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May 10, 2023
How to create and maintain a healthy research practice, from a seasoned pro.
How do you build a long lasting research practice? Aim for a healthy one. Gregg Bernstein, User Research Lead at Condé Nast and author of Research Practice (and a User Research Yearbook Class of 2022 member—check out his profile here), is here to show you how. He’s led research teams at Vox and Mailchimp.
This week on the podcast, Gregg talked to us about how to contribute to a healthy research practice every day and what a healthy practice even means.
Gregg talked about…
[3:26] Can you have a healthy research function without dedicated researchers?
[14:20] Sharing contextualized insights with relevant teams can help you build value as you work.
[24:40] What's an unhealthy research culture?
[33:13] Contributing to a healthy research culture every day.
[36:41] UXR Hot Topics: Democratization and research culture.
[40:03] UXR Hot Topics: Burnout and research culture.
Gregg Bernstein is the user research lead at Condé Nast, and wrote the book "Research Practice: Perspectives from UX researchers in a changing field." He spends his days advocating for and practicing user-centered product development. Previously he managed innovative research practices at Vox Media and Mailchimp.
[00:00:00] Gregg: I think it's easy to say, you know what? I've opened a role for a researcher, therefore we value research. Therefore we have a research culture
[00:00:08] Erin: right.
[00:00:09] Gregg: And it's not just add water. You know, it's not set and forget.
[00:00:47] Erin: Hello everybody. And we'll come back to Awkward Silences. Today we're here with Greg Bernstein, the user research lead at Conde Nast and author of research practice. Today, we're going to talk about how to build a healthy research culture. Greg, thanks so much for joining us.
[00:01:07] Gregg: Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
[00:01:10] Erin: Got JH here too.
[00:01:11] JH: Yeah. I don't know what it says about me, but my first thought was, what's an unhealthy research culture look like? I don't know. I went to the other side of it, but that's where I'm at.
[00:01:18] Gregg: We'll cover both.
[00:01:19] JH: All right. Perfect.
[00:01:20] Erin: Research wellness it's Yeah, there's matcha and yoga and so on. Great. So yeah let's start there, Greg. What is a healthy research culture? What are some of the characteristics and why is this something that you care about?
[00:01:32] Gregg: I'm going to give you the classic researcher answer, which is it depends or it's complicated. So I think we can look at a healthy research culture in a couple of ways.
One is there's the organizational culture within a research practice exists. So is research a valued part of a product development process? Is research empowered to be part of the discussion, you know, around what to do, what to build, what the opportunities are for a product or an organization? Is research receiving advocacy from organizational leadership?
So that's the organizational side of things, but then there's also the team culture, part of a research practice. Which is, do researchers have a lead or a manager and is that person able to advocate for not just individual researchers, but for what the research team is doing?
Is there somebody who can make sure the team is conducting the right projects via the right methods at the right time?. And this doesn't have to be a research leader or manager. There's plenty of research teams that report to a design lead or a product lead. But, you know, is there somebody who is advocating for research and putting the researchers in the right meetings and on the right projects and I've had multiple ways and, you know, I've reported into cross-functional teams, I've reported into a research lead.
There's no right way to do it, but it is important that somebody is advocating for researchers and for research as a practice.
[00:02:56] Erin: And probably someone with some influence, right?
[00:03:00] Gregg: Yeah, so that's the thing. Ideally, it's somebody who is in a leadership position, either a manager or director or a chief product officer. But you do need an advocate.
Otherwise research can end up on an island. And so I guess that's why it's important to me to establish all the research culture, because I have seen when it can go wrong. And you need allies. You need somebody who can help you find the right allies in an organization to make sure that research is set up for success.
[00:03:26] JH: So just a quick tangent on that, I guess. You're certainly talking about it from the lens of having dedicated, you know, research resources on the team, which makes a lot of sense. But I guess my first question then is can you have a healthy research culture without researchers? If the designers and PM's and stuff are all doing lots of research and really believe the value in it. Like, can that be a healthy environment? Or in your definition, like, you kind of need people who are like dedicated practitioners and that's like square one.
[00:03:49] Gregg: I mean, as a practitioner, I'm biased towards having practitioners in these roles. But to answer your question, no, I don't think you absolutely must have researchers to have a healthy research culture. If designers are empowered to get context around the things that they're being asked to consider designing, if PMs are taking the time to talk to users and conducting research to inform the product roadmap then that is a healthy culture of curiosity.
But I think the thing that I tend to focus on is research teams and the environment for practitioners themselves.
