3 Questions with Aryel Cianflone, UX Researcher & Creator of Mixed Methods Podcast

Interview by Breanne Thomas

Hi Aryel! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Hi! For work, I manage a small team of user researchers at Domo, a business intelligence company aimed at being the control center for your business (it’s currently valued at $2B).

When I’m not at work, I love spending time outside! Summer is my favorite season because I can get out and go hiking, climbing, camping, etc. I live in Utah right now, which is paradise for stuff like that.

What inspired you to launch Mixed Methods as a podcast?

I have been using different user research methods throughout my career, but about a year ago, I started working as a researcher for my team. The learning curve was pretty steep and I had a number of questions and no one to ask. The UX research community is pretty small where I live, so I started reaching out to people. I wanted to speed up my learning and get more involved with the professional community.

During his process, I realized that if these conversations were useful to me, they probably would be for others as well. So I bought a mic, learned how to do some audio editing, and started a podcast.

Who would be your dream guest and why?

My dream guest is changing all the time. For a while, it was Jake Knapp, but since he’s been on the show, I had the chance to rethink it. Right now, I’m really interested in speaking with Edward de Bono. He is the father of lateral thinking, which is a method of problem solving that is more creative/less direct than more traditional methods. His ideas have informed an entire generation of UX professionals, and I think it would be amazing to talk to him about his journey.

Chatting about chat bots with Megan Berry, Head of Product at Octane AI


Interview by Allison Grinberg-Funes

Hi Megan! You work at Octane AI, a great company in the artificial intelligence space. Can you tell us about what you do and why you became a Founding Member of Tech Ladies?

I joined Octane AI as Head of Product in November. Octane AI is a venture-backed startup that allows anyone to easily create a bot. More people use messaging apps than social media, so bots are a huge opportunity to engage with your customers and audience where they already are. I’m hugely excited to help build best practices in this new industry. I think in the next year or two we’ll see that bots became an essential part of a company’s marketing arsenal, just like newsletters.

I’ve been a member of Tech Ladies since last July and have gotten tremendous value out of the community! I’ve been working in startups since I graduated from Stanford in 2009 and I’ve also consistently had more male than female coworkers and male bosses. It’s nice to have a community of smart, talented women in tech as a go-to for moral support, advice, or simply just to feel part of a larger community. I became a founding member of Tech Ladies to further support this community that has helped me.

Chatbots are a hot topic. What are some key things we need to know about how this new technology will affect the tech industry?

I think the big change you’ll see this year is a shift from a pure technology conversation to a focus on how businesses can create engaging content and experiences for their audience on messaging apps. If your users are there (and they are), then companies should think about what presence they need on messaging channels. I think you’ll see the same shift that happened with Facebook — first people question if they need to be there and if there is ROI to this “new thing.” Then, as it becomes clear that the audience is there, the conversation shifts to how to be effective and the best strategies to succeed.

Bots are here to stay. It’s not a question of if businesses will use them, but about what bots will be most effective and engaging for their audience.

You head up the product team at Octane AI. What is the biggest challenge you face leading your team and what can other Tech Ladies working in product do to remain competitive?

I work with an incredibly talented, all-remote team. Everyone is a self-starter, very motivated, and excited about what we’re building together.

I focus on doing three things:

  1. Ruthlessly prioritize. Everyone is so excited and there are so many ideas floating around, it’s important the team is always clear on what will move the needle the most at any given time. There’s always more we want to do, but we only have so much time in the day.
  2. Make the “Why” clear. When you’re working with talented engineers and designers, the worst thing you can do is to make them feel like they’re working on tasks but don’t understand why they matter to the business. I make sure each ticket has a “Why” clearly in it. This provides two benefits — it allows engineers or designers to be a part of the creative process and come up with better ideas of how something could be done (i.e. if they know why we need something, they may have a better idea of how to do it then what I was thinking. I LOVE getting those ideas!) and it also helps clarify the value of the work they’re doing.
  3. Celebrate victories. Everyone works really hard, so I try to make sure I am celebrating successes. It is all too easy once something goes live to just quickly move on to the next important thing we need, but we also try to take a moment to give props to the person who worked on it. We use GrowthBot in Slack to help highlight these moments.

