August 15, 2023
Understanding Users: Building Tooling for User Research
Ribbon's founder, Axel Thomson, chats with Mike Green on the Understanding Users podcast about why having relevant user conversations is key to continuous product discovery.

Ribbon's founder, Axel Thomson, chats with Mike Green from the user research podcast Understanding Users about moving from product management into building tooling for product and user research teams, the lessons he has learnt as a founder, and possible future trends for the field of product research.

Highlights from the conversation

Why solving recruitment is key to enabling continuous user insights

Building a continuous process of engaging with customers, user research sits at the intersection of two important challenges: understanding how we should build things and how people use them. This understanding is crucial for creating not only good products experiences.

Before starting Ribbon, Axel thought that his team could validate things more quickly and gradually become less wrong about things by speaking to users earlier and conducting testing earlier in the product development process. They quickly realised that it wasn't scalable to manually try to recruit users for interviews and feedback sessions. At first, they would send out an email blast through their CRM tool and then engage in manual back-and-forth communication to schedule the interviews. They realised that if they wanted to do this on a weekly basis, it would mean spending around three days each week emailing back and forth with customers, which was simply unsustainable.

When it comes to speaking to customers, the most challenging and time-consuming aspect appears to be recruitment. It is difficult for both big and small companies to get user insights from the right people and do so in a scalable manner. This is what we're helping our customers solve at Ribbon - getting relevant user insights at scale.

Ribbon helps companies, large and small, increase the success of their products with relevant user insights delivered in real-time from customers who use their products. Get started with your first studies for free with a 14-day trial.


Mike Green (1:19): Hi, I'm Mike Green, a freelance user research lead and digital consultant based in the UK. Welcome to Understanding Users.

In this podcast series, I chat with digital experts from a variety of disciplines, including user research, UX and service design, development, and product management. There are even a founder or two. I talk to them about how they came to be in their current roles, what they've learned along the way, and the challenges they face in designing and building digital products and services with users in mind. While many of these conversations are recorded remotely, I'm also keen to get out into the world and meet my guests face to face whenever possible. So in some episodes, you'll hear me prowling the corridors of UX conferences in different parts of the globe to gather the views of speakers and attendees alike. These chats are intended to be relaxed and informal, allowing professionals who are eager to share their experiences. So sit back and enjoy.

I'm delighted to announce that Understanding Users has a sponsor.

Have you or your team ever struggled with getting the right types of users at the right time to speak to in your research?

Have you wasted hours emailing back and forth with research participants trying to find a convenient time to speak to them?

And after all that, have you found yourself speaking to the wrong type of participants for your product or, worse, having participants fail to show up at all to a scheduled research session?

Well, Ribbon, is a continuous research platform that allows organisations to conduct user interviews and in-product surveys in real time with customers as they use your website or apps. User researchers, product designers, and product managers all use Ribbon to quickly and effectively validate product decisions with real users, helping them build products that attract and retain more customers. Ribbon is an end-to-end research platform that helps you target participants within your product, manage research incentives, run surveys and interviews, and store and share your findings.

To start running in-product user interviews or surveys today, head to to get started with a free trial. Links are provided in the show notes.

So who better for me to talk to in this episode than the CEO and Founder of Ribbon, Axel Thompson. Axel and I chat about his own career pivot from Product Manager to digital startup founder and the challenges his own team faced with recruiting the right users for research at a rapid pace and at scale, which ultimately led to the creation of Ribbon. We discuss his views on the future of user research, the lessons he's learned as a founder, and the importance of resisting the urge to fill awkward silences when interviewing users. Finally, he takes on my three-car challenge to share his favourite UX tool, favourite technique, and a trend he sees in the future. Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy the episode.

So, I'm joined this time by Axel Thompson, the Founder and CEO of RibbonApp. Hi, Axel. Welcome to the show.

Axel Thomson (4:12): Hi Mike. Thanks for having me.

Mike Green (4:14): So we'll come on to ribbon in a bit more detail in a minute because I'm really keen to hear about that and particularly your journey from, you know, into becoming a founder and kind of starting a startup. But first, it'd be good to hear a little bit more about yourself. So, you know, how did you get into digital, Axel? Or what's your sort of career path today?

