In the final episode of the season I speak with Monal Chokshi, Head of User Experience Research at Lyft. We discuss traditional paths to a user research career, creating routines for meeting different types of users, and the emergence of leadership roles in user research.
As researchers we love having curiosity and it’s fulfilling to do the hands-on work. That’s what makes us passionate about research, but in a business one of the dangers is getting too far into that fascination, but then not taking that next step. Maybe that’s where managers can help with making sure that the data and the analysis and then these insights and actionable recommendations are affecting product. We’re not just doing the research and being fascinated for our own curiosity and fulfillment, we’re making sure it’s put to good use. – Monal Chokshi
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Lyft partners with Didi
John Zimmer and Logan Green
Don Norman at UCSD
Lyft’s partnership with National MedTrans Network
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Steve Portigal: Thanks, Monal for being a guest on Dollars to Donuts.
Monal Chokshi: Yeah, sure. Well first Steve thanks for having me on your podcast episode. Really excited to talk more about user experience research at Lyft. So my name is Monal Chokshi and I’m the head of user experience research at Lyft.
Steve: And if I didn’t know what Lyft was, what would you explain to me?
Monal: Yeah, so Lyft is an on demand transportation service. So for those not familiar, basically all you have to do is download the Lyft app, open it and tap a button and basically you have a driver ready to drive you wherever you want within minutes at your doorstep.
Steve: Where does Lyft operate?
Monal: So the headquarters are in San Francisco. We also have offices in Seattle, Nashville and New York.
Steve: And where do you have drivers?
Monal: Drivers all throughout the country. I believe we are now in over 190 cities.
Steve: This is an American operation?
Steve: So drivers in the United States right now. Is there an international goals for the company?
Monal: Well right now we recently in the last 6 to 9 months announced some partnerships with international ride sharing companies. For example with Didi which is the largest ride sharing company, similar to Lyft, in China. And Grab which is in Southeast Asia. I believe they’re based in Singapore. So the idea being that travelers from the U.S. would be able to travel to one of these places, open the Lyft app and call a car. It wouldn’t be a Lyft car. It would be one of these folks from our partner companies coming to pick them up. So we haven’t launched that yet, but that is a partnership that we’ve announced and we’re really looking forward to getting that going.
Steve: It makes me think of like code sharing and airlines where you can purchase through the sort of front end that you’ve always used, but the service is delivered through a partnership with somebody else. Is that a, is that a – does that comparison apply to something like this?
Monal: I think it might. I think it’s a pretty good way to think about it from an analogy.
Steve: I’m sure there’s probably better analogies for how products and services in one market end up in another, but that’s the best I could think of on the fly. That’s really interesting.
Steve: And I’m sure there’s going to be design challenges – what does that experience look like in that different situation.
Monal: Yeah, we’re really excited about designing this new experience just because of the various challenges that come with different cultures and different transportation schemes for various cities, especially international. As we all know the cultures, the modes of transportation are different from city to city in the US and then overseas there are various challenges with language as well. So there’s a lot of really exciting things to think about.
Steve: I love like the really specific use case you’re looking at now which is I’m from the United States, I use Lyft here. I’m in a different context so how can I bring access to that service with me. It makes me think about what people that use Netflix complain about it or I think I hear this with the iTunes store. For example, you can’t get the same access when you’re in a different place. So this gives you – I’m sort of imagining it gives you – you can sort of bring your Lyft travel experience with you into these other environments.
Monal: Yeah. And people use and are comfortable with Lyft here. We want to be able to make sure that they have the comfort of the same kind of service over there, something that they can trust and feel good about. Something that’s familiar in an area where everything seems unfamiliar to them.
Steve: Can you talk about the work that you do here and what is research like at Lyft?
Monal: Sure. So research at Lyft has always been part of our core DNA in a sense. The founders, Logan and John, are really focused on treating people better and that includes all of our users, our drivers, our passengers and so really understanding who these people are and figuring out how to create the best user experience for them has always been top of mind here. Before I joined we did do various research activities and there were several initiatives happening at Lyft. Once I joined, I joined to sort of make that part of our regular product and design processes and so the kinds of research that our team does really runs the whole gamut of what UX research can do. We do everything from field studies and surveys to user and usability testing of new designs and products. So yeah, it’s been a really fun place to work, just also because user experience is so well regarded and supported here.
Steve: When did you come to Lyft?
Monal: I’ve been at Lyft for about a year.
Steve: So you’re describing a little bit about how – you know what you were brought in to do, to sort of – I don’t think you used the word formalize, but that’s sort of the word that comes to mind. I guess is the question about – you know what that change has been that you’ve helped drive.
Monal: Sure. I think a lot of the research previous to when I joined hadn’t been formalized in a sense that now it’s much more a part of the regular, daily, weekly process. And I’ve also joined to basically build a world-class team of user researchers so that – you know Lyft has grown so much in the last year and we are continually growing at a very increasingly rapid rate. So there are a lot more needs that we have from a research perspective and I think as we grow the company there are more needs for insights. So, bringing that to the table and helping build a company that’s very data and insights driven is a priority for the company.
Steve: I’ve seen sort of two different modes of how insights – I’m sure there’s many more, but two kind of primary modes in terms of how insights can impact decisions. One is sort of the reactive and one is sort of the proactive. And you know where reactive is somebody comes to researchers with a question and says ‘Hey, can you help us make a decision about this?’ and the other is researchers often who have done research are evangelizing those insights to try to bring them out to find the people that can use them to make decisions. I don’t know if you even buy into that kind of framework, but I’m wondering a) does that ring true and b) if so like how does that map to what you’ve seen in your work?
