The easy story about COVID and work is the abrupt move to remote work and the accompanying questions that arise:
When an office location loses importance, what happens to 9-5? (Anytime)
With reliable internet, when do we need to be physically together? (Anyplace)
With freelance work becoming more viable, do workers need to be bound to one employer? (Anywhere)
Side note: “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere” also happens to be an obscure release by The Monkees in their 1986 compilation album, but somehow I don’t think they were writing about the workplace or experimentation.
These key questions hit businesses hard in ‘21. They hit me hard personally as well. I had been working remotely for a year, I was looking for new work, and I wanted a more dynamic setting for UX Research than I thought I would find working for one specific company. My spouse faced similar uncertainty in her work future. We were staring at incredible privilege and a wide open opportunity that we had never quite seen before. We are also parents of two boys under five, and feel daily the soul-crushing challenge to introduce variety into a life that demands routines and stability.
As a design thinker, I sometimes at least somewhat practice what I preach. I knew there was a more measured approach to testing the waters than quitting all jobs and selling our house. We decided to run a small experiment across six weeks in December and January, where we moved from our suburban home in Longmont, CO to a rental in the heart of Portland, OR. I had just joined EchoUser, and was working here while I also wrapped up outside projects. It would mean working at odd hours to meet all the demands, but in a fun location, with a forced change of pace. We wanted to see if this anytime, anyplace, anywhere was for us.
You might explain the hypothesis for our trip as something like this:
If I temporarily live in a new setting and work for multiple employers, my life satisfaction will increase.
I sense this is an experiment many people are running variations on, or may like to in the coming years. So what did I conclude? Let’s look at three themes from the experiment which speak as much to research design as they do if I should spend my work life on the road.
Completing our six week experiment, I have a ton of data. Many feelings about day-to-day life. The best coffee shop within walking distance of our rental house. Good memories of creaky stairs and puddle-splashing with my kids. Yet, I don’t know if I really validated the hypothesis or not.
In hindsight, I think “Salts-Halcomb Portland Getaway 2021” suffered from the same symptoms of many rounds of product research.
Because the objectives weren’t well-defined at the beginning, the research design wasn’t optimal, and the data are wide and speak more to obscure questions than the vital ones.
Our experiment took place over the holiday season, and in an area of the country where we have friends and family. In reality, our experiment has much more to say about questions like “How does it feel to live near family without staying with them?” and “What is it like to juggle a lot of different new things during Christmas?” than it does about anytime, anywhere, anyplace. My satisfaction with the experience was high, but I think it’s clear that work wasn’t the most important factor to that satisfaction.
This is endemic to UX work. How many times have you begun a study that really taught you more about your workplace culture than it did your customers? Or, realized that your usability concerns couldn’t be addressed until you first cleared up issues around desirability and a deeper understanding of the user experience?
Sure, there is still a ton of learning (more on this later), but we don’t have a lot of time in life or research to learn something that isn’t the most important thing. I’m not sure when school schedules and projects will align to give us another opportunity at this. The only antidote I know to this problem is planning, asking vital questions up front about what we really want to learn. Had I really wanted to test the workplace questions above, at the least, my wife and I would have chosen a more normal time of year and a location with fewer people we were excited to see.
Still, I’m more research pragmatist than research purist, so I want to spend some time on the other side of the coin from Theme #1. While the learnings could have been more precise, I did encounter so much. Furthermore, few of those learnings would have come forward from a quiet Christmas at home in the same 9-5 I’d been working. I think as life researchers and product researchers alike, we’re always working within imperfect context, and the real skill is being able to extract the valuable data from the cluttered missteps and noise.
What I did well in this experiment was to encounter enough friction to produce meaningful results.
Some takeaway thoughts include:
In this new era of work, focus is everything. We should all know by now that humans are poor multitaskers, and some of these new ideas about work add layers of complexity. Anytime, anywhere, anyplace means we’re essentially merging work and life rather than trying to seperate the two. I don’t think the answer is writing emails at the dinner table. Rather, I think the biggest skill of the next decade is being able to quickly drop into context: there was prepping for a meeting in the couple hours between holiday gatherings, having laser focus for 30 minutes with client A even when the bulk of the day was spent on client B. There are also vital and known strategies to block similar work that I have begun to experiment with. (New Year’s Resolution 2022: Focus!)
My longing is for new creative routines more so than tectonic shifts in how I do work. The best elements of the work experiment included the walk-ability of our neighborhood. I would break up my day with a walk to the produce stand, an hour in the coffee shop, and a quick train track built to connect with my boys. Those were easier byproducts because of our experiment, but they didn’t need a new job or a new house. I am looking for a state of mind that is fluid and creative. While I’m curious how my work choices aid that, I’m glad to have that insight to implement anywhere.
My encouragement to all of us in UX work is to pursue routes that might spark significant insight. Slight shifts around the edges of a user experience are easier to get right but seldom transform a business. If the recipe is 3 parts good planning, and 1 part right methodology, there is also a good dash of chaos to bring learning. The chaos of this month will spark change in our lives.
As a last thought, I’m getting comfortable with the fact that many of my questions couldn’t be answered in six weeks. I have a lot to unwind before undertaking changes to my work life that have been established over almost 20 years.
I am committed to advancing independence, variety and freedom around my work life - and I chose EchoUser in part for its commitment to this culture. I’m convinced that sticking to my home office chair for 8 straight hours is the next thing that needs to go. But we have a lot of thinking to do before the upheaval to our family of a trip like this is worth the regular cost.
I notice the research parallels with every time I see UXers or product teams try to tie a nice bow on the learnings because of an external timeline. Yes, our contract ended, dev needed to ship, priorities changed. But we fool ourselves into thinking that means the learnings need to be complete, final, authoritative. I need to cultivate a mindset of “I learned X but it made me wonder Y”… for that is much more true to experience. I think it will actually help our products, which are always evolving. We act off the incomplete data, we take our best next step, and we start learning again.
I’ll have to report back later on the advancement of anytime, anyplace, anywhere. It has some legs. I’ll do it better next time. I have a whole set of new questions. Six weeks well spent.
Published on March 18, 2022