Reena Merchant

Reena Merchant is a UX Manager at Google one of the few people we know that holds an MBA in Design Strategy.In this episode, Reena and Chris discuss her journey from shy kid to tech executive, the weight of family expectations and why believing in yourself is the best cure for self-doubt. And rest assured, Reena will lay out what exactly UX is and how you can go about learning it.

From Shy Kid to Tech Executive
From Shy Kid to Tech Executive

From Shy Kid to Tech Executive

Ep
88
Jun
22
With
Reena Merchant
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From shy kid to tech executive

Reena Merchant is a User Experience (UX) Manager at Google, making her one of the few people we know that holds an MBA in Design Strategy.

In this episode, Reena and Chris discuss her journey from shy kid to tech executive, the weight of family expectations and why believing in yourself is the best cure for self-doubt. And rest assured, Reena will lay out what exactly UX is and how you can go about learning it.

A tech geek at heart, Reena has always had a knack for problem-solving, along with an additional passion for art and design. Throughout her time in college, UX just wasn’t a thing yet. She was a developer taking on design projects on the side.

When she found her first role in UX where she could marry her passions for art and tech, she had hit the jackpot and found her dream job. With her first UX role at Blackberry, she grew from being a designer to taking on a leadership role at Google.

On top of that, Reena is the founder of a community organization called Our Voice, where their mission is to create positive human impact. In a nutshell, Reena is a wildly talented and intelligent person.

Listening to her accomplishments, it seems that Reena can pretty much do it all, from programming, to design, leadership, and design strategy. But Reena shares her struggles of overcoming self-doubt, feeling more confident in herself, and finding her voice.

Growing up, Reena was a shy kid, but her parents recognized this and encouraged her to break out of her shell. She took improv classes, hosted school talent shows, and over time, became more comfortable with speaking publicly. Hearing her speak, you’d never think she was once shy or doubtful of herself.

There’s so much we can learn from Reena, from finding your voice, to working towards your dream, and staying true to yourself. We hope you enjoy this episode.

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Episode Transcript

Reena Merchant:
There are many definitions of UX. The way I've always thought about it is that it's basically all the touch points that a customer, a user has with a product or a service. So all those touch points together. How do we think about those holistically? How do we design them and how do we craft the experience around them in a way that it is delightful and useful and smooth for the user?

Greg Gunn:
Hello and welcome to The Futur Podcast. I'm your producer, Greg Gunn and this episode is all about user experience or UX as the cool kids like to call it. Today's guest is a user experience manager at a small startup that you may have heard of called Google. She is one of the few people I know that holds an MBA in design strategy. I didn't even know you could do that. She and Chris discuss her journey from a shy kid to tech executive, the way to family expectations and the power of overcoming self-doubt. Oh. And they will also lay out what exactly UX is and how you can go about learning it. So grab your notepad and please enjoy our conversation with Reena Merchant.

Chris Do:
Okay. So first of all, welcome to the podcast. Here's what I got from just looking you up. You have an MBA in design strategy and that your mission is to help organizations make meaningful human impact. That sounds so cool, but I don't know what that means. So help me out.

Reena Merchant:
Thank you. First of all, for making me feel cooler about what I do. Thank you for that. Yeah. I mean, I think that so helping organizations make meaningful human impact. I know, I remember this moment when I was sitting there crafting, what is my mission statement?

Chris Do:
Yeah.

Reena Merchant:
I think I distilled into that for me because I realized what I love to do and what I've been doing my whole life. Just not realizing that I was doing it, but it just ended up that way because I'm so passionate about it, is I want to help make human impact and in using the vehicle of my career, my path to do that. And so I'm in UX, I'm in tech, I'm a designer and I think that there's a huge opportunity through our work for us to make people's lives better.
When I think about the tech industry and I think about the design industry, and I think there's the external positive human impact we can have. When I say external in my brain, that's through the products and services that we create and we deliver those products and services to consumers, great. There's an opportunity to make human impact there. Then I think about the internal side of it too, which is the design industry, the tech industry is huge and there's all the people like us that work in that industry and there's an opportunity there, too. That's another touch point where how can we make positive impact in the lives of those people that work in the industry and me being a manager, that is top of mind for me too. So I think that's where I see, "Okay, what can I do, through my role, through my work to make people's lives better through those channels?"

Chris Do:
So is that the lens in which you look at the world and that governs your decisions? Yeah.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah, I think so. I think that, again, it wasn't a conscious, "Oh, let me take my life this way. Let me adapt my lens in this way." It just started happening organically. I think. And I got to a point in my life and I said, "Oh, wait, what, what am I doing? Why do I do this? Why do I love it so much?" I realized, this is I think the essence of it. And this is... Yeah. So I think that's the lens through which I look at everything.

Chris Do:
Okay. So some people are going to listen to this, are going to be scratching the air thinking, "Well, is it anybody's mission to create not meaningful human impact?"

Reena Merchant:
That's a very good point. I truly believe at some deep level, we all want to do that. I can't think of a single person in my life that I know in my personal or professional circle that doesn't want to do that. I think that we aren't always able to. So just speaking to my experience, I can see points in my career or just environments that I worked in where it wasn't always possible to prioritize that. So, sometimes companies, of course the bottom line is important. That's what business is about. And sometimes we either have to... We choose to prioritize things in a way where we make certain trade offs.
I think historically, especially I can see the industry shifting now, but historically there was a lot of belief that, well, it is a trade-off and we have to pick one over the other and we can't have both. And so if we care about the bottom line, maybe we have to sacrifice or compromise some of that human impact that we all deep down maybe want to make, but we start thinking we can't, or we don't see a way of how to do that. So I think that's where for me, it's like, "Okay, what can I do to always remind myself, but also through my work, the teams that I work with, how can I try to bring that to our conscious awareness?"
I truly believe that you can have both. I don't think it's a trade-off. I actually think one supports the other. I think it's a symbiotic relationship where companies need to make money, companies need revenue. That's the reality and I think that if we create things that are helpful and meaningful people, not only are we doing good by people and hopefully improving their lives in some way, but then more people will need the product and hopefully more people will want the product. If that's the case and if more people purchase the product, then it's ultimately helping the bottom line and revenue anyway. So it's a win-win. So I think it's just you're right. I think everybody wants to do it, but it's how through my role, can I bring that to the forefront of the conversation?

