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July 6, 2023
Varun Murugesan discusses the value of “scrappy” research, the effects of the AI explosion, and how to find creativity when researching.
Varun Murugesan is the Co-Founder of Apple and Banana, a UXR training and development company helping to build better products through fruitful research. He is also the author of Fruitful, an online UX research library and toolkit of resources for researchers and UX teams aimed at conducting user experience research that drives impact. He is also the Senior UK Researcher of SeatGeek, a mobile ticketing marketplace. Before these positions, Varun worked in UXR roles at Best Buy and Facebook. An entrepreneur, author, and researcher, Varun has spent his career immersed in psychology, technology, and design, and has been featured on a various media platforms sharing fruitful research and his personal UXR career journey.
Interested in trying Apple & Banana for your next research project? Use our code AWKWARD-FRUITS-35 to save 35% on Fruitful, an advanced UX research repository used by 100s of teams around the world.
Varun - 00:00:00: A quick disclaimer. If you work at a toxic environment, this advice does not apply to you. You should leave if you can. If you cannot, that's different. But if you can, that doesn't mean do great research in a place where no one respects you. Definitely look elsewhere.
Erin - 00:00:16: This is Erin May.
JH - 00:00:18: I'm John-Henry Forster. And this is Awkward Silences.
Erin - 00:00:23: Hello everybody, and welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today we're here with Varun Murugesan, and he is the co-founder of Apple and Banana, an author, the founder of Fruitful, which is by Apple and Banana, and senior UX researcher at SeatGeek. So, busy individual who made time for us, and we are very grateful for it. Thanks for stopping by.
Varun - 00:00:54: Great to be here.
Erin - 00:00:55: And we are going to talk today about creative research in scrappy times. Fun topic. We got JH here too.
JH - 00:01:02: Yeah. I was reading in your bio that you have a puppy named Carrot. And I like the way you name things after.
Erin - 00:01:08: There's a theme at work here.
JH - 00:01:10: It's working for me.
Erin - 00:01:11: My kids’ favorite game is, Is this a fruit? Did you know this was a fruit? There's a lot of tomatoes. The classic curveball there.
Varun - 00:01:21: Me and my partner are big food name related, named animal lovers. Like if it's a pet, it's got to have a food name. We have another dog cashew family dog biscuits. That's kind of where it ends. But it's a new trend of food related.
Erin - 00:01:35: So you got the carbohydrates in there too. It's not just fruits and vegetables.
Varun - 00:01:38: A complete balanced meal.
Erin - 00:01:40: Awesome. Love it. Okay, so we've heard the phrase necessities are the mother of invention. These are interesting times that we find ourselves in in terms of the economy and so on. So it seems like it might be a good time for folks to get a little creative with their approach to research. How do you think about the value of scrappy research in tough economic times?
Varun - 00:02:03: Yeah, from what I know about the economy, which isn't a ton, it's cyclical.
Erin - 00:02:07: Disclaimer.
Varun - 00:02:09: It's very cyclical. Right. Things get good, they get really good, and things get not so good all of a sudden. And so essentially because it's a cycle, that means if you continue to be a UX researcher, you will encounter a situation where you're in a tough scrappy time. So you'll have to learn how to work through it. Two things that I think about, especially for experienced research in this modern age of tech, it doesn't have to be costly and it can be a cost saver. For example, if it's a hard time, your company is already going to be very stringy. They're going to be risk averse. They don't want to try something new. But the worst situation is spending time and money that you don't have, building something that doesn't actually put the business on more stable financial footing. So that's where research comes in. It can be quick feedback. Are we going in the right direction in this moment in time. Is this problem that we're solving actually meaningful or does it sound attractive? Does it sound like it sounds like a good idea versus we have actual data and feedback that says fixing this issue or addressing this problem is directly tied to how we continue to operate as a business to get even more stable and secure. Right now, also with research, a great killer of many companies, big and small, is the support and maintenance costs. It might work now, whatever you're building, but how do you know this doesn't work in the long term? Getting support people involved, seeing how do we actually scale this? Think about maintenance issues, we got it out the door. Great. You've now burdened the engineering team by maintaining this over time and they now are getting struggled and they're getting burnt out. Other things is what I love, what I know most of my stakeholders love is the small hidden win. If it's tough and you don't know what to do and a little bit of research can show you an idea, a solution, an approach that you're like we never ever would have considered something like this had we not done an interview and that one participant said that weird thing and then boom, suddenly things clicked, right? You don't get that from log data or maybe a customer survey that's kind of quickly written and also, especially in tough times, you want your work to mean something. Researcher, designer, engineer, PM research can give you confidence and actually build excitement. We're on the right track. Man, people love that feature or they hate it and that feels like a gut punch. But now you know what the problem is. You're actually able to identify and rally the team around. It didn't work the way we thought it could, but we know that now instead of six months from now. So now we actually have a chance to come together to build things moving forward. And on the other side, things aren't to be costly. Use the tools that you have. Google Suite, a lot of different tools. Microsoft Suite, you can get good at mixing and matching them. For us at Apple & Banana, three methods kind of reign supreme. Some form of usability testing, some kind of interview, some form of survey design. Basic tools out there you can mix and match and make it happen and use free tools really wisely. I think Dovetail gives you like 100 minutes a month of free transcription. Don't just drop in all your audio, drop in like the best 15 to 20 minutes. Make audio clips and really maximize the impact and actually stretch that 100 or whatever is free as much as you can. So cost saver doesn't necessarily have to be costly.
