Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Franny Gant

Head shot of Frances Gant holding a massive cabbage

How did you get started in UX?

I’ve had a chequered history of work before UX - private, public and third sector work. I was a digital typesetter for a London local authority print unit. That was digital pre-press production before the internet existed. I did lots of layout and typographic work.

We ran our paper housing benefit forms for approval via the Plain English Campaign. Which I think was actually a good background for learning usability. I learnt a lot about making things usable, even something on paper still has to be understood by the people filling it in. Sequence and flow are important, as well as language.

I always wondered with things like leaflets, booklets and the forms we sent out from the council, ‘how do you know this design is good’?

When the internet came along, it was a natural thing to get some training and learn about HTML and ‘new media’ as it was called. I started to think I should retrain and get more into web design.

So I launched into learning about web stuff at the same time I moved to San Francisco. My main reason for moving there was love, but it coincided with this time of learning about the web. Around 2000 there was a digital gold rush going on! I learnt a lot about all sorts of software; about designing and publishing websites - CSS, javascript and HTML - how things got put together.

It was at that point I first learned about the elements of user experience. And read Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things.

I worked lots of different jobs in web and print design in the States and returned to the UK in 2008 and looked for web design work here. That wasn’t easy for me, without much of a network. I came across a design agency called Flow - because I really liked their design of the National Maritime Museum. Flow were the first agency I’d ever looked at that talked about UX and what a UX designer role was. All the things they described in the role of UX designer fitted with things I’d done in the past.

Before I was a typesetter I did a social anthropology degree. I’d never really thought about applying that in my work. I wasn’t planning on going anywhere to do an ethnographic study. I was interested to see that ethnography was part of doing UX design. That brought all those different, mad things I’d done back together in a circle and made me think maybe I’m suited to this field.

So then I started to find out how to get into UX. It was 2009 or so and people I talked to from UXPA were saying ‘go do a masters degree in Human Computer Interaction’. It felt like a huge thing to go back to school again but it seemed right.

I went to UCL - studying part time because I had to work as well. Doing the HCI degree gave me the ability and skills to conduct exploratory research and make design experiments.

I graduated with an MSc in 2011. I worked an internship at Rated People. That was great for seeing how the things I’d learned in college were applied in the real world. I got my first UX job as a UX architect at House of Fraser. I learnt a lot of interaction design skills, wireframing and getting design specs ready to hand over to the developers.

My next job was more research focused at a digital agency. They called me a UX researcher and were selling research as part of their services. I moved more away from design, I felt like I didn’t have the right muscles for it. I found more of an affinity with understanding how people use things and whether things work or not. It goes back to those paper forms. Understanding how people’s minds work - how you help them know what they can do next.

What did you do next?

Moving into research was great. I worked at Mumsnet as the only person in a UX role. Their head of product was really open to bringing UX to the product process.

It was around this time that I became aware of GDS because, as a UX team of one, I was always looking for resources and best practice. If there was a design problem I thought… ‘someone must have thought of this before, right?’

GDS always came up as a good example of doing research and testing and their blogs were really helpful.

I got a call when Parliament Digital Service was hiring and I pulled out all the stops to get a job there. We were trying to emulate GDS in Parliament, with the model of user centred product teams working agile.

Steve Bromley was my manager, he set up the research team there. He’s written a great book about setting up user research teams, by the way (Building User Research Teams). Parliament is where I got my grounding in how to do research as part of a multidisciplinary team and how to bring them along with you.

Being embedded in a team as a researcher really lets you understand what people are trying to find out and why they’ve made designs in that way. You’re in a better position to work out how to do research for what they need to know.

I’m still in the public sector now. I was at the Care Quality Commission and I’m currently at the Home Office. We’re working on police technology, on a system people will use in the Police, Prison and Probation services to manage high risk offenders and protect the public.

It’s really interesting work and it’s vital infrastructural stuff. It’s the first time where I can’t just flippantly say ‘nobody's gonna die’, like I have in the past with commercial UX. It’s serious stuff that’s done to protect people. It’s important work.

Do you feel any pressure doing this sort of work? Is there anything in place to help look after researchers in your team?

There is pressure there, you don’t want to allow a bad product to go out.

The people that are doing public protection work on the front line need a system that’s going to really support them, so if we miss something as a team it could come back to bite, somebody could slip through a net.

Home Office have got a really tight ethics board process. Part of my extra mural activity is being part of the ethics board, I’m just starting to learn how it works. We follow the Market Research Society code of practice. We’ve got quite a tight process for getting informed consent for research. Every researcher has to send out information to participants letting them know who we are and why they’ve been asked to do it and what we will do with their data.

Then there's the process of getting ethical approval for some research work. If you will be doing research with vulnerable participants, or going into a situation that might be risky for researchers, you need to get ethical approval. That means you’re basically thinking about your own safety and the safety of the researchers on your team. That’s for both physical and emotional safety.

It does feel like part of the ethos of Home Office research is you don’t have to put yourself in harm's way. If you feel uncomfortable you should be able to say ‘right, we’re gonna stop’. And you feel a responsibility to care about your participants too.

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

The best and leanest way I’ve ever done this is with people within a close team. Having the designers and developers take part in doing the research. I’ve had success getting teams to do the analysis collaboratively. Then it’s really quick to agree on the findings and work out what needs to change - ‘this is what we’ve found and now we’re making a decision to change something’. That’s been a rapid and satisfying way to work.

