Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Paul Blunden

Head shot of Paul Blunden

How did you get started in UX?

My career background starts when I was an engineer, then I went into chemicals, computer supplies, then IT, so I’ve been all over the place. I joined the IT company in around ‘95 and they were ramping up towards Y2K. That was a big thing. It was the first hint that the world was changing, although I’d had some previous experience with digital when I worked in computer supplies and they plugged some of the suppliers into the catalogue. That was pre internet.

While I was there I got headhunted to join this startup called The Usability Company. I joined them in 2001. They got me at a good time. I don’t normally talk to recruiters but it sounded really interesting and I really liked the idea of it. I was pretty new to the industry and not many people were doing it. They had this proposition around business focused usability testing, I didn’t even know what usability meant!

I never looked back. This whole interface of technology and people, I’ve just found so fascinating. So having moved sector every four or five years I’ve stayed with this one for nearly 20.

Of course things have changed so much over 20 years. It’s not like digital’s remained the same, it’s constantly evolving.

What are you doing now?

Well now I run my own agency, UX24/7.

When I set it up the goal was not to be just another agency. There’s an awful lot of agencies that do the exact same thing. I’m not a practitioner, after 20 odd years I know my way around most research methods but I don’t consider myself a practitioner. So from my point of view, or a business owner's point of view, it was really important I could say to someone what my agency did and feel it was genuinely different.

So I focussed on the opportunity to build a global agency. In a previous agency we did a lot of international research and it was really, really hard to do. We’d have to put together groups of agencies around the world and often you’d be dealing with commercial leads or the owner and didn’t know who was actually doing the research. It could be a junior or some freelancer that had never done research in their lives before. So quality was very hard to get.

It was really difficult and I felt there was a real opportunity to create an agency that was one brand operating globally where you knew the names of the researchers doing the work and you could therefore deliver a high quality service. That was the goal.

At the point of launching the agency, I leveraged the other thing that was going on in the market which was the real growth of freelancers.

Like many agencies I’d had the problem where I’d hired a freelancer at really short notice and you’d get people saying ‘yeah I’m a researcher’ but once you’d sat in the viewing room for a while you’d know they haven’t got a clue what they're doing. Your whole project would go up in smoke because by then you’re performing this thing in front of a client, because research is a visible product, something the client sees you do.

I created an accreditation programme which we launched at the same time as the agency. We only accredit senior researchers and have a defined process with established criteria that we developed in 2012. As a result, our freelance roster is made up of only senior researchers. Right now we have more than 120 accredited researchers across nearly 30 markets which has allowed us to build this global capability.

I know a lot of agencies do research, design and everything but we just do pure research. We do qual and quant and we operate really in discovery, generative and evaluative research.

What’s your favourite research method?

I might not be a practitioner but I do have a favourite because we use it a lot. We don’t always use it in generative contexts but it is a generative method.

It’s by Sanders and Stappers and it’s called the Path of Expression.

I probably shouldn’t know as much about it as I do, but we use it a lot because of what it does. We do an awful lot of discovery interviews, particularly around early stage propositions, which is why I say we’re probably using this in the wrong place, but we find it really useful to get people in the right headspace.

So the Path of Expression talks about people in an interview and getting them in four stages. One is observing the presence, so what they do right now - that’s the initial conversations. Then we ask them to recall the past, so around this context, what happened before, what did you used to do? Then reflect on that past in terms of what worked well and did they have any gaps. They don’t always tell you this stuff but from that we start to uncover unmet needs.

And then we get them to imagine the future and create the future that we’re interested in. That’s why it’s generative because at that point all they’re meant to do is introduce the thing and start the design process, but actually as a discovery methodology it’s brilliant.

We have real problems particularly with clients who are short on time and don’t know the methods. They believe they understand research in terms of asking people things and they’ll give us answers and that’s really valuable. But they don’t necessarily accept or understand that when you just sit someone in a room and say okay, what do you think about this? It’s really hard for that person to make that leap and not be crystal ball gazing and guessing. So I love the Path of Expression because you really see the transformation of someone in the session starting to contextualise what we want them to think about against all that’s gone on. It’s just a really powerful method.

What are your favourite tools for research?

I have a couple. We’ve gone through all the moderation tools and we’ve ended up using Zoom for nearly all our remote research.

And tied to that we’ve started using Condens, which integrates with Zoom and provides transcription, which is great but it also enables you to do video clipping. So you go through the transcription, select the text and it will dynamically create video clips. And it does it in multiple languages which is important to us. It doesn’t cover all languages, it’s not perfect, but they’re adding new languages all the time and it’s pretty good.

Most of our researchers are bilingual so they can make the leap if the translations are not quite right.

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

We’re really flexible actually about what people can have from us.

We’ve done all sorts of things from just playbacks, literally workshopping the findings with them a couple of days after the research.

We’ve done airtable type things and all that sort of stuff, but by far and away the thing that is the most requested is the report.

