Gregg Bernstein on leading research at Vox Media

11 min read David Renwick

Welcome to our first UX New Zealand 2019 speaker interview. In the lead up to the conference (which is just around the corner!), we’re catching up with the people who’ll be sharing their stories with you in October.

Today, we chat to Gregg Bernstein, the Senior Director of User Research at Vox Media.

I appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today Gregg. First of all, I just want to say I’m a huge fan of The Verge and the whole Vox Media network.

Gregg: Yeah, I’m a big fan too. It’s a treat to get to work with them.

Let’s start off at the beginning. What got you into user research in the first place?

Gregg: So what got me into user research is that I was actually a designer for a number of years. And, after a while, I got pretty tired of design. I used to do a lot of album covers and posters for punk rock bands and independent bands and things like that. And I just felt like I was doing the same thing over and over.

I decided to go to graduate school because, after teaching design at a university for a couple of years, I wanted to teach design full time, instead of doing design work. And it was in grad school that I realized that I liked understanding the information that informs the design in the first place, right? I was fascinated by exploring what the opportunities were and who would consume the final product.

And then I realized what I was really interested in was actually UX research, a term which I didn’t even know existed at the time. And then once I realized that this was an entire area of study, it made it clear to me that that’s where I wanted to go with my career. So I ended up turning my master’s degree in graphic design into a more encompassing study of user experience and UX research. And fortunately ended up getting to do that work at MailChimp just a year after graduating with my MFA.

That actually leads into my next question. I hear you got the original user research practice at MailChimp off the ground?

Gregg: Not exactly. I was given the opportunity to scale up the team and scale up the research practices.

When I first started, all of our work was in service of the UX team. So it was a lot of interviews and usability tests and competitive analyses that were solely to make the MailChimp app better. But over time, as my team shared our work in presentations and in internal newsletters, the rest of the company started asking us questions and it wasn’t coming from our traditional UX partners. It wasn’t coming from engineering, it was coming from the accounting team or the marketing team and all of this demand for research was evidence that we needed to hire more people and become more of a consultancy to the entire organization.

So I was able to scale up what we were doing in that sense, to serve not just our product and our application, but the entire organization. And really think about what are the questions that are going to help us as a business and help us make smarter decisions.

That must’ve been quite gratifying to see that payoff though, to see the requests for research data from throughout the organization?

Gregg: I think in hindsight it’s more gratifying. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s, “wow, there’s so much demand, how are we going to satisfy everyone?” It becomes a prioritization challenge to try to figure out, which work do we take on now versus what’s nice to know but isn’t going to help us with either building the right product or marketing in the right way, increasing revenue.

So I was gratified to be put in a position to hire people and try to answer more questions. But when you’re in the thick of it’s also just a whole lot of, “Oh gosh, how do I do this?”

How do you find leading the research practice at Vox Media versus the practice at MailChimp?

Gregg: It’s a lot different at Vox. There is a product team and that’s where I live and that’s where my team lives. We work within our product organization. But media is so different because you don’t (at least in our case) require anybody to sign up or pay for the product. Anybody can read The Verge, anybody can listen to a podcast. Anybody can keep up with Polygon wherever they keep up with Polygon. So there’s not a true exchange of money for products, so the whole idea of there being a product changes.

One of my roles at Vox is really to help us understand how we can make it easier for journalists to write their stories. So we have a content management system we call Chorus, all of our different networks, whether it’s Vox or The Verge or Eater, they use Chorus to write their stories. And then that sends their stories to our websites, but also to Apple news, to Google News, newsletters and Facebook and Twitter. Wherever the stories need to go.

There’s the research into, how do we make that experience of writing the news better? How do we make the experience of consuming the news better? What would make a podcast listener have a better experience and find more podcasts? How does somebody who watches us only on YouTube discover other YouTube channels that we create content on?

So it’s a very different type of research. I try to help all of our teams make better decisions, whether it’s the podcast team with how to market the podcast, or our product team with how to make it easier to write a story. And now I’m working on a new line of business which is how do we sell our content management system to other newsrooms? So, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Funny Or Die or The Ringer, those are other media companies, but they’re running on our CMS. And so there’s research into how do we make our products usable for other organizations that we don’t work with day to day.

Is research centralized at Vox or do each of the websites/sub-brands have their own teams and do their own research?

Gregg: They don’t have their own research teams. I mean they are all journalists, they all know how to conduct their own investigations. But when it comes to the user experience research, I was the first hire in a company with that skillset and I still help all of our different sub brands when they have questions. Let’s say we’re interested in starting up a new newsletter focused on a very specific topic. What they might come to me to understand is the context around that topic. So how do people currently satisfy their need to get information on that topic? Where do they go? Do they pay for it? At what time of day do they read it or watch it or consume it. Those are the types of studies where I will partner with The Verge or Vox or Curbed or whoever it is, and help them get that information.