Axel Thomson: I actually started out my career as a product manager at a high-growth startup here in the UK called Gousto. I originally joined their growth team working on growth experiments in relation to improving retention and also acquiring new customers. This experience gave me a taste for the excitement and fulfilment of building and enhancing products for customers. I worked closely with the product team there and eventually became a Product Manager within the product management organisation at Gousto. There I found out how hard it was for us to actually make informed decisions about our product, but we would try to incorporate these notions of continuous discovery and continuous research into our decision making. But we found it extremely hard to involve actual customers in that process. And that's why we're now working in the space of continuous user research. And we're trying to help other product teams to do this type of research.

Mike Green (5:24): And taking a step back before Gousto. What was your, you know, for example, what did you study kind? What's your pathway into digital originally?

Axel Thomson (5:32): Yeah, I think I've always tinkered with building websites and stuff like that as well. We had a class back in middle school when I was around 12 years old, where we started building basic HTML websites. So I've always been tinkering with that. During university, I pursued a mix of computing and business-oriented subjects. Later, I completed my Master's degree, which focused on brain sciences and research. Specifically, I delved into understanding the neurophysiology of macaques and how their brains function when making decisions. I've always been fascinated by the psychological aspect of understanding how people think and ultimately how they perceive and interact with products. Additionally, I'm passionate about the building side of things—creating products. User research, in my opinion, resides at the intersection of these two realms. It allows us to explore how we build products while gaining insights into how people use and behave with them. It's essential when striving to create not only good products but also successful businesses.

Mike Green (6:28): Yeah, that's fascinating. Researching macaques sounds really interesting. What do you love about our world of user experience, user research, and the digital field? And on the flip side, what frustrates you?

Axel Thomson (6:42): It's a really thankful field to be working in.  Our team engages with a wide range of individuals, including researchers, prospects, and customers, on a weekly basis. And it's, it's quite a fortunate position to be in to be able to speak to people that are researchers themselves in some capacity. I think, obviously, being a researcher, a big, important trait is to have a lot of empathy, and also a lot of curiosity. And we get to speak to people that are extremely curious, extremely empathetic, and try to understand what they do. And I think that is just like a really exciting place to be and an exciting area to work in. I think things that are frustrating, it's often very hard to do the type of research that people are wanting to do. Understanding how people work in any setting, of course, is extremely hard. But understanding how hundreds of 1000s of users work, when they interact with a very clearly defined product can lead you in many ways and astray many times. And that's a complex thing to try to understand.

Mike Green (7:46): So kind of moving on to sort of Ribbon itself. So how would you describe Ribbon if I’d never seen it, never heard of it before? What is Ribbon?

Axel Thomson (7:56): So, to understand why we're interested in working on this, I think it's important to delve into how we started building Ribbon in the first place. Thinking back to when I was a product manager at Gousto, we were trying to build out this process and habit of continuously speaking to customers and continuously getting them into decisions that we were making. And not only doing that continuously, but actually doing it much more early on in the product development cycle. So if we worked on a feature for, say, four months, and it shipped and it failed, we then wasted not only the time that we spent on building this feature, and the sort of effort that went into that, and developer time. But we had also had a high opportunity cost in terms of the stuff that we didn't build.

And we realised that if we could find a way to continuously validate decisions that we were making in the product team much more early on in the product development cycle, we were overtime going to be less wrong, and we're going to build a better product. And we're going to be able to sort of grow the business much more quickly.

The problem was that if we wanted to do that, it was a lot of work for us as a product team to actually sustain that amount of research. We didn't have a dedicated user research team, it was mainly the product designers and product managers doing actually, all of the recruitment or the research. And if I want to do a user interview, I would sort of spend three days out of the week, back and forth, emailing with users sending out email blasts through our CRM, just to set up interviews that sort of next week. And obviously, if we wanted to do this on a continuous basis every week, it would mean that we as a product team and product function spent all of our weeks just emailing with users which was not really sustainable.

An alternative was that we could go to an agency and recruit participants through an agency but the people we then would get to speak to weren't our actual customers. They hadn't used our product, they didn't have the same needs as our customers. And information we then got was often misleading and at the very least low quality.

