Josh Morales, Staff UX Researcher at Miro, describes the steps for creating and implementing a research playbook and how to use it to build a continuous research practice within the organization.
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Ash Oliver: Welcome to The Optimal Path, a podcast about product decision-making brought to you by Maze. I'm your host, Ash Oliver, UX Designer & Design Advocate. Great products are the result of great decisions, decisions that deliver value for customers and the organization. In this podcast, you'll hear from designers, product managers, and researchers about the ideas informing decision-making across all aspects of product development.
Today I'm joined by Joshua Morales. Josh defines himself as an active yet reflexive person. He spends most of his time satisfying his curiosity by traveling, writing, and above all, reading. That's why he felt naturally drawn to the field of research, a field where learning by discovery is a crucial part. His experience spans well-known product companies, such as HP, N26, Hotjar, and now Miro. Josh, I'm so stoked to connect with you. Thanks very much for being here.
Joshua Morales: Yeah, thanks for having me, Ash. It's a pleasure.
Ash Oliver: Our topic is around research playbooks and we're going to walk through one that you've created and used across teams that you've been a part of. So I thought that we could start from a basic setup around what playbooks are and maybe the inflection point for creating them. So maybe if you can give an overview of what you think they are and when you've seen them best initiated.
Joshua Morales: 'Playbook' is a word that's been used very recently, actually, as far as I know in the research field. Before that, all I knew and called was documentation for doing research up to certain standards. I agree with this new kind of categorization of calling this playbook because it's actually something that you have to play with in your day-to-day. I remember having a teacher that back then told me that if you show up to an exam with your notes that are brand new as the day you were taking the notes, this means that you probably will fail the exam and that's because you have not been using it or playing with it enough.
So I really like this idea of a playbook because you get to put your hands on it and take your own interpretation. Maybe underline the parts that are more useful for you, and also change the ones that don't really work. And as someone who creates a playbook, that's something that you need to consider when you're doing it. You're actually thinking about a playbook with your best intention and all the knowledge you have at that point of what you think is going to be useful, but most likely, it's going to evolve. And these evolutions are going to happen as any product by gathering feedback on what's missing or what can be optimized better. Ultimately, the objective of any playbook is to reach as many people as possible with good practices of research in a way that it's easy to understand, standardized, and ultimately in a way that doesn't feel like reading a manual. It's also this aspect of being playful.
Ash Oliver: I love that interpretation. I almost visualized the tattered and worn and adopted premise of a playbook that it's not just a manual to put on the shelf but something that you actually have as a companion. So let's get into your playbook. It's probably a great place to open with your overarching metaphor, the research clef, as I believe you refer to it. And since this playbook specifically addresses how we move from sporadic research or what you refer to as jam sessions to a continuous orchestral level research practice, I thought maybe you could walk through this part of the metaphor and what these stages represent.
Joshua Morales: Yeah. So this metaphor was born out of trying to make sense of what I was trying to do because it's a daunting task to create a whole playbook from scratch. So you need a clear objective, and an objective should actually be to make research as continuous as possible. When we talk about the democratization of research, which is another way of looking at how playbooks can be useful, what we're saying is that it's not just a researcher who can run research. Nowadays, we're lucky enough to have highly skilled individuals specialized in running their own research in many, many organizations, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we are the only ones who need to run that research. Everyone needs to run research. That's how I think about it. And that should be the objective. And in a word, that's making research continuous or become continuous.
So to get there, I was thinking, where are we at now? And normally what happens is it's like a jam session. This kind of metaphor came to my mind. It's like we assemble informally, sporadically, in a way that doesn't necessarily have to follow any rule or process. And then we cross our fingers. Some moments will be better than others. We might have stellar moments that we will remember forever and will be very difficult to replicate, and others that will be a complete mess. And then I was thinking, from there where you want to go is to more of knowing actually where the next concert is happening, having better equipment, maybe, knowing that when the drums start you need to follow that kind of processes or sequences. And that's the moment in which I think you as a researcher can invest in processes and tools, which is the core of any playbook. And that's what I call the band level or the band stage.
