Participatory UX Research – with Alexis McNutt Unis of Better

What is participatory research, anyway? And how do you do it? Alexis McNutt Unis, Lead UX Researcher, Homeowner Experience at Better is here to explain.

She shared how she involves stakeholders in engaging workshops, co-creates with participants, and takes research readouts to the next level to drive a participatory research practice that works for everyone. 

Alexis talked about…

  • How she gets stakeholders excited about long research workshops. 
  • The 5 E’s of participatory research.
  • What she does with all those co-created assets.

📚 Further Learning – Reflexivity in Qualitative Research: Why You’ll Never Be An Objective Observer


[1:29] What is participatory research anyway?

[4:58] How Alexis does participatory research.

[11:54] The five Es—Entice, Enter, Engage, Exit, Extend.

[23:09] How do you decide when to involve which people in participatory research?

[32:35] Participatory research strategies for beginners.

[37:20] How Alexis sets expectations for participatory sessions.

About our guest

Alexis McNutt Unis is the Lead UX Researcher, Homeowner Experience at Better. She’s passionate about creating great experiences for user and for the people she works with. At Better, she works with stakeholders in product, engineering, and design to create magic.


[00:00:00] Alexis: Honestly, I feel like everyone really enjoys research when they’re doing it. I think usually it’s a matter of finding time on people’s calendars, but the first time they show up to an engaging session where they can talk about the ideas, they can kind of play with them. They can do a couple of activities. They usually want more after that. 

[00:00:39] Erin: Hello everybody and welcome back to awkward silences. Today we’re here with Alexis McNutt Unis, the Lead UX Researcher at Better. We’re going to be talking today about participatory research, something I’ve been hearing a lot about recently and excited to talk with you about this alexis. Thanks for joining us. 

[00:00:57] Alexis: Thanks for having me. 

[00:00:59] Erin: I’ve got JH here too.

[00:01:01] JH: Yeah, I’m curious to learn more about how you actually define participatory research. Cause it feels like kind of a broad umbrella, but I’d imagine there’s like some more specific ways to kind of, you know, pin it down. So, very excited for this conversation.

[00:01:12] Erin: Well, let’s just jump right into that alexis. Can you tell us a little bit about it for folks maybe newer to this topic or starting to dig in? When we talk about participatory research, what is that? 

[00:01:29] Alexis: Yeah, sure. So I think it can mean a lot of things, but for me really it just means bringing people along with you in the research process. So, That could be with stakeholders. You know, people on your team who are doing the designing or working on the product themselves, or it could be with your end user, your customers. So really thinking about how we can use research as a mechanism to bring people together around different perspectives and experience. And I try to do that as much as possible. 

[00:01:58] Erin: Right. So if they, you know, if research is a tool to gather insight, you’re saying it’s, it is that it’s not just that it’s also actually a means to build a connection to bring people together that it’s, there’s this journey element to it, not just the destination.

[00:02:15] Alexis: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And I always find that you know, The room is as interesting as what you bring into it. So as a researcher what I realized is the conversations that I’m collaboratively building with my customers and that I’m bringing my team along with me in the process starts to really directly feed all of the conversations we’re having in that room around what the product is, what the vision is for it. So how can we take the things that we’re learning and actively work on them, build on them and just fill the room with them. And I like to do that in a lot of ways. I like to create a lot of artifacts. So journey maps or diagrams or just start to build a sort of collection of things that we can then all sort of look at that we can take apart, build back together and that we can develop, you know, a clear understanding of what it is we want to do with our product to move things forward and that it all considers our customers. It all considers our stakeholders in the end.

[00:03:20] JH: The other term you hear a lot in research these days is like around the democratization of research. And I’m curious, like how that concept interplays with participatory research. Is it like a subset, a Venn diagram? Like how do those kinds of concepts relate in your head?

[00:03:35] Alexis: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a really good question. So, I definitely don’t think that research is just for researchers. I think it’s something that we all are doing regardless. You know, whether we know it or not. And I think a lot of our product managers. They’re responsible for creating these sort of product requirement documents.

