In this episode of the Anthro to UX podcast, Molly Rempe speaks with Matt Artz about her UX journey. Molly earned an M.S. in applied anthropology at the University of North Texas in 2015 and currently works as a Senior UX Researcher at AnswerLab.

About Molly Rempe

Having started her career building hardware products, Molly moved jobs to tackle the big question of “what should we build” in a software innovation hub, and now is conducting rapid remote research. Although the types of products, the depth of research questions, and the project deadlines have varied during this time, she has always been passionate about bringing users (and non-users) into the process.

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Episode Transcript

Please note this transcript is an automated transcription and may have some errors.

Matt Artz:

All right. Well, welcome back everybody. I’m here today with Molly. Rempe, Molly’s an applied anthropologist and a senior UX Researcher at AnswerLab, and a graduate of UNT, which I am as well. So you know, we were in a different class, but it’s, it’s nice to be talking to a fellow UNT students. So Molly thanks for coming on. Really appreciate you being here, looking forward to talking to you today. So would you mind by maybe giving everybody a little bit of background on your education and you know, kinda a little bit of the work career?

Molly Rempe:

Absolutely. thanks so much for having me on I’m flattered that you thought of me. And I think this is a great podcast for individuals trying to get into the UX field. As you can guess, my background is anthropology. I did obtain a terminal master’s degree in business and design anthropology from UNT, which of course is where you and I met. And then from there I actually worked for about three years to help build a research program for a water tech company. So that was very hardware focused and I was lucky enough to get a job right away as a UX researcher. I know that that kind of more linear pathway isn’t what most of us end up doing. So I was just very lucky to be able to be placed right away. And then it kind of pendulum from hardware to software join kind of an innovation hub or a software accelerator where we got to explore really fuzzy research problems with a lot of room for exploration. And then for the last year I’ve been a senior UX researcher at answer lab, which is a research consultancy. And I get to work with large tech clients to help improve their user interfaces.

Matt Artz:

Great. Thanks for that. Yeah, it’s, it’s interesting. You know, like you already pointed out, but it’s, it’s so unusual to hear most, you know, most people go right into that into UX research. And so definitely want to dig into that. Another thing maybe I do want to bring up, so you, you have an anthropology undergrad, right? Yeah.

Molly Rempe:

That’s true. Anthropology and Spanish.

Matt Artz:

So, you know, some people like myself, they go back to get an anthropology degree. You know, I was working in tech wanting to go back to bring research in. But so you’ve been on this path of anthropology for maybe longer than some, or at least longer than me, but did you know you want it to be in your X research or like, you know, what brought you there?

Molly Rempe:

Yeah, I think that’s one of the most pivotal points. I loved anthropology. I love the ethnographic toolkit. I love the idea that we could just kind of learn about people as they are without judgment. And that was kind of the seductive nature of anthropology. So that’s why I pursued it and undergrad. And then of course upon graduation didn’t know how to get a job. And so I interned at a children’s museum. I entered at a nonprofit for technical advocacy, literacy advocacy. And I was finding that I could get kind of internships or kind of volunteer positions, but they weren’t willing to hire me employers. Weren’t willing to hire me into full-time roles with just an undergrad and anthropology. And so that is why I had to pivot and go back to school just to essentially teach myself what I was capable of, but also a lot of it was teaching employers kind of learning the language, learning how kind of brand myself to, to, to employers that I was capable in joining those full-time research

Matt Artz:

And creative and you know, some people who would go into the UNT program, you know, again, sort of classmates, they didn’t have an anthropology background but there was a number of people in there who have since gone into UX. And of course your ex is quite popular at this point. And so it’s not surprising, but at what specific point did you sort of learn about UX and start making the transition into that field specifically?

Molly Rempe:

Great. Yeah. Great question. I think that’s an interesting question because we talk about, I think UX is kind of a jargon term that I wasn’t aware of when I came to UNT. But I was interested in obtaining my training in a business in anthropology or business and technology, which is what UNT offered and kind of the anthropological speak of UX is design anthropology. And so of course Dr. Susan Squire‘s and Dr. Christina Wasson at UNT are well known in the field of design anthropology. They were my advisors and they really taught me how to do UX without perhaps the words UX associated to that. And so I think I knew coming into grad school that this is what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know what it was called in the real world. And so I don’t, I don’t quite remember when I came across the term UX, maybe, maybe it was in my curriculum, maybe it was at a conference, maybe like somebody that I admired had that role. But I remember kind of a slow realization is like, Oh, that was the brand that I needed to start identifying with is UX. When it was really just a different costume for a design anthropology.

