31. Noam Segal of Wealthfront

This episode of Dollars to Donuts features my interview with Noam Segal, the Director of Research at Wealthfront.

Everyone from PMs to designers, researchers, obviously, engineers, data scientists, marketing, we’re all trying to to understand our clients, we’re all taking part in that process in some way, shape or form. And so I view my role and user research’s role as an enabler, as a coach, as augmenting other efforts already happening in in the company, and really maximizing the returns we get on on the research we do. – Noam Segal

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Steve Portigal: Welcome to Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I talk with the people who lead user research in their organization.

I just watched an interview with Alice Waters, who describes herself as a chef, author, food activist, and the owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley. She’s often referred to as the creator of California cuisine, back in the 70s. At one point in the conversation, she explained how when she meets people, she will sometimes begin by bringing out food, say fresh fruit, and taste the food together with the other person. She explained how this shared sensory experience was an alternate, and perhaps more effective way of creating a connection between people.

It really made me think, wow, is that something we could do in user research? Could you begin an interview by sharing a sensory experience with someone? It could be taste, via food as Alice Waters did, but it could be a touch experience, a moment of smelling, a shared point of listening. I would want to understand more about what Waters believes this accomplishes and if it’s conjecture or there’s any more evidence, and I don’t really have any idea how to introduce something like this into an already hesitant dynamic, that initial moment.

And with all (hopefully all?) research happening remotely at the moment, is there some sort of shared over distance aspect of this, a sensory experience that both parties could initiate, maybe it could be entirely pedestrian, such as feeling the glass of a mobile device, versus something celebratory like a piece of fruit selected by Alice Waters.

I don’t know what this would lead to but I’ll be curious to hear what happens for people that try it. As well, it serves to remind me that all too often I neglect including all the senses in how I process the world and how I engage with others.

This is another episode without either professional editor or transcriptionist. This podcast is my way to contribute at this particular moment, but I hope you can keep me and my practice in mind for collaborating on research, for coaching, for training, and other work to help advance the maturity of your organization’s research practice, wherever you’re at currently.

Now, let’s get to my interview with Noam Segal, who is the director of research at Wealthfront.

Noam, thanks for being on dollars to donuts. So it’s really great to have you here.

Noam: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

Steve: So my typical way of beginning which we can do today is just to ask, ask you to introduce yourself.

Noam Segal: Sure. So my name is Noam Segal and I am currently on parental leave, actually, with my six month old, baby boy Dean. But when I’m not on leave, I’m director of user research at Wealthfront. So that’s what I’m currently up to. I’m originally from Israel, although I don’t sound like it because my parents are both English and somehow I inherited the British accent. And I moved to the US in 2012 with my wife for graduate school Originally, I got my PhD in psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. And when I graduated, we decided to move to the Bay Area and both pursue positions in tech. And I’ve been in UX research ever since and have worked for Airbnb, Intercom and again these days Wealthfront.

Steve: How did you find out about UX research?

Noam: So, as an Israeli, we have mandatory military service, and I served in a unit within the Israeli Air Force for most of my, my service. That particular unit is in charge of Israel’s missile defense systems. And when I left the military got discharged, I decided to join the military industries. Kind of the Israeli equivalent of maybe Lockheed Martin in general dynamics, those sorts of companies. And I focused on developing the UX, but we didn’t call it UX at the time of these missile defense systems, primarily the our weapon system, which is a system designed to protect as well, from medium to long range missiles. This could not be more different than what I do today. Very little relationship, but that’s when I really started appreciating and and desiring to be in this field of UX more, more broadly, that was my focus, I focused on the interface. I focused on understanding from the operators of these systems, what they what they need, and it was an incredible six year learning experience. So that’s kind of how I got into it in the first place. Later on I wanted to improve my my research abilities and knowledge and I was definitely considering going into academia for a while. So that led me to the Ph. D program. But at some point, in year four of the PhD I realized that I love two things. I love research and being a researcher and I love technology. And there is a profession that marries those two things quite perfectly. And that is UX research. So I decided to shift my focus back to industry and and going to work at first with Airbnb and carried on ever since.

Steve: Did you finish the PhD?

Noam: I did. I did. It was a hectic time in my life. I was in the middle of my fourth year in world Typically a six year program. That said, it’s typically a six year program because of how difficult the academic job market is rather than how long it actually takes to finish a dissertation. And I realized and there was some events in our lives, both personal professional that I want to take a different path from academia. And so I interviewed with several, especially Bay Area companies and was fortunate enough to get a couple of offers and decided to fast track the rest of my my dissertation. And I proposed the research I was going to do in January, and I defended my dissertation on June 1 of 2016. And less than 24 hours later, we were on a plane to San Francisco to stop life in the Bay Area. So it was a crazy period in our life. And I’m rather happy it was over because it was quite difficult. But yes, I did. I did graduate, it was very important for me to finish the program. And I benefited greatly from my studies, my relationship with my advisor, and all of my fellow students at Illinois, really appreciate that time, it taught me more than I could ever imagine.

