Design at Remix: How Customer Empathy Helps Build Better Cities
How do you build a product that helps people fight for what’s right? At Remix, the answer is an unwavering focus on customers and the communities they serve. We spoke with Tiffany Chu (co-founder and COO), Dory Little (Product Designer), Sam Hashemi (co-founder and CEO), and Jacob Zukerman (Product Designer) about how design thinking informed the founding of the company and how it drives collaboration, both within Remix and with customers. If you’re interested in joining the team, view open roles or email Tammie Vu, email@example.com.
First, give us your elevator pitch. What does Remix do?
Tiffany: We help plan more livable cities. City planners use Remix to map and schedule transit routes, which allows them to do things like improve the lives of people in underserved communities. Historically, it’s been tough for people who work in this space to advocate for what they think is right, because there weren’t good tools to visually explain the impact of planning decisions. Remix makes pushing for those changes much easier.
What’s your role on the team, and what were you doing before Remix?
Jacob: I’m a designer, and this is day two at Remix for me! I spent the last five years at Google leading consumer products at Google Play and YouTube. Here, I’m working on building the new Remix Streets product to design city streets. I’m excited about the move because Remix was design-led from the beginning, so it has a lot of the richness you’d find in popular consumer products, but in a tool for governments. The problems we solve are unique from ones I’ve worked on in the past, and solving them makes a concrete, positive impact.
Dory: I’ve been at Remix more than a year now, and I also came from Google. I worked on a number of different products there — Google Search, Google Maps, and tools for small business owners. Here, I’ve worked on our planning products, and right now I’m focused on our scheduling product.
Remix is the first company I’ve worked for where the user base is overwhelmingly positive about what we do. That’s not to say we build perfect products. But at Google, if we made a slight change to the compose button in Gmail, people would freak out. Here, we’re working on a set of problems that had been ignored for so long our customers see clearly how we can help them.
Tiffany: I’m the COO and a co-founder. I studied architecture and urban planning, ended up in design, and worked at Zipcar as their first UX hire. From there, I wanted to combine my experience with my interest in policy and local government, so I went to Code for America. That’s where I met the rest of the founders.
Since we started Remix three years ago, I’ve focused on external-facing work, and have gotten to know our customers really well. I think about what our brand stands for, and how we communicate visually to our customers.
Sam: I’m a co-founder and CEO. I also come from a product design background, and have worked mostly in government. My first job was in this top-secret lab doing work I can’t talk about. After that I designed software for astronauts on the space station for NASA before going to Code for America. These days, I spend a lot of my time hiring designers who are better than me, though I love getting into product and design discussions when I can.
What role did design play in the early days of Remix?
Tiffany: User experience was a core part of Remix from the beginning, because that’s how the whole company started. We stumbled on a need we hadn’t realized even existed. It was a side project at first — we were all living in San Francisco, and we designed a prototype to suggest better routes for Muni, one of the city’s public transportation systems. It ended up going viral. Planners from all over the country started emailing us, asking if they could use it for their real transportation projects.
“Good design is invisible. Our goal is to get out of our customers’ way and let them do the work they need to do.” — Dory
Sam: Planners are deeply passionate about what they do, and they’re always willing to share stories with anyone they meet. When we started to ask them about their local communities, we’d end up talking for hours. That’s how we hit on a lot of what you see in the Remix products today — through direct conversations. They’d tell us, “Here’s how transit is planned right now. Here are the critical problems I face every day. Here’s what the product needs to do.”
Dory: There’s a major emphasis on empathy for the customer here, which I think traces back to the role design played in the founding of the company. Good design is invisible, whether your user is trying to post a selfie or schedule a transit system. Our goal is to get out of our customers’ way and let them do the work they need to do. For example, the experience of actually drawing a route has informed the product from day one. Before Remix, that required a bunch of different tools. You might use an Excel model to figure out costs, then physically draw things out on graph paper. Drafting a complex route could take a week of work. Remix lets planners do the same thing in a matter of minutes.
How does design inform the work of other teams at Remix?
Sam: Because we were founded with a design ethos, it’s part of our culture company-wide. Onboarding for every employee includes training on what it’s like to work in local government — what drives our customers, and the problems they face. Every employee spends a week on-site with a customer to learn about them firsthand. Each team is looking at their work through the lens of design.
We also invest in sharing what we learn from customers with the entire company, so that knowledge isn’t siloed within Product or Design. Dory made a video while visiting a customer that’s a great example.
Dory: Yeah, that was in Rochester, Minnesota, on one of our first research trips for the scheduling product. We got to see every aspect of the process — we would get up early and watch the vehicles pull out of the depot at 4 a.m. It was actually really fun. When we were watching people use Remix, we just started shooting video. It was the best, easiest way to help our teammates get in the customer’s mindset and empathize with them. Instead of coming back to the office and sharing a doc with four facts that make up the customer persona or something, we could show exactly what we saw. It allowed people to quickly understand, “Oh, okay. Here are the pain points. Here’s how we should pivot to think about this problem.”