In many organizations, I think it stops there. It's like, okay, we have documented our processes, we have chosen our tools, and we have our band playing this research. But why not take a step further and say, okay, let's acknowledge that there are more roles that can benefit from this? And we can have specialized research that maybe is more complex to execute that it's run by the research team, but we can have other sorts of research. And we can have tools that, again, are used by the research team but also can be beneficial to others. It's this idea of having different kinds of instruments playing at the same time or not, coming from different parts, with a director. So this metaphor of orchestral level research also implies that there is more organization in the team, where there is a clear leader to follow in a way, and then special kinds of parts that are playing their own music. And hopefully, it's harmonic enough to make it a full-blown concert.
Now, the last thing I want to say about this metaphor is I have no idea about music, really. I don't even know how I came up with this, but it really stuck to me when I started thinking about it, and I think that it really conveys the message.
Ash Oliver: Yeah, definitely. I think it's very clear but also symbolizes this maturity curve and the step functions involved. So you can really reflect to see, are we more in this decentralized, more impromptu type of independent or sporadic informal research, or are we more towards the combination of that strategic and tactical research, as you've described at more of the orchestra level? So since the challenge is not so much around convincing companies that they should do the research, although I'm sure there are still teams that need to advocate and evangelize for this, there's more challenge today for teams around conducting research more often. So your playbook really serves this angle, and I thought maybe we could dive into each one of the steps of how we can actually achieve this continuous orchestra-like research.
Joshua Morales: Yeah. In the beginning, it's overwhelming. As you pointed out, I don't want to think that we are in a stage of maturity overall in our discipline in which we need to spend time evangelizing the value of research. I think that's an effort that we've been doing for a long time. But definitely, if your organization or culture is not user-centered, you probably need to spend time on that before. If that's not the case, the first thing to understand is—when people talk about research, assuming that they run their own research, what do they mean? What tools are they using? What is working? What is not? What kind of users are they reaching out to? Something very basic to think about is that the people you will be building the playbook for are your users. And that's how you treat the playbook. It's a product, and you're trying to build it for them.
So it's a very good idea, I think, to start by listening to them. The way I did it is I created a journey map with the five main steps of every research, which are planning, recruiting. And then what I call interacting, which is a word that, in my opinion, embraces all sorts of interaction with users, from interviews to surveys, to any other method. And then, from there, it moves to the analysis, documenting, and sharing. So I was trying to take a snapshot of what each of these steps looks like for people who run their own research. And then from there, identifying what needs to be done and trying to be very granular in saying "these are the tasks that needs to be completed."
So you have to look for opportunities that open more doors for you to continue building on top of them and also opportunities that are small enough to have an impact but not a daunting task in which you might spend a long time and the value of what you're doing is not very clear from the very beginning. Once you've done some of those, I guess, it's a good moment to start tackling bigger initiatives.
Ash Oliver: So the first plan is really to listen and observe, kind of taking more of an inventory analysis across maybe the organization, people involved, stakeholders. And in this listening and observation, maybe understanding some of the practices that are in place today and the things or opportunities that need to improve, what else are you looking for? Are there maybe particular things that you're trying to uncover?
Joshua Morales: You might have your own hypothesis. You might have heard, who do I need to talk to for certain parts of the process or for certain types of research? And you start forming yourself an idea. But I think what is important is also to go with an open mind and not try to fit your concepts of what you think research is into what they are doing. A good example would be if someone is telling you that they run focus groups very often with users, but in your opinion, focus groups are not a very effective way of collecting evidence from users. It's okay. You don't have to discard them because what you believe is research is not what they're doing. That's another signal of how they perceive it and how they're executing it. And maybe even for something that you don't believe is as valuable as, for example, other types of methods, they might be using tools or processes that you can leverage. Because actually, to recruit for focus groups, maybe you will be using the same kind of tool or process that you will use for recruiting individuals for interviews.
