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99U Conference 2018

Audrey Liu: Incentivize Creative Teams with Meaning, Not Perks


About this talk

Audrey Liu, Director of Product Design at Lyft, takes issue with how companies incentivize creative teams. Instead of dangling perks like kombucha and in-office massages, Liu asserts the need to connect designers with the fulfillment of solving real problems. In this insight-packed talk, Liu advises leaders on:

  • How to connect your team’s accomplishments to real world impact
  • Why creatives need to do the right thing, not just the most measurable thing
  • How to activate empathy by literally putting your designers in the driver’s seat

Full Transcript

I was thinking about that, what I wanted to talk about to this amazing room full of great people. I decided I wanted to talk about something that has been just nagging at me lately. And it all started when I was interviewing a candidate. And I got to that part in the interview where I said, “Are there any questions that I can answer for you?” And the first question that this candidate decided to ask me was, “What’s your vacation policy?”

And I almost lost it, but instead of losing it on the candidate, I decided to channel all of that hell fire into this presentation. So unfortunately for you. Because we live in a world today where new grads are earning six figures. They have unlimited paid time off. They go into a workplace where they have three square meals a day, Kombucha on tap, and onsite masseuses. And it makes me feel like, maybe we’re not incentivizing the right behaviors in people anymore.

Maybe people are focused on the wrong things. Because between the perks and the way that we work, we’ve just created so much noise that’s really getting in the way of people doing some truly meaningful stuff. But before I continue that rant, I’ll provide some context. So, these are my parents. I grew up as the daughter of two immigrant Chinese parents. So having a strong work ethic was never a choice. I’m pretty sure it was like hardwired into my DNA.

My brothers and I, we worked hard because we were told to, but also because we were told that working hard delivered compounding value, right? You did great work and great things would happen. You added value to the world. And it wasn’t until I was at SYPartners, that I learned to connect that strong sense of work ethic, to a deeper meaning. And the first few years were just simply exciting. Project after project. I was working alongside C-suite executives, from Starbucks to Oprah, helping them tap into a deeper sense of their purpose.

But about three years in, I was asked to lead the design of our first self-branded product, called Unstuck. And it was an iPad app that was meant to help everyday people overcome everyday challenges. So to wrap my head around the problem, I sent out a survey to the team. Asked them to share it with their friends and their friends’ friends and it helped me understand what really was getting people stuck today. And I was expecting answers like, “I’m trying to lose that last 10 pounds.”

Or, “I need to find time to exercise more.” Or, “I need to deal with a really difficult boss.” And there were definitely answers like that. But there were also others like, ” I need to leave my husband, but I don’t know how.” Or, “I’ve struggled with depression and I’m in the middle of a bad spell.” Or, “I’m in debt. I can’t seem to get out of it.” “My child has cancer, and I don’t know how to help him. I feel helpless.” So suddenly this, iPad app that I was creating, took on a whole new meaning.

I was no longer dealing with execs who were trying to solve the types of problems that make or break a company or a team. I was trying to solve the types of problems that make or break a life. And it gave me this insane amount of pressure, but also a renewed sense of dedication and accountability for my work. And it was hard. And every time I wanted to quit, which was about every week my friend and colleague Niccolo would remind me of the people that were depending on me.

Not my bosses or the developers or even my product manager who normally rules my life, but the parents, the wives, the people who are struggling alone. And it was through Unstuck that I found that deeper meaning in my work. And it was to create products that help real people overcome. I now find myself in the world of tech and I’m fortunate enough to get to work on the types of problems that I’m not only really passionate about, but that have the true potential to help people in very real ways.

I joined Thumbtack to help entrepreneurs make a living doing what they love to do, and recently I joined Lyft leading their driver and growth design teams to help people make a living in a really flexible way so that they could put themselves through school, or get back on their feet, or simply work in a way that was best for them. So, why do I have an issue with Kombucha or onsite masseuses? I don’t. But I can’t help but think that, in an effort to attract and retain talent, we’ve somehow lost sight of the one perk that we should all really care about.

Which is a shared sense of passion for the problem that we’re trying to solve. We’ve created environments that emphasize fun and not fulfillment. And as you all know, truly fulfilling work is hard. It’s full of late nights, and hard decisions and fierce debate. Yet somehow we’ve set the expectation with people to pursue comfort and pleasure, to pursue perks over purpose. And you add to that the fact that, within the last few years, the way that we go about building digital products has totally changed in a really good way.

We now design and build iteratively. We launch and we learn quickly. We have shared goals, and we have really clear ways of measuring their success. And these are good things. Goals are great. Iteration is really good, and some of the best experiences today were and are being built in just that way. But perhaps we’ve swung the pendulum just a little bit too far. And we’ve lost sight—in all this iteration—we’ve kind of lost sight of the impact that our work is really happening.

