Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Harriet Swan

Head shot of Harriet Swan

How did you get started in UX?

My background is more on the market research side. I studied social anthropology at University as I always knew I was fascinated by people, but I didn’t know where it would lead.

When I graduated I was open to different career paths and I kinda fell into research and loved it.

For about six years or so I was working on the market and brand research side of things. I started off at one of the big research companies GfK and I really enjoyed that and learnt a lot.

But I was mainly working on one big tracker, which led me to choose to move to a smaller more boutique agency where I was exposed to a broader range of methodologies and clients.

So then I took a career break and moved to Canada. I was now looking for a role that would use my research expertise and skills, but one of my previous frustrations was not necessarily seeing the impact of my research or giving recommendations and not being able to follow up on them, so that really attracted me to the UX side.

I now work in an agency where we do a lot of AB testing and we use the research as a way to complement that.

It really really appealed to me, having a more tangible purpose to what I’m doing and being able to combine methodologies. So not just having one methodology of research but also being able to advise on the best methodology to tackle a business need and combining the behavioral quantitative stuff with the more deep insights in qual and using them together to help answer different business questions.

Can you give an example of how you might join methodologies?

So there are lots of different use cases.

One of them is using qualitative research to inform the experiments we might run. We might have identified that there’s a certain flow on a website that we want to focus on. Obviously you can come up with loads of different hypotheses and improvements using best practice and expertise. But I think using research and getting people to go through that experience first and understand it from their point of view and what’s most important to them, can help prioritise where we think we can have the most impact in testing. We can then validate insights with an AB test, because we all know people can’t predict their behavior.

We’re also increasingly doing qualitative research at the same time or after running an AB test. So then we’re able to analyse both together and get an understanding of the why behind the behaviour we observed, to help inform what to do next.

The other place we are using research is much earlier in the design process. I think this is an area where there’s a lot of opportunity but often I feel designs get too far along before research is brought in. If you can bring research in, even if it’s a very low fidelity wireframe, to just check you are going in the right direction before people are too invested in the design, that can help quickly and quite cost efficiently move that design along before the time and resources are put into building that out for a live site or experiment.

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

I think it’s around building confidence and aligning your recommendation with the business question the stakeholder is looking to answer.

So there will be some questions where you don’t necessarily need a mix of methodologies, but there are several reasons why mixing methods is the best approach to take. I think one of them is building confidence around a decision. If you have more than one data point and type of insight you can be much more confident, you can see it has more weight behind it.

Also the methodologies have very different use cases so by being able to tap into the different methodologies you’re able to answer a much broader range of questions.

Whereas if you’re too focused on just doing contextual interviews you get a really strong sense of those motivations and mental models, but the question is always what in terms of behaviour can we be confident in. Then on the other side, if you’re too focused on the behavioural component only, you’re not really understanding the why behind it.

Our positioning as a company is supporting decision making with evidence, aligning the best evidence or combination of evidence types to help make that decision.

The way we’re increasingly working with most of our clients is on a monthly basis, doing both the AB testing and the research as recurring activities. Once you start doing that the value is just so clear.

If there are hesitancies we often do a study as a proof of concept. Lets just do something and once you’ve shown them the impact people are pretty bought in.

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

I think the most impactful is where we can combine insights across the methodologies. The way we typically work when we’re combining them is to try and not bias each other too much. So the AB testing team will go off and do that and the research team will go off and do the research and then we’ll come together and talk about the insights. There might be some contradictions or scenarios where it’s not quite clear what the narrative is. It really helps to focus on what the story is to tell here and most importantly what are the recommendations. We make sure we’re speaking in very actionable terms of what to do next.

In terms of the research side I think the most powerful way, and it’s nothing revolutionary, is just showing videos of users because it’s just amazing to see the effect that has on people who might be a bit hesitant. People get it because it’s coming from a human and it’s got a lot more weight and is much more memorable. I think it humanises the story and helps to understand the context as well.

What are your favorite tools for research?

I really like a tool called Dscout.

They’re a tool where you can do all your recruitment as well as diary missions or interviews.

What I love about it is you can have a really nuanced screener. You’re able to ask lots of questions but also have potential participants upload videos or images, which I’ve not come across before.

It’s a really good way of qualifying people and getting a sense from these shorter videos of who might be good to have a longer interview with. You get really good quality participants and a really relevant audience which in other tools can be a little bit of a challenge sometimes.

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

I guess the thing that comes immediately to mind is being open to ambiguity.

At the beginning of my career, when you’re starting off in a role you feel like you need to have all the answers. I’d feel like one research study would have to provide everything.

Whereas I’ve increasingly become a lot more comfortable with saying what things the research hasn’t been able to answer and where there’s still ambiguity or uncertainty.

It’s given me a lot more confidence as a researcher to feel like I’m working with more integrity. Just being comfortable by not having to have answers to everything and just being curious and diving into those ambiguities, because I think that’s where there’s often the most interesting clues of where to explore more.

What book/video/podcast would you recommend?

I do listen to the odd podcast but I don’t avidly follow them.

