46. Daniel Escher of Remitly

In this episode of Dollars to Donuts I speak with Daniel Escher, Director of UX and Research at Remitly. We talk about more ways for researchers to add value, business questions over research questions, and the things that researchers worry about.

Where I think collective identity can be limiting is when someone thinks of themselves as a researcher and says, “Therefore, that means this is my small box of things that I do and ways that I contribute.” And what I always want to do is push that box to be bigger, right? I’m not at all saying that the box doesn’t exist in any way. But we as researchers can drive far more decision-making, far more strategy, far more hypotheses than I think we realize. I think that we tend to want to hand off work to other people when actually what I encourage my team to do is figure out where are the places where actually a handoff doesn’t make sense, but a handshake makes sense. There’s some contact there. Or where does hand-holding make sense, where there’s really extended involvement? – Daniel Escher

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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’m Steve Portigal.

In collaboration with my friends at Inzovu, we’ve been running storytelling workshops for clients. Storytelling is an essential human skill for any team. It drives connections, influences decisions, and inspires empathy. In innovative and creative practices, the ability to tell a compelling story is just as crucial as doing the work itself. While good teams focus on delivering high-quality work, great teams go beyond and wrap the delivery of their work into stories. A team’s ability to tell well-crafted stories is critical for influence, which is always the key to the outcomes they seek. That’s where our storytelling workshops come in. These workshops empower your team by enhancing their storytelling prowess. It’s valuable for a range of roles within growing product and service organizations, like user experience design, user research, product management, marketing, and innovation. We run this in a few ways. One is a series of short online sessions across several weeks with individual and group assignments between meetings. We also have an in-person full-day version. Check out more info at www.inzovu.co/workshop/storytelling. And I’ll put that link in the show notes. One resource that participants have found useful and inspirational is Formats Unpacked, which really opens up the idea of what a story can be. An opening monologue is a format. A podcast interview, which we’re getting to in a moment, is a format. An unboxing video is a format. The same interview, one year apart, is a format. You might enjoy checking out the Formats Unpacked site, which dives into many different approaches to presenting stories and sorts out what it is that makes them work.

Now let’s get to the episode. Today, I’m speaking with Daniel Escher, Director of UX and Research at Remitly. Daniel, welcome to Dollars to Donuts. It’s really great to have you here on the podcast. Thank you.

Daniel Escher: It’s such a pleasure to be here, Steve. Thanks so much.

Steve: I’d like to ask you to start by giving a little introduction.

Daniel: Yeah, I think the very first thing people are surprised to learn about me is I’m the youngest of six children. I realize that’s pretty uncommon in this day and age. But I come from a big family. I have 14 nieces and nephews across myself and my husband. And I grew up in Hawaii, also kind of surrounded by not just my biological family, but very much a sense of community and broader family. And I think I’ve generally taken that throughout the rest of my life, where I try to surround myself with people who are really, really good people, good-hearted people, people from different walks of life.

So after growing up in Hawaii, I moved with my family to Washington State, where I currently live. But I was gone for about 10 years, living in New Jersey for a few of those years, and then seven years in Indiana, getting my PhD in sociology at University of Notre Dame. Now I lead customer research and UX for Remitly. I should actually correct that. I’m one of the people leading UX at Remitly. My official title is director of UX and customer research. Remitly is a company about a dozen years old. We provide cross-border financial services and have offices located around the world, but our headquarters is here in Seattle.

Steve: Can you say a little more about the company and what it does and who you serve?

Daniel: Yeah, so we serve really anyone who needs financial services across borders. And so the focus for us over the last decade or so has been remittances. So people who have moved from one country to another and then are sending money, often back home, to family members, friends. That’s not all of our customers by any means, but that’s definitely the vast majority. So we operate in what we call pairs of countries or corridors. So let’s say sending money from the US to Philippines is one pair or corridor. Sending money from Canada to Nigeria is another one. So our customers range really widely in terms of demographics, in terms of socioeconomic level, and in terms of the needs that they have for the product. And then over the last couple of years, and especially these days, we’re in the process of developing some new products. Unfortunately, I can’t say more about what those are, but they are very exciting and I’m very curious to see us continue to learn in those spaces and then ultimately achieve product market fit and a great customer experience.

Steve: How long have you been working at Remitly?

Daniel: Yeah, it’s been almost six years now, which is pretty wild to think about.

Steve: And so you mentioned both customer research and UX being areas that you’re responsible for. And just over the time that you’ve been at Remitly, how has the set of things changed that you’ve been leading or focused on?

Daniel: Yeah, Remitly, I have realized, is a constantly shape-shifting organism.
And I think a lot of companies are like that. And I didn’t realize that actually until pretty late or pretty recently. And I actually think that us as researchers, many of us as social scientists, the extent to which we can view the place where we work as an organism that is responding and shifting and adjusting can actually help us to be successful. So that’s a quick digression. But to get back to your question, the last six years has looked different in so many ways. When I started out, I was essentially an individual researcher brought in to begin a research function. I hired and built a team, established practices, and then about a year ago moved from reporting into marketing to reporting into product. And that was a function of the needs of the business shifting.

