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March 15, 2023
What is a "healthy" research culture? According to Mike Oren of Klaviyo, it takes strong leadership, psychological safety, structure & more.
Whether you are a team of one or one hundred, cultivating a healthy research culture starts with strong leadership. Strong leadership encourages UXR teams to promote better research practices across teams and manage healthy conflict. But what does a healthy company culture look like IRL? And how do you promote best practices throughout the organization to help scale your research?
Mike Oren, Head of Design Research at Klaviyo, has built and scaled several thriving research teams from scratch throughout his career. In this episode, he discusses the power of company culture and shares advice on culture building.
Mike Oren, Head of Design Research at Klaviyo, a technology company that provides an automated email marketing and SMS marketing platform. He is also the Founder of Societech, an Adjunct Professor at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, and an independent UX Research Consultant. Mike holds a Ph.D. and a Master’s degree in Human-Computer Interaction and Sociology from Iowa State University, and a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and English Writing from DePauw University.
Mike - 00:00:01: Research isn’t maximizing the potential value, especially since in almost all those cases, you’re reporting into either design or product, that you get put in this really awkward position in the middle.
Erin - 00:00:17: This is Erin May.
JH - 00:00:19: I’m John-Henry Forster. And this is Awkward Silences.
Erin - 00:00:31: Hello everybody, and welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today, we’re here with Mike Oren, who is the head of design research at Klaviyo. We’re very excited to have you here to talk about something that I’m passionate about, and I know you are, which is building great cultures, specifically research cultures. Having that in mind, really from the very beginning, from day one. So thanks so much for coming on to chat with us about it.
Mike - 00:00:57: Excited to be here.
Erin - 00:00:58: JH is here too.
JH - 00:00:59: Yeah, I honestly haven’t thought a ton about how you create a great research culture. So excited to learn from this conversation.
Erin - 00:01:05: Awesome. Well, let’s start with first things first. Why does this matter? Why is this something that you’re passionate about, Mike?
Mike - 00:01:11: So, with research, most people don’t kind of grow up saying, “I want to go become a design researcher”. And as such, we bring in a lot of people from a lot of different educational backgrounds. As well as part of making sure we’re designing products that are inclusive of everybody, we need people with all sorts of different backgrounds. In order to do that well, we need to really make sure that we’re putting a culture together that allows all these different voices and different disciplines to come together and help build and grow one another, as opposed to just kind of having a team of people who are all like-minded, and then we can’t kind of challenge our different interpretations of the world.
JH - 00:01:52: Nice. Yeah, and just to clarify for myself, when you think of research culture, are you thinking about it, like, within the research team, within the whole company? Is it both? Are those different? Where do you need to establish this culture, and how do you think about it?
Mike - 00:02:04: So I think about it as both, but it starts kind of within the team first. And so, a lot of the initial leg work I do is making sure that the team itself is really in a place where we’ve got the psychological safety to challenge one another. If the team isn’t able to challenge one another, then it’s really hard to then go and challenge a partner somewhere else in the organization where we have research input that suggests a different direction than what they were hoping to do. So it’s really kind of building up that kind of safe space first within the team and then expanding out to the wider organization to get people to be comfortable kind of having those collegial conversations, essentially.
Erin - 00:02:46: Maybe we could just dig right into the - you mentioned psychological safety, which I know is a big - I don’t want to say buzzword in a pejorative way - it’s a good buzzword, right? That when you think about healthy cultures in general. And so, I’m curious how you think about what that means and then how you tactically try to make it happen. Right? Because I think maybe one of the things we can do in this conversation is there’s the sort of philosophical ideal of healthy cultures and then there are the brass tacks of, how do you actually create these things? So, how does that play out with psychological safety?