Steve: So maybe I can just go back. So you kind of described this. And we have like, book ends, maybe have a narrative here, where at the beginning, you are, you know, in the, in the army and kind of looking at those things. And at the end of this chapter anyway, you’re getting on an airplane to San Francisco to enter the, you know, Bay Area, user research roles. But I’m wondering, going back to when you were in the army, you started as you said, You didn’t refer to it as UX. So I’m wondering, when did the research part like that this was a thing that needed to be done that could be done that you could pursue as an actual job. Is there a point at which that started to enter your consciousness?

Noam: Absolutely. So when I was in the military industries, I wasn’t in a research role, efficiently. And I also wasn’t particularly aware of the realm of UX research. But UX research is not really an existing profession in Israel, a separate function typically, in Israeli startup companies, it will be the founders or perhaps the designers that do the research. And so I was not in in a research role, but I was working in a very small team, trying to develop systems that were completely new to the world. incredibly complex, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. These are systems that are enabling Israel to defend itself from potential nuclear attacks. It really is life or death. I mean, in industry in tech, perhaps you’ve heard this before, we often use militaristic terms. Like we have war rooms if we launch a new product, or we conduct a post mortem, when something goes wrong and engineering have to figure out what happened. But I really was in in a company in a team where the stakes were incredibly high. And that requires research, whether you’re in that official role or not. I was in a unique position, where on the one hand, I was working in this team as a civilian, speaking to people who operate the system thinking about the user experience. This is the system where people have, in some cases just a few seconds to make very critical decisions. And failure is simply not an option. But on the other hand, I was also an operator myself. So I was still in the reserves, still serving in the military still doing one or two days a month in some cases in the unit as a reserve soldier. And so I got to see and experience these systems from those two, two sides of the coin, which was very, very interesting. And obviously, this happens to to us, as well here in the Bay Area, often we are using the systems we’re also developing, that’s quite common. But that was the first time that happened to me. And I think one thing that really struck me developing these systems and I think it’s part of the reason I decided to move on is that I really, truly believe that failure is a critical component of learning. And failure is not really an option when what you’re developing is missile missile defense system. Um, and that’s a very heavy weight to carry on your shoulders. For anyone who is part of that sort of team. It’s a huge responsibility. It’s not the type of intuitive work that we do in the Bay Area, you cannot fail often, and, and learn, you know, move quickly and break things. You can’t do that when you’re in that type of industry. And so on the one hand, it was an incredible experience and really my first venture into UX. And on the other hand, I really needed to move on in order to become a better researcher, and a better professional within the UX research community. So that’s a bit about my time there.

Steve: Yeah. And what did you do for undergraduate?

Noam: So I went to a small kind of liberal arts college in Israel. And I studied psychology as my major. And I took kind of Media Communications as my, my minor. I was in the first cohort of psychology studies at this college, they just opened the psychology school the way I started. And maybe maybe it’s a personality thing, but I love to be part of new programs, new things, new ventures. And then I had other options to go study at more established universities, which you may have heard of Tel Aviv University as an example. I really wanted to join this this new program, and I have to say it benefited me greatly. The learning experience was incredible. We were a small cohorts of people. We have very close relationships with our professors. And the fact that I went there was a big part of I think, why I ended up getting into graduate school in the US and being able to make this move and ended up where where I am today. So it was a wonderful undergraduate experience, very small campus. My first time moving out to my parents house and and experiencing a lot of lots of new things. I really appreciate that. That time and the psychology the foundations of psychology gave me which were very helpful later on. And until today, really.

Steve: So tell me what kind of company Wealthfront is.

Noam: So Wealthfront, I would say has been through a few different periods, different stages. It began as a platform where you can innovate vest your money passively, passively invest your money in in the markets later on Wealthfront added planning features to enable people to plan for their financial future. And most recently, Wealthfront has added a cash account, a high interest cash account. And later on in the year, we’ll also be launching a bank account for our clients. And so I would say in general, what we’re trying to do at Wealthfront is provide people with incredibly sophisticated tools to manage their finances, manage their investments, manage their cash, plan for their future, and hopefully, achieve their their life goals. Through through well planned and invested finances.

Steve: Yeah, what’s the research practice like at Wealthfront.

Noam: So it’s interesting, you should use the term research practice because research at Wealthfront is quite different than what I experienced elsewhere. First of all, when I joined Wealthfront, the research team was not the UX research team. It was the team in charge of the algorithms and the math powering our passive investment engine. And these days, that team is called the data science And there’s a research component to that. So in FinTech research actually means something different than in most other companies and that took getting used to for me. But research UX research at Wealthfront is an interesting topic because as a practice, it has existed since the company started. And everyone from the founders of the company to later on PMs and designers at Wealthfront have all been conducting variety of research, project methods, and staying connected and trying to understand and best help our clients and our potential clients. But user research as a function didn’t really exist that Wealthfront before I joined just over a year ago. So I’m the first person at Wealthfront with user research in his title. That’s maybe not completely accurate because my manager, a picture, who is VP of design at Wealthfront actually started out as a researcher, but she transitioned into a design role quite a while ago. And I was the first person since to join as a researcher. So as a practice, it’s existed for for over a decade now, as a function, what I’m trying to do Wealthfront is really build out research as a function, which means a bunch of a bunch of things. But really, the point is that research at Wealthfront is incredibly democratized. And I very much support that approach. And so by democratized I mean that we’re all running research trying to better understand our clients and potential clients. Everyone from pm to designers, researchers, obviously, engineers, data scientists, marketing, we’re all trying to to understand our clients, we’re all taking part in that process in some way, shape or form. And so I view my role in many cases and user research his role as an enabler as a coach, as augmenting other efforts already happening in in the company, and really maximizing the returns we get on on the research we do.

