Exploratory Research is Product Management

Teena Singh, Director of User Experience at ADP, shares why she interviews customers at their workplace, how to craft user stories with context, and the role of domain expertise in product management.

Here are the highlights:

  • What techniques and methodologies does ADP’s Innovation Lab use to determine what products to build? (7:45)
  • How does ADP’s “Come See For Yourself” include stakeholders in the exploratory research process and help add context to the solutions being developed? (9:20)
  • What insights can exploratory research provide to product managers? (10:15)
  • What does a typical exploratory research process look like? (11:15)
  • What are some best practices for balancing user experience with business objectives? (12:15)
  • What are ways to ensure that interviews with stakeholders and end-users are informative and actionable? (14:00)

And here's the transcript:

Teena Singh: I'm Teena Singh and I am a UX Director at ADP's Innovation Lab in Chelsea. I'm someone that's basically focused my career in HR software, so I've started out as an HR practitioner. Then I went to implementing HR software, next to being a product owner for HR software, and I've eventually now gravitated to being a UX Director for HR software as well. Exploratory research is product management.

Mike Fishbein: Teena has spent her entire career in the Human Resources discipline. First, as a practitioner, and now as someone who's building the next generation of solutions for practitioners. I asked her to walk me through that transition.

Teena Singh: I was one of those people that I didn't know what I wanted to do when I was in college, and I started out with an English degree. Then at some point, I got a summer job working in an HR department. Working there where you would enter the employee information into the HRIS system, and just managing the workforce in that office. And then it kind of dawned on me that HR might be a good career, and my next job was, I was an HR coordinator but the opportunity came up at some point, when I was at that job, to implement the new system that was coming to this university that I worked at. And I thought, "Oh, this will be an interesting opportunity to be able to go more on the technical side or the software side of the HR." So, I implemented the HR system, and I really enjoyed it. It was almost like putting puzzle pieces together.

You know, it's funny how one thing leads to another, and the company that, the vendor, really thought I did a good job of implementing the HR system, and they said to me, "If you ever feel like being a consultant, and helping other people implement the HR system, let us know." That's what I did. So, I took the chance and I became a consultant where I implemented HR systems across North America. So I saw how other companies were using the same software that I'd implemented, and provided them best practices and implementation techniques for implementing that software.

At some point, I got sick of being on the road, and that's when I thought, "How can I still be in HR software but not be traveling?" And I applied at oracle to be an HR product manager, and that's where I was writing user stories which in that day was functional documents, like functional requirements documents, and creating prototypes for HR recruiting software.

And then finally, how I landed where I am was the software started becoming more and more, the user experience of it became more and more important, and I gravitated to more of the making sure the experience for the end-users was in there in any software that we created. So, I became a real advocate for the user, and at Oracle I gravitated to the UX team, because I really knew the user as I was one once. I saw many of them when I was implementing HR systems. That's where I learned a lot of the methodologies you need for doing user research and designing best user experiences.

Mike Fishbein: Teena has extensive first-hand perspective into implementing HR solutions. In a day and age where user experience is a key differentiator between solutions, her experience and domain expertise is invaluable.

Teena Singh: I think for me, because I'm an advocate of the user, I was one of those users in you know, a previous life or 20 years ago. So, I understand those pain points so acutely, and then I also saw as I went around implementing the systems, different variations of that user and how their experiences were. I really think having the domain knowledge, whether you're a product owner or a UX expert is really critical.

Mike Fishbein: Teena says this line is interesting because virtually everyone is a user of HR software, but we don't often get to see what the management of that software looks like, or the direction it's heading. I asked Teena to tell me more about what's going on inside ADP's Innovation Lab.

Teena Singh: A few years ago, ADP really felt they needed to invest in innovation, or kind of reinvent themselves. They started in New Jersey. They created what they called the first Innovation Lab, and it was a set of people that were working on functionality, that was not being deployed currently to their clients. That's where they developed what they call the Data Cloud, which right now is one of their flagship products that provides reporting, analytics, and intelligence to HR practitioners. And they also provided the mobile, they created their mobile applications in their first Innovation Lab.

And then as one of our leaders said, they decided to double down and really go the next step with innovation, and that's when they opened the Innovation Lab in Chelsea, so here in New York City. And one of the reasons they did that was, they felt like they could find the right employees or the technology people here in New York City. So, they specifically found that location in Chelsea, that is close to a lot of start-ups, a lot of big enterprise software companies, people that are really moving forward in the technology space. So, they opened this office in Chelsea. Really this office is, it's very different than other ADP offices. It focuses a lot on collaboration so even when you go into the space, it's very open and then you have spaces that are designed where you can actually have scrum teams there, so they're almost like little pods in the office itself.

