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User Research Lessons From Curiosity Tank

This is an essay of my user research journey with Curiosity Tank’s Ask Like a Pro Series and what I learnt along the way.

User Research Lessons From Curiosity Tank
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HIGHLIGHT

This isn’t a review of Curiosity Tank; it is my story of how I got to learn with Michele and what I learnt from her.

In the first week of September 2022, Michele Ronsen, the founder of CuriosityTank, invited me to register for “Is Ask Like a Pro Right for Me?”, a Q&A on Curiosity Tank’s Ask Like A Pro (ALAP) series. In retrospect, I didn’t know what the event was about; Michele was the User Researcher who sent me a resource document and subscription link to her “Fuel your Curiosity” newsletter. But I attended, anyways, by 1 am Nigerian time. 

Thirty minutes before the event, my alarm woke me. I diverted my bleary eyes to my tablet screen and hoped the event was worth disrupting my sleep — I am a morning person. Although I only stayed for an hour, I captured Michele’s story about founding Curiosity Tank and the rationale behind the ALAP series. 

Curiosity Tank is a “curious as hell” design research consultancy and education firm that uncovers customer insights and offers guidance and mentorship through its ALAP series to aspiring, enthusiastic, and existing researchers.

I needed it. Badly. I was job hunting, revamping my portfolio and resume, iterating, collecting feedback and iterating. The isolation and ineptness I felt crippled me. User Research and its application were not new to me, yet I didn’t know how to do it, when to do it and how to ply through its process. My skill gaps were as wide as the ocean.

The Ask Like A Pro Series was what I needed.

But…

It was expensive. 

If I had the required amount (1,400 USD – 4,900 USD), I would be a millionaire in naira. Officially, 1 USD = 453 naira. Therefore, the fees for Curiosity Tank would range from 635k naira – 2.2 million naira. 

Aside from losing my battle with sleep, I did not stay till the end of the Q&A because I knew I could not afford the fees. The realisation that I would yet again miss a golden learning opportunity because of finances followed me to sleep.

Michele sent me a follow-up email asking about my interest in the ALAP series and I told her that I would not be able to cover the costs even if she discounted the fee by 20% – 50%. 

Chapter closed (or so I thought). 

She replied with an unexpected offer: she would let me pay whatever I could afford for the Observer cohort. I didn’t know that she made these concessions for people paying from a country with an extreme conversion rate compared to US dollar. And I devoured it, although somewhat embarrassingly, in one fell swoop and have not regretted my decision. What I paid was significantly less than the actual cost, three figures in dollars and six in naira. 

I started my tech journey about three years ago. I’m well aware of the barriers techies in developing & underdeveloped countries face, I’m aware of techies who can barely escape the cost barrier that impedes us so much. From having to contend with crappy and expensive internet to not having enough money to purchase quality resources, the issues are black, white and many shades of grey. Yet, you will always find techies from these locations that overcome these hindrances. I just wish it were more accessible.

Michele’s generosity enabled me to learn with Curiosity Tank. I keep thinking of how she significantly slashed the fee allowing me to learn with the observer cohort. Curiosity Tank is one of those decisions I made impulsively with continuous benefits. For this, I am eternally grateful.

8 Weeks & Six Workshops later…

The ALAP series is remarkable because of all the learning materials I have assimilated, it is the most practical, nuanced, impactful, and in-depth.

The series has three packages: On-Demand, Observer and All-In. On-Demanders only get access to the recorded workshops with tools and templates. The All-ins, in addition to what the On-Demand package offers, get to attend and participate in the live workshops and work on a real-life commercial project. The Observers receive all on-demand benefits, they get to attend the live workshops and observe the All-ins do their projects. 

Ask Like A Pro Plans

As an Observer, I did not participate in a real-commercial project but Michele’s impact is unforgettable. I watched the pre-recorded videos, observed the All-Ins work and interacted with Michele during the weekly check-ins. I couldn’t attend the live workshops due to the timezone difference — again, I’m a morning person — but there was always a recording. Even the All-In office hours were recorded; I watched every single one! And the templates? Carefully crafted by Michele’s expertise.

It is beautiful how the ALAP surged my confidence because of all the learning materials I have ever assimilated in my design & research journey, the Ask Like A Pro Series by Curiosity Tank, in all sincerity, tops the list. You will get times ten — or possibly more — of what you paid for. 

Learning with Michele

Learning with Michele: Workshops

You could ask Michele a hypothetical question like, “what would you do if a stakeholder did this” or “what would you do if a participant said this during an interview” and she would give you crystal clear sentences on what you need to say and how you might behave in that situation. She is that illustrative. 

Michele’s teaching style is pithy. Watching the first pre-work video convinced me of how lucky I was to have this opportunity. 

Workshop 1: Plan (Ask the Right Questions)

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TAKEAWAY

The plan is the foundation, the spine of a research study. 

A UX Research plan, the study’s base, informs you and your stakeholders of the assumptions and hypotheses to test, the goals you want to achieve or the questions you need to answer. 

Stakeholders are crucial to any study. They must be as interested as you are in the study, and you must include them at every step. If not, the study will fail.  

The process of creating a plan should be interactive. Engage your stakeholders, discover what they need to learn and how they will apply those learnings. Your stakeholders are “wandering cats”: you need to herd them towards you and guide them from start to finish. 

Workshop 2: Survey/Screen (Find the Right Participants)

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TAKEAWAY

  • Screen for the right participants or risk getting bad data. Your choice.
  • Fraud Participants: Some people make a living from the incentives of research studies. Most times, these people bypass or circumvent screeners to participate in studies they are unqualified for. 