My primary research audience is our product teams. There are always questions around how can we make the editorial or audience experience better. That’s always going to be my first responsibility, but that’s 70% of the work. The other 30% is how do I help our other colleagues around the company that are in these sub-brands get answers to their questions too.

Would you say you prefer this type of work that you do at Vox to what you were doing at MailChimp?

Gregg: I prefer any type of job where I’m helping people make better decisions. I think that’s really the job of the researcher is to help people make better decisions. So whether it’s helping people understand what the YouTube audience for looks like, or how we make MailChimp easier to use for a small business owner? That doesn’t really matter as long as I feel like I’m giving people better information to make better decisions.

That ties nicely into the topic of your UX New Zealand talk, which is research being everyone’s job. Do you feel like this is starting to gain traction? Does it feel like this is the case at Vox?

Gregg: It does because there are only 4 researchers at Vox right now, soon to be 3 because one is returning to graduate school. So there’s few researchers, but there’s no shortage of questions, which means part of the job of research is to help everyone understand where they can get information to make better decisions. If you look at LinkedIn right now, you’ll see that there’s something like 30,000 UX engineer positions open, but only 4,000 UX research positions open.

There’s a shortage of researchers. There’s not a lot of demand for the role, but there is a demand for information. So you kind of have to give people the skills or a playbook to understand, there’s information out there, here’s where you can find it. But not only that, you have to give them the means to get that information in a way where it’s not going to disrupt their normal deadlines. So research can’t be some giant thing that you’re asking people to adopt. You have to give people the skills to become their own researchers.

At Vox we’ve put together a website that has examples of the work we’ve done, resources on how to do it and how somebody can do it themselves. A form people can fill out if they need help with a project.

So we’re really trying to be as transparent as possible and saying, “these are things that you could do. Here are examples of things that we’ve done. Here are people you can talk to.” There’s also Slack channels that we host where anybody can ask us questions. So if I can’t do the work myself or if my team can’t do it, people will still know that there are options available to them.

What would your advice be for researchers who need to foster a research culture if they’re in a very small team or even if they’re by themselves?

Gregg: The first thing you can do is go on a listening tour and just understand how people make decisions now. What information they use to make those decisions and what the opportunities are. Just get that context.

That’s step 1, step 2 is to pick one small tightly scoped project that is going to be easy to accomplish but also is going to be meaningful to a lot of people. So what’s the one thing that everybody’s confused about in your product? Quickly do that research to help illuminate the context of that problem space and offer some scenarios.

And the reason you pick one tightly scoped project is then you can point to it and say, this is what user research can do. This didn’t take long, it didn’t cost a lot, but we’ve learned a ton. So I think the starting point is just creating that evidence that people can point to and say, “Hey, look what we did. We could be doing this every day.” So you just have to make the case that research is achievable and prove that it’s not impossible to put into place.

Do you see this culture taking hold at Vox?

Gregg: I think I’m making progress within Vox. I think people are seeing that research is not hard to incorporate, that it should be a consideration for any project.

I think once people see that they can do their own research, that’s step one of a longer process. Like you want everyone to be aware of research and starting to do their own research, but that’s a stopgap. Ideally, you want it to get to the point where everyone is saying we need more research and then you can hire dedicated experts who can do the research all the time. And that’s where we got to at Vox a year ago where I was able to hire more people, or a year and a half ago, I could hire more people because there was a demand for it and I couldn’t be in every meeting and I couldn’t take on every project. But the projects were important and we were going to make big decisions based on research. We needed to have more people who were experts doing this work.

So I think everyone being a researcher is the first of a long process to get to having a dedicated research staff. But you have to start with something small, which is everyone could do their own research.

Last question. What are you looking forward to about the conference and/or New Zealand?

Gregg: The thing I’m most looking forward to about the conference itself is I get so much out of meeting attendees and hearing what challenges they’re facing. Whether they’re a designer or developer or just somebody who works in user experience in any capacity. I want to hear what work looks like for them and how their teams are growing or how their organizations are growing.

In addition to the speakers, that’s what I want to hear, is the audience. And then Wellington, I’ve never been there. I’m super excited to spend a day just walking around and seeing everything and eating some food and having a good time. It doesn’t take much to satisfy me so just being there is going to be enough.

Thanks for your time Gregg, and see you at UX New Zealand!

UX New Zealand is just around the corner. Whether you’re new to UX or a seasoned professional, you’ll gain valuable insights and inspiration – and have fun along the way! Learn more on the UX New Zealand website.