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Karen explains the differences between agency and in-house research, why she likes to be involved in sales, and how to say “no” to clients.
[00:01:29] Transitioning from enterprise B2B to agency life
[00:03:05] The value of getting involved in the sales cycle as a researcher
[00:06:04] Which clients does Karen not want to work with?
[00:13:00] Setting clear client expectations
[00:20:10] Why her team only uses essential tools
[00:24:35] Building trust by saying “no”
[00:27:59] Finding your champion
[00:33:14] Recruiting for client projects
[00:37:54] Should you make the move to an agency?
Karen VanHouten has over 20 years of experience as a UX professional and strategist, with a focus on B2B & SaaS. She uses human-centered design principles to build useful & accessible digital products and healthy and impactful product teams. Karen is currently the Director of Product Strategy at Philosophie by InfoBeans, and an adjunct professor at the California College of the Arts.
[00:00:00] Karen: In most situations, just having those conversations really early and transparently in making that kind of the default that we're going to be really open. And we're going to talk about this because the way you communicate the things you say yes to the things that you say no too early in a project are establishing what your boundaries and what your relationship is going to be like for the duration of the.
[00:00:25] Erin: This is Erin May.
[00:00:27] JH: I'm John Henry Forster. And this is Awkward Silences.
[00:00:39] Erin: Hello everybody. And welcome back to Awkward Silences today. We're here with Karen VanHouten, the Director of Product Strategy at Philosophie by InfoBeans. You've been at this job for eight–
[00:00:49] Karen: days, eight days.
[00:00:50] Erin: Fantastic. And we're going to talk today about setting yourself up for success with a client. So if you're working at an agency or consultancy and you have lots of different clients, you're working with doing your UX research, how do you get started on the right foot from the beginning?
Excited to get into it. Karen, thanks for joining us.
[00:01:10] Karen: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:13] Erin: So you have worked in-house, you have worked in an agency setting. You have a lot of experience. Doing both things. When you first jumped into kind of agency life, what was surprising? What were some of the, you know, the things that jumped out?
[00:01:29] Karen: Probably the first two thirds of my career was in-house and not only in-house in-house for enterprise software So all B2B. So transferring to agency meant two things. It meant, you know, a different type of relationship. Stakeholders I was working with, but also I am sometimes working on B2B. I'm sometimes working on B2C. I'm sometimes working in the civic tech space. So just the level of variation, that's something to adjust to.
[00:02:00] I think the pace of work, particularly coming from enterprise software, where you have release cycles that are 18 months long, and working on smaller projects, like mobile apps that you can turn around really fast. So the pace of work really changes. And I think you have to learn to be a lot more flexible with your approach, because a lot of times it's about meeting the client where they're at.
They have certain ways of working your team has certain ways of working. And how do you maintain the quality of your practice while meeting the client where they're at. So building in a lot of flexibility and really focusing on the relationship aspect, I think is one of the big things working in an agency setting with all different types of clients.
[00:02:48] JH: Is that something that somebody on, like the research side or the strategy side has any influence on like, by the time you get involved as like the relationship already kind of like official and it's going forward. And you just got to do the best to like meet them where they're at and figure out a way to add value? Or is it like you get pulled in upstream and you're like, I don't actually know if like the way we work and the way they work is compatible?
[00:03:05] Karen: I'll tell you what the ideal scenario is for me and that's to be involved in the sales cycle. It's and I—if you would've asked me this question a few years ago, I would never, would've said I want to be involved in the sales cycle—but I've learned that my role in the sales cycle is not to sell.
It's to suss out where is the client? How well can they articulate their need is a huge part of it. So the earlier I can be involved, the more likely I can set the project up for success. And the worst scenarios for me is when a project's already gone off the rails. And then I'm brought in to try and turn it around because there's very little, I can do at that point, other than just try to keep people. Healthy and safe.
[00:03:58] Erin: Yeah. We're, we're trying to advocate for more research, but research it's too late. Yeah. What does that look like to be pulled into the sales cycle?