Erin - 00:05:07: That's a micro point you made there at the end I want to tap into, which is I think because once you've already paid for something or when the incremental costs of using it seems free, you don't so much think about what you're putting in because it's like we'll just deal with that later. But actually if you do some of that upfront curating in the beginning, you're probably saving yourself a bunch of analysis time on the back end too, which is of course also a real cost. So there's a kind of holistic approach to the economy of time and cost there that I like.
Varun - 00:05:37: Templates. If you talk to anybody in the Reopspace, research operations, templates are your friend. So you can take your same Google research plan and use it in a bunch of different ways. We'll save time, doesn't cost anything besides a little bit of prep work.
JH - 00:05:50: Nice. When we're talking about scrappy research, what does the word scrappy actually mean? I don't mean to be silly, but because I go to some preconceived notions of maybe it's about being faster or cheaper, but then it's maybe like doing more with less or with what you have. Or when we're saying scrappy, what's actually the intent? If you had to explain it a little bit further.
Varun - 00:06:08: I guess the other side of scrappy would be like, what snappy is that the antonym? I don't think that's right. But if you look at the tech space, you don't really have a chance to do not scrappy research. To me, scrappy is about speed. It's about flying on kind of the skin of your teeth and being quick and efficient. So you kind of decrease the time between learning something and then absorbing and applying that learning through product design or something like that. So I'm like you're always doing scrappy research. I think in economic times the first thing that gets cut is the support and the resources. So it's kind of working against not in a combative way, but finance is going to be like we have to be smarter about where we're spending. Same with legal, same with product design. Right. Being smart, scrappy to me is like we have to kind of challenge assumptions that people have about whether or not UX design and research get to show up and kind of drive some conversations. So for me it's like you're always doing it, but can you actually, in these tougher moments, get people excited about a different vision instead of no to this, no to that, no to this?
Erin - 00:07:09: Yeah. The theme in what you were saying in the beginning there was really around kind of repositioning research as a cost center and more toward a growth driver. Right. Revenue driver. And as you talk about the way you might approach this as a researcher, I almost think about thinking about your first 90 days in a research job, right, where you can't just be comfortable and rest on your laurels. You really got to jump in there and think about, okay, how am I going to actually show that I can make an impact here quickly because people are going to be judging me quickly. And at the same time, maybe I'm going to be building some longer term strategic wins, but I've got to have that immediate value top of mind too. I think some of those principles probably hold here too when you think about doing some more creative scrappy research.
Varun - 00:07:56: Just like the first 90 days for any company, right? Just like, how do you get in there, establish some form of credibility, how do you understand what the North Star is? I always love asking like senior PMs or directors what's on fire? And they can't wait. They cannot wait to tell you all this and this and this and that. And they're like, great. You have a ton of fodder on things to focus on. I have found that especially the first like 30 days or 60 days, some form of concept or usability testing is a great way to build. Like, research is fast. It is tied to things that we care about. That screen looks familiar because you spent two months looking at that screen, designing it, iterating, copy and then get some feedback around that. I think it's a great way to be scrappy, but also be like, that was actually legitimately helpful. And then let's do some more research. Like, let's get that curiosity, keep going.
JH - 00:08:44: We're talking now about the economic downturn and some of the scrappiness that that's going to require. But we had the pandemic not that long ago. Also was a huge constraint and factor for folks and how they did their research and required some creativity and probably some scrappiness as well. Was that something that you saw either firsthand or from other researchers? Just like people doing clever things during that sort of time as well?
