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People Nerds San Francisco Recap: Top Insights from 27 Speakers

On May 1st we got 250+ user researchers together for a day of insight-sharing, question-raising, and curiosity-building. Here’s what we learned.

On May 1st, dscout hosted our first ever People Nerds event—a chance for the qual research community to come together IRL and share their ideas, their research, and their take on where, and how, UR is moving.

The day was filled with talks from 27 research leaders: keynotes, panels, case studies that dove into the value of in-context research, and asked and answered some big “why?” questions.

We’ve summed up the top insights from the day—with highlights from every speaker.

Jump to:

Lance Weiler on the future of storytelling
Margaret Laws on empathy in design
Sarah Koenig on making a story resonate
Panel discussion: becoming more strategic researchers
Panel discussion: necessary skills for modern researchers
Panel discussion: growing and caring for research teams
dscout on product features for deeper, in-context research
Fjord on the trends shaping 2019
dscout studio on new American perceptions of tech
Casper on in-context product prototyping
KR&I on mobile ethnography and shared meaning
Instagram on testing and developing face filters
Capital One on making every team your research team
Remind on understanding a distraction-ridden audience
The North Face on in-the-moment research with elite athletes
Mckinsey on defining the business value of design


Lance Weiler on how we can pioneer the future of storytelling.

Lance Weiler is the director of Colombia’s Digital Storytelling Lab and an advocate for co-crafting narratives. He took the stage at People Nerds to discuss the intersection of storytelling, technology, memory, and AI. 

    • Storytelling has changed, in that the barrier to entry is totally gone. We are all storytellers.
    • But there are four design principles to storytelling that will continue to really resonate: the trace, granting agency, thematic frame, and serendipity management.
      • The trace refers to our desire to look for a bit of ourselves in every story.
      • Granting agency refers to bringing people into your story and making them feel like they’re able to be expressive. People should feel like they have some control over, and some stake in, what’s happening.
      • Refining your thematic frame means rooting your story in a common language, and finding a common ground, so you can easily collaborate and build a shared narrative.
      • Serendipity management means allowing enough flexibility—for opening up your scope so it extends beyond just “making things work.”
    • Because we live in a digital world, physical, tactical elements are really fascinating in terms of the storytelling potential. Artifacts, or stimuli, can be powerful tools for connecting someone to a story, and getting them to interpret a story.
    • Vulnerability is essential for getting a good story. In order to get a story from someone, you have to give one yourself.
    • Designing for an aesthetic can mean designing for what someone is thinking, feeling, and doing in an experience.
    • In one project, Lance’s team wondered, “what if instead of us asking our personal assistants questions, an AI asked questions of us?” So they wrote an AI, trained it, and as it evolved it asked questions about being human.
    • The team brought the AI to a “dinner party” setting to host a group of humans. It had prompts, asked questions, and inspired incredible, vulnerable conversations that eventually got to the future of technology.
    • Instead of it being dystopian—when people tried to educate an AI—it changed the way they talked about the core technology. It prompted a bunch of questions about where more inclusivity and better narrative framing was needed for proper AI design.
    • Storytellers outside of UX/UR often look at data just as a risk mitigation tool. But data really is the heart of creative opportunities.

Read more about Lance’s approach to storytelling in his People Nerds profile

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Margaret Laws on how we can inject empathy into research and design.

Margaret Laws is the CEO of Hopelab—a social innovation firm that designs science-based technologies to improve public health. She shared how her team meets design challenges with users as their guides.

  • Margaret’s team sought to improve post-cancer care in young people, and were looking for better ways to engage them with technology. The goal was to build tech that would actually be used, and be helpful—rather than just getting in the way of their regular recovery regimen.
  • A core problem was that young people were not taking their medications—no matter how many times their doctors and parents told them to. They wondered: how might a video game help?
  • The game Remission was born (and tested, and tested, and tested). The Hopelab team involved young people every step of the way, and through that, learned a lot about the way they thought about their disease.
  • The big takeaway was that agency is essential. Hopelab needed to design tools that would help young people understand that they could have self-efficacy and power over their disease.
  • Aside from user testing their products, Hopelab brought young cancer survivors “in residence—to help them more generally understand the nuances of what’s so challenging about survivorship.
  • Their input informed a later project, Vivibot—which engages teens in cancer remission with a series of interactive, positive-psychology based prompts.
  • Throughout all their research, Hopelab keeps one essential question in mind: how do you use this medium of technology, and make it a jumping off point for more meaningful social and personal connection in people’s day-to-day lives?

