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Digging In and Figuring It All Out with Margaret Gray of MetaLab

Building a research program from the ground up and the funny thing about being a woman in tech.

For this week’s installment of Other Side of the Table, we tapped Margaret Gray, MetaLab’s UX research lead. MetaLab is the design agency that companies like Slack, Amazon and Facebook turn to when they want to build apps, products and services that people love to use. Chances are, you’ve already crossed paths with their work.

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

I’m Margaret. I live Vancouver, BC and work at MetaLab. I think a lot, but I also think everyone thinks they think a lot. I otherwise run around outside, draw pictures of myself as a wood elf, and size up people on the street to see if they'd let me pet their dog.

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

I’m the UX research lead at MetaLab, a design agency based in Victoria and Vancouver. I’ve been doing startup and tech related jobs since I was in school, which gave me endless opportunities to jump into roles I knew nothing about, try stuff out, fail a bunch and eventually land on a good way of doing things. That’s exactly what MetaLab needed: someone with the blind confidence to just start doing research and figure out how it works.

My first “big kid” job was at Bench, an online bookkeeping company, where I basically did every job under the sun, from sales to operations to client care to recruiting and hiring. As the company grew and started getting more strategic I moved into more quant stuff; analytics, product management and UX research. In the two and a half years I was there I changed jobs (and job titles) eight or nine times. It was pretty confusing for everyone, including my mom who just wanted to be able to tell her friends I was an accountant or something.

What all those roles had in common though was a strong customer focus. That combination of a generalist skillset and the ability to jump in and eventually come to a user-centered approach to research made me a fit for my job at MetaLab. That, and a crippling amount of confidence. I think I can do anything.

Whiteboarding about love as a universal language at BenchType

I believe it! Why did MetaLab decide it was time to bring on a dedicated UX researcher?

Metalab has had really organic growth based on a design forward approach but, as the company started encountering more and more complex design challenges, it became clear that they needed more of a research focus. I came on board just over six months ago, tasked with integrating a formal research process.

We have the best designers in Canada (I may be biased, but it’s true) and we’ve always produced high quality work but in the past our designers were doing research not necessarily because that was their first area of interest or expertise, but because they needed to.

Bringing on a researcher meant giving MetaLab’s designers more time to focus on doing what they do best (and doing it better).

Now people are starting to really see the value of research so it’s just a matter of building a more robust practice.

Switching gears a bit — I hear you have a certain talent for witchcraft. Do tell.

At Bench I’d change my job title so often I started to resent having to keep updating my job title on Slack. I wanted to avoid that from the get go at Metalab so I just wrote ‘witchcraft’ on my profile when I started.

I grew up on a small island and spent a lot of time in the woods, talking to animals, hugging trees and reading fantasy books and I always felt like I was either already doing witchcraft or if not I’d be pretty good at it. It’s something I think about a lot… maybe I’ve been walking around all this time with superpowers that I’m not even aware of.

Back to it, how did you get into UX research and what about it excites you?

I have an endless curiosity about people; what they do and why. I’m continuously fascinated by the many different ways of doing things that exist. This career allows me to talk to so many different people and ask them things that would be really weird in a normal social setting. I get to learn a lot about people.

I think that having more knowledge of and empathy for other people makes the world a better place. And if you’re a business, you’re going to do a better job and create a stronger company if you understand the people who will be using the product or service.

So, UX research satisfies this curiosity about humanity that I have, it makes the world a better place, and it helps businesses do good not just financially but also by solving real problems.

What’s one of the challenges that you enjoy about research?

It’s a tough space to be in because you’re the translator between groups of people that are often very different. I talk to users that might not be designers or engineers or very techy, and I learn from them and translate those learnings into something that’s valuable to a whole host of other people; clients, designers and developers.

Even though it’s all in English, it almost feels like I’m taking information in one language, parsing it out and delivering it in another. And I like that.

Can you explain your research process? What kind of qualitative or quantitative measures do you use?

I’ve always done a mix of qual and quant. I’m very much a math and people oriented person. I know that’s a contradiction for a lot of  people but it helps me to be really good at my job.

Every client that comes to MetaLab has a different set of information and a different degree of understanding of their user and their user experiences. My first step is to collect everything I can from the client through a series of in person exercises and conversations. Usually that ends up being mostly qualitative work but sometimes I’ll have quantitative data from their app or previous research work that they’ve done.

Based on the questions the client is trying to answer and the problem they’re trying to solve with their product I’ll come up with a research plan.

