Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Anne Stevens

Head shot of Anne Stevens

How long have you been involved in the world of UX/digital?

Gosh, I’ve been doing this for 20 years now.

I came to it in a bit of a roundabout way, that would never happen now. So I finished my undergraduate degree at uni in a humanities subject, then realised that I wasn't very employable. So I switched to do a postgraduate degree in what was effectively a one year computer science conversion course. I learned programming, database design and various other things, one of which was HCI, Human Computer Interaction, which was around interfaces with Word and spreadsheets. The internet existed, obviously, this was in 1998, but it was still in its early days.

I enjoyed that course, but never realised that there was any kind of job in HCI, UX didn't exist then. So I spent a year as a database developer. Then applied for a job with a web agency. The first question they asked me in the interview was ‘what interests you about the internet?’, because this was my first job working on something internet based. And I said, ‘I'm really interested in how people use it to find information’. And they were like, Oh, you should be an information architect. So they stopped the interview, and they brought in their head of IA and he interviewed me instead. And they agreed to give me a trainee junior position. Which suited me much better because, in all honesty, I was never good at the development side of things.

How did you get from Information Architecture to UX Research?

A big part of the HCI module was actually usability testing, and this whole idea of asking users, what they thought of something, rather than designing it for them. So I already had an understanding of that.

In the early days of my career, there was no division between somebody who was drawing wireframes and sitemaps, and somebody who was doing usability testing. So for many years, I just did both as needed on whatever project I was doing. And over the years, I gradually develop more of an affinity for research over design.

But I didn't really stop doing design until 2013, when I got a job at a music startup called BlinkBox. It was a very small team and I was hired to be a UX designer, but on my first day, they said, ‘Oh, we don't have anyone who has experience doing user research and usability testing, so would you mind taking responsibility for that’, so I said yes, and from that day on, I didn't really do design anymore.

It was a bit of an accidental thing, but again it suited me, because around this time apps were becoming a bigger thing and the job went from being about information flow and design to being more about the aesthetics and the UI. I’m not a very artistic creative person so that switch happened at the right time for me.

You’re now Director of Research, do you still get to do hands on research? How much difference is there between hands on research and managing the team?

In my current company, our team is very small so although I manage the team it’s a hands on role too. But for quite a few years, in my previous two jobs with Tesco and Just Eat, I was a manager and entirely hands off, which is obviously a completely different role to being a hands on researcher.

Now at this point in my career, I prefer the managerial role but I think it’s good for people to stay as an individual contributor for as long as they can, because the more you learn of your craft the more you can then support your team.

What’s been your favorite role?

My favourite role was my second UX job, which was at Channel Four. I worked there for six years from 2006 to 2012. It was my first in-house job and a very conscious decision.

I learnt so much about the benefits of being in-house, you don’t do a project and walk away like you would in an agency, so you really see the impact of your work. But it also taught me the realities of working within a business, which you can be a little bit shielded from in an agency.

For instance Channel Four had lots of adverts on its site because that’s what brought the money in. Obviously users hated adverts and the online team felt that the adverts were a terrible user experience. Eventually someone pointed out to me that it’s the adverts that paid my salary, without the adverts, there’s no money, and it was a bit of a light bulb moment for me and taught me to be a bit more pragmatic around business priorities.

But it was also just a very exciting time. I joined just as Channel Four were launching what was OD, now All Four, so the first online streaming. Around the same time as iPlayer. The web was just opening up to what it could be, so a very exciting time to work there.

How do you convince stakeholders of the value of doing research?

I think it's always the old adage of getting them to watch research, get them to watch videos or watch it live.

But I think the biggest argument for me is that it's so expensive to put a mistake right once you have built something with engineers and launched it, and it's out there in the wild. It's just so much easier and cheaper to change something earlier in the process while you're still working on paper.

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

Nobody's ever gonna sit and watch all the videos, but there's lots of different ways to share, like All Hands or Lunch and Learn type sessions where people can showcase their work. It's great if research can get a slot in one of those and just share some video clips and talk a bit about some of the work they’ve been doing.

We have a Slack channel, which I'm sure many companies have now, which is primarily to share the outcomes of research projects, but we also share little snippets as we go along. So I've put in user quotes or a little video so that people don't have to sit and digest a whole report.

We also share our reports with pretty much the entire company, not just the UX team or product team. We always make sure there’s an executive summary in there and some concrete next steps so people who don’t want to read a 30 page slide deck can still absorb the key points.

I have experimented with a few other things. When I was at Tesco we experimented with a research newsletter both online and offline. One of the researchers collated an email which went round the whole team once a week, covering everything we were working on, so everyone could see what we were doing.

And we also experimented with a paper newsletter, so we used a template and printed it out and left it in the kitchen and round the office, but in all honesty that didn’t work so well. It was quite time consuming to produce and a waste of paper.

At Culture Trip we use Usertesting.com and lots of people at the company have collaborator accounts which means they can go in and just watch the videos and it’s very easy to share the videos around the company.

What’s your favourite research method?

My favourite is rapid Agile research. I've done that in lots of the companies I've worked at. When you’re working in a two week sprint and the designers are producing prototypes and you can rapidly do loads of testing, getting results and bringing them back. It works really well when researchers are part of the close team, working really closely with design. Otherwise you can’t move as fast as you need to.

I think it really fosters that working relationship between UX and design, and maybe product and other team members, because you all have to collaborate really quickly. And it gets rid of that notion that research is a bottleneck, that you have to stop everything for six weeks, three months, while the researchers go off and interview people and write a huge report and come back.