Mike - 00:03:18: Yeah, so one-way psychological safety can actually go, I think, either too far in the wrong direction, or I think - then it does become a buzzword - is where it’s used to kind of coddle the team a little bit. So psychological safety shouldn’t just be about making sure everybody feels heard and kind of happy. It’s really about making sure everybody is willing and able to voice their opinions, especially when they’re conflicting with other people on the team. So, it’s not the absence of conflict, it’s about making it so that the conflict you have is healthy conflict. And I will say that conflict isn’t a bad word. I think that it’s often kind of framed that way. Conflict has like come from a sociology background, and there are all sorts of sociology of conflict, but especially within creative fields, conflict is critical to moving things forward. If you don’t have healthy conflict, then you’re not able to explore different ideas. Most of (the) research is all about some form of change management within an organization because we’re introducing different ways of thinking about things, different ways of seeing the world, often through the lenses of the people that we talk to and whose voices we’re trying to elevate within the organization. In terms of actually going and kind of building that type of psychological safety, it really starts with, as the leader of the team, making sure I’m doing less talking and more listening and asking questions. As a researcher, it’s a little bit easier to kind of take that stance. But I think for a lot of leaders, that’s an unnatural stance because a lot of, especially I think Western culture, kind of promotes leaders as kind of that ‘talking figurehead that has all the answers, all the voices’. It’s not to say that I don’t have answers if it came to me, it’s to say that I first value the input of my team above my own when we’re going through this process of kind of ‘forming storming norming’ as well as trying to come up with new solutions. So being able to put my own ideas and solutions to the side and listening to them. And when I say listening, like really deeply listening, not just kind of listening and then jumping in with my answer at the end.
JH - 00:05:43: Yeah. I’m just actually curious to kind of go a little deeper here, I think it really came out very clearly as one of the first things you mentioned as being important to research culture, is being able to challenge each other and have this psychological safety. Why is that valuable for a research team? Is it just like you’re going to get information that maybe conflicts with your current worldview and you need to be open to it? Or, how does this come up with such a key part of the culture you need to create?
Mike - 00:06:04: Yeah, I think there are a few different things. One is there is always a kind of bias that we all have of the world through our own lived experience. And if we don’t have that awareness of it and don’t allow other people on the team to kind of check us on our own biases, then we risk kind of interpreting the findings that we’ve gotten through that lens of our personal biases or personal experience instead of, ideally, the lens of the people that we’re trying to learn from. So, that’s one part. The other part is, again, it kind of change agents within organizations. We’re almost always going to receive pushback from different partners, whether those are designers, product managers, sometimes c-suite individuals – it varies. And if we’re not comfortable and confident in the interpretation of the data that we’ve made, then we’re going to essentially think and kind of fail to have that proper conversation by first having that conflict kind of internally on the team and being able to kind of poke holes in each other’s work. We’re then able to, when we go, have those conversations with partners, have that much more confidence that ‘yes, this really is the right thing to do’ and ‘yes, we really have interpreted this and looked at all the different ways it could potentially be flawed’.
Erin - 00:07:30: Yeah, I want to dig into this healthy conflict thing more, because I think they’re two not opposite words, but they are counterbalancing forces, right? And so I can imagine, for example, the value is clear, right? We need to be having these debates and figure out how we want to move the world forward and create this tension to get a good result. So the ‘how’ is tricky, potentially. So, like, for example, we would not want to launch ad hominem attacks on each other when we are – that would be a bad thing to do. What are some good and bad things you want to think about when you’re trying to have healthy debates to get a good result? And how does this play out in the age of, I don’t know, microaggressions, right?
Mike - 00:08:13: Yeah, microaggressions are a good point. I think for the most part, researchers are pretty good about avoiding them, I hope, partially because we spend so much time talking to a wide set of people and listening. In terms of some of the others, yeah luckily, I haven’t had team members who have gone through that. I’d have to think through how I’d handle microaggressions when they come up. But in terms of kind of handling kind of rules for engagement, number one is that, don’t start with kind of giving your opinion when you’re trying to learn the other person’s approach. It’s really, starts with questions. So when we have research reviews, we have it in a format where the person has two to three minutes to set context and then we have silent reviews of the work because people aren’t always going to read the stuff before meetings. And then we go to a section that’s just questions. It’s not about giving your opinion, it’s about asking questions. And if someone were to ask, it thankfully doesn’t happen, ask a question that’s clearly just their opinion kind of framed as a question, then we’d redirect that question or move on to the next one, because it really is first and foremost, any time you’re talking about healthy conflict, it should be about understanding the perspective of other people, and you only get there by first asking those questions, right?
