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72 — Seeing the Forest and the Trees: The Nuanced Distinctions Between User Research and Consumer Insights with Nikki Lavoie
Episode 727th August 2023 • Greenbook Podcast • Greenbook
00:00:00 00:45:13

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Are user research and consumer insights two sides of the same coin?

In this week's episode, Nikki Lavoie joins us to explore the nuanced differences between user research and consumer insights. Leveraging Lavoie's extensive experience, the conversation delves into the distinct realm of user research, spotlighting its crucial role in unraveling the complexities of user experiences for various products and services. Lavoie eloquently underscores the indispensable need for technical finesse, adaptability, and persuasive communication skills in thriving within this sphere. Amidst challenges like budget limitations and the emergence of artificial intelligence, Nikki envisions a rekindled industry focus on prioritizing user experience.

You can reach out to Nikki on LinkedIn.

Many thanks to Nikki for being our guest. Thanks also to our producer, Natalie Pusch; and our editor, James Carlisle.

Mentioned in this episode:

IIEX Europe Registration 2024

Transcripts

Karen:

Hello, everybody. Welcome to another edition of the GreenBook Podcast. I’m your host today, Karen Lynch, and I’m so excited to be talking to this guest for a lot of reasons. I think I first met Nikki Lavoie in 2017 at a Qual360 event where she captured my heart as my chair of the event to—was not only engaging but incredibly personable and warm and wonderful and smart as all be. At that point, we introduced ourselves to each other, and I think we’ve had a fast friendship ever since. World, I am so happy to introduce you to Nikki Lavoie. If you haven’t already met her, and you don’t already know how fabulous she is, this episode will certainly bring you to that place. Nikki, thank you for being here today.

Nikki:

Thank you so much for having me, and I am as happy to speak to you as it sounds like you are to speak to me. I’ve been really looking forward to this episode for many weeks now. I’m really happy that we’re kicking it off.

Karen:

Very cool. Very cool. I know it’s mutual admiration society. By way of introduction, I will let you introduce yourself but—so that everybody who is listening understands. Nikki is the EVP of strategy and innovation at Savanta. You can tell us a bit more about Savanta, but I knew her when she was the CEO of MindSpark, a research consultancy. She’s had quite a career before joining Savanta.

Nikki:

Oh, gosh. Well, I will start by where I’m at today. As you mentioned, EVP of innovation and strategy at Savanta. I would say a lot of people ask me, “What does that mean?” so I’ll just say a tiny bit about what that means. I would say, on the one hand, it’s the innovation piece, so that’s why I get to do really great things like to go IIEX events, because my whole goal is to understand what’s innovative in the industry, what’s up and coming. GreenBook is a really great source for learning about that. Then I take that information back home to Savanta and say what can we be doing differently. On the strategy piece, it’s been figuring out how do we communicate, and how do we get the word out about all of the different kinds of new products that we want to be launching and ways that we want to be serving our customers. Yeah.

Karen:

What I love about that story, also, is a lot of people start consultancies, and then there’s the thought of the sale and, “Can I really sell my organization when I am it’s own IP?” Talk to me a little bit about what that process was like for you as a founder. Again, not part of our question [unintelligible] , but what was that like for you and the gratification that did come from it? It is worth pursuing that sale in the end?

Nikki:

Yeah. It’s actually something that I had thought about long before I even entered into the selling process with MindSpark. It’s something that I really wanted to make sure I was able to get away from, especially with qualitative research. Consultancies in general, yes, you hit the nail on the head. They want the consultant. It’s your IP, it’s your brand they’re after. Then qualitative research tends to be the same. It’s like, “Well, I’ve developed a rapport with this moderator. I know their quality of work. I know their deliverables and outputs, or they know my business objective. I always want Nikki on every project.”

