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Lean, Sustainable Team Building in Today’s Climate [Q&A]

dscout's VP of research Julie Norvaisas sits down with research leader Loi Sessions Goulet to break down how to build teams that make a real impact, even with unexpected bumps in the road.

Words by Julie Norvaisas, Visuals by Austin Smoldt-Sáenz

Building and scaling a team in today's current economic and industry climate comes with a new set of challenges—and the best way to approach those challenges is often uncharted territory.

I met Loi at the UXRConf Leadership Summit earlier this year, and we immediately hit it off, since we both have experience with and passion for building UXR teams. We both agreed that there are so many people in our industry who have similar experiences or find themselves as teams of one, or they are building and leading growing teams. We decided to continue “out loud” on People Nerds to engage the community in the conversation.

Loi Sessions Goulet is a research team leader, advisor, and consultant, currently leading research at Material Bank. She got her start in applied research at Facebook after completing a PhD in Communication. She went on to found and build research teams at Tripadvisor and Buoy Health—where she also led content design and product marketing as a member of the executive team.

She has instructed courses on the sociology of virtual communication and social media at UC Berkeley and Penn, and often speaks on the subjects of research leadership and women in tech.

Our reflections about growing teams touch on just about every aspect of the rewards and challenges of working in our industry. We were both there when our industry was in boom times, and now in a time of economic contraction, reflection on our value, and reckoning with disruptive technologies.

We are both now starting new roles, Loi a team of one at Material Bank, me joining a small, established UXR team as a new leader here at dscout. We’ll talk about why we love what we do, and how we’re drawing lessons forward into an uncertain future.

On research as a team sport

JN: Tell us a little more about the various contexts into which you have built UXR teams. You’ve built up teams a number of times!

LSG: I joined Facebook in the early days when the research team was quite small and entire product areas were incorporating research into their process for the first time. In many ways, all of us there at that point were individually taking different pockets of the product from zero to one.

I enjoyed that process immensely, so when the opportunity to found research at Tripadvisor presented itself, I jumped at it. I built that team over the course of five years, before moving on to work at a digital health startup at the beginning of the pandemic.

At Buoy Health, I founded research before donning other hats—in true startup fashion— ultimately representing research, content, and product marketing on the executive team.

Today, I’m back in a zero to one role for Material Bank, an interior design marketplace startup. I also advise startups that value research insights, but haven’t staffed up yet, including The Browser Company.

I enjoy research most when it’s a team sport. I derive a lot of satisfaction from hiring and coaching researchers. Seeing others’ careers develop is the most rewarding part of the job.

Loi Sessions Goulet
Head of Research, Consumer, Material Bank

I’ve had the opportunity to build up research practices over my career too, and learned so much through those opportunities. I think of it as a type of extreme sport. Why do you enjoy it so much? What attracts you to the thrill of building a team?

Funny you should make that analogy. I was a competitive rower for over a decade, and often think about how that experience prepared me to build teams. Rowing may not be “extreme”, but it requires endurance and a steadiness, or consistency, that is crucial for team building. Every seat in the boat requires its own particular skill. I was a stroke, meaning I set the pace and had to be predictable and easy to follow. I try to do that when leading teams as well.

I enjoy research most when it’s a team sport. I derive a lot of satisfaction from hiring and coaching researchers. Seeing others’ careers develop is the most rewarding part of the job. As a team of one, where I’ve often found myself, the “team” is the cross-functional group. I love seeing how the introduction of research elevates not only the work product, but people’s job satisfaction as well.

That point about research influencing cross-functional job satisfaction is so interesting—I’ve seen that effect too! Why do you think that more research on teams improves overall job satisfaction? The impact of our work on the teams we work with and happiness of teams is not something we quantify, or have even really thought about measuring.

I’ve had so many people—in areas like product management, design, and marketing—tell me that introducing a research function a) makes them more confident about the company’s chance of success and b) gives them the opportunity to get closer to customers in a way they’d been craving.

That impact could come out on an annual employee engagement survey, but it’s not anything I’ve ever pushed hard for. The qualitative feedback has been enough for me, and shows up in the ways people advocate for research to others.

How did the different factors in each situation result in your taking different approaches?

A big difference between each was the stage of the product. Pre-launch, post-launch (but still pre-product-market fit), and growth stage all require different approaches.

With pre-launch new ventures, behavioral data from site visitors simply isn’t there. A primary question on everyone’s mind is, “Will people use this?” That requires a lot of unmet need assessment, and gathering signals to prioritize the extensive list of what could be built next. A large-scale Jobs to be Done assessment was the first thing I prioritized at Buoy Health, for instance.

But then you have a site like Tripadvisor with incredibly rich product analytics and A/B testing opportunities. The question there being more along the lines of, “Why aren’t more people using this?”, which does come back to understanding needs as always, but also requires integrating quantitative insights with qualitative.

My first step there was to augment the already-humming A/B testing framework with qualitative data—layering in the ‘why’ of the behavior—to make the experiments that much more actionable, and to hone in on the most promising hypotheses to test.

The second big difference I’ve needed to account for in picking my approach has more to do with how embedded I am, and where. With a startup I am working with as an advisor (not as an employee), [so] I’ve focused on seeing where user insights can be surfaced from existing processes, and steering learning efforts towards the highest priority research.

As a full-time employee coupled tightly with product and/or design, I’ve kept an eye out for ways in which research can inform other functions’ initiatives—primarily sales and marketing. There is often untapped opportunity for insights in these business-critical areas.

I know it’s working when I’m not asking permission. When the trust is there that the team can correctly identify what decisions need to be made, and what data is needed to make a smart decision.