[00:04:06] Karen: So early on, it's a form of research. If you've done organizational research, if you've done stakeholder research, you know, Kim Goodwin has written a lot about stakeholder research.
It's really the same thing. That's really, I consider those early conversations a form of research and I'm asking them a lot of the same questions I would ask if I was doing like in-house stakeholder research, things around like business goals, seeing again, can they articulate what they need. And kind of a trend I've been seeing since COVID—and because I work with a lot of companies that aren't digital first, like digital as a tool they use, but that's not their business—a lot of times they know they need something, but they have a really hard time articulating what that is.
So that's what those first sales calls are, is they're trying to dig into, I'll ask them questions about what they've come to us for. And then a lot of times, like I was on a sales—this is good timing ‘cause I was on my first sales call out the new role this morning—and you know, they were articulating that they wanted a more unified experience across a suite of products. Which of course, yes, we all want that. But then asking them, okay, what do you think that's going to help you achieve as a business is your goal? Like, are you getting from current customers. Do you see an opportunity to maybe add a new industry of customers, a new vertical?
And really, I think understanding the business perspective, because there's two parts of the research, there's the business value, and then there's filling that unmet need on the customer client side and in these early conversations, what is the business value I'm trying to achieve?
And then when we land the project, we're going to see. Where's the, where are those unmet needs that align with that business value we can provide?
[00:06:01] Erin: So I guess like reductively, you know, basically sales is, can I sell you something and you are, can I help you?
[00:06:04] Karen: Yeah. And there are some things I don't want to work on.
It's also, what is the language that the client using? What is the currency in their organization is risk a currency is time a currency? How do they talk about their needs? How do they talk about research? And I'm not afraid of working with clients who don't have a lot of experience with research.
What I do not want to do is work with. Who think they don't need research or who associate market research rather than like, the behavior/user/customer research. That's just not going to be a good fit for the type of work we do.
[00:06:49] JH: And just to build off that, like the type of work, the type of projects that are coming in on the agency side is that like the full gamut of like discovery evaluative stuff and all sorts of different timelines, everything? Or is there a certain kind of like, shape that you're typically?
[00:07:01] Karen: Well, one of the reasons I took this role is because Philosophie really kind of focuses on those early stage product validation, discovery, things like that. I like that type of work. And it's where I think I can provide the most value. We will do longer-term engagements. But, yeah, it's that early stage, how do you evolve as a business?
And there's some business model stuff in there too. In order to be able to deliver a digital product—in addition to like, say you're a manufacturer—that may require some changes to your business model that may require some changes into how like it in marketing relate, because a lot of times this work falls under marketing, but the budget falls under it, that type of thing.
So yeah, a lot of it is the earlier stage, either product evolution or kind of net new product exploration type of situation.
[00:07:58] JH: So you mentioned you don't mind working with teams who maybe don't have a lot of experience on the research side. It seems like as long as they have an openness to it, right, and are willing to listen to some expertise that can work. Do you have people on the other end of the spectrum where they kind of like, know enough to be dangerous and they come in with like, let's do this methodology and like this and that they're trying to like really push things and like, is that, how do you navigate something like that?
[00:08:17] Karen: Yeah, I would say sometimes I get that, but more often what I get is them being prescriptive because what they're hoping I'll do—or the team will do—is validate the idea they already have. Rarely have I had someone kind of lay out the plan for me. But more it's the outcome I want is I've already decided I'm going to do this and I need you to give me the evidence to get funding for it.
So there's another red flag.
[00:08:45] JH: Are there other things that if you were going to give advice to somebody who's like maybe moving into the agency world from a different background? Like these are other patterns or signals to like key in on so that you can kind of start to ramp up here in the way that you've kind of developed over time.
[00:09:00] Karen: Yeah. I think what is their cadence of work? Every client's going to tell you they're agile and that means something different. So being able to talk to people in other parts of the organization, because usually again, I said, I'm involved with sales. That's usually a pretty high level stakeholder.
