9. Kavita Appachu of Kelley Blue Book
Today I chat with Kavita Appachu, the Senior Manager of User Experience Research at Kelley Blue Book. She describes the different roles she’s had in different organizations, moving from design to research, and explains the change effort underway at Kelley Blue Book.
It’s more like “You are a researcher?” Yes, I am and I can also help with providing input towards design. As a society we like to simplify things and compartmentalize people and the way I think about it is design is a mindset. You can apply it towards culling insights or you can apply it towards creating or defining experiences. And I feel like I can do both, but I don’t know if it is just me that thinks that way, or maybe it’s just the way things work right now. That’s the way it is and at some time in the future those boundaries will merge and go away. – Kavita Appachu
- Kavita Appachu
- Kelley Blue Book
- The Cognitive Systems Engineering Laboratory at Ohio State University
- Visual Communication Design at Ohio State University
- Don Norman
- Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change by Victor Papanek
- Liz Sanders
- Fitch (circa 2000)
- Cox Automotive Media
Steve Portigal: Well, thank you very much for being here today.
Kavita Appachu: Thanks for having me.
Steve: So what might be a nice way to start with you is to maybe have you do kind of a narrative or walk us through some of the major steps in your professional career.
Kavita: Oh boy. So I’ve had a fairly long and eventful professional career. I started as a designer back in the days when all a designer did was visual design and then I evolved to being an interaction designer and I went back to school for that and then started designing. And then when I started designing I very quickly realized that I didn’t have the right input or insights to help me create compelling experiences and that’s when I went back to school yet again to really learn about how the human mind works and you know how we could do a better job of creating experiences that align with people’s behaviors and needs.
Steve: What was the program you went back to at that point?
Kavita: That was – I went back to get my masters in – you know cognitive systems engineering and visual communication at the Ohio State University.
Steve: We’ll keep going through time but I want to check with this. It seems like at that point where you had that realization that you were lacking this input, you know around behavior, if you say that now in 2016 it’s very different I think then in the time when you had that realization in terms of what are standard design practices? You know how users are or information from users is involved? I don’t know. I’m leading you a little bit, but tell me where you were at at that point.
Kavita: Right. Absolutely. This was back in the days where I think Don Norman was just sort of emerging as one of the advocates of designing for human behavior and consumer needs. And you know – I don’t know if you remember, there is an author called Victor Papanek and he wrote a book on designing for the real world and I remember that had a deep impact on me because the traditional – back in those days the traditional design school curriculum was really I am the designer, I know what you need and I’m going to design it and you’re going to learn to use it.
Steve: So that was a very different way of talking about it.
Kavita: Exactly. It was a very different way of talking. It was a different paradigm. And that was – and that’s what designers were taught and that’s what they did and the book really had a deep impact on me in terms of just empathy – you know people’s needs and how you want to think of those first before you even start thinking of what you want to design.
Steve: I love that. I love that we can reflect back, those of us that were around, we can reflect back on times when this – it wasn’t – you know user research wasn’t on CNN or wasn’t just so ubiquitous and that many of us found our ways to it and interesting paths. Anyway I took you away from your story a little bit. You were talking about going into this program at Ohio State. Can we pick up from there?
Kavita: Yeah, absolutely. That was I think a very fulfilling experience for me where I was really able to apply myself and learn about, you know, what – how the human mind works and it was completely fascinating – about short term memory, long term memory and all the – you know everything that cognitive psychology has to teach and that really laid the foundation for my approach to creating experiences and how we involve users in every step of the process about collaborating with everyone, all your stakeholders and collaborating with your users and it’s not just about people’s functional needs, but it’s also about their emotional needs. And how you can create these great experiences that not just meet their needs but delight them.
Steve: It seems like there’s an element there that the cognitive science gave you peek into the – my term anyways is like the soft skills around research. Working with stakeholders, it is an empathy activity as I think is what you’re saying. Am I – do I have you properly?
