Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Dr Ari Zelmanow

Head shot of Ari Zelmanow

How did you get started in UX?

My path was dramatically different than most. I was a police officer and detective for 10 years in Saint Louis, Missouri, so I developed my investigative chops by investigating crimes and criminals.

I’ve always loved investigations and solving the whodunnit. No crime or event occurs out of a specific context. In addition, I’m fascinated with definitions and the way people define things. The law does a good job of offering definitions for things. For example, many people use the words burglary and robbery interchangebaly, but they are vastly different things by definition. Police work is very scientific, so the transition to academia wasn’t as big a jump as it might seem.

While I was a police officer I got my masters and doctorate and I studied how people learn to do challenging things. It felt like a natural progression to go into some kind of organisational development work, and I did that for a brief moment, but I didn’t take to it.

So I stumbled into a job as a qualitative subject matter expert for a large consumer packaged goods company. I was in their centre of excellence and got to do multicultural research, foresight and trends, large cross category and brand research, and research in new product innovation and technology. It was here where I was bit by the technology bug! I just loved it because there were just so many unknowns and it was so fast moving.

From there I had an opportunity to join Twitter and build a brand new research practice for Twitter’s data business. Twitter had acquired a company called Gnip years before I joined and had leveraged the acquisition into a very successful part of Twitter, but they had never had a UX researcher or designer. So I was hired and helped bring on their first UX designer and helped take the data business to the next level.

As often happens leaders change and things happen and so I jumped at an opportunity to go to Panasonic and build a brand new research function there that combined product research, UX research and market research. I also brought on an analytics team and then a research ops team.

From there I did a brief stint at Indeed, where I was hired to build a UXR team for their internal platforms group. Then, I had the opportunity to go to Gtmhub and build an analytics, research and insights team.

It has been an incredible journey and I am grateful for all I have learned. I think the best UX and product researchers are polymaths, they’re very curious about a lot of different domains.

What’s your favourite research method?

I don’t have a favourite method. My favourite research method is the one that solves the problem in the most effective way.

My favourite method isn’t a method, it’s an area of focus. So the methods that we use, like qual, quant, mixed methods, all of that isn’t nearly as important as how we’re delivering insights.

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

I’ve been working on this idea lately that insights should be delivered in a way that appeals to logic, appeals to emotion and appeals to credibility. If that sounds like Aristotle’s views on rhetoric then you’re right, it is.

So researchers think about methods in terms of being non-biased—we want to be impartial. And yes, we want to be impartial in data collection and exploration. We do not want to be impartial on the other side of the equation which is when we’re telling the business what to do with what we’ve learned.

It is a research imperative not to deliver data. Not to present insights. But to offer counsel.

To do this, you have to build credibility which occurs long before the research project even begins. Then, when delivering insights, you have to make an emotional connection with your audience. One way this can be done is through the presentation of “highlight reels” or bite sized videos of the customer. Things like images, photos, and artifacts work as well. Kinda like the things that are used as evidence in court. That builds the emotional connection to what’s happened.

Then you build a logical appeal. I think this has to be done in the right sized space, so I’ve developed something called a Point of View document which is a one to two pager of what the business should do with the insights with some level of certainty. This connects to a larger research readout document. People could use a deck here, but I think a report is better as a written document with images that really explains the entire problem space for those that need to take that deep dive and really understand the nuance. That’s probably the 1 to 3% of people that are going to engage with your research. Most are only going to need the emotional appeal. Then they might go to the Point of View document, which is just enough logic to make sense. That continuum gives something for everybody.

The beauty of doing it this way is that you should be able to provide enough asynchronously for people to understand what the project is about, without having to be there in person, which is especially good in this new world where a lot of things are done remotely.

The video helps to build an emotional connection and should be stand alone. The Point of View document should provide enough context on its own. The parts of the Point of View document are the objective of the research, your point of view, some level of certainty, an executive summary and then a drive to outcome or next steps. So that should stand on its own but also connect to the big research plan, recruitment, strategy and all those things.

They should be able to stand alone without a researcher standing in front of someone. That’s really the fundamental problem with decks. What do you put in your deck? You put in a bunch of words so it tells a story, but if you’re doing that wouldn’t a document be a better delivery method? PowerPoint is awful! It was not designed for the delivery of research findings. If it was, wouldn’t academics be using it in journals? No, because they recognise that writing is a better way. And brevity in writing. Amazon does these memos that are no longer than six pages long. Research reports should be too.

You post a lot on social media, where do you get your ideas for your diagrams?

Sometimes it’s things I’ve read. Sometimes I think about a problem that I’m having or that I’ve experienced or that I’ve seen in research.

Those diagrams are really quick ways to put those ideas out there. I try to post on LinkedIn daily, and I’ve been playing around with Twitter, and the inspiration comes from everywhere. It comes from the problems we face and the things that I see.

I hope it’s useful for other people, because I imagine that they are having similar problems.

What do your friends and family think you do?