Before this workshop, I did not know that when recruiting we should ideally use a screener (in the form of a survey) to find the right participants. If you aren’t talking to the right people — depending on your study’s goals — you will glean inaccurate data. Now, it made so much sense. Little wonder there were times I conducted interviews with the wrong participants. 👀

A screener can serve other purposes. Michele spotlighted how we could use our screener to collect smoke signals to indicate certain behaviours and attitudes used to test assumptions and understand the target population. On a startling note, she cautioned against fraud participants, unqualified participants that participate for the incentives alone. 

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HIGHLIGHT

In the first and second workshops, we had two classes on Data privacy, security and confidentiality. They were taught by Michele’s attorney. The lesson: Data privacy and security is serious business and we (researchers) are responsible for protecting our participants’ data. 

Workshop 3: Interview (Ask the Right Questions in the Right Way)

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TAKEAWAY

  • You can embed activities like a five-second test, a card sort, mad-libs, etc., into an interview session. It depends on what you want to learn.
  • Research is a combination of science, art, and improv. Interviewing requires you to combine hard and soft skills. 

Here’s something to remember: when conducting research, you need to ask the right questions (plan) to the right people (screen) in the right way (interview). Michele has permanently singed this into my brain 😅. 

Asking the right questions properly means asking non-leading questions, mitigating biases and possibly — my largest takeaway — embedding activities into each session that will aid your data collection. I didn’t realise how versatile user research was until this workshop. It’s interesting to know how you can mould a research session to achieve your study’s goal(s): I recently participated in research that required us to interview participants and test concepts with them in one session! Not to mention, interviewing requires scientific, artistic and improv skills. It’s like multi-tasking on steroids. 

Workshop 4: Orchestrate

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TAKEAWAY

  • You don’t have to take notes verbatim. Instead, use a note-taking framework that suits your goal(s). Note-taking can be just as varied as the stars in the universe.
  • Stakeholder UX: The User Experience stakeholders receive while working with you matters.

In the preliminary video for this workshop, Michele said, “You’ll never see note-taking in the same way…” True to her word, I can’t think of note-taking as what it originally meant: capturing everything chronologically, word-for-word. 

Cori Pepelnjak, Curiosity Tank’s Teaching Assistant, and Michele taught the cohort how to diversify our note-taking techniques. There is no right way to take notes. You can use predefined frameworks like Anchors and Sales, Mad, Sad and Glad, Start, Stop and Continue, the empathy map or create yours as long as they aren’t subjective or elicit confirmation bias. 

Anchors & Sales Note-taking framework

Cori suggested using a rainbow spreadsheet and colour codes to take notes. Note-taking is tool agnostic: a word doc is just as effective as a spreadsheet or Trello board depending on the context. It speeds up the process because oftentimes, time will always fight you. There is no right way to take notes. 

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HIGHLIGHT

I had a brief chat with Cori. Her job hunting tip? Market yourself. 

It’s one thing to engage your stakeholder from start to finish, it is another thing to ensure that the UX they receive while working with you is sufficient. Just as we have the UX of products and services, you must consider how your stakeholders experience working with you. Michele stressed the need for good stakeholder UX, debriefing and research ops. Sharing debriefs and presentation drafts with stakeholders helps to socialise them with the data and avoid stories that touch

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HIGHLIGHT

On stakeholder UX: throughout the series Michele referred to stakeholders as “wandering cats” and how they might wander off to do their own thing, ask you to pivot with no basis or ask you for things that from a research perspective, do not make sense. She offered tips on how to handle such situations. 

Workshop 5: Spot Patterns (Analysis & Synthesis)

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TAKEAWAY

Insights and findings are different.
Insights and findings are different.
Insights and findings are different. 

Analysis is breaking data into bits. Qualitative studies can require a thematic analysis. You have to read through each transcript, code or tag them and group all the codes/tags into themes. 

Synthesis is interlocking those bits into sensible chunks.

For me, this part of the User Research process is the most tedious.

I never knew that findings differed from insights until I did the Spot Patterns workshop. Findings are observations; insights are “aha!” moments, unarticulated and underlying motivations, and interpretations of the findings. I like to think of insights as a string of findings. 

Findings vs. Insights

Your study will always produce findings but not insights. 

Workshop 6: Present (Tell the Story of your Data in a Clear, Confident & Concise Way)

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TAKEAWAY

It takes confidence and simple storytelling to present your research 

Before thinking of how to present your work, you need to know the presentation’s purpose. What’s your presentation strategy? How you present a case study varies from how you present research findings. As you present your work, having the confidence to tell your story concisely will go a long way.

Presentation Goals

The All-Ins presented their decks to their stakeholders and I was delighted to see their hard work come to fruition. Where necessary, they substantiated their research with primary and secondary data (called data triangulation). It felt good to see how receptive their stakeholders were. I guess considering the stakeholder’s UX paid off 😉. 

Consider Structure & Context

It’s hard to think of how one would cram the User Research process into eight weeks and still succeed in covering all the fundamentals. Michele did that, remarkably.

Of all the things I learnt from her, structure reigns supreme. I like to think of User Research as a system knotted with other systems within and outside UX. 

As you plan your study, write your screener and discussion guide, orchestrate your sessions, determine your note-taking strategy, analyse and synthesise your data, and present your work you should have a strategy, a plan of how you expect things to happen and an open mind. You will partake in studies that require you to pivot, you will listen to stories, gather perspectives and then you will understand that society is nothing but an expansive storyboard (more on this in a future article). Giving your process structure prevents you from veering off course, allows you to keep stakeholders on track and makes you understand that research doesn’t have to be messy but is mostly contextual.