Kavita: Yes, yes you do and I think I was – so when I was at Ohio State University there’s a couple of things that happened. One was I got to work very, very closely with Dr. Liz Sanders who has been my coach and mentor to this day, someone I really admire. And I think she was almost – you can call her a trailblazer in terms of just using for participatory design techniques to involve users in the design process and also using emotion as a way to both understanding consumer needs, user needs and also creating experiences that help meet those emotional needs. And I know, especially the lit – cognitive psychology literature there’s two schools of thought where it’s all about cognition and emotion does not play a role and she was – even though she is a cognitive psychologist by training she was very – you know she was one of the first people that said emotional does play a role and they work in tandem and you cannot ignore one and design only for cognition because you’re not going to be creating great experiences for a successful product.
Steve: And I may be banging this drum too much in this conversation, but you said trailblazer. I think that’s an important characterization because that was not how design was approached then. The notion that this was you know the world of human factors and man/machine interfaces kind of was the legacy that I think the field had inherited and that you didn’t think about this person with empathy or as someone that was an emotional, an emotional user and that was so important. So that – it sounds like this was – some changes in the default practice were starting to come out of the work that you were doing, that Liz was doing.
Kavita: Yes, absolutely and I think to your point in those, and we’re going so far back, and I think I’ll get back to why I’m even sort revisiting those days in my journey, not just because you asked me a question, but I think given where I’m working today has some bearing on that. That said, I think to your point in those days there were two kind of areas or avenues for design. One was the human factors, very product-driven approach and then the other was agencies and advertising. And they were very different approaches and they had very different goals. But those were the two and I think where we are today is a good mix of both, right.
Kavita: And I think because those boundaries, you know, don’t exist anymore and given that the virtual world and the real world are so closely intertwined, what we – we don’t pay for everything we consume. So there’s just – everything’s changed and so those roles are really all one now.
Steve: That’s a nice observation. So, at your request, let’s get back to sort of the stages of your own journey. Where did you head to after that experience?
Kavita: Right. And I think the second thing that also was a great experience for me was those days Apple used to, you know, had something called Apple Design Projects. And these ident – these sort of identified about 8 or 10 schools from all over the world and they would give them design projects and they would work with you for six months on a project and the culmination of that was you went to Cupertino and you worked with everyone there and you made a presentation to the execs. And I think that was sort of – that really put everything I was learning at Ohio State into practice for me. And it was really great to be able to work – and during the sixth month period they actually designed a designer from Apple that was your coach and mentor and worked very closely with you.
Steve: What was the project about?
Kavita: The project was how do you use the virtual world to get people to come closer in the real world. That was the project. That was the project for that, for the year that I participated and it was a competition. It was interesting because you would have a few teams in each school and you competed and then one team, the team that won that competition got to go to Cupertino and then competed with the other teams from different colleges and schools. So that was a, that was a fun experience. I really enjoyed kind of working with everybody and getting everyone’s perspective. We had people from the Netherlands. We had people from India. We had people from Japan and all over the world actually coming with their projects and sharing and learning from each other. So it was, it was a very, very rich cultural experience that sort of defined the way I really think and work with people.
Steve: Wow. That’s fabulous.
Kavita: Yes. It’s been a long time but I still remember it so vividly.
Steve: So did that lead you back to the working world?
Kavita: Yes, that did lead me back to the working world and I actually started in telecom which was in sharp contrast to this dynamic world at Apple. And I was the first UX professional hired by Qwest in – and they were an up and coming telecom company at that point. So I was working in this telecom, hard core engineering organization, but what I loved about that place and I think now that I’ve worked in a few places I realize what I really enjoy is the challenge of going in and setting things up where the organization has a thirst for evolving their design expertise and design maturity, building their design capabilities. And I really enjoy going in and working with the people and the organization and helping make them make that happen.
Steve: And how did it play out for Qwest?
Kavita: I think it played out well. At least, you know, they had developers who were actually coding – you know not just coding, they were designing the experience which was called the user interface in those days. And while it worked for – you know it worked for – well it wasn’t ideal, but they were able to make do for their customer service applications and internal applications when they started getting into the consumer space which is what they were getting into at that point. They felt they were at a big disadvantage so they needed this expertise to help create products and experiences that consumers would be able to use, that were usable and useful. Otherwise they were losing consumers. So I think that’s what drove them to actually start thinking of having this capability in-house.