Monal: Yeah, sure. I think we do a mix of both. When I first joined I think it was more the former in the sense that people have specific questions and we’re always aiming to try and answer business questions using various methodologies, whatever is going to work best to get those questions answered. But there are definitely times when we actually see something that is interesting and we’ll probe further on it in order to say actually there’s an opportunity here, or actually there’s some pain points or something that we need to look at further here and we’ll bring that to the attention of stakeholders in the company for further investigation.
Steve: So it sounds like part of that evolution, the growing of the company and the growing of the role of what you and your team are doing is – I mean developing the ability and developing the context to have those conversations. Yes we can answer the questions you’re asking and hey everybody else here’s things that we’re already doing or can do to support you.
Monal: Um-hmm, definitely.
Steve: So maybe that’s – maybe what I sort of asked inarticulately a moment ago, maybe that is the vector of a growing research practice is that you shift from reactive to more kind of reaching out.
Steve: Okay. So we’ve talked a little bit about sort of some of what you’ve been working on in the last year, but maybe we can just go back, back, back and maybe talk about how did you end up being a researcher? What are some of the things that you’ve done that have led to today?
Monal: Yeah, definitely. It’s funny, I often joke that my background and my entrance to becoming a UX researcher is very non-traditional just because it is in fact on paper very traditional. I’ve been focused on this area since the beginning of my career, even back in my days at Stanford as an undergraduate. So I think that’s pretty rare for folks in our area. So yeah, when I was growing up I always had a fascination for computers and technology and played a lot of video games as a kid. Started programming on my own for fun when I was in middle school, on my Commodore 64 – dates me a bit. And when I went to school in the mid-90s I was lucky enough to be at Stanford where a lot of stuff with the Internet was just coming, seeing light, and getting out into the world. So very lucky to have been there and found my major which is called symbolic systems. So symbolic systems is an interdisciplinary major made up of core classes from computer science, philosophy, psychology and linguistics. And I graduated with a concentration in human computer interaction. So a lot of what I do today is rooted all the way back from that time and one of my first – I guess the – my start of my career, I’d say I did – I was more of a – what we would call today a UX generalist. So back in the dotcom times, as you remember – sorry to call you out…
Steve: Hey, I had a VIC-20. I had an older Commodore computer than yours. I’ll own it.
Monal: Cool. So as a UX generalist – I’d maybe call someone like this today – I did everything from front end coding and UI design to information architecture and user research. And back then, I mean I was really seeking more objective ways as a designer to know how do I go about my design. And unfortunately I think most user research at that point was limited to usability testing. So while I had done a summer internship while I was in school at Boeing in a usability lab, I grew more interested with various kinds of methods of research. Like what else can we do, how else can we learn about users? And I was very lucky to have had a mentor at this company called Trilogy – it was my first company that I worked for – someone named John Morkes who now has a consulting company in Austin, Texas. He’s had it for many years now and back in the late 90s he actually worked with Jakob Nielsen at Sun. So he was probably the best mentor I could ask for and we together built a usability lab at Trilogy and he mentored me while I learned more about doing things like contextual inquiries, focus groups, all kinds of methodologies and that’s what got me really excited about focusing my career in this area. And I had some really big successes from doing multiple method research in terms of helping the company understand what was actually happening with users, even at that time and this was back in like 1999. So I saw the power and the value of what user research could provide. From thereon out it got a little more challenging as the fall of the dotcom era occurred and at that time user experience research or usability they called it – I guess UX was sort of coming to bear around that time, the term. It was much harder to find a job doing this because at that time it was seen as somewhat of a luxury kind of a position. Companies didn’t necessarily see the value in having it beyond something that if they could afford to do it, great. It wasn’t table stakes. So I focused on continuing with design, but I kept coming back to research in my mind, this is what I want to do. So I eventually went back to grad school to focus on understanding more different kinds of methodologies, how can I apply this? How can I become a UX research as for a career. So I went to UCSD and studied cognitive science there and eventually started working as a UX researcher and I have been ever since. So prior to Lyft I was at SoundCloud in Berlin for 2 years, starting a research team there. And prior to that Intuit and Yahoo for several years. And you know as I mentioned around the dotcom time I worked in some various startups.
Steve: You prefaced this whole story with – that your story, it’s a traditional path which makes it sort of – as you said, that’s the exception.
Steve: So I was listening as you were talking and think well what is the traditional path. So I don’t know. I’ll just throw it out as a question. What about your story and the path you’ve gone through, what makes it traditional?
Monal: Traditional on paper.
Steve: Yes, I’m sorry, yes. That’s an important disclaimer.
Monal: Right, right. Well it’s because I actually, you know back in 1994 I took a class at Stanford called introduction to Human-Computer Interaction with Terry Winograd where we were actually designing and looking at user interfaces for software. So this to me is something that most people, maybe going back that far, didn’t necessarily look at at that time. And even when I talk to folks today, you know 20+ years later, folks are still like wow, what you do is really cool. And I say yeah I know. They’re like how do I do that? How do I get into this industry? I want to do that, but I don’t have the background. I didn’t go to school for it. Should I go to school for it? Should I take classes? How do I break in? And I think there are a lot of folks who – most folks I know who are researchers today, even designers, people in the UX field, they’ve come from all different paths and I think that’s part of what makes it a really interesting set of folks because we are so diverse and we have lots of different paths that we come from, but all of ‘em include doing something with people, trying to understand people and enjoying that.
Steve: So what’s your answer to those people that ask you how do I get into this? What would you tell them?