Erin - 00:09:43: And you mentioned researchers are trained, right, to look out for biases, all these things that could be problematic, but what about other people in the organization? So there’s an increasing trend for researchers to want to not be siloed and democratization and bringing other people along for the ride outside of research. Does it become more difficult when you’re getting feedback and working with folks outside of research teams?
Mike - 00:10:10: I will say that the challenges like that do definitely happen, especially where we’ve got partners who have very strong opinions that aren’t necessarily as grounded in the data. This happens kind of across all organizations. I don’t want to give any specific examples, but in those cases, it’s really just a matter of training the team to step back a little bit, not take those things personally, even if the kind of individual may have taken personal kind of approach to the conversation and switching it up and kind of disarming the person. Again, sometimes it’s just through asking questions because there’s usually something else underlying kind of why they went there, which almost always is that they really feel this other solution is the approach to take. They typically do have some rationale behind it, whether it’s ‘hey, we saw this work at this other organization, so I think this is what we should do’, in which case you can provide more of the context of why, well, ‘that may have worked at that other organization, that’s not how the customers within this particular space are kind of thinking about it’ or ‘that is an opportunity, but that’s not kind of where the larger market share appears to be at this particular time’. That’s part of why kind of using mixed methods is critical, I think, for research organizations to kind of grow and be successful that we were able to kind of triangulate the different data as well and have those conversations. In other cases, research is usually an understaffed team. So if you really have toxic partners, the solution in those cases is to walk away. And that way, almost always good research speaks for itself. And you can tell which teams had researchers working with them and which ones didn’t, because of the levels of success of those relative teams.
JH - 00:12:11: To zoom out a little, we’ve talked a lot about this healthy conflict and that being a part of the culture. What are other things you’d want to see in a healthy research culture? Are there other attributes or things you want to foster and encourage within that team?
Mike - 00:12:21: Yeah. So, even if you don’t necessarily have enough people on the team, that people can be researchers, can be working side by side or kind of closely collaborating, fostering kind of learning from one another again, especially I’ve hired people from a wide set of different academic backgrounds. Some are sociologists, some are statisticians, some are psychologists. I’ve had people who are like religious studies, all sorts of different things in the past. Each of those brings in different perspectives, and all of them typically have different methods that they were trained in or sometimes trained in the same method, but in different ways. Someone who is trained in economics, for example, while they do statistics the way they do statistics, is very different than a statistician. They’ve got econometrics as different rules around it than traditional statistics – similarities. They speak partially the same language, but not fully the same language. And acknowledging those differences and seeing how we can all kind of improve and grow each other’s skill sets is a key portion of it.
JH - 00:13:33: Nice. Being open to conflict, challenging each other, learning from one another, being curious. Nice. It sounds like within the team, you can do some things to kind of see these behaviors or norms, right? So the way you describe facilitating that meeting, like, here’s how we’re going to do it, you’re going to set those expectations ahead of time and create an environment that’s conducive to behaving in this sort of way and make those things the norm. Is that something that you also then do with stakeholders as well, like in, more cross-functional meetings? Are you deploying some of those same approaches to kind of help diffuse the culture more broadly?
