Design Leader Insights - Kate Powell

January 16, 2023

Alex Smith: Hi Kate, thanks for joining the show today.

Kate Powell: Hey Alex, thanks for having me.

Alex Smith: Of course. And to get started can you give the audience a little bit of history and background in your journey in UX research? 

Kate Powell: Yeah. So it's pretty similar to a lot of the original UXers out there. As in, we didn't start in UX and it just kind of found us. So I was actually a nursing school dropout. My dad was a software engineer and was like, you should go into computers. And I was like, I'm never going to be a nerd like you. And fast forward seven years here we are. So it was just a series of marketing internships that turned into consumer insights that through acquisitions of companies, I somehow ended up with the title of UX strategist, UX researcher, and I took it and I ran with it and like, there's a lot of really cool opportunity here.I get to pretty much watch people for a living, which is really creepy, but also very fascinating for the researchers out there. And so I stuck with it and since then, I've just taken every opportunity to learn where I can and learn from different parts of the UX organization and just staying really plugged in to the conversation around it.Because it's evolving so fast.

Alex Smith: I think UX research specifically, is even at least from just my pulse on it, seems like there's less of a concrete roadmap of how to do it exactly perfectly. Like what are kind of the truths around it?

Kate Powell: Yeah. So there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about first of all, what is UX research? Some of us see us as oracles. Some of us see us as validators. Some of us see us as you know, somehow we're going to come up with this, the mind-blowing next billion dollar idea. But really at the heart of what UX research is, the art of asking really good questions. And so it's being able to pull away from the flashy designs, the widgets, obvious behaviors and trends, and seeing, you know, what are people actually doing and why? And being able to just ask those questions and essentially play dumb and letting folks school us. Let them be the expert on how they navigate their lives. And instead of us trying to be like, hey, we're trying to make this widget, how can we make the most money off of this widget? And so that's, I think that's the biggest thing is just being able to ask those questions,be humble and being able to just understand the high-level view of the context and the environments that people are in and what is the actual goal that they're trying to achieve. So I think if you can make that connection, you can do UX research. 

Alex Smith: I think that's a good point. How are you doing that in the airline space? That's an interesting area and always an interesting experience.

Kate Powell: Yeah, absolutely. So what's really exciting about travel is everyone does it. We're seeing a massive influx of first time travelers, which I'm sure as you could understand is like, I think of my parents, who've flown twice in their lifetime, you know, they're trying to figure out what, how apps work. They still want to print out their boarding pass. They're confused as to what gate they need to go to. Okay, multiply that by 10,000, 100,000. And next thing you know, like you have an airport that's just erupted into chaos before they even get onto their plane. So what we do is, you know, first and foremost is we need to understand what's happening leading up to the day of travel. So, you know, how are people booking travel? How are they researching travel? And that comes from just asking questions, doing interviews. But my favorite part is then what's happening day of travel. And that requires just showing up to the airport.  There is no better way than, you know, sit down and get your popcorn, take some notes and just watch. First of all, like going through the experience that your user has to in the actual experience, it's where it's going to create what everyone loves to hate, the concept of empathy. And that's really what it takes. We hear empathy all the time in UX. And it's exciting because it's important, but it's also frustrating because no one actually knows what it is and they throw the word around a lot because it gets that LinkedIn engagement and it makes you look good. But really what it is, is just going and doing it and feeling those frustrations and being confused, like allowing yourself to be a first time user in any experience is going to make you a much better designer. It's going to make you a much more better researcher. Honestly, it just makes you a better person. My humble opinion. 

Alex Smith: That's great advice. Yeah. I mean, you really do need to walk 10,000 miles in your user's shoes if you want to create a great experience. So research almost has to kind of stick through until product release or launch, or is that a correct assumption?  Like it's not like do this research, hand it off, go do more research. You actually kind of have to follow your research all the way through to release?

Kate Powell: Yeah. So that's a really great question and there's the way that it should work in a perfect world. And then there's the way that it works in real life. And so ideally, you're going to have a more successful product if research is involved in some sort of capacity throughout the entirety of the product life cycle, that doesn't mean we need to be in every kickoff call. We don't need to be in every design decision. It's no, let's just make sure that, you know, at various stages of design, that we're involved, but also at the same time, UX research, isn't just usability testing. We have such a diverse range of skills that, you know, we have discovery and innovation research all the way at the very beginning to determine, does this product even need to exist? You know, what behaviors are we trying to implement and change? And if we don't ask those questions at the beginning, then we get to the end and we're like, hey, we have this great product. How good is it? That's a really big, we get that question all the time. How good is this product? Well… How good was the original product or, you know, what was your baseline? And if you don't have that, you can't even measure success for your product. And so what research does and when you incorporate it throughout, so you have your say, your discovery research, and then you have usability testing at various parts of the design. You know, you're able to see like how close are we tracking to what we were hoping the behaviors we were trying to  change at the beginning. Because it's not about building a product it's about changing behavior. 

Alex Smith: What about people looking to get into UX research? What advice do you have for those, those new emerging researchers or junior researchers?

Kate Powell: So I run a mentorship program called Element UX. And one of the biggest things that I've seen is "I want to get into UX and research seems like the easiest way to get into UX." And I'm just like wait a second. Research is one of those things where it's kind of fun, but it's also a little stressful. There is no right or wrong answer. A lot of people have a lot of opinions about it, but really what it comes down to, and especially when I'm looking to hire, one of the biggest things that I look at is what kinds of questions are you asking and how are you getting to those answers? And another issue that I see is folks spend the most incredible amount of time on their portfolios. Don't waste your time. What we're looking for is how do you ask questions? How do you look at the problem and how are you able to articulate how you approach that problem and got to a reasonable solution? The number one mistake that I see folks making is they don't talk about the problem that their design or their research is trying to either solve or understand. The reason why UX exists is to solve contextual problems. And so if you can't speak to what that problem is and the journey that it took you to get to the solution, I don't care how cute or pretty your designs are. They could be the most mind-blowing designs out there, but that does, that's not UX that's graphic design.Or that's just, you know, I don't even know what you'd call that in the research world, because without a problem, there is no research.

Alex Smith: I think that's golden advice to anyone listening in. And yeah, I think it always comes down in the communicating  what you've designed or what you've found. Thanks so much for coming on the show today. 

Kate Powell: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.