Read more about Margaret’s research in her People Nerds profile

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Sarah Koenig on responsibility, artistry, and making a story resonate. 

Serial co-creator and longtime This American Life contributor Sarah Koenig embodies as a journalist, what most of us strive for as researchers. She has a deep care for her interview subjects, an unwavering sense of curiosity, and a talent for telling stories that resonate. She discussed what “behind-the-scenes” decisions led Serial take off.

  • Serial was supposed to be a low stakes project—because at the time, no one listened to podcasts. But after 5 million downloads in the first 6 weeks, it was safe to say the broadcast landscape had changed. The question was: why? Narrative journalism, and serialized stories weren’t new. What was different?
  • A short answer is: the role of the journalist.
    • Sarah picked a story that she personally was captivated by, and that she loved the world of. That came through in the way the story was told.
    • The storyteller became a part of the story. Sarah as a reporter became a part of the report. The team had moments where they admitted to uncertainty, and where they were honest about not knowing what was right. The story was propelled by vulnerability, and in that, artistry came forth.
    • The Serial team subverted crime journalism tropes by making sure the story didn’t feel fake—that the complexities of the reporting were laid bare. Every character was as 3-dimensional as possible. There weren’t any formulas.
  • The team at This American Life encouraged experimentation, which meant being open to failing. That environment was freeing, and necessary for something like Serial to evolve.
  • Being a good reporter, or a responsible storyteller, sometimes means NOT putting information out in the world. It involves always asking: “Is it necessary? Is it fair?”
  • Telling stories with artistry creates empathy. And that’s what moves a story from being interesting to being meaningful. It’s important not to mimic narratives because we think that’s the way they’re supposed to be told. It’s essential to allow for ambiguity and contradiction—rather than running away from it.

Read more about the storytelling tactics behind Serial in Sarah’s People Nerds profile.

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Dave Sonders, David Keegan, Kirsten Lewis and Ben Singer on how researchers can become more strategic.

Acorns’ David Keegan, Sonos’ Kristen Lewis, Humana’s Ben Singer, and Salesforce’s Dave Sonders sat down to discuss how researchers can design their studies more deliberately. Here are their top strategic tips:

  • Part of strategy is presenting to stakeholders. Research should help executives “see the future.”
  • Researching strategically means interpreting strategically. Delve into your capacity to be a better listener, and treat listening as an interpretive sport.
  • Create allies within an organization, get all of the product teams aligned, and have people on your team own different parts of the overall experience.
  • Whittle down “curious” until you find “clarity.”
  • Find the sweet spot between the business impact and what the person you want to listen to you actually cares about.

Read more on David Keegan’s and Kirsten Lewis’ research philosophies in their People Nerds profiles.

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Aryel Cianflone, Andy Warr, Jen Romano-Bergstrom and Vanessa Whatley on the skills needed for effective modern research.

LinkedIn’s Aryel Cianflone, Uber’s Andy Warr, Bridgewater Capital’s Jen Romano-Bergstrom, and Google’s Vanessa Whatley discussed how the field of user research is changing, and what modern research teams will look like, and be asked to adapt to.