So the whole office is working on the next generation of HCM software, and it's using a lot of the new workplace design to complete that.

Mike Fishbein: ADP is using big data analytics to help HR practitioners adopt best practices. They're also focused on mobile to facilitate actions on the go. How does exploratory research fit into these initiatives?

Teena Singh: Exploratory research is when we do research even before we do any coding, and that's where you really get to understand your users, understand what really they need as far as the software goes. You kind of see where they're, what their current state is, what their current behaviors are. And you can understand what's missing, where the software fulfills their needs, and where the software might need to fulfill their needs. You really can understand how they feel about the space, and it's an opportunity for you to create new user stories and requirements.

Mike Fishbein: Exploratory research begins before writing a single line of code. What are some of the techniques and methodologies in determining what to build?

Teena Singh: A really big push that we have is we created a program for exploratory research specifically at ADP, and we're calling it Come See For Yourself, and it's a whole program where we wanna have, not only UX team members involved in it, but we want product owners and developers involved in it. This is really a whole program. It starts with we identify the customers or the user profile that we wanna do research with, and understand what their needs are. And then we will do telephone interviews, we will have conversations with them to see how they feel about the space, you know where they use the software, or where they don't, over the phone.

And the nest step is we will select eight to ten of those clients, and we will actually go visit them in their workplace. And from those phone conversations, they'll have told us what their pain points are, but when we are in context with them, we'll say, "Show us. Show us what you were talking about, when you said you used a spreadsheet to complete this process. Show us where you're finding, you're frustrated with the software on the screen." And that's where we're doing more in context research, and not only is the person telling us, they're showing us what their current view of the system is.

Mike Fishbein: Come See For Yourself is a program that ADP Innovation Lab has started that brings stakeholders into the exploratory research process. It involves one on one interviews and observing customers at work, in order to add context to the solutions being developed. All that data can make for some well-defined user stories, I'm sure.

Teena Singh: I think it goes back to what I was talking before, it really comes down to the user and those customer journeys, or those journey maps, they tell the story of the user, and it tells you all the different places where the user touches the system, doesn't touch the system, all the different tools they're using. I think it's great because it's a way to visualize what the user's journey is. So I think that's really key that you can talk about it, but when you show it, it really creates a different reaction to people that are using it.

Mike Fishbein: I asked Teena about the sort of insights that exploratory research can identify about pain points and potential solutions.

Teena Singh: Exploratory research, it's actually identifying what the problems could be, so it's finding those spaces where the product isn't working, and so you're gonna maybe get these Aha moments. Those things that you never even thought about, and there's things that the user's gonna say, and then you're gonna learn things when you're in context, that they're gonna show you something that they might even not even identify it to you, but through watching and observing them, you'll understand that there is a gap in the product. So, it might be where they're using a post it note, where they're using Excel spreadsheet, where they have like a to do list with steps in it, and those are things that are probably could be in the software itself, but they're the actual gaps. And that's what exploratory research will do. It will show you where those gaps are and where those opportunities are.

Mike Fishbein: Exploratory research leads to Aha moments you weren't necessarily looking for. As a UX leader within an Innovation Lab, I understand that Teena can't necessarily tell me in detail about what they're working on, but I asked her to provide an example and walk me through the exploratory research process.

Teena Singh: So when we did this most recent Come See For Yourself research, we presented the report back to our stakeholders, the product owners, and also key people at ADP. What we felt we needed to actually encapsulate a little bit of, bring that person that we met at these client organizations. We had to bring them to life. So we had this kind of unique technique that we used in our report. It was meet Sally. We told a little bit about her, and it was from her interview we actually had a few quotes, and then what her major pain points were with the system. And it was a way that it was more point in time, but it was illustrating who this person was and bringing them to life.

Mike Fishbein: Teena's work puts a tremendous amount of work on the user, but how does ADP's Innovation Lab balance user experience with business objectives?

Teena Singh: On the user experience team, we're really an advocate for the user. There's a key distinction that we make when we design software at ADP. We think of two kind of key users, or two kinds of key people that we meet with. We call them stakeholders, and the other is end-users. And both of them are very key in developing our user stories or how we move forward with our software. A stakeholder, if it's something for instance, if it's you know, ADP designs payroll software. So one of the things an employee might do, or somebody just walking on the street, they might wanna look at their paycheck and maybe make changes on it, like maybe they noticed that maybe there's too much tax being taken off. There is a business need that the HR person has, and that the payroll practitioner has, but they're very different than those of the end-user.

