Explore a Career in UX Research - Discussion with Jonathan Karpfen, Experience Researcher @Airbnb
Jonathan Karpfen, Experience Researcher at Airbnb and Principal UX Researcher at LinkedIn before Airbnb, goes into the details of a what working as a UX Researcher is all about in this episode.
By the way, Jonathan and I met at the Airbnb office for this discussion, which I have to say is AMAZING. Below is a photograph of where we recorded the podcast. That's right, in a camper inside the Airbnb HQ in San Francisco. Do you spot Jonathan sitting inside?
Check out the podcast below to listen to the complete discussion! :)
Some of the areas we touch upon in this episode include:
1. How and why did Jonathan go into UX Research
2. What is UX Research
3. Example of a project that Jonathan worked on at LinkedIn as a UX Researcher
4. What kind of problems does Jonathan work on as an Experience Researcher at Airbnb
5. How UX Research comes down to being able to understand people and their behaviors
6. Interesting and challenging aspects of the job
7. Key attributes of someone who will enjoy working in this space
8. A list of books for budding researchers or for anyone curious about how great products are designed
9. Recruiting tips
Thank you for listening!!
If you have any questions for Jonathan or for us, you can email us at [email protected] or tweet at us @led_curator .
Note: Interested in going deep into User Research? Check out this highly rated course on User Experience Research and Design on Coursera, offered by the University of Michigan.
Let’s start with what is UX?
UX stands for user experience. And you can think of it very broadly or you can think of it more narrowly. Different people use those terms in different ways. I would say broadly, user experience is essentially what it sounds, it's thinking about what is the experience of the user of your product. And that's very important, because the products that we create today, the thing that the user is actually buying is an experience. And that is how they perceive the value of the product. And you can create business value, differential business value based on your user experience, not only the sort of pure function or problem that you're solving, but also how you solve that problem for the user.
Can you help illustrate that definition?
So Airbnb is a company that started from a very humble idea, which was to connect travelers with locals who could give them a place to stay. But it's evolved into a company that really thinks about how anyone can feel like they belong anywhere. To basically live like a local wherever you go.
Coming to user experience in the context of Airbnb - in the more narrow definition you could think of it as how do people experience the Airbnb product itself? When you go on the Airbnb website, when you use the Airbnb applications on your phone, what is that experience? And therefore, we have to work back from there. So how do we design that? How do we design an application? How do we design a flow of pages or a series of experiences that you would have whether it's searching for a place to stay or decide In, which of those places you want to pick or the flow that you go through when you are paying or the way that you are messaging the messaging system back and forth between a guest and a host, all of those things are designed, there are infinite number of decisions that have to be made along the way. And each of those things are part of the user experience design process.
Can you share an example of the kind of decision you might be making when you're designing these kinds of things?
Sure. If you think about what I've described Airbnb as connecting guests, and hosts, travelers with the people that they're staying with, that means that we need to provide information to both sides about each other, so that they can find the right place to stay, learn a little bit about each other before they make a decision, maybe. And in order to do that, we need to also get that information, we need to collect information from people. And there's a process behind that a host who is listing their space needs to go through an entire process of giving their place and name, adding photos describing what amenities they have, writing a description of their place, and what they think is great about it, and what they want to share about it, to entice people to stay there and also to set the right expectations. So all of those things need to be thought through in terms of what questions should we be asking hosts to answer, how do we present that information in a way that is digestible by guests? How do we make it both attractive and clear? So that it's not just selling every single listing, but actually empowering the guests to make an informed decision about where they want to stay.
You mentioned that how in the context of Airbnb, the website and mobile applications being the UX is one way of looking at it. But what about actually staying in an Airbnb hosted place? Is that considered a part of UX?
It's a great question. And thanks for asking, because it's one of the things that I'm really excited about, it's actually a big part of my particular area of focus at Airbnb. So user researchers at Airbnb and at some other companies, the way that the team is structured is that we are embedded with different groups or teams within the company, I am actually embedded with a team called Host quality. And our role is really to try and make sure that our hosts who are essentially, they are the ones who are providing the offline experiences, you're suggesting to the guests, that they're providing the best experience possible. And so there's many steps in us doing that. One is we need to try and understand our hosts, we need to understand what are their challenges? What are they trying to achieve? How are they solving specific problems? Or is Airbnb helping them do those things? Or are they going somewhere else to try and solve those problems? How could Airbnb do a better job of helping them with that. And of course, the ultimate goal of that is to make sure that we're providing great experiences to guests. So we also need to understand the guests and what kind of experiences are they looking for? How can we best deliver them or have hosts best deliver them. So my job as a researcher, is to do various kinds of initiatives, various kinds of research, to understand all of those things about our hosts.
