Anna Hoffman

“It Really Is All About People”

On UX Research and Volunteering with Anna Hoffman

U.S. Digital Response
U.S. Digital Response
7 min readNov 16, 2022

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By Barbara Niveyro

Anna Hoffman is a UX Researcher (UXR) at Spotify, and she also volunteers at the U.S. Digital Response (USDR). As a UXR volunteer, she works on various projects helping partner organizations conduct interviews, creating artifacts — like journey maps — and overall, helping make their services more user-friendly. As a scoper, she guides research volunteers to figure out what skillsets they will need to complete the projects and how much time it might take.

We recently had the following conversation to learn more about her background and understand what it means to be a researcher. And most importantly, to absorb her enthusiasm for finding solutions for people as a volunteer.

Barbara Niveyro, USDR: Just to break the ice, can you tell us about your background?

Anna Hoffman: Definitely! Though I wasn’t actually familiar with the term “UX research” until maybe five years ago, I’d started working toward being a user researcher years before that — just without realizing it. After working as a research assistant at a think tank focused on public policy, I fell in love with doing research outside of academic spaces and on topics that felt like they’d have some practical use. I started blending that with my long-standing love of media, working my research skills into the worlds of TV, magazines, digital-native publications, radio, and social media. With a bit of time for grad school in its midst, I continued to hone my research skills and now get to do research both in my “day job”, at Spotify, and my personal time, with USDR.

“I started blending that with my long-standing love of media, working my research skills into the worlds of TV, magazines, digital-native publications, radio, and social media”

BN: How would you describe this moment of your life?

AH: I often referred to the most recent stage of my life as my “training montage” moment, working full time as a UXR and finishing my master’s simultaneously. I don’t know that I’ve come up with a name for this stage yet, but something like finding my groove? To keep with the training montage metaphor, no longer a Jedi padawan but not yet a Jedi master.

BN: How would you define yourself as a researcher and creative?

AH: As a researcher, I’d say I’m a bit of a generalist. Methodologically, I’m qualitative-leaning, but I love quantitative work when I get the chance to do it. Creative isn’t usually a term I’d use for myself, as I personally usually see my work as helping other creatives do their work as best as possible. But I guess if I had to think of myself through that lens, I’d say I prefer creativity within constraints. What requires the most innovation as a researcher is usually the constraints that projects put on the work — time, scale, budget, etc., so that’s when I’m able to bring the most imagination.

BN: For those that are not familiar with the term, what is the role of a UX Researcher? What are your tasks and tools?

AH: My former team lead (and forever mentor!), Gregg Bernstein, has an amazing explanation of what one does as a user researcher:

A table of popular user research methods

AH: As you can tell, it really is all about people. The generalized word might be “user,” but it’s most often ideally something more descriptive of the audience. A reader, listener, creator, or — in the case of USDR — constituent or community member. The approach can vary depending on what questions we’re asking, but by collaborating with stakeholders — like designers or project leaders — and figuring out what questions need to be answered, picking the method is just part of getting to the most important part, which is always talking to people.

“As you can tell, it (UXR) really is all about people”

BN: What have you learned about this profession? What is the most difficult aspect of it?

AH: For me, the toughest part of user research is keeping the scope of the project the research is being done for. Inevitably in conversations with users, they’ll drop interesting pieces of their experiences that I, as a researcher, usually want to ask a dozen more questions on that would lead to a dozen more projects. But one of the things that makes user research so practical is that it can be done quickly and kept relevant to the work currently being done, so fighting the researcher’s urge to follow every new question is critical.

BN: You are a volunteer at USDR. How did that happen? What made you want to volunteer?

AH: I started volunteering with USDR in the spring of 2021. I was taking a course on user research that was focused on the public sector (shoutout to the professor, Emily Tavoulareas at the Beeck Center)! I knew I wanted to apply the UXR skills I’d learned to public programs — especially after hearing so many horror stories in the prior year of people looking to social works programs for help through the pandemic and running into overloaded website servers, difficult online forms, and overall services not ready for the digital world. I knew as a UXR there were lots of solutions to these issues, but just trying to keep up with all of the needs of constituents during the pandemic had governments under water and with little time to evolve. At some point during that class, I serendipitously got an email from a design and research listserv I’m on from another research volunteer who recommended their experience with USDR. I went to a presentation intro session (which volunteers team lead Kristen Eberlin was at, I distinctly remember!), shortly after that I had an interview with Jessica Watson to get onboarded and immediately knew I hoped to give as much to USDR as working with these brilliant folks would give to me.

“I immediately knew I hoped to give as much to USDR as working with these brilliant folks would give to me”

BN: What is your role as a volunteer for USDR? What are the goals and challenges of your team? How do you interact with partners?

AH: I have a couple roles at USDR. I started as a UXR volunteer — hopping onto occasional projects as they came up and research resources were needed. After doing a number of projects, I started working with the government’s team to get involved even earlier in projects with partners as a scoper. Scoping responsibilities are primarily centered around meeting directly with partners in the earliest stages of their discussions with USDR in order to help shape what the volunteer ask will be. We speak about what their goals are, what their team needs, and then assess how we are best able to help given the skillsets of our volunteers and the expertise of the teams at USDR. Each partner is different.

BN: Why is volunteering important for you and how does doing so through USDR help make a difference?

AH: User research is all about making people’s voices heard. The people making products don’t always, or even often necessarily, get the chance to speak with the people who will be using them. It’s the user researcher’s responsibility to make sure they have a voice in the rooms where decisions get made by actually talking to those people and accurately portraying their thoughts, needs, frustrations, and experiences with what we’re building. I can think of nothing more important than making sure the public’s needs are heard by the governments who serve them. Making sure constituents have access to services that will help them build better lives is what USDR is all about, and being even a tiny part of that always feels worthwhile.

“Making sure constituents have access to services that will help them build better lives is what USDR is all about, and being even a tiny part of that always feels worthwhile”

BN: Would you like to share anything else?

AH: While one of the things that sets USDR apart is the skills and expertise of its volunteers that nonprofits and government partners can have the chance to benefit from, I would say that I have benefitted just as much with my own career and practice as a user researcher by working with USDR. The projects I’ve worked on with them have been complex and challenging to tackle but have inspired me to utilize my UXR skills in new and novel ways.

Interested in using your skills to help people in your community?

From UX researchers to content strategists and more, there’s an opportunity for technologists to volunteer with USDR. Learn more about USDR or sign up to volunteer your time at www.usdigitalresponse.org/volunteers.

Have more questions? Watch a recording of a past Volunteer Info Session or register to attend an upcoming session.

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U.S. Digital Response
U.S. Digital Response

Connecting governments and nonprofits with pro bono technologists and assistance to quickly respond to the critical needs of the public.