Steve: What are some things that you do in coach examples or it’s such a powerful word? What are ways that you are coaching?

Noam: Yeah, so we are currently two user researchers on the team. seem to be a third. Hopefully, we’re currently in a, in a weird situation all of us as we’re recording this with COVID-19 out there and a global pandemic. But we are growing the function of user research. Until then, and regardless of that, we hope to enable especially designers and PMs more than anyone else to do better research. And to do that twit were using a few different techniques. One of them is creating lots of materials in our internal company wiki around best practices for a variety of methods and research techniques. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel every time and rethink how we should conduct a usability test or what best practices interviews are or what type of satisfaction metrics we can use, etc, etc. And so the first step there is to make sure those materials are out there for everyone to consume. And that’s a work in progress for us. The second thing is running workshops or interactive lessons, webinars, whatever whatever it takes to engage with various teams within the company, and enable them to learn in a group setting, about research best practices, and how they can level up their research. And then another technique or another way we do this is indeed, just one on one coaching, with with designers with with pm. We started doing this a bit. I hope when I get back from parental leave to continue doing that. That’s all of interest from many people in the company to have such sessions and get feedback on on their research sessions and what could be better, and what should what should remain the same because it’s already great. Our designers and PMs are well versed in research and they’ve conducted countless research sessions of all sorts. But there’s always something to learn for all of us. And so through those various methods, whether it’s on an internal wiki or whether it’s in a group setting, or whether it’s in a one on one coaching session, we believe that through those various ways of coaching and teaching, we can all do better research. Not to mention, teaching is maybe one of the best ways of learning, in my opinion. And so one benefit I feel of being a coach and an enabler and a teacher is that you have to constantly reevaluate and rethink what you’re doing. And then about the methods you’re using, about the best practices about the principles behind your research, everything you’re trying to, to accomplish. And I’m really happy about that because I’m not sure as a community within user research we’re doing that enough necessarily so i think it’s it’s a it’s a positive side effects of of taking that coaching approach.

Steve: So what is it that we’re not as a community overall doing enough?

Noam: Debatable, but I’m, I’m referring to revisiting the methods and techniques that we’re using as researchers. Use the research or UX research method Dollar discussions

Steve: Anything there anything specific that you’re thinking of that is unexamined that needs to be reconsidered or revisited?

Noam: Well, I’m curious to hear your opinion as well, I, I feel like many of the techniques or frameworks were using in user research. And one specific example I can give is Jobs To Be Done, which I really learned the most about in my time at intercom. Most of those techniques and methods are taken from other realms such as marketing. In the case of in the case of Jobs To Be Done, it really started out more than it was kind of imported into the world of software development and and product And I wonder if I do often wonder if there’s more room for user research specific methodological discussions and innovation around the methods we use? I think broadly speaking, I haven’t seen much of that. And I think it’s debatable whether that’s needed, or, or not. But I think that as we develop new tools, new ways of working remote research is a classic example right now, given the global pandemic, when there’s also a need to establish potentially new methods to go with that reality with those technologies and think about how we do how we do research. The fact that many of our methods and frameworks are imported from other realms, is maybe just partially a sign of how long UX UI Such has been going on as a distinct profession and function. But maybe it’s time for us to to branch out ourselves and dive more deeply into into those methods we use. So hopefully that answers some of the question them.

Steve: What’s the granularity of a method like Jobs To Be Done to me, and I know you’re talking about methods and frameworks, you know, I’m just thinking there’s, like remote research is an umbrella term for a certain set of things, Jobs To Be Done is. And I’m thinking about, you know, he talks about innovating in the methods. I’m just not sure. We all that’s such a great word and problematic because we all think it means something different. So. Right, I’m thinking about some of the things that have come up in remote research when people were saying and I’m not gonna have exactly right, but how can I see my screen and the other person’s screen if they’re on a mobile device, and then people have come up with various solutions and sort of technologies and ways to hook up different pieces together so that you can remotely have a certain kind of interaction is what we consider that and innovation in the methods.

