Ep. 511 – Michele Ronsen, Founder of Curiosity Tank, on the top 3 Mistakes Researchers Make and how to Avoid Them

My guest today is Michele Ronsen, Founder of Curiosity Tank. 

Curiosity Tank is a consulting and education firm specializing in human-centered research, design development, and hands-on learning programs. We conduct and teach design and user research to people and corporations around the world.

Ask Like a Pro is an 8-week online mentorship for professionals who want step-by-step guidance on how to conduct meaningful, relevant, and impactful UX research. Registrants get hands-on, proven methods and tools to help them genuinely understand their customers, challenges, and opportunities in less time while reducing errors and risk.​ 

It’s perfect for those who ​want to break into the field of user research, have specific ​research ​questions and don’t know where to start​​​, or need to boost their skills and fill in gaps to be more competitive​.

There are three ways to participate in Ask Like A Pro. The series includes up to 40 hours of content and 45+ tools and templates. ​

Not sure which participation level is right for you? Where to start? Or have other questions? Set up time with Michele here and she’d be happy to answer any questions you may have. ​

Get ​​a 10% discount to use towards Ask Like A Pro On-Demand and Observer seat registrations with the code “HAPPYMARKETRESEARCH10%” 

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Jamin Brazil: Hey everybody. I’m talking with Michele Ronsen, founder of Curiosity Tank. And also social media influencer on LinkedIn around consumer insights. I mean it’s the title I always wanted and never gotten. I’m super-jealous. How are you?


Michele Ronsen: I’m doing great. I am so glad to be back spending time with you.


Jamin Brazil: Support for the Happy Market Research Podcast and the following message comes from Michigan State’s Marketing Research Program and HubUX. I’ve done hundreds of interviews with today’s top minds in market research. Many of them trace their roots to Michigan State’s Marketing Research Program. Are you looking for a higher-paying job, to expand your professional network, and to achieve your full potential in the world of market research? Today the program has tracks for both full-time students and working professionals. They also provide career support assisting students to win today’s most sought-after jobs. In fact, over 80 percent of Michigan State’s marketing research students have accepted job offers six months prior to graduating. If you are looking to achieve your full potential check out MSU’s program at BROAD. MSU. EDU/Marketing. HubUX is a research operations platform for private management, qualitative automation including video audition questions and surveys. For a limited time user seats are free. If you’d like to learn more or create your own account, visit HubUX.com. So you and I and potentially Janet will be having dinner maybe as soon as next week, which is a week before this episode will air in person.


Michele Ronsen: We shouldn’t tell them where we’re going. Oh, it’s a week before.


Jamin Brazil: It’s a week before. It’ll already have happened. Unless they build a time machine – anyway. That would actually be pretty cool but if they built a time machine and came back and crashed our dinner. That would be bad ass. Anyways, maybe one day that’ll happen. So you have done a lot. How has COVID impacted you?


Michele Ronsen: I am definitely one of the lucky ones professionally in terms of the courses that I teach and the business that I do I am a user researcher and I teach user research to people around the world. So I launched my first Curiosity Tank class in the Ask like a Pro series a week after shelter in place. So knock on wood, it’s just gone gang busters. We’re not about to launch our eighth cohort. On the personal front I have an eight-year-old so I’ve been managing the parenting COVID situation there as well, which you know has been interesting for a lot of parents with young children at home. But thankfully no one in my immediate family has gotten sick. So I’m knocking on wood.


Jamin Brazil: It’s been a big challenge for us. Probably the biggest challenge for me coming into our – yeah, into COVID and subsequently out of COVID is I have some teenage children from a previous marriage. And those kids – I used to get them half-time but when shelter in place came in to play all of a sudden it almost turned to functionally no time because one household would have COVID and then they would have – you know what I’m saying. So it just wound up in this really rough spot with just maintaining the physical proximity to multiple households if you’re a kid stuck in that situation. But it is interesting like you had mentioned on the career front, there really is a tale of two cities. There’s the people that made the transition online before it hit and they tended to thrive through COVID as all of the in-person stuff shut down and those dollars got shifted to digital framework. Then there’s people that just never had made the investment to move online. And they really functionally struggled.