[00:04:25] JH: Cool. And the other thing you said when you were introducing the concept was that the research team feels or can see that the research is valued by the organization. Like how do you know if research is being valued?
[00:04:37] Gregg: One you know, are people asking questions and are they using all the available information to shape what they consider working on? It's easy to just take an opinion and run with it, but there's value in asking questions at and using experts who are skilled at asking those questions and using the right methodologies to get to the right answers and making sure that we're not just trusting our gut.
So you can see the value when people are actually coming to you and asking, you know, please help me expose my biases and help me capture the perspectives that I'm missing. There's value in having people who can say, okay, how will we measure whether this is successful? What are the right metrics?
And how will we measure success? Those are things that a research team or a research practitioner can help with. Research is valued when researchers or research leads are invited into strategic conversations, not about a specific project, but to discuss what should we even consider? What makes sense for our business, for our customers or audience members. How do we make sure that we are creating things that align with the context in which our users or our audiences would actually consume our products.
So I think you see value when people start to rely on research in their decision making.
And it's not something that's looped in way after the fact. And I think that's also, you know, going back to the beginning, a sign of an unhealthy research practice where research is pigeonholed into. We're only going to use research to test or validate something that's already been decided.
That would be a sign of an unhealthy practice where the research is not being used or leveraged in the best possible
[00:06:15] Erin: Right. And it feels like the details matter here where, you know, maybe there's a spectrum of research, health, maturity. How much research is valued in an organization maturity, where you go from kind of, like what is research and who needs it to like, Okay, like we want research, we're interested in this.
So kind of what you're talking about, which is not only are we interested in research, but we have a good idea of how to work with research, to not, you know, slap it on to validate something at the last minute, but rather to include research in decision-making at every phase of, you know, Business strategy, product strategy and so on and so forth.
And to not kind of come to a research team with you know, do this method and answer this question, but rather like kind of partners to work with you to figure out what are even the right questions to ask, right? To make the decisions you're trying to make.
[00:07:10] Gregg: Yeah, exactly. And you know, that's not something that happens overnight, you know, a healthy research practice takes time and a lot of effort to build. And so part of that is making sure. There is an educational component to what are the possibilities for research here? What value can research add?
How can it fit into different stages of the product development process? Whether it is trying to figure out where the most impactful product decisions might be. Whether it's, you know, what is the right interface or, you know, the right design decision here to test out whether the thing we built is actually meeting the needs or meeting what we set out to do.
It takes a lot of conversations. It usually ends up where research starts off as a n evaluative function only, where we just need to make sure we're testing the things we build. With some advocacy and education, you can keep moving research further and further. I guess earlier in the product development process, to the point where people do see how it could be valuable not just at the end, but at the beginning. And well, ideally all the time.
[00:08:14] JH: And culture is just like in general. Right? And you think about company culture, it's kind of like a nebulous thing and it feels hard to change. Like, you know, I think the bad examples you see sometimes where people kind of doing like the hand wavy thing of, you know, here are four new values for the team and we're gonna like print them out on cool posters and put them on the wall, or, you know, I guess different in a remote team.
But it's kind of like thin or hollow, right? Cause it's, the culture is kind of like how you actually all operate and live and interact day to day. So like, how do you actually go about affecting some of this change and getting things on you know, into a healthier place where people are collaborating early and, using research to inform decisions and all that kind of stuff.
It feels hard if you're not already in that situation.
[00:08:53] Gregg: right, I mean, I think I've been in my current role at Conde Nast for two months. Yeah. My first order of business was just to meet with as many people as possible when one to build connections. But two, to understand what their conception of research is or what their experience with research has been to really identify the opportunities for how we can take what we're doing and grow it and make it more effective?
So it also was taking stock of what research has been conducted here, what's been successful or well received. And what opportunities are there and then kind of proposing a roadmap not just a roadmap, but also an idea of how I think research could function in this organization.
So it takes time, it takes an understanding of where the research will fit. You know, it would be one thing for me to come in and just say, this is what I think research should look like, but if I don't take the time to make sure it's going to align with what my partners and stakeholders expect or, you know, have an appetite for, it's not going to go anywhere.
So it takes some time. It also takes working with the current research team, if you have a research team, to understand what it is that they have been doing that they want to keep doing? What are the things that they wish we were doing that they're not? And then advocating for them to have an opportunity to do those types of projects.
If everybody has only been doing usability testing and some surveys, but they really want to do diary studies and ethnographic research. That's not just a chance to try out some new methods and also add value, but on the cultural front, it's a way to increase the chances of retention and make the team a place where people will feel like I'm getting to do my best work.
