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All in the family

Sisters Julie and Stefanie Norvaisas on working together, learning from each other, and research in both digital and physical realms

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Sometimes, talent just runs in the family. The Kennedy name immediately brings to mind political dominance, while the Williams sisters are synonymous with the world’s best tennis. And musical prowess runs strong in any number of families, just ask anyone with the last name Knowles, Allman, or Wainwright. So while they may not have quite the same level of name recognition as their counterparts in sports or the arts, when it comes to understanding other people, sisters Julie and Stefanie Norvaisas have an undeniable talent.

The sisters, who are just a couple of years apart in age, have been People Nerds since growing up in the suburbs of Chicago. From an early age, the sisters shared their parents’ immense curiosity about the world, developing a strong interest in the visual arts and how cultures manifested through the medium. They were also inseparable, and their relationship has only deepened and strengthened with time, as they both attended The University of Wisconsin, and then eventually became co-workers, first at Doblin, the famed strategic design and innovation consultancy in Chicago, and then at Design Concepts, an engineering shop turned product design firm. And on top of all of that, they look alike and sound alike, so much so that their coworkers at Doblin sometimes had trouble telling them apart, despite the fact that Stef had worked at the firm for five years before Julie started. It makes answering the age-old People Nerds question—nature or nurture?—all the more difficult.

Even today, as the sisters’ paths seem to have diverged slightly, with Stef working in the product design realm as the Director of Strategy & Research at Design Concepts in Madison, and Julie ensconced in the digital world as the Director of User Experience Research at LinkedIn in San Francisco, the sisters are adept in finding the strong overlapping themes between the kinds of research they each do, and connecting their work back to their larger fundamental interest in people. And despite the fact that they live several thousand miles apart, they’re also helping to foster the next generation of People Nerds: Stef’s teenage kids, who are extremely close with their aunt Julie, who Stef refers to as “a kind of co-parent.”

dscout recently sat down with Julie and Stef to talk about everything Norvaisas and everything People Nerds.

dscout: Let’s start at the beginning, and see if we can answer the age-old question: is becoming a People Nerd a factor of nature, or nurture? Were your parents People Nerds when you were young?

Stefanie: Our Mom was more of a creative and artistic type. She was always doing crafts with us, for Bluebirds or Brownies or Girl Scouts. She would make these little macramé owls. Julie, do you remember the time she made a papier Mache bird out of a light bulb?

Julie: Oh yes. I think if the “maker movement” was active then she would have been a big part of it.

Stefanie: Totally.

Julie: Our Dad was more of a traveler, he was always going on trips and bringing back incredible souvenirs. I remember once he brought back this gorgeous kimono. My father’s absolute favorite thing to do in the city is people watch. He loves walking around New York City. He’ll just walk everywhere, and talk to people. He’s really great at pulling stories out of people—he has a terrific ability to focus on them and understand what makes them tick. I think both of our parents really brought a curiosity about the world. So yes, I’d say they were both People Nerds.

You both obviously share that curiosity about people and that innate understanding of what makes them tick. But you both had a really strong interest in art too.

Stef: Definitely. We’re really close, and when we were still in school, Julie would take me to art museums and we’d walk around and she’d say, “this is this artist,” and “this is this painting,” and she’d teach me about different styles and movements. I actually started out as an art major in school. 

Julie: I’ve always been fascinated by the choices that artists make that manifest culture, history, psychology, emotion—how they build ways to express things are really, really internal, but also evoke a response from viewers or participants. When I got to college I knew I wanted to play with that, was taking printmaking and drawing and painting and a lot of art history too, and eventually I landed on that  as the best way to focus on it. Stef and I definitely helped each other out in school. We looked at each other’s papers and talked about our ideas. Honestly, I personally had no real career aspirations. I was just interested in ideas. I was a total hippie, a Deadhead, I really just wanted to tune in, drop out, and be an artist. If you had told me when I was in school that years later I'd be on the board of the AC Nielsen Center for Marketing Research and the MBA School of Business at the University of Wisconsin, I would have thought that was totally ridiculous.