Steve: And how much was – you know in that particular organization and the work that you were leading there, how much was research part of the design practice?
Kavita: Research, so it was interesting. I think, you know, in traditionally technical organizations they do what’s called user acceptance testing. You know it’s a very technical term. It’s a very engineering focused term and they – otherwise they were using – they were doing – there was nothing formal, but they were informally doing that and using that, not just to test the performance of their applications, but also to some extent get feedback on the usability and the usefulness of their applications. But that was it. There was not a lot of formal research and in all honestly at that point I really was not able to do a lot more either. I mean I had to – you know I had to pick – I had to prioritize and I certainly prioritized with okay let’s at least start with getting them to understand and learn about how – you know what it takes to design a good experience and it is a very unique sort of skill set and it requires a certain approach and the research at that point was very informal.
Steve: That’s an interesting point you made too that the priority is to kind of get a design process happening. Do you think you need to get that set up first before you can start to kind of expand and flush out the formality of research?
Kavita: You know today if you asked me that I would say probably not, but I think in those days, because design was not – design was, at that point for the most part there – you know on that maturity continuum either it was a tactical player or did not exist at all. Right. So you sort of prioritized and said okay, you know what I’m going to start – it’s baby steps, so I’m going to start with what, you know the most important – what they’re more likely to accept and then work my way into incorporating research. But if you were to ask me today, because thanks to design thinking and just the awareness and the impact of design, where it – in a lot of work – I can’t say it’s in all organizations, but in a lot of organizations it’s moved from being a tactical player to a strategic partner. I think you would go in today and really say we need both. Right. They work in tandem.
Steve: Yeah, that’s a good explanation of the evolution since then.
Steve: So Qwest, how did you know when to move on from Qwest?
Kavita: I think at some point I just was looking for other challenges and that’s when I decided to move to something that, to work on something that was just more consumer facing and moved faster. A telecom industry doesn’t move at the pace at say a media company does, or a financial company. They’re even slower. You know, I mean finance and software is not known for its speed or agility, but telecom moves very slow. And so that – so it was more – I think I was ready for a new challenge and that’s when I sort of moved to work for AOL back in the days when they were doing well.
Steve: And what was the role you had there?
Kavita: I think that was where I switched from being a designer to a researcher. I started as a designer there and we would outsource research and what happened was I think one day the GM at – and I was working in Columbus, Ohio which had – which – where CompuServe was based which was an AOL acquisition and the GM in Columbus, I think saw – he got the expenditure spreadsheet if I recall and he saw the line item for the expenditure on research because we were outsourcing it and he realized oh, maybe we should bring it in-house and that’s when he asked me if I would be interested in heading that. And it’s been a long time, but I think at that point I was like absolutely, this sounds like a great opportunity. I really enjoy – I like designing, but I really enjoy providing insights and gathering insights because to your point – you know as I mentioned earlier there’s data and there’s insights and I would get data, but I wouldn’t get good insights from the research that was coming my way all the time. So that was why I sort of took on that challenge if you will. And I think since then I’ve stuck with research. I enjoy doing it. I love working with people. As a designer you do interact with people, but as a researcher it’s imperative. And I absolutely love that. It’s such a fulfilling experience. You learn from – you learn so much about everyone and yourself, every day.
Steve: And yourself is – yes. I’m not saying anything except just agreeing emphatically. Both those pieces are true. And then you never stop learning about yourself from your research.
Kavita: Yes, absolutely. Yes. It’s very humbling.
Steve: Yeah. One of the things I enjoy about research is learning about how judgmental I am. I think I’m a good advocate for all the good principals of research and deferring judgment and so on. It’s interesting to find myself in those situations where I can just feel all this judgment come up. I don’t know what you think. I think maybe as researchers we kind of learn just to sit with and hold onto that judgment as opposed to taking it on ourselves fully. I guess for me it can be fun to – like even just in the same conversation with someone that I’m interviewing, kind of flip-flop or maybe sway back and forth between sort of accepting and being open minded and curious and then sort of flaring up a judgment and setting it aside and then going back to being open. You know just seeing what my own limitations are for all the values I might proclaim. You know I’m pretty flawed as a person, as we all are. I don’t know, is that something that you – am I making any sense at all with this?