Varun - 00:09:04: Yes. I don't know how much I was engaged in the community because I think a lot of us were, do we have a job? What is this? What's going to happen? What's going to happen? 6 hours and six weeks, let alone six months in terms of a roadmap. And so I don't know if I was focused on other researchers, but when I was back at Best Buy, before SeatGeek, I joined a new team. I was on the big box side to the big stores that you see all across the country. I was working on that team. I got switched over to services and the future of services, particularly in home. So things like delivery, install, repair, and then the pandemic hit and it's like we're sending field agents into homes, multiple homes, every single day for weeks on end. And so you're kind of increasing the contact surface area for them getting sick, customers getting sick, this being a dangerous kind of situation. So my first study, first question was like, how has the pandemic actually affected the daily work experience of in home agents? And on top of that, how can we take what we've learned to help prioritize that emergency product roadmap. Everybody was scrambling in some way, shape or form, reacting to the pandemic. And for these folks, the home is where they work. And that's one of the places with a lot of the lockdowns you cannot go. And we definitely don't recommend or we don't condone that kind of kind of activity. So how do we move with that moving forward? And so with a pandemic, it was not only, where does a company go? Budgets clamped up, which makes sense. We had to be very smart and very cautious about where we spend how we spend. Hiring stopped, right? Things like that. And then with in home agents, Best Buy is big. It's 50 states. So how do I cover all that ground of like, how has the experience changed from someone in March in New York where it's windy and snowy, to someone in Texas where they're sweating already and it's humid and it's going to be a muggy summer, and they're talking about it. And so I'm sitting here like, how do I do this? This is a qualitative research problem. What is it like? You're not going to get that from a survey or an A/B test, right? This is going to come from observations. And so I spent a lot of two or three days just sitting there thinking about the problem. What do I know about this problem? And I was doing a little research, and I came across this idea known as the photo voice method. This came out from two health promotion researchers, Wang and Burris, in 1997. And the whole goal that they were trying to do is get real rural communities to take part in healthcare assessments. They want to know what is it like to be there, what kind of health coverage and the care that you have. But they're not going to get involved in a survey or phone interview or something like that. So essentially, and I'm not going to dive into it too deep here, but there's two phases. You kind of give them a camera and tell them to capture, and you give them a prompt, tell me what is it like to have health care? Tell me about how you go through a week using social media or whatever. And that's the first phase. The second phase is some sort of semi structured interview. Let's discuss, hey, Aaron, you had all of these pictures. Let's walk through each one. Let's tell me why you chose to take this picture. So it's not only what you saw, but why you chose to record that. That matters just as much. So I'm sitting there. I'm like, that's what I care about. I don't necessarily need just the pictures, but I need to see them perform things. I need to hear from them. And so at 03:00 A.m., I had my eureka moment, and I was like, I just want to have them talk to me. And a few weeks before, Best Buy onboarded Microsoft Teams and one of the features that I was like, whatever, voicemail. I was like, oh. Voicemail. And it could do audio and video calling, whatever. And I was like, oh crap, that could be what I want. Why can't I just set up like a voicemail box and say whenever you feel something challenges your current standard operating procedure, something makes you feel uncomfortable, something makes you feel you've got to change how you actually work in the home or the conversations or the questions customers have about themselves, feeling safe, things like that. Call this one number, me. And I'll just sit there and I'll listen to the voicemails. So what it turned out to be, this kind of like this kind of tool option on Microsoft Teams became like the Linchpin actually made everything possible. I tested it with five different people across the hall and across the country. They thought it was simple, just a voicemail. It's a natural behavior. It's qualitative because it's unstructured text. And the best part is Microsoft Teams, I have to give a big plus one to them. It captures location data, the date and time, the role. I can now quickly see across different roles in home delivery repair, but I can also see geography. So I can quickly see across the different groups, across an entire week. But also drill down to a single participant to say, why did this person struggle 10% more than an agent with similar kind of background in another market? So it became way more exciting to actually have just me just play voicemails. Some of the feedback I got from stakeholders was like, it's like listening to a podcast in real-time, but I kind of know the characters and I can actually change the outcomes for what some of these agents are going through. And so I remember one stakeholder was like, I save all the videos until I drive home or when I'm working out, then I will listen to it and I have a little notepad so I can take conversation on top of that. And it became super fun to share these kind of voicemail snippets out. So that became this team that's new to UX research working with me for the first time. They're like, this is kind of fun. This is way more engaging than maybe doing a survey periodically or going to a couple of cities and seeing what we can learn from that approach.
Erin - 00:14:18: Love it. And sounds like this was other than your time, of course, free using
Varun - 00:14:25: 100%. Free, it was already built-in.
