Frontline Education: "We need to empower people to make good decisions"

Marie Pitcherella and Victoria Walters on building a UX research practice at Frontline Education

Frontline Education runs school administration software for K-12 education, helping to manage human resources, student information systems and finances.

Marie Pitcherella joined Frontline three years ago, having worked in UX design in previous roles. She has since moved into a UX research role and is now Senior UX Researcher.

Victoria Walters joined Frontline Education in 2019 and served as the in-house UserZoom ‘super-user’ and trainer. Her favorite part about being a researcher is taking insights and getting them to the right people to turn them into action!

We recently talked to Marie and Victoria about the role of user experience and UserZoom within the company, how a background in design informs research, and how to set up successful onboarding program for our all-in-one UX solution.

How did you go about building a UX research practice at Frontline?

Marie: The UX leadership team had a vision of where they wanted to grow. At the time that I joined the organization, they really wanted to bring somebody onto the team that had my background in both enterprise experience, and with a research focus.

We were fortunate to have really talented visual designers and UX designers, but perhaps lacked some of that focus on the research

We had great leadership from the architect and UX leads at the time to incorporate customer feedback into the process and to collaborate early with stakeholders on what a solution should be rather than waiting until it’s already completed to get feedback.

Being able to have somebody that can work with the UX designers and make sure that research is part of the process, in a predictable way, was something they wanted and that vision that was set out for the team that I was able to come in and continue to build.

So we had a strong basis on which to rapidly grow our team.

Relying on the expertise of people and companies that came before us helped us to be able to make smart decisions rather than learning the hard way.

This expertise included frameworks and books like “Org Design for Design Orgs”, Chris Avore’s Research Maturity Model and the Design Council’s Double Diamond. These were foundations that helped research fit into the process and provided guidance on how we can grow and continue to support our organization.

One of the first things that I did was to build a library of standard templates that we can use within the team, and to lay out expectations for how research could be included into both larger and smaller projects.

Sometimes we work on projects that are maybe six weeks long, sometimes they are 18 months long. The same methods and focus can’t always be put on every single project that comes across our team’s plate, so being able to provide guidance or a ‘playbook’ for the primary and secondary research activities that should be done takes risk and uncertainty out of the equation.

As the entire K12 school system has been forced to go virtual, can you tell us more about how the UX team has helped support this?

Victoria: I think one way we contributed would be the fact that we are helping parts of the organization plug into research. We’re helping the rest of the organization tap into ways to get those answers, and trying to figure out what the right questions are and how to deliver it.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your team and where it sits in the organization?

Marie: Research operates very closely with user experience, and within the past year our bond with product has been cemented due to well-intentioned organizational changes.

Now UX and research are situated within product. The benefit is that, rather than not being included until part of the development has begun, we now partner with product early on and make sure that we’re doing the right discovery activities and including customers throughout the entire process.

Although we’re tightly knit with the design team, we’re also close with the product management team.

“We now partner with product early on and make sure that we’re doing the right discovery activities and including customers throughout the entire process.”

What role does UX play in dealing with different teams and stakeholders?

Marie: We’re still at a point where we’re proactively seeking opportunities to make an impact, rather than waiting for people to come to us.

For example, for a user experience design project, we have certain checkpoints and validation points in the lifecycle of a project where we want to be able to do usability testing and UserZoom plays a big part in being able to incorporate validation into a project.

This is a way in which we’re able to have a very practical and very measurable impact in the organization. There are still some of the larger opportunities that we do need to continue to pursue those in the organization.

How have you managed to prove the value of UX and convince decision-makers?

Marie: Success for us is an ongoing mission rather than a destination. Due to the reorganization where we’re closely aligned with product, and research is its own standalone function, I can champion the success and the tools and the services that research can offer.

This means we have multiple groups coming to us for research rather than only having research opportunities from design. This means we have more opportunities to impact customer success, marketing, product development, and operations.

When those teams see the impact of our involvement, then that speaks for itself.

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Can you tell us a bit about the training and onboarding program that you’ve put together for your internal teams and how it’s been working for you?

Victoria: We had two main groups that we wanted to do training with, the design team and the product team.

