Navigating User Research as Designers of Color

How to...thoughtfully craft research practices around race

Hi, I’m Crystal Yan. 👋 I’m a product and design leader and leadership coach. Here, I write about building products and teams. Every few weeks, I write about product, design, marketing, behavioral science, and management, and share resources to help you become a better leader.

If there’s a topic you’d like me to cover, send me your questions and I’ll cover it in a future issue. To receive this newsletter in your inbox directly, subscribe 👇

A few weeks ago, Alba Villamil (@albanvillamil) & I hosted a panel: Race in the Field: Navigating User Research as Designers of Color. We brought together four design leaders, Dr. Chelsea Johnson, Senior UX Researcher at LinkedIn and Author of IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All, Jazmyn Latimer (@JazmynLatimer), Service Design Director at Code for America, Sarah Fathallah (@SFath), Independent Social Designer, and Mithula Naik (@MithulaNaik), Head of Design Research at Canadian Digital Service, to share how their racial background influences their research approach. Our goal was to create a space for designers and researchers to learn and leave with ideas for how to thoughtfully craft research practices around race.

The response was incredible. Here’s just a taste of what people said to us after, via email and #RaceintheField:
“I feel so empowered hearing this and being in this space.”

“This was the panel I needed 10 years ago and then a follow up every year of my life. Thank you”

One of the most on point, powerful convos I've heard in the design space since maybe ever.”

“Truly one of the best, most inspiring and educational events I've been to in a long, long while…so different from the performative/competitive dynamics you often see at conference panels.”

If you joined us live - thank you! Your energy and enthusiasm made my day. If you missed it, don’t worry. You can read my recap below, catch up on the community’s learnings with #RaceintheField on Twitter, and view our Race in the Field resource guide (we sent a link to the replay to all registered attendees - if you didn’t receive this, let me know).

Today, I want to share my recap of some of what we learned:

Researchers of color face additional challenges…

  • Researchers of color face the challenge of balancing between researching the issue and representing the issue. They often feel as if they are playing two roles: a researcher learning more about the problem, and a community member who represents the issue

  • They may work with teams that put the responsibility of handling questions about race solely on POC

  • Researchers of color must navigate code-switching with clients

Some of these challenges are specific to doing research within their own communities…

  • Researchers of color ask themselves, “what is are the ethics of rapport?”

  • When communities of color trust them, researchers of color question, “Am I objective? Am I safe? Am I missing things? Am I burnt out? Am I experiencing second-hand trauma?”

  • Researchers of color embrace that data they collect is filtered through themself, and they challenge themselves to find ways to mitigate their own biases

  • And when presenting research, remember that it’s important to tell empowering, actionable and multidimensional (representative of the community) stories

  • Resist essentialism and focus on the structural conditions. The work/change starts to happen when you learn about your own history

And some are challenges with doing research internationally…

  • Researchers of color have dealt with others re-framing their research to an Anglocentric paradigm

  • They have learned over time how critical it is to dig into lived experience and not only what the research data reveals, and recognize the subjectivity of all knowledge

  • Some struggle with the language of “BIPOC”, which is very specific to a US-centric context, and doesn’t apply to researching in other countries and contexts

  • While researchers of color may understand the nuances of race v.s. ethnicity v.s. nationality, they may be working with teams led by those who do not

With all these challenges, researchers of color have developed strategies to navigate racist interactions in field research…

  • These include protecting one's identity, hiring outside vendors to moderate, emergency planning for triggers, harm, and other signals of an unsafe environment for researchers

  • In general, researchers of color often bear the burden of developing protocols and systems that did not exist before. To do this for your team, a good first step is to ask yourself, “What will you and your teammates do if you enter an unsafe research environment? How will you protect each other?”

  • Additionally, researchers of color must also be careful about how they ask white colleagues to help to avoid perpetuating a culture of credentialism or saviorism

  • In academia, research ethics comes first, and research comes second. In applied industry, it’s often the opposite. Ask, “what would an IRB in applied research look like?”