There are a few elements I’ll always include. One piece is the client work where I’ll try to map out their assumptions based on lots of conversations. I’ll also always do user interviews with existing users or potential users or a mix of both. I’ll do usability testing with whatever existing software they have, or what MetaLab has built to try to validate our own assumptions.

If there’s space and a need for it we’ll start to solicit quant data through surveys or app analytics or whatever we can. I’m starting to build in more rich research activities like full day shadowing, observational work and exercises with users, which I believe will allow us to deliver more robust insights. That’s been made possible because we now have a better ability to explain research and get clients on board to help us facilitate it, so we’re now starting to get into some more involved research activities.  

So the more you’re able to show the value of research, the more buy in you’re able to get from clients to do research?

When it comes to product development, research is still not universal or universally understood. Design is starting to embrace research but there are still lots of companies that act on a ‘build first, test later’ mentality.

We work with a lot of people who are really familiar with product and tech and design but the value of research hasn’t yet sunk in, so it still takes a lot of explanation and education to help people understand what research is and why we do it. It helps us do a better job for our clients and we’ve gotten better at having that conversation.

How do you think that compares to other industries?

The more risk averse you are the more research and prep you do, and that’s something people in tech tend to shy away from.

There’s a real fear of ‘analysis paralysis’ — fear that research might delay building something and trying it out. We really need to align on expectations with our clients so that we can do the minimum viable research to get a minimum viable product.

Can you give us a first-hand account of a research story that stands out to you?

I have a story that will probably stand out to women in tech.

I was trading funny UX research stories with a male colleague and I started telling him about the time I was asked out by a user I was interviewing over a video call. He was very offended and just shocked that something like that would happen in a professional setting. He didn’t find it funny at all. Other men I’ve told the story to have had the same reaction.

But when I tell other women they’re not surprised at all. That kind of thing still happens, even if you’re a very progressive woman in tech.

I told it as if it was a funny story but when you really think about it, it’s kind of icky and highlights why it’s still difficult to be a woman in the workplace. I appreciate that my male friends were so shocked on my behalf, but the fact is, that kind of thing is so commonplace that sometimes as a woman you just don’t have the energy to get angry, so you deal with it by laughing.

What are you reading these days that informs your approach?

I’m really self taught. Everything I’ve learned to do really well in research comes from trying things out. When I don’t know how to answer a question or do something, I’ll google it and teach myself.

I read a lot, but it’s usually not about design or product or tech. I get into math, sociology, and psychology. I read a lot of nonfiction about things like economics or space. I believe there’s value in cobbling together knowledge from a lot of fields and applying it to a narrow practice.

The more neurons you develop, the more connections you can draw between ideas, the more knowledge you have, the better you can understand the one small piece of the world you operate in, like UX research in my case.

What rules of the game do you break? Is there anything you do that goes against the grain?

I don’t have the education or really process-oriented knowledge of how you’re supposed to do things like conduct a user interview or do a survey. So rather than following best practices I’m learning as I go and figuring out the best way to do things based on my own experiences and the resources at my disposal.

An impromptu alleyway user interview for MetaLab

I probably do most things differently than someone who studied user research in school or learned from someone with a lot of experience in the field. That probably results in a different experience for the interviewee because I tend to approach things in such a way that we’re exploring or solving a problem together.

I’m positive I’m doing a number of things wrong, but I’m also open to being told that and being shown a better way.

Let’s wrap up on that point; what’s one thing that you’ve changed after being shown a better way?

I have a very consistent, casual way of interacting with people across all situations, whether it’s my boss or a colleague or an interviewee. I think that goes a long way toward putting someone at ease in an interview, but interviews are different from conversations.

A piece of feedback that I’ve gotten recently is that by sharing comments of my own to make someone feel comfortable and understood, I’m making the interview 50/50; I’m giving back as much as they’re giving me. Something that I try to do now is force myself to give the interviewee a chance to speak for 80-90% of the time. By dialing myself back to 10-20% I end up getting more insight, thoughts, perspectives, opinions.

It requires stripping back the social norms of conversation where you agree with people or nod along or commiserate when they’re expressing a pain point, and instead giving the interviewee more space and time to really explain how their brain works.  

It’s a big habit to break and I don’t want to lose it entirely, because sharing some of your own experiences can be valuable. But I know I still need to focus on getting more out of people.

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Nikki Sequeira

Nikki Sequeira is a content marketer passionate about helping brands deliver more value to their customers. Writer, editor, strategic thinker. Traveling the world when not at home in Victoria, BC Canada.

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