And in order to create those documents, they’re sifting through a ton of information. They’re listening to calls, they’re looking through all of the data sets we have at better, which is definitely a ton of them. And they’re as much researching as I might be when I’m looking at my learning agenda when I’m building a research plan and when I’m talking to my customers. I even think, you know, engineers when they’re viewing customers interacting with that product, that’s research as well.

So I think this idea that research happens at the front of things or research happens as a part of the planning process is true. But I think research happens really at all points in time all the time. And that as researchers, we have this ability to acknowledge that and Bring that to light and share that we can be more holistic in our approach. Moving forward, we can work together and we can recognize these all as moments in a research process. If that makes any sense, hopefully it does. 

[00:04:50] Erin: Yeah, absolutely. So how did you become such an advocate for participatory research?

[00:04:58] Alexis: So I think I really understand customers. I think it is a collaborative process. And I think what participatory research allows us to do is work with our customers to understand them. It creates less room for assumptions. You know, if I’m listening to a customer and then I kind of go back in a room and I say, okay, This is what they must mean.

if I’m working with them through something, I can ask them questions, we can build a sort of journey map. And they’re working with me to understand it. So I’m testing my assumptions in real time. And it allows for just a ton of context so I can really understand their situation better. And what I love doing is. First, you know, having an interview with a customer to understand, for example how we’re communicating loan costs. Just quick understanding of, what does it mean to you? How do you understand that? And then come back to them and say, Hey, this is what I heard.

Does that sound right? Did I make the right assumptions here? Are we sort of onto something here and have them kind of pick it apart with me. And then maybe build something with them and say, oh, Is this kind of getting at some of the things we’ve been talking about you know, what, if we change this, how might we re-imagine this part of the process? That to me is a really rich conversation that starts to start to build something in a different and really helpful way. That’s sort of one way I really, I really enjoy the participatory research process. 

The other is really about engaging all of those product design and engineering folks in that process. It helps drive consensus and momentum around these ideas. So once they see customers you know, working with them on an idea it creates a lot of excitement. And it also just creates alignment. We all understand what we’re working toward. And we’re able to do it with a lot of content.

[00:06:48] JH: And just to continue asking some basic questions that build off of. Like, so when you say participatory research, like who is participating is it anyone or are there certain types of profiles or roles or departments that are most likely to participate and then how are they participating? So like, obviously, like you kind of spoke to there a little bit of, you know, shadowing a session or seeing what people say firsthand is maybe the obvious thing that comes to mind, but there’s lots of ways I’d imagine for somebody to be engaged in the research process.

So like the kind of who and how of this. Curious to get your 

[00:07:16] Alexis: Yeah. Yeah. Actually, it gets pretty complicated. But definitely there’s always sort of the core team that’s working on it. And so here at Better, I would say the product design and engineering teams work very closely with each other. And I as research actually, I sit in design. But we are kind of like our own sort of newer team, the research team. And we all collaborate on the building of the plan and the research activities. So that’s, I would say the smallest circle of involvement and we’re all very engaged. 

And then I would say there’s, you know, other circles. So I guess there’s like concentric circles. So the core team is at the center and then you have your sort of key stakeholders then are in that next circle. So you have your sales folks, you have your operations folks. They’re the ones that are interfacing directly with your customers. They have a ton of knowledge.

They have a ton of expertise on what customers are saying, what their pain points might be. What’s coming up in conversation every day with them. So they’re a great resource that you can easily access and they can really participate and engage in the research with you. And honestly, they really do love. They’re there in these conversations every day. And they love engaging in redefining what that product might look like in the future. So they’re sort of that next level. 

And then outside that you then start to have your external stakeholders. So these are your customers. These are maybe other partners you have in the industry. They might be other organizations that are doing things similarly or differently that you want to better understand. But they’re sort of that outer ring. 

And so when you’re building a research plan, you want to consider who are those primary stakeholders who are the secondary stakeholders that are more but not maybe as much as that core group. And then the customers where you might have a few different touch points. But there’ll be a little bit fewer. I kind of try to think of it in different layers. If that makes sense.

