Meet Michele Ronsen, UX research educator and advocate

We chat with Michele Ronsen, UX research educator, advocate, and founder of Curiousity Tank, to learn all about how to get better at doing design research.

UX and UI Design
Meet Michele Ronsen, UX research educator and advocate
“Everyone has done some form of research in their life, for example when booking a flight or even choosing a present for your loved ones.”

Michele Ronsen, voted LinkedIn top voice 2020, is a professionally trained designer, design educator, and well-known design strategist. UsabilityHub is collaborating with Curiosity Tank, a consulting and education firm specializing in human-centered research founded by Michele, this quarter, where Michele leads the Ask like a Pro UX workshop series. If you’ve ever been curious about UX or want to get better at doing research, have a read through our interview with Michelle for some inspiration.

Tell us a bit about your background and your UX journey.

I'm a designer by training and I’ve spent the first 15 years of my career designing. As a classically trained designer, I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts. I was doing mostly print and merchandising, and things like that. I worked for top design firms, then on the Nordstrom innovation team, and at Bank of America, and Wells Fargo.

My father studied architecture and my mother was a designer. I was always surrounded with creativity and innovation.

When I was working for Bank of America, it was one of the first times I really got to truly understand and appreciate user experience. I would go to bank branches and watch people, how they interacted with the environment and staff. I designed everything from merchandising to branch furniture and ATMs.

What was your experience with learning about UX yourself?

When I enrolled into a fellowship program with California College of Arts and it was time to conduct user research, I raised my hand, and asked, “Who wants to trade?!”.

It wasn’t that I didn’t think that research was important. I had been working with researchers for 10 years at that point, but conducting the research myself just wasn’t something that I was interested in doing.

I’ll never forget what my professor said at that moment: “You are going to walk that plank yourself, Michele!”.

I conducted five ethnography field studies that weekend. And I just fell down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland. It was the most wild, eye-opening thing for me. How unbelievable it was to hear this feedback first-hand! I realized that I could have designed much better products and services had I been able to do research like that earlier.

On Monday morning I woke up and decided that’s what I wanted to do next.

How did you start your own course (Ask Like A Pro)?

I was teaching with General Assembly and asked them if I could build a UX research certificate program for them, but they weren’t interested at that time. I saw from teaching all these classes that there was a lot of interest and a real gap there.

I recognized that I was in a very unique position to solve a very small part of this problem. I have an excellent reputation and experience in this space, and I’m a career educator.

I had developed products and services for other people for 20 years. I was like, “You know what, I’m going to try this!”.

The name Curiosity Tank came from people asking me why do you do what you do, and what do you love about what you do? And my standard response was, “Because it fills my curiosity tank and I get to help other people in the process.” And it’s still true to this day.

After such a great start, how do you feel about the course now? Is there anything surprising about the interest?

I’m blown away by a couple of things. Number one is that the timing was impeccable, with COVID and the advent of online learning and the explosion of UX. Also, the awareness about the impact of user research.

It’s one thing to develop products and services for other people. But when you do it for yourself and you apply your own teaching to your own products, you see that it really does work! More than 120 people have been through the program and the course has evolved a lot. We now have different participation options and course sponsors (like UsabilityHub) offering real projects for students to work on.

What’s next on the cards for you?

I actually met with my coach this morning to talk about where to go from here. Do I want to optimize what I have, or do I want to branch out?

One thing that I’ve been talking about and I hope that we can bring to fruition is to build a user research curriculum for UsabilityHub. I would love to do that and do more corporate trainings. My clients really need the support, especially as awareness and appreciation continue to grow. And also because every organization has a different user research tool stack, processes, and guardrails.

And I’ve been asked a couple of times to build a much smaller class, like a basics course.

Is UX research growing out of design communities?

I’d say it’s still noticeably characteristic to design, and the design community is very research focused. The design community is more aware of UX but the startup community is also becoming more aware. It’s moving into other sectors, and people are realizing how important UX is, although most still think it just involves websites and digital products – it doesn’t. We also work on service design and hardware.

We understand you've had students from all different backgrounds. What kind of trends have you noticed about the research community?

The democratization of research, including the amount of platforms available. There are so many products now that weren’t available five or ten years ago. Another trend is the proportion of UX design jobs that also include research as part of the skill set. This part of the market has just exploded, and it’s only going to grow.

More and more, I think people are realizing that when they know how to ask better questions, they can make more informed decisions. This saves them time and money down the road. And it’s far more efficient to invest that time, and build it into your processes and roadmap to begin with, compared to the rework that will be required if you don’t.

What is a good question?

