Margaret Gray Gives Us a Glimpse Into Agency Life at MetaLab and Her Career in UX Research
Even if you haven't heard of MetaLab, you've probably used at least one of the products they helped build—Slack, Uber, Tumblr, and Youtube just to name a few! Margaret has been with MetaLab since 2017 and leads their UX research team.
Can you tell us about your role at MetaLab?
I’m the Research Director, which means I work to support our team of wonderful, beautiful, talented researchers, and to make sure we’re consistently achieving high-quality research outcomes. I spend a lot of time in coaching sessions, setting project goals, meeting new clients, and generally thinking about what MetaLab research wants to be when it grows up.
How large is the team, and what’s the vibe like?
We’re 140 smart, friendly, hard-working people. The vibe is unlike anything I’ve experienced in my life. It’s just wonderful, and hard to describe, but a few choice descriptors: low drama, high openness, loads of talent, cool dogs, good intent, fast pace, fascinating clients, and lots of learning.
In more normal times, does everybody work in the same office or do some folks regularly work remotely?
Ohhh the normal times. You mean back when we used to leave the house?
MetaLab is about a third remote, and we have two offices (Vancouver and Victoria, BC). Every meeting is a video call, all our collaboration happens digitally, and we’re used to it as MetaLab’s been remote-first for 14 years.
How has the transition to working from home been for your team?
The biggest focus for us has been recognizing that though our workdays haven’t functionally changed, the rest of the world has. So kids are at home, family members are sick or struggling, and people are more worried than usual.
We have regular, daily habits that keep people feeling a part of the team. What being remote-first means in practice is that we all default to video calls and digital collaboration tools (having an in-person meeting is weird and rare for us). There’s no chance that we’ll forget to add a video link, or neglect to include someone because they’re not in the office with us.
That being said, we do have one glorious summit every year where we all fly to be together and hug, and it’s magic (honestly, I would do anything to have a summit right now instead of being in lockdown). Being together is important because as much as we try to connect digitally, being 100% remote is hard and isolating, as we’re all learning these days.
"How can we support team members and adjust the way we work to make sure everyone is doing okay?"
How are you staying focused and motivated these days?
A topical question! Shifting from individual contributor work to management means I am much less dictated by the urgent ebbs and flows of project work. As a person who thrives under pressure, it’s a tough transition to be thinking about and working on longer-term goals that don’t necessarily have any short term deadlines.
I’ve been tackling it the same way I do marathon training: break the big thing up into much smaller chunks (weekly mileage requirements, daily runs, etc.) and trust that doing the urgent smaller chunks now will add up to the big thing being accomplished in a year or two. It’s working so far! 🤞
What does a typical workday look like?
It’s so idyllic, it’s disgusting.
Dog and I wake up with the sunrise, tell each other “good morning” and “I love you” and then we go for a hike in the mountains. Starting around 9 am, I’m in meetings of various shapes and sizes for most of the workday.
When I can, I’ll spend an hour working out or sitting in the sun to break up the day a bit. I end the day around 5 pm, honestly exhausted from all the activity, despite not really moving from my couch.
Can you describe your personal workspace for us?
I like to say a real “f-😑 you” to my spine by working from a couch or armchair all day. My apartment is aesthetically dialed to my erratic style, so I get to enjoy my back pain in pleasing surroundings at least.
Back when we used to leave our houses, I’d go to our office a couple times a week and work from the couch there.
I also forego any improvements to my equipment setup, and instead use just my 13-inch laptop. No monitor, no keyboard, no mouse. Just me and my blind refusal to change my habits.
What made you want to pursue a career in UX design research?
I think it was anger? Or at least annoyance. I was working in product (also by accident) and noticed a lot of spinning instead of decision making. People felt like they didn’t know enough to make final calls, and I was like, "what if we…talked to customers?"
"I didn’t know UX research was a real field, and I certainly had no training in it. I just saw a problem, did my best to solve it, and eventually realized I could make a career out of talking to customers. A happy little accident!"
Any insights you can share with teams who may be working remotely for the first time?
The first thing that comes to mind is trust. Believe that your team has the best intent, and know that they’ll get their work done. Have faith that the work hours that work best for them will result in their best quality work.
I’ve heard horror stories about companies requiring certain online hours or email response times, and I just shudder. Micro-management wastes everyone’s time!
What advice would you give to someone who is considering a career in UX?
Do it! Do it do it do it. UX research is a growing field with lots to figure out. It’s never boring, and UX people are some of the most interesting, empathetic, talented people to work with.
"You’re signing up for a tough job, but you’ll learn so much about so many people. It’s worth it!"
We'll end with a lightning round ⚡. What’s the best book you’ve read recently? Your go-to work playlist? Last TV show you’ve binged?
Your Life is a Life of Hope by Lord Birthday. It’s a celebrated (by me) follow up to his smash hit How to Appear Normal at Social Events. Lord Birthday is absurd and delightful and shares lots of solid nuggets about what sucks about life and what’s great about life.
My work is 98% Zoom-based, so my only regular soundtrack is choruses of “Can you see my screen?,” “Oh, sorry, I was muted,” and “Do we have everybody?” But the best focus music is this 10-hour loop of the most relaxing music ever.
In tough times, I strongly recommend regressing. Watch what you thrived on when you were last frustrated, stuck at home, and utterly at a loss about what to do with your life. Go back to your teen years, baby. #xoxo #gossipgirl
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