I'm getting to stretch myself and try things I've always wanted to try. And that builds a healthy, internal research culture where the people feel valued. If the researchers feel like they're getting to do what they want to be doing. They're not just performing tasks that are assigned to them. If that makes sense.
[00:10:52] Erin: So you said, stepping in as a research leader, and this is a theme that comes up a lot, right? You gotta research the team too, to do good research. You got to understand the lay of the land and how you're going to, you know, make an impact. And that's true for creating a healthy research culture too. And it sounds like, you know, part of that is you want the research you're doing to be valued within the organization, but then you want folks on that team and the research team to have meaningful career paths. So really understanding kind of in all directions, know, what's in it for me, what's everyone looking for to be happy and satisfied with how research functions in the company.
What are some other things you might look for, you know, given that every company is different, but what are the commonalities and what a healthy research culture looks like?
[00:11:42] Gregg: I think one is, you know, just carrying on from their previous team. It's not just about making sure the researchers are happy and feeling fulfilled, but is there a career ladder for researchers? You know, often researchers are usually the last role hired into a product or design team. You know, you have five researchers or five designers, and then maybe you think about hiring your first researcher.
So that career ladder is often not fleshed out because it hasn't, nobody's had to tackle it before. So making sure that there is a career, a clear career ladder making sure there's opportunities for people to take on these skills and try different approaches. But I also think there are things that you can do, like bringing in programming or rituals.
So is there a chance for researchers to collaborate? Whether it's a you know, a weekly hour long get together or, you know, daily stand ups. Are there opportunities for brown bags or lunch and learning where you're bringing in outside experts to help broaden the research team's perspectives?
Are there field trip opportunities where maybe you visit a museum together, or, you know, maybe that's not hard. Maybe that's hard during COVID, but other virtual get together as you could do where you get to talk to outside experts and just learn together and really change the way you think about research?
There's just, there's some foundational slash operational things you can put in place to make the team, not just a service to the organization, but also a place that feels enjoyable to be a part of every day where you're not just doing work, but you're also learning and broadening your skills and growing in your expertise and the opportunities for you to do more and better work.
[00:13:24] JH: I have a question based on something. We actually kind of do it within the team at user interviews. So I'm curious if this is a good or bad thing. It seems like a good thing on the surface. I'd like to put customer feedback more front and center. Right? So if you have an interesting clip from a research session, you know, share that around somehow, or if you get interesting quotes or feedback, you know, through customer support or whatever, have a place to syndicate those.
And so, you know, we kind of do that as a team. We have a slack channel where people just throw stuff in like, here's a clip of somebody saying something interesting or, you know, interesting feedback. The reason I wonder if that's good or bad or productive, is that it's often kind of shared without context or like not tying it to a goal.
So like, yeah. We're keeping our users top of mind and, you know, thinking of them regularly, but it's also like, we're not contextualizing it in. And like this feedback is related to this goal we have, and it's gonna help us make this decision, now, which is like the real value. So is doing some of that blip stuff.
Like good, just to keep users top of mind, or is it like, you actually want to put some rigor on it and like, you know, tell the story a little bit more and be a little bit more narrative.
[00:14:20] Gregg: I'm going to say yes to both of those. And I have a good example of that. When I was leading research in Vox media, I started off embedded within a very specific or tightly scoped product team. And so I was in a slack channel with my peers and I would share clips or quick bullet point takeaways after every usability test or interview.
But also, you know, getting back to the point of creating a healthy research practice around the entire organization, where research is valued by other teams. I did start to share takeaways more broadly with others of the design team and not just the design team, but, you know, at Vox we had people who were writing for the verge or, you know, planning coverage for Vox.com. I would take those highlights and I would contextualize them for those specific colleagues. So I'd say here's something I heard, you know, whether it was in an interview or through a survey and I would make it relevant to them specifically.
So I wasn't just taking highlights and sharing them without context. But I was still sharing them more broadly than with the people who asked me to do that research. It was in the spirit of getting people to understand the value of my team and the work we do, giving them I guess, a chance to think about how they could work with research as well, which over time became more of the default, where other teams around Vox would start. Specific projects or they would have high-level questions, you know, how does somebody share a podcast with a friend? What does that look like? Those questions came from people who I would share, you know, research nuggets or research insights with, who didn't even ask for research in the first place. So guess the answer to your question is yes, to both of those things.
[00:16:08] JH: All right. Cool. That makes sense.