[00:09:10] Erin: Yeah, definitely. When you talk about the co-creating nature of some of the artifacts, For example, you were talking about creating whatever rung of this concentric circle you’re in, whether it’s with customers or, you know, with the design team or it was sales or whoever it is, it seems like that really would require a pretty let’s say flexible improv kind of approach to research, right? If you’re creating things together and you don’t know what these other parties are going to bring to the table, it seems like it might require a pretty open mind in terms of like, how are we going to get from point A to point B or maybe even indeed what point B is. And I’m curious how. How you work with that, the uncertainty, the open-ended nature, the perhaps not perfectly linear nature of how participatory research might play out. 

[00:10:05] Alexis: Yeah. I start with really exploratory conversations where I’m starting to understand from the internal and from the external side how do you define your loan costs? What works? What doesn’t work? What questions do you have? Those are like my three favorite ways of framing things: what’s working great, what’s bad, and then how might we, you know, re-imagine it, where are there opportunities that you see? And I asked that probably in any research project that gives me a good idea of the lay of the land. Then from that, I might say, okay, there are certain activities we can do collaboratively together that are going to help us get at some of the questions we have from that sort of baseline. 

If we’re talking about communicating loan costs, for example, we might want to do something like a bullet diagram where we have them think about different ways we communicate loan costs, say the rates and the loan terms. Maybe it’s the timing of when we’re communicating. Maybe it’s a communication mechanism we’re doing.

Maybe it’s the email, the texts, the calls or just on any sort of resource on any sort of site and just get them sort of dumping their thoughts on it. I love the bull’s-eye diagram just for putting in what’s top of mind. And you try to put the most important things and those sort of secondary or tertiary things towards the outer rings. That’s always helpful. 

If it’s something that has a sort of beginning, a middle and end, I like to do a journey map. So if we’re looking at someone’s experience throughout the entire mortgage process, say when they’re completing their application all the way until they fund. And we’re trying to find pain points in that process. We’ll start with a journey map. I usually like to start with five Es. So rather than sort of picking out specific milestones or phases, just start with something simple where it’s entice, how do you learn about this thing? How do you learn about better? Enter, how do you submit your application?

Engage. How do you move that application forward? Fund. How do you exchange information, upload your information? Exit what’s the experience moving out and extend, how do you go into servicing after funding alone? So hopefully that’s a little bit heavy on the mortgages. Hopefully you all I didn’t throw out too many terms there, but thinking about an experience from beginning to end using entice, enter, engage, exit and extend.

[00:12:41] Erin: Yeah, this is great. So the, you know, the, what might unfold and the exact sort of details of what you get out of the co-creation process is a question mark, but you have these kinds of contours and these frameworks in mind, such that it doesn’t like go off the rails and we, how did we end up over here?

Right? You know, what, what kind of information is going to get you where you want to go? 

[00:13:05] Alexis: Yeah. Yeah, I have, it’s like a deck of cards I have in my pocket of activities. And I know them well. And I will Take out one of the cards when I feel like it’s the right moment in time, they’re usually very easy to set up like a bullseye diagram, very easy to create. It’s just some concentric circles, a journey map.

It’s really a bunch of steps that you can then write post-its on. You can highlight pain points. Sometimes I like to set up the journey map so that you can see the activities, you can see the different people involved, the tools they’re using and the resources they’re referencing. That’s a really easy setup. And then sometimes it’s just writing post-its and clustering them. It can be really simple. Sometimes you don’t have a specific framework you’re working with, you’re just saying, okay, just give me your ideas. And you’re facilitating that conversation. You’re putting things together and where you have a question you’re digging in further and you’re just documenting it all. The best part about it is after you finish these conversations, you have these articles. That you can then bring into a room where you’re planning features on a product or you’re developing the roadmap for what that future product might look like. So I love completing something by the time I’m done with an interview or with some sort of interactive session that I’ve been facilitating so that I can take those artifacts. And then use them to plan and use them to communicate our learnings to the team. It’s always more impactful when you have something at The end of it.

[00:14:37] Erin: Yeah, I’d love to, I’d love to hear a little bit more about some of these activities. You mentioned the journey mapping and just to understand a little bit more for folks listening, who maybe want to add to their own deck, you know, what kind of workshop or card or activity is good for what situation? Right? There’s like who’s in the room?