Matt Artz:

Yeah. That’s a great answer. And you know, I think having taken the same courses, right. I, you know, I don’t, I don’t recall hearing the term UX in the program. But obviously, like you said, the skills directly, you know, the knowledge and the skills directly led to that, but there are still some other skills, you know, like just understanding like agile development and, you know, other things that happen in software engineering firms that you also sort of need to understand. So is there anything you were doing as you were pivoting specifically into UX, like, you know, getting any additional certifications or learning, studying anything on your own that helped you make that transition?

Molly Rempe:

Sure. I think my direct answer is not immediately like I said, I was lucky enough to have a company that was willing to hire somebody right out of grad school. And I really learned by doing those first few years they kind of gave me full control of the research program. And I kind of learned by failing and experimenting and learning by from my stakeholders to understand what was working, what wasn’t working. So a lot of it was kind of just reading industry articles and blog posts, talking to individuals at meetups going to conferences once a year if I could. But really just trying to implement what I thought was the right practice and realizing if it was kind of tracking or things that I needed to pivot on. And then after a few years, once I kind of felt that I had a kind of not necessarily perfected my, my research at that one company, but but had felt that I had gotten it under control to the point where I could start kind of expanding my practice. That’s when I did things like usability statistics, bootcamp through measuring UI or kind of joining specific conferences that were specifically trained for UXR that I could kind of expand the way, the ways that I was thinking. But I didn’t immediately after grad school continue my learning. And a lot of it was, as you say kind of realizing, Oh, I need to know what these agile terms were and kind of self self-teaching using kind of what’s on the internet and talking to kind of industry experts.

Matt Artz:

Yeah. Great. And you know, your first role is really interesting, like having to sort of the, you know, just sort of getting into a space where you get to really define the research practice, if you will. And it’s, you know, there’s a lot to learn there, but of course you also don’t have anybody to ask. And so it’s really interesting cause I was in a similar position, but the other thing that’s interesting about that role, as you say, it was hardware focused, which, you know, most of us are probably doing research with software. You know, I, I come across less people. I mean, of course there’s there’s products today that are hybrid, right. Software, hardware kind of paired together, but there’s what was, were you doing that or was it really just a hardware play?

Molly Rempe:

I think for the first two years it was really a hardware role. And then the company kind of expanded into software. So I was able to work with that new product for the first year or so and kind of get my feet wet and what that looked like. But I think it actually was a blessing in disguise if you think about it, because I, because of hardware, I really had to be on the ground with actual users to see how they use those instruments in the context of their environment and other instruments. And so it was, it was really easy for me to advocate for the need to be in person with my users which is something that with software is less easy perhaps to convince your employer that you need to be kind of sent out around the country, around the world to see users in context. So I think it was actually a really wonderful thing to be on hardware for my first team, because I could kind of really easily demonstrate the importance of being with my users in person.

Matt Artz:

Yeah. That’s really interesting. So what, you know, what did you learn there, or maybe let’s start here. What, what challenges did you have sort of as you started out on your own in this hardware environment?

Molly Rempe:

Yeah. Great question. I think I think the biggest challenges are everything that I needed to do that wasn’t research. I think that was kind of a hard learning process for me because we get trained in how to do research. Well, how to think of research questions, how to create a research program, how to kind of conduct interviews or ethnographic surveys and how to analyze data and disseminate it. Like those are all things that we’re really good at. And as researchers, that’s what we like to do. It’s all the other stuff we don’t like to do. Like the evangelism, it’s the budgeting, it’s the administrative work recruiting as a lot of work, it takes so much time, almost equivalent, I would say to actually doing the research. And so I think one of the biggest hardships that I had those first few years is really realizing, you know, research has only 30% of my role, the other 70%, the most of what I do every week is not research and trying to find kind of the balance there to make that worth my time, you know, make it, so I really enjoyed that work.

