The world is changing pretty fast and technology is absolutely on the forefront of that. Whether you’re a tiny startup or whether you’re creating a product that disrupts an industry, keep in mind you are at the forefront. Incorporating User Research to your development processes will reflect in a meaningful way not only in your product but through all your company. You will be building in a more mindful way.

Mariam Khan

Head of Research, Lead Designer at Earnest Inc.

Mariam’s resume includes working with Adobe, founding her own company: Doughbies, and currently working at Earnest. Her experience spans from founding brands, architecting programs for teams and leading design experiences for diversity of audiences. She is passionate about supporting and empowering people in their own creativity to build a more accessible and thoughtful world. 

To know more about Mariam follow her on LinkedIn & Medium

Podcast Summary

How you got into the research world?

I’ve worked in large companies such as Adobe for a couple years on the consulting side. Then I started my own companie Doughbies. It was an on demand freshly baked goods delivery service. 

Being a tiny startup, research became really important right at the start for us to find a product market fit: who are we doing this for and where would this fit happen? I remember standing outside Caltrain every day for two to three months handing out flyers, cookies, talking to people just to find our fit. Now bringing that experience to Earnest, when I first started here, I did a prototype test. Originally I was going to do some usability testing. From there we morphed into a very much user first approach for every product and feature. Especially this last product that we just launched, which is a school loan product.

What’s the importance of diversity and inclusion in the organization and what’s the greater impact it has in building products? 

When I think about diversity for products; it is my belief that we can only build smarter technologies and products that cater to a wider audience, if we take the opinion of all kinds of people (geographical location, ages, genders, and backgrounds). One size doesn’t fit all. You can’t have a product that features a majority of people until you take into account the majority of them.

Diversity and inclusion needs to be more than just a checkmark, it needs to be more than just something people say “Oh we’ll get to it”.

We cannot build products that are mindful and that can reach more people if we don’t have diversity. By mindful I mean the fact that we should realize that one size doesn’t fit all, people are unique, and our products should be a fit for them. 

At Earnest we deal a very emotional category which is money. Think of the last time someone asked you for money, is uncomfortable right? Or when you had to pay your rent, nobody likes doing that even though we have to.

When we talk about research some companies don’t see how it will fit into their process (specially small companies). How do you integrate future research into not only the development process but the entire company?

When you’re a small company the first problem is: can I even afford this? When people think about user research, they think: it takes a lot of resources, do I have the people to go out and do this research, to analyze it?

When you are trying to find your product market fit, you can assume and take this tech mantra: “We got to move fast in this test,  break things, try all these things, and then something hits” (which I’m completely against). That’s not how the world works.

If we want to build a world where disasters don’t happen and if we want to build products that actually service people in the right way. You have to play the long game.

It might look daunting, but I actually think research is even more important for a smaller company, because you don’t have as much resources as a big one. If you want to play the long game and think about a long lasting program, system, or even teams; you have to find that fit. And you’re not going to find it until you go out and see if people actually like your idea. Talking to customers is even more imperative when you’re a small startup.

What is the biggest challenge when you are building up a product that is trying to change people’s behavior/perception on something?

I think the biggest part for money (in this project with Earnest) is that it’s emotional. It’s a very logical thing, we need money to do X, Y and Z; but it’s also emotional because there’s a high stress factor over that. 

By building products, systems, and incorporating features in everything we do; I’m mindful of the fact that this is a very emotional factor, it really helps. One big thing that we’re trying 

to do a lot in the product is to educate our customers. 

With research we found (especially with younger folks) that is not that they can’t understand financial terms. It’s just the way financial terms and loans have been presented, not in the most user friendly way. This doesn’t mean “oh it doesn’t look pretty”, lots of times people believe experience design just means you make it look better, but this is not true.

Experience Design is the practice of how people
digest information and how they process it.

One of the things we learned was that when people are presented with a lot of difficult concepts and with chunks and chunks of information. It’s hard for them to let it sink in and understand it. To tackle this problem, and for the user to really understand their loans, we present information that’s digestible in small pieces and also provide as much guidance and help through the loan process as possible.

The financial system has a lot of regulations and standards by itself. Did you find any of those as a constraint when building this new product at Earnest?

There’s a lot of eyes on the product, there’s a lot of restrictions, a lot of information. So it all has to be rightfully presented. At the end of the day users need to know what it’s going to mean for them. How is it going to be presented in a way that people will actually read it.

I wouldn’t call them constraints, but guidelines.

We spent time thinking and visualizing the easiest way for people to read it and not overwhelm them. We don’t want people to just sign on the dotted line without being able to comprehend and look at the important numbers and information that they need to.

What would be your advice for other researchers or people that might not have a UX Team or Research Team on their company, but are trying to learn more about this sensitive and sometimes complicated topic like it is money?

First and foremost I would say don’t make assumptions. There’s a lot of industry data out there, but your company (whatever it might be) is unique. So the industry data that’s out there would be helpful, but doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the only research you should do.

Go ahead and look for what information is out there, but then figure out ways to connect with your people.

For instance going back to my own startup, I was out there at different food stores and farmers markets just talking to people to understand what my market was like. Was it exhausting? Yes absolutely. Was it exciting? More than it was exhausting. It was absolutely exciting. I talked to people for months time and time again. I hired a team of brand designers once our company grew a little bit to go out and continue to do that research. 

At Earnest one of the things that I constantly have to be mindful of, is timelines as well as efficiencies for cost. So I found a platform that works for us.

Look for what fits your timelines as well as what fits your budget.

When researching sensitive topics (like loans and money) the first and foremost thing is to be mindful. Money is a difficult topic to talk about for people. We live in a world where it’s not a level playing field and we have to be mindful of that. So sit back and think about what are all the things that I cannot take for granted. 

If I think about the food industry, not everyone has the same dietary allowances. It might be because of health issues, religious issues, etc. Don’t take it for granted that everyone’s going to want to use or eat your product. It’s a big world and we need to think about how every group, every person is unique.

What have been the similarities and differences when building products in those different scenarios?

When you work in tech, the first similarity is that you always have a roadmap and timelines that are constantly aggressive, no matter at what scale. There’s always this mentality that we constantly want to be iterating and building and trying different things. 

The difference when you’re running your own company is that you have more ownership. You can be a little bit more nimble in terms of: okay I’m going to design, build and test this feature all in one week, and if I hate it I’m going to try it out. 

In bigger companies sometimes they have other regulations and processes. As you get bigger there are definitely more rules and you’re slightly less nimble. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Just things that you have to be mindful of.

Why and what would be your advice for companies that haven’t integrated research into their development process?

It’s never too late. Don’t be in such a hurry to build without thinking about the long term game.

The whole advantage of research is that it makes any company more efficient. You can build in a more cost effective way. And I mean cost in terms of people and effort. Your long term development process will improve because you will be building in a more mindful way.

Words of wisdom

Whatever you do, however you do it be mindful of people. Diversity inclusion in tech needs to be a conversation that is led from the ground up because we all come from different backgrounds. Diversity and Inclusion should touch every part of your work. Think about accessibility. Think about how the world is so fast paced and how it could be so much better if you are creating things that add joy for the majority of people. 

If you only have a baby a small niche that understands what you’re doing and why. Chances are that you’re working in a silo.

Think of the bigger picture, because now more than ever the world really needs that.