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Exploring ux research career options with marieke mccloskey of linkedin

Exploring UX Research Career Options with Marieke McCloskey of LinkedIn

Marieke shares eye-opening insights and details about the experiences that shaped her career as a UX researcher, consultant, and trainer.

What are the best UX career options? How do you vet a potential employer to ensure it’s the right fit? Should you join a smaller firm that offers plenty of autonomy and flexibility, or does it make more sense to work for a larger company with a ton of resources? Erin, JH, and Marieke McClosky, Director of UX Research at LinkedIn, address these questions, examining UX research as a career and a practice as they discuss Marieke’s journey as a UX researcher. 

In this episode, we discuss

  • Navigating a career path in UX research
  • Making career moves that align with your goals
  • How to start a career in UX research
  • Pros and cons of different working environments 
  • Vetting potential employers

Watch or listen to the episode

Click the embedded players below to listen to the audio recording or watch the video. Go to our podcast website for full episode details.

Highlights

  • [01:27] Marieke’s first job at Nielsen Norman Group
  • [04:42] The benefits of working at a large organization like LinkedIn
  • [7:12] Getting started with UX research
  • [12:57] How to vet employers
  • [19:37] How does the UX research team come up with research questions?
  • [25:29] The differences between working at a large company vs. a smaller firm
  • [39:24] The best thing about consulting is “the breadth of who you get to work with, the different industries, different teams”

About our guest

Marieke McCloskey is the Director of UX Research at LinkedIn. For over a decade, she has worked as a UX researcher and consultant with the world’s most innovative companies, including Nielsen Norman Group and the NFL. She completed her undergraduate degree in Neuroscience at the University College Utrecht and earned a MA in Cognitive Science at John Hopkins University.

Transcript

Marieke - 00:00:01: I've had to do a lot in my career to find, like, peers and support and mentors and sort of think about how I want to grow as a researcher. And I see now that people on my team in our broader research org who have so much of that support built in at the company at so many different levels. I think that's really incredible.

Erin - 00:00:21: This is Erin May.

JH - 00:00:23: I'm John-Henry Forster. And this is Awkward Silences.

Erin - 00:00:37: Hello everybody and welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today, we're here with Marieke McCloskey, who is the Director of Research at LinkedIn. We're really excited to have you here to talk about some of the different ways you've been a researcher throughout your career that might be applicable to lots of folks listening. So, we're excited to go on this journey with you. Thanks for being here.

Marieke - 00:01:00: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.

Erin - 00:01:01: We've got JH here too.

JH - 00:01:03: Yeah, I've had a version of this conversation with a lot of product folks over the years about where it's good to do product work in the different environments you can be in, but I've never thought about it from the user research side. So excited to hear your thoughts.

Erin - 00:01:14: Awesome. So, we're going to get into a lot of detail on the different ways you worked as a researcher, but we don't always like to start this way. But I think for this episode, it makes a lot of sense, which is: tell us how you got into UX research in the first place.

Marieke - 00:01:27: Yeah, I love asking UX researchers this question too because it's still one of those careers that people come at from so many different angles. I'm one, not alone, of people who thought they'd be an academic and do academic research and realize that wasn't really the right place for me. And so, while I was in grad school for a PhD, I remember finding a job description for a UX researcher out there on the Internet and being like, "This is it! Oh my God, this is how I get to do research and study human behavior but apply it to technology." And I already at the time also felt really strongly that technology should help us and should sort of smooth out life and make life easier and should be accessible to everyone. And this was back in 2008. So, I have been a UX researcher for well over a decade and then kind of had a fun path, sort of like doing consulting for a while. I started out at the Nielsen Norman Group, also training, and so early on in my career started both helping companies with consulting, but then also figuring out how to teach this. And I've carried that throughout my career and love that aspect of it. Moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 2014, lived in Silicon Valley, felt like I should kind of see what it was like to work at a startup and really be part of this. So worked at two different startups in really different capacities that I'm sure we'll get into: first at UserTesting and then at a much smaller HR tech startup, Humu. And then a little over a year ago, really wanted to work at a bigger company and see what that was like. I also really wanted to get back into management. I love being a director of research, kind of thinking about how to structure a team and what kind of research we should do and how do we partner with different teams, and joined LinkedIn.

JH - 00:03:12: Amazing! So just to play that back, you've had some consulting experience, some smaller startup experience, some bigger company experience. I'd imagine those are kind of like hard opportunities to compare and probably pretty different experiences. What are some of the things that stand out to you as you kind of think about the compare and contrast across those in terms of maybe what you like best in those different environments?

Marieke - 00:03:32: Yeah, absolutely. I thought a lot about this too, and the other aspect there too is my role as a manager or not, and where was I an IC, where was I a manager? But even then, still understanding where I understand the role of an IC researcher is. One of the things I thought a lot about is the breadth of work that you work on and the range of things you notice. And I really love that about consulting and starting out in consulting. It's like getting to work with lots of different companies and lots of different industries, lots of different functions, too. Like who's hiring a company to do the research for them or with them was really interesting exposure and helped me kind of realize what I like, what I'm interested in working with financial services, healthcare, and even at UserTesting. When I joined that as a startup, I got the feeling of what it's like to work at a startup. But my first role there was leading the professional services team, which is an internal consulting arm, and still got that breadth of all these companies are doing such interesting work, and it really helped me realize what I am passionate about, and I really love that.

JH - 00:04:42: So maybe just to ask, should everyone start their UXR career at a consultancy, or do you think that was just fortunate for you? Or, I'm curious, how do you kind of play that back to people when they ask for advice on these types of topics?

Marieke - 00:04:53: Yeah, totally. Yeah, it is definitely, if you know you love research but you don't really know where you want to fit or where to do that, it's an awesome experience. I think similarly, contracting is actually a perfectly great way. I tell a lot of pivoters to think about it that way. Like if you've had another career, you've done other kind of work, you're pretty sure you want to be a UX researcher, but you're not totally sure where, being a contractor for a while in different companies can also be a really nice way to kind of figure that out. One of the things that is incredible about a larger organization and actually one of the reasons when I was looking for a new job, not this past summer, but the summer before, one of the things I realized I wanted was more of a support network of peers that do what I do. I also hadn't in like over a decade, almost had a boss who knew what I did as my function. It's like I'd spent so much time in roles where I was the expert in UX research and learned so much from that, but really wanted to go to a place where I had peer directors, where I had the autonomy to lead a team and sort of make some decisions that didn't have to be the one-person sort of responsible. And I think that's also true for UX researchers at LinkedIn or companies that have a much more mature UX research practice. We have almost 50 UX researchers at LinkedIn. That's an incredible environment to get started in because you have this huge support network of people who've done this work, who have had their own interesting career paths into it. And so, then I've had to do a lot in my career to find peers and support and mentors and sort of think about how I want to grow as a researcher. And I see now the people on my team and our broader research who have so much of that support built in at the company at so many different levels. I think that's really incredible. And so some of that is a little bit like when I talk to people starting out and kind of thinking about it, it's like really also like how you like to learn, how much structure you find helpful. Like there's a lot more structure built into even a career path, right? Like we've sort of done this for so many years at LinkedIn. There's structure built-in, there are processes, there are whole L&D programs. There's just a lot out there. If you're kind of learning on the fly, figuring it out yourself, there's some freedom and flexibility in that. So a lot of it can be also like a personal decision.

Erin - 00:07:12: Yeah, for sure. And folks now talk about jungle gyms versus career ladders, whatever you want to call it. The point being, it's not linear, right? And I think it's always good to have some sense of where maybe you're trying to get, but of course, the world's rapidly changing. And so, as you're saying, what makes sense as a next step is a pretty good next step. And so, you're saying contracting or an agency sort of arrangement can be a really good option if you're sort of new to UX research. That might be a good way to figure out if you want to go in-house, what direction you might want to go.

Marieke - 00:07:50: And one of the things that's incredible about a larger company, and this is actually probably true - I know this is true for some agencies too - is the ability to specialize. So my second role at UserTesting, I started the internal research team. Until then, we had leveraged our consultants also to do research on the product but didn't have an embedded research team. And it's like an amazing opportunity. It's also a way better way to do research and product development to have the team internal. And we immediately from the start started out with data science and UX research together. But there was just like, we get to structure it, sort of decide the format of it. But there was a little bit of like, we all have to do like there was data science and UX research, but you kind of have to flex a lot in the kind of work you do. Maybe this quarter we need more prototype testing, maybe we need a more foundational study. But sort of everyone was focused on every part of our product. And at the HR tech startup I went to, I was the one and only researcher. I did whatever was needed at the time. I love kind of them picking like, what's the highest priority thing and doing that work, but it doesn't allow for a specialty like, oh, I'm going to be our expert on this audience, or I'm going to be our expert in this methodology, or I want to be a researcher focused on accessibility. What's possible at some consulting companies and definitely larger companies is you can say like, I want to be just a quantitative researcher, or I want to be our dedicated specialist in an audience, in a methodology, in a partnership. And that's incredible to see. And then what comes with that also is I see a career path into leadership, and something I really value. And it's hard to get at smaller companies whereas a leader, that tends to come with people management - and this is true outside of UX research too. And I'm sure JH talking to product people about the students, how do you can become a lead and an expert and someone whose input is needed in meetings. And we tend to include our principal researchers, designers, like anyone at the principal ever in a lot of the leadership meetings. And their input and value is incredible, but they're not people managers. And I think that opportunity for some people is like the perfect career path.

