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Superhero capes in the researcher's wardrobe

A People Nerds interview with Catherine Lovazzano

Words by Kari Dean McCarthy, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

“You interview people for a living? You must love talking to strangers!”

Journalists and qualitative researchers—the best ones anyway—are usually people nerds: humans obsessed with understanding their fellow humans. Alas, not all of us are card-carrying extroverts. 

In dscout’s inaugural People Nerds interview, we meet the first of our humanity-obsessed kin, freelance researcher Catherine Howard Lovazzano. She shares her perspectives on superhero interview capes, getting visual, dream jobs, and having empathy for clients.

Like many in the research community, Catherine Howard Lovazzano arrived after experimenting with other ways of investigating humans and their artifacts.

Before leading design research for Samsung and Fiat, she was an anthropologist contemplating the meaning of photographs, a filmmaker documenting the Bible, and a Wired magazine fact checker. In between, she learned the craft of market research alongside the innovation experts at Jump Associates.

dscout: The path to qualitative research seems to be an individual one. How did you start yours?

Catherine Lovazzano: I think I’ve always been a people nerd. I realized in high school that I was more interested in what other people were thinking than I was in myself.

I didn’t know academically what field that kind of interest was in. Journalism, maybe. So I started college as a Spanish major as a way to understand another culture. Then I discovered anthropology and realized that’s what I wanted to be doing. 

When did you know that studying people is what you really wanted to be doing?

My first job out of college was working for a UCLA access-to-healthcare study. I spent a year interviewing homeless women in Los Angeles — people who were living in really challenging circumstances, on drugs, or mentally ill. I learned to manage myself in really extreme settings. It made me realize I could talk to anyone — even someone living in another reality. That makes it easy to talk to someone who is a business leader or a software programmer!

Have you always been able to “talk to anyone?”

Actually, I’ve always been shy around strangers. As a kid, I couldn’t buy an ice cream cone without blushing. Being called on by a teacher was terrifying. As a researcher, though, I put myself in a different mindset. It’s like a superhero cape. Because I have this notebook and list of questions I need to ask, I become fearless. I can ask anything. Of anyone.

As a researcher, I put myself in a different mindset. It’s like a superhero cape. Because I have this notebook and list of questions I need to ask, I become fearless. I can ask anything. Of anyone.

Catherine Lovazzano

Are you totally unrecognizable in a research setting, compared to your real life?

I can ask questions in the research setting more easily than I can in a regular conversation with someone, but being a researcher has made me less shy in other parts of my life.

I have played instruments my whole life, and then I finally joined a rock band.

I used my “researcher superhero cape” to get over my stage fright. I also lobbied in front of Congress for healthcare reform in 2009, and I put my cape on then, too.

What made you shift from academic to design research?

When I went to graduate school, I thought I would get a PhD in anthropology, and would work on really deep and meaningful research. My masters thesis was about the things you can learn from photographs. But then I realized I would be spending my 30s living in an attic in England and working in a drafty library.

I think I am of more service to the world now working in a business context than an academic one.

Most civilians don’t see see market research as particularly altruistic. How do you see yourself as providing service to the world?

Designers, product managers and executives are hungry, often desperate, to understand the real needs of real people. Execs spend their days in meetings and with spreadsheets. They are surrounded by people who live and think like they do. Very few of them have a window into their customer’s worlds, let alone the ability to spend a day with them in thoughtful conversation.

As a researcher it’s my job to understand reality from the point of view of my participants, and help clients do the same.

I once interviewed a man who was trying to lose a significant amount of weight. He was carefully “counting calories” and showed us, proudly, how the half-and-half for his coffee only had 40 calories in the whole container. In fact, it had 40 calories in a serving — two tablespoons. The container he was happily drinking had over a thousand calories.

The client really wanted to correct him, but if we really wanted to help all the people who were making that kind of mistake, we needed to understand his way of thinking, of reading, of interpreting the information.

We encouraged the client to ask questions about how the participant knows what he knows. At the end, she suggested he read up on what serving sizes are. But helping one person wasn’t the point. Understanding this one person gave the client an understanding of how to communicate with the many other people who think like him, but in a way they understand.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a researcher?

I’d be a documentary filmmaker. It employs so many of the same approaches but has different outputs. One of my early jobs was working on a documentary production — “Ancient Mysteries” — and I learned a lot about how to visually construct a story — just taking hands praying or sandals walking in sand — it’s about how to visually represent something from the past that you can’t get a photograph of. If you are telling an ancient story, it’s about figuring out how you visualize that, bring in concrete and abstract imagery to drive your story forward.

If you are telling an ancient story, it’s about figuring out how you visualize that, bring in concrete and abstract imagery to drive your story forward.

Catherine Lovazzano

Researchers face a similar challenge. You have dozens of stories you could tell, hundreds of details that are all interesting in their own way. Guess what? Your audience doesn’t care about details at all. They want “the big picture” or the handful of examples that drive the point home. They want the answer to their problem.

Executives tend to be concrete and sequential in their thinking. They are used to looking at information that has been heavily edited down to just the essentials. They are conditioned to looking at flowcharts and diagrams. If we are trying to connect them with regular people, it takes some serious editing to get the messiness of human stories into an orderly framework or story that will connect with this audience.

I’ve worked hard in my research career to be able to edit down to an executive version of my work. I’ll often create the “whole story,” which might span 10 pages and includes lots of photos and details. I’ll then go through and “kill my darlings” to get down to an essential and highly visual story.

Any other dream jobs?

I would also work at an auction house to do research on the objects. I love the meaning that gets assigned to objects, that meaning can change over time, and that knowledge is sometimes added or subtracted and can increase the value of things.

For example, in most traditional art history, the artist is known, the subject is known, the date is known. But for objects coming from outside the West, often times the name of the maker or the dates of when something was made will be stripped out — like an African tribal mask might arrive with really limited information. There’s almost more value in not knowing. It plays into traditional colonial attitudes that someone who would be considered a fine artist here would just be considered a craftsperson there.

That work, as a sort of private investigator, has a detective aspect to it. I enjoy unearthing information. It reminds me of fact checking at Wired and doggedly trying to track down information. That’s one of my strengths as a researcher — persistence. It has served me really well in my career.

Fitbit head of UX and design research, Katy Mogal, collaborates with Catherine Lovazzano on a recent project.

Besides being persistent, what advice do you have for fellow researchers?

Have empathy for your stakeholders, and why they do or don’t apply your recommendations.

As a younger researcher, you want to see your work adopted. I always wondered why clients weren’t doing exactly what we recommended. We’d shown clearly why they should shift positioning or change a product.

Working on product development at Jump or Fiat, we’d propose big radical changes, and only a tiny piece would get picked up as a feature on a vehicle, or in some small piece of strategy. When there is such difficulty in making a change, even a small shift because of our recommendation is really a huge win. It’s about redefining what a win is.

Knowing some of the constraints and challenges that your stakeholders are facing, how hard it is for them to make change, it makes us a better partner. We spend all this time having empathy for end users. We should have empathy for our stakeholders, and be researching them as much as we are the questions.

We spend all this time having empathy for end users. We should have empathy for our stakeholders, and be researching them as much as we are the questions.

Taking time up front at the beginning of the project to get to know the stakeholder is critical, or else you only learn the hidden motivations at the end. If you’d known what to ask on day one, things might have been revealed earlier, and you could actually do something about them. As a researcher, you need the confidence to ask tough or uncomfortable questions of someone you might not know very well, even when that person is the client.

Kari Dean McCarthy is a seasoned brand communications strategist, award-winning filmmaker, and gnocchi expert.

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