  • Perspectives differed on dealing with data. For some, it seemed the role of every researcher would involve some proficiency in coding. For others, the key skill seemed to be collaboration—the capacity to work with data scientists, designers, and content strategists.
  • As researchers are asked to do more and take on bigger roles, the capacity to do research at scale will be key.
  • Researchers are moving towards strategic partnership. They’re going to be more prescriptive. Because they understand the technical side, the design side, and the customer side—they’ll move away from “we recommend” and to “’here’s what we envision for the product.”
  • Researchers will have to go beyond being strategic, and move to getting entire teams to be strategic. Research is one data point amongst many other functions.
  • As privacy becomes a bigger concern, researchers will have to be advocates for their participants. Ethically, they should be the mediator between what stakeholders want to know, and the protection participants need.
  • Researchers used to hear “we can’t design for everyone.” But as products scale and become globally spread, so does your intended audience. The narrative needs to change to “we can’t design for every user need.”
  • Researchers have to do a better job of anticipating unintended consequences. They have to ask: “who are they speaking to?” And when they talk about “voice of the customer” they have to ask: “which customer?”

Read more on Aryel Cianflone’s and Jen Romano-Bergstrom’s research philosophies in their People Nerds profiles.

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Katy Mogal, Ben Babcock, Monal Chokshi and Yasmine Khan on growing, and caring for, research teams.

Google’s Katy Mogal, Jet.com’s Ben Babcock, Lyft’s Monal Chokshi, and Even.com’s Yasmine Khan sat down to discuss the best practices for building and structuring a modern research team.

  • One measure of success for a user research team is: “are we getting stuff on the roadmap that’s getting built?” Is the team actively influencing how the company is communicating with the customer?
  • As teams evolve and change, so do research tactics and goals. Small teams are often asked to insert research into a product development cycle, and to run studies that are tactical in nature. But as teams grow, their role should be more strategic.
  • In a “move fast and break things” culture, sometimes it’s important to push back on “moving fast”—or redefine what “moving fast” looks like. There needs to be enough time to turn insights into hypotheses.
  • In models when researchers are embedded within teams, you usually need “full-stack researchers,” but with specific backgrounds and strengths.
  • Having a diversity of experience can make a research team richer. Pairing people fresh out of school, with veterans, can make for a useful collision of worlds.
  • Caring for a research team just means treating researchers like they’re human, and on a career journey.
  • In the end, the best work is going to come from people who are excited, motivated, in the right role fit.

Read more on Katy Mogal’s and Yasmine Khan’s research philosophies in their People Nerds profiles.

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The dscout team on new product features for deeper, in-context research.

At People Nerds, the dscout product team unveiled and demoed a series of landscape shifting product updates. Read the full recap of what’s new, and what’s next, here.

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Fjord’s Martha Cotton on the trends that will shape 2019.

Annually, Fjord uses dscout to unearth trends that are prevalent in consumer markets and that showcase consumer needs. Martha Cotton presented the 7 major motivators moving design in 2019.

  1. Silence is Golden. We need to say more with less. Consumers are looking for quiet in an increasingly noisy world. In that, the digital divide has changed. It used to be about access to technology. Now exists between “those who have access to digital,” and “those who have the capacity to turn digital tech off.”
  2. Consumers are more and more aware of the environment, and our impact on it. We think of single use plastic as a problem, and we’re are starting to demand companies do more to improve planet earth.
  3. People know the value of their data, want transparency about how their data is used, and are scrutinizing the companies that use their data. We need to embrace data minimalism.
  4. We’re looking for more seamless ways to get from A-to-B. We’re not thinking about traditional transportation; we’re hoping for smarter mobility companies. The lines between public and private transit are blurring.
  5. People are demanding to be considered as individuals, but businesses aren’t actually able to do that in a way that makes people feel satisfactorily “seen.” We’re in a post-demographic world. We can no longer assume we understand people based on demographic profiles, and trying to do so has become reductive.
  6. People are excited about tangible spaces again, again. When we’re able to integrate “digital” into physical spaces—we create really additive human experiences
  7. Seeing isn’t believing anymore—and that makes “now” a scary time for consumers. But there are ways to embrace “synthetic realities” as a source of good. Not too long we feared photoshop. Now it’s part of our day-to-day engagement with digital.

Head here to check out the full 2019 trends report, or here to read more about Martha’s approach to research.

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dscout Studio’s Emily Wurgler on our shifting perceptions of tech.