Matt Artz:

Yeah. That’s, it’s, it’s one of the things that I try when, you know, when people reach out and are asking for maybe advice, it’s always one of the things I try to stress because, you know, I think it’s helpful to know the good and the bad of our role and you know, there’s many wonderful things and I’m not saying that like project management or, you know, the admin stuff is bad by any means, right? Those are important skills that we all need in business, but they are not maybe what you think you’re going to be doing. Right. So it’s just good, I think, for everybody to hear that. So thanks for sharing that. Could you maybe though elaborate more like on that point, so you said 30% is, is research. So you mentioned budgeting, you mentioned recruiting, what other kinds of things besides that might you be doing?

Molly Rempe:

And that first role I spent a lot of my time evangelizing. So I would go, I was working with the research and development part of the organization. So I’d make sure that I was known and accessible for every single product team that was working within and with R and D in that large organization we did kind of an engagement scheme where we tried to get everyone in R and D involved in research. A lot of it was just teaching people. What is research? Why are we doing it at this company? Why is it valuable to you? Like, why should you care and how can you get involved if you’re interested? And so that took up 20% of my time. I was just trying to get other people interested, even like engaged in what my role was. So I got hopefully less blank stares as I like came into her room, you know?

Molly Rempe:

And then a lot of it was honestly knowledge management. I think one of the, I think probably the critical difficulty that our industry faces is how do we not only make an impact for this study, but how do we take that data and make it like longitudinal, I’ll make it useful over time, make it be, make your team aware of it and make it actionable for perhaps projects that we don’t even know exist yet. And so a lot of it my time on that first company was building a knowledge management system, a research archive, and then iterating on that system to make it most useful for our, for our stakeholders. And I won’t say that it was the perfect system. There was a lot things that could have been optimized, but it was a big learning curve. And I spent a lot of my time just trying to kind of use the data we already had and make it more accessible for our R and D team.

Matt Artz:

That’s great. That’s actually, that’s one of those kinds of questions that I ask, like, you know, if I’m at a meetup or something, I can just talking to people in the industry. It’s so one of the things I commonly ask, because I’m curious to know how other organizations do it. And you know, it seems like everybody attempts it nobody’s like perfected it from, from anybody that I’ve ever asked. The question to everybody admits that, you know, knowledge management, organizational memory is something that needs to still be improved, but I’d like to maybe just dig into both the evangelizing and the knowledge management for a second. Cause those are, those are good areas for, I think, people to learn from like some of them from some of the difficulties. So you mentioned evangelizing in the sense of, you know, sort of selling your value, which to me, I took a sort of like upfront, maybe in the project, but also there sort of like selling the, the insights on the back side of the project, right? Like, you know, here’s, here are the findings, here are the insights and, and trying to get those adopted so that they are incorporated into, you know, whatever’s being built. You know, did you learn anything from evangelizing in either of those scenarios? Like any methods that seem to work best to help you sell the value of anthropology or, or UX or know? So sell your findings. Okay.

Molly Rempe:

Yeah. I think three things came to mind when you asked me that question. We’ll see if I can remember them as I’m monologue here, but the first, the first thing is that you pointed out kind of upfront work just trying to make sure that your team is aware of you within the organization, hopefully your value within that organization and what you can do for them. And so that upfront evangelism work, trying to just, you know, be present in product development meetings, even if your role wasn’t particularly relevant that day. I think that that’s a really big thing. People ask kind of, how do you make sure that people use your research? And I always say like the most important thing is to make sure they’re along for the ride the whole way. So making sure that your stakeholders want the research ahead of time, you know, not just doing research because you think it’s useful or because your boss wants you to do it, but really making sure that the people who want, who should be using that data want to use that data.

Molly Rempe:

And then making sure that the, the research projects you take on are really addressing the key questions that your, your team needs. And not just kind of smaller questions that don’t have basically focusing on the biggest impact and then making sure that they’re along for the ride, like inviting them to the interviews or the on-sites and making sure that they have access to the data, if they want to look at it themselves making those transcripts of those interviews and sending them along if they’re interested. So I think a lot of that upfront work, both being aware of the role and being engaged in the research is significantly more effective than actually trying to post a research cell quote, unquote, sell your, your data. So I think that upfront work is really important. Then there’s also the kind of the knowledge management, I think, is a part of evangelism because it helps bring that research make it, make your team aware that it’s there and hopefully make it usable and accessible to them.

