#UXRConf Preview: Meet Monal Chokshi
A Q&A on managing UXRs and building the research team at Lyft
The UXR Conference is less than 4 weeks away and we can’t wait to connect with fellow UXRs in Toronto. For now, we’re sharing sneak peeks into the conference by publishing conversations with all of our speakers.
And today, we’d like to share our chat with Monal Chokshi!
Monal Chokshi is the Head of UX Research at Lyft, with more than 8 years of experience managing UX teams. I had a chance to talk to her about building the Lyft research team from the ground up, her advice for managers, and how she sees UXR teams evolving in the next few years.
Read Monal’s interview below!
Tell us a bit about how you decided to pursue UX research.
I’ve always been interested in people and technology. As a kid, I played a lot of video games and started programming on my own for fun. When I got to college, the internet was starting to become more available to everyone. I was lucky to be at Stanford at a time when Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) was gaining traction in academic circles.
I majored in Symbolic Systems, which was a combination of classes from Computer Science, Psychology, Philosophy, and Linguistics. Symbolic Systems is a computational take on Cognitive Science: it requires lots of abstract thinking and mathematical logic. It allowed me to pursue my passion of communication and technology and to design interfaces for people. My concentration was in HCI, and I completed various design and usability summer internships, including an internship at Boeing, where I worked in a usability lab.
I continued pursuing my passion after graduation as an HCI specialist at a startup called Trilogy Software in Austin, Texas. I was doing everything from user research and design, to information architecture and front-end web development.
As much as I enjoyed design and development I was continually drawn to the people side of the work. I wanted to ensure that what I was designing was useful and delightful, but we often did not have the resources to do the research necessary to determine this. Ultimately, I found myself going back to graduate school to pursue a career in UX Research. In graduate school, I focused on methods of cognitive ethnography: observing how people think and work in their natural, day-to-day environments and understanding the social dynamics and interaction that partially structure the environment. I learned how to uncover user-centered insights to best design everyday technology for people.
Since then, I’ve focused my career on UX Research. I’ve worked as a Researcher and Manager at various companies — both startups and larger corporations.
You were Lyft’s first UX Researcher. Tell us a bit about the research team at Lyft and how it evolved over the years.
The Lyft UX Research team is about 25 people today. Four years ago we were a team of one person — me. I was hired to create a UX Research discipline and grow a team. During the first year, we worked to integrate ourselves into the product development process with quick and impactful studies to illustrate what we could do and prove our value. Because no previous research was done, there was a lot of low hanging fruit; we didn’t have to dig too deeply to uncover some really useful insights.
After some time, there was a lot more demand for our work; people began to see the value of speaking to our users, gaining product insights to drive decisions, and evaluating ideas in the field. As the company grew, the demand for our work grew immensely and we were able to hire more folks.
We’re finally at a point where we have good coverage across all of our various product teams. We’re able to work in an embedded model with our product teams so that each researcher has a seat at the table and can be part of the decision making.
“We’re able to work in an embedded model with our product teams so that each researcher has a seat at the table and can be part of the decision making.”
Can you tell us a bit about your journey into UXR management?
My first experience as a manager was very early in my career, during the dot com period. It was only for about a year; I had a team of one or two. Nobody teaches you how to be a manager, and I wasn’t sure if I was doing things in the right way. I remember thinking I wanted to do the things that my previous managers had done well or improve on things they lacked.
Later, after several more years of experience under my belt, I was a UX manager at Intuit. I was in charge of managing researchers, content writers, and designers. I had the good fortune of being nominated to join a management training program made up of women leaders from different companies. Our cohort met every couple of weeks to learn management basics, share experiences, and support one another. I learned how to deliver feedback effectively, how to manage time and resources, how to encourage and motivate people, and so much more. I originally thought that being a manager and a leader was a personality type, but it isn’t, you’re not just born a leader. There are a set of skills and a mindset that can be learned.
One of the things I really enjoy about being a manager is that you’re never done learning. I also love that there’s such a large focus on understanding people and how they collaborate. As a manager, you put your research hat on and you start making decisions based on research you do within your organization. This is something I’ll dive deeper into during my talk at the UXR conference.
“I originally thought that being a manager and a leader was a personality type, but it isn’t, you’re not just born a leader. There are a set of skills and a mindset that can be learned.”
What does great UXR management mean to you? Are there any management mantras you live by?