There are also a lot of processes in place here that bring design into the conversation early on. We always want to make sure we’re solving the right problems and framing them correctly. There’s a ton of collaboration and communication between Product Engineering and Design on how we want our roadmap to take shape. It isn’t divided into us delivering design and engineers writing code — we’re all building one product.
And as Sam said, everyone talks to customers. I think every single person at Remix could give you specific examples of something they’ve learned directly from a customer, and how that shapes their work. That’s unusual. In most companies, you have certain people whose job it is to talk to customers. Here, everyone has that empathy.
Tiffany: Absolutely — whether we’re planning a workshop or designing a feature, everything we do has the customer in mind. We encourage everyone to directly ask the planners what they’re thinking about, not just guess. We want people to walk over to the SFMTA office or pick up the phone, show a planner what we’re working on, and talk to them about what they think. That’s how we validate that what’s in our heads is what our customers really need.
“Because we were founded with a design ethos, it’s part of our culture company-wide.” — Sam
In that video Dory shot, for example, I remember there were two different departments in the customer’s office, literally split by a locked door. One side couldn’t get to the other. We immediately realized our product needed to transcend that barrier and be a common platform for the agency. It got us thinking about ways we could design the product in a more collaborative way.
Jacob: As someone new to the team, it’s also exciting to think about how design culture can grow and change over time. I joined in part because of the success Remix has had so far, but also because I see so many opportunities to impact Remix’s future. We can work together to figure out new tools we want to use, new approaches to collaborating with other teams, and new ways we want to communicate with customers.
Tell us more about how you gather feedback from customers.
Tiffany: We host conferences and workshops, but not every local government has the budget to travel. So we meet customers where they are. We recently hosted a regional workshop in Akron, Ohio, where we flew a team out to meet with maybe a dozen agencies from all over Ohio and western Pennsylvania. We did hands-on training, and folks from our Success team wrote down every single piece of feedback they heard. We make sure the Product team sees that information, evaluates it, and prioritizes accordingly.
Whenever we go on-site, our customers show us their city. That experience is so important. Many Remix customers can point to a specific part of the product they helped create, because almost everything we build is the result of their feedback. When we’re in the process of designing something new, we’ll have interested cities take a look. That’s how we get products to the next level and bring them to the rest of the community.
Jacob: Even though Remix isn’t explicitly a social community, it absolutely feels like a community product. Through the events and through the tool itself, we’re able to bring some of these cities and their planning organizations closer together. The product becomes a vehicle for collaboration, not just between planners and their internal stakeholders, but also between planners in different cities.
“Many Remix customers can point to a specific part of the product they helped create, because almost everything we build is the result of their feedback.” — Tiffany
Dory: I think our customers absolutely feel the difference between what we provide and other tools available to them. Historically, there’s been a huge underinvestment in design in this space, but we come in with this very high expectation to build a polished, thoughtful experience. That’s how we show this community we care about them.
How does retaining a high bar for design ultimately impact your customers and their constituents?
Dory: Working in the public sector, a lot of our customers struggle with resources, including time. Anything we can do to help them quickly express their ideas and get feedback has a huge impact on how they can serve their cities. That’s motivating.
One thing we push for in all our products is visual storytelling. A good example is Jane, which is a virtual passenger you place on a map to see exactly how far she could travel in a set period of time. A city planner can use that to give concrete examples of what freedom looks like for different people in different scenarios, which is powerful. In a complex environment like public transit, making problems transparent is a big step toward better communication.
“This is why I joined Remix — the problems we’re solving aren’t easy.” — Jacob
Sam: The default way of looking at the app is through the eyes of Jane, and we spend a lot of time thinking about how the defaults we use influence the way people design public transit. That’s part of how we set the bar. We also have a weekly meeting we call the “Jank Guard,” which is exactly what it sounds like — it guards against jankiness in the product. We basically review features and say, “Here are the things we could do better.” The goal is to make sure the product doesn’t just check a box, but is a truly great experience.
Tiffany: We also build Remix through a social impact lens, and that carries a certain expectation for us and for our customers. We’ve been fairly opinionated about how these public services should be designed. For example, the demographic layers in the product — income level, communities of color, and job density are all at the top. That tells users, “These are the most important variables to consider.” In trainings and onboardings, that’s also part of how we teach. It’s not about what Remix thinks is the right way — it’s about the best practices we’ve learned from working with more than 250 transit agencies, and how that informs our design. We need to consider the communities we’re planning for, and provide the tools to effectively visualize them.
Jacob: This is another reason I joined Remix — the problems we’re solving aren’t easy. You’re using big, complex data to create rich tools that communicate clearly to customers. That’s exciting work. We get to define the landscape in this space and build a lot of things for the first time. To be one of the people who tackles those challenges — that’s pretty cool.