Molly Rempe:

And so I think your stake alerts are a big user group that you need to kind of understand and cater towards. And so a lot of that selling or the research has to do with making sure that your stakeholders can access the data themselves. And so that knowledge management, I kind of consider kind of partially evangelism to making sure like they know how much research you’re doing, even if it’s not on their specific project. And I said, I had three points and of course I have forgotten that third one. So maybe it’ll come back later, but those are at least two that come to mind.

Matt Artz:

Thanks. And I was gonna ask there in your experience, whether it was that first role or anything since then, how well do you know, do people use the knowledge management systems, whatever form that has taken do you see that they are using them or is, and have you learned anything from that to get people to use them more?

Molly Rempe:

That’s a great question. And I think that’s the problem is that I I’ve helped to develop to knowledge management system and I, and currently I’m contributing into a different knowledge management system in my current role. And I think that researchers use in my experience, researchers use the knowledge management systems very well. But other stakeholders for many reasons are less likely to utilize those. In my experience, even when I think I’ve built the most impressive knowledge management system possible, they’ll still come to me and ask me to go through it myself. And I think there’s a lot of factors there, but to answer your question, I think that knowledge management systems, for some reason are built for researchers or, or researchers become the primary user types. And I think that’s something that we, as an industry can overcome in some ways.

Matt Artz:

Yeah, we should probably do a little research on that. Yeah, no, I’ve, I’ve witnessed many of the same things. They aren’t, most people, I talk to also state the same things. I’m sure you’ve heard Sam. And so you know, that’s I think it’s going, it’s obviously a challenge it’s going to continue to be a challenge, but so since you’ve worked on three, have you found any sort of models that were more successful?

Molly Rempe:

Hmm. I think one thing consistently is that there’s always this kind of 2020 vision in the future, you know, that I think there’s just kind of, I think you need to realize that no matter what system you make, it’s not going to suit all of your needs next year. There’s going to be things that you’ve missed out on that you didn’t foresee. And perhaps a new project came up that the data’s not easily located on this new projects vocabulary, for example. And so it’s just not easy to access. So just kind of giving yourself some flexibility and, and feeling okay that it’s not going to be an end all perfect system. I think that’s really important as you develop your own, but I think ultimately a tagging system of some sort makes the most sense where you can find the tags that make sense for your team.

Molly Rempe:

Oftentimes it’s kind of perhaps recruitment demographics project perhaps features or elements that you’re testing methods that you’re using and geographies that you’re thinking about. Those are often the ones that I at least start with and then kind of expand from there. And then your whole research team needs to use those same tags, which is, I think one of the biggest pain points is that you kind of have to get everyone working within the same system for it to really be longitudinal and useful over time. So I think those are some of the things that we’re kind of fighting with, but I think tagging systems is kind of the most basic. And then also, depending on your specific organization, figuring out what t-shirt size you want those findings to be, you know, cause some knowledge management systems I’ve seen air table kind of management systems that have per finding and then a bunch of tags. And that’s very impressive. I’ve never personally been able to wrap my head around kind of per finding knowledge databases because they’re so small and my new I kind of gravitate towards the per study or per project and then tag to kind of give the nuance that individuals might need.

Matt Artz:

Yeah, thanks for that. It was very detailed and it’s refreshing to hear all of that detail. And I think everybody listening will appreciate that. You know, another question that often comes up in like say in New York here in the circle, when we’re talking about questions, like, you know, organizational memory and evangelizing is also, you know, how do we demonstrate our value? How do we measure our value or, or, or, or alternately know, like how do our bosses or organizations sort of gauge our value. Right. And so I know it’s broad, but you know, any thoughts on how we can demonstrate it, how we can gauge it.

Molly Rempe:

[Inaudible] Yeah. I think this is perhaps the second biggest question besides knowledge management, I think like kind of demonstrating value is the second biggest or most critical issue that our industry faces and I’ve, I’ve done a few, at least attempted a few different ways and here’s just some ideas to throw out to our listeners to see if it works for them, but there’s of course, descriptive stats over time, like year over year or quarterly. How many projects have you done? How many participants have you talked to? What’s the research like time in sessions research hours over a certain period of time, maybe how many teams have you helped to just kind of show the reach. So there’s descriptive stats that you can kind of track over time. Those don’t necessarily immediately translate to impact, but they’re nice to kind of keep, keep track of at least to explain, like we’re doing a lot of work over here because oftentimes we, as researchers are kind of in our corner with the designers perhaps kind of working in our own little silos and making sure that our efforts are kind of exposed is really important.

