My guest today is Michele Ronsen, principal and founder of Curiosity Tank.
Founded in 2010, Curiosity Tank is a design research and strategy firm that identifies customer insights and put them into action by digging into your problem space and charting a path forward.
Prior to founding Curiosity Tank, Michele worked for top design firms and gained experience working in Fortune 500s, academia, and start-ups.
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Jamin: Hi, everybody, this is Jamin. You are listening to the Happy Market Research podcast. Hope you’re having a wonderful week. My guest today is Michele Ronsen. Michele, how are you?
Michele: I’m great. Thanks so much for inviting me.
Jamin: Michele is the principal of Curiosity Tank, a UX specialty shop based out of the heart of San Francisco. We’re gonna dive in a little bit more about her background momentarily, but before we do, Michele, I’ve got this standard question that we ask. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up, your parents, and how that’s informed your career.
Michele: Sure. I grew up right outside of Manhattan. Both of my parents were fourth generation native New Yorkers. And they very much influenced both my brother and me. I’m a classically trained designer and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say. My mom was an interior designer, my father studied architecture and later became an entrepreneur. And my earliest memory is of driving down the freeway, or back then it was highway because I was on the East Coast, with my dad and he asked me to look at the McDonald’s sign. And he handed me a crayon and asked me to draw what I thought the gear inside the little golden arches looked like, that little device that made the sign spin. And I was about 3 years old. And I just remember, my brother and I talk nowadays that we were just tortured with that kind of stuff. We were tortured to think about how things work and to build things and to take things apart, and we didn’t have coloring books but we had all the blank paper we could ever imagine. And it was a delightful way to grow up, looking back, and now I delightfully torture my 6-year-old daughter in the same way.
Jamin: Market research, user experience research, customer experience, all of these, all three of these disciplines are focused on primary research, so getting to the heart of the consumer. And of course they incorporate external data to help supplement and understand and provide context for our insights. But what do you see as the differences and the overlaps across these three disciplines?
Michele: Well, first of all, I don’t consider myself a market researcher. And market research was like, aahh. But you definitely explore and interact with people to help figure out directions and strategies. Yes, I absolutely do that. But I see market research as more, right or wrong, as more focused on the sales portion, as more focused on purchase decisioning or pricing, the best ways to create awareness of a product or a service. I see marketing as focusing more on buying and serving the company or the entity, the organization that is producing whatever is being sold. I see user research as being more focused on the goals, the design, the context, the ease of use, the product market fit or the mental model fit. Both the attitudes and the behaviors, if you will, of the individual user. So I see user research as working in service to the user and market research as working in service to the larger organization. When it comes to customer research, I think it includes both market research and user research and the broader kind of support models like customer service or sales.
Jamin: So if you were to rename Happy Market Research so that it incorporated these three disciplines, what would you see as like an umbrella term?
Michele: You know, they’re so heated. There’s such a debate out there. It’s like this massive turf war. Why don’t you draw a heart around them all and call it the stuff that drives customer engagement.
Jamin: There you go. I know, it’s so funny. And it is, you’re right, it’s like there’s not–and you answered that like a perfect–I hope to see you out there in 2020. It was the perfect political answer. Because you’re right, it is such a heated conversation. I had somebody from Shopify on earlier and I tried to nail her down on this exact question and she wouldn’t answer it.
Michele: Well, not that I don’t, it’s not that I’m shying away from it. It’s like, I don’t have a good answer. But I can tell you that I would not ever say that I’m a market researcher. And not that there’s anything wrong with market researchers. In fact, my stepfather was a market researcher and he also was very influential on me and my career, clearly, with what I do today. I probably didn’t realize it 20 years ago. But there’s–I think of user research as very different.
Jamin: Yeah, and it is very different, right? At a minimum, one of the big differences is it sits in a unique spot inside of the organization. It seems to me that they sit closer to if not right beside product.
