Turning Generative Research into Actionable Insights with Lucy Denton of Dovetail

Shortly after Lucy Denton joined Dovetail as Product Design Lead, she was tasked with running a large-scale opportunity research project—and then making sense of all the insights. And the stakes were high; after all, she was researching user researchers! This week on the podcast, Lucy chatted with Erin and JH about how she knew it was time for a big generative research project, how she got the whole team involved, and what she did with all that research. 

Lucy talked about…

  • How she and the team knew it was time for a big generative project.
  • What Dovetail built with all this research.
  • What she would do differently if she had to do it all again.


[4:30] How to know when you need to zoom out and look at the big picture rather than taking feature requests as they come.

[11:13] Turning over 300 atomic insights into a roadmap.

[17:30] What the Dovetail team has shipped from their research.

[22:01] How Dovetail fast-tracks customer empathy by creating onboarding packs with key insights and interviews for new team members. 

[26:42] What Lucy would do differently if she had to do it all again.

About our guest

Lucy Denton is the Product Design Lead at Dovetail. She leads the team’s design and research efforts. Before joining Dovetail, Lucy was a designer at Atlassian for over five years. At Atlassian, she led user-centered design projects, a multidisciplinary team, and contributed to strategic design decisions. 


Lucy: [00:00:00] taking a design vision and turning it into shippable milestones or product iterations is the hardest part because you come up with this big ambitious vision.

And how do you scope that down into something that you can iteratively ship? I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons from that this time around. 

Erin: [00:00:38] Hello everybody and welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today we’re here with Lucy Denton, the Product Design Lead at Dovetail, our good friends. 

Today we’re going to talk about opportunity research that actually leads to action. So, you know, a lot of times you’re doing this kind of research, and get a lot of ideas. How do you take that research and turn it into actual good stuff, delivering value to customers. 

So, Lucy, thanks for joining us. 

Lucy: [00:01:03] Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here. 

Erin: [00:01:06] We’ve got JH here too.

JH: [00:01:08] Yeah, I feel like we’ve touched on this topic in like tangential ways of making sure that there’s impact in the research. So I’m excited to dig into it specifically. I think that’d be really cool.

Lucy: [00:01:16] Yeah. cool.

Erin: [00:01:17] Awesome. So Lucy, just to kick things off, I know that you have engaged in a really large discovery kind of opportunity research project as a small team. So I’m curious, how did that project come to be?

Lucy: [00:01:31] Yeah, sure. Well, it came from a few different things that were happening at the time. We did this project last year at the time the company was about 12 people. And we ran this project where we interviewed 45 people and then ran this big design ideation opportunity session formed a product strategy and created this design vision.

So I had just joined the company when we decided to do this project. And the reason behind it was we were getting a lot of feature requests on a particular feature in the product called insights. But it wasn’t clear what the problem that feature was solving was. So instead of building these little feature requests that people were giving to us, we wanted to dig deeper and think more holistically about that feature and what it was solving.

But also at the same time there was this, well, there is this trend of a research repository in the industry being something that people are looking for and there’s a need for. But I don’t think there’s a great solution for that in the market today. And insights kind of plays into that use case.

So we were thinking about that. And also at the same time, we were currently working on our video transcription feature. Which is a big differentiator for Dovetail. So we were thinking about what the next big differentiator was going to be and laying those tent pegs for our product vision. So we decided to do a research project and it first started off as just about insights. And we were going to talk to people about how they use insights and what they use it for, but we decided to take a step back and think more about the research landscape, the research ecosystem, how companies think about research, who’s involved in research.

What tools do they use? What process do they follow? So we decided to interview 45 people, and there were a mix of researchers, research ops, stakeholders of research, executives, customers of Dovetail, non-customers, and churned customers. And we spoke to them over two weeks, which was crazy. But the entire project went on for about nine weeks.

There was a lot of analysis to do, having spoken to 45 people. And then after that, we went through all of these design workshops and things that I mentioned. But that was the reason behind it. And it was. Obviously a huge investment for such a small team and a startup. But I think it was a really important thing for us to invest in, as we are laying those tent pegs of differentiating features and finding market fit for our product. 

