#sheffvista 24 – Head of User Research, Dr James Boardwell

Each Friday we post a new v i s t a profile, a career beyond the academy story (use the tags at the bottom of the post to find the entire list). These posts accompany our curated events to support post-PhD career transitions, v i s t a mentoring, and also #sheffvista on Twitter.

Twitter: @jamesb

Job title and company: Head of User Research, Co-op

Approximate salary range for your type of role: £50-110k


Back in 1994 I had just finished doing an MSc at Bristol University in “Society and Space”. That year I learnt more than I ever and enjoyed the mix of critical thinking and practical research and methods. It was the happiest period of my life. A PhD in Geography followed, as much from a lack of any other ideas about what a career might involve as from a desire to continue where the MSc has stopped. Forward on four years, and two hours before the deadline for submission I handed in my 140,000 word manuscript to be assessed. It was so big it had to be bound in two volumes, the word count bulked up in the hope that it would make up for the obvious lack in anything original or comprehensible in the words themselves. I still had no idea what I wanted for a career, I just wanted this PhD to end.

That was almost 20 years ago. Now I help build digital first services as a user researcher. What does that involve? It means I work within a team of designers, engineers, content designers and subject matter experts and help them to understand what users (people) “do”. How they behave, why they behave the way they do, the processes and materials that enable them to meet their needs, so we can make things that work for them. It’s a great job and I love it. It draws on the things I enjoyed about that MSc I did: mixed disciplines, fast turnaround work, discussion, learning by doing, new things regularly to work on.

How did I get here? It wasn’t by design, or even choice.

After my PhD I took a job as an ESRC research fellow at Loughborough University on a project about Global Cities. This wasn’t a conscious decision so much as a decision made for me; it was what you did as a PhD graduate from my department. I lectured and I researched, and I was alone at work and deeply bored. I knew it wasn’t for me on the first day, but I stuck it out for 9 months.

Lesson one: follow your gut instinct, not the sensible voice!

After nine months I needed to move on, not even the option to research in New York and Singapore could prolong my stay in the academy. However, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, I had no sense of a career. I knew I enjoyed documentaries and storytelling and I wanted to be part of the action (more action than a geography department in Loughborough) and the action seemed to be in the media in London, which was changing rapidly due to the rise of the internet and multi-channel. So I wrote off to a number of producers, hawking myself. Within two weeks one of them, a man called Tilman Remme (I still remember the name and the call) phoned me and offered me a job on a history documentary as a researcher.

Lesson two: ask for help, approach people and make contacts.

The documentary was a WWII story about spies. Win! Kind of. The pay was lousy and the work at the National Archives lonely. But by this time I was talking to other producers, getting a feel for how the industry worked and blagging it. It felt better than what I was doing before. I approached other producers at the BBC and was offered a job in Current Affairs on their foreign affairs programme Correspondent, quite a coup for a comprehensive boy without any languages, in a world of Oxbridge PPE multi-linguists. It didn’t last, but what I did whilst I was there was do stuff I felt was interesting: I started to use the internet to do research and find stories and also have a conversation with our audience after the broadcast to discuss it. I didn’t know it but the internet was my about to become my career salvation.

Lesson three: do things you’re interested in (even if these are outside of paid work)

Soon after my contract in current affairs came to an end I was approached to work in what is now ‘future media’ and began working on projects to design services, things like online editing tools and mobile music platforms (things that seem so very normal now). ‘Design research’ was becoming a thing and user centred design a processes for building digital first products and here my interest in the internet aligned with my interest in human behaviour and research. I was lucky, it was a time when things were changing a lot and there was a melting pot of different backgrounds, ideas and disciplines involved in the work I did. Nowadays that’s less the case; there are degree courses in what I do, and the discipline is more mature (and probably less interesting for it).

The years from 2002-2006 involved me researching and producing a range of online and internet related things for the BBC, some of which were big interactive TV events, some which were prototypes that never saw a mainstream audience and I strove to get this range of experiences as I knew that’s how I would learn and how I would find opportunities of what to do next.

Lesson four: keep trying new things with new people

My leaving the BBC in 2006 coincided with a period that was a bit rubbish. Agency life ensued and I didn’t like it. Again I knew straight away it wasn’t right but I stuck it out, this time because I had two young children and a wife who had moved with me for the job. After a long year of rubbish stuff, I left to start my own business and agency, doing user research and internet related products. I had enough experience and confidence to give it a go. For a while it worked and good work came through from Channel 4, BBC, Umbro, the Science Museum and others and I created a service for people to sell handmade work, Folksy.com. But two years ago I decided to join the Co-op in Manchester doing user research again, full time. Here I’ve found the buzz of multidisciplinary teams, internet stuff and research meld into something I feel very happy with. I enjoy my work. I never knew this is what I’d do. Looking back it was the journey to get here that made me realise this is where I want to be; I had to try lots of different things and fail at some of them in order to know what I want to do.

Lesson five: expect a journey and expect ups and downs and when you get a wave, ride it!

I got the PhD with minor amends though neither me nor the tutors knew what it was about, and I very much doubt they read all 140,000 words. Neither volume (two volumes, hah!) has ever been opened again. It was the journey to get the PhD that was far more important than the PhD itself, too.

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