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Starting a research mini-movement at InVision

Design anthropologist Charles Pearson adds discovery to the Agile process

Words by Kari Dean McCarthy, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

There's a lot of movement, energy, and ambition at InVision, the world's leading prototyping, collaboration and workflow platform for designers. Now serving more than two million users, the fast-growing company has enlisted a design anthropologist to take its user-first research aspirations to the next level. InVision's Prinicipal Researcher, Charles Pearson, chatted with dscout recently about how he's weaving qualitative, discovery-oriented research into InVision's "ship, ship, ship" environment. 

dscout: As a researcher, how do you bring empathy into strategic decision-making?

Charles Pearson: Like a lot of teams, we utilize Agile methods. A great thing about Agile is an emphasis on research, but a not-so-great thing is its overemphasis on validation research. We're trying to account for that and implement more discovery-oriented research. We strive to integrate discovery, research, and validation, so it, and user feedback, is an intimate part of product development from beginning to end. 

More than ever, we now start with discovery research—connecting with people and understanding problem spaces. Then we start defining solutions and experimenting, with plenty of user feedback mixed in. Only then do we move into implementation. It’s been a lot of fun being a part of establishing this practice.

Is that a big cultural shift for the organization or for the teams?

Well, yes and no. I'll start with the “no” first. At InVision, we build products for product designers and others on product teams or design teams, like developers. InVision is very much a design-led, design-inspired company, so there's always been that affinity and alignment, which has made InVision special and successful. We are now taking that affinity and alignment with design and scaling it up.

The emphasis we're developing, and it aligns well with our design roots, is deeply focused on discovery research. This allows us to stay connected to designers, understand problem spaces more intimately, understand trends, identify opportunities. As the adage goes, this allows us to skate to where the puck is going, rather than to where it's been. We're putting together a program that keeps research and cross-functional teams immersed in what's happening out in the world with different kinds of users. There's diversity of context, so we want to maintain a deep and ongoing connection to what's happening with not just our customers, but designers and product managers in general.

Validation research continues to be important, but we're moving toward a program and process where our researchers are discovery-focused and core team members—engineering managers, product managers and designers—are empowered to do their own validation research.

Discovery research allows us to skate to where the puck is going, rather than skate to where the puck was.

Charles Pearson

Is it challenging to mesh a research process into a cross-functional process?

Yes. Definitely. Absolutely. With Agile, it's ship, ship, ship. Traditionally, in that kind of a process, design knocks out some comps, gets some prototypes together, delivers something to engineering. They start printing. It might loop back iteratively with design, but the focus is to get some ideas down, get a design down, and get it out of there.

Validation research might come when there's something built, to get feedback on it. That can be an efficient process of getting stuff out, but it might not always be efficient in getting the right thing out. It can lead to a reactive situation, where you end up not hitting the right mark with your customer. I think many teams are recognizing this and experimenting with different solutions about how to better understand the problem space first. Ultimately, I think, what many teams and organizations see as a solution is to work with users from the get-go, to make the user the foundation of the product development process. It’s a question of how to do that, and I think that's murky for a lot of people.

The process I’m thinking more deeply about is one that doesn't do away with Agile, but complements it by creating a more up front discovery-focused phase. What more teams are doing and experimenting with is how to create a distinct discovery stage where a cross-functional team—research, engineering, PM and design— can spend a decent chunk of time and energy exploring that problem space and trying to understand it. From there, in that same discovery phase, teams spend quality time experimenting with solutions and working with user feedback throughout.

When you arrive at what you feel is the right solution, it’s time to move into development or implementation. Then it can move into an Agile development process where things can get developed quickly.

That's what we're trying to do. We're interested in complementing Agile with a healthy dose of discovery to avoid the problem of releasing irrelevant products. That's largely my vision. I spend a lot of time in the field with designers and product teams, and I see so many organizations engaging in this exact struggle. Researchers with ethnographic chops can shine here and be part of a new product development mini-movement.

We’re interested in complementing Agile with a healthy dose of discovery to avoid the problem of releasing irrelevant products.

Charles Pearson

Qualitative researchers sometimes find it challenging to earn a seat at the table, to be heard and understood, and to convince people that qual matters. Is it a challenge for you?

For me, doing the research is the easy part. The hard part is making that research relevant and impactful, which means getting people to pay attention to it, to listen to it, and to act on it. Getting that seat at the table, essentially.

