An inexpensive way to develop your staff and build team cohesion
In my early days as a people manager at Chegg, I had two primary challenges: team cohesion and staff development.
I needed to build a sense of cohesion across my team because we’re a shared resource across several products. UX Researchers report to me but sit with and work on various product teams, which means that we usually don’t work together on projects.
I also struggled with ensuring the professional growth of my direct reports. I initially wanted to invest in their learning and development by sending them to classes and conferences, but we lacked the funds. Also, we usually don’t have 2–5 “free” days to be away from the office. Most conferences happen annually but I wanted to provide learning experiences for my team that happen more frequently. Plus, due to the structure of conferences, there will frequently be segments that are irrelevant to your role or your team. This effectively means you will be paying for inapplicable content.
How could I invest in everyone’s learning and development more than once a year, and do it on a budget without taking away a lot of work cycles AND nurture a strong sense of “team”?
I had to get creative to meet my goals!
I borrowed from my early days of doing guerilla UX Research and took a DIY approach: I decided to plan and lead a quarterly learning and development single-day offsite event for my team. First, as any good leader knows, delegation was key. I knew that I couldn’t pull off the entire event on my own, so I enlisted the help of my Principal UX Researcher Mark Wehner.
HOW IT UNFOLDED
Mark and I knew that we wanted to do something away from the office, so we kicked off our event planning by securing a venue. Looking for something local and inexpensive, I checked with my neighborhood library. I learned that they had a couple of conference rooms that members of the public could reserve for a very small fee ($15 per day). We wanted to hold the event on a Friday because most of us had lighter meeting schedules on Fridays. I chose the first Friday with an available conference room (about 8 weeks away) and plunked down my money. Now it was time to choose a topic and plan how the day would unfold.
Mark and I brainstormed topic ideas guided by a few parameters we’d agreed on:
● We wanted a topic that everyone on the team could talk about regardless of their level of research experience.
● We wanted something that everyone could easily talk about without spending days preparing PowerPoint decks.
● We wanted a topic that would inspire learning, discussion and humor/laughter. It’s so important to have opportunities to laugh together!
● We wanted a team-building topic that would give us a chance to know more about one another.
We landed on “Communicating Insights” as our topic. We asked our teammates to share their thoughts and experiences about “starting with the why” — sharing key UX Research insights in ways that inspired action. Mark and I purposely left a lot of room for interpretation of the topic. The topic was used to guide people rather than restrict them.
Each presenter had a 30-minute block of time: 15–20 minutes to present and about 10 minutes for questions/discussion. Mark built a PowerPoint template for us to use.
About a week before the offsite, Mark met individually with teammates to review their presentations. This review served two purposes: it pushed everyone to have a first draft of their presentation done before the offsite, and it gave Mark an opportunity to ensure the overall quality of the content. Mark also used this opportunity to figure out the order of presenters for the day.
Finally, it was time for our first official UXR Learning and Development Offsite. On Friday, we met for breakfast at 9 AM at a coffee shop near the library and then walked to the library as a group. The conference room accommodated 10 people and had a large table in the middle with a screen at one end. Mark brought lots of supplies for us including a portable projector, small Post-Its, a pad of large Post-Its, pens, markers, and tape. We settled in around the table in the conference room and I shared a short intro about our goals for the day. Mark reviewed the agenda and logistics and then set the tone for the day with an inspiring Simon Sinek video “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action”.
The video was followed by our first case study presentation of the day. After the researcher finished her talk, she fielded questions and we discussed key takeaways.
Laughter, insights, and ideas flowed from the team.
I suggested that we capture the quotes as well as the ideas. Mark grabbed two large Post-Its and designated one as our “Quotes Board” for funny and/or interesting comments and the other as our “Parking Lot” for ideas. We took turns adding to the lists throughout the day.
Around 12:30 PM we broke for lunch and walked to a local restaurant — nothing like a walk outside to get everyone’s blood flowing. Afterward, we returned to the library and continued with our program.
The day ended around 4 PM with a final debrief. We discussed our key takeaways, new ideas and next steps including how we would address each item on our “Parking Lot” list, but before we broke for the day we made a fascinating discovery related to our takeaways.
We noticed that a common theme had emerged from the various case studies. Specifically, each case study had in some way included “serendipity.” We then had a fabulous discussion about serendipity and research.
We talked about the magic of uncovering interesting research findings serendipitously — or by chance.
For example, in the majority of the case studies that were shared, the researcher learned about something valuable outside the parameters of the specific study. In fact, one researcher identified by chance a common unmet need across the customers she’d interviewed. This serendipitous finding turned into a new product opportunity!
Uncovering the common thread of serendipity during our group debrief was such a positive experience; it made us giddy! That’s when one team member said, “I love this! We’re such a bunch of research dorks — we should call this “Dork Day!” We all agreed that “Dork Day” sounded much better than “UXR Learning & Development Offsite”. And that’s how “Dork Day” came to be.