Mike - 00:14:07: Not at this point for development within Klaviyo, but I have done variations of it at other organizations. For example, the last organization I was at, research, or at least the type of research we were bringing to the organization, was brand new. So, what we did was we set up different showcase environments. This was before COVID, so it was basically a ‘walk the wall’, but instead of designs, it was like all the different research artifacts and helping make people more aware of the amount of work that goes into not just the interviews and kind of those outputs of the research, but that actual synthesis process, giving people a peek behind the curtain. And that some cases will help diffuse kind of the notion that some folks within an organization will have that, “oh, you only spoke to, say, five people, five customers, Like, how can we really trust that?”. Well, here’s kind of all the work that actually goes into speaking to those five customers and kind of why we’re going into a level of depth of it that you weren’t necessarily aware of, here’s kind of the method behind that. And as part of events like that, we also did set up kind of expectations for the different partners that were coming in, kind of going through that process. Research doesn’t typically have a lot of hard power in the organization, so we’re not typically able to set full meeting rules. But what we can do instead of that is, as much as possible, bring people along for the journey. So, while we’re not kind of in a place where we’re bringing people kind of through showcase as at Klaviyo, we are in a place where instead of kind of waiting till the end of research projects, we’re meeting with partners kind of on a regular basis, kind of doing interim checkouts and listening to kind of any concerns early on. So that way, as we’re framing the final presentation, we’re able to take into account those concerns and kind of help ease people into recommendations that they may not have initially been comfortable with, but now they hopefully understand more of kind of why that recommendation is coming, and they at least have that kind of pre-warning before kind of it goes up and around the organization, too, which also helps ease some of those tensions.
Erin - 00:16:35: Yeah, for sure. And I imagine you’ve done this quite a few times. You’ve created, I think, multiple research teams. So, how do you think about how this is going to scale over time, right? What does a healthy research culture look like for a team of one, versus a team of five or ten, or hundreds, and everything in between?
Mike - 00:16:55: Let’s say a team of one, is almost never a healthy research culture. Hopefully, it doesn’t last as one for very long.
Erin - 00:17:07: That’s a great point. Let’s just say the obvious. Why is that? Why is it not healthy to have a research team of one?
Mike - 00:17:14: So, a few different things, like if it’s just a team of one that shows that the organization doesn’t fully value research, they kind of have heard of it. It is on that one person to kind of prove the value as quickly as possible. And that’s almost always through something that’s going to be a quick win. If you have someone who’s hired you, who wants you to do a ‘big bing’ project that’s going to take you six months, probably walk away, because what’s going to happen is you’re going to take too long to deliver any value to the organization, and then the organization will have moved on and you’ll have lost that ability to get that momentum that will help you make the case for a larger team. But aside from kind of being undervalued at the team of one, you don’t really have those intellectual partners, for lack of a better framing, where you’ve got different people you can learn from and lean on, as well as when you do have those partners in the organization that are really difficult to work with, kind of have that emotional support group as well. While we’re part of a larger design team, and definitely designers are good partners, there are times where we tell designers things that they don’t want to hear as well. So, we still end up getting somewhat isolated even within those organizations.
Erin - 00:18:38: And it’s hard to have a healthy debate with just yourself.
Mike - 00:18:43: Exactly.
Erin - 00:18:43: Yeah, not very balanced.
JH - 00:18:45: Yeah, you mentioned something there. Sometimes research is reporting into design, sometimes maybe it’s reporting into product. Sometimes it’s its own function, reporting to somebody in the c-suite or what have you. How does where research sits in an organization factor into how the culture comes into play? Does it change anything or kind of regardless of where research reports to, you’re going to do a lot of the same things?
Mike - 00:19:07: I’d say regardless of where research reports to, it’s going to do a lot of the same things, whether it’s in product or design, we need to be a neutral party between those two. If we’re reporting into design and we’re only going to say things that the design team is okay with, then we’re going to lose trust with the product partners and then nothing gets on the roadmap to kind of be updated and fixed. On the other hand, if we’re on product and we’re only saying things that the product team is excited about, then a lot of key usability issues might get missed or other things could happen where the designers don’t trust our recommendations because they’re like ‘you’re product people, not designers’. In reality, we’re both and neither at the same time. And being fully independent, then that gives us kind of that full neutrality. But that’s rare, and also, yes, it would be great if you could report to the c-suite as research. It’s not fully necessary, I think. What’s necessary is really kind of the impact that you can have in terms of having folks listen to both the tactical pieces that you’re recommending, in terms of these are the improvements we need to make from usability, as well as the more strategic pieces because we learn a lot that can help, and we have a wide set of methods that can help organizations prioritize. And I would also add the value of deprioritization of work is equally or sometimes more valuable output from research as well.
JH - 00:20:42: All right, a quick awkward interruption here. It’s fun to talk about user research, but you know what’s really fun is doing user research. And we want to help you with that.