Molly Rempe:

There’s also kind of engagement. So two ways that I can track engagement are if one, how many team members join sessions or join report outs, or actually actively take part in research. That’s something that I’ve done in the past and it’s pretty powerful to some of the higher ups to see, Oh, 50% of R and D actually took part in it in a study to see this year or this week. And then there’s also like how many, how many team members have viewed your report, which if your, if your system can track that as kind of exciting. So I’ve actually some of my reports, I feel like aren’t super wow or aha, but if there’s 150 people in an entire organization, that’s viewed it over the last year, that’s pretty cool. And you can kind of point to those as kind of some of your biggest successes and then finally there’s impact.

Molly Rempe:

And I find the impact metrics or con kind of quantitative impact metrics. The hardest are for me to kind of grasp, but some things, especially like in an agile environment, how many stories, how many of your user stories have user data behind it to kind of support that it should be highlighted within your backlog or identifying top risks in your product or service and figuring out, or kind of tracking how that risk decreases over time based on UX research. And then of course, kind of the VP kind of your executive like goal or gold star for metric is like how many executive level decisions have been impacted by UX research. I find that one really hard to kind of track, but if you can get that fidelity of data, that’s extremely valuable.

Matt Artz:

Yeah. Great. Related to that again, so, well, do you do anything any of your products touch, like any kind of commerce where you can gauge, you know, ultimately dollars?

Molly Rempe:

So my current position finally is kind of like a B to C environment where I get to kind of be in that environment where we can see that, that direct consumer. Yeah,

Matt Artz:

That’s good. That makes it a lot easier. Of course. Yes and no. Also, when talking about sort of our value, you know, you often hear like the phrase, like, you know, see it at the table and I think we’ve had trouble communicating our value as it maybe like as a brand, if you will, sometimes. And it seems like research yet doesn’t quite have a seat at the table design seems to be getting it, you know, over the past number of years, you see as far more sort of design leaders at relatively high levels of big organizations now. And I think research is still maybe fighting for a little bit of its share of that. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t, but what do you think we could do to have more influence like, you know, whether that’s with our teams or in the broader organization?

Speaker 3:

Okay.

Molly Rempe:

Yeah, I do agree with that. I mean, you can just kind of see the amount of higher level titles that have designed in there in their title, which is wonderful that that’s becoming more and more normal to have kind of a higher level individual contributors or larger organizations that are designed that are higher up and can be at that, you know product decision level. And research is kind of, we’re getting there, but we’re not quite there. So I’ll say that I, I agree that that’s kind of the trend, but hopefully we are seeing kind of an upslope in that I’d say a lot of it has to do with how you want to position research within the organization. Some for some teams it’s important to research to be on its own for some teams that makes more sense to be kind of associated with design.

Molly Rempe:

If that’s the case. I think there needs to be a leadership, like a leadership position for a design leader and a research leader. I feel like I’m trying to have kind of an overarching design and Reese or a design research kind of head. It gets a little messy because as you have pointed out kind of design right now gets most of the spotlight when it becomes the two of them. And so having an equal footing, making sure that it’s organizationally structured. So it’s an equilibrium between design and research is really important. But ultimately just kind of being present within your teams, keeping excited and keeping curious, because that’s kind of contagious and keep kind of fighting. The good fight is all I can say is kind of keep trying to expose what we’re trying to do. And map that impact to how important it is to be within, to be, to have research. I mean, one of the sad truth is that with COVID researchers have been some of the first roles to be let go. And that was really sad to see at the beginning of this or last year now. But I think that we, by continuing to kind of evangelize and demonstrate our value, we should not be the first ones to go. We should be, you know, kind of core to that product or services development team.

