32. Chris Kovel of First Abu Dhabi Bank

This episode of Dollars to Donuts features my interview with Chris Kovel, the Head Of Research at First Abu Dhabi Bank (FAB).

I look at needs as proximate needs and ultimate needs. An ultimate need is why the product exists in the first place. And then the proximate need is the experience of using that product, right? So if you take for example, a hamburger, that’s a product and the ultimate need is the hunger that it satisfies, right? We as humans need to eat things and hamburgers are one of one of those things that we can eat. That’s the universal need that we that it solves. But then there’s also the needs of actually getting it, getting to the to the place, getting to the restaurant, then there’s the needs of having a good experience in line, being able to read the menu, being able to take it to go if I wanted to. So there’s these nested needs within the greater need of why the product exists. Both are important. But I think that product teams don’t always take both into account. – Chris Kovel

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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.
We numbered eight, a cadre of 10-year old boys, posted around the kitchen table and ancillary horizontal surfaces, awaiting the culinary culmination of this birthday party, when pop and chips would give way to the chocolate birthday cake. The flaming dessert made its appearance and we warbled “Happy Birthday” to the celebrant, mischievously goading him about his simian appearance and odor. And with that, the cake was ours – paper plates and metal forks, droplets of melted wax that we flicked off the frosting, fragments of decorative icing. So, we set to our primal task, inhaling sugar, chocolate, and oh yeah did I mention sugar?

Noticing something about my headlong progress through my slice, my friend paused and looked up from his own cake, curiously asking me, “So…you don’t save the best for last?” This was a new concept to me and I stared blankly, crumbs leaking out the corners of my mouth. His mother pops by to affirm, “Yes, Stephen, we save the best part for last!”

Beyond surprised, I was enlightened. Of course, some parts of the cake had more value than others. A forkful of plain ol’ cake wasn’t as good as cake and frosting which itself wasn’t as good as that mouthful of corner megafrosting. But the big news was that I had an option to eat to an end goal. I could eat differently – portioning, partitioning, and planning – suffering through not-the-best bite, so that down the road a slice I would have the absolute best bite. That would become my reward, that was something to work towards. Gratification delayed was gratification improved.

In a fundamental way, this exchange broke me. Decades later I am still struggling to effect repairs. I absorbed a significant lesson – that even a tiny in-the-moment decision can have consequences, risks, and downsides. This week, even, I noted how, with hardly any conscious thought, I was actively managing how much salsa to put on a tortilla chip, weighing that if I took too much from the little container, I could wind up chomping on dry, salsa-less chips by the end of the meal.

As eaters, we face moments for optimizing (or at least risk-mitigating) constantly. Food designers don’t seem to consider this aspect in their apportioning. Whether it’s Lunchables, or an airplane snack box, a meze platter, or a charcuterie plate, there’s an intended combination (nominally meat or cheese or spread on bread or cracker), by design. But the quantities are rarely calibrated so that there’s a cracker for every morsel of cheese, etc. Of course, we can eat things in a variety of ways, and an extra apple slice isn’t really a problem. But, a solitary dollop of marmalade is absolutely a fail. And so, when designers don’t consider this, it falls to us, the concerned eater, to plan, calculate, adapt. For some of us, that isn’t an enjoyable part of the experience. Indeed, the affordances, the aesthetics in a bundle of base/toppings is that we are consuming a set of choices, a purposeful selection of quantities of elements. So the mismatch is just that much worse when the cues tell us to expect coherence.

Going beyond what may be dismissed as my compulsiveness, this is really about being present. It’s hard to be present with your food, or indeed be present at all, if you consider what may happen in the future, worrying about potential microannoyances. Navigating the pleasure of being present with the pressures of what lies ahead is the burden – and freedom – of being an adult, of constantly having to make choices. At my most hopeful, I might reconsider learning about the-best-for-last less as fracture to my equanimity and more as an important and inevitable loss of innocence.

Here’s another zero-budget episode to share with you. And I want to remind you that you can support Dollars to Donuts by supporting my small business. Here are some of the ways I work with companies.

The first is User Research – I work well in situations where the team knows some things about a set of users, often they each know something different that they strongly believe, and have no way to get from their anecdotal familiarity to an actual framework to make decisions. “Oh, we’ve talked to our customers many times, but we’ve never heard THOSE things from them…” This is often research about people, rather than “a product”

The second is a Player Coach where I’m working with “People who do Research” or maybe there’s a junior research person on a project, where they can use some of my expertise but they are going to own the project from start to finish, so I come in to advise some parts of the process, roll my sleeves up for other parts of the process, depending on what the team needs.

There’s Team Coaching where I’m an available resource with office hours or other format so that people can come with questions, seek feedback, etc. I usually not “doing” anything, just there to talk and review documents

Training is for people who are moving to do more research, this is a half-day to two-day curriculum on planning research, interviewing, analyzing data

A Master Class is for a research team that has a particular area of interest, this is a customized combo of lecture, exercises, and facilitation

And finally, Alignment Facilitation where I’m bringing together a group of people to identify and sort through issues, often around optimizing and improving process

If I can help your team, please get in touch.

All right, let’s get to my interview with Chris Kovel who heads UX Research at First Abu Dhabi Bank.
Well, Chris, thanks so much for being on dollars to doughnuts. It’s great to get a chance to speak with you.

Chris Kovel: Pleasure to be here, Steve.

Steve: Chris, thanks so much for being on Dollars to Donuts. It’s great to have the chance to speak with you. Why don’t we start By Why don’t you introduce yourself?

Chris: Yeah. Hi, I’m Chris. I head up UX research at First Abu Dhabi Bank.

Steve: How long have you been in that role?