Noam: So, I view that example as more of the medium than the method. Yeah. So if we take eye tracking, as a method, because I do consider eye tracking a method and to maybe one way to define the method given that is a way to, to I’m kind of losing my own train of thought here, but kind of, I was gonna say like a way to gather insights, but that’s also the medium right? So let’s kind of scratch that for And then. So, thinking about eye tracking, eye tracking can be done in person and it can also be done remotely. So, that component the in person or remote component that to me is not an inherent or core part of eye tracking as a method. I think what makes eye tracking a method or the point is that this enables us to glean certain insights by by measurement of where people are focusing their attention, what people are prioritizing what people are going back to, etc. and we can take that a few steps, a few steps further. We know already that what people say is only a citizen part of the picture and Other parts like body language, and other ways in which people convey sentiment are not conveyed in, in, in verbal form. And so I’m personally very interested in kind of sentiment analysis within interviews, because I think that would add a lot of richness to to what we do as researchers, and we’re starting to see the technologies that could enable such methods of sentiment analysis within qualitative research to happen. I haven’t seen much of that research go on, I’m certainly not doing it myself. I don’t think we have adopted the technologies that Wealthfront to conduct that type of research, but I find it intriguing. So that would be an example for me of other methods in this case, sentiment analysis. It’s a novel implementation of that method, because we’ve been doing sentiment analysis for text for a while now and and we can take a bunch of tweets or take a bunch of feedback from the App Store and analyze it for full service and sentiment, but within one on one interviews, whether remote or in person, I don’t think I’ve seen much if any of that happening. And so that would be an example of a methodological innovation in my mind, that we could be thinking about moving forward. That there are also you know, in the realm of psychology, for example, in academia, I mean, there are a bunch of researchers who are dedicated to to methodology, essentially, or things like developing new statistical methods or packaging. For platforms like AR, to enable others to analyze their data better, and do more rigorous science and get better results. We don’t really have that function. I would suggest in UX research, we have researchers, research ops has been on on the rise for a few years now as and is an incredibly important component of research. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone claim the title or show particular interest in UX research methodology as a focus as a professional focus, whether it’s within any particular company or research team or whether it’s, you know, a freelancer who doesn’t who isn’t affiliated with any particular company. So that to me is another another potential step our field could, could move towards to advance our methods. Not sure I planned to dive so deeply into that so tell me if you find it interesting.

Steve: Oh, I find it really really interesting. And, you know, it evokes for me, I mean, just your proposal that we’re not innovating within UX research around methods is just, I mean it’s a strong point of view and I don’t disagree I just hadn’t really ever thought of that. It just reminds me of, you know, in my trajectory, a very early era for me when it felt like there were lots of innovative methods. And so a couple of things come to mind that maybe I’ll just throw out and see, you know how this fits into your into your kind of hand waving. I’m waving my hands kind of an architecture of war. You know, what’s innovative? What’s sort of? What’s a method? What’s a medium? I’m thinking about Bill Gaver, who I think was at Xerox PARC or at EuroPARC at the time, I can’t really remember. I mean, those both might be wrong. But he came up with something called cultural probes. Which is, and I’m also not going to get this right. But it was, I mean, a form of a diary study, but you were kind of creating kits to send to people. So it was asynchronous. It was at a distance. It was analog, but not necessarily analog. I’m recalling it properly. And you know, it was just, and maybe some of those things. We don’t you know, something’s an innovation and then it just becomes every day. Like, I mean, I’m describing, putting a packet together of things and sending to people well You know, if you go back to when we had before digital cameras for a while there were disposable cameras and they were cheap and you could like just buy them and send them off to people and they would take pictures and send them back and you know, now we have discount there’s a platform for recording your own video. So the technology changes and you know, this idea of cultural probes which is like a pretty great term. I always thought it kind of it doesn’t feel innovative anymore, but it was I think it was you know, came out of came out of academia or kind of the academic labs in industry there was a group in Europe I wish I don’t I don’t off the top of my head know what the sources but I’ll look it up. They had a method called moving with a magic thing. I wish I hope I have that right. And that was basically if you want to understand that behavior, you handed somebody a block of wood. And I think you either described to them what functionality we have, or they don’t remember whether you determined or they determined, but they would carry it around for a while and then come back and report on. You know what it changed for them even though you were so just now we have, you know, we have a minimum viable product or we have, you know, a paper prototype, but we have lots of ways of sort of creating the appearance of capability. But this was very mean. Sort of a little hand wavy and very European and sort of rooted in a in a period in the, I don’t know, maybe the late 90s early 2000s those felts exciting to me at the time, and then they they are so I don’t know, I guess My question, you know, I don’t know if you’ve heard of those things or how they kind of fit into your, you know, thoughts about what methods are and what it means for methods to be innovative. And is that changing just you know, as decades fly by?