But in a kickoff, I want to make sure I have people from, if we're working with engineering, having them involved, if they have people who work in design in some capacity, a lot of times we'll have people from a marketing team or CX team involved. So understanding their cadence of work. And I think a hugely important thing is understanding how they communicate, how they best intake information.
I hate to tell you this, but if you work at an agency, you're going to create a lot of decks. Like the number one deliverable you're going to produce is decks, but that's because it's something that's really easily consumable. And I think a lot of times we roll our eyes at that, but it's storytelling you're going to have to be doing a lot of storytelling in these situations.
[00:10:46] JH: So you found a good client to work with, right? It's a good fit. Onboarding and picked up on some of their patterns and stuff. Where does the work actually start? Like, are you really doing things like in a very collaborative way, like people from the team are joining, you know, moderated research calls or this or that, or is it more of like you go off and do some of the research specialization and bring it back to the team and then make a decision?
Like, is it kind of yo-yo or—I imagine that's probably project specific, but I'm just curious, like how that goes.
[00:11:10] Karen: It is project specific, but I much prefer to work in the farmer way than the latter way. It's a really interesting thing. I think sometimes we can be a little precious with our skillsets when we work in an agency because of.
They need us right now because they don't have these skills. But what I found is if you bring them along and kind of consider this, this is project-based coaching, they want to work with you again because you're empowering them and you're making them look good. So I really want, as much as possible, for them to be involved.
Some of my best projects have been where the whole goal is at the start. I'm writing the research plans. I'm writing the interview scripts. I start the engagement. Leading those interviews. And then I will say a lot of times maybe it's a business analyst or someone that's, I'm like, do you feel comfortable running this interview?
So that by the end, at a minimum, they feel comfortable running the interviews, but I'd like to get them to the point where they're at least taking a pass at writing the discussion guides or things like that. I'll even sometimes do a little session on how to write good open-ended questions, things like that.
And like I said, the amazing thing is then they want to work with you more, not less.
[00:12:29] Erin: Yeah. I'm curious about this because I don't hear—I'm sure there's someone out there, we can find this person, you know, that will say collaboration’s for the bird, you know, like really you should just do it all yourself and don't bring other people into it—but generally speaking people say like, get the stakeholders involved, bring them around, you know, along for the ride, get involved early.
I'm curious, you know, do you get pushback on that? “I don't have time. Like, I don't want to be involved. Just go do it.”
[00:12:56] Karen: You know, take care of it. Yes. And it's a time thing.
I mean, everybody take a moment to look at your calendar right now. And if I said, okay, I'm gonna add 10 hours a week of meetings. I mean, that's what it translates to them. An interview is a meeting because it's a block on their calendar. So this gets back to setting expectations really early in the sales process, writing this type of thing in the statement of work is there are certain dependencies if you're going to be involved in recruiting is a whole other one.
And honestly, when I've seen that kind of pushback, it's almost always been because of time constraints. And it's been because we haven't really set the expectations that this work takes time and it's not just the interview—’cause I want them in the analysis and the synthesis.
And a lot of times what I'll do both in the sales process and in the statement of work is put like a generic timeline in, in kind of show how much time dedication you're going to need for the interview phase, for the analysis and synthesis phase, for maybe like a working session or two afterward to decide what our next steps—so that it's very abundantly clear what type of commitment this is,
[00:14:12] JH: If you are working within some of those time constraints—so there's some pushback, right of, okay “I can't do 10 hours, but I can do six or something”—Will you just shave it across all the buckets or will you be like, this area is most important for you to be involved? “So I'll pull you in here and then I'll do this with other one, like more independently.” Like where are the highest leverage things for people to get in?
[00:14:28] Karen: Yeah, the most important thing is I would love for the key people I'm working with to at least sit in on a couple of interviews. I love to have them involved in the synthesis and the analysis, but that work is also really hard. And it can kind of like blow people's minds if they haven't done it before.