We’re so focused on the means that we’ve lost sight of the end. The true risk, isn’t that you end up with a really entitled team or that your product stinks. The true risk is that your team is not fully connected to or doesn’t fully understand the impact that its work is having, right? They’re doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons. And today more than ever, our work as designers and creators and builders has the potential to positively or negatively impact the world at scale.

We can create access or we can build roadblocks. We can foster communities or we can create silos. We can build democracies or we can destroy them. And when we lose sight of the meaning behind our work what we risk is forfeiting our control over the impact that we and our work are having. So, this isn’t about we shouldn’t have access to Kombucha or we should stop building iteratively. It’s that we need more balance. We need to reconnect people back to the deeper meaning of their work

So that they can feel a true sense of accountability for what that work is doing to the world, and the type of world that that work is creating. So what can we do? The first thing that we can do is we can help our teams find their rallying cry. So at Lyft, our purpose is to improve lives through the world’s best transportation. But like what does that really mean? So, I find it really helpful to help the team pause for a moment every now and then, just to think outside of themselves outside of their current project, and think about what really matters.

So at a current offsite, we interviewed a bunch of drivers and we asked them about, you know, what were they driving for? Like, what were their goals? What were their motivations? And after we interviewed them, I asked the team, I said, you know, “What is the impact that you want to have on those drivers’ lives?” And they said things like, they wanted to help them feel respected like a part of a community. They wanted to help them pursue a passion or pay rent.

Then I said, “Great, so if we’re successful, what kind of impact do you want to have on the world?” They said things like they wanted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They wanted to impact public policy, create parks where there used to be parking lots. And with each answer they were creating their own rallying cry. And not only that, they were creating the measure by which we can all hold ourselves accountable, so that we can now ask each other, “Do you think that’s going to create more parks?

Will that help our drivers feel more respected?” Instead of, “Do you think that’s what we can get done in two weeks?” And we can all remember the very real problems that we’re trying to solve for real people. And that’s not to say that purpose or meaning has to be tied to a greater company mission. Not at all. In fact, quite the opposite because rallying cries are deeply personal. And I used to work with this designer. She was a really good designer, but I would say she was by no means the most engaged designer on the team.

And then one day we had somebody come in and talk to us about accessibility and design. A week later she schedules this random one on one with me. I sit down, and she just starts telling me how she’s been staying up late at night, researching accessibility and design. And she’d become really interested in learning more about how being dyslexic or an English language learner impacted your ability to use a product. She went to meetups and, though she was the shyest person on the team, this was something that she was actually excited to get up and give presentations about, to the team or to complete strangers.

And in a year of working together, I’d never seen her so committed or so passionate about anything. And for her it wasn’t about—or it wasn’t all about—empowering entrepreneurs. She’d found some deeper personal meaning in the work itself. So, people, not numbers. It’s easy to lose sight of the impact that our work is having when, day to day we talk about numbers and not people. Like, so often I hear, “Audrey, don’t worry, it’s just an experiment. We’re going to ship it to 1%, we’ll run it for two weeks. No big deal.”

When it’s framed that way, it’s easy to think it’s not a big deal, or it’s easy to lose sight of that impact. But think about what a 1% experiment means to a company like Facebook who, in the US alone, has 214 million users. So, 1% test in the US market still means 2.14 million people, which is larger than the entire population of New Mexico. So as creators, we need to help people assign impact to those numbers. And at Thumbtack, we’d actually go a step further.

We would have members of the team take support calls directly from our customers and our professionals. They would shadow a couple of calls, designers, PMs, analysts, engineers. And then they themselves would sit in the hot seat. And they had to answer questions and they had to listen to complaints. And, when you hear that distress and that anxiety firsthand, you suddenly realize that if you don’t get this feature out or you don’t design it well, you’re keeping somebody from paying their electric bill, or finding a customer, or delivering on a promise that they made to somebody.

And no amount of market segmentation or persona development will ever have the impact that sitting face to face with one of your customers or hearing directly from one of them will ever have. So we also have to make sure we feel the pain. And in the mid 1970s, Patricia Moore was a 26 year old designer at the New York design office of Raymond Loewy. The only female designer, I might add. And she became really frustrated by the fact that nobody in the office was concerned about accessibility or safety issues outside of the “easy user”. Especially not the needs of older individuals. So what did she do? She toured over a hundred cities in the US and Canada, dressed up as nine different women in their 80s for three years. She took the bus, she made dinner, she went grocery shopping. She lived the life of an elder. And she also reduced all of her natural capacities. She blurred her vision. She limited her hearing. She reduced her mobility. And in her own words, though she was ready and kind of prepared for the physical difficulties that she would experience, nothing prepared her for the emotional pain that she actually went through.