Chris Do:
Okay. I have so many questions there. I forgot. I forgot to do something.

Reena Merchant:
Okay.

Chris Do:
People don't know who you are. So can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

Reena Merchant:
Yes. I forgot that too. So I should start there.

Chris Do:
Yes.

Reena Merchant:
I am a user experience manager at Google. I've been in user experience for probably about 15 years now. So my undergrad was in computer science. I was always a tech geek. I love problem solving, love the logical thinking. I graduated. I was a Java developer for a few years but I always had this creative side of me, this passion for the arts for design. So I was always doing things on the side. This is going to date me a little bit, but back in the day I grew up in Toronto, Canada. That's where I grew up and back in the day UX, there wasn't a thing. So you couldn't pick that as a major in school. So I didn't really know what to do. I was a developer, but I was doing design on the side.
I eventually found my first role in UX at Blackberry. I realized UX is this perfect way for me to marry my passion in tech with my passion in design. And so I went into UX. I've been a designer since then and then I grew into a leadership role. I'm currently at Google. I've been there for two and a half years. I love it. And then I'm kind of doing this thing outside of work, too, where I have this community organization that I recently launched called OurVoice. That's also around trying to make positive human impact, but that's what I do.

Chris Do:
Okay. I think some part of your story, there's some gaps here, so you got your undergraduate in computer science, undergraduate degree, where did you get your MBA from?

Reena Merchant:
Okay. So my journey did start in Toronto, Canada, and I did my undergraduate degree there. That was in computer science. I did some design training on the side because I loved it. Then I immersed myself in the industry. So I was working for several years. I worked at Blackberry. I worked at some telecom and media companies up in Canada, and then my life brought me to California. So I worked at Citrix at first, when I moved to California about nine years ago. That's when I decided to do my MBA in design strategy. It was because I love to learn. So I'm constantly craving learning new things, but also I was seeking business skills.
I had learned the tech side. I learned the design side in my past, but I hadn't gone to business school. I didn't have any training and I felt as I was growing as a leader in tech, I was more hungry for core business skills that could help me have that business and strategic impact or conversations with leaders. That brought me to the MBA in design strategy. I did that while I was working. So I continued working at Citrix. Then after that, I was at PlayStation for some time and now at Google.

Chris Do:
So where did you get your degree? I mean, I'm just fascinated that you have an MBA in design strategy. Because I didn't even know a thing existed and you have it. So where'd you get this from and what did you learn?

Reena Merchant:
Yeah, I did not know it existed either and I am so thankful that I ran across it. So I got this degree at California College of the Arts, they're based in San Francisco and the program, what I loved most about it is that it's not just business skills. So it's all the business skills that you would get out of a traditional MBA, but it's all taught through the lens of design thinking and innovation.
So for example, if you, if we were learning about operations or we were learning about finance or we were learning about any one of these business topics, we'd learned the core business fundamentals, but we'd also learn about, okay, how do we innovate on this? If we're learning about business models, great, how do you help a company innovate on their business model? So everything was taught through this lens of innovation, which was really exciting and felt very connected to my career path and what I do and what I'm passionate about. I got so much out of the program more than I even realized I would and it's really been supportive.

Chris Do:
Okay. That sounds so, so cool. I'm a little jealous right now. I really am. I barely got through my bachelor's program, so I just... That's a fantasy like, Oh, the master's degree, higher learning, that kind of stuff. So I'm super impressed that you did this and that your career path is just like, it's so interesting. You moving from one thing to the next and you are just in the flow, you're smart enough to be a computer scientist and you're programming and developing things. Then you move into the creative space. Is there something that you can't do?

Reena Merchant:
That's very kind, Chris, there are many things I can't do. I'll share openly. One thing that I've struggled with my whole life is self-confidence and authenticity and finding my own voice. And so hearing you say these things to me, that I'm smart and I've done a lot is, thank you. I am not good at acknowledging for myself. I've really struggled with this my whole life. It's been a journey where I have tried to get better at finding myself and knowing myself on the inside, within and loving myself within and figuring out how to show up externally in confidence, finding my voice and then how does that voice manifest on the outside? I know a lot of us struggle with this, but that's definitely one thing of many that I am constantly trying to work on and strengthen.

Chris Do:
Okay. I'm going to take a little detour. I have to talk about this because externally... And people can't see this right now, but they can hear yOurVoice and you seem like a very well-spoken person, super smooth, very confident. So to hear you say that self-confidence is something that you've struggled with in terms of finding who you are yourself and yOurVoice, it's hard to believe because I also looked at all the different speaking engagements you've done. And that list is long girl. Oh my God, it's a long... I was like, "She's doing this. She's on stage and she's doing her thing." Then you have this position at Google. And so it seems like almost impossible that you would say this. So let's go back in time. Take me back to when you're a much, much younger person. Tell me how this lack of confidence, maybe even insecurity, how did it manifest itself? Give me a couple of examples so we can believe you.

