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Adapting User Interviews On the Fly with Sarah Merlin of Invaluable

Why finding presentations aren't always necessary, how people are constantly surprising, and more.

Erin May

“Other side of the table” is a series featuring user researchers, their work, ideas, and challenges along the way. This week we’re featuring Sarah Merlin, senior manager of product design at Invaluable.

Let’s get started with the basics, can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where you live, hobbies, family, etc.

I’m an always curious, tech-savvy, Apple loving designer currently living in Boston, MA with my husband, Josh. When not watching Patriots games, I can be found running the streets of Boston, discovering new restaurants, cooking and traveling the world. One of my biggest accomplishments this year was running the 2017 Boston Marathon as part of Team Brookline, and raising significant funds to help the Brookline Teen Center. And I love to geek out over my passion of making Google maps for my favorite restaurants and travel destinations.

What’s your current role and how did you get there?

I currently lead the product design team at Invaluable, an online marketplace for fine art, antiques and collectibles. We work with auction houses, galleries and art dealers around the world to help them expand their reach to a global audience through selling online. But to back it up a bit, my dream growing up was to be a Pixar animator. As I dove into animation in college, I realized my true passion was the meld of technology and design. Throughout my career those two fields have been a common thread—from start-ups, to a digital agency, and ultimately to product-focused companies. What I love about working in product is the ability to have full ownership of a feature—from inception to release—and to continue to iterate and improve using data, user feedback and new technology. At Invaluable we have a lot of challenging problems to solve as we’re an atypical e-commerce site, which proves to be extra interesting and keep me on my toes.

The best stories about user research

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Switching gears a bit — what’s the best random thing you’ve found on the internet recently (preferably with links)?

Although not necessarily recent, my favorite internet find is my spirit animal, Doug the Pug. I often daydream about what it must be like running your dog’s social media as a full-time gig. Doug just gets me, and he’s adorable!

And what’s your most useless skill?

Knowing way too much about the artists being played on Sirius XM’s yacht rock station. If you ever want to embody the 70-year-old, sailing version of yourself I highly suggest giving it a listen when it returns next summer. Or, you can check out this playlist on Spotify.

Alright, let’s get into it — what is your favorite “war story” from a user research session you were involved in?

One of the things I love about user research is you can never predict what someone is going to say. A few years back I was involved in some in-person user testing for future thinking, product concepts. We had a specific script and questions we were to ask those we were interviewing. I think I made it halfway through the first question before I knew I would be throwing the script out the window. What followed instead was a fascinating conversation where the user ended up actually putting together detailed drawings of what he was looking for and envisioning. It was a far richer, interactive session than intended, and I ended up learning so much in a short period of time. Although I wouldn’t generally go purposefully off-script, this was a time where doing so gained a richer, fuller feedback session.  

There has been a big surge in “design thinking” recently, how would you like to see that trend continue to evolve?

I’d like to see the continued evolution of design as a critical component of business. I strongly believe great user experience can be a core marketplace differentiator when it comes to a company’s product, and I’m definitely starting to see a positive trend toward valuing design. I remember years ago when every major design initiative was a fight or battle to prove its value. I’m seeing less and less of that these days, and I purposefully try to play my part in making that happen. My team at Invaluable strives to differentiate ourselves by our user experience, and I’m proud to say that is often noticed and mentioned by those we speak with in user feedback sessions.

In what ways do you deviate from the conventional wisdom around user research?

There’s a time and place for proper finding presentations, but as a general rule of thumb, I try to shy away from them. Instead, I tend to favor a quick 1-pager with high level takeaways of what we were looking to learn, the approach, key learnings and next steps. In this format findings are not only easily digestible, but also allows my team to be more nimble and fast in sharing results.

I also strive to be inclusive of all departments when doing user research, in particular with remote user research where we’re speaking over the phone or on video chat. I open our sessions not only to product and engineering, but also marketing and our customer support teams, as well as sales if they have interest in participating. There’s power from hearing direct user feedback, and I think it’s important for everyone in the company to have that experience firsthand.

What do you think is the biggest mistake people make when approaching user research?

