What does a design researcher do?
Chante De Freitas on Februarys in Toronto, organic collaboration, and how research transforms into action
Illustration by Gracia Lam
What do you do?
I’m a senior researcher and my primary focus is e-signature features in Adobe Acrobat. Right now, I’m helping us think strategically about the future of e-signatures, but I’ve worked on everything from testing designs of the Sign component in Acrobat’s modern viewer, to just watching how people use our apps—what makes sense to them, how they explore, where they might be struggling, how they work with technology. The basics of it are really trying to understand the needs and pain points of current and potential users so we can decide how, based on strategic priorities, we want to address them. I’m increasingly thinking about research not only as a way to gather and make sense of data but also to be a thought partner, helping teams better understand what our customers are saying and what they need. Going beyond insights to think about what’s next is where the magic happens with research.
What’s your team working on?
I’m part of Adobe Design Research & Strategy and within that, Document Cloud research. There are ten of us in Document Cloud spread across different initiatives and although we work most often with design, we also work with product teams, engineering, marketing, and sometimes the executive team. We’re all busy with our individual responsibilities but sometimes things that we learn in one study impact or connect with the things that are happening in other studies, so there’s this sort of organic collaboration that happens. Before joining Adobe, I was a solo researcher and now that I’m part of a larger team, I realize how nice it is to be a part of what they call in healthcare, a “community of practice”—a group of people to brainstorm and troubleshoot with, to go to with questions, and to uncover triangulations in findings.
What essential tool, product, or platform helps you do your best work?
Hands down, it’s Miro. I love that tool so much. I always say, it fits the shape of my brain. Maybe it’s the fact that there's no real structure to it, but I don’t feel pressured to make things perfect. It’s a place where I can put my thoughts and even if it looks like a mess to someone else, it makes sense to me, and that's all that matters. When I'm working with stakeholders on design ideas or kicking off a new research project, everyone can put their ideas in a board and when we’re done, we have something to talk about because all our notes are in one place. It's a nice way to give everybody a voice and because it's super visual, with a playful element, it inspires creativity.
What skill do you consider a superpower?
Facilitation, especially as I'm increasingly thinking about my job as being a thought partner, helping teams think about what they want to learn or what actions they want to take. People know how to do those things already, but it can help to have someone urging ideas to the surface. The creative process helps teams avoid focusing on single solutions and getting stuck in ruts of thinking while exploring ideas. Facilitation helps people, with different ideas and different goals, to reach agreement about what to do next. There are so many creative people at Adobe, whether they're in creative positions or not, and it’s a real joy to get people together and help align their creative energy with the ideas we’re working on. That’s how research transforms into action.
What’s on your heads-down, time-to-focus playlist?
Right now, I’m listening to a Spotify playlist called Dinner Lounge. It's instrumental, kind of a soft house. Music can really influence my mood—if the music is calm, I’ll be calm—and because I like to feel calm when I work, this playlist puts me in exactly the space I want to be in.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Sometimes people tell you something and it stays with you. For me, it was advice from my grad school thesis supervisor Meredith, who said “Research is about making choices.” I’d been working on a project I was passionate about, so there was a lot of data, and I couldn’t decide what part of it I wanted to focus on. I had to make a choice about which story was the most important to tell at that specific time. It’s a dilemma that surfaces often in research because even though you go into projects with specific research questions, you always end up with much more data than you bargained for, and it can be difficult to figure out what to leave in and what to put in an appendix. Meredith’s advice continually grounds me and prevents me from sharing so much that it would be difficult for people to digest.
What excites you most about the work you’re doing?
I think again it’s that that partnership piece… coming up with creative ways to share or to get people inspired by what they can do with the research we provide. But I’m also really enjoying the conversations around artificial intelligence—innovation, creativity, and how technology changes the way people work—that began in earnest when ChatGPT was released.
At Adobe we’re all thinking about what generative AI means for us as a company but I’m even starting to hear (while doing research) our users talk about it too. And listening to how it's changing people’s lives, regardless of the function they’re in, has been amazing and I’m excited by the creative and innovative energy surrounding the topic. It really expands what we’re all going to be doing in our work—especially now that we’ve introduced Adobe Firefly—and I'm curious to see what comes next
What’s a dream project you’re currently involved with, or want to take on?
I live in Toronto, Canada, and I generally love it, but I’m not a snow person, or even a cold weather person, so I don’t love the winters. Since Adobe has a Temporary Alternative Work Location policy that allows us to work outside of our assigned work location for a bit of time each calendar year, my current “project” is figuring out the best location for using those days. It will take a bit of exploration (to the South of France, the Caribbean, and South America) to decide where I want to land, but if I choose a different warm location each year it could alleviate some of discomfort of Februarys in Toronto.