10. Elizabeth Kell of Comcast
In this episode I chat with Elizabeth Kell, the Senior Director of User Research at Comcast. We talk about the growth of Comcast’s user research practice, essential soft skills for research candidates, and putting a human face on the people that use your products.
If you don’t have a natural curiosity then I can’t teach you to be a researcher. It has to be ingrained in you. To be a researcher is to want to understand. I was that kid that was 5 years old, like why, why, why, why, why? And you know I’m still like that as an adult. I need to know how things work. So I look for that [when hiring]. – Elizabeth Kell
- Elizabeth Kell
- Comcast Center
- MyAccount app
- IIT Institute of Design
- Livia Labate
- Tom Loretan
- Alan Wurtzel
- Practical Empathy by Indi Young
- Hands on a Hardbody
- Charlie Herrin
- Tipping from questions into stories
- Kano analysis
- Information Architects by Richard Saul Wurman
- School of Visual Arts
- Erik Spiekermann and the Berlin subway map
- Joyce Bromberg
- World IA Day
- Soft Skills Are Hard
Steve Portigal: Alright Liz, well thank you. Thanks for being part of the podcast.
Liz Kell: Thanks, Steve.
Steve: So I’m going to ask you the question that I always ask everybody at the start of almost every interview about any topic I think it is which is just to give a sort of basic intro to start us off.
Liz: Sure. So my name is Liz Kell. I’m Senior Director of User Research here at Comcast in our headquarters here in Philadelphia. I run a team of 11, a diverse team of user researchers and I’ve been doing this for about 8 years.
Steve: Another question that I often ask was so people in the US will know the Comcast name, other people might not. So – and probably there’s some – I guess you can explain Comcast and we’ll learn something about the company in terms of how you describe it. So with that long preamble, like what is Comcast?
Liz: What is Comcast for the folks who don’t know or don’t have the services at home? Comcast is the largest cable Internet service provider in the United States. We have over I want to say 22 million video subscribers and 23 million high speed Internet subscribers. I may be slightly off on those numbers so hopefully nobody fact checks me. We also provide digital voice service to the home, home security services and yeah, those are our four main business areas right now. And so that’s what we do.
Steve: So within your group’s purview I guess do you get involved in all those different areas of the business?
Liz: We’re involved in all areas of the business and in the layers beneath too, so all the service layers that go into supporting all four of those products and services that we deliver. So we look at the customer service – the whole customer end to end experience and that includes everything from you know the sales and the marketing and going in and observing what’s going on in the call centers, to looking at the installation, riding along with the agents, watching people try to self install kits. Watching people try to get self-help or call into the call center and troubleshoot and things like that. So in addition to evaluating the product we’re also evaluating the services.
Steve: When you say product, for a company like Comcast, what’s a product?
Liz: Product – I think of the product as like the thing.
Steve: Like a physical thing?
Liz: Sort of. Yeah, I mean – I mean it’s a bunch of electrons right, but the television is something that comes to this big screen on your TV and you have the interface that you interact with. You have the set top box that you interact with. You have the remote controls that you interact with. So that’s like kind of thing and we do a lot of evaluating and trying to improve those things. For high speed Internet there’s less to interactive with. That was one of our big insights when we were doing some research on the high speed Internet product. But really how do people interact with that physical gateway which is you modem and router in one. With home security there’s a lot of interesting things to explore around like where do people decide to put the different sensors or what kind of different pieces of home automation are they adopting and why and how are they using them and how are they controlling them, either through mobile or web interfaces. So there’s a lot of like the thing I would call it, like a tangible thing we’re evaluating as well.
Steve: So that’s hardware and software?
Liz: Both, yeah.
Steve: So these questions are naïve ‘cuz I don’t necessarily have the language for them, but so there’s hardware and software and services, but the services I feel like you’re describing sort of are more customer support services. Are there other kinds of services that Comcast delivers that you’re examining or studying, trying to improve, that aren’t about sort of managing my success with the hardware and software I guess?
Liz: Really about self-service and getting help and being able to get the support you need for your things. I keep calling them things now. I got that word from you.
Steve: So Comcast is kind of a hardware and software company and there’s a service layer to enable hardware and software. I’m sort of thinking of someone that’s like more of – a company that’s a services company like has services as a thing that you would consume, but you’d only consume Comcast services in order to get to a point where you’re having the hardware and software, the thing.
Liz: Yeah. I mean people subscribe to our services and they get something for it which I consider – I call product. You know we’re part of a product organization. So people subscribe to our services so it’s really I think about figuring out how to get the help and support you need with the services and then being able to use the products. So we look at both. I don’t know if I’m answering the question or not.
Steve: I think we’re both totally confused now. Let’s see if we can get through this without using the word product or service or thing again. So you started off too by describing the size of your team. Can we go back in time and talk about the history of your role? Sort of the history of user research and insights at Comcast.
Liz: Sure, of course. So I said I’ve been here, I’m coming up on 8 years. I was actually hired to be the first user researcher on staff when we moved into – we have a new headquarters here in Philly which isn’t really new anymore. We moved in almost 8 years ago. It was a month after I started and when we moved in space was actually built out to have an internal usability lab which was something that the company didn’t have before. So looking to bring some of this capability in-house rather than outsourcing as it’s been done in the past. So I started out as a team of one and when I started in 2008 we really – it was supporting a couple of different websites. So Comcast.net which was originally the portal for our customers, high speed Internet customers to get their email and it was similar to like Yahoo or AOL. And then Fancast.com which was really one of the first destinations to go and watch you know full episodes or full movies online. So it was kind of an exciting space to be in. You know the frontier of like watching TV online. You know in some ways it seems like yesterday and some ways it seems like ancient history. But since then you know just every year something new just kept coming into the fold. So that was 2008. In 2009 we were working more on iPhone apps and the iPad came out. Then we started taking over the TV interface and you saw the result of that now. If anyone has our X1 system that’s the latest TV UI that we worked on for many years. We also took on hardware, so looking at the design of the remote controls, set top boxes, all kinds of things like that. Starting then to move into services, looking at the online, the acquisitions, the self service, the MyAccount app. So the scope of what we touch just keeps growing. You know looking at employee tools and some of the software that our agents use out in the field or helping with an engagement to try to evaluate and improve the tools that our techs use out in the field. So it’s gotten to the point where we almost touch like anything that someone needs to interact with in the company which is really exciting. And I’ve grown this from a team of 1 to a team of we’re up to 11 now in 8 years. So I think that shows really great commitment of the company to how important it is to understand your users and design for them.
Steve: So can you go back along that timeline. You’re sort of framing it around the things that Comcast was doing and then the way that you and your team were able to contribute, but something was also happening internally, I’m hypothesizing, that started to say hey this capability, these people that we have can help drive good design or good outcomes for customers. Are there sort of key moments or kind of transitional points that you can think about where wow we’re – yes we can help with that. Yes we’re going to start doing that. How did that come about?
Liz: That’s a great question. Well my background actually was more in field research and anthropology. I did the design research program at IIT Institute of Design. So I was more into field research, worked at Steelcase and that’s what they focused on before I came here. But when I got here you know it was really about we need to start up this usability practice and I think the big wins in the beginning were – there was definitely a hunger and appetite for this and the woman who was leading the IA group at the time, Livia Labate along with Tom Loretan who’s my VP of UX. He’s been my boss for the whole time I’ve been here. They had an appetite for this already. So I came in with two champions ready to support me and it was pretty easy. There was just a hunger and people who wanted testing and they wanted to see customers interacting with their interfaces. It was really easy to just get up and running and show some immediate results and to show some immediate impact on the UI. So with that I think the legend of my team started to grow, first within the UX group with designers coming to me saying hey we want to test this, hey we’re working on this, into you know our close knit neighbors. We were underneath the product organization and we still are. So some of the close knit neighbors in product started coming to us and saying hey I want to learn more about this or I want to learn more about that. And then they would invite someone to a readout and next thing you know someone for the business unit would be like hey can we use your group to learn more about our users in this way. So I think it was kind of a bit of an organic growth.
And thinking about key moments, that’s a great question. You know we’ve had a few of them. I think you know we did a big ethnographic study back in 2011 that got a lot of attention from our GM for the VBU which is the Video Business Unit and then some of our market research partners and then they started spreading the word and having us put our presentation up in front of other audiences within the company. And one of the people I got connected to – this is kind of a cool story – is Alan Wurtzel who’s the President of Research for NBC Universal and has been for a long time. And of course you know we own NBC Universal, we’re all the same family. And I got to build a relationship with him and got to speak at his offsite and present on some of the really cool research we’ve done and some awesome videos of people navigating our interface and talking about how passionate they are about TV and it led to a relationship there. So it’s just been growing organically, but it’s really just about finding your champions and then spreading the word, and letting them spread the word and taking those opportunities every single time it’s presented to you, to just go get in front of more people and share what you do and how exciting it is.
I think one of the keys too is you know when I present I try to bring so much enthusiasm about the subject. To really go in there – I love to be like animated up in the front of the room. I love to show videos and I put a lot of effort and I challenge my team to really be creative with their videos and make sure that they’re really engaging. I think that videos often sometimes have a really awesome impact and help humanize the experience. So I think some of that’s the turning point as well. Just being able to share your work in a really engaging way I think makes a big difference.
Steve: I’m going to try a leading question. There’s a little bit of – I mean a good leader is humble about their accomplishments and I think there’s a certain humility in your answer in that you talked a lot about other people’s interest in your work kind of drove the growth of the demand, but I want to push you a little bit and can you talk about things that were – like work is not just work. There’s work that’s relevant. There’s work that points to opportunities. There’s work that connects. You were able to – in order to drive that kind of increasing demand, it’s not just about being animated. Like it’s all the things that you said, but there’s something, I bet, that’s in the content of what you and your team have been producing and I wonder – again I’m totally leading you, but I wonder if you can, with all due humility, reflect on – what about the content of the work that you’ve done that has driven that organic growth?
Liz: So with all due humility it’s really about I always say you know our teams’ goal is to really bring – the word empathy doesn’t mean like you feel sorry for someone or you know – it’s really about – I think Indi Young just wrote the book about empathy and I was reading it and I was like that’s exactly what it is. It’s like being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but not necessarily understand it because it’s not your world. And I’ve had stakeholders say to me after a readout, or say to members of my team that you know, not necessarily that we learned anything new or that we didn’t know, but you really humanized it. You really illustrated it in a way that was so impactful that we didn’t realize – you know it caused this kind of emotion in our customers. Or you know the problem was – this was the problem or this wasn’t the problem. Like this is really the heart of it. So it’s about being able to illustrate and bring empathy and just humanize the experience for folks who really aren’t out there necessarily interacting with our customers or users every day like we are. I think that’s just – that’s where the passion comes from. I don’t know if I’m answering your question?
Steve: You’re answering it and it’s a wonderful answer. You know I’ve had this experience a lot in years of doing research with – it’s sort of the classic response when you share something that you’ve learned is that we already knew that response. You just kind of flipped it around for me where it’s not – because sometimes that’s sort of confrontational and my response is to get defensive. Well, are you sure you knew it? And I think what you’re sort of talking about – I mean kind of a cultural, organizational value in doing this work is as you said to humanize. And it’s not about oh my God did you know that this thing is going on because that might not – you might not be able to surprise anyone with that, but to bring it back in a way that humanizes. And I think what I’m drawing from what you’re saying too is that’s a powerful way to drive change or to help people take action based on what you rediscover or represent.
Liz: Yeah, exactly. It was kind of an epiphany when someone said that to me you know ‘cuz sometimes we would. We’d be like oh well I don’t know if we’re really like bringing any new insights here. They’re things we already knew, but when someone said you know it’s not about necessarily bringing us anything new – and I don’t want to say that we don’t bring new insights because we bring tons of them, I know we do and we’ve affected a lot of change – but there are some things that just the company knows and they know they need to change, but nobody’s really ever told it in the type of storytelling manner that we bring to the table where like the end to end experience with videos of people, showing them their passion, their joy or their frustration and really talking about it in an eloquent way, or even things like when we go in the homes you know we often try to get multiple family members in the interview because that’s when you can really get the genuine emotion and confusion and frustration out. You know I’ve shown videos of husbands and wives getting into arguments over like how to actually use an interface. That tells a way better story then I could ever tell. Putting together a presentation that shows like for example a matrix of tasks and who succeeded and who failed. It’s a far more powerful story to say like hey this is really confusing and I’m going to show you a video of a husband and wife arguing about it because one understands it and the other one doesn’t.
Steve: This makes me think about documentary films a little bit. There’s documentary films that I like and ones that I sort of almost tolerate. I will bring this back to what you just said. You know there are those documentary films where it’s about a topic and the topic is so amazing that it seems like what the filmmaker has done is sort of open the lens and sort of be there and then kind of chop it up in a way that follows a linear narrative and you’re like I can’t believe these people are trying to win a truck by standing on it – Hands on a Hardbody was a classic documentary, like you just saw people trying to – I don’t know if you know this one. It’s a contest to win a truck and you have to have your hand on it for days and days and days. This amazing human drama emerges from this very simple thing. And not to minimize the art of the filmmaker there, but then there are other documentaries that just do – I don’t know, just wildly creative things and sort of synthesize and pull out of something, some story you never could have ever have found, that like they’ve told that story. And I enjoy them both, but I like to sort of reflect on sort of what’s the hand of the filmmaker. I know we’re not – there is an art to what we do, but we’re not making art. So just to loop it all the way back around to what you’re talking about, it is powerful to bring those stories in and kind of impact people that way. Again, I guess I’m going to lead by offering my point of view. I would hate for someone to listen to this and feel like what the field researcher does is just like point the lens at people and sort of – that we’re just scooping. We’re not digging or we’re not synthesizing. So when you come back with those videos of the husband and wife arguing, like you didn’t just – you weren’t just out shooting video, you were doing something else.
Liz: Obviously – no, we’re doing a lot more, we’re probing in a really meaningful way and I actually – I’ve given talks here at Comcast to groups of product managers. You know last year Charlie Herrin who is our – now our head of Customer Experience and a whole new group, had asked me to set up a training program for all the product managers so that they could come, ride along, or be empowered to do their own listening in the call centers, or ride along with agents, but to really understand like what is the art of what we do and how do you listen to customers. I talk about things like how to build rapport, how you want to go in. You don’t want to necessarily go in with an agenda. You want to ask open ended questions. Don’t be leading. But it’s so important to build rapport because once you build a comfort level with the people who you’re visiting – you’re visiting them in their homes – it’s amazing how they’ll start to open with you and it gets to the point where – I think I ripped this from your book, but I say this anyway, it does have a tipping point from where it’s question and answer to question to story to just you say something and they just start talking. And that’s the point that we really always strive to get to and that takes experience, that takes practice and I think that’s really important. It’s the art of – it’s the art of having a conversation because that’s really what we’re going in there to do. And sometimes you don’t know where a participant is going to take you and that’s okay sometimes. You know you can get some of the most richest or most interesting insights when the participant takes you down the path that’s most interesting to them and then you can bring it back to some of the things that you want to learn about, but I really think that it’s so important to be open minded and let the participant talk to you and show you what’s most important to them.
Steve: There’s an interesting tension – I don’t know that either of us can resolve it, or at least not in this conversation – between that territory with no map – I don’t know, like the exploring to get to what you don’t know you’re going to get to. At the same time the result is things that you mostly knew or knew to some extent, but maybe not with this amount of emotion or this amount of richness.
Liz: I’m thinking of a good example that I can share. When we first got into the home security arena, it was maybe 3 or 4 years ago, we went to go do a field study with some of our early customers and we were just hoping to learn. We were still mostly UX Product. We wanted to see how are they using the system, what are the different ways they’re using the system – you know to improve it or to be inspired for new features or ways to improve the UI of some of the apps or the touchscreen and things like that. And what we found actually was a direct correlation between you know how engaged people were with actually using their home security system and how well their installation and first time use of the system was. And that wasn’t something we were looking for at all. That was something that started to come out naturally as my lead researcher was in the field and she came back with this like amazing story and this amazing end to end process map. It was like well, it was like 6 steps and we went in the home with this expectation of studying what was step 6 and what we learned was X, Y and Z about steps 1 through 5 and how it affects step 6. You know and step 1 is just becoming aware of the system. Step 2 is calling in to order it. Step 3 is getting it installed. You know all these things that happened along the way and that was because the participants wanted to talk about that and we found it necessary to let them talk about that to understand why they were or were not using the system in a certain way. So that’s an example I think of this sort of non direct, or the power of being non directed.
Steve: So that’s an example where using this non directed approach helps you find something that you didn’t know. But you’ve also talked about examples where there’s a great power in the way that you can bring back stories that are not necessarily surprising as you said, but they’re brought back in a way. I’m just wondering, does that approach of – now I’m messing up your words – but sort of a non directed, rapport building. Letting the participant talk about what they want to talk about. Does that also bring back things that you knew, but in that powerful way that’s helping you drive change?
Liz: Yeah. So one of the things that we hear a lot about, we talk a lot about obviously in the world of cable and television is live television. And how attached are people to live TV? I guess in our own little rarefied world we tend to think that people are really moving towards cord cutting and consuming everything on Netflix and over the top HBO and that kind of stuff, yet we’re going in the homes and we’re seeing this incredible attachment still to live television and we’re still seeing that in a lot of the numbers too and a lot of the Nielsen surveys and things like that. So we know it’s true and it seems like there’s this dichotomy and people want to understand it better. So we can go in the homes and you find that people – when you let them speak in a non directed way all of a sudden they start talking about like you know why they’re attached to live TV and it has a lot to do with like a lean back experience vs. maybe a lean forward experience. You know we think of live TV very much as like oh it’s still that classic – you know Alan Wurtzel would call it television the way God intended you to watch it. That’s what he says. Like everyone sits down at 8 o’clock to watch the Cosby Show on Thursday nights. But really the attachment to live TV is so much into sports, into the low commitment, into the serendipity, into I just want to flip around and see what’s on for the next 20 minutes while I decompress, like that kind of thing. And I think we tend to overlook that. So to be able to bring back videos of people showing, like they all have different strategies for browsing the grid, the traditional grid, but how that’s happening, to really illustrate that, to explain like why there’s still an attachment to it, but letting people show us through the context of their own stories and letting us take us down whatever path they want is really interesting and really meaningful.
Steve: I feel like you just hit on what the power is of those humanizing stories. They’re not necessarily surprises, but they can help people reprioritize. We knew that, we weren’t really paying attention to it. By humanizing it you’re helping people to make decisions and understand that something’s really important. That it doesn’t have to be a surprise that blows your hair back. It can be…
Liz: Right. It’s almost like it is really important so we definitely want to still make sure we have a strong way to help people you know browse what’s on live. And it’s not to say we shouldn’t be looking at like alternative ways to do that in the future. We know that live TV is still important. We know this from numbers. We know this anecdotally even though anecdotally there’s also the sense of there’s still cord-cutting, but being able to go in the homes and ask people to just like hey, take me through your day in TV and having them illustrate that sort of brings home this notion that you know some of these behaviors are still happening and we knew they were still happening and here’s a way to illustrate them and help people understand why it’s still so important and so meaningful to the user.
Steve: What are some of the challenges that – maybe it’s less about your team, but just the kind of work – I mean you know user research as a thing. You know in an organization like yours where you’re having these successes and you’re having this kind of impact, you know what’s – how do you characterize the types of challenge that you all are looking to address?
Liz: I mean some of the challenges that we’ve been looking to address lately, at least with my team, is we’ve historically been a qualitative research team you know and qualitative research is intrinsically linked to traditional market research techniques. So there’s a lot of familiarity with many stakeholders outside of UX and especially outside of UX and product with those methods. So really trying to bring in that awareness of how important it is to – you know we’re talking a lot about talking to people, but really the heart and soul of what we do is we come in and we build rapport and then we get them showing us and that’s really what usability is too – you bring people in, but you watch them use your system. When we go in their homes and we try to get them to just recreate their lives and watch them. So really you know trying to illustrate like different approaches to qualitative research and trying to help explain what those different approaches were, that’s been one challenge that I think we’re starting to really successfully illustrate. And then the other challenge too is like I said we’ve always traditionally been a qualitative research group and you know everybody loves numbers, everybody loves analytic surveys and stuff so we’ve started to – I have a quantitative researcher on my team now and we’re starting to bring in some of the quant to compliment the qualitative research we’re doing to emphasize some of the points that we’re making, sort of establish them – some credibility to them at scale.
Steve: And what’s the difference between what the quantitative research on your team does vs. other kinds of quantitative research that Comcast is doing?
Liz: We’re trying to do it from a product development approach. So you know one of the techniques that we just started implementing, or at least we’ve started piloting is Kano analysis which is surveying in a specific way, asking people about features and their expectations, but not do you like it or are you satisfied with it, but do you expect it to be there? If it’s not there are you upset, are you indifferent? There’s a formula that sort of segments things I believe into like three outputs – the must haves, the indifferents and then the delighters. You know we’re always getting – it kind of came because we’re always being asked about what will delight our customers? What new features should we be building to delight people? It’s a great language that really speaks to the company and one of the interesting things we’ve found too is that delighters decay into must haves over time so things – you know for example about the television interface that we would hear were delighters 5 years ago. Anecdotally we kind of see how they’ve decayed into must haves as we started to do some surveying. Like these must haves are things that people just expect to be there as a baseline, almost like a neutral. So anyway, having the – I think having some numbers behind it, but not in a traditional way, but in a way that reframes it, but again still amplifies things that we’re hearing from other types of surveys and other groups in the company I think is really, really powerful.
Steve: It makes me think about car features and how they seem – that industry seems to have sort of figured out – you know things come in at the ultra high end and then you now you can rent a Toyota Corolla at the airport, if they make Corollas or whatever, and it has a backup camera. Whether that’s driven by legislation, whatever, all these features seem to trickle down.
Liz: That’s a great example.
Steve: And is that the same – do you think that’s the same – I don’t know what’s going on in the car industry, if that’s about economics or is that about you know…
Liz: No, but that’s a great example. Like right now backup cameras, it’s a delighter. People who have them love it. But it’s not standard and there are still a lot of people out there driving cars that don’t have them, but I would predict you know in 5 years maybe that’s just going to be a must have and an expectation, especially if they’re putting it in Corollas. So it seems like that’s where you see the decay from delighter to must have when it’s no longer necessarily a luxury or something high end. It’s something that’s expected in any make and model.
Steve: It seems like it’s easy to see that framework in the car industry and probably harder in the things that you work on.
Steve: Because there’s just not…
Liz: It’s probably more practical stuff in the things we work on, like the number of tuners that you can use at once to record shows. It used to be like so exciting, I have a DVR. Like oh my God I can watch one show and record the other at the same time. Now people have four tuners and they can record four shows and watch one live at the same – or five tuners. You need 5 tuners to do that. And so things like that have become more than must haves. Same thing with the Internet, like the must haves. The speeds keep going up and how much you’re able to download in a certain amount of time.
Steve: Is the tuner thing about multiple viewers in a household?
Liz: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes. Or sometimes it’s about like a TV passionate – you know there are people who are super attached to TV and like to record a lot of things. They like to stockpile stuff. So there’s a lot of different behaviors out there that drive that.
Steve: Right. I’m doing that thing that people do where like 5 shows at once, that seems like a lot. What’s wrong with that person? But your answer is of course the appropriate, empathetic one. There’s use cases that you support and I’m just doing that thing that people do.
Steve: And that’s right. Maybe there’s a…
Liz: How many people use five tuners at once? I actually – I’m sure we have analytics on that, but it’s even more the perception.
Steve: Ah, right.
Liz: I think.
Steve: Right. I bet the – you don’t have to answer this, but I bet the incremental cost to add a third tuner and a fourth tuner is probably low and so right now you have more capability. I mean it goes back to what you’re saying about things that are delighters vs. must haves like – and I’ve seen this in studies that I’ve done unrelated to your business area where you know more capability then you think that you could possibly is like that’s very comforting for people. Like, I’m set.
Liz: A great example – a great example within the DVR space maybe is the, like remote DVR. So I remember when I was working on the first app for mobile DVR – oh my gosh I want to say that was like 2009 or so. You know where it was like super exciting to like be able to be like oh my God I’m out and I forget to set the DVR and now I can log in and actually set my DVR. That’s just – you know you can do that now. It’s still a delighter. So I want to say that I don’t know that’s it decayed to a must have, but I would say for – it’s getting close.
Steve: Interesting. Okay, let’s shift gears a little bit. You’ve talked about your team and some of the people on your team. Can you give kind of a 1000-foot view of the kinds of people, the kinds of skills? Like what is – what have you built and kind of who have you looked for and what’s the makeup I guess?
Liz: So like any UX research team we come from a variety of different backgrounds. You know the 31 flavors or whatever you want to call it. So my background is in physics. I’ve got people with backgrounds in information systems, anthropology. You know we’ve got someone from CMU (Carnegie Mellon’s graduate program). I’ve got people from – a PhD at Temple. So it’s really definitely a definite mix. And I think everyone of the team sort of has an area of strength. You know I’ve got someone on the team who’s just this absolutely amazing, almost like anthropologist – go out in the field – you know some of the things we were talking about before, about just being non directed and building rapport. You know that’s a real strength. Someone else on the team who really, really loves doing more of like the usability type evaluations. As I said I have a quantitative researcher on the team so – I don’t want to say – you know everyone is a generalist and we don’t have the luxury of being specialized, but I think everyone on my team has an area of strength I think. And I think it’s really important to have that mix as well. You know we get an open head or we’re looking to hire – among my senior group I have two managers on my team and a principal. You know the four of us will sit down and talk about you know what do we really need? What kind of skill sets do we need? Where do we have gaps or things like that. We’ll look for resumes and people who will fill that gap.
Steve: I have to call an open head as like the best piece of corporate jargon that any of us are going to hear this week. I have an open head.
Liz: I have an open head.
Steve: Well we’re going to send you to the doctor then.
Liz: It just means I have a requisition to hire somebody for a full time job with benefits. One of the things we talk about in user research of course is like using natural language with our customers.
Steve: And do we talk about making fun with our natural language because that’s the principal of interviewing that I just leveraged. So when you’re thinking about managing workload how do you think about – you know with people being generalists, how do you think about you know here’s an internal client with a need, here’s who’s going to work on that? How do you make those decisions?
Liz: That’s a great question. Right now I do have, I mentioned I have like a senior team and I tend to have them embedded in one subject matter area. So I have someone who is really leading most of the television and entertainment research, someone high speed Internet and home and then another one on customer experience. Underneath that I have a pool of researchers. They tend to move around a bit more. I like to try to keep people – you know again it’s kind of like the strengths in terms of methodologies. I also have people who have affinity to certain subject matter. So you know I have someone on my team who’s just a DIY geek about home automation so I try to keep that person working in the home security/home automation space because they just have a lot of subject matter expertise there. So some of it’s like you know if I can and if the demand is there, or if the need is there I’ll try to keep people – you know keep that subject matter expertise like running so that we can leverage that and move faster and build upon you know insights from the past. So that’s kind of how we do it and usually there’s enough work balance between each of the different verticals that it isn’t too much of a – you know people aren’t switching around too much.
Steve: Let’s go back to the open head bit. So now I’m using natural language – I did it straight and you giggled so I was like I’m back in natural language.
Liz: Calling me out on my corporate lingo. Okay.
Steve: So when you’re in an open head situation and you’re looking at resumes what do you look for? What do you see and what do you want to see I guess?
Liz: What do you see and what do you want to see? You know it’s hard with a resume actually. I’m almost always more interested in if someone reaches out to me with a note, you know, or a personal connection. I mean I can look at a resume and sometimes people have, what looks like they check the boxes and then we’ll want to talk to them, but it’s really about evaluating someone over the phone then on that first pass. So the resume you know should have like you know some experience, unless we’re looking for someone really entry level, but even if they’re entry level you know some sort of interest in doing something UX and user researcher related while they were in school. But anyway, yeah, it’s really more about I would say how are you going to demonstrate to me your level of passion for user research and your soft skills. So like for example you know I hired someone a few years ago – I actually got a note from one of our engineers – one of our scrum masters I think she was. And she said I met this woman at a party, she’s getting ready to finish her master’s degree at Temple and she’s really, really interesting and she had a background in mass communications and anthropology. She loved technology and she was doing work in like presence. And she was just a really neat person and I was telling her about your – we have a coop or like internship program and I was telling her about that and she was interested. So and I said put her in touch with me. But to me that’s like the test right, put her in touch with me to see if she actually gets in touch with me. Not only did she get in touch with me, she got in touch with me right away with this incredibly thoughtful email about all the different things she was thinking about and she wasn’t like I want a job or I absolutely must have a career in UX research. She was almost like I’m really interested in technology. I’m really interested in people. Not really sure where this is all going to go and I would just love to learn more about your team and what you do. So I got on the phone with her and I just thought she had amazing aptitude, she had great maturity and so then I brought her in to meet the team and we actually felt like she was qualified to be an entry level researcher. I thought she was way beyond an internship position. But it was really about you know the impression she made with me in terms of the way she communicated with me and communicated beyond like I know how to do these skills. It was more like I’m curious, which I can’t teach. You know I’m personable. I can get along with people. I ask good questions. Those are things that are harder to teach, the aptitude. And she demonstrated that she had that.
Steve: Some of those seem very general to try to reach out to someone inside a company and make them feel like they would want to work with you and some of them seem like there’s elements of like this is what makes for someone who I want to have work with me as a researcher specifically. Can you highlight what are the researcher ingredients and how you’re trying to suss those out?
Liz: Yeah, sure. I mean a big one I just mentioned is curiosity. Like if you don’t have a natural curiosity then I can’t teach you to be a researcher ‘cuz that’s like, it has to be ingrained in you, right. I mean to be a researcher is to want to understand. You know like I was that kid that was 5 years old, like why, why, why, why, why? And you know I’m still like that as an adult. I need to know how things work. So I look for that. Another thing is like pattern recognition. I think a lot of being a researcher is you know when you’re out, especially when you’re doing qualitative work, like really being able to understand. You know you hear this one story over here and you hear this one story over there and how are they related and what’s the common thread between them? I’m trying to think of a good example off the top of my head and of course now I’m blanking. But being able to really recognize patterns I think is important. Being a good listener too. I talked about curiosity, but the other side of curiosity is I love it when I interview somebody and then at the end when I say do you have questions for me, not only do they have questions which demonstrates their curiosity, but they’re not canned questions. They’re questions based on things that I’ve talked about, about my team and about what we do. So demonstrating that you can actively listen and process what you’re hearing and then ask thoughtful questions back I think is really critical. You know I can teach someone you know to go read about heuristics or good read a book, you know how to right tasks, how to run Morae and all these other hard skills, but I can’t necessarily teach someone how to be curious or you know how to be able to recognize patterns. I’m trying to think of another good one that I look for. I mean maybe it’s the soft skills too ‘cuz to be a researcher you know you really need to be able to just interact with people and make them feel comfortable. So I look for people who are good conversationalists, who are just comfortable talking to people they haven’t met before, come in, you know have a certain amount of confidence to them, with still some humility. ‘Cuz that’s what you need when you’re going to be going in and interviewing. Customers – and that’s also what you need when you walk in the room to present to your stakeholders. You know you have to be sensitive to their needs as well and what they need to hear in order to take action on your findings. You know and you may get some – when you’re presenting too you know you get questions at the end and sometimes the questions can be challenging, right. You know, especially if like something that you’re presenting on isn’t you know finding sort of challenges. It’s like one of their core beliefs about what they thought about their product. So how do you handle those questions? How do you react in that kind of a situation where you might be challenged I think is really important to observe as well.
Steve: What’s the soft skill – what’s the soft skill that describes that, like being able to handle these questions?
Liz: Yeah, that’s great. I’m not sure what the word is for it.
Steve: It must be categorized.
Liz: It must be categorized right. You’re going to make me dig back into my IA world in my brain. I think it’s about not being you know – I mean maybe it is humility. You know it’s not being so attached to your idea and your agenda that you need to be able to compromise.
Steve: That’s a great challenge in an interview situation to be able to demonstrate your confidence and your humility together.
Liz: Yeah it is, isn’t it.
Steve: Like that’s a bit of a magic trick. And I’m not saying that people can’t pull it off. It is sort of about who you are as a person. If I had to think about how would I do that I would definitely have to scratch – be scratching my head and want to practice that a little bit. I agree with you those are essentially, but you just – I don’t know it makes me have some empathy for people that are knocking on doors and trying to put all those best feet forward at the same time.
Let’s switch gears again and maybe sort of build on this. You talked a little about – I feel like at the top of the conversation you mentioned some of your other experiences that you had had. You’ve had other careers before this one. You want to talk a little about your background and maybe some of the highlights or milestones for you as you have…
Liz: Sure. How much time do you have? I’m just kidding.
Steve: How much time do you have?
Liz: How much time do we have left? No, I’m just kidding. Yeah, so my degree, my undergraduate degree is actually in physics which I always joked after I was done, the only reason we – my friend and I – would say we majored in physics is because we liked the way it kind of stopped the conversation at a party when someone would ask us what we did, what we majored in. You know I kind of grew up being just you know one of those women that was smart at math and science which is a little bit unusual, especially 20 years ago, and I just assumed I’d major in math and science and then when I was in school I was working in labs and I was like God this is so boring, there’s no way I can do this the rest of my life. I thought I would just get a PhD and go do research and get published in journals and I just thought God how boring is that. So I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I went to Penn and I worked in their admissions office and through that I actually just got a job right out of school doing, as an admissions counselor for a local college for a couple of years, which wasn’t as interesting as being an admissions officer for a school like Penn, you know. But I thought it would be cool, but really the lessons I took away from that – you know it was a lot about being independent, being on the road, learning how to sell, how to speak to things, how to present. And I knew that wasn’t going to be my career or anything so I had a friend working for a textbook company, Prentice-Hall, big name, and she was working up at their headquarters and said hey we have an opening for a marketing assistant, you’d be great and it’s in science and math textbooks. So ended up getting a job up there and again I think some of things I learned up there – first of all I worked for two really awesome women who were leaders in the marketing area and you know they taught me not to be afraid to sell myself and to make sure that people knew that I was like doing a good job. It wasn’t enough to get a compliment. It was to make sure you forwarded your compliments on so that people who could help your career knew that you were being acknowledged. You know and I knew – I remember one time they were talking about moving me up to manage a big sales territory in Ann Arbor, Michigan which is you know, in the textbook industry, you want to move up you often need to go manage a sales territory. You need to go out into the field and one of them said to me, she’s like you need to go knock on everyone’s door of these executive editors and stuff and just ask their advice and let them know you’re interested in this position and I like freaked out and I got like all nervous and stuff and they’re like no you have to go do that ‘cuz these are the people who are going to promote your career. So I got like really good advice that way, you know and they were from women which I thought was really important. So anyway I spent five years doing sales marketing and editorial acquisitions in the science and math space in textbooks which is the only job I ever had that was even tangentially related to my degree when I was working on physics textbooks and I was actually a little conversant with the authors. But that was where I sort of made the transition to UX. I always loved – I always loved graphic design and typography and people told me that like I was too smart to do that and I would never make any money and I finally just decided well I didn’t care, I really loved it and we were working on a brand new textbook for biology and the biology editor, I was talking to her about this a little bit and she pulled out this book, it was Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Architects book and it profiled people like Erik Spiekermann and a lot of really just interesting people who thought about how to design things. This was way back in the print age, or signage systems and stuff, but thought about how to design things based on how people were going to actually use them and I was like this is just awesome. And they were hiring somebody as a consultant who was featured in that book to help design like the program for how they were going to design this new textbook. I just thought that was so cool and so I finally just decided you know what I think I want to change careers. And I left Prentice-Hall. I kept doing some freelance work, but I started studying graphic design full time at School of Visual Arts. You talk about key moments. A key moment for me is I was taking a typography class and we were supposed to redesign a spa brochure. It was just one of those handmade things on like – I forget what they were called at the time, but just one of those things where anyone could put together a brochure on their desktop computer and it was pretty ugly. We were supposed to just redesign it with nice type and special attention to typography and I actually rewrote all the content before I redesigned it and I was the only person that did that and I came back in and I remember a couple of the other students were like why did you do so much work? And I was like I can’t design something I don’t understand and that was like almost like the epiphany for me and that’s when I realized I was actually probably more of an information architect then a designer and so that’s how I got into, made the transition into UX and that was – it wasn’t even called UX at the time obviously. This was like around 2000/2001. But it was the right time, right place to sort of jump into that arena and so I moved back to Philadelphia which is where I’m from and through some connections you know got a job at a local agency, basically doing jack of all trades what would be UX now – small agency that built websites for nonprofits and educational clients. So I did everything. I did stakeholder interviews, content strategy, information architecture, you know building site maps. I actually did the visual design. I even did some front end HTML. So that’s where I really learned all my chops and then from there I just got really excited about understanding how people would actually like use the stuff I was designing. Back to like thinking about Erik Spiekermann and the case study of how he thought about redoing the map for the Berlin subway I think it was. Anyway that’s when I went off to Institute of Design for grad school and learned about design research and then got really excited about you know watching users and learning what they do. So from there I just went to Steelcase for a couple of years. Worked for a really awesome woman there named Joyce Bromberg who again was just a great inspiration. She was the one – she’d give me a compliment and I’d be your typical woman like oh it was no big deal and she’d be like take it like a man, say thank you. So she taught me to always just say thank you when someone compliments me. You know you never downplay your successes. It was neat to be out of the digital arena for awhile and then I decided I wanted to move back to Philly and I’ve been here at Comcast ever since. So I think I asked you how much time you had and that was probably the longest answer ever.
Steve: No I thought you like managed to do like a really clipped, swift kind of active version of the whole career arc. That’s great. I think we will keep paying attention to time here. What are some things about you as a leader or a manager that I think might be important for us to understand or maybe things that we wouldn’t see on your LinkedIn profile?
Liz: I mean I don’t know if this would come through in my LinkedIn profile, but as I’ve moved up I never thought I would be a manager, let alone a director or a senior director. When I started here at Comcast it was like hey here’s this lab and we started up and I thought I’d be a team of one, probably forever. No actually, I didn’t. But I think as I’ve moved up and gotten more into the management side of things I’ve really found like a passion for passing it forward. You know as I was talking about in the past you know some of these great mentors I’ve had who you know taught me how to take a compliment or make sure other people knew my successes or you know taught me how to be patient and have a vision for something. I think that’s something I didn’t talk about before. You know sometimes people ask me like how did you grow this team so quickly, because I know that can be a struggle for some folks, you know, in the corporate world, trying to build up a fledgling UX or user research practices. How do you go from a team of one to ten in a short amount of time? You know and it’s really having the patience. It’s like you’re not going to go from 1 to 10 in one year so it’s like celebrate your small successes and have a vision for where you want to go but be patient for it. So I think it’s kind of passing that forward to the folks below me. You know I’m really interested, I read a lot of books on how to motivate, what people are motivated by and trying to understand like a little bit about the psychology of that aspect of our work, and really trying to do for some of the younger folks what those folks did for me and helping them build their confidence, move their own careers forward, you know feel like they can do it and to figure out what you want to do and not be afraid to take risks.
Steve: So as we think about wrapping up I will fall back as I often do in my stock questions because I’m a creature of habit, or I’m lazy or something else. Because they’re great questions. Is there anything that we should have talked about, about you and your work at Comcast or your background that you’d like to make sure that we include in this?
Liz: I mean again, just to sum up, I think one of the things that maybe, that isn’t emphasized enough – you know we talk a lot within UX about like the hard skills and the methods and stuff like that and I know you go around – I think you said you were just at World IA Day and you gave Soft Skills are Hard and I think that that, that’s just so important and I think that’s something I’d love to emphasize to folks that’s so important in your career. Don’t neglect your soft skills. And I think I got lucky in that I had this – you know that period for 5 or 6 years where I was you know working as basically like almost in a sales and marketing capacity where I learned to be comfortable interacting with others. People who – you know learning how to work a room. Learning how to make conversation with people I really didn’t know. Learning how to negotiate. Learning how to present. And then again something I think I talked about is you know never turn down an opportunity. So I’ve had people like present opportunities to me where like I gulp really hard and then I’m really glad I did it you know. And one example is the University of Pennsylvania actually, they contacted me a few years ago for – to come back and speak on a panel at parent’s weekend. If you know anything about Penn, Penn is a very pre-professional school. So you basically go there and if you don’t say I want to be a doctor, a lawyer or an i-banker, or a consultant – it’s like oh my God what’s my child going to do and how are they going to make any money. And so they had noticed that I had this unusual major and this unusual career yet I seemed to be pretty successful. So they invited me to come back and speak on this panel and I remember when the guy called me and I was thinking alright, you know I’ll do it. And then when he told me there would be like 400 people in the audience I almost choked because I had never spoken to a crowd that big before. I think the biggest crowd I ever spoke to is maybe 40 or 50 people and I just like looked out and I was like okay I’ll do it. And it was just so energizing and so much fun and I think you know that was the beginning of like so when Alan Wurtzel invited me to speak at his offsite and they said that would be like 200 people I was like sure. I got a little nervous, but now I’ve gotten to the point where, like I’m super comfortable speaking in front of large groups, to the point where like now I can almost do it on the fly if I already have the content ready and I’m not afraid to be animated or to tell stories, or even be a little self deprecating in front of a large group which helps like humanize yourself and build some rapport with your audience. So don’t ever be afraid to take an opportunity even if it scares you ‘cuz you’ll always learn something for it and the more you do something the more comfortable you become doing it. So I think that that’s just really important.
Steve: But Liz, what if I fail?
Liz: Well you can’t think that, right. I don’t know. You know someone actually asked me that once. I’m so glad you said that because someone asked me. I remember I was working at Prentice-Hall. I can’t remember the context now but they said well what if you fail and I was just like I’m not afraid I’m going to fail. I don’t know, maybe that’s something intrinsic, but I guess don’t be afraid of failure either.
Steve: Well I like – I mean just your framework is revealed when that question sort of just brings you up short, like I don’t know. I’m not thinking about that.
Liz: Right. And it sounds like cocky. We’ve been talking about humility and I’m like I’ve never failed . I mean sure I’ve failed here and there, but I mean it’s not really failure. Maybe it was like a little bit of setback. Oh you know this didn’t go – I didn’t get that job that I wanted to get, but I got the confidence to do even better on the next interview and got another job that turned out to be even better.
Steve: I didn’t hear you say I’ve never failed. I heard you say like…
Liz: I’m not afraid of it.
Steve: …don’t think about it in terms of what if you fail.
Steve: You sort of were attacking the question. I didn’t hear you say I don’t fail.
Steve: Okay. Well those are some lovely sort of parting thoughts. Just to wrap up, wrap up, do you have any questions? No.
Liz: Have other people asked you questions?
Steve: Is that a meta question or an actual question? Have other people asked me questions? Yes, sometimes.
Liz: I don’t know. Steve, is there anything else that maybe, that I could add that would be unique perspective. I listened to some of your other podcasts and there’s always been a lot of talk about the methods and the structure of the team. I think we covered that a bit though. If there’s anything unique…
Steve: I mean you’re going to ask me if there’s anything unique about you? You’re the person that can answer that.
Liz: And I don’t know.
Steve: Okay. It sounds like we’re done then. Alright, thanks very much Liz.
Liz: Thanks, Steve.