So that's an important aspect of it and also, get to know the people. And if you start seeing that some of them are keen to help or very excited about the idea of having a researcher in the team and running their own research themselves, and they are strongly opinionated and whatnot, make sure to recruit them in a way to be your research heroes. So those people that you know you can bounce ideas with, that maybe they will always, or sometimes, help you in specific parts or guide you, or at least connect you with the right people. And you can rely on them, especially if you're a team of one. In the beginning, it can feel like you don't really know if what you're proposing is the right thing. Sometimes you have existential crises like, am I going bananas? Does it make sense? And those people really help in these very early stages.
Ash Oliver: I love that this is really the first part of the process of creating a playbook. And I think there's two things to underscore in what you've mentioned. And one is, it sounds like making the playbook be more of a bespoke to the organization. So uncovering what's already working well, or what things can you already leverage? I think that'll also help in that adoption because it's taken into consideration what's already embedded across the team. But then the other element that you've kind of touched on here is those relationship cultivating. So through these stakeholder interviews, it seems that you're also ensuring that there's open channels to implement the playbook and kind of have that relationship from the person who might be receiving the playbook to the person who's creating the playbook. So then it moves into prioritization, if I'm not mistaken, right? So maybe this is a good point to ask, how does Miro do this specifically?
Joshua Morales: I think that in Miro, as in any other organization, when you start collecting what needs to be included in a research playbook, the list is huge and it's probably never-ending. And that's a good thing. That means that it's evolving. I think something that really helped me and everyone in understanding what I'm doing is creating some sort of board or document where you are capturing what needs to be done at each of the stages. So if we remember these five steps, plan, recruit, interact, analyze, and document and share—and document and share for me is one together—what really helps for me is being able to add different cards or actions that need to be taken for each of those, and then start sizing them in a way and saying, okay, there are things that might be just a few lines in a document while others are a whole quarter initiative.
So there is clearly a need for prioritizing, and the best way to prioritize those is by saying, let's use some sort of framework. It doesn't have to be anything very complex, but something that allows you to understand what's the effort and the value that this can bring to the playbook in the short term. Let's also see what people have said about what their needs are. And not necessarily as taking their requests. Whatever I hear from people, it's a signal for me that something is there. So if they tell me that we need a research repository, I hear something like, we are not very good at organizing findings and coming back to them. That's actually the sort of task that I would add to this document.
And then, from there, you can share it with your manager. You can share it with your colleagues and say, hey, I'm thinking about tackling this or that. What do you think? And then you share your ideas. And from there, you take it easy because, after all, the most likely is that you are not being hired for a research ops position because, probably within the whole research range of roles, that's the newest. So most likely, what will happen is that you will need to create this playbook on top of your other responsibilities. And then you have to be realistic and say, maybe I can block 20% of my time a week and start working on this.
And then don't shy away from including those initiatives as part of what you're working on. Because people shy away and might think that, well, I shouldn't include this as part of what I'm working on because it's not real research or actual research. Literally speaking, it's true, but it's very unfair to think that that's not research because it's research in potential. You're creating a piece of content that will enable a lot of people to run their own research in the future. It's like a seed you're planting in there. And I think it's important to make visible the work that you're tackling in this specific moment with this document. We should be proud that we're doing this and not the other way around.
Ash Oliver: Yeah. I love the aspect of sharing that because it is drawing visibility to the research enablement that is being set up. And yeah, I mean, that's going to pay dividends when you think about the investment because for every time that document or playbook is initiated, there's X amount of upside for all of the research that enables that team to capture. So moving on then to the next stage, obviously, when I think Miro, I think collaboration. And research is obviously, and I believe that you believe this as well, very much a team effort. How do you facilitate this collaboration aspect in the pursuit of creating the playbook?
Joshua Morales: You mentioned that research is a team effort and that's probably this most famous sentence a researcher ever said, right? So we better live by it and try to put it into practice ourselves. How to get it started, you might have realized that it was always talking about an individual. Yourself trying to assess this situation. Yourself trying to come up with ideas and whatnot. And also tackling those initiatives that are easier in a way or more simple and bringing people along as soon as possible. When you're at that stage and you've maybe completed a few tasks and people start seeing the value of what you're working on and whatnot, you will like to tackle more complex initiatives. For example, implementing a research repository, whether you're adopting a tool or you're building it from scratch.
