What a Design Researcher Can Teach You About the Art of Effective Listening

An interview with Ximena Vengoechea, author of ‘Listen Like You Mean It’

Not long ago, I received an advance copy of a new book called Listen Like You Mean It. I quickly judged it by its cover (intriguing, fun), flipped through a few random pages (amazing illustrations, witty writing), then decided to actually read it. It was great, and also not what I expected.

The author, Ximena Vengoechea, is a design researcher as well as a writer. I’m a designer and writer. I don’t often get to talk to designers who write books, so I went out on a limb and emailed Ximena to see if I could ask her a few questions for an interview, and she said yes, so here it is:

Jake: I love Listen Like You Mean It. But I did not expect it to be such a personally useful book. I mean, I expected a business book — and it is a really good business book! — but I’ve found the ideas helpful for life in general. Like when I’m having conversations with my friends and family, not just at work, I’ll think “What would Ximena do?” So… how did the book turn out this way?

Ximena: Thank you! I love hearing that because that was exactly the goal; it was important to me that the book’s lessons be applicable across the many types of conversations and discussions that come up in our lives, because every conversation — whether with friends and family or at work — is ultimately an opportunity for connection, which is really what we all want.

In fact, listening within our closest relationships (which can come with their own history and baggage) can be even harder than listening in a business setting (where we tend to preserve a certain sense of decorum, and if things go south, we can at least tell ourselves that it’s “just business”). I hope readers use the book’s advice as a helpful starting point, adapting and personalizing it to the world they live in as they go.

J: When were you like “Oh hey, I’m going to write a book”?

X: In second grade I made a pact with my best friend that I would write a book and she would be my editor and ideally this would all happen before I turned thirty. I actually did write a book before I turned thirty (I ghost wrote a book for middle schoolers while I was in grad school), although Listen Like You Mean It feels like my real debut as an author — it’s very much a book that only I could have written in terms of its sensibility, style, and humor. Holding onto my second grade dream wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision (and in fact, at the time I would have told you that fiction writing was my dream), but it seems to have stuck with me, and I’m glad for that!

J: Oh my gosh, I also wanted to become an author when I was in second grade! I remember writing a few chapters of a book about a miniature schnauzer who was a secret agent. Did you write anything when you were a kid that you can remember?

X: How funny! Yes, I remember writing all sorts of things. There was a story about a dinosaur who goes shopping at the mall (second grade), some plays around middle school, and even a movie, “There’s Something in the Lake,” which starred my sisters and was filmed on our camcorder exclusively in sepia tone (naturally) during summer vacation. I have three sisters so I always had an all-star cast for my creative projects :)

J: You’ve managed to do something amazing: You wrote a book about user experience research and published it with a major publisher (Portfolio/Penguin Random House). I don’t think anyone has ever done that before. How the heck did you do it?

X: Hard work and lots of hustle! I’ve been writing in some capacity since I first started working in tech a decade ago. I started writing at first as a way to process what I was learning, and then felt compelled to share that knowledge with others. The tech world can feel like such a black box from the outside (certainly it did for me at the start of my career), and writing was my way of making sense of it all and giving back to others who might be in a similar position.

Once I started writing I never really stopped; there were always more lessons to share. Over time I was invited to contribute to publications like Fast Company and The Muse, and eventually I was lucky to be scouted by a literary agent — a writer’s dream! I remember being very flattered and also totally confused by the whole process — how did I get a book deal? But then friends and family would remind me that I had been nurturing this side job as a writer for ten years. That was a helpful reminder that all the work I’d been doing behind the scenes and on top of my 9–5 was worth it. It’s what got me to where I am now.

I really, truly believe in the power of listening to improve our relationships and feel less lonely and disconnected from each other, and it felt like a no brainer and an amazing opportunity to share what I’d learned in UX research to a broader audience. I’m very grateful for the chance to get to share what I’ve learned and excited for readers to apply those lessons in their own worlds, outside of a lab setting.

J: You recently left your job at Pinterest, and you wrote a really great piece about that decision, discussing the importance of taking rest. The hustle you just described — working a demanding full-time job while also developing a writing career — sounds like it would use a lot of energy. I’m wondering how you feel now as the book crosses the finish line, and do you plan to continue working at this same level of intensity in the future?

X: This is the million dollar question! Honestly, when I was in the thick of it all — working my day job, revving on the manuscript, along with welcoming my first child into the family, all of which coincided with the pandemic — I was really just putting one foot in front of the other. I was very rigorous and disciplined with where my time went, which is how I was able to keep so many plates spinning at once. But at a certain point it’s no longer sustainable, which led me to leaving my day job.

Now that the book is out in the world, I want to give it — and myself — the space to breathe a bit before racing on to the next thing. I’d like to give myself a chance to soak it up and enjoy the moment, and then we’ll see. I have another book idea brewing that I’d like to dedicate more time to, and I’m still not completely over my UX roots, but I feel I owe it to myself and my family not to rush into too much too soon.

J: In your career, about how many customer interviews have you had or watched? And which one was the weirdest or most awkward or most special?

X: I’ve participated in or observed thousands of interviews at this point. The most awkward sessions tend to be those where there is something technical that’s preventing us from moving forward in a conversation — usually a bad video connection or an unfinished prototype or something that should be fairly mild and noncontroversial but can really derail a conversation. The most special sessions are those where someone lets you in on a part of their world. Sometimes that happens in a lab session through a creative exercise that lets someone show you who they fully are. I might ask a participant to bring in images that represent them, or choose a cocktail or beverage that reflects their identity in some way, and these parts of a session are always fun, surprising, and revealing.

But even more special is when a participant has invited you into their home and world for a day. Many years ago I had the privilege of visiting participants’ homes to understand their meal planning routines, and that trip really stuck with me. Making a meal in your own home is such an intimate thing; to invite a stranger into your kitchen while you are balancing childcare and recipe-following and hot ovens and fielding questions from an interviewer at the same time was both impressive (the multitasking!) and heartwarming.

I’ll never forget my very last session of that trip, when a participant had finished cooking and I was preparing to pack up — this was maybe 8pm on a weeknight and I’d been with her for three hours at this point — and she slid a bowl of risotto over to me and told me to eat up. It was such a kind gesture and I was completely surprised by it. It was delicious, and we were both delighted to share in a meal together.

J: You illustrated your own book, and a lot of designers read this, and while I don’t like to stereotype people, designers love to nerd out about tools. What do you use to make your illustrations? (And maybe what have you tried that didn’t work?)

X: I use the Paper app and stylus on an iPad. Drawing digitally is what got me illustrating again after a long hiatus. I find that when I draw on physical paper I am a little bit too precious with it; I like to draw in ink but also don’t want to waste paper, so I’m not quite as daring in my illustrations. It’s easier to take risks when I’m drawing digitally. It’s so low stakes because you can change things on a dime and start over quickly, without getting too attached to what you’ve already drawn.

I also purposefully use a fairly simple drawing app because I don’t want to get too much in my head about the perfect size brush or brush type or spend so much time fiddling with advanced settings that the time goes by and I haven’t drawn a single thing. The simplicity forces me to just dive in and do the thing I’m there for: drawing and illustrating!

J: Thank you, Ximena!! Everybody reading, this is the end of the interview, now please check out this awesome book.

Writer, designer, person. Author of SPRINT and MAKE TIME. More at jakeknapp.com.

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