JH - 00:10:06: Yeah, how do you think about people's individual learning styles or things like that and how it fits in here? I can imagine if you're starting out, going into a bigger company where there can be more structure, more support, resources, probably a clearer career path. I'd imagine certain personalities might almost gravitate towards that, whereas in a smaller kind of startup, it can be a little bit of like, "Hope you like figuring things out as you go and be willing to make some mistakes." And have you seen any patterns there of like the type of person that maybe should shy towards one of those or the other?

Marieke - 00:10:33: I wish it was more clear. Some of it's also, you can kind of make it work. I'm really big on job crafting and sort of finding, in any role, what works for you. We have some incredibly creative people on the team, and one of the things I actually try, also when we have new researchers start on the team at LinkedIn, is don't just assume it has to go this way, just because that's what you see and the patterns you see. I think that is actually sometimes to a fault, when there's so much process, it's like, oh, it seems like it always has to be this way, and I love some of that more creativity, and let's figure it out. What I have noticed, though, is that people can get really overwhelmed in a startup or any team or structure, any team that doesn't have much structure because we also have any company that has maybe like new teams that are forming, and it's not totally clear who's responsible for what, and they can tell that some people just get overwhelmed. Like, if you haven't really learned how to set your own boundaries of like, this is how I work, when I work best, how much I can work. And so, it's really more so like knowing your own limitations, and then like, oh, I work better when it's really clearly defined responsibilities, and I know within where I have creativity to sort of play with maybe the method or timeline or how we do the share out of findings. Some of that I think, in a team where maybe you don't have a manager who has your function, that can be really hard starting out as a researcher. You have to be really disciplined to go find the mentorship and support, and you have to be okay with things will go wrong. Things go wrong everywhere. Are you someone who would benefit from having a manager help you through that, or do you like to kind of figure that out yourself?

Erin - 00:12:14: As you're talking through some of these examples, I'm thinking some of the situations you're going to enter in a new job is going to be relative to: is this a small startup, a large start-up, the sort of archetype of the company or the organization you're joining? Others are going to be very specific to this company right now, like how have they decided to organize research within this type of company? And so, I'm wondering if you have any tips or thoughts on ways folks might sort of triangulate those things or probe in a job interview to figure out really what kind of situation am I entering, and how does that align or not align with some of the things I think I might be looking for?

Marieke - 00:12:57: Yeah, that's such a great question. Yeah, totally. When I joined Humu, a HR tech startup I went to, I had been a director of research for a while, done consulting, and then embedded in a product team. I knew I wanted to be on a product team. Like, I really love how product managers think, I love working with designers, and the iterative nature of problem-solving. Joining Humu, there were 30 people at the time, and they were looking for a UX researcher. And to me, that was like, what's going on at this company? How can this 30-person company want a researcher now? That must be a really special place. And I'd been following the startup for a while and knew that I was intrigued by what they were building, but then was like, oh, something culturally interesting, right? Because a lot of companies don't think about this. And it was really grounded, and they were so passionate about the mission of the company but not really grounded in like, what, who are the people we're serving? And one of the first things I did coming into the company too was reframe the way people were thinking internally about the product was very much from the company's perspective, what are our touchpoints with our customers and the end users B2B software? And one of the things that I did was just reframe it to think about the user and what is it that they're experiencing, what is it like for them when they hear from Humu? How long goes between - how long between them sort of thinking about the company? And so there was so much. The first thing I did was a journey map and not like, I didn't touch the product for a while. And that's totally not what you would maybe think of as a user researcher coming in. It's like, oh, you probably maybe start out some prototype testing, maybe evaluate a study of the product. But it was much more really what was needed at the company was like, together with a designer that was there, like, how do we make this a human-centered company? And that was such a fun challenge and an incredible opportunity. That is typically part of what a UX researcher maybe does at a company. The other one is kind of what I was alluding to and thinking about what company I wanted to go to was how accepted or mature is a UX practice? Like, how open is product to doing real discovery research? Where do ideas come from? That's one of my favorite questions. Where do ideas come from? Who has that? I think every UX researcher out there knows that part of their job is going to be advocating for research, advocating for users. People make decisions all day, every day. And part of our job is to sort of help steer that and help people increase their confidence in those decisions. But we slow down the process of just going and doing. And so I definitely encourage anyone always and thinking about what company to go to. It's just like, what is that state? What is a company like today? And then not only to go to companies where things are great, where it's like, oh yeah, user research is super valued. I mean, that's incredible and that's what we're striving towards. But some of that challenge is also fun. I love trying, really love convincing product managers of the value of user research. And that's one of the benefits I've had at the two startups I was at. User research was actually like parallel leadership to product design and product management, and so not reporting within design or within product, which also happens at the same level, which we really needed at both companies to sort of say we're still trying to find product market fit, where are we headed? And it was really equal, like discovery research, design research. And I love that setup. It allowed me a lot of autonomy and freedom. Not to say that you can't at a start-up also report into design - a lot of times, for people management reasons, that can be really nice, especially if you're really starting out. They're all considerations that have a subtle impact on the work you end up doing, and it's good to kind of know coming in - like if you know you're going to be reporting to a design manager, what is the relationship going to be like with product? And at LinkedIn, user research reports into design. We're part of the design but very much also a partner to product management.