And when I joined the company, the biggest needs for us were understanding our customer audience and our potential audience. And so we did total market segmentation, and then we needed to develop a brand position. And so I was heavily involved in that. So essentially we went from being what looked like a flag store online, because we had one country’s flag, another country’s flag, and then an exchange rate of the currencies, right? Into a much more human brand. And so we’ve shifted from talking about the function of sending money across borders into more of the outcomes of sending money across borders. And that’s often some sense of connection, some sense of accomplishment, some sense of aspiration. And then a lot of that work in marketing is, it’s not like it’s complete, because obviously customers are always changing. But the bigger opportunity in the last couple of years has been more on the product side, as we think about building new products and trying to expand the offerings that we have.

Steve: And when did user experience be part of your, I wanna say remit, but that might be an annoying term to use for the company that we’re talking about,

Daniel: I love it.

Steve: But I just did it and I’m sorry.

Daniel: No, no, we use the term as well. Definitely. I would say from the beginning, user experience has been part of that. But especially in the last about year, I’ve become much more focused on it. And I would say that that’s been a fantastic transition for me. So I’ll share more about that in a second. But just to describe the nuts and bolts. So currently I have four researchers reporting to me, a couple of content designers, and then a product designer. And as that group, we cover everything from upper funnel marketing and brand building into landing pages and app store optimization into our app and our send flow and checkout experience and then post-submit experience.

And then kind of underlying all of this is a new work stream around voice of customer. But as I look at that whole surface area, what has been so helpful is shifting from being focused exclusively on research to also thinking about content design and product design. That has really forced me to go through the, I’ll call it the operational wall in what I do.

So I think as researchers, especially in my first about four years at Remitly, I was really focused on, I do the research, I do it well. And then someone goes and does something with it. And in the past year, by having designers report directly to me, I now have to care about that handoff. I have to care about, okay, what then happens with our hypotheses or with our recommendations? Do the designs actually reflect that? Does the overall customer experience actually reflect that? And so honestly, this past year has been a real crash course through that wall or against that wall at times, as I’m trying to figure out in some ways, how to be a bit of a product manager, how to be a bit of a program manager.

I remember talking to my team a few months ago. And what I told them is that our default mode is to think about our skillset first and then draw lines around that and use that to determine what I do or don’t do. And instead, what I said to them was, think of yourself as being on a school board or the board of a nonprofit or the board of a for-profit, where when you are at that board meeting, no one cares what your degree is in. No one cares what your skillset is. No one cares what your job title is. All of you want the work to get done. The end. Right?

And so, obviously, me as a trained sociologist, I’m bringing in that experience and those credentials and whatnot into the conversation that we’re having or into the thing that we’re doing. But all of those things don’t actually limit me or determine what I’m able to contribute. And in fact, I know that there’s a sense of collective identity and momentum that comes from I am a researcher or I am a designer or I am a product manager. But in actuality, if I think about a researcher, for so many years, I was under this impression that the way I add value as a researcher is by conducting original research. And actually, what I’ve realized is that very few people are interested in that in itself. Instead, what I can bring is my overall skillset and just life background. So I can add value by asking good questions. I can add value by integrating data sources. I can add value by synthesizing what business management is saying, what marketing is saying, and what I heard from some agents in customer service.

And I can do all of that and drive decision-making without ever conducting a customer interview or running a usability study. And in a similar way, designers can add tremendous value or steer decision-making without ever drawing a wireframe in Figma or presenting a prototype of something. So all of that, in summary, I would say is I think that we forget the power that we have to make outcomes happen. And we don’t need to limit ourselves to what is my job title? What do others expect me to do? Okay.

Steve: It’s so exciting to hear you describe, I don’t know, the superset of ways that we bring value. And that pushing pixels or asking questions is not the scope of what any of these disciplines can do, and there’s this larger set of things. But if you expand the definition or the tent or whatever it is, yeah, research is facilitative. Research is working with stakeholders, is working to understand problem spaces, is synthesizing, integrating.

That narrative is a really lovely and rich characterization of what researchers can do. Even in your presentation of it and how I hear it myself, it’s still, like in your board example where no one cares what your discipline is. I don’t know, I think I need more help bridging that back to this example because you’re still saying researchers have this larger set. But I’ll just speak for myself, I like that identity. I want to be seen as a researcher. I don’t wanna be seen as a designer or a generic person on the board. I think there’s issues of identity that we need.

And so you also brought up what do people expect from you or what do we think people expect from us versus how to bring more value than that. I mean, maybe my question here is, do you think there’s an aspect of identity with the name of our discipline, researcher, designer, that is playing a role here in terms of what we’re comfortable with, how we’re seeking to perform and be valued for that performance?

Daniel: Yeah, absolutely. I think that personal identity and collective identity is really powerful, right, and actually, if I think about what drives activists in social movements to continue to show up day after day, it’s some sense of personal identity or collective identity. And so I don’t at all want to dismiss that. I think that that is really powerful. What I see that as though is a launching pad or a springboard into doing really big things.

And where I think collective identity can be limiting is when someone thinks of themselves as a researcher and says, therefore, that means this is my small box of things that I do and ways that I contribute, and what I always want to do is push that box to be bigger. Right, I’m not at all saying that the box doesn’t exist in any way. But we as researchers can drive far more decision making, far more strategy, far more hypotheses than I think we realize. I think that we tend to want to hand off work to other people when actually what I encourage my team to do is figure out where are the places where actually a handoff doesn’t make sense, but a handshake makes sense. There’s some contact there. Or where does hand holding make sense where there’s really extended involvement?