Monal: Well I think it depends on the circumstance. My advice – I mean, and it depends on what kind of career they’re looking for, but there are more classes today which I encourage people to take. There’s lots of stuff online and I mean obviously the best thing would be to just get the experience, but I think it can be very difficult to do that cold. I know there have been folks who have just gone out and done research on their own and said hey, look, I’ve done this about your company. I’ve used your app. I tested it. Sent it over to the company and sometimes with really great success. I’ve even had some people send me stuff like that about Lyft. So it’s really interesting to see how folks are basically trying to break into the industry. But I mean definitely a traditional on paper route is very helpful, but I don’t think it’s necessary.
Steve: So in your traditional on paper route – it sounds like I’m talking about a paper route – I mean, you know the – it seems like there was this culmination for you with UC San Diego. It seems like that’s where you said oh I’m going to go become one of these things and that’s the way that you went about doing it. And of course you had all this background, going all the way back to Terry Winograd’s class, but like a graduate degree in – what was it, cognitive science?
Steve: See, I don’t know. My perception, that seems not traditional on paper to me. That sort of seems like more in the HCI realm and less in the – although having said that I’m not sure is it a social science degree or a design degree. Like what’s my perception of the traditional on paper thing? So the fact that you and I don’t even share definitions of traditional on paper even though – we have – I’m a little older than you but we have – we’ve seen some of the same eras of this work. I don’t know I think it only goes to bolster your really important point that the diversity of backgrounds and disciplinary orientations and all that that make up the work is just part in parcel of what this practice is about.
Monal: Um-hmm, definitely. I mean I chose to go to UCSD because – well first it was on my radar because of Don Norman and you know the Design of Everyday Things, previously called the Psychology of Everyday Things, really resonated with me and that was sort of my bible for – for you know when it first came out. And then there were multiple labs there that were focused on using ethnographic techniques in order to design technology for everyday use and so that was one of the things that really resonated with me in terms of going there. It wasn’t so much the cognitive science academic courses. It was more about the folks there and the opportunities to do research there where people were thinking very similarly in terms of you know how to do research and it was very applied in that sense. So yeah, so I – even though it does sound somewhat orthogonal to UX it was actually very close to it.
Steve: Especially once you explain it. Yeah, seeing an academic use of ethnography kind of in terms of using technology that seems very – that’s still cutting edge for the work world and it’s extremely cutting edge for academic back a few years even.
Monal: Yeah and back then I think in the early 2000s – I mean when I graduated from Stanford I always wanted to go back to school ‘cuz I’m always like wanting to learn and a student at heart and I wanted to work first. And so I already had on my mind getting a graduate degree and craving the desire to go back to academia at some point. I just wanted a break and some real practical experience, but that said it wasn’t that I hadn’t tried becoming a researcher. Back then you really needed an advanced degree to get into that field because I had tried. And part of it was the fall of the dotcom era. So it was really difficult to have those opportunities, but the companies that were still looking for folks like that, like some of the bigger folks – I mean I don’t even think Google –Google definitely didn’t have folks then looking at that. But maybe Yahoo or eBay. That you definitely had to have more of an academic background to enter.
Steve: Right and such a contrast to now where as you said there’s a lot of classes out there where these classes, and General Assembly springs to mind, but I think there’s probably dozens and dozens of other examples, but they seem to be maybe the most common brand that I come across where that – like a UX Intensive from General Assembly, like that’s the that’s sort of the symbol of qualification where an advanced degree was something. So that’s – if you just compare and contrast what it takes to get an advanced degree vs. what these kinds of programs are providing and sort of the coin to the realm has really shifted. I don’t know part of me things the population has – of researchers has just exploded between the time that you’re talking about and now. I’m now sure what the – do we know what the cause is and what’s the effect? Or what has led to what?
Monal: Yeah, it’s a good question and actually before I left for Berlin in 2012 I really feel like there’s been a shift. I mean – when I finished my degree and started working again I thought wow I’m always going to have to work at a big company because I still had this mindset of what I explained back in the dotcom days where this was a luxury. You’re the last to come into the company and you’re the first out. But that’s no longer the case and I’ve thought about this a bit and I sometimes think that maybe, you know back then it was all about the technology – wow, this is really tough to build. There’s a lot that needs to go into this. Just getting that done was a really big accomplishment. And I think now – not to say that building code is easy, or writing code, but building an app it doesn’t have to be that difficult. And so it’s become really important in the marketplace to have a great experience. It’s not just about having the functionality now, it’s the form as well. It’s a lot of times a differentiator as to why people choose your product vs. another. And I think that’s part of the reason why people are jumping on the bandwagon of oh yeah, actually this is really impactful. We can learn how to get our product to be successful in the marketplace.
Steve: And that think about the importance of the experience, I agree with you totally and it’s – we keep getting it demonstrated to us over and over again – I mean as consumers I guess we see this. It’s really hard to do that. And you know we have lots of good examples of a good experience and it’s just amazing to see how it’s impossible to sort of replicate. I think it you look at sort of the battles between mobile phones over the last 8 years or something, like it’s hard to – just because someone does one that has a good experience you just see these terrible things come out of other companies. And if we were two people wearing – you know with design in our title, we might talk about that issue in a certain way. I wonder if you have a perspective, wearing a research hat, like why do you – what’s the conversation a researcher should be having about why it’s hard to – we know that a good experience is important, but the creation of that experience is like amazingly elusive.
Monal: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s necessarily something that researchers can always pinpoint too. I think a culmination of factors have to come together. Various things and some of them are just very emotive and users can’t describe them. Researchers might be able to observe it happening, but I think it takes a really good researcher to be able to dig in and understand all those things that are happening in this person’s subconscious so to speak.
Steve: Yeah. That makes me think of a comment you made early on where you used the phrase ‘world-class research team’. Can you define what that is?
