UX Designer & Researcher
Sarah is a User Experience designer, product strategist, researcher, and in-demand educator, as well as the source behind the popular UX Notebook newsletter. Completely self-taught, she has helped companies like WeWork, CreativeLive, and Dow Jones create better user experiences. As an educator, she has developed curriculum for General Assembly, holds regular courses on UX design, and has given talks and workshops around the world.
In our conversation, we discuss her approach to UX, what she’s learned from teaching it, how it is evolving, and the advice she gives to today’s designers.
Respondent: Hi Sarah! To begin, could you tell us about how you first got into UX design and research?
Sarah: I began in graphic design, then transitioned into web design and front-end coding. However, I remember a lot of things would get lost in translation between the design and development teams, which is how I stumbled into this world of user experience and information architecture — particularly after I read “Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.”
I began teaching myself how to interview existing users and potential customers, and how to do usability testing. I led the user experience teams of a couple of different startups in New York City, but a big challenge with those companies was that they weren’t doing as much research as they could have, primarily because it wasn’t a part of their culture. I left those companies because I wanted to make products based on research, not on assumptions or mandated features. I started my own consultancy about six years ago, focusing on research and experience design.
Respondent: Since you got started, how has your approach to conducting research evolved?
Sarah: When I was starting out, research seemed like a very intimidating activity because people thought they needed to rent out expensive research facilities. I remember going to one of these and watching people sit in a conference room for at least half a day. I thought it was so useless. Not only were the costs of the participant fees and facility mindblowing, but the moderator was skewing everything by asking leading questions, and there was an influencer who emerged in the session that likely pushed the conversation in a certain direction. If they had just gathered four of those people instead and had personal, one-on-one conversations with them, it would have been far more valuable and cost effective.
However, some of the stigma concerning research budgets and timelines has broken down because technology has lowered the barrier to entry. Software now allows people to do things like recruit users — you guys make it so easy — and record sessions. You don’t have to do research in person. You can still do great remote moderated sessions and get everything you need, even for people who may not necessarily have “research” in their job title. Obviously, you don’t want someone who’s never done an interview to start conducting them, but today’s software has made it much easier for people to follow a process or even just consume the research and gain access to the insights a researcher has put together.
— Sarah Doody
Respondent: You were talking about how you were turned off by companies earlier in your career that didn’t do research. Have you seen more companies open up to doing it? Or do you still need to convince people of its value?
Sarah: Some of the most common questions I get have to do with convincing a boss or stakeholder to do research. A lot of companies still see research as an expense, rather than as an investment. You have to reframe it by helping them see that, yes, they might spend a couple of thousand dollars or a week doing research now, but it will prevent them from building the wrong feature, then having to backtrack and spend an additional two or three weeks, even months, fixing their product experience. That’s one of the things I’m most passionate about: trying to help people get buy in by educating the rest of their team and demonstrating that research is an investment, not an expense.
Respondent: I feel like you just answered my next question — why you think research is necessary to the process of good design — but do you have anything else you want to add beyond its value as an investment?
Sarah: Whenever I’m talking to a company that is struggling with the idea of research as an investment, I try to make them realize that a lot of symptoms can creep up as a result of not doing research. For instance, your team and developers will probably get burnt out because they hate when they have to go back and fix or redo features, or sometimes remove features altogether. You will also probably have a giant backlog of changes you’re not getting to, which means overall team morale will go down. What else, when teams build the wrong feature, they often think they can just throw more marketing money behind it to try to convince people why they need it. It can become expensive trying to explain why people need something they didn’t even need in the first place.
So it’s not just about building the wrong feature. You have to also look at the side effects to your team culture.
Respondent: To get more specific, could you talk about the strategies or methodologies you advocate to ensure good design?
Sarah: When I’m working with a company that wants to launch a new product or feature, the research I do in the beginning aims to understand three things: where people currently are, where people want to be in the future, and the obstacles that separate the two. If you can understand those three things, after doing research, the big question of what product to build can be answered by simply building the product that best addresses those obstacles. That’s what your MVP should be. In the research I do, it’s not just about giving a giant report back to people. It’s a framework for what that solution should be.
As far as strategies, whenever I teach people about research, I always tell them they need to be looking for evidence. If you just come back to a team with list of insights, it leaves a lot of room for argument. Especially when you are dealing with a team that’s new to research, the more doors you leave open for scrutiny and objection, the harder it is to do your job. I tell my students that they should imagine they are a lawyer when they’re doing their research. They need to discover their insights, then back them up with evidence, such as quotes from users or video clips from usability tests or clear data from analytics.
Respondent: What would you consider the most important ideas you try to get across when you’re educating other researchers and designers?
