Skip to content

Becoming a better researcher and a better human

Aryel Cianflone, host of the Mixed Methods podcast, on building a researcher community, the future of UX, and the power of personal stories.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

For Aryel Cianflone, host of the UX research podcast “Mixed Methods,” interviewing people in her role as a podcast host isn’t markedly different her role as a researcher. “In both situations, you need to have a level of flexibility so you can uncover new insights,” Cianflone says. “For both my UX interviews and for the podcast, I’ll put together a discussion guide, study it, know it backwards and forwards, and then put it aside and have the interview. And no matter who I’m talking to, we’ll go on tangents, and I’ll hear these amazing stories about things I never could have known I was looking for.”

Mixed Methods, which grew out of Cianflone’s desire to broaden her own understanding of her field, amassed over 12,000 listeners in its first season, as Cianflone sat down (often in person) with some of the biggest names in UX. For Season 2, (launching September 7th) the podcast is expanding in more ways than one. In addition to new episodes, Cianflone is also launching a Mixed Methods Medium publication with editor Eryn Whitworth. (Whitworth also runs the book club on the Mixed Methods Slack group, which now includes over 1,300 members.) The Mixed Methods Medium publication will feature additional in depth conversations with industry leaders, listicles on current trends, and a throwback series about rediscovering academic literature. Also coming out later this month is a Mixed Methods toolbox, an online resource where researchers of all levels can access training material regarding various UX methodologies.

As for the podcast itself, Cianflone says that the subject matter and the scope of the project have evolved along with her own interests.

“I think it’s a natural progression,” she says. “Originally I was focused on specific methods—and we’re still very interested in that—but we’re expanding now and also thinking about larger skill development.”

Cianflone says part of her decision to bring in outside voices is to continually remind listeners that openness to new ideas is foundational to the UX profession. One of her conversations for Mixed Methods Season 2 is with meditation and mindfulness consultant Thomas McConkie.

“I think it’s so important that it’s not just a conversation about listening, but generative listening,” Cianflone says. “What could be more important to a UX researcher than being an incredible listener? I can’t think of anything.”

dscout: First things first: When did you first realize you were a “people nerd”?

Aryel Cianflone: I’ve always been very interested in the relationship between people and the things that they create. I was walking around Amsterdam a few months ago and just kept looking around thinking, almost everything I’m looking at started as an idea in someone’s head. I’m so fascinated by the process of a human being having an idea or a feeling or a thought, and then translating it into this entire world and this entire experience that we live every day. For me, user experience research is a way to get a glimpse into that process, to understand the mechanics of it. How are these individuals experiencing the world and how can we make that experience even better?

I think for a lot of UX researchers, we get into this field because of a love of technology paired with a love and curiosity about our fellow humans. I’m overly curious about people and why they’re doing what they’re doing, and how they feel about doing what they’re doing.

In the last year, you’ve talked to some of the biggest players in the UX field—from Jake Knapp of Google Ventures to Dana Chisnell, Co-Director of the Center for Civic Design—for Mixed Methods, which you describe as “a podcast interested in the how’s and why’s of user experience research.” What was the impetus for convening this larger conversation?

The podcast really started because I was hungry to learn more quickly. I’d started my career in a role that was more product management focused, working with designers and data scientists on customer-facing apps. From there I started doing more quantitative research, and eventually began pairing that with more qualitative research as well. I recognized the huge value this would provide my organization because we didn’t really have that UX research muscle. People were just so excited by these small things that I was doing, and I got more and more interested in it, and was reading everything I could and talking to people who were in the UX field about it, but I kind of ran into this barrier because there isn’t a huge UX research community in Salt Lake City, where I’m based. I was constantly reading books and articles, but I was still wondering, "Am I doing this right?” Research isn’t like math, where you can easily check your answer.

I had a great conversation with a senior design exec who had done contextual inquiry, and I remember thinking, I wonder if other people have the same questions I do? And so, I started to think maybe I should record some of these conversations I’m having, especially about the practical, on-the-ground aspects of this work. That’s really where it started.

They clearly did! In the seven months since your first episode aired, you’ve amassed over 12,000 listeners.

It’s been amazing. We also have a huge online community—a Slack group that I started at the same time as the podcast that now has over 1,300 members. You really can find someone from almost every top tech company, school, or speciality through it. When people join, they’ll introduce themselves and it’s super fun to see everyone’s different backgrounds. The thing that I hear the most from people in the group is that they’re so excited to find a community like this, a place to have these conversations and a place for this kind of content to live, which there hadn’t really been before.

We host Q & A’s with the guests who are on the podcasts too. After almost every episode, we have the guest visit the Slack group, and anyone in the community can ask their questions. It’s been really fun.

It’s a fascinating way to get a beat on what’s happening in the field—just ask the biggest names around if they’ll spend a few minutes chatting with you.

