Noam Segal has learned a lot in his career. He’s worked on UX research teams at Airbnb and Intercom, and now he’s Director of User Research at Wealthfront.
Recently, Noam found that he still had some things to learn about research, from his 4-year-old daughter.
Though researchers are a naturally curious bunch, nothing matches the curiosity and imagination of children. At the recent Strive conference in Toronto, Noam laid out what he’d learned from his daughter about how to be a better researcher. Our researcher community was abuzz about his talk, so we got in touch and chatted with him about 5 things researchers can learn from children.
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Kids are notorious for asking why things are the way they are. And many kids will just keep asking until they’ve gotten an answer they’re satisfied with. Noam said in the pod, “My daughter will ask me the same question a million times until she gets the outcome she wants to get. She realizes that what’s important isn’t whether you ask why 5 times, or 10 times, or a million times.”
Researchers, on the other hand, have a framework called the 5 whys. Basically, the idea is that if you ask why 5 times, you will have uncovered something deeper and more insightful than if you had just stopped at one why.
But 5 whys seems a little arbitrary. Why not 6 whys? Or 2? Why not hows or whats or whens? The purpose of frameworks, like the 5 whys, is to get researchers closer to what they need to learn about users. So Noam says you shouldn’t follow frameworks so rigidly. Keep your eye on the prize of true learning, and do what it takes to get there. Whether that’s one why, five whys, or a few whys and a how, never forget that your goal is to learn about your users.
When I was a kid, we went to the beach with three other families. One girl, who was my age, had a thing against sausage. She reviled them, and avoided them at all costs. But you know what she did like? Breakfast hamburgers. Breakfast hamburgers were the best food around and she ate them every morning.
People are irrational, and children are sometimes even more so.
But, that’s pretty great for researchers. If people were always rational, researchers would be out of a job. Part of a researcher’s job is to find the method in the madness, to figure out why people do the things they do, even (or especially) when those things aren’t fully rational.
Noam pointed this out in the pod:
People are not just irrational; to a large extent, they are predictably irrational. They are irrational in ways we can account for given our knowledge of cognitive biases.
Because we know this about people, researchers try to behave like the rational adult in the room. But Noam argues that worrying too much about being rational and without bias may actually get in the way of being a great researcher. To be clear, he is not advocating for throwing caution to the wind and ignoring bias, just for a more gracious approach. It’s almost like meditation, in which you’re striving to be aware of what you’re doing and let it go, instead of trying to control it. Embrace a little bit of the irrationality, and use it to learn even more about your users.
Kids say the darndest things. It’s a universal truth, so much so that there have been two shows dedicated to the ridiculous things kids say, plus a pretty great Youtube series. Maybe it’s because they’re not quite old enough to have grown a filter yet. Or maybe it’s because they’re better at telling the truth than adults.
A researcher’s job is to share the truth of what happens, regardless of whether or not it’s what stakeholders want to hear. Sometimes, users can say things that may be hurtful to the product team that worked on the thing you’re building, different from the research team’s hypothesis, or flat out contrary to the direction stakeholders want to go with the product. Instead of trying to make the user’s truth fit more neatly into what your team wants to see, Noam argues that researchers are there to tell the user’s truth as it is. He illustrated this with a great Yiddish proverb—
A half truth is a full lie.
And, while researchers, unlike children, still have things like tact to consider, that shouldn’t prevent them from speaking the user’s truth. The whole truth. And nothing but the truth.
Have you ever been invited to a child’s tea party? In a way, being suddenly surrounded by delightful imaginary friends and offered everything your heart desires is pretty comforting. At tea parties, children go out of their way to make their guests comfortable—offering snacks, pouring tea, and starting conversations. They are wonderful hosts, even when the guests are imaginary.
Researchers need to be good hosts too. When users give their time and energy to talk to you about your product, it’s important to be welcoming, gracious, and kind. Noam remarks that users are more likely to be more forthcoming with their ideas when they are comfortable with you and in the environment. Small things like offering snacks in a physical environment, or chit-chatting at the beginning of a remote session, can go a long way in terms of how comfortable your user is and the quality of the insights you gain from them.
Kids believe in unicorns, fairies, elves, witches, sea monsters, and all kinds of other magical creatures. But more importantly, they seem to believe that anything is possible because there is magic in the world.
Our Growth Marketer, JP, admitted to eating leaves for a whole week because he thought it would turn him into a dinosaur. As for me? I constantly ate watermelon seeds because I thought it would make me poop fruit. 🤷♀️
When we grow up and become adults, we lose a little bit of this belief in magic. We grow more cynical and limit ourselves to what we know is possible. In this process, we can limit ourselves from believing magical things can happen.
Researchers can bring these limitations into their practice, sometimes to the point of ignoring or dismissing insights. But Noam argues researchers should be paying more attention to “outlandish” requests or concerns. In his practice, he strives to create magical experiences, ones that delight the user at every opportunity. To do this, he tries to be open to surprising himself, too.
At the end of the day, researchers can benefit from being a little more child-like in their thinking. Keeping your eye on the prize, finding the method in the madness, telling it like it is, being a good host, and believing in magic—all these are just the beginning. If the true goal of research is to learn, then it makes sense to be more childlike in your approach—after all, children are the best learners around.
P.S. Just for fun, we made a little playlist dedicated to this post. It’s collaborative so feel free to add your favorite “researchers should be more child-like” songs!
Noam Segal is the Director of User Research at Wealthfront. He lives in San Francisco with his 4-year-old daughter, who loves aquariums. Fun fact: when creating magical experiences, he strives to see the same look on users’ faces as he saw on his daughter’s face the first time she saw a real live fish.
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