As you talked about, what are you bringing to the room? Who’s in the room? What are you trying to learn? What’s accessible for the group there. And how might you think about it? What’s the right activity for this situation?

[00:15:09] Alexis: Yeah, definitely. I would say. In the very beginning. I don’t usually have activities in the beginning. I’m just listening to try and get a baseline. Once I get that baseline, that’s when I start to build in the activities. Cause I, I get an idea of where we’re going with something. So, first I’ll have some very exploratory interviews and then I’ll try to take those interviews and bring that into a facilitated session.

So if we’re in the very beginning of a research project. What I did most recently was we had, I think, seven customer interviews and we had four or five internal stakeholder interviews and we had the transcripts just written on post-its. So all the different points of data that they gave us around communicating their loan costs all on post-its. And then I had the team review them. So we spent a while just looking at them, understanding them, consuming them. 

And then we did affinity clustering. So affinity clustering is where you just take things and put them together. And you start to describe, you know, what this cluster means. In a sentence, not just with a phrase. So if it’s a cluster around Prepaids and taxes. Instead of just saying prepaids and taxes, you can say generally customers are confused around prepaids and taxes and how they’re calculated on the loan estimate document. That gives you a lot more information. So it’s sort of coaching people around affinity clustering. 

And then I think once you move past that and you start to get, okay, here are our top findings, then you can use exercises that are really around prioritizing and winnowing those ideas. A lot of times we’ll come up with just a whole ton of great ideas. So how can we prioritize them and select the ones we want to move forward and maybe build a roadmap of other things we might do later on. 

So I use an importance difficulty matrix for that, which is simple, tried and true, always works. What’s the level of importance with the impact it might have and then placing things on a spectrum relative to each other, and then what’s the level of effort required.

So now, if you imagine everything was placed on that spectrum relative to itself with level of importance now, how might you move those pieces up or down relative to each other based on level of effort. So very important. But may be very high effort. That’s a strategic move for the future. Very important, but very low effort. Great. That’s an easy win. You can do that now. And then there are things that are maybe high effort but low impact. Maybe you don’t want to move forward with those. So understanding things and how to prioritize them for the future. The other thing that’s really simple to do is just some voting, right?

You’ve come up with a whole host of ideas. And you want to understand sort of a quick temperature check. Like how are we doing sort of the top stuff that we should be focusing on? Having everyone say, Okay you have five votes. Now go place some dots on your top ideas. You could do five on one idea. You could, you know, distribute them how you see fit. And that really just helps us develop a perspective. So making sure that we’re always sort of pushing things forward. So voting is a great way to make sure that we’re not just passively consuming the information, but we’re really actively engaging in it.

And we’re saying, yes, these are the things we care about and we want to move forward. 

[00:18:33] JH: So we’ve kind of established, right? That, like participatory research, can be a very good thing. There’s a bunch of different ways to participate. There’s all these different people you might want to include. Have you found across your experiences that like those other stakeholders are pretty game to do it, like everyone’s busy, right.

So, Hey, I need an hour or two of your time to come help with this thing. Is that something people are really excited and receptive to, or is that something that requires a little bit of persuasion and getting them to see the benefit? For instance, I know you’re pretty new to the Better team. I’m wondering, is that like, was that easy culturally or did you have to kind of do some pre-work to get people bought in, on participating in the first place?

[00:19:46] Alexis: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I really do think that everyone should be compensated for their time. And you know, whether that means you’re someone The internal side is different from your day to day. So how can we make sure that we’re compensating them for their time in some way? How can we make sure that we’re saying you maybe are going to become a champion of this product and it will now be carved out as one of your job responsibilities.

Right? Maybe we can have a panel of folks who Are working with us with some percentage of their time allocated to it so that we don’t, they don’t feel that they have to step away from their jobs to do the work. They feel like it’s part of their job to do the work. I think that’s one way you can do it.

I think the other way is making sure you’re being really respectful of others time because it is outside of their day to day and making sure that when you carve out that time it’s an enjoyable experience. It’s you start on time and you end on time. And you respect that they’re taking time out of their day.