Stef: Eventually I switched from art to studying cultural anthropology, though I knew I didn’t want to become an anthropologist, per se. At one point, I actually thought I would go on to get my Masters in Industrial Psychology, but then I started working Doblin and thought, “Oh, this is so much better.”

Doblin, of course, is the renowned design and innovation consultancy founded by Jay Doblin. You both ended up working there, right?

Stef: Yes. I was there for about five years or so before Julie got there. But I would mail her things that I came across at the office that I thought she’d enjoy; clips of projects I was working on or photocopies of articles. Doblin had a great library, and one of my early jobs was to go through all of the publications and organize them. So, I basically got to see and read everything. There was all of this writing by Jay Doblin about products and product design and all of this fascinating stuff we’d never heard of. The fact is, in the early ’90s, design just wasn’t something we’d really come across, even in art history. We didn’t know that much about it at all—we’d known Bauhaus architecture, and people talked about graphic design, poster design, but not industrial design. So I just started sending Julie every article written by Jay Doblin, and then anything that Larry Keeley (Doblin’s co-founder) or Patrick Whitney (Dean of the Institute of Design at IIT) wrote. A lot of them were really philosophical.

Julie: That was how my interest in the field started, when Stef would send me those packages. She really inspired my awakening into the field of design and business. Though it was funny, when I eventually did start at Doblin, people weren’t sure we were going to get along. They started us off sitting on opposite ends of the office. They were nervous because Stef had been telling them horrible stories about me.

Stef: Oh, gosh. Totally true.

Julie: She had been spinning this myth of me as the evil big sister, so I came with a reputation.

Stef: People were afraid of her. I used to say that when we were kids she would chase me around the house with a knife. It was an exaggeration. It was a letter opener.

Julie: She definitely created an aura of mystique about me! The other funny thing that would happen is people couldn’t really tell us apart. Of course, eventually our desks were right next to each other. We wanted to be as close to each other as we could be. But people couldn’t tell us apart. It was always very funny.

One of the letters Stef sent to her sister about the "hot new strategies" she was encountering in her work at Doblin. Eventually, Julie was intrigued enough that she joined the firm.

Working in an office alongside a sibling isn’t something most people get to experience. Was that ever difficult? Were there ever moments of tension on projects you were working on together, things you disagreed about?

Stef: No, it wasn’t ever a problem. There were also maybe only a handful of times we were ever on the same project. We’re totally different. Our brains work in totally different ways.


Stef: We’re close in age. We look alike. We have the same gestures, but Julie’s very specific. She’s really able to think about complex information in complex ways in multiple dimensions. You should see her handwriting. It’s perfect. It’s so good it makes me angry. Or how I have to tell her we’re leaving 15 minutes before we need to go somewhere because she will need to carefully arrange every molecule on her desk before she gets up.

Julie: That’s hilarious.

Julie, is Stef’s brain different than yours?

Julie: Stef is a real visionary. She’s a strategically-minded person. She can take strategy and really tie it to very personal experiences. That, I think, is her magic as a business person. She has an extraordinary ability to talk to people in leadership positions, C-suite level people, and make them understand what people’s everyday lives are like and why that should matter to them.

Stef: I’m a messy, messy, fluffy cloud.

Julie: That’s not true! You’re being self-deprecating. I don’t think your thinking is messy at all. I think it’s very accessible. You’re very relatable. I just think of some stories of you talking to a bunch of executives or an appliances company and these are people who have never actually used the appliance that they’re supposed to be designing. It was a washing machine, I think. Your ability to tie stories that you were hearing in the field to their goals and encourage these awakenings and aha moments for these executives that really changed the ways they were thinking about their businesses—that’s not fluffy. It’s something I’ve learned from you over the years, and I’ve tried to emulate. You’re really an incredible storyteller. Your stories aren’t just stories for the sake of stories. They’re stories that matter.

