House Cats, Research Repositories, and the Economy

Roberta Dombrowski, VP of UX Research at User Interviews, is back for the second installment of Tacos and Tide Pods with Erin and JH. In this episode, they discuss the importance of an effective personal productivity process, overestimated expectations, and the (very Tide Pod-y) state of the global economy.

In this episode:

  • Creating a research repository at User Interviews
  • Setting up an effective personal productivity process
  • Overestimated expectations
  • Meetings vs asynchronous collab


  • [0:59] Roberta’s Taco: User Interviews’ research repository
  • [2:34] JH’s Taco: The importance of setting up the right process or framework, depending on the type of work you’re doing
  • [4:28] Erin’s Taco: Personal time off
  • [5:39] Roberta’s Tide Pod: “I’m just a house cat”
  • [6:26] JH’s Tide Pod: Overestimated expectations
  • [10:39] Erin’s Tide Pod: The economy
  • [12:41] Meetings vs async

Sources mentioned in the episode:

About our guest

Roberta Dombrowski is the VP of User Research at User Interviews (and a User Research Yearbook Class of 2022 member—check out her profile here). In her free time, Roberta is an adjunct professor through Boise State University’s Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning (OPWL) program, a mindfulness teacher, and devoted cat parent.


[00:00:00] Roberta Dombrowski: When we were at the Learner’s conference, I was talking to one of the members of our team and he said, “I’m just a house cat.” I was just like, “Oh my gosh, that is the same metaphor for me. I’m very ritualistic.”

[00:00:17] Erin May: This is Erin May.

[00:00:19] John Henry Forster: I’m John Henry Forster and this is Awkward Silences.

[00:00:24] Erin: Silences. [laughs] Hello, everybody. Welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today I’m here with Roberta, she’s back for her second installment of Tacos and Tide Pods in which we share the good and not-so-good things in life, work, and research, and otherwise. Great to see her too. What’s up, guys?

[00:00:49] JH: Hey, how’s it going?

[00:00:50] Roberta: Doing well.

[00:00:51] Erin: Awesome. We’re trying a new platform. We got video, maybe. Let’s jump into it. Roberta, give us a taco or a tide pod. You start.

[00:00:59] Roberta: Yes, I’ll go with a taco. The research team at User Interviews has been rolling out a research repository over the last few months. It just feels like, over the last few weeks, everything has come together. That’s been really exciting. We’re doing reporting for the team for JH’s team, a number of the PMs. It’s such a beast. I had no idea how much work it was going into it initially. Lots of lessons learned too.

[00:01:32] Erin: Yes, I heard a stat yesterday in our monthly product pulse about the number of insights in this piece of the repository. I can’t remember the number, but it was-

[00:01:40] Roberta: It’s a lot.

[00:01:41] Erin: -a lot.

[00:01:43] Roberta: It’s like 15,000. Each week I log on and it’s like another 1,000 or another 2,000 so it’s really quickly growing.

[00:01:53] JH: It’s been impressive. It’s been super helpful. I know the team as we’ve started to get it in there and have it categorized. My team’s been working with your team more and more so it’s been really cool to see that payoff because to your point, it is a lot of work to get to that milestone.

[00:02:04] Roberta: Yes, for sure.

[00:02:04] Erin: Yes, I’m excited to start using it too. What do our users think about what came up the other day? PII that was the–

[00:02:12] Roberta: I can envision you using it, Erin already because we have a lot of personas in there that you can walk by so I’m really excited.

[00:02:21] Erin: Who said it? I know what [crosstalk] said, but who said it? That’s very exciting.

[00:02:28] Roberta: We got it for you, yes.

[00:02:29] Erin: We’re very excited for the repository. I’m sure we’ll talk about it a lot more in the future too. [unintelligible 00:02:35] what do you got? What’s your taco?

[00:02:36] JH: I’ll do a taco on making sure that you’re like up the right process or frameworks depending on the type of work you’re doing. I think a revelation we’ve had on the product side, and I think this applies to research as well is we have four core product teams right now working on very different sorts of problems and areas. We’ve had a one size fits all approach around how we do outcomes, and set goals, and hold the teams accountable. I think what we’ve learned is just that depending on the work we’re doing, that can feel a little off.

