Walk a Mile in Their Shoes: My (First) Experience of Being a Scoober Courier

This article was originally published on the Time for Tech blog at Just Eat Takeaway.com.

I’m riding a bicycle in Leiden, the Netherlands. I’ve done this a thousand times before but this time, I’m on an e-bike and a giant orange bag is on my back. The rain pours down and soaks through my jeans and shoes. Water drips from my helmet into my eyes. The wind whips across the road and for a second I think I’m losing my balance. I can’t see the directions on my phone because the phone mount case is fogged over. I have three minutes to deliver the food order in my bag and I can’t figure out which of the apartment buildings I should enter. My kind companion, a Leiden Scoober courier captain who’s riding beside me, points me to the right building and saves the day. I walk up four flights of stairs, deliver the order to the happy customer, take a deep breath and turn back to the captain. “Respect,” I say. “Seriously, respect to all of you.”

From the day I signed my contract with Just Eat Takeaway.com, I wanted to be a Scoober courier. Starting in summer 2020 I’d seen the number of orange-clad couriers in Leiden explode, but I hadn’t paid much attention until I joined Takeaway.com as the Logistics Research Lead. As a researcher, my whole career has been about finding the best way to advocate for someone else’s reality, whether it be talking to them, observing them or living their reality myself. When I took the job, understanding the courier experience became my responsibility. Time to hop on a bike and deliver some food!

Not that I wasn’t apprehensive. I started watching the couriers, biking around with bulky orange coats and enormous orange bags strapped to their backs, navigating through traffic and rain with precious cargo: other people’s dinners. I was going to do that? I worried I’d fall, mostly. I wouldn’t be able to handle the weight of the backpack. I worried about the exposure. I usually work alone behind a laptop. Now I would be in public, under the scrutiny of restaurants and customers and traffic enforcement and the general public. I’m an introvert. I don’t want to be approached all day with nowhere to hide. And it wouldn’t be easy to hide looking like a giant construction cone.

After a couple of weeks getting to know some Leiden courier captions and being onboarded as a courier, my moment arrived. At the hub, the captains set up an account for me, gave me a jacket, and explained how the bag works. I held my breath as I swung it on my shoulders. I felt like I was going to the airport, or to the moon, once I put on my bike helmet.

I headed out with one of the captains. He ran a couple of orders with me shadowing him. Then the moment arrived: I switched myself to available in my app. A second later, I heard a notification. “You have a job!” the captain said. I accepted it in the app and made my way to McDonalds. The order was ready, so I placed my bag onto the floor, double checked that I had the right food, and smiled and thanked the McDonald’s employee. I placed the food in my bag and zipped it shut with trembling fingers. I put the bag back on my shoulders then realized I needed to be more careful — I was carrying someone’s meal! I got out my app and confirmed I was on my way to the customer. We left the restaurant and walked out into what was now pouring rain.

I made my way to my bike, a million thoughts racing through my mind. I thought about the route I would take — the app lets me navigate but I couldn’t see my screen through the fogged-up plastic cover provided with the phone holder. As I unlocked my bike, I smelled a cheeseburger. It took me a second to realize it was coming from my bag. I jumped on the bike, feeling a huge responsibility to get this right. “What are you doing?” the captain asked. “You can’t ride your bike in the Beestenmarkt.” Just like that, I’d forgotten a major traffic rule. I apologized and jumped off, careful to not jostle the food.

We were on our way, the rain pouring down. The wind picked up right as we entered an open stretch of road and I gritted my teeth, hoping to keep my balance. The captain shouted directions behind me, and we eventually pulled into a parking lot with buildings all around. I had no idea which way to turn.

“Even numbers on the left, odd on the right!” He shouted. I nodded but realized I’d forgotten the apartment number. I stopped my bike and wiped at the screen, pressing the plastic down until I made out an even number. I looked to my right and saw three buildings to choose from, and looked back at the captain.

“It’s that one!” he said, pointing, and we cycled over and got off our bikes. My hands were shaking at this point. I remembered all the steps: Lock the bike. Turn off the battery. Take your phone out of the holder. Put your mask on. Ring the bell.

Four flights of stairs later, and out of breath, we arrived at the door. The customer already had it open, and I pulled the bag off my shoulders, set it on the ground, unzipped it, and stepped back. She pulled her food out, smiled and thanked me, and closed the door behind her. I took a deep breath. Mission accomplished.

I was triumphant until we got back to the hub and the captain evaluated my performance. A couple of missed hand signals plus the moment where I’d biked in a forbidden area meant that I failed the assessment. That’s right — if I had been actually applying to do this job, I’d be rejected. Lucky for me, the captains are giving me another chance. I’m grateful because I certainly don’t want this to be the end of the adventure. Next time, I’m determined to pass.