Kavita: Absolutely. I completely agree. I think I go through that a lot, both in my professional and personal life, right. And especially in your personal life because you know you are much more emotionally vested in your personal life. It’s very easy to jump, you know into drawing conclusions and being judgmental and to your point I have to tell myself hey I’m able to do a reasonably okay job as a researcher, why can’t I also do the same in my personal life?
Kavita: You know what I mean?
Steve: Oh, I do know what you mean and I feel like anything that I discover as a principle or write about that makes for good research is clearly applicable to everyday life, but I also think it can be a big burden for those of us that have reflected on that and have tried to develop those skills. It’s hard enough to be good as a researcher and just sort of moderately good as a person. I always want to be cautious of raising the bar for myself too high, like oh I should always be listening to people and I shouldn’t be judging them and I should be patient and open minded. That’s hard to do in research and sort of coming out of that mode sometimes I want to just set that aside and just you know, just be a jerk I guess. Or just a regular person I guess is maybe a better way to put it.
Kavita: I know. But you know, believe me, my 16 year old reminds me every day about how I jump to conclusions and how judgmental I am. So I don’t even need to do that myself. He’s there to do it for me.
Steve: I want to go back to one thing you said. You sort of described this point at which you went from being a designer to a researcher. Was that an identity switch for you? Obviously it’s a title change, but – do either of those labels – were those the right – you know sometimes we sort of transcend our labels. I know you as a researcher, so to hear that you were a designer like I think you’ve told me that, but I forgot until this conversation. So I am trying to like put you in a box as we’re talking. Like well is she a researcher or a designer? You kind of described those transitional moments. I don’t know.
Kavita: You know it just seemed like. So that’s a good question. At that time I just was so excited I didn’t even think about it, right. And I just took it on because it was so much fun, just kind of – like I said I like to go in and set things up, make things happen and this was the starting of something new that I enjoyed doing and I didn’t think much of it because I had a passion for it. But to your point I didn’t realize that it would – in my mind it wasn’t because – you know a change of identity because I’ve always thought the two are very closely related and at least the way I work, the way I’ve been trained, I kind of have thought of myself as both because of my formal training and experience, but then to your point yes, I was asked to pick an identity even though I didn’t want to. And I think I sort of struggle with that even now.
Steve: So you want to talk about how you experience that now?
Kavita: Right. I think it’s more like, of you are a researcher? Yes, I am and I can also help with providing input towards design. Right. I think, so we – as a society we like to simplify things and to your point compartmentalize people and the way I think about it is design is a mindset. You can apply it towards culling insights or you can apply it towards creating or defining experiences. And I feel like I can do both, but you know I don’t know if it is just me that thinks that way or – and so maybe I’m way off from everybody. Or maybe it’s just the way, you know things work right now. That’s the way it is and at some time in the future those boundaries will, you know we merge and go away.
Steve: You know people are going to be listening to this and they’re just going to be nodding vigorously right now going no it’s not just you. I think you expressing it that way I think is going to be a nice moment for people that are listening. Can we talk about your work at Intuit which is where I first met you?
Kavita: Yeah, absolutely. So I think at some point I was looking for other challenges and Intuit came along. When I – and I think Intuit was a great experience for me in terms of watching and growing with an organization, in terms – on that design maturity continuum. Right. When I started at Intuit they believed in design and they felt design played a role in defining experiences, but they were not where they are today which is a design driven company. And it was – it’s been – not that I’m not at Intuit anymore I look back and I go wow that was a great experience living through – going through that journey and living it, watch – you know working through – you know starting with hey here’s the product go design it and go design – they were always insight driven and very consumer focused so that was always good and that was what helped them move so fast so quickly. That said they were – it was not – design was – design happened after the product strategy was defined, but today, you know, design plays a role. And when I say design I mean design and research, again using the term design to cover all aspects of the user experience. You know, design plays a role in providing input towards their product strategy. How cool is that? How many organizations do that?