This is very, very helpful. So basically, what you're saying is that, as a UX researcher, or as a user researcher, you're looking at the entire end to end experience, right? From the time I may be interested in using an Airbnb listing, going to the website and actually getting there and staying there and checking out the entire experience, and you want that to be as good as possible.
Can you share an example of a project you’ve worked on?
I think the the best example I can provide is something I did when I was at LinkedIn. It's a project where we redesigned the entire, what we call the “chooser flow”. So the chooser page is where you choose as a LinkedIn user, which premium subscription you want to buy.
At the time, when we started this project, the version of the chooser page that was live that everyone saw when they went to LinkedIn, had been there for a couple years, and there was a team that had been working on optimizing that page through various experiments. So making small changes to the page and seeing what the outcomes were. And they had done a great job of that. Our goal with the project that we undertook was to try and reach an entirely new sort of what I call a global optimum. So rather than focusing on trying to optimize the version that we already had, we said, let's see if we can come up with another version. That brings us into an entirely new realm of performance in terms of this page.
And by performance, you would mean the number of people who are actually converting from the free version to one of these paid versions, correct.
Although we actually added some additional goals, which were around making sure that people aren't just converting but finding the right product. That was the goal of the page. Of course, from LinkedIn’s perspective, the goal is to try and be profitable and offer value. But in order to do that, effectively, we needed to ensure that people were finding the right product. Otherwise, you get all kinds of, you know, undesired outcomes, customer support issues, people want a refund, because they didn't get the thing they thought they were going to get, etc.
So we started that process by saying, Okay, let's completely step back. And let's look at all the ways that it's possible to sell something in a digital format. So we look at cars and laptops, and mobile games and everything imaginable. And we found what we felt were six different themes of how it's possible to sell something online.
So we have these, we found what we felt was an exhaustive set of all the ways that you could sell something online. Then we brought the entire team together. We brought together the whole team, including the marketing managers, the engineers, both front end and back end engineers, we included some of the sort of broader stakeholders from across the company because this page is responsible for selling all the products it has. We have to bring in people from all the different verticals so that they could be a part of this process. And we presented these different themes. And we said, we're going to brainstorm around these themes. So we did an entire day of activities around coming up with what would LinkedIn do if we had all these different options available.
Then we recruited LinkedIn users from the outside. We had this whole matrix of different kinds of people that we brought in to try and understand, how they would react to different versions of this page. And we looked at all six of those different versions. And what we started to learn was that none of those versions was right. What we were able to extract was, what are the ingredients that make it right, one version would highlight certain things, another version will highlight certain other things. And what we ended up doing was mashing those things together in a way to bring together the best ingredients.
The analogy I like to make with research - we're about trying to find ingredients, and then the recipes for combining those ingredients to produce the right flavors and textures.
So how would you describe UX research?
At the very basic level UX research is a function to help various people around the company make the right decisions, to provide the best possible experience and achieve the outcomes that the company wants to achieve through the design of our products.
Historically, as I look at it, user experience research really comes out of a field that at the time has been called Computer human interaction, which is about how humans and computers interact together. And that is related to other fields like human factors, understanding the engineering considerations around human use of things like human cognitive ability, memory, ergonomics, humans, physical abilities, all of these things are a part of design and having to understand humans in relation to the design of some interface. So that's the genesis of user experience research as an industry or as a specialty. That specialty has gone in many different directions in different industries, I think we have a lot of things in common with market research, we have things in common with people who are studying fashion trends, and what are people going to be buying next year? It's really about understanding the culture, the society and how people interact.
Have you ever found any interesting or unexpected insights? For example, I could say that, Guests want a nice place to live in. But now that you've gone through this process many times, and you've actually spent the time to learn more about what they really want, have there been any interesting insights that you've learned?
I've never done a research project where we weren't surprised by something. That's the point of doing the research. I would say that the best research projects are the ones where the things you learn are kind of obvious. In a certain sense. If you learn something new, and you think, it doesn't quite make sense to me, that's kind of weird. Probably worth looking into it a little bit more. But I would also say at the same time that I've never been involved in a project, where the outcome was so obvious that we could have just not done it.
I suppose it's not entirely surprising, but it's one of these things that when you realize just how true it is, it helps you to be much more deliberate and confident in the way that you design the product. And not just the product but also the marketing and the messaging around it. And the more we've looked at different kinds of hosts, and in particular, some of our highest performing hosts, the ones who get the very best reviews, the ones who if you look at what they're doing, you can really see that they're paying a lot of attention, they always respond really quickly. They're always very attentive, when you talk to them about why they do it, and what the benefits of it are, they talk about it in a way that's really distinct, which is that they're not doing it for the money. They're not doing it, even necessarily, because they need to, it's because of the feeling that they get the passion that they have about hosting people and sharing experiences with people.
