UX Researcher: A User’s Manual

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This article is a guide on what to expect, and how to get the most from your UX researcher–a user manual, if you will.

You will invest a lot in your researcher and you deserve the greatest return. You should have high expectations for this critical component of your UX team, and following the recommendations presented in this article will help maximize your return.

A long and prosperous future

Congratulations on hiring a user experience design researcher!  When maintained correctly, a full time researcher will give you many years of strategic insight and validation, eliciting oohs and ahs from jealous shops that have chosen to forgo a researcher and cheers from your many satisfied clients. There are many benefits of having a researcher on staff, which include:

  • Making insights through on-site observation
  • Validating business hypotheses through customer research
  • Discovering usability issues through user testing
  • Initiating new projects in an effort to constantly expand their interests and skills

First, let’s spend a minute discussing the return component of return on investment. Incorporating user research into your product ensures its usability. According to Forrester (2009, pg. 2), product experience is what creates value and establishes power in the marketplace. Specifically, they found companies providing a superior user experience led to:

  • 14.4% more customers willing to purchase their product
  • 15.8% fewer customers willing to consider doing business with a competitor
  • 16.6% more customers likely to recommend their product or services

Investing in a UX researcher is a critical part of ensuring you provide your users with the superior experience Forrester notes as being such a critical differentiator. Everything covered in the following article applies to teams of researchers as well as those in a department of one.

Expectations

You should have high expectations for the quality and quantity of your researcher’s work. She should be a main contributor to your organization, a team player, and someone you look to for new ideas and fresh perspectives on long-standing issues. Your researcher’s unique background in asking questions and finding solutions, as well as the fact that she is likely spending ample time listening to your clients, provides her with insight she can provide your team on how to move forward with addressing various issues.

You might be saying anyone can accomplish the tasks in the paragraph above. You’re correct. I’m pointing out you should expect this from your researcher fresh out of the box, no questions asked.

You might have hired your researcher with specific duties in mind; however, you should expect her to want to know what others are working on, to be a part of the bigger picture, and to ask for feedback allowing her to become more proficient at what she does.

The following are some of the key expectations you should have for your researcher.

Asking questions

Asking the right questions is a basic expectation. Don’t laugh. This is harder than it looks. Asking questions involves the preliminary step of listening to understand what the issue actually is. Not everyone can do this.

Solving a problem isn’t as simple as asking the question you want answered.

For example, your overarching question might be “Does this website work well?” You could ask 1,000 people this question, and you wouldn’t know much after counting the “yes” and “no” responses.

What you need to know is “what about this site works, what doesn’t, and why?” Responses to these questions can be obtained in a variety of ways, allowing solutions to be identified. You can rely on your researcher to determine the most appropriate questions to ask in situations like this.

Researchers spend years listening to professors, clients, peers, and stakeholders to identify core issues to solve as well as what questions will provide data to find a solution. When meeting with project staff from a recent client, don’t assume your researcher isn’t engaged if she is quiet. It is likely she is observing verbal and physical interactions in the room as she designs a plan of attack.

Navigating relevant literature

Most likely, other researchers have published findings from studies related to what your researcher will examine. Your researcher should easily navigate and compile reports and studies from the body of knowledge in UX, HCI, and other relevant fields. The fact that someone else has explored questions similar to those of a project you’re asking your researcher to tackle helps shape their thinking on how to move forward, using existing resources to their fullest potential.

Literature can serve to inspire your researcher. For example, studies of ecommerce sites suggest trust is a key factor in determining users’ purchasing behavior. If you have a client developing a site meant to provide information, not selling a product, how might trust be developed? Your researcher can use findings from ecommerce studies to shape her questions and study design and then potentially publish a report contributing to the field, beyond the needs of your client.

Using the right method

Asking the right questions and reading up on relevant literature leads to the next critical expectation for your researcher: Using the right method.

UX research is more than usability testing. Your researcher knows methods shouldn’t dictate the questions asked, but the opposite: Your methods should be tailored to get relevant data for the questions to be asked.

Picking a method is hard work, this is why you need a researcher in the first place, they have the training and experience needed to select the right method for the question being asked. Use your researcher to do this. Your researcher carries a toolbox of methods. They might have preferences, or be more comfortable with certain methods, but they should not be a one-method pony. Some researchers are on a constant quest to define or refine new methods to answer questions. These can be exciting models to work with–the sports cars of UX researchers–willing to push the pedal to the metal to see where things go.

