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Building a More Inclusive & Equitable Research Practice with Zeus Jones

"'s not sufficient to just ensure that there are diverse voices in your sample. Sometimes you have to go deeper and only talk to diverse voices to really understand."

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Danbee Kim

Jen Shadowens of Zeus Jones knows flexible. As a mixed-methods specialist working in the innovation space, the playbook is a simple one: stay nimble, stay open, stay humble. Certainly there are best practices, but the landscape of brand strategy, user experience, and human-centered design requires iterative innovation to stay sharp and relevant.

People Nerds recently talked to Jen about how she and the ZJ team are thinking about and applying the principles of inclusive design to their work with clients. Based in Minneapolis, Zeus Jones had a front-row to the unrest fueled by racial injustice and inequitable treatment of many Americans. This served as a clarion call to restart efforts to foreground DEI in the pitching, planning, strategizing, research, and recommendations that fuel Zeus Jones' work.

Here are some strategies and tactics Jen and her team have been using to inject DEI into the brand and experience innovation research they conduct, leveraging dscout and traditional methods.

Not a "Box to Check"

Zeus Jones has been working to weave in and foreground DEI into more aspects of the research process in a way that implicitly communicates to partners and clients, "This is important and this is how we ensure that it's top-of-mind." Whether that's advocating for diverse samples, flexibility in research outcomes, or ensuring that partners and collaborators are on guard for biases, ZJ is making inclusion and equity part and parcel of the process.

"It's not just about diversity, equity and inclusion projects, or anyone asking for that specifically on a project. We strive to have it at the center of our business by working to make business more equitable for everyone. We're working with business leaders who we believe want to do the right thing, but they don't necessarily connect all the dots between their project and its potential impact."

Just as they would advocate for mixing methods, launching iterative projects, or harnessing an agile framework, ensuring the space for inclusive and equitable design is not a nice-to-have: it's the only way to claim one is conducting quality, impactful, and lasting experience and brand research. To do otherwise is to miss the point.

Check Your Questions' Assumptions (& Then Check Again)

Bringing an inclusive and equitable lens to experience research means interrogating almost every step in the process, including the language used to formulate and create the questions themselves. Jen and her team encourage a fine-toothed and honest examination of phrasing, wording, and the intention behind questions.

What assumptions might you be making with the use of a word like "normal" or "safety?" Have you left space for the participant to define these for themselves before marching ahead to the message evaluation or concept test? Unknowingly, you might be talking past a participant, stunting your insight-potential and, more importantly, exacerbating existing marginalization.

"What comes to mind goes back to research 101...don't lead them. Really check your questions, scrub your questions[.] You're going to get to what you need, but the goal is to leave it really open for a conversation. You need to have a conversation to really drive the insights."

Building Empathy Into A Discussion Guide

Jen stresses at several points during our conversation the importance of trust between moderator and participant during a 1:1 interview, especially when that interview is conducted remotely (as it was via dscout Live for this work). To help her moderators better establish that trust and safety ahead of time, she creates dscout Missions for interviewees to take part in before the Live sessions. These might be journeys or processes, but are just as often day-in-the-life explorations where moderators can see as the participant does, allowing for reference in the subsequent 1:1 (for clarity).

"Going through a list of questions does not give you the depth of insights because it doesn't reach the level of conversation that you need. It doesn't build that trust. The people who we are interviewing for this Black American project, for instance, they're like, 'I have never been asked these questions before. I have never thought about this. Never in my life.' They would not be willing to share so deeply if they didn't feel a degree of intimacy with the moderator."

The richness afforded by in-situ remote research helps participants be heard, offers a chance for moderators to sharpen their questions, and ultimately gets to deeper, richer insights when the interview comes. The mixed data this produces is another benefit, as photos or quotes from the pre-interview activity can be melded with video highlights for a fuller view and picture of what someone means and how they might have arrived at that perception.

Invert and Expand Your Shareout

The way we talk about underrepresented populations in shareouts, on deliverable decks, and in workshops sets norms for how product, engineering, design, and executive leadership frame the relationship between brand and these folks. Jen stresses the criticality of the conversation around and presentation of insights, and their power to arrest, heighten, and focus.

"You can embed videos in a deck or excerpts in a deck, but are people going to listen to them? And so I think this is where design and strategy must come together. You need it to come to life in a way that represents the way that you had the 'aha!' about the insight."

One tactic that Jen and her designers created was to invert the traditional deck format of Theme >> Evidence. For a recent project on Black experience, her team led with quotes, images, collages of video that were stripped of context. This allowed these individuals' experiences, perspectives, and standpoints to speak for themselves, without the filtering or distracting that might co-occur alongside formal themes or recommendations.

By drawing an eye to the quote, for example, of a BIPOC customer, the stakeholder is asked to think, reflect, and listen (or read). Inverting the deliverable slows down the design. This cognitive braking, she's finding, affords space and time to apply learnings and really sit with the data, sans an immediate action item.

"Often it's the only thing on the page, there's one video and there's perhaps a little takeaway. It inverts your normal way of skimming through a deck. When you look at it, you're like, "What is going on here? It's disorienting." And our response is, "Yeah...feel disoriented. Feel it."

Jen is also experimenting with reflection questions for the stakeholders on the insights and data her team shares. Recognizing blind spots or habits that may lead to othering are important to surface from the start of insight translation, so Zeus Jones is building in time for that thought to happen. This is not geared toward blaming, instead the focus is resonance and rethinking traditional execution of business strategy. Where might it err? How might it marginalize? What was new to you? Why had you missed it before?

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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