I’m constantly trying to get better at what I do and always try to be very open to feedback from everyone I work with. I think my biggest learning is that no one is perfect, so take all the help and advice you can get, wherever you can get it.

Also, remember to take care of yourself. As a product manager I think it’s super important to always be a motivated and positive force on the team, but you can only do that if you’re taking care of yourself. You’re much better off going for a 20 minute walk than getting on a call when you’re frustrated.

3 Questions with a Tech Lady: Ellen Chisa, VP of Product at Lola


Interview by Allison Grinberg-Funes

Hi Ellen! Can you tell us about Lola and what you do?

Lola is an iOS app that provides instant access to a personal travel service for hotels, flights and anything you need for your trip. As the VP of Product I help prioritize the user facing features in our app, but also the tools our travel agents use to provide great service.

Day to day, that usually means more time with people and less time writing specs. I spend most of my time with our team — in 1:1s or small groups with PMs, engineers, designers, travel agents, and leaders of other teams. It’s important to keep everyone aligned and involved on what we’re building. As the company has grown, it’s been a big shift to go from being involved in every detail to helping others do their best work!

You have a great background in teaching other Tech Ladies (and gents)! What have you learned as a teacher that you never knew as a student?

I never realized how on-the-fly teaching is. I assumed teachers prepped ahead of time and just executed the plan. I didn’t see any space for flexibility. That’s not the case, and instructors often do want input.

I’m always trying to make sure I’m using students’ time well. I’m reading the room and trying to see if people are following along, if they’re interested, and what the range of ability is in the class. I make modifications as we go. The ultimate in this is the case study method that HBS uses — the discussion is a living entity. This works best in person, but I also modify my online content based on feedback.

It helps the classroom dynamic if students keep in mind the others in the room. If you’re way ahead, the question that makes everyone else feel insecure may not be a good one. It could yield a much richer 1–1 discussion with your instructor. If you’re feeling lost, tell the instructor. You probably aren’t the only one, and it’ll be harder to catch up the longer you wait.

No matter where you are, the instructor is there for you, and wants to help you do better. Don’t be afraid to suggest ways the class could help you learn better, or things you’re interested in learning. That said, be sensitive to how you present your critique. Developing a class is hard, personal, and a labor of love — and that can make it harder to take that feedback on a class than it is for a product.

Lola is all about travel. If you could go anywhere tomorrow, what destination is at the top of the list?

I just got back from Montreal, which was great! The next big destination for me is Fogo Island, Newfoundland. We’re going on our honeymoon next summer. I found out about it by working with the travel team here at Lola, and then there was a lovely profile in Cereal magazine. I just love the landscape, the variety of activities, and the way they want to engage you in the local community.

3 Questions with a Tech Lady: Dheerja Kaur, Head of Product at theSkimm


Can you tell us a little bit more about theSkimm and what you do?

theSkimm is a company that makes it easier to be smarter by delivering news and information into people’s existing routines. We started with the Daily Skimm, an email newsletter in your inbox Monday-Friday that tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in the world. A few months ago we launched a subscription app with our new product, Skimm Ahead, that tells you everything you need to know for the future, and can integrate directly into your calendar.

We’re at an exciting time right now — we have an audience of over 3.5 million active subscribers (and growing), and we’re starting to move into video with the launch of Skimm Studios.

As Head of Product, I think of my role in two parts — product strategy and product execution. On the strategic side, I work with our founders to evolve our product vision, come up with new ideas to test, and always think 3–6 months ahead to where we want Skimm products to be. On the execution side, I’m working side by side with the entire company — design, engineering, editorial, growth, cash money (yes that’s a team) — to create, build, and ship products and campaigns.