So you’re flexible in your scheduling and you’re making sure that you’re accommodating them as much as possible. Make it very easy for them to step in and then step out and back into their work. And then for customers definitely, you know, always compensating them for their time. The information they’re sharing with us, their personal experience they’re sharing for us, with us. It really counts for a lot and making sure that we’re giving them something if it’s money if it’s some way we can offer them, you know, a discount, but really just appreciating their perspective and compensating them for it. 

[00:21:22] Erin: Yeah, absolutely. And I imagine too, particularly for the internal folks, your stakeholders and et cetera having access to what happens as a result of all of this time, you know, they’ve dedicated, is that something that, do you have good sort of, ways of keeping the folks informed who have given their time to being part of these processes, to letting them know, you know, what came out of it, how it was used, how it made an impact.

[00:21:49] Alexis: Yeah, definitely. I always like to upfront have a conversation around what is this research project? What are we trying to get at? What are our goals? And then making sure that I’m summarizing what I heard from them And, sharing it back to them and including them in another part of that research process, whether it’s like a working session or whether it’s a share out to say, okay you know, we’ve made some progress.

Here’s where we are now, always keeping in mind. I have like a list of every participant I’ve worked with on the project and making sure that I’m maintaining regular checkpoints with them to say, this is where we are now. This is where we’re moving. And at the end of it, say, okay, we’ve concluded it.

And this is the conclusion of the work or this is how we’ll be moving that work forward in the product, in the future.

[00:22:41] JH: And, for the people who are participating and obviously getting that final readout seems super like a very good feedback loop, very reinforcing. Is it different people are kind of tagging in throughout the process kind of early middle end? Or do you try to have the same group engaged throughout?

Like, Hey, if you want to participate in. Let’s see it through and you know, you’re going to start with me and we’re going to go on this journey together, or, you know, Hey, in the intro calls, it’s actually really helpful to have, you know, somebody from sales there, but in the later steps for the mapping, it’s helpful to have somebody else, like, how do you approach that part?

[00:23:09] Alexis: Yeah. definitely. So, I like to keep it the same people throughout. Generally I like to come up with a list of external individuals that I want to be communicating with. And then a list of internal. And I like to keep the same because I like to have those initial exploratory conversations and be able to bring work back to them throughout that process. So sometimes they might be more engaged in the process. Sometimes they might be less engaged. So definitely I won’t be there every step of the way with all of them. But maintaining that same list so that they have some prior knowledge of the beginning of the middle and the end of the research.

[00:23:50] Erin: Yeah. When you think about pulling customers into some of these projects or efforts, I think we talked about this a little bit before, but you know, in addition to of course, wanting to talk to customers, Who would be relevant to whatever the task at hand is, you know, who have similar pain points or whatever it might be. 

Do you build, you know, like customer advisory boards or people that you’re talking to on a regular basis, or is it more ad hoc or how do you think about pulling customers into some of these projects? 

[00:24:19] Alexis: That’s a great question. It probably depends a little bit on the project. I do think it’s our hope to start thinking about a panel of customers that we know, and we can go to on a regular cadence. I also think that there are other projects that might have specific questions. So, you know, if we have a project where we’re really just wanting to understand homeowners insurance, we might not be able to visit that same panel. We might need to seek. Other customers to get the right mix that we want for that particular research project. So I think it’s like a yes and we want to make sure that we have that we’re thinking about building a sort of panel that we can consult. I also think we want to be thinking about our projects thoughtfully and sourcing customers that will really offer us the best information to get at that question that we have. 

[00:25:12] Erin: Yeah, it makes sense. 

[00:25:14] JH: You know, so I’m listening to this. I’m a user researcher in some company where we’re pretty siloed. I’m bought in. I want to do this, like, do you have any advice, like where does that person start? Is it just like grab one or two people and seeing if they’re game and taking them on the journey and doing some of the things discussed here or what would be your advice to somebody in that situation?

[00:25:30] Alexis: Someone who’s looking to try participatory research out?

[00:25:34] JH: Yeah. Yeah. Who’s currently in a role where they feel like research is a little siloed and they wanna start breaking down those walls and be more participatory. How do they do it?

