1 Year, 4 Months and 1 week of being a User Researcher
It is very hard for me to comprehend that I have been doing ‘User Research’ (UR) for 14 months. I have been lucky enough to work on projects with the Department for Education, Education, Skills and Funding Agency, Birmingham City Council, NHSx and a few others that I can’t mention for NDA reasons (which is also a lot of fun to type). As I’m starting a new role on Monday, I thought now would be a good time to sit back and reflect on how far I’ve come, and what I’ve learnt and all that fun stuff you do when you’re embarking on change. Especially unexpected change IN A PANDEMIC.
I’ve been working as a User Research Consultant in a company that focuses mainly on public sector contracts. I won’t lie and say it was easy to pick up or any of that. It was really, really hard some days/weeks. And of course, I spent some weekends really questioning my choice. Imagine going from something that you can literally do in your sleep, win awards for, be offered senior positions for and then realise actually…this is not what I want to do for the rest of my life. My partner had to suffer through a lot of existential conversations last summer.
Majority of my work followed the GDS framework (also below) — which I had to learn about very quickly. My first project was an Alpha with a hint of a Discovery. (I’m learning that no phase is ever what you think it’s going to be).
(Taken from https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2015/02/10/that-was-400-days-of-delivery/ Note this is from 2015)
This was an excellent way (if trial by fire) for me to get to grips with user research end-to-end. I was partnered with someone incredibly experienced in user research and we worked through creating a research plan, research strategy, planning recruitment, doing the recruitment and then actually setting out to do our contextual interviews. I have said this a million times and I’ll say it some more, but good admin is vital to doing good user research.
Following this, creating the artefacts for further distribution, things like user journeys, personas, prototypes (which meant we were doing usability testing as well). We also had access to prior research and were able to build on that as well and our research was used to further the needs of the UR community in that department as a whole, which is the dream really!
[Writing this I realise that my first project had it all!]
Could you imagine not having proper records of why, when you had done your work? Exactly, it’s as horrific as it sounds! The newest thing for me was the planning and the strategy because of course we had to do it aligned to Agile, aka sprints and had clear goals and outcomes for each sprint. If I’m honest, I really liked this — I am someone that likes clear goals and clear outcomes — gives me something to work towards. And then I learned how to use Trello (can take or leave) and Miro (love!) We also did a lot of Show and Tells, UR Downloads and kept our teams up-to-date via Slack and Teams. Everyone consumes information differently so something we tried to do was make sure our research would be accessible by as many different people as possible. This is something that I’ve carried into all the projects I’ve worked on and so far, stakeholders seem to like it!
If you’re wondering how my prior experiences may have helped me with this — being an ex-librarian/researcher/comms has their perks. I understand what impact good communication with teams has on being able to carry a product through to fruition, having worked with very difficult people, also stood me in good stead — there’s nothing like trying to convince a room of developers why a button shouldn’t go at the bottom of the page because no one even makes it that far. It seems basic, but knowing the value of classifying, sharing and making your knowledge accessible to wider teams is a valuable skill. Also, my experience of being a librarian, aka being able to talk to anyone, at any time is an excellent skill for any UR to have.
I think my skills are still evolving and every UR I’ve met has their own style — especially when it comes to interviews. The trick is to land on something that works for you and always ensure that the user is given the maximum space to express themselves in an environment where they feel safe. My general industry experience and educational background meant that there are some things that I just know that made me an asset on certain projects (British education system, how the NHS is structured etc.). I’m also slowly getting involved with the Research Ops community (a group of amazing humans!) and learning how my knowledge of taxonomies coupled with user research Is actually a skill that can be put to good use.
I made it through my first project unscathed as well as passing an Alpha assessment and then I was put onto projects solo straight away. I am very grateful to have had a very supportive team and manager because that made the transition easier, but I was given a lot of space to show how many of my skills were transferable. While I won’t be harping on about the benefits of Crazy 8s anytime soon, I think the learn-by-doing method has served me well so far. I know that I have some theoretical and technical gaps (things that you can only have if you’ve done things psychology, anthopology, market research, human factors, ergonomics) but I’m working on this too.
I was also lucky enough to take part in some bids — so both the writing of and being present in the room to pitch — essentially where you’re there to convince a panel of people why you/your company would be the best fit for the work. It’s utterly terrifying, but it’s an excellent experience in terms of really getting to grips with what a client needs/wants and how you’re going to fulfil that. And a very good example why Good Content Designers that can work at pace are literal gold.
What I am slowly learning is that I am already good at spotting problems — it’s now about me building up the experience to be able to work with teams to fix those problems. And that’s something that can only come with experience and developing the knowledge in how to work with stakeholders to make sure everyone reaches the same goal. Being a consultant is how a lot of people imagine it (pre-pandemic), a lot of travelling and dinners in hotels, but I have been privileged to work with some truly excellent people.
People who have made me better just by their sheer proximity. Also people that aren’t amazing and that’s a learning experience in and of itself. The work can be all-consuming, there’s not a single UR on my team that hasn’t worked 6/7-day weeks (myself included) to get the work done. The pay-off is amazing though, because everything we’ve done has been to develop a service that will benefit citizens. This is really important to me — and always has been; I like working to make things better and ensuring the equity of access to services/products.
I think my next step is to start plugging those gaps and learning some of the more technical aspects of UR — I am currently working through an Accessibility course with the Interaction Design Foundation. I am really excited about my next opportunity (the same role, just at a larger company) and I’m hoping as I learn more, I’ll be able to contribute more to the community of user research.
PS My favourite UR example — is toilets! I think the design of toilets, or bathrooms and cubicles the whole shebang is a glorious example of UR/UX/Service Design. There is so much space here to understand how we interact with toilets, how they could be improved — how our journey in public bathrooms could be improved. My plan was to do a plumbing course this year (cheers COVID-19) and start learning more about toilets. There’s a great article about it here and also the excellent Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where Larry builds his ladies toilets (WITH NO TESTING OR INPUT FROM WOMEN). Please get in touch with me if you want to hear me talk about toilets and poo and the socio-cultural impact of this!