Today's guest for the Story Series is Sarah Wille - Staff UX Researcher at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Sarah has transitioned from academic research to UX Research and while the transition was hard, she was determined to dig in overcome her fears and learn how to survive and thrive.
In this interview, Sarah shares her learnings on early challenges when she had to overcome imposter syndrome, her tactics on how to be a better active listener and strategies for how to approach cross-functional collaboration to include cross-disciplinary teams in the entire UX research process.
Welcome Sarah! Tell us a bit about your story and how you got to where you are?
Thank you for inviting me!
I was a curious kid - always asking “what’s that?” and “why?” and so it came as no surprise to my family when I decided to study archaeology in graduate school. I was particularly interested in exploring relationships between people and pottery, and how pottery could help tell the stories of past peoples’ lives - especially people underrepresented in artwork and architecture. I felt compelled to help elevate their voices; to make sure they didn’t continue to be buried and forgotten.
While I adored making sense of what people left behind, I also found that in doing that work, I was far more drawn to understanding the experiences shared by my local digmates about life today in their small Belizean community - making sense of their contemporary stories.
That realization shifted my gaze from reconstructing the past to examining the present. I took a leap into the education space, first at a museum as a workshop facilitator, and then into a researcher role, studying K-12 STEM education. After several years, I found I was hungry to find a place where I could see my insights lead to actual experiences in schools. I couldn’t believe it when I came across a user experience researcher position at Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) on the education technology team to partner with teachers to create learning experiences and tools to meet the needs of students. I was sold.
How was your transition from Academic Research to UX Research?
Honestly, the transition for me was hard- real hard. Everyone around me seemed to effortlessly move about their work, while I felt like I was constantly in the sense-making stage of a research project. I carried so much doubt about whether transitioning into the new space was right, and whether I’d ever learn the right user researcher moves. Luckily, those feelings hyper-activated my perseverance - I was determined to dig in and learn how to survive and thrive.
It can be easy to underestimate the personal work that’s required to take your skills and knowledge and reimagine them for a new tech or product space with different norms, routines and needs - this was certainly the case for me! The same is true when growing and moving up the user experience researcher career ladder. There’s rarely a 1:1 application - that would be too easy! It’s about context awareness and embracing continuous learning.
What were some challenges you had to deal with? How did you overcome those?
Some key challenges I experienced, and the strategies I used include: (1) Communication styles (2) Project timelines (3) Transparency and (4) Meetings (so. many.)
(1) Communication styles: Embrace the new
My default communication mode from my time in academia is words, words, words! Learning how to distill research, and to communicate it more clearly has helped me more effectively communicate important takeaways and to inspire opportunity exploration. It’s still a struggle when my academic self shows up, but I have my strategies, like a sticky on my desk to remind me that it’s about providing my teammates with inspiration, not over information. I also look to my creative CZI-Education Design teammates for support.
(2) Project timelines: Ask questions + help prioritize
User researchers move fast! In my past role, projects were bigger, spread out over longer periods of time, and often collaborative across researchers. Regularly checking in with my scrum product managers about current and longer-term needs helps us stay in sync about priority work, while also allowing my researcher voice to influence the timelines we construct so that it’s feasible for me to deliver actionable learnings across projects.
(3) Transparency: Let go of perfection to get eyes early + often
I was unprepared to have so many eyes on my in-progress work, coming from a role where the norm was to not share drafts until they were fairly polished. In fact, the first peer review feedback I received from a product manager was that I was being protective of my work in progress - which led to a big a-ha moment about norms and routines in my new work space. Inviting my cross-functional colleagues into my process early has forced me to let go of the idea that I need to get things right the first time. It also communicates to my teammates that I value their perspectives and trust them to be honest yet kind in feedback.
(4) Meetings: Ruthlessly prioritize
Sure, I was used to meetings, but wow, I did not anticipate the quantity I would encounter as a user researcher. Seriously. Between recurring 1:1’s, various team meetings, and research alignment and share-out meetings - it can be difficult to find longer stretches of heads-down time for research work. Blocking out “work time -[activity here]” on my calendar each week helps me (1) signal to teammates how I intend to use those blocks of time, and (2) to mentally prepare myself for the pockets in the week when I’ll do deeper thinking and specifically, what I aim to do during that time. When I receive meeting requests for those blocks, I force myself to say “sorry, no” when needed.
What is your approach to navigating imposter syndrome - coming from a different field; working your way up the UXR career ladder?
Work in progress! I sat on my application for the CZI user researcher role for a month, having convinced myself I wasn’t good enough and would only end up disappointed. Once in the role, I had constant anxiety about being discovered for my newbie-ness to the product and user researcher world - even though pretty much everyone knew that was my situation. I knew I was well-versed in both education research and practice. I had experience with cross-functional teams (just not teams with product managers, designers and engineers). I had the capacity to do good, impactful work, yet my worry that I would let my new teammates down became a constant for me. Both times I moved up the career ladder at CZI, I carried the same gnarly feeling in my stomach that I’d disappoint my teammates in some way, not meeting the new expectations that come with increased seniority.