It helps you then to think about how do we now design the product so that everyone can feel that way. And everyone can strive at least to provide that level of hospitality and be driven in that way to do that. Some of these are fairly high level kind of learnings. But what the benefit of having those high level learnings is that you can take them and then apply them in a way that's very broad, and kind of have a very deep impact across the entire product.
So on a typical day, if I were to run into you in the Airbnb office, apart from enjoying the lovely office, what else would I find you working on?
Different things every day. That's a big part of what I love about my job. No two days are the same. Some research projects are quick, some are longer term, but they consist of a lot of different things, whether it's, frankly, a lot of the time is spent trying to understand what is the team that I'm working with trying to accomplish? What are the questions that they really need answered? What are some of the best ways that I can come up with as a researcher to help answer those questions? And so a lot of the work is really collaborative, it's about finding out what are other people thinking about? What are they trying to do? I would say, one thing you see me doing is spending a lot of time with my team, with the product manager, with the designers, with the engineers, with other collaborators, like the marketing team, which, in many, at least, sort of, I would say in Silicon Valley tends to be a separate department from the product department. But it is really important for us to work closely together because they're working on messaging and how we position the product, collaborating with everyone that I can think of to figure out how I can create the greatest value.
And are you spending most of your time in meetings? Or are you also someone who will be working a lot on your own?
It's both. Obviously, no one loves spending time in meetings if it's not productive, but at the same time, meetings can be very important and very valuable. I would say more so than meetings, it's collaborative time. So it's sitting down with a designer and really thinking through let's look at the design together. Let's think about how might a user look at this? What are some questions that a user might have? What are some questions that we might have based on those questions that user would have, that will help us understand how to best design for this.
For a UX researcher, how do you measure success?
I can answer that question in a few different ways. But the simplest way that I would answer that is impact. And what I mean by that is literally the outcomes, I say this to every designer I work with actually is my research is worth exactly nothing. Unless you as a designer, and product manager and the engineers make decisions that are informed by the research and take different actions than you would otherwise have taken. If it weren't for the research, or you take the same actions, you make the same decisions, but with a greater degree of confidence and context. I measure my value as a researcher by the impact that it has on the outcomes in the product development process, and ultimately, for our users.
That's a great point. You need to be able to not only have that relationship but be able to influence the product manager or at least help them understand your point of view.
People have different philosophies on this. My philosophy is, it is my job as researcher to have a point of view. But it's also very important that it's clear not only to me, but to everyone that I work with it's not just my point of view that I'm representing our users. So I do all this stuff to try and collect insight and information from our users, whether it's quantitative or qualitative, whether it's very, very narrow and focused, or very broad questions. But at the end of the day, I'm representing that in a concise, consolidated, synthesized way to people so that they can digest it quickly and easily see what the outcomes or the next steps would be based on that information. So it's very important that there's a level of trust and a level of credibility, that as a researcher, I maintain, even though I also do have a point of view, and I am applying that in the process of doing that analysis,
What do you think are the most interesting aspects of working as a UX researcher?
I judge myself based on impact. And so seeing impact, seeing outcomes, seeing things in the real world, you know, numbers from a project that's been done. And believing that my research made a difference is very rewarding. In fact, one thing that we haven't talked about is that at least in the software world, products are usually launched in an incremental way. And so you actually, don't just release a whole new product, or an entirely new version of something and just replace the old in one shot, you usually do what we call ramping it up, or experiments, or AB testing, there's different words for it. But some of my most rewarding experiences have been when we have a version that's been sort of researched. And the way we've gone through a process that is the way that we would want to do it, and then maybe we have another version, that we're going to test alongside it, that is sort of just an idea, and hasn't really been tested as much. And I mean, we're coming into it with a big advantage on the research side, if you believe in it, which obviously I do, but I've never seen it not sort of win the A B test. But that's some of the most rewarding stuff is winning the A B.
And are there any aspects that you find challenging?
Absolutely, the biggest challenge, the most challenging thing about research is that experience research is about people. And people are complicated, and messy, and sometimes fickle. People are wonderful, but they can be difficult to work with. And mostly in a research context, we're talking about, having to recruit participants to come in for a research study, you got a room full of your team sitting there, waiting to hear from this person who's scheduled to come in for an hour and a half. And there, you've scheduled them, and you've got them all there. And these are highly paid, very smart, very effective people with a lot of work that they need to get done, and you've got them committed to this time that they've set aside. And your person doesn't expect the participant just doesn't show up, didn't call you to say they weren't going to show up. It happens and you have to build in as a sort of safety, you have to assume that's going to happen, because it is going to happen. So you have to plan for it. But I would say that working with people, especially in a research setting is some of the most challenging stuff. But again, of course, that goes in hand, being some of the most rewarding pieces.