So for example, I think of someone on my team, Naz. He’s a linguist by training. He has been heavily involved in conducting research on how we price and how we merchandise pricing. And I realized that maybe some folks are immediately yawning as I talked about that, but it’s actually a really complex, fascinating space to figure out, what should our price actually be to send money across borders? And then how do we display that price and communicate that price to people who may not have more than a couple years of formal education all the way to people who have PhDs or JDs from people who are sending $15 to people who are sending $15,000 at a time, right? And so I go into this backstory to say that I’ve seen Naz make this transition from this is what the stakeholder needs. And so here’s the research, the end. Over the last two years, he’s shifted from doing that to now he is actually helping to set the pricing strategy in certain places. He is actively working with designers and actually putting other people and teams to work for him. Saying, hey, I need this so that we can learn this thing in market or out of market, and then we’ll be able to make this decision, right?

So I hope that that helps. Like Naz still thinks of himself very much as a researcher, right? He’s not a PM, not a designer, not a business analyst or manager. But he’s going far outside of that kind of traditional box of doing the research and then handing it off to operational teams.

Steve: If Naz, were here and we were to ask him how he made the transition from these two points of thinking about how he brings value. Do you have an idea what he might say?

Daniel: Yeah. Oh, lots of sweat, lots of effort. I would say that for everyone on my team. Myself included. Right? I think the reason I’m doing research and being a researcher sound too easy. Most of the time. I’ve seen in myself over. You know, the last five and a half, six years. A huge swing. I’ve seen, you know, Nas do it. Other people on my team, Angelina, Jose, Savannah. All of the kind of easy advice about research and, and making an impact is, is actually really challenging.

So for example, right. I hear people give advice about, you know, track your impact. Well. Okay. That, that actually. Implies that, you know, what different kinds of impact are. Right. So, so that you’re seeing impact in, in the number of different ways that that can look. And then it implies that you are in the right conversations in the right meetings. That you are focused on the right things in the first place and not trying to do everything at once, which is a classic, classic error of many researchers out there. And so, you know, just that one piece of advice is, is actually many, many months, if not even years of kind of hard work and effort to, to get right. Similarly, even advice about how to build rapport with people in an interview is actually very challenging. Right? Like it takes dozens of times of practicing across a wide variety of people to be able to do that successfully. So I’m starting to get long winded, but, but again, yeah. It’s a tremendous amount of time and effort that, that goes into this.

Steve: I mean, this idea that you’re describing here, the moving from the handoff to the handshake or the handhold and sort of learning to do that over time. It is something that I’ve heard a critique of researchers or as research discipline is that, yeah, researchers want to sort of write something and have people sort of automatically get what to do with it. And the opportunity for researchers is to do what you’re saying and help the work take shape and help it have life and help the other people that you want to impact work with it. There’s also a story that exists at the same time and I guess multiple stories can be true when you’re talking about over time, lots of people, lots of organizations, which is that there are researchers who are, I think to some extent, begging to have that kind of impact. I’m not just here to do interviews, I’m not just here to get data or to, often it’s like I’m not just here to run usability tests after you’ve done things like I can bring more value, research is a process and a discipline can bring more value. And those folks are often, I think, stymied because there isn’t quote buy in or they won’t let me, you hear that.

And I don’t know what we do with that, but I guess a takeaway for me is that there’s multiple sort of vectors that are happening in a profession. And the one that you’re describing is, again, is not new to me. Researchers have this opportunity and it takes, I think you’re also emphasizing, it takes time to kind of shift your role for yourself. I think that your team, you’re not talking about overcoming internal resistance, you’re talking about them all progressing in, yeah, redrawing the box or not being limited by that small box.

Daniel: Yeah, I think that everyone at any company in the world consistently underestimates how long it takes to build relationships, just period. And the reason that I start there is that as soon as we talk about research or design or involvement in the abstract, we have removed relationships from the equation. And actually, almost all of these questions around making an impact, around getting involved in things, come down to personal relationships that we have. To be clear, the sociologist in me is immediately saying, okay, great, Daniel, you’re gonna emphasize the individual. Hey, we also need to talk about the institutional, right? Obviously, right? But stick with me for a second just on the individual story.

So if I think about being a researcher in a setting that is challenging, a setting that is maybe even skeptical, a setting that feels stymieing, the way to start to make progress against that, in my experience, is over time, slowly chipping away at all of those perceptions, right? So I spent probably my first four, four and a half years, Remitly, listening to what other people wanted me to do. Instead of going after, here’s what I think needs to happen, and I’m going to make it happen. So I got all sorts of external advice about set up these, like, self-directed training modules and do this kind of work, not that kind of work, right?

And in actuality, like, where I need to start is, what is the business question? Not what is the research question? What is the business question? Okay, the business question is, we are losing this kind of customer in this country. Okay, what can I do to address that question? And I realized that that work is going to come at the cost of requests from teams that want me to do this little thing or that little thing. But in actuality, the biggest questions for a researcher to answer almost always rise above that kind of fray, right? So like, if you think, no matter what the company is, it’s how do we acquire new customers? How do we keep the ones we have? And why are ones that we have churning? Why are they leaving?