So, what I'll often do is take a first pass. So I'll, I'll kind of bucket all the kind of key observations and then maybe involve them in kind of categorizing, stuff like that. But yeah, having them involved in a couple of interviews. We always, when we can, record these. But one, no one ever goes back and listens to the recordings in.
And I don't think it's the same thing. Because when you're involved in sitting in, a lot of times, what they'll do is they won't feel comfortable, like asking a question to the participant.
So they'll Slack me or some whatever messaging platform. And I'm like, I can say to them, that's a great question. Why don't you ask that that's a really great way to get them start getting comfortable with that or I'll reframe the question for them.
[00:15:35] JH: Yeah, it does seem tough to get people to watch videos.
I was laughing a little bit ‘cause we do a lot of that in internal meetings. And I used to always leave Easter eggs being like, if you see this in recording, please message me and like nobody ever messages.
[00:15:48] Erin: That's why it's smart to do it ahead of time. You were sending your old record, doing the presentation and then you'll talk about it so it’s clear if no one's watched it.
[00:15:55] Karen: Well, it's like, it's like teaching, you give a reading assignment, but then you have specific questions. So you know that they've done it. Yeah.
[00:16:04] Erin: So you're talking about, you know, when you're kind of getting to know a new client and, and the people at the company on their team and understanding how they like to communicate who they are, what makes them tick.
I'm curious also about team dynamics, like how they function as a team. How your team functions as a team, how you integrate those teams and create a new team. Are there, you know, are there interesting ways that people work together that, you know, have implications for how you're going to come in and be effective?
Yeah, let's just talk about my internal team first. That's another part of agency life, is a lot of time those teams are very dynamic. When I worked in-house and enterprise software, we had pods, they were set up around industry verticals that allowed them to build a level of deep expertise and relationships.
Since being in a consulting, more service-oriented perspective, my teams are constantly changing. So I think there's pros and cons to that. But the pro is, you have to learn internally how to be adjusting and how to set expectations. And then you're more practiced in doing that externally with the client. I will say a thing that works consistently well is being very transparent.
I like shared Slack channels and I like minimal backchannel. And I know that's really hard for people a lot of times, you know, if they have some concerns or something feels off, they, you know, let's figure it out internally. In most situations, you know, some clients are you know, special snowflakes. But in most situations, just having those conversations really early and transparently in making that kind of the default that we're going to be really open.
And we're going to talk about this [00:18:00] because the way you communicate the things you say yes to the things that you say no too early in a project are establishing what your boundaries and what your relationship is going to be like for the duration of the project.
[00:18:11] JH: All right. A quick awkward interruption. 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: We want to help you so much that we have created a special place. It's called user interviews.com/awkward for you to get your first three participants free.
JH: 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: And then when you're done with that, go on over to. Favorite podcasting app and leave us a review.
[00:18:40] Erin: Yeah, I bet you have engagements where you can kind of step into a company and actually positively impact their culture in the right situation, right.
Where we like to work transparently, whatever your values are. And maybe that rubs off a bit?
[00:19:01] Karen: Yeah. And you can tell a lot about their broader culture. How much resistance? They talk about it like, “oh yeah, about this transparency thing…” Yeah. I feel like modeling the behavior you, you want to see in them is really important in not expecting them to from day one, be like, yep!
And I'm like, I'm an external processor and big aren't working out loud, but I know not everybody's like that. And just also giving them a little bit of. And learning to read a bit between the lines and then like with anybody else just really rewarding them. Whether it's with positive feedback or even taking maybe something they said and putting it in the deck so that they feel like they're contributing.
Really encouraging that behavior when you see it demonstrated.
[00:19:54] JH: It feels like the other part of kind of like two teams coming together and figuring out how to work together on this. And that is around like tools and stuff like that. Right. So how much of it do you have to just like, chameleon your way into like their tool stack for research?