Noam: So it’s a question. I’m not even sure I have the answer to, I think we have to ask ourselves, where is the ball or what’s the tipping point where we can say that we have innovated on a method and diary studies are a perfect example you just mentioned them. Diary studies have been going on for decades now. And as you mentioned, they started out with people sending physical packets to to other people’s mailboxes and waiting for responses and just doing that, you know, a few times until they get the results they need. And indeed, these days, we Have modern fantastic platforms like dscout for diary studies, and they have completely digitized all of the process and have also added a bunch of functionality that was obviously not available to two research shows back in, in in, in previous decades such as video responses, for example, which offer an incredible richness to, to our, our clients, our users responses and to our understanding of what they need and what they want from our product. But I think that also begs the question, is that a fundamentally different method or is that an innovation on on the method that was used previously by sending people a letter or a packet in the mail or not? And I’m not sure what the answer to that is. I think it could be very, very subjective in my opinion. It’s it’s possible that let me rephrase that, in my opinion. I think it it’s fair to say that diary studies haven’t fundamentally changed in a while now. should they? I don’t know. But as a method, I’m not sure. It’s, it’s it’s evolved enough where we can say that we’ve completely innovated or we’ve reached a new era in diary studies.I wonder how you feel about that.

Steve: Yeah, I agree. And I think you’re I agree with you. Acknowledging that some of this is not it’s not answerable. At least, you know, I mean, I’m trying to I’m trying to get you to answer that’s my job here. But you also acknowledging like, yeah, we can’t really answer that, and I don’t disagree at all. And I think that’s a good, you know, I’m starting to server sort of see, like, yeah, diary studies or diary studies, and we do them differently and they’re richer and we have, you know, the pace is different and so on. But it’s still, it’s still the same kind of interaction with people. We’re trying to get a certain kind of information. You know, talk about sentiment analysis versus just, you know, an in person interview. That’s a very different type of data that’s being pulled into, into the research that, that I think we’re not getting now.

Noam: I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you what, though. I’m when I was in graduate school, I was in the social personality division within the psychology department, and obviously social and personality psychologists differ quite a bit in what they find most important social psychologists have focusing on the effects of the situation and the context people are in. Whereas personality psychologists are focusing on individual differences in characteristics and how they drive variation in in behavior and outcome in in real life. I think one thing that has potentially greatly affected and and maybe this is an innovation in, say diary studies, is the fact that people are still mostly self reporting, whether it’s in text or video, but they’re doing so on a mobile device. And they’re doing so in various places and contacts, which we know because, you know, potentially we can get that information as well. So these days, as we can all imagine, there’s a lot of information about each of us out there, online and our behaviors. It’s a very rich data set. It raises great ethical questions, security questions, other questions about how we all want to live our lives. But the fact is today, more than ever before, there’s a lot more data out there, not just about what we’re reporting and and what we’re answering in, whether it’s those written packets from the past or modern diary entries in the present through platforms like discounts. There’s also all of the context around that when it happened, wherever it happened, and countless other things. And to me that is potentially an innovation because it bridges between the two realms I was once part of and will always consider myself pause which is the social aspect and the individual aspects. And of course, we can add to that the cultural aspects and so forth and so forth. So, potentially, if, if, obviously, we get those data and people agreed to provide those data, we can get a much richer picture than ever before, about people’s behaviors about the context in which they happens in so many other things. And, and maybe that is a very meaningful step forward in how well we understand people.

Steve: It makes me realize and, you know, depending on your background, this is not going to be particularly novel observation, but a lot of research that, you know, we do in the field is focused on an individual. And, you know, we might occasionally look at a group of people, if we’re looking at something that takes place in a family or in a household, maybe some work processes, but we don’t seem to research across a network necessarily. I got at least I haven’t come across it.

Noam: That, yeah, this is something that absolutely resonates with me. Again, going back to my my academic days, I was working with an advisor who was doing a lot of what we call dyadic research or couples research, because we were working on romantic relationships, dating, online dating, attachment, stuff like that. And fast forward to to today at Wealthfront. Where we work where our work is about people’s financial lives. Then if you’re if you’re married or in a long term relationship, and you have joint finances, with your partner Now, then, obviously many of the questions on your mind, many of the needs you have are joint needs and joint questions. They are not individual needs or individual questions. But all too often, including at Wealthfront. And everywhere else I’ve worked, we do do the research at the individual level. And that is a very partial picture and a very biased picture of of people’s people’s realities. You can imagine that if you have to two people who are in a long term relationship and you ask each of them separately, about their finances and where they’re at and where they want to be. You may just get very different answers that don’t take the other person into account enough. You’ll also get very interesting answers when you ask each member Have that family to report on the other member of that family and what they think the other member believes about, in this case, finance. So, I definitely agree that one of the ways in which we can think, among other things about methodological innovation is the level at which we’re conducting the research. Is it the individual level? Is it the couple or dyadic? level, the group level? And when should we be focusing on that particular level? And also, should we be can we develop methods that are uniquely tailored to that level of of research? How can we conduct something like a joint interview in a way that will yield more robust insights? And does it need to be substantially different than how we’d interview Each of the individuals within that relationship

Steve: If I was just gonna wave my hands and imagine anything is possible, you know, having done a little bit about this topic and in my career as well. Seems like, you know, the family childhood family upbringing is a huge determining factor for a lot of beliefs and sort of why couples have different approaches because they have different backgrounds. I’m oversimplifying it, but boy if you wanted to, you know what, if you could maybe not literally go back in time, but it’d be interesting while we’re just you know, imagining Anything is possible to you know, interview the group that sharing the decision, but also learn about the, you know, the origins of those assumptions, rules, expectations, beliefs, and so on. From let’s just say it’s the family that they grew up in, you know, that I have no idea how you do that, from just a like a recruiting point of view or a logistical point of view or making sense of the data point of view. But just thinking about people as networks and where there are people as being in networks and where a lot of things that drive their behavior come from are not at the individual level. It does open it up in a way that I don’t know how to address.