So the extent to which you can position your work to answer one of those three questions, you are going to be making an impact. And what I see researchers often doing is waiting for permission to get involved, right? Like, they are waiting for someone to say, hey, I want you to be involved in this thing. The problem with that is, one, like, oftentimes the requests that come in are not actually the most important, valuable thing that could happen, right? And then the other problem is that you’re waiting for permission, right? Instead of saying, hey, this is the thing that needs to happen and this is the thing that needs to get done.

And so what I often see researchers do is they have some sense for, here are the very important questions, but then here are the requests that I’m getting. So I’m going to try to do everything, right? And that is a recipe for disaster. In actuality, a human being can do maybe two, maybe three things in a quarter, right? Like, set aside all the answering emails, set aside whatever. Like, you can do two or three things in a quarter. And so it’s not impressive to say that you’ve run, you know, 50 usability studies or 100 user interviews or whatever the thing is. The impressive thing is that you have actually answered one of those big three questions around acquisition, retention, and then, you know, churn or dormancy.

Bit of a soapbox there, but I see researchers, you know what? I’m actually going to speak for myself because I don’t want to project onto other people. I have been such a people pleaser for so much of my career. And I have thought that the way that I will get invited into things or the way that I will stand out is by taking some requests, doing it really well, and then being rewarded and recognized for that. And what I’ve learned is that just does not happen, right? People’s time span is really short. Their attention is short. It’s actually in the act of becoming more independent, at least in the U.S. corporate context, that you actually stand out and you demonstrate that you know what truly matters and that you are committed to delivering on it.

Steve: I don’t know if it’s when someone joins your team or through the relationships you have, your team as a leader, how do you help people make that switch from, and you got me when you said people pleaser and waiting for permission, I think that resonates strongly. How do you help people see, I mean, you’re talking about through the looking glass a little bit, there’s a whole other way of looking at this. It doesn’t feel like it’s on a gradient, it feels like it’s a flip from do what you’re kind of assigned, and that’s how you help people versus say no to things and choose independently where you think the biggest value is. That doesn’t feel linear to me, that feels like letting go of a previous model.

Daniel: Yeah.

Steve: And I hear you on things taking time, so I don’t want to sort of reduce this to like an aha moment or anything…

Daniel: Yeah.

Steve: …but how do you get there, how do you manage other people to get there, how do you?

Daniel: Yeah, it’s a light switch that I think takes many months, if not even years, to flip. So you’re right that it is kind of a polar experience. But I think in actuality, there’s a fair amount of gradient involved. For candidates that I’m interviewing and for people that I hire, it starts with I’m looking for three aspects to them, and then there’s kind of an underlying aspect just because of Remitly. But the three that are constant are I’m looking for the person to be curious. I’m looking for the person to be humble. And I’m looking for the person to know their value and the value of others. So curiosity, humility, value.

So let me unpack each of those. Curiosity, I am looking for people who are constantly wondering, what’s ahead? What’s next? What can I learn more of? Why did this thing happen? What is a new method that I need to learn? What’s a creative way to solve this problem? What is some domain knowledge that I could pick up that would help me in what I need to be doing? So just kind of a tremendous curiosity. Like very few things disappoint me just in general in work. But one of them is when I see someone who has just kind of done the work and then just stopped and has said, like, okay, I checked the box. And research is not about checking the box. Like research is kind of this constantly self-propelling activity forward. And so there’s almost never a sense of termination to it. So that’s curiosity.

Humility, I am looking for people who are confident in what they know and what their skill set is and what they can bring, but then also recognize that they still have much more to learn and might be wrong. So humility does not mean submissiveness or shyness or any of those other traits. But it’s really this sense of confidence with the recognition that I have more to learn. I am not perfect. I can and might be wrong for a given thing.

And then value is, you know, I know what I bring to the table. And then importantly, I know what others bring to the table. So this actually ties back to the discussion we were having about the researcher identity versus being like part of a board, so to speak, right? Where I, as a researcher, I’m not going to try to do everyone else’s job, but also I’m not going to let other people do my job for me as well. So those are three traits. And then especially because of Remitly, we have something like 5,000 pairs of countries where people can send money to and from. We have a wide variety of customers. We’re developing additional products. And so, you know, kind of underlying all of these three is a real sense of positionality, a sense of understanding, like, who am I in the world? Who are other people in the world?

I’m really looking for, you know, diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences, language skills, experience conducting cross-cultural research or even like design research, right? Essentially the recognition that people differ. And the way that I show up in the world is not the way that everyone shows up in the world.

Steve: How do those traits set someone up to operate in a way that is independent and is not waiting for permission?

Daniel: Yeah, so the curiosity aspect is that the person is not afraid to ask what may seem like dumb questions, right? Just that’s one example. So for example, Savannah on my team, she is constantly asking these great questions that make obvious assumptions that a given team has or that forces, you know, a team to connect the dots in a way that they haven’t before. I think humility, what helps with that is that a researcher is not showing up as a know-it-all, right? Which helps the relational aspect to develop.