To move the industry forward, research and design leaders say…

  • When asking, “What should I do if I am the only one?”, question if you want to be in an environment in which you are always the only one

  • Speak up for compensating people for participating in research studies, especially in vulnerable communities. If a researcher is getting paid for the time spent in the interview, the participant should be getting paid too

  • When partnering with colleagues or clients who want to ask you to educate them about race and representation, reframe and shift responsibility by asking, "What have you found from your online searches?"

I’m thankful for the hundreds of people who showed up to learn, and for those who took the time to tell me how much being a part of this conversation meant to them.

If you’re interested in joining future events like this, let me know what topics and formats you’d be interested in here.

Thanks,
Crystal

Additional Resources

- To learn more about the resources our panelists and live audience for #RaceintheField recommended, view our Race in the Field resource guide.
- To ask the right questions to assess how inclusive your user research processes are, get a copy of my Design Ethics & Inclusion Cards (exclusive discount for newsletter readers). Use these cards to design more inclusive products and services, so you can ask these questions throughout the design process, especially at decision making moments such as design critiques and design research planning meetings.
- Our community needs more people of color in design leadership. Looking for tools to help you level up into leadership? Read my last post, Leveling Up Into Leadership, and download The Product Designer Career Growth Toolkit (exclusive discount for newsletter subscribers) to help you have more concrete career growth conversations with your manager in your next 1:1.

Thanks for reading!

As always, thanks for reading. Share your feedback with me by sending me a note here.

Interested in reading more? Subscribe to upcoming posts for more insights on building products & teams.

If you found this post useful, please share with a friend or coworker!

Share

Leveling Up into Leadership

Why...making design-inspired shifts in products and services, people, process, and policy can accelerate you as a leader

Hi, I’m Crystal Yan. 👋 I’m a product and design leader and leadership coach. Here, I write about building products and teams. Every few weeks, I write about product, design, marketing, behavioral science, and management, and share resources to help you become a better leader.

If there’s a topic you’d like me to cover, send me your questions and I’ll cover it in a future issue. To receive this newsletter in your inbox directly, subscribe 👇

As you grow in your career, people will look to you for your leadership. As a leader, your words can inspire a team's goals, your direction can impact decisions, and your perspective can influence the direction of someone's career. One question my coaching clients often ask me is, "How do I get there? How do I learn what it takes to lead and operate as a senior level individual contributor or manager?"

I started my career at a high growth startup, where I worked across sales, marketing, design, and product management. While these may sound like very different functions, the one thing they all have in common is a relentless focus on customer discovery. As a designer and product manager, I brought human-centered design to how I designed products and services, and as I grew into leadership roles later on, I brought some of those methods to how I design teams and organizations. Even if you don't think of yourself as a designer, if you're looking for ways to grow into leadership in your organization, you may find some relevant tactics to employ from the field of design.

Here, I'll cover:

  • Four shifts to make to scale your impact & influence

  • Three key skills to develop

Four Shifts to Make to Scale Your Impact & Influence

There are four shifts you need to make to scale your impact and influence: products and services, people, process, and policy.

  1. Designing a great product → designing great products & services

Early on my career, I had ownership over one product. And as our company grew, so did my ownership: from one product to several products, from only products, to services as well. When I joined the United States Digital Service to bring design and technology to government services, I was leading teams that not only built great software products, but also great services. 

To scale your impact, learn more about the field of service design and think more about the customer outcomes your work creates. You’ll find yourself thinking less about which team in your organization owns what, and thinking more about the overall journey of your users, and how delivering great service involves multiple product and service touchpoints. In my work on immigration services, this transformed my mindset from “our team owns this immigration case status product” to “our team owns making it easier for asylum seekers to apply for all immigration services”. In my work on healthcare services, this transformed my mindset from “our team owns this prescription data product” to “our team owns making sure people get better healthcare by making it easier for patients and clinicians to understand prescription history”.

  1. Designing human-centered hiring 

As a leader, a key part of your work is hiring and building great teams. Like many other activities, it may be tempting to jump into the tactics: writing a job description, showing up to a scheduled interview, and adopting the existing processes of your organization. But before doing so, it’s important to take a step back and set core principles to guide designing your hiring process. 

