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Cross-Team Collabs: How UX Design and UX Research Align at dscout

What does it look like to bring Research and Design together in a way that emphasizes collaboration and alignment across departments? Lauren Madura and Claire Ruggiero break it down.

Words by Lauren Madura, Claire Ruggiero, and Kris Kopac, Visuals by Allison Corr

This year in the dscout community, we’ve been striking up conversations about what it means to dismantle the “us versus them” mentality that can sometimes get in the way of designers and researchers.

Continuing on with the discussion about “People Who Do Research” (PWDR) but aren’t necessarily researchers in title, we sat down with Lauren Madura and Claire Ruggiero to explore how Research and Design teams can collaborate across departments in a way that supercharges their capabilities and insights—without dismissing the important work each contributes.

Q&A contributors

Lauren Madura is the Director of Product Design here at dscout. She manages a team of five product designers, leads design operations, and oversees key projects.

Claire Ruggiero is a Senior UXR at dscout. Her focus is primarily in the generative space, sometimes around specific products or around more undefined problem areas that touch numerous tools or workflows in dscout’s suite.

Why is it so important for UX design and research teams to align and for both teams to do research?

✔ Collaboration and alignment

Lauren Madura: I’ve been fortunate enough to work with amazing UX researchers throughout my career. They’ve been important thought partners, friends, and mentors. I can’t say enough great things about our UXR team here at dscout!

Recently, Design and Research joined forces organizationally too, as a UX team, which is making collaboration even tighter. We appreciate that there are differences between our disciplines, but so much overlap too! We really fuel each other and challenge each other in all the best ways. Basically, at dscout designers and researchers are BFFs.

We have a very “yes, and…” culture here and continue to reflect and iterate on what the collaboration between design and research looks like. The research team has created frameworks and resources for design to use to confidently recruit for, design, field, and analyze our own studies.

Mostly this looks like concept testing and usability testing on features that we’re developing. One of the best ways to collaborate with our UXRs is to hop into “research office hours” which they host once a week. Designers grab spots frequently to discuss research ideas.

✔ More innovative research approaches

LM: Our UXR team is SO creative. A few months ago I went to research office hours to talk about a project I was working on. I thought I wanted to do a basic concept test but there was a little nuance I wanted to discuss. I left with a plan to do a moderated co-creation activity in Miro instead. It was unlike any research I’d done before. I worked with our principal UXR, Taylor Klassman, to figure out the logistics and details, but the templates and PWDR-donut Slack channel helped me get the research started in no time.

That co-creation activity is one of my favorite experiences at dscout to date. And the customer feedback was incredibly useful.

In general, I believe it’s important for designers to connect with customers and conduct some of their own research. It’s important to get out of the Figma file and be reminded why we do what we do. Connecting to the purpose of the work is energizing and inspiring. It also helps us sharpen our design instincts and become better designers.

✔ Focus resources and efforts on deeper impact projects

Claire Ruggiero: Nowadays, designers and other PWDRs* at dscout lead the charge on more formative and evaluative work. While the Research team isn’t totally uninvolved here, it allows us to focus our resources and efforts on projects where our impact can be felt in a deeper way. It also gives designers the opportunity to deploy research more intentionally in their workflows.

The Research team prioritizes holding calendar space and async availability to make sure designers can reach out for assistance with any blockers or questions. These interactions look different depending on who has requested time, whether it be more granular mentorship for those who are less confident in their research abilities, or more high level deliberations for those who have been around the block.

*PWDR = People Who Do Research, a term coined by Kate Towsey

What do the design and research teams look like at dscout?

✔ How the design team is structured

LM: Each product designer is part of a cross-functional development team which includes a product manager, 5-7 engineers (or so), and a quality engineer. This allows each designer to develop a deep expertise in their product domain and collaborate closely with their product and engineering counterparts.

Secondarily, we operate as a design team (which is part of the larger UX team). As a UX team we reflect, plan, and create goals aligned with our specific disciplines. In an average week that means product designers are working daily with their development teams, and several times a week we get together as a UX team to discuss projects, critique work, and sometimes just hang out together.

✔ How the research team is structured

CR: Today, dscout's Research team is distinct, but sits within the larger UX team. That includes Design, which sits within Product. Including myself, we are a team of four. dscout established an internal UXR presence in 2019, when we hired Taylor Klassman.

At this time, she was a fierce team of one, nestled in the Product team. She put an immense amount of work into laying the groundwork for designers to own the evaluative research efforts for our products, and the trust between research and design we cherish today can be attributed back to her hard work here.

When Julie Norvaisas was hired as the VP of Research last year, UXR no longer rolled up to Product, but became its own, adjacent team. This nudged us further into a presence at dscout where Research was even more prioritized, and empowered to assert our POVs in the defining of business goals.

The UXR team at dscout is still in the early stages of identity development, and we’re enjoying experimenting while our team is on the smaller side—a bit more adaptable, resilient.