Noam: Well, I too, struggle with that. And I, I struggled with even imagining what the methods would look like in order to get at the historical context of an individual or family, but I can tell you this. I have two children. And I have more photographs of my children than I do know than I ever imagined. I would have I have more data essentially about my children and I will always have that That data, then then I ever imagined would be would be possible that the richness of what I know about my children and could potentially share is, is crazy. Or another example is we can all go to Google or Facebook and look at years and years worth of history of where we’ve been, what we were up to, what you know, what we ate, and who we hung out with. And so, the next generation of researchers will certainly have access to an incredible trove of historical data. Hopefully, they get the proper permissions to access those data, and and respect the privacy of the individuals they’re researching. But assuming they do, I actually think it’ll be easier than ever before. To get such an incredible picture of what led the people wanted researching to the point where they’re at in their life. If you combine all of those data together with advanced analysis methods where we’d have the support of various fancy machine learning AI driven algorithms, then I actually do think that in just a few years, it will be feasible to understand people at a level where we’ve never been before, in particular, what you were just mentioning around where where everything began for those people and how they were raised and, and, and, and how they got to that personal and professional point in their lives. So I do see glimmers of or a glimpse into this potential future. I often wonder whether it will be useful or not, and how we’d analyze such data. And is this truly the future of our profession, but what I’m sure have is that too It will be a possibility, given everything that we we know about people and how we conduct ourselves these days with technology.

Steve: We’ve talked about a couple of things. So far and just very broadly, one is, you know, how research is working, you know, the roles that you’re playing, what you’re trying to help people accomplish at Wealthfront. And then, you know, your, your broader kind of observation that, that in terms of our methods, we’re not really focused on them as a practice, you know, as a profession, are there things that you can do? I like what you said, you know, this, that innovation and methods could come from anywhere. But is it something that there’s an opportunity for, for for Wealthfront, for you to be pushing methods ahead.

Noam: So I think that one of the beneficial results of democratizing research as extremely as possible and enabling everyone in the company whether it’s designers, PMs, marketers or others to conduct incredible research, and I’m fortunate enough to have colleagues who have amazing research chops and they do incredible research that frees up part of the time of the user research team. And and us as user researchers to focus on a some of the more strategic research projects that we have in the company. And it also will be it’s enabled us to focus on on research innovation, and either implementing tools that allow for better research to happen, for example, better knowledge management, of the research we already have, and are already doing and it also enables us potentially to focus More on developing tailored methods or frameworks that work for our context. And FinTech is in many ways, different or unique compared to to other areas. And there are certain things that we care deeply about. And so I think that the result of democratizing research as you assuming you accept that, that is a viable route to go down is that you are able to focus more on on other things, including that innovation I mentioned before. So we will definitely continue to try on the user research team to either implement new tools and platforms that are coming out that make us all better researchers, or innovate within the company. And and of course, if we can share those innovations with the broader community In order to develop methods that are better, a better fit better tailored to what we do, I can give. I can give an example here of, you know, something we care about deeply I would say in FinTech especially, is, of course, around the issue of trust. And the measurement of trust, which has, I would say, been a tricky thing, historically, for researchers, both in academia and industry. At Wealthfront, we are often handling people’s entire life savings investments. That’s a very big responsibility which we take incredibly seriously. And we want to understand how we can earn people’s trust, how we can build on that trust how we can augment it. We want to monitor the trust in us and and understand it deeply. And the measurement of trust. Well, measurement in general, is incredibly complex. And so developing great measurements for trust is definitely a goal, which I’m not sure we’ve, well I actually am sure we haven’t yet reached at Wellington, we aspire to do that. I’m not sure if anyone has. I think that as a research community, we can barely agree on how to measure satisfaction. And often we use deeply flawed methods just to do that. And in my opinion, measuring satisfaction is much easier than measuring something like trust. So more to come in the future, I hope including from us.

Steve: Maybe in the we have a few minutes left, it would be interesting, hopefully, to hear you. I’m going to start again in a few minutes that we have left I would love to hear a little bit about maybe a compare and contrast. The other places that you mentioned you’d worked Airbnb and intercom, you know, what are some of your perspectives on, you know, research being applied in very different organizations and what you experienced as a researcher in these different types of companies.

