Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Fiona Warner

Head shot of Fiona Warner

How did you get started in UX?

So it's taken me a long time to find a career. I've had many jobs and I've done some weird and wonderful things in the past and I usually figure it out as I go. But this time I actually made a conscious decision. I was working as the office manager of a design studio and it dawned on me that I really hated doing this, I felt like a dog’s body for everyone who couldn’t figure out how to resolve their tech issues or their stationary issues, and I thought there’s got to be something better out there for me to do.

So I took some time out and spent about six months working in a coffee shop, just to chill and think about what I wanted to do. I love coffee and owning my own coffee shop was an idea for a while and I wanted to figure out if I’d even be comfortable doing that.

But while I was working at the coffee shop I realised that if I wanted to run my own coffee shop I’d probably need some money so I should probably find a job that pays me slightly better that I can do for a couple of years before I retire to my little coffee shop in the countryside.

So then I had to figure out what career path I was going to take. I couldn’t go back to uni and take a whole year out to learn how to do something. Then strangely enough I was on Facebook one day and a little ad popped up saying ‘are you looking to change career?’ and I was like ‘yes, yes I am’. So I clicked on it and it was an ad for General Assembly.

I had no idea what they did, so I looked at their courses and they do a bootcamp in UX, but I didn’t know what UX was. So I went and did my research and realised that a bunch of people in my network at that point were UX designers and researchers so I reached out to them. We had coffee and I asked them what they did and what their job looked like and what they were actually trying to do and I thought it sounded really interesting. I felt like I’d been doing parts of that my entire life without even knowing, trying to improve processes and giving feedback on systems. And I thought, I reckon I can do this, so I signed up to the course.

Those bootcamps are intense. You basically give up every aspect of your life for three months and you live and breathe whatever you’re studying. But it was the most exciting experience I’ve had in a very long time, where I actually loved everything we were learning. It was fast paced, but it was really really cool and I came out at the end knowing this is what I want to do.

But of course a bootcamp gives you a taster of all the disciplines in the UX world and it’s not as simple as that. You still have to figure out who you want to work for and if you want to be a researcher or a designer or a UI designer, they even give you a taste of coding, so do you want to get into that side of things. Take your pick. So I had to try and figure out who I wanted to work for and who I didn’t. But since then I’ve not really looked back, it’s just been that continual learning curve which has been so much fun. If you want a career where you learn every single day, then UX is the world to be in.

What role did you go for?

Unfortunately, when you come out of the bootcamps you are a junior all over again. So you pretty much take whatever job you can get. There were certain companies or industries that I wasn’t interested in, but I was very open to everything else because I don’t know how to rule something out until I’ve had a go at it.

My first two roles were actually as a UX designer as a sole practitioner, so I was the only UX person within a dev or product team. It was the blind leading the blind but it was also a good opportunity to try everything and see what stuck.

You’re in a research role now, at what point did you realise you were interested in research?

After my second design role.

I was interested in focusing a bit more on research because I felt like if I wanted to be really good, I needed to focus on one thing at a time. And I felt I had more of an affinity with research. It just came a lot more naturally to me because I don’t have a design background.

So when I was looking for a new job I focused more on the research roles, but I think I got lucky with my next boss who saw that side of me as well. He was head of the UX team but had 10 years experience as a researcher himself, so he was very much my first mentor in terms of really understanding research and getting my teeth into that, but he also gave me plenty of space to try stuff and experiment and see what would work for me and the company.

What other resources have you used to learn more about research?

I have a shelf full of books and I consume medium articles like they are going out of fashion. Just reading everything, especially focusing on the methodologies that I am using at the time.

When I first started it was usability testing, so I did all the research around that and understanding how to really do that well, and teaching the team around me as well so we learnt from each other about what worked and what didn’t and we would refine it as we went.

I learn better when it’s in the context of what I’m using day to day, it beds in a lot better. So when I hit a new methodology I consume everything, learn everything, become an expert and put it into practice and then move onto the next thing.

What book would you recommend?

It’s really tricky. Every time we have a team meeting we talk about what we’re listening to, what we’re watching and what we’re reading and if there’s a good recommendation in there about anything that might feed into research I make a note.

My reading list for books is huge, so I have a rule that I’m only allowed to buy two books at a time, and I’m not allowed to buy new books until I’ve read them, otherwise they just sit on the shelf and never get read.

