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Smarter UX Democratization

Julie Norvaisas on the promise (and potential) of democratization and building a resilient and adaptable team in the wake of the current work reality.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Allison Corr

After over 8 years establishing and growing the UX Research team at LinkedIn (and overseeing Content Design), Julie Norvaisas did some reflecting and decided on a new opportunity. Her path into UX—like so many in our community—was a circuitous one: studies in art history, front-line design strategy work, then finally an IC at LinkedIn.

During that time, she witnessed (and experienced) first-hand the rise in user research demand, and was part of the vanguard in creating solutions and responses to it. Specifically, Julie has thought a lot about "democratization" as an opportunity space. In addition to scaling the UX Research and Content practice at LinkedIn, she and her team experimented with a host of ways to weave in folks new to research.

We caught up with Julie to reflect on that journey, flag some possibilities for other leaders, and discuss what's still to come for both her and the user experience discipline she calls "home."

dscout: What are you up to these days?

Julie: After leaving my job as Senior Director and Head of User Experience Research and Content Design in February 2021 I took a beat. I’ve had my nose to the grindstone career-wise for over 25 years, and, as was the case for many people, the events of 2020 prompted a deep evaluation of my mental health and my priorities.

My years at LinkedIn were the most rewarding and transformational of my career, and also the most demanding. With a talented team in place to take over, I handed over the baton to them with great confidence. So, I’ve been spending time with my family, volunteering with causes I care about, focusing on my 3 Rs (reading, resting, running), traveling a bit, and gradually unplugging from the pace and pressure of working in a corporate environment.

I’m also talking to and mentoring a lot of people, prototyping futures by moving locations, and engaging on selected projects with people I respect and admire (like dscout!). Most recently, I adopted two sister kittens, so I chase them around a lot!

My passion has always been to contribute to making the built world (physical or digital) more human and humane through the design process. These days I’m actively reconnecting with the essence of that passion, removed from any organizational overhead. I’m fortunate to be able to take a little time to regroup before committing my energy to my next endeavor. Whatever or wherever that is—within our outside of Design and UX—I want to work with a diverse team of collaborators (co-conspirators!) who welcome expansive methods and challenging ways of thinking.

You're a thought leader in the democratization of user research. As you reflect on your time building, iterating, and scaling the practice at LinkedIn, is this still something UX leaders should be considering?

Not only do I think that UX Leaders should be considering democratization, I think they must. The demand is steady or surging. The root causes for that demand are persistent. And the consequences of ignoring the demand, or meeting it poorly (without safeguards or limits) are pretty serious. Plus, democratization can be a lot of fun for everyone involved, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But any non-researcher participating in democratized research needs to understand that it’s hard work, requiring real expertise. Programs promoting democratization have to do so with standards and boundaries for the protection of everyone involved—to avoid reputational risk to the research function, poor participant experiences, and misrepresentation of resulting findings or insights.

My team was involved with a lot of efforts around research democratization over the years, generally out of a necessity to meet demand and/or a desire to expose more people to the value of our work. A few key programs stand out:

Field Days

A one-day event sending 8 to 12 cross-functional teams-of-three out into the field to meet directly with members or customers. These were focused on a product area lacking in sufficient dedicated research at that moment in time (e.g., LinkedIn Recruiter or Sales Navigator), or a broad targeted group of users we knew we needed perspective from (e.g. high-school students, job-seekers with disabilities).

Research Bento

A program empowering designers to conduct research studies on their own, with robust training, support, and guidance from the research team. Typically these focused on simpler formative concept testing or evaluative work.
Lemonade StandLeveraging internal users of our enterprise products to gain quick signals and shed light on where further research might focus. While this removed recruitment strictures, as an input to decision-making it required careful managing of bias throughout and balance with external research.
TapasA low-investment evaluation focused on usability and cognitive heuristics. Full involvement from cross-functional partners was required as researchers role-played based on their knowledge of the product’s users. They assessed where there were violations of commonly understood best practices and the realities of how people use products. This could eliminate the need for research, or at least better focus research energy on non-obvious issues.

The evolution of Field Days was interesting as the team scaled. When research resources were super slim, Field Days were about coverage; it was an all-hands-on-deck situation. The investment in them was successful in exposing our value to a lot of people, elevating the standing of the existing researchers, and ultimately helping secure more headcount, resources, and operational support. All good things.

Eventually, the need for life-raft type Field Days dissipated, and the program evolved to serve our C-suite. LinkedIn’s former CEO Jeff Weiner got excited about Field Days in 2014, and it turned into an annual event during his remaining tenure in which each member of the C-suite would join a member or customer interview. The exec was an anonymous member of the research team for the day, observing and participating in the interview and the subsequent debriefing session. Executives began to see user experience research as one of LinkedIn's "secret weapons" in shaping our products with empathy and understanding. Executive Field Days were not about coverage anymore; they were now about establishing our brand as strategic influencers and gaining greater visibility for our work. Kind of moving out of product pockets into broader realms.