Stef: Oh, thanks, honey. This is going to be the most feel good People Nerds. I like it. (But I still have the letter opener that she tried to kill me with.)

Ha! One difference between your work now is that, Julie, a lot of your work is in the digital realm, while Stef, a lot of your work is more in the physical realm. There is obviously overlap between them but at the same time, distinct challenges in both realms—but why do you each feel you ended up where you did?

Julie: It’s interesting because in the world of technology and UX research, things are very tangible. I know that sounds really counter-intuitive, but the things we’re working on are alive. They’re happening. People are using them. We can do research on them that makes a difference right at this very moment, and not wait for five years to see something manifest.

When I first started at LinkedIn, that idea of working tactically on digital products that were emerging every day was scary. One of the first projects I did, I got to work with Allen Blue who was one of the founders of LinkedIn. He’s got this very entrepreneurial spirit. He’s trying to tell me, “No, we just launch things. We put them out to the world and people use them. Then we find out about them.” And I was used to working on medical devices, so I was thinking “Oh gosh no. We have to do a lot of work upfront to make sure they’re perfect.” It was just such an uncomfortable zone for me to accept "Oh, they don’t have to be perfect before we put them out.” I think that’s still a little bit internally challenging for me, although very, very exciting. I guess after five years I’ve gotten more used to that.

Stef: It’s interesting because in the product realm, for a lot of the things that we’re designing you have to tool up a factory to make it. You actually have to be very strategic and plan these things out over the long term because you’re trying to convince a client that it’s worth them spending $500 million to retool a factory so that this product can be in people’s homes. That it’s going to differentiate them from their competitors who don’t really know what they’re going to be offering five years from now. It has to be very strategic, to give the rationale for investing all of this money to shift to a model that you can’t take back once you get it out there.

Julie: That is so interesting—so physical products that are more tangible in essence require a more strategic approach, and digital products which are more ethereal require a more tactical approach. Interesting.

How does that manifest when it comes to qualitative vs quantitative research? Julie, your team is very qual focused, despite the fact that there is obviously a lot of quant data at LinkedIn. Have you felt any adverse effects because of that? Is there ever a sense that the research is less important because you can, in essence, just change the product somewhat immediately?

Julie: I actually haven’t found that to be the case. I think the teams here really feel our human-centered approach is very important, even though it’s a fast-moving environment. We’re helping them eliminate risks. Our findings are super impactful to the user experience, and the teams see the results of our work right away. Once people start to see that, they become really engaged with the research. I don’t think there’s necessarily a correlation between how rapid the product is going to market and the impact that qualitative insights can have.

Stef: I think that brings up a good point—the beauty of qualitative research is that it allows you to translate your insights into detailed information or some really big picture. Between the physical and the digital, the approaches are similar, but you can tune the findings to different audiences. I think that to be really good at this role, you have to be adept at going from one to the other. The real difference might be the researcher: someone who has done this for one year is going to approach it differently from someone who’s done it for 27 years.

It seems like there’s probably an advantage to having a sibling who understands what you do so deeply—someone who knows you really well but also inherently understands the field. Do you guys often bounce things off each other, talk to each other about work?

Julie: We definitely do. Recently we’ve been talking a lot about agility, and how we approach that at LinkedIn as an in-house team, versus how they approach it at Design Concepts, as a consulting business.

Stef: I think that’s really interesting, Julie. Maybe the thing that really drives differences in research approaches is less hardware or software and more whether you’re internal or external to the organization. Because what you can accomplish internally as a qualitative researcher versus as a consultant is very, very different.

