Interview with Christina Li, Director at Melon Experience Design
We interviewed Christina to ask how to build up a stronger research skill with Agile Research, the strengths of being an outsider to make long-term decisions, creative ways to get people’s attention to research findings, and two awesome communities that she is building for both Junior and Senior UX Researchers. Enjoy! 🌱
1. How do you help your clients to build UX research capabilities?
- Help identify where the biggest risks are
- Help understand why we are prioritising them
- Help observe how to do research, how to conduct user interviews and analysis, then passing the baton to them so they build up their skills
Research to me is about reducing risks because the things you don’t know are probably the most uncertain elements. You probably want to focus on those, especially when it comes to business risks.
It’s trying to help identify where the biggest risks are that need to be prioritised, and helping them understand why we are prioritising them. Then it’s about getting them to observe how to do research, how to conduct user interviews and analysis, then passing the baton to them so they build up their skills. For example, not asking leading questions, planning a session, ensuring the questions address what you want to achieve from the research.
So it’s actually two streams of work. Something like usability testing might be suitable for immediate impact because you can get results instantly, whereas the strategic view is trying to build a longer-term vision. You want to arrive at the bigger picture/goal, and by doing the little things you build up momentum to get to the bigger piece of work.
A lot of the time, product designers are trying to get feedback, but sometimes you don’t have a lot of skills in the organisation to do research really quickly.
In the training, we will begin with defining a process:
- How do you approach user recruitment?
- How do you go about scheduling research?
- How do you go about identifying the research questions?
- How do you prioritise the research questions or even the types of research?
- Why are you making those assumptions?
2. Could you tell us a little bit about ‘Agile Research’ and how it works?
Agile Research adds an extra layer of how you do research to a definition process — positioning what you put into the sprint, working on that design and finishing the sprint.
It’s incorporating research into a ten-day Agile sprint. This is about adding an extra layer to the work, to the Agile sprint. Agile sprint traditionally came from a software development background is for working out how we make better decisions and how we get the information to make better decisions. You go through a definition process — positioning what you put into the sprint, working on that design and finishing the sprint. Agile Research adds an extra layer to that, planning how you do research within those ten days. So, what is designed has a round of feedback. By the end of it you can conclude what we’ve been talking about: the hypothesis or the goals of the sprint, and whether they’ve been met or not. It’s essentially making sure you have a day or so spent on doing research together as a unit, as a team.
As it’s an Agile Sprint, it’s crazy fast! It’s important to make sure you have that cohesive unit between designer, researcher, product and whoever else needs to be involved in getting the testing materials ready and doing the research. Then you take notes together, observe all the sessions together, then have a day of research. Finally you spend a day doing the analysis, so that you can be confident whatever goals you set up you all achieved together. This approach makes the process more streamlined and collaborative.
It’s easier to convince someone if they see it rather than saying, ‘Here’s what your users think’. That’s one advantage. But it also helps everyone to knowledge-share. When you do Agile sprints, you’re not just saying this is two weeks and that’s it. You’re saying: what comes out of these two weeks goes into the next two weeks. Then you do another round of research and so forth. You help the team to build up that knowledge of their users. That’s quite important.
It’s also about making sure they get expert research. The GDS (UK Government) talk a lot about research being a team sport and emphasise the importance of exposure hours. Research is a team sport; you have to be collaborative.
Research helps designers take away some of the unknowns and the load, so it’s a specialism but I think as with any role when you work on your own, you don’t get as good an outcome as working together.
3. How do you evaluate the research outcomes?
You remember the initial hypothesis about wanting to reduce the risk of people not understanding the content, then analyse whether you have observed this is the case.
Someone will have made a decision at some point, based on either knowledge or assumptions. As a researcher, you’re trying to find out if they are the right decisions.
For example, ‘We believe if we provide clearer content, people will understand what the outcome of this product is’. Then you can observe if that’s the case from the research. You remember the initial hypothesis about wanting to reduce the risk of people not understanding the content, then analyse whether you have observed this is the case.
It’s easier in the case of usability testing because there is a product you’re researching. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do something similar or track your impact for more discovery or more strategic types of projects.
4. It sounds like you are heavily involved in long-term decision-making for clients. Does it help to be an outsider in a company in order to discuss the long-term vision?
The research I do helps influence the direction of travel, but ultimately it’s up to them to decide in what direction they want to go.
That’s a good question. I think it’s a bit of both. I’m able to work on those projects because I’ve built a relationship directly with directors who fortunately trust me to have those conversations with them. At the same time, I’m only here for a short period of time so it’s important they also have someone who has that vision within their design, product or research function.
The research I do helps influence the direction of travel, but ultimately it’s up to them to decide in what direction they want to go. For us as consulting services, it’s about providing that advice and recommendations, but it’s ultimately up to them to take it up or to follow something else.
5. How do you convince clients to take time out of day-to-day work to do UX research?
You have to find what works for your audience. It could be a format of exhibitions or newsletters.
It’s a question of organisation culture, and it has to come from the top to change that culture although that’s not to say that there aren’t things you can’t do in the meantime.
There are also ways you can present it that makes it a bit more interesting. I worked on a project where we were presenting something really strategic and important but also very sensitive. It was a health-related topic, and about changing attitudes to healthcare. But, In that instance, we did a physical exhibition around the office. It was curated content; it told a story. That went really well. We did a guided tour with groups of six to eight people. We took them through the content, gave them time to read through the findings and stories, and to ask questions. That’s a very strategic kind of research because we weren’t just presenting nuggets of our findings.
