User research and agile squadification at Trade Me

6 min read Guest Blogger: Martin Bulmer

Hi, I’m Martin.

I work as a UX researcher at Trade Me having left Optimal Experience (Optimal Workshop’s sister company) last year. For those of you who don’t know, Trade Me is New Zealand’s largest online auction site that also lists real estate to buy and rent, cars to buy, jobs listings, travel accommodation and quite a few other things besides. Over three quarters of the population are members and about three quarters of the Internet traffic for New Zealand sites goes to the sites we run.

Leaving a medium-sized consultancy and joining Trade Me has been a big change in many ways, but in others not so much, as I hadn’t expected to find myself operating in a small team of in-house consultants. The approach the team is taking is proving to be pretty effective, so I thought I’d share some of the details of the way we work with the readers of Optimal Workshop’s blog. Let me explain what I mean…

What agile at Trade Me looks like

Over the last year or so, Trade Me has moved all of its development teams over to Agile following a model pioneered by Spotify. All of the software engineering parts of the business have been ‘squadified’. These people produce the websites & apps or provide and support the infrastructure that makes everything possible.

Across Squads, there are common job roles in ‘Chapters’ (like designers or testers) and because people are not easy to force into boxes, and why should they be, there are interest groups called ‘Guilds’.

The squads are self-organizing, running their own processes and procedures to get to where they need to. In practice, this means they use as many or as few of the Kanban, Scrum, and Rapid tools they find useful. Over time, we’ve seen that squads tend to follow similar practices as they learn from each other.

How our UX team fits in

Our UX team of three sits outside the squads, but we work with them and with the product owners across the business.

How does this work? It might seem counter-intuitive to have UX outside of the tightly-integrated, highly-focused squads, sometimes working with product owners working on stuff that might have little to do with what’s being currently developed in the squads. This comes down to the way Trade Me divides down the UX responsibilities within the organization.

Within each squad there is a designer. He or she is responsible for how that feature or app looks, and, more importantly, how it acts — interaction design as well as visual design.

Then what do we do, if we are the UX team?

We provide the voice of Trade Me’s users

By conducting research with Trade Me’s users we can validate the squads’ day-to-day decisions, and help frame decisions on future plans. We do this by wearing two hats.

Wearing the pointy hats of structured, detailed researchers, we look into long-term trends: the detailed behaviours and goals of our different audiences. We’ve conducted lots of one-on-one interviews with hundreds of people, including top sellers, motor parts buyers, and job seekers, as well as running surveys, focus groups and user testing sessions of future-looking prototypes.

For example, we recently spent time with a number of buyers and sellers, seeking to understand their motivations and getting under their skin to find out how they perceive Trade Me. This kind of research enables Trade Me to anticipate and respond to changes in user perception and satisfaction.

Swapping hats to an agile beanie (and stretching the metaphor to breaking point), we react to the medium-term, short-term and very short-term needs of the squads testing their ideas, near-finished work and finished work with users, as well as sometimes simply answering questions and providing opinion, based upon our research. Sometimes this means that we can be testing something in the afternoon having only heard we are needed in the morning. This might sound impossible to accommodate, but the pace of change at Trade Me is such that stuff is getting deployed pretty much every day, many of which affects our users directly. It’s our job to ensure that we support our colleagues to do the very best we can for our users.

How our ‘drop everything’ approach works in practice

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 10.00.21 am

We recently conducted five or six rounds (no one can quite remember, we did it so quickly) of testing of our new iPhone application (pictured above) — sometimes testing more than one version at a time. The development team would receive our feedback face-to-face, make changes and we’d be testing the next version of the app the same or the next day.

It’s only by doing this that we can ensure that Trade Me members will see positive changes happening daily rather than monthly.

How we prioritize what needs to get done

To help us try to decide what we should be doing at any one time we have some simple rules to prioritise:

  • Core product over other business elements
  • Finish something over start something new
  • Committed work over non-committed work
  • Strategic priorities over non-strategic priorities
  • Responsive support over less time-critical work
  • Where our input is crucial over where our input is a bonus

Applying these rules to any situation makes the decision whether to jump in and help pretty easy.

At any one time, each of us in the UX team will have one or more long-term projects, some medium-term projects, and either some short-term projects or the capacity for some short-term projects (usually achieved by putting aside a long-term project for a moment).

We manage our time and projects on Trello, where we can see at a glance what’s happening this and next week, and what we’ve caught sniff of in the wind that might be coming up, or definitely is coming up.

On the whole, both we and the squads favour fast response, bulleted list, email ‘reports’ for any short-term requests for user testing.  We get a report out within four hours of testing (usually well within that). After all, the squads are working in short sprints, and our involvement is often at the sharp end where delays are not welcome. Most people aren’t going to read past the management summary anyway, so why not just write that, unless you have to?

How we share our knowledge with the organization

Even though we mainly keep our reporting brief, we want the knowledge we’ve gained from working with each squad or on each product to be available to everyone. So we maintain a wiki that contains summaries of what we did for each piece of work, why we did it and what we found. Detailed reports, if there are any, are attached. We also send all reports out to staff who’ve subscribed to the UX interest email group.

Finally, we send out a monthly email, which looks across a bunch of research we’ve conducted, both short and long-term, and draws conclusions from which our colleagues can learn. All of these latter activities contribute to one of our key objectives: making Trade Me an even more user-centred organization than it is.

I’ve been with Trade Me for about six months and we’re constantly refining our UX practices, but so far it seems to be working very well.

Right, I’d better go – I’ve just been told I’m user testing something pretty big tomorrow and I need to write a test script!