Monal: Well I’ll tell you a little bit about what I look for in a researcher. So there’s three main traits that I sort of boil down to what I think are most important for researchers – user researchers to have. First people need to be empathetic, so have user empathy – and part of that is being a really good listener. So being a good listener, being a very observant person, also being personable and approachable because any time you’re with a user or someone that you want to learn from and about they need to feel comfortable in your presence. And along with the user empathy piece and the definition of being empathetic is you need to be able to look at things from that person’s perspective. So if someone is really judgmental that’s going to detract from their ability to be a researcher just because you have to be able to consider their point of view.
The second thing is analytical thinking. So obviously strong one. One of the things that I think can be the most impactful for the quality of research is being able not just to collect all the data, which you might use the empathy skills to do in a sense, but to then take those insights – well take the data and the findings and turn them into insights and actionable recommendations that will drive good results for the business and for product design. So there’s a lot of other areas also where analytical thinking can come into play, but I think that’s what’s unique to this field and this profession.
And lastly, this one is probably overlooked by many, but I would say having really great project management skills and being organized because oftentimes as researchers we are managing so much when it comes to participants, sessions, multiple projects and you have to be organized and keep all of your data very organized. It’s just part of the territory in terms of having those skills to manage all of that. And oftentimes manage the teams and stakeholders that come along with that so that you can ensure that people are there to observe, to participate. You know there’s some administration work – administrative work going on here, but a lot of it revolves – your success as a researcher resolves around you being able to stay on top of it and be very detail oriented.
Steve: So those are things you look for, right. How do people exhibit those characteristics in a way that you can assess?
Monal: Um-hmm. I mean it’s definitely hard to do in a single interview. During the interview process I definitely like to be able to see them in action. We have folks do – typically do like some kind of homework during the process and I often like – like very many companies like to have them do a challenge in the office where we recreate, you know kind of a real life scenario, some role playing, and so we can kind of see how they tackle problems as well as interact with folks and understand how they may work with stakeholders. I mean teamwork, all these other things are also very important, but the three that I pointed out were specific to, I think, user experience researchers that are not necessarily applicable to other fields for specific reasons.
Steve: I like that your three kind of span a research project, for lack of a better noun. I mean you’re not looking at people’s data gathering abilities. Or not just that, but what you do with the data and then how do you help it – how do you help that result succeed in the environment in which you’re working. So sort of managing the logistics of your stakeholders and their participation and kind of their engagement and so on. I like your list quite a bit.
Monal: Thank you.
Steve: I think those three things make sense, but is there anything controversial there or anything missing or where you would dispute how other people approach this?
Monal: There’s definitely a lot missing from the list. I think these are just three things I keep in mind, but of course there’s plenty of other traits that are important. You know, as I mentioned, teamwork, being a fast learner, being adaptable to change. So many things that we probably look for on a holistic level. You know if you want somebody on your team you want to like them. There are lots of things that I think can be applied to many different roles when you join a company. I mean at Lyft we definitely get excited about folks who are also excited about our vision and the vision at Lyft you know is something that attracted me at first. Having lived in Berlin for 2 years, coming back to San Francisco I didn’t know much about Lyft, just because we didn’t have it over there and I’d heard a lot of friends and other folks talking about this company. So I finally decided to give it a try when I was on a visit here and thought it was so interesting, like the whole sharing economy and talking with my driver and I started thinking about Lyft as a company and realized I didn’t know much about them, let me check ‘em out and searched them online and started reading about their story and that’s part of what got me really excited because our founders were really interested – they weren’t just interested in building a better taxi. They were really interested in kind of the long term, big picture vision of creating better communities and reconnecting people through transportation. You know the long term vision is redesigning cities. It’s really cool. I mean this is such a hot space right now and we’re working on so many exciting projects as a company. One of the things I love is that we’re constantly executing. We’re getting things out the door. There’s always something big happening, but the vision is always what keeps us focused on what it is we’re trying to do. And that vision is something that I really can get behind because it makes my job feel a lot more meaningful. I mean I think as UX researchers, you know having empathy is something that we just innately have within us and we desire helping others and so when you look at the meta, for this company that’s what we’re aiming to do as well. So, you know we’re looking at reducing the carbon footprint, getting fewer cars on the road, putting more people in vehicles, making rides cheaper through ride sharing, Lyft Line, and building communities through that experience. I’ve had so many amazing conversations with other passengers or drivers in the car and I always just leave with a smile. So it’s really fun to work on something in the office, take a Lyft home, and actually talk to my driver about oh, wow, you have this issue, we’re actually fixing that right now. I can’t actually tell them that, but it’s really neat to know that we’re making a difference on a daily basis.
Steve: It’s fascinating to hear you talk about the relationship between, especially between you as a researcher, but with your researcher sort of identity on, between being a UX researcher and the vision of the company. So you talked a little bit earlier on about the different users. You kind of said, like you talked about passengers. You talked about people using the app which I guess might not be the same as the passenger. You talked about drivers. Tell me about, who do you study? What do you look at?