I have a tip I share at dinner parties: one of the easiest things for people to do is to start to pay attention to whether they’re asking open-ended questions or closed-ended questions. An open question typically begins with a who, what, where, when, or why.

And just thinking about that is going to lead to a much more expansive, colorful answer than a question that starts with do, did, were, are, or is.

And you can practice those things anywhere. Just thinking about that first word in the question more carefully will help you take your conversation skills to the next level. Try it!

Can anyone be a researcher? What do you tell people who come to you and say they don’t really know how to be a researcher?

There’s no one defined path to be a researcher. You don’t need a PhD. You don’t need a design degree. There are many many different avenues to become a researcher. It does require a balance of quite a few different skills, which is hard to achieve. There's quite a bit of creative thinking and problem solving. And it requires communication, and a personal connection, and empathy. And it also requires agility and improvisation skills, and a lot of collaboration and patience and foresight.

That sounds like a really exciting field and we're not surprised that there’s lots of interest in the course. What’s been the most interesting or surprising thing about students that come to you and how they leave the course?

I think it depends where they’re coming from. People that are coming from academia often have a gap in terms of understanding the terminology and things that relate to business goals and industry. And coming from industry, people have different gaps like how to ask a good question. Or understanding the importance of identifying and mitigating bias, or how to make sure you’re protecting your participants’ personal information, and how to formulate a hypothesis or an assumption.

åDepending on where you’re coming from you will have different transferable knowledge, and everybody has some sort of knowledge that can be transferred. Also, everybody has done research at some form of another in their lives; for example, every time you book a flight, you’re doing some form of competitive analysis.

You’re speaking like a true advocate – it’s very inspiring.

Right. The last washer and dryer or car that you purchased, that has to do with some sort of analysis and the ability to learn. When you apply to colleges, you identify what your major will be, or the part of the country you want to live in. Or getting a new job, or what industry you want to work in. That is some form of research but people don’t think about it that way.

They don’t, and typically designers aren’t really seen as analytical people, right?

There’s a lot of analytical thinking involved and when you talk to designers. It’s super clear. But it doesn’t always come across in a corporate or less mature UX environment. Designers aren’t often seen as researchers. They can be seen as more creative deliverers, whereas actually there’s a lot of analytical work involved.

I think that you’ll find that in UX mature organizations, the designers are seen as more analytical. A lot of this has to do with the UX maturity of the team they’re on too.

And just coming back to the current collaboration. Why did you choose UsabilityHub as your partner for this cohort?

I worked with Milly on the creation of the UX Lex, an index of UX terminology and definitions. Terminology has just been a constant struggle for people who already work in the field, let alone people looking to break in. And I fell in love with what Milly brought to the table helping me with that. I was really hoping that one day we would collaborate more.

After our first cohort collaboration with Reduct, I reached out to Milly, and we had a half an hour Zoom meeting. The next day, she confirmed that UsabilityHub was in to sponsor the cohort.

Now that you’ve been on this journey for a while, and educating and having worked on both sides, do you have a sense of what makes a good research education and why?

Everything I teach is from my own hands-on experience crawling through the trenches of some of the most UX mature, and immature, organizations in the world.

Students learn best by doing. Learning how to conduct user research is akin to learning a new language or learning to play an instrument. You can listen to the language for years, but if you don’t speak it, or use it in conversation in a variety of different contexts, you’re never going to learn it.

So I would say three things:

  1. Learn by doing.
  2. Get feedback from a mentor, every step of the way, so you don’t develop bad habits.
  3. Learn from someone who is an expert practitioner in the field. Not just someone who’s teaching you theory, but someone who can marry the theory with the practice, and has been practicing research specifically for at least five years. For example, I have created all the tools and templates for my students from my experiences and I walk them through why these are important, how these are applied, etc. I don’t teach people what to do, I teach them how to think.

Tell us about the library and the resources you have for students.

There’s a number of different usability study guides, generative guides, and evaluative guides. Guides for preference testing and a lot more than just course materials. I have created a whole library with resources, swipe files, tools, templates, examples, etc. There’s also a very supportive community that comes with the course as well. The community aspect is huge. We even have alumni events and bring guest speakers too. You can spend weeks going through there and I really encourage you to have a look. The goal is for the resources and the community to help them during the course and in the future. The resources and events continue to grow as the community grows.

That’s amazing. Are any of these events open for people wanting to jump on? Do you have any suggestions for how we can become more involved or learn more about the workshops?

Yes! I have a free newsletter called Fuel Your Curiosity – subscribing to that is a great start. I also have about 40 additional free resources on the website.

Are you as passionate as Michele about research? Sign up to UsabilityHub to start asking better questions today.

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