I don't think there's any tried and true method, but you have to do your research and produce insights, and also understand what's interesting and meaningful and relevant. You have to hit the right buttons. Then you have to communicate those insights in whatever way will ensure circulation throughout your company or team. It can be difficult.

There's a variety of methods used for that. I once set up an internal blog. I would visit a team or do some research and then post a write-up, because that became a way to circulate findings. At InVision, we create one-pagers. They're pretty and clean. You put your relevant insights in there. People can do a quick scan and walk away with it. Or insights get shared in our Slack. Just do whatever it takes to communicate and sell your insights.

Ultimately we're trying to connect the user to the team and make them part of the product development process. We want the team to see value in those connections—in talking with, learning from, and partnering with that user. What works best is creating direct connections. Get those product and engineering teams in the same room with whoever it is you're trying to connect with, and let them talk.

At InVision, we bring participants in to show their workflow and daily work worlds, and let the team ask questions. We create a space where there can be a conversation. The team probes to understand where frustrations and friction points are. We create that connection, and often empathy follows. If you can build that connection and let the team see some value in that, then the path opens for the researcher to bring insights and have more of an impact

What works best is creating direct connections…. We create that connection, and often empathy follows.

Charles Pearson

How do you help untrained observers to separate the signal from the noise after watching a couple of interviews?

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is that a PM, EM or designer will walk away from a customer interaction and be like, "Oh my God! They have this problem. We have to fix it immediately."  We empower cross-functional teams to connect with and listen to users, we must also help them walk away from those research interactions with an understanding of what's important.

It's about helping people stick to the larger picture and keep a sense that this is one person we've talked to. This is what he/she is facing. I have to remind team members that now we have something to hone in on. But now let's talk to somebody else and probe what we’re hearing and ask the questions we now have.  

Research needs to guide the conversation. Not control it, but guide it. Again, the danger comes when somebody says, "Oh, they have a problem and we have to go fix that right away," and then runs off and shifts priorities. That's not healthy or productive.

Do you identify as a people nerd?

Getting all nerdy about people is fun and drives me day-in and day-out. As an anthropologist and ethnographer, I’m interested in learning about different kinds of people who are living different kinds of lives in this very big, diverse world. Ultimately, we're interested in understanding who people are, what they are, what do they do? What do they believe in? How do they move through their daily worlds? What kind of choices are they faced with? What do they do with those choices?

Is there anything outside of your career—from your childhood or in your hobbies—that reveals your passion for understanding people?

What anthropologists ultimately are interested in is taking a space—some world, reality or context in which people are living—and unpacking or deconstructing it. My early fascination with all these different worlds came through books. Fiction. I have a whole list of nonfiction I should be reading for the industry, but I can never get into it. In fiction, these amazing authors are creating and exploring worlds. They’re crafting an entire reality, showing people struggling with it and making sense of it. Anthropology and ethnography offered a way to immerse myself in different kinds of worlds and realities, and then use theoretical tools to make sense of what I was seeing and experiencing.

I’m also a parent. As an anthropologist, raising kids is a completely fascinating experience. Part of being a kid and growing up is learning the ways of the world in which you're brought up in. As a parent, you’re watching kids grow from a little tiny being into a creature that can talk, move and make decisions. You're watching them get socialized and helping socialize them. I end up learning a lot about society and culture as I watch my kids figure it out.

At dscout, we’ve explored a bit about researchers being in a “bubble” — that is, whether we need to do more to explore and understand the full range of American experiences. What’s your take on that?

I pepper my own media intake with differing perspectives, because I think it's important. But there’s something else that’s important to me in 2017. Om Malik recently wrote a quick take to criticize Silicon Valley for what he called an empathy vacuum. He argued there is a distinct lack of empathy for the consequences of, and ultimately the lives being disrupted by, many of the technologies Silicon Valley is building. His point was very valid.

In disruption, there's money, so a lot of people are committed to disruption for disruption's sake, without considering the consequences. Disruption could be healthy, positive, necessary. But, there can also be negative consequences. I wish more of us were addressing those issues and thinking more deeply about the potentially serious social costs of some of these things we're building. Who's affected by the projects many of us are involved in? How?

As an anthropologist, I'm committed to user-first product development and design-thinking-inspired product development. Everything should start with and flow from people, from the user. The problem that Om Malik laid out is something everybody, from managers to CEOs to designers, especially designers, needs to think about. Researchers can be an integral part of approaching the problem, of putting people in context in relationship to what we're building, and being more socially aware about it.

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

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