VP of Customer Experience & Design
Cake & Arrow
Christina is the Vice President of Customer Experience and Design at Cake & Arrow, as well as a UX instructor at General Assembly. For over 20 years, she has been known as an innovative thinker in user experience and design, as well as a leader in her field. Brands as prominent as MetLife, the Discovery Channel, and Bose have relied on her to launch new digital experiences.
In our conversation, we talk about why research is necessary to good design, her strategies for conducting quality research, and the challenges she sees for the research industry.
Respondent: Thank you so much for talking with us today, Christina. I was wondering if we could begin with your past experience. In particular, I’m curious how your background in archeology and anthropology led you to your current role.
Christina: It’s actually funny you mention that. This past weekend, for the first time in 20 years, I went on an archeological dig. It further reminded me that user research and archeology are the same thing. Archeologists talk about how historians may be able to take down what people say they do, but you won’t really know until you dig into their trash and see what they did first hand.
I’m very curious about people, so I was drawn to archeology and anthropology because they give the means to study and understand them and talk about their patterns of behavior. I actually planned to be an anthropologist since I was little, but when I found the internet in high school, I began coming up with all these grand plans to use data and predictive data visualizations to change the field. It turned out I was way too early for that. It's only within the past couple of years that those social sciences have started to leverage technology in those ways.
However, I've used the principles I learned from anthropology every day as a researcher. In fact, I’ve found that the best UX researchers have a background in the social sciences, like psychology or anthropology. They already have a deep understanding of people and understand how to take the data they're gathering at a surface level and dig deeper to get real human-centered insights.
— Christina Goldschmidt, Cake & Arrow
Respondent: I’d like to talk about your research philosophy. Why and/or how do you think research is necessary to the process of good design?
Christina: The reason why research is so fundamental is because, as a designer, it's really rare to actually design something for yourself, where you're the target user of that experience. If you are, then you are one of many other types. So you need to have constant interactions with users to get the stimulus to solve your problem. You can have the prototype you're testing or the hypothesis about their mental model, but until you get multiple pieces of stimulus you won’t be able to weave it into a larger holistic picture and come out with the design or strategic solution.
That's what I'm talking about when it comes to digging deeper for human-centered insights. Really great user feedback helps designers solve problems faster. I'm sure every designer has a story about designing something that seems perfectly logical — it passed the clients, it seemed like it was going to work — but when they put it in front of the user it dramatically changed.
Respondent: What are some common misconceptions about how research is done and the insights it can or cannot give?
Christina: A lot of people don’t know there are digital sources out there, like Respondent, where you can recruit real people. Often, when I talk about digital recruiting, people think of services like UserTesting.com, which doesn’t actually let you choose who your respondents are. There’s not a deep level of granularity. It may be cost-effective, but you’re not usually getting your actual target. So I think that’s a big misconception. People think there’s either the traditional recruitment method, which is accurate but slow, or there’s these versions where you can get bodies, but they’re not usually the right bodies.
A lot of people also don’t have the necessary education to get insights out of their research. I look at a ton of portfolios here, and the first thing I do is look at the research section, from any case studies they’re putting forth. I can tell in less than 10 seconds if this person has it or not. What’s interesting is that if you see someone who is switching from a liberal arts curriculum or from psychology or anthropology, nine times out of 10 you know they’ll be able to give you that level of insight good research requires because of the way they’ve conducted their interviews in the past.
— Christina Goldschmidt, Cake & Arrow
Respondent: This is actually a great segue. I’m curious about your process for ensuring you get the insights you need out of your research. Specifically, because Cake & Arrow has done a significant amount of work with insurance and e-commerce companies, I’m wondering if you have any advice for researchers working with those industries.
Christina: E-commerce is a really mature industry that has access to A/B testing and multivariate testing tools. They really love data and can control it themselves. The problem I see, though, is that when someone is in love with that data they don’t necessarily know the value that actual users will provide. You have to explain to them that their data may tell them what but not why: Why is someone choosing this page over another? What is the underlying reasons why that is happening?
You need to convince them to address their needs holistically, which can be done by pairing the right type of user-focused research with quant data. If they just rely on A/B testing or multivariate testing, they won’t always know what’s driving a choice. So when you’re trying to transform someone’s business and add another zero to their bottom line, you have to help them understand that although A/B testing is a really powerful tool, working with users will give you context.
The number one thing we’re seeing in the insurance industry is that leaders think that what’s keeping them from being customer-centered is not having access to data or the ability to process that data. But that is the same fallacy that I just explained in the e-commerce industry. If you talk to just a small subset of users, you can get a ton of information quickly in order to propel your business. It’s not just about mining data in order to make your experience truly personalized and customer-centric. User research still has a core part to play. It can help you get up to speed faster and stay competitive even as you’re building up your data practice.
This is why we produce the content marketing that Emily Smith here is the owner of. All the writing we’ve done around the gig economy at Cake & Arrow is us paying for our own research and using Respondent to put something out there and show people what we can do in a couple of weeks. Validating with user research every step of the way, we can solve problems you may have been struggling with for years.
Respondent: Let’s end with your thoughts on the future of the industry. What do you perceive as the most potent challenges or obstacles researchers will face in the coming decade?
Christina: I saw that GRIT survey that spoke about there being a bad perception of researchers, and it worried me. Three traditional market research ideas that people have in their head are that it’s expensive, time consuming, and it’s lacking value. Those kinds of ideas are just going to make the whole thing harder for everyone.
That’s why, personally, I try to proselytize that there’s a better way of doing research that yields results. However, it requires a change on the side of the researcher, a change of the processes that you’re doing. So I think really interesting concepts in market research, like what you guys are doing at Respondent, will help.
Also, better education of researchers will have to come into play next. If people aren’t learning the right ways to recruit and interpret and set up the research, then they will flood the market with bad practices and make it harder for everyone else. Those are the top challenges I’m immediately seeing. But I have good faith we’ll be able to rise above that. [Laughs]
Respondent: I think that’s a great note to end on. Thanks so much for talking with us, Christina!
Christina: My pleasure!