Erin - 00:20:51: We want to help you so much that we have created a special place. It’s called userinterviews.com/awkward for you to get your first three participants free.
JH - 00:21:02: We all know we should be talking to users more. So we’ve went ahead and removed as many barriers as possible. It’s going to be easy, it’s going to be quick, you’re going to love it. So get over there and check it out.
Erin - 00:21:11: And then when you’re done with that, go on over to your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review, please.
JH - 00:21:19: Think about kind of an adjacent question. Think about fitting into the broader company culture. Right, so companies are different, some might be really formal, some might be more informal, more of a writing culture, more of a meeting culture. All these different sorts of norms and things that can emerge, how quickly you like to iterate versus how like we like to be right, that kind of stuff. Do you try to take that stuff into consideration as you think about the research culture and how it’s going to be compatible with what’s already existing in the organization?
Mike - 00:21:45: Yeah, so definitely in terms of the way the research group works with the rest of the organization and it depends – so one of the first things I like to do before kind of figuring out how research team is going to kind of show up is talk to as many different people and kind of observe as much as possible within that kind of first one to three months, and set things up to best align with kind of what those organization’s needs are. And organizations evolve, especially if they’re in hypergrowth, big. So like also constantly reevaluating and evolving our own kind of working processes. But within the team itself, I’d say it’s largely the same. The only kind of thing that will sometimes shift is to what degree we take a culture that’s, for lack of a better term, a little bit more insular. And that’s usually, more the research team has to be insular, it’s usually because there are pieces of the wider company that are a little bit more toxic and it’s more for protecting the team. That’s not an ideal place for the research culture to be or for anybody to be, honestly, but otherwise, I would say that the research culture should largely generally be the same. It’s important to make sure that we’re able to talk and review consistently live, the way our presentations will show up. But that again is kind of more kind of how we show up to the rest of the organization. So, at Klaviyo we started with more traditional PowerPoints, but we are a little bit more of a reading culture and so we have shifted a little bit more to reporting via Word docs. But that again was part of ‘how can we meet the organization where it’s at?’ versus kind of our own kind of use.
Erin - 00:23:50: And you kind of hinted a little bit at something we talk about a lot, which is when you’re joining an organization. So, whether you’re the first researcher or not, it’s important to join an organization that already has a culture you want to be part of, most notably valuing research, right? That should be important to any researcher joining an organization. But also some of these other things you’re talking about; research culture should be part of and similar to the rest of the organization’s culture. And so, this is one of - folks always ask me when we’re doing job interviews - ‘what’s your culture like?’. It’s like, ‘I don’t know, what do you want to know?’, right, so it’s a big question. Right? So we’ve talked a little bit about, again, the healthy debate and how you interface with other teams. What are some of the other things you’re looking for either within the larger organization that tell you this is going to be a healthy setup for me, or again that you’re trying to kind of foster over time in your research teams?
Mike - 00:24:46: Yeah, I will say, while, yes, it’s nice if the organization is already kind of fully invested in research, being the first person in as a researcher in most of the places I’ve been, that’s usually not in my case. In my case, it’s more like, I have to feel like there’s the opportunity to have that kind of cultural change within the organization. So I at least have one person I’m reporting into who is a champion for it. There has been a time where I’ve gotten it wrong and that was a time when - the only time I’ve ever left a job within three months. It’s hard to know for sure, but the things that I generally look for are kind of, why they’re looking to bring the research team in. Is it to solve conflicts between product and design?, but in which case you already know you’re going into a battlefield and probably don’t want to be there.
Erin - 00:25:44: Unless you do. Maybe that’s fun for some people.
