UXR @ Microsoft
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UXR @ Microsoft

Moment Makers

How the best UX researchers engineer moments by design

Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

This post is from a presentation I gave at UXR Day 2021, an internal conference for UX researchers at Microsoft.

When reflecting on our time cultivating Customer-Driven Engineering in the Developer Division at Microsoft, there has been an important lesson we’ve learned that has been at the foundation of our entire approach.

The lesson we’ve learned is that there’s immense value in creating powerful moments.

I first came across this idea when I read the book, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Dan and Chip Heath.

In the book, they outline the research, neuroscience, and psychology behind experiences that leave a lasting and memorable impression on us.

In some cases, these moments may be small — a kind word from a colleague at just the right time — or they can be momentous, like the birth of a child. But our lives and our work are shaped by moments. They’re happening all around us, and they define the way we behave, they influence the decisions we make, and they shape how we perceive the world.

Cover of the book, The Power of Moments, by Chip and Dan Heath
The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, by Dan and Chip Heath

And when you start to appreciate how powerful all these moments can be, you begin to realize that they don’t always happen by accident. In fact, the more I’ve done the job of UX research over the years, the more I appreciate how the best UX researchers engineer powerful moments by design. It’s intentional in the way they work. In short, the best researchers are Moment Makers.

To illustrate what a Moment Maker looks like, I want to share a little of my personal story with you. To do that, I have to take you in the “way back machine” — all the way back to 1989, when I was just 10 years old.

At 10 years old, I was obsessed with 2 things: Batman and guitars

I grew up in Visalia, a relatively small farming town in Central California. And in 1989, you would’ve found me in Mr. Hildreth’s 4th grade class.

Mr. Hildreth was a classic Moment Maker.

Now, by the time I arrived in Mr. Hildreth’s class, I was struggling academically. I had been plagued with numerous inner-ear issues as a kid, which required lots of surgeries — and as a result — I missed a lot of school. I was also in the Special Education program, under an Individual Education Program (IEP) for a speech impediment (lateral lisp), and I was in just about every remedial program for math, reading, and writing.

The best UX researchers engineer powerful moments by design.

Back then, if you were a kid who struggled with reading and writing, then you were assigned a special textbook and you had to sit with a special group in class. This meant that all of my friends and classmates could see that I was still reading the “baby books” they had long since mastered. It was the late 80’s version of wearing a dunce cap.

It was embarrassing, to say the least, but despite all that — I really loved school and often dreamed that I might actually be the “smart kid” in class.

However, by 4th grade I had become resigned to the fact that being good at school just wasn’t in the cards for me.

An Individual Education Program (IEP) from my time in elementary school

But Mr. Hildreth ran his class differently than the other teachers. Like I said, he was a Moment Maker, so learning always felt different when he was around. It was exciting.

In Mr. Hildreth’s class, learning was a team sport. Everything was organized around team comradery and helping each other. He would often organize simple activities that would turn into powerful moments.

For example, he didn’t just teach us our spelling words — he would engineer these elaborate games like “spelling baseball”, where we would have to spell our words correctly to get on base. If you spelled a word incorrectly, you “struck out”. But then you’d go to the “dugout” (which was really just our desks clustered together) and your team would have to help you get it right for your next time at bat.

Here are some other things Mr. Hildreth did, that made him such a profound Moment Maker:

No “Put Downs”: He enforced a common language of positivity. You weren’t allowed to use words like “dummy” or “stupid” — not just in the way you talked about other kids, but also how you talked about yourself. Mr. Hildreth was building psychological safety in the classroom, well before any of us knew what that was.

Increased Your Visibility: Mr. Hildreth was always on the lookout for your unique strengths. He’d not only point them out to you, but he made sure others saw them as well. He would routinely point out how hard I was willing to work, and he delighted in my sharp wit and sense of humor (things he would often point out to my parents during parent/teacher meetings).

He Invested in Connecting You to Your Work: My writing back then, was terrible. I mean, awful. For whatever reason, I couldn’t keep my writing aligned to the margins. Combine that with backwards letters, and misspellings and my writing looked like a manifesto of a madman. Mr. Hildreth would sit next to me and put his finger on the margin line. He’d say, “Travis, I want you to touch your pencil to my finger at the start of every line.” All these years later, I remember how his simple accommodation helped to re-center myself, to think about what I wanted to write, and move on to the next line. What this illustrates is that Moment Makers are willing to do whatever it takes to connect you to the work you’re doing.

Moment Makers do what’s necessary to connect you to the work you’re doing

So, what can Mr. Hildreth, a 4th grade teacher in some Podunk farm town in California, teach us about UX research?