[00:16:10] Erin: So JH, you were talking about adding context around these user insights and the value of doing that or problems with not doing that. And Greg, you were talking about how you like to say, you know, maybe you didn't ask for this research, but by the way, we're doing it and here's why you should care about it or hear why, you know, I think it might be relevant to you then there's the context of, I guess, why did we do this research that may or may not be interesting to whoever your stakeholders are you're sharing with. And I wonder if it's sort of, you can do a big research project and talk to 20, 30 people whatever it is. And maybe it takes a while and there's a big readout and lots of artifacts that come out of it sort of shared at the end. But then there's also this value of what we're talking about, which is kind of sharing things more ad hoc as they come in.
So you don't have to wait for this big reveal at the end. And in that spirit, it feels like just enough context is probably enough, right? Where is the person I'm sharing this with need to know to not just be a completely naked user you know, and some context, but probably just enough is enough. And in cases like that, is that true?
[00:17:14] Gregg: Yeah, I am not a big fan of the giant. Like let's wait until the end and write a 40 page Google doc, or, you know, giant slide deck. I try to tailor the findings to who might find them relevant. And again, even if they didn't ask for it, if I am hearing something that's relevant to our marketing team or to our customer support team, I'm going to just take the five bullet points or, you know, the highlight reel of, you know, two minutes relevant to marketing.
And I'll just say, I know that you didn't ask for this, but based on the work your team is doing, here's some things that might be helpful. And again, it's just unlocking people's ideas around how they can work with research. And my philosophy is, you know, user research should be happening all the time. We should always be listening to our customers.
So we should always be gathering these insights or these findings. Yes, we're gonna have specific projects we need to work on, but our users don't think of us as like different business lines or different parts of an organization. They just think of us as one big company. So the research should serve one big company and it's on us as researchers to think about how I can take this very specific project and share it in a way that will resonate more broadly? How can I take my research and put it in a place where people might find it, you know, after I've left the organization, they'll find it and still find value in this work. So that's something I stress to my team is don't just think about how this helps the people who asked you for this, think about how this will help everybody.
And then let's think about how we make it so that those people will benefit from this research.
[00:18:45] JH: You mentioned, you know, being relatively new in your role and you said two months ago, what are there other things that are in your playbook? And obviously you're talking to people you're figuring out where research can plug in and what's already happening, but like, are there other things you just know are going to be valuable to help the right rituals and mentality in place that you start to kind of pull into the fold as well?
[00:19:03] Gregg: Yeah. I mean, I think it comes down really to just being as transparent and accessible as possible. So that just means making sure there's infrastructure in place for people to even know there is a research team and what the research team is doing. So it could be setting up a dedicated slack channel and cross posting things to it and making sure people know that they can engage with research in slack.
It's setting up office hours where, you know, if somebody has a question or is just curious, you know, how do I even send a survey? Or if I wanted to answer this question, where would I even begin? Setting up those spaces for people to, you know, ask any question good or not, there's no bad questions. It could be making sure that if there is an all hands or, you know, a design team meeting, their research is represented and sharing their work there.
I'm also creating things like company accessible Trello boards where people can see all the demands for research. So if somebody has a research request it goes into a Trello board this way people know what is being asked of us. And the idea there is to bring transparency around the common questions you know, just to use content assets as an example, maybe there's a question that Bon Appetit audience has.
That is similar to a question that Wired has about audiences. You know, maybe it's around specific devices, people use, or times of day they consume content or how they hear about. You know, is there something similar in how people share recipes with how people share articles or, you know, if it's Pittsburgh music reviews.
So I'm trying to figure out what the common questions are that we might be able to answer more holistically instead of as one-off projects for different brands. So I'm trying to bring transparency into this process so we can expose all of these common questions. And I don't want to say, do bulk research, but try to do smarter research that addresses multiple questions at once. One big question at once is a better way to put it.
[00:20:58] Erin: Yeah. And that feels somewhat related to what you were talking about before with kind of timeless research and, you know, storing it so future generations can benefit from it. Another way to think about that is doing research that multiple divisions or magazines, imprints, whatever can benefit from as well.
I can imagine that it could feel, particularly if you're quite new in a role, overwhelming, like, oh, let's just you know, let's just do like a. That like everyone in the whole company could benefit from and, you know, answer all their questions. And obviously that's not what you're trying to do, but that going down that kind of path I could imagine, could start to feel like kind of a lot.
And so you right size who you're trying to, you know, answer these questions for, with the goal of having a healthy research culture. And are you starting to think about, you know, as you do that about who are the different groups of stakeholders and this kind of, I don't know, schema of questions they have about users and how those tie together.
I imagine that takes a lot of time to make sense. You know, and to translate into say like a metadata schema that you would use for tagging all of your insights and all of that, but how do you start piecing that together?