JH: [00:04:14] Before we dig all the way into that. I’m just curious. How did you avoid the trap of you’re getting all these, you know, small feature requests, usually people just like we should build these, like here, they’re coming to us, they’re telling us what they want. How did you as an organization know to zoom out and do this process before deciding what to build next?

Lucy: [00:04:30] it’s a great question. Often when we build a feature and we put it out there and then we get feature requests for additional things that people want to be able to do with it, they make a lot of sense to us. Like people say, oh, I really want to you know, change the name of the speaker on the transcript and be like, I totally understand why you want to do that.

And we’ll build that. But the feature requests that were coming for insights, we just weren’t clear on what problem people were trying to solve or why they were asking for that. So, rather than just building all those little things that people were asking for, we wanted to really understand what they were trying to do.

And then think, is there a better solution for this, or is what they’re asking for the thing that we should build? We were just unsure. 

JH: [00:05:12] That makes sense. Yeah. So if stuff’s coming in and it’s kind of coherent, you’re happy to move it forward. If it’s something you can’t quite put your finger on, it’s like we should back up and really understand this. How did you land on 45 sessions in two weeks? Was that like the plan from the start or.

Cause that seems pretty intensive. I don’t know if I’ve heard of anyone doing that much that quickly.

Lucy: [00:05:30] it was really intense. I’ve never heard of anyone doing that before either. But we defined the groups that we wanted to talk to. Like we had you know, researchers and research managers and research operations and product managers and designers. We had customers and churned customers and non-customers.

So we followed the guide of, I think it’s five to eight people in each group. And that just ended up adding up to 45. I’m not sure in hindsight, if speaking to so many people was the right approach, it made the analysis process really overwhelming and difficult. But we got to a pretty good outcome.

So, I guess it paid off in the end. 

Erin: [00:06:11] So obviously you put some thought into what those groups were. Are they all, I mean, are those all your like ideal customer profiles or are you still, you’re still figuring that out? You said you were looking for like product market fit in areas. Is part of the idea to see where there’s alignment with, you know, vision between these different groups or because that’s quite a few different constituencies potentially to try to please. 

Lucy: [00:06:35] Yeah, well, at the time our primary goal was to understand the research landscape and the research ecosystem. So we wanted to talk to the people doing the research, but also the people enabling the research. Like research ops and research managers and executives, and also the people who are impacted by research.

Product managers and designers and stakeholders of research to just really get an understanding of how organizations think about research, how they work on research together, how they consume research, how they do research just a very broad picture. So that’s why we chose those different groups.

Erin: [00:07:14] was it effective? Did you get a sense of the landscape? 

Lucy: [00:07:17] It was super effective. Yes. We generated over 300 atomic findings from that project, which was huge. And we ended up learning so much, so many opportunities in the market that we can’t execute on them all, but that’s a great outcome to have so many learnings.

JH: [00:07:38] And was there a broader timeline that you were like working backwards from, of, you know, by this date, we need to know like what path we’re going down in terms of what to build or whatever, and that informed like the plan a little bit, or is it more just let’s just try to figure this out as soon as possible, because the sooner we have these insights, the better.

Lucy: [00:07:53] It was kind of the latter, I guess, with a small team, you have less dependencies on other departments. And you know, OKRs you have to meet and things like that. We knew we wanted to move quickly because in a startup, everything happens quickly. And time is really valuable because there is so much that we could be doing.

So we tried to do it as quickly as possible. But it was also like a really good investment of our time. So we wanted to make sure we did it properly. And so all up, I think we would have spent about a quarter, like three months on the entire project from doing the research to coming up with the product strategy and the design vision.

But that has really set us up for success for this year. So that’s a really good use of our time. 

Erin: [00:08:36] What was the range of these atomic insights in terms of, you know, how you went into the project, what you were thinking, and then what came out on the other side?

Lucy: [00:08:45] Yeah, well, as I said, we came up with over 300 insights at the end, so we learned a lot. But I would say the most surprising thing to me was there was a big emphasis on frustrations and research, a focus on the consumer experience of research. So, you know, generally research is being done in service of something.

