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How top YC companies use customer insights to drive product roadmap

Interview with Arianna McClain, Director of UX at Cruise

Alyona: Arianna, you’ve had an amazing career in such a short time. You worked for IDEO and led user experience and customer insights at DoorDash and Cruise, two of the most successful YC companies. How did you get into this exciting field?

Arianna: How did I get here? It was definitely accidental. When I grew up, I really thought only three careers existed. I thought I could be a doctor, a lawyer, or a professor. That’s it. I didn’t have anyone in my family who was a “business man” and I didn’t even know what a “business man” was. So I chose the professor route and did a PhD focusing on Biostatistics and Epidemiology. I went to Stanford to do my postdoctoral work where I focused on behavior change and that’s where I discovered the Stanford I happened to try a design thinking workshop and I remember thinking to myself, “This is what I should be doing!”. However, I was deep down the academic path and I didn’t know a way out. All my academic advisors were professors in my specific field. I didn’t know anyone who transitioned into industry.

So I did a program at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business for academics trying to transition out. And to be frank, the business world really intimidated me after that program. However, I discovered IDEO and I remember thinking to myself, “I want to work there.”  I thought my skill set would really work there. I conducted a lot of data analysis, but I also spent a lot of time talking to research participants in their homes and designing interventions. I thought IDEO was the perfect fit. And to be honest, I applied three times and got rejected.  I didn’t get the job until the fourth time I applied. I always tell people that story because it wasn’t easy.

Alyona: Do you think these rejections have made your career path stronger?

Arianna: I’m so grateful for all of the companies and programs that rejected me. When I was in academia, I applied to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and I applied to Stanford. I would have definitely taken NIH because it was considered the most prestigious postdoctoral fellowship that you could get. But I’m so grateful that I got rejected because I ended up at Stanford, which is also a great university and I discovered a different career path.

How to Use Insights To Drive Product Roadmap

Alyona: Awesome. Well let’s jump to your time at DoorDash, a high growth company. Could you please share what leading the insights team encompassed?

Arianna: At DoorDash, I was the Director of Insights where I led User Experience Research and Market Research. My team often collaborated with the product, data science, and strategy and ops teams to understand DoorDash’s users’ needs. “Insights” is such a big word, so it’s important to break down what that means and all the teams it needs to collaborate with to be successful. It means everything from innovation and foundational research to evaluative research. It means usability testing. It means brand awareness. It means NPS and it means looking at our back end data. Insights really are all of these teams collaborating and working together to understand and triangulate what are the biggest issues that we’re seeing consistently across all of our different qualitative and quantitative data sources.

Alyona: So what was your approach for taking insights from all these sources and using them to drive the product roadmap?

Arianna: It’s important for a company to not only focus on optimizing their current product – but also to make room for innovation and designing new features and products.

You will definitely start to notice that you are hearing the same stories and seeing the same trends over and over again – and you’re seeing them across various data sources. The data science team is noticing how certain users are not using the product as often. The NPS scores and open-ended text might show how or why certain people consistently rank us low. All of this starts to make sense when you also take into account the monthly phone calls with users and the results of the usability tests.

As you start to build out your product roadmap, the team asks themselves: What are we hearing all of the time? Let’s fix this because of the impact it can make on churn, retention, or other metrics.  Simultaneously, it’s also important to listen to users latent needs to figure out what we might be able to build to make their experience better.

Alyona: Super interesting. You mentioned customer retention, churn and on the other side, driving innovation. How does your team participate in helping the product teams make these decisions and deal with those trade offs?

Arianna: I think it’s really important to have a strong relationship with the product team. At both DoorDash and Cruise, I’ve had the opportunity to work really closely with our product leads. The main goal of both teams that I’ve worked on is to really understand our users and be able to work with the product managers to say this is what we’re hearing and this is what they say, think, and feel about the product experience.  Once we know that, we can all start thinking about new and innovative solutions.

Personally, I’m not a fan of the research hand-off – meaning a research team does the research, hands-off the findings and goes about researching new topics. Instead, I would prefer that researchers, product managers, and designers are all collaborators in the product design process.

Alyona: Almost like a dialogue where you’re constantly exchanging ideas?

Arianna: Definitely! I love when we can build off of each others ideas and a researcher is able to say, “How might we be able to test that?” to push the idea forward.

3 Career Lessons From A Customer Insights Professional

1. Don’t Give Up After Rejection

Alyona: Cool. And finally, for somebody who is starting a career in customer insights, what are three lessons that you’ve learned? I guess the first one is never give up. You mentioned all the rejections you had?

2. Build A UX Community

Arianna: I would say another thing is to build a community. As I said, when I first became interested in UX Research, I didn’t know anyone who was doing it and I didn’t know how to get in the door. So, started going to events. I met people. One of my favorite things to do was to look at women and people who I admire with super successful careers on LinkedIn and look at what their path to success looked like. When I had the opportunity, I would talk to them and ask for feedback.

In fact, when I started leading research at DoorDash, I was nervous because I never led a team before. I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing so I reached out to some people on LinkedIn, like Annie Steele, the Head of Research at Stripe.  Annie introduced me to Monal Chokshi, the Head of User Experience Research at Lyft. Now, these two women are my user experience research community. We get together for dinner, we email each other and we ask each other questions about recruiting, team building, and what it’s like to work at a high-growth company. They make me better. I don’t know if I could be as successful as I am if I didn’t have a community of strong people going through the same thing that I’m going through.

3. Take A Statistics Class

Arianna: My third piece of advice is that user experience research and insights has evolved. Back in the day, UX research was about talking to six people and deeply understanding their needs.  That is still really important. But I would strongly suggest to anyone who wants to get into UX Research or Insights to take a Statistics class, especially if you are working on digital products. There’s so much data in the world.  Even if you can’t analyze the data yourself, in order to be a good collaborator, you need to be able to engage in those conversations. It’s important to be open and empathetic to other disciplines.

Alyona: Awesome. This has been super helpful, so one – never give up, two – build a community of people who support you and three – make sure you get as close to data as possible by taking a class and this will make you a better collaborator. Thank you so much Arianna.

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