Mike - 00:25:47: That is sometimes fun, but I will say that at that point, though, research isn’t maximizing the potential value, especially since in almost all those cases, you’re reporting into either design or product. So you get put in this really awkward position in the middle. And then you also kind of look at how curious is the organization. Are they really looking to try to do things differently? Are they looking for how to kind of build products that are really aligned with their customers? Or do they have a very sales-heavy organization that’s really just building what their kind of highest-paying customers are doing? Or kind of maybe not even customers, but if a potential customer asks for something - and by the way, having been on the kind of side of procurement where I’m looking for tools - you’re always going to tell your potential vendor, ‘yeah, I don’t like this, I want this other thing’. That’s a negotiation tactic, right? Is that really what you want to build? Is what your potential customers are asking for? Probably not. You really want to understand what’s the actual need and how can we help solve for that. And especially at a SaaS company too, are we investing in the things that will either get new customers in or get our existing customers to eventually be willing to pay more? Like if all you’re doing is producing things that your current customers make them even happier, but then they’re not seeing enough value that they’re going to pay you more, then that puts you into a space where you’re just throwing more and more money into something. And especially with kind of the shift in the economy, that’s not the right approach anymore. Like at one point we could do it.
Erin - 00:27:39: So you’re saying ‘right, so with net revenue retention in mind, we need to be both bringing in new customers but especially making our existing customers happier and happier and not in an incremental way’, right? And not in a sort of theoretical way. Like, ‘yeah, build exactly what I’m asking for and I’ll pay you a lot more money’. That might happen, it might not so, good meta lesson in there in terms of processing user feedback in this environment in a healthy way. So, we were talking before about, so as you build healthy cultures, as you scale, we talked a little bit about the ‘team of one’ scenario which you’re sort of saying “that’s not going to be healthy for long”, but to your point, if you’re the first person with the idea that there’s going to be a second and third, maybe you’re set up for success. So what does that look like? That journey from, “okay, I’m one person, I can only do so much, we need to add some more folks to help out here”. How do you start building that healthy culture along the way?
Mike - 00:28:39: Yeah, so if you’re the first person in there, number one thing is ruthless prioritization. Even if it’s an organization that really is excited for research and you’re getting flooded with requests like your first time in the door, do not say yes to everything. Find one to two things where the team is clearly going to be able to - able and willing to - make changes based off of the research recommendations. So, research champion teams, partner with those closely. Also, make sure that there are things where there’s a clear potential impact. You can figure that out sometimes just by doing an audit or heuristic at the start of all the different experience areas and then make sure it’s something that’s fairly quick turnaround time. This isn’t just for research, like really any role in any organization, you’ve got 90 days to make an impact. After 90 days, organizations move on, whatever is kind of the new thing. But if you’re able to show that you’re able to bring value and deliver something that can excite people, then you’re able to make the case for more people. Especially if then you get flooded with even more demand that you have to say no to and you’re able to document like here’s all the things that we can’t currently do and here are the potential losses by not supporting those, that can help make the case for headcount. The other thing that I’ll recommend is not just kind of doing that work, but also a little bit of PR or sales. So, whether that’s doing some type of research newsletter where you’re sharing different articles, as well as updates on the work that you’re doing and getting involved in any type of team meeting, even if you’re not able to support all – well, you definitely shouldn’t support all those things – but even when you’re focusing on those one or two things, setting aside one hour per week, just as office hours to help answer questions about research for folks who probably were doing and will continue to do some of that on their own, is another way to kind of help build that trust, help build that confidence in your skill as a researcher and the need for that expertise to come in more.
JH - 00:30:58: Yes, kind of maybe a sillier question is when you talk about culture at a company level, you get into a lot of values, like little pithy statements or phrases, and finding ways to recognize people for those values and celebrate them. And it’s a way to kind of help keep the culture top of mind and make new people who join the organization kind of be able to understand it in a quick way. Will you do any of that at the research team level? Like, will you have your own research values or principles and things like that and try to find ways to live or celebrate them?
Mike - 00:31:28: So usually, I’ll focus on kind of the wider organization values for things like that. At my previous company, we did have a need to have separate research values and culture, partially because that was one where we did, unfortunately, have to get a little insular for a while, we were able to kind of break through the insularity.
Erin - 00:31:50: You just made them the opposite of the company’s values.
Mike - 00:31:55: It wasn’t fully the opposite but…
Erin - 00:31:59: Sort of passive-aggressive movement.