Finally, we went around the table and each person shared what they were personally taking away from the day. This exercise actually turned into a kind of gratitude circle. Individuals called out specific characteristics that they appreciated about the day. More importantly, people expressed appreciation for their UX Research teammates.
WHY “DORK DAYS” WORK
● Inexpensive. Each “Dork Day” costs anywhere from $350-$500. That covers a light breakfast and lunch for a group of 10. (We no longer have a facility rental fee because we usually meet at a team member’s house.)
● Opportunity. It provides chances for your direct reports to stretch beyond their day-to-day research work.
● Shared experience. Conferences can be lonely and participation is often passive. “Dork Days” offer shared and active learning experiences!
● Control. You get to decide what you want your team to learn and how you want to spend the day.
● Team Building. At Chegg, the UX Researchers usually work solo on research projects. At “Dork Day” we work together, and we learn from each other. For example, when someone talks about a challenge they’ve been dealing with, the entire team can weigh in and offer advice based on their own experiences.
● Impact. Everyone is very engaged on “Dork Day”, so the learnings really stick. We bring our learnings back to the office and incorporate them into our daily tasks and Chegg Research projects. For example, after one of our “Dork Days” we implemented the idea of sometimes sharing “research nuggets” with stakeholders rather than long research reports. Nuggets are bite-sized key takeaways based on research findings.
● Ideas. “Dork Days” inspire lots of great ideas. For example, we’ve uncovered opportunities for team members from different product groups to collaborate on future research projects.
● Added benefit. Our “Dork Days” are selling points for people we’re recruiting for UXR positions at Chegg! New recruits usually find the concept of “Dork Days” appealing.
● Planning. “Dork Days” take time away from your usual tasks and deliverables, so you need to proceed accordingly.
● Insularity. It’s not necessarily an opportunity to connect with UX Researchers from the outside world. Networking happens at conferences. Note: We do a lot of networking at Chegg through the UXR Speakers and Panels we sponsor onsite. These events are open to the community.
Fast forward to 2019, we’ve faithfully continued our quarterly “Dork Day” tradition over the past 5 years.
Sometimes our topic is more conceptual or “blue sky” and other times is more “real world” tactical or strategic.
Also, the size of my team grew over the years, so we didn’t fit in library conference rooms and had to switch to our team member’s (large) home.
Here’s a list of topics we’ve covered (so far):
● Communicating Insights: Case studies highlighting creative ways individual researchers effectively share research findings with stakeholders, with an emphasis on making those findings stick.
● Dancing with Design: Examining the relationship between UX Design and UX Research. What are we doing right? Are their improvements to be made?
● Discover Your Strengths: Based on the book Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath. Each researcher took the “Strengths Assessment” prior to our offsite. We reviewed our strengths profiles at the offsite as a group. Then an external facilitator led us through some exercises related to our findings.
● Imagining the Future of UXR: What do we want our work to look like in two years? How can we get there as a team?
● Inspiration: What inspires you as an individual and/or as someone in the UX field? How do you use inspiration to inform your work?
● Research Methods: Researchers shared Chegg product case studies highlighting specific research methodologies.
● The Year in Review: Team members share key research learnings from the year about their assigned Product(s). Note: We cover this topic in January each year as it’s a good way to reflect on the past year and kick-off the new one.
Regardless of the topics, we look forward to our “Dork Days” every quarter!
“Dork Days” require less planning time now because we’ve done it so many times. For example, we have a venue we like (Mark’s house) and a format that works for us. Mark and I handle most of the planning. Then it’s up to the individual researchers to do their share! People volunteer to pick up our breakfast order from Panera, and DoorDash delivers lunch. Mark has various beverages on-hand as well.
TIPS FOR PLANNING “DORK DAYS”
Interested in planning your own “Dork Day?” Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Topic Choice — This is perhaps one of the most important steps in planning a “Dork Day.” Choose a topic that’s contained, yet broad enough for everyone on the Team to contribute personally. For example, during our Dancing with Design “Dork Day,” one of my team members talked about information architecture and another talked about instructional design.
- Time Management — While it may seem obvious, time management and sticking to a schedule is critical. Nothing is more defeating than slighting a team member whose presentation gets skipped due to poor time management.
- Appoint a timekeeper for the day to keep an eye on the clock. Give people ‘5 minutes warnings’. Make sure that all of your team members have time to share what they’ve prepared.
- Set People Up for Success — Do an official check-in with team members before your “Dork Day”. Use this time to make sure that their presentations relate to the chosen topic and meet the time parameter you’ve set. Check-ins provide an opportunity to gauge someone’s engagement level as well. For example, sometimes people aren’t completely happy with the topic area they’ve chosen. You want everyone to be confident and engaged during “Dork Day.”
Give it a try. Plan your own “Dork Day” soon. Afterwards, think about what worked and what you’d do differently. Then adjust your future “Dork Days” accordingly. Over time you’ll learn exactly what’s right for your group.
And finally, spread the word! Don’t dork in secret — let other people at your company know what you’re up to. You might inspire other teams and launch a “Dork Day” movement.