Chris: So, First Abu Dhabi Bank is a is the biggest bank in, in the region. So I work in Dubai, and I’ve been here for about 14 months.

Steve: And did you join the organization to take on this role?

Chris: Yes. So within the organization, there is an innovation lab. So fabric first Abu Dhabi bank Research and Innovation Center. And in that position, I head up the research and that position was created and I decided to take the plunge and go out to do By and it’s been a great experience.

Steve: Do you have I mean, this is an unfair question, but you may have some context since this happened before you got there. But do you know what led to the identification of the need for this role creation of the role, you know, the, the conditions that were established that led you to start talking with the organization and join?

Chris: So yeah, the history of the lab or the fabric, It started about two years ago. So, my boss, the head of research for fab guy named Gavin, he was brought on to really try to help with the digital transformation. First of Adobe banks, a really big bank, like, like I said, biggest bank in the region. And in terms of technology in terms of digitizing the products and the services. That was really the mission of the innovation lab or fabric as we call ourselves now. And in terms of research, Gavin kind of comes from a software engineering and design background, and knew that research was going to be very important in terms of creating products and digitizing products. And the other kind of core mission other than digital transformation with that fabric has is kind of spreading a culture of innovation within the bank. And that means empowering other departments, not just the innovation lab to be innovative, to think kind of like designers to be problem kind of obsessed, and all that and kind of requires research and hopefully we can get into kind of how that how that happens.

Steve: Well, that’s no time like the present. So how does that happen?

Chris: Yeah, so there’s a lot of different ways to kind of come at it. At least from my perspective, in terms of kind of developing products, you know, I think when research we like to follow design thinking principles comes out of the D school, most famously in Stanford. And but it traces all the way back to a guy named john Arnold, who create who came out with a kind of a book pamphlet, I think, in the 50s, or 50s, or 60s, called creative engineering. And it’s just a way of kind of problem thinking about problems, right. And, and, and needs, right. So when you think about problems when you think about needs from a customer point of view, that will allow you to kind of frame issues and then solve them through products and services. Most of the time when research kind of gets embedded in my opinion into this design thinking framework either up front and towards the end of the product likes, lifecycle. So I kind of think of it as bookends. And up front or kind of upstream is a lot of times when you’re trying to find a need and then downstream is a lot of times just smoothing out the experience or smoothing out the product through testing we do both at the Innovation Lab. But I’m very passionate about the upstream kind of research because it’s really where these the tricky problems are. You know, trying to understand human motivation is not a not a simple thing sometimes

Steve: From your perspective, or maybe from all the folks in fabric, you know, the value of understanding human motivation, in terms of how it applies. To the kinds of products and services or decisions that have to be made in a financial institution, maybe that’s clear to you. Does, how does the rest of the organization see that relationship between, hey, we need to understand human motivation? Because here’s what we’re going to do as a bank.

Chris: Yeah, yeah, it’s a learning experience. To answer that, that question because that was something that I kind of have found, wherever I’ve worked throughout my career as other people who kind of don’t, you know, live, you know, live the UX kind of world of the user research world or really being obsessed about the customer and making the product kind of fit the customer’s needs. is a difficult one. I mean, it’s about education. It’s about culture, you know at fabric. We have four core components within the You know, the lab. So one is research. The other one or one is research. One is accelerate, which is kind of more about more design. One is FinTech. We can get into that if you’d like. And then the last one, and arguably the most important one is culture. And that was that it’s just an education piece, right? It’s getting people to come and walk through the lab and show them how and the pods that we do user testing. And with, to kind of do roadshows to kind of get the word out there. We’ve done hackathons where we bring people together for kind of, you know, interactive brainstorming. We do talks and kind of fireside chats about design thinking and why they why people should care. So it’s, it’s difficult, right? Because culture is kind of a amorphous, intangible thing and to change it. It’s hard to change it if you can’t even put your finger on it sometimes. So it’s a work in progress. But at the end of the day, it’s it really is just about people and about just talking with them and kind of getting the word out there. And, you know, in the beginning, the bank kind of, you know, we had some Slow, slow days to begin with, but slowly but surely after that we started, especially within research after we start delivering value. And they kind of see the power of answering questions and have been kind of evidence based, then I think that there’s two ways I think it’s the education and then it’s also delivering high quality real projects.

Steve: One of the things that, you know, we talked about in researches is in addition to, you know, doing quality work is, is having people is having influences having people sort of be willing to hear that information that maybe challenges their beliefs, and then ideally, take some action based on that. And so, you know, you’re talking about driving this change, what have you seen on that side of things in terms of, you know, I mean, believing engaging with taking new perspectives on and then, you know, having that influence the decisions that are being made.