Steve: And did you – I mean what things did you see happen to help drive that progression in the maturity?
Kavita: I think that there’s a few things. So one is the leadership believed in it and was committed to it. Right. So that was one. And they enabled the right people to go ahead and create an environment and the operating mechanisms to make that happen. The leadership was like well yes we believe in this, we do believe that when everything else becomes a commodity, you know software is a commodity, what’s your differentiator? It’s going to be the consumer experience and we also believed in doing right by our stakeholders and that sort of drives the fact that they are very insight driven – talking to consumers, researching, talking to their other stakeholders and every consumer touchpoint needs to – both – you know take into consideration consumer behavior and needs and also consumer – you know – and also ensure that you meet the consumer’s emotional needs. So you have empathy every step of the way. So I think that was one.
And then knowing that okay we are committed to it, but we don’t necessarily know what this will look like or what needs to happen and then you sort of get the right people to lead it. And I think that’s great because a lot of organizations don’t always do that. They declare it and then they don’t know how to make it happen or they don’t always enable the right people t make it happen. And I think that’s commendable, you know, and so they, you know this – people who were leading the design leaders set up the right programs. They had the right success criteria, enabling not just the user experience professionals, but also everybody else within the organization to understand what UX is, how to work with UX. They also made sure that design thinking was embraced by the entire organization. So it was almost like design is a mindset. It’s not a function. And what that allowed you – by opening your doors to let other people in allowed you to have more impact because they understood, they embraced and they practiced it. And they also realized that you bring a certain expertise that will help them make – you know create a better product or create better experiences for our consumers.
Steve: So as you’re involved in this, over this time the organization is changing and kind of progressing, what’s, what – how do you think you were different – how did you progress? You know if you think about when you started versus when you left, what was your evolution in that experience?
Kavita: Yes, that’s a good question. So I think given my background the fact that I had worked with Liz Sanders and at Fitch with her for awhile, I always had practiced that approach, but in a very limited way and very sort of informal, internal way. What this did was just allowed me to practice it in a more formal way, more purposeful way. And also not limited to just design experiences. You know the design thinking provides you with tools not just to create better designs and experiences. It provides you with tools on how to collaborate with everybody, how to create better processes, how to even work through your interpersonal differences. So it just broadened your horizon and your perspective and you know made you grow, not just as, not just in your profession, but also personally. And I think that’s a very empowering experience and thought.
Steve: I like how we’ve kind of hit upon a couple of times the overlap, or the kind of intertwining of our professional practice and our personal developments.
Kavita: Right. I think design is a very introspective profession, right. I mean I’m sure others are too. I’m not saying design is the only one, but given what we do, if we have to be successful it does require a lot – a fair amount of self reflection.
Steve: It certainly seems to be a characteristic we like to celebrate in ourselves.
Kavita: And that may well be. Maybe we are just more vocal about it, yeah.
Steve: I mean, I guess I shouldn’t be critical. That’s what this podcast is, right. We’re sort of looking at individuals and surfacing stories to kind of look at ourselves as a field. Obviously – and researchers especially like introspection because that’s part of the toolkit.
Kavita: Yeah and maybe that’s what – maybe that’s why I kind of enjoy doing research because you are much more introspective. By nature of what you do you have to make sense of things. You have all this information and you have to try to make sense of it and it just comes naturally then.
Steve: Can we talk about your current role and your current organization and maybe you can give a bit of an introduction to where you’re at? Sometimes I start off the conversation with that and we just went all the back and kind of all the way forward, but maybe we should talk about where you are and what you’re doing.
