Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Laura Yarrow

Head shot of Laura Yarrow

How did you get started in the world of UX?

I came down from Yorkshire to attend Bournemouth University. There weren’t many jobs in IT in the small town I came from and I didn’t fancy somewhere like London or a bigger city.

Bournemouth was lovely with the beach and everything, so I stayed in Bournemouth and got my first job at a software house developing CMS software.

My idea of what I would be doing was very different from what I ended up doing. I was always a bit of a nerd and I thought I’d be like in Tron or the Matrix or something programming NASA rockets and then you go to work on CMS software and it’s not quite the high tech future I imagined. Although those developer roles absolutely gave me a really good foundation in tech that has helped me in subsequent posts.

I think that’s how I got onto UX, I went from solving fairly standard computer problems that were very black and white and not always exciting, to solving human problems which are far more interesting and so many more shades of grey. We’re fascinating creatures humans, aren’t we?

What’s been your favorite role?

Probably the one I’m doing now, I’ve only just started but I’m already enjoying it greatly. It’s quite interesting, design in government, seeing what the team are working on is fascinating because there are so many services that they are working on and it’s trying to get this helicopter view of what they are doing and trying to work out how everything fits together. So although I’ve only been there 4 weeks I’m already enjoying it so much.

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

By letting your research tell a story. So showing highlight reels or clips of research participants that really helps them connect with the people and understand what the problems are and what’s impacting them.

And always involve people because there is a lack of understanding about what we do in the first place, there’s a lack of belief in what we do and it’s actually because they don’t understand what we do or have never seen it before so the more you can pull back the curtain and show them, the more they understand and see the value.

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

It’s not about keeping them in the dark and suddenly putting this report on their desk at the end of the project. It’s about getting them involved all the way through, involving them at the start, the middle and the end.

Get their views at the start, what their objectives are, what is their hypothesis on what’s going to happen. Then play the true/false game at the end. You said this, do you think it was true or false? Then you can reveal if it was or not which is always quite revealing as so often they’re wrong.

What’s your favourite research method?

Just talking to people.

I do tend to like things that are quite tactile as well. I love a diary study where you’re getting things like pictures and little surprises of what they’re sending you.

But actually, I think it comes back to just talk to people and observe what they are doing. I think those are the best things you can do and the most rewarding.

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back to when you were just starting out?

I’d have told myself - document your work, document the projects you’ve done and document it well in a system. Store it digitally or somewhere. What you did, the problem you solved, what the objectives were, the challenges you faced; so you can create all these little case studies.

Because we look back and we forget what we’ve done, and when we want to go for a new job or you want to prove what you’ve done or draw on a method you used a while ago you don’t have it. So document your work somewhere and be able to refer back to it when you need it.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

It’s still convincing people of the value of design I think. Trying to articulate why human centred design is important and how it can benefit them. I think that’s just an ongoing challenge.

And joining a team remotely is hard. You just don’t get all the water cooler moments or corridor bumping intos and for someone trying to lead a team, it’s quite hard when you’re somewhere else. Especially when the team already know each other.

What do you do when you get stuck?

Go for a walk. I find I just have to stick my headphones on and do something physical. Try and walk it off and try not to think about it, then it’ll just come to you. If you’re stuck, your brain just needs a rest usually.

If I’m working on screens a lot then I take it to paper or go somewhere different, sitting on the sofa or on my bed, somewhere you associate with relaxation. I suddenly get the muse! It just hits me - Oh I know what the answer is now, because I’ve relaxed my brain, but while you sit at a computer you’re in work mode and that’s a very set mindset.

Who inspires you?

So many people. I follow a lot of thought leaders but that’s not because I think they are right it’s more I want to know what the current topics are that people are debating, so I do follow a lot of people like Erica Hall and Jared Spool, Stephen Anderson, Brigette Metzler, and many others.

I’m quite inspired at the moment by all the teams at GDS, because I’m working with them and they are just amazing, it’s so progressive. They are really pushing things forward on accessibility and inclusivity and ways of working and the tools they use.

What book/video/podcast would you recommend?

I’ve just read The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks.

It’s a really interesting read on how we do good. He has this concept of two mountains; the first mountain you’re maybe chasing a career and trying to get somewhere and make something of yourself and then there is this dip. A lot of people have this dip in their life where they’re bereaved, or lose their job or can’t work out what they want to do and they go on this second mountain where they end up in the latter years of their life doing something that’s for society. And it just really captured my interest and I enjoyed it. It’s got lots about community in which I’m really interested in at the moment.

What are you most proud of?

Some of the projects I did with some housing associations. They were doing a big digital transformation project and we came in to do research with all the internal staff. It started off as a transformation project about what technology we should use, where does the information flow and all the internal stuff, without a thought about the customer.

So this turned into a project to give people dignity rather than giving them a new website. It turned into giving the staff the right tools and processes so they could support people who were in dire straits.

It was really rewarding because we turned it round from a project about technology to a project about people and that’s really important.

Where do you see the future of UX Research going?

Thats a big question. Research isn’t really understood, people think you mean academic research or you’re just going to ask people a bunch of questions and it doesn’t really have any rigor to it. I think we’ll see more frameworks come out the way Agile did for software development and different methodologies that are really understood by lots of different disciplines.

I think it’ll be more formalised and I think we’ll see lots more people taking it up as a profession because it is interesting. And also because of things like AI and machine learning, these are jobs you can’t do with a machine, I think you’ll see lots of people who go into research because it’s creative and empathetic and you have to think outside of the box and a machine can’t do that. I think researchers will always be needed. And as we get more digital products and digital services I think there’s this saturation point where you need a researcher who will understand what the issues are so you can get ahead of your competition.

Thanks to Laura for taking the time to speak with me. If you'd like to hear more from Laura subscribe to her monthly People, place and space newsletter or follow her on Twitter.

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

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