Regardless of the amount of planning, you often find yourself in a situation less than the ideal one written up in a methods textbook. Adapting to on-the-ground scenarios is something to expect from your researcher. Whether it’s using her smartphone to record an interview when her digital voice recorder dies, or adjusting on the fly when a busy client decides they only have 45 minutes to complete a 90-minute interview, your researcher should walk away from each scenario maximizing her ability to be flexible and still collect relevant data.

Translating findings

You’ve asked the right questions and selected the right method to collect data; now your researcher should serve as a translator for the application of research findings. Study results can be confusing if not interpreted appropriately. This includes verbal and written reports tailored to the experience and expectations of your audience. Your researcher should embrace the opportunity and challenge presented by making the results of her labor relevant to her peers.

Silo-busting

Researchers should come with the ability to break down silos, serving as ambassadors internally and externally, across teams and projects. Researchers are often deployed with surgical precision at specific intervals in a project timeline. This means your researcher might be actively involved in five or six projects simultaneously, giving her a breadth of insights. Few others within your organization are as able to communicate on the goals and achievements of multiple projects as she is. If findings from one study being conducted for client A would impact a recommendation for client G, your researcher should ensure everyone working with client G is aware of this.

Academia: A land far, far away

To make the best use of your researcher, it’s important to know where they come from. Especially if she is one of the PhD models, she was likely assembled in a far away land called “Academia.”

In Academia, your researcher gained or honed some of her most useful attributes: critical thinking; exposure to broad topics; research methods, both quantitative and qualitative; analyzing, interpreting, and presenting results; and connections with fellow researchers and academics.

Academia is the land of publish or perish. There are plenty of opportunities to give presentations to groups, write papers, teach courses, and create visual displays of data for various projects. This experience should leave your researcher well polished at speaking and presenting research in various formats well before they land at your front door. Although not all researchers are the best orators in the room, they should all be highly proficient at tailoring the message to their audience.

Additionally, your researcher has navigated an unbelievable amount of bureaucracy to escape Academia with a degree. She comes with the skills of diplomacy, patience, interpreting technical documents, and correctly filling out these documents under duress. This contributes to refining her ability to successfully reach the finish line and receive the prize. Your researcher is a doer and a finisher!

There are some things done in Academia, however, that don’t translate as well in the “real world.”

Academics have a unique language beyond the jargon typically found in professional fields. An example of research-ese is the statement, “I don’t think the items in this scale are valid at measuring the factor they purport to” translates to, “We might not be asking the right questions on this survey.”

Using obscure words–sometimes in different languages–becomes second nature to those moving through Academia. It is perfectly acceptable to tell your researcher she isn’t speaking your language. She should be able to translate for you; you just need to be clear when this is necessary.

Academia instills an unrealistic sense of time, as well. Your researcher may have spent one, two, or more years working on a single research project while earning her degree. Anyone that’s spent time in the real world knows you are lucky to have a timeline of one or two months to complete a study and, more realistically, about three weeks.

Adjusting the timeline for conducting a study is something you can expect your researcher to come to grips with rather quickly. You might see smoke coming out of her ears as gears that have been set to snail’s pace spin at hyper speed, but trust me, the adjustment will happen.

Be clear about your expectations for timelines at the beginning of a project, particularly if your researcher is fresh out of Academia.

The attributes instilled by Academia have become ingrained in your researcher. Enjoy them while you provide coaching to help her adapt to your business’s requirements. Experiences in Academia are part of what makes your researcher quirky, unique, and invaluable to your organization.

As time passes, she will become more polished, especially if you provide her with explicit feedback on what she is doing well and what she can do to improve. Patience is key when helping your researcher transition from Academia; if you exercise it, you will find the results quite rewarding.

Care and maintenance

Addressing the following will ensure your researcher stays running at optimal conditions.

Continuous learning opportunities

Researchers have an inherent love of learning. Why else would someone voluntarily go to 20th grade? Your researcher probably believes “everyone is a lifelong learner.”

It’s critical to offer educational opportunities and training. You must allot time and money for her to attend classes and seminars on topics ranging from research methods, to statistical analysis, to how to visualize data.