JH - 00:17:06: 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 - 00:17:15: 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 - 00:17:26: 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 - 00:17:35: And then when you're done with that, go on over to your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review, please.

JH - 00:17:43: So, there's a lot of signal here you're picking up on of like, is this a good environment for me to join? You've done this a couple of times. Researchers are good at asking questions like the reporting lines and stuff like that are more kind of factual. So, you can just kind of get that probably in a direct way. But I'd imagine a lot of times how you like, probe or ask for signal on these things as you're considering opportunities is really important because if you ask it one way, they probably just going to tell you what you want to hear. If you ask it where you might get do you have any favorite interview questions or things that you like to poke on as you're considering opportunities to see if it's a good fit for you?

Marieke - 00:18:12: Yeah, I notice who's interviewing me. So, like, who's on the panel? And we'll ask to talk to people if they're not there. And then I love this question of where ideas come from. Where is the latest feature that came up? Where does that come from? And again, not because there's like one right answer, but you kind of know what challenges you're going to face. Right? If it's like a lot of ideas come from product managers, who knows? There's a lot of ideas that come out of what they're thinking of. Customer success can be another one where it's like, oh, we hear from customers directly and they tell us what they want. That's another signal on the, like, oh, that's like, great, we're listening. Maybe there's an opportunity there to dig more into why they're asking for those features and not just taking it at face value. If it's coming from research, that's also incredible. Right? It's like, oh, we're doing research, we're identifying opportunities, we're then prioritizing those opportunities with market research. Maybe BizOps is involved. And so yeah, that is definitely by far my favorite question.

Erin - 00:19:10: So, an idea is really like a feature idea, something we're going, like a product, something we'll build.

Marieke - 00:19:13: Yeah, direction for the product.

Erin - 00:19:17: Because I think the idea, I think you could also go to a question, where do the questions come from and do the questions follow the ideas or did the ideas follow the question? Sort of what you were saying with do ideas come from research or are ideas validated by research? Is there a right answer to that question? Where do ideas come from? Or something you're looking to hear?

Marieke - 00:19:37: No, I'm really just looking to find out. Like, every company and job has a challenge, and actually, as a researcher, I kind of like that, right? We're here to kind of dig in and find the problems. And some of it's like, research, there's always some organizational research component to being a user researcher. There's the research and the product and the users and how do we make this product easier to use? Some of it's like, finding the right market for the product, but some of it's also like the organizational research on the like, hey, where do we fit in best and how do we organize ourselves, how do we, like, balance doing like, research on the solution versus research on the problem? And so, I love that component, so I'm not looking for like, one specific answer. Some of it's just like, what I feel ready to tackle at the time, what challenges I'm looking for in the job and there's a lot like at a small company, I have noticed it changes like the organization changes more as the company matures and so sort of just being flexible for that to ebb and flow. I love this idea of also just like asking if it's a question, do we start with questions, do we start with solution ideas? Is such a great one. And I was actually just suggesting this week that we reframe one of our planning document. It's to be about questions that we're asking, not we frame it as the research that we're going to do. This is like a product. We frame it as the research we're going to do is like, oh, I'd love to actually just see the question. What's the question that we have as a team that's so much like it sparks so much.

Erin - 00:21:07: Yeah, or what's the insight? We're trying to use a solution for an insight’s repository for a while and the way it was built, there was no way to frame insights in the context of insight or question category. You had to tie it to feature ideas and obviously you could play with that and make it work. But just like interesting how endemic that is to how orgs sort of functions sometimes.