We wanted to separate those groups because they’re pretty big, and to focus the training a little differently.

With the design team, we wanted to make sure we got into the nitty-gritty. We’re really teaching them how to use UserZoom and wanted them to see how they’d be able to leverage it in their projects.

With the product team, we wanted them to understand how they could use it, but it wasn’t as important for them to be able to execute on day one, for them to be familiar with the tool and the benefit it can provide their solution.

A big point that we tried to make was that, and we’ve made this joke a bunch, is that UserZoom is like our extra robot person, here to give them more bandwidth. So there might be some training and onboarding, but once they would get the hang of it, it would allow them to be able to do more research and do it faster.

“UserZoom is like our extra robot person, here to give them more bandwidth.”

For the design team training, we set up a doc that had instructions and it was pretty prescriptive. “Okay, go do this, then go do this.” We wanted to get them used to using the tool and had them set up a basic usability test.

If anybody got stuck, we were all on a call together, so everyone could see what mistakes people were making and try to fix them. We had them send the tests to each other so that they could see what things looked like on the other side. And then we did a little recap at the end.

For the second challenge we gave them more time and was much less prescriptive, and we gave them things to check off. For example, it had to have a screen or it had to have a welcome page. There should be a prototype, there should be an image, and there should be a follow-up question.

So, they had boilerplate items to include, but then they could use either a past project or project that was coming up so they could use real subject matter to create this test. This way they could get used to what it would actually be like in the future.

After, they sent it out to either other team members such as development or product teammates or internally within design. Part of the activity was to look at those results. We held a recap session where we looked at everything and gave everyone feedback.

From there we gave designers the opportunity to revise their tests and send them out again. So, that was the final cap on the UX design training. We wanted to be there with them until we feel like they have the hang of it.

How useful has it been to have a tool like UserZoom?

Marie: We were really excited to bring a tool like UserZoom in-house to get feedback from people that were using the site because we know that they are interacting with the product on a daily basis.

They’re relying on this solution to get their job done. That was a perspective that was often difficult for us to get prior to using UserZoom. The proof is the ability for us to get feedback really quickly.

Within a week of the requests coming in, we can have a study or a questionnaire on the site. Getting feedback from people that are using the tool is incredible.

We were not able to do that this time last year. We have two surveys on two user experience projects that are happening right now that were launched yesterday. One that was sent through email, through traditional means, and one that was using a website intercept through UserZoom. The UserZoom survey got more responses, quicker, and by a magnitude of four times.

“The UserZoom survey got more responses, quicker, and by a magnitude of four times.”

Are you ever extracting data to show them how you’re making data-driven decisions?

Marie: We’ve had UserZoom for five months, and three of those months were training focused rather than project-focused because that was the foundation that we needed to empower others to do work.

Research could not just be owned by the research team because we would never be able to satisfy all of the needs of the organization. It would fail. We wouldn’t have UserZoom like that. It wouldn’t be as impactful as having all products and UX being able to use the tool to execute on research.

So, one of the things that I was able to do with Victoria’s support and help, was provide a foundation and socialize the tool. UserZoom is a capability that we could have at a company-wide level.

“UserZoom is a capability that we could have at a company-wide level.”

What are your favorite things about working with UserZoom that you’ve seen both us as a solution and a partner?

Marie: So, one of the favorite things is we have biweekly cadence calls with a research partner and an account manager. And that’s been great because they’re proactively soliciting feedback. We’re able to get responses to questions quickly, and we can just talk through needs for training. Through that we felt that UserZoom is more of a partner rather than a vendor.

Victoria: One of my favorite things and why we chose UserZoom was because it’s so feature-rich and we’re able to access a lot of those different methodologies and get that quant data, which was a really important and new thing for our team.

I looked at a lot of different tools and nothing’s perfect, including you guys, but we definitely saw the most potential to expand the bandwidth of our team with this tool.

Looking at 2020 and UX, what trends are you seeing, if any?

Marie: COVID-19 changed the way that the world interacts completely. We need to be able to understand and respond to that change quickly. The ability to react and change quickly is going to make or break organizations.

Find out how Userzoom could help your team