Karen:

Yeah. I love what you mentioned about the mind shift that you went through, because I experienced something similar. Right? You and I have this in common. Prior to joining GreenBook, when I was—I felt like I was done executing research, and I needed something different that allowed me to think more holistically about all of it, because my brain was on fire for all of that stuff for the entirety of my career. When you’re in the trenches, in the field, you’re not taking that step back. Right? You’re doing the best thing you can do for the project that you’re working on. It’s been wonderful for me to shift at this stage of my career, and I imagine it’s been the same for you to start using those critical thinking skills, strategic thinking skills, on a whole new level.

Nikki:

Yeah, yeah. I think it’s really funny, because I really focus, probably, the second-half of the MindSpark journey on things like business growth, strategic growth, marketing plans. Then now, today, when I meet people who, maybe, saw my name somewhere, and they’re like, “Oh, Nikki, you’re that qualitative researcher.” I’m like, “I have not done an interview—a qualitative interview in some number of years now.” I’m really glad that that reputation still sticks around. Yeah. I really deliberately tried to engage myself in those things that piqued my curiosity that being a field moderator wouldn’t have let me do.

Karen:

Yeah. Well, that’s why you are a mover and shaker in the insights industry overall. Right? Because you are somebody that has that foundation in research, which is priceless when it comes to the next phase. You’re somebody who’s super tapped into the industry. IIEX attendees in general tend to be people with that growth mindset and with that level of thinking, so I feel like when I’m at our events in particular, I’m always with people who I’m like, “Oh, yes. They see it like we see it,” which is constantly putting together the big picture and connecting all of the dots to help them do their jobs better and to go to that strategic direction and the recommendations that you can give to either an end client or an internal client or a C-level executive who’s waiting to hear from you or whatever. It’s the people that are really moving things forward in the industry. That’s why I love where I’ve landed so very much.

Nikki:

We are all very lucky that you’ve landed there.

Karen:

Thank you. Thank you. It’s so funny, because one of these days I’ll stop saying it’s new. It’s only been about 16 months now. Not that I’m counting, but I just did the math yesterday, because I’m like, “How long have I been here?” Sixteen months. Hasn’t been that long. One of these days I’ll stop counting and thinking that I’ve made this surreal career change, but, every day, glad that I did.

Nikki:

Another example of our parallel lives. You have been doing the GreenBook thing for 16 months, and I’ve been doing the Savanta thing for 18 months. I’m doing the same thing. I keep being like, “Yeah.” People are like, “How’s the job going?” I’m like, “Well, I’m still finding my footing.” I’m like, “Hey. I’ve been here a year and a half. I’m actually doing some things here.”

Karen:

I know. When we get to five years in our current situation, we’ll raise a glass and say, “Look. We made it five years in this new role.” That’ll be a super fun day, and I can’t wait actually. Not that that’ll be the next time we raise a glass to one another, because I’m sure our paths will cross in person soon enough. Nikki, I want to—I want to bring the conversation to some of your background, because one of the areas that you landed in as a sweet spot, I think, is the world of usability research. I bring that up because, back in the day at Qual360, which attracts a lot of usability researchers for one reason or another. I’m not quite sure why—what was happening in that space for that particular event, but a lot of qualitative researchers who went there are in the world of UX research. That’s the context with which I met you. Talk to me a little bit about how your qualitative career brought you to the UX space and really being an expert in that world.

Nikki:

Yeah. It’s not as glorious of a story as I wish it was but it is a funny one—which I feel like all of us have loads of in this industry—which is when I had started MindSpark, and I saw it—as many of us do especially women, if you’re dealing with imposter syndrome—for a long time, even after employees, I was like, “Who would want to hire me?” Had Twitter on the roster, had Facebook on the roster, and I was like, “I’m a tiny, little—nobody wants to”—and it’s okay at some point. Was doing a lot of market research with a lot of the consumer marketing and insights teams at some of these bigger brands and tech companies.