Michele: Exactly. And that’s my first language. My first language is design. So I speak design fluently and that might be one reason why I identify with that so much more than marketing. Whereas maybe if I had come from the sales side, I would–and I became a marketer, I would identify with marketing more or that terminology more. Maybe it comes, I think it comes from your background and it comes from the context that you bring to the table.
Jamin: And that’s interesting how you’re kinda hitting on this nomenclature or terms that we use, because as you know, language is culture and if I say survey, my head jumps into one thing, whereas somebody else’s might to a different, right? They might think about a geological survey, for example. So the context is really important for understanding the words. You do consulting for large companies. I don’t know if you can divulge some of the companies that you do work for.
Michele: I do. I have worked with Facebook and Zillow and Gusto and I’m at Slack right now running their rolling research program. I’ve worked with PayPal and Next Vacay and a whole bunch of really, really great companies. And they’re primarily tech-driven companies, but I wouldn’t say that I am a–those are my clients because I’m so tech-savvy myself. I like to kind of put like a bumper around that. Those are the companies that tend to understand user research and know how to leverage it the best.
Jamin: And at the same time, you’ve spent time, a fair amount actually, in your career in academia, from curriculum design to art–
Jamin: –and instructing. So we know that terms are actually really important in academia. I was struck by, and I think our first introduction was in conjunction with a class that you teach, I think it’s Berkeley but I apologize if I’m wrong, with respect to defining a common set of terms across consumer insights.
Michele: Yes. So it just, it sort of struck me over and over again, and I think it’s ironic, for those of us who work in UX, user researchers included, and designers and product managers, we truly aspire to create terrific user experiences. That’s what we do. That’s what gets us out of bed every morning and that’s personally what I love to do. But what we’ve done with our own terminology is create just an absolute mess. It’s a perfect example of the cobbler’s children. And that UX terminology problem really followed me like a cloud. There were all of these different instances, like you mentioned, I’ve taught all over town, I love teaching, but in the classroom, a student, a PhD student asked me to explain the difference between ethnography and design thinking. And I was like, what? Like, you could’ve heard a pin drop. And I first thought to myself, ooh, that’s a really bad question, like you shouldn’t ask that out loud. Of course I didn’t say that, but that was my immediate–and this woman was clearly very bright and very educated, but wow. If she’s that confused about our terminology, hm, there’s a problem here, there’s a gap. And then it just kind of kept coming up. It came up in interdisciplinary conversation with a marketing strategist. A colleague of mine I’ve known for 15 years, I had asked her for feedback on one of my teaching tools, and she was adamant that workflow analysis was not a legitimate user research method and it should be removed from this tool that I was developing. And this was actually like a heated debate. And I was like, huh, that’s interesting. And she’s also not a very argumentative person, but she was like hellbent on this. And then also among professional researchers, I was in a conversation with–this all happened within like a two-week span. I was in conversation with two very esteemed research colleagues and we had a half-hour conversation about whether journey mapping was indeed a user research method. And we couldn’t come up with an agreed-upon definition. Does a method just gather data? Because journey mapping doesn’t gather data, journey mapping is a visualization technique to plot either assumptions or data that’s already been gathered. So how are we defining this? And if the three of us couldn’t come up with a shared term, then there’s a lot of confusion out there. And then last is with customers. You used the–you joked about whether if you say the word survey, someone might think of a geological survey. I was on a discovery call within this same two to three week period and it was a real estate client that was looking to get into shared workspaces. And they had never really done any user research before, but they wanted to get themselves some of that. They’d read about it, they heard it was really important, and they wanted my feedback on how to ask better questions. Because they had been surveying their customers, but they didn’t know if they were asking the right questions or what to do with the data and yada-yada. So there was four people on the call and 45 minutes later I realized that they’ve actually been conducting one on one interviews. But to them, the word survey and interview was completely interchangeable. And it was such an enormous waste of time. And it was there that I was like, wow, there’s really, there’s confusion everywhere. And depending upon your background, you likely use the language differently.