Kavita: Absolutely. Yeah. And so – I am currently – I work for a company called Kelley Blue Book. Actually we are known – that’s the brand, but we are known as Cox Automotive Media now and what Cox Automotive Media is, it’s Kelley Blue Book and AutoTrader. So we recently integrated. I manage – I’m the Senior Manager of UX Research for Cox Automotive Media and Kelley Blue Book. I’ve been here for about I think a year and a half almost now and I – this opportunity just happened to come along. The Director of UX at Kelley Blue Book asked me, reached out to me and was wondering if I was interested and I – we started talking and then I wasn’t really actively looking or anything, but it just sounded like such a great opportunity to again going back to what I enjoy doing. You know the challenge of coming in and setting things up and getting an organization to develop and evolve into a more mature design drive organization. So that was what attracted me to Kelley Blue Book. I love the people here and I love the passion they have for insights and consumer research and – in terms of again the maturity I think it’s interesting because things have come full cycle. They are really I think where Intuit was when I started at Intuit. So it’s sort of I’m starting – it’s almost like starting over. The good thing is I have so many lessons learned that I can use them hopefully to build on the successes from my past and really learn from the failures as well so that I don’t repeat my mistakes.
Steve: Can you talk about some successes that you have had in the year as you’ve been setting these up and trying to help with the evolution of the organization?
Kavita: Absolutely. So Kelley Blue Book is in the automotive industry and with that sort of comes – that’s the – the automotive industry is, how should I put it, it’s not – on the design maturity continuum is not as sort of – the capability is not as evolved as the other industries if you will. But the good – so that’s one. But the good thing is there is – at least within Kelley Blue Book there’s a thirst for learning and being design driven, embracing consumer insights, because they also realize that that is going to provide them with the competitive edge. So a couple of things that I feel I’ve been able to accomplish is, the first is you know, as with most organizations that have a research function, a value to research where you sort of come up with a design and you kind of validate your concepts. That was being practiced here. One of the things that the organization was not practicing was generative or exploratory research. And one of the things that I’ve been able to do is get them to really embrace exploratory generative research to one both get the teams all excited and have more input towards brainstorming and designing experiences going broad and just designing different concepts and experimenting and testing their way into the best experience to launch. And also we’ve started – you know I’m not saying we’ve been able to do it consistently and successfully but we’re trying to – we’ve started using those insights as input towards defining product strategy. Are we there yet? No. But it’s a start. So one of my goals when I came here was to kind of move UX research from – and even design, but primarily – you know I’m starting with UX research. Move that from being a tactical player to being a strategic partner and I think we are well on our way to that. So that’s one.
Steve: Can I ask a follow up before you get on to the second one?
Steve: You know just imagine that someone is listening to this and they’re thinking that’s great, I want to do that, but how? You know what – can you advice – and then you talked about lessons learned and so on so how do you help the organization start to make use of exploratory research and think about it strategically?
Kavita: Right. I think one of the things – you know as part of my meet and greets the consistent theme I heard was you know we’ve been trying this and we’ve trying that and we’ve heard that there’s a lot of opportunity based on industry data or market data we have, but we just haven’t been able to figure out how to successfully monetize things. And I think that was my opportunity to say okay let’s step back and see what questions you have and how I can help you. And once we brainstormed a list of questions and concerns people had it became very clear to everybody that they really needed to look at things differently. And I’ll give you an example. One of the things that I know is big in the media, and especially in automotive media, is video. There is I think – I don’t know and I don’t have the numbers, but I think AdAge or somebody has projected that revenue from video is going to be in the millions in 2016 and we were – you know the KBB revenue was very, very small last year compared to – you know – so we were trying to – we were saying okay the numbers are telling us that there is a lot of opportunity but how do we make it grow? So you were sort of looking at the business – you’re sort of talking to them from the business point of view, but also having them flip their thinking to understanding okay what are your questions and there is another part of this equation which is the consumer and also, in the case of the automotive industry, the automotive manufacturers, which they’re known as OEMs, and dealers. So when we started brainstorming the questions it became very clear that they didn’t have the answer. So it was like well how are people going to use video in the shopping process? At what point do they want to watch videos? What kinds of videos do they want to watch? So very basic – so there were some very high level questions which you probe deeper and you realize we really didn’t have specific information in terms of what point in the consumer journey do people want to watch videos? What point in the journey do they want to – you know what are the relevant video topics? So just having that conversation allowed me to make the team realize that you can’t build something and ask for consumer feedback or test it in the market and then grow your revenue. Does that make sense?
