At the Always be learning podcast Pieter Koenis interviews specialist from the field of product development, user experience design and UX research.
In this first edition of our podcast I have the honour to talk with Ilse Blom, Senior UX researcher at Funda. We talk about how UX research is done at Funda and how they develop new product features through customer insights.
00:01 PK: Hi there. Welcome at the Always be learning podcast. I’m Pieter Koenis and in this podcast series, I interview people from the field of product development, user experience design and UX research. I want to hear their story, learn from their cases and share their experience and best practices with you.
At Always be learning, we believe one can only build a successful product with a great customer experience when you consistently base your product decisions on customer insights and validations.
We empower product teams to build successful customer-centric products by helping them setting up processes, teach them skills and embed a customer-centric mind-set. We let customer-centricity become a habit. Hopefully this podcast inspires you and helps you making your product even more successful for both you and your customer.
My guest of this first Always be learning podcast is Ilse Blom, Senior UX Researcher at Funda. We’ve known each other for a while now and I always enjoy hearing her stories about the projects she does at Funda and talking about UX research and sharing best practices on putting the customer in the centre of product development.
OK. Ilse, thank you for being here. Great to have you as a guest in this first edition of the Always be learning podcast. For the people who don’t know you yet, please tell a little bit about yourself.
01:32 IB: Yes, thanks for having me. Super awesome to finally be on the other side of a podcast.
I’m Ilse. I work as UX researcher at Funda. For those of you who don’t know Funda, it’s a real estate website. Most of the Dutch will know Funda. So I work as a user researcher and that means that I conduct user research but also support the teams at Funda in doing UX research.
01:59 PK: Great, super cool. I also do think that a lot of people know Funda but indeed recording it in English. So maybe our podcast goes worldwide.
02:10 IB: Exactly.
02:11 PK: Yeah. Do you know the “Fundas” from other countries like America or Germany or – I don’t know?
02:18 IB: Yeah, we do and we sometimes have knowledge exchange sessions with them and it’s interesting to see the differences because real estate markets differ. But in the end, it’s a platform connecting real estate brokers with consumers and so that’s what we’re like and we can learn from each other.
02:36 PK: Interesting. So you are a senior UX researcher at the moment.
02:42 IB: Yes.
02:44 PK: Can you tell me, how did you grow into this role?
02:47 IB: Yes. So I started at Funda as a UX designer for Funda Business at that time. That’s the blue friend of Funda. So it’s for officers and commercial real estate. Back then there wasn’t a separate role of researchers but a lot of the product teams were doing mainly usability research and not necessarily the explorative research. Not much problem validation and management back then, so a need for that. So they created a separate role for research and during all the interviews we were doing, I thought, well, that’s an interesting role. Then I kind of learned that I am more interested in problems rather than solutions. So I might as well make my job out of that.
03:35 PK: What did you study?
03:41 IB: I did industrial design engineering in Delft and then a master’s in interaction design. Most of the UX people know these studies but – especially interaction design focuses on the interaction between products and users and a lot about behaviour and behavioural change. So that’s how I grew into UX design even though I didn’t know what UX design was back then.
04:06 PK: There are a lot of UX designers who come from that study.
04:10 IB: Yeah.
04:10 PK: And the master is in Delft as well?
04:12 IB: Yeah.
04:12 PK: OK. You said there – when you started at Funda, you started at business, Funda Business, there were at that moment no dedicated UX researchers.
04:27 IB: No.
04:27 PK: Now you became the first of the Funda UX researchers. What do you see is the biggest difference between – in the beginning with no UX researchers and now with a dedicated UX research person?
04:43 IB: We do a lot more UX research and the quality of research is increasing and also the spread of the insights we find. So first it was mainly a function of all the UX designers but then it became also a function of the whole product development department and now it’s also integrating with marketing. So of course marketing already did market research.
But now we are a lot more aligned on what they find, what we find, how we can combine it and how we can get like more of an elaborate understanding of the same users because eventually you all look at the same users. So if you bring those insights all together, you get a more complete view.
05:24 PK: Interesting. So every team can benefit from the insights from the other persons.
05:31 IB: Yes. So you have the teams and of course you also have the management and now it’s also the management joining in the research. So like the whole company. The engineers joining on the field work and that’s what you see happening. So that’s really cool.
05:45 PK: That’s super cool. How do you – how does that happen, management joining in the research? Because that’s a lot I hear as a struggle to first of all convince management that research is needed. But you already said that management at Funda, they have the feeling that there should be – done more research?