An organization wants to learn about a particular topic or they want to improve something. And they’re going to do that research too. Do something with it, improve a design or make a decision or a form of roadmap. And so researchers have spent so much of their time thinking about how can I make this research engaging and how can I format it in a story so that my stakeholders will understand this and be able to use it.

And consumers on the other hand, struggle to engage in research and get access to research when they need it. And they have to ask researchers and rely on tribal knowledge. So there are a lot of opportunities in that area, which was a surprise to me. I thought we were going to learn a lot about the research process itself and the analysis process and the execution process.

But it was a big emphasis on that consumer experience and also understanding the impact of research. It’s very difficult because often you do some research and then maybe six months, maybe a year later. That research has turned into a feature or a product that exists in the market. And you can understand what impact that has had.

So there’s this kind of disconnect. And if researchers have struggled to understand the impact of their work, it makes it hard for them to communicate that back to the organization, which then in turn makes it hard for the organization to understand the value of research. And then it makes risk. It is hard for researchers to argue for head count and resources and all of that.

So it’s kind of a cycle. And that was a very interesting takeaway for me.

JH: [00:10:49] And when you have this volume of insights, so the 300 number is really stuck in my head is it now just okay. Our roadmap is set for a really long time. Like we have this huge backlog of stuff that we know and have discovered, or is it more like, Okay. We’ve, there’s a couple of clear opportunities here, so we’ll pursue those next.

And then we might need to, you know, from there, pull up and do a process like this again, or like what did you actually do? Like when you have that much information, it almost feels like it could be like locking you in a way.

Lucy: [00:11:11] it is overwhelming. Or it was when we first came up with all of these insights. We went through this design process and generated those ideas. And then we came up with our product strategy and thought about which ideas made sense for where we want to grow the product and the business.

So we have this kind of collection of things that we know we want to build this year. And to be honest, they are still kind of shuffling around on the roadmap. Just as the team grows and we get more capacity and things take longer than we expect. But the things that we know we want to build this year haven’t changed. I think there’s so many opportunities in this market and we have a lot of ideas for things that we could build. It’s just about hiring enough engineers and product people to be able to build them. 

I think we had a handful of ideas that we know are good ideas and good opportunities, but we’re sort of parking those till later on, because we think there’s more impact in the earliest stuff that we’re working on. So once we’ve built some of these things, we might come back and revisit some of those insights and those other ideas that we deprioritized and think about that opportunity again.  

Erin: [00:13:07] How did you do it? I want to get into how you did the analysis. Did you use dovetail? What kind of tools did you use to go through this overwhelming amount of insights? 

Lucy: [00:13:17] Yes. So many people ask us if dovetail does research using dovetail on dovetail. And the answer is yes, of course we use Dovetail.

So yeah, we recorded all of the interviews. We uploaded them to dovetail and transcribed those. And then we had the entire team tag them. We created a taxonomy.

We had a researcher on our team at the time and myself, we were leading the project, so we created a taxonomy and then we had the entire team tag, a couple of interviews. And then we had huge amounts of data points. So if you’re familiar with dovetail, there’s a part of the product where you can view those highlights.

We call them highlights. But quotes or tagged data in a table form. So we would filter that table by a particular tag and then go through that entire table and use keywords as insights to group those. And then we would go back and do another pass of Okay. This is about privacy. And write out a statement like researchers are considerate of participant privacy when they’re doing their analysis or whatever it was.

So, that’s how we would do it, but because we were both doing it, then once we’d created all of those insights, we had to go to our insights part of the product and just use filters to kind of. See what duplicates we had and consolidate. And we used fields on the insights to categorize the phase in the research life cycle that insight relates to.

So we had a research life cycle that was kind of how we organized things. So you would have an insight about privacy, for example being important during the analysis phase, and that would be related to analysis. And that’s how we organized our insights and how we decided which insights to bring into the ideation workshops that happened later on.

