Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Andrea Lewis

Head shot of Andrea Lewis

How did you get started in UX?

So I left university ages ago, as the internet was really taking off as a more commercial endeavour. It had been around for academic institutions and governments but the average person hadn’t seen it. I’d kept an eye on this thing as a tool and as a toy, I was already creating websites and products and coming up with ideas with my friends, who are either programmers or computer geeks. But then we started creating “bad” things. Not us, but the experiences weren’t that easy for a lot of the new people who were coming online to use. You know a geeky person can get around but the average person wasn't able to, and so user experience started to become a thing.

It started as this thing you didn’t know what you were talking about. You knew that there was this layer and this graphic interface. And it had to be easy and had to have navigation and structure. And so the language started to form and I remember going to super early talks about information architecture and how you’ve got to focus on the experience of the user.

A few companies had user experience as a phrase, but it wasn’t like it is now. Digital has really defined it. Those were the early days and you can see all the different disciplines that have come out of UX now.

I picked research because I was a psychologist to begin with. And that’s what I enjoy most about the whole process. The people, but more so that’s where I know the answers are. It’s understanding and spending time with your users. It’s not easy to figure out what those problems are or how to solve them but at least I know spending time with users is the way to solve them. I absolutely love it.

What are you doing now?

I’m currently working in ecommerce. I’ve done a lot of heavy government work and I’ve worked with quite a lot of large ecommerce brands. I go between private and public, public services and commercial work.

They’re the same users just in a different journey and a different moment in their life.

So I’m still understanding them, just perhaps a little more lighthearted journey than previously in government and certainly ones I hope are less frustrating for them but still complicated. No matter how much insight we have about our users, and how their problems might go deep, solving them is still such a journey.

What’s been your favourite project?

A project I really enjoyed was for the UK government, working for police forces all around the country. They were looking at the mobile officer and all the tools and kit an officer can use while in the field and how to improve ways of working. If you look at a police officer they’re carrying a lot of kit on them for communication and information.

So I put together a research plan that was a part of a project to bring service design to the police force, it was actually the precursor for a team that now exists in government that does actual police service design. We were looking at how user research can inform the work that the police do, because you don’t really think of policing being informed by user research or user needs.

I spent about three months with officers all around the country, riding in cars, walking with them on the streets, and spending time in the police station with them. I saw the whole ecosystem of where policing happens, from the streets to behind the scenes.

We wanted to show senior leaders how spending time with the officers could give them insights to make wider decisions, and perhaps help them realise how powerful understanding the end user can be.

I absolutely loved spending time with the officers. Loved being in the community and seeing the world from their eyes. Dangerous and thrilling all at once, but they also can detect crime everywhere. It’s almost a different view of the world to be able to see crime and misbehaviour or the “near” crime in ordinary life. As an average person you would never notice these things, so it was thrilling to see the world from their point of view. And to get an understanding of how much they put their lives at risk, for average people. It’s not even about going after the bad guys, it’s all about protecting the good guy. So it was really nice to help them find ways to improve the tools they get to do their jobs and perhaps help them to be understood by senior level people who never walk in their shoes.

How have you found is the best way of sharing your research insights or findings?

Being with users is so beautiful and powerful and all you need are their stories. I’ll tell you the story that stuck in my mind.

There was a young officer that I spent five or six hours with in this overnight triage centre in the city centre, where police and medics would come together on weekend nights to keep the peace and get people back home safely.

He asked what I was doing and I told him I was working for the UK government and we talked about how he used his mobile phone and the different kit he had. He had an emergency call button and his work phone and his personal phone, he had a lot of stuff on him. And we talked about consolidating things into one device for simplicity and he shared a few personal experiences where either lack of signal or low battery life made the devices useless in the field.

So signal and battery life became the foundations for what was a critical need. When we shared this finding, some of the senior leaders realised they hadn’t really thought of those issues. They had considered the cost savings of consolidating tools as the more clever option. But no, actually the reality of someone using tools day to day, such a convenience is their inconvenience and perhaps compromises their safety.

What’s your favourite research method?

I do love talking to people. And I love observations. But I love a good card sort. I love them when they’re big and a quantitative method, and I love when they're conversational and a qualitative method, to help people organise and structure their thoughts and it’s more than just “cards on a table”. I like card sorts because I think they’re a bit like psychology. That’s where my passion for this work comes from, from a social science background.

But I must admit that I don't get to do a lot of hands-on research anymore.

If you’re not so hands-on anymore, what is your focus?

My focus is letting the next generation of those entering the UX practice do their research without problems. I’m building great teams where they can do great research. I feel like a maestro conducting an orchestra. I’m not playing the instrument, but I’m integral to making sure we sound good and work well together. And then you get to “shine” on the skills of certain areas with “soloists” and really enhance their impact and what you create together can be quite beautiful.

