Calliope has worked in UX for 5 years, holding a variety of different positions at companies large and small. We had the chance to speak with her about the various UX projects she's tackled in the past, and where she sees UX in the future.
Sofia: Why don't we start by talking a little bit about your background? What are you doing today, and what have you been doing the last two or three years?
Calliope: Today I'm in Hong Kong doing user research with Sutherland Labs. I'm mainly helping the senior researcher here, and essentially what we're doing is an ethnographic study with the financial clients of Sutherland Labs in order to understand them, see how they use their tools and their processes, especially when it comes to working from home. I've been on this project since the end of June/beginning of July, and I will stay on this project until the end of October.
It's an exciting moment because after Hong Kong I will be going to Japan, and I will be doing research there along with a senior researcher of Sutherland Labs. After that, I might be joining an airport company as a Manager UX Researcher. It's an interesting time for me!
In the last year and a half I've been working as a freelancer with mainly startup companies through YunoJuno - they're a platform for people to find freelance work. And before that, I was working for the government, with BBC, Three, and Accenture.
Sofia: Some of our customers have internal research teams that struggle with sharing insights across their company. How do you manage the research process and share information?
Calliope: I manage the research process in a pretty traditional way - I give recommendations through usability studies and research findings that I've put in a presentation or a report document. Sometimes I might have the chance to create a video of usability studies with users so stakeholders can empathize - that's what people listen to. What I'm hoping to do in my next role is create research museums, where people can actually go into a dedicated place with research walls and learn about findings on their own time, similar to something that Facebook has been doing.
I'd like to externalize all that information. When I saw what NomNom is doing, I found it quite interesting and intriguing. And I'd like to find out more in terms of how it can surface quotes, or different keywords so that we can support our research and say why we want to go where we want to go.
Sofia: When you start a research project, how do you get into understanding the background of what the client wants to achieve?
Calliope: I start with a brief (if there isn’t one, I will create one and have it signed off) and then I gather existing and related work within the business and conduct an desktop review or competitive review depending on the time and budget of the project. I look for any commonalities that there might be, and start connecting the dots. Once I start to have a proper understanding of what the problem might be, I start thinking about how I can approach it in terms of research methods appropriate to the research problem I am addressing. Obviously, my first thought is to do some usability testing and go from there.
I will interview people, or we might have some group facilitation, and then I'll try to collate information. We rely on keywords a lot in order to do affinity diagramming and to try to find commonalities to cluster themes and title those themes. One of the biggest problems that we all have, especially in bigger organizations where they have a lot of archives, is that the work gets lost in disparate locations and difficult to find, so the search function of NomNom looked appealing to me as a researcher.
Sofia: What is the future of UX research at scale in companies, given that it's becoming such a strong discipline?
Calliope: People are now talking about user research operations. And I see potential there. There was recently a workshop done in Brighton, where we were trying to understand what user research operations would be, if we established constant usability research like DevOps. What are you going to do with that archive? How are you going to assess that information and surface that information that was collected a year ago, or collate and connect that?
User research teams are starting to organize operations because if you're running usability tests on a constant basis in your company, you're going to need certain procedures. You're going to need somebody who's going to liaise with the users, find the users, or have an active database of users. You're going to need somebody who's going to do the recording of the user videos or the note-taking, somebody who's going to be archiving everything. And you're going to have a lot of files. You're going to have files in Google Drive, in Dropbox, and in email requests.
You're going to have people who are responsible for supporting the research, people who are going to be doing the research, people who are going to present on that research, and people who are going to be curating research, all those versions, and managing that content. If you're going to have constant usability testing, you're going to need that.
Sofia: What is your advice for user research teams on the client side to make the most of their research and communicate it effectively?
Calliope: It depends on who I'm talking to - if I'm talking to a project manager, I probably need to explain the project to them in their terms. If I'm talking to a CEO, perhaps I could talk to her about why she needs to implement findings in terms of investment (ROI). If I have some findings or recommendations, I need to give those to the client in the shape of an actionable project, perhaps with costs and benefits in mind. It is important to empathize by speaking in their language, make the findings or next steps relevant and actionable. So, it really depends on who you're talking to, each and every time.
Therefore you want to consider how to get those findings from research into actionable outcomes and next steps - something that the client can measure, something that they can do. Because a lot of times when we just give them a set of findings and a set of bullet points, but that's going to reach their archive folder and it's not going to get out very soon. Getting those bullet points out into actionable outcomes is much more important than adding recommendations.
