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What User Research Can Teach Us About Relationships

As a user researcher, writer, author, and illustrator, tech-world veteran Ximena Vengoechea has had plenty of experience using her professional listening skills to help companies learn from their customers and potential customers. Her book, Listen Like You Mean It, walks readers through different strategies and techniques that Ximena has used in her own work to help optimize listening skills, learn key takeaways, and put that information into action. Squarespace had a chance to speak with Ximena about rediscovering “the lost art of true connection,” maintaining closeness during a pandemic, and how she finds balance in her own life.

SQUARESPACE: As a user researcher, you’ve spent time facilitating conversations for big tech companies looking to learn more about their audiences. What is your research philosophy when it comes to approaching these sessions?

XIMENA VENGOECHEA: There are two things I try to keep in mind for every study I conduct: Answer the right question and try to have fun. User researchers are tasked with not only understanding their participants, but also their stakeholders. Often, a colleague will come in with one question, like “What features do we need in order for people to shop on our platform?” when they really want the answer to a different set of questions, like “Why do people shop online? What kinds of people shop online? What are their needs and motivations?” A researcher’s job is to unpack the surface-level question to discover what the real, often underlying research question is, and then design a study to help answer it. That’s where the fun comes in — there are so many creative approaches to answering a given research question, if you give yourself the time to explore. It can be easy to fall back on tried and true methods or straightforward approaches to get the job done, and sometimes this is exactly what’s called for, but other times there’s a new, novel way to approach a problem if you pause long enough to consider alternatives. I love trying out different approaches, like bringing in collages, video, illustration, games, and interactive exercises into a research session to keep things fresh. If I am bored by my study design, that might be a sign it’s time to try something new. 

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SQSP: Your new book, Listen Like You Mean It, aims to help those looking to “reclaim the lost art of true connection.” What initially inspired you to write about this topic?

XV: As a user researcher, I have one of the most people-centric jobs in tech. I get to interview and observe people and try to understand them as real people with hopes and dreams and hobbies and needs, not as anonymous customers or numbers. My training has taught me how to ask good questions, listen with attention and empathy, and observe participants — who are often strangers I’ll never see again and who I have only a short amount of time with — in order to better understand them and help my teams build products that meet their needs. As I furthered my training, I noticed how much deeper I could take conversations outside of the UX lab, too. I began to understand my colleagues better, which improved our collaboration. I saw more quickly when my own listening quirks were getting in the way of deepening a conversation or relationship, and could more easily pull myself back to the present to be there for others. 

Knowing this, and especially in this moment of political and cultural divisiveness when so many of us feel alienated, lonely, and even misunderstood, along with the added geographic isolation so many of us are feeling due to the pandemic, I wanted to help others deepen the relationships in their lives, too. Instead of loneliness, I wanted to help people feel more understood, accepted, and valued in their own lives through listening. I wrote Listen Like You Mean It, which is based on my experience as a user researcher, to help us all become better listeners — at work, in our home lives, with friends, or even strangers — and build stronger relationships as a result. It’s chock full of tips and tricks from the UX lab, self-reflection prompts, and listening exercises to help people improve their listening skills in the day-to-day, real world scenarios we experience every day. My hope is that readers feel informed and inspired to put these learnings into action, so that we can all feel more connected to each other. 

SQSP: Since the outset of the pandemic, many people have had to make drastic changes to their personal and professional lifestyles. How can re-thinking the way they listen to friends, colleagues, or family members help people who are looking to maintain connections during an ongoing crisis?

XV: Now is a great time to rethink our listening because we’re in a situation that is fundamentally different from anything we’ve ever experienced — which means that our old listening habits may no longer be what’s needed, and may need adapting. The way we used to connect with others may have sufficed before, but given the heightened stakes and emotional uncertainty so many of us are experiencing, it’s a good time to check in on whether our approach is still working. I suggest thinking about what I call your “default listening mode,” how we tend to show up in conversation, without thinking about it. For instance, some of us are natural problem-solvers, so we hear everything through that lens — even when there is no real “problem” to solve. Others are more the validating type, ready to reaffirm that our conversation partner is in the right (sometimes, even when they are not!), even when a different response is called for. Or, you may listen through a mediating filter, eager to dissect a situation by understanding everyone’s point of view, when what your conversation partner really needs is reassurance from you that their perspective — independent of anyone else’s — is valid. These are all perfectly good and reasonable listening modes to have, but if we stick to our default listening mode without asking ourselves (or others) if they are what’s needed, we can miss out on what’s really called for in conversation. Especially in this moment where our worlds have been upended, it’s best to approach conversations not from our default listening modes, but from a place of curiosity, humility, and empathy. This allows us to understand from others what they need in conversation and thoughtfully respond in kind.  

SQSP: When you’re not working in user research or writing a new book, you also spend time as an illustrator. How does adding a visual element to your work help to clarify your message to your audience?

XV: I use visuals to communicate complex ideas in a simple way, and ideally with a bit of humor or playfulness; I tend to stay away from purely decorative images as a result, since I am trying to help readers understand an idea or concept. For visual learners in particular, I find having an image to anchor an idea in can help. For more verbal learners, an image can serve to punctuate, summarize, or emphasize an idea, so it sticks with them. People learn in such different ways, it seemed only natural to me that I communicate my ideas in more than one way, too.

SQSP: As an accomplished multi-hyphenate, you typically have a few projects that you’re pursuing all at once. How do you manage your day-to-day schedule so as to accommodate all the things you have going on?

XV: Anyone cultivating a hobby or business on top of their 9-5 knows that balancing a side hustle with a day job is no small feat, but over the years I’ve learned a lot about what works for me. In my experience, knowing your personal working style and knowing where you can steal or make time is crucial. I am an early bird and do my best creative and strategic thinking in the morning — that’s a great time for me to get some writing done. By afternoon I’m toast, so instead of writing, I might read or research a topic I’m thinking about, illustrate some of the complex ideas I’ve explored in my writing, or have a conversation with someone to take an idea further. I try to play to my natural productivity cycle and energy levels to make the most of my time. 

I’m also a big believer in finding existing pockets of time and making them more purposeful and productive. Years ago, I had a long and dull daily commute, and instead of dreading it or losing myself to social media or email, I reframed it as my personal writing and creative thinking time. It was probably the most creatively productive time in my life. The pandemic has, of course, upended normal routines and rituals, so getting things done — creative or otherwise— can be a challenge, and I no longer have a reliable commute to turn to. It takes mutual respect and understanding with my partner to be able to trade off on childcare (we have a toddler) to meet a deadline or take on a new project, and a year later, we’ve fallen into a good rhythm. I’m lucky to also have family nearby who can help out in a pinch, too. It can be hard to ask for help, but I’m learning to remind myself that people genuinely want to help out and see you succeed— they get something out of it, too.  

All that being said, the most important factor to all of this is how much you enjoy a project. Even if you know when you do your work best and are able to regularly carve out time for it, if you’re not really, truly drawn to a project, it will be hard to push past the distractions of everyday life and the hurdles of the creative process. You have to want it, badly. When the drive is truly there, it all becomes easier to manage.

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