JH - 00:21:34: I really like the way you're framing this in terms of you can probe on this, get some signal and it's going to help you understand the challenges of opportunities in this role and you kind of map that against your own interest. Is this the type of challenge or thing I'm interested in taking on right now? We always joke when we interview product folks, it's always like you ask them a question, you always get like it depends back, which is a little bit of it you're saying is there something that is like a brighter line for you? Like if you pick up on certain signals or responses, you're like, oh, that's actually maybe for a small company, kind of like a red flag. They are thinking of research as something just to check the box or anything like that that people should be on the lookout for.

Marieke - 00:22:04: Yeah, I would even be willing to reframe some of the - if they're thinking really narrow, I think that narrow idea of what user research can be isn't necessarily a problem. But I think we've now, as a field, this has been so awesome to watch too, is that like, it's so much more than just usability testing, and even that is super valuable, right? If no one has ever just done like, "What happens when people use this product?" and "Where can we remove friction?" is hugely valuable. But as a job, always just doing usability testing, that's valuable. It's super helpful to have researchers supporting designers who are doing the design work. That's also something, whereas a researcher, you can help teach designers, help sort of oversee some of that work, and kind of set that up. Like at LinkedIn, we have this as a scalable program where we do a lot of prototype testing. We'll do live product usability testing, but it's not the work that what we call embedded researchers who are on a product team do. I think if that is solely the job, it's just making sure that the product and solution works well, I think that can actually be a great place to start. And for some people, they love that, and that can be also in a bigger team, can be a job where it's like your job to measure the experience. That becomes a really difficult challenge. I think as long as there's openness to it growing and being more, right? Okay, so let's say we do that and we sort of set this up as a program. What else? Who will listen? Who will I have meetings with? I think is another one. Who do you have access to? I think you could grow that to be like, "Oh, let's actually measure the experience over time. Let's measure and compare it to competitors." There's so much we can do to improve the product, even if it's just focused on the solution and the product we have today. But as you do that, you're going to learn about things that could be like, "Oh, we could expand it. It could be more like how do we grow the breadth of the product if it really just seems like that is totally in a different place?" If there are no researchers, for example, like loads of companies, no researchers, you're the first one. Do product design and product management talk? Like, what is that relationship? Like, I think if there's not a good relationship there, that's a red flag. One that I actually think research could come in and help bridge. But you know what you're getting into and facing.

Erin - 00:24:35: Great, we've hit some of these, but I wonder if we can dig a little deeper into some of the things people might care about when they are. And we're framing this very much as you're looking for a new role, which makes sense, but to your point, maybe even things you can try to make happen in your existing role or just have in mind for whenever your next step occurs. But let's say you want to have an impact. I know, who doesn't want to have an impact, right? But this is something that you're hearing a lot with research teams now because it went from fighting for a seat at the table, fighting to exist, to that's decently established in a lot of companies anyway. But now it's, how do we show that we're having an impact? How do we have more of an impact? So, you're someone that's impact-driven. What do you want to think about in terms of what kind of organization and what kind of role is going to be a good fit for that?

Marieke - 00:25:29: Yeah, such a big one to unpack. I'll start with my situation now at LinkedIn, a super mature company - we're about to hit 20 years. It's been around for a long time, and the research team has been around for at least twelve years. We're sitting on a lot of insights, and I lead our team over our talent solution space - so it's some of our enterprise products. So, a lot of what you know of as LinkedIn is the sort of like the feed, the connections you can make. We also sell products into companies. One of the two products that my team works on is our recruiter product and our LinkedIn learning. So really thinking about the employee space, I think in this world especially, our recruiter product has been around for a really long time. Impact is harder to have on innovation and let's change it. But we are trying to change behavior. We're trying to help people hire more equitably, and we're big on skills-first hiring and salary transparency - how do you bring in people to a company for the right reasons and create incredible how do you set people up for career growth? And it's like a lot of behavior change, and to me, the impact there can also be it's pretty incremental. How do we as research help change behavior in our customers? And so, I have in other parts of our organization, it's really clear on like have we impacted the roadmap, have we changed direction? It's like we're really slowly trying to change direction. I still, in every role I've looked at, sort of look at if we're helping a team embed on team, and they want more of us, that's a really good signal. If it's like, oh, we're embarking on a new project, and we don't have a user researcher available, and they're hungry for it, it's like a really good signal that we're doing something and helping move the product along.