Noam: I’d love to do that. And by the way, I have as much time as you need because I feel like we covered a very specific thing for most of this conversation though I do find it fascinating. So for me, Airbnb was an incredible experience. I think what drew me to Airbnb more than anything was the mission at the time, which I believe is still Airbnb, his mission of belonging anywhere as an immigrant to this country, and as someone who’s traveled quite a bit and be To a few places around the world, I definitely know what it feels like not to belong somewhere. And I definitely know what it feels like to feel belonging. And I think that today more than ever before, it’s really important to break out of one’s bubble experience other cultures experience other places and hopefully experience that belonging. So, to me as a researcher, Airbnb, I had a very strong connection to to the mission. And there are some very unique aspects of research at Airbnb, for example. Airbnb is one of those products where the company’s aim is for people to use the app essentially as little as possible. And and venture out into the world the way Airbnb makes money. And grows its platform. And its benefits to the world is when people go out to travel not engage with with the app. And so a lot of the research at Airbnb isn’t just about the online app or web experience. It’s about the offline experience on the ground. It’s about the travel itself. It’s about things like the check in and the checkout experience, or what it’s like to go on an experience hosted by someone who lives in that city. And they happen to be experts at making pasta and they want to share their food passions with with the world. And so researching these offline experiences in a cross cultural settings in almost all countries across the world, is a very different experience than some people I would say have been in the UX research industry. Also, I credited with Be personally as a company founded by two designers and one non designer, but it’s a very design driven company. And in my mind, Airbnb is one of the best design schools in the world without officially being a design school. I learned most of what I know about design. And a lot of what I know about research for my time, at Airbnb. And the travel space is, is very challenging and very interesting. And I hope that in this time, when people aren’t traveling at all given a global pandemic, I hope we get back to that soon because it makes all of our lives a lot richer and a lot more interesting. And it’s some of the most fascinating research I’ve ever done. Another thing about about Airbnb, which is also a question I think in our industry, is how does the function of research operate within the larger organization? For example, at Airbnb researches is part of the design team. Whereas at Intercom for example, research was reporting into one part of the product function. We also have a bunch of different titles in our industry from experience research to design research to product research, user research and so many other things. And I know we discussed this a lot, but it does make a difference to one’s experience. Whether they work more closely with product and PMs or more closely with designers and, and design leaders. It really influences one’s experience, the things you can learn your your relationships with those functions and so forth.

Steve: But there’s a caveat to that I think it in looking at the two companies that you’re comparing and having not worked at either the missus, you know, definitely outside or hypothesizing but I could see be if I worked at Airbnb, I’d want to be working with him. He said, it’s a design. It’s a strong design company. And I think of intercom as a strong product company. And that, so it’s different where it’s different sort of who you report up to, or what organization or what roles you’re working closely with. But also that’s that is different in different organizations based on just the strength and maturity of those different practices.

Noam: Yes, I agree.

Steve: so just to clarify, You know, there’s a lot of different titles or the titles connected, is there a relationship between, you know what, what your job title is. And this this issue sort of, you know, who you report up to where the research organization sits, is that impacting the range of how titles are, are kind of applied to researchers.

Noam: So I think the titles we get as researchers are a function of a few things that are a function of the organization, their functional, its philosophy. They’re a function of how the organization itself is designed, and what the emphasis is on and what type of relationships the organization wants to cultivate more and how the company wants to be perceived, as well. I want to mention something about our work. At Wealthfront these days, some relationships are, in my opinion, so natural that it’s surprising that they don’t just occur within companies and don’t just happen and don’t just thrive without any particular intervention or organizational design. And yet more often than not, those relationships are missing at Wealthfront. We recently created something we call the research Guild. And the research guild is composed of user researchers like self consumer insights, which is typically the side of research that kind of belongs organizationally to marketing or perhaps in some cases, product and data science. Now, again, the relationship between user research, consumer insights and data science, in my opinion, is natural and obvious. And yet all too often, it’s not a thriving relationship, it might even be a very broken relationship. And so what we’re trying to create wealth and these days is is a much closer relationship between those functions Because ultimately, we are all trying to do the same thing, which is enable every single person in the company to understand our clients and potential gains and better to be closer to them. To hear them in a variety of ways. Whether qualitative or quantitative, it doesn’t matter. high level, we all have the same mission. And, and so maybe more, maybe something more important than the titles we have and constant discussions around what UX is or what UX isn’t or who is or who isn’t doing researcher, I think we might want to focus more on the collaboration between functions and the relationships between functions. And to really amplify these truly important crucial relationships between, for example, data science and, and user research. It makes all of our jobs better, it creates better outcome to create a better understanding of our users and our clients. And it’s, it’s one more thing I haven’t always experienced in my career and I wish I had so definitely trying to, to correct that now at Wealthfront and and create those, those beneficial cross functional relationships.

Steve: So how will this guild enable those relationships?

Noam: So what I’m again when I’m not on parental leave and actually working we have both leadership meetings for that guild with the managers or directors of each each group to keep each other in the know about projects and things going on and what we’re doing and how we can help each other and collaborate better. And we also have meetings between all of the guild members where we can provide each other with feedback on projects, whichever stage those projects are at, or ideas for new new directions or support, where support can be, can be provided. And anything else we can come up with. And just by having those couple of meetings, I think we’ve already seen so much benefit in terms of every project we conduct being that much stronger thanks to much broader feedback, much deeper feedback. And a variety of perspectives from people who have a very diverse set of skills, academic backgrounds industry experience, and to focus on on a variety of things in in their day to day.