I recently finished Maria Hinjosa’s, Once I was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America and felt a sense of kinship with this incredible journalist while reading about her own inner struggle with the beast that is imposter syndrome. It’s real for a lot of people - even Maria Hinjosa! - and there are techniques to squash that voice in your head that questions you and your worth.
A few of my strategies include:
Hit pause and reflect and on what’s happening
I often stand up and walk away from my desk, when that sense of uncertainty starts to rise. This forces me to make the time to take a deep breath and step outside of myself to take a different, less-biased view of me, the researcher.
Acknowledge your uninvited passengers
In anxious moments, I look to my saboteurs to remind myself which of them is actually leading the self-sabotage, so I can say “nope” and swat the offender from my mind. I keep my assessment print-out next to my desk (friends close, and enemies closer, right?).
Be OK with imperfection
Good enough is often - well, good enough! Not every component of every project requires the same level of rigor or detail. My professional coach (note, if you ever have the opportunity to work with one, DO IT) recently reminded me that for many people, what appears as “good enough” to them is actually great in the eyes of others. I carry this with me when my self-doubt creeps in.
See your accomplishments clearly
It’s easy to focus on the flaws and improvement areas, and these can distract us from the wins. I’m learning to pause to recognize the glow others see in me; the formal and informal ways they acknowledge my contributions. It’s about truly listening to what others are saying, and taking it at face value. No doubts.
What are your strategies for how you approach cross-functional collaboration to bring others along throughout the entire UX research process?
My scrum team is all about inclusivity - in the ways we work, and in the educational experiences and tools we create together. We’re a tight unit, and I’m always super excited when any of them can join me at key moments in the research journey. It’s a gift when those with a different functional lens weigh in on research investigations.
Three really simple strategies that I’ve found helpful include:
Bi-weekly UXR show + tell
Since I genuinely want my teammates to join me in research work, I do bi-weekly scrum team mini-dives into projects, regardless of the stage of work, so that everyone has a sense for the many places where we can collaborate. (e.g., Want to see what it’s like to extract key insights from patterns? We are there! Join me!) This also provides a heads-up about future research activities, so that the team can determine how to make time for engagement in the coming days/weeks.
Open door for input on briefs, tools, and sense-making
I make a point of inviting teammates to offer ideas and feedback on all my research tools (e.g., surveys, interview guides, diary study templates). Once we’re in the learning stage, I invite all to join me in listening + learning from the communities we serve, and to contribute to post-session debriefs. When I craft share-outs, I always include formal spaces in my decks or reports for all teammates to push-back on interpretations, and to add their big wonderings and ideas. I’m so thankful to have so many wonderful brains on my scrum team.
As I’m wrapping phases of projects, I make a point of publicly celebrating teammates contributions to the work - in the reports, in our Slack channel, and in scrum and larger meetings. It’s so simple and it also lets my colleagues know I value what they bring to the table.
When people express strong feelings, it may be tempting to react quickly or passionately. How do you manage your emotions and continue to listen actively and find common ground for solving problems as a UX researcher?
User researchers are often strong in this area because it’s our job to listen and to guide stakeholders through why what we’ve learned matters. Ultimately, we want to help our teams make informed decisions around challenges/problems and needs, and to get there requires patience and a deeper understanding of what we see or hear on the surface.
Write it out
I’m a words person, so I always travel with sticky notes and pen to capture anything I hear that requires follow up or digging to get to the core of feelings. I do this in interview sessions, stakeholder meetings, scrum meetings - really any time different perspectives are around the table. Writing often helps me to mask my own initial reactions, forcing me to take a second look at what was shared before responding in the moment.
Focus on the goal
I also remind myself to hyperfocus on the end goal - choosing interactions and words that will ultimately get us closer to what we’re aiming for vs. what feels necessary in the moment to correct or reject or amplify but that doesn’t move us closer to our target.
How did you improve your ability to be a better listener?
People say this all the time, but so much of listening is about leading with authentic curiosity - whether during research or with those we interact with every day. I remind myself that when I’m non-judgmentally curious about how others experience the world around us and see opportunity to learn from them (when I truly listen), I open the window to deeper understanding and meaningful partnership.
As a former archaeologist, my observational skills are pretty legit. I watch and learn from formal leads and peers who I see as leaders. In product work, I explicitly look for what’s not in front of us to bring attention to experiences that are too easily overlooked. I see when there’s a need to translate, or bridge across functions to connect areas of expertise to benefit work. Operating in constant observation mode helps me find small opportunities to benefit my team and to continue to develop the leader in me.