Tomer Sharon is VP, Head of UX at WeWork in New York City, leading a team designing work and living spaces, communities, and services around the world. Formerly a senior user experience researcher at Google Search, Tomer wrote the book, Validating Product Ideas Through Lean User Research (2016), and It’s Our Research: Getting stakeholder buy-in for user experience research projects (2012). He will also be speaking at LX: Leading Experience 2017.
Tomer sat down with Nick Crampton, a Lead Service Designer at Adaptive Path, to talk about–among other things–insight “nuggets”, (research) dictatorships, and the death of the research report! (gasp!)
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Nick Crampton: It must be fascinating, and kind of meta, that you get to lead this team at WeWork that is designing for the experiences and the environments in which your clients are then creating their own products and experiences.
Tomer Sharon: My friends and family were really surprised that I decided to leave Google for WeWork. They were sure that you only leave Google on a stretcher. One of the main reasons why I joined WeWork is because we’re not just designing for something that happens on a screen. Actually, most of my team’s designs don’t involve any screens. We are here to integrate and create a more holistic experience for our members.
The big thing here is that we need to integrate the physical space with the digital products that we have developed to support our members, and the human-to-human aspect of our product.
It can be challenging because different departments design things independently from one another. Our members couldn’t care less about our departments and how they think and work. It is my team’s responsibility to look at things from the perspective of our members and try to first understand it, then communicate it internally, and then do something about it. It’s not always a product. Sometimes we are designing a policy, or designing a person’s role, or a program. We design a few screens here and there, so we have something to contribute to the design of the physical space, but it’s mostly about the integration of the three.
NC: You’ve touched on some of the organizational design challenges your team is tackling, and I’m curious; what are the design challenges from the members’ perspective that you have found interesting?
TS: A lot of people think WeWork is a place designed solely for tech startups, and that’s definitely not the situation. Most of our members are not tech startups. You can find law offices, attorneys,accountants, fashion designers, and all types of businesses and tech startups. But it’s very hard to say, “Okay, what startups need will meet the needs of every organization.” It’s always a challenge to decide what works for different businesses.
We have one building in New York City where we realized that, for some reason, a lot of filmmaking companies are becoming members. We didn’t really know why, but we started talking to them and asking them about things that they do. Why they go outside the office to do different things related to their work? We realized that they’re spending a lot of money renting screening rooms to present their work to clients. We decided to build one for them in WeWork, in that specific building. It’s always kind of a chicken and egg thing — should we design our entire building or maybe even a floor in a building for a specific industry?
NC: What’s something you learned while researching at Google Search that’s helped you and your team at WeWork?
TS: I don’t know if it’s something I inherited from Google, but it’s something that I wanted to do at Google, that I couldn’t, and did have the opportunity to do here. This is what my talk at Leading Experience is going to be about. We’ve built a system at WeWork that has defined a smaller atomic unit for research insights. We call this unit a “nugget”, and it’s not a report. We don’t do research reports.
Our nuggets are a combination of an observation, evidence (this might be a video recording of a person talking about a certain thing, or an audio recording, or a screenshot or a photo, with evidence for the observation) and a set of tags that represent the whole taxonomy of things that we’re interested in. Then everything goes into one database that is searchable. A WeWork manager can access this and they get to watch a playlist of short clips of members talking about a topic. This creates a system where people can create their own reports on the fly based on what they’re interested in, and anyone at WeWork can do that today, and they do!
The issue is, and I know this is not just happening at Google, but many organizations have bad research memories. In addition to that, the atomic unit of sharing research results is the report, which is not supporting an organization’s needs. In any case, it becomes lost, because if I did a study about X and I found Y, if somebody asks three years from now about Y, I’m probably not going to remember. A system for archiving reports is not going to find that information for me. In almost every organization, there are research silos, there are multiple departments who do research, and there’s no one place to make sense of all of it. There’s also the problem of “research dictatorship”. It’s the mentality that “only researchers are the ones to do research. If you’re a product manager, you should use researchers, because they know how to do proper research, and you can’t really come to your own conclusions based on research, because researchers do research.”
At WeWork, we had the opportunity to start things from scratch. We built a system that solves these research challenges, and my talk at LX will be about this system, what led to it, and how we created it.
NC: I have to ask, you’ve built your career evangelizing and demonstrating the value of UX research and lean research in particular. I’m curious how you’ve seen the conversation around the need for research in our field change over the years.
TS: Well, a lot of people, when they talk about design and user experience, they start with the words, “We’re winning, it works,” and people are persuaded. I don’t feel this way about research yet. I think it’s always a struggle, because people find it hard to trust something that is contradicting their intuition. However, I do see more and more organizations begin to understand the value.
NC: You’ve given us some great reasons to check out your talk at LX. Are there any other reasons why our attendees should look forward to it?
TS: I think if the problems that I described earlier sound like something that your people are experiencing or are about to experience, and if you are thinking about building such a system, you should definitely join. People will learn not just about what we did and how it’s working for us, but they will learn how they can implement this system in their own organizations.
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