So although I’m not hands on, I still feel very responsible for the research that we do, because I’m enabling it. I’m setting it up and maybe structuring it or organising it in ways that really make sense. And I absolutely love that.

How do you make sure your team can do their best research?

I think there is often a tension between the organisation that wants the work done and the researchers. They forget that they [the researchers] are not delivery engines or research bots. That’s why we love them. All that empathy and colour that human beings can draw out of a conversation or an observation is magic, so we can’t stifle that. And so I really try to find out what makes each individual love UX research and emphasise that in the work that they do and figure out where they need to build their skills and give them room to grow. So they’re always challenging, rewarding, challenging, rewarding, it’s just a constant cycle. And if they really love research, I think they’ll love being on my team because that’s my favourite thing to talk about.

I think UX research is a very enticing profession right now and I think we’re having a lot of people trying it out or hopping over from other disciplines and I do wonder if that passion for research is there. Maybe there’s a different passion, for problem solving or getting closer to design solutions, and there is a place for all those profiles and passions on a research team, those are just different strengths that add to what we can do.

So I might have some researchers on my team who are better project managers than they really are researchers, but they are necessary to the team. So I partner them with someone who’s really deep into the research methods or analysis, which can make an amazing project collaboration, because sometimes someone who’s deep into the research may not be so great at project and stakeholder management.

I like to play to their skills because it will make them happier when working. Usually you have enough roles on a team that you don’t need to focus on one type of skill set, but that’s not always understood by the delivery managers or folks at the top who may be responsible for resourcing.

I try to be the boss I’d like to have myself. I try to be the boss that stays out of my way, lets me get on with my research, gives me all the tools I need, unblocks the things that really make me get stuck and “oh by the way” I absolutely love talking about research too.

What do you do about career development paths for researchers?

Because we are indeed often UX research delivery bots, many immature organisations have flat levelled this whole career into just one level, so there isn’t any career progression. And it won’t be the organisations that create this structure of career progression in UX research and it won’t be HR that creates this either. We’re still so new as a discipline, I don’t think HR really knows what to do with this profession yet. They’re still figuring out UX, let alone sub disciplines now and the diversity within UX. We have some work to do ourselves. So I do that work on my teams. I create structure where there may not be structure. If you are so unfortunate to have no layers and your researchers are all at the same level, then I go back to the previous question around understanding individual skills sets and those areas of personal growth.

I remember one researcher on a previous team. When I met him he said, ‘I’ve learned everything I need to know about user research and I’m bored now, I’m done. I’d love to explore data science.’ I’d been in the field quite some time before him and yet in all my career I still have not done all I can do in user research - so that was interesting and a challenge!

So we talked about how he might explore both, we talked about data science classes as he’d expressed an interest there, but I also heard the challenge for me to show him all the colours in the rainbow of UX research, that maybe he had not yet seen. I wanted to show him what user research could be and do and to stretch his skills into service design. And now, I must say in my chats with him nearly 4 years later, he’s thinking he hasn’t even scratched the surface of UX research. But he’s also reignited in his passion for his profession now, and that’s wonderful.

So as leads, we need to create the magic for those on our teams, we need to create these spaces of learning. The best way to do this is to know the people on your team and get a real sense of their skill set. Not everyone wants this kind of nurturing or growth. Some people are simply there to do their job and so you leave well enough alone, if well enough wants to be alone.

I think there are lots of researchers who come into this thing with such passion and enthusiasm, but if they then hit the ceiling and start to think, “you know, this isn’t so great,” that doesn’t do much for the longevity of our profession.

So as senior people, we’ve been there and done that, then we must create the opportunities for the next generation even if our companies aren’t yet quite there. I don’t think UX team leaders can rely on anyone else to figure it out, so it’s something I own in every role. Because this discipline of UX let alone UX research is so new and very much tied to product and project delivery, we must own the hard work of ensuring progression and personal growth happens as we are delivering.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

The world is your oyster. And it’s only going to get better. UX research is a profession that’s open to everyone, but hold onto your science. Your science is what gives us credibility. Be clear about your method, be clear about your approach. Be clear about how you handled your analysis and your data. These are not things to fudge over in the name of “guerrilla” research or being agile.

How do you make recommendations for something you aspire to make millions or work for millions, if you’re not doing the science behind it? That’s just not how it works. And yes, qualitative research is scientific, so don’t shy away from analysing words.

There are very simple methods to embrace in UX research, but you want your evidence to be credible so people can make active decisions on it. So those senior leaders can say with confidence, “yes I know this, and I can trust it.”

Senior leaders and executives rely on us more and more so the UX research industry will only get more widespread and credible, and we’ll have better tools. It’s a great time.

What resources would you recommend?