Steve: Yeah. And – I mean I love that story – it echoes a theme that I’ve heard from folks before which is you know you’re not – you didn’t start with a conversation about methods. You started with a conversation about goals, outcomes, what are we trying to get to. And then you’re able to say well given the questions that we have that we haven’t answered, here’s how to go about answering those and here’s how it supports the business. So you were not – you’re not being dogmatic about I love this and this kind of research. You’re able to bring it up in context of what the problems that the business has that you’re there to help them solve.
Kavita: Right. Yes. Yeah, and I think that – and that’s something that I’ve learned in my career over the years. It’s not about the methodology and it’s not – and it’s not about the data. It is about the business needs, unanswered questions and insights. You know I think everybody trusts you – for the most part people trust your expertise in terms of the methodology. They’re – you know they really want actionable information so I always sort of – when I have conversations with people I kind of try to use this phrase, it’s a cliché, but what’s in it for me. So what’s in it for me, Product Manager? Or what’s in it for me, VP of – you know VP of Advertising. You have to speak on their terms.
Steve: Yup. Did you have another example that you were going to describe of some things that you’ve had impact on in the time there?
Kavita: Yes. And so this is sort of – this is what I like to call, you know for want of any other way to describe it, almost an serendipitous. So when I sort of – when I started at Kelley Blue Book one of the things that – my goal was to make research more collaborative. Research, the way it was being practiced, was more of a service. The researcher or research as a function wasn’t embedded in the product development design – design and development process. And as part of that I started doing some collaborative design thinking exercises to get the team to you know not just hire – not just as a researcher do generative research, but get the team immersed in talking to consumers. Going out in the field, you know – and then come back with ideas to generate concepts and brainstorm. And as part – so I was doing that for the different projects where it made sense and around that time our VP of Product and Finance attended a design thinking workshop and they were sold. They felt – they believed in it and they felt that was a really good framework for us to use in the organization, not just for designing, but I think one of the things they wanted the organization to do was to be more collaborative, do a better job of problem framing and then just move quickly. Those were their goals and they felt that this was a good framework for the organization to use and we just happened to have this conversation and at that point they decided they wanted to formally introduce design thinking which we call human centered design here in the organization and this was a cross- this is a cross functional initiative where we are work – we work with a consultant that came in-house and trained – to start with 17 catalysts that actually helped facilitate these sessions and those have ranged from anything for the sales team to generate ideas to monetize, sales team to generate ideas to create play books and pitch books, to operations teams to increase efficiencies in their processes. And of course for product design and development brainstorming ideas which is the natural fit anyways for design thinking. So I think that’s been very, very exciting and it’s been both very fulfilling and humbling because I don’t – you know like I said there was a thirst in this organization for user research and insight driven development but I didn’t expect the team and the organization to embrace design thinking the way they did. At one point we were conducting – and this was in June – we launched this in June and we were conducting at least – forget about the informal sessions which happened if there was a team, embedded team, you know catalyst on any team, we were conducting about one formal session a day and the catalyst couldn’t keep up.
Kavita: So that’s been amaze – it’s been both humbling and amazing and you expect product to embrace it anyways, but sales embraced it. Operations embraced it. So I think it’s just been so exciting and fulfilling and very, very humbling.
Steve: And within Kelley Blue Book and AutoTrader and I guess I don’t – you talked about them becoming integrated, is the kinds of change that you’re describing, is that happening everywhere within Cox?
Kavita: So we’ve started with Kelley Blue Book, but now my – you know now we’re trying to kind of, as we integrate with AutoTrader we’re trying to build those relationships and get them to also experience and then we’ll take it from there. But we are kind of, at least within Kelley Blue Book, we’ve been practicing it. And we’re working with AutoTrader on embrace – you know – you know just sort of getting them to practice it and then build on it.
Steve: I also neglected to ask you this earlier. What are sort of the basic businesses that Kelley Blue Book and AutoTrader are in?