You should offer these opportunities to all of your staff; learning opportunities are key for ensuring a high level of morale throughout your organization. These opportunities aren’t always costly. Many organizations offer free or low cost webinars lasting the time of a reasonable lunch break.

Membership in professional organizations

Professional organizations allow your researcher opportunities to keep a pulse on the current state of their field. Professional organizations often host events and distribute publications promoting professional development and networking among professionals.

You should provide your researcher funds to join a professional organization; however, there are organizations that do not charge a fee to join. For example, I am a member and current Vice Chair for PhillyCHI the ACM chartered professional organization serving Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley region. There’s no charge to join, and monthly events are free for anyone to attend.

I suggest encouraging your researcher to attend meetings and allowing her time to serve as a volunteer or board member of professional organizations. There are numerous legitimate professional organizations at local, national, and international levels affiliated with ACM, IxDA, UXPA, and more.

Attending conferences and workshops

There’s a subconscious desire for researchers to congregate to drink beer and exchange ideas. Attending conferences allows researchers to meet peers from around the world and across topics, to learn the state of the art in their field.

Your researcher is most likely aware of the various local UX organizations such as ACM SIGCHI and UXPA sponsored groups, UX book clubs, and other UX meetups. Many of these groups offer workshops and one day events that are low or no cost (Thanks sponsors!). So, if you need convincing on the value of attending conferences, you can dip your toe in the water without blowing the budget. There’s also no shortage of national and international UX conferences that would satisfy your researcher’s needs. You can start with this list compiled by usertesting.com.

Besides getting a chance to feed off the ideas of others, interacting with professionals in her field, and allowing her to show off her work, there is another way of getting value from having your researcher attend conferences:

At Intuitive Company, staff give presentations on any conference they attend using company funds. This promotes the value of attending conferences to your staff, with the added benefit of allowing your researcher to present information to their peers, something most researchers already enjoy doing.

Reading

This was mentioned in expectations, but allowing your researcher time to read is your responsibility. She is one of those rare birds that actually recharge their batteries when reading, particularly when it relates to her research and practice interests.

Here’s a secret: You benefit from your researcher’s desire and ability to read! By allowing your researcher to read, you are actually allowing her to work, so long as you structure it correctly. For example, tell her you want her to conduct a literature review; therefore you are giving permission to read while at the same time setting up the expectation that there will be a usable product as the outcome of her reading. A literature review on a relevant topic can inform future research you engage in as well as design recommendations you make.

Win-win.

If you still can’t fathom giving your researcher time to read on the job, you should at least provide her with a book budget to purchase some of the must reads in UX.

Publishing and presenting

What good would research, professional development, conference attending, and reading do if your researcher couldn’t share her newfound knowledge with others?

Academia has hammered the need for dissemination into the fiber of your researcher’s being. Allowing time for writing and presenting is another area of maintenance that is your responsibility. You should encourage her to present at conferences and publish articles, blog posts, and white papers on relevant topics.

This is a way for her and your organization to build a strong brand in the communities you work in. For example, having your researcher cited as an expert on responsive design because she’s published on the topic is something you can include in future proposals and presentations you make to potential clients.

Conclusion

The success of your researcher is a two-way street. If you’ve already begun the journey with your researcher, this article might have highlighted expectations or maintenance that you’ve overlooked. If so, it isn’t too late to implement change; she can handle that as easily as a dead recorder, and you can enhance the relationship you have with her. If you haven’t started the journey, the advice provided can help ensure you get the most from your well maintained researcher for years to come.

What would you add or change to this manual based on your experience?

Additional resources

Forrester Report on best practices in UX (2009): https://www.adobe.com/enterprise/pdfs/Forrester_Best_Prac_In_User_Exp.pdf

Sandy Greene of Intuitive Company on evolving a creative workplace: http://boxesandarrows.wpengine.com/author/sgreene/

Redesign Democracy: Dare to Think Big

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Why are you in UX? It probably isn’t to get rich. Yes, there is plenty of money in being a UX professional today. If you’re competent, you should be enjoying a very nice lifestyle. But we do this not for money–being on the business side would be far better at achieving that goal. We do it for creative reasons, expressive reasons, quality of life reasons, perhaps even altruistic reasons.