Reena Merchant:
Yes, that's a great question. So going back to my childhood, I was a really shy child growing up. I think that was just inherently who I was, my nature. Then I grew up in a wonderful environment. Just amazing family, so much support. I'm so fortunate for that, but somehow I just grew up putting so much focus on the outside. So there was a lot of focus on external achievements, doing well in school, am I the person that everybody wants me to be, needs me to be? What are the external definitions of success? What's right? What's wrong? I somehow put what I see now as imbalanced, at the time it felt right. An imbalanced focus on the outside. I think this happens with many of us and definitely for me. So I was doing that. I was still shy growing up. So this is kind of who I was.
It would sort of start manifesting in different ways. So imagine me in this awkward kid in middle school, I was on one hand, really shy. So I wouldn't find it easy to talk to people and make friends. So I had just a couple of close friends that I would mostly keep to myself, but then I had this strong desire and urge to achieve and to do well in school. So it was studying really hard to get good grades. And so this is how I progressed through life. I think some point my parents realized, "Okay, we want to encourage Reena to speak up."

Chris Do:
Yes.

Reena Merchant:
And even looking at the external aspect, you mentioned speaking engagements and things like that, that was something I was not comfortable doing before. So to encourage me, and I'm really grateful to my parents for this, they did things, like put me in acting class or-

Chris Do:
Oh, wow.

Reena Merchant:
So I did some improv. I did some acting just kind of on the side for fun or things like, "Hey, let's have you... There's a talent show in your high school. Maybe you can host that." So trying to help me get out of my shyness and my bubble and develop my external voice. I think that, that really, really helped, but the part that was missing... And I think this is, this is a much more recent realization, I would say over the last five years is the inside voice. So again, it was still all the outside stuff that I was thinking about. So I was doing more and more speaking engagements. I wasn't as shy on the outside. I was great much better socially. I was again, still focusing on those external achievements, but I wasn't as in tune or in touch with who am I on the inside and does that all line up? Is it aligned? Like, am I really being congruent between the inside and the outside? And so I think that was a big aha moment for me.

Chris Do:
Okay. I'm starting to get the picture here. Now, if you don't mind me asking, are you a Canadian? Did you say you were-

Reena Merchant:
I am.

Chris Do:
Okay. What ethnicity are you?

Reena Merchant:
My family is originally from India, so I was born and raised in Toronto, but they moved to Canada from India, my parents about 45, 50 years ago.

Chris Do:
Okay. All right. So, you are hitting a lot of different check boxes for me right now because you're a person of color. You're female working in a tech industry at a very senior level position. You're Canadian now living in America, right? So there's a lot of things going on. I think all the Asians can definitely relate to this pressure, the external pressure and we all know this. It's like there's comedies on this kind of stuff, that for a lot of immigrants, especially they look at school and being a good student as the ticket to a better life. So there's this tremendous pressure at least first generation to like, "Get your kids set and straight." Do you have any siblings by the way?

Reena Merchant:
I do. I have a brother who is four years younger than me.

Chris Do:
So you're the oldest child?

Reena Merchant:
I'm the oldest.

Chris Do:
Okay.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah.

Chris Do:
So there's also the additional pressure being the oldest child setting the example and then all that kind of stuff. So I can now understand a little bit about what you're talking about because this drive to achieve is that the voice mostly comes from your parents, I think. At best, I'm an A minus student and I have to guess that you're probably a 4.0 plus GPA. Can I guess that, is that right? Or no.

Reena Merchant:
Sometimes. It wasn't consistent, which I like-

Chris Do:
You don't have to be shy about it. Come on. You're like an AP kind of... Yeah you're the kind of person that I'm going to just say it, that I hated. Because when the class was being graded on a curve, I'm like, "Oh, here comes Reena. She's going to mess it up for us. She's going to get everything right and then so I'm going to do the bonus essay and the rest of us are going to just get hurt because of it and I get it.

Reena Merchant:
Sorry.

Chris Do:
So for a part of your life, you're just living to fulfill somebody else's dreams and it can be tough and you can drown out who you wanted to be. You can even see that a little bit in your career path, like computer science, that seems like a very respectful, smart thing to do Reena. Then where was the creative human being that wanted to explore what she wanted to do, so then I have to... I mean, just you even describing, I mean, you sound like you have amazing parents, the fact that they started to see something in you and wanted to send you to acting classes, to encourage you to go to participate in a talent show, even just saying that and the word junior high, makes my skin crawl. I have to just tell you. Because I'm like, "Oh my God." I'm just uncomfortable listening to it because I am truly an introverted person and hearing this is like, how did... First of all, they recognize this and they push you into dangerous waters, but you did it.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah.

Chris Do:
And how did you even... That just seems like, "No mom, no dad. I'm not going to do that." How did you do it then?

Reena Merchant:
Yeah. I think you nailed it. I think everything that you listed was basically a checklist of my life and how you expressed it, it just feels like everything that my experience was encapsulating at the time. I want to share one other example with you. So, one other thing that my parents did was in grade nine, they actually sent me to India to go to school there for three years. So I was in the situation where... I shared the other context where shy kid growing up in Toronto had been born and raised in Canada, trying to do well in school. Then in grade nine, my parents felt that, "You can't really learn about a culture deeply unless you're immersed in it, unless you live somewhere." And my family originally being from India, we had paid many visits there. I would go there and my summer vacations and visit family. It was really great because I got to know the culture and I got to know her family a little bit better, but in grade nine they said, "You won't really get to know it unless you go."
So this became yet another kind of dangerous water situation, which they in hindsight, oh my goodness, they did the best thing for me. I appreciate it so much. At the time, it felt like dangerous waters where I was leaving the safety net that I was in. I was doing well in school. I had few but good friends in junior high school. And then now starting high school in India. So I go there. And my grandmother came with me, which was good. So I did have a little bit of familiarity, but I'm in this new academic system. I started failing Chris because you know, the academic system there in India was... It's a bit more... They're just ahead.
So we could be learning something in grade 12 here, but they're already learning it in grade nine there. So even though I went getting A's from here, I started failing things. So now all of a sudden my self-confidence is taking a huge hit because I had placed my entire self-worth on doing well in school and external achievements and now that's gone overnight. I have to make new friends. I don't speak the language that well, even though everyone speaks in English, there are local languages. It's a new way of life. Everything from going to the grocery store and getting tomatoes for dinner, I'm doing this with my grandmother as a 15 year old child.
There's no grocery store you're going to a local market and you're haggling with local vendors about prices of tomatoes. Just, it was insane. The shock. I'm so glad my parents did that because it was terrifying and it took a lot of courage on my part, but it really helped me break out of my comfort zone. And so just in addition to the talent show, and in addition to the acting classes, this was another big experience that really changed things for me. So I wanted to share.