Until then, I’ll leave you with the impression that this experience has made on me, a now two-month-old employee of Just Eat Takeaway.com:

  • Couriers are the connective tissue of our business. My day-to-day work life consists of sitting at home, behind my laptop. I see no restaurants. No customers. But the Scoober couriers? They see both, all day long. They are the link between these two pillars of our business.
  • Couriers have an invaluable story to tell. Their work exposes them to information and intricacies we all need to hear. This goes beyond essential aspects like job satisfaction or a well-functioning app. They are the experts of their own experience, but they also know things about our restaurants and our customers that none of us are aware of.
  • Couriers are the face of this company. Even if people don’t order food through our app, even if restaurants haven’t signed up or don’t use our couriers, we all live in a world where the Scoober courier is omnipresent on city streets. Scoober couriers are visibly representing our company to the population as a whole, and by suiting them up in our orange gear, we made them that way. If you’re not (yet) convinced by the first two points, consider this one. This is a hard job, and we owe it to them to make them damn happy doing it.

Applying a Firefighter Model to UX Research Practice

Photo by Museums Victoria on Unsplash

As UX researchers, we’ve all been there: We have our research plans meticulously laid out. We envision weeks full of fascinating conversations with users, long stretches of analysis, and actionable insights that will blow everyone’s mind and might even impact the strategic direction of the product.

Then, Important Stakeholder(s) rush into our (virtual) office, arms waving, alarm-like sounds coming from their mouths. “Drop everything! We need to completely change focus!” In other words, “Fire! Fire! Fire!”

Depending on how much we need a predictable environment in order to thrive, this situation could provoke any reaction from a groan to a clenched jaw to a full-blown professional identity crisis. “How can they expect us to do our job?” we might cry. “This was a really important project! It took us forever to tweak the set-up! We can’t just drop it.”

Instead of seeing these intrusions as a disruption, what if we apply the Firefighter Model? I’d like to propose three ways we can thrive in our UX research practice, no matter what the priority shift: first, embrace the Firefighter Model, second, practice knitting in the fire station, and third, accept our firefighter identity.

Embrace the Firefighter Model

In name, the Firefighter Model hasn’t been written about much. There’s one book chapter written by Thomas McLarty III who describes the Firefighter Model as a form of corporate crisis management, where “the strategy is to focus resources towards the most urgent need: containing the flames and preventing further damage.”

The Firefighter Model applied to a UX research practice is a bit different: The crisis, or fire, is often internally generated, by product managers/design leaders/C-level execs who opt to change direction. The disruptive and unexpected nature of the fire most impacts the makers: the professionals who have to alter the course of their daily work (developers, designers, or, in our case, UX researchers). The Important Stakeholders alert us to the fire, and we – as UX research practitioners (a.k.a firefighters) – answer the call to put the fire out.

What’s important here is framing the Firefighter Model in terms of crisis management. When we are on the receiving end of urgent instructions to abandon ship, we might feel out of control, especially when we didn’t have a say in the change of plans. Embracing this model results in two positive outcomes: feeling a renewed sense of control and utilizing our time in the fire station.

“Knitting in the fire station”

I know the thought of embracing the Firefighter Model isn’t easy. There are probably a lot of you out there who are shaking your heads, refusing to admit defeat. Determined to stick with those plans. Maybe even pulling that firefighter helmet off and tossing it across the room.

I offer a form of resistance.

Being a firefighter means you spend a lot of time sitting around at the fire station. Thankfully, fighting fires is not a constant part of the job.

“Knitting in the fire station” is code for doing the job we thought we had as UX researchers. In essence, it means we agree to fight fires, but we spend the rest of our time anticipating and avoiding them.

This is where we draw on our UX research expertise. We can build up our research operations. We can spend time creating a panel of participants to contact when the fire alarm sounds – we’ll put out the flames that much quicker. We can create templates for sharing rapid results – a fire hose of actionable insights.

We can do research, too, even work on that low-priority project that our stakeholders failed to prioritize, but we know better. Despite everything we still celebrate the researcher’s mindset and trust our process, even if it doesn’t match mandated timelines. Who knows? Those “trivial” insights might just serve as a fire extinguisher in next month’s big blaze.

We can meet with our fellow firefighters to discuss how we are adapting to the model. Sharing frustrations and exchanging knitted goods – er, best research practices – are both great ways to bond with our community of practitioners.

“Knitting in the fire station” means, in other words, spending our non-firefighting time creating things that make firefighting easier and less painful. McLarty calls this approach the Fire Marshall Model: “…their primary responsibility is to focus on prevention strategies – establishing and enforcing fire codes and educating citizens on fire safety.” Our incidence of fires may drop considerably, just as it has in the real world.

Accept our firefighter identity

Acceptance: It’s the last stage of grief, and it’s a necessary part of embracing our firefighter identity. I know it’s tough.

Remember: In the Firefighter Model, a fire is an emergency that needs immediate attention. When there’s a fire, and we’re firefighters, our job is to put it out.

The existence of the fire is beyond our control, especially in COVID times. There’s no use in arguing about whether it exists. It does. Why not put the Serenity Prayer on mental repeat? “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

Now: This doesn’t mean that a digital product company – let alone a UX research practice – could or should operate in a constant state of emergency. However: when there’s a fire, our stakeholders are going to alert us, and they’re going to be relieved and grateful if we help to put the fire out. Being asked to participate is a massive validation of our worth. It shows our contribution is meaningful. Otherwise, why would we hear about the fire in the first place?