Erin - 00:14:27: And the other thing you mentioned that I love that you did here, what's the phrase? It's like first do nothing or something along those lines. But when everything is urgent and you got to be scrappy, you got to make decisions quickly. I think the urge right is to do it quickly. But the first thing you did was to sit for a minute and think, right? Even for a couple of days, you said. And ultimately ended up with this really efficient process because you invested that upfront time that seems like particularly when you're trying to innovate work with scarce resources, giving yourself just that little bit of slack and time up front to think creatively probably feels like a pretty useful step, right?
Varun - 00:15:05: My stakeholders were kind of they were like, okay, well, it doesn't cost us anything, but they were skeptical. Is this the best way to do it? What if they don't leave voicemails? What if they leave voicemails for problems we can't solve? What if only one person leaves 100? Right? And I was like, you know what? This is the part of research. This is creativity, this is risk. To me, research is a series of short-term predictions. And I was like, let's test it. Let's start with a couple of cities, let's start with a handful of agents and then we can scale it up from there. And very quickly they're like, this is free and it's effective, so let's continue to use this moving forward.
JH - 00:15:40: Yeah, it's nice when you mean that spot of let's just try it. Like, we're not risking much. So that's always the benefit of some of the cheaper options. When you were describing that story, you shared a method you were drawing inspiration from, from the late nineties I forget exactly what you called it.
Varun - 00:15:54: PhotoVoice.
JH - 00:15:55: PhotoVoice. Is that something you do often, like that you go back and look through other fields or other places for inspiration as a researcher or how do you go about doing that? How do you find those types of things?
Varun - 00:16:06: Because of the pandemic, I had only one study, this study, what is happening? So I didn't have ten other things to actually balance. So I actually was allowed a little bit more time to sit with the problem. Sometimes you don't. We need something tomorrow. So I guess I have right now to consider my plan and tell you and pitch you something that we're going to get done today. Right. This time it was like, we need to focus and really be confident on what it is we're going to do with our limited resources to adapt to this change. Do I like to sit down and look at past research if and where I can find it? A lot of stuff is hidden or gatekeeped behind very expensive software. Not software, but like platforms that are like $80 for 1 hour for this one article. There's that, but then the other side is not a lot of methods are common or known. You know, the basics. It's ethnography, eye tracking, card sorting. Right. In this particular case I was looking at like qualitative field research and then I came across this method. So being very specific on defining the problem as I need to do field research. Get out of the lab, get out of the office, and it's very qualitative. Something unstructured. I can see things happen that kind of gave me kind of search terms or parameters to say, what else is out here that I'm not considered?
Erin - 00:17:16: Awesome. So we've talked so far about only the last couple of years, so many different moments of challenge. But going even further back, even further back than the last two and a half years, is doing sort of scrappy creative research something you've always been passionate about? And what are some other stories or tools that you have in your kit?
Varun - 00:17:37: Yeah, I've always been passionate. I think this is where, for me, research gets really fun. I think being able to address a different problem, I get more energized by looking at unique situation, unique research requests, and unique populations. That, to me, is way more exciting than finding another method or another way of collecting data. Right. There's a ton of methods. I think sometimes people overinflate research methods. It's very fun because it's bite size, right. You can add them, combine them, expand them, right? That's great. But the messiness around that method, to me, that's where I think creativity really shines. So I've had a ton of fun working with different places, people that with different disabilities or traveling, staying up very early, getting up at 02:00 A.m to go to the warehouse at 03:00 A.m. to watch people unload and load trucks, something that you wouldn't get from a 09:00 A.m. phone call because they're already tired and they don't remember, things like that. So to me, creativity comes from the different problems that we get to address. The Pandemic was a huge creative. I'm framing it as creative. It was a very challenging time for the world and myself, obviously. But I'm like, as a researcher, it was very creative. It pushed you to think more critically. Do we need to do field research? Do we need to travel? Can we do this in different ways? And in that context, if I didn't have the Pandemic, I would have sat in a lot of different service vans. I'd have traveled to a bunch of few states and cities as much as I could and done a lot of observational research. But would I have had the same impact and gotten to the same amount of learnings? Probably not. So in that case, the constraints led to creativity, and it worked in that way.
JH - 00:19:06: 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 - 00:19:14: 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 - 00:19:26: We all know we should be talking to users more, so we 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 - 00:19:34: And then when you're done with that, go on over to your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review, please.