Here’s an example of the hiring principles I set: Cut the bias, design a great candidate experience, and get to yes.

After setting these principles, you may find that you want to iterate or even redesign your hiring processes. In one of my previous organizations, I did the following to design a more intentional and inclusive hiring process: 1. Conduct Research —> 2. Map Candidate Experience —> 3. Prototype Solutions —> 4. Launch & Iterate. In an onboarding presentation introducing my department, I had new hires interview each other on their candidate experience, journey map their findings, and paper prototype potential solutions. With our Director of Talent in the room, we had the immediate buy-in to implement some of the proposed solutions soon after. For example, we developed interview guides, note-taking templates, and functional and cross-functional interview exercises to help interviewers assess candidates more effectively and ensure less overlap in questions between interviewers.

  1. Developing interdisciplinary teams

To truly feel a sense of belonging at work, people often gravitate towards identifying with smaller communities and teams. While this is human nature, as a leader, your role is to provide a certain degree of counterbalance to this natural gravity, and remind the people you lead that their first allegiance is to the overall larger team, and their second allegiance is to their smaller team.

When you shift into leadership, you’ll need to develop truly interdisciplinary/cross-functional teams of people that respect and understand functions other than their own. 

One way I’ve done this on teams I’ve led is by facilitating interactive workshops to demonstrate the value of different methods and perspectives. For example, to introduce customer development and user research to the team, I’ll host short 15 minute interactive exercises every two weeks during a team demo and do brief lightning talks for the team on how to ask better questions. If your team members can better understand each other’s disciplines, they’ll have a better understanding of when it makes sense to loop each other in to collaborate, and you’ll be able to align an interdisciplinary team to move in the same direction much more effectively.

  1. Designing human-centered policy

The word “policy” might feel like an unfamiliar term, but in fact, we’re all surrounded by policies. In its simplest definition, a policy is a set of guidelines to guide outcomes and decision-making. In your community, the government sets policies that regulate industries and balance their interests with the interests of their workers, the environment, and the general public. In your organization, company leadership sets vacation policies, customer service policies, and approval policies that balance the interests of the company with the interests of employees, customers, and investors.

As a leader, you play an active role in not only understanding and interpreting policies, but also authoring and/or editing policies. Often, policies are crafted with only certain stakeholders in mind - for example, an approval policy may exist to protect your organization from legal risk. But you might find in your 1:1s with your team that these approval policies are designed in a way that makes employees feel that they are not empowered to move quickly. To find a better solution to this problem, you would then be responsible for representing the people you lead, your customers, and other stakeholders in redesigning these policies with employee agency and customer outcomes in mind. Ideally, your product policies would be designed with intention to support teams in designing inclusive products and services.

In my experience, whether it’s crafting a policy for the first time at a startup or redesigning a policy in a large bureaucratic organization, I’ve found it’s helpful to lead with humble inquiry by asking and clarifying in writing what the objective/intention of a policy is, and from there, to work in partnership with stakeholders to brainstorm alternative policy proposals.

Three Key Skills to Develop

While there are many skills one can focus on developing to become a better leader, three key skills that often get overlooked are systems thinking, crafting culture, and coaching.

Here’s how I define each:

  1. Systems Thinking: Understands how systems interact with and influence each other. Understands the business, industry and competitive landscape.

  2. Crafting Culture: Shapes culture to enable great decision making with the right level of process for the stage of the business. Understands how to set goals for the stage of the business and deliver value.

  3. Coaching: Embraces a growth mindset for learning and development for themselves and others; Adopts the coaching mindset to ask questions that creates clarity, perspective, and action for others.

In my case, I was first introduced to systems thinking through a public health class, to crafting culture through learning on the job at a high-growth startup, and to coaching through a coaching training. However, developing these skills can come from various resources. I’m a big believer in peer learning and continuous improvement; recently, I facilitated a product leadership careworkshop with my colleagues and as an output of this workshop, each person contributed resources that have been helpful to us to level up in each of these different skill areas so that we could develop a peer-recommended resource list. To learn more about future workshops, subscribe here.