If we can learn to embrace the Firefighter Model, we might start to see ourselves as the heroes that we are.

You can also read this article on Medium.

A Researcher’s Mindset

A researcher knows that learning methods is a necessary condition to being successful. But these skills are not sufficient: Researchers must also acquire the necessary mindset in order to thrive in their practice. As a researcher who’s experienced the academic and UX side of research, I’ve seen how in both settings, a researcher’s mindset questions everything, lives comfortably in a grey area, and champions empathy.

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

A researcher’s mindset questions everything

Having a researcher’s mindset means being obsessed with questions: generating questions, refining questions, answering questions, asking questions about the answers to questions. Before I got into UX, I spent 15 years teaching research methods courses to undergraduate and graduate students. The first thing we discussed was the importance of the research question. Start with its relevance: Is the question one that yearns to be answered, either by you or your stakeholders? Is the question one that can be answered using data? Then, given the scope of data on which you can draw, is the question too big, too small, or just right?

The same is true in UX-land: Tinkering with a research question until it feels solid is fundamental to the success of a research project. When a stakeholder approaches you with a topic, turning that topic into a question is the first step to scoping a quality project. If the question is researchable, answerable, guides the research process, and can be altered in the face of obstacles or new evidence, you’ve started on solid ground.

A researcher’s mindset lives comfortably in a grey area

“Yes or no, can you let us know in a week?” This kind of stakeholder question makes UX researchers take a deep breath and do some relaxation techniques. Researchers are trained to shy away from definitive answers to research questions: how can it possibly be as simple as “yes” or “no”? There’s a reason (beyond enjoying being long-winded) that academic papers are usually thousands of words long: There is no easy answer to a research question, especially a qualitative one. Research can instead reveal, in shades of grey, whether you are on the right track.

Of course we learn clever ways around this when dealing with our stakeholders (“Yes, and…”, “No, however…”) but a researcher’s mindset thrives in crafting insights until they become inspirational. This is not because we want to be difficult or incomprehensible, but because we are trained to see nuances. We recognize the plethora of elements that can affect the outcome of our research: the fit of research participants, the analysis we use, the audience for insights. We see research methods as living organisms and we imagine simple to complex projects based on time constraints. Perusing these grey areas can make things tricky but it also adds a delightful complexity to the research process. (Finding clarity in the face of these ambiguities is another skill worthy of its own article.)

A researcher’s mindset champions empathy

You Are Not the User: That is our mantra, sometimes chanted mentally as our stakeholders tell us how their own expertise is enough – no user research necessary! As researchers we also remind ourselves that we, too, are not the user: Whether academics focused on understanding attitudes towards dating apps, or UXers looking at user behavior, we conduct extensive research, perform careful analysis, craft our insights sharing, all the while remembering that our sworn duty is to be an outspoken advocate for our user’s perspective.

User empathy can sometimes be hard to remember in a meeting with skeptical product managers or leadership. This situation exemplifies another facet of our empathy: We also need to have empathy for our stakeholders, and understand their motivations, fears, pain points, and perspectives. Empathy for the user and the experience they go through before, during, and after using our product is crucial, but so is empathy for our stakeholders in order to communicate research insights in the most actionable way. The ability to champion both kinds of empathy is part of our mindset as UX researchers.

Ashley Graham talked about methods versus mindset in an insightful interview on Dollars to Donuts. She argued that others can always help you perfect your methods skills, but crafting a researcher’s mindset is the essential starting point for any UX researcher. Having such a mindset means “you speak up and bring the voice of the user to whatever context that you’re working in.”

As a UX researcher, you’re a whiz at writing interview guides and conducting interviews. You understand the intricacy of crafting solid survey design. You’re a pro at analyzing research data. But the mindset you bring to the table is what makes you a true change agent.

You may find yourself wondering: Do I have it? Can anyone adopt it, or does it require a specific type of person? What conditions must be in place for it to thrive? How could one measure it? Congratulations, you are on your way to acquiring a researcher’s mindset!

You can also read this article on Medium.

Putting the “academic” research in UX

An article I wrote a few months ago – called Putting the “Academic” Research in UX – has been published on UXinsight Notes. The article focuses on parallels between UX and academic research. Here’s an excerpt:

Whether in academia or UX, we do research in order to systematically uncover what people need, want, and desire. We do research to avoid coming to conclusions that simply reflect our private beliefs and opinions. By reflecting on the research process in this way, both types of researchers can improve their research techniques, argue persuasively for more time and resources for the research process, and, in the end, better the products (or papers) they are developing and improving.

cole-keister-291568-unsplash-1024x683

UXinsight Notes is a brand-new (still in beta!), Netherlands-based platform that looks to be a great resource for those interested in UX research. It aims to connect, stimulate and inspire UX researchers to share and expand their expertise.