JH: [00:15:13] Yeah, so, all right. You’ve processed the insights. You’ve kind of made sense of them. It seems like now there’s some step right? Where these are the opportunity areas. These are things we could actually build as solutions. Like which one are we going to pick next to build first? What does that process look like for you all in terms of going from organized insights and ideas and all that to actually we’re going to build feature X next.

Lucy: [00:15:35] that was actually a difficult point in time for us. Because I guess. Like we have all come from bigger companies and usually the process goes, you do research, you come up with ideas and then you build the ideas. Sometimes but we did the research and then we ran these workshops and we had all of these ideas.

And then we were trying to decide which ideas made sense for us to build. And we were struggling a bit and. We didn’t really know how to progress. I think some of us had some gut feels around which ideas made sense for us to investigate further. But we couldn’t really articulate that. And so we realized that we didn’t have an articulated product strategy or like what we were aiming to achieve where we wanted to grow with our product at that point in time.

So we decided to. Pause on the ideas and get a few of us in a room and run a product strategy workshop. And in that session, we looked at competitors in the market and thought about our current product and where we wanted to grow. And we didn’t really come up with anything new in that workshop, but it was a useful exercise to sit down and all get on the same page and document that and play it back to the team so that we were all aligned.

And then it was easier to come back to the ideas and say, well, which of these ideas are going to help us grow in the ways that we want to grow. And we landed on three big ideas, and that has been our focus for 2021. And the other ideas are still great ideas. And I think they are something that we will come back to later on, but they’re just not a focus for right now, as it relates to our current strategy. 

Erin: [00:17:23] What have you shipped as a result of that research? You know, what’s been valuable, impactful. What have been the sort of results of taking action on that research?

Lucy: [00:17:34] We’ve shipped a few small things that came out of the vision. One of them was a people feature. We released recently where we discovered that, you know, obviously research is often tied to people, but dovetail didn’t have a concept of a person or a participant in the product. But sometimes people will discover research through participants.

So that’s one thing that we built early this year, but a lot of these ideas that come from opportunity research are big changes to the product or new products in themselves. So it’s a lot of work and a lot of time.

So we’ll hopefully have some big things coming soon in that repository consumer experience. But it’s taken us a while to get there. And I think that’s a big learning that we’ve taken from this project if you come up with this design vision. And I think that taking a design vision and turning it into shippable milestones or product iterations is the hardest part because you come up with this big ambitious vision.

And how do you scope that down into something that you can iteratively ship? I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons from that this time around. But I think that’s the hardest part. I’ve never seen anyone really do that successfully without any hiccups. 

Erin: [00:18:55] Yeah.

JH: [00:18:56] Yeah. Yeah. There’s parts of this that are always a little messy, right? I think that’s what’s tough when you read about whether it be research or product or design, and you read like a really slick blog post about the perfect way to do something or whatever. And it’s helpful. Right? Cause it’s like this concept to lay it out.

But when you actually do it, you inevitably hit some sort of bump that is hard to forecast and you have to kind of work around and stuff. So definitely part of it. Cool. You mentioned that like everyone was involved in this cause the team was small. His, the has the, like the insights and stuff leaked into other parts of the business outside of product and design.

Lucy: [00:19:25] Yeah, totally. I mean, they all exist in our research repository. So whenever someone new joins the team and they’re like, what are we, what was the research that led to this theme that we’re working on? Or what do we know about privacy? We can draw on that and that’s been a really useful asset to have which again, in turn plays into how valuable that research was for us, that we can continue to keep using it.

Another big learning of doing this project with such a fast-growing team is how do we continue to educate the team and bring the team around the research that happened previously, that still relates to the things that we’re building today. That’s been quite difficult. You get all these new people, join the team and they don’t know what’s happened before.

So we’ve recently been experimenting with some things to help. Continue talking about that research and talking about how this vision came to be and why it’s important to us. But it’s really helpful to have all of that research in the repository and it’s all connected back to its original source.

So I can easily play a few video clips for new people in the team and have them understand that research, which was something that we did just this week. We did like a research brown bag. Just of the research that came out of that project, which was a year ago now, but it’s still relevant. And having that, those video clips and those insights live in the research repository just makes that so easy.