JH - 00:19:43: The thing we were talking about when we said scrappy up front that I keep coming back to my head is kind of like, how much of it is just, like, knowing the fundamentals and having a good mindset that you can figure things out. I'm kind of coming back to a silly example of somebody maybe who goes to a really nice gym and has, like, a trainer and knows how to do a couple of things in that exact setting. And they're good at it and they get fitness and it's great, but then they're somewhere else and they don't have access to those things and they don't know what to do versus, like, somebody who really loves fitness and is like, go fill that backpack up with sand and walk up a hill and just will find a way to get a workout in. However, and it's just like, they kind of know the fun. Is it something like that? People just need to know the basics and just kind of have a belief that you can figure things out in tough situations.
Varun - 00:20:23: I liken this, and I told my boss that, and she laughed. To me, it feels like becoming the Jason Bourne of research. Drop me anyway. You could drop Jason Bourne. For those that don't know. American action hero. He's very scrappy, he's very pragmatic. Like, you could throw anything at Jason Bourne and he would solve it. Would it be effective? Efficient? No. But would it be effective? That kind of thinking. That's what I think about. I don't need all the fanciest tools or software. The world's largest recruitment platform, right? And a billion dollar budget. What I have is there's enough skill set and tool to say, we're going to conceptualize this problem into some way that we can actually win and execute on this research within the constraints that we have and do a great job of socializing the findings that we learn. My job is to help you get excited about learning. It's not to look at budgets and complain about what I don't have, but, okay, we have what we have. Let's get really good at maximizing what little we have. And I think that kind of skill set, pragmatism, just being efficient and scrappy. Right. That, I think works in a job, but particularly in this one, just because we tend to be fighting against the current, even though everyone was like, we love swimming, we love water, I'm like, Then why are you fighting me on this learning? Let's learn together.
Erin - 00:21:31: I'm curious what advice you might have for, we have folks listening who are new in their careers who have been many, many years in their careers. So different levels of expertise and of practicing different methods in terms of if there's kind of two things at play here. One is just the foundational understanding of research principles and methods and so on. Biases, ethics, etcetera. And then there's applying those in interesting ways and interesting situations. So clearly you can imagine this is a lifelong process of a little bit of both, but what would you suggest folks do to kind of build this muscle with intention in their own careers?
Varun - 00:22:14: I think if you find yourself I've talked to a few researchers where their job is just usability testing, and they talk about being burnt out. They talk about their team not necessarily respecting the fact that they can apply different methods. Or they're like, you just do testing, right? You just do this work that did it. And I'm like that's the first place, if you're doing the same kinds of research, the same methods to focus on, try something else, pitch something else, ask different questions, right? I think the more you get vulnerable and you understand your team, the more time I spent understanding and humanizing my stakeholders. Not just PM, who wants everything under the sun fast and cheap, but actually like, okay, I get why you are passionate about your product, and I want to share that passion with you, but I want us to have a discussion on what we can do to get better at learning. If we only learn qualitatively, great. You're only getting half the story. Let's consider a quantitative method, right? Just having a frank discussion. This changes the way people think about it, and for anyone else in this situation, is if you get a chance to try something different, try to double down on it, ask it for a stretch assignment, see if you can partner with another, more experienced researcher at the company. If you're a designer, you want to get involved, can you come take notes? Can you learn in that way? And can you just start to shape the culture of research to focus more on learning, instead of just, we did a study, let's share it out. Let's go to the next one.
Erin - 00:23:31: Where do you get your inspiration? Do you work closely with other researchers or get inspired by other creative methods from others?
Varun - 00:23:39: A couple of things. One, podcast. I want to say lifelong fan, but we haven't been around you all haven't been around that long yet. So I like Awkward Silences. I like the different perspectives that come on the show and how you all have engaged with them and just ask different questions instead of, what do you like about research, right? Like getting deeper. Writing this fruitful, writing this book has been very helpful. Talking to researchers from all over the world. I talked to a researcher at a Nigerian startup where during the phone call, his phone, his smartphone was what he was using for video calls. It crashed and then we had to go to email and then that didn't work. So then being, how does he do research in his local community and how does he connect with other people, talk about that. And then third is just being at work every day. I'm like, Why is that on fire? Well, we're going to become firefighters today and get through this together. And so I like being collaborative. I have found designers, very good researchers, even if they don't have the terms. Or they might be like, this is okay. I'm like, that's not the best way, but I like where your head is at. I had not considered that approach. Let's pull you in. Let's get energy together. Let's go down that together. Now I've got a partner. My stimulus or my prototype is going to be that much percent better because they're invested. And then when we share out, I can do some of the research. Boom. You can take some of the design. We look like a joint unit instead of research and design as two fractured entities that occasionally handshake. So designers make good researchers even if they don't have all the terms downright is what I felt .