Karen:

What I think is so interesting about that story is I had a very similar moment in time, and I forget when it was. It was probably around 2010, maybe even a little bit earlier than that. There was a client of mine who had an ecommerce—it was actually a media company, but they had an ecommerce site as well. They wanted me to do user research, but we weren’t calling it that. We were calling it market research with shoppers, online shoppers. We hadn’t made that cognitive switch to this as user research. This is just shoppers who are shopping online, going to an interface, and we were doing a lot of—in the—in the conversation, we were tracking the heat mapping from some of the platforms that we were using at that point to do online research. Then, shortly thereafter, somebody had asked me about user research, and I was like, “Well, I’m not really a user researcher.” There was this moment of, “Wait. Are you? Are you not? Because you do research with users.”

Nikki:

No. Yeah. I love that story about thinking about it and going, “Wait a minute. I did do research.” I hear whether it’s in face-to-face conversations or around the internet, on LinkedIn in comments and posts and things like that, I hear all kinds of things—particularly from market researchers, by the way—where they say, “I’ve been doing walkthroughs of websites for 20 years. We never called it market research, or we never called it user research.” I think the funny thing about that is, yes, we didn’t call it necessarily user research, and there were plenty of us who were doing things that were considered user research without knowing it.

Karen:

I love that. Thank you, because that’s exactly the type of conversation I wanted to bring to our audience to help them gain their knowledge of the different nuances that we’re talking about here. Let’s also talk about UX, the user experience, and what user research is in the context of the entirety. Because you mentioned design sprints. There’s a lot more going on in the world of UX than there is just the UX research component of it. How does it work?

Nikki:

Yeah. I think an organization that priorities user research is going to be an organization that typically has a number of dispersed teams focused on all different aspects of a product. In this case, let’s go ahead and take a digital product as an example, noting that it doesn’t always have to be digital. Let’s say that you’ve got an app. Let’s say it’s a banking app. You might have one team that is focused specifically on account transfers within that app, making sure that every time you want to move money, it happens seamlessly. The new account balance updates, shows up on the—on the screen, no errors.

Karen:

I’m trying not to laugh really loud into my microphone. It’s hilarious. I love it. I love it. I want to go back to something what you were saying, which I think is really interesting to me is you’re talking about the different teams. There’s this product research teams, right, or these product management teams, which for those of us who have a historical marketing research background, we have brand managers. It’s different because these are branded products. How do all of these departments work together to share knowledge in your experience?

Nikki:

You are forcing me to open a can of worms right now.

Karen:

I am. I am.

Nikki:

That can of worms is to say I’m not sure that they do collaborate. They definitely should. I can tell you from my personal, real-life, lived experience that I have been engaged and commissioned to work on a market research study and having already been involved—and this is for a big tech company who shall not be named—and having already been involved with their user research team and their user researchers as well, we said—I specifically said, “And if we come up with—as we’re testing the language here, as we’re doing a walkthrough around the app, and we’re testing the language here, if there’s anything that comes up from a user-experience perspective—for example, buttons not working or somebody says—raises, ‘Oh. I keep trying to do this task, and I’m never able to get it done. For some reason I expect this content to be over here. I don’t know why. It just naturally—and it isn’t,’ what do you want us to do with that information? Do you want us to put a little section at the end that says, ‘UX recommendations,’ or do you want us to write up a shorter, separate document?”

Karen:

Yeah. I love that point you’re raising about hands are going to be forced on some level. It also has me wondering why in the world would a company that has a product choose to let go of the UX researchers. Because, quite frankly, without innovative product design and that feedback that needs to go into product improvement, they’re never going to find greater success when budgets start getting pushed. Is that the age-old research question manifesting in a different way? Is there a reason? Is it because of the tools that are making it easier for UX researchers, for instance, to do more with less? Is it because there’s so many options available for contract that they don’t need full-service employees? What’s your take on that?