Michele: And it’s wasting time. It’s leading to poor proposals. It’s leading to the wrong hires. It’s leading to the wrong methods being used. So what can we do about this? And that’s when I started the crowdsourcing effort.
Jamin: And so talk to us a little bit about what that looked like and then we’ll move into the public, where it is in context of the public domain.
Michele: So I am part of one Google group and I just kind of threw it out there to this Google group that said, hey, would anybody be interested in helping me define a whole bunch of terms that relate to UX and user research? And then I put that same kind of call to action on my LinkedIn profile. I’m very active on LinkedIn. I have become very active on LinkedIn since then, actually. And the response was just really overwhelming. At that point I had just jotted down the terms that either I had used or that I had heard within a couple of weeks; I easily came up with 100 terms. And then I held a kickoff call or two kickoff calls to just get feedback from people of how they think something like this might work, what they expected, what they think would be helpful, how should we define them, what criteria we should use. I had never crowdsourced anything and I didn’t know these people that were participating. Most of them I did not know. So I kinda threw a wide net out there and then held these two calls, and fast forward, we divided into five teams, we had almost 60 people participate in that first round, and we defined, at that point it was 150 terms within a 10-day period. It was super–
Jamin: That’s amazing.
Michele: It was riveting. It was like front car of the rollercoaster, “I can’t believe this is actually working.” And the beautiful thing was it all took place in Google Docs.
Michele: All of it.
Jamin: It’s funny how you would think–so you have Word, it’s this old and still very use–I use it every day. But then you have Google Docs for this whole different use case, right? That’s such a dominant part of my day, is spent in both of those tools.
Michele: Well, and these were people from all over the world. I mean, I heard from people in places, it’s like wow. I heard from people in Nigeria. I heard from people in Serbia and Sudan and Russia and Singapore and Taiwan and Vietnam. I mean, you name it. Chile and Brazil and Argentina. And this really struck a chord. People really felt, people wanted to participate either because they had been in a heated debate recently with their team, they found themselves not knowing where to go for a trusted source to get a definition, and/or they felt that this would be a great way for them to expand their vocabulary and broaden their network.
Jamin: Yeah, I think that that’s an interesting point in terms of the collab, the motivations around collab. I think there is this–and I do it, like 100% do this, where–and I’m part of similar groups to you, the same groups, some of the same groups as you. And the opportunity to be able to contribute is in a lot of ways I don’t want to say selfish on my part, but I’m getting a lot out of that by adding to the body of work.
Michele: Absolutely. I mean, the response was amazing. And the language matters. And then they went back and forth and they commented on each others’ terms: “Really? I interpret it like this,” or, “Have you thought about it from this standpoint?” And there was also just, it really highlighted the difference between how applied researchers think about something versus academic researchers. And we communicate in totally different ways.
Jamin: So we put together or you put together in this collaborative environment a–how many terms were there? It was 200, right?
Michele: It’s up to 200 terms. So once we finished those existing or those first 150, I then turned it over to my class at UC Berkeley and I introduced those students to secondary research and fact-checking. Then they went through it as new practitioners to review the terms for consistency and tone and clarity and accuracy. I completely think the word “consistify” should be a word.
Jamin: I love that.
Michele: They went through and they fact-checked, clarified, consistified each of the terms, and then they added the term used in a sentence and then related terms. And then they were each asked to add one more term of their choice from a list that I had gathered. So then it grew to 200 terms.
Jamin: Language is also an evolution, in evolution, so it changes with time. And I don’t mean to say that like you don’t know that; of course you know that. But my question is really, with that understanding, coming up with a definitive dictionary of common terms and what they mean, how are you gonna deal over time with changes to this I presume some sort of a version of a Wikipedia type page?
