User Research London 2022: Conference round-up
After a (forced) two and a half year break, we finally got a chance to attend User Research London. Following a day of workshops, the conference happened on 9th September and here’s our round-up of the talks.
Behzod is the founder of independent research practice Yet Another Studio, currently based in Seattle (USA).
“I’m here today because I’m genuinely worried about the state of user research.” At URL 2022, Behzod challenged the idea that growing a research team automatically equals better research and insights. The more researchers you have, the more diluted is their impact.
“Ultimately, our definition of what good research is, is flawed. This misunderstanding leads us to build research teams and ask for more people and more resources. We’re focused on our little sandboxes and people seeing us doing research. The only way we know how to grow the practice is through head count.”
It’s not about numbers or sticking to a schedule. “The perspective that we are only valuable as doers of research is part of the problem.”
So, how can we start thinking about a solution?
- “I believe we are under utilised, but I don’t believe centralising our work is the solution. I believe decentralising our activities” is the answer.
- Ensure researchers act as guides and not gatekeepers of the research.
- “Prioritise the projects that get people more excited to work with us. […] If we have a range of ways to engage with colleagues, we will be a part of more high-range conversations.”
- Find ways to maximise the surface of the organisation — “We’re going to be the most effective and impactful because we can help people make better decisions.”
Christina is the founder of London-based Melon Experience Design and she’s currently working on a project with Monzo.
At URL 2022, Christina shared some top tips to help researchers boots their creativity levels. An idea is to use co-design exercises to unlock participants’ mental models such as paper prototyping or cognitive maps.
Encourage your participants to take time to reflect. Pre-session tasks are a great way to do this, as they encourage participants to prepare before the task and means they’re not put on the spot during the actual session.
And what can you do to help reduce participants’ stress when co-designing?
- A good first step when communicating with participants is avoid jargon.
- Do the task(s) with them in a collaborative way.
- Think about ways you can reassure them during the research and the tools people have easy access to at home (e.g. Google slides).
- Create a safe space for participants to reflect and share their feelings and emotions.
- “If you’re working with a recruitment agency, really lean on them.”
As a researcher, you should question everything: why you are using a specific method, what research questions will this technique answer, what is the right stage to use each method, etc.
“But, most of all, avoid the temptation to just be creative and celebrate your failures.”
Qin Han’s talk was of particular interest for us at People for Research. During the pandemic, we extensively researched and wrote about the impact of forced remote research, so we were curious to find out more about this hybrid approach.
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Currently a senior design researcher at STBY in London, Qin Han shared how her team does research in a hybrid way. “You don’t have to think either in-person or remote, you can have the best of both worlds.”
“When we started doing more remote, we identified the issue of digital exclusion — whether due to lack of access or low digital skills. […] But in-person does not necessarily mean better inclusion. Remote brings advantages” because it allows researchers to do research with people that live in a mix of locations, among other reasons.
STBY’s definition of hybrid includes a mix of in-person and remote interactions that involve all the people connected to the research: the participants, the internal stakeholders and the clients.
“We don’t see hybrid research as a new way of working. It’s a collaborative tool to help us work at a global scale.”
Tom is director and UX research partner at research platform UserZoom Inc., currently based in Manchester, and his talk focussed on avoiding stagnation in your UX operation.
When researchers’ maturity slows down due to high demand, “we don’t develop as leaders and researchers. […] New things come in and shiny new products distract us from the mission.”
Why do researchers fall into stagnation periods?
- “We’re too busy delivering, we’re in the thick of and don’t have time to think strategically. […] It’s hard to get hard of this loop because it feels like a constant need all the time. We get obsessed with delivery and see that as the only valuable thing we can do as someone involved in research.”
- Logistic constraints like reduced timescales and more.
- “It can be hard to find the right balance [between experience and knowledge], especially at the beginning of our careers as user researchers.”
- How researchers communicate within their organisation—“Do we actually have a plan for how research is going to mature in our organisation? Is everyone involved in this plan? How is this plan ingrained in everything we do?”
What are the effects of stagnation?
- “We become isolated, we form tight knit groups, struggle to get out of them and communicate with other departments in the business. This really affects our value and what we can deliver to people.”
- “Our personal growth is stunted” — this demoralises user researchers.
- “We make ‘crap(ier)’ products.”
So, how do we change this? Tom’s advice is to really get to know your current state as a researcher, as a part of a team and the whole company. Equally, it’s essential to understand the now and how this helps you move forward — how is your team structured as an organisation and how does research fit into this? Also, who guides and manages research and who delivers insights?
“Do a research retrospective. Look at the last 6 months of research activity. Ask questions: What type of research are we doing? Who did it? What impact did it have? What did we do with the output? Learn from everyone and their experiences.”
Ask these questions:
- How do UXRs feel about the work they are doing?
- What gaps exist?
- How are user researchers perceived in the company?
- How do we perceive others? In other words, talk to people in your business.
What to do with this information?
- Create a roadmap of where you and your team can or want to go.