Monal: Well as you said, definitely passengers. People who are looking to get a ride, who are using Lyft to take rides. And then the drivers who give rides. So currently the Lyft app that we have today, the single app, serves both of those types of folks. And for people – most people probably don’t ever see the driver’s side, but once you apply to be a driver, are approved as a driver, there’s a whole nother world on the other side of the app. So we look at both those users and more recently we announced at the beginning of this year a partnership with a company called National MedTrans Network. So their users are a whole new set of users for us to investigate and learn about. I can tell you a little bit of a story about them. So they – National MedTrans Network is a company in New York. They work with insurance companies like Medicare and Medicaid whose patients are these elderly folks who basically need routine medical rides, rides to doctor’s appointments. A lot of times – all the time non-emergency rides. And they often don’t need to be transported in an ambulance or any special kind of vehicle. So National MedTrans has all these relationships with various car service companies, including taxis in New York City. One of the interesting things that came to bear was that whenever they have a taxi or car that doesn’t show up for a patient or cancels for one reason or another, which is pretty common, it takes – in New York City it takes them about 45 minutes to get that passenger, that patient, another ride through the taxi company. And so they started using Lyft and found that wow you can get a ride in just a matter of moments using Lyft and get this patient home so they can take their medication, so they can do whatever it is they need to do and not have to wait there on the street or whatever. And these folks have a lot of times more special needs then some of our normal types of passengers. So the great thing about this is in terms of building this new product research was highly involved. And so I went over to see National MedTrans, brought a designer with me and as anyone who’s done contextual inquiries know there’s so much more to learn when you’re in that environment and learning who the users are, what their daily tasks and processes are and the entire environment. And this company where we visited them was like people in cubes functioning as a call center. They’re scheduling rides. They’re working with taxi companies. They’re talking to patients, caretakers, people who are managing transportation needs for these patients and it was really, really insightful for us to be there and use the insights there to figure out how to build the best possible product for these users. It’s something totally different than what we have in terms of our native app offerings today.
Steve: And who will- within that use case are there multiple users there that have different experiences with Lyft?
Monal: Well the primary user in this case is the person at Nat MedTrans who is requesting a ride and managing the ride. So right now a lot of these elderly folks, they don’t even have smartphones. So it is a little bit of a juggle in the sense that Lyft wasn’t necessarily designed for this use case from the first and so we’re getting to the point where how can we build the best possible product. There’s the driver, there’s the passenger and now there’s this middle person who functions as if – kind of like the app does for you or me who might be taking a ride today.
Steve: It just speaks to a really, really (in capital letters for me) BIG idea. A lot of the technologies that we see are apps and there’s interesting – I don’t know let’s just call them democracy or democratic access I guess is probably a better word for this. If you don’t have the income or the technology, sort of know how to use those things you’re shut out of a whole bunch of ways to participate. And what excites me about what you’re talking about is that it’s a fascinating research question then is how do we make non-mobile device users Lyft users? Those principals can apply to anybody but you guys are digging into that. It’s really fascinating.
Monal: It is actually really fascinating and just being there and thinking through these whole – you know this set of issues and this problem, it really brought me back to my roots where this feels like a true user experience problem to solve, you know. Lots of different players, various tasks and processes, how do we make this work?
Steve: I hear the sort of analytical aspect of it as you talk about it, but I also hear your sort of – your point one about empathy. Like there’s something in your voice which won’t come through in our transcript, but there’s something in your voice as you talk about it. It seems like this touched you or this struck you in a certain way.
Monal: Yeah, definitely. I mean the thing that I think struck both me and the designer when we were there was like wow we’re there in this call center, someone called in, a patient who had been waiting and they couldn’t get a ride and how quickly they were able to resolve the issue with just using Lyft. And it just blew our minds. We were like wow. It was just really cool. Like we made this person’s day so much better by just getting them home.
Steve: So that project sounds like a sort of a special one, maybe sort of outside. Or it’s a new area for you to be looking at beyond the traditional set of users that you’ve been thinking about. I don’t know, in the life cycle of doing the research, whether it’s getting your data or helping the teams make use of it, I don’t know is there any spots that you find particularly challenging that you’ve had to dig into?
Monal: Well another thing that actually drew me to Lyft was the fact that I think there are a lot of really interesting research challenge with our product. We’re really on the cutting edge with regard to mobile devices, being completely mobile, having to try and do research in a very constrained environment which is a car. And I think that there are a lot of methodological challenges that come with that. So for example if you think about it the best research comes from real life situations. You want to be able to observe – from of course from life qualitative user research. You want to observe what’s happening in the real world, or simulate it as closely as possible. And if you want to find out what’s happening in ride experience, if you’re in the car you’re already biasing what’s happening there because you need to announce yourself as the researcher. Everyone knows you’re from Lyft. People are going to be a little bit more cautious about how they act. Let’s say take the researcher out of the car. Let’s just put a camera in there. Well then there’s legal constraints as well. You need their permission and if you have their permission then of course they’re again going to be a little bit on guard and this will really bias the results if this is what you’re interested in learning about. So we’ve had to come up with some creative and innovative ways to study some of the things that we’re interested in learning more about and I think along with that you know recording, conducting research, and huge amounts of data are always challenges for researchers across all industries. So specific to Lyft though, and specific to this area in particular, I think we have some really interesting challenges and it’s fun because it’s – you come to work every day thinking about – you’re really stretching your brain and you feel really good when you come up with something new and get to be creative in those senses.
Steve: Are there any process innovations or anything that you can share?
Monal: Not exactly (laughs). I can tell you about one of the first programs that I started when I joined. So we wanted to ensure that we had user testing for most of our projects coming through on a regular basis. So I started a program called Drivers in the Office, so D-I-T-O, which we call “deeto”. And along with that PACSITO, which is passengers, which we often abbreviate as PACS, in the office. So DITO and PACSITO, it’s like a weekly user testing cycle and it’s been a lot of fun. We have people come into the office here in San Francisco. Occasionally travel to other cities and occasionally do some remote studies wherever appropriate. But what we do is we have, and especially for drivers, for DITO, what we’ll do is we’ll actually have drivers come and bring their car, park in our lot and then we’ll have them use a prototype of a new design or product that we are testing and this allows us to capture everything that’s going on while they drive. So it’s one thing to be a passenger, in your house, on the street, looking at the app. You can stop, you can look at it for as long as you want in a maybe normal situation let’s say. But as a driver you have so many other distractions and concerns. I mean it’s a very cognitively complex activity. You are doing so many different things at once and now we’ve just added one more thing to pay attention to which is the app. So it’s a huge design challenge for our team and also from a research perspective it’s really important for us to be able to get the data in the right environment, in the contextual way that they will be using it because they’re using the app at an arm’s length. They can only look at it upon glance, most of the time when they’re driving for safety reasons. And we have to be really cautious about ensuring that it’s not overly distracting. So one of the things that’s been really great about this program is that times when we’ve tested like more low fidelity prototypes where we can’t go in the car, versus going in the car, we’ve learned quite a bit.