UX Research is a nascent discipline. Previously, there were very few UX Research Managers. A team may have consisted of a couple of UX Researchers who reported to a Design Manager. We’re starting to enter an adolescent stage now, and we’re seeing more UX Research Managers and Directors at companies. This is wonderful because it means that the manager can truly understand the work UX Researchers are doing and empathize with their needs and challenges. We can look at managing in three ways:
- Managing downward. This is primarily about managing your team and directs. The biggest strength for this type of management is empathy, which is a skill researchers already have. Empathy is also emphasized by most leadership and management books, and it’s something I will be discussing in my talk.
- Managing sideways. This type of management is all about building relationships with our partners, in order to ensure they are aware of our work and are working alongside us to champion outcomes for our users. It’s important to not only do the research and uncover insights, but also to share our learnings with the company and influence outcomes. We want to make sure that our work is being used to drive important business decisions.
- Managing upwards. We are a young discipline and to ensure we’re building company-wide user empathy and creating user-centered organizations, we need to advocate for growing our teams. The more we can point to business successes as a result of our research, especially to the people in charge of allocating resources, the better. Overall, as managers and leaders, we need to evangelize and advocate for user research in our organizations.
“The more we can point to business successes as a result of our research, especially to the people in charge of allocating resources, the better. Overall, as managers and leaders, we need to evangelize and advocate for user research in our organizations.”
What is your favourite part about leading and managing a UXR team?
There are so many things! The people on my team are the absolute favourite part of my job. We have a lot of people from really diverse backgrounds: several are academics with a doctorate, some are former social workers, we have an MBA, and there’s even somebody who is a licensed architect. I love working with people who can bring so many diverse perspectives and skill sets to the team.
We also have a great culture. We are all very supportive of one another and want to help each other learn and grow. I love seeing my team accomplish things and I enjoy championing their work … almost like a proud parent!
How do you see UXR teams changing in the next 5–10 years?
I see UX research teams elevating companies. Just over the last 5–10 years, UX research has become much more central to the product development cycle. When I was first entering the field, it was sort of a luxurious idea for companies to have researchers, but now it’s becoming less of a nice-to-have and more of a must-have. This is because it’s getting harder for companies to distinguish themselves through technology alone. They’re now being differentiated by the user experience they provide. I think the companies who invest in UX research are the ones who will get the farthest.
I also see UXR teams becoming more strategic. In the past, the focus of UX Research was on product design and usability. Now there’s more room to also focus on product strategy, service design, and operations. As research becomes more crucial to organizations, there may be more UXR Directors and VPs in the future.
One of the things my team is known for is being great facilitators. We are the glue between product, design, and engineering. We bring cross-functional teams together around insights and help them make user-centered decisions.
At Lyft we have UX Research, Consumer & Market Insights, Policy research, and Data Science teams. When I began working at Lyft I started meeting with folks from these other teams so that we could work together in shaping insights for the company. Soon after, I decided to formalize our cross-functional group and created the ‘Research & Insights Group’. This group has grown immensely and still meets regularly today to share knowledge and collaborate. Having built these strong relationships has allowed us to ensure that we are working together wherever possible and aren’t duplicating efforts. I’m glad I did this early on because we’ve built a great community of researchers from across the company.
“When I was first entering the field, it was sort of a luxurious idea for companies to have researchers, but now it’s becoming less of a nice-to-have and more of a must-have.”
Do you have any advice for those new to management, looking to improve their skills?
Chat with managers that you respect and ask them for advice. Try to complete as much training as you can, because there are so many skills to be learned — there is a method to the madness. In my talk, I will touch a lot on the fact that as a researcher, you have several skills needed to be a good manager already. Being empathetic is a huge asset, as is being able to listen and ask the right questions.
“In my talk, I will touch a lot on the fact that as a researcher, you have several skills needed to be a good manager already.”
What are you most excited about the UXR Conference?
I’m most excited to meet lots of amazing researchers! I love that this conference is focused on UX Research. It’s exciting to celebrate our discipline. 🎉 I’m really looking forward to learning from other folks and hearing what everyone’s challenges and wins are. UX Researchers are great people and I feel really lucky to have found this profession because everyone I’ve met in our field is lovely. ❤️
Learn more about UXR management at Monal’s talk in the Leadership in Research Track: “ How to succeed as a UXR Manager: Capitalizing on your strengths as a researcher”
Join Monal at Strive: The 2019 UX Research Conference
Tickets are still available for the Main Stage talks on June 7th as well as Research Foundations and Advancing Your Practice tracks on June 6th!
📅 June 6–7
📍 Roy Thomson Hall, 60 Simcoe St, Toronto, ON, M5J 2H5