Design Leader Insights - Lawton Pybus on building teams and driving collaboration as a UX researcher

January 16, 2023


Alex Smith: Hey Lawton, and thanks so much for joining the show today. 

Lawton Pybus: Hey, happy to be here. 

Alex Smith: Awesome. Appreciate it. And to get started, can you tell the audience a little bit about your background and history in UX research? 

Lawton Pybus: Yeah, totally. So I'm currently a research manager UserZoom and we work on essentially conducting research projects for users and customers. Before that I was a UX Researcher at Charles Schwab. I was supporting the contact center there, so lots of fun stuff with like regulated industry and legacy systems. Worked a couple hundred jobs before that. And I got my PhD in human factors. So that was really where I got introduced to this space. And knew that I wanted to go kind of into industry as we called it in grad school.  So, yeah, that's me in a nutshell. 

Alex Smith: Thanks for that background. And it's awesome to talk to a PhD in something so relevant to UX research. Can you tell us a little bit about that process of research all the way to finish product? I think like when you think about that in a team it's research, product design, product development, you know, it seems like there's a long gap between the initial research stages or continuing research stages to an actual released product.

Lawton Pybus: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I feel like there's, you know, the product development life cycle is a good kind of way to think about it. So, you might be in kind of a discovery mode or you might be a little bit later on, in a, in a measure state or just designing it and trying to decide where the design is. So UX research can actually support all three of those areas. You know, if you're in discovery mode, really defining the problem space, seeing how people solve this currently. You may not even have a product or anything to show to users, but you can, you can show them like, hey, what's the problem right now? What does that look like for you? And then with design, once you've actually have a prototype, then you know, that's a classic usability test. We just test it and see where the problems are. And then we'd build it and put it out there and then you want to measure it and see how it stands against the competition.If it's actually driving KPIs. So opportunities for research all along the way.

Alex Smith: And so this field has been booming recently. I saw an article you wrote, I think this week, actually about how there might not eventually be enough practitioners. How do you think about that? Like should designers then be doing research? If there's not a researcher on every team, how should that be approached? 

Lawton Pybus: Yeah, I think that's going to have to be part of the solution is researchers enabling designers. So, you know, I think there's, I've personally worked with a lot of designers over the years who have kind of an interest and an aptitude and research. It may not be what they want to do all week, but they could definitely help out with some basic usability tests and maybe throwing some stuff on a platform like UserZoom. I think there's always going to be room for specialists. So as a you know a PhD UX Researcher, like I have certain skills that a designer is probably not going to have and not going to want to specialize in. So there's going to continue to be work there, but it's really thinking about how we scale up the field when there's really only so many PhDs and only so many designers, like how, how do we satisfy the demand for research?

Alex Smith: Lawton, so for a team, maybe there's an established design team, but they're thinking about bringing on research. Which I think is common.  Research has kind of an addition to existing design teams. I mean, ideally they start with research and dedicated researchers, but how do they sell, like the C-suite the value of this research? How has, how has like the value of UX  Research measured from, from the higher ups or how should it be measured?

Lawton Pybus: Yeah. I mean, a lot of businesses these days are really data driven. So finding a researcher who can kind of speak that same language of whatever KPIs, whatever those key business indicators are it's usually a pretty natural fit.  And a good baby step to that is you know, if you have a number of designers on your team, there may be someone who's a little bit more research adept. They might have more of an inclination there. So they can kind of start to do some of those projects and tell that story in data. And then you can make a case for like, like, hey, we need to keep doing what we're doing, and we need to hire a full-time researcher. 

Alex Smith: Lawton what type of advice do you have for emerging researchers or designers considering making the switch over to research? How should they be thinking about where that field is headed and how to get in? 

Lawton Pybus: I think the best advice that I give everyone, no matter kind of what their background is, whether they're coming out of grad school or they're a designer trying to, you know, switch over is to just get as much practice doing it as you can. So if that's in your work, great. If not, you may have to kind of take on some pro bono projects and personal projects. One thing that when I was in grad school, like you have a research advisor and they're kind of like taking you under your weight, they're weighing in, and teaching you how to do the craft of research. So advice I got from my advisor was like, hey, just keep a little notepad. Anytime you have a research idea, just write it down. You may not get to it eventually, but like at least you have it there when you have the time of bandwidth. And I think when you start learning about UX, like I think a lot of people have this experience where you start looking at the things that you interact with. And you're like, hey, this is actually a terrible experience. Like I would love for this to be better. So that's something you can actually use as like a personal project and, you know, do some research on it. Go talk to users, make some recommendations on how to improve that experience. And there you have a case study for your portfolio. And not only that you've got some experience doing it. So, you know, whether or not you actually liked this type of work, it's something you want to spend your time doing. And those are all things that are really persuasive to hiring managers. And we can talk about, know this hands-on experience that you've done.

Alex Smith: So Lawton I think that's great advice for junior designers, but is it all, is it all research? Like I think there's a lot of very passionate scientific data-driven people in the field, but what else is kind of involved? Are you truly just lab coating all day and talking to users, are there kind of other internal things going on?

Lawton Pybus: Yeah, that's a really great point. Yeah. I mean, I think that a lot of people get into the field because they really like talking to users and, you know, gathering data and trying to make sense of it. And obviously research is a big part of the job. Like it's a lot of fun, but I was surprised when I came into the field, like how much of the job is actually just giving research a voice in an organization. So you know, you're working with people who maybe have no concept of what UX is. They really just want some insights they want to get on with their day. Being able to meet them where they are and show them like, hey, I've got the insights for you. I've done the research. And showing them that you're invested in helping to make the product a success. Building those relationships and knowing who's going to like vouch for you bring it in front of the right people. Yeah, that's easily half the job, if not more.

Alex Smith: I think you're in an interesting position doing UX research for what I would consider a UX research tool. It's kind of like UX research inception going on. What type of tools, obviously, this space is booming. Like there's, there's a lot of tools that can help designers, researchers, product managers reach audiences, reach users, conduct user testing remotely. Where do you think that kind of digital research space is headed?

Lawton Pybus: Yeah I mean there are a lot of great tools out there.  Obviously I work for UserZoom. I love UserZoom. I work in it all day long. I think we've got a nice suite of offerings, so it's not just kind of unmoderated testing, which allows you to, you know, collect data from participants sort of asynchronously, not just sitting there and moderating each participant by hand. But you also can, can moderate studies with our moderated platform. Yeah, research repositories are another big area. So EnjoyHQ is one of one of our product offerings. So yeah, I mean, there's a, there's a ton of stuff out there and it's an exciting time to be in the space. 

Alex Smith: Yeah, absolutely. And Lawton, where can the audience find more about you, or potentially connect if they have questions? 

Lawton Pybus: Yeah, so I write pretty regularly. So you can check me out on a Substack. There's a, The Quarter-Inch Hole is my monthly newsletter. So that's Otherwise you can find me on Medium and LinkedIn, it's just my name Lawton Pybus.

Alex Smith: Awesome. Well, thanks so much for being on the show today.

Lawton Pybus: Cool. Thanks so much, Alex.