06:11 IB: Yeah, more and also more integrated with all of the teams. So not the teams finding their own insights but finding insights that could benefit the whole company. But I think it’s a combination between strategy and culture because the current executive team focuses a lot on data and not just by saying that data matters and we should make data-driven decisions but also getting the instruments that are needed to do so in play. So it’s also about the quantitative data analytics and having those all up and running.
But of course user interviews, that’s also data. So they do find that important and also they emphasise to the teams that that’s important and if teams present their designs, they ask, “And what did the user think?”
So it’s a combination because you can always try to get that motivation from the bottom up and – but you can only get so far. So it should always be a combination and it’s also about hiring people that show a genuine interest to users. So not only the UX designers care about our users but also the product owners, also the engineers. We had an engineer doing user interviews.
07:24 PK: Wow, cool. That’s what you want. You want the whole product team doing it for the same user and feeling it. I think if you can let product team members do UX research themselves, they really feel it.
07:42 IB: Yeah, and of course it’s a challenge too. Because interviewing and UX research is an important skill and it’s not necessarily a skill that’s easy to master for everyone. So I think it’s always a combination of trying to get the quality as high as possible by having specialists that can do the interviews. But every now and then, it’s so much – it’s so valuable to also have just your engineers and your product owners interact with users.
08:09 PK: And do you do that just through usability testing or do you go guerrilla testing outside or …?
08:20 IB: Yeah. So we do usability tests. But those are usually quite well-structured. So there’s a script in place and we invite five people over or six people. We have interviews of an hour but we also do the more unstructured interviews. So we go for example to the “Huishoudbeurs”.
08:40 PK: Together with Café Bep, right?
08:41 IB: Yes.
08:41 PK: Yes, that’s nice. I’ve been there as well. I saw your colleagues. It’s really a nice concept.
08:47 IB: Yeah, because it’s super easy to just have a very natural conversation and those people are just enjoying their day and looking at things to buy for their house. So they’re in their mind also thinking about their house and it’s very easy to have just very short interactions with them, asking them where do they live. How did they find it? If they plan on moving.
So those kinds of informal questions are very easy to ask in that setting and it’s a lot less stressful than sitting in an interview room with all the cameras on your face and knowing that your colleagues are listening as well. So it’s I think the combination of those methods that really bring value.
09:23 PK: Yeah. For the people who don’t know Café Bep, it’s a concept from Bart van de Ven and he – I’m not sure how he actually started with it. But he visits events like the “Huishoudbeurs”. Well, actually any kind of events where your target audience is and then he has a booth there and you can go there with your team to interview real users in their environment or in the event environment. In a less set “usability test setting”.
How do you make sure that in that kind of more loose environment, still get good results. How do you keep the quality?
10:23 IB: Yeah. So it’s – the most important thing is that people are aware of what they want to learn. So we spend quite a lot of time on preparing those sessions and not necessarily only the script but also the materials they bring because of course some questions are more suitable to get answers to in that setting than other questions.
So we really spend a few hours on preparing. So what do the teams want to learn? Why is it important to them? What target group do they think they need? How are they going to get these insights? So do they need a prototype or do they need a picture or don’t they need anything at all? So we really spend some time with the team to think about that.
11:02 PK: With the team, you mean the …
11:04 IB: The Scrum team, the product team.
11:05 PK: OK.
11:07 IB: Sometimes I do the interviews with them. So then I do an interview and they make notes or the other way around. So in that way, you can also learn from each other and I can also coach them a little bit on the job.
Like oh, this was maybe a bit of a directive question or weren’t you interested in knowing why they said that and then you can also like on the job coach people to have better conversations. Yeah.
11:35 PK: Do you record those conversations as well or do you just take notes?
11:43 IB: So in the usual setting of doing usability studies that are very moderated, we do record them for the sake of analysis and sometimes we also make little compilations of those. But in the informal setting, we don’t do that because it can be a lot more interrupting and intrusive if – for of course the team doing the interviews, but also for the people walking by and having this relaxed conversation with you. Yeah. So it stays more casual.
12:09 PK: Yeah, exactly. Unlike this podcast with microphones and stuff…
You said that UX research helps to get the insights throughout the whole company. Not only your team or one team but the other team in the marketing and development, et cetera. What do you do to achieve that? Do you set things up or …?
12:42 IB: So it starts with having people present at the field work. That’s one of the most important things I think because you can present insights and you can present reports. But they will never convey empathy as much as it does to really observe your users. So we just try to create like a ripple in the water that, “Oh, when is the next user test? When are we going to do that?” And also we have – since I think a year, we have more of a formal onboarding session for new Funda people and part of that onboarding session is also to join the next UX research session we have.