Conclusion

Whether you’re already leading or managing teams or simply aspiring to someday, I hope these shifts provide a framework and roadmap for initiatives you can start leading to scale your impact and influence. And to continuously grow as a leader, I recommend seeking resources and dedicating time to level up in systems thinking, crafting culture, and coaching.

Additional Resources

- As you level up into leadership and deliver more impact, don’t forget to craft a development plan to help you get to the next level of your career so that your career grows as the company grows. Download The Product Manager Career Growth Toolkit or The Product Designer Career Growth Toolkit (exclusive discount for newsletter subscribers) to help you do just that. Use the frameworks and worksheets in this toolkit to have more concrete career growth conversations with your manager in your next 1:1. With step-by-step guidance on how to complete these and who to review these with, you’ll have the tools you need to get aligned with your manager on where to focus to grow your career.
- If you are a manager, download these 1:1 Question Cards: Manager’s Edition to have more thoughtful and meaningful conversations with your team members. Use these questions in your next 1:1s regularly so you have ongoing career growth, rapport building, performance management, and feedback conversations throughout the year, not just during review season.
- For help crafting your career development plan, schedule a career coaching session or reply to this email to learn more about hiring me as a coach.

Thanks for reading!

As always, thanks for reading. Share your feedback with me by sending me a note here.

Interested in reading more? Subscribe to upcoming posts for more insights on building products & teams.

If you found this post useful, please share with a friend or coworker!

Share

If you find this newsletter useful, you can support my writing by sharing this newsletter with your friends, or buying me a coffee.

Share Discovery by Crystal Yan



Finding the Truth: Three Lies Your Customers Tell You, Why, and How to Find the Truth

Why...understanding three behavioral science principles is key to doing better research and learning from people

Hi, I’m Crystal Yan. 👋 I’m a product and design leader and leadership coach. Here, I write about building products and teams. Every few weeks, I write about product, design, marketing, behavioral science, and management, and share resources to help you become a better leader.

If there’s a topic you’d like me to cover, send me your questions and I’ll cover it in a future issue. To receive this newsletter in your inbox directly, subscribe 👇

Great product strategy comes from customer insights. But how you find the truth if your customer is lying to you?

Most of my work in product and design has involved discovery: doing the qualitative research & customer development work to understand customer problems and decide if it’s worth the investment to build an entirely new business, product, or feature to solve their problems.

Some common mistakes I see people make when doing customer research is believing everything customers say or believing that one feature idea from a customer is a silver bullet. With my academic training in behavioral economics and my experience working in product and design over the years, I’ve learned there are a few common lies customers tell you. Here, I’ll unpack the behavioral science principles behind each of them for you and share how to deftly navigate customer interviews to better find the truth. I offer tactical tips that I've implemented in my own user research practice to get better at gathering unbiased qualitative data, and surfacing user insights to drive product decisions.

Lie 1: “Yes, X is a problem for me”

Why people tell this lie: Focusing illusion.
People will focus on the problems you ask them to focus on. If you ask customers about the problem your feature is trying to solve, they will articulate pain points they have there. However, you may lose the chance to learn that this isn’t a pressing problem for them.

How to find the truth: Start with general questions. Be okay following the direction of the conversation and occasionally going off script.

Lie 2: “I like this, I will use it”

Why people tell this lie: Observer effect/Hawthorne effect.
People act differently when an observer is present. Customers don’t want to disappoint you, so they tell you what they think you want to hear. If they know you and your team worked hard on something, they may feel more hesitant to be honest about what they don’t like.

How to find the truth: Be careful with how you introduce yourself. Even if you designed the prototype you plan to show a customer, try introducing yourself as a researcher so that customers feel more comfortable providing negative feedback.