We provide a whole bunch of stuff, you know, videos, transcriptions and translation as we do a lot of international work. But the client really only wants one report, even when there are two or three markets involved or even four or five. So we’ve created some ways of working in the background so we can collaborate through the process to deliver that one report that really highlights the similarities between markets, the difference and what really needs to be caught out in one market.

Often it is then being shared via Microsoft or Google or whatever they need.

The problem is their workforce is so dynamic, that in six months time their entire team has changed or the majority of the team has changed and they're like what was that thing we did?

We’ve got a pretty mature research ops function, but our research repository is for our users, not our clients. If they don’t have a report they end up running the same research again because they don’t know what they did and they're working with a new team.

So I think reports are important. I do think they’ll evolve but they're still so important for people because they need some way of leveraging the research for new people coming in.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

They probably won’t like my answer, but choose learning over money.

We’re interviewing a lot of people at the moment. People who call themselves senior researchers. They’ve done two or three years of research, during a pandemic, of which none of this has been face to face. It’s all remote. They’ve had brief exposure to quite a few methods and no exposure to many more.

Five years ago, if you’re a senior researcher, you really knew your stuff.

I’m not saying they're not clever or well trained but they’re not senior.

Of course the demand is so great and the money is phenomenal for these people and that’s great. Pick all of those things, but I would also find somewhere that’s going to give you some training and show you how to do things well. Because I think there’s a real risk of people getting into advanced positions without a lot of experience and without solid training. I think you need one or the other.

I’m not suggesting they go back to uni, but find somewhere that’s got somebody who can mentor them and can give them the benefit of their wisdom, rather than finding themselves in a senior role with no one above you, you’re going to be learning some really bad habits.

So I would say if you’ve got to sacrifice one thing, sacrifice the money and get yourself some solid training. It’ll make you a better researcher.

What book/video/podcast would you recommend?

There are loads of great books. All the original books are still valid like Don’t Make Me Think. Three or four that I really use are:

  • Mental Models: Aligning Design Strategy With Human Behavior by Indi Young
  • The Jobs To Be Done Playbook by Jim Kalbach
  • Think Like A UX Researcher by David Travis
  • Practical Design Discovery by Dan Brown

Who inspires you?

It’s going to sound really corny, but my team.

Being an agency founder I do have some parental pride in them. I’ve literally just come off a playback call, so 90 minutes going over a market study for one of our really big clients. It’s a really important project for them, and our team did a great job. So yeah I find that very inspirational. Particularly when we do complicated things, international things, when they’re really creative in the way they approach the research and come up with some great stuff. I find that really, really cool.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

I’ve obviously been around a while. I think I’ve worked through four or five recessions. But to be honest the pandemic has probably been the biggest challenge.

How do you continue an agency where suddenly everything stopped. We rely on clients and I think we only had two clients doing work during the pandemic.

It wasn’t like a recession where there are indicators and it’s more unpredictable. Even now we’re still finding the market volatile. It’s hard when you employ people. We didn’t let anyone go, which was great but it was a really challenging time. It was like no other period in the 30 years I’ve been working.

So the learning for people reading this, who started work in the past few years, is that it was really unusual. It wasn’t like a recession, where you can see them coming. Things change, but then you’re in them and everything settles down and you work back out of it. The pandemic was completely different and hopefully won’t happen again.

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

Yes we do. We don’t for freelancers. They learn on the job and we invest a fair amount of time making sure they understand the way we do things and might use projects to develop skills.

Generally speaking our development work is with our hires. We hire just below senior and then develop them bringing them through the discovery, generative, evaluating methodologies. John Dumas, our consultancy director, is great at that. He was a university lecturer as well as a research practitioner and he’s so passionate about doing research right.

Where do you see the future of UX Research going?

That’s an interesting one. We’re facing the same challenges we faced 20 years ago to be perfectly honest. It’s changed a bit in the number of companies who buy into it now, so that’s good. And it’s evolved, so whereas the first decade it was mainly evaluative, now it’s discovery, generative and evaluative and the level of maturity is increasing.

But we’re just not there yet. There are companies where senior leadership genuinely believe they’re customer centric and the people lower down the org are trying to make it happen. But when people in the middle aren’t bought in it doesn’t work.

I don’t really understand why, because there is more and more evidence that customer centricity delivers higher shareholder value with products that attract and retain customers. I think in the future the customer centricity battle will be won and therefore people will use research in the right ways rather than what many are still doing now which is ticking a box.

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

I think a governing body suggests bureaucracy and I don’t think culturally that’s a great fit.

Also you’d have thought UXPA would have done that if it was there to be done.

I think we do need something, some sort of official thing that says you are a professional and achieved the things that make you a professional.

It is needed because part of the problem in the industry is that it has grown so rapidly, many of the people who buy UX research and hire people don’t know what good looks like. A governing body that drives standards would help improve quality and education and remove the stigma.

There are probably cleverer people out there than me coming up with ideas, but I think it is important.

Thanks to Paul for taking the time to speak with me. You can find Paul on LinkedIn or keep up with what UX24/7 are up to with their monthly newsletter The UX Crucible.

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

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