“Sometimes bad user research is worse than none”
The UX research field is continually changing as the practice of democratization sweeps through the industry. Researchers need to view it as an opportunity but continue to advocate for themselves and their work. In the future, research will move even closer to product management and data science.
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Eric Mahlstedt
Global Head of User Research @ IBM (ex-Oracle/NASA)
Apple & Banana
How did you get into UX?
Eric Mahlstedt

I was an undergrad student, majoring in political science and I wasn't enjoying it very much.

One of my last general electives that I had to take was a social science elective, and I chose introduction to cognitive science.

I distinctly remember two specific lectures that stirred my design soul. 

What was the first? 

The first was when my professor showed us the now infamous change blindness video and told us to count the number of times the basketballs were being passed.

I totally didn’t see the gorilla walk onto the court (here’s the link to the video). 

I sat there, dumbfounded thinking “If I didn’t see that gorilla on a 50-feet projector screen, what are application users missing and what are key decision makers seeing or not seeing in their businesses?”

From then on, user research gave me a new way to organize my curiosity. 

And the second lecture? 

The second lecture was about the “task-artifact cycle,” a philosophy that technologies and humans co-evolve and the resulting relationship between them generates new demands on the technology and on the human. 

That lecture was instrumental to my getting into the UX field as it gave me the permission to fall in love with problems (more stable), not the solution (always changing).

“Every time we design something new, we create new problems and opportunities.” 

Post college, where did you go next?

I joined AmeriCorps NCCC which is where I realized how much I love field work. I love being with people.

I love experiencing problems and challenges with them. And obviously the opportunity to understand and support unmet or underserved needs is such a privilege.

Then I went back to school to get a graduate degree in Human Factors at San Jose State University. 

Apple & Banana
Along the way you joined NASA! How did that come about?
Eric Mahlstedt

The faculty chair of the SJSU Human Factors department made me aware of a group of researchers at NASA and the emerging technology directorate! 

I contributed to an initiative called “NextGen,” which was led by the Federal Aviation Administration. 

The goal was to triple the amount of commercial airfare without building any additional airports, where the biggest choke points were throughput on takeoff and landing.

I was researching questions like “What happens if we introduce automation between air traffic control and the flight crew?

“What happens if we introduce a new flight deck display? How do those things impact workload and situational awareness?”

Why did you leave doing research at NASA? 

It was fascinating work, but over time, I realized that I didn't want to have to constantly worry about funding for my research.

It was a “publish or perish” environment and I was craving more speed and connection with people I was working with. 

After NASA, I joined Oracle with their centralized design org with ~130 people.

Why Oracle? 

I really craved mentorship and I didn't want to be the person that determined how research was executed and what the best practices were because I knew that at that point in my career, I wasn't proficient enough to make those decisions and that would actually be a disservice to a company (and my own growth).

Oracle provided an opportunity to surround myself with the kind of craft leaders that accelerated my growth and influence. 

What did you work on at Oracle? 

I started working on CRM applications with a specific focus on sales software, looking at things like “What does that salesperson use to track their leads and opportunities?” 

I also worked on tools in the medical adherence space, where we used technology to encourage patients to follow through on prescriptions and treatments. 

Around that time, I started working within our product strategy organization and had the opportunity to move deeper into the world of product management but I realized I'm still a researcher at heart. 

After Oracle, I went to Progress Software where I helped launch and chair their UX Advisory Board and then onto IBM, which is where I am now!

Apple & Banana
What was it like applying to IBM?
Eric Mahlstedt

When I applied for the role it was called “User Experience, Visual Designer and Front End Developer” and I thought “Oh God. They're either horrible at hiring because they just copy/paste templates. Or they have no idea what they need.”

And I saw that as an opportunity to build a focus on user research the right way. 

Once you joined IBM, what did you do? 

I established an initial team of about five user researchers and we were really scrappy, working on very specific projects to support.

Slowly but surely, we started to get noticed so we’ve grown the team to 80+ people in just 5 years. 

Did you ever think you’d be building the research practice at IBM? 

Definitely not! And candidly I probably wouldn't have wanted the job in the past.

But my being here is a testament to the great work of our researchers, who have challenged our operating model, challenged the way that we engage with our customers and end users.

Apple & Banana
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Eric Mahlstedt

I'll give you three examples, with the first being really understanding who will be affected by your research and what their priorities are.

“Don’t focus on what your stakeholders want to know, focus on why. This is the key to driving action.” 

The big idea here is that researchers contribute through others. We rely on the behavior of other people to pass the benefit of our work all the way down the chain. 

This is actually a lesson my kids taught me. Kids have to influence others for everything that they want, so they become experts.

And they've taught me that there are always choices.

The second example would be: ”How well can you communicate about your decisions?“ This is far more important than honing your methodological skills.  

“How well can you demonstrate your awareness of project goals?”

”How well can you communicate why your recommendations are likely to have a positive impact on the product, service, your customers?”