We’ve been having some conversations around how we can keep the same spirit of being outcome-focused and give the teams a lot of ownership and empowerment of what they do.

Maybe tweak the approach and play with their duration or play with some different types of goals, depending on the type of work we’re doing, and how we approach it. We haven’t fully figured that out yet, but I think it’s a good reminder that in research and product work, it’s rarely one size fits all. It’s been I think, a good reflection for us as a team to have those conversations.

[00:03:31] Erin: It’s funny. Goals are so important, which is why I think we want to spend so much time setting them, right but then we feel these moments of like, “Oh, we’re we spending too much time working about work. Can you get back to basics, just like, what are we doing to move our objectives forward? How do we measure that somehow?” Then it seems simpler for a moment and then you try to calibrate and get it all to fit, cross-functioning. Then it gets more complicated again, but it’s a process.

[00:03:56] JH: Yes, and for our business, we’re a pretty high volume business and we have lots of quant data. There are some things we can set that are very measurable and they’re like an optimization problem. You make investments, you run experiments, you see it move, and you chase, what’s working. Other things are much more experiential of, “Oh, we need to improve numerous things about this experience before we probably see the payoff of much higher adoption or better usage.” How do you deal with that lag, and make sure that the team has a way to know that they’re making the right investments and moving forward?

It’s been fun to think through that. How about you, Erin, what do you got.

[00:04:30] Erin: PTO, I’m here to PSA PTO. Take your PTO. I’ve been telling everyone on my team, I’ve got someone out for two weeks now. I’m going out for three weeks. In two weeks, we’re going to have who’s counting. It’s important. It’s been a long two years with the pandemic. I think taking vacation is healthy. I’ve been at these interviews almost five years and I don’t think I’ve taken more than a week off. I’m very, very excited to just really unplug and turn 40 in Italy.

[00:05:02] JH: Nice. Oh, I didn’t realize the birthday was part of it. That’s fine.

[00:05:05] Erin: Oh, yes. [chuckles] [00:05:07] Roberta: Very well deserved. We’ll all be living vicariously.

[00:05:11] JH: Anytime you do a vacation, that’s more than one week, it just feels so different. A week vacation is very good, but when you get into two weeks, I’ve done one, three-week vacation, and then in the previous job, I had a sabbatical. Those ended up being close to five weeks. Once you get over the week, it’s crazy.

[00:05:25] Erin: I’ll be a little itchy at first. It takes a couple of days to get off that slack, email, dopamine hit, and just enjoy swimming instead but I think I’ll survive. I think I’ll get very cold. PTO, take it. Tide pods. Who’s got a tide pod?

[00:05:42] Roberta: I can go. It’s like, it’s end of quarter. There’s planning going on. It’s just a lot all happening and yesterday morning, the team knows my basement flooded too. [chuckles] When we were at the Learner’s conference, I was talking to one of the members on our team and he said, “I’m just a house cat.” I was just like, “Oh my gosh, that is the same metaphor for me.” I’m very ritualistic and there’s just been a lot of planning prioritization traveling going on. Looking forward to just downtime for the summer, like you’re saying, Erin.

[00:06:19] Erin: Awesome. House cat time.

[00:06:22] Roberta: Yes. House cat and fun. [chuckles] [00:06:26] JH: My tide pod. I’ve been over the last couple of weeks trying to do a lot better with being more intentional of my time and being like, “Oh, if I could get a couple of focus sprints throughout the week of things I need to get done, that’ll be great.” I think my own expectations were a little detached from reality. I was like, “Oh, I could probably get six, seven, eight, focus blocks where I do heads-down work for half-hour to an hour. I actually tracked it last week and was really diligent about trying to set time aside and do it. I think I got three.

I think the lesson for me has been, it was actually really helpful to do that, to like, “What do I think I can get done in a week?” Then actually I hold myself accountable and track it and then be like, “Okay, I need to really recalibrate and be a little bit more realistic with how I can spend my time.” I’m going to give myself a tide pod for my expectations, but I’ve learned some stuff.