So in that moment, I think it's a good point to think, who can help me with this? Who can help me with the technical part of the implementation? Who can help me with the taxonomy part? So this idea of creating research heroes, I like to call them, a group of people who are not just users of the playbook but who likes to contribute in a way, presenting your playbook as something that you have started but that doesn't belong to you only. It's something that everyone needs to take care of in a way. And those heroes are the ones that more actively will participate in that. A good analogy when I think about it is how Wikipedia works. You can go to Wikipedia and consume the information, but you can also contribute to, correct, review, or there are many functions that you can do at Wikipedia. So those will be the heroes of Wikipedia in this analogy of research. So you want to be involving those people for those initiatives, having meetings with them, syncs, trying out stuff together, bouncing ideas, again, making them part of the project.
Ash Oliver: So it sounds like really in this collaboration phase, you're identifying those heroes and encouraging their ownership and contributions towards that. So I assume that there's a lot of looking at the differences across potential teams and maybe where some natural strengths or deficiencies lie. Do you have any particular examples of maybe how you've facilitated this before at Miro or any of your previous organizations?
Joshua Morales: Yeah. What I did, for example—coming back to probably the most complex project, which is adopting a research repository— is in our research channel saying, hey, we are about to do this. Who is down? And then, you already have some names in your head that you know they're going to raise their hand, but you also are going to get some surprises of people you never expected maybe to be that involved in research, or you might wonder how is this person going to help? Not because of course they can't, but because you don't really know how the person is interested. And that's a good segue of what you can do next: ask people how do they want to contribute?
You want to understand, how do you want to participate? How do you want to collaborate on this? And I don't think you have to be prescriptive in this. If someone wants to take on a whole task, it's fine. If someone wants to just review what you're working on, that's also fine. And make it collaborative means also constantly involving other people. And that's the fun part of it, working together. And in the difficult moments, you can rely on them. In the good moments, you can celebrate together. And especially if you're a research team of one, that's very, very important also, as I was saying in the very beginning, to feel that what you're bringing to the table has value for some of the people as well.
Ash Oliver: Amazing. I love how in each one of these steps, there's a deliberate intention of reinforcing those relationships. Obviously, a big benefit here is distributing the weight of the work, as you've said. But also just bringing in people across the adoption process, I feel like they're much more likely to not just contribute but be motivated for its success and use and therefore evangelizing. So this hero concept through the collaboration step really resonates. As far as the next step for communication, what are some of the best practices in the communication element? Because now, at this part of the playbook, you've tackled some of the work at this point. So now it comes to unveiling or revealing, so to speak, or maybe the packaging element of all of this work. So talk to me a little bit about this communication step and what things you should take into consideration.
Joshua Morales: The way I think about communicating is the same as if I ask you if you've written a book and no one has ever read it, have you actually written a book? You might answer yes because the objective of the book was to write it to yourself. That's all right. But in our case, if you create a report, it might be the best report ever with insightful findings, game-changing ideas. But if no one ever bothers to read it, it's like as if nothing has happened. So it's a pity that after all the effort, no one gets to benefit from it.
And that's why I like to think about a difference in communication, which is active versus passive communication. With active communication, you have to do something to consume that information. A book, for example. If you put a book in front of you, nothing will happen. You won't get that information. Passive communication is more like this idea of a TV or a screen. You just need to look at it and it's already happening. And most of the time, when we document research findings or our own playbook, we by default take the active route. So we put all the effort of consuming that information to the user or to the person who's going to consume the playbook. And even if we start taking this very formal approach to writing, it can get even boring.