Amidst the headlines of data breaches, digital dependence, and a major “tech backlash,” The Studio wanted to understand how Americans really feel about technology. They ran a mixed methods study that combined both qual inputs and quantitative surveys. Emily Wurgler presented what they learned:

  • Faced with an open-ended question, participants consistently cited 3 key factors as being tech benefits:
    • 43% cited convenience via automation
    • 59% mentioned increased connection to others
    • 47% benefited from an increased access to information
  • Americans across the board (Democrats and Republicans, men and women, urban and rural) agree on the ways technology adds to their lives. They also have common concerns about technology. They fear they’re unable to pick out what’s real and what’s fake. They’re concerned about the way tech will impact their children.
  • Americans are less sure about whether or not social media makes a positive impact on society. Only 50% say social is a good thing for the country.

Read the original Tech and Us report here.

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Casper’s Rachel Robinette and Defne Civelekoglu on doing in-context research for a bright new product idea.

The team at Casper wanted more insight into how technology could help sleep. They used dscout to learn about what people thought made for a good night’s rest—and translated those findings into a new product: Glow.

  • They found that people were often aware of what contributes or detracts from their sleep, but that awareness wasn’t helping.
  • When they asked for sleep hacks, they expected to get tools. Instead they got experiences like “cleaning the kitchen” or “flossing” or “reading with the kids before bed.”
  • They started building a product in week-long sprints. Each sprint focused on an “environmental lever” from the study. They had the office try each result.
  • In the end, they developed 12 productized experiences they wanted to test. As they tested, they evaluated each product in terms of practicality and joy—and they built a roadmap based on a product that did both.
  • After validating with some quant, and some prototype tests—they launched Glow. It brought in heaps of social engagement, and sold at 4x expected sales rate.

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KR&I’s Susan Kresnicka on mobile ethnography, and a deep into gender identity.

At KR&I, Susan uses mobile ethnography to study shared cultural meaning. In this case, her original research question was, “what do women find sexy?”—which first required an understanding of “what does it mean to be a woman today?”  

  • The research, at first, ran into some roadblocks. For example, studying gender as a “source of shared meaning” means admitting gender is socially constructed—which isn’t necessarily a consensus across the field.
  • They decided to define gender by three C’s: “constructed, complex, changing.”
  • To “see” gender in everyday life, they ran a mobile ethnography study. The prompt was: “Submit an entry every time being a woman proves relevant, important, or meaningful in everyday life.”
  • They got hundreds of submissions, which ranged from “leading a meeting at work” to “getting cat-called” to “being second-guessed by a co-worker.”
  • They received 167 mentions of gender inequality, and 35 moments of active resistance.
  • They learned mobile ethnography can be effectively done. It gives insight into everyday life—which is where shared meanings get reinforced and navigated. And most businesses would benefit from a better understanding of how their success interacts with these shared meanings.

Read more on Susan’s anthropological research in her field report or People Nerds profile.

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Instagram’s Randy Illum on co-developing features with the people who actually use them.

The way Instagram’s face filters work is simple—which means the way they were developed was complicated. Randy discussed what brought them to life—both in terms of user testing, and stakeholder management.

  • The team wanted to ensure that the people who were experts on Instagram’s face filters—the people who use them everyday—had their perspectives reflected.
  • A face filter effect had to meet some sort of need. For people to use it, there needs to be a driving factor. This came out when users were actually asked to demo a type of filter.
  • Data tells one story while qualitative research tells another. Together data + research provides a clearer picture of how and why something is successful, or isn’t performing as well as expected. If you just A/B test to see what’s working, you miss out on the “why.”
  • When there are many stakeholders on a project, communication is paramount. Collaboration can make or break a project. Having open channels of communication allows more stakeholders to have a voice in the research process, ensuring that the questions that need to be asked and answered are addressed.

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Capital One’s Beth Schwindt on making user research a part of company culture.

At Capital One, Beth was given a huge research goal, a very tight turnaround time, and a team of non-researchers. So she used dscout to get findings fast, and made a “non-research team,” highly research capable.