So we were stuck between this hard place, between a rock and a hard place, where either we could speak to people quickly and they were panelists and they didn't really simulate or emulator our users needs or we could speak to our actual customers. But then we would have to spend our entire week during the recruitment and trying to find people to speak with. And out of this. This is really where Ribbon was born, we as a platform are an integration that you add into your product, so we have a SDK that you can add into your website or your mobile application. And that then enables you as a researcher to use the Ribbon Research Platform to run either instant or scheduled user interviews, but also in-product surveys and product testing, at different points in the user journey, so you can define specific user segments within your user base. And then you can say that when they go to the checkout page, it will launch a screening survey, and you can then offer them incentive, and then they can join a video call with you. And you can then run much more targeted research that is in depth, and it allows you to have back and forth conversations with customers and ask more complex research questions. But you don't have to compromise on a how quickly you can run this, or the sort of relevance of your participants.

Mike Green (11:01): Those challenges you talked about with recruitment, those totally resonates with me. I mean, I think anyone who's ever tried to do user research knows these perennial challenges. And I think particularly in my experience, stakeholders and project teams don't often realise the amount of effort required to find people to talk to, and to find the right people.

Axel Thomson (11:19): Absolutely. I think, I think just on that, like when we speak to prospects, or customers every week, there biggest challenge, regardless of if they are designers, regardless of if they are a researchers or product managers, when it comes to speaking to customers, the hardest thing and the type of thing where they spend most of their time seems to be recruitment. And it's really hard for big companies and small companies to find the right people and do that in sort of a scalable way.

Mike Green (11:43): So who are the intended users of Ribbon? Is it just user researchers? Or is it kind of any any product team, anyone within a product team who wants to conduct research?

Axel Thomson (11:51): It's a good question. I think I think the broader answer is anyone that's trying to find out things about their user base that relates to how they use their product. And that can be user researchers, of course, but also product designers and product managers. Many user researchers genuinely consider platforms like Ribbon as valuable tools for conducting activities such as in-product user interviews, surveys, and testing. Ribbon is suitable for certain types of research questions, and researchers use whichever tool is appropriate for answering their specific research question. Consequently, the choice of tools varies depending on the research question, with different tools being more suitable in different situations.

We really focus on in-product types of research, where you are trying to understand very specific things about your user base, as it relates to how they interact with your product, how you can improve your product, how you can test different designs, and things like that. And those questions depend on the company you're speaking with. Often user researchers are doing that type of research, but we often also see product designers, product managers doing and getting involved in that type of research with with their user base.

Mike Green (12:55): Also for kinda of usability testing for prototypes, that kind of stuff, would it be suitable?

Axel Thomson (12:59): Yes. So we currently support moderated user interviews and surveys, and we're working on expanding the platform to support other methodologies as well.

But a big shift we see is that a lot of user search functions seem to be overwhelmed with the sort of demand for the amount of research they are expected to do and the product teams want them to do and external stakeholders want them to do. And they often don't have the capacity to run all that research. So a big trend that we're seeing or think that we're getting exposed to at least is that many product teams are actually taking on some amount of research themselves, often referred to as sort of democratisation of executing on research. And that seems to work at various different companies, some companies have PMS, getting involved in doing user interviews, or some companies, its user researchers doing user interviews, and PMS and product designers doing other types of testing.

Mike Green (14:04): And I'm really interested to hear about your founder journey as well. So kind of how did you go about, you know, creating this, this this platform from scratch.

Axel Thomson (14:14): We've we were fairly uncomplicated about how we went about it in the sense that we didn't have a massively thought out scheme for how we were going to grow this to be massive from day one.

It was really a need that I saw in my day to day role and also as a product manager I tried to speak to a lot of people, be it other PMs, user researchers, designers at other companies to see how they did it. And from having those conversations that made it became clear.

I remember one conversation specifically with I think it was a researcher at Google. And they just described that they went through the same process for recruiting users, but at a bigger scale. So they had hired a big research ops team to do all of the recruitment. And they still ran the user interviews in the same fashion. And it then seemed kind of crazy to me that the way people saw this, it's just by hiring more people to do the thing that is fairly unscalable at a better big scale. And it's increased that we had at Gousto. This, this engineering team of hundreds of people, but we couldn't really easily or quickly talk to people who were using the product, even though we had a direct interface with those customers.