Chris: Yeah, so, a couple things on that point. So first off, you know, it’s, it’s never, you know, most of the time, I probably argue, arguably all of the time when a group comes to us to get some research. It’s usually a question that is pretty polarizing. You know, it’s research and also in many ways, I found is kind of a way for people to kind of settle internal conflict or settle internal debate. So, you know, these the results that we provide really matter and they really kind of, you know, take it to heart, but that’s a good thing. But the other kind of bad thing sometimes is that when you’re in the room, and you’re kind of, you know, for example, if you’re testing an application, and you had peep designers and product managers kind of working really, really hard to making things good. And in many cases, the research is the questions that we ask kind of the data that’s presented in many cases is really negative and sometimes and not negative. But that it’s kind of supposed to be that’s why that’s why the research is there. And to kind of manage that manage that in the room is something that it’s a it’s a learning experience, but You know, we’re kind of, we’re kind of human we get we get defensive, or the people who are in the room are human, and they get defensive. When, when the research is being is being presented sometimes so that’s just something you have to be kind of conscious of, you know, I tell that the younger Junior guys, that’s, you know, there’s a certain way to kind of couch the reports and the and the data. And when kind of infighting begins in the room, you kind of have to just take a breath, and really just look back at the rely on the methods. And that’s why, in my opinion, kind of the methods and the way you present and the quality of the research is so important because if it’s done well and it’s executed properly, then the data is the data and you can kind of just kind of, you know, sleep well at night, even if it’s caused some internal strain So, so that’s kind of kind of the first point The other one about taking them taking it forward, right is a kind of an interesting one, it’s me and me and Gavin, my, my boss, we kind of go back and forth about this a lot. And in my kind of philosophy is that the data is the data. Sometimes they want us to recommend, and sometimes they don’t. But in terms of solutioning, that’s kind of their I mean, we’re the researchers, right? And they kind of other product owners. And if the if the research and the project is scoped up in a way that’s pretty narrow, and they just have a couple of questions when we kind of provide that that information if they kind of because of politics, or because of infighting or because of, you know, other bulwarks. If they don’t take it forward, then it’s kind of out of out of our hands, which is kind of arguably good and bad. I don’t know how to how do you see it?

Steve: Yeah, I mean, I think you’re hitting a really This is a personal hot button of mine. You know, how do we measure our own success? I’ll tell you I had a kind of a galvanizing experience a number of years ago with a friend of mine who had worked with a number of design agencies. And we were just we were, we decided to meet and share our capabilities presentations as a way of just learning about each other and learning from each other. These were public, public documents that we could share comfortably. And, you know, I had all these stories were research, it uncovered something really insightful and potentially impactful to these business areas that my clients were working on. And I kept saying, you know, unfortunately, this didn’t happen or you know, they weren’t ready or they decided not to and you He kind of stopped me and said, like, Steve, you’re not in the business of them shipping a product, you’re in the business of highlighting opportunities. And that, and that, that was really grounding for me. I think, as I, you know, I want my success stories to be success stories and not failure stories, but we can’t control everything. You know, and I think it’s, it’s a little, it’s a little distressing to hear researchers tag their own success to a thing that’s ultimately out of their control.

Chris: Yes, yeah. That’s Yeah, it’s interesting. I, I agree. I agree with all that. Everything that you said there. And I think it’s kind of if you look at kind of the different levels of the macro and the micro, it’s like, I think if you’re, if you think about it, in the macro level, right. So the product that I’m researching isn’t going to be a success or failure. Then that’s, that’s definitely It can be kind of disheartening, right? If you do all this really good work and then the, the product kind of dies or it goes away or it takes a different direction, a direction that the research isn’t what you know, kind of away from the research findings, but if you look at it in the macro and just kind of, you know, look at each project as each project and as long as you know, you hit this hit ticked all the boxes in the scope, and you kind of went out and you know, you did the, you know, the research the way, the way it should, should have been done the way that you wanted to wanted it to go and then reported it and then you can kind of I think rest easy if you just kind of look at it with kind of net very narrow with kind of almost with blinders on but it’s hard sometimes. Right.

Steve: And I, you know, it changes and I think you’re kind of alluding to this. A little It changes based on, you know, how emotionally invested we are as individuals. And, you know, I work as a consultant. So, I love my clients and I’m super engaged, but at the end of the project, you know, they have to move forward without me so I have a, I have a way to detach my success or failure or, you know, how identify my own success or failure because project ends, even if a relationship continues. There’s a point where the that’s, that’s over, you know, you are part of an organization even though fabric is, you know, a center. It’s in the name. I wonder if I mean, I wonder if different researchers just based on sort of where they sit in the organization or you know, how they feel about their own ownership of that product or their own ownership of that team. I wonder if their own assessment of what success looks like very for them.

Chris: Yeah. I wonder if for me if I’m kind of okay with just delivering and then and then kind of moving on to the next thing and kind of judging the success project by project, not kind of the overall life cycle. I’m wondering if I it was kind of imprinted on my brain kind of from the early days when I first got into doing research. So I, I worked originally or fresh out of college in Manhattan, at a human factors engineering firm, very small, kind of boutique firm. And we would work on interesting and cut with big, big clients like Google and Amgen, and others, Nike, but it was literally like the brief would come in and you know, a month or two and we would do the research and then we wouldn’t hear anything because of you know, confidentiality. situations and what have you. So it was very much just like here’s the here’s the findings, here’s the data, and then on to the next thing, and I got very comfortable with that. So it might just be I don’t know, maybe how you get your start. But I wonder how if there are teams out there where researchers are kind of, you know, embedded into the whole product from kind of soup to nuts from cradle to grave, and if they prefer that, or if they prefer for me I love one of the reasons why I love research is because one week you can be working on digital wallets in the next week on a personal loan app. And you know, I love I love that for the versatility and the diversity of working on many different types of projects and kind of moving on to the next one.

Steve: Yeah, I’m thinking of several things here at once. Now. I mean, it’s interesting. You know what? Yeah, you make a really good point that, you know, sort of how you were raised up, how did you get your start and what sort of model formed for you versus, you know, the experiences we had versus someone that’s, you know, part of a team and maybe sees themselves as being tied to the success of that product. And, you know, I wonder, and again, I’m super biased because of the, you know, how my, how my approach was formed and how I operate now. But I wonder about, like, what’s good for research, and I feel like the truth to power role that we play, you know, is essential, and, and being self contained or self sufficient, like we’re going to do great work, and then we’re going to help you as much as we possibly can but that next part is up to you. That seems that mindset to me seems good for truth to power, you know, role but, you know, what I’ve come to admire with people who are embedded is you know, and maybe, you know, fabric is different than my business, you are part of a larger organization. He talked about culture, but, you know, the being embedded and working long term with people kind of day to day sitting with them. You those researchers, they really know those people, they, they can influence. I mean, literally from the inside, right? They’re part of that team. So I don’t know what you’re seeing with that fabric as you build relationships.