Steve: There seems like there’s an interesting, maybe sort of a hybrid – there’s like a semi-contextual aspect here where they’re not in a lab, there’s a high fidelity simulation of what the thing might be. You’re dealing with their actual car, you have realistic use cases, but you’re not also sending them off into the wild to live with this thing for a day. It’s a constrained experiment, but you’re sort of creating I guess as much context within an experiment as you can.
Monal: Um-hmm, right. And I think that’s important for us to – it’s a big part of how it’s going to be used in the real world so we need to capture that – how they do so in that environment.
Steve:What about other examples of kinds of, within what you can talk about, what are some other kinds of research that your team has done?
Monal: We basically try to do as much mixed methodology as needed. We do surveys, as I mentioned contextual inquiries. We’re basically employing everything that we need to design the right kinds of studies to answer the business questions. You know we have some user interviews coming up. We have – what we also try to do is work very closely with our analytics team.
Steve: Can you talk about anything that has – that people that use Lyft has experienced that’s changed as a result of some of the research you’ve done?
Monal: Definitely. One of the most exciting things that I feel user research has impacted was our Lyft app redesign that launched at the very end of last year. So we did a lot of iterative user studies, user testing especially around various versions of designs and the product moving forward and most of the product and design decisions relied heavily on the research that we did. So by the time we launched the app, the new redesign, we felt and our team felt very confident that it would be successful once it launched and it definitely was. We’ve seen really great results and have heard a lot of great positive reviews and comments about what we did and I think a huge part of that, I feel really proud to say, was due to the research that we did. So whenever you can affect the flagship app on such a big scale with this design you can feel really good about it. Of course we don’t take all the credit. There’s such incredibly talented people here that you know we were just lucky to be part of that process.
Steve: I think even just this phrase about sort of being proud of what you accomplished, it makes me think about how do you lead a research team. I mean giving out kudos, I think that’s one part of it. I’m just projecting on you here a little bit, but what are other things. Talk to me about being a leader in research. What does that mean?
Monal: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting because I think until recently there weren’t a lot of leaders in research. Primarily I feel like research has had a lot of individual contributors and that’s how we’ve been seen in a lot of ways, people who are providing data analysis, insights, and hey, great, thanks you did your job. And now with the growth of research and especially user research we’re seeing more roles where there are leaders. And I think it’s great for all individual contributors because a lot of times – and this still happens today – the individual contributors who have worked as researchers in the past haven’t always reported up through someone who understood what they were doing. And so it’s great to see that that’s changing to a degree now and I think just in that sense of having the empathy (back to empathy again) for understanding like what these researchers are trying to accomplish, what their personal goals are – I think a lot of what researchers in general – I’m just thinking back through my career as well – have felt is, I mean we really want to make a difference. We really want to have influence on the product or the design. We did this great research, we want to make sure that it gets in there. And this hasn’t always been the case for me in past companies. And one of the great things here at Lyft is that what we’ve produced has been so highly utilized, probably more than any other company I’ve worked at. So coming back to your question in terms of leading, I think ensuring that the work that we do does get implemented or is seen as respectable, credible, and that people understand what we do and how we do it. And bringing them along for the ride too, it brings us to a point where within the organization you’re seen as oh wow, like they do really great work and they’re going to affect really positive change for us. So sort of helping the team be known and understood as experts and ensuring that the work that they do has a positive effect on the company and for themselves.
Steve: And you’re right. That fell on the individual contributor to sort of – you had to do all that you had to do and you had to be able to do that.
Steve: And so you’re talking about like what a good manager does. They sort of, they advocate for their team, they…
Steve: …protect them and champion them.
Steve: You talked early on about this really important mentorship relationship that you had in your career. Are there commonalities between what you experienced kind of as the recipient of mentorship and what you try to provide as a leader now at this point?
Monal: Definitely. I mean John who was my mentor back then, he gave me so much and I feel like I’m at the point in my career where I definitely can do that for other folks as well. So right now it’s primarily here at Lyft, but I’d love to do that outside of Lyft as well.
Steve: How do we define mentorship? We talked about leadership, but what’s the difference between mentorship and leadership?
Monal: Yeah, I think mentorship is a little bit more focused on – well in my mind helping folks develop new skills as well. Leadership doesn’t necessarily have to do that. I think leadership can do that. I mean if there was a Venn diagram it would probably be overlapping in the circles, but I definitely believe that a good mentor will help someone on a personal level develop into whatever career goals they have. Helping them along that path to get to where they want to be. And for me I learned a lot of methods from John. I think I’m trying to do that as well on a mentorship level, but also just be someone always who’s there to talk through, you know, career related growth.
Steve: You know in some ways – we’ve talked a little about sort of the evolution of the field and it makes sense that at that period of time developing methods, not that that was all you were learning, but that was kind of a key. And I think about your three areas – I mean the first one you listed, you kind of titled it as empathy and then you listed like 18 other, like really important sort of soft skills that are crucial to being a researcher. So when you’re there for people as you say I think that’s starting to model, yes the methods, but also now these other pieces that are so important to being a good researcher.