In findings, I visualise things for people if I can. If we’re doing usability testing, it’s good to visually connect the thing we tested with what happened. I usually structure it with a headline finding, then the evidence about what happened and then why this affects users. I’ve used that structure written into slides, text docs or in spreadsheets. That basic structure - something I learned from GDS - is a good way for people to understand how evidence from research has led to the findings.

What do you think about the growing trend to get other members of the team, designers, product managers etc, to do research?

Well apart from wondering if it’s gonna put me out of a job! I think it is good. I’ve had some really capable colleagues get involved with research. I think you need to be working closely with people and have a good enough relationship so you can point out if research hasn't been done as rigorously as it could have.

There’s always that tension between doing good research and the benefits of people just being in contact with the users.

I do think, as researchers, we see things that our teammates don’t necessarily notice. I mean, even as a researcher there have been things that I’ve not really understood until I’ve replayed the video or audio a few times. And you know, if you’d only watched the recording once, you would have completely missed what the issue was.

I guess the untrained eye might miss some of that, so it’s a balance… it’s good to get the team to do a first analysis and then have the time to take it away as a researcher and do a bit of synthesis yourself. That’s a bit of a luxury you’re not always afforded.

What’s your favourite research method?

I really enjoy the depth interview, where you get into the nitty gritty of someone’s world and what they are trying to do. When you get into the zone of really actively listening and capturing all the richness that leads to understanding what’s important for them. It’s endlessly fascinating to hear about other people.

These days, I feel like I’m missing quite a lot of context. I’ve done a lot of remote stuff in the last few years and I miss actually going to places where the people are working and being able to observe them.

I also like a nice usability test. Thinking about how to lead people through a journey, to get the best insights. It’s good for demonstrating to the team the good or poor parts of the design.

So those are the bread and butter methods; I’d like to do some more different things, like diary studies. They’ve come up a couple of times as an option but there hasn’t been time for them.

If you’re in a heavy delivery culture, in the late phase of design, it’s not necessarily as appropriate.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

Keep going! It wasn’t easy for me to get a first junior role. Not sure if there are better opportunities for entry level roles these days. Joining a UX professional group - UXPA - and networking was good for me. If you can find an internship, it’s worth doing to get experience and build a portfolio.

Try out different things and learn as much as possible. I’ve read a lot of research and design books and articles and gone to meetups and talks. I volunteered at UX London a couple of times - and got to hear a few of the speakers there.

What book/video/podcast would you recommend?

Well my favourite is Erika Hall. I like her writing, it’s very clear and she’s very funny. (Just Enough Research). Her talks are great - there’s a few of those on YouTube.

Indi Young is very inspiring. I would love to be able to afford to go on some of her training.

And there’s a really great read by Susan Weinschenk (100 more things every designer needs to know about people). But anything around how people think and psychology is good to read.

I follow lots of research and design people on twitter (they are probably moving off twitter now!).

A couple of podcasts I like are ‘99 percent invisible’ and ‘Making Tech Better’.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

Twice now, I’ve moved to live in another country - London to San Francisco and back again. That’s been exciting and hard at the same time. I retrained quite late in life into the UX field and doing my masters degree was a big challenge.

Since the field of user centred design is still quite young, it’s new and exciting, there are challenges with that. Where organisations don’t really know how UCD fits with their processes. Also, I still feel new to it. I tend to want a ‘proper’ way to do things and to build on that. I have to remind myself there are different ways to do things and it’s ok to experiment and be flexible.

That’s a personal challenge - I sometimes wonder if I know what I’m doing. But often, when I’ve done work I didn’t think was any good, other people have said, ‘that was really great!’. I realise my own judgement of my work is different to what other people perceive. Being ‘good enough’ is fine, I don’t have to be perfect.

What are you most proud of?

My allotment is my passion and hobby. Growing things and gardening is a real pleasure. I’m proud of what I’ve done there. I’ve developed from a small patch to a double plot. Building the beds, and putting up a polytunnel. Each year I’m learning new things about plants and dealing with whatever happens. Weather, pests… all the different challenges. Sowing seeds is an act of hope. I’ve come to realise I’m pretty resilient.

Where do you see the future of UX Research going?

I guess it depends on the technology really… Things like voice assistants and AI are becoming more common. As these new interfaces appear, people have new interactions we need to design.

Going back to that question about other people learning to do research, maybe it will become so everybody does UX - accessibility and usability become ubiquitous principles. It’s a nice idea, to put yourself out of a job. It would be ideal if everyone thinks like that and it becomes the norm.

I don’t know how long that will take us, organisations vary in their design maturity. It’s been difficult to find a team that’s fully user centered because people are still working in ways that use ‘expert opinion design’. In the big hierarchical organisations people aren’t comfortable with people doing a bit of each other’s jobs.

I feel sometimes that I’m in this cohort of people saying ‘we’ve got the new way of doing everything and if you listen to us and do user centred design and UX, everything will be fine.’ But maybe somebody else is going to come along soon with another new thing and everybody’s attention will turn to them.

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

One side of having a governing body sounds a bit strict and constraining. I think it might hinder some things actually. It would also set up a real inside/outside world that doesn’t feel right.

I mean, it’d be nice to be able to say ‘I’m licensed to do user research, listen to me’ and have all that authority, but really I think that could be exclusive and make us more aloof as a profession. On the other hand, I do think it could be great to have some sort of guiding body - to share best practice advice - in the same way I have looked to GDS for standards to follow.

Thanks to Franny for taking the time to speak with me. You can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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

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