Chris: Well, for me, I think I’m kind of torn right because I can see the value and kind of embedding researcher through from the beginning of the product to kind of The end to when shipping or you know, when it’s becoming live. But I think there’s also value in kind of the outsider kind of role that sometimes we play as being brought into a new project or on a new product team. And kind of not having all those internal biases and kind of the curse of knowledge, right, that research kind of, you know, it’s just another it’s another set of user eyes, new fresh eyes of seeing, seeing the product and kind of looking at it from different point of views, different point of views. I don’t know I think that there if you really kind of take a step back and kind of look at a product or a service lifecycle, and no two are the same, but I really like kind of following the I mentioned it before the D school design thinking kind of philosophy and if you look at that The circles there’s five different steps or five different kind of parts to the design thinking model, kind of empathy is usually up front, and then testing is at the end. And I think having researchers in involved in the process for those two things is essential. I feel like it’s a lot of times, you know, we people and businesses and, you know, marketers or product people look at research as kind of a nice to have, and I really do kind of think that it is at least in those two areas upfront and then at the end, it really is essential. It’s, it’s a must have.

Steve: And what’s what is the research doing for the process or for the team or for you know, what’s the what’s the impact of research in those two different stages. of the process.

Chris: Yeah. So I think the easy one is the testings kind of down downstream, right? So when a product kind of comes into the business from and starts having, you know, getting some traction and people start becoming, you know, working on it. You know, usually a prototype is made, it depends on what kind of product for us doing UX research, most of the time, it’s digital, it’s, but, you know, that’s not to say that it’s always the case, it could be a physical product, it could be an experience, it could be a service of some, some, some sort. And usually, after a prototype is made, then the researchers come in and that’s when that person prototype is kind of smoothed out. So usability test tests are kind of bread and butter for UX researchers. But in many cases, I think upfront, you know, the research hasn’t, you know, the teams don’t bring it in. The teams don’t bring researchers into the process to begin with. And I think that there’s a real impact and a real value that away for, you know, product teams to kind of set themselves apart, and making sure that the product that they’re creating has been tailored to a specific need. I mean, I kind of see it’s, you know, some simple terms, that a product is just a sad product is basically satisfying a need and the way that you find needs, and it’s a very tricky, tricky kind of business, but the way that you find needs in my, in my opinion is through empathy and through going out and kind of applying the methods that we as researchers use to kind of, you know, make things a lot clearer and distill down the essentials in terms of what the problem areas are, what the need areas are no jobs to be done. framework, I think gets this right to where, you know, it’s kind of I was just watching a webinar, I think, and I really like this, this phraseology that they use they, they were thinking about milkshakes. Right? And like, why milkshakes were being sold more in the mornings, during, during the workweek than any other time. And the way that I remember that the way it was framed was, you know, why do people what are they hiring, a milkshake for? And I really like that kind of reconceptualization about that. Thinking about products and services and what do you Why are you know, hiring your computer? or Why are you hiring your water bottle? And I’m thinking about it that way I think really can kind of generate interesting new ideas and that’s kind of the heart of innovation in my opinion.

Steve: When you at fabric, have these initial conversations with teams at the bank. What are they? What are they looking for? Like? Do they have a product? Are they looking for needs? How are they kind of framing that initial interaction with you?

Chris: Yeah, yeah. So most of the time they come they have a product that’s kind of either out there and kind of in the wild or, or an MVP or a prototype and they want us to kind of help them bring in users have them you know, put that put that product in front of them and kind of observe their behavior and kind of get back to them with the findings about whether they the users kind of could understand whether there are any kind of issues with the content issues with the lexicon, this these kind of things. And so, you know, we work with the digital team, we also we work with other departments within, within, within fab, on kind of lack of productivity. And so, a couple of months after I started, I started interacting and working with the head of marketing. And we kind of created a market research branch off of fabric. So now, any type of market research initiatives come through us and we, we test ads we do kind of more discovery type work about products, you know, for example, there was one credit card. So fab has 22 different credit cards if you can believe that. And the one that was performing the worst was a card called gems card and we were able to bring in people who were using the card and kind of getting their sense about why they’re not using it more. Why kind of other confused about the point system or you know, kind of just getting them to kind of talking and Having an informal kind of discussion about problem areas and things that we can improve and kind of the whys as to the underperformance. So yeah, was that Did that answer your question?

Steve: Sure. And it raised another one. So that that says we’re going somewhere we want to go. So I guess that raises a question for me around the definition. So I think you’re describing that as a market research project. How do you define or delineate what’s you know, what’s UX research? What’s market research? Yeah, think about it.

Chris: It’s interesting. I think of it all as kind of the same thing. I mean, this is now kind of being in the industry for as long as I have been. I’ve seen I’ve kind of seen different titles or worked with the from corporations, you know, things like human factors, things like user research, UX, kind of design designers. And I think that at the end of the day, it’s really all kind of coming, coming from the same place or I guess the it’s all looking towards the same thing when it comes to all these, you know, you know, human factors or UX or you know, market research. Just at the end of the day is trying to answer questions with data from your actual your customers. And it’s trying to get at the need, I think it’s trying to find needs and try and discover needs, and then trying to help the people who make the products or make the services, make them better, make them more, not just making you know, Making people that’s not just, you know, listening to people about their problems of, you know, with, with a product or their problems with their day to day life, but really trying to understand the motivation and understand their feelings and their desires and kind of satisfying them with services and, and products.