Steve: That are just very, to me very human skills that we all can – we all can do to work on.
Monal: Um-hmm, definitely
Steve: Are there other things about you and your background that we should understand to know what kind of researcher you are? Any weird dots you want to connect for us?
Monal: Yeah, actually I think one of the things that’s really unique to me is that I previously had another life as a professional athlete. So I was very active in team sports and that’s a big part of like my philosophy too. Very team oriented. I started playing soccer when I was six years old and I got a scholarship for running when I was at Stanford. So that’s been a really big part of my development and who I am and the really cool thing about running at Stanford is that when I started there and started running on the cross country team there we weren’t nationally ranked. And by the time I was a senior my teammates elected me as the captain of the team and we won the NCAA national title that year which was less than four years later and so it’s been really interesting to draw a lot of comparisons and parallels to my athletics career and how I’ve envisioned like sports and teamwork and accomplishments and my working career. And it’s funny, I don’t even realize I’m making these analogies. I started talking about it to a coworker the other day and I’m like wow I do this actually quite a lot. But there are so many parallels to draw with regard to pushing yourself hard, getting to the next level, goal setting, you know the competition and teams, relating to people, supporting one another. And one of the reasons why I think we won the national title back in 1996 was because we had such a tight, supportive team and I really feel that we have that now at Lyft as well. User research is part of the product design team and we are such a close team. Actually we just came back from a weekend retreat in Tahoe. So we’re kind of like a tight-knit family and I really feel that that support and that kind of environment fuels – helps fuel really great success.
Steve: So some of these parallels you’re describing, they seem about what athletics teaches you about working and collaborating. Are there any threads that you can pull from athletics that go into things that are specific to UX research?
Monal: That’s a really good question. I think I need a minute to think about it. It’s something I haven’t thought about before. I’m sure there are. I think I need to noodle on this, but I like the question a lot. I think because a lot of what – the parallels I’ve drawn have been more meta, like high level. Yeah, nothing springs to mind, but at some point I’ll get back to you. I’ll be like ‘Steve guess what, I figured it out and now my life’s questions have been complete Like I know. I see the light!’
Steve: Do you have questions for me?
Monal:Yeah, actually, so I was curious because you’re one of the few UX research veterans in the field and I was curious what kind of trends you’re currently observing in our little field that’s growing?
Steve: Yeah, I think – I liked what you said about mixed methods. I think that seems to be, you know, where traditionally on paper there was a lot of us and them. I feel like I’m hearing more harmonious stories and I think it behooves us as a practice to tell harmonious stories, but because that speaks to a successful, integrated, mature, not a diva, you’re wrong, this focus group sucked, blah, blah, blah. Like that’s sort of – that’s what we’ve been saying and I think true or not it’s sort of disharmonious and I feel like the stories of how groups have come together, to me that’s like oh we’re a little more mature as a world now because we can coexist well with everybody. And the qual/quant things used to be cats and dogs, but as you said you guys integrate well. I’ve heard that from lots of groups that I’ve talked to and I’ve seen that. You know clients I work with start to say like oh yeah, we have this group, this group, this group and we can kind of poll lots of – so that’s mixed methods. That’s also, you know – I don’t know sort of mixed disciplines I guess. So it seems like that – to me there’s just a maturity level there with that. Yeah, that’s my big one I’ll leave as the answer for that.
Monal: I agree and I really think that in order to have the most robust insights we do need a good triangulation of different types of data to be able to tell that story. I was also curious, I mean as we talked about UX research has come a long way from you know the mid-90s and where the worldwide web was at that time. I mean just technology has come a long way and UX research has alongside of that. So that said, where do you think UX research needs to develop most given our current landscape?
Steve: These are the questions I should be asking you but I didn’t.
Monal: The tables have turned.
Steve: Yes. Yeah, what’s the sort of opportunity? And this came up as a topic in an earlier episode of this podcast series where I don’t know that we answered it, but we talked about just this idea of research sort of evolving to the point where it disappears. That research right now there are leaders that are trying to develop in a business, but – and you’ve talked about the successful collaborations and so on. Is this an activity or is this a discipline. You know I hear so much about teams trying to – I mean one way to deal with the overwhelming demand of research is that research leaders are empowering teams to go do their own research and so then they have to deal with this question of well what do we do as the researchers vs. what do we kind of let everyone do. I mean that’s the consequence of the evolution of research and we’ve been saying, as part of that evolution, like everyone should be doing it, everyone can do it, right. There’s books that teach people how to do research, like that’s a change and so we – I think in the early days we struggled with do we let go of this or do we hold on to it and we chose to do a bit of both. So how does that play out I think is an interesting question? How should it play out? And research doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so how technology has developed. You know we are in a lot of the way – in a lot of environments that research is being used it’s a close colleague of design, right. I mean you talked about being part of the product design organization, not some other – part of the market research organization. That’s who our sort of, our teammates are. And design is changing and you talked about this already too, right. That companies used to just do technology and sort of experience was secondary. So I think where research goes we’re sort of subject to these larger changes in how – in how experiences are created. So I don’t have an answer to that and I’m not sure it’s a need. I don’t feel like oh we better get this sorted out or we’re dead. I just feel like there’s some interesting, sort of existential questions to reflect on. You know I mean over the course of our careers you and I have seen what kinds of organizations and what kind of roles are there for us. It’s shifted a lot and as you said there weren’t leaders like yourself a few years ago and not in the numbers that there are no. So even just for our own careers, like it’s going to be different in a few years. I don’t know. It’s tough to predict the future, but I think those are the – those are interesting, if abstract areas for me to keep looking at.