And it removes the need to sit and write a 30 page slide deck that nobody’s going to read, because you don’t have time. You analyse the results together, agree the next steps and write it up in a very light way so you have a record of what was agreed and then move on.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

I think the actual number one piece of advice I would give is to consider the broader UX field. And if they really are right at the beginning, don't focus purely on research but try and find a role that involves some UX design as well, or at least working very closely with UX designers. There are quite a lot of different potential specialisms within UX, and it may be that actually, you end up enjoying one of those even more.

But even if you stick with wanting to be a researcher, I think you can only be a good researcher, if you do have a good understanding of the discipline of the team around you, and how designers or product managers or engineers will use your skill set and the insights that you bring them.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

I don't know if it's my biggest but that movement from being a hands on researcher responsible for your own work to being a team manager.

It happened a little bit accidentally to me. I joined Tesco about five years ago now and I joined them as a hands on researcher, but to also manage maybe one or two other people.

But then about three or four months into that job we had a reorg. They created and gave me the role of Design Research Manager. I was really pleased, but it wasn’t actually a job I had actively gone out to apply for and so it was a bit of an abrupt switch from being a hands on researcher, responsible for my own projects, to being a hands off Research Manager.

For a long time I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing research, like I wasn’t pulling my weight with the team. I felt like we were getting all these projects in and the team were doing all this research and I was just going to meetings.

It hadn’t really clicked that it wasn’t my job any more, that my job was different now. I’ve never regretted it, it was a good move, but I wasn’t really prepared for it.

What do you do when you get stuck?

I have a lot of friends in UX now, mostly ex colleagues. Some are more focused on research while others are more focused on service design or UI. But it’s a good network that I can call on and ask ‘have you ever done this?’ Or ‘do you have any advice about this sort of situation?’ That’s my first port of call.

Of course you can always fall back on Google or use Twitter, there are so many resources out there for UX, so you can normally find a template or case study or blog post around what you’re trying to do.

And there are a couple of Slack groups which are focused on leading UX, which are like my personal network, I just don’t know the people as well.

Who inspires you?

Do you know Emma Bolton?

I don’t know her personally, but I have seen a lot of her work online. She specialises in research rather than design, so she’s got this really great career in research. But she’s also managed to carve out this side hustle in research ops. I don’t know how she has time for both! And she has a family.

She’s balancing all these things and yet she is well known as a figurehead in research. And I have spoken to her online and she’s always so helpful, friendly and so supportive. I really look up to her.

What book/video/podcast would you recommend?

I’m terrible, I never read books, I just don’t have time to sit and read a whole book. But three things do spring to mind.

So one is a podcast called Design Untangled which is run by a friend of mine, Chris Mears, a UX service designer. It’s a monthly podcast where they interview somebody about some aspect of UX and design, normally something a bit confusing, like jobs to be done, and make it more transparent and easy to digest.

Then on the same topic, is Neil Turner who writes a blog called UX for the Masses. I really like his posts, because they take a specific thing around UX and put it into words of one syllable. He makes it really, really digestible and easy. I find it really useful to share with teams when I’m trying to explain a research methodology, for example. Neil will often have a really good summary on his blog that I can send them to explain why you’re doing something a certain way.

Then lastly is a site called Measuring U which is useful when working with more analytical teams. They have a whole methodology around how to make qualitative research more quantitative. They have lots of formulas, for instance how to work out the percentage you would see something in the general population based on what you saw in testing. It helps with those people who are a bit doubting around qual research.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the STEM mentoring I’ve been doing. Before COVID I was teaching primary school children design thinking and UX design through an organisation called Design Club.

It’s on hold now, but it’s been around for a few years. They’ve come up with loads of resources for an after school club for children aged between 10 to 13, to do basically user centred design and wireframing.

You spend about 45 minutes to an hour with the kids once a week and do a design challenge with them. So you teach them to think about other people's needs. For example, you might think about how a child who struggles with reading can find books they want to read.

So the kids brainstorm lots of ideas and then sketch out their wireframes on paper then we use the Marvel app to take photos of the sketches and link them all together. Then they do little usability tests on each other, so it’s like a mini design sprint for kids.

I love it for so many reasons, but the primary reason is that even though UX is obviously a more established career now than it was when I started, it’s still not a very well known one. I don’t think you would find many 15, 16 year olds that say they want to be a UX designer. So I want to raise awareness of that.

So I’ve also been mentoring older kids, maybe 14 year olds who are making career choices around GCSEs. A lot of the work I’ve done there is to highlight jobs in tech and the fact that they are for women as well as for men, and that jobs in tech are not just for people who are good at maths or interested in science. There are so many jobs out there, not just in UX, and I’ve been really trying to push that message home, that whatever skills you have or you’re good at there is probably a job in tech that matches them.

Where do you see the future of UX Research going?

It’s an interesting one. One of the things I’ve struggled with, with research at the moment is when will we be able to get back to doing in person research? And I wonder, like so many things Covid, whether we will ever go back completely to how it was before. We’re really, really reliant on usertesting.com at my company, if we didn’t have it we’d really struggle to do research right now. And it’s really quick and easy, you can get results back in two hours.

So where before Covid these tools weren’t used anywhere near as heavily, they were more like a backup to lab based session. I wonder if we will stick with a more mixed methodology of more remote research and then use the lab research when it’s needed.

I think the other thing that I see happening a lot, and it’s certainly the case at Culture Trip, is this democratisation of research, especially with tools like usertesting.com, that can be done by non specialists like designers or even product managers. And that then frees up researchers to focus on more complex strategic research, interviews and discovery, things that can’t be done without some really deep understanding of research skills and methodologies.

Thank you to Anne for taking the time to speak to me. To hear more from her follow Anne on twitter. And Design Club are always looking for volunteers to help, find out more at www.designclub.org.uk.

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

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Email me on peneloperance@gmail.com or find me on Twitter or Linkedin.


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