But one book that I got when I started was The User Experience Team of One by Leah Buley and it’s so good because it covers some interesting aspects of how to really get people involved, how to do a bit of PR around what is research and really engage people. So although some of the stuff is now basic compared to where I am in my learning, there’s still some really good tips on how to engage other people and I love that.

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

I’ve found that on the product side of things I’ve not had to work so hard to convince people to do research because most good product teams will understand the importance of it. They may not be able to do as much of it as they actually want to, and you may have to find a way to ramp that up for them. Sometimes you actually have to convince teams when not to do research, that it’s not actually going to help them. So learning to say no and convincing them of that is just as hard.

But when you step outside of digital and product, that’s when you have to convince people to do research. And it’s not so much convincing them, as making them aware that you can do research - what it is, how it helps, when to do it and why to do it. Once they know that they can tap into you to do that then you’ve got endless amounts of work.

So it’s never usually convincing, it’s just creating awareness.

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

I think it depends on the team but I very much take the approach that research is a team sport. I work quite centralised so I’m not embedded in a squad or specific to a team, I am servicing anyone and everyone who wants research. So it’s not my research, it’s their research. So they have to be a part of it to understand it. It’s an upfront criteria that if they want me to do research, they have to be part of it. I expect them to observe sessions, help me with analysis, we talk about participants for recruitment and build everything together. I am very much the facilitator, moderator and ‘expert’ and I sense check things as we go, but they’re involved because I want them to be able to really make sense of what we learn.

When we do usability testing I would never do a report. We use a process called ‘What, so what, what next’. I first read about this in a blog by Will Myddelton, and it’s related to atomic research. We always do that together as a group, so we usually have the UX and UI designers and quite often the tech leads or a couple of the key devs are involved. We document everything we’ve learnt and discussed and decided to action, then it’s done and we move on.

Discovery is a little bit deeper and we would probably document slightly more but I have an aversion to reports because no one ever reads them, they just collect dust.

I try to find different ways of capturing the insights that we need and sharing those. Little snippets of video or a show reel or just presenting it and take what you need from it. But I usually make sure the team is involved because it’s their research and it’s not for me to make decisions for them.

I have found that you do need to find a way of documenting the work well, and storing the insights as well as possible. Even if no one else needs them, I find that a few months down the line I’m often being asked for something and then I have to go find that insight - that needle in a haystack.

What’s your favourite research method?

I don’t generally do favourites anywhere in life, so probably not a favourite method, I would say that I like to try new methods.

In my last role we didn’t do surveys because we had a team who handled surveys, whereas now in my new role we’re allowed to do our own and I’m like ooh time to learn a new thing! Over the last couple of months I have been really crunching my knowledge on surveys and how to write a good survey and then doing the analysis and really understanding how much goes into a good survey.

So I don’t really do favourites but I love trying new methods and learning the in’s and out’s of those and what works and what doesn’t, which I find really helps when you have conversations with people and they say ‘we want to do usability testing’ and you think ‘are you sure?’ let’s pull it back a bit and talk about what you want first, then I can make recommendations of what methods might work for us.

Who inspires you?

I find inspiration a tricky one. I wouldn’t say there’s any one person.

In Bristol there’s a place called The Wave, it’s an inland lake you can go to surf. We had a guest speaker at work, who was the guy who founded and built The Wave. Listening to his story and why he built it was really cool, the reasoning behind it was just incredible.

So hearing stories like that, knowing their drive and their passion and hearing the blockers that they had to go through, that is always inspiring. It makes you want to get out of bed, and go ‘if they can do it I can do it!’

What’s been your biggest challenge?

I would say changing careers later in life and becoming a junior again is such a big challenge because you have to deal with your own fears and thinking you’re not good enough.

And you have to deal with the financial aspect, you’re suddenly starting at the bottom of the ladder again when you’ve got used to a certain lifestyle and now you don’t earn very much can be quite shocking in some respects. It takes a lot of adjustment.

But also dealing with the industry. There isn’t enough being done in the industry to support juniors, it’s really competitive and can be hard to get your foot in the door and as an older person you’re never sure whether it’s working for you, or against you.

There’s a lot of fear of failing at an older age and wondering why you’ve decided to do this and having to prove yourself when you feel like you did that ten or twenty years ago.

I’ve joined new teams who are younger than me and they expect you to have more experience because you’re older and I’m like ‘nope, still learning from you’. Dealing with misconceptions and your own fears can be quite challenging.

How do you deal with those fears?

I’m pretty open, so I have dealt with it by being quite honest about where I am. I’m very honest about who I am and where I’ve come from and why I’ve chosen to change career.

