Last month I had the extreme privilege of attending an international user experience (UX) research trip with my team. The locations were Barcelona, Spain and Athens, Greece. Some from our team also attended a third leg of the trip in Casablanca, Morocco, but I wisely planned on only two countries for this trip.
As I wrote this on a plane over the Adriatic Sea from Athens to London, I was completely exhausted after averaging 3-5 hours of sleep per night, was braindead after days of intense focus, observations, note-taking and discussions, and I missed my bed and animals. The experiences of traveling abroad are beyond compare, but the idea of returning to the comfort of home is intoxicating.
So what is UX Research?
Many companies in virtually every vertical do market research. User research is a little different, so here’s my informal definition.
Tech companies that design products like apps and websites should not design and build them in a vacuum. They should be making decisions around a number of factors, two of which include data (logging how people actually use the product and drawing conclusions from that data) and user experience research (UXR), which just means talking to regular non-techy people about how they use our app. UXR encompasses a vast arsenal of techniques such as focus groups, on-the-street intercepts, in-home interviews, lab studies, usability testing, A/B testing and much more. The general goals are to understand how people perceive and use our products, and to get feedback on what they like, dislike, would change about our concepts, and how their ideal products would look and function.
So we did this work! For two days each in both Barcelona and Athens. We worked hard and gained a ton of useful insights.
Now for the Fun Stuff
I should be upfront that this was (gasp!) my first trip to Europe, so a lot of things I observed may seem run-of-the-mill to seasoned travelers, but I found them interesting, hopefully you will too. The following is a collection of my thoughts, observations and experiences from the trip.
British Airways Wants You Good and Drunk
This was my first time traveling business class, so strap in. Our flight from SFO to Barcelona via Heathrow embarked at 8:30 p.m. While waiting for takeoff, I discovered the secret underground society that is the business class lounge. This felt like something straight out of Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere.” There are secret doors and passageways that lead to a literal underground society of the wealthy and elite. Well, maybe just above-average income passengers. The wealthy and elite either fly executive business class or just take their own goddamn jets.
The slightly-better-than-you passengers in the lounge were helping themselves to liberal amounts of wine, champagne, beer, and because this was British Airways, chowder and crustless tea sandwiches. (Tea sandwiches!) I sipped a glass of pinot noir and hydrated with the most amazing apple cinnamon-infused water.
(On the flight home, I flew Virgin Atlantic, whose whole lounge and flight experience, from the colorful low lighting and excellent boarding playlist, felt like the equivalent of popping a Xanax or taking a CDB oil bubble bath. This especially after the hellacious experience I’d had at Heathrow, but that’s a story for another time.)
The British Airways plane was a double decker and the flight attendants were cheeky and delightful. Each person had their own reclining seat/nap pod with foot rests, book lights and TVs. They also handed out sleep masks, ear plugs, blankets, sheets and pillows. Yes ma’am.
Before I could even sit down and combobulate (yeah I just made it a word), the flight attendant practically shoved a glass of champagne in my hand. Then a few moments later, asked if I would like something from the bar once the plane has taken off. Knowing that I would soon be taking a dose of Ambien strong enough to tranquilize a blue whale, I begged off, lest a Bridesmaids situation should occur.
I did, however, observe that that once you start drinking on British Airways, you don’t stop. The flight attendants, nay classy British frat brothers, offered wine with dinner and kept those damn glasses full to the brim. A drunk cabin means a sleepy cabin, yes?
Although I wasn’t a fan of the Sagrada Familia’s architecture that I saw secondhand, most of the architecture in Barcelona was charming. In the Old City there were gorgeous cathedrals, cobblestone paths and muted but colorful apartment buildings with quant balconies filled with palms.
I found even the backs of apartment buildings to have a certain charm. Something about the juxtaposition of the colorful buildings with huge palms and colorful laundry really gave you a feeling that this is a living, breathing place.
And then, my favorite photo of Barcelona, a strip that looks and feels curiously like Miami.
A few other random observations:
- Trash Spanish TV is amazing.
- Uber drivers wear suits.
