As we all went into our homes to Shelter-in-Place, I started leading the latest professional development (PD) series for our team titled “Research Basics: Note-taking through Analysis (and beyond)”. Unlike other professional development cycles that catered to a specific method of design or research, this one was explicitly a “crossover PD” designed for both researchers and designers. Additionally, this PD cycle was less about acquiring new skills and was more focused on building personal awareness through practice and building collective knowledge through discussion. Below I will lay out why “the basics” are a good place to dig deeper, and how to use professional development as an opportunity for team collaboration and engagement.
WHY FOCUS ON THE BASICS?
At EchoUser, we define the “research basics” as the skills that are independent of a specific research method. It is valuable to invest time and energy on the basics because they are employed in every project. Learning a specific research method is valuable, but it’s harder to practice a specific method repeatedly or consistently in an agency setting. One project may require contextual inquiry, another may need interviews, and the next project requires usability testing. “Basic” research skills, like note-taking, moderating and analyzing data are almost always used. Choosing a “basic” skill to dissect, practice and improve will be useful across projects and ultimately impact our ability to understand our clients’ users and deliver impactful results. The basics are the bedrock of any particular method – expertise in a method rarely comes without solid execution of the fundamentals.
EchoUser’s researchers and designers have diverse backgrounds; everyone has a personal style with strengths and weaknesses to their approach. My goal was for everyone to become more aware of how they, and their colleagues, work. Although we are highly collaborative, enjoy bouncing ideas off each other and look for feedback, we lead client work individually. I wanted this professional development to allow us to work together and see each other in action.
HOW TO LEARN TOGETHER?
When planning this PD, I wanted to: (1) help individual members of the team reflect on their process, (2) share with the team, and, (3) build collective understanding and vocabulary. By increasing understanding within the team, I hope to (re)set the standard.
Discussions build shared understanding
Given that we were talking about “basics”, everyone has some level of experience. I wanted most of the learning to come from each other. Although I was the “leader”, my role was much more “moderator” during sessions. I decided to not be an authority, but a colleague who also wanted to learn and share my experience. A majority of the time was devoted to discussions. There were slides during the discussions that were meant to be filled out collectively. Adding our discussions to the slides built an artifact that reflected and documented our collective knowledge and discussion.
Differences fuel discourse
For every session, there were readings and an assignment related to the session topic. The assignments were intentionally vague so that people could do what was comfortable or normal for them. The variation in deliverables helped spark inquiry and discussion.
Prior to the sessions, I would think about who I wanted to pair together for discussion or ask to share with the whole group. Typical prompts for small group discussions of the work were: (1) What was your process? (2) What is the same or different? Seeing and learning the variation in our approaches allowed us to dig deeper during conversation. It helped us question our own assumptions and habits. There was a richness in the discussion when team members would reflect back on past experiences and think about wins or missed opportunities. We were unlearning as much as we were learning.
Planning and follow-up pays dividends
Practically, to ensure people came to PD, there were calendar holds for all six sessions before we began. I wanted to make sure that this time was prioritized and blocked off. It is not an insignificant amount of time—each session was 2 hours long—and active participation was essential to its success. In terms of assignments, I tried to set my colleagues up for success in two ways: first, in planning, I tried to keep the pre-work short (30-60 minutes per session), and, second, after sessions, I followed up to make sure the assignments were completed on time.
After every session, I followed up with the session recording and an explanation of the homework. I made the homework due the evening before a session and would send personal reminders if I hadn’t received the assignment. Making the homework due before the sessions made it so I could quickly review them to make sure that I was covering the right content and had the right questions for discussion. Additionally, I was able to consolidate the assignments and make them easy to share with the team. My planning and follow-up around the pre-work underscored the importance, increased accountability, and allowed us to dig deeper during sessions.
After the last session, we will ask for more formal feedback from the team to continue to improve our professional development offerings. As the leader, however, I have a few metrics of success that are being met. So far, we have had near-perfect attendance for the duration of every session, and near-perfect submission rate for assignments. More importantly, we have been able to actively learn about each other’s processes and already apply fresh perspectives to our work.
Although we didn’t know that we would all be sequestered in our homes when I started planning the PD, it became a great way to be connected during this time. I have enjoyed spending time with my colleagues nerd-ing out on the nitty-gritty of research.