Steve: And how did you come to use the term guild to describe this?

Noam: So I’m, I’m all about etymology, and very into into words, I think what drew me to the term guild and the reason I like that suggestion is that in most dictionary definitions of Guild, you have the notion of an association of people who are in the pursuit of a common goal. And I think that’s what’s important to remember that data scientists, consumer insights, or marketing research people, user research professionals, we are all in pursuit of a common goal at the, at the high level. And we should be collaborating as closely as possible in order to, to to reach that goal. And I think all too often we don’t understand each other’s work well enough, we don’t collaborate well enough and leverage each other’s work, we might sometimes repeat each other’s work or or you know, have like dual projects which are quite similar in their, in their outcomes. And so by focusing efforts on that common goal, and leveraging each other’s knowledge and skills. I think there’s something very powerful in that, which definitely exists in a bunch of companies in, in, in, in tech and otherwise, but could be could be stronger for sure.

Steve: So the thing about podcasts, I think, is that they, you know, we’re having a conversation on the day that we’re having it and someone may come to this at any point, you know, in the very near future or later on. So, you know, you’ve you’ve referenced our particular moments in time a couple of times or in the midst of a global pandemic. It’s really changing well as You know everything about everything for everybody right to work from home. People are sheltering in place right now in the Bay Area. And it’s forcing a lot of questions. Or, you know, for some and maybe not for others about research. You know, what we’re doing right now sort of how do we even think about how do we think about research our profession in a time where these other things are going on? And I’m wondering if that’s something that you’ve reflected on if you have a point of view about today about research today?

Noam: Yeah, I’ve definitely reflected on this, especially about a couple of points. The first is that I’ve, I’ve been passed off and seen lots of discussion around research ethics in this kind of period of time. People are potentially in also distress, a lot of anxiety. And so there’s the question of, it’s perhaps a philosophical question even of whether we should be approaching our users at a time like this. And what can we make of people’s responses when they’re in such a different and often distressed state of mine, given given the pandemic? My view on this is that it’s it’s crucial to continue to be such that such at such a time, certainly with more sensitivity and and a realization that there are probably limitations to to the research. But as someone who works in financial technology at a time when the financial markets are incredibly, incredibly volatile, I am personally happy that we are continuing at welfare to be attuned to what our clients need and what they hope for the future and to provide that for them. Because it’s exactly this type of situation where we want to to best serve our our clients and help them avoid potential mistakes that could be very costly to them. So I think there’s a need for much greater sensitivity at this kind of time. But I think researchers have an important role in pushing forward with research as much as possible. Maybe taking on additional projects that that benefit the health or medical services, community, and so forth. The other thing is, I think a big part of this past maybe decades and use research has been around research Ops, and how we can conduct research in a more lean fashion, fast paced, lightweight. For many companies, in person research travel, it’s a core part of the research practice. And yet today, we’re having to grapple with with this fundamental problem that we can’t do that anymore. And we’re forced to develop new tools and new ways of of getting to and connecting with our users, even when we can’t do that in person. And I think it’s important for every every company and every team and every researcher to think about those different contingencies and What can we do in a situation where we want to connect with the user, we want to understand them, but we have to do so in a in a remote interview or some other technique, which doesn’t include meeting in person. And this goes back to our discussion around methods and methodological innovation and what we can, what we can do around that. I personally hope that in the future, when maybe this time, augmented reality, virtual reality, other techniques become more of an established practice that we will be able to share spaces and share ideas and feel together and conduct kind of pseudo in person research even if we’re not. And I think there’s something very, very powerful in that. In fact, maybe that will drive part of the growth finally in in those types of methods, this type of event, I think it’s going to be very interesting to see the impact of this double pandemic on how we conduct our, our research, because ultimately, our profession is all about connecting with people and understanding them. And that is much, much harder to do when we’re all quarantined in our own houses, waiting for this to, to end.

Steve: Well, I thank you so much for your time. And, you know, it’s fun to go really deep into a few things. I appreciate you, you know, going all the way, all the way into the nooks and crannies of some of these ideas that you’re thinking about gives us a lot to chew on. So thank you so much for being on dollars to donuts. Thank you as well. It was a real pleasure.

Noam: I’ve been waiting for this. And I’m really glad you invited me. I appreciate it. Thank you.

Steve: Thanks for listening! Tell your colleagues about Dollars to Donuts, and give us a review on Apple Podcasts. You can find Dollars to Donuts on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and Google Play and all the places where pods are catched. Visit Portigal dot com slash podcast to get all the episodes with show notes and transcripts. And we’re on Twitter at dollarstodonuts, that’s D O L L R S t o D O N U T S. Our theme music is by Bruce Todd.

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