You have to find what works for your audience. I’ve also done more interactive things in the past to share findings. It is hard to get time out of people’s busy schedules, but people like food and they like workshopping, so it’s about finding a way to incorporate your findings using these preferences.
Newsletters also work really well. They go directly to someone’s inbox where they are able to read it. A Slack channel works well to broadcast highlights. People are busy, what’s the best way to share the information, and what are your key takeaways? If it doesn’t get into their head, it doesn’t get heard. You just have to think of different ways that would work.
6. I’ve noticed you are involved with mentoring and coaching in many projects. What have you learnt from the experience and what do you apply for your work at Melon Experience Design and UXmentor.me*?
My friend Chris and I founded UXmentor.me recently. Another friend and I founded a Leading Research community. It’s all about giving back to the community.
UXmentor.me started six or seven years ago. We were constantly getting asked questions about similar topics, and we saw a pattern emerging. People don’t know where to get good resources and good advice. Also, there are a lot of UX courses which are great, but the support drops off once you finish a course. It’s a very intense period but then there’s nothing to help you transition into your role. When you really want to become a UX designer, what happens in between? It’s not like there’s a guarantee of work and no one expects that from the course, but there is that transition period where we really see that gap of knowledge and resources. We’re trying to provide support around that gap.
We have evolved so much. At the start, people were emailing us questions and we were replying. Soon we realised we needed some kind of crowdsourcing because people were asking the same thing over and over. So we built a Slack community, with over 1,000 people all over the world. It was very good but Slack was also limited. It became difficult to find things. We do provide a contents list and we have run numerous projects where we try to support people.
We ran a project where we selected a group of four people and provided a real-life project that they were able to work on. The difference was that we did a lot of one-on-one coaching and by the end of it three or four people found a new job, so it was really successful from our point of view. So that was really positive.
Chris and I also noticed that we were putting a lot of energy and time into this venture freely, but we also needed some support to sustain the work we were doing. We therefore pivoted a bit last year. We noticed a lot of people just weren’t really engaging in the Slack community so we’ve stopped the Slack community and instead are focussing on one-on-one mentoring and subscription-based monthly support. We’re able to provide a lot more tailoring that way. We’ve got a mentoring canvas where we’re able to work together on what your short-term and long-term goals are, what you can do about those goals and really check in on you to see how everything is going. That works much better. It’s much more personalised, much more supportive.
That brings us to Melon Experience Design — which provides Coaching on how to lead research and UX mentoring and addresses the transition gap for more junior roles. It’s for designers and researchers, but I’m a researcher. Last year in June, there was a get-together in London for ResearchOps community. We were trying to find out what researcher skills are needed. During that workshop in London, it was so obvious, because half the group was in junior roles or less than five years of experience, and the rest of us had over ten years of experience. A lot of us were towards the top end of the career ladder in UX research and were asking ourselves: Where do we go next? What happens? How do we progress further? Some of us are practitioners who don’t necessarily want to be a leader, but then your practitioner role runs out at senior level. As a leader, we asked: Why is research always under design, why is it not a separate branch? Should research get a seat at the table, for example, Chief Design Officer, or Chief Research Officer? What does that even mean? There were a lot of questions around that. So, another friend at the workshop and I realised that there is a gap there, there is no support for people like us who are trying to figure out the next steps.
What does the future of user research look like? There are still a lot of unknowns; research as a specialism is really grey but we haven’t had time to define it. As we mature, there is a lot of support that is needed. So for that community, it’s about providing support and networking for leaders.
At the start of the year, we had a lot of people signed up to express their interest, and we tried to provide small events where people can network.** We ran an event in January 2020 (which feels like a lifetime ago), where people met and shared a meal, face to face! We talked about research impact, not just the impact of hypotheses but about how to show senior leaders — our executive team — that they should invest in us. We discussed whether we should even quantify that impact. You can’t say a lot of the stuff is a result of research, but marketing seems to do that, through marketing campaigns.
The conversation wasn’t just about impact, it was also about possible team structure. Should we be embedded into a design team, like an Agile format, or should we be a more centralised function, and get called out to different projects in the organisation. There were a lot of different discussions, and we have shared some of them in our blog posts.
Then the pandemic happened. We had a recent check-in in June when we ran really small sessions over Google Meet, six to eight people per session, and did an informal coffee chat. It was really to network with other similar-minded people at senior level and above, just to hear how everyone’s been adapting during the lockdown, how they’ve been supporting the team, whether research work or the types of questions have shifted, and whether we are doing more strategic work or whether people are just getting by.
We’re still quite young. We really only kicked off late last year and had the event in January this year. Now we’re trying to think about what sort of events we can support for leaders and what topics would be useful for leaders and senior practitioners. We started creating content for people contributing to our blog as guest posts.
7. You seem really passionate about giving back to the community.
Yes, I like to get involved in start-up mentoring. It’s also like holding up a mirror to yourself and asking how you are performing. But it also makes you think on your feet and I quite like that.
As you accumulate knowledge and experience, you may think that some things are so obvious but actually, they aren’t, and that’s quite helpful to someone else. It also gives me the opportunity to take something that seems complicated and try to communicate it in an easier way that people can digest. That’s quite a nice challenge, to think about how you can help people understand something that seems complex. Sometimes they want to get feedback but they don’t know how to start, or they don’t even know they can do stuff like that. It’s just nice to shine a light on it.
Christina is the Director of Melon Experience Design in London, UK. With her background in psychology, she is passionate about understanding people’s behaviours and insights. Her clients include government departments, fintech, health tech and startups.
Misato Ehara is founder of The UX Review, former design Strategist at Gensler. She is currently completing a Masters in Curating Contemporary Design and is open to UX research roles starting in October 2020.