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Remote Design Research at O'Reilly Media: Interview with Stefanie Owens

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Stefanie Owens leads the user research practice at O'Reilly Media. Her team of talented designers manage to stay connected and creative despite being distributed across the U.S.

We interviewed Stefanie to find out how her O'Reilly team designs remotely together and what advice she has for others.

JIM: Tell us little about yourself and your team. What are the key activities the group is responsible for? And what if you’re in a remote situation?STEFANIE: I'm part of the Experience Design (XD) team here at O'Reilly, which is responsible for creating user-driven experiences across all of our product offerings. Our biggest area of focus is Safari, O'Reilly's online learning platform, which has a multitude of learning options for business and technology topics through a variety of means, including live online trainings, expert-curated learning paths, videos, books, and more.

I lead the user research practice at the organization, and work closely with our product managers and designers to facilitate user-driven decision making throughout our product development processes. While I focus exclusively on user research, I am but one of a tribe of extremely talented designers who are distributed across the U.S. We heavily rely on a number of web tools, including MURAL, to help us stay connected and creative as we work together remotely.

I just recently joined the team in September 2017, after working at IBM as a design researcher for the Power Systems division, conducting both generative and evaluative research around user needs in the enterprise server market.

JIM: What would you say to skeptics who say that it's impossible to have effective remote design teams? What's your secret sauce for working as a distributed team?STEFANIE: Collaboration amongst remote design teams is, in my opinion, just a different flavor of difficulty as compared to collaboration with in-person design teams. Either way, collaboration is hard! By its very nature, design thrives when you bring different perspectives together to work in confluence, which is never an easy process. Having worked in-person with design teams as well as entirely remote teams, there are a few things I like about remote work:

  • Having an entirely remote team has made me more conscious of forging personal relationships with my peers, and trying harder to build rapport, as it's not going to come naturally by being in the same physical space each day.
  • We are able to diverge/converge (repeat) just as easily as we could have done in-person, sometimes even more so because it's harder to get sidetracked in brainstorming sessions when you're remote.
  • Remote work has improved my facilitation skills, as I have to think about not only how to communicate research but also bring people along for the ride in a digital space.
  • Remote design studios are a more even playing field for everyone involved. Voices are more evenly heard as folks are all able to contribute at the same level and space, which creates a more comfortable environment for both introverts and extroverts.

I'm not sure what our secret sauce is... maybe that everyone on our team is highly self-motivated and good communicators. We know when to bring people together, and when it's time to work apart and just churn stuff out. I'm also constantly impressed with the lack of ego on our team. The designers here are just trying to do the best work they can do for the betterment of the product.

JIM: Tell me about your user research efforts. I saw you did an interesting card sorting study in MURAL.STEFANIE: I do a great deal of both generative and evaluative user research at O'Reilly, depending on the business priorities and what needs to be tested at the time. It's fun because I get to hop between multiple parts of the product frequently, thought it's also challenging to stay up-to-date on where each of the design projects are at any given time.

Recently, I led a card sort study with my colleague, Keith Swafford, to better understand user's perceptions of the content on the Safari platform. Card sorting is a common user research method to study information architecture, categorization and prioritization of content. In-house, we don't have a subscription to any of the common card sorting tools, so I hacked a custom card sorting method together using MURAL instead. Using MURAL actually gave me more flexibility in some of the questions I could ask, as we could do more to "edit" these digital cards than you typically can in most card sorting tools (or even in the physical world). The methodology went something like this:

Step 0:  Everyone started with the exact same set of cards, in the same order. I just copied this template into new MURALs each time I invited a new person to participate. (Extra tip: I had the participant "Follow Me" on the MURAL so that they knew what portion of the board to focus on, and had a nice, legible view of the cards).

Step 1: Have participants sort their cards into groupings that made the most sense to them. They were also free to add any cards that they thought were missing (as shown by the Orange stickies).

 Step 2: Ask participants to label the groups they made (on Blue stickies).

Step 3: I marked the cards myself as I asked participants to tell me which cards were the most important to them (Star stickers) and then which cards seemed redundant to them (Outlined / Color-Matched Stickies).

Step 4:  At this point, I would take a screenshot of the work we had done thus far, and then ask the participant to drag cards over into a second area so that they could walk me through a typical scenario of use on the Safari platform. (At the beginning of the interview, I collected how familiar they were with the platform, how often the use it, and what they typically use it for). This technique helped me to further understand how they use Safari, and often jogged their memory for other things they had forgotten to mention during the first part of the card sort, as they were now thinking about an actual use case.

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JIM: Great! What other user research activities have you done in MURAL?STEFANIE: We've used MURAL for a number of remote design studios that help us to collaborate across the U.S. using Lean UX principles to quickly define MVPs for various product features on Safari. We'll get the team together on MURAL for just a few hours and end up walking away with wireframe sketches that we'll then clean up and test with users. It's fast, and it's beautiful.

 We also use MURAL for the majority of our user research synthesis, as it's the most flexible platform by far for getting everyone together remotely to get their hands on the data. I have always preferred to do the majority of user research synthesis away from the computer, allowing my brain the freedom and flexibility to look at the data in any number of ways. With a remote team, this is a lot harder to do; MURAL is a good tool for us because we can still be largely uninhibited by the confines of digital space, making up whatever frameworks we need for the data at hand.

For example, we're currently synthesizing a lot of the data from the card sorts mentioned above via MURAL. We're using some standard frameworks to dig through the insights from the data, and then also created a sort of heatmap tracking for the frequency of responses for cards that participants marked as most important or redundant.

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We've also used MURAL to synthesize data from discovery interviews through basic affinity mapping. After each interview, we'll jot down all of the interesting nuggets from the interview onto post-its in MURAL. After all of the interviews were completed, I color-coded the post-its by interviewee and then put them all in one collective MURAL. Since I had been in every interview, I had a 10,000 foot view of what kinds of data we were getting out of it, so I defined some general buckets to help facilitate group synthesis. I put all of the color-coded post-its roughly into these buckets (but still all jumbled up) in order to make it easier for the extended team to focus on themes and not feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of data on the board. After all of that prep work, the whole team got together and started affinity mapping the post-its in these buckets across the board. This process really helped those who couldn't be in all of the interviews to get caught up on our findings, as well as give everyone on the team some buy-in to the outcomes of the research.

(Some of the buckets changed, and some are pretty open-ended, but it at least helped give the team a place to start!)

JIM: Impressive. Thanks for sharing. What other advice would you give user researchers in general when working in a remote team?STEFANIE: I think my biggest piece of advice to user researchers working remotely is to still try to do everything they can to bring the rest of their teammates into all stages of the research (especially the synthesis). It's easy to have everyone join video calls as you interview research participants, but you have to make a conscious effort to include all of your teammates in the research synthesis, which is usually a difficult and messy process. It can be tempting to try to sort through it all by yourself, away from the computer.

Even after the synthesis stage, you also still have to think about how to make your findings relevant and adoptable for the organization as a whole. Just because you are isolated doesn't mean your research should be; in fact, I think that's a recipe for failure. Being remote means you have to work even harder to try to propagate your learnings across the organization and help the research you do to actually be used. Luckily, with the remote tooling we have available these days, it's not impossible to stay actively collaborating and communicating at all times. There is just a lot of trial-and-error to see what sticks with your organization, and what doesn't.

JIM: Thanks Stefanie! This has been very insightful.

STEFANIE: Thank you as well! I hope this is helpful for folks. Like I said previously, we like using MURAL for its flexibility in user research synthesis... I'm curious to see how other researchers are using it too!

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in customer experience, experience design, digital transformation, and strategy.

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