Penelope Rance

My UX research & design ramblings

Interview with Vaishali Meswani

Head shot of Vaishali Meswani

How did you get started in research?

Most of the people that I’ve worked with have always said that they ‘fell into research,’ but for me it was always part of the plan. At the age of 13, I remember going to the supermarket with my Dad and saying, “Dad don’t you think it is interesting that they choose to put this thing on this shelf and this thing on that shelf? Do you think there’s a reason they do that?” I remember saying, “I want to study that one day.”

So I did a degree in psychology, and one of the reasons I took the course was because you got to spend a year in industry. A lot of the placements were very much about going into a hospital or working with a clinical psychologist and I remember getting this feeling of dread thinking about them. So when I saw a placement working for an agency call The Future Foundation (now The Foresight Factory), that looked at consumer, social and economic trends and advised businesses on how they should respond to them, I was so relieved and also excited.

That was my introduction to the research profession - it did a really good job of appreciating academia while also delivering in a commercial environment to big blue chip clients. Since then I have spent time working in different types of agencies and consultancies, as well as dipping back into academia to do my MSc in Behavioural Decision Science. Variety is the spice of life and I’m grateful that I’ve been able to get that throughout my career. It means that I now have a great appreciation for lots of different types of research and insight skills and different personalities and what they bring to the table.

So what are you doing now?

Now I work within the Post Office Group Research function - it’s my first client-side role, which I’ve been in for technically a year. We’re a team of two and work across the whole organisation.

We do a combination of conducting the research ourselves as well as working with agencies and consultancies on larger projects. It’s so varied, interesting, exciting, collaborative. In-housing some of our research has been quite rewarding (although hard work!), when you see people genuinely wanting and needing this insight without always having huge budgets, and you’re actually able to deliver it to them pretty fast. I feel like client-side you’re able to see how people are using the insight and get involved in that fuller journey, which was always missing for me agency-side to be honest.

It is hard though in such a small team, because there’s a perfectionist side of me that is quite quiet now, but there’s a little side of me that goes: this is not my best work because I’ve had to do it amongst all these other things; it could have been better; it could have been deeper; the analysis could have looked at more; there are so many more things we could have explored and it’s making peace with it, and saying it met the need.

But overall it’s great. The research I design is really connected to the conversations that are happening internally, and I get to be a part of those conversations.

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

I’m really impressed and surprised by how many people within the organisation are championing the importance of research evidence and the consumer/customer. Of course there is room to do more, but in the last two years I feel that increasingly the word ‘insight’ or ‘customer’ is coming into the conversation a bit more, it feels like a real shift.

I think selling the value of insight conceptually isn’t a problem, but getting people to see it not as a nice to have and not as an afterthought, but to actually do this thing we absolutely need to understand the consumer need at a very early stage. That’s the challenge.

I think sometimes just teasing people with some data points, just putting some data in front of someone that’s relevant to them may spark off that thought process. ‘Oh my god, imagine what else we could find out’ and people get really excited about that.

Surveys are great for feeding into board papers, but what people seem to latch onto is that one person in a focus group that said one thing and they have this light bulb moment and they’re still referencing it six months later. I definitely think there’s something around putting more effort into how insight needs to be packaged up in a more persuasive way. Our job isn’t just about delivering insight, it’s how do we get people connected to it and excited about it.

Which leads me nicely to, how have you found is the best way of sharing your research insights or findings?

For me, it’s about multiple levels of sharing.

Firstly there is sharing the insight with your stakeholder. The person that’s asked for it should be the person seeing it first, and always best to have a proper conversation around it. But I’ve also started doing a ‘hot off the press’ approach, so as soon as I’ve got some data to share I’ll just send a screenshot of it in a Teams chat to kind of whet the appetite, but also people need things faster than ever before, so it’s great to be able to share in that way so they don’t have to wait for the whole pack to be ready. They could then share some thoughts back immediately and it could influence where you take the analysis from there. There is also something about seeing really long market research decks that fills people with dread, so actually doing that nugget approach makes it digestible and vaguely fun!

Then there’s the organisational level sharing, and I have reverted to email for that. So once the insights are ready to share and key stakeholders have seen it, on a monthly basis I circulate to the list of people who are interested. SharePoint has also been really important in making things available to lots of people and encouraging self-serve.

Sharing insight over and over again is not a bad thing. It cements it in people's minds. And as an industry we are generating more and more insights. But sometimes we have the answer already collected and we need to get better at resharing, even if it’s a couple of years ago.

