Experience Design Leaders Interview with MURAL’s Lada Gorlenko

Lextant continues its Experience Design Leaders Series with our conversation with Lada Gorlenko, Senior Director of Research at MURAL.  She talked with our founder Chris Rockwell about her experiences with conventional and unconventional approaches to UX Research and how we can democratize the research function in our organizations.
You can download the recording of the full interview here or read a summary from the talk below.

Chris Rockwell (CR): We’re very excited to have Lada Gorlenko from MURAL with us for our Experience Design Leaders Interview series.  Lada, thank you for joining us.  I would like to start by asking you to share a little bit about your professional journey in design and design research.

Lada Gorlenko (LG):  When I started the idea of UX didn’t exist, and actually my first professional job as a researcher was in a Ukrainian prison studying personality changes in long term imprisonment.   I then spent five years working in cross-cultural management training, research collaboration and communication and received my master’s degree in cognitive science.  As I started developing professionally I discovered UX and it suddenly clicked for me – this is what I’ve been looking for.

My first proper UX job was at IBM though at that point it still wasn’t called UX – we called it “ease of use”.  We were a self-made group of UX researchers passionate about the customer and changing software to make it usable for them.  It was a pivotal time and cemented for me that we need to democratize research and make sure it is an applied, practical science that’s helpful to the business and the customer.

One of my formative experiences was my first individual project conducting a heuristic evaluation of a very complex software.  I remember I uncovered 170 things that were wrong with the product, and I was very proud to show that I’d left no stone unturned in finding all these issues.  What I didn’t expect was the client’s reaction to all of this bad news – they almost fired us.

My mentor at the time helped me learn the lesson that no matter how bad the results may look; you have to find something positive and good with the product that you can build upon because they are always there.  This permanently changed my perspective and behavior – to lead with positivity and embrace what works while going after the opportunities to improve experiences.  Because at the end of the day, those of us working in usability want to get to the very best experience.

CR:   That’s a great reminder that we’re all in the relationship business and our jobs are to build those relationships that help people be productive. You mentioned something important – the idea of the democratization of research.  Would you talk more about that – should everybody do research and can everybody do research?

LG: Yes, I think we can significantly impact our organizations through teaching empathy and research thinking to our stakeholders.  Putting my cognitive science hat on, we know insights don’t happen anywhere but in the brain.  The less protective we are of our knowledge, the more we teach people how to do research, the more insights we can benefit from, making us better teams, industries and a better society.

We will always need professional researchers but why don’t we teach basic research skills?  Helping people know how to have meaningful conversations, how to deal with, distinguish and create robust, valid data.  I hope down the line these will be basic skills in our schools so that everyone can have these building blocks of understanding.

That’s what I’m working on at MURAL right now — creating an environment where teams can conduct usability research for their own focus areas and how to enable connections between different teams.

CR:   I agree, everybody needs to be aware of the importance of insights and how insights can really inform design and business decisions.  Everybody can learn critical conversational skills, how to ask unbiased questions, and how to really increase their listening ability to get to the why behind what people are saying in our business and customer conversations.

But where does that leave professionally trained researchers?  As you mentioned, at some point it’s important to bring in the folks who are trained in psychology or design or experimental research to understand variability control, what good data looks like and how to apply it.  Tell us a little bit about how you see that democratization playing out in large organizations.

LG What I think is really interesting for us to be thinking about and studying is the explosion of hybrid environments and how human behaviors have changed as a result, and what behaviors are going to stick going forward.  It’s been a fascinating year and we’re figuring out how technologies affect our behaviors and change brands and how we can design and push new technologies  to help redesign service experiences from healthcare to voting to everything else.

From my perspective, a democratization of research at the usability level can fuel these transformations with product managers and designers understanding how to do that layer of hygiene and quality for the products and services they are working on.

Some people’s reaction to this thinking is that asking designers to run their own usability tests is like having students grade their own homework.  But if we start with the premise that everyone wants to go a good job and deliver usable products and services, having this skill can teach designers how to be honest, how to think better, and how to think about the customers in a specific problem they’re working on.

We can teach designers how to run their own integrations; we all are pretty adept at using computers to that level, so why not?

CR:   You make a great point.  By stepping up to a leadership role, we can make everyone aware of when and how to do this kind of work and when it makes sense to. invest more time with a professional group to do the research, but always be thinking of an iterative way to get active conversations happening with your customers about what they need.

You’ve talked about how our roles should  25% research and 75% getting the important insights into the organization to gain alignment and get people on board.  My guess is that in many organizations it’s the other way around.  How do you think about getting research infused into decision making?

