#UXRConf Preview: Meet Behzod Sirjani
A Q&A with Behzod Sirjani of Slack on bringing everyone to the research table
We’re only a few days away from the 2019 Strive UX Research Conference and the anticipation is building! As one last hoorah, we’re excited to share a pre-conference conversation we’ve had with all-star Researcher Behzod Sirjani.
Behzod Sirjani is a Senior Researcher at Slack, who focuses on understanding what work looks like for Slack customers. He partners with teams across the company to make customers’ work simpler, more pleasant, and more productive. Prior to Slack, he spent 4 years at Facebook working on business tools, video products, and hardware, where he also co-created and led a mentorship program for junior researchers. Prior to Facebook, he worked at Microsoft FUSE Labs as a Research Intern.
On June 6th, Behzod will be speaking in the Research Foundations track with a talk entitled, “Don’t Start With Data: A Framework For Scoping Impactful Research.” In anticipation to his talk, we spoke with him about learning from your research mistakes and the importance of bringing different teams to the research table. Here’s what Behzod had to say. 👇
Tell me about your experience at Microsoft working with Shelly Farnham in the FUSE Labs. What do you feel that experience allowed you to learn and how do you feel it set you up for a career in research?
I have really fond memories of being at FUSE, I was there just for a summer but FUSE was what I wanted grad school to be. Microsoft Research in general is a set of research labs that are typically studying certain subject areas. FUSE stood for the Future of Social Experiences, and they built tools, software experiences etc. to do research. Instead of just asking questions and gathering data in a one-off study method, they were really interested in actually building systems and watching them grow, expand, collapse, die, or do whatever and building in service of research.
Not only was I exposed to what good mixed methods research looked like, but I worked really closely with designers and engineers. I had to articulate the ways we wanted to build and learn certain things, but also acknowledge that if we were going to build a system that was going to last for weeks or months or years, we needed to be really conscious of the fact that people were actually a part of something that they were getting value from.
I think that experience taught me a lot about how to do research in an an applied setting where you’re working with a team of people that have different specialties and specializations and you actually have people using your products. It made it clear to me that new alternative worlds existed that weren’t in the academy, and I wanted to go out and find them.
When it comes to working on more technical projects, do you ever feel a sense of intimidation? And if so, how do you overcome that?
I think a lot of people struggle with it from time to time. The biggest gap is often knowing that something is possible but not knowing the steps to getting there.
I’ve been fortunate at Slack. I came in wanting to do a lot more quantitative work and was very explicit about that with my team and my manager. I have started to learn R in the last year and a half and I’ve also taken on responsibility for analyzing and reporting on our quarterly tracking surveys. That’s been a process of learning what the code does and how it works, running the code with some kind of guidance and then in this recent quarter, running the code and putting together the presentations on my own. And that really was about working with someone to break down what is possible, and having a conversation to help us figure out how to get there.
I think in research there is this perception that qualitative researchers aren’t technical and quantitative researchers are technical. But quantitative research requires certain proficiencies that qualitative research doesn’t — like knowing SQL or knowing R, understanding certain type of statistics and power tests and regressions. Those things are not unlearnable and I think all good research is rigorous.
If you take a long view of someone’s career, for example, depending on where you are and what you’re working on, you’re making various trade-offs for rigour and generalizability. So a lot of the technical hurdles and the imposter syndrome that people face either comes from not knowing how to take that next step and it’s sort of black boxed or themselves feeling like they can’t. Fortunately, I just felt like I needed more time or I needed to find someone to teach me.
Early on at Facebook, I was aggressive about finding mentors, and being like: “Hey, I saw you doing this project, I thought it was really good, can we talk about it?” I’ll buy you coffee or we can trade. I understand I’m taking your time and you’re going to help me grow so I’m going to do something for you.
I really wish that more people did that because I think that as an industry or practice, we can all be better at raising the bar of everyone else’s work. It’s definitely intimidating to go up to someone that’s much more senior than you and be like “Hey, you do really great work, can I borrow an hour?” But imagine if I asked that of someone and then they’re like “Oh, now I know that Behzod knows how to do that work — I can pass someone to Behzod that I would have had that conversation with (or multiple people). Now we’ve doubled our capacity. 💥
Tell me about creating the year-long mentorship program for junior researchers within the research team at Facebook. What was the most challenging and rewarding parts of that process?
The background on that program was that for a period of time, I was doing a lot of interviewing at Facebook for research candidates and I felt like we were passing on people who had a lot of potential and markers of interest and curiosity but didn’t have proven experience, (often in the form of a PhD). That felt really frustrating because we would basically pass on someone because we hadn’t built out the infrastructure and the support to grow them.
I was really fortunate because when I joined, I was in the last class of what Facebook had called “Associate Researchers” which were essentially people who came in without a PhD that had potential and that Facebook was willing to train. I found it ironic that as the team had grown significantly, we hadn’t found a way to regrow that program.
