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Advancing Research 2020: ADP’s Jesse Zolna presents our approach to User Experience Research

Wireframe sketches and pencils lined in rows on a table.

At the beginning of March, an event rapidly approached that I’d been looking forward to for more than six months.

As far as I’m aware, Advancing Research 2020 is the first international user experience research-focused conference of its kind. As a bonus, it was scheduled to take place in my hometown of New York City. I hoped to meet and learn from an impressive list of people in my industry—something I’d wished for over a decade.

In September, I submitted a proposal to speak at the conference. I was ecstatic when I got word that my proposal was accepted to present alongside an exciting lineup of researchers from Microsoft, Salesforce, Atlassian, Workday, Oracle, Spotify, Capital One, and Shopify, to name some.

At ADP, we’ve been doing some pretty innovative and in-depth client research that includes everyone on the product development team. It’s been fun, impactful, and something I enjoy sharing with peers whenever I get the chance. I couldn’t wait for the event to happen.

Presenting at a Virtual Conference in the time of social distancing

laptop screen showing multiple faces on a virtual conference call

You may have guessed that things didn’t go as planned. The conference moved to a virtual, live-streamed event. For the two weeks leading up to the event, everyone scrambled to prepare for a new way “to conference.” As a speaker, I had to create a pseudo-home studio with decent equipment and to adjust my talk for a virtual setting.

Tips to prepare for presenting at a Virtual Conference (Avoid my mistakes)

Get the connection right and order equipment early. Internet stability was our #1 concern, which meant I needed to hardwire into my router. For me, that meant setting up a temporary desk in my basement. Luckily, I had ordered an ethernet cable on Amazon in March, before they deprioritized non-essential items. My luck ran out on the mic. Their definition of non-essential obviously didn’t match mine!

Of course, the cable arrived, and I realized my new Macbook Air has no ethernet jack! My 5-year-old daughter saved the day. The 8-year-old Mac Powerbook I had revived for her home-schooling had an ethernet jack. Sadly, she didn’t appreciate her temporary upgrade as she should have when we swapped Macs for the day. Lesson: Check your ports before you do a 1-click buy.

Lights, camera…where did I put my sunglasses? Lighting, that was fun. Ha! Not really. I had to downgrade the built-in camera in exchange for internet stability. That meant supplementing with a gooseneck reading lamp, plus a work light from my tool shed, both shining directly into my eyes. The good news? It worked, but it had me wishing for a pair of shades and a bass guitar.

Check, check, can you see my screen? Practice. We did a tech check with the conference organizers on Friday night, a solo dress rehearsal Saturday night, and a final Monday 8 am tech check. I was scheduled last in my group, so I waited “backstage” until about ten when it was my turn to present. I survived with only one technical glitch. Apparently, I’d left my mouse cursor in the center of the screen—oh well, next time.

The organizers did a great job of creating Zoom break out rooms for pre-session coffee hangouts and sponsored presentation meetings during breaks. I’m not going to lie; I missed the networking aspect.

So what did I present? At ADP, I Iead a group of User Experience Researchers who work across product silos to help all our teams understand user behaviors and needs. In our role, we work with a wide variety of partners, some of whom have extensive experience working with UX Research and some who do not. Since 2013, I have helped transform ADP into a truly user-centered technology organization.

colorful Post-it Notes pinned to a wall

My presentation focused on the theme of Scaling Our Impact. Since joining the Chelsea Innovation Lab in 2014, ADP’s appetite for customer insights has grown immensely. As a leader in User Experience Research, I have experience with many efforts to meet these growing needs. Many of the conference attendees are in a similar situation to where we were six years ago and attended this conference to learn how they, too, could be successful.

In my talk, I touched on what our program has done to help ADP think more strategically about research, and how we have used this program to break down silos across the organization. But the primary goal of my discussion was to explain how we leveraged this program to harness a growing internal excitement for research. I assumed attendees had the same excitement we did with a need to grow this within their own companies.

In 2016, we began to experiment with a program we now call “Come See For Yourself.” In this program, we partner the entire ADP product team, not just the researchers, with clients in the field so that we can see for ourselves how clients work, use our software, etc. Our philosophy to include “non-researchers” is to help them better understand our clients and to upskill them in little ways that train them to gather relevant client data.

The reason? An army of researchers could never meet the demand.
Our solution? Teach everyone to be a researcher.
The impact? Amazing. Better products that anticipate the needs of clients in an elegant and meaningful way.

We are extremely lucky that ADP has a highly engaged client base that is excited to share their business models, and how they use our software in the context of work. It’s pretty intense.

If you have participated in a program like this, you know what I mean. If you haven’t and think you might be interested in exploring new opportunities, check out our openings in UX Research on, or reach out to me on LinkedIn for a chat.

As for the virtual conference, my preference is still to “conference” in a meeting space, but given the situation, that may not happen anytime soon.

Jesse Zolna, Ph.D., leads a cross-functional research team at ADP reporting into our CTO.

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