[00:07:12] Erin: I think it’s like, I don’t know, the time optimist is I think something you have to really fight against. I don’t know a lot of people who low ball, how much they think they can get done, particularly productive folks. It’s like, “Oh, I definitely do that,” but you can, I think counterintuitively end up getting a lot more done if you set your expectations a little bit lower, give yourself some breathing room. I don’t know. I know I feel that way when I have an hour of, “Oh, I have an hour, not urgently staring down the barrel of something I have to get done. It’s like, that’s where creativity comes from and ideas and creating a little slack.

[00:07:48] JH: I think when you are inflating what you think you can get done, then you’re always feeling like you’re playing from behind and you’re stressed and it’s a hard place to do good work. If you’re a little bit more honest of like, “I can get these two or three things done, that’ll be good.” The joke I think of in my head or the analogy is when we had the second kid and we had an infant and a toddler, we would really just tell ourselves on weekends, “We can get one thing done today. We will do one thing and that will be a huge win.”

It was so freeing to just be like, “We’re not going to clean and go to the supermarket and do whatever. It’s one thing and then that’s it.” I think need to do that with work a little bit too.

[00:08:24] Erin: Absolutely.

[00:08:25] Roberta: Yes, so true. Essentialism is one of my favorite books that I actually read on a recurring cadence for that very thing. It’s just like simplify. Simplify as much as possible.

[00:08:37] JH: A quick awkward interruption here. It’s fun to talk about user research, but you know what’s really fun is doing user research and we want to help you with that.

[00:08:46] Erin: We want to help you so much that we have created a special place. It’s called for you to get your first three participants free.

[00:08:57] JH: We all know we should be talking to users more so we went ahead and removed as many berries as possible. It’s going to be easy. It’s going to be quick. You’re going to love it so get over there and check it out.

[00:09:06] Erin: Then when you’re done with that, go on over to your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review, please.

[00:09:15] Roberta: I don’t think I’ve ever reread a book in my life.

[00:09:19] JH: I have, but very rarely. Not many.

[00:09:22] Erin: I have seen many books out there. Essentialism, what else is on your reread list Roberta?

[00:09:27] Roberta: I read the Alchemist every once in a while. That’s a good one. It’s usually books because your perspective changes so much. I find that I look at things from different perspectives or it’s like revisiting things like, “Oh yes, I need to incorporate this again.”

[00:09:43] Erin: I almost don’t want to because the only books I would want to reread would be my favorite books. Then I would almost certainly, at least I think I would like them less than when I did when I was younger, more impressionable, whatever magic alchemy was there at the time will no longer– who knows? Maybe you find a new way to love it.

[00:10:05] Roberta: Also, it might not be the whole book. It might just be a chapter.

[00:10:07] Erin: Sure. 

[00:10:09] JH: It’s weird movies are very different in that respect, you know what I mean? When you’re a kid and you watch your favorite movie over and over, you like it more and you know all the words and stuff. Books are different. I feel like musicians have it the best. We’re like everyone just wants to hear you play the hits all the time. It’s like you have a couple of awesome songs and then– it’s probably annoying for them.

[00:10:25] Erin: Very annoying for them, I would think.

[00:10:26] JH: You get to go play those back all the time and everyone’s excited to hear them again. It’s a good gig. If you have a good catalog of a couple of bangers, you’re good to go.

[00:10:33] Erin: Yes, absolutely. Need a couple of banger books. My repertoire. What is my tide pod? Let’s see, it’s written down. Oh, yes, the economy.

Erin: The economy is my tide pod. The economy is cyclical. I do not claim to be a macroeconomist at all by a long shot, but it is cyclical and COVID. There was the panic, and then there was everyone staying home and Zoom and order all your stuff at home and e-commerce and this huge boom and then tech boom, and it’s like, “Is it going to burst?”

Then, “No, we’re good. We’re good.” I don’t know. I think people are losing their jobs. It’s sad. You hate to see it, but hopefully, it’s quick and we get to the other side of it sooner than later. I guess the tide pod would be high highs and low lows, and can we find some stability for our work and our lives and the economy and so on?

[00:11:36] JH: This is very non-serious [chuckles] but I always like doing the sarcastic tag-on to stuff of like, “In this economy?” Somebody wants you to do something, you’re like, “In this economy?” It’s much funnier to do that when the economy is going well. It’s a downer. It’s much more serious when– [crosstalk] [00:11:53] Erin: It’s the economy is stupid.