And it’s a slightly different question, but there is something about how we store insights in a way that means we can keep referring back to them rather than feeling the need to reinvent the wheel.

What’s your favourite research method?

I can’t choose one!

The one I love on a personal level is a good old depth interview. I know some people prefer focus groups, but for me, especially when it’s a subject close to someone’s heart like money where you’re looking at emotional associations around finances and stuff, I just love it. Listening to people’s stories that come through in a depth interview, just being in someone else’s world for an hour, they’re talking about products and services, but you also get these little glimpses into their life as well. It’s definitely the introvert in me!

In terms of things that I haven’t done a lot of but think we need to do more of, I’m a big fan of the experimental method. Like when they send out a specific letter to half the nation with one type of behavioural nudge in it, and send a different letter to the other half with a different nudge and then a control group with no interventions in it. It’s a proper fusion of science and market research which I think we’re becoming a lot better at.

And then one I don’t really do much of at all is scraping and mining conversations on the internet. So if you are looking to launch a travel product you can see what conversations people are having about travel, what is the mindset, the need, what are the pain points – and then work out where you can position your brand or what the next innovation opportunity is to plug a gap in the market. It blows my mind because we’re now able to analyse millions and millions of data points. And you’re not asking them questions so you’re not putting any of your own judgements or assumptions on it. And you’ve not got the effect where people say things because they think you want to hear them and they’re trying to be socially desirable. There’s a lot of magic in zooming in on everyday conversations.

What resources would you recommend?

My biggest isn’t a specific resource - just keep talking to people. It’s about making time to network. I think people think networking is a dirty word. It’s not because I want a new job, it’s about meeting like-minded people, exchanging ideas, taking in new perspectives, a lot can come from that.

The other thing is the Mini Marketing MBA course with Mark Ritson. He’s a renowned marketer and his online course is excellent. I wish I’d done it at the start of my career because rather than learning the research methodologies in isolation, you learn the whole marketing process and how insight should be feeding into it. It genuinely means I’ve been able to input into conversations in a more meaningful way and with more confidence, and it’s changed how I think about my job and what it’s there to do.

What advice would you give someone just starting out?

I would say to anyone starting out, if you’ve entered into a role that doesn’t quite seem right for you, have faith in what you want for your own career. It’s such a broad field and there will be something that suits you, you just need to explore options. It’s such an exciting industry that has so much innovation and is full of extremely talented and intelligent people. Do not be disillusioned, have faith in yourself.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

Being severely visually impaired, when I started out in my career I had loads of issues and hang ups around my levels of confidence. Research debriefs in particular were really stressful because I was having to present slides that I couldn’t see. Unless my screen is really close to me, I can’t see it and I can’t present off a projector, I just can’t see that far.

So I would find every possible excuse not to present. I just wanted someone to take care of me and tell me how to fix this problem, but you learn in life when you’re an adult no one is going to do this but yourself. It took a lot of inner work to get to the reality of this - is it really true you can’t present or are you putting barriers in your own way? Now I absolutely love presenting and feel like I get a bit sad if I go a stint without doing it. I still get a little pang of anxiety but I push through it. I’m not sure if I’m saying you can only rely on yourself to overcome these barriers or whether I’m saying as an industry we need to get better at supporting people with disabilities so they can thrive. Maybe it’s a bit of both.

My second challenge is I’m very much a people person and I like to collaborate and have stimulating conversations. This is vital for the work we do – research is there to be discussed, debated, used to build strategies and actioned. But research requires solitary focus as well. It requires really grappling with the data to find the nuggets of meaningful insight that can feed into those conversations. So I think a current challenge for me is knowing I like pretty shiny things and sticking my fingers in lots of different pies but making sure I make time for in depth solitary thinking, protecting my calendar in a way that allows me to do both and not spread myself too thin. Knowing when to say ‘no, I’m sorry, I need to do justice to the stuff I’m already doing’.

What are you most proud of?

That’s a tricky one. I think a recent thing is probably the in-housing of some of our research. We still do strategic weighty pieces of research with agencies but bringing some of our more tactical research in-house has been a bit of a risk and has required venturing into the unknown, learning new skills but ultimately saving the business quite a lot of money and turning things round quite quickly. It’s been a big task and we forget sometimes to actually celebrate what we just did as a team of two, who are now able to serve the business in a different kind of way. So I’m proud of, firstly taking that risk and secondly, that it’s paid off and actually working.

Thank you to Vaishali for taking the time to speak with me. You can find Vaishali on LinkedIn.

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

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