Steve: So I want to ask a different question, following something you said before you talked about the sort of four areas and where culture was like a really important one. Yeah. And so you, I mean, from where I sit in California, I’m curious about culture in your organization, because not only are you know, in a specific industry, which, you know, based on my experience, like banking, has a certain culture, sort of historically around and you know, maybe that’s very much an American perspective. But, you know, a regulatory a regulated industry with certain history means there’s a certain approach to decisions and a certain approach to, quote, risk and so on. But you’re in a very different region of the world than I am. And I’m so and that makes me wonder, you know, what observations do you have about, you know, the regional business culture? And how that how that responds to innovation? And the changes that innovation is asking for, as well as financial banking kind of services culture as a factor that characterizes the culture that you’re working in.

Chris: Yeah, so I think culture is changing the culture is one of our core missions with one of fabrics core missions. So it’s a work in progress. You know, I think fabric and then fabric versus fab. I think within fabric, we kind of have in our own culture, it’s a little bit different than kind of the corporate, you know, buttoned up tie wearing jacket wearing kind of traditional stereotype of the bankers. I don’t see too much of that, that stereotype within the bank, you know, meeting with people in different departments. Um, but yeah, I think work I’ve worked in the corporate setting a couple times. And I think kind of, you know, there is there is a difference. There is a division between kind of the traditional, you know, normal kind of roles that you would think about when you think business versus kind of the UX or user research designer type people. And it says it’s, it’s something that yeah, it’s I feel like there should be more in integration, I would, I would like to see more integration, you know, in the future and to just from a business point of view, I think it’s good business to kind of have people like us at the table. And in many cases, it’s there. You know, we’re not we’re just not there yet. So, and it’s something I think that organizations that, you know, struggle with about how to kind of you hear a lot of people, you know, a lot of people in the industry, I don’t know if you get this as well, but talk about when they’re working in a big corporation like to evangelize, you know, that user research or just kind of UX in general, has to be evangelized, right. And kind of the, it’s kind of a little bit that you know, first off, it’s not great that it even needs to be evangelized. And then the second part is like How do you actually what’s the best way to, to evangelize? Yeah, we talked a little bit about, you know, it’s educating, I think that the way the approach that we have is kind of through education, you know, events, these kind of kind of cultural events and then and then just producing, you know, kick ass work.

Steve: Can you What do you think would be different if, you know, you’re at fabric within fab, but you were, this was a company in Manhattan, or this was a company in London. Do you think there’s any regional shifts that you would see?

Chris: Yeah, it’s an interesting question, um, regional shifts. So you know, it’s funny, I when I first moved out here, I was expecting it to be a lot more of a culture shock than I was like, then it actually was so. Yeah, I’m sure there would probably be some differences without a doubt, less sand. But I, I think I think for the most part though, it’s you know, it would there wouldn’t be much it’s funny Dubai actually has I think it’s 8080 or 85% expats right so there are very few locals and nationals UAE nationals. So the bank is comprised of a lot of people from a lot from all over the world, right so it’s a very diverse very multinational community. Not a not too many people from the States but a lot of people from England, a lot of people from Australia. India is there’s a high percentage so yeah, it’s kind of a melting pot, and it’s a really cool and interesting environment to work. But I think at the end of the day, yeah, it’s People are kind of people. So

Steve: do you have any sense of, you know, the business community whether it’s you know, outside your organization, but in the region you know, what the awareness or adoption of, you know, user experience user experience research, you know, elsewhere outside of fab.

Chris: Yeah. So it’s something that’s that is, I think taking off and growing within the within the region. I know for us personally, what we want to do is fab not only serves the UAE, but it also serves other countries in the MENA region like Egypt and like Saudi Arabia, and others, and I know that we as fabric have kind of goals to take certain elements of our of our toolkit in our service Kind of export them into, into these regions, right? So research being one of them, I think because of its kind of universality. And its way for, you know, you can kind of use it in many different contexts. So, so that’s definitely exciting. But, you know, it’s funny, I think user research and UX in general, is kind of a very niche, you know, industry. So even within the United States, you know, a lot of people don’t really know about it, whereas in this region, it’s almost like I think there’s a lot of people who don’t know about it about it as well. But I think that there is receptivity, they’re much more receptive to kind of embrace these kind of new and maybe kind of non traditional ways of approaching work. And I think that’s really exciting.

Steve: Yeah, sounds very positive. And we’ve talked in and around this a little bit, as you’ve talked about some of the ways that, you know, that fabric is working with teams, you know, throughout the bank and so on. When you start working with these teams, what kinds of disciplines or functions or roles do you most? Or is there a typical, you know, set of rules that you are collaborating with most directly?

Chris: Yeah, I would say I mean marketing for one because, you know, fabric and marketing, there’s kind of this dotted line between fabric, fabric reach research team and then the market research that we do. So that’s definitely a division that we work with very closely. We started working with product a lot. We’re doing some kind of foundational fundamental research project that we’re really, really excited about, on personal loans that hopefully, it can kind of spread and we can do this this kind of research, research stream with all different products that really start from the ground, ground floor and get those needs and kind of assess and evaluate the current state of the products and then kind of kind of move forward involved in evolving from there. We work with the digital Team A lot, a lot of times that the guys will come and request meetings for, you know, to do kind of benchmarking testing, like I said before, a lot of usability testing, touchpoint testing, sometimes card sorts, every now and again, some kind of upfront research about kind of ideas and content concept testing and this type of thing. But for the most part, it’s kind of its product, it’s the product testing. Let’s see this. Yeah, I mean, we’ve been working with a lot of different departments, which has been great. I think we had 25 or 28 different research projects completed last year. vast majority of them was from ppg, which is personal Banking Group. We have corporate banking, we haven’t been working with corporate all that much. But that might be changing in the next couple. next couple weeks, weeks and months ahead. But yeah, I think that’s weird. So there’s also a team that that that head that basically is single product team with it’s called pay it and it’s a it’s a digital wallet and we’ve been doing a lot of different types of ethnography work, you know, competitive landscape research, and you know, customer interviews and these types of things. So yeah, that’s been exciting too, because I think that the digital e wallet space is a new one. And I think it can be. It can it can there’s a lot of value in kind of thinking differently and really trying to figure out the needs of people and why kind of a digital wallet exists, or why they exist, and then kind of helping them shape and smooth the experience.