Erin - 00:27:20: So, it sounds like at a sort of mature 20 years, definitely very mature in terms of startups company, they might have a well-understood mission or like very clear priorities in terms of where do they want to make an impact, and you might be able to step into that. Recognizing the change you're going to make might be small and incremental but really adding up to something that is known and established, as opposed to if you're like, let's say taking a job at an agency, working for lots of different clients. That's clearly going to be a different kind of impact, right? You're sort of spreading your impact across multiple organizations.

Marieke - 00:28:01: Yeah, they also tend to want. I think with each project as an agency, you come in and you're sort of promising to find something big. You're coming and saying either no one has looked at this or they need an outsider's perspective. They need someone in some ways, not that it's always controversial, but it's sort of meant to have really challenged a lot of assumptions. And I think what I'm noticing now at LinkedIn is that every research study provides value. There's always something we learn. It's not that it's always going to be mind-blowing. Sometimes there's this expectation that every research study is going to totally change how we think. It's like actually, it's okay if it sort of moves us along and increases our confidence in the direction we're going. Or a lot of what we deal with now is like risk management. It's like how much we're trying to push, but we don't want to push too much where all of a sudden, we don't want to harm the experience, right? So we need to keep our paying customers able to use the product if we're changing something. Like we work in a marketplace where there's job seekers and hires, and as a consultant, you come in, you're like, "Here are my big findings, and here's how we want to change your understanding of this user group," or "We want to change these are all the changes you should make to the product to have an impact." And even that, it happens at every company, but at UserTesting and at Humu, there were lots of opportunities to teach people something new about an audience, right? It's like, "Oh, you don't know about this audience." And so there are these big studies that take a while. One of the reasons at Humu, actually one of the struggles I had over time, I was there for two and a half years, we were still leveraging insights from a year and a half ago on our core audience because it was such a foundational study that was so helpful in that really deep understanding of who we're doing this for at a small company that was sort of like there wasn't like another big foundational study to go do yet because we're still leveraging it. Whereas the incredible thing at a company like LinkedIn is like there's never-ending amount of research and work to be done. And so we are picking up work now, picking up product work on research and leveraging research from three years ago, which is like incredible that there's like enough continuity that people remember that that's there and we can leverage those insights. The primary research on the project is also still here and there's still enough to do and more to do. I love that. And so there's like, "Oh well, let's go look here," or "Let's steer you into this team."

JH - 00:30:31: Nice. What about some of the other dimensions we talked impact? When you talk about kind of like autonomy and flexibility, you had touched on this a little bit of people on the team LinkedIn are still very creative and proposing changes and stuff. How does that vary depending on the kind of the company or the environment you're in?

Marieke - 00:30:47: Yeah, there's like the "what does researcher do" question, and then how you do it? The "how you do it?" I love that there's still flexibility, and I've also pushed the team to sort of play with different ideas, do things a certain way. One of the things I noticed that the pandemic had a big impact, like, I joined, I'll say, at the tail end of the pandemic, although we're still working from home, like, it still had an impact. But instead of coming out of the worst of it, but people had gone sort of comfortable with a routine, right? They sort of gotten really comfortable, and they're like, "oh, here's how we do it." Some of it was like a coping mechanism, right? It's like, this is how we do research. And we'd gone just like the team had gone really comfortable to just doing one-on-one interviews. Here's how we write the project plan. Here's how we conduct the research. Here's how we share it out. It's either like a top-line doc or a presentation, and sort of infusing some of this, like it doesn't have, like, no one's telling us it has to be this way. Like, there's no one, but it can feel that way sometimes at a big company. And I think that's like a good reminder. And I have to say that I think that my experience at a startup, and consulting for that matter, have brought some of that look around. There's like no one. I'm telling you, there's no one that's requiring us to do it a certain way. I think we have some standards. Obviously, we have rules on how we treat participants respectfully. There are some guidelines also agreements with legal and how we contact customers and stuff like that. We shouldn't cut corners, but in how you share the findings out or how long it takes to maybe do a share out at the end of the quarter to make sure that everyone has the findings that they need, that we promise them. You then take some time early the next quarter to do something more interesting and different. And so what people have come up with is great. Like, we now lean really heavily on user journeys. People have also done really awesome research. Another team did a podcast share-out of their findings. And you can tell that people get like, "oh, whoa, that's different," and they sort of listen to that. And I love that, and we need some of that creativity a little bit. It also makes the job kind of fun. It's like, "oh, let me change how we do." I love the product design research collaboration too, of like, let's develop a framework for how we think about this. It's a really good partnership. I have to say, at startups, especially when it was like me as the only one or me starting a team without someone, without a boss who's deciding, has done this before or has that research expertise, maybe they've let it, so much opportunity to craft. Like, here's how I want us to be seen as a research team. I want us to be equal partners to product and design. Like coming in pretty strong on that. I also believe that some democratization of research is healthy. Like, let's bring like, I love when product managers talk directly to customers. It helps build some of that empathy. It's like, let me help you do that in a way that you'll learn new things and make sure that the questions aren't biased when you ask them. And so I love having that freedom to kind of shape also what my day-to-day looks like a lot and what the team can still work on.