[00:25:41] Alexis: Honestly, I feel like everyone really enjoys research when they’re doing it. So hopefully it’ll be like hosting a workshop. They get great attendance and everyone’s like, wow, can we do this more often? Usually when I’m thoughtful about the activities I’m bringing to the workshop.

So I would definitely say first, make sure that you have a problem. You’ve done some exploratory interviews. You’re ready to bring some of that knowledge into the room. And then think about a couple structured activities. I like to throw a lot of structure at what I’m not sure about what the output might be, and I’m not sure how people might receive some of the information I’m giving them.

I try to be a bit structured in how I walk through that workshop with them, but choose a couple of activities, walk them through the initial findings and those activities. And hopefully they’ll say this was great. Let’s do it again. I think usually it’s a matter of finding time on people’s calendars, but the first time they show up to an engaging session where they can talk about the ideas, they can kind of play with them. They can do a couple of activities. They usually want more after that, it takes a lot of time to plan that out and to actually conduct it. It might take a, I usually. I take up at least an hour and a half in any of these facilitated conversations I have just because it takes time to explain the activity and to run through it.

And I don’t like rushing people, so it takes up a lot of time on their calendar, but the minute they do it, people are usually very excited about doing it more often. 

[00:27:14] Erin: Awesome. What are some of the kinds of habits or rituals that you’ve set up at better? Maybe other places that you’ve worked that have helped to build a habit, to build a, you know, a kind of ongoing process that can contain ad hoc projects, right. That helped to create this feeling of participatory research.

[00:27:34] Alexis: Yeah. I mean, I always try to pop my head into any meeting that’s happening so that I can be giving everyone updates. And then I’ll usually use those meetings that I’m popping into to plug different working sessions I’m hosting. Different interviews I might be conducting and saying, Hey, please come and share. These interviews, just hop on the call and listen, and then invite them to a debrief afterwards, to get their thoughts on how it went. What were some things that stood out for them? So I’m like in a lot of different meetings saying, Hey, by the way, you should join me. And then the other way I like to do it is you know, make sure that. I have a sort of list of all the different events that are happening or the different research activities facilitating and sharing those with my team and making sure I say this is happening at this time, come and join me. 

It’s a lot of, sort of, shouting about the research. A lot of, sort of a cheerleading it and getting people excited and getting them to join me. And usually if they join me for one session, they’ll usually come back for another. It’s a fun thing to do. So, yeah it’s mostly just gaining that support. And then I think hopefully if I do this more we’ll have more of a regular cadence, maybe there’ll be some specific meetings that I can put on the calendar that are more participatory are more engaging, where everyone knows, you know, what to expect when they’re coming in and they can engage with some of the work that I’m working on. And they can all sort of contribute to the research process.

So I think right now it’s more sharing this, I think it’s a new way of thinking. It’s a new way of consuming research. I think people are very used to the sort of here are my slides. Here’s my share out. This is what I’ve decided. They’re not maybe used to, you know, getting on a digital whiteboard and moving post-its around. I want them to get used to that. So how can I start to get them comfortable with that idea and get them excited about participating in. 

[00:29:38] JH: This also sounds, you know, very well and good. I’m curious, like what are the mistakes people can make? Like how can participatory research go wrong?

[00:29:46] Alexis: Yeah. Definitely I think where it goes wrong is when, you know, you’re kind of flying by the seat of your pants and you don’t have a couple of activities picked out or you don’t have a discussion guide ready to share. I think the process can seem very easy when you are participating and you can say, oh wow.

You know, she just. Two different activities and some questions. And we were able to walk through everything and it was so productive. I’m going to try it out myself but if you’re coming with something blank, if you’re coming in with a blank digital whiteboard, or you’re coming in without a discussion guide, it can be really hard to get that conversation going.

So always make sure that you’re over-planning and you’re coming in with a ton of different options and ideas. Like I probably have like three different scenarios where I think the workshop might go that I’ve prepared for in advance so that if things do start to go sideways and maybe they’re not catching on, or maybe the information we’re getting is just a little bit sort of off the rails, not helpful.