Yet, despite the broader motivations we share for choosing our vocation, we are rarely the community that spawns big ideas. It is more likely to be the capitalist, the marketer, or even the philosopher. But, why? I’ve lived in these communities, too–a dot-com CEO for a few years, an advertising executive for a few years, working in university to a philosophy Ph.D.–and I can tell you the paragons of those communities are no smarter than the paragons of our own. Yes, they may have more ambition and audacity and expectation of being big, but they are no better suited to develop big ideas or make radical change in the world than we are. I say this as someone who has been in all of these worlds and continues to choose to associate with the UX community as opposed to the others.

As a group, we are creative. We are open-minded. We try to create solutions that solve problems in the best possible way, and we do so for people. Practical solutions. Ideas based in real-world application and context. As the U.S. Congress has a historically low approval rate, as Antarctica melts into the oceans, as ISIS beheads innocents, and Russia maneuvers to swallow up the Ukraine, we need better solutions.

Why not us? I would argue we are uniquely able to provide the critical solutions to move humanity forward, solutions that synthesize technology with a concern for and understanding of the human condition.

However, user experience is typically focused on the “things” within the world. Yes, sure, with a focus on how people interrelate with those things but even when we are looking at “ecosystems” of experiences, they generally relate to ideas, structures, and systems that other people have imagined. We may deliver the existing idea in a better way, but it is not something that spawned from our mind.

Like many people in the United States, I have become increasingly disenchanted with our political system. As our population grows our legislature does not keep pace, meaning that each of us are farther and farther removed from the decisions being made for us in the Federal government. Ours is supposed to be a government of self-representation, but our dwindling connection to those decision makers only reinforces a plutocracy–a government for the wealthy–where she who has the most money, wins. The Congressional approval rate is now under 10%, a stunning indictment on the current system. This is happening against a backdrop where personal computing technologies are removing the old barriers that required an abstracted form of representational government in the first place. The situation is simply begging for a change.

This week I released my proposal to Redesign Democracy.

It is audacious in its charter and sure to be squashed by people who have significant monetary incentive to keep the current, crooked, hopelessly out-of-date model in place. But frankly, my friends, I don’t give a damn. I want to make the world better. I will make the world better, and these ideas will be some part of that in ways small or larger. You can develop solutions that make the world better, too. You just need to think bigger, take on some of those challenges, and have the courage to throw it out there into and against systems that will surely resist it.

Let’s stop tolerating the things that suck. We are explorers, creators, change makers. We don’t need Ph.D.s or splashy titles or high profit companies to make the world better; we just need to build the damn things.

I published Redesign Democracy in an honest effort to propose a better path that could actually be implemented and make the world much better. But there is a second reason:

I want to inspire you to create even better things. To dare. To dream. To put it all out there, whatever.

The worst thing you do is get a few people to think differently. The best? If your idea is good, and your timing is right, and you get a little lucky, you just might change the whole, entire, wonderful world that we share with over seven billion others.

What about the world would you like to see changed, and how might we be a catalyst to change it? Please share your ideas in the comments, below.

Five Things They Didn’t Teach Me in School About Being a User Researcher

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Graduate school taught me the basics of conducting user research, but it taught me little about what it’s like working as a user researcher in the wild. I don’t blame my school for this. There’s little publicly-available career information for user researchers, in large part because companies are still experimenting with how to best make use of our talents.

That said, in the midst of companies experimenting with how to maximize user researchers, there are a few things I’ve learned specific to the role of user researcher that have held true across the diverse companies I’ve worked for. Some of these learnings were a bit of a surprise early on my my career, and I hope in sharing them I’ll save a few from making career mistakes I made in the past for lack of knowing better.

There’s a ton of variation in what user researchers do.

In my career, I’ve encountered user researchers with drastically varying roles and skillsets: many who focus solely on usability, a few who act as hybrid designers and researchers, some that are specialists in ethnography, and yet others who are experts in quantitative research. I’ve also spoken with a few who are hybrid market/user researchers, and I know of one tech company that is training user researchers to own certain product management responsibilities.

If you take a moment to write down all of the titles you’ve encountered for people who do user research work, my guess is that it will be a long one. My list includes user experience researcher, product researcher, design researcher, consumer insights analyst, qualitative researcher, quantitative researcher, usability analyst, ethnographer, data scientist, and customer experience researcher. Sometimes companies choose one title over another for specific reasons, but most of the time they’ll use a title simply because of tradition, politics, or lack of knowing the difference.