- Show progression, establish consensus and celebrate success.
- Build business cases for more investment in UXR (not for more research, but to make research work better).
Daniel, the founder of Glean.ly and creator of the concept atomic research, wanted his audience at URL 2022 to remember that “every organisation is different, so take what I’m telling you today and change it to fit your needs.”
At the conference, Daniel went into detail about the concept he developed to help researchers: atomic research — “As researchers, we need to share the molecules.”
“I’m most interested in what you learn during research and what you’re going to do next.”
According to Daniel’s concept, “it’s better to get poorly coded research into your repository than losing it. Quantity is more important than quality.” To help researchers, he shared a list of tools and best practices.
- Physical sticky notes or a digital version like Miro (it’s very visual, but it can get messy)
- Tools that can be used to organise data, such as Airtable
- Atomic research base
- Glean.ly map
Best practices :
- Ask this question: where does atomic sit in my workflow?
- Also ask this: what kind of research is this for? Most common need is to de-silo research (not exclusively used by user researchers).
- Remember that everyone should be included.
Kate is currently the research ops manager at Atlassian, and she travelled all the way from Australia to share her wisdom with us at URL 2022.
Her talk started with a straightforward show of hands: “who knows what Research Ops is?”.
Research Ops is composed of eight main elements:
- Tools & vendors
- Participant recruitment (“a massive, massive piece of work,” according to Kate)
- Ethics & privacy
- Data and insights management
- Talent and training
- Programme management
- Money and metrics
- Onboarding and support
However, these eight elements can’t be interpreted separately. In reality, they are all connected and “everything must work like clockwork”.
The goal of Kate’s talk was to share lessons she’s learned over the years working in Research Ops.
Here are the main takeaways:
- Know your supply and demand before you make promises.
- Operationalising for more and more, faster and faster research isn’t always a triumph.
- Be aware of the research culture that you want to create.
- Don’t build admin, build mighty engines.
- Complexity isn’t the problem as long as you have a map.
The managing director of ImpactSense was next on the conference schedule and she started with an important reminder:
“Research shouldn’t be seen as a one-off spend, it should be seen as an ongoing investment.”
Veronica shared the results of a study that ImpactSense ran recently:
- There is a big difference between research that is insightful and research that is actionable. Less than 15% of researchers find the insights they generate/receive to be very actionable (this drops to 12% for experience teams).
- Only 33% of researchers trust research insights, while 54% feel apathetic. Trust in research is affected by two key factors: confidence in participant quality and the structure/design of the research.
- 61% of organisations would invest more into research of it were kept up to date. According to the study, 75% of research is being run on a large scale (months or longer), with only 4% of experience teams carrying out regular small-scale research, which is “shocking because we talk so much about agile processes.”
- 70% of researcher/consumers of research believe the research industry is far from reaching its full potential — Selecting an appropriate research method is usually driven by three factors: insight need, time to deliver, cost to invest. We tend to fall into behavioural patterns due to our collective bias and end up picking the same methods over and over. Also, only 44% see barriers to research as a reality rather than a perception issue.
Janelle’s talk at URL 2022 started with an interactive exercise: “close your eyes and think of the worst manager you’ve ever had.” Maybe that was a past manager, maybe you never had a bad manager, maybe it’s your current manager sitting next to you right now… or maybe you just haven’t met them yet.
Currently based in the Netherlands, Janelle Ward is a UX research leadership and strategy consultant, as well as founder of Janelle Ward Insights. At the conference, she shared some top tips on how to thrive as a UX research manager.
Studies show us that the main causes for employee burnout can be traced back to their managers, which is unfortunate when we all know that good people management is essential in any organisation.
So, how do you thrive as you become a manager of people? And, specifically, a UX research manager?
- Your perspective and your priorities — your primary priority is now your people (not the research)!
- You are responsible for people now — how does your role affect them and also yourself?
- Vision is essential — use your researcher empathy to focus on your team, ensure 1–2–1s are exclusively for them, and help to steer a plan for their future success and development.
- Before you take the plunge, educate yourself, make a plan, self-reflect and ensure you take care of yourself throughout this journey.
Also hailing from the Netherlands, our final speaker talked about how user researchers can help organisations predict the future and “be crucial to help navigating the ship through the storm.”
Emma, who currently works as a senior research manager at Miro, shared some strategic foresight tips that can be used in VUCA scenarios (VUCA = volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous):
- Describe the domain — you need a map before you set out. Look at what the research will and will not seek out.
- Gather intelligence — Identify the focus of the study and scope the exploration. What do our stakeholders need from your research? Look for drivers of change and weak signals.
- Envision the future — this can be done by using future visions/futures wheel.
- Test future scenarios — trigger the change event to build evidence for the prediction.
- Check your bias: practice reflexivity, challenging your bias/assumptions/preferences/etc., ask yourself — who does the future exclude?
User Research London will be back in 2023 for another series of workshops and talks by some of the biggest experts in the world of user research. Keep an eye out for updates on their website and Twitter.