The UX Review
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‘Leaders don’t have all the answers..’- Interview with Samantha Davies, Head of User Research and Design Leadership at Zoopla

Being a leader is not an easy job. There is a business goal to achieve and the team to strive for better together. After learning and reading books about leadership, Samantha found her approach: be adapting, kind and candid whilst striving for better. She also shared her current thoughts about sharing research data with stakeholders and organising qualitative data. This article is full of inspirations — enjoy! 🥰

Samantha Davies, Head of User Research and Design Leadership at Zoopla

What do you like most about Zoopla’s culture?

For me, it’s really about the amount of trust and autonomy people are given at every level. We recruit talented, smart and caring people, and we provide them with the space to figure out how to solve problems. There’s a high degree of trust in their ability to gather evidence, deeply understand the area they’re working in and find the best path forward within their teams. That degree of trust is crucial to empowering individuals to do their best work.

Companies typically make decisions top-down or bottom-up depending on the leadership they have in place and their priorities. Zoopla has managed to strike a good balance between providing clear direction, goals and guardrails, then allowing those closest to the problem to figure out how to get there. The vision is set at a senior level using different factors like market forces and thinking strategically about where we want to be. Senior leadership figures out at a high level where we want to be, and how we should be structured to get there, but How we get there is down to the actual teams. The company’s vision is not a GPS, but it needs to have clear stepping stones — the strategy. We understand what those stepping stones are and now we need to work out the path between them. I like that Zoopla’s culture has struck a good balance between empowering and guiding individuals, and how much support is given. The team is ambitious and knows how to have fun.

It’s up to each team member to decide how to achieve goals while making sure they have fun!

As Head of User Research, what kind of leader do you aspire to be?

It’s a question I often ask myself. Leadership is not something that is handed to you — it is something that you decide to step into. It might sound cliché, but leadership is a mindset and not a title. Leadership is not about single actions here or there to check a box; it’s an attitude and it’s about your behaviours. It’s about being a role model and bringing out the best in other people. Leadership is broad and multi-directional — you have to think about your impact upwards, downwards and sideways.

Where I land is a place of adaptability, candour and kindness, whilst striving for better. Adaptability is about being able to flex your style to the individual in front of you. You have to meet people where they are, in a world that’s constantly changing around them and an organisation that’s changing around you. As a leader, you can have conversations with people that can deeply influence them, and it’s important to recognise what a privilege and responsibility this is. Candour is about being honest without being insensitive; it’s about being authentic and genuine. The third, kindness, is about being human so we can connect on a deeper level and feel safe at work.

For Samantha, it’s important that leaders are adapting, kind, candid whilst striving for better.

As a leader, there’s a balance between pushing individuals to strive for achievements while also creating an environment where people feel safe to learn through trial and error, and can cultivate a growth mindset. We know that psychological safety is paramount for individuals and teams to do their best work — anxiety and imposter syndrome being the antithesis. On the other hand, in some environments, people feel very safe, but the standards are not there. Perhaps people lack the skills or the motivation. Leaders can support individuals through those moments of growth. They can offer their perspective, gained from their experiences and from the organisational context they have.

— The world needs more leaders like you! I often think about the degree of support and help that leaders can provide to individuals and teams. You cannot solve all struggles and issues for them. How do you manage this high expectation?

Absolutely — we can’t solve everything and I am glad you make the point. Leaders are only humans, and it can be dangerous to put them on pedestals. They make mistakes just like anyone else does and can. And sometimes leaders don’t have all the answers nor are they best placed to help us solve struggles. The reality is that most of the problems we face are not new problems. They have been solved before, and we most likely are the best-placed people to find a solution. I try to think about how I can provide that sense of perspective whilst listening to people’s concerns and act as a sounding board to help them figure the best path forward.

Leaders can’t solve all the problems but Samantha thinks they can listen and give different perspectives.

I’ve previously experienced misaligned expectations with team members around my role and involvement with them and their careers, which can lead to some tough conversations. For instance, one midweight-senior team member expected me to create career goals for them, and for me to tell them where their career was going because they weren’t sure themselves. When people have consistently been given structures and systems to be part of, they can find themselves aimless when there isn’t an obvious next step. Or perhaps that next step isn’t quite what they want, but they don’t know what they actually want or what to do. And they can end up placing expectations on you as a leader to give them personal guidance and create a step-by-step plan for them. And sometimes if they can’t figure it out, they get upset and blame you. But as a leader, it’s not your responsibility to draw out someone’s entire career. There’s only so far you can take someone, and ultimately it’s their life and they have to take personal responsibility. As a leader, you have to help individuals understand the boundaries of your relationships and build a sense of agency.