So what I think is important is to think of what other strategies are for not just creating awareness that something that you have created, a new process, or a new tool implementation exists, but it's also thinking, okay, how can I make this a continuous thing? Can I create tutorials? Can I create training? Can I create videos that people can interact with at specific moments? So that's where actually the difference between documentation and a playbook happens. It's where all these elements start to pop up for different kinds of minds that learn differently or have different needs at different times. Because sometimes you want to go through a process and you're like, ah, there is a checklist here. I will take these 10 steps.
But some other times, you're like, I just need someone to explain this to me. And I don't really need to know the steps, but I need to have more of an overall understanding of what's going on here. So maybe in that case, a video of you going through the steps is way more useful for that person or just a paragraph of text. And also more people, if you're successful, will want to run their own research, which means that if you only do one-time events, those people will miss out, they will never know that that exists. So you need to constantly bear in mind that every change that you've done or improvement that you've done should be communicated.
Ash Oliver: I love that. So it sounds like there's a close relationship between the communication part and then the training part. You described the communication really being that continuous drip. What are the channels? What are the methods? How is this being surfaced? I think coming back to the point that you made at the beginning, which is treating the playbook like a product, it kind of conjures the change log or the diary that would be updated with a process chain. But then the difference between how you communicate something like that versus how you communicate the actual training elements, how do we ensure that the material is going to be retained, that it's engaging, that you obviously exchange that knowledge, but then also encourage that desire or motivation for more. The next part of the process is really that specialization part.
Joshua Morales: Yeah. I think in case you wonder like, how do I know I'm doing good, this is a good moment to assess if the work you've been doing is good. You will see an increase in research studies. And an increase in research studies not only means more people running research, it also means more answers to questions. And more answers to questions means for each answer, you'll have many more questions because you are turning unknown unknowns into known unknowns and you are uncovering more unknown unknowns, and you will start having better questions that are more complex.
At the same time, the playbook at this stage might be a good version one. You might have all the pieces in there. Of course, as I was saying, you will always have some tasks to do to keep it evolving. But if those two things, like a lot of people are running their own research and you have to dedicate a little bit less time to ops because the main bulk of the process and tools are in place happens, this is where I think you're in the sweet spot to start thinking, okay, now we have actual time to say, why don't we keep running this more tactical research by people who do research and the more strategic research to fully-dedicated researchers?
So yeah, that's what I call specialize. And it's a way of exploiting the system at the end, which in my opinion is, let's train ourselves as researchers and see how good this is for more complex research. Then you will be in a very good position because, of course, your company is going to be running a lot of research, but at some point, you'll have a big bank of more deep questions that are begging to be answered. It might be a good moment to start exploiting the system or specializing more. If you see yourself starting collecting research opportunities in a document and the list goes on and on and on, and you cannot tick off any of those questions, this is a good moment probably to start thinking about growing the team.
Ash Oliver: Yeah. I love that the playbook in this pursuit to maturing the organization more towards that orchestra level metaphor as you've described, it sounds like the benchmark there is around the volume of research that's being able to be done and especially beyond just the confines of the specialized researchers in the team, but then also the velocity of that. So it sounds like that's a good point of reflection. So my last question for you then before we get to our hat-trick questions, where we ask some more personal questions for you, is just if you've had any big observations in terms of going through this process and creating a playbook and then, of course, implementing and evolving it across the various teams that you've been part of? Has there been any notable cultural shifts beyond a positive shift in the volume and velocity of research being done as we've described.
Joshua Morales: Something that caught my attention is that it might seem that we researchers are very aligned on this idea of democratizing research, but it's not necessarily the case. I've had discussions with researchers that don't really believe that enabling others to run their own research will help the organization because the quality of the research that they will conduct will not always be as good as a researcher can do, which it's fair. We have more experience. We are more specialized in running research. So it makes all the sense.
But let's think about what research is. Who can think of a designer that doesn't talk to users to design the solution that they have in mind? Who can think of a PM or head of product that creates a strategy without the diagnosis of what's going on? And this 'what's going on' isn't that research? Who can think of marketing without understanding what the market looks like, which is talking to users? So my point here is, even though research might seem a very peripheral role, it's actually central to many of the tasks that need to be done in any organization because, at the end of the day, any organization that doesn't understand their users and engage with them to do so, it's going to die. It's as simple as that. And there are many examples out there of companies that have gone through that. And there is also good examples of companies who have adapted and the only way is by understanding users.