LG That’s another reason why professional researchers should find new ways of doing things.  If you just think of the sheer amount of information we generate every day, how do we put that information together and how do we synthesize that data to help our company?

Because we don’t always have time to do primary research, how can we leverage other people in the company, who know something about customers?   Why don’t we add value by mining existing knowledge in the company and bringing different perspectives together?

For example, at Smartsheet, we were working on a complicated website project and only had a couple of weeks to figure out the story, so we started doing internal workshops with our sales people, customer success people, marketing people – everyone who had customer connections to share their experiences and knowledge.   All of a sudden, we found ourselves with a wealth of insights from all perspective that we were able to bring together and apply to the problem at hand.

So research doesn’t have to be research, if you think about it.  The people in your organization who are talking to customers all day long aren’t the researchers.  We’re spending much more time talking to our own teams or designers and product managers.  It’s the salespeople and customer success people who are talking to them the most so how about accessing their knowledge?  How about we teach them the research skills?  Because really we’re all in the same boat trying to help the customer understand and adopt our product.

CR:  One of the things we find in large organizations is that having ideas isn’t the challenge.  it’s really about understanding and clarifying what problem you’re solving for the customer, what the unmet need is or what the opportunity is.

How can this collaboration between research design and the rest of the organization really identify value and define it and use it to drive subsequent design and innovation?

LG: I think one way to do it is just listen to people to talk to customers.  And, again,  I think that part of the UX research challenge is that we are not naturally in front of the customers, so every time we want to talk to them we have to recruit them as opposed to other parts of the company that are naturally in front of the them.  So listening and starting with our customer success people would be my approach to understanding what we already know.

Over the past few years, I’ve been running workshops with customer success people to mine their knowledge and to teach them simple exercises to do when they talk to customers – very simple techniques that are not necessarily research but allow them to make these conversations deeper and richer to build understanding and insights so they are always in a mode of discovery.

It’s really an issue of  how we interpret and think about data.   We want to keep the big picture in mind and keep ourselves from being short-sighted.  We need to remind ourselves that rather than constantly trying to discover new data – that we forget about it in two years – we want to find those timeless insights and build on the foundational body of knowledge we already have.

CR:  I really like how you look to more opportunistic kinds of research, like insight mining or quick feedback, to build on existing knowledge.  You’ve told me about some trade show research you’ve done that’s a great example of applying research principles to quickly gather good data, knowing  how to bend and flex the methods in order to get what you need.  Tell us about that experience.

LG: So let’s talk about principles.   I have a rubric I use with my team to on how to think about where we need to do research and where we don’t need to do research.  And kind of my rule of thumb is what I call “the textbook question”.  There is so much knowledge in our community and good work that has been published so I’m not going to do UX testing if the question is already answered in a book.

Then if the answer is not in a book, let’s look at industry standards.  Yes, we are all competing but we’re also all trying to push. Industry progress.  So industry best practices exist and we really need to follow what is already there, especially in small teams so you’re not trying to recreate the wheel when it has already been tested by someone else.

So books, best industry practices, and internal knowledge, look at what we already know  before we rush to do our own research and testing.  If we still have gaps and we still have unanswered questions, then let’s do our own primary research.  Because then we bring the true value, as opposed to building something that’s already there.

The conference example I told you about  was an enterprise experience conference where we would unveil new products for hundreds or thousands of customers.   At that time I had a team of four researchers and we wanted to take advantage of the event to do testing and try to do it at scale.  So we decided to run a design lab.

We scoped every session to be only five minutes, so customers could do them during breaks between conference sessions. But we had the challenge of manning this for eight hours a day with just four people.  It wasn’t possible to get to the scale we wanted to achieve so we trained our designers and engineers to do these five minute quick usability test on the features we wanted to learn about.

And then the magic happened.   We were able to complete 680 usability tests that first year and the next year, we reached over 1800 with a team of 45 researchers and designers.  And more magic happened because the engineers found out they loved talking to customers and customers got so excited to talk to the people who had created their favorite features.

Seriously in the second year during the training, I had an engineer raise his hand and ask “So what do I do if a customer what’s to hug me?”  I told him I’d check with HR but it was probably ok.

This experience changed the dynamic in our relationship with our designers and engineers and their buy in with our work because they saw how the research connected directly to that real person who’s hand they shook or who had given them a hug.

CR:  Thinking back to the experience you shared earlier when you were doing the heuristic review and then brought a lot of bad news to the team.  How do you approach that type of situation now to deliver the information you need to communicate while creating a  positive environment for design engineering and design teams?