JH - 00:33:58: Just to play this back a little, because I think what I'm hearing is there's opportunity for some autonomy and flexibility in changing things in any environment. It sounds like in a larger company, there's probably going to be a little bit more intention or change management that comes with that, whereas in a smaller company, you might just be forced to invent it from scratch because we don't have a thing. And so, you just make it, and it doesn't require that kind of overhead of getting people from A to B. Is that a fair way to play that back?

Marieke - 00:34:21: Yeah, totally. If I decided, so like at UserTesting, we decided it was going to be data science and UX research together, partly because I was friends with a data scientist, and I brought him to UserTesting. I was like, "you're asking similar questions, like you're answering similar questions that I am and want to. And I think that where the team is at and our understanding of what's happening in the product and where the opportunities are, I really think we can partner together." And that was just like, "let's go do it, let's go try it, right, let's go see". There wasn't like, and I've tried to find those relationships at LinkedIn, but it's like totally different teams in different places. And I'm like not at all suggesting we combine those teams because there's so much else that each team does, but even just forming those relationships, that's why it's like we can't just go do it. We need to go figure out like, "oh, how do you prioritize your projects, how do we prioritize projects even just to work together?" Or another example at LinkedIn is that over time the team has gone really, really and it's incredible. I have heard about the evolution in the history, but we'd primarily qualitative researchers on the team at LinkedIn sort of over time. Those were like the questions that were being asked and the insights that were needed but wanting the team to really be mixed methods now and that was like an intentional decision. You can't really just go hire mixed methods researchers and hope that they figure out something to do. We have to be intentional. And they're like, "oh, what does that change about the work we do and the questions that are being asked?" And so, some of that, like at a startup, I would have probably just hire a quantitative researcher and been like, "let's go figure it out together". It's kind of like a fun challenge and wanting to make sure that someone is set up for success, right? Like, that the career path works for them and that there's enough work to do and more consideration that I all think is good and what we should do.

Erin - 00:36:05: Yeah, there's like a meta narrative almost in what you've been saying too, where you've been able to kind of try different ways of partnering with others in the organization and work - not necessarily because they're the right way - but you've learned over time in your career these different things that might work for you or work in different organizations, which is another way to think about this, right? It's not that these kinds of organizations are set and they work this way, but playing with your own experience as a user researcher in these organizations. So as you move along in your career, you can sort of make the world the way you want it to be from a user research perspective as well.

Marieke - 00:36:44: That's making me think of another observation I've had now being at a big company, and that is how specialized user research has to be in some way. So, like, I talked a little bit about the amazing opportunity for a researcher to specialize, but the function too, like I had until now, and even as a consultant, to some extent, you're doing more than just a researcher's job because there's so much stakeholder management, program management, project management. There's even some, depending on your skill set, UX design, maybe like, maybe not my strength, but I had colleagues at the Nielsen Norman Group who could do some of the wireframing, right? It's sort of like, "Hey, here's how we envision this could look like," or like product recommendations. And so you kind of flex into other roles. And I also have loved that at startups, there's just so much dabbling a little bit into product analytics and creating dashboards. It's like, "I can't really do this research if I can't see how much this thing is used." Or like, "Can we just need a sense of what's the funnel look like for this product area to just get a sense of what we're getting ourselves into?" At LinkedIn, there’s a team for all of this, there's a team for everything, right? There's a team for all these things, and it allows us to do the work incredibly well. But it is also like, "Oh wait, this is what user research does, and there are these teams." So it's like where I've maybe been used to sort of flexing into these spaces, being careful to not just go do it, finding those people, and then finding ways to like, "Oh, how do we then partner on it?" And everyone has more work than they can do, so I've not run, and everyone's super collaborative, so it's worked out well. But it has been an interesting observation, and I can tell that I for myself, like, doing a couple of different jobs in one, and that's another consideration where it's like, "Oh wait, you could actually be like, if you're doing market research and UX research, there are teams that actually have them combined, so that could be a really good fit." Or being in a place where it's like, "Oh, maybe they don't have market research yet, and you actually get the opportunity to do a little bit of both."

