An Interview with Marion Damiens, Senior UX Researcher at BlaBlaCar

Explore the future of Research in our new series of interviews, Researchers Spilling Tea, featuring minds from some of the world's leading companies.

How did you get into Research?

When I was a student, I used to work for a marketing research company, helping them with recruiting participants and taking notes during focus groups and individual interviews. I was very fascinated by the job of the researcher.

Once my study was done, I started as an intern and then as a permanent employee for another marketing research company. As we were only few employees, I had the chance to be involved very quickly on all different aspects of projects and starting to moderate my first one-to-one interviews and focus groups! This agency was working very closely with the subsidiary of the French retail network, SNCF, selling tickets and passes online, and I had the chance to run usability tests for them about a new sign-up flow on the app. This was the beginning of my romance with UX and user research.

Then I worked at Axance, the pioneer UX agency in France, as a UX researcher. I had the chance to learn and experiment most of UX research methodologies in several years, working for instance with Disneyland Paris, Google, PayPal and many more.

Finally I joined BlaBlaCar few months ago, with the willingness to work closer with product and design teams.

What does your role entail as Senior User Researcher? What are your key goals?

The first thing I worked on when I started at BlaBlacar was to build and manage a network of internal and external partners across our key markets (Russia, Brazil, Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Poland…) to deliver research on a wide range of products.

Our key goal here was to be able to run research, mostly usability tests, every 2 weeks limiting both efforts and costs, so that the product & experience team get insights on their work as soon as they need it.

On a daily basis, my role is to help product managers and designers identify appropriate research and design methodology that best align with project needs; and then to manage the research projects from the brief to the final analysis.

What’s the structure of your team like?

Our team is split into product management and User Experience, with the product management team organized around product lines and user experience team organized partially around product lines and partially around transversal expertise (Content & Research). Which means, I am working with all the product lines (Carpool – Insurance – Commuting – etc.) and their several topics, which makes my job even more rich and stimulating.

Right now, I’m the only UX researcher on the team, hence the need to work with external agencies to help me on several aspects I can’t do remotely. For example, the recruitment of local participants, facilities and set-up, local moderation etc.

What’s your process like for each new project?

Let’s use global usability tests as an example here. It starts with a brief coming in from the product line: where the product manager and UX designer work explain the context, the goals to achieve and the decision to be made following the research.

I then organize a kick-off to discuss the brief, target audience to interview, planning and involve all the project team on it to challenge.

Once we agree on the ‘What’ and the ‘Why’, we work on the ‘How’: I take care of briefing the external agency on the project, moderation, facilities & set-up aspect and so on, while the UX designer works on the screens and prototype. On D-day, I make sure that the whole team can follow the sessions live and remotely, we usually spend the whole day watching the tests together and debriefing with the agency as we go along. Finally, I deliver a recap of the project and the insights we got to help the team in making decisions.

How do you work with the design team?

I would say I am constantly working hand-in-hand with UX designers. Our design studio, as we call it at BlaBlaCar, is composed of UX designers, a content strategist and a UX researcher.

“I feel very lucky to work with a team who are so customer-centric; at the beginning, I thought I would have had to spend some time evangelizing the designers in the importance of doing UX research. Instead, I’ve found people who are constantly looking for user feedback and ask me to run user tests as soon as they start working on something new.”

For each user testing project, the PM and designers involved always follow sessions with me throughout the day; which means they come out with a clear idea on the insights at the end of the tests. We then debrief together in order to confront our vision and decide on how to move forward with the product.

How does research impact the product you’re building?

For me, there are two different ways research impacts the product:

How do you communicate insights to the rest of the business?

I could not agree more with this quote from Deliveroo’s Sophie Woods, “Bring the people to the research and if that can’t work, bring the research to the people.” Currently, we are trying to go in the second direction.

We love exhibiting our workflows at the design studio, so recently I created a giant board specifically for research projects. It includes information on the last project: what we tested, which product line, where we tested and what we learned. There’s also some information about the next project to come as a « save the date ». We place it in a strategic crossing in the open space, that leads to the kitchen.