Lie 3: “If you build X, I’ll buy/use it”

Why people tell this lie: Egocentric bias.
People lie to themselves. For example, a customer might aspire to be the kind of person who always chooses a healthy meal over an unhealthy one. So they might tell you they would use your healthy meal delivery service, but once it’s available, never sign up.

How to find the truth: Don’t ask customers to predict their future. Ask them to tell you about their past. Instead of asking, “would you try this new service?”, ask, “tell me about the last time you tried a new service”.

Remember, customers are only the experts on their problems. You need to be the expert on potential solutions to their problem.

Additional Resources
-
To get started with interviewing customers, download my Customer Discovery Guidebook here (exclusive discount for newsletter readers). This concise yet actionable guide will help you start interviewing customers tomorrow with the specific strategies, tips, and sample interview questions I've shared with clients for years to surface customer insights to develop new products, or improve existing ones. While there are many articles, books, and courses out there, my goal is to help you sift through the noise and make it easier to learn by doing. With specific step-by-step guidance and sample questions, you’ll be ready to craft questions and an interview guide to avoid the biases I described above within hours.
- If you’re interested in hiring me to coach you or your team on user research, book time with me for a product strategy session.

To learn more about behavioral science, check out:
1. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
2. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
3. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

Thanks for reading!

As always, thanks for reading. Share your feedback with me by sending me a note here.

Interested in reading more? Subscribe to upcoming posts for more insights on building products & teams.

If you found this post useful, please share with a friend or coworker!

Share

If you find this newsletter useful, you can support my writing by sharing this newsletter with your friends, or buying me a coffee.

Share Discovery by Crystal Yan

Designing Cross-Functional Interviews: Are you looking for a "writer" or an "editor"?

How to...design your interview to reflect what the job entails, and your team’s culture.

Hi, I’m Crystal Yan. 👋 I’m a product and design leader and leadership coach. Here, I write about building products and teams. Every few weeks, I write about product, design, marketing, behavioral science, and management, and share resources to help you become a better leader.

If there’s a topic you’d like me to cover, send me your questions and I’ll cover it in a future issue. To receive this newsletter in your inbox directly, subscribe 👇

If you’re a founder, hiring manager, or anyone who interviews to hire people outside your functional background, designing a great interview process to help you find great talent is challenging, but well worth the time spent to make improvements. Exceptional products and services come from exceptional teams, and hiring is a skill every interviewer and inclusive leader should continuously improve. I’ve hired for several functions (product, design, engineering, sales, marketing, program management, customer service), and I want to share one learning from my experience in how to design a better interview for assessing a potential cross-functional partner.

Many interviews are one of two types: technical or behavioral. As an interviewer, I have access to existing resources for these types of interviews:

  • Technical interviews (whiteboard challenges, case studies) are designed for functional experts to evaluate a candidate’s skills in that function, whether it’s in software engineering, product design, product management, marketing, or data analysis.

  • Behavioral interviews (open-ended questions) are designed to understand a candidate’s past actions and experiences: when confronted with a particular situation/challenge, what did they do, and what was the result?

However, something is missing. When I am interviewing someone from a different function (e.g. a product manager interviewing a software engineer), I’m looking for what a candidate believes successful cross-functional collaboration looks like, and looking to understand if they will add to our team’s culture. True cross-functional collaboration means a candidate is not only a great “writer”, but also a great “editor” of their functional peer’s work: a software engineer who can thoughtfully critique product design, a designer who can ask great questions after looking at a product brief, or a product manager who can suggest copy edits for a marketer’s landing page.

But because many technical interviews look for “can this candidate do [this skill] themselves?”, if I don’t have expertise in that function, as a cross-functional interviewer, it’s easy to simply decide to rely on behavioral questions alone to assess for cross-functional collaboration. However, since behavioral interviews tend to simply only ask “tell me about how you partner with [this function]”, this is often not enough. With these answers, it’s hard to tell if a candidate is overselling or underselling their skills, or if their behavior in their current employer’s culture can forecast their behavior in your team’s culture.