Steve: And are there situations where fabric is proactive, say, as opposed to responding to requests from a from one of these teams initiating some effort, some program from within fabric does that happen?

Chris: I think at the beginning, once we started kind of ramping up, we were so busy that we were just focusing on the products that I’m sorry, the projects that were that were kind of coming to us and There were times when we had to kind of deny or you know, tell people sorry, we’re kind of we’ve hit capacity, we have no more bandwidth. But I think with this kind of Corona situation, we’ve had a time to kind of level set and start thinking a lot more about, you know, spinning out projects internally. The prot, the personal loan project that I just that I mentioned in my last my last response to your last question, was something that we kind of were developing ourselves and when the product came to us, they were just like, What’s on your mind? What what’s kind of some, some new stuff that you got? What’s kind of what do you guys thinking about how, you know, we kind of want to kind of work with you like what can you kind of offer us you know, there wants to want to have this relationship and that was something that was internal, an internal idea or an internal model, turtle project that we kind of then took off the shelf and applied it to, to product when they kind of came knocking. So that was kind of kind of cool. I you know, it was to give a little bit of a background, it’s a new and innovative, new and innovative way to think about personas. And what we really wanted to do was we wanted to I mean, I think most people within the industry when they hear persona, it, they kind of, you know, they’re, I think it’s a very ugly, ugly words in some people’s minds. You know, but I think that there’s, there’s, there’s use and there’s value to them, but I, I see them as being kind of a little limiting or limited, right. So the idea for this project that we’re working on with product is kind of to do the personas the traditional way, which is where you go out and you get together. Either through focus groups or in depth interviews, a bunch of a bunch of users, a bunch of customers within that specific product. You talk to them about their lifes, you talk to them, you would get you understand, you know, their demographics, you understand their kind of, you know, their motivations, why they’re the other products, they’re using, you know, kind of a comprehensive 360 degree view. And from all these interviews and focus groups, you know, personas kind of emerge out of them. So the idea is, is to kind of take that traditional method and kind of mash it together with a method that’s kind of been now being developed over the past couple of years with using machine learning and AI by feeding all of you know, customer data into And an algorithm and have the algorithm then create the personas, you know, mathematically, and then if there’s some way for us to kind of merge those two, where you get kind of the, the best of both worlds of approach, because you know, in many cases, the traditional UX. Personas through research are kind of limiting. I mean, you can ask a lot more questions than you can with a datasheet, you can get a lot more kind of subjective internal motivate motivations, you can kind of capture those but the power of generalizing that is not the same as the power that the machine learning model has. And if there’s a way for us to kind of, you know, understand that those two are, there’s a way for us to kind of push those two methods together. I think that would be a really huge impact for the bank. So it’s kind of a combination of that persona piece with this idea of service design, which, in many, in my, in my opinion is very, very much a just another method of, of user of user research, where you go, and you talk to people, this is for personal loans, you talk to people about their experience, you know, taking out a personal loan, so usually people who, within the last, you know, three to six months have taken out a personal loan with fab. And you kind of map out the whole journey from kind of conceptualizing, to kind of get you know, that kind of motive motivation moment of like, I’m gonna need a personal loan, why they need one, and then going through the experience of, you know, coming to fab going, setting, you know, signing all the documents, and then, you know, lastly making the payments and kind of having that map and looking for gaps looking for pain, areas of pain, things that can be improved upon. And if we kind of have those two models, and we do those that piece of work for every product in the bank, we think that, you know, hopefully, we can really change the trajectory of the products and make them more about kind of user needs and user solving user problems then, then kind of how they’ve been set up so far.

Steve: That’s an amazing approach. I haven’t heard of anything like that before. You’re talking about? Yeah, just like you said about market researcher kind of blurring the boundaries or eliminating the boundaries between things that were sort of separate islands. And here you’re pulling in two very different kinds of things to create. One, one better approach. It’s very exciting to hear Yeah, it’s

Chris: it’s funny you say about marketing because I remember when I was meeting with so the merchant team came to us came to fabric. And we did just kind of a normal, you know, textbook, piece of user research on some credit card designs and then also asking them some questions about what would get them to sign up for a credit card. And, you know, they were really happy with the results. And then they were like, okay, we want to kind of grow the team, we want to kind of have you hire some dedicated researchers and kind of have this this dotted line between marketing and between UX and I was kind of like, wait, I, I don’t I don’t know like, I don’t know marketing. This is not my world. Like I don’t know if you have the right guy, but the more I kind of learned, and the more I talked to the marketing people and the kind of the decision makers, I learned that you know, there really is not bright lines between product and marketing, and, you know, and research and just kind of thinking holistically about how products Come about thinking about, you know holistically about the economics, you know, why? Why do products succeed? What makes what are they? For what, you know, what makes a good one? What makes a bad one? You know, at the end of the day, it all starts with understanding your customers. And that’s what we as researchers, do, we try to understand all the different facets of people and what would make them buy and what even what is it what is a product doing? What purpose does it serve? When you start there, then I think the marketing and the product and all of the those other parts of the business kind of just take care of themselves, it becomes much more easier to navigate and make decisions based on this fundamental understanding of the people that you’re serving.