Michele Ronsen: Yeah, we were just talking about the restaurant industry I mean that’s been incredibly difficult to stomach what’s happened there. That’s very close to home.


Jamin Brazil: Yeah, no kidding and no pun intended of course. I have some friends that own a – they’re restaurateurs and they own a couple of different restaurants. And they completely pivoted their business. But what’s interesting actually about – they did the whole like hand-crafted cocktails to go. And that part of their business actually wound up flourishing. Now it wasn’t the same revenue outcomes that they were used to but they were at least able to like sustain until things started opening back up. But it’s been really interesting watching just the whole consumer insights space and how some companies have just done remarkably well and just like – it’s like a bullet out of a gun barrel in terms of their – I met with two companies this week alone in the insights space I didn’t even know about that went from basically you know marginal businesses to really meaningful revenue businesses because they were able to capitalize on the growth of the transition of digital spend. So let’s jump into our topics. What is one mistake that every researcher makes when they first start out?


Michele Ronsen: This is such a good question. I don’t think there’s just one mistake. But I see a lot of common mistakes. I mean I’m teaching hundreds – I’ve taught thousands of people in the last couple of years. And I’d say the three big ones that come to mind for me; first is thinking that there’s one right way to do research. And there isn’t. There isn’t one right way. We do have best practices and we have ethical standards that we adhere to but there’s no one right way to write a research plan, to recruit, to gather information, to take notes, to analyze, to synthesize, to present. I mean all of this really is or can be very creative. And there’s quite a variety there. The second I would say is not understanding the importance of the research plan and developing that in collaboration with stakeholders. It is absolutely critical in UX research to get that buy-in early on and to align all the stakeholders and document it. And then third would be to dive into one specific tool or platform or method or methodology of before mastering the art of asking great questions in live interviews that yield reliable results. Once you can do that well; once you can conduct a solid interview and leverage those improv skills consistently you’ll be in such a better place to choose the right tool or the method or platform for your question set. But if you start somewhere else like with a specific platform or tool you’re always going to try to shove your question set into the platform or tool that you learned first. And probably not going to be the right approach because you won’t know how to ask the right questions.


Jamin Brazil: Yeah, in the right way. Gosh, that’s so interesting. And I think you’re right. We’re more and more as tools democratize access to consumer insights, right? We’re moving more and more to a cookie-cutter research approach where you know instead of it being hand-crafted, I’m leveraging an existing template that’s been you know whatever, cooked up and it’s going to auto-generate the outcomes for me on the back end. I see that actually quite a bit, which is hilarious.


Michele Ronsen: It’s sad though too. I mean think about that. Think about what that’s doing to our industry and think about what that’s doing to the data that we’re collecting and the decisions that we’re making off of that flood data.


Jamin Brazil: Yeah, I think in a lot of ways you know there’s so much – and you know this because you teach it, right? It’s – what we do is science. It isn’t as simple as enabling Zoom and having a human conversation with a participant. The way that you ask questions is really important, the order that you ask questions is important, the amount of leading that you do is important, the amount of breathing that you allow to happen, just letting them kind of meander through is really important. I mean it’s just like it’s so easy to mean or take for granted the value of a highly-skilled moderator whether doing UX, CX, or qualitative market research. Those are highly-valuable skills that we’ll have an exponential bigger impact on the organization if they’re leveraged as opposed to more of the unprofessional person trying to execute those same things.


Michele Ronsen: I couldn’t agree any more. And also knowing how to delve in and knowing when to stray from your guide and knowing when it pivot or even end a session.


Jamin Brazil: Yeah.


Michele Ronsen: You know picking up on someone that may not be qualified but has squeaked through the screener.


Jamin Brazil: Right.


Michele Ronsen: I had an interesting situation with that.


Jamin Brazil: Have you had an interesting situation with that recently?


Michele Ronsen: My last cohort, yes. Literally was savaged by two rings of an African mafia. Just totally got hold of their survey screeners, they took them hundreds of times until they figured out the happy paths. And then once they got to the happy paths they filled their calendars with bookings. It was just.


Jamin Brazil: And meanwhile the project manager probably feels like they’re just the luckiest person in the world.


