that fit you? Because there’s all sorts of researchers out there right now who are hurting because they can’t find work. I think the way that we find value again and find ourselves jobs again is to use those skills we have as researchers to understand what people want.

Steve: Is there anything in today’s conversation that we didn’t get to you bring up?

Leanne: No, that’s been great, Steve. I like the way it just sort of wandered. This has been fun.

Steve: Thanks Leanne for being just so wide reaching in what you have to share and kind of digging into a lot of related aspects. It’s really very interesting and inspirational for me personally to have this conversation with you. Thank you.

Leanne: Oh, you’re welcome. And thank you, Steve. Always a joy to talk with you.

Steve: Okay donut friends, thanks a whole heap for listening to this episode! Don’t forget, you can always find Dollars to Donuts where all the podcasts are, or visit Portigal dot com slash podcast for all of the episodes with show notes and transcripts. Our theme music is by Bruce Todd.

About Steve