Another aspect of leadership is balancing the needs of the business and the needs of the people in the organisation. Sometimes it can feel impossible to get it right. Focus too much on one aspect and something else is neglected. And people have different needs and expectations from their work, and what their jobs and careers mean to them — and therefore what they expect from leadership.

Given we spend most of our day at work, it’s understandable that for a lot of people, their work becomes part of their identity. But I think that’s dangerous. The moment we place too much importance on our status and achievements at work, our mental health can suffer if things don’t work out as planned. And often it’s easy to blame the leadership for outcomes that directly affect us.

I believe this was accentuated during the pandemic because we couldn’t do all of the other things that form part of our identity and typical routines and daily lives. Alongside the fact that people are working longer hours from not having those natural breaks during the day, I believe it’s contributing to why we’re seeing more burnout.

— You mentioned you have used videos as a visual aid to communicate with stakeholders before.

Do you still like to use videos, or have you found any other effective communication methods?

It comes down to who you want to influence and what level of detail they need to understand the point in the most relevant and compelling way possible. Videos are a great way to get across a particular point or make a story come to life to a wide or senior audience. First-hand empathy is better than second-hand empathy. Rather than tell someone about a problem, show them it. Or even better, have them experience it themselves.

In terms of asynchronous methods, videos tell a convincing story the best, but often they need some narrative or explanation. Visuals help people understand a landscape, especially where there are multiple moving parts — where you want to show continuation or evolution for example. It also depends on what works in your organisation. In some places I’ve been, written one-pagers had the widest reach.

Synchronously, you can create and do impactful workshops. I once ran a persona socialisation workshop with a colleague where we made cardboard cut-outs of the archetypes and played games with the stakeholders to bring them to life. I’ve seen companies bring in paid actors, and you could interact and ask the actors questions. Each method has its limitations; it’s really about knowing your audience and thinking about what outcomes you want within the constraints you have.

How do you organise qualitative research findings to help you and your team analyse findings better to create insights?

This is the eternal question and problem, and I don’t think anyone has cracked it! There are so many parts to it.

  • There’s the granularity of the insight — at what level do you capture it?
  • There’s the lifecycle of the insight –- is it timeless or disposable?
  • Then there’s the relevance — when did we capture it and how? Can it be applied to another question we have, or to a different market?
  • There’s scalability and access — who will be adding to a potential system of insights and how do people need to be able to consume them?

The order that I think of it in is:

1. Access: I want everyone to be able to find the most important and pertinent knowledge and consume it easily. This is less about the projects we’ve run and more about the knowledge itself.

2. Prioritising timeless insight over disposable insight. Timeless insight stays live for many years. It’s your foundational knowledge. This is more important to capture and share broadly than disposable insight, which is mostly about the decisions you’ve made within the product team.

3. Robustness: how truthful and representative is this insight, and how can we re-use the knowledge?.

Organising insight is a job in itself. Having a database where insights are updated, captured at the right level and tagged takes a level of oversight and management that most organisations can’t afford. And often those databases are unwieldy for anyone else but those who maintain it, which dilutes its utility. The power of insight is in arming teams with knowledge. If they can’t easily get hold of or consume the knowledge, it’s a pointless exercise.

From experience, I’ve also found that regardless of how well you store your insight, research more often than not ends up being re-run further down the line, through a slightly different lens, or with some additive questions. Existing research forms a first stage of desk research, before a newly formed team runs a next phase of primary research to more deeply understand the problem space they’re working in.

At Zoopla, I want to introduce a partner model for the researchers. Researchers work in a semi-embedded capacity in the verticals. We will have knowledge hubs at each vertical level with summaries of the most pertinent timeless insight. The researcher will be responsible for maintaining the local knowledge base. By decentralising our knowledge into local hubs, we can showcase the most valuable insight, so it doesn’t get lost in the noise.

Samantha and I both made donations to Beam who support and empower houseless people to find them a new job and home by providing a support network.

Interviewed by Misato Ehara
Edited by Misato Ehara and Samantha Davies
Illustrations by Andrea Méndez
Edited with Google docs
Published on 28 Sep 2021

Interviewee: Samantha’s been a user researcher for over a decade. She started her career agency-side before moving in-house and includes a few years of contracting. Her experience spans different industries and sized organisations, from start-ups, scale-ups to international corporates and everything in-between, including a short stint in public services. In 2017, Samantha joined Monzo as the first researcher where she established the user research practice and built a team, stepping into a leadership position. Samantha recently joined Zoopla, to help them re-imagine the homeowner experience across all sides of the marketplace.

Interviewer: Misato Ehara is a founder of The UX Review, former design Strategist at Gensler. She has just completed a Masters in Curating Contemporary Design and currently working as a User Researcher at Refinitiv/London Stock Exchange Group.

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