Sarah: The barrier of entry to get into UX is relatively low because there are so many software programs out there that allow you to, say, draw wireframes or conduct a usability test. But it’s a lot harder to be a designer who can answer why you created a wireframe the way you did. More mature designers know how to think and justify. They’re not just moving things around on a screen.
So, in everything I do, I try to make sure that I’m not just explaining how to do something, but also explaining why it’s done that way. It’s a really delicate balance of theory and action. A lot of courses I have taken in the past are so theory rich that I found I still didn’t know what I needed to do to run a user research interview, for example. That’s why I try to strike a balance between why we are doing something and showing how it is actually done.
Respondent: You’ve talked before about making research a habit, rather than a one time activity. Could you expand on this?
Sarah: A lot of times you see teams get really excited about research, especially if it’s a new product. However, after they’ve done that initial research, it’s like they ticked a box. They won’t do anything more until, three or five months later, they have an MVP they can do usability tests with. Research becomes like a bookend, something teams do only in the beginning and end.
My stance is that research has to be a continuous part of the the product development process. You don’t need to wait until the initial MVP is done because you can be testing parts or features as they are ready. You could be doing basic testing of a prototype or doing more one-on-one interviews or a focus group. It’s this idea of de-formalizing research. You need to break down the mindset of research being this huge time-consuming thing. I think that any research is better than no research, so I’d rather test out prototypes than not test them at all.
— Sarah Doody
Respondent: There’s an ongoing conversation in the industry about the role of professional researchers versus non-professionals who now have a variety of tools they can use to conduct research. Could you speak to that? Do you think there’s still a role for professional researchers? Or do you think they’re becoming less relevant as technology enables project managers, designers, and other non-researchers?
Sarah: I think that the role of a dedicated researcher is not ever going to go away. Designers may be able to easily learn how to draw out a homepage or make a user flow, but if you can’t explain that and if the right thinking is not behind it, then it will fail.
While project managers and interface designers can definitely do their own research and produce findings for things that are more black and white, dedicated researchers are still required to come up with the deeper insights into why something did or did not work. They are the encyclopedia of human behavior and how people interact with technology. One of the great benefits of personally working on so many different types of products and in so many different types of research is my ability to draw on the variety of insights I’ve had. For other disciplines within UX, they likely do not have that bank of knowledge, or couldn’t come up with it as fast as a researcher can.
But I think it’s a really good thing that more people are able to do research. Even when companies hire me to do research, I’ll encourage them to install analytics software that will enable them to conduct studies. While they could hire me to do that, at the end of the day they’re perfectly capable of doing it themselves. Besides, it’s a better use of resources overall. Later on, as we’re discussing their findings, I can probably point out some deeper insights they didn’t notice.
So I think a key part of a professional researcher’s role should be to educate and mentor the rest of the team and enable them to do their own research. If we can get more people doing research by spending more of our time helping them draw conclusions, then companies will be smarter about building products.
Respondent: Are there any notable future trends or challenges facing UX designers and researchers?
Sarah: One of the challenges is that technology changes so fast, which makes it difficult to stay on top of trends, behaviors, and patterns. I like to make use of research that is it out there from other companies because I can’t stay on top of it all. For example, I always refer to Baymard when it comes to anything related to e-commerce.
A part of this challenge is that it can often be difficult for UX people to find good resources. For example, many people I talk to have never heard of Baymard, even if they work in e-commerce. I think UX research needs to be more accessible to the UX community. We’re not doing a very good job at it right now.
Respondent: What advice would you give up-and-coming UX researchers?
Sarah: Learn how to think like a designer. Don’t just memorize steps in a process or think that design sprints are the be all, end all. Don’t be afraid to sit back and ask yourself if an approach is right for the project. Always be justifying your decisions.
This goes back to doing UX in the real world. When it’s time to show a design to the stakeholder, a lot of designers I’ve worked with are not skilled at telling the story or connecting the dots between the research they’ve done or personas they’ve developed. If you can explain and justify everything, then it leaves less room for people to argue with you. When I’m presenting my designs, I’m not just reading out a wireframe, I’m telling a story. When you can humanize it and paint a picture in someone’s mind, then the whole product will make more sense. It’s not just this string of features, it’s a story about how and why this product needs to exist.
Finally, I think it’s important to draw inspiration from other design fields because it gets you out of that trap of memorizing the steps of a design sprint or whatever it is. This helps you think about the design process holistically. If you want to learn about UX and the design process, by all means read some UX stuff, but I recommend trying to also get out of UX and learn about architecture, cooking, industrial design, interior design, or even filmmaking.