Ruohan Chen is deeply curious about culture and people and works as a UX researcher at Contentful. In our chat, she shared her thoughts and experiences about a career in UX research, moving to Germany and working at Contentful. She also had some tips for those looking to get started as a UX researcher.
Moving to Berlin and how the UX research team at Contentful operates
What was moving to Berlin to start at Contentful like?
I came to Contentful after working on consumer-facing products in New York and Singapore.
UX research for enterprise products had always interested me, especially the differences between scaling up research for B2B vs. B2C companies. So, when the opportunity to move to Berlin and work for an exciting SaaS startup arose, I had no reason to turn it down.
I arrived in Berlin on a Friday and started my new job on Monday. It was a little stressful. I underestimated how hard the Berlin winter would be after relocating from a tropical country. Mix together the adjustment to a new language, a new culture, a new job — and you get a lot of trouble. Fortunately, I had very supportive colleagues to help me navigate everything during the transition period.
I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in different cultures in the past few years. I believe it actually trained me to be a better researcher. When living abroad, you stop taking everything for granted. You try to make sense of the system, the language and how people interact with each other. The foreign environment helped me become more aware of the daily interactions. I learned to ask “obvious” questions and try to figure out the “whys” behind what I saw. Observing, active listening, asking questions, problem-framing, building connections, etc. These are skills relevant for a successful UX research career.
How does the UX research team at Contentful work?
Our research process is built around one of Contentful’s core values: start with the customer and work backward. The product development team established a framework called “Way We Work” for decision-making and cross-team collaboration. With it, we partner with stakeholders throughout the product development cycle. This empowers them to make evidence-based decisions and minimize risks.
The UX research team is part of the product organization. Recently, my team started introducing a group partner model. One researcher is paired with a product group to build domain knowledge and establish a good overview of upcoming research opportunities.
We plan our research roadmap for the quarter based on group-level priorities and research needs. We also have regular research office hours, consulting sessions, and self-service research tools. We support teams with their research activities through them.
To maximize the impact of research, it’s very important to have a well-structured planning phase. Aligning with stakeholders, defining research objectives, and understanding what kind of decisions will be made based on the learnings helps increase the impact of the project.
But you’ll always encounter things you didn’t plan for when doing fieldwork. Just like the design process — research is iterative. To tackle this, we think about a multi-phase approach instead of trying to answer everything in one study. Each research activity will help us get closer to the final destination we’re looking for. After each initiative, we have more confidence in making the decisions for the next phase. It's always a journey.
The challenge of scaling up research practices in a startup
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
Scaling up research practice in a hyper-growth startup is a huge challenge. Change, both in people and practices, is a constant here. UX research is a team sport, which results in unique challenges in such an environment.
A UX researcher needs to engage with stakeholders to build trust. The stakeholders are the experts in their domain. They understand the destination we’re heading toward. They help us contextualize the decisions to be made based on the research findings. That’s why it is important to engage them throughout the research process and build an empathic relationship. It’s never “my research” vs. “their research.” It needs to be “our research.” Therefore establishing a solid relationship really helps make the work be more impactful and rewarding.
Collaboration and communication are not always easy. Now with more than a year into remote work, we have to carefully plan how to effectively bring stakeholders into the research journey. On top of that, the product team has been growing super quickly. Welcoming new folks takes time and patience, just like nurturing any type of relationship.
Everyone in the organization is very customer-centric. It’s never a question of whether we should do research or not, but rather when and how to collaborate with the teams on the most important research initiatives for the maximum impact.
Thankfully, Contentful has a lot of training resources for collaboration and communication, and we’re encouraged to try different formats of collaboration. Having to adapt to so many new people coming in has made me more mindful when I design my meetings and workshops.
Can you share some examples of bringing stakeholders into the research journey in this remote setup?
We designed a UX testing program that works great in the digital format! We have an online research channel that helps us get customers’ early feedback on product or design iterations. The research team orchestrated the program by creating a testing plan, recruiting a targeted audience, training stakeholders to moderate the testing sessions and facilitating the research synthesis workshop. This program was used to test out different design solutions when we built out the Compose + Launch apps.
When designing this program, we wanted to remove bias as much as possible. We also wanted to break team silos. That’s why we encouraged designers and PMs to moderate usability testing sessions to test out designs. This reduced personal biases and allowed us to gain a deep understanding of how teams work from a customer perspective.
We wanted the program to be a shared responsibility. The research team is responsible for participant recruitment, research planning, moderation guide drafting and moderator training. Our stakeholders suggest topics, provide testing materials and moderate the testing sessions.
After two days of packed testing sessions, I would organize a synthesis workshop. Everyone from the core team is invited. With tools like Zoom and Miro, we recreated the affinity mapping experience where everyone is able to talk about the observations from the field. Everyone can input their major learnings from the round. PMs, designers, engineers, marketers, etc., will bring their own perspectives on the fieldwork.
When a diverse team comes together, it helps us form a holistic understanding of customers’ needs and challenges. It helps us build alignments in terms of priority and focus for the next iteration.
As a researcher, it’s such a rewarding experience to work on this program that brings everyone together on the research journey!
Any advice for UX researchers starting out?
People come to UX research from a wide range of backgrounds. There is no singular path to becoming a UX researcher. If you’re thinking about pursuing a career in UX research or making a career transition into UX research, do not ever limit yourself. It’s very likely that you have already gained transferable skills that can apply to this field. It’s important to translate these skills into tangible experiences. These can showcase how you’d work with stakeholders to turn research findings into actionable insights that drive change.
No matter if it’s a volunteering project or a client project, treat them as deliberate practice. After each project, do a mini retro with yourself (or your team) to see what goes well and what you’d like to change next time. The process will help you form a point of view on UX research and also gain more clarity about what you’d like to focus on next.
In terms of learning opportunities, there is more and more good content out there (podcasts, books, webinars, YouTube channels, newsletters, conferences, slack communities, mentor platforms, and so on). It may take some time to figure out where you are in your career and the type of UXR you’d like to become. It’s an exciting time for UXRs. I would like to see more opportunities for junior researchers. It helps us to develop a full pipeline of talent and create an ecosystem of mentoring and learning together.
If you’d like to join Contentful, consider applying through our career page.