As the Head of Product, how do you stay up-to-date with the most relevant changes in technology?

It’s a challenge, but it’s also a huge part of my job so it’s important that I’m always a few steps ahead. I set aside time in my daily routine — both morning and evening — to read the latest industry blogs, newsletters, podcasts, and Twitter to make sure I’m up to date on any big news of the day. I especially love Ben Thompson’s Stratechery for great industry analysis.I also constantly stalk the App Store and download new apps daily to check out product and UX/UI trends.

Most importantly, I have weekly “sacred” time set aside to brainstorm for a few hours in front of a whiteboard (I love whiteboards. Seriously.) and think big. I try to pick a different topic a week and go deep on what we can try and test.

What’s one new skill that you would love to learn in 2017?

I’d love to try some iOS development. I started my career in engineering on the web, and eventually moved to mobile, but still worked server side to power apps via APIs. iOS is always something I’ve wanted to dig in on, especially with Swift, and a small startup environment is a great place to do that. Plus we launched a stickers app with iOS10, so I’m thinking that might be my gateway.

Oh also — I want to learn more about sales and making deals from our cash money team. They’re kind of badass.

3 Questions with a Tech Lady: Timoni West of Unity VR


Interview by Allison Grinberg-Funes

Tell us about what you’re currently doing.

I work at Unity. It’s a fascinating company. If you make games, I don’t need to explain Unity; you know it. For the 99% of folks who don’t, here’s the short pitch. Unity is a 3D game engine — a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) for games — founded with one mission: democratizing game design. It uses C#, has a friendly UI, and most importantly, it lets you code and design in one environment, then port your app or game to over 30 platforms. So if you’re an indie developer, you can make a game for iOS, Android, and Playstation simultaneously, all in the same engine. It’s dead useful.

It was founded twelve years ago in Denmark, and has been profitable ever since, but just this year, 2016, it got billion-dollar unicorn valuation. That’s unusual for Silicon Valley. But it makes sense: over the last 12 years, many other industries started working heavily in 3D: cinema, heavy industry, automotive, creative coding, and architecture, to name a few. If you’re an engineer, architect or VFX guru, Unity can import everything you build, then let you show it anywhere: in films, projected on buildings, viewed on an iPad, in augmented, mixed or virtual reality.

Let’s focus on those last three examples, augmented, mixed and virtual reality, or xR for short. In 2016, for the first time in history, we’ve got two commercially viable, high-end VR devices on the market: the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift.

Google, Microsoft, and every tech and hardware manufacturer on the planet are also actively figuring out what they’ll do in the xR space. From academia to NASA to Snapchat to Warner Brothers, this is a big new tech conversation happening right now. Unity is the base on which most of these new apps, movies, and experiences are made.

That’s the backstory. Now to bring it in: I work in Unity’s Labs, the moonshot department. I lead product and design on the team focused on xR. We’re further Unity’s core mission: creating tools for people to make worlds in xR.

If you remember the early days of the iPhone, you might just remember how there was no App Store. In fact — stretch your memory wayyyyyy back — really, there was very little to do, because the platform was so new. We anticipate this for xR, and so we’re building out tools for both developers and regular consumers to easily make 3D worlds, movies, and games.

This is easy in some respects: building a 3D world in xR can be as simple as playing with Lego. But it gets complicated quickly, because not all of the real-world rules need apply. For example, in the real world you have gravity. But when you’re designing a game, gravity isn’t necessarily useful. In Labs, we are figuring out the new rules of computer interaction, where you can easily assign gravity to specific objects. Where does that option live? In a menu on your controller? In space? If you grab a virtual backpack? As a gesture or audio command? There are no solid answers yet. These are the kinds of questions we’re solving.

What do you do to stay so up-to-date in a world where it’s so difficult to stay in-the-know of new technologies?