[00:22:04] Gregg: Yeah. And of course it all has to align with business goals or, you know, maybe it's a yearly, OKRs or quarterly OKRs. So it means that I, as the research lead, need to be in sync with my VP of design and also in sync with our VP of product. So it just takes a lot of conversations where I'm saying these are the requests that I'm getting.
This is what people are asking for. What are the questions or the projects that I can answer that will also help us with our goals for the year or the goals for the quarter? So it does take a little bit, or a lot of coordination to make sure we're prioritizing the questions that are coming in to actually meet business goals.
It's great to give people information, but that information actually needs to be applied to the things that will. Either bring in revenue or whatever the company goal is. It could be if it's a nonprofit it's donations, if it's, you know, for us it's selling subscriptions it needs to align to whatever that end goal is for the business. I think that also goes back to what I said at the beginning, which is you do need somebody to advocate for you. You know, as a research leader, I'm advocating for my researchers, but I need a manager who will advocate for me and make sure that I'm getting the visibility uh, or the exposure I need into the company's goals and the company's roadmap so that anything that I do there's a reason we're doing it and I it's, I guess, justified is one good way to phrase it.
[00:23:31] Erin: Yeah. We've been talking a little bit about, you know, some of the characteristics of healthy research culture, and I thought we could turn back to JH as the original question about what is an unhealthy research culture or what is it, what is not a healthy research culture?
And I suppose it might just be that you know, where research is not valued, but are there, I don't know, some red herrings or some paths folks might go down trying to create a healthy research culture that are actually not the right things to focus on?
[00:24:40] Gregg: I think it's easy to say, you know what? I've opened a role for a researcher, therefore we value research. Therefore we have a research culture.
[00:24:49] Erin: Right.
[00:24:49] Gregg: And it's not just adding water. You know, it's not set and forget. It takes leg work. It takes not just hiring somebody, but understanding who they will work with, where they can add value and then creating a pathway for them to, I guess, take on the right projects. It's going to take some thought. It's going to take a little bit of greasing the tracks so that the researcher knows where they should start working and who they should start talking to. So part of it is onboarding and making sure that there's alignment in how the researcher will add value.
I mean, I've been in situations before where I was hired into a role but the person who hired me, didn't articulate to anyone, how they should work with me and left that up to me, which when you're a new person in an organization, you have no credibility or track record to say, this is why you should work with me.
And this is how I can fit into your work. So it does take it's a little bit political. You need somebody who can create that lane for you to work in. It's also unhealthy when researchers are pigeonholed into doing one type of research, you know, I mentioned just doing usability testing, if that's what the company needs, you know, that's great, but there's so much more to research than just being the validation stage of a project.
It's such a failure of imagination to say we have a researcher, they do usability testing. It's just going to lead to a burned out or dissatisfied researcher. And it leaves a lot of opportunities on the table. So I don't think that would be a healthy research culture. I think it's, as long as somebody is thinking about how this fits into our current process and how it scales then they're already on the right track to creating a healthy environment for research.
And for researchers if it's a situation where somebody is just being hired in, myself, but if somebody is just hired in and expected to figure it out, they're not going to be healthy no matter what.
[00:26:37] Erin: Right.
[00:26:38] JH: Yeah. How does a researcher, you know, coming in like set the right expectations? I feel like I'm projecting a little bit, but I see product managers do this often where, you know, you come in and you want to build credibility. so the first thing you work on, you really promise the moon, right?
This feature is going to be awesome. It's going to change the business, this and that. And there's uncertainty in the work we do and there's unknowns. And so then the thing, you know, maybe it takes a little longer to deliver than they had promised. Maybe it doesn't quite have the impact that they promised and you really kind of stuck your neck out, trying to get everyone to think, you know what you're doing.
And you kind of actually burned yourself a little bit. Like, the equivalent of that in research where you come in and like, need to get people to understand like, look, I don't have a crystal ball. I can't definitively answer everything, but I can help you understand this. And like, and how do you, is there some dynamic there to like the researchers should manage?
[00:27:25] Gregg: Yeah I mean it goes back to having a manager who can make sure that you're in the right conversations and taking on the right project. In my book, I wrote a chapter around one way for a researcher to make an impact in a new role is a quick win, you know, find that project where you can establish what research is and show the value of it.
And lately I've been second guessing myself on that because yeah, you might do a research project and quickly finish it and share it around, but maybe it wasn't the right project. You know, maybe if you had taken another month to do a listening tour and speak to different stakeholders, you'd realize that quick win didn't really benefit anybody.