Nikki:

It’s all of those things. That’s what I would say. I would say that the ever-sneaky democratization of research around the corner is—plays a big role in it. I remember the very first SMR congress that I ever went to, I think, was in 2010. I remember there being a session because SurveyMonkey had just launched, and everybody was up in arms about DIY research and how it was going to take all of our jobs. Watch out AI. We’ve already been around this block a couple times. Okay? People were like, “Oh. I’m not going to have a job anymore because SurveyMonkey. It’s democratizing research.”

Karen:

Well, and I think that’s largely driven by what the objectives are, what you’re looking for. Right? With so much CMI work, you really have to be skilled as a researcher to either probe at the right places or ladder up to higher emotional end benefits and things like that, whereas I think my perception is user research is much more pragmatic. We’re not necessarily trying to get to how people feel. Right? Yes, of course, we want to understand if there are emotional pain points that are going to either disrupt the user or put off the user if it’s something jarring or frustrating. We want to uncover those.

Nikki:

No, 100 percent. I would say, taking that one step further—and I think I say this sometimes, and sometimes user researchers get really defensive about it, but I challenge—I’ve asked people to challenge me on it, and no one has taken me up. I think, taking what you’ve said a step further, user research also tends to be less rigorous. It’s not for all types of dev interviews, but for certain types of interviews, particularly usability walkthroughs and things like that, there is actually a scale which shows you at which point you are no longer learning new things from each new interviews. It’s around five, so, whereas a consumer insight person might be like, “We need six interviews per segment,” and we’ve got four segments. You’re like, “We’re doing 24 interviews today.” The user research folks might be like, “Let’s just get our main user base in and do the five.” It’s a lot easier to distill 5 interviews’ worth of unstructured data than it is to distill 24 interviews’ worth of unstructured data, although, hello, AI. Let’s fix that.

Karen:

Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about what you just brought up, too, is we know that there are unique skills. You even mentioned some of them earlier in this conversation, right, where they have to be able to report findings that are much more technically savvy. Maybe their reader is an engineer that’s working on the product design and development and improvement. They have to be able to communicate in a different way. That is a skill set that many traditional market researchers don’t bring to the—bring to the table or consumer insights professionals. There is a technical expertise that is needed that is probably very specific for what types of products they’re working on.

Nikki:

Yeah. I would say one that I think is a skill that definitely exists across both user research and somebody on consumer insights side—but is incredibly important on the user research side—is you have to be able to move and motivate your stakeholders. If you are continuously producing reports that sit on the digital shelf and collect digital dust, it is hugely problematic for your organization, and your position will be cut. Whereas on the consumer insights side, it’s obviously still important to be able to grab the attention of stakeholders. Everyone’s constantly talking about how can we make our deliverables more impactful? Insight activation and all of this kind of stuff. That’s been a buzzword for a number of years. Obviously, it is important to storytelling, curation, et cetera, et cetera.

Karen:

That’s really interesting. I’m reflecting back to how many reports written for insights teams at very large organizations where we make recommendations, and yet they’re like, “Those are great. Thank you.” The insights teams are going to make their own recommendations, so the reports don’t have to be as persuasive. They really need to tell a story so that somebody else can make a persuasive argument for whatever recommendations they see. The insights teams themselves want to have the driving thought leadership. It’s not necessarily the researcher that needs to make those strong recommendations unless they’ve hired a consultive thinker or a firm that is going to give strategic direction. I think that’s a really interesting nuance to call out that they have to be persuasive in their reporting of findings. That’s excellent.

Nikki:

Yeah. I would say it probably varies by the UX maturity of an organization. I would say an organization that has a lot of user experience maturity is one that is going to value and prioritize the findings and the outputs from any research. The ones that are, perhaps, less mature and they’re still focusing on, “Oh, shoot. Our last 2-week sprint actually lasted 16 days instead of 14 days. We need to make sure that we put a new process in place to eliminate the old process so that any future processes are better than the current process,” those people are completely not paying attention to what is happening. They’re not looking at a PowerPoint. They’re very busy on Slack doing all kinds of things or whatever. It becomes the kind of place where you have to cut through the noise in a—in a way that I think we don’t see as much on the—on the consumer insights side.

