60 minutes | Apr 28, 2020

33. Julia Nelson of MOO

This episode of Dollars to Donuts features my interview with Julia Nelson, the Director Of Research at MOO. All researchers say to some degree that they don’t necessarily have a traditional background when they come into the research field. But I think there’s a lot of strength in welcoming people with different perspectives onto your team, so someone who used to be a designer or someone who comes from a more academic background or someone who comes from a completely different application of qualitative research, there’s an element of resilience and perspective that that lends to a team which is the sum is greater than the parts, and that’s something that is crucial to seek out on a research team. – Julia Nelson Show Links Julia on LinkedIn Julia on Twitter MOO Stanford d.school Cambridge Judge Business School Follow Dollars to Donuts on Twitter and help other people find the podcast by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts. Transcript Steve Portigal: Welcome to Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I talk with the people who lead user research in their organization. Over the past few weeks many of us have spent a lot of time on Zoom, on FaceTime, or Google Hangout, or whatever, for work, for meetups, for catching up with family and friends, for celebrations and holidays, and for other newly urgent reasons. I’m not referring to relatively passive consumption of all the “new” experiences, from film festivals to talks, museums, fundraising comedy festivals, musical performances all in addition to the television and Netflix and Hulu, but rather these active conversations when you are participating, where you are seen, and heard. On one hand, we have turned to this alternative form because we must, we feel an imperative to connect with others, to support each other while also drawing strength from each other’s mediated glitching presence, and in the crises, this is the only way. And maybe there’s even a bit of the trend at work here, because this is just what we’re doing now. Perhaps you’ve heard the term Zoom fatigue, especially acute for those who are expected to follow a work schedule like the one from the before times, all online, and then find themselves using their off-work hours in the very same mode. Because it’s hard. I mean, really hard. It’s hard when people who can’t stop talking for hours when hanging out on a back porch find themselves staring at each other through a screen and just don’t know what to say, and don’t have a clue why that is. It’s hard when members of a group have different levels of familiarity with the norms the technology demands, such as knowing to mute yourself so that the video doesn’t switch over to you when you rustle papers, even though someone else is talking. It’s hard when convenors of our online meetings don’t know about those norms either, and don’t know the additional facilitator labor required to ensure compliance so that one person can’t accidentally stomp all over the fragile emergent communal vibe. And on and on. I went to a professional meetup that included a fascinating recap of many of the technologies over the decades that have tried to connect people remotely over video so that they can collaborate. And yet the meeting began with the familiar fumbling aloud in search of the sharing screen button, the host squinting away from the camera, at a second monitor, navigating the intricacies of the interface while we waited patiently but increasingly felt disconnected instead of connected. I went to a community meeting where someone gave a spiritual musical performance full of commitment and enthusiasm. I imagine that many of the attendees felt this was a beautiful gift, but honestly I was terribly self-conscious, knowing that I was on-screen myself and had to manage my own performance, my own reaction to something very intimate that I just was not prepared for. I joined a family celebration where one house had such terrible latency (of which they were entirely unaware) that the conversational disconnect spiraled repeatedly into something highly comical and highly frustrating. The flawed assumption that we can simply use this technology as a replacement for the ways we used to connect is more clearly revealed as time passes. As with anything, rather than replicating experiences, the technology transforms experiences. Right now we the users are mostly in problem-solving mode, and the problems we are solving are mostly implicit. The problem is the technology, but also it’s the user interface, it’s the intended use case versus the emergent use cases, it’s the social constraints and norms, and a whole lot more. And this is what researchers do. We don’t come with answers, but we come with ways to look at complex problems that involve people, systems, and other people. My litany of complaints is an invitation to both incremental and innovative changes, but those changes have to be based on a deep understanding of the issues, and that’s the work. And this is one of the things I do for clients, well, really, it’s what I do WITH clients. We unpack the hidden aspects of their products, current and future, in order to prioritize their next steps to delivering the kinds of experiences that meet their goals. And this is something I can do for you and your team. I’d appreciate you reaching out to me to find ways that we can work together. And now, my interview with Julia Nelson, the Director of Research at MOO. Julia, it’s really excellent to have you on Dollars to Donuts. Thanks so much for being here. Julia Nelson: Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be here. Steve: So let’s start. Yeah, talk about the work that you do and maybe talk about MOO, which is sorry, I don’t get to say very. Julia: Absolutely. I know it’s an unusual name. Um, so mu is an online printed design company. We’ve been around since 2004. based in London, that’s where the company was started. But we have several offices in the US and we operate globally. And we’re mostly known for business cards, but our real passion is product design, particularly physical product design. So we’ve been expanding over the last few years into new things like notebooks and postcards and flyers and other things. things you can do with paper. We are a bit unusual, I think, in the sense that we in two ways in terms of how we’re structured as a company, so one is that we’re completely vertically integrated. So we control all of our manufacturing. And in fact, that is a core part of some of the, the software that we build and maintain is our own sort of infrastructure for communicating with our manufacturing operations. And we’re also a very flat organization in terms of how we’re physically structured so the headquarters in London has tech and product teams, but also most of our online marketing all of our in house industrial design team. We also have our own creative team who do all their photography, photography, videography, and customer services in house which is great because it’s super easy to walk over and drop in on a customer call anytime of the day. So I’m director of research. I’ve been at mu for about three years and four months now, I started as a head of in January of 2017. My team is quite small. Over the years, we’ve fluctuated between myself and one other researcher up to about four people in total. And I think we’ve had a bit of an interesting arc as a research team. So when I joined the company, we were more of a user research function. We reported into the design organization, which sat within the product team. And we were primarily focused on evaluative user testing on the website, but over my tenure there we’ve explicitly shifted the function to be much more of almost a research and insights function. So we not only handle user research website, but also cover design research from physical products. So in forming innovation around the things that our industrial design team is creating, and then we have sort of taken over a small portfolio of market research as well. So everything from claims testing to market sizing comes within our purview. Steve: How did that change come about? Julia: Um, I think that’s a really interesting question. I think it’s a combination of two things. One was sort of an internal desire within my team to make sure that we were doing more generative, more strategic work that had more of a role in setting product strategy within the company and eventually company’s strategy. So it was something we explicitly work towards, in the ways that we work with our Stakeholders internally was pushing towards that more generative research. But also we got really lucky, we had some sponsors within the company who really understood the potential of what our research function could be and really championed us with senior management. So we lucked out in that sense. But I think the combination of those two things and sort of over time being able to show people how you could leverage research insight earlier in the process earlier in the design process, or even more broadly into business decision making. It’s a it’s been part of just demonstrating the value of what we can provide and how we can provide it in different ways across the company. Steve: All right. So you’re talking about kind of two key factors here. One is the team themselves identifying, hey, we want to work you know, If we have more than we can bring here, we want to Yes, work in this way. And then sponsors, people who, you know, were in influential decision making positions, who saw, as you said, saw the potential here. Julia: Absolutely. Yeah. And I think it’s not just about potential, but I think I’ve been really lucky. I’ve worked with both people who have intimate knowledge of research and have
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