Loi Sessions Goulet
Head of Research, Consumer, Material Bank

On growing and scaling a team

What are the step changes you have seen in the UX maturity of the design or product teams around you as you grew and scaled your teams? How do you know when it’s working, is the real question I guess!

I know it’s working when I don’t have to think about evangelizing. To be honest, I’m kind of over that word and the pressure we’ve placed on researchers to do that evangelizing—so I will say it another way.

I know it’s working when I’m not asking permission. When the trust is there that the team can correctly identify what decisions need to be made, and what data is needed to make a smart decision.

Sometimes this looks like people advocating to increase the team size or scope, but the most important indicator to me is that people are asking, “How can I help make research happen?”

In terms of a more concrete measurement of impact on the business, in the past I’ve gone as far as tying each A/B test to a research insight in order to draw a line between research output and revenue (acknowledging a margin of error there!).

But I try to avoid performative ROI tracking. I’d prefer to assess the insights and their outcomes on a quarterly basis to make sure the value is there.

Love the A/B testing idea. We need to be deliberate about tying our work to decisions being made more directly, when we can. What are a few pieces of advice you would give people just getting started with a team—the top three things you did that had the most impact?

Well first of all, picking three is impossible. But here goes.

1. Treat your new colleagues as your first research subjects

Interview your new colleagues to learn 1) what people’s experiences with and attitudes towards research are and 2) which hypotheses and assumptions are in the atmosphere. Enter those conversations with structure—and give folks a heads up of what you’ll cover so they can think ahead. Grill them, but then also learn about what they like to do outside of work.

2. Don’t wait to assemble a research toolkit—just get going

If you’re going from zero to one, there is likely a huge backlog of research that should happen. Build the research ops plane while you fly it. Maybe the first few things will be hacked together, and not as efficient as you’d like, but waiting for all workflows and tools to be ironed out will waste those precious first weeks.

3. Be patient with yourself, and with those around you

Nothing is going to happen overnight while the trust is building and you are learning the ins and outs of the organization, the people, and the business.

When I first started out in research, in-person, authentic context of use was not only the gold standard, but the *only* choice a researcher could make. Now there is a greater receptivity to remote that enables research to get done a lot faster.

Loi Sessions Goulet
Head of Research, Consumer, Material Bank

On the current climate

And you’re doing it again! Tell us about why you chose to join Material Bank, and what your aspirations are for the future of UXR there.

I joined Material Bank for the zero to one opportunity on the B2C side of the business, working on a product that is filling a blank space in architecture and design. On a personal level, I have always loved the industry, having grown up the daughter of a general contractor. Like the best of opportunities, this was also one where I would get to reunite with a former colleague who really gets the value of research.

In terms of the future—I think it’s too early to know how the team will evolve. I am glad to see many people in the field moving away from trying to maximize team size as an indicator of impact. Bigger isn’t always better, so my aspirations have more to do with ensuring that the team is able to adapt easily as new needs arise.

This context is different, and the world is different than it was the last time you started up a team. How does the economic uncertainty and belt-tightening, tech/UX layoffs and job-market pressures, shift to remote work, and disruptive technology change the way you are approaching things this time?

The forced move to remote research—and remote collaboration with our teams—has created some new behaviors and habits that I hope to see stick around.

For one, the stigma against many types of remote qualitative research was stripped away surprisingly fast. When I first started out in research (er, a long time ago), in-person, authentic context of use was not only the gold standard, but the *only* choice a researcher could make.

Now there is a greater receptivity to remote that enables research to get done a lot faster. Which, by the way, I think is going to be one of the biggest levers that the field is going to need to pull to regain footing as a crucial part of development and innovation. So that research can not only *inform* decision making that is in progress, but also instigate.

Regarding belt-tightening—I’ve already mentioned that I’m not focused on growing my team. If or when it needs to happen, sure. But there’s been this obsession with capital “L” Leadership—the lionization of people who lead large organizations.

As we all operate leaner, I think and hope we are able to direct the energy we used to expend trying to build empires in other ways. Specifically, creating more strategic frameworks, artifacts, and conversations within our organizations in order to make insights top of mind and usable.

I totally agree. Rather than building empires of people, we must shift to building empires of influence. A particularly convincing type of “soft power.” I’m allergic to the phrase “do more with less” when resources are constrained. It burns people out and leads to poor decisions. I think we can operationalize more effectively to force-multiply our effects, and reshape the notion of democratization, or expand it from what it’s come to mean (largely non-researchers doing research). I appreciate your straightforward approach. Thank you for sharing! Can you recommend any books or articles or leaders to follow that give you inspiration as a leader?

While I am not going to admit to not reading many books or articles about research, I’ll say I tend to focus on staying up-to-date with the shorter-form content that many of my brilliant friends and ex-colleagues are putting out there on platforms like LinkedIn and Learners.

Andrew Warr is sharing extremely valuable short guides and presentations about how to do research well. And Judd Antin has been tackling the “big questions” in a weekly newsletter. There’s too many names to callout. You know I love you all!

Interested in hearing more from industry leaders? Check these out...

  • Salesforce's Yakaira Núñez sketches a sustainable, impactful future for research and insights teams, integrating them throughout the organization.
  • Dr. Stacey Houston II has leveraged his research on equity into inclusive product changes at Instagram. Here’s how he’s leading the charge.
  • ReOps expert Holly Cole sees how the term ‘operations’ changes the game. But those long doing it under a different name deserve the same compensation.

Julie’s work in Design and UX Research has spanned decades, as a consultant across industries, in-house as the Head of UX Research and Content Design for LinkedIn, and now as VP of Research at dscout. She has cultivated a practice that centers dignity and the complexity of the human experience in product development and leadership—and a belief that it’s okay to have a little fun along the way

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