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Mining Magic in the Minutiae

How our Design + User Research team uses over-the-shoulder observation sessions to gain insights on our users.

An illustration of a conference call with a stick figure holding up a piece of paper. Zack Simon

I’ve found that the hardest part of a user research session is convincing your user how deeply you care about the minutiae. Just as someone saying, “No offense, but,” will almost certainly be followed by something potentially offensive, in user testing when an interviewee says “I’m not sure if this is interesting, but...”, that user is almost certainly about to show you something that will blow your mind.

I’ve had editorial users show me pages of Chorus, our in-house CMS, I’ve never even seen before. I’ve seen style guides with tens of thousands of words hidden deep in someone’s Google Drive. I’ve seen notes written in nothing more than a text editor that contain details that could completely change our perspective on a project. And almost always the user seems to hesitate before showing it to a researcher like myself—because surely it’s too small a detail for it to matter, right?

An illustration of a magnifying glass with a computer mouse pointer inside of it. Zack Simon

Wait, did she just say researcher? Isn’t this a design blog? Well, yes. (She doesn’t even go here!) OK, let me explain! Here at Vox Media, our research and design teams have come together as one Design and User Research team. Like how The Avengers combined powers to save the galaxy or The Traveling Wilburys came together to save music, the Design and User Research teams are here to save your user experience. (Name a more iconic duo. We’ll wait.) We’re dedicated to providing insight and stellar design to make the best possible tools in Chorus, our in-house CMS used by all of our publications and a number of customers, that make better experiences for both our editorial users and our audiences on our sites.

So let’s get back to the subject here (besides Captain America and Bob Dylan): the user. How have we gotten users to share these intricate details of their process with us? We call it “Observation Club.”

Marvel probably would’ve come up with a snazzier name, but hey, it’s accurate. (Observationerds, assemble!) Spun up between research and design, we wanted to bring in engineers, designers, new team members, PMs, project managers, and any other stakeholders to spend a bit of regularly scheduled time looking over the shoulder of our editorial users. While the user research team gets to have these interactions constantly, other Chorus team members would typically only learn about them second- or third-hand.

An illustration of a conference call with a figure holding up two pieces of paper. Zack Simon

When we started the project, we wrote that “the primary goal will not be a deliverable or an action item, but the act of observation itself: there will be no measured outcome other than deeper/broader understanding of how our users are utilizing Chorus.” Similar to Basecamp’s “everyone on support” model, we referred to it internally as “everyone on research.” When I write to our editorial users to see if they’d be interested in joining us for one of these ‘observation sessions,’ I tell them we’d love to watch them do “any work you’d already be doing.” Editing a story, finding a photo, writing headlines—whatever they’d be doing in that 30 minutes of their day anyway. We get on a Zoom, they share their screen, and we chat while they go about their work. Its power is in its simplicity.

Though we may have said that there would be “no measured outcome” of this project, I still live for the little moments where I can drop a relevant session recording into a JIRA ticket for extra context, or an engineer sends me a Slack saying how helpful the session was for a project they’re working on.

The process can still be weird and messy at times. Sometimes we spend half a session outside of our CMS watching someone taking random notes in a Slack message or finding an old doc in their Google Drive. But my constant refrain when the user inevitably asks, “Is this even what you want to see?” is always, “Is this what you’d be doing if we weren’t here?”

If so, yes. That is exactly what we want to see—that magical minutiae.

Thanks/Shout Outs to...

  • Brandy Porter and Gregg Bernstein, the masterminds behind Observation Club
  • Mila Djordjevic, my user research counterpart and icon
  • Stephanie Lawrence and Laura Holder, integral contributors in the formation of Observation Club and its goals
  • Zen Ren, Observation Club’s biggest fan and best question asker
  • Zack Simon, for the beautiful artwork seen in this piece
  • And last, but not least, all of the many editorial folks who have given up their time to let us into their processes, minds, hearts, and computer screens