Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Lija Hogan

Head shot of Lija Hogan

How did you get started in UX research?

I always wanted to be a researcher, just not in UX.

My high school was the host for the Center of Russian Language and Culture (CORLAC). This was back in the late 80s early 90s, when it was still the Soviet Union. Reagan and Gorbachev had a summit in Reykjavik and while a lot of people probably remember the pictures from that, it had an actual bearing in my life because they decided to have an exchange. I decided then I was going to get a PhD and be an academic librarian.

I chose the University of Michigan for graduate school because it had the combination of top ranking departments for both Slavic and Eastern European studies, as well as library science, However, I started working in the library in the Slavic Eastern and European Studies collections, and learned that it would take 30 years for someone to achieve that goal and I thought, that’s not going to work. I also got a job in the computer lab for the School of Information, and was inspired to work in a field where I could do "computer stuff" and more money. Unfortunately, I have spent very little time in the library space since.

I did a post-grad fellowship for a while, where I helped students become more computer savvy because back then, most people who intended to become librarians weren’t. And then I went off and became a designer and researcher as a consultant.

That was a great experience, because I got to do some work here in the US but also in Europe. I spent about a year doing projects in Europe and they were a combination of both design and research. I think my favorite engagement was I spent several months in Germany at a nuclear power plant. I was working on the front end for a back-end content management system that they wanted both nuclear engineers and administrators to use, that held information about replacement parts for nuclear power plants. The best past was that I got to go around and do research in Spain, Denmark, and Germany with nuclear engineers.

I came back when the dot bomb crash happened and ended up in Chicago, doing UX design and front-end UX and IA work for Orbitz for a short time, and then a management development program at McMaster-Carr. After several years, I moved to Michigan and started working at ForeSee, where I started as an individual contributor in the UX research department and then actually became the director of that team and grew the practice.

About 5 years ago, I wanted to try something different, so I moved over to Usertesting and became a Solutions Consultant because I’d never done any salesy work. The best part of the role is that it is all about ‘how do you do this’ (UX research) and ‘how can you make the platform work for us in our context’.

Then I moved over to the professional services team and helped build up that practice and now I’m working with the customer success team, primarily working on consulting and thought leadership.

You also teach UX research too?

Yes, I teach at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It’s one of the big programmes actually, from a scale perspective and historical perspective too. They started offering a degree in HCI when I was at school there, about 25 years ago. I’ve been teaching the core HCI research classes for undergraduates and graduates, and this past year I’ve just taught a capstone course for the graduate level students and I’m developing a course on UX research at scale for the undergraduates next year.

We have several hundred students across the whole program, but the school offers a number of programs. Some people come with the intention of becoming archivists, librarians, even working in public policy. And over the last several years the University in general has been very active in the MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) space, so I’ve taught one or two of those and I’m just pitching more. They are really focused on providing access to people who are non- traditional learners. It’s also very international. I think a lot of universities are really thinking about how we scale what it is we’re doing and make education more accessible.

What’s been your favorite role?

To a certain extent, I feel like my role now is the most important one. I feel really strongly about the work I am doing around helping to create a robust practice around inclusive research.

And there has never been a time like now. People have actually started to question and really think about what we can do to change how it is that we approach working with people in order to create equitable products and services. It's hard because the people in our profession are not diverse.

It's difficult to make the profession more diverse overnight because of the educational requirements for many roles. That usually means people must have had better than average education. There's already inequality baked into our education systems in most places in the world.

And then organizations are systems in and of themselves and they're reinforcing behaviors that are not inclusive and so, when you say, well, wait a minute, shouldn't we be doing this, or have we thought about that, the systems that are in place sometimes push back or don't change.

Sometimes it isn't even a conscious thing. I think that people's hearts are in the right place, but it's expensive, difficult, and time-consuming to do the right thing, so it's that assumed resource constraint that we use as an excuse to say that's not how we want to spend our time when there are more profitable things to do.

I think that's the next biggest hill to climb. I want to establish better practice around how we do this - how we actually create equity, ask the hard questions, and do the hard work to make more people successful.