Because of people’s dismissal of her, their cruelty to her, their actions and attitudes towards her. And what I love about Patricia Moore is that not only was she a total badass, but she didn’t make assumptions. She didn’t let numbers or studies dictate her understanding of the problem. She really got in there. And because of that, because she didn’t make assumptions, she was able to uncover pain points that nobody else saw.

So luckily for most of us, we don’t have to go to quite those extremes to understand the pains of our users. Before I started at Lyft, I signed up as a driver and my first ride was so nerve wrecking. Like my palms were sweaty. You should also know that I’m not a great driver. So if I ever offer to give you a ride, like you probably shouldn’t take it. And then all of these worst case scenarios kept popping into my head. Like crazy stuff like, what if I miss a turn and I run off the road?

What if my brakes fail? That could happen. What if this person kidnaps me? Like I said, crazy stupid stuff that definitely one: reveals my insane love for absurd TV narratives. But B: like nonetheless, no matter how ridiculous were very much a real part of my driving experience. And that stuff that you can’t get from interviews alone or by even sitting next to a new driver in their car. And at Lyft, a lot of people drive from our founders on down.

People drive so that they can get a good sense of the experience that we’re actually creating for our drivers. It’s a huge source of the bugs that get logged and the ideas that ended up making it onto the roadmap. Give/Get perspective. It’s easy to lose sight of the details or of the impact, because day to day we’re so focused on the details. The next iteration, the next sprint, and when so much of what we design today will be gone in a month or in a quarter, it’s easy to also lose sight of the impact that you as an individual have had over the course of that year.

So I remember sitting down for another one on one with a designer and he said to me like, “Audrey, I just don’t feel like I’ve accomplished much.” And I remember thinking…first of all, I think my jaw dropped and then I remember thinking like, “That’s ridiculous.” Because this guy, he was a designer who is full of hustle. He was the kind of guy who had actually shipped a few key features that same year. So I was just sort of dumbfounded.

I immediately scheduled a meeting with our full team and I went onto the server. I grabbed screenshots of every one of their projects. From that last year. And I compiled them into this huge, huge slide deck and I clicked through it during that meeting. And with every one that I clicked through, I just saw their faces light up, because they’d actually forgotten all of the work that they’d done. And they forgot how all of that work added up.

So even more importantly, you have to tie those accomplishments to true impact. You have to let them hear firsthand that their work allows a first generation immigrant to work as a plumber and support his family. Or a driver to more deeply connect with her community. And you have to tie that impact to a greater bottom line, whether it’s providing over a billion dollars in revenue for entrepreneurs, or over $500 million in tips alone for drivers. Help them see that their work adds up in more ways than one.

So lastly, we need to do the right thing. Not just the most measurable thing. I’m going to say that again because I think this is the most important one. We have to do the right thing, not just the most measurable thing. And we’ve all been there, where there’s a good idea on the table. We know it would improve the experience, but it would be hard to measure. So it gets killed. And as a result, roadmaps everywhere are full of improvements that are easy to measure, but that aren’t necessarily the most impactful things that we could do. But think about the bold move that REI made when it decided to close its doors on Thanksgiving and on Black Friday and they also decided not to process any retail or any online orders during that time. Instead, they encouraged people to get outside, their customers, their employees with a campaign called OptOutside. They still paid their employees for both days of work, including their hourly team members. But instead of chasing revenue, they made a decision based on their values, based on their true beliefs.

And because of it, they lost out on the biggest shopping day of the year. And they are in the retail business. Well, fast forward three years and 2017, this last Thanksgiving marked the third year that they’ve done this in a row. The third year of the OptOutside campaign. And their brand, the REI brand, and their revenue have never been stronger. So this isn’t about Kombucha. I’ve never said the word Kombucha so many times in my life.

This is not about Kombucha or about massages. This is about the fact that as creators, we should inherently care about the creations that we’re putting out in the world, and how they’re impacting that world. But, there’s so much noise getting in the way, and we’re so focused on the next week and the next iteration and the next quarter that it’s so easy to become untethered from that deeper meaning.

It happens to me and I have to remind myself to tighten that tether, to remember the impact. And now, more than ever, people need us to care. They need us to be accountable for the impact that we’re having on their lives and on the world at large. Because, at the end of the day, if we don’t care, if we don’t give a shit, if we don’t own the impact then I just don’t know who will. Thank you.

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