Nate was kind enough to sit down and chat with us about his experiences working as both a consultant and in-house researcher. His time as a consultant exposed him to the importance of caring about the operational side of research and design, and now he's working to bring that same mentality and skillset to his team at Turo. Let's dive in.
Sofia: Can you talk a little bit about your company and your role?
Nate: Turo is an amazing place to work because we have a marketplace that is comprised of both hosts and guests. The hosts rent out their cars, and the guests drive the host's cars. It's really fascinating because the technology works to bring people together in the real world. There's a significant analog component which I find exciting as a researcher; in a marketplace we have to understand how to talk to and understand our hosts, as well as how to talk to and understand our guests, and then understand how they need to both talk to each other.
There’s a large desire for more research and there's also a big opportunity for ethnographic methods and contextual inquiry methods, where the car hand-off actually does occur in the real world. We want to understand that aspect better, and we have a lot of opportunity to do mixed methods for research here - quantitative, qualitative, usability testing, etc.
From an operations side, I have experience working as both a consultant and I've worked in-house at a couple different companies now. There are differences in operations and processes when working as a consultant or for an agency, versus working in-house.
What I've tried to do here at Turo is take what I've learned from the operations side as a consultant and apply this to in-house to be able to move faster and also have the rigor that we need to conduct valid research. There's a couple different approaches I've taken so far, where I've developed an intake process, developed tools to explain to product managers what research methods apply, how to plan for it, and how to put it into the product-development cycle.
We're hiring too, so we're growing the research team so we can divide and conquer based on what projects are host-focused, and what projects are guest-focused. We'll also be bringing on an operations manager to help us coordinate and think long term about what's working, what's not working, what could be more efficient in our process, how we prioritize research, and how we make recommendations for research, as well. We're always evaluating tools, in terms of managing, planning, recruiting, all the way down to the repository of research reports and findings so that in the future, we can go back and find previous research to inform future research.
Sofia: How do you think about the operations role that you just mentioned? And, in terms of the type of person that will be great at that job, what are you thinking about when it comes to that specific position?
Nate: There are people who can do it all - the operations, run the research, do the analysis, do the synthesis, but I do find that some of those skills are different, and it's great to have someone focused on each area. I've worked with research operations managers where they were focused on the operations and working with recruiters on the logistics and scheduling. I've found that there are people who are very good at that, they really enjoy it, and they move from starting out in an individual contributor role to a role of managing a team of research operations.
Sofia: How do you think about operationalizing research at Turo?
Nate: I like the idea of building in a system where we have enough operations support that we can start to plan for future research, and the product team can see what research is going to happen. Then, we can get into a routine of talking to our hosts and our guests on a regular basis. It does take more than just research. It definitely takes some operations handling, especially for recruiting. We can do research on a request-by-request basis or even on a recommendation-by-recommendation basis, and I think that satisfies some of the need.
But then I think there's this ongoing need to feel like research is an established thing that always happens and it's not something that's just at a certain place and time. And I think having a built-in cadence really helps everyone feel like research is not the exception, it's the norm, and it's something that we can leverage throughout the year and throughout the product cycle.
I also look at how it worked at other places - I've seen this process of building in dates ahead of time, before you know what we're going to be testing. And then thinking about the operation side of it, thinking about what it would take to have the recruiting ready to go. It takes looking at those dates and then working backwards. And it's very much an operations puzzle in terms of, should we wait until we have an operations manager to even take this on? Would it be too much? I really am feeling like we definitely need more of a resource. And also looking at the product managers and the product teams - what do they need, how often do they need research? And then working with the designers to understand what their cadence is, trying to forecast how many teams have needs, how we get them on board, and how we communicate this process.
Next, we want to try a research program with a cadence to try it out and see what works, see what doesn't work, make some tweaks and then try to really make it an ongoing process that everyone can expect and understand as part of what research is. I think that would be the goal, to test it out first, make sure that it fits into this company in the way this company works, and then find a way to keep it running going forward so that people can rely on it.
Sofia: What is the role of UX in innovation? Is the UX function responsible for identifying the moonshots beyond the current product?
Nate: That's a really good question. We are actually in the process of looking at our roadmap for next year - we had a meeting with designers and researchers to look at the list of all the tactical things that need to be worked on. There's a long list of what needs to be updated and changed.
That was also an opportunity for us to brainstorm and to think about the moonshot ideas, and to think about the bigger picture. And you know what's really fascinating about that? We realized, "We need to learn more about our hosts. We need to learn more about our guests." Because we can come up with these moonshot ideas, but we don't always know how to prioritize them. And it's through research that we would be able to fully understand what are the pain points of our hosts, what are the pain points of our guests, and then how do we determine which one of these moonshot ideas would be most impactful to help solve a problem or to help in a whole new area that we're not even operating in right now.
So, it's a mix of working with the team to think outside of the box, because most of the time we're day to day trying to solve very specific problems and working on very specific projects. Yesterday we were able to be in a brainstorm with designers, with design leadership, and with research to come up with some of those ideas. What it pointed to is we need to actually build in time to do that foundational research, to do the ethnographic work with our hosts, and to understand where they're coming from, to understand all the different kinds of hosts. There's not just one type, there's not just one use case.
Sofia: If you could go back in time, what career advice would you have given yourself five years ago?
Nate: In my experience, the design of the structure, and the operations for research is really important. I feel like it's the structure and the ability to pause at the beginning and think about how you want to actually perform this work, and how you are going to plan enough time to reflect on what you're seeing. That really makes for better research overall. In my experience, it's the operations and the structure that allows for the creativity to happen.
When I've been on projects that have been less organized and had less time to plan, I felt like the freedom to be creative with the outcomes, with the findings, with the insights was restricted because we weren't as comfortable in how we were working.
The projects where I felt like we've gone in with a really solid plan, we knew what we were doing, and the operations were designed really well, I felt very open to outcomes and it felt like the creativity could happen within that structure.
Research puts us into unknown circumstances and it can be very uncomfortable for stakeholders; it can be uncomfortable for everyone on the team. So I feel it's the structure that allows us to go into the unknown and be open to what we're going to find; the structure allows us to be creative.
That would be my advice for my younger self and someone starting out in research - do not ignore the structure and time that it takes at the beginning to plan. Don’t just rush in to get it done, but really think about the structure that will allow you to be creative. It actually won't hinder the creativity that you need in the analysis and looking at the data; when you're in synthesis and absorbing all of what you've seen, you’ll come up with the larger concepts and be able to connect the dots.
Sofia: What are the major differences between working at fast growing companies from the client side perspective versus working on agency projects?
Nate: I've worked in a few different ways where I've worked on multiple projects that were overlapping for multiple clients at the same time. And then I've worked for multiple projects that were overlapping for one client at the same time, or in-house. So, those scenarios can actually feel fairly similar.
The nice thing is when I'm working in-house, I'm still working with hosts and guests and the same general product and the same concept, whereas as a consultant, when I have overlapping projects, they're completely different.
Personally, I really value having worked as a consultant at the beginning of my career. I worked for about three different research consultancies and it was great to get a really broad foundation working in many different business verticals, everything from financial services to tech, to CPG to automotive, and then to see how the different research methodologies apply in all of these different situations.
Now that I'm in-house, I’m glad to have that background because there isn't as much structure in terms of which method works where or when. So I feel like that was really useful to have that foundation. Whereas, if I had started in-house, it's much more open and I find in most cases, less structure in terms of what method applies where. Working as a consultant gave me a solid understanding about how and when to apply which method.