Or can you come in and be like, look, this is just a better way of doing this. Like let's just please.
[00:20:10] Karen: Honestly tools are not the hardest problem to solve, but it tends to be the one that remains unsolved for the longest, because most of them don't have research or practice specific tools. There's a cost associated with those that a lot of agencies, they'll do it on a project by project basis.
So again, this gets back to expectations in the statement of work like who's going to pay for those tools. Where is the research going to live? Who owns that? Because there's people with email addresses from this domain in this domain, and sometimes using, you know, cloud-based tools makes it very challenging to have shared spaces with shared ownership and then potentially like not associating those accounts with a specific personal email. I mean, even things like that because someone may leave the project or leave the team and then no one can access it.
So the solution I have to that is to only use the essential tools. And honestly, we rely a lot on things like Google Sheets and things like Mural or Miro. When you start getting into like multiple work streams, kind of doing multiple projects, that becomes a time to invest in something where you can capture insights across projects and start creating an insight library, because there's potential to reuse that research and new ways and ask new questions of the research.
And at that point I started saying, you know, you could be getting a lot more value if we, if we used another tool for that.
[00:21:51] Erin: Yeah. And then, and sometimes you have a project with multiple agencies.
I'm just thinking about how this can really snowball. So that's smart to use tools that they already have, whether it's Google Docs or just sort of general, general purpose tools.
Okay. So we're working with a client. We like them. Well, maybe we don't, maybe that's a different topic, but let's say, you know, keep it simple—so we like the client. We're working together. We've kicked things off. We're aligned on. It's going to take six hours a week for you and we're doing things together. Things are going well.
A common thing that happens with agency relationships is there's upsell conversations. All right. Like how do we keep this good thing going? You know, how do we engage in another thing?
Is that something you get involved with? Or are you thinking about that as you, you know, are delivering your insights and work?
[00:22:40] Karen: Yeah. Yeah. Always be closing, right? Yeah. And this is the great thing about research, particularly if you're doing generative research is one thing you're doing is you're building a backlog of opportunities. Because a lot of times, if we're doing a discovery and framing engagement, we're going to find multiple—you know, for doing journey mapping— we find multiple pain points. We're going to pick one to address first. We automatically now have a backlog. And so I think of it less in terms of upselling, it feels much more organic when you're doing the research well.
And particularly, this is why I like very much to have some sort of regular cadence of research, whether it's two weeks cycles or four weeks, I really like four week. Cause then you do planning, recruiting, execution analysis, reporting, decision-making. But kind of like doing that regular cadence, they're seeing the value of your work they're seeing, oh my gosh, we could be doing so much more and they are saying to us, “okay, we want more of this”.
Like that is like, the dream situation is they're like, “oh, now I understand. Let's do more of this.”
[00:23:59] JH: Yeah, there is something you said earlier, and then this like there's feels like there's a couple of like counterintuitive truths where if you help people and educate them and give them some skills, they're more excited to work with you again.
And if you do that research loop really well and like, do it well and get to an answer on the decision or whatever. In the wake of that, you come up with so many other opportunities over that, like it naturally becomes kind of sustaining. Whereas I can imagine if you're new to this world, you could maybe come into those things differently.
Right? Like we were saying, like, keep your skills precious. Maybe, you know, the research is a little more ambiguous to the recommendations so that there's like more to go explore. Doing these things well actually just like naturally creates a better relationship. It sounds like.
[00:24:35] Karen: Yeah. And I think something else is counterintuitive is saying no to clients often creates more trust than always saying yes.
If you're willing to say no to request. If you're willing to say no to certain types of work, I think it's really important to understand that whatever work you do well, you are going to get more of. So you have to be really careful what work you take on. So if someone comes to you and wants to do something like usability testing or an audit of an existing product, Great.
But if they start seeing you as that person, it's going to be really hard to have like a strategic partnership where you're working with them on developing a product roadmap. So, saying no is going to give you opportunities to do more of the type of work you want to do.