It’s not getting us to our goals. I have another again, I’ve got like the deck, so I have another card, ready to go. So just always making sure you’re prepared for it and that you really thoughtfully planned it out. It doesn’t seem fun, but that, I mean, that for me is my saving grace. I always make sure I have two or three different ways things might happen. And I’ve planned for those two or three different ways pretty extensively so that if I have to change route, I can change route. It also just gets better. You get better with experience. So you can plan a little bit less with more experience because you’ve experienced all the different possibilities that might happen.

So, you know, it just takes time, but you slowly start to hone in on your style and on the different tried and true activities that you like. And you get better over time. 

[00:31:44] Erin: Yeah, Alexis, I was going to say, as you’re talking, you know, building that deck, I imagine takes experience more, more than anything. So for folks who are maybe newer to some of this, but you know, the only way to get experience right, is to get on out there and make some mistakes. Are there a couple of those backup cards in the deck that we can offer to people who might not have built them up through experience yet, for example if you’re in a workshop and people are just, I don’t know, low energy or quiet, or they’re not participating in the participatory research as much as we would like. Do you have any good tactics to kind of get things going in the right direction that most people could grab onto. 

[00:32:24] Alexis: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. So there’s two different things I think. One thing I should mention is you don’t have to go straight to stakeholders or go straight to customers. You could just try things out internally with your team, with people who trust you, who already know you’re great at what you do, who might Not mind experimenting with this new type of work. So definitely like always try things internally, test out a new activity internally before you start going outside to those wider circles. And then to get things moving, to make sure that people are participating as some kind of, sometimes it can be tough sometimes. You know, People are having an off day.

Maybe you planned it for a Monday morning and no one really wanted to show up. So, you know, there’s always different reasons for why people show up the way they do. But I like to do some really easy warmup exercises sometimes. Sketching is always a great exercise. 

 There’s this activity called squiggle birds, where you just have people create like three scribbles and you just say, all Right. we’re going to be sketching today.

So, you know, if you’re on a digital whiteboard, use this sort of pen if you’re here in the room, take out your actual real pen and just make some scribbles. And wait and make sure that everybody’s doing it. Give them some time. It’s okay to have silence. I’m sure this podcast understands that, but it’s good. It’s good to have silence. Silence is good and means that they’re thinking it means they’re doing something so allow some silence. And then afterwards say, okay you know, now let’s put on Start putting on you know, the beaks of your birds and show them how to create a little triangle, give it legs and give it a dot for an eye.

And you can say, okay, now this is an example of how we can say, take something abstract and make something interesting and fun. So let’s remember in this session that we’re here to have fun and that we’re here to look at things. It was a scribble when we started, it’s a bird now, how can we look at, you know, the information we’re going to be learning today in a new, different way so that it’s feedback from a customer now. But it will become a feature that will develop in the future. 

So starting out with a simple exercise to kind of break the ice and get them used to I don’t know, being a little messy, having a little bit of fun. Not being so precious in what they’re trying to create. I think oftentimes the barrier is I don’t want to mess up your journey map or I don’t want to create something that doesn’t make sense that people won’t understand. I think you want to lower those barriers as much as possible. You want people to be comfortable. You want them to be telling you a real stream of consciousness. What are you saying? It’s okay. We don’t care about spelling. We don’t care about the quality of the ideas, we care about the quantity of the ideas.

Just go for it. Don’t worry about it. So getting people comfortable like that with some icebreakers is always good. And generally they’re much more engaged later on in that session. 

[00:35:28] Erin: Great. I want to just circle back to something we talked about a little bit earlier, which was, you talked about some of the artifacts that you like to create. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about some of the benefits of creating those artifacts with others together. 

[00:35:45] Alexis: Yeah. definitely. I mean, what I love about it is once you’ve created an artifact, you can work on that throughout the entire research project. So I like to sort of start thinking about what artifacts I might like to create in the beginning. And if it’s a journey map, it’s something you can continue to layer information on and it can evolve as that project continues and it’s, I really enjoy. Showing the story with a visual, with some sort of diagram. So being able to share your final findings and being able to share that story with your stakeholders, with your company being able to show that in a visual way is usually really powerful. So how can we start out creating these things layer on them, all the information we’re gathering and really have this beautiful visual way of sharing the work at the end of the project. So it really lends itself to storytelling in a really great way. 