It wasn't valuable and it didn't help any company goals. So I think if a researcher comes in and has the space, I'd say this is something that they should negotiate before they even accept. I want the space to meet with people for 30 days or 60 days. I want time to understand where exactly I can fit in and what methods would be the most useful.
What information would actually help us meet our goals for the quarter or for the year. And then I'll figure out, you know, with your manager, which project to work on, and you know, whether it's a big project or a small project. I think if I had to summarize that very rambling response, I just gave it to you it's at advocate or argument for time and space to get context, and then put it on your manager to help you figure out what that right project should be.
Don't just come in and expect you're going to know what to do right away.
[00:29:00] Erin: Definitely agree with that across, you know, most kinds of roles, you know, when you're starting in a new job, you don't get that time back to learn what's going on. And kind of set yourself up for success. Is it possible or advisable to also try to find a quick win while you're doing that? For example, now you've been talking about, you know, don't join a culture, be part of a culture that's only doing, you know, kind of quick and easy validation, evaluative tests, right. So that would be an obvious contender for, I suppose, a quick win, but is there a way to parallel path making your work visible and giving a, like a sneak peek that you're going to add value to the organization while also taking the time to make sure that early work and that long-term work ends up being the right work and valuable work too?
[00:29:47] Gregg: Yeah. And my, my very smart friend, Gabe , who is leading research at the company fair. He believes that taking on a project for a quick win, you don't do it for the person who asked you to don't, you know, you're not doing it for the company. You're doing it for yourself as a researcher, just to learn how the project works currently? What is the process of recruiting? What can I learn from our audience members or, you know, our users? I keep saying audiences cause I have media on the brain, but you know, if you're in a startup for, you know, any other organization it's users. What is the sentiment that I can gather from our users?
so Gabe sees value in the quick win as an educational component of onboarding the deal who wrote a chapter in my book also talks about a 90 day plan for onboarding into a company where she also sees the quick win as just one piece of the larger onboarding process where you're figuring out how to work with people, how to communicate findings.
So, you know, I guess it's not as black and white as I made it out in my previous answer. I just know for somebody like myself, I like to really understand where my research will fit and what the appetite is first, but I'm also very I tend to be, you know, I guess overly cautious and noodle on ideas and problems maybe more than I need to. So that's just a personal bias.
[00:31:02] Erin: Yeah, but you would advise to bias toward taking the time that you can to understand what's going on.
[00:31:09] Gregg: That's my preference.
[00:31:10] Erin: yeah.
[00:31:11] JH: That's a good, like a general good note of caution for folks. Right? Cause I think when you do something like initial projects or a quick win, wherever you want to call it, it's like, you might think it's only going to take 25% of your time or whatever, while you ramp up and do all this other stuff you should be doing.
it becomes a little bit of like a shiny object, right? Like this is my thing, I'm doing it. People will know about it. so it's probably pretty easy for people to lean too far into it and spend too much time on it. So I like finding that balance. There's value there, but you know, it can't be all you're doing.
There's a lot of other important stuff you need to do as well.
[00:31:40] Gregg: Yeah. And, you know, I can also speak to them. I guess my gold standard example of the quick win is when I started at Vox, I had a product manager who, you know, after my first week where I spent a lot of time getting to know my team and it was a small team. There's only 12 people. So there wasn't a lot of listening to do on my listening tour.
After we, she was able to say, this is a really big problem that we're trying to understand. This is how it will help us. This is the research, you know, these are the research questions. We'd love for you to answer. She wasn't prescriptive in how I approached it, but. She gave me a project that was very clearly defined and showed me how the team would value it.
So I have had it where, you know, the quick win was useful for everybody. But I'd say that does require a PM who is super thoughtful and can clearly articulate how the research will help.
[00:32:29] Erin: Yeah. Yeah. Or another example might be, if you come in and there's a fire, you can put out, you know, you can put it out. Yeah. While you're learning too, that will probably be appreciated. Yeah. yeah. definitely.
So we've talked a lot about, you know, kind of theory and some characteristics of healthy and unhealthy cultures.
What about some practical advice? And we've talked a bit about that too, but how can folks. You know, some people are dedicated researchers or not, and large companies are small earlier in their careers. There's all these dimensions of who you might actually be and how you might fit into an organization.
So how can different folks do what they can to help be part of building a healthy and not an unhealthy research culture?
[00:33:13] Gregg: Yeah, I mean, there's a number of things you can do. One is just being vocal, whether you are a researcher or a designer who is doing research it could be setting up that dedicated slack channel, you know, whether it's user insights or, you know, user research, but creating a place where people are expected to share what they're learning or ask their questions and setting the expectation that this is a place where we share information.