That’s a tough one, because time is of the essence, and we all have busy jobs. I get that. I used to do more subtle research and quietly sign up for alphas, but nowadays I tend to just reach out to folks. Working on a cool new xR experience? I’ll follow you on Twitter. If you’re not in Twitter, I’ll email you. If people are using Unity to build new xR experiences, they’re very often self-funded and really enthusiastic. If nothing else, I can give my support and open up channels for communication.

Or I’ll just send an email intro anyway. I’ve learned there’s very little to be lost reaching out to people who are interested in the same things you are.

I also go to a lot of events. If you’re new to any tech field, I highly recommend going to conferences, workshops, or meetups. Shake hands, say what you’re working on, and follow up with emails. Even the smallest of intros can lead to really great partnerships later.

Throwback time! What’s one gadget from the past you wish would “come back”?

My first gut instinct was ‘mini-game console’ but let me step back from that to a larger gripe: digital ‘touch’ inputs are bullshit. I typed faster on my Motorola v700 numeric pad more quickly and accurately than I ever typed on an iPhone. I vastly prefer the buttons of a 3DS XL to touch screens, and the Kindle 3 — the one with the physical keyboard — will always be the best Kindle to me.

While I am a firm believer in swipe, pinch-to-zoom, and drag-to-scroll, the fact is we live in a bizarro era in which alphanumeric inputs are getting worse. Sure, maybe we’ll all switch over to shortcut autocomplete emoji — thanks Google keyboard! — but in the meantime, I’ve typed all this on a physical keyboard, because moving my fingers millimeters on physical buttons with tactile feedback just works really well. Alphabets involve many characters, hands are really good at muscle memory, and tactile feedback can’t be beat. I think we can all agree writing emails on a touchscreen is just painful. This is an open problem to be solved, and speech recognition isn’t there yet.

3 Questions with a Tech Lady: Emma Tangoren of Instagram


Hi Emma! Can you tell us a little about your role at Instagram?

Hi! I’m a Product Marketing Manager at Instagram. I joined the team about 3 months ago, and I just moved out to San Francisco from New York, where I spent two years at Kickstarter.

As a PMM, I work with our product teams to ship features to our Instagram community. I work with a cross-functional team to plan product marketing efforts, often collaborating with people from communications, design, partnerships, and policy. This includes everything from strategic product positioning to on-the-ground events — Instagram definitely still operates like a startup. Being a PMM means you often roll-up your sleeves to get the job done :)

Some of my recent projects include Instagram Stories (which launched this past week) and working on the Rio Summer Olympics. For The Games, I helped coordinate our efforts across all of Instagram and alongside the broader Facebook team. Instagram has a number of events in Rio, created specific topic channels on Explore, shared dedicated editorial content, and pitched a number of stories about our Olympic efforts.

You recently launched Instagram Stories, what have you learned about working on launching new products in your career?

This is a tough one — I think the most important thing I’ve learned when launching new things is you just have to put it out there and see what people say. You can noodle on something and iterate internally until you’re blue in the face, but the best test for a new product is the people who will use it everyday.

At Kickstarter, we worked on a product called Campus for a while. It’s basically a Q&A space for Kickstarter Creators, and we weren’t sure what exactly our community wanted in this space. The fastest way we learned what worked (and what didn’t!) was by putting it out there and letting people give it a go. Our community quickly showed us what they wanted in the space, and we were able to build off of that feedback.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known earlier in your career?

Have confidence in what you know — and be comfortable with what you don’t know. In the past I had been timid to speak up in certain situations (think: a big conference room with lots of different attendees). Over time I learned it’s important to share my thoughts and experiences, both to make an impact on the company and to build trust with my team.

On the flip side, I learned to accept when I didn’t have the answer to something. Admitting what I didn’t know helped me push outside my comfort zone and seek out new perspectives, and it’s made me a stronger person in both my career and my personal life.