Executive Field Days resulted in much more attention on and accountability to our work at very high levels, and cleared the way for our involvement in earlier strategic planning meetings and conversations. That said, a couple “watch-outs” if someone out there wants to try this with their exec team. One, it is a herculean effort. Shaping executive Field Days required deep collaboration with the Product and Marketing teams in the areas we focused on and a lot of time to get them right with the stakes so high. Two, we were always mindful of managing the situation so as not to create fire drills for product or eng teams in the areas we were digging into. The last thing we wanted was for them to be seen as threatening by participating teams.

Whatever investment teams make in democratizing, it should be extremely intentional so as not to distract a diversely trained mix of sociologists, anthropologists, human-computer interaction specialists, and humanities folks from doing their best work. A team like mine was wired to ask questions that could either set a strategy for the next decade, figure out where the experience might go next, or optimize an experience. Leaders should be mindful of the bandwidth draw and emotional labor that researchers invest in efforts to democratize their work, and judicious about where time will be spent. Is a third of a PhD Anthropologist’s time best spent supporting designers to write an intelligible interview protocol? Maybe, but be sure to make deliberate choices about these trade-offs.

There’s a lot more to be said about all this, but to sum up, I guess I've learned that democratization is not a magic bullet. It's a business practice that, like any other, needs to be used in conjunction with others, like robust planning/prioritization cycles, resource management, collaborative kickoffs, socialized insights management systems, and so on. And it should evolve as your team and your organization evolves. Every program that we created changed a lot over time. Democratizing research will not solve all problems, and it might actually create new ones if you’re not careful, but that doesn't mean it should not be pursued with great enthusiasm.

There’s a lot more to be said about all this, but to sum up, I guess I've learned that democratization is not a magic bullet. It's a business practice that, like any other, needs to be used in conjunction with others.

Julie Norvaisas

Part of scaling and maturing a team is creating clear developmental ladders and growth pathways. From your vantage point, as someone who grew a team, how do you think about this?

Security and clarity are fundamentally important for every worker. Everyone needs to know that their efforts matter on many levels—not least of which is for their own career development and advancement. It’s critical that review and promotion processes are constantly assessed to be fair and equitable. This was a priority for me throughout my growth as a leader, particularly as I built the team at LinkedIn. From the inception of my journey there it was important to me that opportunities were charted equally for individual contributors and for managers.

After many years in consulting where, at least in my experience, growth paths were murky at best and seemed more ordained than earned, I started at LinkedIn as a senior user experience researcher. There were two of us at that time, and we both reported directly to the Head of Design. Soon enough, the team was growing, and I was given the opportunity to lead.

I took that opportunity eagerly, but I honestly didn’t have a strong concept of what was to come on all fronts: from writing job descriptions, to continually communicating what the heck we even do to cross-functional partners, to managing & sharing insights, to prioritizing projects, to presenting to the company, to establishing recruitment operations, to building labs, to leading performance review cycles, to fostering a vibrant culture, to collaborating with marketing/finance/legal/HR/customer operations, to working with executives and on and on. That process of discovery and learning and building was really exciting for me!

That said, talent was always top priority. One thing I observed early as I interviewed and had career conversations with people across design disciplines was a prevailing conception that the clearest path (maybe the only path) to gain organizational influence, to obtain visibility, was through the management "track," if we can call it that. That rubbed me wrong.

As I stepped into the role, I wanted to bust that myth. I wanted to ensure that not only were there clear tracks for both ICs (individual contributors) and management, but that those would be equal tracks in terms of "power" organizationally. That people who wanted to devote their careers to conducting research or practicing content design would be recognized and rewarded for their contributions. Management and IC work are different jobs. One is not more important than the other, at least it wasn’t on my team.

Influence manifests differently on an IC vs a Management track, but is far from the exclusive domain of management. I think part of the job of a manager is to unlock folks' potential for influence—to offer the space for creative freedom to discover those sources of influence based on earned expertise.

It could be argued that a manager's most critical role is to create conditions for people to thrive. This is done not by speaking on behalf of ICs, but rather by establishing a vision and building organizational relationships that create favorable conditions for ICs to proudly represent their own work. Kind of like a record company executive might do everything they can to give their performers a voice, a platform, and an audience. On my team, managers did not speak for ICs, but were expected to work to safeguard quality by bolstering, coaching, and identifying the openings for ICs to showcase their impact, build influence, and demonstrate how our work was helping the organization meet its goals.

It always bothers me when researchers or practitioners get sidelined as other people represent their work. I just don't think that's right or fair, and it’s not something I would have tolerated when I was an IC. Sidelining does not encourage people to thrive. Everyone wants to feel like they stand on their own two feet, and are in control of a strong career path that rewards their efforts and the value they add. Voice and visibility are critical to that. I encourage research managers and leaders to deeply question and downplay the relationship between title/track and influence.