Julie: I think that’s true. I also want to add something to what you said earlier Stef. As researchers, we’re researching users of our products, of course, and of our client’s products, but we’re also researching the teams that we work with in the organizations that we’re working for. We can tailor our message based on that. I think where researchers, hardware or software, internal or external, where we diverge depends on our stakeholder needs. We’re tailoring our message to meet those needs more than we’re necessarily tailoring what we do or how we do it.

Stef, do you find that to be true in the (physical) product design realm as well? Do you ever get push back from the design teams, if they have an idea about what something’s going to be before the research phase even starts? How do you mitigate that?

Stef: I think it really does come down to tailoring information, and empathy. We have to have deep empathy for a variety of different audiences who are going to be absorbing and using this information. The work that my team does has two main audiences: an internal audience of engineers and designers who need the information to inspire and inform their designs, and then our clients who are using our information to make decisions and set strategy and direction and figure out how they’re going to make money. When we’re tailoring information for engineers and designers, one of the critical things is to get them involved. And how a designer’s brain works is radically different from the way an engineer’s brain works. In my world, being able to cross that bridge from an idea to the real world, and bringing all of those different stakeholders along with you, and their very, very different brains—that’s the holy grail. That’s the dance.

In those situations, when you’re trying to bring multiple stakeholders along on a journey, does your knowledge of people help?

Stef: Definitely. I think part of it is taking empathy really seriously, and not just using it as a slogan. When you can see someone in a meeting and think "What are they trying to accomplish? What is worrying that person?"

Julie: It’s interesting, at LinkedIn, user experience research is still a relatively small team. But I think because of our commitment to empathy, our curiosity, the fact that we’re studying people all the time, we’ve really become a bridge and a cross pollinators across the organization. We’re seen as a team that can help bring people together to create a safe space to share different perspectives, to bring ideas forward, to get to know our users in a really intimate way. Our CEO talks about the difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy is a super valuable human quality, it’s connected to people and the human condition and deeply understanding what somebody else’s experience is like. But compassion is wanting to do something about that, taking that information and creating action in the world, kind of making empathy a kinetic force rather than a passive feeling. I think by nature that’s what human-centered approaches do. They look outward but they’re also helping people look inward and make connections with each other.

Stef: That reminds me of a client that came to our office once for a meeting. Some of our meetings are very difficult because we bring together people from all different parts of a client organization. Some maybe haven’t talked to each other, or they have competing interests, or are fighting for the same resources. We work with them to try to make collective decisions. And this client said, "Coming to your office and having these meetings is like going to couple’s therapy." In many ways I found that to be a huge compliment. We’ve created a safe space. Clients feel like they can talk about things that are really important, and they know they’ll walk away having an idea about how to make it better. That idea of being that safe space, being the people who can help facilitate those discussions and that decision making and help clients see each other differently is a huge part of the researcher’s skill set.

Julie: I love that idea, empathy in action.

Let’s go back to the nature vs. nurture question one more time. Stef, you have kids, and as Julie put it, you share them with her. Do you both see your interests in people and art and design carried on in the next generation?

Julie: Ever since the girls were born, we’ve wanted to expose them to the world. Since they were little, we’ve taken them traveling. We try to lead by example, like our Dad did, show them that the world is here for us to enjoy and to learn from. I think they interpret that in different ways. One of them is super creative. One is really into impact—conservation and social justice. I think in the next generation, it’s just manifested in a different flavor.

Stef: The whole “live by example” thing—all the things that our parents did, exposing them to travel and food and talking to people, we’re doing that with them. I’ve been a single parent for the girls since right after they were born, which was one of the reasons that Julie’s like the co-parent. She’s done a lot to expose them to the world. We lived in San Francisco for a year. They took Stanford classes, stuff like that. What they take from that in the end, who knows, but they have been raised by two strong women who work and are into design.

Julie: It’s a huge gift what we’ve been able to do, that we’ve been able to work together and experience so many things together. Stef and I, we’re definitely very tightly bonded. I think it’s really cool that we were able to find a career that appealed to both of us and that we could experience together. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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