Is there a typical background for UX research?
Well, that's a good question. No, I don't think that there is really a typical background right now for experience research. And I think that's partly because as a sort of formalized function, it's very new. So just as maybe 10 or 20 years ago, a digital designer was probably someone who was more self taught who kind of came, maybe they had design experience, maybe they went to design school, but they didn't study digital design, they work their way there. Similarly, today, someone in experienced research may have started out as a psychology student, or sociology student, maybe they were a design student, and are interested in understanding some of the research aspects of it. Maybe they're even coming from more of an engineering background. But want to get more involved in how they're delivering value. People come from all different backgrounds, human computer interaction is what some of these programs are called these days in school. But still, it's been a long time since I was in school. And I know that since then, there are more and more programs that are focused on this, but most of the people who are working today, in user experience research, didn't necessarily study experience research as their major. So people come from all different kinds of backgrounds.
My background, as you pointed out, is in literature, philosophy, anthropology, arguably nothing to do with this job. But that some of the skills are being open to how complex humans are, understanding that a question about human behavior can't necessarily be answered with just a single one off number. So having some appreciation for the complexity and the diversity of people and culture, and also, certainly having the curiosity. I would say that's probably the first thing that you would have to look for, if you were kind of hiring someone as a researcher is they have to be curious. But coming back to the literature piece, it's a sense of narrative, it's a sense of story, you need to have a story that makes sense. The best research is not about facts just delivered, but actually delivered in a way that tells a compelling and coherent story.
What kind of person do you think would really enjoy working as a UX researcher, if you could list a couple of qualities?
I said earlier, I think that the number one requirement is that the person be curious, and specifically curious about people about how people interact with the products and the experiences in their lives. So being curious, but I think if I have to think about what is the unique characteristic that I think researchers have that maybe other functions don't require as much, it's really an ability to see connections between concepts of different types. So basically seeing connections that other people have trouble seeing. And for research, that means being able to move back and forth between abstract thought and concrete thought, between having a model or an understanding of people and their experiences, and the very concrete and practical implications that has for a specific design of a particular product that they're going to interact with in a given moment. So it's about being able to say, as we were discussing earlier, truly great hosts, are driven by their passion for hospitality and sharing that with people, what are the implications for a product design, that suggests being able to take that very abstract, high level kind of concept or thinking, and translate it into something very particular that will then turn into a product is the distinguishing feature of a researcher.
So let's say that I am someone completely new to this, and I hear this podcast, and it sounds like a cool role. I want to do it. Is there a way to test if I will enjoy this role?
Well, that's an interesting question. I mean, I would say it depends on your situation. First of all, if you're already working at a company, and are lucky enough to have a research department at that company, then I would definitely encourage you to reach out to the researchers there. Researchers tend to be very friendly people. And we are, generally very happy to share about our work. So I think that that would be definitely the first thing I would suggest if you have the benefit of being in that situation. If you don't, then I think you know, my former employer. LinkedIn is another great way that you can reach out and learn about research from researchers, in my experience, and I've done this several times in my career, when I've wanted to learn about a new industry or a new role. I've just reached out and messaged people who have the kinds of jobs that I'm interested in, find them on LinkedIn, send them a message, often, a really short, quick message, like, Hey, I see that you're doing this thing. I'm really curious about that. I'm looking to transition my career or looking to start my career. I'd love to spend 20 minutes. I would say you know 50 to 75% of people will say yes to that.
Do you think that you did something special which made people respond to you on LinkedIn?
Be specific with what you're asking for. Don't tie it to any kind of particular outcome. In other words, don't ask for a job out of the bat, treat it as an informational interview. In other words, I am curious and passionate about you, as a person, I want to learn about what you are doing, something that's so interesting. Most people want to share about what they do. And if someone else finds it interesting, they're flattered by it.
And secondly, they're usually very willing to share if they have the time and if they can do it. I think simply being very clear about the fact that you are interested in them, it's important to you, and you're going to make it easy for them. And you're not asking for any particular thing besides some small amount of their time and their willingness to share. I've always had good responses with that. So but I would never lead with what you're trying to get out of it, it's about your curiosity or about them.
So going back to the qualities, you mentioned, curiosity - Is there anything else?