Steve: And right now that thing that activity is But we call it research. It’s, and you know, people that do our job are the ones that do that. Yeah. And, I don’t know, I feel like in some ways, it’s a historical accidents like you when you describe, you know, this is what the process should be. And this is, you know, in order to get to these ideal results, and here’s the activities that kind of started off you know, the way that research is as a discipline has done evangelizing has done has, you know, invited other people to participate and sort of said, Hey, you know, everyone needs to do this. I mean, if you mentioned the D school right there D school is like classic for saying, Hey, we’re going to train everybody to do this not people with you know, the researcher title. This is everybody’s job.

Chris: I mean, I think it it’s a it’s a way of reopening Kind of reimagining kind of what businesses are doing, and why they exist and what their purposes are, right? I mean, it’s Yes, I think at the end of the day, it’s like, it has to do with monetary gains, and, you know, stakeholders, you know, you know, making sure your stock is going up and these types of these kind of economic questions, but, you know, I think, you know, when you say things like product, we talk about products, we talked about services, we talked about needs, and they can be really defined kind of in very broad strokes. And when you when you define them in broad strokes, then then the power and the use and the kind of impact and the relevance of understanding your customers, which is what as you’re saying is what we do, becomes, I think Paramount, right, because that’s the way that you can separate yourself from the competition. It’s not just about innovating for innovating sake, right, it’s innovating to me is to just find a need and solve it in a new way. And if you can do that, I think you’re, you’re poised to have to have success. The problem, of course, is some of the bureaucracy, some of the politics that kind of happens in you know, in the different layers within the business. And also the kind of tricky thing of, you know, researching humans, it’s, I love this quote, it was a physicist, guy named Lawrence Krauss said, I do physics because it’s easy. Right? Well, it’s clearly it’s not easy, right? But I think what he was getting at is when you’re when you’re researching humans, they’re tricky. They’re complicated. It’s a little bit messy, right. He kind of love He was his point was the elegance of physics. Right? You can describe parts of the world in very elegant mathematical ways. And it will always behave that way. Whereas people were unpredictable. And kind of getting at the root causes and those root needs and those root desires is tricky. But if you get them then then i think i think everything falls into place.

Steve: I would love to change directions. And, you know, hear a little about what your trajectory has been, you know, how you found research and you know, what kinds of roles you’ve had that kind of, you know, we all know about Manhattan a little bit, but yeah, describe more of that story.

Chris: Sure. So I kind of I kind of fell it fell into this accidentally, actually. And yeah, I love this question asking Others in the industry this one because it seems like you know that there isn’t a clear path into kind of the world of UX in the world of user research. Which maybe would be maybe that’s the case for all industries. I don’t know. I have a hunch that this one is a little bit different though. People get into it through kind of untraditional ways. So yeah, I was. I was going to grad school in New York. And I was getting interested in fascinated with science and I started working in a behavioral science lab. And I graduated, and I moved to Brooklyn and I didn’t have a job. And I was kind of running out of money and I was and I wanted to do research. I really liked the idea of kind of trying that out as a full time kind of career and the first job I interviewed ATS was a, like I was saying a small boutique firm on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that did Human Factors engineering research. And I saw the research paper the human factors for I had no idea. And it was like kind of a pretty low level, entry level position. And I went interviewed, I got the job. And I kind of just fell in love with it like, and I never really looked back since and kind of this idea of merging science and research and data with design was something to me that I never really thought about and, and kind of, you know, you know, for me when I when I thought when I think of design, I always would think of kind of just someone sitting in a room, you know, you know, twisting their moustache and coming up with ideas. I didn’t realize that you can actually kind of use science a US kind of methods, research methods to influence how products Shape products, right? Which is really what a lot of times what human factors engineering does. It, it’s, you know, if you if you looked at the D school model, it was the kind of lives in the testing area for, for a lot of for most of what it does. So I did that and I kind of after six months of working there, it was, like I said, a small a small firm, the my direct reports left kind of suddenly and the next in line. So, she reported to the CEO, a guy named Charles Morrow who has been in the industry for 45 years. And then so that left a big wide open role that he you know, said that now it’s mine and I was kind of again in moment of crisis like I don’t know if I can if I can handle this right like I’m only six months in, it was a very much like a sink or swim moment. And now here this, you know, person who really didn’t go to school for engineering and research is now kind of managing these huge projects for Amgen and Google I was I yeah, it was definitely harrowing, to say the least. But I kind of kind of made through it. And then a couple of years after I decided to move to the Midwest and I took a job working for more, more human factors, stuff working for a company called Medtronic that makes medical devices I worked in the neuromodulation. Department, working on a couple of different products kind of flew around the world, around the country, mostly talking to doctors, kind of getting their feedback and trying to help The shape certain medical devices. And then I kind of switched gears and got into the world of UX and UX research, actually that same mice the same directed my direct report of my first direct report, Emily, lady named Emily actually suggested we kept in touch after she left and she suggested that I start looking into this, this thing called UX research, it’s very similar uses the same methods of kind of the methods of that we employed for human factors employees. And I kind of thought that it was Yeah, it was I was getting a little bit bored of the physical products a little bit bored with the medical devices. You know, tech was kind of booming and it was kind of an exciting place to work. I thought that it’d be cool to kind of open up my tools. And start working on screens. I did a little bit of screens, kind of within the human factors, but definitely not as much. And I started then working in in a few different innovation labs, I worked for a company in Minnesota to call I’m sure you’ve heard of it Best Buy, how many people here have heard of it, and that was my last. My last role was Best Buy was before I moved out, moved out here to Dubai. To do to help them kind of creates UX research department within an embedded into the bank, which has been lots of fun, I think.