Chris Do:
Wow. Okay. Did you have a say in the matter it's like, "We've made up your mind, you're going to India with your grandmother and that's it."

Reena Merchant:
I had no say. The decision was made. And so I kicked and I screamed and I said, "Why are you doing this to me? What have I done wrong?"-

Chris Do:
"I thought you loved me."

Reena Merchant:
"I've followed all your rules. I'm getting As. I thought you loved me." And they're like, "No, we love you. That's why we're doing this." I said, "I don't understand the connection. I don't see that." It wasn't until after the experience that I was like, "Aha. Yes, I see now how much..." And I still draw from that experience to this day.

Chris Do:
Yeah. And how long were you in India for then?

Reena Merchant:
It was for three years.

Chris Do:
Oh my gosh.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah. It was grade nine, 10 and 11. Then I came back in grade 12. So at the time in Canada, there were five years of high school. So we had up to grade 13. So my last two years of high school, I came back four. That was another tough transition.

Chris Do:
Yeah, I bet.

Reena Merchant:
Because, now I'm coming back in the middle of high school. So also just remembering that makes my skin crawl, because that's a tough transition. But yeah, it was an adjustment, but very worth it.

Chris Do:
Now I can 1000% relate to your story except for the high achievement part. Because otherwise, my parents, we moved around. I think I went and did the math almost every year and a half. So the idea of getting settled, getting familiar, falling into routine was just not a reality. You would make friends and you guys, everybody knows this junior high and high school is a game of climbing the social ladder. It really is because the top dogs rule the roost and everybody else is just trying to like not to get punched in the face, right? One way or the other. And so your parents just very oddly plucky out of high school, when you're settled in, they disrupt your life.
They send you to India, but they don't even allow you to finish high school in India, pull you back out, plug you back in and now like, wait a minute. It's like you can't get comfortable. And so this explains a lot about your history, your ability to survive, your resilience. I think they engineered something for you, at great cost to you as a child, but as an adult, it's like wow, it was so worth it. Right?

Reena Merchant:
Yeah, absolutely. And I think that it was the resilience piece that at that time that you don't see it. This is, I think just a life thing when you're going through a tough, challenging, disruptive situation in your life, you don't see the benefit of it and how that's going to strengthen you longterm, but I didn't see that. I think that they were definitely as per their usual supportive nature, keeping in mind my academic path and wanting to support that.
So they knew that it would be disruptive and it would be pulling me out of a situation where I was doing well in getting decent grades and it would be a multiple stage disruption, but I think they were trying to get me into a different academic environment, kind of challenged me to, "Hey, we know you're an achiever. Can you figure this out?" Then bring me back, then that way, being back in North America in the late few years of high school, I could do university here, which they ultimately wanted me to do. So it feels like they had this, obviously they had a plan and I just didn't see it at the time and I was like, "What are you doing?" But it all made sense in the end.

Chris Do:
When you were in India, how did your classmates and students treat you? I'm curious.

Reena Merchant:
They were very kind and very accepting, but it was high school. So it was this interesting environment where people had friendships. These students that I was studying with, they had been in school together for years. They had grown up together and they had friendships that went years back and they were very inclusive, very accepting. But at the same time I was new and I was different. I wasn't from there, visibly, I kind of... I'm Indian, I look Indian. So visibly, I looked the same, but also not really. I dressed differently. I speak differently, my accent. Sometimes we would all be talking in English and I would say something, I would use North American slang terms where I would speak in my Canadian accent and they wouldn't understand or vice versa, they would say something and I wouldn't understand. Or they would say something in a local language and it would just go over my head, because I didn't know.
So it was such an interesting environment where people were so incredibly loving and accepting, but it was hard to fit together and it took some time. The funny thing is the first few years, I didn't feel like I fit and I wanted to go back to Canada every day. I would talk to my parents and I would say, "Bring me back." But then after three years I adapted, I made friends and they adapted and we did fit and then I didn't want to come back, surprisingly. I was like, "What? Now I have to come back. But I love it here. It's fun. I have so many friends." So yeah, it was a very interesting evolution of my friendships.

Chris Do:
Wow. Okay. All right. Let's kind of retrace our steps here as I'm going through this. Before you were talking a little bit about making a meaningful human impact. You said something which really clicked in my brain that you have to prioritize this. This is the really interesting part because it can be an empty platitude for people to say, "Yeah, we're all about making positive, meaningful human impact." But then when a choice is made, do you choose it consistently? Do you choose to pay executives more? Do you choose to not update the facilities or to make sure safety's a concern of yours? And so then it comes, I think where you can measure this, is the trade-offs, the trade-offs you're willing to make, because if you say humans first and impact first, then sometimes you're going to be less profitable, sometimes you're going to be less efficient. I think that's... You work at a company that's kind of, first of all, has more money than God, trillion dollar company so they can afford to do these kinds of things.
I've seen an example of this and I know it's not the same company, but I visited the YouTube creator space in Marina Del Ray Mar Vista. I was just thinking, what corporation in the world buys a plot of land, builds something and puts in all this gear and to pay people to maintain it only to allow people who use our platform free access? That's just one thing that I know and I can see that. I just don't see many corporations in America doing this. So I applaud Google/YouTube for doing this. So your job an your role, do you help to shape those kinds of decisions and what kind of influence do you have?