That's an easy thing to do. That's the low-hanging fruit of just that space for curiosity. So I said slack channels. I mean, if you're on Microsoft teams that works just as well. I also see teams struggle with the question of, where can I put information where people will find it? Do we use a repository? What do we do to create a confluence page? Just put information where people already are so that they don't have to go looking for it. So if your org organization uses Google drive, Just create a user research folder that anybody can access and create some sensible folders.
You know, this is what we know about our users. This is what we know about, you know, churned users or whatever it is, just create those spaces where people can put information where other people can find it and learn from it asynchronously.
[00:34:25] Erin: What, what if hypothetically speaking your team is using, let's say confluence and notion and Google drive. Is that your problem to solve?
[00:34:33] Gregg: That's a good problem to have, but I would say, you know, so I tend to think of it in terms of who are the people who are not currently aware of research and where do they go for information. So they might not be like we have a, we have confluence for our design team, but I don't think our marketing team or any other teams are using confluence.
So what's the place where they're going to find information? And I'm actually experiencing this now at Conde Nast, where we have confluence. We also have Google drive. I'm using confluence to speak at a high level about user research. But if I want my research to be discoverable or my team's resources to be discoverable, it's going to drive so people will actually find it long after me and my team have perhaps churned away. Not that's happening anytime soon, but you know, that's where people will find it and be able to use it.
You also have to be, I mean, you're always on a road show of sorts selling the premise of research or coordinating research with other people. So it's talking to whether it's a chief product officer or VP of product and making sure that they know the things your team is doing and making sure you're aware of what their biggest questions are. So one thing I like to ask somebody who I might have a dotted line relationship with is, you know, what keeps you up at night? What are the things that if you have this answer you would sleep a lot better? And that's a way for you to know what's going to be valuable to them, but also for them to understand like, oh, so that's this team super power.
They can ask the questions that will help me get to the answers that will lower my stress level and help me, you know, make a better roadmap or figure out better OKRs for this organization. So,
[00:36:05] Erin: and get some sleep at night. Yes. Which also contributes to a healthy culture for everybody. Right.
Yeah. Okay. So we've got a list here of some hot topics. We'll see how many we can bang through, but hot topics and how do they fit or not fit into a healthy research culture?
[00:36:21] Gregg: All right, let's go.
[00:36:24] Erin: Number one, democratization. What do you think about, you know, democratizing UX research and how that can be a part or a detriment to a healthy research culture?
[00:36:35] Gregg: Yeah, I, yeah, this is a very this is like the third rail topic these days.
[00:36:39] Erin: let's
[00:36:39] JH: everyone's talking about it.
[00:36:41] Gregg: It is a function of head count. So if you have a research team the democratization should be in terms of sharing that there is a team that is asking questions. The thing that I am a little bit I guess touchy about is this idea that anybody can and should do research.
Number one, research is the only role that we do this too. We don't ask engineers to also design. I mean, not often we don't ask the sales team to write code, but for some reason we decided that everybody should be able to do research. And again, it's a function of head counts if there's not enough researchers.
And the only way you're gonna get answers is by doing user research. Yes, of course you should be doing this research if it's not, you know, what you were hired to do, but it also seems like it devalues the entire premise of user research. User researchers having skill sets. We are experts at gathering information and synthesizing it and sharing it in a way that makes sense for our teams.
And so if we're asking a designer to spend 30% of their time or PM to spend 30% of their time doing research it just means that they're trying to squeeze in research into an already busy schedule versus making research a valued and specialized practice that practitioners are doing with their very unique skill sets.
So I guess the short answer is it depends on the context and the head count, but I really believe researchers should do research because that is our superpower. That's what we should be doing.
[00:38:10] Erin: It occurs to me too, that talking to users is not the same as user research. They're not opposites. They're in a Venn diagram together. But I don't think anyone's saying like, let's keep everyone who isn't a user researcher from talking to customers, right? There's obviously a lot of value in having many people in an organization have direct access to connecting with customers for a bunch of reasons, same thing as asking meaningful questions and synthesizing them, you know, the answers into clear fodder for decision-making. Right. Those are different things. Yeah. So,
[00:38:47] Gregg: Yeah. And also, if you're doing research in addition to your job as a designer or a PM you're also not thinking broadly about how this fits into other research projects and that's where a researcher asks whether you're a team of one or not. You're also thinking about how this fits into the larger context.
So that's another way that democratization can devalue research. Yes. Everybody can ask questions, but they're not going to think about how this fits into the bigger picture.