I don’t think they know. I tried explaining it to my parents. They understand that I do research and help understand customers, but I think a word like research is very misleading and suggests I look at data and stuff backwards. What I am really doing is helping businesses make better decisions.

What book/video/podcast would you recommend?

I’ve always wanted to be more of a podcast person but I just never got into it. It feels like a lot of time and I’m not good at multitasking. If I’m listening to a podcast then I have to listen.

There are a bunch of books that I think are good and they’re in different spaces.

So for a beginner researcher I think Erica Hall’s Just Enough Research is a great starting point. I also think another good entry point is Think Like a UX Researcher by David Travis and Philip Hodgson. A great starter book for interviews is The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. That said, I think it’s important to read books outside of the research domain as well. Researchers should have domain knowledge in lots of spaces. For example, there’s the methods, but there’s also understanding how to socialise things in organisation, which is an organisational psychology thing and there’s no one book that does all of that.

What do you do when you get stuck?

Stuck? You don’t get stuck. You make a decision. You make a call. You consider the alternatives and pick the best one with the information you have available at the time.

You can break that down in any number of ways and any number of frameworks, but what I would tell you is don’t get bogged down in that, make a call. And if things don’t go the way you want them to go, change.

I believe heavily in probabilities and probability theory. It comes from detective work where you start with a clue and you’re not really certain about what’s happening. But the more you investigate something the more certain you become about what’s happened.

In the end you’re no longer impartial when you’re presenting the case to the attorney. You’re saying this is what I think happened and here’s the evidence to support it. And by the way here’s what we think didn’t happen and here’s the evidence to show that these things didn’t happen. Those are the best detectives.

So do the same thing. Keep building a body of evidence building up the probability that your decision is right and then make a call. It’s uncomfortable sometimes but you have to do it.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

To think about research not in terms of focusing on getting a job and all the methods, but as how can you apply what you’ve learnt in your life to solve problems and articulate those problems. Can you present findings in a simple way that drives impact? Focus on how your experiences can bring value to the business and how you can help the business to make better decisions.

I think researchers would be better off studying decisions and decision science and probability than qualitative or quantitative methods because in the real world statistics are very different from statistics in science or academia.

Second, be honest about your skills. Don’t say you’re a quant expert if you’re not.

And finally, keep learning. Keep reading. Read everything you can, learn everything you can. If you don’t know what to learn, the best place to go are the job posts on LinkedIn or Indeed - look at what they’re asking for. Learn those things, because then you’ll understand the problems they’re trying to solve.

What are you most proud of?

I think I’m most proud of being able to make the pivots and changes I’ve made in life.

Most people want clear line of sight to success from something they’re doing. They think if I go to school then I’ll become whatever. But I think ‘how can I better myself?’

When I graduated college I barely graduated, I graduated with a C average. I was a paramedic for a few years out of college. Then I was a police officer and I went to grad school. I did organisational psychology, and now I lead research teams.

So effectively I’ve changed things five times and I couldn’t have planned that. I’ve done things to better myself. My ability to push through and be tenacious without knowing the benefits are what I’m proud of.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

I think my biggest challenge as a human, is that I’ve an overdeveloped sense of justice. So I think things should be fair and people should treat each other right and that doesn’t always happen, so I find myself getting spun up around that.

I think professionally our biggest challenge as researchers is that we have not defined our roles in organisations well. It’s why we live within design or product organisations. We think we need to build research teams, what we really need to be building is research practices, because right now we haven’t articulated our value in a way that when times get lean business isn’t like oh we should just cut the research team.

Where do you see the future of UX Research going?

My hope is that UX research starts building research or insights practices within organisations, because I’m hoping that research becomes part of the DNA of organisations rather than a team that lives within an organisation. A team is something that can come and go, but a research practice is something that gets used no matter what.

I would love it if research takes the direction of building a culture of learning. And then the executors of research do that at a foundational and strategic level but they also empower others within the organisation to do it.

The other way research could go is that research continues to be relegated to a service function to design, product and marketing in which case we will never hit the next level and never be seen as part of the strategic team and will always be seen as a support service.

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

A governing board is conceptually a good idea, but the problem is everything is under design. UX is seen as user experience and so UX designers are the king of that hill.

But I think we should have a place that is ours, but we need to reframe what we’re doing. One of the problems is our name. If we call ourselves UX researchers we’re always going to be supporting UX design. I like the term product research.

I do think an organsiation is a good thing though because it can help us talk about and address these problems as a group rather than individuals.

I could change an organsiation, I could change several organsiations but I can never change it at scale without the village and we are the village. It would be great if we had a body and we had our own conferences and we had our own focus on research. But we can’t go too far because these things already exist with qualitative research organsiations and ethnography and all that is doing is further siloing and segmenting us. We need a place where all of us come together as researchers.

Thank you to Ari for taking the time to speak with me. You can find Ari at To find out more about creating your own Point of View Documents, and Top Line Videos, Ari is building a set of courses to teach you how, including the templates so you can make your own. You can sign up on his website.

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

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