Reena Merchant:
Yeah. So I'm definitely so grateful and it's such an incredible experience to work for a company of this scale, as you said, they care, Google cares about making human impact. I am so just fascinated by that every day and grateful to work in an environment like that. And as you've said, because of the scale, there are resources. So they can, and we're fortunate for that. I think that in my role, I... So I work on YouTube ads. So I work on the team that creates the experience around all the ads that we see on YouTube. So the consumer facing experience is what my team does. This is if you're using YouTube on your phone or watching on your TV or on the web, all the ads that you see, how do we make that experience better for people?
So in my role, the type of influence I'm able to have, or the way that idea of making meaningful human impact, how does that manifest in my role is that working in the ad space for YouTube, we're trying to look at the intersection of business and user. So of course, ads are important for revenue. That's huge. It's important for Google. It's important for YouTube. And then we have our different types of users that we consider for YouTube. So we have advertisers and advertisers, of course the ad experience is very important to them because that's how they get their advertising and their message out to people. We have our viewers on YouTube. So people like you and me, we watch YouTube. We consume all the content. We consume the ads. And we also have the content creators and these are the people that post all the great video content for us to consume.
So we're constantly... In my role, what my team does is we balance the needs of all these three users. So what do advertisers need? Okay, great. We need to make a useful ad experience for them, but we want to do it in a way that is meaningful and useful to viewers. We don't want to be intrusive. We don't want to be disruptive. We want to bring them some meaning if we can, through our ad experience and doing that all while balancing business objectives, because ultimately it is tied to revenue, what we do.
So this is where I think in my role, I'm able to give back and help the team and help the business. Try to balance that in a way where... As you said, Chris, there are trade-offs every day and we have to consider those trade offs. But how do we look at short term, but also long term what we're doing and make sure that it is responsible, what we're doing, both from the standpoint of business, as well as the human impact and that we are keeping ourselves in check and we're responsible about it as a team. I love that we are able to have those conversations as a team and kind of challenge to do that. That's how it manifests in my role.

Chris Do:
That's a really tricky balancing act that you have to do to serve these three very different interests and find something that works well for everybody. It's like serve one master and you can do great, serve three masters like, "Oh my God, this is a bureaucratic nightmare." Right? Where you have to kind of deal with all this stuff. And so if you have to make decisions, when you have three very different parties, how do you make decisions then?

Reena Merchant:
Yeah, it is tough. You're right. It's tough to make these decisions. It is a constant balancing act. It's every day we see, okay, if we do this thing, if we make this decision, it's going to be better for viewers. Oh no, but maybe we're not doing the best possible thing for advertisers, if we do that. Or if we do this thing, it's going to... We're going to take a revenue hit. So I think it's sort of a combination of looking at, "Okay, what is the short term trade-off that we're going to make?" Ultimately we might have to, because there may not be a solution that gives you an equal balance of everything and solves for everything in the ideal way. There just may not be a way to do that.
So, okay. We might have to make a trade-off now, but what is it? What's the impact? And then, is there a way to balance that out in the longterm? So maybe the next decision we make or the next feature we build, or the next thing we do, it kind of addresses that maybe it does something to improve the viewer experience that we couldn't do before, but we can do now, or maybe it makes up for revenue in a way that we just couldn't do before. So we try to make sure the longterm balances out.

Chris Do:
We'll be right back with more from Reena Merchant.

Greg Gunn:
Hey, Greg Gunn from The Futur, here. That's right. It's me again. Now The Futur's mission is to teach one billion creatives how to make money doing what they love without feeling gross about it. Now, maybe you're in school, but you feel like you're not getting what you need, or maybe you're like me and sold all of your internal organs to pay for private art school tuition. But it's been a while and you want to sharpen up some of those skills. Well, fortunately for you, we have a bunch of courses and products designed specifically to help you become a smarter and more versatile creative, Design courses, like typography, logo design, and Color for Creatives, go deep into the design fundamentals that you need to know and command in order to be successful. Check out all of our courses and products about learning design by visiting thefutur.com/design.

Chris Do:
Welcome back to our conversation with Reena Merchant. So again, we're talking about trade offs. Some decision that you make today may not be beneficial to everybody, but over time you make adjustments on it. Hopefully in the long term, it does work out. I have noticed a little things, anybody kind of in tech, you can see the little tweaks that are being made all the time, the beta versions will launch for some users so that you can watch and kind of see how people react. I think that's the wonderful thing about software and user experiences that you have an idea, a hypothesis, you test it and then you measure, and then you iterate on that idea.
Now there's a lot of people are going to be listening to this like, "Okay. Where's this all going?" Well, let's take another giant step backwards here for a second or zoom out. Maybe that's a better expression. Is UX, UX leadership at Google? What does UX even mean?

Reena Merchant:
Yes. So UX, there are many definitions of UX. The way I've always thought about it is that it's basically all the touch points that a customer, a user has with a product or a service, the experience around that, how does a user experience all those touch points? So if I'm a user, I'm using a product, everything from me, looking for it, installing it, launching it, I'm talking about software products, but it could be any product. It could be an experience that we have with a hotel chain, that could be our user experience. That could be what was my booking experience? What was my experience when I walked into the lobby, when I got up to my room?
So all those touch points together, how do we think about those holistically? How do we design them and how do we craft the experience around them in a way that it is delightful and useful and smooth for the user? I think that more so, I'm also seeing a shift in the industry where it's maybe not even just limited to a product or service, it's more broadly, what is the experience that a person has with a company, with a brand? So I think of [inaudible 00:37:58] experience in that way, of course, I'm in product design. That's what my day-to-day is about, but I think there's some broader connotation there too.

Chris Do:
Okay. Let's make this concrete outside of Google and the various companies, can you give me an example of a really poor user experience? That people might recognize like, "Oh, I see what she's talking about." Then we'll flip and say, what's a really good example of a great user experience? Can you share a couple of examples?