So we invite all new Funda people to our next session and I think then you kind of already have people understand what you’re doing and why it’s important in the next time. Then you present results and they know where you got them from and how it works and they’re really more interested. So it’s also about teaching and …
13:43 PK: I think that’s a super cool thing to get people joined in the first month or so on the UX research. They then have a better understanding of what they can ask you as well if they need information.
Or that there’s actually something they can ask at all.
Do you do events internally like sharing insights?
14:13 IB: That’s what are looking for the right solution because UX research can always be very interesting for a lot of people. Like, oh, you can present for hours and then people are listening. But is it actually benefiting the work they do?
So it’s also about balancing the effort needed to share those insights and sometimes of course if they’re insights from a product team and you share them with the rest of the company, then sometimes the decisions of the product team get questioned by a lot of other people as well.
So you can create noise by presenting those results as well. So it’s trying to find a balance of inspiring people but also how much time will it cost for all of us to listen to it and what is exactly interesting for people throughout the whole company.
15:02 PK: So how often do you update the board or the management or – is there a structure for that?
15:18 IB: We’re thinking about a structure for the upcoming year. This is now a lot of ad hoc kind of communication. OK, there has been this research. Can you share the report with me or …?
So we’re thinking about maybe a quarterly digest of not only the UX research, like the user interviews, but also the feedback that came through for example customer service and the feedback that was put into our web forms.
So more of a quarterly digest towards the management and then you can also see the forest for the trees over a whole quarter. So not necessarily all the details that you find interesting, that we all find very interesting. But, OK, what are the highlights and what is important for the next quarter? So I think we’re going to go towards more of a quarterly reporting towards the executive team.
16:05 PK: Yeah, cool. The Funda website, well, it still does the same thing. But for me, it changed a lot in the last like two, three years. Like new branding as well I think. What would you say is the one coolest feature that you researched and then is live now?
16:39 IB: I think that for example “de waarde check” the value check. So you can check the value of your house and what was especially interesting of course, it creates a lot of buzz around what’s the value of my house and especially in this market, people are very interested in what that is. But as you can imagine, it’s quite a step because usually the realtor does the valuation of your house and of course realtors are on one side of a platform. Consumers are on the other side.
So sometimes it’s challenging to find the balance of making the consumer satisfied as well as making the realtors satisfied. So you research both and you try to find the best solution for both.
But in this case, sometimes you really bring more value towards the consumer and the realtor is a bit more sceptical and that was the case in this scenario. But I think eventually we manage by understanding the needs of the realtor and understanding the needs of the consumer, having a solution that actually benefits both because if people look for the value of their house, they might consider selling it and if they might consider selling it, you can provide a lead towards the realtor.
So there were a lot of little iterations based on insights we had that I think eventually made it a very good feature.
17:59PK: So can you explain how it works, the value check?
18:06 IB: So you can fill in your address, where you live and then you can say, “Tell me what the estimated value of my house is.” But you can also provide additional details to make the estimation more accurate. So for example the surface and the size of the garden. Those kind of additional details you can provide and then it makes the estimation more accurate. Then of course there’s a bandwidth because it’s a model and it’s not – we don’t really go there to look at the state of the house or the neighbours or whatever. So it’s an estimation.
18:44 PK: Yeah, this is interesting. Indeed for this market, I’m curious. It is based on the houses sold in the area?
18:54 IB: Yeah. So in similar houses within the same postal code and the model updates itself over time.
19:00 PK: OK, interesting. So is it based on the price it’s advertised for or the price it’s sold for?
19:11 IB: It’s based on the price it’s sold for.
19:13 PK: OK, interesting. What are the plans for 2020? I thought you said before there are plans to expand the UX research team.
19:29 IB: Yes, yeah. So we’re expanding the team and that’s really good. It’s the first of December our first junior UX researcher is joining. So then we’re officially a team.
So that’s really cool because we can do more research. We can do better research and also now we use a lot of external parties to help us with recruitment for example. I think if we scale the team, we can also allow ourselves to think about customer groups, beta groups, those kind of improvements because usually the recruitment process can be bothering and quite time-consuming and I think those kind of more research operation things we can do a lot easier if we have more people present.
20:15 PK: It’s not something you have in place now of fixed days?