Well, I propose that if you’re a UX researcher — whether you believe it or not — you’re in the business of making powerful moments. Creating customer connection, developing empathy in others, and sharing stories of customer frustration and inspiration are incredibly powerful landscapes to create meaningful, lasting, moments for your product teams.

First, let’s take a closer look at what makes a powerful moment. Dan and Chip Heath suggest that powerful moments include the following components:

Elevation: Powerful moments break the script. Like Mr. Hildreth’s “spelling baseball”, they get us out of our day-to-day and put activities and opportunities for learning in front of us that are novel and unexpected.

Insight: Memorable moments cause us to re-think our assumptions and re-evaluate what we believe to be true. Like a great spy-thriller surprise twist, insightful moments cause us to “trip over the truth” and realize how our own biases led us down a faulty conclusion. These moments inspire our own curiosity.

Pride: Meaningful moments engender pride. Like Mr. Hildreth’s finger pointing to the margin line, powerful moments connect us to our purpose — and remind us of the impact of our work. They re-center us and help us figure out where to go next.

Connection: Moment Makers realize that powerful moments are meant to be shared. They engineer moments that bring teams together, help them collaborate, ideate, and communicate with each other. Moment Makers make learning a team sport.

If you’re a UX researcher — whether you believe it or not — you’re in the business of making powerful moments.

To drive this idea a little closer to our day-to-day interactions as researchers, let’s reflect on our behaviors — the things we do and say — and what these actions communicate to non-researchers.

Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, refers to these behaviors as “belonging cues”. These are cues that tell others what it means to belong to a group or tribe. In a sense, the way we work with non-researchers, communicates what it means to belong to the UX research community.

If we’re not careful, sometimes our cues can be accidentally diminishing. As Liz Wiseman writes in her book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, Accidental Diminishers are “well-intentioned people who have a diminishing impact on the people around them”.

So, let’s use this framing to reflect on how UX researchers can accidentally diminish non-researchers:

Accidental Diminishers

  • Hold information, waiting to be given an audience to describe the data and demonstrate their expertise
  • Take a defensive stance, defending their data like a dissertation
  • Design presentations that focus on the rigor of their research approach
  • Centralize research operations, to protect the quality of research
  • See themselves as the connection point for the customer
  • Develop research goals based on what they believe is the best learning opportunity for the team
  • Conduct interviews for the team, excluding team members to prevent biased questions in the research
  • Analyze and synthesize their data, then share their results with the team
  • Focus only the customer’s challenges
  • Present their research to the leadership team

Now, let’s contrast these same attitudes and behaviors with Moment Makers:

Moment Makers

  • Continuously share data and encourage an open dialog, allowing others to question/challenge the data
  • Foster an environment for learning, modeling how to approach data with a growth mindset
  • Design presentations that focus on generating empathy and inspired action
  • Democratize research to create opportunities for everyone to participate in learning
  • Sees themselves as the guide, reducing friction to help product teams develop relationships with their customers
  • Help the team formulate their own assumptions into testable hypotheses, so they’re invested in the research
  • Conduct interviews with the team, by inviting product members to interviews and encouraging a dialog between the team and their customers
  • Create moments where the team comes together and develops their own insights
  • Focus on the customer, product, team, organization, and business challenges
  • Coach their product team members, empowering them to present the ir research to the leadership team

In summary, great UX Researchers act a lot like my 4th grade teacher, Mr. Hildreth. They’re constantly on the lookout for opportunities to create powerful moments that elevate the senses, get teams to reflect on new insights, engender pride in the work that’s being done, and create connections between team members and their customers.

And just like Mr. Hildreth, Moment Makers have the power to completely transform the trajectory of those they work with.

With Mr. Hildreth’s dedication and hard work — by the time I left elementary school, I was not only at grade level but in many cases, I was exceeding grade level.

And, if you’ll let me boast a little further, I went on to graduate magna cum laude in my undergrad studies and summa cum laude in my graduate program at DePaul University.

Through powerful moments, Mr. Hildreth left an indelible impression on me and completely changed the course of my life. To him, he was just doing his job. To me, he was a Moment Maker.

For those of you wondering, I was able to track down Mr. Hildreth. He’s still teaching in the area of my home town. He’s now a high school teacher and athletic director, still teaching students how to care for one another and build each other up.

I invited him as my special guest for UXR Day 2021. He got to hear this story, for the first time, as I presented it to my peers and colleagues at Microsoft. I was also able to publicly thank him for all he had done for me, over 30 years ago in his classroom.

Needless to say, it turned out to be a powerful moment.

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