Sofia: What are the biggest challenges for UX researchers today?
Calliope: Research bias. A lot of times we have to abide by the person who's giving us the project. So if a stakeholder is giving them the project, a stakeholder is expecting to hear something. We as researchers have to be mindful how we interpret the results and where is the bias.
Lack of standards and certified skillset. Methodologies are fudged, implemented poorly to cut time and people who get on the wagon of UX but have no related education but an inspiration to do the job. A UX practitioner needs to read and connect with the UX community to develop.
Lack of business understanding of the importance of the role. Still people are saying, "Yes, we really, really need a researcher. We have all this content. We really need somebody who will come and take it and do something with it." It’s a trend to have a UX practitioner in your team nowadays. But when I have invited leadership to workshops, they didn't come; some didn’t even think of cancelling. They don’t always understand how user centric their company could and should be yet, and it is our humble responsibility as researchers to speak their language to communicate that message.
What I've been told from senior researchers is to be patient and keep on doing your work in a consistent way and hopefully, they will start to notice and understand how user research makes a difference in their products and services as a more empathetic and mindful approach to marketing and SEO analytics or KPIs. I think the profession is still evolving even if evolution is slow. We have a lot of ground to win.
Sofia: It's hard for me to understand why an organization would invest in building a UX team and then not leverage it - why do you think this happens?
Calliope: Well, think of yourself getting a new gimmick or a new tool in the house. A lot of times you might be excited because it's trendy, because it's really cool, because other businesses have it. And, you know, if competitors have it, then you must have it, too. But a lot of times they don't really understand how to utilize us best. I feel that maturity takes time, especially when people and companies are set in their ways. It's difficult for them to bite that bullet and say, "Okay, you know, let’s make that change." You know, it's not easy. Sometimes it is even easier to let that person go than to spend time to understand the value and find ways to collaborate.
Sofia: What do you think is the advantage of taking a career path like yours - what would you describe specifically as an advantage of actually being in and out of projects with different types of clients?
Calliope: I have to tell you that, you know, it hasn't always been easy. Having worked with many different organisations It has given me a lot of breadth. And sometimes I wanted to dive deeper but I didn't have the chance to. It has given me the flexibility to take knowledge from one client and implement that into another client. It has given me a lot of dots to connect so I can shape my understanding of the business world and how research done in different ways, if that makes sense. And it has given me a lot of resources and flexibility in my way of thinking. For example, I hear about what you do with Nom Nom and I'm interested and excited. At the same time, I'm connecting that with my work that is going on at the moment here in Hong Kong and I'm thinking, "Well, you know, how would that solution work for my current client?" And at the same time, I'm also thinking about a past client. "Oh, if I knew that, I would have suggested this."
A lot of people have just been working with the same people in the same organization for a long time because it feels secure. Just like any other designer, I think they need to move into new grounds to start thinking anew, to start thinking fresh, to make new connections and paths in their minds.
Sofia: Let's say that I am a senior UX professional working for a large company. I don't have the bravery that you have to go and change jobs, either often or completely. How can I involve myself in an environment where I can see better patterns or different patterns?
Calliope: Collaboration. One way to do it is through bringing diversity into your work environment. Collaborate with UX practitioners in different departments. Invite your vendors and collaborate closely with them. Join UX communities and follow their regular events on UX topics. I had the opportunity to bring UX brown bag Fridays when I was in BBC R&D, bringing a UX topic on a video and sit down with designers and developers and have a Q&A chat after the video. We even had conference calls with other UX departments to discuss. Another way to do it is by participating in testing yourself. As in, you be the participant in other usability tests and see how other people do it. Be a mystery shopper, do autoethnography as well. So if there's a particular technology or something like this, try to take it yourself and create a diary study.
Observe yourself so you can understand how other people might have felt. There have been studies actually with researchers who even dressed themselves as their potential persona. In order to put themselves into their persona's shoes. Also improvisation - I think my skills in acting have been transferable knowledge. Where can I improvise? How can I observe and then make connections?
Sofia: Anything else that you would like to add related to knowledge sharing within the UX environment or making research more accessible to other people in the business?
Calliope: I think it's important for us as researchers to read, read, read, read, read, because a lot of times we're just doing and doing. But it's important for us to get back to the books and reflect on our methods and enrich our skillset. Collaborate, see what other people are doing and connect with the community so we can learn from each other.