[00:25:28] JH: Is there a tactful way to say no? Is it just like providing the context and the why we're looking to—
[00:25:34] Erin: Yeah we need to know. Help us out.
[00:25:38] Karen: Yeah, again, we keep coming back to like the start of the funnel. But that's why I like to be involved because I find at that time it's really easy at that stage to turn the conversation around. “This is what y you're saying, but what I really think you need is this.” And I would say nine times out of 10—and again, because I'm a researcher at heart, I understand these patterns nine times out of 10—when I turned that on them, they respond “Oh, yeah, you're right.”
Like this morning in our sales call, I was kind of, it was very complex project and I asked them about kind of their company growth because they have multiple product lines and if it was organic growth or built on acquisitions. And they said acquisitions. So I told them, I see three levels of complexity there.
So they have a level of complexity and the scope because they have a lot of products and a lot of different types of customers. They have a level of complexity because they're in a regulatory industry—so anything like finance or healthcare—but they have a level of complexity with their culture because it's built on acquisitions.
And I said to them, I think we need to start understanding your culture. And from there, decide what the first project we were going to work on. And that's not how the conversation had started, but like literally one of the stakeholders like raised up his hands and says like, yes, yes, amen.
So, you know, I don't expect someone who's two years into their career to be able to have those conversations. But if you want to have impact, I think working up to that and being willing to be involved in sales conversations—which, like I said, most of us don't really enjoy that. But that's where you can have a lot of impact and influence.
[00:27:24] Erin: You said something I liked, which is kind of. Finding your champion, like the person who raised their hands and they're like, all right, I'm, I'm drinking the Kool-Aid, I'm coming to church. I'm down with what you're selling, you know. Is that something you try to do and engagements, like look for your person or, you know, like, let's say you're in a situation where this deal was sold. Maybe you weren't involved in the sale from the beginning or you weren't. You've got some skeptics in the mix and you want this to go, well, you want people to be along for the ride and be happy with the results.
Is it you still to kind of, find that person or find those people, or is that, does that just take care of itself?
[00:27:59] Karen: It doesn't take care of itself. I mean, sometimes it's really obvious, you know, particularly sometimes someone, if they've reached out to us to bring us in, you automatically know. But other times it isn't in, there are different types of champions. They're almost different type of archetypes.
Cause it's like, there's the person who's really close to the people who have the money and make the decisions about the product and can influence them. But there's also the people who like know where all the bodies are buried, you know, like in, who can kind of move things around and who can get you access to users.
So it's like, who has the ear of the people who make the decisions? And who can just get shit done for me, because you really are going to have to rely on them to get you access sometimes to tools, to people internal and external to their organization and learning how to sniff that out. And a lot of times, we'll have an internal conversation like, okay, we're even sometimes with Slack, I'll be like, oh, so-and-so is our person. You know, like you're looking for signs of that. And that's just the excitement with which they talk about their passion, their level of frustration. I love working with people who have tried something and failed miserably.
Because they are so much more open and they almost have a fire to succeed. So yeah. Looking for little sense, little hints of who those people are.,
[00:29:26] JH: Is the inverse of that important too? Like being able to sniff out like the skeptic in the meeting of like the person who's like, why did we could have done this ourselves?
Like, why do we bring these people in or whatever? Like, do you need to like manage that relationship in a certain way?
[00:29:38] Karen: Yeah, you don't need to sniff them out. Cause there, he who smelled it dealt it, right? They're pretty obvious. Yeah. And that's where your allies come in. A lot of times I'll have a convers— like they all know too, on their side, you know, so.
It's kind of leaning on them, like, how is the best way we can manage this [00:30:00] person? Sometimes it's convincing them. In other times they are not going to be convinced. A lot of times they feel like it's a bit of a turf war. And then it's more like, how do I minimize the negative impact this person has?