Monal: Um-hmm, definitely. I mean I think it’s – I agree with you and I also think it’s really great news that the discipline is growing because there is a lot of value that we can provide. And you know the Lyft research team is also growing so I think it’s a really good sign of, you know how much we’re able to impact the organization in a positive way and I love seeing now, after having come back from Berlin – previously it was like oh we can only work at big companies. And now I feel like every startup has a researcher. Maybe not every startup, but it’s becoming more and more common which is amazing.
Steve: You know the designer as founder sort of thing, it’s like a – it’s a thing that gets recognized and talked about and I feel like maybe we identified with – I feel like I was on some Slack channel or some list and people were saying well when do we get our first researcher as founder. I’m probably misquoting someone that said that to me and I apologize for that and that company may exist, but certainly that idea is nascent whereas designer as founder in the startup world at least is well established. Maybe that’s the, you know sort of next wave for us.
Monal: Um-hmm. Cool. I have one more question for you.
Monal: So I’m really curious, and I know you’ve had a lot of questions about this podcast, but I was curious what you’ve found to be the most striking similarities between all of whom you’ve talked to so far.
Steve: Don’t you love when you go out in the field and the person at the end says like “hey what else have you heard?” Or “am I normal?” They want you to kind of normalize them as part of it. That’s not exactly your question here, but yeah, what do researchers have in common? I think the emphasis on product is really, it’s like a thing that we should be proud of as the field and it goes back again to your list of three things that you talked about. As you kind of researchers needing to do good data collection – I’m paraphrasing you here – make sense of it and then sort of help it live in the organization. I am definitely twisting what you said, but that’s sort of thrust I took away from it. And I don’t know, I carry some scars from my early days of coexisting with people that – where research was their end – they loved – and you know I guess scars, but I’m also definitely guilty of this myself. Like research is fascinating. If you do it well the experience is great and you learn things that have no relevance. And I mean I’m a big fan of not knowing if it has relevance, but you learn things that you don’t know if it’s what you’re going to do with it, but you also learn things that just are great and they’re not applicable, but are part of what you have to do on that journey. And then you make sense of things and you find some really interesting takeaways, or things that are potential takeaways that aren’t necessarily usable by the company. Of course then you find here’s the things that we learned and here’s what we need to do about it and here’s all – but all the way along there’s a lot of fascination, right, like…
Steve: …it’s super engaging and to me very creative and I don’t know. I can be seduced at many points along the way. I mean, I don’t know – I think I’m good at making sure I get to that end point, but there’s a lot of seduction along the way with just stuff that is super inspiring, super thought provoking, that you kind of dig into and start synthesizing and organizing. So the scars are around, you know maybe sort of early days in the field, or my early days, where that’s where people kind of dwelled and someone had to come along and kind of pull them and say like okay you can’t deliver that. You have to show actionability. That sort of discussion was needed. And I mean it makes sense that the people that I speak to, like you who are leaders – I mean in order to be a leader you have to be beyond that. There may still be practitioners and contributors who kind of need to learn more of that, but I feel like if I take the temperature of the practice in terms of how it’s being led it’s about what we do with research.
Steve: And that is a massive change again over when I started in my younger days. And so to see that in common – again, maybe you go well of course Steve look who you’re talking to and what kind of jobs they have and look at what kind of companies they work for. You know again, yeah, you might find people at that skill level, like yourself, and experience level – if we were to like shift back 10 years you would be maybe working in an R&D lab or an advanced products group or something and not shipping stuff. So yeah, I think one of the commonalities is like these are people making products, or helping companies make services, whatever the thing that their company does they’re doing that and obviously that’s – I think that’s really, really good.
Monal: Um-hmm, yeah. One of the things that struck me about what you’re saying is that fascination and I think as researchers like a lot of what we love is having that curiosity and it’s so fulfilling just to do the hands-on work. My role is managerial, but I’m always still – you know I do some hands-on, individual contributor work as well. I just love doing it, right. That’s what makes us passionate about research, we love doing it, but I think in a business one of the dangers is getting too far into that fascination, but then not taking that next step. And maybe that’s where managerials, or managers can help with making sure that the data and the analysis and then these insights and actionable recommendations happen and are affecting product. That we’re not just doing the research and being fascinated for our own curiosity and fulfillment of that, but that we’re actually making sure it’s being put to good use.
Steve: I think that’s really important and it reminds me of just a period in my own career where I was managing my own team in my consultancy and I think like – we always had many different projects for different clients and I want to say maybe for a period of 18 months, which is a long time in sort of consulting years right, I didn’t go in the field at all. I was doing what you’re talking about, right, sort of managing the problem, helping with the synthesis, kind of trying to tie everything back. Sort of a creative lead and it was really cool to sort of – you know you remove one part of the puzzles and the other parts – I guess the other things kind of rise in prominence. So it was real interesting for me to step out of certain tasks and step into other tasks in a larger way. And I actually remember the first time that I went – it just worked out that like oh yeah I was going to do some of these interviews and I almost had a panic attack. Like it had just been so long. And I was not on my own. I just remember like kind of coming up to the door of somebody’s and just about freaking out. And you know the way I work now I’m sort of – I do more of everything, but having had that experience of sort of again playing just part of the role was really, really interesting. It’s good to hear that you – it sounds like you’re in the right spot. You still have your hands in things, but you can lead and kind of manage in that spot.
Monal: Um-hmm, yeah.
Steve: Alright well that’s maybe everything we have time for to talk about today. But this was really interesting. It’s one of these conversations where now I’m curious about a million other things. I’ll have my imaginary next 90 minute conversation with you. But yeah, thank you very much. You’ve really shared a lot today.
Monal: Thank you Steve. This was a lot of fun and yeah, I really enjoyed it.