At one company I once worked for, my title was user researcher, but I was really a usability analyst, spending 80% of my time conducting rapid iterative testing and evaluation (RITE) studies. When I accepted the job at that company, I assumed–based on my title–that I’d be involved in iterative research and more strategic, exploratory work. I quickly learned that the title was misleading and should have been usability analyst.

What does this all mean for your career?

For starters, it means you should do a ton of experimentation while in school or early on in your career to understand what type of user research you enjoy and excel at most. It also means that it’s incredibly important to ask questions about the job description during an interview to make sure you’re not making faulty assumptions, based on a title, about the work you’d be doing.

Decisions influence data as much as data influences decisions.

I used to think the more data the better applied to most situations, something I’ve recently heard referred to as “metrics fetishism.” I’ve now observed many situations in which people use data as a crutch, end up making mistakes by interpreting “objective” data incorrectly, or become paralyzed by too much data.

The truth is that there are limitations to every type of data, qualitative and quantitative. Even data lauded by some as completely objective–for example, data from website logs or surveys–oftentimes includes a layer of subjectiveness.

At the beginning and end of any research project there are decisions to be made. What method should I use? What questions should I ask and how exactly should they be asked? Which metrics do we want to focus on? What data should we exclude? Is it OK to aggregate some data? What baselines should we compare to? These decisions should themselves be grounded in data and experience as much as possible, but they will almost always involve some subjectivity and intuition.

I’ll never forget one situation in which a team I worked with refused to address obvious issues and explore solutions without first surveying users for feedback (in large part because of politics). In this situation, the issues were so obvious that we should have felt comfortable using our expertise to address them. Because we didn’t trust making decisions without data in this case, we delayed fixing the issues, and our competitors gained a huge advantage. There’s obviously a lot more detail to this story, but you get the point: In this circumstance, I learned that relying on data as a crutch can be harmful.

What does this mean for your career?

Our job as user researchers is not only to deliver insights via data, but also to make sure people understand the limitations of data and when it should and shouldn’t be used. For this reason, a successful user researcher is one who’s comfortable saying “no” when research requests aren’t appropriate, in addition to explaining the limitations of research conducted. This is easier said than done, especially as a new user researcher, but I promise it becomes easier with practice.

You’re not a DVR.

Coming out of school, I thought my job as a user researcher was solely to report the facts: 5 out of 8 users failed this task, 50% gave the experience a score of satisfactory, and the like. I was to remain completely objective at all times and to deliver massive reports with as much supporting evidence as I could find.

I now think it’s old-school for user researchers to not have an opinion informed by research findings. Little is accomplished when a user researcher simply summarizes data; that’s what video recordings and log data are for. Instead, what’s impactful is when researchers help their teams prioritize findings and translate them into actionable terms. This process requires having an opinion, oftentimes filling in holes where data isn’t available or is ambiguous.

One project I supported early in my career involved a large ethnography. Six user researchers conducted over 60 hours of interviews with target users throughout the United States. Once all of the interviews were completed, we composed a report with over 100 PowerPoint slides and hours of video footage, summarizing all that was learned without making any concrete recommendations or prioritizing findings. Ultimately we received feedback that our report was mostly ignored because no one had time to read through it and it wasn’t clear how to respond to it. Not feedback you want to receive as a user researcher!

What does this mean for your career?

The most impactful user researchers I’ve encountered in my career take research insights one step further by connecting the dots between learnings and design and product requirements. You might never be at the same depth of product understanding as your fellow product managers and designers, but it’s important to know enough about their domains to translate your work into actionable terms.

Having an opinion is a scary thought for a lot of user researchers because it’s not always possible to remain 100% objective in bridging the gap between research insights and design and product decisions. But remember that there’s often always limitations and a subjective layer to data, so always remaining 100% objective just isn’t realistic to begin with.

Little is accomplished when data is simply regurgitated; our biggest impact is contributing to the conversation by providing actionable insights and recommendations that helps decision makers question their assumptions and biases.

Relationships aren’t optional, they’re essential.

As a student, my success was often measured by how hard I worked relative to others, resulting in a competitive environment. I continued the competitive behavior I learned in school when I first started working as a user researcher; I put my nose to the grindstone and gave little thought to relationships with my colleagues. What I quickly learned, however, is that taking time to establish coworker relationships is just as important as conducting sound research.