Michele: So you bring up a really good point, and I think that what was fascinating about this, there’s so many fascinating aspects about it, but one aspect that we haven’t touched on yet is that I think it also serves as sort of a chronicle of the evolution of our industry. And I don’t think that whatever–we’re calling this UX Lex, by the way, UX Lexicon. I don’t think that it should be static. I think that it should be a living chronicle and it should evolve over time. And I think as we see more marketing converge into user research, converge into data analytics and all of these spheres kind of blending into one, I think what’s gonna happen is that those terms are gonna evolve as well.
Jamin: That’s super interesting. So where does it exist now in context of access? Can we get access to that?
Michele: A dozen or a few dozen of the terms should be available by mid February on curiositytank.com. And I’m actively looking for sponsors who would like to build out a more robust site. The majority of my students’ work last term at UC Berkeley was not only–the first portion was to, quote unquote, consistify these terms and then add them in a sentence and kind of build out new terms. But then they spent another 10 weeks doing generative research and evaluative research on what kind of home these would best live in. So they interviewed aspiring researchers and practicing researchers of all different levels to find out more about where this should live, how it should live, what should a company and what types of experiences would deliver the material in the most meaningful ways. So we had some great MVPs there.
Jamin: Got it, got it. So you’re releasing a subset of the lexicon and then looking for a sponsor–which I think is very important, by the way–to come alongside, add value/cash, and really unlock the rest of the value.
Michele: Exactly. And maybe it’s not cash, maybe it’s talent and development talent.
Jamin: Interesting. Good. Well, gosh, insights nation, there you go, there’s a really clear call to action. If you have desire to get in front of and really help define an industry–gosh, that’s kind of powerful, huh–then check the show notes for contact information. I know somebody that would like to talk with you. I actually have a few people in mind already.
M ichele: Yeah, or sponsor a collection of words. Maybe you’re in the recruiting industry or maybe you’re in the platform industry or maybe–there’s a myriad of collections that we would like to present. One of the things that we learned by doing all of these studies with our target users is how they would like that information to be presented and what collections make sense to them.
Jamin: Did you, were you surprised by anything that’s come out of the research?
Michele: Yeah. A lot. Beginning practitioners and people that have been in the field are looking for two very different things. Beginning practitioners don’t know where to start and they don’t necessarily know the word that they’re going to look up, so they want to be told and almost guided, and they want context of where that term fits into the overall cycle or development cycle or design process cycle. Whereas more experienced practitioners know the word that they’re looking up and they’re probably going there to type in the exact words to maybe share a definition with a coworker who is confused. Or to maybe create some sort of shared understanding within a broader team: “When we refer to, say, a persona or an archetype, let’s agree to always use this definition of it or that definition of it.” So what they look for and how they look differs considerably.
Jamin: So that actually was not my question, but I think that is really interesting from–and this is me as a marketing person–from an SEO perspective. So if I want–and this has been part of my ongoing thesis, is that the new generation of researchers does not have the same vocabulary as the previous generation. And so to that end, it’s very important if we’re gonna be–if you’re a services business, then you need to make sure that you’re talking, your voice is–you’re using the right words in order to be discoverable by the next generation of researchers.
Michele: Well, that’s a great segue. So in addition to sponsors, I’m also looking for people to have conversations with me where we can videotape a conversation about a term. So you and I would be talking about the term “persona” and what it means to me as a user researcher versus what it means to you as a marketer so we could provide real practical value in context. The aspiring researchers today, our people that are up and coming in our industry, want to learn by video. They don’t read nearly as much. So they also, they want this context provided in a different way.
Jamin: That’s super interesting. I didn’t even think about that, but you’re right. Ironically that you don’t give your kid YouTube, but YouTube is the go-to for knowledge.
Michele: Exactly. Exactly. So I’ll be looking for people–and I think it’ll just be fascinating to have a five-minute conversation with someone about, “What does this term mean to you? When was the last time you used this term? Can you give me an example of this term in use?” And just create a series of those so that people can really learn theory from practice and be able to apply that to maybe what they’re doing today.
