65 minutes | Apr 8, 2020

31. Noam Segal of Wealthfront

This episode of Dollars to Donuts features my interview with Noam Segal, the Director of Research at Wealthfront. Everyone from PMs to designers, researchers, obviously, engineers, data scientists, marketing, we’re all trying to to understand our clients, we’re all taking part in that process in some way, shape or form. And so I view my role and user research’s role as an enabler, as a coach, as augmenting other efforts already happening in in the company, and really maximizing the returns we get on on the research we do. – Noam Segal Show Links Dolores Huerta and Alice Waters on City Arts & Lectures Noam on LinkedIn Noam on Twitter Wealthfront Cultural Probe Moving with a Magic Thing dscout Airbnb Intercom Follow Dollars to Donuts on Twitter and help other people find the podcast by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts. Transcript Steve Portigal: Welcome to Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I talk with the people who lead user research in their organization. I just watched an interview with Alice Waters, who describes herself as a chef, author, food activist, and the owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley. She’s often referred to as the creator of California cuisine, back in the 70s. At one point in the conversation, she explained how when she meets people, she will sometimes begin by bringing out food, say fresh fruit, and taste the food together with the other person. She explained how this shared sensory experience was an alternate, and perhaps more effective way of creating a connection between people. It really made me think, wow, is that something we could do in user research? Could you begin an interview by sharing a sensory experience with someone? It could be taste, via food as Alice Waters did, but it could be a touch experience, a moment of smelling, a shared point of listening. I would want to understand more about what Waters believes this accomplishes and if it’s conjecture or there’s any more evidence, and I don’t really have any idea how to introduce something like this into an already hesitant dynamic, that initial moment. And with all (hopefully all?) research happening remotely at the moment, is there some sort of shared over distance aspect of this, a sensory experience that both parties could initiate, maybe it could be entirely pedestrian, such as feeling the glass of a mobile device, versus something celebratory like a piece of fruit selected by Alice Waters. I don’t know what this would lead to but I’ll be curious to hear what happens for people that try it. As well, it serves to remind me that all too often I neglect including all the senses in how I process the world and how I engage with others. This is another episode without either professional editor or transcriptionist. This podcast is my way to contribute at this particular moment, but I hope you can keep me and my practice in mind for collaborating on research, for coaching, for training, and other work to help advance the maturity of your organization’s research practice, wherever you’re at currently. Now, let’s get to my interview with Noam Segal, who is the director of research at Wealthfront. Noam, thanks for being on dollars to donuts. So it’s really great to have you here. Noam: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me. Steve: So my typical way of beginning which we can do today is just to ask, ask you to introduce yourself. Noam Segal: Sure. So my name is Noam Segal and I am currently on parental leave, actually, with my six month old, baby boy Dean. But when I’m not on leave, I’m director of user research at Wealthfront. So that’s what I’m currently up to. I’m originally from Israel, although I don’t sound like it because my parents are both English and somehow I inherited the British accent. And I moved to the US in 2012 with my wife for graduate school Originally, I got my PhD in psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. And when I graduated, we decided to move to the Bay Area and both pursue positions in tech. And I’ve been in UX research ever since and have worked for Airbnb intercom and again these days well fund. Steve: How did you find out about UX research? Noam: So, as an Israeli, we have mandatory military service, and I served in a unit within the Israeli Air Force for most of my, my service. That particular unit is in charge of Israel’s missile defense systems. And when I left the military got discharged, I decided to join the military industries. Kind of the Israeli equivalent of maybe Lockheed Martin in general dynamics, those sorts of companies. And I focused on developing the the UX, but we didn’t call it UX at the time of these missile defense systems, primarily the our weapon system, which is a system designed to protect as well, from medium to long range missiles. This could not be more different than what I do today. Very little relationship, but that’s when I really started appreciating and and desiring to be in this field of UX more, more broadly, that was my focus, I focused on the interface. I focused on understanding from the operators of these systems, what they what they need, and it was an incredible six year learning experience. So that’s kind of how I got into it in the first place. Later on I wanted to improve my my research abilities and knowledge and I was definitely considering going into academia for a while. So that led me to the Ph. D program. But at some point, in year four of the PhD I realized that I love two things. I love research and being a researcher and I love technology. And there is a profession that marries those two things quite perfectly. And that is UX research. So I decided to shift my focus back to industry and and going to work at first with Airbnb and carried on ever since. Steve: Did you finish the PhD? Noam: I did. I did. It was a hectic time in my life. I was in the middle of my fourth year in world Typically a six year program. That said, it’s typically a six year program because of how difficult the academic job market is rather than how long it actually takes to finish a dissertation. And I realized and there was some events in our lives, both personal professional that I want to take a different path from academia. And so I interviewed with several, especially Bay Area companies and was fortunate enough to get a couple of offers and decided to fast track the rest of my my dissertation. And I proposed the research I was going to do in January, and I defended my dissertation on June 1 of 2016. And less than 24 hours later, we were on a plane to San Francisco to stop life in the Bay Area. So it was a crazy period in our life. And I’m rather happy it was over because it was quite difficult. But yes, I did. I did graduate, it was very important for me to finish the program. And I benefited greatly from my studies, my relationship with my advisor, and all of my fellow students at Illinois, really appreciate that time, it taught me more than I could ever imagine. Steve: So maybe I can just go back. So you kind of described this. And we have like, book ends, maybe have a narrative here, where at the beginning, you are, you know, in the, in the army and kind of looking at those things. And at the end of this chapter anyway, you’re getting on an airplane to San Francisco to enter the, you know, Bay Area, user research roles. But I’m wondering, going back to when you were in the army, you started as you said, You didn’t refer to it as UX. So I’m wondering, when did the research part like that this was a thing that needed to be done that could be done that you could pursue as an actual job. Is there a point at which that started to enter your consciousness? Noam: Absolutely. So when I was in the military industries, I wasn’t in a research role, efficiently. And I also wasn’t particularly aware of the realm of UX research. But UX research is not really an existing profession in Israel, a separate function typically, in Israeli startup companies, it will be the founders or perhaps the designers that do the research. And so I was not in in a research role, but I was working in a very small team, trying to develop systems that were completely new to the world. incredibly complex, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. These are systems that are enabling Israel to defend itself from potential nuclear attacks. It really is life or death. I mean, in industry in tech, perhaps you’ve heard this before, we often use militaristic terms. Like we have war rooms if we launch a new product, or we conduct a post mortem, when something goes wrong and engineering have to figure out what happened. But I really was in in a company in a team where the stakes were incredibly high. And that requires research, whether you’re in that official role or not. I was in a unique position, where on the one hand, I was working in this team as a civilian, speaking to people who operate the system thinking about the user experience. This is the system where people have, in some cases just a few seconds to make very critical decisions. And failure is simply not an option. But on the other hand, I was also an operator myself. So I was still in the reserves, still serving in the military still doing one or two days a month in some cases in the unit as a reserve soldier. And so I got to see and experience these systems from those two, two sides of the coin, which was very, very interesting. And obviously, this happens to to us, as well here in the Bay Area, often we are using the systems we’re also developing, that’s quite common. But that was the first time that happened to me. And I think one thing that really struck me developing these systems and I think it’s part of the reason I decided to move on is that I really, truly believe that failure is a critical component of lear
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