20:20 IB: No, GDPR makes that quite a hassle, quite time-consuming to get those things up and running. But of course we have quite a large user base and now we use external recruitment parties quite often. So then they go to their base and ask if people are looking for a house and if they use certain functionalities, which is of course quite a – like a bypass because we know who looks for a house and we know what features they use. So it will be a lot easier if we can do that ourselves for example. So that’s an important thing we’re considering for 2020.
20:54 PK: OK. A question about that. Do you really know who’s looking for a house? Because I bought my house like five years ago. But I’m still on Funda, for fun. Do you recognise the difference between somebody who likes to check his neighbour’s house price and whatever?
21:14 IB: Yeah. So 90 percent of our users are actually like you. 90 percent isn’t actually looking for a house but we have certain interactions that are only performed by people actually looking for a house. For example you’re looking at Funda but you do not plan a viewing. So as soon as you plan a viewing, we know that you’re more seriously interested in buying a house than – so there’s a lot of other interactions also that we can measure to define whether or not someone is actually looking for a house.
21:43 PK: Cool. So team expansion in 2020.
21:47 IB: Yes.
21:49 PK: You already said something about looking for the right way to share the UX research insights.
21:55 IB: Yeah. So quarterly reporting towards the executive team and then not only for the interviews we do, but also for the feedback we gather through customer service, the feedback we gather through web forms. That will be structured and also we are looking into continuous UX research. So just inviting five people over every month and then along the way we find out what we want to learn because now it can be quite a hassle to organise it. So once you think oh, I have this question, I need an answer to it, you rather have it tomorrow than the day after.
But as soon as we realise, we start organising it and then a few weeks later, you have the insight. So to improve that, we think about continuous UX research. So every month, there’s a customer group. There is a consumer group and whatever question you have, we are going to look how we can answer that.
22:47 PK: Yeah. So to make – actually set the research in place, the UX research events in place and during the – when the date progresses, you figure out what to do on the date.
23:07 IB: Yeah.
23:07 PK: I think it’s a good – it’s like “een stok achter de deur”.
23:13 IB: Yeah, it is because also the Café Bep events and they just realised that when there’s an event and I start telling the teams, that there’s an event, all of a sudden there are all these little questions coming out of their pockets. So also having the events in place triggers people to think about their assumptions and even though they might be too little to have a very large usability study for it, there are little questions and if you have the opportunity to validate those or to find answers to those, then they pop out of the pockets and they get researched.
23:49 PK: Yeah, that’s one of the things I preach for with Always be learning. Make it a habit.
Do UX research weekly, monthly. Fix things. Then it doesn’t get too big and you don’t make it too big. You don’t wait until the next release before you do the usability test.
24:09 IB: Exactly.
24:12 PK: What would you say that – for example, companies who don’t have a management team that state themselves we need more UX research? Do you have any tips or practical best practices?
24:35 IB: Yeah. I think like you say, it’s about making a habit for yourself. So it becomes easy to have it and that people know what it is. So if you have one user interview every half a year, then people have forgotten that it’s there and what it is. So it’s also creating that momentum by having your process in place and having that like habit of conducting UX research.
I found that video is very compelling to people and sharing via video. Then it is easy to grasp your interest and the thing I don’t really like with video is that it costs you a lot of time. But in the end, they just have to experience it and you don’t get them to experience it by sharing a report or PowerPoint presentation. You have to show what is actually happening.
25:28 PK: It’s about the experience of a UX research report.
25:34 IB: Yeah. And video just works really well and just keep sharing it. You keep repeating it and keep inviting people and also what I found really helps is creating like a little army of people that have a genuine interest in the user throughout the whole company. So not caring about whether or not they’re a UX designer.
They could work at customer service. They could work at finance, HR. They could work anywhere. If they have a general interest in your user, have them join your army. Invite them over and then your little army spreads throughout the whole company and they can like create a buzz and for example the engineer that joined with the Café Bep. All the other engineers asked what he was doing and why he joined and they never asked me but they did ask him. So like that little army really helps. Yeah.
26:26 PK: That’s an interesting best practice. Nice.
I think we learned a lot about Funda and what Funda does to improve their product for their users. And I think almost everyone in the Netherlands have visit Funda at least once or something. So thank you for your insights.
26:55 IB: That’s it. That’s a wrap.
26:57 PK: I think so. Thans. Thanks for being here.
27:00 IB: Yes, no problem.
27:02 PK: Thank you so much for listening to the Always be learning podcast. Follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our monthly newsletter at www.alwaysbelearning.nl and stay tuned for our next podcast episode.
I’m Pieter Koenis and feel free to contact me if you have any questions about this podcast or if we can help you empowering your product team to build successful customer-centric products.