So in my opinion, by enabling others to run their own research in whatever shape or form it might take, even assuming that maybe, and just maybe to be fair, it's not as high quality or as rigorous as a researcher might run it themselves... It's better than nothing to have these people talking to users and keeping the focus on what's important rather than relying only on what a group of researchers can do for them. Because then the organization structure will sway into a research as agency model in which you have a bunch of people who run the research, and you have requests, and then you deliver and not necessarily are connected with what's going on.
So the same that we researchers don't only run research and do ops, but also are involved in conversations about what decisions to take, what solutions we might have in mind, we can also suggest where we think the product should go, understand business, and deal with data as well. It's the same for the rest of roles that are in product at least. They also need to talk to users and it's in my opinion, our responsibility to make that happen easier.
Ash Oliver: Amazing. This has been so helpful just to get your arms around the actual endeavor of creating a playbook. We'll transition here to our three hat-trick questions. And the first one I have for you is, what's one thing you've done in your career that's helped you succeed that you think few other people do?
Joshua Morales: Giving my opinion when I think I have a point, even though I'm not feeling comfortable in that field. So if I have an idea that might belong to marketing, I would go ahead and express my opinion. If I have an idea that can affect the decisions in product, I will go ahead and share that idea. Again, this ties very well with the concept that we have different job titles, but we're all building the same product. Very often this limit in roles are very blurry. So if you have an idea, don't shy away, just say it, share it. Maybe you're wrong and the worst thing that can happen is that they will correct you and you will be learning that you are wrong. But if you're right, you'll be helping the team. And bringing a different perspective to the table is most often what unblocks crucial decisions.
Ash Oliver: Huge, huge advice. Yeah, that's excellent. My next one, and this is a favorite obviously between two readaholics. I mean you have an entire Instagram account dedicated to your books in progress, which I hugely appreciate. What is the industry-related book that you've given or recommended the most and why would you say so?
Joshua Morales: I'm going to go for one then. If I'm wrong, Erika Hall recommends it in Just Enough Research. One of the books she recommends is Behave by Robert Sapolsky. It's probably the most complete and amazing and interesting book I've ever read about life. When I say life, I mean in its natural form, about biology. It goes from a very micro level in trying to explain how neurons interact to a more micro level on how societies have helped on that formation and everything in the middle. And it's a fantastic book for anyone who is dealing with humans, which hopefully is most of us. It's great to have this more natural foundation in our understanding of who we are. I'm also a big fan of reading about natural sciences. Yeah, I think that's a good one. It's pretty thick though, so don't think about taking that for holidays.
Ash Oliver: Yeah. Yeah, totally. It's going to be a different kind of read. I love it. Okay. My last question for you is, what is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
Joshua Morales: Yeah. I have many quirks, but the first one that came to my mind as we were talking about books is that when I finish a book, I kiss it. I kiss its cover. And it's my way of, I guess, you knoe, I feel so much in debt most of the time with how much I've learned by just spending 10 bucks or 50 bucks or whatever that costs, but it's my way of saying thank you to that book, to something that might have changed your whole perception of how you understood something. So that's very insufficient, very cheesy, but that's definitely something I do.
Ash Oliver: I can't get over the kiss of each book. That's just so strongly resonant with me. I absolutely adore that. This has been so fun. Thank you so much, Josh, for being on the episode and going through everything with the playbook. It's been great.
Joshua Morales: Yeah, this was super fun. And happy research to everyone.
Ash Oliver: The Optimal Path is hosted by Ash Oliver and brought to you by Maze, a product research platform designed for product teams. If you enjoyed this episode, you can find resources linked in the show notes. If you want to hear more, you can subscribe to The Optimal Path by visiting maze.co/podcast. Thanks for listening. And until next time.