Work shouldn’t be a popularity contest, right? Right–but solid coworker relationships make it easier to include colleagues in the research process, transforming user research into the shared process it should be. And trust me, work is way more fun and meaningful if you enjoy your coworkers!

What does this mean for your career?

Take the time to get to know your coworkers on a personal level, offer unsolicited help, share a laugh, and take interest in the work that your colleagues do. I could share a personal example here, but instead let me refer you to Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Also check out Tomer Sharon’s book It’s Our Research.

Expect change–and make your own happiness within it.

Change is a constant for UX’ers. I’m on my eighth manager as a user researcher, and in my career I’ve been managed by user researchers, designers, product managers, and even someone with the title of VP of Strategic Planning. I’ve also been through four reorganizations and a layoff.

What does this mean for your career?

Change can be stressful, but when embraced and expected, you’ll find that there are benefits to change. For example, change can provide needed refreshment and new challenges after a period of stagnation. Change can also save you from a difficult project or a bad manager.

I remember a conversation with a UX leader in which he shared he once quit a job because he couldn’t get along with a peer who just didn’t get the user experience process. A few months after he quit, the peer was fired. If only he had stuck around for a while.

The U.S. Navy SEALs have a saying: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable,” which refers to the importance of remaining focused on the objective at hand in the middle of ongoing change. Our objective as user researchers is to conduct research for the purpose of improving products and experiences for people. Everything else is secondary–don’t get distracted.

For more detailed recommendations on how to deal with change as a user research, I highly recommend watching Andrea Lindman’s talk “Adapting to Change: UX Research in an Ever-Changing Business Environment.”

Concluding thoughts

I’ve been happy to see in the past two years that the user experience community has stepped up in making career advice more readily available (we could do even better, though). For user researchers wanting advice beyond what I’ve shared in this article, here are four of my favorite resources:

  • Judd Antin’s talk in which he covers many opportunities and challenges of doing user research: http://vimeo.com/77110204.
  • You in UX, an online career conference for user experience professionals.
  • Tomer Sharon’s book It’s Our Research.
  • A special issue of UXPA’s UX Magazine, with the theme of UX careers.

Creating Your Personal Mission Statement

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You’re weird. In a good way, but weird nonetheless.

Weird in the sense that people outside of work likely have absolutely no clue what it is you do. Maybe many at work as well.

For me, this weirdness manifests itself at parties. Inevitably, a new acquaintance asks me what I do. Beads of sweat form on my forehead. My eyes dart around, desperately seeking my far more articulate wife, Mary Jean. I find her, ask her to explain me, and flee.

If you’re in UX or a related field, congrats: You probably have more work than you can manage in a time when many people are underemployed. But that doesn’t diminish the discomfort those weird moments cause.

How might we explain ourselves better?

I created a simple exercise to help create personal mission statements—something short and meaningful to say about yourself—with some help and encouragement from Christina Wodtke and Anders Ramsay. It’s fun, simple, and quick; in fact, I recently tried it out with a group at the Re:Design conference and it seemed to work well. Here’s what to do.

Start with a context.

It could be public, like something to include on your business card, your Twitter bio, or blurt out at those nerve-wracking parties. Or something private, like a statement you write down and keep in your wallet for you and you only.

Tell your story.

Find a friend or colleague—someone you don’t mind being a bit vulnerable with—who will take notes while encouraging you to talk about yourself and what’s important to you. Ten minutes is plenty.

Basic questions like these can get you going:

  • What kind of change would you like to be part of?
  • What’s your superpower?
  • What’s the difference between what you’re expected to do and what you want to do with your life?
  • What has always pissed you off?

Craft a short statement.

Together, take those key terms and phrases from the notes and work them into something that fits the context you chose. Easier said than done, so plan to iterate.

At Re:Design, I was the guinea pig. My context was finding a new Twitter bio to replace this one:

Founder of Rosenfeld Media and veritable UX action hero.

“UX action hero” is an inside joke: pointless for 99.99% of the people who encounter my bio. Time to axe it.