Part of it was I don’t think you need a PhD to do research, and part of it was that we let go a lot of candidates that have gone on to be successful and that I would have loved to work with. I tried to take a step back and ask questions, like: What are the things that I had to learn to be successful at Facebook? What would the curriculum look like for people who came in? What would we teach and what would that teaching look like?
So I worked with Christina Janzer who is the head of the research team at Slack and at the time had started the Facebook research team, and Annie Steele who currently runs research at Stripe. We outlined what was originally a 13 month program. There was a month of Facebook onboarding that covered what it is like to work in industry. Then there were three quarters of a rotation through different product teams. It was kind of based on the medical school “learn one, see one, do one” approach where the first quarter, you’re just there to absorb things.
Depending on your background, you might be helping transcribe notes in qualitative sessions, or you might be working on survey questions., You’re really just there to understand the mechanics of working with stakeholders and scoping out research. Then you progress to helping with projects and owning your work.
We started with 5 people and it was wildly successful. The program is in its third or fourth iteration at this point and they have expanded significantly, scaling up their support and mentorship.
It was important to me because I felt like everyone who is hiring researchers were competing for PhDs in social science and then asking them to do usability tests.That felt really, really backwards. There were a lot of people who had curiosity and potential and some sense of research rigour who didn’t have a PhD and shouldn’t spend 4–5 years doing one, but could contribute meaningfully in the research capacity.
Fortunately, we were able to build a program, get buy-in and prove that these people have gone on to be very successful. One of the first candidates is now managing a research team and has somewhere around 12 reports. That was in only 3 years — an incredible person, super high potential and they just needed that opportunity. I’m hoping that that program and other similar programs will signal to companies that we just need more of these kinds of opportunities.
Tell me about your current role at Slack.
I have been at Slack for a little more than a year and a half now.
I started working on the platform team trying to help the people who develop apps and integrations for Slack either internally to their company or publicly, making sure that the apps that people build work well in Slack. I did that for about 9 months and then moved into a role of overseeing market research — working closely with our sales, customer success and marketing teams to make sure that the work the research team does is accessible, easily understood and used by those groups and making sure that all of those teams have the opportunity to pipe information back to us about things that they’re seeing in the field.
The first half of my time at Slack was very product focused and now the second half as been very partner focused.
Your talk in the Research Foundations Track touches upon something you’ve learned from your own mistakes. How important has learning from your mistakes been in your career? And how does the ability to own up to our mistakes make us better researchers?
Owning mistakes and learning from them is probably the most important thing that I do in life. I was fortunate to have really good managers and mentors at Facebook and make a number of mistakes that were on various scales, but have people who are willing to sit down and work through them with me and say “Hey, how did this happen? Could we have foreseen this? What can we do better next time?”
I think the ability to break down where things have gone wrong, understand and be vulnerable with that, is really helpful.
What I’m excited for with my talk is that I think a lot of junior researchers scope research the wrong way. I messed this up for a good year in various ways and it wasn’t until I realized that I was thinking about research wrong, that I was able to fix it and start having a lot more impact.
What’s been helpful about how I think about research now is it easily translates to anyone who participates in research, not just researchers. I really wish that we as a field, would stop holding on so tightly to us being the only people who practice research because humans are just naturally curious and the more we are able to empower other people on our team to be curious in rigorous ways, the better off we all are.
In my dream world, a research team has a diverse set of offerings for your stakeholders (and I know there are some companies that practice this). There are different touchpoints where maybe what you need to do varies by project. For example:
- Giving stakeholders a playbook and letting them go off on their own
- Giving stakeholders a playbook and guiding them through it
- Showing them the playbook but doing the work
- And sometimes they need to be totally removed and you’re doing all of that work
We need to have different models of engagement because everyone does research, they just do it differently or they do it to varying degrees of rigour and that results in varying degrees of impact. Being more explicit about how we can work together and what that work looks like is going to benefit everyone.
Researchers are teachers, not oracles. Our job is not to have every answer. Our job is to help teams find answers. If you come to me with the same question twice then I’m not doing my job right.
Very unsuccessful researchers are people who try to beat their stakeholders over the head with findings. The best research is when you present and people are like: “Oh of course, that makes so much sense.” It’s just intuitive and they almost forget that you helped them realize it because it was sort of like inception. When they own that idea or that finding, it benefits everyone. Because when they own it, they go and advocate it for you.
What are you most excited for at the upcoming Conference?
I’m really excited by other people’s talks. I think the team has done an incredible job of building out a diverse program and one that speaks to the fact that research is practiced in different ways and at different levels. And so I’m excited for the side conversations and the different ideas that are going to come up at the Q&A’s. I think it’s really rare to have this kind of audience gathered together in a focused space for this long.
I believe there is a great sense of comradery in the research community. We all might work together at some point and we can all learn from each other.I think that openness is great.
Join Behzod Sirjani at Strive: The 2019 UX Research Conference
Tickets are still available for the Main Stage talks on June 7th! Purchase tickets here.
📅 June 6–7
📍 Roy Thomson Hall, 60 Simcoe St, Toronto, ON, M5J 2H5