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'Agile Qualitative Research' is not an oxymoron!

People Nerd, researcher, and artist Carrie Yury on why we should stop thinking of “agile” as a loaded word.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Carrie Yury was on a different track. Years ago, while working on her PhD in English, she was working at a local bar to make a little extra money. A friend asked if she’d be interested in part time job with a design research company, so she could “cut down on the bartending.” The job was with Chicago-based firm eLab, which at the time was working with Ford to help envision the iteration of the passenger vehicle. For Yury, that meant traveling around the country, hanging cameras in minivans and SUVs and station wagons, and talking to families about their cars. It was completely different from her life in academia—and she loved it.

“I was so intrigued by the opportunity to observe, understand, and look at the whole context,” Yury says. “To talk to people. To factor in values and behaviors and beliefs and then make something meaningful that was real in the world.”

There was a certain amount of overlap between the fields: Yury had been drawn to studying literature in part because of how much she loved identifying themes and patterns across stories and authors from various time periods and genres. The work at eLab offered a similar challenge—but with the added ability to create real change and spur action. Shortly after taking on her first project with them, Yury joined eLab full time.

“The impact was the critical, critical difference,” Yury says, of transitioning to research and strategy from academia. “When I realized how the work I was doing could have a tangible influence on the world—that was a watershed moment for me.”

Yury, who just launched her own firm, Yuryka (get it?), has since made a career out of human-centered design research. Most recently, she was the Chief Experience Officer at BeyondCurious in Los Angeles, spearheading the development of the firm’s adoption of an agile research methodology. Agile qualitative research, Yury says, isn’t the oxymoron that some in the field believe it to be. Instead, it’s an approach that allows for the adoption of both qualitative and quantitative methods, and for teams to work quickly and iteratively, without sacrificing insights.

dscout recently caught up with Yury to talk about all things agile, and how “making things that matter” is just as important in the corporate world as it is in the cultural.

dscout: You’ve said previously that the pressure agile is putting on researchers to do things in new ways is actually a good thing—and that agile has a unique ability to help clients “make things that matter.” Why do you think agile is a more effective research method?

Carrie Yury: I’ll say up front that there are certainly times when agile qualitative research isn't appropriate, but that’s true of all approaches—there isn’t one approach that works for everything. What agile is, is an inherently collaborative approach, and a tool that can make a huge impact on team projects. It’s very well suited to projects where teams are testing hypotheses, learning, coming up with different solutions. Because in those cases there are a lot of things that agile qual research will give you that a more traditional, siloed research approach does not give you. When you’re trying to evolve, or iterate an experience, agile is inherently a great approach, because it’s a way to quickly get answers to questions about an experience or a problem and using those answers to push the experience forward.

There are certainly times when agile qualitative research isn’t appropriate, but that’s true of all approaches.

Carrie Yury

For some researchers though, agile is a bit of a loaded word—it brings with it a lot of connotations. There’s a perception that, if you’re going to work this way, you’re going to have to sacrifice rigor, detail, and depth.

I was actually just talking about this with Martha Cotton from Fjord, another People Nerd. For a lot of people, they feel like “agile” means they have to do everything they would have normally done, but in two weeks. That it’s just a way of forcing everything to move faster. But that’s not it at all. Agile is really about breaking a problem down into smaller chunks, so you can be nimbler, so you can act faster and get answers faster. I often work with teams in two-week sprints, but we’re not trying to do everything in one sprint. It’s an iterative process. What agile really does is take a big problem and break it down to make it a lot easier to make progress and design a next step forward. It forces you to clarify “what’s the question we’re trying to answer?” You’re not reeling in the ocean in two weeks. What you are doing is zeroing in on the most important things to push the solution forward.

Okay, so walk us through an actual agile methodology. How does a two-week sprint actually work?

Well, before you even start on a sprint, you want to develop your goals and plan for the broader project. A great way to do this is to bring together all the stakeholders: your team, the client, any other teams you’re working with, and align on your vision, KPI’s etc. Close collaboration is really key in agile. If you’re not collaborating with your clients as a team, you’re much more likely to fail. You have to be so, so closely embedded. Sometimes that means co-locating with clients too.

