Researcher Stories

Learning through observation: a research career journey

Respondent is proud to showcase our interviews with leading researchers across different industries. In this post, we speak to Will Leidheiser.


One could say that Will Leidheiser has relied on research to get him where he is in his research career. From his undergraduate days working in Human Factors Psychology labs at North Carolina State University, to observing and learning from his colleagues at his first full-time research job, Will has collected insights along the way that have all added up to the researcher he is today.

And as a result, Will came to GitLab with varied experience in the user research field. After graduate school, he landed an internship at Coca-Cola, where he interviewed employees during internal research aimed at improving the employee experience.

His first full-time job was with State Farm, where he was part of a team that was enormous by typical user experience research standards: more than 20. Most companies that employ user researchers still have very small teams. Will’s team at State Farm had decades of collective experience, which he used to his advantage by learning tricks and tips from his colleagues .

“I could go under other people’s wings and see how they go about doing user research, their methodologies, the things that work, the things that don’t work,” he said. “[I was able to] take them and modify them for my needs.”

Putting his experience to work 

Now as a Senior User Researcher at GitLab, Will draws on the different methods he has learned so far in his career. He is fortunate to work with a great deal of flexibility, including a lot of leeway to conduct research the way he sees fit to achieve a particular goal. He might use surveys, interviews, and contextual inquiries to get questions answered.

GitLab’s research team does a lot of research focused on software developers of many types. 

“It may be that we’re trying to get users that have used certain features and functionality baked into the GitLab product,” Leidheiser said. “Or we’re trying to learn from people that have used other similar types of tools and competitor products. [We’re trying to] figure out what these other tools are doing better.”

His team consists of eight researchers, three managers and two research operations coordinators who work on sourcing and compensating participants. The research team enjoys robust collaboration with product owners and designers, who lead some of the research projects themselves. In those cases, the research team provides occasional support by looking over discussion guides and survey drafts, and ensuring that the right protocols and procedures are being followed. 

The researchers take on larger research projects on their own, completing them from start to finish. They identify research opportunities, propose the projects, and obtain buy-in before conducting the studies.

Every quarter, the research team creates documents called research prioritization issues within GitLab, where they detail, in collaboration with product managers and designers, all the projects they are working on and projects they plan to work on. The documents include status updates that make it easy to communicate plans and progress to all stakeholders.

Pain points

GitLab is a fully remote company, so the research team sometimes struggles with communicating the research insights. After putting in the time to understand user feedback and collate cohesive answers to burning questions, it can be hard to share the results over Slack and other messaging applications.

“We’re so global in terms of how we’re set up. [At other companies], I could just set up a meeting and have all my stakeholders there live so everyone is actually getting the message with what we have found in this research,” he said. 

But GitLab is a fully remote company with team members located across the globe, so Will makes video summaries instead. It can be a challenge to make sure that people watch them, understand the message, and make updates to their plans based on the results.

The power of research

Research has the power to help companies differentiate their products—and the power to keep them from wasting money on developments that won’t be popular. Will points to the latter as one of his most significant achievements. Not long after he started at GitLab, the product team asked him to do some research around a new product offering. Specifically, they wanted to use the research results to decide which features to work on first, and which to work on later. Through Will’s research, he determined that participants were indifferent to all the proposed features. 

As a result of the research findings, the company decided not to move ahead with the offering as it wasn’t actually going to offer value to customers.

On finding participants

Sometimes it can be hard to find quality research participants who actually meet the criteria the researcher is looking for. Will has found a good way to ensure that no unqualified participants slip through the screening process: he adds a final, open-ended question to the end of the screener. The question might ask participants how they use a product, or something else to test their knowledge on a topic. 

“It gives you a bit of extra ammunition to weed out people [who are trying to] game the screener a little bit,” Will said. 

Will has also used Respondent to find very niche participants. Often, at GitLab, he needs participants who do very specific types of software development and use a particular set of tasks within GitLab’s product.

“[Respondent] provides us with a lot of flexibility to build the screeners how we would like to … and invite participants that are most likely to give us useful feedback,” he said.

The importance of prioritization

Prioritization is a big work theme for Will. A colleague early in his career taught him about the importance of prioritizing tasks. He learned more about how to prioritize by reading The Art of Being Indispensable at Work. And the more Will has worked in user research, the more he has seen the utility of developing keen prioritization skills. He now makes a point of setting aside time to plan out his time and determine which of his projects he should be working on at any given time. 

“[It’s important to] look at what you have to do and know what’s the most important thing to be working on, because there will always be things pulling you in different directions,” he said. 

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