Who inspires you?

I’m doing a ton of reading right now actually, because I’m trying to get a firm foundation to support new ways to connect with people.

In November of last year, I took one of Indi Young's courses and that really influenced me. As researchers, we have a highly structured ‘this is how you do it’ approach that we typically use around generative research, but she has this different approach that's focused on using a lot of the principles of cognitive psychology and counseling to actually forge a deeper connection with people and listen more deeply.

So instead of just saying let's just watch people doing an activity, or ask what the gaps around in the experiences people already have, it’s "wait a minute, before we get to that point, we have to question our assumptions about what it is we think people need even outside of the context of the things that we think we want to build."

And it's a very simple concept, it's deceptively simple, though, because that's not how organizations think and act. They are typically focused inward, on thinking about how their structures as they exist can grow to accommodate new needs. Her approach to listening to create empathy with people and actually put it into practice - getting outside of our own organizations' systems - to create tangible deliverables and ways of thinking about supporting users has been very inspirational to me.

Another person is Ruha Benjamin. She’s been thinking about the systems that we have built into technology that create and support inequity.

Kathy O’Neil who wrote Weapons of Math Destruction has also been an inspiration. She’s a great speaker, she came and spoke here at the University a few years ago and spoke compellingly about algorithmic inequality.

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

It really depends on the context around why you were asked to do the work. What did people want at the other end? What permission have you gotten and trust have you built? And you have to find the right language to speak in the context that you are in. So I know of one company where there are formal meetings of 30 minutes. The first 10 minutes is spent reading a formal report. Then, they discuss it. That works for them.

And I’ve seen other companies where personas are baked into everything they do. They are on the walls in the office and during meetings everyone introduces themself with the persona name, so it gets reinforced. And that’s really powerful because you realise that outside of these walls there are people who have these behaviours that we connect with in common and we’re trying to figure out how to help them.

And then there are situations where people just want the punch list. They don’t want the strategy piece, they’ve just rolled out some software, it’s not working and they have to fix it.

Sometimes when you do research you run across bigger issues and determine that something must be done.

I find it's a lot of social engineering, we basically have to go around behind the scenes and figure out who's responsible and who's making decisions and why and what's the history and what can we do to address these challenges so that people use the intelligence we create.

I was in one of the Usertesting roundtable a few weeks ago and someone said “I think I spend about 50% of my time actually doing research and 50% of my time evangelizing it”. And it’s true. Research doesn't mean anything if what you learn just stays in your head.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

I feel like there's the same challenges, to a certain extent, that we had even 25 years ago. We're still doing a lot of evangelizing, but then there are also companies and organizations that get the value of that UX research delivers.

But I also think that we're in a really challenging time in the world. We have built some systems that are very hard to manage at the scale that we are right now with the problems that we have to be thinking about.

You know the kind of ethical and moral questions and practical ones around creating these huge corporations that have different rights and responsibilities and are subject to different rules in different parts of the world where we've got lots of different cultural expectations. The inherent tension between modernity and traditionalism.

As researchers and designers most of us have tried to be objective at worst, and at best, do what we can to make the world a better place, but it’s very hard to do that with all these bad actors taking advantage of supposedly neutral systems. They are taking advantage of these environments that we’ve built that were meant to really promote the best in us, but really seem to actually reinforce the worst of our bad behaviour. I don’t think we have figured out the answer yet, but we have to do it soon because these tensions really threaten to put us in a place that is even more dangerous and I don’t want that for humanity.

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

So I heard this argument about seven or eight years ago and, at the time, everybody in the room was sceptical. Since then, seeing what's happened, I've come around to the idea that we need one. However, look at the history of creating professional organizations for doctors and lawyers. It took hundreds of years, it didn't just happen overnight.

We have UXPA, ACM-CHI, HFES, etc. but we don't have licensure. I think sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know yet because we’ve never done it before, especially at this scale.

You just don't know sometimes what the impact of some of the decisions that you're making will be. And it's hard when you've gotten so far down a path to go back.

What do you do when you get stuck?