Julie Norvaisas

As an example, just about every year, insight leaders at LinkedIn, including myself, would be invited to present at Company All Hands on how we work together to learn about our members and drive insight-driven decisions. The tacit expectation was that the highest ranking leaders would present their parts, and by default I had done just that. But one year I invited the Senior Researcher who had done the work we were focusing on to present for our team. He was so much closer to the work and was able to express the impact and value of the work with more passion and specificity than I ever could. We worked together on the story, and practiced, but on that day he stood squarely in that spotlight and he shone. And my whole team saw that nothing was organizationally stopping them from having all the visibility and influence they wanted.

It was also cool over the years to see many examples on my team (including myself) of ICs who were attracted to management, leapt in, and really took to it. They really are different jobs altogether! I enjoyed working with people to tease apart why they wanted to pursue management, getting clear-eyed on the day-to-day and the pros and cons, and giving ICs opportunities such as managing interns or cross-functional collaborators to try it on. As it pertains to laddering and track-switching more generally, I’m a big fan of transitional training to help ICs see the opportunities management holds, and spotlight the criticality of motivated and well-developed ICs.

We need savvy, multi-disciplined practitioners who can help solve knotty, strategic problems. That's important! As important as people leaders who create the space for that work to happen.

You were at LinkedIn when the pandemic necessitated a shift to remote. How did that impact your day-to-day leadership approach?

At LinkedIn, like many places, our physical spaces were designed to reinforce our company values. At every touch point the physical spaces worldwide articulated the importance of relationships, excellence, our focus on our members, and our responsibility in contributing to an open, honest, and constructive environment. We were constantly reminded of what we were working toward and the collective values we held as we achieved our goals. I hadn’t really understood how much cultural heavy lifting the physical spaces were doing. A big focus I had as a leader was how to foster, diversify, and communicate the culture of our team within that broader cultural construct and a lot of that changed overnight.

When we went remote I was concerned about folks feeling unmoored, removed from the wider goals of the team and company. The blatant, consistent, corporate cues of culture were abruptly rendered invisible, as more eclectic, intimate, personal cues emerged. How does my kitchen or bedroom help emphasize our company or team values? There was kind of a cool redefinition of how we expressed our evolving culture as we figured out how our children, pets, roommates… or loneliness or anxiety now featured in the daily professional landscape. Day to day, my leadership team and I started to intuitively do two things: we became very responsive, and very flexible.

There were a few things we did to be responsive. Even though we often didn’t know what to say or have the answers, timely leadership responses to the rapidly changing situation was critical. We all found ourselves navigating a frightening pandemic, pro-social justice/anti-racism uprisings, economic uncertainty, drastic everyday behavior changes, climate change events, a contentious US election, signs of global authoritarianism, and long-overdue increased scrutiny on the role of tech and social media. Phew. Issues that I might not have waded so deeply into prior to the pandemic suddenly required leadership point of view because the team needed reassurance. It was a challenge to be appropriately responsive without being too reactive. Within weeks of lockdown I also prioritized a whole set of interlocking projects around the future of work and the impact of the pandemic across the team, and put even more resources behind our Inclusive Research task force to supercharge their efforts. Every day brought new challenges and required quick thinking, transparency, and decisiveness. In the midst of so much uncertainty, a little clarity was more important than perfection.

All of this flux also meant we had to be willing to be flexible. My approach to my job with an ethnographic mindset came in very handy as I had to quickly synthesize insights about externalities, my team’s needs, and the evolving organization. One example was that team meetings had to be rethought. The team was bristling against some of our long-standing meeting traditions—both how we ran them and what they could "do" for us as a newly all-remote team. We needed to temporarily rethink our meeting time together to respond to what was missing and to make it a place where we could say what was being left unsaid. Structure and predictability in our meetings served us well in times of stability; that needed to shift towards a more open format in order for them to be more useful and realistic.

So we maintained cadence but reshaped our regular biweekly all-team meeting to include more open-ended conversations about what was going on and our responsibility as a research team in these moments.

Managers would identify new themes coming out across their teams and ask researchers to lead discussions around new topics that the whole team would benefit from being exposed to—like how hiring freezes or labor market shifts were affecting recruiter behavior, or how going remote was impacting sales teams, or how essential workers were organizing using social media. Sometimes we would simply create break-out rooms for people to spend unstructured time checking in with each other, sometimes around prompts, sometimes not.

The changes we made implicitly said, "meeting our goals is important, but so is recognizing that these are unprecedented times and we need to find ways to connect."

Even through the tremendous changes and pressures of the COVID pandemic era, and shift to remote work, the essence of our culture stayed true. We were responsive and flexible, but also consistent at the core. Organized and operationally efficient with plenty of space for freedom of expression, creativity, diversity...and the ability to celebrate our geeky, nerdy, culture through it all.

Julie Norvaisas

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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