We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Meagan McDonald, a Senior UX researcher at Handshake. Sofia took us along her journey from Ph.D. candidate to UX leader showing us how she incorporated valuable lessons learned at larger firms about research, strategy, and research best practices. She shared how the importance of knowing your company through internal research and building a proper infrastructure, can make worlds of difference when it comes to building a UX function from scratch and scaling research operations.

Sofia: Can you tell us a bit about your background? What were you doing before and what are you doing now here at Handshake?

Meagan: Definitely. I started off in academia working on getting my Ph.D., but quickly realized how much I love research, but I wanted to do it in more of an applied setting. To test this feeling I was having, I started consulting with founder-level startup companies, and then spent a summer interning as a researcher at Instagram.

During my internship, Instagram asked me if I would be interested in staying instead of returning to my Ph.D. program, and I said yes. I stayed at Instagram for a few years working on Instagram Live broadcasting, where we later spun off with Instagram Video Chat, which was a decision we made based on my research showing a desire in the market for more intimate sharing.

I then joined Google, where I learned how to advocate for and teach people about research. I initially spent time building relationships with stakeholders, product managers, and designers to identify the best way to leverage my skills to inform the production process and direction. After that experience, I felt ready for an opportunity to replicate this on a larger scale at a startup company.

Handshake has been wonderful and difficult in many ways. I started laying the groundwork to build up a research organization where 25% of my time has been doing research, and 75% has been spent building up an internal research structure. I’ve worked on educating the company on research (what it is, how to read it, how to interpret it, and how to identify best practices), identifying the right product areas for us to invest in research, and setting us up to grow as a research org.

Since there is only one of me, I trained designers to execute on the research and run their own sessions. I come in to help with the analysis, delegating the actual execution, and brief the company on interpreting insights. For me, and internally, our richest data source is stories. So, in interviews, we don't have to ask the “perfect” question, or work with super detailed scripts. Instead, we focus on getting stories and then analyze them to find themes and opportunities.

Sofia: How do you start the process of building a research practice in a new organization while also conducting the research? How do you balance the two?

Meagan: Great question. I spent the first few weeks learning the organization and gaining an understanding of their needs. Christina Janzer, founder of the research organization at Facebook, and now the research director at Slack posted an article recently. It was about how the first job you have as a new researcher at a company is to really conduct research internally on the company to understand the core issues the company wants to solve. That way, you ensure the work you're doing is meaningful. I really relate to that. When you’re new it’s easy to just go after the low-hanging fruit, but to actually have an impact you have to uncover what’s creating that low-hanging fruit and then go after solving that.

I first did this internal research with the company to understand their needs, their priorities, and areas of focus for the upcoming year. Then I asked questions specific to research like ‘what is our recruiting process? What tools do we have? Do we have an internal database to draw from?’ From there I identified my own expectations coming into the company in terms of resources. I assessed what our current resources are and then measured that against where I wanted to take us.

I also have to internally check my own expectations and determine whether I have a bias for tools I've used in the past, instead of looking at every tool available objectively. Because Handshake is a startup. We don't have the same budget as a Facebook or a Google. I had to ask what tool is actually best suited for us given our budget and the rest of the company goals.

The answer to that wasn't in just one place. We had to do a lot of work internally, assessing what the financial wiggle room was before I could dive into determining what kind of tool we could acquire. To advocate for one tool over another, I needed to describe to our leadership the value, opportunities, and cost-benefit of each one, then go from there based on their feedback.

Sofia: It sounds like you had to incorporate a lot of advocacy using business-oriented skills. Where did you learn that? Where do you get the inspiration?

Meagan: I worked with a lot of great researchers and managers who were continually advocating for research. Their advocacy for the right tools and resources translated into more success and better quality research. That experience taught me that having my own research team meant advocating for research would just be part of the job.

Sofia: Have you experienced friction along your journey of research advocacy and implementation. And, if so, how have you dealt with it?

Meagan: I've had friction with just about everything I've wanted to do. It's totally expected. First, you have to show the strategic value. The more strategic worth you can demonstrate, the more that leadership will support the changes you want to make. Part of demonstrating strategic value is conducting that required internal research to understand the company, so that your output matches what the company cares about. But even when you do that you’ll still have to expect pushback - that will always be there. When it is, providing an actionable if/then layout has been the most useful for me. For instance, if we had those resources… we could do this; without it, this is the best we can do. Showing that you can listen and demonstrate the tradeoffs of not having the resources you need versus what you can do if you have them has been a really effective communication tool.

Sofia: One of our key projects is implementing a better way to share insights across the business. Why has this been important for you from the very beginning? What is your vision around it?

Meagan: Before I came to the company, everyone had been conducting ad-hoc usability research focused on individual projects that were stored in a variety of places. I realized that having a single user research repository, and being able to flag themes in one project that would link to another would be invaluable to our ability to build our research insights on top of one another. Making sure research continues to build upon itself, rather than repeat itself indefinitely in silos is essential to a valuable research org.

The other thing I wanted to establish early on, especially given how new research is at this company, is the practice of staying true to the intent of the quote and insight. One of the challenges I’ve seen in the past is when one insight that comes out of the research becomes a game of telephone. The insight becomes unrecognizable the further down the road it travels. That's the difference between having firsthand, secondhand, or even third-hand knowledge. The ability to link directly back to the raw notes is invaluable.

Sofia: What advice would you give yourself on your first day in your new role at Handshake? What would you like to have done differently?

Meagan: I would say make sure you have a network of mentors to support you when the most significant challenges arise. I have started leaning on them, but I wish I had had them even before I started this job. I’ve worked with incredible leaders and I always considered them “mentors” but didn’t actually take the time to start building that regular mentor-mentee relationship until I started facing unchartered waters. I can only imagine how helpful it would have been to have established that relationship prior to facing these challenges. So my biggest piece of advice is to start those now - don’t wait until you realize you need them.

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