So what I started doing as then I’d had some background in, and I've now realised, I'm actually a terrible engineer, that we have actual engineers that we work with, but at the time, I started building on a prototype, and we put it up on Product Hunt, pretty much as soon as it was built. And it was just a simple way for our customers to launch a widget on the website and have instant video calls with their customers.  Looking back at it, now, it looks terrible. At the time, I thought it looked great. But it had that basic functionality. And as soon as we put it out to the world, we started getting some feedback, and people interested in trying it out and started sort of resonating with people. And we've started building from from there.

Mike Green (15:12): How many of you are there at Ribbon?

Axel Thomson (15:14): So we're now 12 People are based in London, heavily skewed towards the product and engineering. So we're currently still working on expanding the platform, adding support for different types of research that you can do and will be able to do on the platform, all based in London. So we just raised our seed round from Octopus Ventures a few months back, and we're now building out the sort of early core team that are gonna see us through for now.

Mike Green (16:22): What's been easier Axel, kind of than you expected in terms of creating a startup from scratch and kind of scaling? And conversely, what's been harder? What are the kind of unexpected challenges you deal with on a day to day basis?

Axel Thomson (16:36): The thing that I've found has been fairly easy, maybe I am using the wrong word, but it's very easy to be engaged in this space. Like, it's an extremely interesting space to be in. Because I think there's something intrinsically fun and interesting about building products. There's something intrinsically interesting in building products for other people that are curious explorers and researchers to try to understand their users. That whole sort of psychology element is really interesting. Which means that I think it comes quite naturally that we try to think about how do we do this, how to do this better? And how do we improve the product? How do we make it easier for researchers to do their research? That's something that makes it quite fun to be working in this space. It's engaging for the team to be working on this fairly hard problems to solve in terms of how do we make sure that research can happen almost instantly, and in really complex production environments?

The thing the hardest thing, I think, I've realised that building companies takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of effort, and just like building a good product, it takes a lot of testing and trying to get right. And we think it's going fairly well. But it's a continuous process.

Mike Green (17:48): And if there was one thing that you could tell your younger self, your kind of self at the start of the journey? One thing you know, now that you wish you'd known at the start, what would it be?

Axel Thomson (17:58): I think that's a great question. I think one of the things looking back that has been useful, has been trying a lot of different things. I even considered myself an engineer. And I definitely am not one. And I'm not good at programming by any stretch of the imagination, but by testing out, tinkering with different websites and stuff like that, that's allowed us as a team to get started to where we are. So we could build that first prototype, we could test it out.

Equally exploring areas that are interesting, such as sort of psychology and product development and stuff like that now means that our interest has led to us working in a space that is just really interesting. I don't think it was some master plan that we thought out, it's just sort of happened to be something that was both useful for our customers, but also something that we found really interesting. So I think the habit of continuously just testing things out, learning about new areas and stuff has been really useful.

Mike Green (18:55): And then there’s the Research Ops sphere, if I can just pick you up on that, because that's really interesting, because, you know, it is, I suppose a bit of a luxury that organisations that have the scale and the budget to have a Research Ops team. The organisations I've worked in, we've never been able to do that. Really, there's never been a dedicated team. But you know, how, what's the makeup of teams like that? And what are their kind of primary roles?

Axel Thomson (19:19): Yeah, I would completely echo the sentiment that it probably is a luxury to have it. Most of the teams that we speak with, don't have a dedicated Research Ops function. And some teams that are sometimes fairly developed have, or they have a large enough research operation where they need people that actually sustain operation and think about how do we shape and change this operation to continue to scale are like in a fairly strong position? I think we don't know yet that there is a specific pattern for which exact companies will have research operations and which seem to scale without it. There's no doubt that the teams that have research operations that we've spoken with, the research ops teams are brilliant, and they do really good work. And they really enable the teams to do the research around them to do that on a bigger scale and do much better and stuff like that as well.