JH - 00:25:06: Nice. Kind of building off that. And this feels like a podcast question to know that I know you're a podcast fan.
Erin - 00:25:11: Why do you like research?
JH - 00:25:13: Why is this such a good podcast? You were saying? The Jason Bourne analogy. What are some things that for researchers who don't consider themselves a Jason Bourne type, what are like a couple of things that come to mind that they should kind of reevaluate or think about focusing on in a different way?
Varun - 00:25:30: I don't know if I'm the Jason Bourne . That is a go. Let me put that out there. I'm not even Matt Damon. You know what? I got to work on me. What I like about this question is, like, everyone can take stock of where they are now. Look at the past six months. Look at the past six weeks. If you're a researcher or a designer that does some research, where have you spent that time? What problems have you been addressing? I don't like to say the word gaps because it's all infinity, and if you've closed one gap, you've really accomplished none. But what are the goals that you're running toward? Your research is supporting what and how have those metrics or those projects changed over time or been influenced? So first, take stock of where you are, what's working, what's not. Then from there, it's a lot of just building relationships and talking to people about what they have liked. I love asking, how do you like to learn? I don't care about findings or decks or anything like that. How do you like to learn about the people that we build for and the product that we are all collectively working on? Is a way more fruitful question than do you want it to be in email findings or do you want it to be in PDF? Right? That kind of question. I think socialization and creative writing is something where someone can get really good, even if you only have interviews and the occasional observation at your disposal. How you communicate that and how you share that out through videos, through audio, through audio summary, getting even the participants. I love getting if I can have the participants show up to the teachout, have them kind of walk through it, it's better than hearing it, me say it, look at them, actually talk about this and get engaged in that way that I think can be really powerful. And then, yeah, I think also this is my fundamental belief you should have fun. If research is challenging and stressful and it's a nightmare and you hate it and you avoid it and no one invites you to meetings and stuff, there's something happening, right? It should be fun. This is a career, but you can be passionate about what you do. So think about where do you get energy from and where can you maybe sprinkle that more into the conversation that I think can be really effective? Is that Jason Bourne? Is Jason Bourne having fun? Probably not, but he seems passionate with his skills. I'm losing the train of thought there.
Erin - 00:27:25: No, it's good though. He's having fun. Sometimes I think Matt Damon. He's smiling.
JH - 00:27:30: You mentioned thinking about gaps and trying to close or fill some of those, make yourself more well rounded. Have there been any for you lately that you've been fixated on or personally paying a lot of attention to?
Varun - 00:27:41: To me, the quantitative research side is very sexy. I'm proficient at R, which is a statistical programming language. Just I want to be able to work that more into my work of getting good at ggplot2 and modeling data visualizing data is very effective. One thing that I think Apple but I was actually working on, like an article about is like R for content analysis are looking at a large amount of the menu survey data. You ask a bunch of open ended questions. How do you analyze that at the high level? Not just qualitatively, but what can you pull out using a bag of words or a string of words, type model, looking at phrases or how many things co occur with other words that I think is really fun. I have not had as much time to dedicate with, like, the book and we got a new dog and just life. Life always gets in the way of other stuff.
Erin - 00:28:26: Yeah. And that's where I like this idea. There's different models for this, but spending some amount of that precious limited time you have to invest in creativity, right. Versus just being sad and miserable and doing the same thing day in and day out like you talked about. You imagine if you might think of research as almost like trying to feed people vitamins that you're not sure they want to take and you're kind of projecting this negative energy that's not going to be very effective. And so you can imagine all of these wonderful sort of second-order benefits that come from keeping yourself fresh and creativity being obviously a great way to do that.
Varun - 00:29:05: Quick disclaimer if you work at a toxic environment, this advice does not apply to you.
Erin - 00:29:10: Yeah, well, she should just put the toxic environment.
Varun - 00:29:14: You should leave if you can. If you cannot, that's different. But if you can, that doesn't mean do great research in a place where no one respects you. Definitely look elsewhere.
Erin - 00:29:22: Do you have any other wild stories we haven't heard? Crazy methods that you or people you know have?
Varun - 00:29:28: I have heard of one. I haven't done it because I don't think I got approval for it. Maybe I won't get approval, so I won't ask. I've heard of this method. It's like it's in the bathroom. It's like graffiti, bathroom graffiti. But it's about a specific important problem that addresses, like, a larger population that uses that bathroom. Employees come to mind because I did a lot of employee experience work at Best Buy. Go to the bathroom, giant Post-it or whiteboard or, like, piece of paper. And it's like, what sucks about whatever. What sucks about payment or something? I haven't done it for sanitary reasons, but I like.