The other thing that I would add is, if you're coming at this from the sort of qualitative end of things, if you're a designer, or if you are a person with a background in, literature, or arts, if you have a liberal arts background, I really think it's worth no matter what you're going to do, but especially if you're interested in research, to have some training in statistics, research, is, at some point, you're going to have to deal with quantitative data. And the best researchers deal with both quantitative and qualitative data on a regular basis, at least understanding basic statistical properties of data, understanding how to read a slide with information if you're looking at a chart, what would you want to ask about that data? Understanding the right things around where did that data come from? What does it represent? What's the statistical significance of it?
Those basic questions, at least, are critical. And beyond that statistics, if you don't think you're gonna like it, you may develop a little bit more of an appreciation for it after you learn a little bit. And it may be worth going even deeper.
One other sort of exercise that I would suggest is look at some of your favorite products. And just ask yourself, how those products may have come into being? What was the process that might have gone might have taken place in order for that to have been the final solution? And why did they end up doing it this way?
Are there any resources that you recommend to people who are interested in learning more about this space?
I would say the usual things are, Google it, look up user experience, look up user experience research that goes by various names. Usability is another word that is used, although that kind of tends to be used for a very particular part of the process, market research, all of these adjacent types of research are worth looking into to get a robust view of what the industry is really about. I would definitely encourage people to look at blogs and kind of follow the breadcrumbs, one blog will lead you to another, you'll start to see some common names of some sort of more famous thought leaders. And that should lead you to probably some of the books and I actually have some favorite books that I can point out.
I think the number one book that I would recommend, even for people who don't think they want to be researchers or designers, it may change your mind. You may decide you want to be a researcher designer, if you read
The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. It's a very famous book. He talks about everything from doorknobs to fridge interfaces, like how warm or cold is your fridge, to stove tops, to kettles, it's lives up to the name, it's the Design of Everyday Things, but I think that his working title for the for the book was actually the psychology of Everyday things. And so it's really about understanding how people interact with objects in their lives and how sometimes the wrong design can lead to absurd outcomes. And getting it right can really make a big difference. So that's a very inspirational book that I think anyone who's interested in this should read.
Don't make me think, is a book by Steve Krug. It's very visual, very practical book about web design. It'll kind of give you the shortcut, a quick and dirty view of what this industry is really all about.
Observing the user experience by Mike Cooney
The elements of user experience by Jesse James Garrett
Designing for the digital age by Kim Goodwin.
101 design methods by Vijay Kumar.
Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman
The art of long view by Peter Schwartz
What’s the best way to apply for a job?
I think that having worked at LinkedIn, I have to say that the best way to get a job these days is not by submitting your application directly and waiting to hear back. It's by reaching out to people at the company. Find a company that has a mission that you are passionate about. That's the most important thing. Because you're going to be spending every day of your life, especially as a researcher trying to understand how to achieve that mission and deliver value to the users. So you really need to be passionate about what you're doing. Find companies you're passionate about, and then reach out to people who work at those companies. And it doesn't have to be the researchers if that's what you want to do. It could be the designers, it could be product managers, it could be depending on the individual, a lot of executives are willing to sort of have informational interviews with people if they present themselves well, but don't be shy to reach out and start these conversations, that's how you're going to eventually, most likely get the opportunities to have interviews.
Once you get an interview, many of these jobs, whether it's in design or research often involve a presentation. So, if you're more junior, and you haven't had professional work to show, you may be asked to show other work that you've done either as a student, or, as on the side, I would definitely encourage anyone who wants to work in any design related field to have some kind of portfolio, some way of showing their work in a visual way. Something that can showcase what you've done.
And you brought up a very interesting point, which is that you want to identify the companies that you want to work for. So let's say you want to work as a UX researcher. Is there some discrepancy in terms of the relative strategic importance of that function by company?
That's a great question. Definitely different companies view research in different ways. It's structured in different ways within the organization, and given different value. Airbnb is a very design led organization, two of the founders of the company were trained as designers and come very much from that mindset. And here, design and research really has a lot of respect. And it's a big part of the process.
Other companies approach it differently, it's not to say that they don't support it, or that it's not viewed as valuable. I would go, if you're young and are new to this, I would go somewhere that you think you're going to learn the most. So whether that means going somewhere that really funds research, or whether it means going somewhere that really treats research in a very rigorous way.
Talk to people, ask them questions about how research is part of the product development process, you'll figure it out quickly. Ask about how research is organized, like what is the structure? What does research report up to? Does the research function report up to the product lead or the marketing lead? Who is the most senior person in the research department? What level are they at? Is there a director of research or a VP of research? Or is the most senior person in research an individual researcher? That's going to tell you a lot about how they think about it.