Jamin: So words have evolved. The role of insights has evolved tremendously, insight in the context of a major brand. You’ve worked both inside and outside of leading brands. How do you–historically, how have things changed from a user experience researcher’s perspective?
Michele: You know, I think that I work in a little bit of a bubble because my clients, as I mentioned earlier, clients like Square and Microsoft, those guys are really UX mature. Slack, Facebook. So when they’re calling me in or asking, when I’m in discussions with them, they know what I do, they understand the value, and they’re there because they know it’s important and they want it. So I don’t do a lot of sales, so to speak. I don’t do a lot of convincing people why it’s important. But I am getting more and more calls for people like the real estate company, they are not UX mature. They’re not a tech company. But they’re hearing more and more about the value of user research and they think it’s important and they want to get some of that, quote unquote, but they don’t know where to start. So I think that the UX mature companies are becoming more mature. Research ops are becoming more savvy. They’re becoming more efficient. They’re becoming more effective. In those tech-savvy companies, I’m also being asked more and more to build internal research programs to help upskill the, quote unquote, non-researchers. I call those like the temporary researchers or the accidental researchers, people that are finding that research is becoming a bigger portion of their job, or they have a specific question to explore, but they don’t necessarily have the skills or the confidence to go that. So I’m seeing lots of shifts. Nine years ago when I set off on my own, it was a big sales job. Now my clients, it’s always been word of mouth, but now I’m not selling so much. Where it comes to sales, it’s really in those discovery calls with people that are not UX mature. And quite frankly, I have difficulty and a lack of patience, if you will; I haven’t figured out how to bridge that gap.
Jamin: Yeah, it’s a–you have like known pain in the sales cycle that you’re addressing, but if it’s not necessarily known, then you can–but they just feel like they need it, almost FOMO, then you wind up in a lot of cycles of education.
Michele: Right. And it’s such a longer kind of sales cycle for me, whereas Slack, it was literally a half an hour conversation, send us samples, and boom, you seem like a really good fit.
Jamin: Yeah. Super easy.
Michele: Where the real estate company, I don’t mean to pick on them but it was just a kind of recent example, was like, OK, well, what are you looking to learn? And their questions are, we want to become more profitable. We want to maximize our revenue. And I’m like–
Jamin: Sounds like it’s owned by a private equity company.
Michele: I know. Well, my first response is like, get in line, sister. But my second response is like, you know what, that’s not a user research question, right? There’s a million ways we can become more profitable, but that’s not a user research question. And user research is not intended to boil the ocean. So then we go through this whole series of, OK, let’s peel back the onion, like what is an appropriate user research question, and what kinds of data do you have that we can leverage? Because we don’t want to start from ground zero if we don’t have to. If you’ve already done, you already have some data, let’s triangulate and use that to inform kind of our starting point. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
Jamin: All right, my last question. Actually, I have to ask this other one first. I’m sorry, I know we’re over on time. What is the biggest issue from your vantage point that’s facing market researchers? And I know you don’t consider yourself a market researcher, but facing market researchers, and I guess we’ll broaden it to user experience researchers if you feel more qualified there, currently?
Michele: You know, I think I mentioned this before, I truly think we’re becoming data obsessed and we’re collecting data to collect data’s sake. I mean, how many times can you be asked to rate your Lyft or Uber driver? Are you even looking at the app anymore when you open it? Right?
Jamin: I literally had this conversation with Shopify this morning on the podcast.
Michele: Oh, no way.
Jamin: We were like, she said, “We’re drowning in NPS.”