And the final point? 

Ask for help. Let me explain. A lot of early career researchers will go do a great study that takes multiple months and present their research with a final slide titled “Next Steps.”

But when you ask them “What actions have you/the team taken to champion the next steps you presented?” Usually nothing has happened.

One powerful approach when you're engaging stakeholders is ask them for help, another thing I learned with my kids. 

If I tell them “Go put the dinner plates into the sink,” I hear complaints. 

But if I say “Hey, you know what? I'm going to do the dishes. Do you think you could help me bring these plates over to the sink?”

All of a sudden that shared ownership results in “Yeah, totally! I'll do that.” So bring stakeholders into your work and your impact can move forward. 

At the moment, you oversee 80+ folks on your team. How does your team bring you, their stakeholder, into their work to get resources and help? 

Great question! I’m worried about giving it all away to my team when they read this interview but that’s actually a good thing!

I’ll give two things as to not reveal everything all at once...

1) If you're trying to convince your boss to support something you're doing, make a couple of conditions clear. 

Let them know “Hey, if this succeeds, you get all the credit. And if this fails, all the blame goes on me.” 

While that’s a direct statement, in reality, that’s what happens anyway. At least this way you can own it. 

2) Ask for help. I don't have time to think about the intimate needs of 80 people and forecast that. There’s a reason that we have 2 ears and 1 mouth. 

So you have to engage my imagination to help you shape a reality that you want to perpetuate.

Ask for what you need, help me understand why this is a good thing for the company,  be specific on what I can do.

And use the word “because” a lot - it’s the most powerful word for getting compliance.

Apple & Banana
What are common myths about your profession/field that you want to debunk?
Eric Mahlstedt

“Anyone can do research.”

Maybe anyone can do user research, but it's going to be bad user research and sometimes bad user research is worse than none. 

There's a perception that all it takes is the ability to ask questions, take notes, and bring feedback back into the company. 

That's not user research and is actually a disservice to our industry and to those companies who are reinforcing poor practices.

Do you think labor demands have affected the notion that “anyone can do research?” 

We're never going to have the number of researchers that we need which means that some level of democratization is necessary. 

For example, when a design team comes to me and says “I want to benchmark everything all the time” or “I want to go test this component level interaction."

That's not something that our team should do that will increase our leverage but it also is something that deserves some attention. 

So what can we do to support them? Can we give them access to a usability testing tool we have?

Or give them some guidance on how to run a small study? Absolutely. 

Some people disagree, but at the end of the day, we all know that the volume of UX debt that this world is accruing every day has exceeded our capacity to address it.

If people express an interest in raising their experience literacy or making decisions that benefit our users, we should encourage it. 

So some level of democratization is needed so that it can enable higher impact work to happen.

User researchers should spend more time enabling teams to “design the right thing” instead of “design the thing right.”

Apple & Banana
What do you think the future of UX is?
Eric Mahlstedt

The future is user research serving product management, more than product design. I also think the future is a closer partnership with data scientists. 

I've brought the data science practice inside my organization and it’s been tremendous.

We study more what people do and not what they say as there's often such a large incongruence in those things. 

Why should we focus on what people do vs. what they say?

We've scaled platforms that enable anyone to say whatever they want at any time to anyone else.

But I think it's more important to pay attention to the tasks, the actions, the behavioral cues not just what people say.

Our values drive our behavior and understanding behavior helps us shift conversations from what we think to what we know. 

Going a step further, thoughts on protecting what people say? 

I hope that there will be more and more work on privacy. Are we really serving the public or exploiting them? 

I also think that we have more work to do in defining and measuring customer experiences, and connecting design practices to business performance, etc.

All hard but important items to address. 

Most companies are overinvested in tracking metrics that are important to financial outcomes but not necessarily behavioral measures.

So we need to do a better job of getting ahead.  

To close, what has been your most impactful UX experience you've had? 

When I was working at Oracle, I was leading research on a mobile app for medical adherence that actually never released. 

Our first condition that we were targeting was epilepsy so my user research participants were people with epilepsy and their caregivers. 

The most striking thing about doing that research was learning how important it is to listen to people and understand how much that can touch them. 

It was my job, but just the impact that had on their days when we could do research sessions has always stayed with me.

But, to be candid, it became very challenging because I had people who started to view me as a friend.

I actually had to make difficult decisions to put up barriers like “Hey, you can't keep emailing me and asking me to meet with you. Unfortunately this is a job I'm doing.”

That experience helped me really appreciate the magnitude and significance of this career choice I've made.

We may think that our work in cloud computing is really only about developer and business productivity, but we get to relearn that the boundaries between our work and life experiences are increasingly blurred, especially during 2020 when most of us are doing it all at home.

I hope we can challenge more people and organizations to exercise influence for the good of others and be generous with their positions of privilege.

Resources & recommendations
connect with
Eric Mahlstedt
Global Head of User Research @ IBM (ex-Oracle/NASA)
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