Diversity in User Research: How Nontraditional Backgrounds Enhance Impact

A degree in engineering has brought a quantitative edge to this researcher’s practice.

Diversity can seem like a buzzword these days, but I am living proof that it’s a whole lot more. I have a PhD in electrical engineering focused in digital signal processing and video compression — and I am a user researcher.

Perhaps you expected me to talk about other aspects of my identity when I mentioned the word diversity, and I could have.

But inclusion in user research is about more than increasing gender and ethnic diversity in the field. Inclusion also means recognizing nontraditional backgrounds and using the skills and experiences that people with different viewpoints can offer.

I want to share how my background allows me to bridge the worlds of user research and engineering, as an example of how diverse perspectives can lead to better communication, more meaning from data, and richer insights.

Communicating in the solution space

When I collaborate with engineers, they tend to dive “into the weeds” of detail, and I’m able to communicate with them in a way that gets to the heart of what we’re trying to solve.

Recently, I worked with the Windows Insider Program, where people can have early access to the latest Windows features and provide feedback. The first step to better understand the customer population was a head count of devices, but as I started counting and comparing results with other records, I found that the numbers didn’t add up. At first, the engineer I spoke with sent me to a resource with general information, but I was able to clarify exactly what I wanted and to ask — confidently, in a language that he understood — for the code they’d used in the past. He happily gave me the information that I needed, and we came away with unified parameters.

Engineers use math and science as a language to communicate complex and abstract concepts that are tangible — which facilitates problem-solving. But when I reflect on this interaction and the kinds of communication I engage in daily, I realize that my role is not just about understanding lines of code and the nuances of implementation. Ultimately, being a researcher with an engineering background makes me a sort of cultural bilingual who can work in both the problem and solution space.

This affects not only how I talk to engineers, but also how I conduct my own research as I bring my knowledge of quantitative methods into the problem space.

The power of quant + qual

Because of my engineering background, I consider myself a quantitative researcher who uses mixed methods when executing research. On one hand, I’m comfortable with practices like writing my own code to pull big data sets, cleaning data to remove the noise, and creating data visualizations to see any immediate trends. But I also know that data analysis alone doesn’t reveal why something is occurring.

Going back to the Windows Insider example, I first counted devices to identify those that were running the most recent version of prerelease software and met other device characteristics. This helped me identify a precise subset of Insiders I wanted to interview. But only the direct customer engagements allowed me to ask questions, learn about these people’s motivations and needs, and come to a better understanding of why they weren’t updating. These insights, backed up by solid data, equipped the team to make changes in how they reach out to Insiders.

Although my background supports the unique methods I use to sharpen qualitative data, it doesn’t include formal training in research methodologies. This is where adaptability comes in, a skill that my experience in the field has honed.

To get to where I am, I’ve taken the transferable fundamentals I know well — such as the scientific method — and applied them in the context of user research, always learning.

Leveraging diversity for impact

My research team at Microsoft works together, pooling our strengths. We have researchers with backgrounds in computer science, chemical engineering, neuroscience, nursing, public policy, market research, instructional design, and communications, to name just a few. We put a great deal of emphasis on promoting workplace diversity, using a definition that includes how people communicate and problem-solve. When we engage with our different perspectives and skill sets, we are able to triangulate and build a richer understanding of customers.

Jessica Tran speaks to engineering students at the University of Washington.

This is the message I share when I speak to students in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) fields who want reassurance about their future, as I did at recent events for the University of Washington Women in Science & Engineering (WiSE) Program and Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. When students ask how they can prepare for a career in industry, I’m glad I can honestly advise them to pursue their own interests. I tell them the technical training they’re getting will make them an asset.

How do the diverse backgrounds on your research team empower you? Let us know in the comments, or tweet us @MicrosoftRI!