Karen:

Yeah. That’s such great advice. I do want to end in this place of advice for listeners. Imagine we have—we have user researchers that are listening. Maybe AI has them a little bit terrified, or maybe budget cuts at their organizations has them a little bit terrified. I don’t want anybody listening operating from a stress state. Right?

Nikki:

Oh, gosh. So many pieces. Where to start? This is probably not a piece of advice that would shock anyone who is in the user research community, but I would say one of the things that I like about both insights spaces is they both actually do have genuinely really good communities. I would say get yourself involved with as many different spaces in UX as you can. There’s loads of different Slack channels. There’s UXPA. There’s Epic, which is not specifically for user researchers. It’s really for anthropologists, but there are loads of really smart user researchers—particularly who come over from academia—there.

Karen:

I think there is currently—look at me plugging another organization, but I think UXPA just had a call for applications for mentees right now. I think it is current right now. I don’t know when this episode is going to air, but look for that. I think that’s a great idea. I personally got a mentor in the content marketing space because I was new to being the head of content. I’m like, “You know what? You are never too old to gain the value that a mentor can provide for you.” I think that’s great advice. Have you had a mentor? Has there been somebody who’s been instrumental in your career?

Nikki:

Oh, my gosh. It’s really hard to name one mentor. I feel like I have been really lucky to learn from so many people over the years. All the way back from my first ever market research job, I worked at a tiny little place called the Taylor Research and Consulting Group based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I worked under two really great people there. One was called Matthias Kretschmer, who I think is still in the industry working at The Knot. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a chat. The other is Peter Fondulas, who has recently retired. He was cofounder of Hub Entertainment Research, which I’m sure plenty of listeners are aware of.

Karen:

So many. Yeah. I think what I love about that, also, is never underestimating the influence you might have on a junior employee or somebody who is starting off in their career. For you listeners, if you are not in that space, share this episode with them. I think it would be gratifying for some of those folks who are starting in their careers to understand that every position matters. Every position will teach you something new that you can take to the next one. No matter where your career path will end up, the people that you meet will be formative in your career beyond any understanding.

Nikki:

Yes, it is. Totally agree on all of those points. Soak it all up. Enjoy it while you can. This is a great group.

Karen:

Yeah. It’s cool. Anything you want to share with us about what’s new on the horizon for you, Nikki? We’re getting ready to wrap here. Whatever you want to put out there, this is your moment.

Nikki:

I feel like the cheekiest thing I could possibly do is to not mention a particular two-letters that everyone has been talking about as being what I see on the horizon. It’s not on the horizon. It’s already here. If you want to ask me what I think is going to happen, then I’d say call me back in five minutes. Whatever I say now is going to be different five minutes from now. That’s what I’m going to say about that.

Karen:

Yeah. I think that’s all good. For those people that are curious, your take on AI or UX or any other—any other acronyms that are out there—

Nikki:

—Any two letters.

Karen:

—any two letters, what’s the best way for people to reach you?

Nikki:

Oh, gosh. What is the best way? LinkedIn would be the best way to reach me.

Karen:

That sounds great. That sounds great. Nikki, I cannot thank you enough for chatting with me during this time. It’s always good to talk to you and to see your face and to bring some of your energy to our world. I’m so grateful. Thank you for being here.

Nikki:

Can I say that I have been moderated by one of the world’s greatest moderators? That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. You heard it here first. She might not be moderating anymore, but, Karen Lynch, she’s the one. Thank you very much. It was great.

Karen:

Thank you. You make me blush. You make me blush. I appreciate it. I also have had a world of—a world of mentors and training, and I never miss an opportunity to learn. That’s my advice for all of you. Keep learning, because it’s how you grow in your career and we collectively grow the industry. Again, thank you again, Nikki.

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