Erin - 00:30:03: Sure. Like a shared sharpie.
Varun - 00:30:05: Yeah. I like how intimate it is. I can see it quickly being derailed, being like, people just say whatever the heck they want, but I like that it's somewhere intimate. Maybe the manager. You don't want to be the manager writing on the employee graffiti board because I can look bad for optics. I haven't done it, but I like how interesting that is as an approach.
Erin - 00:30:23: So the idea is to get employees to vent and tell the truth in an environment they're contextually. They're willing to do that. That feels safe enough, if a little bit hygienically, questionable.
Varun - 00:30:35: Yes. You remove the power dynamics of the manager and the employee and just let the employees be like, we hate this, and this is why.
Erin - 00:30:42: Right. right.
Varun - 00:30:44: Like, with all research, there's pros and cons. There's always a risk to any method. Even if you've done it 100,000 times, that interview could go completely sideways. Even if you've been a qualitative researcher for 15, 20 years.
JH - 00:30:56: Well, people seem to always want to write on bathroom walls, so I guess.
Erin - 00:30:59: You're just meeting people where they're at.
Varun - 00:31:03: Here's a gift card. Thank you.
JH - 00:31:05: Nice. That's a good one. Is there anything in the year ahead with some uncertainty and whatever cycle we're in here economically that you're excited or nervous about?
Varun - 00:31:14: I think the biggest thing is the AI. This AI explosion I think I've seen in the Google Design and user research group. My boss was talking about it. There's conversations now about what does that mean? Right. I think I saw a phrase, synthetic user, and I'm like, I don't even fully grasp what that is, but I think it's an important conversation to be had about technology. Right. Because of technology going to the voicemail, I was able to do a voicemail. Phones are an old technology. I'll give it that. So is a voicemail box, but it was used in a different way. AI unlocks significantly different approaches and opportunities. But I think about is this right? Right. Can you actually remove some of the parts of research and give it to a computer data structuring? Yes, that sounds pretty great. Go in, clean up all this data, remove all the customers, move all the emojis. Okay, great. It's filtered. It's a little bit more sanitary for me to look at. That sounds like a great use of AI and maybe learns over time, oh, he keeps clearing these emojis and makes this acronym into something else. That sounds great, but AI doing qualitative research, can it recognize nuance? Can it handle nuance? Can it actually pivot when someone is very getting overwhelmed with some of the questions? If it's a particularly taboo or sensitive topic, can you trust an AI? And would participants feel cool giving feedback to a robot when it's a very sensitive topic? Right. That kind of changes. How does this affect hiring? If more and more AI can do some of the work, doesn't that create to me even further the gap between those that have been doing this for five, six, seven plus years and those that haven't even been able to do it for a month professionally. Right. Because an AI can do the basic, the internship work, the grunt work. How does that kind of look at the evolution of this field? And also to me, most importantly with AI, how large stakeholders react to the feedback, right. React to the data or the findings? Would they be more likely to trust it? It was synthesized by an AI looking at 20,000 comments. Is that better than me looking at 200 and meaningfully having a discussion with you about them? I don't know. But I think now that AI is on the table and it doesn't look like it's going anywhere anytime soon, so it's going to be like, how do you coevolve with it? That I think, is nervous, but also exciting because I can see the benefits of technology being like a tool, but also in some ways a weapon. So it does make me just think about this a little bit more.
Erin - 00:33:33: It seems like on the analysis front, right. The proof ought to be in the pudding in terms of you don't want its merit to be decided by if people like the sound of the insights, it's like, oh, we feel comfortable with this analysis. It confirmed what we already thought anyway, or whatever it is. But if you act on those insights and get good results, that gives you some indication right, that the analysis might not have been so bad. But it is a very interesting time. I think analysis is an obvious place where there's a lot of potential benefit for it to work really well, AI, same with recruiting, right? I mean, we've done a lot to try to automate the parts of recruiting that can be, and there are certainly more of those. The piece where it feels like, God help us, do we want AI in there, is the researcher talking to the participant? Right. I think you were alluding to this before. There is now a service where you can get fake participants. AI participants. Yeah. We're like, really? A little skeptical of that.