I think in terms of what we're trying to do as a platform is enable anyone that thinks about how do we do research, and are actually involved in executing that research to do it even better. So, for example, if you're a research operation specialist, and you're trying to think about how do we get our research team to get access to the best participants for their research questions, toolings, like ribbon can help them do that and achieve that goal. Equally, we also see some companies that don't have US researchers at all. And they rely extensively on their product designers and product managers to get involved in doing research. And there are definitely pros and cons with that as well, that we can discuss endlessly. But those teams as well need tooling to be able to sustain and support their research. And there are obviously different reasons why they've gone in that direction as well, which we can also discuss. But regardless of the makeup of your team, the people who do research want to overcome the barriers and challenges that come with actually setting up the operations around that research. And that's where we as a platform can have an impact.

Mike Green: That's kind of at a meta level, if I can put it like that, you know, you have created a tool for researchers and for product teams, how do you research with researchers, kind of what's your approach to improving the tool itself? As you go through? And kind of as you develop it?

Axel Thomson (21:33): Yeah, really good question. I think it's, it's far from perfect in many senses, we're still at an early stage where we're shaping and changing the product to make it even better. And I'm moving fairly fast rate to do so. But we do do constantly. It's just speak to people. So we have with customers will have direct Slack channels where their teams, a can provide feedback to us. But also we can provide support to them to help them use it and utilize the platform more we run. So even our sales team is involved in doing more discovery type of research. And obviously, they have sort of sales targets that they work towards. But the way they go about sales isn't necessarily just working on closing deals, it's actually trying to understand how do we understand that the prospects that we're working with the people that are interested in using a platform like ours, to, to understand their needs, and stuff like that, as well. Our product team works with countless prospects and customers on a weekly basis to understand how do these fit new features, work for you? Do they meet your needs? What are your needs and test them with users as well. So we, we try to triangulate with different methodologies, we run user interviews, we'd run surveys, we run sort of concept tests and stuff like that as well. And then what we continuously try to do with customers, we continue to just have a conversation with them, how can we sort of make the platform better for you? One thing that we found really pleasantly not surprising, but just like a pleasant thing about about the space is that we haven't really met many user researchers or people that do research that are hard to get up, get on with, they tend to be quite open and happy and interested people and interesting as well. And that makes it a really fun, fun space to work in.

Mike Green: I totally agree with that. One of the many things I love about this world is the people we have the pleasure to work with. Yeah, and I think a lot of it's interesting, because a lot a lot of us I've worked with come from a psychology background or an anthropology background, because the sort of intersection between technology and humans is is ever fascinating. And actually, that leads on to the next question, you know, how do you see this world evolving in terms of product design, product development, kind of the role of product teams in technology, as as you know, AI? Everyone's talking about it. Now, you can't turn on LinkedIn without seeing a chat GPT post? How do you see kind of our role, whether it be researchers or product teams kind of fitting into that evolving space?

Axel Thomson (23:55): Barring topics like AI, which obviously are having and are gonna have a lot of impact in many areas, not just user research, I think there are two things that we think are going to be true, going forward and be more true, the further along we go. So there's going to be more types of research happening, it's going to be more impactful. And the reason for that is that it's going to be easier to some extent to do the real, like really impactful research. Today, there exists a lot of barriers to doing really good and continuous research. Even getting a user to speak to, like we had at Gousto, it was really hard to do. It takes days of work to just get a person in there. When you do that, you probably don't even get the right person in, and then they're already outside of the context that you're trying to do research. And what companies like Ribbon are doing is building tooling to make it easier to do really impactful research, which means that the impact of doing research is going to be much more evident. It's going to be much more integrated into the process of building a product. So we think we're gonna, we're already seeing this with people like Teresa Taurus that are speaking about continuous discovery, where it's like a much more continuous motion of doing research. I think research is going to be, to a large extent, much more integrated into the development process. And by being in that position, it's going to be much more impactful on the products that we shape and change. And, of course, if research is more integrated and has more impact, that means that the products we build are much better. I think how you implement that differs from different companies in different spaces and different product areas. But I think that's the sort of general direction where we're heading.