That's a good question! I feel like there are different places to get stuck. I think the most common I experience is not getting an answer to the questions or objectives that we started with. So I reel it back in and ask what have we learnt? Then, I think about what would be a better way to actually answer the question. We might need to go back and choose a different methodology. Or maybe we were trying to answer the wrong question.

I think that researchers do better work when they are working with other people, because other people can push us. Sometimes you need to pull in someone who isn’t involved directly but has some domain knowledge to force you outside of your assumptions.

A good long walk is always helpful. I’ve had to create some coping strategies to give myself space to think creatively. For instance, I’ll usually launch a test to time data collection to end on a Thursday or Friday and that gives me some time outside of the office to digest it.

Showers in the morning empty my mind and I always get inspired then.

Brainstorming sessions with others are helpful. They don’t have the assumptions that you do and they are more willing to question what you’re thinking.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

Well I give a lot of advice because I talk to a lot of students, but my top three things would be:

I think you need to spend some time as an ‘innie’ and some as an ‘outie’. What I mean by this is you should be a consultant and you should be a staff employee inside a company. You get the breadth of understanding of what multiple organisations are doing when you're an outie and that’s awesome because you see how the world is such a big and crazy place!

But the perspective you get when you’re in a company is to see something develop over time from the ground up and having to live with the politics and figure out how to maneuver. I think both those skill sets helped me to become a better researcher.

Secondly, I’d say if you have the inclination you should spend some time being a designer and some a researcher. You might even be a developer, although I see that less frequently. It helps you to understand the constraints and speak the language of the people who are receiving and using your insights. It’s a radical way to build empathy but it’s a powerful one.

And third, is stress less about exactly what it is that you’re doing and go for what seems interesting and what you think is going to make you happy. Some people get really wound up about ‘am I picking the right company’ or ‘is this the right job’. Just go and do it for a year and if you don’t like it quit and go do something else. That might mean you go off and do something that’s completely unrelated to what you thought you’d be doing, but it still gives you perspective that you can bring back and leverage if you decide to come back to doing research.

At the beginning of my career I always saw myself as a designer first, but over time the research part has become so interesting to me, because it’s so complex. I’m a curious person and it’s fun to be in this space.

Where do you see the future of UX Research going?

That is a huge question. I see this in my day job because people are wrestling with this, but what does UX research at scale mean? In some senses it means more - more people doing more research alongside more people but they may not always have the title research next to their names.

More is also more inclusive. We have this conventional wisdom that the demographics don’t matter. But I think that, for me, especially coming at this as a woman and a person of colour with a kid who is trans, in a bi-racial marriage, I feel like that demographics matter because there’s so many barriers to even accessing the products or services that we create in our industry. Because our attention is so focused on the people we think we care about most - and not everyone - if you don’t consider those demographics, I think you're missing a lot. We have to challenge that conventional wisdom if we’re going to be more inclusive.

And we need to think of personas in a more open way. Personas actually have to incorporate the needs of people who have intersectional identities. We have to go out and learn about people that we’ve never bothered to connect with before. It’s hard to connect with everyone. There are logistical barriers to getting to people who are poor, or people who don’t look like us, or people who are uneducated so a lot of the time what we build ends up being targeted at people who are, you know, richer, wealthier, whiter, maler. Ethically - and from a business perspective - I think we should be creating a world that is accessible to everyone and that is inclusive of everyone. From a business perspective you’re leaving so much money on the table, when you say "I don’t care about demographics."

Challenging the conventional wisdom is hard. And so many of us in UX research are women and we’re not used to challenging conventional wisdom because sometimes it can put your career at risk. You also have to take a hard look at yourself too sometimes, and understand that you've been doing it wrong too. It takes some humility to take a step back and ask, what can I do to change and do this better?

Thank you to Lija for spending the time to speak to me. Lija is currently teaching a course on UX Research at Scale on Coursera looking at how surveys, moderated remote research, AB tests and analytics can all come together to create powerful insights for companies. As Lija says “having the full perspective helps you to make better informed decisions.”

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

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