And so I think about like Angelina on my team has formed these really strong partnerships with people in creative marketing. And the reason that she does that is because she is able to bring the knowledge that she has, but then also recognize that she could be wrong, that there’s ways that she can improve. And then that makes that team want her around more. So then she’s in additional conversations, she’s part of additional Slack threads or emails, and then that spirals out even further into involvement into bigger projects, involvement earlier in a project. The way that value then fits in is people want a researcher to be around because they know specifically what that researcher offers. Synthesis of data, integration of data, bridging of different parts of a company together, original data collection, analysis, right? All of those good kinds of things. So they want that in the project, they’re clamoring after that. And then the researcher also knows like, “Okay, I have a big picture mindset. “I understand what we are trying to accomplish.”

And so then I as the researcher, I’m gonna put other people in the spotlight or I’m gonna make sure to bring someone into a conversation when it’s an appropriate time for them to be involved. And of course, everyone appreciates that, right? Like that feeling of, “Oh, hey, I as a product marketer “or I as a program manager got invited into this thing “because Daniel invited me.” That feels good. There’s then reciprocity afterward.

Steve: I’m going to pick up one piece of all the interesting things that you just said. At the beginning, you talked about, you know, asking maybe air quotes, dumb questions, and not being a know-it-all. And it reminds me of when we’re teaching people how to do interviews, there is this thing about asking a question that you already know the answer to or that’s sort of maybe an obvious thing or that the person might think you know the answer to. And, you know, I’ve spent time sort of training people on that, and it’s very nuanced. It’s like it’s the same words, like, I don’t know, “What days of the week do you work?”

And there’s a way to ask that question that is dumb, and there’s a way to ask that question that’s, to your point, curious. And some of it is about body language, some of it is about inflection. I think some of it is about intent, what’s kind of in your heart when you ask that question, to your point, again, about curiosity. The interview setting is different than the setting with our colleagues. I feel like there’s maybe more pressure on us to be a bit of a know-it-all, to be seen as credible. Is there a best practice around how do you ask those dumb questions? Because I hear you on all the value those questions bring, but there’s a way to do that that brings the success that you’re describing for these folks in your team that are so effective, have these great relationships. There’s a way to do that that’s harmful to you, that’s harmful to your esteem or respect that you receive, and there’s a way to do it that it all falls under the label of asking dumb questions. Can you identify the tactic that makes that a successful dumb question?

Daniel: Yeah, that’s a good question, right? And this is actually the challenge of human interactions is as soon as we try to formalize things into rules, we realize that there are thousands of rules and nuances depending on the audience, the interlocutors, the situation, right? So, just kind of starting at the beginning with what you were saying, the idea of feigned ignorance in an interview setting, absolutely, a very powerful technique.

Another one that I’ve seen in interviews or that I’ve used is a tactic of we’re in this together. So some of those interview questions that are really survey questions, how many hours do you work in a week? What’s your job? You can almost put on this air of, “Ugh, all right, here we go. “Just bear with me, just a couple minutes of questions. “Just gotta get through the form, right? “You know how it is.” And then you get responses, persons like, “Yeah, I’m gonna contribute to this. “I understand how it is. “I have my own job where my boss does the same thing to me. “Okay, great.” And then now after two minutes of those survey type questions, you actually have more rapport than you would have otherwise.

But then to the second part of your question, like thinking about the work situation, yeah, I think there’s a couple different things come to mind. Like one is doing a little bit of self-deprecation as a tactic, the classic preface of, “Hey, sorry, this may be obvious, “but could you explain what is this acronym “or what’s the context for this thing? “I think I’m just missing that.” So that’s kind of the most humble way of doing it. Another one, it’s related, but it actually makes you sound better, which is, “I’ve just been in five back-to-back meetings. “I’ve been switching context from CS to marketing “to new product development today. “Remind me, what is the OKR that this addresses?” So now you’ve just kind of given yourself a high five, and then you’ve launched into it.

And then a third tactic is the back channel. So you’re not asking the question publicly, but you’re going to someone that you trust, that you have a good relationship with, and are like, “Yeah, what’s this acronym? “I’m just totally missing it.” And maybe you’re doing that over Slack in a meeting or you’re doing it afterward. So yeah, you’re absolutely right. There is an element of performativity, even in the “no dumb questions.” But in general, I would say that actually, we worry too much about self-presentation. If I think of most companies that do an annual performance review, let’s say, no one remembers how funny you are on Slack. No one is thinking about the time that you made them feel good on June 26, earlier in the year, whatever.

Really, a performance review, which is what researchers are interested in or should be interested in, comes down to what were the three big things you did this year? What was your impact? What did you accomplish for our customers or for the business? And I actually think, like you were talking earlier about, how do you help newcomers to a company shift their mindset into thinking about impact and extending their skill set into the operational realm sometimes? And I think that’s actually a really critical answer, is like, “Okay, great. You did 20 different projects this year or you were involved in whatever many different things. But if you had to boil it down, what are the two or three things that you could say, ‘This is what I did in the year.'”

And really, if you work backward from that, that really simplifies life and reduces a lot of the noise. It’s like, “You know what? I helped reduce customer churn by X percent.” Or, “I made this decision about a new product happen that otherwise would not have happened.” It’s these very kind of core impacts or core demonstrations of what you did that have 10,000 prior steps that led to that thing. But really, that is the big set of things that you’ve done that you should be aiming for.