Matt Artz:

Yeah. And more so essential to sort of reducing risk and ensuring that the right product is being built, that it really is critical sort of underpins everything else. And, you know, aside from evangelism in the way you described it there going back to your earlier comment, bringing people along. Right, right. You know, and to help get sort of, to help demonstrate why we should have influence, you know, as we bring people along and they see what we’re doing and sort of the value of what we’re doing, it’s certainly helpful. Agreed. Okay. So Molly, I know in your previous roles you were involved hiring, so can you maybe just sort of tell us, you know, some common mistakes, maybe people make things that they do well in terms of resumes and portfolios and maybe provide any any recommendations for, for resumes and portfolios.

Molly Rempe:

Hmm. Yeah. That’s great. Actually it’s apropos that you asked that question because I was part of a AAA the anthropological association panel in July. And we did a whole webinar about resumes and portfolios. So there’s that specific webinar and a bunch of kind of supplementary information is available on the AAA website. And we can link that to the show notes. But what I’ll say is that I think a lot of individuals kind of overweight their applicant materials. So what I mean by that is I think it’s important to kind of think in terms of the hiring manager, like think of the hiring manager as your user they are going through hundreds of applications and they are trying to kind of figure out the best candidates to forward to their team. And I think that making a resume short and sweet and tailoring a portfolio that’s easily scannable and doesn’t requiring like reading a novel is one of the most important are probably the, the high, the most.

Molly Rempe:

The thing that I would kind of stress the most out of everything of really tailor your application materials to think about what the hiring manager needs to see to make a yes, no decision don’t kind of dump everything you’ve ever done and everything you’ve ever thought on their lap. You just want to kind of give them the most impressive snapshot of your career as possible. So I think that’s really important. And the other thing is that I think one thing to keep in mind is I believe that UXers are kind of, we’re all kind of a band of misfits. We come from all different types of backgrounds. Anthropology is one of them, psychology law marketing teaching, like we just kind of came together. And so imposter syndrome is real. But I think it’s important that you just need to be confident and realize that you are capable of doing the job.

Molly Rempe:

I think a lot of us kind of start the interview process of like, not really sure if we’re qualified and just know that you are qualified and highlight the parts of your resume and your, your experience that demonstrate that. And don’t try to kind of backtrack, I’d see that a lot in interviews of, well, I haven’t really done this method or I have, I’m not really sure about this. Just own it and say, Hey, I haven’t ever done a diary study, but I’m really interested in it because of this and this. But what I really know well is in context interviews because of this and this. So those are things that I would really just hammer home is like you are qualified, were abandoned misfits, and you’re welcome to join us. And just kind of own your experience when you come into the hiring process. Yeah.

Matt Artz:

Great answer. And so is there anything maybe to wrap up anything you’d like to, you know, make everybody aware of anything you want to plug and where everybody find you?

Molly Rempe:

Sure. So as far as how to get to me, I’m, I’m pretty boring. I’m just on LinkedIn. You can find me at Molly Rempe. And as far as things that I’d like to plug, I do have a few that I’d just like to kind of invite everyone to check out if you’re interested. The first thing is my new passion is using my UXR skills to facilitate accessible experiences. So I just got my certified professional and accessibility core competencies. My CPAC certification through IAAP, which is the international association of accessibility professionals. And my next goal is to get my WHAS, my web accessibility specialist certification. So I see that this is a growing need. And I think it’s something that we could all really benefit from getting certifications and learning more about. So just wanted to plug that because I think it’s a really important thing to do.

Molly Rempe:

I’m also a mentor for the UX Professionals Association (UXPA). So if you are interested in getting into the field, we have mentee positions available. And if you’d like to be a mentor, we’d love to have you every single kind of region in the U S has a mentorship program available. And then finally I’m not particularly involved, but I really support the work of the UXR Conference that’s located in Toronto follow their Slack channel. It’s wonderful EPIC Ethnographic Practice and Industry Conference. And of course the Society for Applied Anthropology and the AAA. So those are four organiations that I’d really encourage everyone who’s interested in UXR to check out

Matt Artz:

Thanks for that. And I’ll link to all of them. So, yeah. And great. And congratulations on the certification. That’s, that’s really fantastic. It’s definitely needed work. So I’m glad to hear you’re doing that. And definitely, I agree that more of a should, should get behind you. So thanks, Molly. Really appreciate you coming on. It was great to talk to you. Thanks for all the advice you provided and hope we can see each other soon.

Molly Rempe:

Thank you so much, Matt. Great podcast.

Please note this transcript is an automated transcription and may have some errors.