- Europeans have figured out low-flow toilets and if I might add, have exquisite toilet paper.
- We walked about 3 kilometers through Barcelona while doing our intercepts and I remarked at what a clean city it is. I saw zero trash on the sidewalks and streets and the city even at times smelled pleasant.
- Why don’t we have cortado coffees in the states? (We probably do.)
- No other ham than Iberian jamon matters
- The mansions on Avenida Tibidabo are gorgeous. This is an avenue featured in the novel Shadow of the Wind which is set in 1950s Barcelona, and which I was reading on the trip. A complete coincidence and I accidentally left it in the hotel room.
After our first day of research, the team decided to try out authentic Spanish tapas and wine. The shop was called Quimet y Quimet and when we got there the place was tiny and packed with people. It was shoulder to shoulder, standing room only. The whole place was probably 12×12′ with a counter along with main wall where you essentially just shout your tapas order at the matronly women behind the counter, they do not acknowledge you, and then your tapas arrive 2-3 minutes later.
The food was sometimes interesting, mostly delicious. There were marinated sweet peppers and artichokes in olive oil, pickled onions, very tasty cheeses, fresh white clams, crusty bread topped with tomato tapenade, olives and fresh tuna. There was also a meat plate with several pates and (possibly?) quail with the most bones I’ve ever encountered in one bite of food, which I discreetly took care of.
The wine was free flowing and we had an awesome time.
Everywhere we went in Spain there was a dessert on the menu that it sounded like servers were saying “beers and wine.” We all thought beers and wine made for a great dessert but what they were actually saying was pears in wine. Which means pears marinated in brandy. We also ordered a custard dessert that was so strong it could burn your eyebrows off.
At another restaurant, we ordered Fideua, which is a Catalan version of paella which uses fideos pasta, brings together squid, prawns, tomatoes and sweet but spicy pimentón and is served with a dollop of garlic alioli. This was by far my favorite Spanish dish. The flavors come together in a very surprising yet tasty way. Here’s a recipe, if you interested in trying to make it.
It had always been on my bucket list to go to Greece, so this trip was really exciting for me. Although I didn’t get to see the islands (next time!), I spent the bulk of my time in the Plaka which is the city center directly in the shadow of the Acropolis which made for amazing views.
I won’t pretend that I know anything about Greek architecture beyond Ionic and Doric columns, but check out these pretty photos.
I put quite a few kilometers on my Sambas walking around the Plaka. It was beautiful, there was tons of street art, interesting shops, good food, great people watching. I did some sketching in the plaza near my hotel one blustery November day.
I was also bit by the shopping bug in Athens. I just needed to buy things for people and there were so many great shops. I found an apothecary with amazing greek olive oil lotions, a macrame shop with beautiful handmade linens, clothing shops with soft scarves, jewelry, antique shops, markets with spices and olive oils. Needless to say it’s a very Grecian Christmas this year.
Athens is also very green. We saw lots of citrus trees lining the roads which were colorful with lemons, limes and oranges. We saw a few street cats, but they all seemed to be extremely healthy, some even portly. with lustrous coats. Clearly a very well taken care of part of society.
One thing that several of us noticed on the trip is that Greek people can be kind of strange or awkward to talk to. I went into a pharmacy to buy hair spray and when the women realized I was American, she became overly friendly, yet spoke to me like I was either an alien from outer space or a two-year-old or slow. Other Greek people were brusque and all-business.
The food in Greece was incredible. Everything seemed to come with a side of soft, mild feta. The greek yogurt and honey with pecans was outstanding, as could be expected. I got a spinach and cheese pastry from a street vendor that was super tasty. Greek coffee is bitter and gross, though.
Some coworkers and I got a solid recommendation for gyros at a hidden gem called O Kostas. We ordered beef souvlaki gyros, which means the meat was cooked on skewers rather than shaved off of a roasting lamb shank as with lamb gyros. The pita bread might possibly have been the best part though, it was soft, yet crispy, slightly oily with the perfect amount of chewiness.
Again I feel so lucky that I got to take this work trip with incredible people and have these experiences.