[00:11:55] JH: I’m going to put that joke on the shelf for a little bit.

[00:11:58] Roberta: Yes. How do we get the economy to be a house cat?

[00:12:02] Erin: Just chill. Chill economy, chill inflation, chill unemployment. I think hopefully research– as we know, research is long-term, certainly growing in a very important but seeing lots of folks figuring out their next steps and wishing you all luck out there if that’s you.

[00:12:22] JH: Yes, it is sad to see all the people being affected by layoffs and everything else.

[00:12:25] Erin: We were trying to get this done in time because I know we all have hard stops, but now we have six minutes left, so I don’t know. Any other hot things on your mind, folks, this week? This is Awkward and silent. [chuckles] [00:12:39] JH: No, I don’t think we need to keep this in. I’ve been thinking a bit about working in meetings versus async, and I think the thing that’s tough that gets underappreciated with meetings is yes, it takes up time in the calendar and it chunks every day, whatever, but you know everyone’s going to show up and pay attention to the thing for the 30 minutes.

[00:12:59] Erin: They’ll show up. [chuckles] [00:13:01] JH: [unintelligible 00:13:02] Whereas I feel like what’s tough about async if you don’t have the right culture or processes around it is like, “I share this doc, can you look it over by Wednesday?” It’s like most people are going to make time for it and give back to you, but some people don’t. I’m guilty of that too. It’s like, that’s the piece of when you put the thing on the person’s calendar, you’re like giving them the to do, which is invasive but also makes it happen. I know Erin, your team does a good job with Asana and other tools. There’s other ways around it. I don’t know, I’ve just been thinking about that.

[00:13:29] Erin: It is true, though, and everyone has different notification– this is such a minutia of digital remote work, but everyone has different notification settings on how many apps do we use that have a common function? Asana, all the Google stuff, Figma, Notion, the list goes on and on and on. Then folks have different settings for how they get notified about stuff they need to comment on. Everyone’s just supposed to know what everyone’s settings are? I don’t think so.

For example, take a Google Doc. I only get notified if it’s my doc that I created or someone tags me. Every once in a while, I’ll find some comment that was clearly meant for me that’s on a thread I’m on that I didn’t know about three months later. I’m like, “Oh God, I really wish I had seen this three months ago but I didn’t get notified.”

[00:14:22] JH: What I actually do for Google Docs, specifically, if I know it’s one, there’s going to be discussion in that I’m curious about, it’s like, “Oh, it’s a goal-setting doc. I want to follow this.” If you go up into the little bell or the comment thing, you can change it so you get notified about any comment. If I go into a doc that I know is going to be like that, I’ll change it right away because I’m like, “I’m going to miss stuff otherwise.”

[00:14:39] Erin: That’s smart.

[00:14:41] Roberta: That is smart.

[00:14:42] Erin: Maybe it’s like what you don’t know won’t hurt you. Maybe I’ve just missed out on work I didn’t mean to be part of.

[00:14:47] JH: What I’ve been trying to do to feel more comfortable with the notifications after that, I’ve just been really making it clear to my manager and my direct reports that here’s my cellphone number. I make everyone text me so I know they have it in there somewhere. I’m going to manage my notifications how I need them, but if you ever need me, just text me. That’s fine. I’ll always see a text, not a big deal. It can be very minor stuff, it doesn’t need to be a fire drill. That way I can close slack, close my email and not freak out for a little bit.

[00:15:14] Roberta: Same. I’ve been embracing the closing-out slack a lot more lately.

[00:15:18] Erin: It is that people need to know what people are doing. How do you do that at scale? It’s been real. I hope everyone has a good rest of the week and we’ll talk to you all later. We’ve got this new tool, so we might do audience live streaming calling, I don’t know. The world’s our oyster, it’s going to be dope. Stick with us and talk to you all soon. Thanks, Roberta. Thanks, JH.

[00:15:42] Roberta: See you.

[00:15:42] Roberta: Thanks.

[00:15:42] Erin: Bye.

[00:15:45] Erin: Thanks for listening to Awkward Silences, brought to you by User Interviews.

[00:15:50] JH: Steam music by Fragile Gang.

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