Erin - 00:38:52: So we've talked about these many different jobs, different types that you've had, and I was wondering if, to try to summarize a little bit, we could kind of superlative each of them. And I think the buckets I had in my head were sort of consultant in-house, small startup in-house, big startup, but maybe you would categorize them a bit differently. But what is the sort of best - worst if you want to, but certainly the best thing about each of these types for folks considering their moves.

Marieke - 00:39:24: I love thinking about the best. There's so much good in all of them. Consulting, for sure, is the breadth of who you get to work with, the different industries, different teams. Really getting to apply sort of the same way of thinking and methodology to all these different environments, which is both fun for variety in your day-to-day and if you're trying to figure out maybe where you fit and what really lights you up. Like a start-up, for being able, like what I was just talking about being able to kind of flex into different functions. So what user research is, is less defined, and so there's an opportunity to really shape what kind of research you do, what the role of the research team is. So a lot more like job crafting and flexibility there. I think also some really big meaty unknowns at a start up, which is really fun. And then at a big company, the ability to specialize and go deep, opportunity to be like an individual contributor leader, is incredible. And then although support and other teams we didn't even really get super deep in, but having a team like research ops and design ops, but also having a really mature data science team to partner with and so there's just the depth that you can go in is really incredible. And support structure that comes with that.

JH - 00:40:45: On the first one, you mentioned the breadth and the variety, and that just being interesting and fun and all that. Did it help you at all get more confidence in frameworks or pattern matching of like, "oh, this type of approach or this type of thing works in all sorts of companies in all sorts of industries"? I'm really going to put this in my toolkit versus, "this only works when we were doing that, like automotive research." I don't think it works on other stuff or whatever it may be.

Marieke - 00:41:05: It's been a long time, and I'm reflecting on, like, what do I still do for my consulting days? It made me actually really comfortable making recommendations because I think, and what I've learned coming into teams that already exist, is a sort of hesitation sometimes as researchers to come in with a point of view, and that does work everywhere. And some of that is, like, maybe less about industry and more they're coming in and they're expecting you to be an expert. And that is really, really helpful. What I realized consulting, what I really like is I actually have now carried that through in my career. I realized I love the employee experience and the culture at a company. So I went in and did all this research in different industries, thinking I would find, like, an industry that maybe I liked. And what I realized is that I like the team dynamics and what it says about the company and what the employee experience is. And I did one really large study on different intranets, which then really got deep on the company culture. One of the interesting things there was that you can still do, like, user research still makes sense, right? Because there's digital experience components to that, and that it doesn't really matter if it's like an app that chefs use or the intranet that they log into to find their benefits.

JH - 00:42:20: And then, one last thing I was just curious to poke on while we have you, is how do you think about the network benefits that come out of working at a bigger company? So if you're a junior UXR and to your point, now you have 50 peers and managers and this and that, you go forward three or five years, those people all work at different companies. They know you. They think, "I love you," at least for me. I started at a bigger company that opened a lot of doors and opportunities. How do you think about that part of it?

Marieke - 00:42:44: Yeah, I think that's incredible. Yeah, and I only touched on the network you have when you're there and the support you have there, but absolutely. And UserTesting was a startup. It's still not a lot larger, but it was about 100 people when I started, and there were a lot of researchers and our professional services team. I had a team of 30, and even that, I've seen so many of them connect in future jobs, which is so nice, and stayed in touch with a lot of researchers from there, and so had a little bit of that benefit of the like, you end up in different places, and it's fun to have that. What is it like there? Someone went into game design and game research, and it's like, oh, it's so fun to hear what that's like and just learn more about that experience. Hugely valuable, I have to say. You can get that there are so many great research communities out there, and so if you're like, oh, but I really want to, like, I like being the only one and I want to fight for this and try this and you're alone, there are amazing slack communities and groups, and you can find that elsewhere and sort of like build that community.

Erin - 00:43:48: Can you plug a couple for us? For anyone looking for a community to join?

Marieke - 00:43:52: Oh, wow. I'd probably say Hexagon UX is one of my favorite, or the ResearchOps Group as YES started for Ops. I love thinking that way, but both of those are incredible communities with people looking to learn from each other. I think that's what's so cool about them.

JH - 00:44:11: Awesome.

Erin - 00:44:11: It's been so great to have you. Thanks for joining us.

Marieke - 00:44:14: Thank you so much for having me.

JH - 00:44:16: Yes, it's great.

Erin - 00:44:20: Thanks for listening to Awkward Silences brought to you by User Interviews.

JH - 00:44:25: Theme music by Fragile Gang.

Erin May
SVP, Marketing

Left brained, right brained. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held.

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