I’d say there are a few people I like following that I take a lot of value from. One on the behavioral science side is Rory Sutherland, I’ve recently read his book Alchemy.

I’ve also recently read Split the Difference which is more about negotiation, it’s written by an FBI hostage negotiator who then turned the skill into how to do sales negotiations. So it’s not research related but a lot of the techniques he talks about are really transferable, like labelling or mirroring. I found it fascinating.

On the research side I follow Erica Hall and Nikki Anderson. I think all Nikki’s articles and posts are just spot on, and she covers such a wide range of topics such as research methodologies but also how to progress in your career.

And also Dscout, the tool I mentioned before. They have a slack community and website where they do webinars and articles called People Nerds and again I find that they have a really good range of topics which really resonate, and are helpful for the team that I work with. If we have a question it’s a good place to go.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

I think one of the biggest challenges is answering the objections around qualitative research not being valid. It’s taken me a really long time, and it’s still sometimes a conversation I struggle with.

I’ve moved into a field where a lot of people and clients are very metric focused. So we’re working with people who historically have been much more focused on experimentation, the qualitative research side is newer.

There’s been a really big education piece both internally as well as externally of why qualitative research is valid, even if you’re only speaking to 10 people. But that’s still something I can find challenging to speak to.

I think sometimes there are going to be some people you can’t convince. It’s definitely something that I found challenging in my previous experience before I moved into qual. Even I was thinking isn’t qual just a bit fluffy?

I’d say the other challenge relates to that education piece of helping people understand research and its scope. People often want to answer so much within one research study, and I’m a people pleaser, so I naturally want to answer them all, but I’ve learnt from experience if you try and do too much you don’t get as much value.

So I think it’s about being able to give rationale for why we need to be specific with our objectives and scope, prioritising what we want to get out of this study, and addressing other questions in additional studies.

What are you most proud of?

I feel very proud of where I am currently in my career. As I mentioned I was very new to UX when I joined the company and I probably shouldn’t say this but I’m not a naturally techie person. I wasn’t versed in the lingo.

At first I thought oh god what am I doing. But actually I think it’s been a real strength, I’m surrounded by people who are really versed in it but actually the majority of the population aren’t so I think it helps me empathise with the people I’m speaking to.

Also when I started it was mainly me doing most of the UX research and getting things going.

But I joined at a good time in terms of traction and we’ve grown rapidly over the past couple of years. I’ve been a real part of driving that growth, creating processes and working with other internal teams. I now manage a team of five.

I am proud of joining a field that I wasn’t naturally that comfortable in at the beginning, but applying the experience and skillset I had to build a UX Research team that work closely with other teams at Conversion, as well as a variety of clients.

Now you’re a manager do you still get to do research?

I do still do quite a lot of research but it’s definitely a shift.

It’s a challenge being a manager and striking the right balance of supporting people while also giving them space to develop. But I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s extremely rewarding and we’ve been able to grow and I’ve been able to share my experiences to support that growth, and drive innovation.

Our team is made up of a very diverse set of experiences and skills. We’ve got one member who has worked for the company for over four years, they were on the experimentation side and shifted over so he has been a great driver in developing our mixed methods approach.

And then we’ve got one who studied cognitive science and then design and another who was in clinical research and then moved across. It’s really nice to have this real combination of different skills and experiences and be learning together and bringing something different.

But yeah definitely a challenge. I don’t want to stop doing research but I probably should shift away from it a little bit more.

Does your company have a clear career development path for researchers?

Yeah, that’s something we’re still developing. We have created different levels with clear competencies attached to each of these, to help identify areas for development and support career progression.

So we’ve got a junior UX researcher, mid level researcher, senior researcher and UX research manager, and I’ve tried to really articulate what I think are the key skills or experiences attached to each of these.

We’re doing so many projects at once so I’m in charge of resourcing those so sometimes it’s based on who has time, but I also try and keep in mind who's not been involved in a deep contextual motivational study, who’s not had exposure to that client and that kind of thing.

It’s a mixture of research skills and client management which can be really challenging learning how to present insights or speak about research with clients and people who might not be that familiar with research.

Where do you see the future of UX Research going?

That's a very hard question. I think it’s growing rapidly. In terms of industry it’s a relatively new discipline so we’re seeing this massive growth of people who see the value of it.

It’s a really valuable role, but the challenge can be that research teams can be very siloed in an organisation, doing great work but it can be really hard to communicate across all teams.

There is something about UX research that’s quite multidisciplinary, it can almost be the intersection for lots of things like design and strategy which is a really powerful role to play.

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

I think something is probably needed in the long run to make sure people are working ethically and have some kind of guidelines to follow. At the moment there’s things like Nielsen Norman and different qualifications you can do. It’s something I’ve looked at when I’m thinking about working ethically, I’ve struggled to find any resources, so there probably is a need for something.

But I can see how on the other side it could hinder in certain ways. I’d say on the whole I’d see that as a positive thing for the industry.

Thanks to Harriet for taking the time to speak with me. She’s just spoken at Experiment Nation about mixed methods and what she’s doing at Conversion. If you’d like to find out more you can find Harriet on LinkedIn.

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

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