[00:36:42] Erin: Yeah. Awesome. I imagine, you know, just thinking of, I’m thinking of these beautiful squiggle birds, I’m imagining, but having a literal visual that folks can see as a sort of product of the work you’ve done together. And imagine that’s very powerful. Do you usually, you know, when you’re creating, like say, you know, a calendar invite for, to get some of these started Is it clear what the that, you know, the output is going to be a particular kind of artifact or is that are these artifacts sort of created and edited, modified along the way?

You know, depending on the journey, the purpose of the overall project is. 

[00:37:20] Alexis: Yeah, definitely. I think, yeah, it’s a little bit of both. So I try to be very upfront. My calendar invites are very intense. You’ll see what my goals are for the overall research project. You’ll see what the objective is for this particular session. You’ll see a breakdown of the timing and what activities I’d like to do and a little bit about them. And then you’ll see how I want you to show up, which is, I want you to be connected to a computer. I want your video and your audio to be on, get ready to engage. I like to set up a bunch of expectations up in front. And I do have an idea of the artifacts that we’re going to be creating in the session. 

So I’ll say if we’re journey mapping that we’re going to be journey mapping, or if we’re doing prioritization that we’re using an importance difficulty matrix, and we’re going to be coming up with our sort of roadmap from there, I’ll try to be very explicit so that they have an understanding of what that that time is going to be What we’re going to do with the time. And that’s one to make sure that they’re ready to engage and to make sure I’m being respectful of the time. Oftentimes I’m asking for not one hour, but maybe two hours, three hours. I’ve had four hour sessions before they don’t work great via zoom. So I don’t recommend four hours. I think you want to probably cap it at two. Definitely. They’re not as simple as a quick half hour check-in. 

They require a bit more time. So always being upfront with that. And then I think that visuals often evolve throughout the course of the project. So I can’t say I started with one thing and I always ended with it. I think I’ve gotten ecosystem maps from journey maps.

I’ve gotten all sorts of life cycle diagrams. Sometimes there is a framework that I’ve created, maybe a strategic framework for thinking about a particular idea. Different ways we might think about something. So you know, the diagrams kind of get broken apart and then they kind of come back together in the end. And it really is synthesis by doing. So you’re always sort of drawing again and again, these things and it’s a sort of synthesis process in and of itself. And by the end it’s always something different and new. But it has a lot of that early information. 

[00:39:36] Erin: I was going to ask, you know, to sort of, parting words of wisdom for folks listening. You know, people want to dig deeper into participatory research or get started. Obviously we’ve covered a lot of ground already, but what’s your best get started advice?

[00:39:48] Alexis: Yeah, definitely. You know, I would say there are a lot of tools out there. There are a lot of decks of cards out there. So I would say go out, explore. There are a lot of different activities that you can test out on with your teammates, maybe their fellow researchers, maybe their designers, maybe their product people. See how they receive it. Make sure you get feedback on them. How did this go? Did it meet your expectations? How might we use this in the future? But definitely go explore and just test things out internally to see how things go. I think one really great thing I love to do is it’s called rose thorn, bud. But it’s basically a way of doing those three questions that I love, which is like, what’s working, what’s a rose, what’s not working, what’s a thorn. And then where’s an opportunity for us to do something new. That’s the bud. You can make them red, blue, and green post-its so you can color code them and you can say, okay, let’s look at a recent. You can make it like a retro, right? Let’s look at a project that we just finished up. What went well, what didn’t go so great. Where are there opportunities for improvement in the future? That’s like a quick facilitated exercise. That’s really easy to do. It’s helpful for your team because you’re figuring out how to improve yourself. And it’s a way to test out participatory research. So you can then bring this exercise to a customer. You can bring this exercise to a larger group of stakeholders in the future in a different way. So that’s a great way to just sort of try something out and get started. 

[00:41:23] Erin: I love it. Alexis. Thanks so much for joining us today. It was great to have you.

[00:41:28] Alexis: Thank you. Thank you. It was great here to talk and yeah, and just 

[00:41:33] JH: Yeah, this is great. Lots of really cool stuff in here for people to try it out and take over.

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Five F’s in Product Design.

Five F’s in Product Design.


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