Spotlight on - Frances Brown
At Spotlight, we got the opportunity to talk to CEO of Nightingale Design Research, Frances Brown. We chatted about following your passion, the formula for success and her advice to anyone starting out.
Nightingale started life as Fowlam, a user research consultancy I set up with my husband Michale in 2016. Michael and I met while studying applied psychology in Cork, my home town, and we were introduced to user research and UX as part of our course. Michael went on to complete a PhD in user-centred design while I worked on various academic projects as a researcher. By 2016 we were both working in user research – I was a freelancer while Michael was working in academia – and we decided to set up our own consultancy, as we felt there was a gap in the market for experienced researchers who could provide rigorous research to feed into the design of technology. We were right – over the next few years, we worked with a very wide range of organisations such as the Home Office, LEGO, Health Education England, Balliol College Oxford and the Education and Skills Funding Agency.
In 2019 we realised that our offering had grown beyond user research to include research into all of the elements that feed into the design process, including the company itself, the market and the business model. So we rebranded to become Nightingale Design Research to reflect this broader, more complete offering.
A constant curiosity about people really made me start this career. That’s what led me to study psychology and it’s what keeps me interested in design research – a desire to understand why people behave the way they do and make the choices they make. I love delving into a problem, unpicking it, asking questions, listening to people, putting insights together to form a complete story and bringing insight and clarity to a situation that was previously complicated or confusing.
The biggest challenge for me was starting a business with very little business experience. Everything was new and difficult – sometimes it was overwhelming.
The main way I overcame this is perseverance. I just had to keep on going, trying things, learning from my mistakes, asking for help and advice, reading whatever I could. It was a great way to learn – I learned far more in the first three years of running my business than I did at university.
What is an important initiative that you feel passionate about in your role?
Women in Tech, which is part of Tech Nottingham is something I feel very passionate about. It has been a great source of support for me. It provides vital backup to women who are trying to navigate the often hostile world of tech.
Running a business suits my personality – I like the variety and the challenge, I even like the uncertainty, despite how stressful it can be, so I think the drive has come from how much I enjoy it. Work isn’t a chore, it’s something I look forward to.
I’ve learnt how important it is to rely on other people. I have a tendency to do everything myself and it’s taken a while for me to learn how to hand things over and let go of control. I’m learning to recognise other people’s strengths and give them enough autonomy to benefit from those strengths fully.
Try to figure out what you really want. At school and university, the expectations and requirements are very clear. That’s a good thing in some ways but it can also mean that you lose touch with who you really are outside of those expectations and that you neglect your own particular talents, likes and dislikes. It’s ok not to want to follow a traditional path – you really should try to work in a way that suits you, even if that seems harder or more complicated to begin with. Otherwise, you can end up spending years doing things you have no real interest in.
Talk to people who have unusual jobs. Everyone knows about lawyers, doctors and teachers, but do you know what a human factors specialist working in the nuclear industry does? Many people end up doing jobs that they didn’t know existed (or that, indeed, didn’t exist) when they were twenty – there are many weird and wonderful jobs out there and it might take some time to find the one that’s right for you.
You need to learn to distinguish genuine, constructive feedback from personal judgement – accept the first and try to learn from it, reject the second entirely. I’d say that particularly to women, who may be told they are ‘aggressive’ or ‘abrasive’ or ‘need to soften their tone.’ No matter how senior a person is, they don’t have a right to make you feel small or stupid and if they do, chances are they are a bad leader and you may be better off getting out of that situation. Try to learn and grow, but don’t try to change who you are for the benefit of other people, especially when the only reason they want to change you is that they want to silence you or damage your confidence.
Try to find people who are on your side – you will encounter a lot of negativity and concern, so having someone who really believes in you and is positive about what you can do is a huge boost.
When you’re stuck with something, leave it and come back to it. Don’t try to push ahead and sort it out straight away, take a moment, let it sit and you’ll have more clarity when you give yourself a bit of space to think about it. If at that point you’re still not sure, ask for help.
Look at the leaders around you and think about why they lead the way they do and consider carefully if you want to be like them. Being a leader in a situation where you feel constrained or where you can’t be true to yourself is soul-destroying, so don’t strive for being a leader in a toxic situation, or a situation that doesn’t suit you. Aim to be the leader you would like to have.
To quote Dr. Greene from ER – ‘you set the tone.’ No matter how good a team is, if the leader becomes disengaged, negative, vague or difficult then that affects everyone. Conversely, if the leader is positive, engaged and open, then a good team will really shine. A leader doesn’t have to be perfect but they do have to take on responsibility for managing the culture and environment of the team as well as the work itself.
Highs and lows
I love talking through knotty problems and breaking them down into more manageable parts. I also love seeing research come together into a clear, interesting useful narrative. One thing I don’t particularly enjoy is keeping on top of the millions of small details that come with running a business.
In my experience successful entrepreneurs have really thought about what they’re offering to the world, they understand why their offer is valuable and they’re able to communicate that. They are also very very persistent and tenacious. All entrepreneurs get knocked back and rejected; the ones that stick around are the ones that learn from the experience and move forward.