Then, when you’re ready to start a sprint, in the first few days, you’re coming up with your protocol, your tools, and defining, what’s the question we really need answered in this phase? And that isn’t just done within the research team, you’re bringing in the larger group. One of the key characteristics of agile is that it’s developed within the context of the larger team that you’re working with, whether that’s the designers or business experts or content people. Then the next week is doing that field work, and iterative analysis of the results. And on the final day of the sprint, you start the discussion of, “Ok, what are we going to do in the next sprint?”

It’s important to remember that, because it’s an iterative process, you can plan for sprint B while you’re in sprint A.

Carrie Yury

But it’s also important to remember that, because it’s an iterative process, you can plan for sprint B while you’re in sprint A. You're not limited from a planning perspective or from setting up the infrastructure that you need to do different kinds of research just in that two-week period.

Does that constant iteration make it more difficult to figure out exactly where it is you need to go?

If you’re thinking about agile alone, it can feel like that. But that’s why being aligned on your overall goals for the project is critical. It’s not just a cycle of, “We're going to do endless research until we don't even remember what the question was.” You have to have your high level road map in mind to give you a touchstone to come back after each phase. You evaluate whether what you’ve learned impacts your understanding of what the solution should be, and whether it’s changed. Sometimes it does. That’s why we test. Why we research. To understand whether we're going to market with the right solution for the right audience. And if the high-level strategy isn’t connected to what you’re bringing back from the field, then you pivot one or the other.

How much of the industry pushback to agile do you think comes from the idea that “this simply isn’t the way research is done”?

Quite a bit. It's tough for people in the social sciences working in industry, because we have this history of having to prove our validity and research integrity. The idea of sticking to one way of doing something is a reaction to that, it’s a habit. We’re clinging to something that we think makes us more valid, more reputable. But the problem is that what people actually value about what researchers bring to the table isn’t what we think it is. Our colleagues, our clients, our team members, they aren’t really interested in the rigorousness of the process. Ultimately, they want meaningful insights to help them make things that actually matter to people. I’m not an anthropologist by training, and so I have a pretty open perspective when it comes to the kind of data that I'm interested in and ways of working. But it is a shift, it’s absolutely a shift, and it was one that took me some adjusting to as well.

You’re also an accomplished artist, and have exhibited all over the country. And a lot of your work pulls in various social themes, from looking at gender to the tension between private and political. Do you approach art differently than you approach your consulting work?

Actually, I think 99% of it is really, really similar. My artwork is more about posing critical questions with the work to interrogate social issues or problems. With my corporate work it's more about actively making small interventions and making things that matter, whether that's digital or service products. But there are so many patterns that resurface over and over in both my artwork and my consulting work. Empathy is one of them of course—though I will say that the way that the word empathy has been co-opted in design makes me shy away from it as a word. But true empathy is so foundational to understanding how to create something that speaks to people.

But with my art, I’m still doing secondary research. I want to understand the history of the topic I'm investigating. So I come up with a bunch of questions, and then I go out and do primary research. I put together a set of prototypes and do tests on things and go through a beta phase, if you will. The “First Ladies” project that I did is a great example of that, actually.

That was a project you did imagining the inner thoughts of the First Ladies, writing out inner monologues you created for them.

Yes, it was an attempt to get into the headspace of America’s First Ladies—because the First Lady is the only non-paid political position. Right? Everybody in The White House is paid except the First Lady. Her staff is paid. The President is paid. Everybody else has a job and she’s a full-time volunteer. And yet she’s incredibly visible and scrutinized and we know every single thing about her. I was really interested in that, so I took a non-partisan look at First Ladies throughout history. I read a lot of biographies and histories, looking at the time period of each of the women I was looking at. With that project, the artifacts actually started out as prototypes, smaller sketches. Because even when I had a sense of what the larger piece was going to do, I wanted to do a smaller version first, to work it out. Test things before I got to final phase of producing the work.

Why does now feel like the right time to go out on your own?

Foundationally, I’m really motivated by what it says in the People Nerds motto: understanding what makes people tick. I’d add to that: understanding to do good, to make things that matter. Starting this new company that focuses on human centered design research and experience strategy is my opportunity to to just that.

I’ve had the opportunity to be part of so many incredible companies, from eLab and Sapient to BeyondCurious. BeyondCurious specifically taught me so much about entrepreneurship and about being a role model for women-owned businesses. And now, at this point in my career, I’m ready to take what I’ve learned and build my own company! I’ll take these incredible lessons to heart with me as I build Yuryka.

Carrie shares insights in a webinar exploring how to do qualitative research well while working with agile principles. Interested? Learn more.

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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