Steve: So we started a little bit with sort of the moment of asking questions, and you gave some examples about sort of how to frame that, but then I think you’re making this larger point that when you look back, even like on a quarter or an annual basis, those small moments that maybe we have some anxiety about are not the ones that should be reflected on as these, what are we trying to get to? But how do we, in the moment, keep that in mind? Because it’s like I guess you’re talking a little about being present versus looking at it in retrospect. So how does that perspective that, yeah, when we come back to look at this, here’s what the important things are going to be, how does that give us the best confidence to make the right decisions in the moment when they feel uncertain or risky?

Daniel: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah. I often tell my team some phrase along the lines of, “Let’s be human for a minute.” And I actually, in this conversation, want to be human for a minute. I very much recognize and see in myself and see in others a lot of anxiety in researchers. I see a lot of insecurity. And I use those terms not in any sort of pejorative way or in any way that indicates some kind of failing. I use those terms as descriptions of what it means to be a human. I have all sorts of anxiety and all sorts of questions in my mind of, you know, “Am I doing a good job? Am I doing the right thing? If I had done this, you know, X number of years ago, would I be in this place?” Right? I in no way want to dismiss those. I in no way want to suggest that, “Hey, you know, if I just had my act together, all of that would disappear.” It just won’t, right? I actually have admired so much the leaders and authors who actually say, “You know what?

Even in my role, even in my position, even after 30 years, I still get nervous before I speak in public or I still cringe when someone’s going to give me feedback.” Right? So I think then the question becomes, “Okay, I can’t get rid of the anxiety or the insecurity. What do I do in the face of it? Do I try to just push it down?” No, that’s not going to be a recipe for success. Do I try to reframe the situation? That’s often successful. Do I have a mantra that I repeat over and over to myself? Sure, yeah, I do that. If someone is giving me hard feedback, I have this phrase, “If you are not making mistakes, you’re not learning.” And all credit to Percival Everett, his new novel, “James,” the slave character James or Jim, says that at one point. I wrote it down on a Post-it, and I’ve been saying it in my head ever since, basically. So I do think that anxiety, insecurity is present and is never going to go away. I do think that as researchers, as designers, as PMs, analysts, right, on and on, that we can look back retrospectively at what we’ve done, but we can also look forward to where we are trying to get to. So by the end of this year, I want to have accomplished this thing and this thing, right? And I have that right in front of me. I’m looking at that every day. I’m being tireless in going after those things. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t hard times. That doesn’t mean that there’s not anxiety, that I don’t mess up micro interactions. But I’m constantly going toward one, two, maybe three things to get to by a certain point in time.

Steve: I’d like to yes and some of what you’re saying here.

Daniel: Love it. Yeah.

Steve: And just to go back to our, we’re going big picture…

Daniel: Mm-hmm.

Steve: …and then specific example of big picture, we’re going back and forth.

Daniel: Mm-hmm.

Steve: So the asking dumb questions, not knowing something,

Daniel: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Steve: …in addition to everything that you’re saying, I guess I’ve had the experience of being around when someone else asks a dumb question, in those ways that you modeled,

Daniel: [laughs]

Steve: and just felt enormous relief and gratitude for that person doing that…

Daniel: Yeah.

Steve: …that it’s helpful for me, and that I can see even what it does for the group.

Daniel: Yeah.

Steve: That it unlocks something and unlocks some assumption. I’ve personally received it and I can see the group benefits from it.

Daniel: Yeah.

Steve: And so then that teaches me a little lesson that maybe it’s not about permission. I appreciate your take on waiting for permission, but I get permission when I see somebody bring value and then I think, “Oh, they model it for me. I could do that too.” Or when I’ve taken a risk and done something like asked a question…

Daniel: Mm-hmm. Yeah, absolutely.

Steve: …that I’m not sure if it’s okay for me to ask, and then gotten some approval from someone else, thank you for asking that. I might get a private message afterwards. And if that happens, in that first example…

Daniel: Yeah.

Steve: …when someone does it and I’m grateful for it, I’ve learned enough that I might try to tell them, either publicly or privately, receiving the reinforcements and modeling the reinforcements,

Daniel: Yeah. Yeah.

Steve: and noticing that a behavior that might be unsafe or risky…

Daniel: Yeah.

Steve: …does bring value and has positive consequences, starts to give me– and maybe that’s the reframe the anxiety a little bit and say…

Daniel: Yeah.

Steve: …”Yeah, if you look at some specific examples…

Daniel: Yeah.

Steve: …it’s played out really, really well.” And then modeling is kind of a follow-on for that.

Daniel: Yeah, I’m so glad you bring this up. This raises two things I’ve learned. One is in creating the right ecosystem. And then the other is not waiting to lead. So let me unpack both of those. Like, a lot of this conversation has focused on more of the personal, more of the individual realities of day-to-day life at a company or an agency conducting research. But let’s actually talk about the institutional for a bit. Institutional can kind of sound like a sterile, abstract word. And so oftentimes what I actually describe is what I call an ecosystem. So in an ecosystem, we need to have the right conditions in place for everyone to thrive. And so that means having norms about how we conduct meetings. Or that means having checks for bias in promotion panels or in performance reviews. That means ensuring representation in this group and that group. On and on.