I have found people to be so generous and willing to talk, which is great! It just makes me feel even more dedicated and invested in this community. Elizabeth Churchill, for example, had me in her home, offered me tea and biscuits, and just made me feel totally welcome. One of the things that has really stuck with me in terms of my own work is something she said during our conversation about how as researchers we are tasked with “bringing humanity into technology.” I think about that all the time.

We spend so much time in these technological spaces, looking at screens, so for me,“bringing the humanity in” brings a lot of purpose to my work. It makes it feel less like a job and more like a calling.

Aryel Cianflone

We spend so much time in these technological spaces, looking at screens, so for me,“bringing the humanity in” brings a lot of purpose to my work. It makes it feel less like a job and more like a calling.

It’s so important to remember when you’re working on a project that technology is meant to enhance humanity, not denigrate it. I think it’s very possible to do either if you’re not careful. I come back to that idea all the time and think, "Am I doing that?"

You’ve talked to leaders in the field about everything from the “death of the research report” to how and if ethnography works in UX research. Are there things that have come up repeatedly in your conversations that have given you a beat on where you think the field is going?

One thing that’s stood out to me is the role of researcher as teacher. I don’t think this is a particularly new idea, but one that seems to come up in every conversation. There is a lot of green field still in terms of providing better resources for UX researchers, and others trying to do this work, to have impact in their spheres of influence. UX research is unique in so many ways, particularly the intersection it represents between design, technology, and psychology, and that provides a lot of opportunities to teach and include others in our work.

Have the conversations ultimately had a big impact on your work?

All of them have been helpful in some way. I’ll be at work and think about that thing Michael Margolis told me, or I’ll try out a design sprint and refer back to my conversation with Jake Knapp. I feel like I’m using bits and pieces from all of the conversations in my day-to-day work—I hope that comes across in the project. I’m asking these questions because I’m genuinely interested in the answers. Often that’s how the episode topic will come up, it will stem from a problem that’s come up that I am trying to address, or a method I’ve been wanting to try. I’ll think, “I wonder what the person who created this method would say about this or that."

Aryel is speaking at People Nerds San Francisco in May! Learn More

The first episode of Season 2 is a conversation with Jared Spool, the founder of UIE, a leading research firm specializing in UX.  He tells two very powerful, personal stories about his road into UX. Without giving anything away, one of them is a very sad story, and the other is sort of a real moment of serendipity. It’s a pretty incredible window into his life from within the context of the field.

That’s been one of the most incredible things about Mixed Methods—I’m hearing these very human, very personal stories from people who are such giants in the industry. Jared Spool must give, what twenty keynote addresses a year? And yet I hadn’t heard these stories before. I think it’s partly because one on one conversation encourages people to open up in a special and unusual way.

As researchers, that’s always what we’re going for, right? That moment where someone opens up and you get that insight into their world.

As researchers, that’s always what we’re going for, right? That moment where someone opens up and you get that insight into their world.

I was thinking about what I wanted to ask Jared before we spoke. Like on a personal level, what would I talk to him about if we had 40 minutes to have a conversation? The thing that came to me was, “how do you reach that level?” I think often we look at someone who’s very successful or very well-known, and feel like where they are is totally unreachable from where we are, and that’s an illusion. For me, that whole conversation was about bridging that gap from where someone like me is at in their career versus where Jared is. How do you actually get from one place to the other, how do you make that connection between those places, and mentor up and mentor down and move forward as a community? The first part of that is recognizing that sometimes these distances that seem so great are really not that far apart.

This season you also branched out a bit and started talking to some people who aren’t strictly in the UX field, but whose work and interests have some overlap.

With UX, I feel like it’s very, very important to not get stuck in one framework. I wanted to bring in voices that are less traditional in the space, but equally important. I want to make sure that as we’re building this community and having these conversations, we’re not getting boxed in by what we’ve traditionally heard about or talked about in the past. I think that’s such an important part of UX research, looking at things in new ways and being open to new perspectives. It’s foundational to the profession.

One of the people you speak with this season is Thomas McConkie, a mindfulness developmental psychology expert—that conversation also seemed to grow out of a personal interest of yours.

Definitely. I’ve never met anyone so skilled at creating safe spaces that really allow people to open up in extraordinary ways, and I’ve learned so much from Thomas about generative listening that I’ve applied to my own life. I think it’s important that it’s not just a conversation about listening, but generative listening. What could be more important to a UX researcher than being an incredible listener? I can’t think of anything. I walked away from the conversation and thought, “This is not just going to make me a better researcher, this is going to make me a better person.”

Do you have a dream guest for season 3?

I would love to have a conversation with Edward de Bono. So much of his work has been foundational for UX research. He’s one of those people that’s really laid the framework for everything that’s happening now in the world of UX.

dscout is thrilled to be sponsoring the second season of Mixed Methods, which kicks off today with Aryel's conversation with Jared Spool. And catch up on all the great interviews from season one.

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

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest