13. Kate Lawrence of EBSCO
In this episode I speak with Kate Lawrence, Vice President of User Research at EBSCO Information Services. Our conversation covers where to place user research in the organization, emotions in fieldwork, and empowering others to advocate for information literacy.
The ability to write, synthesize, distill and synthesize findings into a report that is digestible and spot on is very challenging and there are people who can do it well and I really strive to find those people for the team. So great writing skills – and part of that writing is storytelling. It’s a combination of communication, analytical skills and research skills. – Kate Lawrence
- Kate Lawrence
- Follow Kate on Twitter
- EBSCO Information Services
- EBSCO Industries
- Ipwich, MA
- Mark Zuckerbeg’s hoodie
- Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes
- Pizza in Japan
- Cruella De Vil
- Eat This Not That
- User Research War Stories
- Deirdre Costello
- Kristen Arakelian
Steve Portigal: Welcome, Kate, to Dollars to Donuts.
Kate Lawrence: Thank you for having me.
Steve: Why don’t you begin by introducing yourself?
Kate: My name is Kate Lawrence and I’m the Vice President of User Research at EBSCO Information Services. We are the leading provider of research databases and other content to libraries and institutions all around the world and we’re headquartered actually out of Ipswich, Massachusetts – a beautiful town on the North Shore of Massachusetts, north of Boston. And our parent company is actually EBSCO Industries and they’re headquartered out of Birmingham, Alabama. And EBSCO Industries is one of the 200, one of the top 200 privately held companies in the United States and EBSCO is actually an acronym. EBSCO stands for the Elton B. Stephens Company and it’s a family owned company since the 1940s and again it’s one of the largest privately held companies in Alabama and one of the 200 largest in the United States and what’s interesting is one company, many different businesses and so the largest part of EBSCO Industries is EBSCO Information Services where I work in Ipswich, Massachusetts, but what’s interesting is EBSCO Industries has lots of other businesses. For example EBSCO owns the company that produces the most fishing flies of any manufacturer. They have real estate holdings. So it’s quite diverse in that way.
Steve: Does that create a certain culture and not so much EBSCO specific, but companies that have diverse holdings – and I don’t know if you can even answer this, but you know we hear a lot about you know you work at a start-up, you work at this kind of company, but just you work at a very kind of unique organization. It’s part of a very diverse, larger company.
Kate: It is and what makes it fun and unique to me is every day brings something different. So the part of the company where I am focused is the Information Services division. So we’re – we work on products and services that provide essentially information, premium information, to information seekers around the world. And occasionally I will get pulled into another project. So if there’s – we have a – there’s furniture company that makes work stations and so we did this whole research project looking at what are the furniture needs of the new library – you know the new information commons? What is that collaborative furniture that is needed, that’s different from the study carrels of yesterday? So we occasionally get pulled into projects and I’ve actually done a small research project on game cameras for one of our other outdoor product products called PRADCO. So you do get these projects peppered in that keep it very interesting. Absolutely.
Steve: It seems like the first example leverages an area that you’re focused in, that the information work – the information, information user is already focused on the library and people using the library and the work that they’re being done and if I’m guessing the game work is much further outside that.
Kate: It’s true. The game camera work was outside of that. What we do on a day to day basis is our research team focuses on studying the path and the search process for information gathering, information seeking. And like you said libraries are customers and think about libraries and think about library patrons. You have your academic market. You know you have students as young as age 6 and 7 and 8, starting to work on research projects. I mean it might just be the history of the Lego Corporation or finding out about Harriet Tubman, but that’s research. And so we have young students, elementary school students, all the way up to 95, 98, 101 year old public library patrons. So all of us interact with the library in some way and that’s why you see EBSCO products all over the world.
Steve: You know when you describe the young kids doing the Lego Corporation history research project it makes me think that there’s some major shifts that are going to impact the business that you’re in and what your research is going to uncover. Education continues to but what are some of these larger changes that we as a culture are going through that are driving changes in your product and things that you’re looking at in research?
Kate: Changes are because of Google. Google has changed everything about information seeking and information gathering and search. And Google being described by many of our students, they’ve described Google as their oxygen, their mother, their water, their soul mate. And they are completely serious and it makes perfect sense why they would describe Google that way, but Google has been this seismic shift in the way that people conduct searches for information. So when you think about, Steve, when you – when the two of us were in college, when we had a research paper to do we went to the library. We worked on it there and do you remember – everyone remembers the smell of the shelves. You know you went in and you – the library had a certain smell to it. It put you in a whole different zone when you were doing research. Research is different today. It’s a lot of guided self serve because you don’t have to be – because of electronic resources and you can access these materials from home, you can log into your library website from Starbucks, anywhere. You can conduct research on the go and so you’re not necessarily within sight of the librarian. You’re not necessarily even on campus. It’s a different experience and it actually starts in Google.
Steve: So – and you speak about this in a way that makes me think you’ve talked with a lot of people about this over the years.
Kate: Students are an area of tremendous focus for the user research group at EBSCO and as I was saying we have students all over the world. And students by the way is that third grader all the way up through graduate and doctoral students and fellows who are doing intensive research. So you have people who are doing research for a basic introductory class and they’re not particularly invested in the topic – may be in their first semester in college. And then you have your doctoral level researcher. So when we set out to design products and experiences and we think about interface design we have to think about this range of abilities and at EBSCO our customer and our user are not always the same person.
Steve: So the people that are making choices about what we call information products, information systems…
Kate: That’s right.
Steve: …they are choosing something that’s going to be rolled out to students, I guess, and other users as well.
Kate: Students with a very different approach to the usage and very different knowledge of the topic of information seeking and very different level of searcher. Sometimes I equate it to trying to appease the parent through a great experience for the child. So you think about parents buying products for kids and then you think about who are you trying to suit? Who are you trying to serve? And what we’re trying to do is create an experience for research that is delightful for students and then as a result also… also pleases the librarian, but pleases the librarian customer because it’s serving students so well.
Steve: So that’s an interesting area to think about. If as you said Google has really, really changed things – you know I’ve done a little bit in this area so I have a little knowledge which is dangerous – I mean when you describe these two groups, the people providing the service – the facilitators, you kind of used the metaphor of parents – librarians and people in that role. You know my casual observation is that this shift – you know the shift that’s Google and kind of everything that falls under the umbrella that you’ve related, how they’re experiencing it, and this is just natural – how they’re experiencing it as professionals and people with a lot of history with tools as they’ve evolved, and how these students are experiencing it, they’re looking at that shift very differently.
Kate: They do look at the shift differently and it reminds me of when – I remember when Mark Zuckerberg put on that hoodie and started wearing that outfit to work, it was upsetting to people. There was a certain generation and a certain group of people who are really offended that someone who runs a company is going to show up in a hoodie. And I think like – it’s kind of like when parents say “oh the kids today.” There’s a sense that we don’t have to do it the way our parents did it. We don’t have to kind of treat research like the Oldsmobile that my parents had to drive. Like I don’t – you know look Mom, I don’t have to do research the way you did it because I don’t have to be in the library and you had to be in the library. So I think we’re all still adapting and coming to terms with the new rules of research and the new way that students are getting through and studying in college. It’s very different and when you said it sounds like you’ve studied a lot, we do go out and interview users. We do employ ethnography and we sit with students on the floor of the coffee shop in Las Vegas, or right outside their community college. Or we sit with them after swim practice in Texas where they’re in a breezeway in a library trying to do a little research on the go right after swim practice. And so we sit and we watch their organic search process because until you see it, it’s hard to believe that it is the way that it is and it’s piecemeal and it doesn’t necessarily have a solid strategy, like this is how I’m going to go in, this is how I’m going to do it. There’s a lot of trial and error. There’s a lot of trial and error and it absolutely starts in Google because they feel safe there and starting your research in Google by getting this foundation of your topic, it reduces anxiety. And research can be, for some students, a very anxious process.
Steve: I’m thinking sort of the network of – I want to use the word stakeholders in the – in the broadest sense possible. You’ve talked about students. Certainly for younger students there’s the parents. There’s the people that are providing them – let’s just call them librarians, is that the right term? People that are providing them with these tools?
Steve: And those are kind of all outside and then inside your organization there’s you and your folks that are going out and talking to these people. There’s somebody that is taking what you’ve learned and acting on it in some way. What – very generally what does that node look like?
Kate: That is, at EBSCO what we have is we have evidence based product development and we’ve embedded user research into the product management organization for this reason. So what will typically happen is we have achieved in the last – I would say 12 to 18 months – we’ve been able to achieve alignment. And so we understand, for user research, what is coming 12, 18 months from now. So we’re in front of it, we’re doing the research now. And so that was one of my key learnings when I first started the group and I first started doing user research. I did every single project that came my way and we joke about the year of yes. You know Shonda Rhimes just wrote “The Year of Yes” and I said I lived that year. I said yes to everything just to get the demand so that I could get the resources. And what happens when you do that is then you’re doing research on everything, but strategic alignment is critical. And so now we’re very much aligned with what the product development cycle is and we’re able to do the research at the outset instead of what used to happen – and this is typical of many companies. Years ago it was let’s do usability testing before we launch and that is a tough situation for anyone to be in because then you’re this kind of glorified version of QA and you’re just – you don’t have any chance to make an impact if something isn’t testing well.
Steve: Can we pause that thread and can we go back to something? I want to talk more about how this has become adopted and integrated. But can we go back to this earlier point and sort of who’s involved in it to me seems really challenging. So you are sort of uncovering new paradigms. I think there’s – they’re kind of, they’re transgressive paradigms (my word not yours) – but they are changing the way that we think about how people are searching, what outcomes look like for information problems and so on. You’ve established how that works between different parts of the organization internally. And again I’m projecting here, but if I’m in the business of selling products to these librarians and these products – it’s what you said before about trying to please these different audiences. These products have to – they reflect a new model for how people are going to use them, but that new model might be a little – I don’t know, how is that new model being received by the librarians, by the people that are sort of selecting and rolling out the kinds of tools that you have to offer?
Kate: I have been so encouraged by the librarian reaction to the research because one of the talks I give, one of the themes of a talk I give on a regular basis is called Student Researchers – The Reality Show, or the Realities of Student Research – because it’s very different and it’s librarians who come up to me afterwards and say thank you, you’re validating what I’m seeing and now I have greater context. And also many of our findings support the role of the librarian in an active partnership with faculty. Let me give you an example. You are sitting in your Intro to Philosophy class. You’re a freshman at University of Virginia and you’re there and all of a sudden you hear I’m getting a research assignment. And so this kind of fills you with a little bit of anxiety and the professor is giving information about you have to use scholarly sources, things have to be peer reviewed. You’re getting kind of the elements of the rubric. So New York Times, Time Magazine, these are not written for academics. These are not written for an academic audience. They’re not peer reviewed. They’re not considered scholarly peer reviewed materials. So that’s another point of anxiety for students because they have to go to materials they may be not be familiar – as familiar with. Something amazing happens when in addition to the faculty member, your professor assigning this work, there is an amazing phenomenon that occurs when a librarian is brought in to the classroom – okay, taken out of the library. He or she leaves the library and is in active partnership with the professor, talking about this is how to do this, this is how you navigate the library website to find these scholarly databases from EBSCO, etc. It’s the equivalent of when your parents – both your Mom and your Dad – say Katherine, we’d like to speak with you. Something in you is queued up to listen and you’re more apt to learn it and you’re more apt to learn it and absorb it. As opposed to the professor saying well next Tuesday you’re going to meet in the library and the librarian is going to walk you through X or Y. So what happens when we talk about this is some of these findings they empower librarians to advocate for a more active role in this process of teaching students information literacy skills. And that’s exciting to see when they say this is going to help me help my students and they appreciate that. And I’ve been – I’ve been overwhelmed by just how wonderful the librarian community is and how supportive our customers are of our work.
Steve: That’s really fabulous. There’s something too – can you expand a little bit on this notion of – you’re talking about kind of the librarian in the library and then the librarian in the classroom.
Kate: Yes, it’s so interesting.
Steve: There’s some kind of frame shift that’s happening there.
Kate: There is. And so think about – think about the amount of effort it takes you when you’re in the library to get up, leave your laptop unsupervised, walk over to the librarian desk and ask a question. That’s actually harder than any of us might imagine. And so also when you’re in the library, what we’re hearing from students is often they are collaborating or they’re having a meeting and they’re with other people. So to interrupt that and get up and go ask for help is hard. And other obstacle is some students don’t know how to ask. And I have a customer I’ve worked with over in Europe who said that they actually post signs at the reference desk that say – you know how to ask. You know ways to frame your question because that’s an obstacle. And then we’ve had students say to us you know I want to – they actually feel very positively about the librarians. They’ll have Live Chat and they said oh the librarian came to my class. He or she is so nice. But there’s still – are you using a library? Are you using librarian services? Are you going to the reference desk? No, I’m just asking my friend or I’m asking my roommate. And the reason that is happening is – goes back to what I said about a lot of this searching is guided self serve and the guided part is – and the self serve part is it’s 11 o’clock, they’re home, they’re on the couch, they’re not in the library per se. And so who is nearby? That’s your go to.
Steve: Can you talk a little bit about the, I don’t know, mechanics, logistics challenges – you know these kinds of, the people that you’re doing research with and then you described some really interesting contexts that you’re in as well. Are there things that you have had to figure out to make that kind of an established process for your group?
Kate: So working with students is fascinating. We also research physicians. We research nurses because EBSCO has medical products. We research, again, the public library patron which is all of us from the time we’re two, or two months old, to the time when we’re a hundred and something years old. We have relationships with our public library. And we also research corporate users. So we’re – EBSCO’s user research team – in our team we are researching people all the time and I always say that our most important job is matching method to question because everyone gets really excited about big contextual inquiry, ethnography studies, but really that’s not appropriate in every scenario. It’s more of a tool when you’re examining markets. Like let’s study the public library patron, let’s study college students, etc. But you know what I find – one of our greatest challenges is we have to know where to spend our time and so we rely on – we rely on this technique of – that I talked about with the strategic, strategic alignment to understand what’s coming, what are the priorities and how can we do research to best support that. And we have some great product managers and product directors who help – who always come and knock on our door and say I’ve got this thing coming up, I’m going to need research for it. And so we’re – culturally we’re at that point where we’re not having to chase people down anymore. They’re actually coming to us and we have a backlog and we have a wait and we conduct probably close to 80 studies a year and we hope to increase that with every new person we add to the team.
Steve: So, I mean your point that not everything needs to be a contextual research study, what are some other methods that you rely on?
Kate: We have used – we’ve used lots of different methods. So we’ve used traditional surveys. We subscribe to Qualtrics, and we also – usertesting.com has been a great resource for us because it’s allowed us to, you know just do more work in a shorter amount of time and it’s a way to kind of expand the group without adding resources. I will tell you though some of our most fun work has been methods that were new to the group, like for example we did a modified video diary study because we study students and we study students who are under the age of 18 and so we deal with legal issues and consent issues and one of the things that’s challenging about researching 14 year olds, middle schoolers and early high schoolers, is that especially 14/15 year old young men, boys, they don’t necessarily, they’re not the most talkative group in the world. And so I’d read somewhere that Google had put video cameras in envelopes and mailed them off and asked students to – younger kids to track themselves searching, etc. So we basically sent off these video cameras and I think I only spent $50 on each one because we weren’t sure we were going to get them back. So we sent them off in these padded envelopes with some tasks for users to complete and it was great. And it’s a method that we want to use again because we got the quiet 14 year old boys, we got them talking. And they told us lots and lots about how they conduct research and what they’re looking for and they evaluated screens for us. And every single video camera came back. Not a single one was damaged. It was a great method and it was so much more successful than it would have been if we’d had them in a room, asking questions.
Steve: Because they had sort of their own space to respond.
Kate: Yeah and it was this – it’s the selfie generation. And so it was just this kind of extended selfie and it was just extended selfie and it was really precious. It was precious seeing the things – just – they took pride in it. They created a little movie of their life and how they conduct research and we got to be privy to that. I mean the challenge is if you put those 14 year olds in a room, because they’re under 18 we have the parents in there as well. So you’ve got the researcher who’s like a second parent and then another parent, and it just – it’s not an opportunity – it’s not a situation where they’re very talkative in person, but we did manage to get some information out of them through the video cameras.
Steve: You point of the selfie generation reminds me of this great video from a couple of – I want to say there were two Canadian students that were living in Japan. I think they were undergraduate students and they were doing these sort of mini auto ethnographies, for lack of a better term, where they did one video where they ordered pizza and they showed what the interface looked like and you know – I mean Japan is such a great place to talk about how things are different than what your normal reference frames are. So they kind of called them all out and then when the pizza came they sort of showed what the food looked like. They went through sort of, like the whole user journey, to use some jargon – they went through that whole journey in a very delightful, YouTubey kind of way and it made me think about maybe self reporting is – culturally can take on more of a role and you just proved my hypothesis with your camera study.
Kate: Well you know the raw self reporting, that’s what I love, because so often when you’re filling out a survey you’re self report… Our self reporting – I mean this is why we go study users in the wild because people do things differently than they say they will. And I always tease my husband because he’s the only person when you go to the physician for your annual physical – you know the physician will say how many times a week do you exercise, like how many – do you eat all your vegetables ,etc. And he tells the truth and I said no one every tells the truth. No one ever self reports accurately. And they account for that. But he does. And this is why we study people in their environments. This is why when we go out we always come back with new information that’s so fascinating to folks because within the walls of our company in EBSCO, here in Ipswich, you know we make assumptions like everyone does and then you go out and you get this raw data and it’s exciting. So I like the idea of an ethnography app and I like the idea of the raw data capture because I want that. It’s those words and those truths I think from users that they pivot products and they really launch products that are so much better targeted and better suited for the users.
Steve: How do you help these folks feel comfortable or feel like they’re doing the right thing?
Kate: The same way I work to make people successful and then comfortable in an in-person interview. So let me give you an example. Years ago I had a boss who said to me the reason you’re good at usability testing Kate is you serve it up cold. You don’t give any emotion through the process. So if someone is doing something right or someone is doing something wrong they can’t read it on your face. And I was proud of this for about 15 minutes and then I started to realize over the years that that Cruella De Vil kind of cold fish approach to usability testing and user interactions is actually awful. And the reason it’s awful is because you need a genuine connection with people for them to tell you their truths and I have learned – I learned that the hard way as a researcher. And so when you connect with someone in person it’s that warmth. It’s that finding common ground that’s important so you can get – you can get information from that person. They can tell you what’s painful about the research process? Or they can tell you oh I’m trying to book an online cruise and this is what I don’t understand. And then you can actually take those words and take that wisdom and go back and tell the product team, like this is how you can really help these users, these customers. But you can do the same thing if it’s not in person. If you have a self reporting tool – like when we did the video diary study we wrote instructions like we were talking to 7th graders because if you send them a packet that reads like tax filing instructions, you’re not going to get any answers and you’re not going to get an video cameras back. So we put ourselves in the shoes of the user. What is their reading level? What is – how are they likely to talk about this? What terms – I mean they’re not talking about information literacy. They’re talking about finding articles for a paper. So we try very hard to speak their language and I think that’s one of the skills I value, it’s one of the traits I value most in our researchers is the ability to adapt and understand and listen and then adjust accordingly.
Steve: Which you can’t do with the instructions. You have sort of one shot at that.
Kate: You have one shot at the instructions and so you have to write on their level. You have to consider yourself as the user. And you may have to do some sort of pre-survey or pre-work in order to get – in order to get a sense of how they’re going to process the information. For the video diary study our researcher Lin Lin and myself we actually tested the testing instructions. We went through several rounds with people saying, you know do you know what to do here and you have to. So often we’re testing the survey or testing the test instructions to make sure that we’re being clear.
Steve: Right the research – research artifacts are, they’re a designed tool.
Kate: They’re a designed tool.
Steve: And you have to test them just like anything else that has to be tested.
Kate: Yeah, and I think that – I think that we can all get to a point where we feel comfortable. Like okay I’ve done this kind of test before and this was understandable, but you know recent experiences – I’ve had a couple of surveys that were challenging – we got feedback after the fact like this was challenging or – and so now we’re trying to be better about understanding how long the survey should take someone and then adjusting compensation accordingly. Because we had a survey that we thought we – I think we gave a $50 Amazon gift card for, but it ended up taking people almost 40 minutes. And so we realized we have to be better about understanding the amount of effort and how we’re going to compensate for that.
Steve: Can I go back to your Cruella de Vil?
Kate: I know, do you like that?
Steve: I do. So – ‘cuz I think this is an interesting personal style of fieldwork thing.
Steve: I’d love to get you talk a little more about – you sort of learned what not to do and I wonder if you could characterize what your approach is now in terms of common ground and so on.
Kate: So when we were talking about the usability testing and serving it up cold the whole approach was very kind of generic and you know show no emotion. So people are succeeding or failing. It was very metrics based, like oh did they succeed in this task to add X to their cart, or whatever it was. And so kind of I think as a person you evolve to start to understand that it’s about the holistic experience. It’s not about this one slice of the UI, it’s about this journey of I was in online travel at the time when that happened and it’s about this journey of how do I start to think about what trip I want to book for my honeymoon or what flights I want to book or what vacation package destination I’m thinking about etc. So as you start to think about the whole journey you realize that you’re not just, it’s not about just succeeding or failing. And so the warmer tone – you know you kind of go from Cruella de Vil to I guess more – to more of like the Dr. Oz who’s asking the questions about why and trying to unearth and dig at the whys. And trying to unearth those pain points and trying to look at it from a standpoint of empathy and understanding and not just let’s see how long it takes this user, this participant – how long it takes this person to find the shopping cart button. It’s really about what are your struggles? If you could change any one thing about this process or this product what would it be? You know and when you’re – we always say to users, we always say to students when we study them today, we say the process – how does it make you feel when you get a research paper assignment? How would you complete this sentence – the process of you know finding research for my paper makes me feel – and we ask them to fill in the blank. And through those words and the way they complete the sentence we start to get that picture and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that EBSCO and our product development team and as a company we’re starting to consider emotion when we think about not only the process of buying products as a librarian, but the process of using them as students and other end users. It’s not a coincidence that our research group is all women. I think that we’ve brought that emotional dimension into the discussion in a way that had not been present prior.
Steve: So what I heard is that a way to bring that emotion in is in the questions that you’re asking.
Kate: Yup. In the questions that we’re asking and also we’re going to be exploring later this year emotion analytics. There’s a company right in our backyard here in Massachusetts called Affectiva and they’re out of the MIT labs. It’s an emotion analytics product and it’s something we’re very interested in because for many people conducting research – we have this wonderful researcher on our team, our lead qualitative – our lead researcher. Her name is Deirdre Costello. She’s a librarian and a researcher and she likes to say conducting research for many students is like eating your vegetables. And so you don’t necessarily look for the emotions of they’re jumping up and down or they – like you’re not expecting people to look like they just hit the winning lottery ticket. But you’re looking for certain emotions to register on their face as they’re finding the path forward toward these scholarly resources. And so this is something that we as a team are going to be exploring later this year is how do we – how do we capture and quantify those emotions and what about the emotional state changes with certain design changes? Or changes when you’re looking at different products? We’re going to be exploring that and that is, that’s really new research for our group. We’re excited about it.
Steve: This is a tremendous evolution from this Cruella de Vil era of sort of looking at metrics.
Steve: Looking at a lot of other kinds of things.
Kate: Well you know that same boss said to me – and actually he’s a really – he’s a wonderful old smart guy. We were all learning at the time. He was the one who said to me I want the findings written up as a white paper, really in white paper format. And so I did that and I would pass people in the hallway and say hey did you read that report? And they’d say yeah, yeah, looked great. And I could tell that they never read it. And so the next time I did a usability study I said to my boss at the time I will write the white paper, but I’m also going to create this parallel version. And I actually based my reports – I did them in PowerPoint but I made them very visual and I based them on the format of that book written by the editor I think of Men’s Health or Men’s Fitness Magazine called “Eat This Not That” because someone, somewhere in my life had that book at their house and I was leafing through it and it was these visuals like look if you go to Panera don’t eat this, eat that. You know this is healthier for you. And it was just very visual. And so in 10 minutes you get a sense of alright if the only option is Jack in the Box this is healthy option at Jack in the Box. And so I did the report – like look users don’t understand this, but they understand that. And I did it in a very visual way, modeled after that book, and all of a sudden we got traction. All of a sudden the people who weren’t reading the reports were calling me into meetings and saying I want more of this, how can I get more, I love this. And so creating results that tell a story in a visual way is very important. Having said that we also in our group now, we do write the white paper and we do speak at conferences and do different things with our findings because we need a variety of different deliverables to satisfy our customers.
Steve: Right. You have different audiences…
Kate: We absolutely do, yeah.
Steve: Can we talk a little about – you made the comment it’s not surprising that your group – did you say it was all women?
Kate: We are. We’re all women and we have a male intern in the summers who is wonderful. So we are certainly welcoming of – we’re welcoming of women and men, but at the moment we are all women, yes.
Steve: I mean what do you think that’s about? ‘Cuz I think if you look at the field of user research in general, and this is just anecdotally for me, it’s you know I think predominantly women is my guess. And someone may be rolling their eyes at that, but that’s my sense of it. I don’t know, what do you think is happening there culturally?
Kate: Half of my group also have librarian degrees and I think librarians you find mostly women. So I do think the qualities I look for in a researcher, you know we are of course gender blind and so I think these qualities can exist in anyone. I think – you know some of the qualities I look for – we want people who are highly adaptable, curious, great communicators is key. And I was mentioning Deirdre previously. Deirdre used to be a writer – she taught writing at Boston College. So the ability to write, synthesize, distill and synthesize findings into a report that is digestible and spot on, that is very challenging and there are people who can do it well and I really strive to find those people for the team. So great writing skills and part of that writing is storytelling. So I’m not sure if you said to someone who do you think has better communication skills, men or women? It’s a combination of communication, analytical skills, research skills. I think it’s just coincidence that we have all women, but boy we have a terrific group. I mean I always say I’m loving this part of my career. I’m loving it because of the chemistry we have in the group and I just – you know sometimes when you’re in a job that’s frustrating you think well maybe someday and I finally found my someday. So it’s nice to know that it’s out there.
Steve: I finally found my someday – seems like that’s a song they should play at somebody’s wedding.
Kate: I know, but I finally found that environment and – but you know part of that is you have to build the culture that respects user research and you have to be – you know my boss is very supportive of our work and if he wasn’t we would go nowhere. I mean you have to be in the right place in the organization working with and for the right people and you have to hire well. You know we actually have an opening right now and we’ve decided that we’re going to just wait for the right person to find us because when you go out and you recruit the person you want isn’t necessarily available at that moment and you may not find that person and then you end up with a pool of six people. You narrow it down to three, and then two and then you end up choosing that person who maybe in a different world you wouldn’t have chosen. So we just have this fantasy that the right person will find us.
Steve: Well and I think – you know your catch phrase is I finally found my someday, but you’re talking about building it. I think you built it.
Kate: I built it and so when you – when I started at EBSCO it was – let’s see it was almost 5 years ago and so when I started at EBSCO user research really hadn’t emerged to be its own entity yet and I remember my husband – I came via the information architect path, up through user experience, and my husband would always say to me why don’t you focus on the research? It’s what you like the best. And at the time research was – there was a lot of usability testing, or at least my version of it and I just said I don’t that I could do that all the time, but he said but you love it and I said you’re right I do. So I took a job at EBSCO and my first job here I was focused on usability, but I was also helping to write requirements. Like I was a requirements analyst for these products and platforms. And I remember at the time – I conducted I think two usability tests and I realized there was this big need – there was a major need for someone to focus exclusively on usability and user research and previously this had fallen to multiple people. It was a dimension of many people’s jobs. And I went into my boss at the time, named Ron, and I said Ron I would like to focus just on the user research piece and he said well I can’t let you do that because I still need you to be able to write requirements if I need you to do that and I said okay I’ll make you a deal – if you let me do more usability and user research I will write requirements whenever you need me. And he said yes, ‘cuz you’re definitely not going to have enough work for just the usability piece. And I said okay, deal. So we had a deal and I never wrote another requirement because the demand, that was my year of yes. I said yes to every project that came my way and then I was in technology at the time and then I moved over to product management and things really took off because then I was embedded in the product development life cycle.
Steve: Is there a point at which doing research sort of morphs into leading research?
Kate: There is and that is how a bill becomes a law or how a girl becomes a woman. You know it’s really – it’s quite a transformation. It is. Like all of a sudden it’s – it’s growth, it’s evolution and what starts to happen – I remember you go from doing testing and doing research to talking about it, to evangelizing for it, to finding it a home within the organization. And that’s where the leadership engine kicks in. And I think one of the reasons I feel well supported at EBSCO in that people value the work of my team and when they promoted me to Vice President that was really exciting for me personally and also for the research in the organization to be given that level of visibility and that was exciting. And it’s, it’s – it means a lot to our customers that we have prioritized this as a function within our company and our organization and so when they buy our products, or they invest in a partnership with us, they understand that we are looking at our users 24/7. We have a relentless and a passionate focus on our users and customers.
Steve: And you described those different milestones in that evolution and was becoming part of the product management organization a significant point along those different stages?
Kate: Absolutely because products – this is where the products – this is where the products live and this is where they’re created and this is where they are evolved. And so when we were located in technology that was fantastic because we were where things were being built. But a lot of the upfront research needed to happen – it needed to happen sooner than we were getting it in technology. And so moving us over to product development was a real culture shift and it was an important one in our growth. And something in user experience, I constantly had that debate of should I be in – at the time at other companies it was should I be in marketing? As a UX person should I be in marketing or should I be in technology? And actually at the time I always opted for technology. And so it was a shift for me to be at EBSCO and say you know what I think we should be in product management and I think that’s the right place for us because my whole career I’d actually fought as a UX person to stay in technology. But at EBSCO it made more sense for us to be in product management. And now, again, we can achieve that alignment a lot better because we’re where those discussions are happening.
Steve: Right. I want to follow-up on something else you said as well. You described these qualities that are just so essential, that you look for in researchers. How are those – how would someone make those qualities visible?
Kate: That is a great question because how do you – how in an hour interview do you say oh well I’m curious, I’m a great communicator, I can distill down findings. I always say the great researchers are like Navy SEALs. They go in, they adapt, they accomplish their mission, they leave without a trace. Because you want to be efficient. You want to go in, you want to get the job done and you want to come out and you want to leave people kind of unruffled and let them go on with their lives. And so I look at communication skills before I even look at research skills. So for example you wouldn’t believe some of the cover letters we get or some of the emails and you know I have very – I actually have – I can’t say I have a low tolerance – I have no tolerance for things like bad writing and bad grammar and so that, because our work is published externally, that’s just a deal breaker for me. There’s a curiosity and a work ethic that we look for. I just wish you could sit in our team meetings and meet some of the researchers and – it’s funny my husband actually calls Deirdre, our lead researcher, he calls her The Oracle because she knows everything. I mean you can sit – you can sit her with a fifth grader to talk about research and she can make a connection and that yet she’s amazing with 60 year old esteemed department heads of you know medical or surgical departments when we’re doing physician research. So she can – she can do it all and my friends – I remember my friends and I, when we were all dating before any of us got married, we had this joke about we’re looking for the guy who’s tent to tuxedo. You know he can go and rough it in nature and then he knows which fork to use at the black tie dinner. And I think as researchers that’s what I appreciate. I appreciate the person who can kind of rough it in the wild and then be completely comfortable at a black tie dinner and everything in between because we research everybody and you have to be able to connect across that continuum.
Steve: Can you talk a little about – we’ve talked about your team and sort of growing your team and a bit about the history. What can you say about kind of the make up of the team? Things that have changed or new ways you’ve found to expand the team?
Kate: We actually just added a user research recruiter and this has changed my life in such a positive way. In fact one of our researchers, Deirdre, said to me have you ever had something amazing come into your life and you didn’t – and it solved a problem that you didn’t even really realize that you had. So we have a new research recruiter whose name is Kristen Arakelian and we brought her on for one purpose and that is to help us curate higher quality samples. And when I say higher quality participant samples I don’t mean okay every person on the panel has to be an Einstein. I mean sometimes we – you know we’re sending surveys to people who aren’t being responsive or we have these dead email addresses or we wanted medical nurses and we ended up with a surgical nurse. We just need to make sure that when we have a study ready to go we have our – we’re building out these participant panels and these participant – uh, these databases that are going to support our work and it has been incredible. And so now as researchers we get to focus on the research and she is doing all of this terrific work building our ground game, making sure she’s connecting. I mean here we are in Boston and we have so many universities and so many hospitals in our backyard and so she’s making these connections and she’s on social media and she is making lists and adding these people to our panels so when we have a research study and it’s ready to go we can actually launch it that day, or we can start it that day. That’s been a life changer. I wish I knew to do this sooner because my solution was always to add more researchers and there’s a lot of stress around recruiting. I used to say recruiting was our largest pain point. Pain point solved. It’s been wonderful.
Steve: What do you think is her secret superpower? Or not-so-secret power that makes that work?
Kate: What makes it work is I didn’t go looking for a user research recruiter. And in the instance of our recruiter Kristen had all the skills that I need someone who is polished. I need someone who is a great communicator and has those writing skills and understands how to kind of reach out to someone she’s never met before. And she has all the qualities that we need and she had no experience doing user research recruitment and I didn’t care because I knew she’d be right for the job. And I knew her prior to EBSCO and so I took her out for lunch and I said I have this opportunity to you and she said well you know do you want to give me a description and I said no because then you’ll think too much about it and I need you to come and start and see how you like it. And she did and she jumped right in and she’s made our – she is curating these samples for us that are yielding tremendous feedback and we don’t have the trial and error of okay we sent this survey to 20 people and only 6 responded and who knows someone who is a teacher in a K-12 school? You know we don’t have to go the friends and family route and we don’t have to bootstrap it anymore. We have a recruiting operation and it’s absolutely changed our lives for the better.
Steve: That’s fabulous. Are there – you mentioned earlier that the things that you do – the work that you do is published in public and you go to – you give talks about it. Are there stories or recent successes or things that you can share with us?
Kate: There are and one of our researchers named Lin Lin is located in Shanghai. She’s based in Shanghai, in China, and she conducted research on Chinese students and how they were similar or different then many of the US based students that we study on a frequent basis. I’m really impressed by her findings because Lin is this researcher – you send her out and she comes back with gold every single time. And it’s impressive because when you research students in China what’s missing from their research experience is Google because of government sanctions. And so what’s interesting is Chinese students have a similar approach in that they get very anxious about research at the outset, upon receiving the assignment. But research for Chinese students is episodic and each of those episodes of research it’s a combination of open web resources. So China doesn’t allow access to Google. They have something called Baidu instead. So there’s open web resources and there’s these episodes of research that happen. So over the three weeks of the assignment there’s these episodes of research and in each of the episodes it’s a mix of open web and scholarly resources which is through the library website and also consultation with the professor and perhaps a librarian is interspersed, is intermixed in there. That’s very different. The researching episodes is very different than what we’ve seen and what we’ve documented in US students. In US based students what we see is research in two microbursts. There’s a flurry of activity when the research assignment is made – is given. And the first microburst is that activity related to sizing and scoping. And so you’re on Google. You are looking for – you’re trying to understand your topic better and that Google search leads you to Wikipedia and there’s a lot of open web searching that’s happening. Then there’s a period of dormancy and we assumed that during that dormancy it’s this procrastination and there’s kind of shame and bad feeling about that because – and dread and oh-no. But no, there’s not. It’s about efficiency and students are – they’re locked and loaded because they did their open web. They understand alright Google and Wikipedia, like I have a grasp of my topic. And then there’s the second microburst and the second microburst of activity is right before it’s due and that’s when you go into the library website and you access the scholarly resources and you find those articles and you find those eBooks and you find those videos that are peer reviewed and scholarly and meet the criteria that your professor has set forth. So if you’re a librarian the reason that that information is valuable to you is because you understand that your opportunity to influence the student research process in the US is at the outset, is during that first microburst of activity. Is getting into the classroom with the professor and you know introducing the research topic and the scholarly resources that are available to them because most likely at the tail end of that, during that second microburst, the US based students are – it’s that flurry of activity related to finishing the project. It’s not about I’m going to go consult with the librarian per se. So we love having an international research team because we have the opportunity to do these cultural comparisons and they’re fascinating.
Steve: It seems like part of – there’s many elements there. It seems like one element is that by looking at what the behavior is for a Chinese student it highlights behaviors in the American use case that you might not have thought to reflect on until you see how it plays out differently.
Kate: It’s true and that’s the kind of research that helps us gain an understanding of students. You know students in China and students in the US, but it also helps us advocate for and help our – advocate for our customers and it empowers our customers to advocate for themselves. So that’s the kind of research that matters because our customers walk away and say great I can now evangelize to have myself as part of the assignment process or in the classroom because I’ve got this research that’s been documented. So we do a fair share of – we write the white paper or we’ll give a talk at library conferences or we’ll – we do a lot of traveling to our customers and talking about our findings and actually collaboratively conducting research with them. One of our favorite activities that we’ve been doing more of is to travel to customer sites and invite in three or four students, or three or four nurses or whatever product we’re looking at, to come in and demonstrate their search process live and we – it’s very interactive. Like people will say well did you know you could do this? Or what about this? And it brings that – again it’s the reality show of how users are interacting with different products and different services and it’s fascinating to watch and usually that exercise garners some great enthusiasm because it opens people’s eyes.
And I will tell you something. I have been very – I have been really pleasantly surprised by the great questions that many students ask around participant privacy and around sharing of information. And you know I think many people think millennials are just posting their whole lives on Facebook and Instagram and they’re very knowledgeable about privacy and I’ve been very impressed. And we’ve had to adapt. We’ve had to make sure that we talk about how this information will be shared. We used to kind of ask casually like can we take a picture of you so as we’re thinking about these results, blah, blah, blah – sometimes we will ask that, but certainly not as much as we did because we’ve had a lot of students say no thanks, or I’m not on Facebook anymore and I – you know when they talk about social media it’s not about this mass sharing. It’s they’re really kind of curating their online profile, their social media presence and they’re not careless about it. They’re very thoughtful and they care about privacy and they read the small print, as they should. I’ve been very impressed with how seriously our participants take that and as a result we are very specific in our releases. And we deal with children so when we talk about what are the qualities you look for – certainly good judgment, ethical research practice is critical. It’s the most important thing at the top of – at the very, very top of our list because without that good judgment I’m putting way too much in your hands that you’re responsible for and if I can’t trust you there’s no job.
Steve: Wow, that’s really good. Can you talk a little about your own background?
Kate: My background is actually – so I studied sociology as an undergrad and I loved, loved, loved studying sociology and I loved the research element of sociology. And I went to graduate school for public health and public health – and epidemiology being part of public health is fascinating because you’re looking at what programs, what interventions have an impact on a population. So unlike medicine which is the study of – you know is curation – you’re about, it’s curative – public health and epidemiology is about prevention. And so you’re looking at behaviors and you’re looking at interventions and you’re tracking those things over time. So the research element is very heavy in that. So I like to say that chapter one of my career was in healthcare and my job understanding end user needs and building products that met end user needs, there was a health reporter for the Boston Globe named Betsy Lehman and she was a cancer patient at Dana Farber in Boston and because of a medical error she actually passed away because she got four times the dose of a medication that she should of and she did not survive that. And so this was heavily covered in the Boston area and my hiring was a part of the staffing up that happened following Betsy and one other person was severely injured as a result of a medication overdose. So what they did, the Partners Healthcare system decided every unit is going on this online order entry. And so I was part of the staffing up that happened following that incident and our job was to understand okay this online order entry, we’re replacing the pen and paper – the clipboard at the end of the bed – it’s different in the labor and delivery unit. It’s different in an emergency department. And so my job was to understand and then – understand the user needs and translate that into system requirements. And it was just an amazing job because we did nursing shifts so I would work 11 pm to 7 in the morning on a labor and delivery unit and see the workflow there and understand how that product needed to be customized. So that was really fantastic work in the healthcare field. And then I went into online travel for the second chapter of my career. And online travel is similar in its complexities because you’re thinking about booking cruises, booking vacations and the complexities involved in that. And so booking engine, it was all about conversion and getting people into the booking engine and helping them shop and compare. I was at TripAdvisor for a little while and primarily doing information architecture and usability work and that was – online travel is fascinating and to this day I think about some of the things I learned about you know why Kayak made some of the decisions they made about their filters and things like that. It’s, it’s – I still refer to some of those points because it’s a complex product and you winnow down these results by using filters and things like that. And then I was in the UX field like I said up through information architecture, into the broader UX and then I – I fell in love with user research and I carved a path – carved a path forward to do just that and it’s been incredibly satisfying.
Steve: Is there something about you as a researcher, whether it’s maybe the product of those experiences or anything else? Like what’s – I think the Cruella de Vil anecdote is one – that’s sort of an evolution. I don’t know, anything else that would characterize – we talked about leadership a bit, but I’m thinking about doing the research. How do you – what’s…
Kate: So doing the – yeah, you know I love research because I love hearing people’s stories and I only – it’s funny I only read non-fiction and so I’m just very curious. I love hearing – I love new experiences and I love hearing people’s stories and I also love distilling that down, finding – you know finding those nuggets. And I love the moment – you talk about this actually in your book, Steve, but you talk about getting from question/answer to question/story. That is such a satisfying moment when it happens in an interaction with a user. And I never get tired of that. And in fact every time – you know we can be working on a large ethnographic study and you think okay you know we’ve got 25 public library patrons or we’ve got 22 physicians we are going to be speaking with and I always walk out of every session – you know you’re drained and you’re exhausted, but it’s that feeling of you just – you just ran a marathon and it’s the greatest feeling in the world because people just shared their stories with you and you get to take those stories – you’re obligated – I mean that’s such a privilege to have someone share that information about how they interact, how they live their life. And then you get to come back and represent that through their words and through their stories to product developers and owners. I just think that’s the best work in the world.
Steve: I love how you describe it and the “it’s hard” but you feel good after.
Kate: And you know it is true and that’s why we joke – you know as a researcher you’re like a Navy SEAL, I mean minus the incredible – minus that torturous training process, but we have different training we go through, but you have to kind of – you need to be able to be dropped into any situation, adapt quickly, find your way, get your answers by making people – you know you have to make them comfortable and then you’ve got to go and you’ve got to go back and you’ve got to deliver what you said you were going to deliver. And so we work hard to find those – we work hard to excavate and to uncover what’s there. And I’ll tell you something, my family and I are in the process of moving now and as I think about it – I always say that moving is an analogy for these design excavations and these changes, these product evolutions, because when you move every single thing in your house you either have to – you have to hold it in your hands and you have to make a decision about it. Does it stay? Does it go? And when we think about changing products and moving – you know evolving platforms, like we have to look at every aspect. So the research is comprehensive. We have to look at every single piece of it. We have to understand users in all aspects of their lives and we have to make decisions about does it stay, does it go, does it change and how?
Steve: So what else should I have asked you about?
Kate: One question that we are asked often is are you guys the user experience group? Are you UX? And we say we’re user research. And I think user experience is a different configuration at every company. And we at EBSCO – we’ve tried a couple of different versions and the version that works now is that user experience, because of our diverse product set – you know we have corporate products, and medical products and school products and we have you know a digital magazine product called Flipster for the public library. All these products are so different and these services are different and so there is no universal user experience because the user is so different. So what we do is user experience is a responsibility that falls to the product managers and product directors within each of those product pods. But user research is central. So user experience is not centralized because of the differences in all of the products. But user research is centralized because I will tell you having done the research 60 year old physicians and 16 year old students they’re searches and their strategies for searching are not as different as you might believe there are. So there are similarities and when we learn about people’s process we can apply – we can extend some of those findings across different markets, I think more than you can when you’re thinking about a product experience.
Steve: So is user experience part of the product management organization?
Kate: User experience falls within product management meaning it’s a responsibility, it’s not a centralized group. It’s decentralized within the product pods. And I think over time, you know these models with evolve, but that’s where we are now because we’ve tried on a couple of occasions to have it a little more central and it just didn’t take off as it should. So I think over time we will continue to revisit that, but right now user experience falls as a responsibility, as a product experience within the product pods.
Steve: I think you know these conversations are – they often cover a key point that you made which is like here’s where it works for us right now and these good things that are evolving, but I like how you’re talking about – you know there’s a responsibility, there’s an action, there’s a task and then there’s a team or a job title or a department and that I think sometimes we conflate the two of them when we talk about who does what, how is it structured? There’s activities that have to take place and then there’s well who does those activities and what do we call them?
Kate: Yeah and there’s a sense of – I think the challenge in centralizing UX is you’re trying to be everything to everyone and that gets challenging and then you’re not as close to the products as you might be. But when we’re – in user research when we conduct research we have the product managers with us. I mean they’re the co – they’re working on that research with us. They’re sitting on the floor of that hotel room in Las Vegas where the student is conducting research and they’re watching it right along with us which actually brings up a great point about user research. When you are doing user research in the wild be safe. Make sure you build in safety measures for your team. I mean we have to meet strangers and so be safe about that and that’s something that we talk about and it’s something we accommodate for. Because we’re going to our users so we don’t go alone. And we make sure that we’re safe about it because I’ll tell you something – even – I had moments where conducting usability tests, you know you’re conducting these sometimes after work and it’s dark and then the usability test staff at the testing center has gone home and you’re in this testing studio and these participants you’ve never met before are coming in. That’s something – I want to write some form of a blog post or an article about that because it’s something that I don’t hear talked about a lot, but safety in conducting user research should be paramount for all of us.
Steve: One of the things that I’ve struggled with and I think I wrote about this in interviewing users is the difference between being unsafe and feeling uncomfortable and that – I mean my suspicion is if you don’t kind of check yourself it’s easy to think that one is the other.
Steve: And not to minimize being unsafe in any way, but there’s feelings of being out of control. There’s feelings of just being out of your comfort zone. If you’re not comfortable being uncomfortable you might not know the difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe.
Kate: Yeah, and as I said part of research is new experiences, new people, environments that are not your own, not your own native environment and so certainly if you’re someone who’s easily thrown off your game user research might not be for you because you’re put in all sorts of circumstances and people will say the unexpected. There have been – I mean we always talk about this. You know you’ll get asked for a job – I’ve had researchers who’ve been asked for a date. I mean it’s really – I mean the unexpected does happen – does and will happen.
Steve: Yeah, I’ve wondered a lot about the experience of being a woman in user research and the experience of being a man and that if there’s an aspect to that that like men just couldn’t possibly believe. And maybe this is about being a woman in our society also that men couldn’t possibly understand, but – that example of being asked for a date seems like oh yeah, that happens.
Kate: Sure. And you know when – I’ll be honest with you, when we were in Las Vegas doing the interview I had recruited the student I was meeting with off of Craigslist and so I was meeting a stranger that we’d recruited off Craigslist for a research interview when I was out at a library conference in Las Vegas and I asked my colleague Dave to come with us and Dave is very fit and very muscular and I asked because he was part of the project, but I also asked him because he’s strong. And I was – I had recruited someone off Craigslist and that was deal with my husband. He said I’m nervous about this. I said well I’m going to bring this guy Dave and he said okay, well I feel a little better about this. But you have to think about safety and in that situation I wasn’t – I wasn’t protecting against feeling uncomfortable. I was protecting against you know all the crazy stories you’ve heard about Craigslist I guess.
Steve: Is – yeah, is being asked for a date an unsafe experience? I guess it depends on how, but – I’m not even sure how to ask this question, but sort of separate from the Craigslist experience, how does – how do women in the field deal with the set of things that may – the type of content or conversations that might come up with – how do we even frame that?
Kate: I know. It’s a great question and think about it. Think about part of the Cruella de Vil, like serving it up cold, no one’s asking Cruella de Vil on date. Do you know what I mean? I mean she’s like the ice queen, so who is going to ask this icy researcher who’s not even giving a sense of like am I doing the right thing on this, am I passing this test on the website. So part of being comfortable with people is being comfortable but still having boundaries. Still being the researcher. And part of it is not being alone in a circumstance that would make you uncomfortable, or make a conversation like that too convenient. And you know I think personally I can sense when we might be getting off topic, or we might – or the conversation might be getting too comfortable for the participant and so then I just move it forward. But I think this is an area where some sharing of these thoughts and experiences would help the larger research community to think about these issues and hopefully not have to be in a situation where they’re uncomfortable or unprepared.
Steve: I’m going to pitch hard for the war stories – having people talk about for the last few years. With the aim – I mean there’s many more circumstances that come up than just the one that we’re talking about, but my goal is yours. To hear these stories starts to, you know let people if nothing else be aware that they can – these are the kinds of things that can happen and so, you know, there doesn’t seem to be one size fits all right way to handle it, but to – like you said the Navy SEALs have to adapt.
Kate: You have to adapt and you have to adapt and you have to know your boundaries and you have to be comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. And so I was just having this conversation with my husband the other night about being comfortable with conflict and we talked about that as a trait of good management and I said you know as a researcher you have to be because sometimes you’re putting a product or something in front of a user and it may evoke some emotion, they may be upset about it. They may make that personal against you. So as a researcher it’s a requirement. You have to be comfortable with some level of conflict because not everything is smooth sailing in these research sessions.