We can talk about this in a number of different, very tactical ways. And what I see then is, okay, so we want to create an ecosystem where people are thriving. And how we can help with that is that we can start to create that ecosystem for ourselves. Even if it is my coworker and myself or my team of four people or my team of 10 people or the broader design org of 40 people or on and on. I think that especially starting out as researchers earlier in career, we are waiting for someone to give us the affirmation or to send us the message after the meeting. But actually you can start doing that on day one right as you are starting your career. You don’t have to wait for things like that to happen. Obviously there is — in what I’m describing, I’m describing kind of a bottoms-up approach to creating that ecosystem. Obviously there is a complement of top-down, right? Like what the company leadership is saying and modeling and demonstrating in their actions, not just their words. But both things really do have to happen together.

And I think actually what you are describing is such a good reminder for me as a director, as a leader in the company. Know that the rest of the day after we have this conversation, I’m very much going to be thinking, okay, who can I call out into the spotlight and recognize? Or what just happened in that meeting that shouldn’t have happened? What can I do differently in the next meeting to make sure that so-and-so is able to speak and contribute more instead of being sidelined like they were?

Steve: So just as we get closer to wrapping up, maybe one thing we haven’t talked about as much, we talked a little about sort of data collecting as one of the roles of research and you expanded that to pulling multiple sources together. And really, we’ve talked a lot about the relationships that create the context or the work to have impact. One piece we haven’t talked about as much is, I’m going to say like a differentiator in research as opposed to a question asker is, is sensemaking, you know, what we do with this data. You know, how do you think about that or how do you practice that with your team?

Daniel: I love that question. I think that one of the biggest differentiators for researchers is the knowledge that we bring. And by knowledge, I mean domain knowledge about various social scientific theories and user research theories. And then also the know-how of how to put those theories to work, especially when we are doing original data collection. What I often see is that researchers come into a corporate setting, let’s say, or an agency setting, and then they actually end up forgetting or very rarely putting to work all of the social scientific theories that exist in the world and that they have learned. And that is actually a tremendous opportunity for us.

So if I think about sociology, for example, which is my main training, I can bring in theories about, let’s say, collective identity from social movements to generate hypotheses for how we might create collective identity among a customer base, which then instills a sense of community and belonging and then can propel some sort of action.

Or if I think about the corporate setting in which I work, if I think about that in terms of social movements, I can actually apply a theory of, let’s say, political opportunity, where I see that there’s division within leaders or there’s something changing in a market that gives us a chance to accomplish something that would have been impossible to do even just last month. I also think a lot about socioeconomic level and research on social class, race, and gender as I’m conducting research. I think it just it sensitizes me to all sorts of different aspects that otherwise I would miss. And then it helps me to make sense of the data, of course. And I’m given examples from sociology, but certainly psychology, economics, political science, all of that feeds in as well.

Where I see a big opportunity for researchers is we often get in this habit of reporting quotes or showing a video clip. And to be clear, those things are very powerful, right? They’re a tool that we can use. But the problem with that is that is only one kind of data. It’s often just as important what the person did not say, or it is important to pay attention to body language or to the fact that off the recording their cell phone rang, which then indicated this thing that can help us design the product, right? So I think often as researchers, we are trying to work backward from, okay, what is the slide deck? Like what is the cool thing that I can put on the slide for the audience? And in doing that, we actually like truncate a lot of our intellectual ability and prowess because we are ignoring or setting off to the side all sorts of other data that exists in the world.

Steve: Are you making the link between that experiential data and some of the theories from social science or other disciplines?

Daniel: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, definitely. A connection there for sure. And then also there’s a connection in terms of the methods that we use in the first place, right? So interviews are great or usability tests are great for that quote or for that clip where the customer can’t find the back button for 40 painful seconds, right? All of that is good, but that’s only a couple of data forms. And so if we actually expand into, okay, I’m not going to limit myself to easy video clips and easy quotes. I’m going to think much bigger about what are the business questions? What do I need to solve? We can then develop really creative methods, deploy those, and then generate really interesting data. And yes, you’re right. It may not be as succinct or kind of easy to understand as a customer quote, but if it’s answering the question, then it’s absolutely what we should be using.

Steve: We’ve talked throughout this conversation about the collaboration and the relationships with the rest of the organization and sort of permission and confidence and a lot of themes here. And I’m thinking about, yes, as a sociologist you have all these theoretical frameworks to kind of bring in. How much of that would be known to people outside your research group?

Daniel: Very little of it, and that is okay. So let me actually use the example of Jobs to be Done, which is a much more kind of approachable framework that I think many people are familiar with. You can use the Jobs to be Done framework. You can make an observation of customers using a milkshake machine in the morning versus in the afternoon like Christensen does in his book. And you can then generate hypotheses for testing and market. Let’s move the milkshake machine in the afternoon over here. Let’s change the size of the cups. Okay, all of that. Great. You are then presenting that information to stakeholders. Where I in the past have gotten off track and where many researchers get off track is they go through that whole analytical process. They go through that whole framework. They may not actually need to do so. All of those frameworks, all of those theories are tools for us to sharpen our thinking and to generate hypotheses. We don’t necessarily need the audience to understand them fully. We may not even need to communicate them at all. And in fact, communicating them may actually just be a distraction for the audience.