Also, we decided to live broadcast the user tests in all the screens in the office so that everyone can follow the sessions and know we are testing some new flows or features.

What does ResearchOps mean to BlaBlaCar?

For now ResearchOps is half managed by myself, half managed externally at BlaBlaCar. Meaning we are helped by specialized agencies on operational steps and is absolutely necessary to the project achievement.

After many years working in UX agencies, I’ve learned there are many operational aspects that if not done properly, can have critical consequences. For example, bad recruitment of participants for user tests can result in poor insights or worse no insights at all. Or when technical set-up is uncertain during tests, it can be incredibly stressful and annoying for both moderator and observers.

Taking these problems into consideration, I’ve built a stronger working process for external agencies and become more comprehensive on some aspect. Now, when we meet some technical issues while watching sessions remotely, I know they are doing their best and are certainly just as panicked as we are annoyed.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve overcome working in User Research?

I would say that my current mission at BlaBlaCar is a pretty big challenge to take-up: how to scale user tests in 8 countries with only 1 researcher!

“Being the only researcher doesn’t mean I have to do everything by myself, but it means I need to be surrounded by trustful and reliable external contributors.”

When I started to benchmark which agencies could help us on each country, I asked a BlaBlaCar collaborator from each local team to visit one or two targeted agencies so that they could see their facilities, methods of carrying out usability tests and give me their feedback on them.

What is challenging for me right now is letting other people moderate sessions, it’s something I’ve been used to for several years! But as I am not a polyglot yet, I obviously can’t moderate tests in eight different languages. However, I can still keep a tight rein on the protocol and analysis and now I can admit it’s very pleasant to see sessions from the other side of the mirror!

Any advice on best practice when testing with users?

When testing with users, it’s very important to adapt your behavior as a moderator to each individual you meet. For instance, when in front of a very chatty and dynamic user, I used to canalize them by speaking more slowly than usual. Whereas, when I was in front of a shy or diffident user, I’d try my best to support them in being more dynamic.

Adaptation is also valid for your material. You usually follow your moderation guide for the first session to try your hand. But the later you get in the day, the less you follow it! It doesn’t mean you don’t go through your research objectives, just that you are able to pick-up on what the user says.

Keep in mind that you will never have two tests exactly the same.

Where do you go for inspiration or support in your field?

It’s nice to see that there is now a real UX research community in France! I had the opportunity to attend some very interesting talks on user research topics. These events are an opportunity to meet people working in the same field and exchange experiences and individual visions of the researcher role inside different companies. Recently I met an UX Researcher girl in a talk and we met a few times since to talk about different methodologies and tools.

There is a podcast I particularly like, la French Touch (it’s in French!) interviewing some influent people from french Product and Design community, that’s also very inspiring to hear their stories, their journey including both success and fail. Otherwise, Medium and Prototypr are also great tools and sources of inspiration.

Whats the best advice you’ve ever received? And the worst?

That researcher and designer should work hand by hand but not cannibalise each other.

As a User Researcher I represent the users’ voice, so in my analysis, it’s essential for me to be objective and relay things how they actually happened during the sessions. Even if we don’t have the results we expected for the product team. I’m not sure the UX Designer could have the same impartiality if he had to test his own design on users themselves..

In the same way, I might not be the best person to say how to improve the design of the product following what we saw during the sessions. The user may have suggestions but he’s not a designer. Same for me.

Anything you’re watching on Netflix right now?

Russian doll: Madcap and delightful to watch!

What do you see for the future of research?

I have a feeling that we’re getting away from the lab-based testing environment. At least, at BlaBlaCar, this is the direction we are trying to take for a very good reason: this classical methodology leads to a huge bias of only meeting people from big cities. Which is not fitting with our global target.

We know that a carpooler riding from Paris to Lyon won’t have the same expectations or needs as a carpooler riding from Brive-la-Gaillarde to Les Sables-d’Olonnes. To interview the second target, we recently run remote moderated testings and were very happy with the results and insights we got! We were able to see the participant’s face and browsing on the product, just as we do during in-person sessions, with a very easy-going set-up. We definitely want to generalize this way to do user tests!

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