Michele: Exactly. Same thing. It’s like we’re so, we are Linus, right? We are this culture with this gray cloud of data around us that A) we don’t need and B) we’re not using. So I think that that’s a concern. Another concern or another opportunity or challenge I think is helping to upskill these, what I call these temporary or accidental researchers. So those people should feel comfortable and should be confident in knowing how to ask good questions and follow up to dig deeper. But we also need to upskill these people to share that knowledge back, to get it back into a repository, so we’re not asking the same questions over and over.
Jamin: Yeah, that’s interesting. I’ll say this on this episode because I don’t think it’ll actually make it on the Shopify conversation that I had because it’s a little off-topic, but one of the things I was impressed with that she was telling me about, Emma is her name, Emma was telling me about, is that she actually was in a managerial role inside of Shopify and then she wanted to move into UX and so she had to start basically her career over as an intern in the UX department and then get a mentor that then helped her navigate her career, and now she’s a lead UX researcher. But to me, I really, I think that this whole area around mentorship, which used to exist and in a lot of ways has gone away, it’s gonna have big opportunity in corporations.
Michele: So I definitely agree with you. There is a huge gap in user research education. In an ideal model, there would be a series of apprenticeships, but that just doesn’t exist today. It just doesn’t exist for our culture. But the classes that I’m offering hope to address this specific gap, because I truly think that you need really, really hands-on practice and you need a mentor to help you, guide you on your way and to give you feedback along the way. One of the best quotes that I was able to uncover from one of my students when I was trying to learn more about this gap, I think he said something along the lines of: User research is a long and lowly road. There’s no one there to let you know how well you’re doing along the way. And it’s very true. So I think that improving research education and making it more accessible and providing more hands-on experiences and practice for the newer generations is gonna be really paramount.
Jamin: That’s super–I love that. Opportunity for education in our space, especially considering the rate of growth that it’s going through right now, it’s like material. Somebody should seize that opportunity. Last question: What is your personal motto?
Michele: Oh my gosh, I have a lot of little -isms. In regard to user research or in regard to life, I would say there’s a couple. Start where you are. No matter where you are, just start where you are. If you’re a bartender and you want to learn about user research, do a study about who you think, what assumptions you have, about people who order Shirley Temples. And then go out and interview those people while they’re drinking their Shirley Temple. Just start wherever you are. And the more you ask questions and the more you improve your listening skills, the better you’re going to become. And then when you do the best you can until you know better, and then when you know better, you’ll do better. But don’t wait. Don’t wait for the perfect class. Don’t wait for the perfect mentor. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity. Because there’s never going to be one. Our culture just isn’t set up for those sort of apprenticeships now. And life is moving. But your life, you practice research in your day to day life. Are you looking to buy a new washer and dryer? Great. Make a research project about that. Are you looking to move into a new apartment? Great. Make a research project about that. Are you dating? Great. Make a research project about that.
Jamin: That’s an interesting way to think about it, actually.
Michele: Or make a research project about something at work. Maybe there’s something that’s not working very well. Maybe there’s a process or a procedure or an intake something. Make a research project around it. How are people doing that same thing at other companies? Do you need to upgrade something or purchase new software? Great. Make a research project out of it.
Jamin: And then after you’re done with that, check out Curiosity Tank to make sure that you’re using the right terms.
Michele: That’s right. That’s right. And pilot everything. Pilot everything including your pilots. If you’re gonna do an interview, pilot your interview. If you’re going to run a survey, pilot your survey. If you’re gonna run a card sort, highlight it. Highlight everything. I guarantee you’re gonna learn from every single pilot you do.
Jamin: My guest today has been Michele Ronsen. Michele, thank you very much for being on the podcast today.
Michele: Thank you.
Jamin: Curiosity Tank is the name of the company. If you’d like to get in contact with her, Michele, what is the easiest way for people to get in contact with you?
Michele: Probably on LinkedIn, actually. Michele with one L, and Ronsen, R-O-N-S-E-N.
Jamin: Perfect. And of course, as always, you can find her contact information in our show notes and on the blog. I hope you have a wonderful rest of your day.