But by also constantly asking for feedback. You would think it would be quite standard in the UX world to ask for feedback because we’re used to critiquing and learning from each other and having empathy. But actually I come across teams who don’t do that as standard. I make sure I’m openly asking for feedback and learning from other people.

Being open like that not only helps me learn faster and do better but it breaks down the barriers to the people around me. They don’t see me as someone who is closed off or comes across as more experienced because I’ll say ‘come on, let’s work together’.

But it also proves that I’m not a junior in my mindset, I am capable of asking for help and feedback and taking that on board and actually using it. My years of life experience help me to feel more comfortable in an unknown environment.

What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?

I wish I’d started on the research route sooner. I look back on my time now in a design role where I was almost doing research but I wasn’t taking a research approach.

I wish I’d really understood the difference between them and where your natural soft skills might help. I feel like I could have probably done better in those roles if I’d been steered in the right direction a bit more.

What are you most proud of?

At my last role I took on mentoring an intern. I mentored her for six months and we actually offered her a junior role and now she has gained her first promotion.

I’m so proud of the work that she has accomplished and the way that she has grown and evolved over time.

She always had it in her to be a great researcher but she was quite timid in her approach and didn’t really understand how to manage the process when you're running research with a team, and how to be the expert in the room. Even at an intern level you still know more than anyone else when it comes to research.

Watching her grow and the speed at which she really developed into this amazing researcher was the best thing ever.

It was a proud moment for her but also for me - I actually helped someone really grow into their role. Mentoring was fantastic, so I’d love to do that again. It’s just an interesting experience, it teaches you a lot but you also get to see another person grow and blossom as well.

Where do you see the future of UX Research going?

It’s interesting because we’re having this conversation at work at the moment. We are very much under the umbrella of digital and product and actually we think we should be business wide, so we should be helping all parts of the business, getting to know and understand our clients better. So many parts of the business do external research or go to agencies and we think some of this we could be doing.

I’d quite like to think that user research won’t stay focused on products and digital so much but becomes more part of that whole service design and is part of the whole business and people actually buy into it and use it in everything they do. I think the User Experience teams have that mindset, but often the businesses don’t.

There are so many parts of what you learn in research that can help other parts of the business. So I’m hoping that in the future we no longer sit under digital products but actually sit, and are accessible to, the whole business and lead the way there. I don’t think we need to be leading the business but I think we should definitely be helping the business do better.

Where could we do better?

I’m very conscious that the industry isn’t great at supporting juniors coming into the industry. Whether they’ve come from a bootcamp or straight out of university we need to make the space for those people to be able to learn and grow so that we have enough people in UX roles. We want a seat at the table but there’s not enough of us to fill all the chairs at the moment.

How do we make sure that there are enough of us? I think making sure that wherever you work there is space for interns or grads or juniors to come and learn from us is really important. Because if we’re not going to make space for and help them then we’re going to end up with a bottleneck at some point where we just run out of people who are ready to take on those experienced roles.

I’m really into supporting the juniors coming into the world and making sure they get what they need to become mid-weights and one day seniors, or specialists. But to be able to get that foot in the door is the hardest part and I think every one of us should be doing more to support them.

Do you think it’s time for UX professionals to have a governing body to help with training, standards and ethics?

Yes I think so, especially with ethics becoming a much stronger topic now. It may have been something that was very much a part of the academic world of research but it’s becoming more and more apparent in the user research industry now.

I don’t know if there should be one governing body, but I think there definitely needs to be a more centralised resource out there. It can be very hard to find training on standards and ethics, and they vary from country to country and every country is evolving at it’s own speed [in relation to UX].

I feel like it would be great if there was a resource for each country that people have contributed to and can be used and learn from each other. Just a place for people to know where to go, because at the moment we’re all scrambling, there’s no one place to go, you just have to keep digging until you find something and then adapt it for yourself, so it would be great if there was a collective. But how it might be governed I don’t know.

Do you still want to open your own coffee shop?

It’s actually something my partner and I do keep talking about. Every time we make something yummy to eat, we talk about how we could serve that in the coffee shop and how to price it. And we still love our coffee and try new flavour profiles.

However, Covid has changed my perspective on this. I’ve seen how the hospitality industry has been affected and would have been incredibly hard if that was our main income. It is something that still interests me, but it’s not our main focus right now.

My partner has also made a career change, and he will need time to settle into his new career. So we have a few years before we consider our next move. Who knows what that might be.

Thanks to Fiona for taking the time to speak to me.

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

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