I started with the “What has always pissed you off” question, and told my session’s attendees a story of 20+ years of frustration with the traditional business models (and their defenders) that I’ve encountered in higher ed, consulting, publishing, and professional associations. Telling one’s “true story” is never easy—especially in front of 70 people—but two things really helped:

  1. The floor is yours. Whether you’re telling your story to one person or 70, it’s your time. Take as much of the ten minutes as you wish, and make it clear that there will be opportunities to discuss your story and brainstorm after you’re done.
  2. Vulnerability is engaging. The goal isn’t to impress anyone with a slick presentation of your many fine attributes; rather, use this opportunity to begin figuring out what you’re about. Your stumbles and your quirky, imperfect, unfinished story will actually draw in your partner(s). If they have an ounce of empathy and interest in you, they’ll be able and eager to help brainstorm ideas about who you really are.

My group was anxious to brainstorm before I was even done telling my story. They came up with these options:

  • Happy but not satisfied
  • Re-architect/Assassin of business models since 1965
  • Shapeshifter
  • Internet sherpa
  • Learning by teaching
  • Step, pivot, repeat

My faves are the second and the last one especially, as verbs (like “step, pivot, repeat”) are fairly constant when it comes to describing how we live and what we do. And if I wasn’t happy with any of these, repeating the exercise with someone else would have made sense—after all, it takes less than a half hour. In fact, I’m considering repeating it as often as I get the urge—maybe once per year.

In any case, here’s my new Twitter bio:

Founder of Rosenfeld Media. Slayer of traditional business models. Step, pivot, repeat.

And here are shiny new Twitter bios from some of the session’s attendees:

helping people be less afraid of making things better

…and…

Persuade. Connect. Convince. Judging user experiences everywhere.

Though I’m not sure which questions got each of them started, I am sure they were excited. In fact, they were anxious to share their new personal mission statements with the group.

They found it fun, simple, and quick. I hope you will too.

Reorgs: Rocky or Righteous?

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As designers, we grapple every day with challenging projects. This of course is part of what keeps us coming back. Some challenges, although not directly related to project work, can still be looked at through a UX lens. In this case, I’m talking about a phenomenon you’re likely familiar with: company reorganization.

If you’ve been through a reorg (that’s ‘reorganization’ in water cooler parlance), you’ve probably experienced your share of the whispers, closed-door meetings, and mixed messages that seem to be par for the course when an organization goes through major changes in size, scope, staffing, or management.

I’ve been through a number of these shuffled decks myself, across several companies, and for a variety of reasons. It’s fair to claim that each one is different, but there’s enough overlap to identify patterns and form some baseline recommendations.

If you’re in a role with decision-making authority, then you’re ideally positioned to ensure that the reorg will be designed as an intentional experience with its actual user base in mind.

However, if you’re like the majority of us who aren’t in a position to make decisions about the reorg, you’re probably still reasonably close to the folks who are. Why not take the initiative and lay out some scenarios and recommendations for how the reorg can be designed for optimal reception and impact on your organization?

The users

Whether it’s planned or not, the scope of the reorg will have an audience far larger than the group of people seemingly affected on paper. The experience of these groups throughout the reorg should be purposefully designed by whomever is running the change management show.

Let’s take a look at who your users are.

  1. The folks who are officially part of the reorg. Their status is changing in some way, be it their actual role, reporting structure, or the like.
  2. Coworkers/teams who have direct or dotted-line dependencies with anyone or any team directly involved in the change.
  3. Coworkers/teams whose only connection is physical or cultural proximity or who ultimately report to the same upper management.
  4. Third party vendors who communicate with or provide services to reorg-affected parties.

Here’s what you need to realize: These groups will be getting bits and pieces of news about the reorg whether or not you craft that message explicitly.

With that in mind, you should ensure the messaging supports the business strategy, is accurate, and speaks to each party’s specific concerns.

This is the difference between an unplanned, unpredictable experience and an intentional, designed experience. It’s a golden opportunity to show your stakeholders they are a valued part of the organization, and you’ve got your arms firmly around managing the changes. If the right preparation goes into the reorg, you can nip in the bud any misinformation and unnecessary stress, building confidence in your team’s leadership and capability as a whole.

The alternative is to risk spending what trust currency you’ve accrued to date.

The message

Now that you know who you’re talking to, what do you say? It’s idealistic to think that you’ll know all the details when you begin planning the reorganization–but you do need to initiate your communications plan as close to the start of planning as you can.

Start by crafting general messaging that indicates the why–the logic being the necessity and desired benefits of the reorg. This should be high level until more details are known. If you know enough about the how to paint a low-res picture, do it.