Michele Ronsen: The students? Oh yeah, they did. They were like oh yeah, I have 37 responses. I mean they went so far as to impersonate people on LinkedIn using those names and faking addresses and then create fake driver’s license to substantiate their – I mean just unbelievable.


Jamin Brazil: It’s so funny you say that. Literally just today we’re recruiting for this 2,000-person Gen X panel for a client. And it’s hard. We’ve had 30 days to do it and it’s multi-country. And today I got a notice that we had 150 people that call – actually nearly 200 people that joined just within some hours. And your immediate response is like praise the Lord, you know what I mean. But then you’re like this definitely is not true. And then of course we start looking at the data and it’s like as you just articulated, it was somebody going through the effort of figuring out the happy path and just exploiting it.


Michele Ronsen: I mean talk about a huge opportunity for someone in our space is to figure out how to qualify you know these participants quickly and at an affordable price without having you know someone manually go in there.


Jamin Brazil: I mean it’s the same problem you have with professional athletes, right? It’s like drug testing. The money is not in the drug testing; the money is on the other side of it. And that’s the problem.


Michele Ronsen: Well when I was playing for the Warriors, it wasn’t that much of a problem.


Jamin Brazil: Yeah. Well, maybe it’s more like cycling. It’s seems to be a highly-sensitive to the topic of drugs not like NFL but are performance-enhancing drugs. But the issue is really the same, isn’t it, which is you know clients are less inclined to want to pay a lot more for a sample that’s “qualified” because they’re already getting that. It’s really – the money is really on the other side of the equation as you said the African mafia in that case, and in my case it happened to be someplace out of the EU. But anyway. So yeah, it is – it’s a really interesting problem and somebody will make a lot of money on it. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to be me.


Michele Ronsen: It isn’t going to be me. Maybe we should talk about that at our dinner.


Jamin Brazil: Ooh fun. OK, good. So let’s talk a little bit about the solution. So as you think about the three issues that you outlined, I really liked your second one by the way, the need to align with stakeholders and then document you know what the objectives are. What do you see as some of the solutions?


Michele Ronsen: Very early practitioners often take my courses or inquire about my courses thinking that they’re going to learn like how to bake. And it’s kind of like a factory and you do A and then B and then C and then D. Sure, I mean there are distinct phases in how we do our work. But it’s much more creative than that, right? It’s a combination of what I like to call as you mentioned earlier, science surely but also art and improv. And you know the art comes in with trying to figure out what you can do in a certain amount of time with a certain amount of budget with a certain amount of access to the right participants. And the improv comes in in your stakeholders changing their mind 12 times and then you know figuring out that some mafia has taken over your schedule. But I think you know the best way for me to teach people this and to really demonstrate this is to get them as hands-on as quickly as possible. So hands-on experience with not only different types of research in terms of evaluative or generative or whatever, but with different types of researchers and different types of thinkers, right? And then also when I say different types of research, I mentioned evaluative and generative but within evaluative there’s different types of research. And within both any sort of type of research there’s going to be a scrappy approach and then there’s going to be a really precious approach. And then there’s going to be some approaches that are somewhat in between. Also working with different teams, different teams have different cultures. And different participant segments also are going to require a different approach. Also you know whatever your study topic is. If we’re talking about curating your favorite fake eyelashes versus homelessness and you know something that is a little bit more serious or bankruptcy, the tone’s going to change. Different people recruit differently or you’re recruiting yourself, do you have a research ops person that’s helping you on an internal team, are you using an external recruiter or like a third-party tool, note-taking. I think the hands-on experience and being open-minded really creates probably the best opportunity to crack that nut in terms of there’s one way to approach this. One of the things that I come back to is the sentiment that everybody has a beautiful mind, your engineer, your writer, your product manager, your manager, your intern. Let’s get everybody together you know and share our beautiful minds. And that’s one of the things that’s really special in the cohort is that the student researchers really get to benefit from not only me but the other students in the cohort that are coming from a variety of backgrounds.


Jamin Brazil: You’ve been doing this for a while, right? Has there been – as you’re getting to know the next generation of researchers or consumer insights professionals, are you seeing differences in terms of where they’re weak and where they’re strong?