I do not want to spend my energy—there are some people, if they don't want to be convinced, you're not going to convince them. So what's the best way to spend my energy so that we can still get our work done. And, you know, sometimes it's being the shit umbrella to kind of keep the team protected for them.
[00:30:30] Erin: Yeah. With internal teams, you hear a lot about whether it's a readout or however you're presenting or not presenting the insights, you know, learn from your research… where those moments of sharing quotes or video from customers, whatever it is can be really eye opening for people who, maybe they weren't skeptics, maybe they just didn't care. Maybe they just didn’t see, whatever it is—that can be really a turning point for folks. What does that moment like, or what are those moments like when you're working with clients, whether they be skeptics or champions or people sort of in the middle, but presenting that raw qualitative data folks.
[00:31:06] Karen: So Erika Hall, and I think it's in her book when she's talking about synthesis, she talks about the click and I think the same thing happens for clients. And I think what happens is it's not just the quotes, it's when you can tie that quote to a potential opportunity in this is such an important thing.
Like research without impact is meaningless. Research has to lead to action. So when you have those really powerful quotes and then you tell them what they can do with that. And then like, it's almost like literally you can hear the gears going in their head and that's where they see, okay, this is why we haven't had the impact we've wanted to, you have to be providing business value.
You can create the most beautiful, usable, even desirable product in the world, but if it's not providing value to the organization, you're serving, you know, what good is it?
[00:32:10] JH: Yeah. Yeah. Carol—the woman on my team, who's the Director of our product managers—Her and I have been talking a lot about, like, how you make like a balanced meal of like, when you're trying to get something forward of like, if we have like maybe some quantitative data on something that's happening here and you have a video clip that like really drives it.
And you have some sort of vision of the future or some opportunity you can articulate if you can like weave those things together, which you can't always do. It's like such a compelling package. If you can kind of like, pull from all the little different ways of getting people to understand, like this can lead to that.
[00:32:36] Karen: Yeah. That's a really good point. Like I've been talking a lot about interviews, but quant data—things like if they have a support center, the call log—Oh, what a wealth of, you know, great information and, and understanding what might be available and building in time in the project to go through that as also really important.
[00:32:55] JH: Yeah. One thing is, you know, we were talking about tools and relationships and stuff. When you actually need to go do the research, presumably you're gonna need access to their users. Pretty often. I'd imagine there's sensitivity around that, both in terms of the, just the PII and also in other teams, right?
Like sales owns that context. So you can't talk to that person or whatever. How do you, you know, outsider navigate all those dynamics?
[00:33:14] Karen: Yeah. And this might be the biggest challenge, even when you are explicit that we are going to need access to users or customers or your community, and they say, yeah—a lot of times there's a resistance to that.
There's either a resistance or they have, you know, something like a customer advisory board, which is essentially a focus group that is 10 people that make all the decisions. So I think, like consumer products, like if I think of my phone, like something like Strava that I have on, or even like Calm or Ad Space, it's relatively straight forward, particularly using someone who specializes in recruiting to get users or potential users for that.
The more specialized the audience is, the more you have to plan upfront.
I just was having conversations earlier today about maybe restructuring the way we do projects and when we kick off a project. That maybe the first thing we do is like a very small, maybe even two week session, where we really kind of decide on like the project roadmap and who we're going to need to talk. And then if client, you are responsible for these people, you need to have those lined up before we actually kick off the project, because the number one disruptor of a project is lack of access to people that have been promised to you.
[00:34:49] Erin: So that's one way of working around it, right? Get the list. Do you have other tools for working with the hardest problem?
[00:34:54] Karen: Well, again, like in, this is going to be a bit of blasphemy, but how much research do we need to do? And this gets back to the level of risk and maybe our approach is if we don't have access to do upfront research, we are going to build something in order to learn.