Mike - 00:32:02: But in that case, we came together as a research team and we basically wrote down everything that we felt was most important to us as a team. And then we synthesized those and kind of formed those into core value statements as well as then gave examples of how we’ve seen people on the team do that and put that into our kind of onboarding process for new team members as well. So that way they understood kind of how we’re all looking to show up.
Erin - 00:32:32: I have a question back to – it kind of ties to the healthy debate – so part of what you’re trying to do is to, as you mentioned, you have people coming from lots of different backgrounds across a variety of vectors, academic, their lived experiences, et cetera. And you’re creating an environment where everyone can share those and can be heard and debate sort of things. So when you talked about coming up with your own values and you sort of have everyone writing what’s important to them – they say in an organization, right, the culture, it trickles down. The cofounders really have an outsize impact, the early employees, on what that culture is going to be. And hopefully, it’s one that over time feels inclusive of everyone that joins, but is not sort of maybe equally comprised from everyone’s opinion equally. And I’m wondering how do you sort of wrestle with that? Right? Because nothing is truly democratized such that everyone – you would risk potentially having no real identity after a certain number of opinions are shared and divided equally, right? So I’m curious how you navigate that, letting everyone have a voice and be heard but still having a cohesive brand. And maybe this is not really an issue with four or five people on a research team.
Mike - 00:33:51: The previous team we had about twelve folks. There was enough people that we had some divergent viewpoints, but we also had some core values that really I think are common across a lot of research teams. Things like curiosity, things like passion. Yes, we were creating some of our own values in order to kind of be a little bit more protective of the team, but at the same time, everyone on the team did value not just being inclusive within the team but also being inclusive of the wider organization. And so making sure we could bring people along and be as collaborative as possible, which I think again is fairly, at least for the research teams I’ve been part of, typically, even though most researchers I’ve worked with have been actually introverts, we’re ‘people people’. Kind of interesting. So, I think part of that helps is kind of the things that draw researchers into the field kind of naturally gives us some of that bonding. Even though we all come from different backgrounds, we have some core values that we all will share.
Erin - 00:35:08: That makes a lot of sense. And it sounds like you’re looking for trends which aren’t too hard to find across what everyone wants that culture to look like. Great. Okay, so we’ve talked about what a healthy culture looks like, how that scales over time. I’m curious, we talked a little bit about the current economy, which I think unfortunately is going to play out in the year, and perhaps more, ahead. In addition to that, what are you seeing happening in the world right now and in the immediate future that maybe are challenges or maybe some tailwinds in favor of healthy cultures? And how do you respond to that?
Mike - 00:35:45: Good question. I would say right now a decent amount of kind of what’s happening within the wider world is actually probably against some healthier cultures. I mean, the layoffs and then fear of layoffs. I think it’s putting a lot of power back into the hands of employers, some of which actually might actually be healthy for culture. Some expectations on salaries had gotten a little out of this world. It’s hard to hire a hiring manager – when people are expecting 50% premium over what the market rates are it’s a little challenging, especially when it’s also important to me that we’ll be equitable on the team as much as possible, in terms of making sure that there’s fair compensation for everybody with similar levels of experience and all of that, no matter what their background is. And so that actually may be helpful, because then you’re less likely to get the person who thinks that they’re kind of ‘hot shit’ for lack of a better term – hopefully, I can say that on here – and that way people are going to be coming into it more humble and willing to learn from one another no matter kind of levels of experience. That is something that I actually do consciously think about when hiring too. Like, I don’t want someone who thinks that they’re so much better than everybody else that they’re not willing to take the time to listen to someone who might be brand new to research but has a different background, different training, so may still have something that they can teach this more experienced person.
Erin - 00:37:31: It’s a really good point, because it’s like the pendulum is always swinging and it never seems to end in a perfectly balanced place. But you want employees who feel, especially in design as we talk about ethical research and inclusive research, to feel empowered, to have a voice, to push back against evil forces, ‘the man’, bad stuff. But you don’t want entitled employees who feel. like you were saying. like they’re just hot shit and worth beyond market rates that end up, as we see, leading to layoffs eventually, right? So there is probably a balance there that leads to better outcomes.