Michele Ronsen: I see differences in terms of people that are transitioning from academic versus industry for sure. They both have very distinct gaps that the other one doesn’t. So for example, if you’re coming from an academic program in anthropology, psychology, or something along those lines, social sciences, you likely know how to ask a good question. You understand the importance of biases, bias and removing it. You have a much stronger sense of ethics and things like that. But you probably aren’t as familiar with industry and production and working in an agile collaborative environment or writing in a really pithy, direct way in bullet points.


Jamin Brazil: Right.


Michele Ronsen: On the other hand, if you’re coming from industry, you’re probably more well-versed in how to work in a team environment and how to communicate crisply and clearly and make presentations you know in agile sprints or how to work inventively and probably have a leg up on that. But don’t know how to ask a great question or the difference between leading questions and non-leading questions or open questions versus closed questions or what a Likert scale is. Certainly not familiar with biases and the importance of mitigating them. So I see gaps – similar gaps more in terms of where you’re coming from and what your transferrable skills are likely to be. Now there’s huge generalizations there but those are pretty standard I’d say.


Jamin Brazil: That actually makes a lot of sense. So when you think about the next generation of researchers, what is it that they want from their manager and/or job?


Michele Ronsen: I think the first thing they want is a chance. They want a shot. They want an opportunity to just get in the door. It’s so hard. There are so many you know mid- and senior-level positions open now. And the teams are so busy they don’t have time to train. I mean I know so many companies that just won’t even look at junior researchers or new researchers. And when they do they’re looking for those juniors to have a few years of experience. So that’s really hard. So I’d say the first one is just a chance or an opportunity to break in. I always encourage them to try to get into an established team; not go off and be a researcher of one or solo researcher on an existing team because it’s not going to give them the chance to focus on actually doing the work. They’re going to be focused on setting up the work and then fighting for the work in many instances. And that really takes away from your ability to actually do the work. You also don’t have anybody to learn from. So you’re fighting all the fires, you’re doing all the logistics, you’re analyzing what tools should be put into place, you don’t necessarily have the background to make those informed decisions. And that’s not, it’s not a great set up.


Jamin Brazil: That’s so interesting.


Michele Ronsen: Another thing is trying to find a mentor and/or a team that they can not only learn a lot from but they can feel safe with. And I think safety is a really important part of being able to take chances and grow.


Jamin Brazil: Yeah. And do you think the mentor that you’re referencing here, is it like if I’m working for somebody else is that boss or is actually outside of the company I work for?


Michele Ronsen: Ideally it’s the boss or someone on the team. It’s not someone through ADP lists or something like that. And they also – they really want to do interesting and meaningful work. Sure, I mean I have a lot of students that are dying to work for Facebook or Google and I have just as many students who would never work you know for those types of organizations. So that definition of interesting and meaningful really varies. I think that’s personal.


Jamin Brazil: Yeah. And I mean we’ve really seen the world kind of move more and more towards customized to the individual as opposed to broad segments, right? And that’s I think you know from a career perspective people are thinking about that stuff on an individual basis as well as opposed to you know everybody wanting to go to this school and graduate and then go to work at that company.


Michele Ronsen: You know that’s a mistake I think researchers make and even hiring managers make and I would love to just put this to bed once and for all. There’s no one right path to becoming a researcher. We’re doing a whole series to our CA at the end of a conference about this. Oh, the places you’ll go. Really celebrating the differences in what I’m referring to as the pivots and possibilities that we make as researchers not only to get into the industry but within the industry and beyond it. And it’s really interesting and I wish hiring managers weren’t looking for this you know this HCI degree from Carnegie Mellon and this super cookie-cutter kind of approach because people have so much more to give. And that doesn’t necessarily dictate whether they’re going to be a good researcher or not. You know I think curiosity and an insatiable desire to learn is probably a bigger indicator than where they went to school.


Jamin Brazil: Michele is the founder of Curiosity Tank. Curiosity Tank is a consulting and education firm specializing in human-centered research, design development, and hands-on learning programs. They conduct and teach design and user research to people and corporations around the world. Michele, thank you for joining me on the podcast.


Michele Ronsen: Thanks Jamin. Happy to be here.