So that’s how we’ve been doing that. But again, that’s another big challenge is bringing new people around the research.

Erin: [00:21:03] that’s a challenge too. It’s like knowledge management. Across right. Any information in an organization you’re like, people don’t know about that. 

You know, you, cause you, start to internalize things and how do you resurface them at the right moment to, to people who can benefit from them? 

Lucy: [00:21:20] exactly. And at my previous company it would often happen that, you know, a new person would join the team and they would have to go and do all of the same research again themselves, just so that they could understand. You know, the product and the vision and where we were heading and how customers use the tool, which is such a waste of time, right. Because research is quite expensive to run, it’s a lot of time and investment. And it would be quite frustrating as someone who’d been on the team for a long time, because you’d have these new people join the team, run all this research and they would come back and tell you all of these things that you already knew and that data. 

Erin: [00:22:00] Now everybody knows 

Lucy: [00:22:01] But their previous research was just so inaccessible to new people because it would live in Dropbox and Confluence pages. And wouldn’t be discoverable or it was disconnected from the original interview. So they weren’t those video clips or things like that. people could read and understand. So having it in the repository has been incredibly valuable.

Another thing that we’ve done is. Created a little, like welcome to the team pack that has a few important interviews or valuable interviews. A few important insights, some like little up highlight reels of customers talking about different areas of the product. And when new people join the team, that’s something that they can explore in dovetail.

And that’s been super valuable. 

Erin: [00:22:51] that’s great.

JH: [00:22:52] I’d imagine the video clips make it pretty visceral for people. So they’re watching the clip and they, and it’s probably as if they had been doing it themselves. But is that actually true? Cause I’m just thinking of you know, tell somebody the stove is hot. Here’s a video of somebody touching the stove and burning their hand.

It’s always a little different when you burn your hand or like you’re the one who did the research and you hear something from it. Does the repository hold up and serve that pretty well?

Lucy: [00:23:11] I think it does. If you imagine if you’ve ever observed an interview, it’s kind of a similar experience. If you attend an interview and someone else’s running it, but you’re sitting there listening I find that relevant. Really valuable. I’ll often take notes so that I can really engage. 

I’m like one of those people who needs to be writing as I’m listening to it and really absorb it. So I’ll do that when I’m listening to recordings on dovetail that other people have facilitated and it’s just I’m observing a session. But I suppose it probably depends on people’s learning styles. If they have to be running it or just listening to it. 

Erin: [00:23:49] Yeah, again, I do it. That’s the struggle with the onboarding content too in general or anything like that that’s asynchronous. Where it can be really engaging, but almost like you need a quiz afterward or something, not that anyone would not fully pay attention you know, in an asynchronous context, but it’s funny where you mentioned the note taking, we were talking to a researcher the other day who mentioned that she takes just like gobs books and books of notes and all of her sessions and never looks at them again.

Right. It’s just about the active listening aspect of it, which I thought was really interesting. 

I’m curious, based on, you know, you talked about just like so many insights and. You know, for all you did. I think nine weeks it’s pretty good. Got a lot done and, you know, I’m sure it felt expensive, but still nine weeks.

What is that at the end of, at the end of the day? What is nine weeks? So I’m curious what advice you would have if any, for, you know, a company trying to embark on something similar who, I guess the, what kicked this off for you, it sounded as if we’re getting all these requests. They don’t super make sense to us.

Like we don’t necessarily, what’s the why behind the why? What’s the real root need here? A company that’s in that situation. Would you have done anything differently or would you recommend doing something so similar? 

Lucy: [00:25:02] I think it was really valuable. Things for us to do. And I think it is quite unusual when I talk to other startups especially for a startup to do that kind of very exploratory research. I think part of the reason that it was so valuable for us was that we didn’t really focus on dovetail in the interviews.

We weren’t asking people like, how do you use dovetail and show us your dovetail. We were just asking about it. How they think about research, how do you do research? And sometimes dovetail would come up and we would talk about that, but it was broader than that. And that really helped us to understand the opportunities in the market.