[00:39:13] Erin: Right.
[00:39:14] JH: Yeah, the part I want to just add was I think there's like, headcount, I think is a really big part of it. And I think my mind goes like, you know, how many researchers are on the team, I do think it's also worth keeping the head count of the overall company in mind too. Right.
Cause there's a signal there of if it's quite a large company and there's no researchers like that's, you know, a little bit off, if it's a small startup and it's a dozen people. And everyone's doing a little bit of everything, you know, that's a very different situation. So, you know, I think like there, the ratio, I guess, is what I'm getting at kind of matters as well.
Cause I know sometimes people will be like, if you see a design role that says you need somebody who can do, you know, UX and visuals and branding and this and that, like run away. And it's like, yeah, but you might be the first designer at a six person company. And if that's what you want, like, that's kind of cool, but it's, you know, you're obviously not going to be specialized the way you would at a larger company.
[00:40:00] Erin: All right. Next one, burnout.
[00:40:03] Gregg: Burnout is real. I mean, I think we're all experiencing it, but burnout can happen when you are scrambling as a researcher to figure out something like, what should I be working on?
Who should I be working with? It requires a lot of conversations with, you know, a manager with your manager's manager to understand what are the expectations for me in my role, what are the priorities that I should work on and what are the things that I can drop so that I am not scrambling to figure out what I should be doing.
And so coming into Conde Nast, I really want to create an environment where the researchers are focused on what they should be doing. We're a small team in a giant global organization. So how do I minimize the noise and make sure they're working on the right things? And I've tried to streamline what they are working on and take a lot of things off their plate because.
If they keep working in a way where there's a constant flow of and there's no sense of what the most important thing to work on is, it's a recipe for burnout. And so as a manager, I'm trying to mitigate that as much as possible before it even becomes an issue because once somebody has burnt out, then they need some time.
You have to give them some time and space to heal. You also have to make sure that whatever caused that burnout doesn't happen again. So, I'm very proactive in just making sure that my direct reports are only working on the things that are going to be most impactful. And that I'm shielding them as much as possible.
You know, I'm serving as an umbrella to kind of shield them from the things that really they don't need to be worrying about or thinking about that can cause burnout.
[00:41:43] Erin: Yeah, that's a good point that like burnout can come from just too much, you know, too much work, but also from not getting a good return on the work, you know, you can be very busy doing low impact work and that doesn't make anybody feel good. All right. Last one. Repo, repositories.
[00:42:02] Gregg: Okay, so I've already touched on this, but my hot take on this is if the research isn't where everybody can find it and make use of it, then the repository will never be truly useful. And I say this as somebody who. You know, when I was at MailChimp, we had a company-wide Evernote account and we put everything in there.
And the idea was, you know, you could keyword search for how many people signed up yesterday and you know, what do people complain about from customer support and what did they do? What did we learn from our, you know, highest paying customers in Portland, Oregon? The thing was, as we hired more people, they didn't even know we had an Evernote account because it wasn't a standard app that we issued on the laptops.
Also people stopped contributing to it over time because they would just forget, or we'd have automated scripts that stopped working and nobody would notice. And so Evernote just became this ghost town where there was a hodgepodge of old insights and old reports. And some people were relying on things that were way out of date.
And so that kind of showed me that a repository that is not accessible to everyone, and that is not constantly updated is really not usable. It shouldn't just be. It should be something that people, no matter who they are and the organization if there's information that will help them do their job better they should be able to access this information.
It doesn't mean that it should be entirely self-serve like, I think a researcher can help find the most important information and prioritize it. But I think repositories are most valuable when they're in a place where people can find them and use them.
[00:43:29] Erin: And it sounds like those conditions might my very well change over time and the
[00:43:32] Gregg: yeah, of course.
[00:43:34] Erin: Greg closing thoughts. Last things people should know, healthy research cultures?
[00:43:38] Gregg: Really a healthy research culture comes from strong leadership, whether that is a research lead or a design manager, but research has to be included in conversations, it takes advocacy from somebody in a leadership position to set the, you know, to make it fertile ground for research to thrive.
It takes a lot of thought and it's not set and forget it's not hired and then you have a research culture. So it's bringing in people who are thinking bigger and bigger about their projects and how it fits into the next larger context. It takes leaders who are thinking about how we can make research more useful to everyone, but it takes time and it takes effort.
It's not a, it's not an overnight thing.
Greg. Thanks so much. It's great to have you on.
[00:44:25] Gregg: Thank you. This was a lot of fun.
VP, Growth & Marketing
Left brained, right brained. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held.