Reena Merchant:
Yeah. Let me talk a little bit about travel, because not traveling a lot right now, as many of us aren't, but I usually do. So one example of a poor user experience that has come up for me so much in my own travel, it's a lot around the airport experience. So if I think about me walking into the airport, everything from I've got my bag, I've got to go to the check-in counter, I've got to go through security. I've got to find my gate. I have experienced and I think we all have, so hopefully others can relate, so much friction in that experience.
So there's so many opportunities where we can improve that and there is a lot happening. I mean, we can see a lot of innovation, a lot of improvements happening. There are companies that are clear that are trying to improve the way you get through security or there's TSA pre-check, or there's all these things and it's really cool to see the innovation. But I think there's still a lot of friction and the experience from walking into the airport til the moment you board the plane, even if we just look at that, that part of our journey, that's something where I think I experienced a lot of friction still, and I'm really excited to see how that can improve.
I can share an experience that I love. This is an example that I refer to often, it's also travel-related. This is specifically hotel experience. So I love... If you think about brands, I think about what's a great brand that I love. Have you ever visited a Ritz-Carlton hotel?

Chris Do:
I have not. Not yet. Yes. But I hear it's amazing.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah. Even just for dinner or go to the bar or going to the... Even staying there, I love the way they execute amazing experiences for their customers. I just observe, I guess being a designer, I observed these little details. Everything from someone opens the door to you, or they'll have flowers in the lobby. There's always flowers that give off these beautiful smell and the way you're greeted or the different steps you have to take, whether you're going to the bar to get a drink or going to your hotel room, the steps that you take, the interactions that you have, whether it's with people or with systems. So with products that you're using along the way in your hotel experience, it's so well done. It always amazes me how smooth it is. So that's one that's a contrast of something that I really enjoy.

Chris Do:
Okay. So one day I'll stay at a Ritz-Carlton. Until then, can you tell me one thing that they do that is super specific  that's above and beyond and it just delighted you?

Reena Merchant:
With the Ritz-Carlton.

Chris Do:
Yeah.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah. One thing that I love is, I remember this is one of my first experiences with the Ritz-Carlton. They somehow knew my name and it was from the minute I walked in. Of course, you walk up to the check-in counter and they greet you, they look you up. They greeted me by name. But after that, I interfaced with multiple people. So there was a gentleman who helped me with my luggage. There was someone who helped bring something to my room later and everyone knew my name and I didn't expect them to, because beyond the check-in counter where they pull up your name on the system, I don't expect them to know or remember the name of every guest and honestly, I don't know how they did it. I don't know. Do they have a cheat-sheet? Do they have a... I don't know. I would love... If I could study the inner workings of Ritz-Carlton to figure out how they make everything look so smooth on the surface. I'm sure there's a lot of work that goes into it behind the scenes, but that's one example of something that just delighted me, that just that they knew my name. And then just my relationship with that brand just continued.

Chris Do:
Yeah. That's a great example. It really is. And it ties really neatly into your mission of making meaningful human impact. That's the thing that you remember that didn't cost Ritz-Carlton any kind of real in terms of money, but effort, they made the effort to recognize you as an individual and not as a credit card.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah.

Chris Do:
Right.

Reena Merchant:
And that recognition, it just took those one or two moments of recognition. It lit up my day. It completely... They must know because they know what they're doing, but I don't know if they knew, I wonder, do they know the level of impact that they just had for me? It was just such a simple gesture, but it lit me up. It made me happier for the rest of the day. Or when you go up, you go to the grocery store and you're buying something and someone says, "Wow, I really love your jacket. That's such a nice jacket." The cashier just says that to you. And you're like, "Wow, completely unrelated to the store experience per se. But just in the level of customer service in that moment of meaningful connection, you just changed the trajectory of my day. So, thank you."

Chris Do:
Okay. I think it's making a lot of sense for me right now. Okay. This whole human experience. I think at the end of the day, I think we just want to be appreciated and acknowledged and it sounds like so simple. So a lot of companies out there are in a funky place right now that business isn't doing well because there's no business to be had, especially if you're in the travel hospitality space, it's all messed up and they're scrambling to try to build a connection and relationship with the customer and they're running all kinds of promotions and ads and strange cookie cutter advertising campaigns. But at the end of the day, if you make the effort to recognize the person in front of you as a human being and to acknowledge them, maybe that's what matters and spend your time there.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah, I agree. It is such a tough time now. I know for myself on a personal level, and I imagine maybe with businesses on the business level too, the first little while it was just shock and trying to accept and understand what's happening in the world right now. Then it seems like, at least for me, it slowly became, okay, acceptance. Right? Now how do we exist and operate in this new reality and I think for businesses too, just seeing what they've been doing, it looks like to get their bearings in this new world and pivot and figure out how to adapt, maybe the way in which they made human impact in the past has now changed.
Maybe that's no longer relevant or possible. It's been really amazing and beautiful to see how businesses are adapting and finding new ways to reach their customers and make that connection. I'm seeing, whether it's companies that are changing their product offering companies, clothing companies, for example, there's a company that I always buy jeans from and they've stopped production of jeans and they're making masks, or it's innovating on their business model and how they can stay successful and alive in this environment. But also it's finding new ways to make that human impact.
There's a florist in San Francisco that I would frequently buy flowers from and they've completely had to innovate their business model where they're sourcing their flowers from. But they're still wanting us to know, like we still care. We know in this tough time, flowers are still important, joy is still important. It's more important than ever and how do we stay connected with you, our customers and keep bringing that joy to you. So there's so many examples like these, but it's really, really nice to see that.

Chris Do:
Yeah, I think there's equal amounts or maybe disproportionate amounts of really bad ways of doing this and we kind of... It's a little cringy and then there's some really creative things out there and people are adapting. It's wonderful to see. You mentioned a few, I just didn't make a note to kind of observe the ones that do it well. So I forget which clothing company did this, but they're like, "We're only going to sell shirts because we know you're not wearing pants." I thought, "That's really funny? Get rid of the [inaudible 00:47:05] pants." I've worn the same pair of pants for days now and it doesn't matter, because you just see this, right?