Outside of the existing dovetail product, which has really helped us to think about how we can expand that product. And I don’t see many people doing that kind of research, especially in a startup. And I think that was really valuable for us. I think that executives always want things to happen faster and cheaper.

And how can you get to the outcome? Faster. But bringing our executives on that journey really helped. And our CEO and our CTO, obviously we’re building a research tool. They’ve pretty bought into the idea of doing research. And I see Benjamin was a designer before he was a CEO. So it’s a bit easier for us in that sense, I suppose, but we had them involved.

And I think that really helped to show the value of what we were doing. 

Erin: [00:26:26] Yeah. 

JH: [00:26:27] are there any like nitty gritty details of things that you could have improved in terms of oh, I wish we had timestamped insights during calls or done this or that, or you know, if you’re going to do it again yourself, knowing that it’s valuable, any like little things you would improve.

One cool trick. I always liked that kind of stuff.

Lucy: [00:26:42] I think I would approach the analysis process differently. It was so overwhelming and I had never done analysis on that scale or in this way, either at my previous company, we would always do post-it note affinity mapping. So using a table, it was really different for me, but I know that’s something that a lot of researchers are used to.

I would find ways to scope it down to like focus. The data points that I was analyzing at one time. Cause I found just looking at so many data points at one time, really overwhelming. So I would probably do that differently, but. I would also, I think we got to this point where we didn’t have that product strategy and it was a bit confusing for a while and we didn’t know how to progress.

So I think in hindsight, that was something that we could have reflected more on, but I think it’s always going to be a messy process. I think it’s not like a clean medium style process that you can just cookie cut into different situations. So just being able to roll with the punches a bit, I’m being a bit flexible with the process and really stopping and thinking what do we need right now to be able to progress what decisions do we need to make? What information do we need for something that we had to do when we realized that we needed to think about a broader strategy. So. Yeah. Being flexible with the process is another thing that I think is important.

Erin: [00:28:02] What are you excited for next?

Lucy: [00:28:05] I’m super excited to see this design vision come to life. I’ve done a lot of design visions, like long-term design visions three, five years out in my career and you never really get to see them come to life, but this one is coming to life and it’s really exciting. I’m really excited for these big, new opportunity plays that we’re making to come into the product and for people to experience them and to get feedback on them. So as a designer, it’s really exciting to see something big become a reality. 

JH: [00:28:40] Has the excitement level for you and others been consistent the whole time? Cause I think so. Sometimes, you know, you hear like the ups and downs and like the trough of sorrow, people will say around for startups, whatever. But I can imagine a world. And I don’t know if this has been your experience where, you know, you get all these insights and you are super excited because, you know, you have all this clarity of what to do.

Then you start to build some and you realize this is really hard. It’s gonna take awhile, we have to cut the scope and this and that. And you’re just trying to get out of the door and it’s maybe a little late or whatever, but then you see people start using it and it’s exciting again. And you’re back kind of on upslope.

Has it been up and down or have you all been pretty excited and kind of motivated on this throughout.

Lucy: [00:29:13] Yeah, it’s been up and down. Like you describe. At the beginning we were really excited and when we kicked it off, I was so excited and I think the team was really excited and we really hit the ground running. But then things are hard and we are really ambitious at dovetail and we’re not actually that good at cutting scope because we want to do everything.

So I think that’s a big learning for us. We sort of took on a lot and then it took a long time and we had this reflection of all. We probably could have scoped this to be able to get something out there and start learning about it. So that was a bit of a low point, but it was really valuable learning, of course.

And now we’re getting close to shipping it. And so it’s pretty exciting again we hit pause and broke it into smaller milestones and we’ve been chipping away at those. So we’re getting close and that’s really exciting, but yeah, it’s not easy at all when you’re trying to do these big strategic plays.

And it’s a bit of a process, but overall, I’m really happy that we’re able to do it. 

Erin: [00:30:14] Well we’re excited to, to watch and see what happens and root you on.

Lucy: [00:30:20] Thank you. 

JH: [00:30:21] for sure. Yeah. Dovetail’s a really cool product. I’m excited to see where you guys go.

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