Varun - 00:34:34: My only question is, how do you know? Humans are unpredictable in all of the ways an AI is designed to do whatever it's designed to do, whatever its algorithm is. It can do some level of learning, like leaps, but it's not going to miss the back button because it was driving and texting. But a human would. Maybe you don't see that in the usability test, but humans are crazy and random and we're emotional. We should build products. I'm like the AI is interesting for the middle, but the final end consumer is a human being stakeholder, and then the person they're acting on and supporting and building for is another human. So AI, I think it's helpful, but I think, once again, like discussion. I'm sure some people dislike when remote interviews popped up. You can't do remote interviews. You lose the richness of data. People aren't going to be as human. Anyone can jump on the call. Right. But I'm like remote interviews unlocks a whole new level of population that can't make it to the interview site, can't show up at those times. Some like, strengths and weaknesses there.
Erin - 00:35:36: Yeah, 100%. Cool. Well, since you mentioned it before, occasionally we do like to ask folks, why did you sort of fall in love with research? Or how long have you been doing research? What keeps you excited? After all these years.
Varun - 00:35:48: I'm not going to count undergrad, so I guess I'll be coming up on seven years this year. Yeah. So why do I keep doing this? Yeah, I honestly still, like, I still can't believe this is a job like all frank, because I like what I do. I like the creativity that comes with this that we've talked about. I like getting lost in the weeds. I love how research can influence design. My job isn't to look at buttons, but maybe to ask questions on why we're considering certain layouts or certain elements over others. And people are like, that's a good question. Why are we doing that? Let's consider something else. Right? I like that collaboration. I like having worked with some big companies and also seeing how fast tech can move. We did some research next month. It's live and it's working and it's not perfect, but it's doing something for the business and for the people using it. And also to me, the biggest two parts is like, detective, I'm a big Batman guy. I love the detective stories that come with this. Like, why do people hate us? Let's find out, gang. Let's put our hat on. Let's go into the Mystery Machine. Let's see if we can crack this case. And on the other side, the very end, detective is the first part. It culminates in storytelling, I think, of how human storytelling is, how humans have evolved. Like, literally tell stories around fires, and, like, the oral tradition of carrying on memories and learnings and lessons. Generation. Generation. I'm like, we all love stories. So being able to take that fact finding that raw, cold statistic 87%, but making it human, contextualizing it, and then weaving a narrative surrounded by data on the things that we care about, the things that we believe to be true and then giving that back to stakeholders in a fun, engaging way. I love that because that's when research stops being just about facts and figures to be like, oh, my God, I've learned something. And because of that, I have now 10,000 different ideas and questions and an energy that I probably would not have had if I just looked at a deck or someone said, hey, 86% of people don't like the homepage. What do I do now? How does that help me in any way? Right? So detective and storytelling, I think, definitely keep me here, grounded. Now AI will do the remaining. Thank you, AI. Sponsored by, no.
Erin - 00:37:51: They don't pay us. They'll just take over
Varun - 00:37:55: Yeah, volunteer hours.
Erin - 00:37:59: Well, Batman and Jason Bourne. Who wins in a face off.
Varun - 00:38:05: I can imagine the title, like, Awkward Silence's Team gets horribly derailed by researcher.
Erin - 00:38:11: Not the first time for that, please.
Varun - 00:38:15: That's true.
JH - 00:38:15: No, it's been great. And the way you were just saying it is if you're a curious person, being able to just continuously scratch that itch, why is this this way? And go do some digging, try out some new methods, put up different pieces together, and then kind of come back with a pretty good intuition or answer on what it is. That's very powerful. And that feedback loop is, I'm sure, very rewarding if that's how you're wired.
Varun - 00:38:37: It's very much a loop. If I can speak to that once you do it well., Have you heard of the segment CEO, I think, before Peter Reinhold, I think? He was saying, once you get to product market fit, it's like stepping on a landmine. It's graphic. It's graphic imagery I can understand, but it's something so, like, you'd have to be crazy to miss that. That's what sometimes good research feels to me. Why do we need research? It costs money. It's slow. Okay, let's do something quick. A little scrappy, right? And then you get it. People are like, this is amazing. And then the next study becomes easier. And I'm like, all it takes is just one right? And then one good study to be positioned in the right way with the right amount of resources and collaboration for someone to say, I like learning, this is fun, this is a good use of time. We're smarter and we're more confident. Let's do this again. So it is very much like that feedback loop.
Erin - 00:39:24: Awesome. Well, I think this is a lot of fun. I hope it will invigorate some listeners to find some new love for research, whether they're early or late in their careers. And thanks so much for joining. Been great.
Varun - 00:39:36: Thanks for having me.
JH - 00:39:37: Take care.
Erin - 00:39:38: Hey there, it’s me, Erin!
JH - 00:39:39: And me, JH!
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