Reena Merchant:
Yeah.

Chris Do:
So, okay. Let's work on that. There was another company that did a runway with models from their apartments.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah.

Chris Do:
It was pretty hilarious when I saw it, they're cutting it together and there might be a cat in the background. It's just, people are very creative and resourceful. I think once the initial shock wears off and you kind of turn the reptilian survival brain off and it's like, "Okay, there's other things we can do." Another local restaurant had switched their menu over to supplying you with fruits and vegetables, bread, oil. And for every order that you made, they threw in a roll of toilet paper. It's kind of hilarious. I don't need it but it's nice.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah. I love it when there's humor, that we're trying to find humor in things and it's not to make light of the situation, but it helps us all get through it. This is what we're going through right now, is human's toilet paper is hard to find. Just the fact that companies are able to connect with us by touching on that subject. That is a common thing for us right now.

Chris Do:
Yeah. Okay. So we talked a bit about UX in the many definitions and we talked about some examples. Now, if you can, can you tell us, what are some of the biggest mistakes that people make in UX? Because there's got to be some really bad stuff happening too.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah. I mean, if I think of UX as a discipline and as an industry and I think about some of the things that I guess are "mistakes" are sometimes I wish I wish these things would happen differently. I think one is, I would say the definition of UX or the understanding of what UX is and the value it can bring. So I think that one thing that happens a lot is the tactical value that UX can bring is very well understood. And of course, because it's more tangible, it's easier to understand. So UX is design, design is great, we're making mock-ups and these can be implemented and delivered.
I think that this is... I don't want to downplay that at all because that is a huge value that UX adds. But I think there's so much more and there is... We talked about the business impact or the strategic impact and I think that there's a lot there that UX does bring in terms of value. I think that the understanding that through our work to design products, we have to understand our users and we do a lot of research to understand our users so that we can design good products for them.
This gives us a deep understanding of the people that are going to be purchasing and using our products. This understanding can be used to inform business and product strategy. I think that it's hard to make that connection at times. I think that sometimes that's missed. So it's a bit of a miss and it's great to see environments where that is shifting and where it's being looked at more holistically in terms of the value. One other thing I would say too, is holistically looking at the discipline in that, well, what makes up UX?
I think another thing that's a myth is sometimes when we think of UX, we just think of design because again, that's what we're doing. We're designing the user experience, but in order to design a great user experience, there are a lot of sub-disciplines that come into play. So I was just mentioning research. We have to do research to be able to do good design because we have to again, understand our users. We want to validate our designs, we want to put them in front of users, test them out, see how they're doing. We have writers who really help us define and fine-tune the tone and the voice of the language and how we communicate via our user experience. We have prototypers who help bring our experience to life. So there's all these nuances within UX, all these sub-disciplines that are all really key and really important in order for the user experience discipline to work. I think that sometimes that's another miss and it's lost sometimes in translation.

Chris Do:
Okay. So there are two questions I get asked about the most when it comes to UX. Which is, where do I go to get a good education in UX? And I have no answer.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah, there are a lot of schools. Now, I can't draw this back to a personal UX education because I didn't do UX in undergrad. I did do graphic design at the Art Institute, but this was years ago. There are so many, I'm so amazed to see how the industry has shifted and how there are so many great academic programs. One that's UX-specific and that I am personally more familiar with is UC Irvine has a Master's in HCI design. The reason I'm familiar with that is I'm on the industry advisory board for that program. I've seen that program evolve. I think that's a great resource if folks are interested and want to look into that.
We talked about the MBA in design strategy, which is not UX per se, but it is that sort of blend between design and business. I know that California College of the Arts, which is the school where I went to for that MBA, they offer a lot of UX training. These are just a few, there's so many great schools, but it's good to see that that exists now.

Chris Do:
Are you familiar with General Assembly? Because it's the only one that-

Reena Merchant:
Yeah.

Chris Do:
How's their program?

Reena Merchant:
I've heard good things about it. I haven't been personally exposed to this, but I have seen so many people coming out of the General Assembly programs these days. And it seems to be a good way for people to just immerse themselves and get going with UX.

Chris Do:
Okay. The next question, because these are the two most popular questions when it comes to UX is, how do I show a UX portfolio? Now I've talked to a UX pro before, he just dumped piles of paper on my desk. I'm like, what is this? Data, research, maps? And it's not sexy looking, how does one show a UX portfolio?

Reena Merchant:
Yeah. I like to think of it as storytelling. So I know as creatives, as designers, anyone who's interested in UX, we love storytelling. I think that that is a great way to think about it. I think packaged up, it's like, what's the narrative of me? What's the narrative of my work? I can speak from the other side of it too, as someone who is maybe a hiring manager and is consuming that. It's great to see a well-packaged narrative. So I think it's so great when you see a portfolio where someone within that narrative, they talk about who they are, their background briefly, their journey, what is their process? How do they approach design problems? How do they approach tackling a project? And then a set of work that shows both breadth and depth is always helpful. So I always think, it doesn't have to be a ton of projects, especially if you're starting out in UX, you might not have a lot, but even if you have let's say three projects, even if they're small ones, three to five is always good.
When you have the ability to select a couple of projects that show a breadth of different skills and maybe there was a project where you did more visual design and maybe there's another project where you really got to solve a different type problem. And so choosing a breadth and then for each one you can then also go deep and capture some depth in the narrative and say, "Okay, for this particular project, what's the narrative again? How does my design process manifest in this project and how can I tell that story?
So for this project, what was the problem we were trying to solve? What was the business impact we were trying to have? What was the user impact we were trying to have? How did I go about it? What were the steps? What were some of the deliverables along the way? Then ultimately what was the final impact? And so it's really cool to see portfolios that capture the breadth and depth and a little bit of them as a person and as a human and their process. I think it doesn't have to be a lot. It's just, I like to think of it as storytelling.