Steve: And so conflict could simply be asserting boundaries and it may feel – if you are someone that’s kind of – that doesn’t – that is trying to avoid conflict, drawing a boundary which could be – I liked your example before of just moving things along. That’s asserting a boundary and that may feel like conflict to someone. Conflict is let’s get out of here – I’m going to punch you in the face – it doesn’t have to be dramatic.
Kate: No, and the conflict – right, the conflict could be – the conflict or the confrontation could be as simple as you’re not being responsive to a direction they’re taking the conversation in and you know I think as we move away from methods like the focus group – you know the in-person focus group where you have – that’s not a method that we use often because I think there’s so many challenges with it. So you’re moving to these individual – you know you’re playing Charlie Rose and someone else is sitting across from you and you’re understanding their lives, right. You’re kind of moderating the narrative of your user’s, your participant’s life and their experience. And as we move to these one on one, the deeper exploration, it gets more personal and the stakes are higher and being boundaried is important. It’s important as a researcher. It’s important as a person. It’s important for the participant to understand the parameters of the session.
Steve: And that you as the researcher have permission to continue to reinforce those boundaries.
Kate: As researchers one of our challenges is trying to figure out what should our temperature be and the temperature being about that level of interaction with, empathy with our participants, our users. And you know you don’t want to have yourself dialed all the way down into the freezing zone where you’re disconnected from the user and you’ve got the Cruella de Vil phenomenon happening. But you also don’t want to be so over the top connected and warm that it becomes like a friendship conversation and you have difficulty stepping back and still having those boundaries as the researcher. So this question of temperature, this question of you know how accessible are you, we haven’t solved it yet, but if I had to look at – if I had to look at a temperature scale I’d say it’s in the – the medium to warm is the ideal. The approachable, medium, warm temperature.
Steve: If I can pile on your metaphor a little bit, there’s your internal temperature and there’s your external temperature. And so you know I mean I’ve interviewed people about sad things. I imagine you have as well.
Steve: Talked to people about situations that are sad. There’s a difference to me between how you feel and then what – and then how you do or don’t exhibit that feeling.
Kate: That’s a great point because part of our research has been focused on physicians and nurses and you know because EBSCO has strong presence in the medical market. So when we did a large study of physicians, what we ended up doing was talking to physicians in all different specialties and one particular physician stands out in my mind because she – she saw patients she – she delivered end of life care and her stories were unbelievably touching and several were very sad. And it was hard not to cry because some of these stories were really quite sad and I think what she saw – so inside, inside you’re really feeling the pain of what she’s describing, about families saying goodbye to other family members at the end of life, but to the outward – to the participant, to this physician, this really lovely, just wonderful, compassionate human being , to her I think the researchers, we just looked somber. You know we looked like she had told us something serious, which she had, and we looked somber and we nodded and we were respectful of that. But I don’t think she needed us to cry to know that we had feelings. I think the way we handled it inside, I think we had stronger feelings that we’d led on, but we treated the information soberly and somberly because it was – you know it was sad. It was sad. And that’s part of uncovering people’s truths that is so incredibly rewarding. So if I go into a session like that, and you know I use that approach that was recommended to me years ago, the like serve it up cold, I don’t deserve the privilege of being in that room. I don’t deserve the true honor of speaking with these participants who are helping to evolve our products and you know show us their lives. You don’t deserve the job of a researcher if you’re not truly empathetic to your user.
Steve: Sure. I think what that story illustrates, that seems very important, is that you had the feelings in the experience with the end of life professionals. You had the feelings inside. You acknowledged for yourself that you were having those feelings, but you chose in the context of research how to act on or how to express those feelings, and that you made a different choice that you would make in a social situation – you know anything that’s outside the context of doing research – you chose how to react differently than you would.
Kate: Yes, and that is key because the participant – the person that you’re speaking with needs to feel like the researcher is in control. So if someone starts sobbing uncontrollably all of a sudden the physician might be worried about the researcher and then it creates this shift in the dynamic that is hard to recover from. And so it’s the same as if someone tells you a joke or says something funny. If you laugh so hard that you can’t regain your composure it shifts the dynamics of the interaction. So it’s – that’s where having the boundaries – and it’s not so different than being a teacher or being a parent that you know your kid says something silly, or does something, and you think okay well do I want to reinforce – do I want – how do I need to react in this moment to convey the message that okay we’re going to continue – we’re still going forward or we’re still going to have a nap even though you just said this thing that’s really silly and we could laugh about it for 2 hours. So you have to keep the research – you have to keep the research moving forward, but you have to convey that when someone – you have to convey that you’re listening and you’re processing what they’re saying. So when someone is telling you a very sad story, when you’re somber and when you are listening intently and making eye contact that says I’m here with you, I hear what you’re saying and it’s registering and I understand that it’s serious. I get it.
Steve: If you – I think it’s different with a professional, but if you – I mean this has probably happened to all of us. We’ve been someone who’s had something difficult happen to us and we talk to other people about it and they say oh, I don’t know what to say or something and that we end up in the role of trying to help them.
Kate: Yeah, we end up in the comforter role. And keep – you know something I always say to other researchers is you have to be very clear that the research session is a judgment free zone because one of the challenges we have is when you’re researching and interviewing students sometimes they fear that there’s a right way to do what you’re asking them to describe and they don’t know what it is. So you don’t want people to feel that they have to say well I’m sure there’s a better way to do it, but this is how I do it. You want to be – you want them to feel comfortable and you know show us how you do X, instead of – and you don’t want them to be apologetic and you don’t want them to feel that what they’re showing you isn’t good enough. And often during those – I mentioned those live student demonstrations that we do with some customers that are so enlightening. We start of and we talk about you know your act of conducting research – your act of information seeking is uniquely you. We want to learn about it. There’s no right, there’s no wrong, whatever works for you is what we want you to show us. So we really spend a lot of time on that at the beginning of those sessions because we have a room full of librarians. We have a room full of library staff watching someone conduct research. And so we don’t want them to feel intimidated.
Steve: I had a client that I worked with that said to me that sympathizing is judging. And we think of judging as sort of the right or wrong, but she was saying you know if you say oh that’s awful – I’m not going to do justice to how she put it, but it’s taking a value framework that is yours and putting it on their story.
Kate: Right. You’re handing your world view to someone and saying oh it’s okay. Or you’re making a judgment and there’s no place for that. And so we hear it all. I mean that’s why we talk about you know anything can happen in these research sessions. We hear it all and we hear – you know we hear students talk about how they conduct scholarly research and sometimes the techniques they’re talking about aren’t necessarily scholarly. You know if they’re talking about looking on Wikipedia which isn’t a peer review…which is not a citable source – and so we don’t stop them and say well did you know, because we’re not there to fix anything. We’re not there to teach. This is not a teaching moment. This is understanding and this is actually exploration and one of the things we try to do in our group is we try not to say – when people come to us and say okay we want to validate – we don’t go out to validate. We go out to explore and in that process of exploration and excavation, you know we’re lucky enough to unearth findings, but we do so because we’re listening and not putting our own framework on the participants or the users.
Steve: Well Kate, let’s wrap it up there. It’s been a really excellent experience to talk with you and thanks so much for everything that you shared with us today.
Kate: Steve, thank you and I look forward to seeing you in Boston someday soon.
Steve: I look forward to that too. Thanks.
Kate: Okay, take care.