We do both kinds of research. We'll understand from the stakeholder what their business needs are with that particular functionality. But then, we'll test that design that's created against end-users. So, we wanna make sure that when somebody's looking at their paycheck or wants to make a change to one of their deductions, it should be a simple and easy for that user to complete it. And that means that it doesn't have the jargon that the stakeholder might be aware of and familiar with. These people already have a very different sensibility, and when they're using the software, they have a very different experience or expectation from it.

Mike Fishbein: Differentiating between the stakeholder and the end-user, Teena's team is able to deliver a curated experience that makes sense to each. What are ways to ensure that interviews with stakeholders and end-users are informative and actionable?

Teena Singh: On our user experience team, we've developed methodologies for how to do research, depending on what stage of the development life cycle we're at, and it still means that you need to be flexible. There is times that you will go to do user research with one specific user. You wanna talk to somebody that's entering payroll data day-to-day, and then what happens is, is their manager shows up and they're there, and they wanna have some input into what's happening at that moment. You really have to be flexible and change your script. Make sure at this case as I noted, you might wanna get some business requirements as well as end-user requirements.

So things don't necessarily always go to how you expect when you go to a client site. You have to almost expect the unexpected in that situation.

Mike Fishbein: Expecting the unexpected is a critical aspect of user interviews, Teena argues. Next up is the benchmark. Let's see how Teena reflects on the next series of questions we ask all our interviewees to ask themselves.

Teena Singh: How do I eat my own dog food? An example is, I'm a real advocate for user research and the end-user, as I noted. A few months ago, I had to go to my son's kindergarten class and teach them about what user experience was, and I really wanted to identify to them that they were an end-user for a specific product. The example that I used was, I brought them juice boxes so maybe I bribed the kids, but each of the children got a juice box, so we talked about their pain points with using or drinking juice, and we saw things that even something as simple as one child got a juice box without a straw in it. Another put the straw in backwards, so you know that the one side of the straw is pointier than the other, and that was, it definitely impacted him getting his juice. There was another child that accidentally squeezed the juice box, and you could see that these juice boxes were not created with end-user testing.

They were created with a business need in mind, like how can you box a bunch of juices in a very compact manner and ship it out, sell it. It was a really great example where I was advocating end-user needs, and teaching UX to children at the same time.

How do I get out of the office? Well, I really like to go where the end-users are, so there's a number of different places we can do that. As I mentioned, we've got this Come See For Yourself program where we'll actually go to the end-user, and see them in their office in context. Another place that we go to see end-users or get out of the office, is we go to our end user conferences. So our clients themselves will host conferences where they're talking about their issues with the system, and that's a great place to go talk to them, do user research, and gather requirements.

What am I reading right now? Well there's a few books that I'm reading at once here. One is, storytelling with data. It's by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic. And this is a really great book. It's about how you visualize data. She was previously employed at Google and she worked in their HR department, and they were telling stories with their data. And I really feel that, that's a very similar thing that, how we present data's getting more and more important, and I even think as a UX specialist, we have to present our reports and our data in the best manner possible. It's she's kind of advocating we almost have to tell a story when we present our data.

Another one is Mapping Experiences by Jim Kalbach, and this is a great book. It's recently been released and it's how you create user journeys, blue prints and diagrams that tell that user story. And finally, I just ordered and I'm looking forward to getting it, is Lost Stars, and it's by Lisa Selin Davis and she's one of the moms in the school that we go to, or that my sons go to. And I'm really looking forward to just reading a book by somebody I know.

The recurring product management nightmare I have or the UX nightmare I have, it happens often, is that a product manager will come up to me and just go, hey, let's do a survey and I wanna know this. The nightmare, why it's a nightmare, is really we should be thinking about the problem first. So, what is it that we wanna have an answer to, because the survey or a specific methodology isn't the default that we should think of. We should think what the problem is first. If it is something that you need more quantitative data, then you think of a methodology that's appropriate for that problem. So that really is, you know it makes me bang my head on the wall, every time when I hear it. Like, "Let's do a survey, we're gonna get a lot of numbers. We can show this to leadership and move the product forward." But oftentimes, it isn't the right method of research.

Mike Fishbein: Listeners can find out more about Teena on her blog, hcmexperience.com or on Twitter @TeenaPocket. That's our show. Until next time, this is Mike Fishbein from Alpha.

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