Thus, for cross-functional interviewers, I recommend creating a specific type of technical interview. But instead of assessing “can this candidate do [this skill] themselves?”, focus on assessing, “can this candidate improve their cross-functional peer’s work in that skill in the context of how our team operates?”. For example, you may not need to hire a software engineer who can do product design work themselves. But you certainly may want to hire a software engineer who can thoughtfully critique product design.

If you’re an interviewer and you decide how to design the interview of a cross-functional partner, design a ~20 minute cross-functional case study the next time you interview someone outside your function. If your technical interview cases are currently designed to only evaluate “writing”, design case studies that evaluate “editing” - as long as this reflects what the job entails and your team’s culture.

For example, for an engineering candidate, to understand how they partner with product and design, you could split a cross-functional case study into two parts:
1. Show them a one sentence problem statement for a new feature. Ask, “Imagine the product manager you partner with wrote this in a product brief. What’s one question you’d ask them?”
2. Show them one proposed design for this new feature. Ask, “Imagine the product designer you partner with presented this at a design review. What’s one piece of feedback you’d provide?”

Here’s a sample structure for a one hour interview:
~5 minutes: introductions
~20 minutes: a cross-functional case study
~25 minutes: behavioral questions
~10 minutes: time for the candidate to ask questions

Make sure you design your interview to reflect what the job on your team entails, and your team’s culture. The scenario for your cross-functional case should reflect a realistic scenario this candidate would be put in if they start on your team tomorrow. For example, in some organizations, product managers and designers are both expected to sketch, storyboard, and wire-frame, whereas in other organizations, one function leads (“writes”) and the other critiques (“edits”). If in your organization, you expect someone to “write”, design a case to assess their ability to come up with the first draft. If you only expect someone to “edit”, design a case to assess their ability to provide great feedback. Candidates will appreciate a sense of how your team operates today, and you should expect senior candidates to share how their leadership could improve your current operating model.

Good luck, and happy interviewing.

Additional Resources
- If you are a hiring manager, chances are you’re a people manager as well. If so, you may find these 1:1 Question Cards: Manager’s Edition helpful to have more thoughtful and meaningful conversations with your team members. Use these questions in your next 1:1s regularly so you have ongoing career growth, rapport building, performance management, and feedback conversations throughout the year, not just during review season.
- To work together on crafting a candidate-centered hiring strategy, book time with me for a hiring strategy session.

Thanks to Susumu Noda for feedback on this post.

Thanks for reading!

As always, thanks for reading. Share your feedback with me by sending me a note here.

Interested in reading more? Subscribe to upcoming posts for more insights on building products & teams.

If you found this post useful, please share with a friend or coworker!

Share

If you find this newsletter useful, you can support my writing by sharing this newsletter with your friends, or buying me a coffee.

Share Discovery by Crystal Yan

Building a Customer-Centric Culture

How to...democratize research effectively to build a more customer-centric culture.

Hi, I’m Crystal Yan. 👋 I’m a product and design leader and leadership coach. Here, I write about building products and teams. Every few weeks, I write about product, design, marketing, behavioral science, and management, and share resources to help you become a better leader.

If there’s a topic you’d like me to cover, send me your questions and I’ll cover it in a future issue. To receive this newsletter in your inbox directly, subscribe 👇

I lead a team responsible for launching new products and services, specifically focused on financial services for immigrants.

When we’re building something new that involves risk for the organization, we need everyone to learn from customers. The challenge we face is: how do we build a culture in which everyone feels comfortable taking part in research, and better understanding customers to make better decisions?

We have people not only in product and design focused on this, but people from roles ranging from compliance to engineering to customer service, all focused on making more customer-centric decisions.

I’ll talk about the challenges we face, and how we address these challenges in specific ways to build more customer-centricity and a better understanding of research insights on these teams. We do this by democratizing research: coaching teams to share, develop, and understand insights that impact their decisions. 

What do I mean by “democratizing research”?

For me, democratizing is about what it means for research to offer:

  • Transparency - people want to better understand how you understand customers

  • Actionable research - people want to find more actionable insights when it matters so when they need to make a decision, they can make the best decision with the information they have at that time 

  • Permission to care - often, it can feel like only product or UX teams are responsible for caring about research, but you want to create a culture in which everyone cares, and they have permission from management to care about how research impacts their work.

