My 3 new lenses from Advancing Research Conference 2020

Imagine visiting New York City for the first time and hanging out with hundreds of people who share your interests. Imagine watching real, in-person talks from several leaders of your field. Leaders that you’ve followed for years and learned from via podcasts, books, and more. Imagine the impact that this would have on the way you view your work.

Now imagine that all international travel stops and everyone has to stay at home. Instead of a big stage in New York with a big screen and an audience and spotlights, you have to view these talks at home.

The impact of the conference is going to be less.

I’m not complaining. I’m so grateful that myself and most of my loved ones have been safe from the effects of COVID-19 so far. I’m so grateful for the health care workers who save lives while risking theirs. For the scientists who are developing vaccines. For government officials who make impossible decisions. For everyone who is making huge sacrifices during this global pandemic.

I am so lucky that my only worry is that my fancy conference got moved online. And actually, thanks to the conference organizers’ quick pivot, the great speakers, and the virtual networking sessions, I still got a lot out of Advancing Research 2020.

Making the most of a virtual conference

To keep myself engaged, I took sketchnotes. They weren’t as great as the conference’s official sketchnotes. But I learn by writing and they were great reference for me after the conference. Have a look!

I also made sure to tune in for the social events at the end of both days of the conference. After day 1, there was a big group chat followed by a few smaller breakout rooms with groups of 3-4 people. I’m still in touch with two of the people that I chatted with during those breakout sessions. After day 2, we did a round of trivia based on the content of the conference. Thanks to my handy-dandy sketchnotes, I actually won. My prize was a full-year team license for Handrail, worth over $2,000!

Another perk of a virtual conference is that it allows you to stand up and stretch your legs whenever you like. Check out the low-tech sit-stand workstation I made!

Desk with chair on top of it and laptop on chair
My low-tech sit-stand workstation allowed me to stretch my legs without missing a talk

My 3 new lenses

Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what conferences give you. It’s not always immediately actionable. Often, it’s a broader perspective or different ways of seeing the world. The three new lenses that I’m going to view UX Research through are Research Ops, Systems Thinking, and Context.

1. Research Ops

Brigette Metzler spoke about scaling Research Ops. I’d heard of it before, but not the details. Brigette’s description of 5 pace layers and 8 pillars have stuck with me since the conference. I now understand that my research experience has been almost purely Evaluative, which is the fastest pace layer. If I want to scale my impact, I will have to move through the next four pace layers, in order.

Also, the 8 pillars of user research are a great way to understand all the behind-the-scenes work that enables research. When I was working on synthesizing my conference experience into this blog post, I took a shot at sorting all 20 presentations by which of the 8 pillars they touched on.

Hand-written table showing the 8 pillars of user research and the 20 presentations
My rough analysis of the talks in Advancing Research 2020 vs. the 8 pillars of user research.

Research Ops is behind-the-scenes. It is separate from the actual execution of the research and synthesis of findings. About 90% of the conference presentations touched on at least one of the 8 pillars. In other words, only 10% of them were purely tactical. You can’t do good research without also doing all the leg-work that enables that research.

2. Systems Thinking

Sarah Flamion from Salesforce introduced me to the concept of Systems Thinking. Her theory is that systems thinking can clarify research of complex systems. It defines abstract results by breaking them down into sub-systems, inputs, and outputs. Something about this idea jumped out at me, so I’ve taken Sarah’s advice and added the following book to my reading list: Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows.

3. Context

Leisa Reichelt of Atlassian had the very first talk of the conference. In it she, named “The Silo Dysfunction” as one of the 5 dysfunctions of democratized research at scale. She used the following quote to elaborate.

Always design (and research) a thing by considering the next level of context. A room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city…


This quote spoke to me because I had recently redesigned a complex process. I was not confident at all that our users would understand it. So we tested it. And it did great. We realized that there’s a whole world outside of our software, where our users are supported and educated by their employers. It’s so easy to be stuck in the silo of your product. Research can help break down these silos by revealing more context.

Other presentations reinforced this point as well. Alba Villamil gave many examples where lack of context led to failed research. For example, a well-meaning NGO noticed that women in a developing country were walking long distances to get water from the nearest well. This NGO then built a well right in the village. The women didn’t use the new well because the long walk to get water was an important social activity for them. What if someone had actually talked to these women? Taken time to understand their context? Would this failure have been avoided?

The final theme of the conference was called “Managing Up”. Several talks from this theme encouraged researchers to learn more about the business context that they’re working in, including understanding business strategy and researching executive stakeholders.

Thanks to this conference, I’ll always remember to zoom out a little to broaden my context when discovering or solving problems.


Thanks, Rosenfeld Media, for allowing the conference to still be impactful for me despite being fully virtual.

And if you made it this far, thank you for reading!

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