How to pivot into User Research with Benjamin Gadbaw at Figma

Benjamin Gadbaw
Researcher at Figma
Graphic Design to UX Research

Benjamin started his career as a graphic designer and marketer for both private sector and non-profit clients. After earning an MFA in interaction design, he realized that his real passion was creating smooth user experiences, which motivated his pivot into UX research. His creative mindset and quantitative research skills have helped him lead research efforts at companies like WeWork, Amazon, and most recently Figma.

How have your transferable skills helped you as a UX Researcher? 

It's a blessing to learn other disciplines, but you have to be careful. I went to Flatiron School and did their 12 week web development boot camp. I learned about databases and how to build web apps. I thought this would help me gain empathy for the developers, but I actually came out of that a little bit more of a jerk. Any engineer developer I talk to now, they'd be like, he knows enough to be dangerous and annoying. 

Still, it's good to study these other fields. It's useful to have the language that designers and developers speak and know the constraints that they're under.

As a researcher, you might see an opportunity in the field and ask the design or product team to do it. From your perspective, it’s easy. But from a designer’s perspective, designing a new feature could be a huge lift. It could break the cohesion of the entire experience. The most important thing is being humble and curious about other disciplines and listening to your colleagues about the constraints they're under. That got me farther than anything. 

How did you address your skills gaps?

When I started working at Amazon Web Services, we were preparing for a new product launch called Honey Code, a low code application builder. Generally a bigger company will go through beta testing—that’s a phase where you test with a private group of external customers. This test helps us evaluate if we are ready to launch. We ask questions like, what are the brand risks? What are the user experience issues? Do we stand out from what's already in the market? I had launched products at IDEO before, but I hadn't done it with this kind of rigor. 

Fortunately, there's a huge research community at Amazon. I got a lot from Amazon’s internal videos. It's basically an internal YouTube. I found this presentation by the researcher that helped launch Alexa, who’s been working at Amazon for eight years. So I emailed him, and he gave me great advice on how to prepare. Another thing I learned from that project is the out of box experience observation. I recommend it for every researcher. You observe and record people using the product for the first time. It's easy to conduct that kind of research, and it gets you feedback about the desirability of the product.

What does your day-to-day look like?

At Amazon, I was the first and only researcher for a 250-person  team. I had to train product managers on research methods and templatize a lot of research that could be done by other stakeholders. There are a lot of technical tools that Amazon uses to derive insight and process insight. It was very different from a smaller startup like IDEO, where I worked with a team of three to six people, maybe 12 at the most. We'd all work in a room together, and you'd be on a project team for six weeks to several months. When you're working with a small team, everyone goes into the field, everyone's attending the interviews. It’s worlds apart in terms of the day to day experience and the skills needed.

What advice do you have for someone looking to break into UX Research?

At first, I was worried about not having the right skills or knowing the right methods. But there's a bootcamp for quantitative research methods at

Then there’s Jeff Sauro, a statistician. Reading his blog, you might get scared about all the complex methods or you might get excited, if that's your jam. If you are interested in quantitative, complex statistical methods, he has a boot camp that I attended recently that will give you grounding in quantitative AV testing or multivariate testing. He also has a few books on research methods, so you can go in that direction. 

But there's another group of UX researchers, including myself, who do more qualitative work. There's a tweet from an old colleague of mine, Greg Bernstein, who says that the usability test is just talking to people in a way where you can make them feel comfortable. You're interpreting what they're saying, but aware of your own biases.

The most important thing is to recognize your own biases, and do it rigorously. 

Lightning Round

What about your personality makes UX Research a good fit for you?

I am the third of four kids. I was usually the one to listen and the last one to speak. So, I think it's just listening and curiosity. Interest in people and interest in patterns.

What are the top qualities one needs to possess to be a successful UX Researcher?

Empathy. Hearing with someone. That's number one, and there’s a big gap between qualities 2 through 90. Being a good writer and being a good storyteller are also key. When you go in the field you have to be able to get across what you heard.

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