A little bit of information that’s transparent and honest will go a long way–but take care not to make promises you can’t keep. Things can and will change, so own up to the reality that dates and other details are very much in flux to help you avoid having to take back your words when deadlines shift down the road.

As you approach major milestones in the reorg process and as the details solidify, provide appropriate communications to your audience groups–and do so again once the changes have been rolled out. This may seem like a lot of effort, but rest assured your people are asking questions. It’s up to you to address them proactively.

If a milestone date changes–and it will–the audience who’s been paying attention will still be looking to that date unless you update your wayfinding (in the form of project timeline communications). Without this careful attention to detail, you’re sharing bad information–perhaps more damaging than no information at all.

When the rubber meets the road

Inevitably, one question that will come up repeatedly throughout a reorg is “When does all this actually happen?” In other words, when do we start following the new processes, change how we route requests, start doing this and stop doing that?

For both logistical and psychological reasons, knowing how and when transitions will take place is vital. Often the difference between a stakeholder being stressed out (perhaps becoming a vocal opponent of the changes) versus being calm and confident is the company’s honest commitment to consciously bridging the transition with trained, capable support.

This could be as simple as a window of time during which existing persons or processes can continue to be called upon for support or as complex as an official schedule that shows specifically how and when both the responsibilities AND expectations of the audience segments will change.

Usability research

It’s not like you can do A:B testing with a reorg. You can, however, do some polling when the initial reorg information is shared, then midstream, and again after the reorg is complete.

Why do this research? As with any project, from your first person perspective, reorg elements might seem obvious–or you may have overlooked some pretty big pieces. Talking with your ‘users’ can be illuminating and also sends the message that their input is desired and valued.

While some reorgs are expressly designed to reduce overhead/staff, reorgs are not always about cutting heads. Often-times it’s a shuffle of resources (people), and if the right discussions happen you can guide that process to a win win.

Using a handy list written by a gentleman you may know of, here are some dimensions coopted for our use. Employ these as you see fit to generate interview material and discover how well your company reorg experience has been crafted.

Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?

We can ask our participants what they took away from the reorg communications they were sent. This includes actual group or 1:1 meetings, formal documents, emails, etc.

Find out if the materials conveyed the message so the transition was easy to understand. Did they grasp both the high-level view and the granular details? (In other words, overall strategy and the specific impact to them.)

Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?

If the folks you’re polling have been assigned specific assignments in the reorg, ask early on if they fully understand their instructions and if they could have added any insight that might have decreased task costs or durations. Midstream or late in the game you can follow up to see if those instructions turned out to be clear and accurate enough for the tasks to have been carried out efficiently.

Did task instructions have the most time-saving sequence? Were there steps left out of the tasking communications that had to be discovered and completed?

Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?

Remember the telephone game? Someone makes up a story and then each player passes the story on to the next by whispering. When the story makes it back to the author, the details have changed–it’s a different story.

When those involved in a reorg talk with others, they’ll pass along what they know. The simpler the story and the more they’ve understood it, the less you’ll lose in translation.

Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?

A successful reorg requires a lot of work and collaboration between groups. Mistakes tend to be costly and have a ripple effect, becoming harder to correct as time goes on. The critical path of these big projects is placed at risk due to missteps due in large part to (wait for it) learnability and memorability, or due to errors introduced by people who have been put off by the lack of efficiency of the reorg process and attempt to forge their own path.

Another source of error is in failing to communicate enough timely information about role changes to employees and contractors. Major change breeds anxiety, and in a job market where workers have the power and employers are constantly on the prowl for good (and hard to find) talent, it’s a mistake to risk wholesale attrition.

Avoid this error by honestly and accurately communicating dates and the likelihood of roles continuing as is or with changes. If roles are going away, be transparent about that too. Better to maintain trust and respect with clear messaging about terminations than to leave folks in doubt and unable to plan for their future.

Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

If the reorg does NOT leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, and if the stated project goals have been met, you’re doing it right. Reorgs happen for a reason, typically because something’s suboptimal or simply broken. Ultimately, everyone should pull together and work towards a positive outcome resulting in better workflow, lowered cost of doing business, increased job satisfaction, and, of course, $$$.

Moving on

Regardless of your role in the company and the reorg, consider whether or not you can use your UX superpowers to make the entire process less painful, easier to understand, and more likely to succeed.

Good luck!