LG: Let me tell you a story from my time at Microsoft to help answer your question a little bit.  We invited Lextant to do a big foundational research study for us.  We were thinking about mobile experience — what is the ideal mobile experience and how do we support an increasingly mobile world.   It was a huge project with stakeholders at the VP level in multiple Microsoft divisions.   I had to sell the project, and convince my boss that I needed this research and to defend the investment   He challenged how I could be confident that this expenditure was going to deliver the results we’d need to act.

So we came up with the idea to use our internal stakeholders as a control group.  We used the actual research protocol we planned to use with consumers, and had them sit in sessions to tell us their stories, and go through co-creation sessions to build their ideal experiences.  They got to see the desired consumer experience methodology come to life and became completely engaged and invested in the project.

This was another piece of magic, they were eagerly awaiting and invested in the results – we didn’t have to sell anything.  Plus, since this group actually represented one of our target audience segments, I told them I was only going to ask for two-thirds of the budget next time since they could represent that segment and I only needed to recruit for Audience B & C.

The purpose of this story to your earlier questions is that I try to  engage my stakeholders into the process whenever I can and I’m always thinking about how to build and call out the positives before presenting them with research results, especially if I know they’re going to be challenging.

CR:  It’s the idea of doing things with people not to people.  I think we’re ultimately in the alignment business getting organizations to understand what problem they’re solving for the customer, what their experiences are like today and what they should be like, how to define that value and drive it into the organization.  How do you measure the effectiveness of user experiences and how do you see that evolving?

LG: Earlier on in my career I found a book called “The ROI of Usability” and it was a collection of articles broken down  into different categories:  there’s external user experiences helping me make money, there’s internal ROI saving money by having processes or by testing earlier or by doing research upfront, and a third ROI model called Social ROI.

The idea with Social ROI is when we apply human-centered design and when we involve our stakeholders to design research around them and their needs, we create happier teams and workplaces where people collaborate more because we’ve enrolled them in the process.

This concept is really important in terms of how we measure the experience itself, I always believe that we need to measure what matters to our business, and we also need to measure what matters most to our customers.

Interestingly, at that conference where we did our first design lab, a customer saw me prepping the design lab for the next day, and she came up to me and asked if she could hug me.  And I said, “Sure I’m a hugger”.  Next thing I know, she started crying on my shoulder and told me that we had saved her 16 hours a week.  “I’m a project manager and before I had your product I was working day and night.  You have streamlined my life and I am forever grateful,” she said.

So how about we start by what matters to our customers, what’s in it for them and how they would measure success and actually bringing that metric into the product.?  Going beyond the sort of basic usability measurement like SAS or NPS, to the outcome that is really going matter most..

CR:  I love that idea to define value through the lens of the consumer and then use that as a way to not only drive design process, but to measure the ultimate value of the experience.   Before we close, I’d like to ask you to share your five take-aways with us.

LG Okay, so my five take-aways have stayed consistent throughout my career.

First, is the importance of relevance.  As professional researchers we need to be relevant to the business and bring the business what it needs.  As much as we want to dig into big foundational studies or chase interesting ideas, we need to start with what is immediately relevant to what our stakeholders are working on right now to gain trust and start building on in a practical and applied way.

My second take-away, is to do what you can with what you have and where you are. I always teach my team, how to work within the constraints of time and budget to deliver what we can that is in service to primary goals.   We may not be able to give them everything but we be scrappy and give them something of value.

Third, talk to each other, share your stories and synthesize the existing knowledge across your team and organization – create the Social ROI.   When we share our stories with each other, even in a fast growing company, we not only mine our communal knowledge but we become corporate matchmakers, facilitating collaboration creating an environment where we can bring business knowledge and insights together like Lego blocks.

Fourth,  involve your stakeholders in doing research like the designers and engineers we brought in to the process at our customer conference.  Through education and involvement, we can help our colleagues have deeper engagement and empathy with our customers and support for our work.

And the last one is have fun.  I really believe if we think about how we can innovate and make research more engaging and fun, we can quickly get to emotions and channel them to insights.  We can open people’s hearts and when research is fun for them, they feel good doing it.

CR:  Lada, thank you.  This has been a lot of fun and I know the audience has gained a lot from our conversation today.

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Lada Gorlenko is a Sr Director of Research at MURAL, a lead curator of Design At Scale, a co-founder of IxDA, and a veteran enterprise Researcher. Most of all, she is a passionate human being who believes that human-centered design is everyone’s business. She loves research that is not just insightful, but also fun, engaging, and inspiring. When not working, Lada helps immigrant women rebuild their careers in the US and raises her son to be a skilled domestic cook.

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