We’ve tried out being embedded with product teams, with some successes and some learned lessons. For the last year or so, however, we’ve leaned into the Research team being a distinct entity, and with this have allowed ourselves the (somewhat scary) strategy of getting comfortable with turning projects down, and being a bit more choosy with where we allot our team’s time and effort, always looking to how our impact ladders up to company OKRs.

Design and Research recently joined forces organizationally as a UX team too, which is making collaboration even tighter.

What kinds of projects does the design team work on?

LM: Mostly the development of new features in our moderated and unmoderated research tools. The design team works closely with product, engineering, and research along the full product development lifecycle.

Designers will run their own evaluative research during their design process to test design directions, assess a workflow, or button up interaction details. They consult with and collaborate with UXRs as needed.

We also work on strategic or speculative design projects. Usually this involves vision-typing ideas that are quarters or years even away. As you can imagine, research plays a really important role in these types of projects. UXRs will typically play a leading role here.

Because designers can run their own evaluative research fairly independently, our UXRs are (more) freed up to focus on the foundational research.

What kinds of projects does the research team work on?

CR: As mentioned, the Research team now plays primarily in the generative and foundational space, with some evaluative research conducted as needed. I cannot recall a single project I’ve worked on as a UXR at dscout where I did not have in-depth collaboration with a design stakeholder.

Our designers are embedded within product teams, but researchers are not, so I often get to partner with a different designer depending on the project. I love this—I’ve crafted tight working relationships with many designers here, and appreciate the nuances in their personal styles, preferences, and approaches to collaboration and design. This all translates to their contributions as a research stakeholder.

How do design and research projects intersect?

LM: Often strategic projects turn into features that we develop. So, the foundational research and vision types inform the later stages of definition, design, and development. At least this is ideally how it all comes together! Every project is a little different and we do our best to be flexible to the needs of the project.

CR: I make the effort to check in frequently with my design partner, throughout project scoping, research design, and fieldwork. I want to make sure I’m always keeping their needs top of mind, that I’m tracking to provide them with insights they can use to solve the problem in front of them.

With few contextual exceptions, the designers I’ve worked with are very keen to get their hands dirty with research, and I’ve enjoyed the opportunities we’ve found to give them that chance. A primary example that comes to mind is co-authoring a moderated discussion guide, and having them moderate a session or two once they’ve watched me do it a few times.

We’ve also recently stood up an internal program called PWDR (People Who Do Research) Donut that has provided those who would like to pursue a research project (primarily designers) with resources they can use at their discretion to scope, design, and conduct their fieldwork and analysis. The goal of this is to empower PWDRs and share our knowledge, but the Research team has stayed available as needed, either in a consulting capacity, or as a co-pilot, depending on comfort and confidence level.

What were some obstacles you’ve all had to overcome?

CR: Like many other Research teams, we’ve had our own struggles with the concept of “democratization” and determining how we want this practice to exist alongside us and throughout our daily workflows. There were nerves around losing rigor, around our ability to keep track of the research going on without our knowledge, around the time we could afford to devote to training up our non-research partners.

We had some heart-to-hearts, and made our peace with some undeniable truths: We can’t do it all. Designers are eager and more than capable. This is the logical next step in our relationship (you stay over all the time anyways, why don’t you just hold onto a copy of my apartment key?).

The time thing was tricky. We had our amazing teammate Laurel Brown from our Customer Experience + Research (CXR) team step in for some Research Ops consultation, to give us a hand with building upon the strides made throughout the years towards this effort. Laurel made that house a home.

We were sure to create a database where all PWDRs can input and track their ongoing projects, that the Research team can reference when needed to see if things are going okay or if anyone needs a hand. This is a new program, and more structure means building new habits. We’re still putting the work in there, and it’s been a learning curve for us all.

LM: The “how” is always the hard part. Both the Design and Research teams have been excited about [doing this] for quite a while. We were already doing it to some extent, but different designers have different confidence and experience levels when it comes to conducting user research. Additionally, we were all doing it a bit differently and didn’t have a great practice of sharing out our insights.

The PWDR donut program was built in a really user-friendly way. The resources and communication channels are easy to find and easy to use. The design team feels well-supported in our research endeavors, and I feel confident knowing that we are doing more quality research.

What else should people know about your work and setting up a research structure like this?

CR: Communication and honesty (with each other, with ourselves) has been paramount. We’re asking many busy people to slow down and force themselves to try out a new workflow, and one that is very much still in progress.

Sometimes, things just feel wrong and don’t work out, but sometimes, we have to embrace the spirit of experimentation and stay the course. Even on this project, we lean on each other to determine what feels painful or confusing, we challenge each other, and we brainstorm together on what can be tweaked.

Interested in reading more about how dscout conducts research and how we use our own tools? Check out...

Lauren is the Director of Product Design at dscout.

Claire is a Senior UX Researcher at dscout.

Kris is a content creator and editor based in Chicago.

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