How we think about onboarding and team structure at Shopify to set new team members up for successShopify is a unique environment to be a UX researcher. We’re a team of over 30 folks from all sorts of backgrounds like engineering, design, ethnography, marketing, anthropology, customer support, and psychology. Research is weird and cool like that. It takes a mix of skills and traits to make up a diverse and amazing team, and as researchers, we collect these skills from walking the unique paths of our lives.What I’m going to talk about in this article is what onboarding looks like for researchers who join Shopify, why it’s important to take time to gather context, and how researchers expand their influence from one project to many.Context Before InfluenceI love context. Besides pizza, it’s one of the things that I’m most hungry for. Context fuels our understanding of the events that unfold around us. At Shopify, we help entrepreneurs of all sizes run any type of business all over the world. To do that well, it demands a lot of context. We need to know things like how entrepreneurs work differently and why, what’s going on with business trends around the world, and what product decisions have shaped the way Shopify is today.Colonel Chris Hadfield being very cool in space (Photo from NASA)In Chris Hadfield’s book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, he describes how in any new situation you can be a +1, 0, or -1. It means your impact can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful. Influence follows context, and before trying to be a +1, Hadfield argues you need to put in the work to understand all the factors at play.“The best way to contribute to a brand-new environment is not by trying to prove what a wonderful addition you are. It’s by trying to have a neutral impact, observe and learn from those who are already there, and to pitch in with grunt work wherever possible.”– Chris HadfieldExperience has shown him that people who attempt to be heroes from day one often end up being detractors because they don’t truly understand their situation — a bit like putting the cart before the horse. We’ve all seen savage critiques of websites and apps that find their way into portfolios, but these often fall short because they ignore the different forces at play. Products become the products they are after a long history of decisions influenced by factors like tech debt, company priorities, immature markets, etc. As researchers, we can fall into the trap of making misguided recommendations by not understanding the larger context around our observations, or by not understanding the wider business objectives. We can avoid making fools of ourselves by first working to acquire context, and then using that context to influence.This strategy of being a 0 when you start flows through to how we think about onboarding researchers at Shopify. Shopify is a web of dependencies. It’s very much a system of parts, and to know how best to influence the system, you first need to understand it. When a researcher joins our team, we’ll introduce them to, and have them focus on, one particular project. There are a whole bunch of reasons for this:There’s a need for research on the project team, which is why we hired a researcher in the first place.The project team has a ton of questions. Not all are good research questions, but that’s something we can work through. Questions are a gift for someone without context — they provide a starting point.After we develop well-framed research questions, we can get to work on conducting research. And because the project team is involved in the whole process, they’re likely to be engaged in whatever research we carry out. When it comes to findings, we won’t need to sell our findings because the team was there to see the problems surface.By involving the team in the research and analysis, there won’t be time for dust to settle on the findings. Experience shows us we’re more likely to see a team that’s eager to act, and there are few things better for researchers than to see our work acted on.And just like that, we’ve created our first feedback loop.Conduct research → act on findings → see results → acquire contextWith each of these loops, we acquire context. We see patterns between projects and hear about projects other researchers are working on. We notice similar problems in other areas of Shopify and start to understand Shopify as the system it is.Understanding Systems and Making ConnectionsOne of the things that makes Shopify such a great product to use is how it all works together. Very purposefully, there are no islands in Shopify. For merchants who run their businesses on Shopify, how they set up their products influences how they manage their orders; the sales channels they sell on influence the data they want to see in their reporting and analytics. Though these are worked on by different internal teams (e.g. Inventory team, Orders team, Analytics team, etc.), merchants don’t need to know or care about that. #DontShipTheOrgChartWhat follows after a researcher starts to understand the system, is that they can make connections between areas of the product. This is such a valuable part of a researcher’s role at Shopify. What typically happens is that researchers acquire context in their project team’s area and their understanding of the whole system expands alongside that. When a researcher’s ready, they move into focusing on an area of related projects.A researcher moves from focusing on one project to focusing on a larger product area with multiple projectsResearchers are in a unique position to make connections between projects. Most projects, most of the time, don’t require 100% of our daily attention. Our involvement ebbs and flows more than designers or developers, especially during build-phases of a project’s lifecycle where forward movement of a project more squarely rests on their shoulders. During the ebbs where our focus might not be required (like when a team’s acting on our research study findings), we can spend time researching the other questions we’ve got on our radar and contribute to higher level discovery.Journey to +1Our thinking on how to onboard researchers at Shopify has evolved over the years, and will no doubt continue to evolve as the organization changes. But for now, we find this is a really good way for people to get their footing and start acquiring context. Taking time as a 0 actually helps researchers become a +1 sooner.For researchers growing into focusing on a group of projects, this structure also provides them with a great opportunity to acquire deep expertise in a subject area. That expertise then allows them to see the subject area more holistically, making the connections between projects, and creating a better experience for our merchants.
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