Steve: So outside of fabric and the work you’re doing for the Banco? Are there other things that you’re working on in your profession?

Chris: Yeah, so, um, since the past year, year and a half, I’ve been kind of kicking around an idea concept of trying to think about, you know, things like UX and jobs to be done theory and market research and human factors, all these different kind of disciplines that seem to be kind of putting a lot of a lot of weight on understanding the customer bringing the customer into the design process. Being customer obsessed. And it kind of kind of all kind of filled. I was thinking about writing a book about you UX research more technical, then I was working in Best Buy. And I kind of struck up a friendship with a guy named Jay reader who was a graduate from the Stanford D school and he kind of introduced me I broadwalk brought him the idea of the book and he kind of introduced me to different material, different kind of literature material that the D school was kind of putting out in their philosophy which I had heard of design thinking but I hadn’t really dove too deep in it. So we had a lot of interesting conversations about you know, design thinking and you know, books like need finding by dead panic, and the books by, by the Kelly brothers kind of I started kind of getting interested in that and, and design thinking I felt was very cool approach to kind of what user researchers were doing already, right when we do user research. We’re trying to make better products and we’re trying to come design help, you know, collect data to help designers and to help product people shape products and make and make really better experiences. And, you know, I found I found that, you know, it was really hard for that will that you know, a way that when you look at the design thinking framework, in many cases research is not so much talked about when you get kind of down into the details they do. Talk about how empathy which is kind of the first pillar the first step requires kind of a journalistic kind of anthropological mindset kind of going out and observing people and asking them questions and watching how they use the product and seeing the context and all of these kind of kind of more research stuff. And I thought that yeah, that this was a really cool model, but I thought that it kind of needed a little bit. It was kind of maybe outdated, a little bit. In many cases, it was it was used for physical products. And now I think, you know, because the world is becoming digitized. So there’s so many now, so many services and products that are now on a screen. And I think that kind of user research, especially for digital products, you know, I think that looking at them as a product I think in at the end of the day, I think some people when they look at, you know, a journey for example, have, you know a bunch of screens to get you to sign up for a loan that that is actually a product if you define if you can, you can actually define it that way. And when you start looking and seeing all the different products, you know that almost if anything, is customer facing and you know, you can use it or, you know, Facebook as a product or Candy Crush as a product, all these things, you can look at them through this kind of new lens as Okay, this is a product, this is a service, then the kind of the design, the D school design thinking kind of applies. And the problem I think one of the problems with the D school is that it just doesn’t go far enough into the methods and into the kind of deep dive that user researchers kind of do the kind of, you know, the ways that we kind of understand problems and the knowledge that we build through our methods is something that can Really, I think benefit the upfront beginning empathy part. So if people, and this was kind of the kind of the theory or the thesis of the book is that if you do your due diligence, and you do your research upfront, before, before, before you even have an idea about what the product is, that will actually help, you know, go waiting out into that kind of unknown area, and kind of relying and believing in research. That, that, that that’s the way to kind of kickstart these products, and then they these projects. And that’s kind of the kind of the idea.
Steve: So where were you at in that process? And do you have a title like, Is there a place we can find out more?

Chris: Yeah, so it’s still pretty new. I’m kind of it’s all outlined right now. That kind of the writing is began, but very slowly, so it’s the tentative title is the universal lens. And yeah, yeah, hopefully I, you know, I can kind of get it get it to completion I kind of have some more time on my hands now with everything that’s happened with kind of the work slowing down because of, you know, Corona and, and all this and social distancing. So hopefully by next year we can I can have something to share, you know, with the world so we’ll see.

Steve: What is the universal lens?

Chris: Yeah, so the, the universal lens is kind of the metaphor is you know, looking at the world and as I was rambling on, you know, before, if you look at the world as everything is a kind of a anything could be a product or service and kind of The way that that products are just basically solutions to needs, then that is kind of the universal lens that this kind of this kind of framework is applicable to whether you’re designing a medical device or your you know, you have a shoe running shoe or a bank app or a chair, it’s all kind of at the end of the day, understanding user needs. Then from based on what those needs are solving them with a service or solving them with a product that will that will at the end of the day, hopefully make that that product successful. You know, we talked a lot about experience. And I like to use the term smoothing the experience. But a and many, many times when you know we as researchers work on these projects, the Product themselves didn’t really seem like it was vetted. It seemed like it kind of like a you ask the question, what is the product for? And, you know, I think that there’s kind of I look at needs as, you know, proximate needs and almost, you know, kind of like. So proximate needs an ultimate needs and an ultimate need is kind of why the product exists in the first place. And then the proximate need is kind of the experience of using that product, right? So if you take for example, a hamburger, that’s a product and the ultimate need is the hunger that it satisfies, right? We as humans need to eat things and hamburgers are one of one of those things that we can eat. And that’s the kind of the universal need that we that it solves. But then there’s also the needs of you know, the needs of actually, you know, getting it, you know, getting to the to the place getting to the restaurant, then there’s the needs of having a good experience in line, being able to read the menu being able to take it to go if I wanted to. So there’s this kind of kind of nested needs within the kind of greater need of why the product exists. Both are important. But I think that product teams don’t always take both into account.

Steve: Well, Chris, thanks so much for being on the podcast. It’s great to hear what you’re working on what you’re thinking about, and just some of these bigger picture ideas, I think are really very interesting. So I’m thanks for taking the time.

Chris: Thanks, Steve. It was a pleasure.

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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