Here’s how I think about democratizing research to create a more customer-centric culture:

  1. Coach a team to research together

  2. Share insights to debate impact together

  3. Drive policies to change culture

This framework has helped me tackle the challenges inherent in democratizing research. I hope it helps you as well.

1/ Coach

Coach to research together

Here’s a common challenge researchers and research leaders face: you do the research, but others forget about it once they’ve read the report. There are two ways I’ve tackled this challenge: teaching micro-lessons, and designing quests to research together.

Teaching Micro-Lessons
Let’s start with teaching. To coach teams who are new to research, I typically lead a 90 minute introduction to research workshop, covering topics such as the difference between exploratory and evaluative research and how to uncover insights in specific contexts, and including activities that guide people through how to practice qualitative research. Although people enjoyed it, I sometimes heard, “I’m nervous, and I’m not sure if I’m ready to take this to my work.”

This was the challenge - it was hard to connect the concepts introduced in this workshop to the key skills they would need, and it was hard to connect that to what they could leverage in their day-to-day work. This 90 minute workshop format works well for consulting clients, but to make the content more effective for leading a team in-house, I broke it down into micro-lessons, each corresponding to a specific skill. 

One lesson focused on developing open-ended questions in general. Another focused on listening (e.g. what we think we are hearing) and crafting pointed follow-up questions.

I took these activities, made them shorter, and incorporated them to an existing ritual: a bimonthly team demo. I brought micro-lessons to these demos, where team members were already showing the results of their work over the past few weeks. I incorporated the micro-lessons into the demos, creating what essentially became a curriculum spread out over the course of a few months.

Here’s an example of what a micro-lesson looks like in practice: I put one slide on a screen with key customer quotes. I encouraged the team to take away what they thought they heard. Then, we would discuss it together. If you try this on your team, the first time you ask your colleague what they think they’re hearing, they may interpret it fairly literally. But you can ask follow-up questions such as, “What else are you hearing?” For a quote in which a customer asked, “But how do you make money”, your teammate might eventually come to the hypothesis that the customer is asking this because they don’t trust financial institutions in general, and then this becomes a hypothesis you can continue to explore in future research.

The overall goal is to spark this conversation as a team to understand what you are hearing one layer deep. Then, you’ll want to consider how this empowers the team to go deeper. If we hear that people don’t trust financial institutions, how can we do that exploratory research to understand this? This makes everyone hungry for those insights.

Designing Quests to Research Together
A common tactic I see employed is for a research team to host research office hours. This is a good starting point. But you can also create opportunities for people without the baseline skills to take advantage of office hours to engage with your team. In some cases, people are afraid of doing it wrong and they feel they can only go to these office hours if they are already involved in a role adjacent to research, or if they already have experience. One potential sign of this is if you hear someone ask, “Why am I crafting a research plan to get feedback, when we have a research team to do research?”

One approach I’ve taken to make research accessible to everyone is to design a menu of different quests - short research assignments for team members to put their feet into the shoes of customers. 

For example, for a team building a digital banking product, that needs to understand how people bank, you could design a quest for team members to go to the nearest bank and ask how to open an account. Different people could go to different types of institutions and learn about how this is done at each institution. It’s easy to think, if I want to understand how a competitor helps people bank, I could look at a similar product, another digital banking product. But we weren’t just competing with digital banks, we were competing with physical banks as well. And it had been a long time for many team members since they had gone to a bank branch, while this was not necessarily true for our customers. This quest was not intimating - it was an approachable task for any team member to go to a bank and ask a few questions. 

The big shift to make is that instead of waiting for people to come to you, create a quest that you can give them to go and do themselves.

Lessons Learned

  • Leverage existing team rituals to incorporate micro-lessons and quests.

  • Don’t wait for people to come to you.