Not getting started at all, or just simply not doing research! You don’t need to have a big team, or a big budget to get a research project off and running. It’s really as simple as defining: what you are looking to learn, who you are looking to learn from, and defining how you approach the research execution. Just simply try and get started!

After years of doing user research, what is biggest lesson you’ve learned? The type of thing you wish someone had told you about when you were getting started.

Recruitment of users for testing is time consuming and making friends in other departments to help you is critical to success. Leveraging already existing relationships of current users with others in your company makes recruitment much easier and successful. And taking this a step further, at the end of every session that goes well, always ask if that user is willing to speak with you again. By doing this, you can build a UX database of users you know will openly speak with you, which saves time and aids in finding willing participants.

Let’s wrap up with some quick hits. How do you like to prep right before sitting down with a user for a research session? Any habits that you find effective?

I found this a while back and I always keep it on my desktop: Things a Therapist Would Say. I strive to be mindful in how I’m asking questions during research sessions, and glancing at the above PDF has been extremely helpful. Also for any testing, I try to book the conference room we’re using at least 15 mins prior to the session start time so there’s no last minute rushing/wondering if technology is going to work, etc.

What tools do you use during sessions? For interview guides, notes, recording, prototypes, etc.

We use a combination of tools depending specifically on what our testing approach is. For our moderated, remote user testing we typically use GoToMeeting, which allows us to be able to record our sessions as well. We use Office 365, specifically excel files, for moderator guides and note taking. Having the ability for everyone to take notes in one place makes it easier for reporting back on at the end. We use Invision for the majority of our prototyping needs. We  also tend to use white boards for questions arising during testing. In-person moderated sessions are similar, but we generally print out our moderator guides instead of relying on our computers.

Are there any tricks you use to make participants feel relaxed or more expressive during sessions?

I always like to start off the session with a bit of small talk to help them feel comfortable. I’ve found asking about the weather or things like weekend plans to always be a good, universal icebreaker! Even a quick, “How’s your day going so far?” can help build a relationship quickly from the start. Also, setting the expectation of the session not being a test upfront always makes people feel more at ease. I like to throw in a line like, “I’m not the designer for this, so please feel free to speak openly about what you like/don’t like” to help with comfort levels and dispel the fear that they may offend me with their comments. During the session, I make sure to encourage and promote good responses. Whether that’s asking strong follow-up questions, or just simply saying how much we value and appreciate the feedback. It’s all a balancing act!  

How do you and your team document and share the insights you collect from user research?

After every research project we conduct a debrief where everyone involved in testing comes with their top three takeaways, and we use stickers to organize the takeaways into categories on a wall. It’s a fun way to get overall first impressions, plus engage everyone involved in the research. Additionally, we send out our 1-pagers with key high level takeaways (what we were trying to learn, the approach, what we learned and next steps). Depending on the topic and scope, we also might put together presentations for a larger audience.

In every moderator guide we build a group of warm up questions and build a repository of answers across our research. We refer to these compiled questions a few times a year. It’s interesting to keep track of frequent asks, and changes over time.  

Invaluable recently went through some interesting learnings from trying to do mobile user testing, specifically around sound. Tell us more about that.

Through prior user feedback, users have expressed issues in the fast-paced nature of auctions online. We wanted to experiment and see if adding sound into our mobile app would help alleviate some of the pain points our users were experiencing. We were testing not only if sound would be helpful, but also what types of sounds resonated best with our users for specific actions. We first attempted to do this testing remotely, which we quickly learned wasn’t going to work, as it was extremely difficult to control the quality of the sounds in our app experience. We shifted gears and ended up moving to in-person testing. This was something new to my team, and the first time we invited our users to come into our office.

Moving the user testing to in-person was game changing. Some of our users had physical reactions to different sounds, and we would have never been able to fully capture that feedback remotely. One of our key findings from research was moving forward we will strive to do all mobile testing in person. And it’s worth mentioning my team handles everything involved with user testing: recruitment, moderator guide writing, moderating and compiling results.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I am continually surprised with how much we learn from our users during testing sessions—every session is worthwhile in learning something we didn’t know before!

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Erin May

VP, Growth & Marketing

Left brained, right brained. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held.

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