There’s just so much right now, but I’m so partial to GDS, the Government Digital Services and I tell everyone to read the service manual. If you haven’t read the user research section of the service manual, read it because it’s very elegantly and simply written, no one has done it better - and it’s totally free guidance.

Of course there are lots of resources out there and lots of people doing really great things like coffee hours and chats and little meetups, there’s so many great pockets of things. So my overall recommendation is to keep exploring and searching, jump into the massive community.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

I think it’s when organisations don’t understand the role of user research, and it’s your responsibility to protect those who are so eager and enthusiastic from getting their little hearts broken by aloof stakeholders.

That’s the biggest challenge, because it’s part of your role to change that culture and change that way of thinking. You want to protect and nurture or grow their career and that’s harder if they become less motivated or lose inspiration. It’s not the best experience for them.

If the maturity of the organisation isn’t there yet, but the appetite for UX research is, then that’s enough for you to really inspire your team to keep going. Indeed lots of people are still learning about what we do. So it’s just keeping that patience, where you may have stakeholders who don’t quite yet embrace it.

If you have a team that’s enthusiastic, keeping them enthusiastic while also changing the way of thinking in the organisation can be a real challenge.

What are you most proud of?

Oh gosh, I’m proud of all the junior researchers that are now senior researchers that I’ve met in my career and I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of their journey.

I’ve been a tough lead at times, because I do focus on “the science,” but I hope those who’ve worked with me have become better researchers for it. My drive is always the quality of the voice we’re representing, the end user. It’s always the vulnerable or less powerful voice, right? They’re not the decision maker's voice. So those less powerful voices need advocates. Maybe I take that too seriously at times, but I really think that I’ve brought people into this profession who wouldn’t have had a chance at this career or might not have thought of this career path in UX research. I’ve definitely converted a few.

So knowing they’re gonna really excel somewhere, doing great user research.

Where do you see the future of UX Research going?

I’m waiting for the venture capitalists to come hire all of the user researchers because we can see the future of products and we can tell you what products are going to make money, because they work well for users.

We’re research and development. We are R&D. That’s what we are. We’re research and product development in the digital age. This is why I say stick to your science, kids! You really want that evidence to be actionable, and reliable and replicable. That’s something any discipline creating evidence should be able to do. We’re no different in UX research.

I think the pandemic has taught us how digital we can be pervasive, and it can work for everyone. I think there’s some serious lessons learned from the power of these tools during the pandemic. And such tools are only expanding and growing.

UX research is on the radar of the whole product development world, I just don’t know if we’ve reached centre stage yet. I don’t think they realise that we’re the driving nucleus behind this “digital product” thing. I’m hoping we as UX researchers find our voice and people start bringing us into that world, that centre stage, where we can influence things and what we can bring into the world, that vulnerable voice, right, that person with no power. That will be a good thing.

Would a governing body to help with training, standards and ethics help or hinder UX professionals?

I think many have tried with certifications and such and the different groups you can get a stamp of approval from, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I’m not sure those options are the only options. And, I don’t know if one type of group could cover everything we need in UX.

What do I think the “it” is? It’s more about a community of peers, like the ReOps community. I think those volunteer type groups work best for our discipline of UX research. We should set our standards together as peers, like scientists. You check your work and you may have someone else do an analysis on your data set, or you get another researcher to check your bias or calibrate your confidence in your findings.

So if we share our templates and our standards we start to come to a consensus on what works or doesn’t work. But one size never fits all.

That’s why I move away from a sense of one governing body or certification, because we’re still changing and evolving. I don’t think any one group could keep pace with what our peers are doing. Look at other disciplines, they have multiple groups and support groups and conferences. There are so many of them that all serve different purposes.

For myself, I am part of a peer group called JustResearchers and what we focus on is very simple. It’s the ethics around users rights when they take part in user research. We just want to make sure that all researchers and people who do research are comfortable with understanding user consent and ethics.

We promote some of the tools out there and we're even focusing on a “professional pledge” just to make sure that you take consent seriously. It’s important because not everyone’s an academically or professionally trained researcher. Not everyone comes from that background of understanding ethics and ethics boards so we want to invite designers and project managers and others who might be conducting research with a human subject to be aware of the importance of consent and ethics and all those rules.

We actually did some research with participants talking about taking part in research and sometimes they said they didn’t even really know what the study was about, it wasn’t properly explained to them. So we don’t always do it right.

So that’s what JustResearchers is, a very simple site to give advice to new researchers and remind them about all the great resources there are around consent and ethics. We are seeking volunteers who share our values so please get in touch

Thank you to Andrea for taking the time to speak with me. If you’d like to find out more about JustResearchers you can find them on Twitter and you can find Andrea on Twitter and LinkedIn.

If you know someone you think I should speak to for this series, do let me know.

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