Mike Green (25:32): And in terms of advice for non-specialists involved in, you know, getting feedback from their users, conducting research, people who might have come from a technology background or product background, rather than a specific research background, what advice would you give them in terms of the best way to go about kind of understanding their users? Axel Thomson (25:51): Yeah, I'd say, keeping, keep an open mind and sort of get involved. So I've never spoken to a user researcher that doesn't want to sort of support the product teams that they might be working with. Often, they'll be constrained in terms of time and projects that they can take on. But they never want people to sort of not think about research, often it's the opposite. They want people to always think about research, be open-minded to that, you know, don't always know the best practices, and it can be hard to find the right answers. But the right direction to go in is to try to understand how do we get closer to the truth by, to some extent, doing research, making sure that we do that in a really good way. And that's where you can rely on the sort of experts and best practices and stuff like that as well. But try to move your organisation in a direction where more people are thinking about research, more people are utilising the insights that come from research. Because really what that is, is just trying to get closer to the truth and understanding how you can make better decisions.

Mike Green (26:45): So the takeaway is always be researching, always be researching. And I totally, I totally agree with that. Last thing, then Axel, so the three Card Challenge. So as I do with all my guests, I've got three playing cards here. So we've got the queen of diamonds, we've got the jack of clubs, and we've got the ace of hearts. And I've written either tool, technique, trend on the back of each. So choose one.

Axel Thomson (27:08): I think the trend is the interesting one. The trend card.

Mike Green (27:12): Okay, so yep, so the Queen of Diamonds is the trend. So tell me what what trend you see or foresee, within our world, kind of, over the next short term or medium term?

Axel Thomson (27:26): Yeah, I'll hold off speaking about things like AI, which obviously, it's going to have, to some extent transformational impact in many different ways. But just being a really powerful technology is one trend that I find really interesting that we spent most of our day thinking about is this motion towards continuous research and continuous discovery.

So many companies are working on like very much like a project based research model. And even in doing project based work. There's often very distinct points in this project where research happens at Gousto. At least in the product team I was in, often we would centralise research around projects that were really big, because they were really important. And that's what we had the resources to do in terms of research. But we were also as a team trying to move towards a more continuous model. So we could validate things more early, validate them with actual customers and do this in a way that didn't slow us down in terms of shipping speed, but also the impact our product would have. And I think it's a well, it's a completely sensible direction to move. And as a product team, we know a lot of teams have throughout the last decades moved towards more agile ways of development. Part of that is just making sure that you can continuously iterate and move forward much more quickly and change and shape the direction depending on the information you get in and of course to do that you need to get that information in. And that's where sort of research seats.

Mike Green (28:49): Yep, absolutely. Okay, then two more cards.

Axel Thomson: Tool tool, I'd be remiss if I didn't speak about tooling.

Mike Green: And we're gonna have to exclude Ribbon from that I'm afraid.

Axel Thomson (29:00): I'll speak about more broad strokes tooling. So I think there's a category of tools. Which Ribbon of course is included in which is sort of product focused types of research, and very contextual types of research, where you have some type of platform integrated into your product, which means that the context of your product can be more easily invited into the research you do, be it for running surveys, there's lots of tools for that, but also for doing more in depth type of research, like user interviews, unmoderated testing. Tooling that allows you to go into specific user segments at specific points in the user journey and run your research in that context, allows you to get much more relevant insights out because the sort of data that you get in often, of course, will impact the quality of the data that you get out.

Mike Green (29:50): I like that right. And then the last one is the jack, which is a technique. Tell me about a technique.

Axel Thomson (29:56): I'll speak as a product manager. Yeah. I'll speak as a product manager who ended up in this sort of user research space.

One of the things that I got hammered into me early on and that I have kept with me is just being quiet. So in a conversation with a, with a customer, it's very easy, especially in how we naturally converse, to want to fill a space, be it because it can be awkward when it's quiet, or just because you have something really exciting that you want to say. But actually, what you're trying to do in a conversation with a customer is trying to understand what's their view of the world? What's their behaviour? What are they thinking?

And there's tons of other best practices, of course, like not leaving, having leading questions, stuff like that as well. But one of the best things that I've seen in so many situations that can really help you uncover really useful and impactful information is just Just be quiet when you're trying to get some information, because that will naturally prompt the participants to convey more information to give you more and dig deeper.