That actually is to me a really great way to get good data. The problem is you have to be ensured that the client is okay, that maybe that thing you built, you end up throwing away because the minute you built something, this is why we talk a lot about MVPs, but in actual practice, they don't work because the minute you built something, Okay, but we have to just keep it an add on to it, we're not willing to let it go. But yeah. And you have to be scrappy, right. So, you know, maybe you can't talk to 20 users. Can you talk to five? And at least see if you can identify some patterns there in JH what you were talking about. If you can supplement that with other types of data, then your confidence level is going to be higher.
[00:36:00] JH: Is it something where like, maybe you do get access to five and you're able to kind of like, fight and get those people in there. Does that like loosen up at all? Where like people get less afraid of it or something like they sit in on the session and they're like, oh, we didn't like promise them a bunch of features or we didn't, like, I think sometimes there's these like misconceptions maybe on the sales side or.
Of what talking to these people is going to do. So can you kind of like wedge it, like get your foot in the door?
[00:36:21] Karen:It will depend in some situations it's very much like you say, like sales is like, don't make any promises. Or sometimes we are working on very early stage products that are very secretive, so NDAs have to come and play, and that creates a whole layer of complexity.
So yeah, you just have to do what you can, but a lot of times I think, they get reluctant to have you talk to actual users, because they're worried about what they're going to say. Which is, you know, it feels ridiculous. But it's happened so often to me, like, don't call my baby ugly. Right? And it gets back to, do you really want to learn or do you just want to feel better about the decisions you've already made?
So again, I do a lot of talking about risk with them and even, you know, I am not a financial person, but can we put a dollar amount, like, okay—I've had this happen where I've done research and I did not think that this business idea has a valid market. I see this a lot with company owners like founders, they have this idea. I'm trying to validate it. I can't validate it, but they're attached to it. Okay—are you willing to potentially lose $300,000 building this mobile app to find out you were wrong? Because if you are, great, I can help you with that!
[00:37:45] Erin: All right. Open question. In terms of. Tips for people struggling or thinking about making a move to an agency…
An agency's going to operate oftentimes more like a startup. It's probably going to be a little faster pace. You'll have the opportunity to work with multiple clients. I think every single person on my team. Should be comfortable presenting to a client, having a conversation with a client, being able to provide evidence and back up the decisions and recommendations they're making.
If you're not comfortable with that, it doesn't mean I can't coach you with that, but we move really fast. I do think that's something I struggle with a lot. I'm trying to play around with actually different billing models and financial model. That will give more senior team members time to mentor more junior team members.
But I will say that is a challenge in the agency of finding the time to do project based mentoring. A lot of agencies are great at education budgets and things like that, but the best way to learn is on a project. If you are the type of person who's okay running with stuff and just feeling a little bit on the edge of your comfort zone all the time—then this can be really good for you. And I really want to help you and our team really wants to help you.
But if you're not there, that's okay because it's a huge industry and there are so many other places you can work to build up that confidence level and the little quieter environment.
[00:39:23] Erin: The imposter syndrome must be real in an agency where you sort of like, you're always being hired to be an expert in some capacity, but I guess, you know, in the agency setting, it's very much like, know you're supposed to be the expert here.
[00:39:35] Karen: So yeah. In thinking about what makes someone like really out like that principal level, what builds trust?
With a client. Cause that's really what it's about. You have to be able to build trust in being willing to make a decision, to have a strong viewpoint, to make a recommendation. Like if you're the kind of researcher who is like, I am completely unbiased and I am just going to present— that's perfect for some environments, but in an agency environment, you're going to be expected to tell them what this means in what they should do.
[00:40:10] JH: Yeah. So, yeah, there's like a baseline confidence and a little bit of like a chameleon ability that is kind of required in this.
[00:40:17] Erin: Karen. Thanks for joining us.
[00:40:19] Karen: Thanks for hanging out. It has been fun. Thanks for having me.
[00:40:25] Erin: Thanks for listening to Awkward Silences brought to you by user interviews,
[00:40:30] JH: theme music by fragile gang.
VP, Growth & Marketing
Left brained, right brained. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held.