Chris Do:
So when you say storytelling, I just want to be very clear, what does that look like? Are they handing over a PDF, a keynote deck, something like that, when they show you... Basically, they're trying to explain and tell the methodology in which they are able to observe, the conclusions that they had and what outcome was created by their efforts. Right?

Reena Merchant:
Yeah.

Chris Do:
So is that a PDF or is this something else?

Reena Merchant:
It can be. Yeah. So we see portfolios in different formats. What's really super easy is when it's on the web. So it's really great when you have a web-based portfolio, because it can be accessed anywhere, anytime. It's just easy to structure, you can have different sections, things like that. I have also seen portfolios that come through in the form of PDF. That's good too. I think that seeing the typical, it's different everywhere, but high level, typical interview process or application process at a company, there's usually some element of this is me and this is where I think having a web presence helps because even before you are formally channeled into the interview process, recruiters, hiring managers, people can just go to your website, take a glimpse.
So I think there's that phase. Then there's you start talking to recruiters or you start doing phone interviews with companies. I think there are a lot of times, what happens is people will say, "Great, we're on the phone, we're doing an interview. Can you walk me through an example of a project that you've done, where you were really proud of?" Let's say. If you have, again, something on the web, you can say, even if that person didn't receive your PDF, you could say, "Hey, can you pull up the Google project that I did? Let's walk through it together."
So I think it helps to keep in your mind, what's that one project that I would walk through, if somebody in the beginning stages of interviewing asked me to do that? Then usually if you get deeper into the interview process, it could turn into, now you're doing onsite interviews, you're going and doing a portfolio presentation where you're doing maybe a half an hour, 45 minute presentation, and it's in front of maybe four or five interviewers. That's where the narrative gets even deeper and you're going in depth. I think what's helped me too is personally strategizing. What are these again, different touch points and at each touch point, what's the story I would want to tell about myself and my work? I think it starts a little bit shallower and then it goes deeper.

Chris Do:
As a followup request, is it possible for you to send me maybe a handful of links that I can look at it like, "Wow, that's what's Reena is talking about." And we can drop those in the notes for this episode. Is that okay?

Reena Merchant:
Absolutely. I'd be more than happy to.

Chris Do:
Because I'm dying to see what you say. Okay.

Reena Merchant:
Yes. I will send you some links.

Chris Do:
Oh my God. I think he's just made a whole bunch of people really, really happy because-

Reena Merchant:
Of course.

Chris Do:
I never have a satisfactory answer for that, because I just don't know. It's not my thing.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah.

Chris Do:
Okay. Before we get out of here, because I just realized we're a little beyond our hour here, which is this, is tell me about the OurVoice initiative that you're working on.

Reena Merchant:
Yeah. So, OurVoice is a community organization that I launched last year. It's actually something that had been growing, a seed that had been growing in my brain for almost 12 years.

Chris Do:
Okay.

Reena Merchant:
So it has a lot to do with my personal journey. The organization, the mission is how to help others strengthen their self-confidence and authenticity. It comes back to things I experienced where I, as I shared, struggled with finding my authentic voice and my self confidence. It's the journey that never ends. I don't think it ever ends. I would go through these things in life and I thought, "Wow, one day when I figured this all out, when I know how to do this, I want to give back." Because I would talk to others and I would realize that everyone's going through this on some level in some way. I realized last year, I'm not going to figure it all out ever. I don't think there's ever going to be a day where I can say I'm done and I'm the expert of this.

Chris Do:
Right.

Reena Merchant:
But I don't want to hold off on giving back and launching something. Let's do it. What it is is we try to bring together resources, events, creating a community where we can support each other to strengthen our authenticity.

Chris Do:
Okay. So it's a community. How does one experience this community?

Reena Merchant:
Yeah, so it's online. We have a presence on the web at iamourvoice.com and Instagram presence as well. We hosted a local in-person event in San Francisco in the fall and now looking at more online ways of doing that, so that we can experience that community in today's reality, but also it can extend beyond the local reach, if it's online. Also launching a podcast soon. So hopefully that will be supportive to people. There's articles, I can share links to this. There's a medium publication. So we have blog posts that we're trying to put out there.
There's meditation support. Sometimes meditation is a good way to kind of quiet the outside and figure out who you are on the inside. So all these things, and there is actually something, if people are interested in, I did put out an offer to host support sessions. So one-on-one coaching or support sessions, especially considering COVID-19. It is a difficult and trying time, it's hard to stay centered and positive. So there's also coaching and support sessions like that, that we're trying to make available.

Chris Do:
It sounds amazing. So if you guys want to find out more about that, go to iamourvoice.com. Did I get that right?

Reena Merchant:
Yes. And everything is available there.

Chris Do:
Wow. Okay. You know what? I've really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you for doing this with me. I feel like this could go on forever and I just want to be respectful of your time. It's like, this was so awesome. Thank you for doing this. I think people who are going to listen to this are going to be inspired by your story to know that look today, you're somebody big, important, fulfilling a giant role, but that wasn't always the case, that we all start off in different places in life. So thank you very much for sharing your story with me.

Reena Merchant:
Thank you so much for having me, Chris. It's been wonderful chatting and I'm so grateful. I am Reena Merchant and you are listening to The Futur.

Greg Gunn:
Thanks so much for joining us in this episode. If you're new to The Futur and want to know more about our educational mission, visit the futur.com. You'll find more podcasts episodes, hundreds of YouTube videos and a growing collection of online courses and products covering design and business. Oh, and we spell The Futur with no E. The Futur Podcast is hosted by Chris Do and produced by me. Greg Gunn. This episode was mixed and edited by [Anthony Baro 01:02:49] with intro music by Adam Sanborne. If you enjoyed this episode, then do us a favor and rate and review us on iTunes. It's a tremendous help in getting our message out there and lets us know what you like. Thanks again for listening and we will see you next time.

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