What you actually need is what was the outcome of all of that work? And that may reduce literally hours upon hours of observation and careful thinking may reduce down to just a couple of bullet points or a couple of talking points. And that’s okay, right? I think as part of researchers’ insecurity and anxiety, myself included, we want to show all of the hard work that we’ve done. We want to say like, “Hey, this is difficult. Not anyone can do this.” And so we go into a lot of detail. But in actuality, most of our audience actually trusts that we are experts. They trust that we are doing the hard work. And instead, what they want is us to communicate that thing.

I actually think that we can learn a lot from folks in analytics who are really experienced where, my goodness, I know that dozens of hours of data cleaning and munging and various statistical testing has gone into one or two bullet points or a slide and a slide deck. And I don’t need to see all of that work. I know that they are the expert. I know that they’ve done the hard work. And so I can just go in the conversation from what they’re saying and then we can together figure out what does this mean. Sure. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah. Thanks for the pushback.

I think this is where the audience is a major overlay to what I’m saying, where I was more speaking for an executive audience that has relatively little time, relatively little bandwidth. And so the approach that I’ve seen be successful is starting with, here’s what we learned, here’s what the implications are. And then if needed, in the slide deck appendix or in the document appendix, here are all of the details about why we are confident in this, what we learned, what our process was to get here. I do think though, as you are working with more operational teams who are really in the nitty gritty with you, like actually creating the marketing campaign or the landing page to test demand for a product or creating the wireframe, whatever, this is where a lot of that detail becomes important. So this is when you’re in a long conversation. It’s probably not a deck or document at that point. It’s probably you with a designer, maybe an analyst and a PM, whoever. And you’re actually having much more of a working session where you’re saying, this is what I’m seeing, here’s why I’m seeing it. You’re answering questions as they come.

And actually, one way that we’ve been doing that much more recently is we’ve been having much more quick iterative share outs with those executional or operational folks versus maybe the share out that happens once or twice with a more executive audience. So in a recent project, for example, I think we were doing share outs every two or three days. And it wasn’t just a one-sided conversation share out, but it was really a discussion, almost kind of like a workshop of, okay, this is what we learned over the last couple of days. Here’s what we think it means. How are you seeing it? We iterate and then we go from there. So I’m kind of describing the RITE method, right? R-I-T-E method. But I think oftentimes that is used more for design and developing, let’s say, wireframes or a prototype. But I think actually the method can apply more broadly beyond that.

Steve: Anything that we didn’t cover today that I should have asked you about?

Daniel: I love that question. I close most of my interviews that way. I want to say two things that I think are often missing when really any kind of leader gives advice and gives prescriptions. One is that this is all a work in progress. I probably make it sound like things are set, that I’ve had these learnings, I’ve made these adjustments, and this is the way that I operate and the team operates. This is one point in time, honestly. I guarantee if we had this conversation in three months or in six months, that I would have a different lens to put on things or I would emphasize certain things more than others. I might even disagree with some of the things that I’ve just told you. And so I do hope that everyone listening to this understands that this really is how I’m seeing the world now. But going back to one of my core values is humility. I’m very willing to be wrong on this or to change on this.

The second thing I’ll say is that a lot of advice, especially I’ll call it out, especially on LinkedIn about research or blog posts even about what to do, what to not do, really misses a lot of nuance. So I’m very much speaking from what I have learned works at Remitly and how I have been able to succeed here. I do think, though, that at a different company, things may be different. And so I do want to encourage folks to use what is useful, toss the rest. That’s totally fine. And I do just have to give a quick meta reflection on myself. This is such a classic researcher way to end a conversation, isn’t it? Like I have all of these thoughts and then I kind of end with, hey, but I could be wrong. Here’s a bunch of qualifiers. And I just I think that’s such a sign that I truly am a researcher. Going back to the earlier part of our conversation. I’m not a product manager. I’m not a CEO. I’m not an analyst.

Steve: I do have a follow-up question though for…

Daniel: Please.

Steve: Your observation of what you see on LinkedIn…

Daniel: Yeah.

Steve: Why did you agree, we’re not on LinkedIn, we’re podcast, it’s a different format, but why did you agree to do this, to be on this podcast?

Daniel: Yeah, I think the detail, right, there’s so much nuance there. There’s so many things that sound kind of trite or pithy in in written form, especially in a forum like LinkedIn. But, you know, as soon as you start talking about them in a discussion, you realize how how one thing connects to another or how, you know, the thing that that you think is generally applicable is actually only applicable to maybe one kind of setting. And so I figured that this would be a great way to have a more detailed, nuanced conversation about what it means to be doing research in this day and age.

Steve: Well, I’m really grateful for you taking the time and having what to me felt like a very nuanced conversation. We covered a lot, but it’s been really interesting and really enjoyable. So I want to thank you for being on the podcast.

Daniel: Oh, you’re very welcome, Steve. Thank you so much for the invitation and for your time.

Steve: All right, everyone. That’s a wrap for today. You can always find Dollars to Donuts wherever you get your podcasts, as well as at portigal.com/podcast for all of the episodes with show notes and transcripts. Want to do me a solid? Rate and review Dollars to Donuts on Apple Podcasts. Our theme music is by Bruce Todd.

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