JH - 00:38:07: Yeah, I think there’s something too and you’re operating in a down market, there’s obviously a lot of negative consequences that come from that and a lot of hard times for employees and companies around the world. But it does force you to kind of focus and really be keyed in on the most essential impact-driving activities in a way that, if you can get it right, to your point, can be kind of a way to reinforce some of the positive elements of the culture of ‘these are the things that really matter and we need to focus on’. And maybe in a different environment, there’s some other periphery stuff that’s also important but maybe it can be a distraction at times. There’s an opportunity to maybe get back to some of that too, but it’s hard. There are a lot of moving parts for sure.
Mike - 00:38:46: I think the point about focusing more on impact is definitely a great one. And I think, like we talked about a little bit earlier too, one of the things that research brings is helping with customer retention. And that’s one of those areas with a lot of impacts. A lot of things, especially sometimes some of what we do that’s more on the usability side doesn’t get perceived as kind of as sexy as kind of the things that are more kind of generative and innovation focused from a research side. But it kind of, shifts in the market economy will hopefully also make those evaluative research studies equally sexy. So that way you don’t have different – or sometimes even more sexy – but ideally, we don’t have different kinds of classes of researchers, because I have seen that sometimes too. Not on the teams that I’ve led, but on teams that I’ve been part of in the past, where people who are doing the more generative research are kind of elevated in status within a research team versus the people who are doing more of the evaluative day to day type of research. And that’s not a healthy culture either. So I think that’s something that we as researchers also need to be conscious of. Are we treating all researchers within our team kind of equally and not kind of looking down on peers who might be doing, quote-unquote, ‘just usability testing’?
Erin - 00:40:15: Is it hard to get big strategic, generative, whatever you want to call it, right, innovation research prioritized in this market for folks? Or are people, when markets change, products have to change too? Is it more important and being prioritized more? Or does it depend, like all things?
Mike - 00:40:36: Yeah, it definitely depends. But I will say that with capital being harder, usually new innovations become harder to fund. So it’s likely that those are going to become more difficult if they haven’t already a different organization. But that doesn’t mean that that work has to end. I think it’s just the way it shows up needs to be a little bit different. So one thing that I’ve done with both my previous team and with this team a little bit, is instead of doing big discovery – we did do one big discovery project here just to see, test of waters – but generally, instead of doing those big discovery projects, how can we break those down into smaller discovery projects and either put those questions into evaluative studies and kind of build-up that knowledge base over time and/or still do that discovery project, but instead of kind of reporting out at the end, maybe with a midpoint check-in and instead kind of really make that into an iterative discovery project, we’re constantly checking and constantly working with our partners in order to also feel free to end that project, if we feel like we now have enough to have a decision, which isn’t done often enough, especially at companies that are maybe resource-rich within research, it will be interesting to see how that shifts as well.
Erin - 00:42:02: Mike, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve learned a lot. And yeah, happy holidays. What are you doing next week?
Mike - 00:42:13: I drive out an hour to the suburbs and visit my mom for Thanksgiving. What about you?
Erin - 00:42:19: I’ve got family coming here. I’m cooking, so we’ve got a big bird and all that.
Mike - 00:42:24: I always offer, I’m never allowed.
Erin - 00:42:27: Are you a good cook?
Mike - 00:42:29: My mom does better with the sides, but I think I could do the turkey better.
Erin - 00:42:35: What are you up to, JH?
JH - 00:42:37: We’re staying here. It didn’t really make sense to meet up with extended family this year, so doing a small thing, maybe get some friends together.
Erin - 00:42:45: Nice. Right. And where can folks find you? Mike, you on LinkedIn, Twitter?
Mike - 00:42:49: I’m on LinkedIn.
Erin - 00:42:51: All right, well, we’ll put a link on the write-up. Thanks so much.
JH - 00:42:55: Thanks very much.
Erin - 00:42:58: Thanks for listening to Awkward Silences, brought to you by User Interviews.
JH - 00:43:03: Theme music by Fragile Gang.
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Left brained, right brained. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held.