  • Agile research forces you to feel like you are building a plane while in flight. A project has to have a soul, or it doesn’t fly.
  • Sometimes opening up research to a team means being a coach, and a “librarian of research,” rather than a “doer of research.” It’s an identity shift, and requires the right tools and expertise to guide a group.
  • When you have teams who aren’t normally involved with research involved, they get invested. They start to understand “why” they’re doing their jobs. Engineers talk about “if Mike the persona would actually do something.” Everyone becomes responsible for the data.
  • Beyond that, as a researcher, you understand their world. You understand why engineers make the decisions they do, and how they build, and how to best work with them. That’s key for innovation.

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Remind’s Ana Rosario on meeting your users where they are.

Remind is a two-way communication platform built for education, which allows teachers to reach students and parents where they are. But teachers are a busy, traditionally difficult to reach audience. Ana’s team at Remind used dscout to gain insight into their lives and needs.

  • Remind has integrated user research into their product development process from the beginning. They have a full UR team, which is uncommon for startups, but which has been a difference maker. Research has become a big part of their culture, and led to more effective decision-making.
  • Sometimes the distractions that popped up during interviews can become opportunities. The complications, technological challenges, and limited availability teachers faced got researchers asking the right questions about their lives and workdays. 
  • Even if, from a research or product perspective, a feature don’t sound like a very innovative solution—it can be the right call. If from a user behavior perspective, it makes sense, you need to meet our users where they are.

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The North Face’s Vanessa Dillof on understanding their elite athletes—on and off the mountain.

At The North Face, researchers have direct access to some of the world’s top-performing athletes. But their engagement with them was limited to brief email exchanges. They wanted a better understanding of who these athletes are, and were looking for more in-context insights into their day-to-day life. Vanessa discussed how they used dscout to see their audience up close.

  • For The North Face “AI” stands for “athlete intelligence.” The program had a few key goals:
    • To solicit honest and insightful opinions from a source that can inspire and ground the team.
    • To give more structure for the research process—reducing athlete headaches.
    • To build empathy for athletes internally—humanizing them, and bringing the outside in. The North Face talks about being “athlete tested.” But they didn’t quite understand athletes as people—or understand their lives off the mountain. They wanted to know about their tattoos. They wanted to see around their homes.
  • They used dscout missions to get video responses from athletes on their smartphones, wherever they were in the world. The team went from receiving misunderstood bullet point responses—to knowing where athlete feedback was coming from. This made it so that designers WANTED to solve their problems.
  • New product/campaign launches became inspired early on by feedback, and issues were addressed well before launch.
  • They learned keeping missions simple was essential. 5 parts is 4 parts too many. Their athletes (and everyone else) have better things to do than to take surveys.
  • Bringing back show and tell increases engagement. Interactive studies are just more fun than clicking and writing.
  • Context is king. Real situations are so much more valuable than responses from another respondent on their couch.

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McKinsey’s Mahin Samadani on defining the business value of design.

Users expect good design—and good design impacts the bottom line. Mahin Samadani contextualized a McKinsey study showing that design thinking, and user-centric design, can have a real business impact.

  • About five years ago, design matured to the point where a lot of business leaders wanted to embrace it. Now we’re transitioning from the “why” to the “how”—and once you get to the “how,” a bottom-line impact starts to be made.
  • Top performers integrate their design teams across the organization, and break down silos. Silos kill creativity.
  • Companies struggle in a few key areas. 66% don’t share prototypes with end users. 50% don’t involve users prior to product development. 95% of leaders feel they can’t make objective business decisions on design.
  • Customer video can give design decisions a lot of weight. When you run a mobile diary study, it puts an end to a “should we do it this way debate.” You can answer with: “Well, Joan from Texas directly told us…”
  • Design will have to democratize. Everyone will have to be a designer, or be equipped to function like a designer.

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Mac Hasley

Mac Hasley is a writer and content strategist at dscout. She likes writing words about words, making marketing less like “marketing,” and unashamedly monopolizing the office’s Clif Bar supply.

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