Researching the researchers and designing for designers

5 min read Yasmin Stewart

Last year, I was welcomed into the Optimal Workshop team as an Experience Design Researcher. It’s been a wild, fascinating ride, and my research has been met with enthusiasm and interest (always satisfying in the research world).

Tasked with pinpointing a few things we could do for our custmers to make life easier for them, I also wanted to contribute to what the team knew about how people experience the tools for the first time. From the website to the app, from the welcome emails to support queries, I wanted my research to dig in deep at every step.

And thus, I kicked off a project that involved researching the researchers.

How I focused my research

In arriving at Optimal Workshop having not experienced the tools before, I knew I had some legwork to do before I could go from a general research topic to something more specific. So I brought to mind a simple diagram shared by one of my university lecturers (I’m not sure why it stuck — perhaps its simplity is what makes it so powerful for me):

1 New Doc 9_1

Now, it’s a truism that us researchers need to avoid the trap of thinking ‘I know a few things about these people. I’m sure I can come up with some insights by pretending I’m one of them.’ But for me, there was some truth in it — I am actually the kind of person these tools are aimed at. So to help move from a ‘general’ to a ‘specific’ research focus, I took myself through the ‘new user’ experience: I browsed the website, signed up, created a few studies, looked through the results — noting my thoughts, feelings, questions, and insights the whole time.

I ran my findings and thoughts past a few people in the team, and together we decided that one of my main projects would involve in-depth conversations with new users — people who had shown interest in using the tools as part of their own projects, and who had just signed up. And I decided to use my findings to create an experience map to give the team a practical, visual, and adaptable artefact.

I gathered insights from interviews, analytics, and remote studies


First of all, one of my favorite research techniques is simply talking to people. I find it to be invaluable for what I can learn about how people both perceive and use a particular app or website. And my experience interviewing Optimal Workshop’s new users was no different — a quick shout out to my respondents: you guys are great!

I set up an in-app welcome message asking people who had recently signed up if they’d like to have a conversation and take part in some research. And in the conversations, I found out from participants things like:

  • how they might use the tools in their wider design process
  • how intuitive they found the website and sign up pages
  • which parts of their experience they found exciting, and which parts they found more challenging.

I’m also a big fan of analytics, and I knew that setting up reports in Google analytics would give me quick, big-picture data on the traffic moving through the site. With a bit of wrangling (the analytics hadn’t been used much) and some stellar work from the dev team, I had a much clearer picture of where users were coming from, the content they were interacting with, and where they were dropping off. And I ran a few remote usability studies and contextual inquiries to round out the picture.

Bringing it all together into an experience map


Armed with this data (and some intriguing insights),  it was time for me to start synthesising it all together. Until this point, I’d been looking at the quantitative and qualitative data separately, but now I lay everything out and began hunting for similarities and stand-outs. I took over an entire room (which looked like an explosion in a post-it factory) and started making connections. And I adapted some previously used personas to use as a tool for connecting the dots on the experience map.

I was struck by the diversity of job roles for UX folk. From full-scale UX teams across multiple departments, to people with backgrounds in cognitive psychology, to librarians and marketers with no formal training but with a passion for UX principles — the variations were endless.  The personas enabled me to visualise the experience map by looking at the journey through different lenses. Using Adaptive Paths guide and Rail Europe as an example, I began piecing it together. I brought different team members in at different stages to help me reinforce the guiding principles which shape any change we implement.

And after many a sketch, and after sourcing the best blackboard chalk pens I could, I drew the map up on our office blackboard wall so it could be seen and interacted with by everyone:


The map details a person’s journey and experience with us, including touchpoints like support enquiries and newsletters. It also includes what people might feel, think, or do at each point in their journey with us. Having these on show is especially helpful in finding out where pain points exist and which elements work well for people.

Presenting the experience map to the team

One of the difficulties I’ve faced in past projects is keeping the enthusiasm and conversation about UX going once the presentation is over. Sometimes it can feel like you’ve made a big impact only to find the next week it fizzles out. I’m super lucky that everybody at Optimal Workshop is a UX advocate and appreciates the value it brings (hence our dedication to making things easier for you guys).

I gave a small presentation of the map to the team, and found that the post-its were great for generating conversation. Everyone on the team interacts with people at different points about different things, so not only did everyone have a unique insight to add, but the rest of us were able to learn something new to help to put our own work into context.

The ultimate goal for the experience maps and personas is for the team to incorporate them into their work, and I’ve already seen them being used within a website content project here in the office — so that’s a research win from my perspective!

P.S. For more on experience mapping try here