If there’s one thing Mia Northrop has learned after a two-decades-long career in and around user experience (UX) research, it’s that it’s ok for a researcher to have an opinion.
Research brings the most value to stakeholders when the researcher can connect the dots from the findings to a recommended strategy. Stakeholders won’t necessarily come to the same conclusion each time, but that’s ok.
“They can always ignore your recommendation. But it’s ok to have an opinion and say, ‘You know, I think we should do this based on that,’ and not just say ‘This is what I found,’” Northrop says.
Now, Northrop is the UX research lead at Float, a B2B SaaS company that makes resource management and time tracking software. Float’s main customer segment consists of project-based professional services teams who have external clients. The platform helps teams plan capacity and manage shared work schedules to ensure that the right people are allocated to the right project for the right length of time.
“It helps people managers schedule everyone’s workload appropriately and monitor capacity so that folks aren’t burning out, and no-one’sstuck on the bench,” Northrop says.
Float is geared towards medium-sized businesses of 50 to 500 employees who need visibility into what their employees are working on. The platform fills a need that has been emerging since before the pandemic, yet that need has ballooned as as many people are continuing to work from home, and more businesses are becoming remote-friendly.
From qual to quant and back again
After years of working around research, Northrop’s career path eventually led her to a specific research role.
While working in various positions in UX design, Northrop collaborated with researchers. But it wasn’t until she had a job where she drove the research herself—during the discovery and project validation stages as a UX designer—that she admitted that the research was actually her favorite part of the job.
The research she did then was mostly qualitative. While working at Razorfish, she collaborated on Ford Sync navigation tools. During one particularly interesting contextual inquiry, she and her team rode around in cars with people who usually used hard-copy street directories . The goal was to understand how they used them, in what situations they would use an in-car navigaton system , and whether they looked up things before they got in the car or got their systems going once they were in the car.
At Float, she relies on a mix of qualitative and quantitative research. Quantitative research helps researchers uncover the magnitude of an issue, understand customer segments, and get a better idea of different user behaviors, attitudes and preferences. Float’s app allows Northrop easy access to the customer base for this type of research. She can do pop-up surveys in the app, allowing her to target the customer base without difficulty. Leveraging customer attributes and the surveys yields very rich data sets.
Northrop also uses a mix of qualitative data. There are regular interviews and usability studies. Contextual inquiry is more challenging in the B2B space when most of your customers’ employees work from home and are scattered across the world, as Float’s do. Currently, she’s working on a diary study that uses Slack and Geekbot to capture user journeys over time as they evaluate Float’s software.
That magic moment
When Northrop joined Float, one of the first things she did was conduct a massive customer segmentation study. Float sent a long questionnaire to the entire customer base, then cross-tabulated the results with customer attributes to gain deep understanding of their customers and correlate their responses with their product usage. This helped shape customer personas, which Float had not used before.
“Now we have a suite of personas that help us to build even more empathy for our customers and get their goals, their pains and their challenges crystal clear,” Northrop said.
Another project that had a big impact was a benchmark usability study where different types of users did a number of normal tasks on the app. The results uncovered some core issues with the user experience that the company had been unaware of.
"It was great to have evidence for what had been at worst blind spots and at best, hunches and personal preferences," she said.
The study uncovered site issues, provided rich detail for the customer personas, and laid bare the pain points and challenges that the company needed to address.
Finding participants for studies like this can be tricky. The term “resource management” doesn’t mean anything to a lot of people, but the success of such a project depends on having participants who work in relevant roles and industries. To find them, Northrop turned to Respondent.
Northrop found Respondent’s participant profiles—organization size, industry, job titles and work questionnaire along with links to Linkedin—very useful in finding participants who were going to understand resource management.
“I can just go through [the respondent’s profile] myself and say, ‘Oh yeah, they’re going to get this space.’ It’s just incredibly powerful,” she says.
Northrop also appreciates the fact that, with Respondent, she doesn’t have to worry about scheduling and paying participants—the platform handles all of that.
“Being able to have my calendar linked in and say, ‘I need five people, and these are my times,’ and it handles all that scheduling and reminding and it pays them at the end—it’s just beautiful,” she says.
The value of research
Northrop was Float’s first researcher, and she’s since hired another one. The goal is to scale up along with the product team. Luckily for Northrop—and perhaps because of the value her research has brought to the company—Float has really embraced the utility of the discipline. Northrop anticipates bringing on a third team member within the next year as well.
Looking ahead, Northrop wants to incorporate more A/B testing into her research.
“That’s one of those things that everybody knows is a really powerful research technique,” Northrop says. “So few people are confident with doing it and have the tech set up and engineering to actually get A/B testing going, but it’s something we’re keen to do more of.”
Northrop is a big proponent of the value of A/B testing to try out multiple designs. She notes that not all designers are used to working that way. Many will, through the course of their work, eliminate all options but one “best” design. But A/B testing works on the principle of offering multiple options to users and seeing which one gets the best reception.
“I prefer to show people two options, because it gets their minds thinking of different possibilities. Its harder t to give feedback to one design, which might feel locked-in and final,” Northrop says. “It’s actually much more effective to show some variations.”
Challenges of working remotely
Float is a fully remote, global, asynchronous company. This can create a challenge for researchers who want to sell their insights to the product team. Northrop likes to use diagrams and infographics, sometimes creating visuals on Canva or another tool, in her presentations to be sure that the information sinks in. Being in a virtual, asynchronous workplace, Northrop and her colleagues rely a lot on videos. She reckons this is a useful tool even for people who are working in a physical office.
“Even if you do give a live presentation, you might actually record yourself talking about the material and telling the story and making that available digitally along with the report itself. Then people can hear you talking and digest the information that way as well,” she says.
Some parting advice
Wearing her recruitment hat as she works to expand Float’s research team, Northrop has some advice for market researchers looking to make the switch to UX research: Learn the principles of interaction design, information architecture, and usability heuristics. It’s not necessary to have a design background, but UX researchers need to know how to do heuristic evaluations.
“I’ve interviewed a lot of people who had these great qualitative research skills from market research, but didn’t know what interaction design was, or didn’t know what information design was,” she says. “It’s a savvy career move to pursue UX research: there’s a global shortage of researchers, high calibre employers and rewarding work, and it pays very well. You just need to be able to talk the talk with the designers and the engineers if you want to work in the digital space and do design research.”