2/ Share

Share insights to debate impact together

Another situation that I often face, and imagine you do too, is this: You are on a team and you care deeply about sharing the research and the outcomes of the research. But people are asking about the numbers and methodology instead of the outcomes, e.g. What does that number mean? Are we sure this data is up to date? While this is a typical challenge, it offers an opportunity: sharing insights is about enabling curiosity.

Challenge yourself to take a closer look at how you and your team are sharing today. Here’s how I think about the many ways insights can get shared:

  • Format (report, slides)

  • Cadence (day of, week of, at the end of the project)

  • Channel (email, chat)

Many teams default to creating a written report and/or presentation for each research project, and after they’re presented, it’s rare for these reports to get surfaced again at the right time when related research questions arise in the future.

Here are some ways you can change the way insights get shared today:

Overall, the goal of sharing insights differently is not simply for the sake of novelty. Rather, it’s answering this question: How might you share the outcomes of your research in a way that enables and invites curiosity?

When you ask yourself this, you may find that what this looks like for your team might be very different from what worked well for me.

Lessons Learned

In addition to sharing short stories that could be surfaced at the right time, I learned that sharing your plan for how to do this with peer leaders is really important. It helps to recruit co-conspirators: from marketing, growth, and other disciplines.

In my case, not only did they support this plan, they took this as an opportunity to share their own customer insights snacks, which further contributes to changing the culture of a team to become more customer-centric.

3/ Drive Policies

Drive policies to change culture

It is difficult to take on initiatives like this without executive air cover. So now, let’s talk policy: How might you change the culture of the team and give team members permission to participate even if it isn’t a part of their job?

Even if you and your team care deeply about research and believe that others outside your teams do too, they might not feel empowered to commit to it.

How to drive change to get this permission

Get support from leadership. How am I defining leadership here? Leadership is everyone who is leading a team, including but not limited to people managers who are responsible for the careers of different people on their team. 

Getting support looks like this: managers recognize people for their time spent on research both publicly and privately. They allocate budget, and give permission for their team to shadow a research initiative or simply digest and understand research someone else has done.

Here’s the outcome you want: Customer centricity is important, it comes out in performance reviews, and impacts decisions

At Remitly, there is support for quests at the company level. There is a program for employees to sign up to be responsible for sending money to scholarship recipients, using Remitly or a competitor, to experience the money transfer sender experience. We also have a program for employees to travel to a country Remitly operates in and experience the money transfer recipient experience. This helps us better understand the impact across the end-to-end customer experience. 

Depending on the level of research maturity of your organization, if there is one actionable thing you can do, it’s this: Find an ally who really understands research and the impact.

Then, ask this leader for one specific ask: ask them to make a 1-minute announcement to give permission to partake in a research project you are leading. Then, ask them to send a brief email to the team to recap this, and reiterate that they encourage and support people to participate. Even better, make sure they follow-up by publicly recognizing people who take them up on the offer. This is extremely high-impact. 

Conclusion

There are several common challenges research leaders face in advancing customer-centricity. To address those challenges and build a more customer-centric culture in your organization, you can coach your team to research together, share insights to debate impact together, and drive policies to change culture. 

Note: This essay is adapted from the content of a talk I gave at the Advancing Research conference to an audience of senior researchers and research leaders.

Additional Resources
-
To get started with interviewing customers, download my Customer Discovery Guidebook here (exclusive discount for newsletter readers). This concise yet actionable guide will help you start interviewing customers tomorrow with the specific strategies, tips, and sample interview questions I've shared with clients for years to surface customer insights to develop new products, or improve existing ones. While there are many articles, books, and courses out there, my goal is to help you sift through the noise and make it easier to learn by doing. With specific step-by-step guidance and sample questions, you’ll be ready to craft questions and an interview guide to avoid the biases I described above within hours.
- To learn more about hiring me to coach you or your team on user research, book a time here.
- Or, book time with me for a product strategy session or career mentoring session.

Interested in reading more upcoming posts for more insights on building products & teams? Sign up now so you don’t miss future issues.

If you found this post valuable, you can help support my writing by telling your friends and/or buying me a coffee.

Loading more posts…