Kavita: Yes. So like I mentioned they’re in the automotive industry and Kelley Blue Book, for those of you that have grown up with those literally blue books, will remember that your parents or grandparents used to look at those books to get the value of their current car when they were planning to sell it. So that’s where Kelley Blue Book started and today, even though they make those – they do make – they do print a few of those books – you know our core competence is really the valuations which is pricing of cars and that’s what we offer and we are the market leaders in that. And one of our – you know the thing that – Kelley Blue Book as a brand stands for trust. People trust our values and that’s why they come to our site to get the value of their vehicles when they are ready to sell them and also the value of new vehicles when they are looking for another vehicle. So that’s Kelley Blue Book. And AutoTrader is in the – they, like our CEO says, they really invented online classifieds. They were the market leader and the first company to bring classifieds online – automotive classifieds that is. So you know – and that’s what AutoTrader does. They are a sort of match maker that provides classifieds or allows dealers to host classifieds and then provides consumers access to them and connects the two.
Steve: Does AutoTrader have a user experience or a research group that is I guess analogous to what you’re leading?
Kavita: Yes they do. They do have UX group and they do have a research team.
Steve: At Kelley Blue Book what’s the size of the research group?
Kavita: We are a team of four.
Steve: Has that changed?
Kavita: That has not changed. You mean since the integration?
Steve: I mean I’m just wondering. Like a lot of research groups are say – I mean research groups are growing in general is the trend that I observe. Sometimes where demand exceeds supply even for researchers.
Kavita: Right. To your point yes, that’s absolutely right. In fact I have open head count and I can’t find people. So the change is that I have to grow my team and I am not able to find people right now.
Steve: What are candidates not succeeding in?
Kavita: I think the challenge we have for us here in – you know Kelley Blue Book is located in Orange County and the challenge we have is that there’s San Diego to the south and there’s L.A. to the north. And within – in Orange County there aren’t many organizations that have such a big UX group. We are about 32 people here, UX which includes researchers, designers and copy writers or editors. And it’s very – so we’re a big UX team as far as – you know compared to the other organizations in Irvine and Orange County. And they don’t have this – you know the way their roles are defined in the other organizations, they are not defined by designer, researcher and copywriter which – so I don’t get people with strong research experience or skill sets. I think that’s where kind of the challenge is, at least for us here.
Steve: This is when you’re pulling kind of from the local community – there are people that are elsewhere?
Kavita: Right and so most of the people are either in San Diego or L.A. and they don’t want to move. And while you’re happy to have people relocate not many want to move to Orange County.
Steve: It’s a kind of a combination of factors that are challenging you there.
Kavita: Yes, absolutely. And while it’s easy to get entry level people I think when you are looking for people with some experience that gets very challenging.
Steve: What are you hoping to accomplish in the next X years. I don’t know what the horizon for your vision is, but what are you looking towards?
Kavita: So a couple of things. I think my hope and wish is that we evolve on the design maturity continuum at Kelley Blue Book. And I think we are working towards that – is removed from being, you know, an organization that uses design, you know as a way to define and create experiences to really using design as an input towards strategy. I think that’s my hope and wish. And if we get to a point in the next year where – in the Cox Automotive Media Group which is AutoTrader and Kelley Blue Book we’ve embraced design thinking and we are at least starting to work towards leveraging UX design research, not just to execute on product, but also in some little way use insights as input towards defining that strategy, I think that’s – I would be really happy. I would consider that a success.
Steve: That’s great. So I’m just thinking about our time here and looking maybe starting to move towards a wrapping up. Maybe I can ask a question that goes all the back to some of what where we started. So you talked about your trajectory and the different educational and professional steps that you took and kind of how that brought you to where you are now. And we also have talked about kind of the personal and the professional and how for people that do what we do, and maybe from any professions – as you said they start to overlap. You know and a question that I often ask in these interviews is what – and it’s different I think then – I mean you’ve covered sort of the right things for this conversation, but sometimes there are other parts of our background or other parts of our personalities or our passions that find their way into the work. Are there things that really make you excellent at what you do that are different than the sources we’ve talked about today?
Kavita: So I don’t know about that, but one of the things that I kind of do make a very conscious effort to do is really ensure that everything and anything I do or my team does has relevance for the business. I think sometimes we as UX professionals do ourselves a disservice by only thinking about solving for the user or the customer or the consumer, whatever you want to call them – you know so there are different labels in every industry. And what happens is that one of two things happens there. Either people do not listen to you because it goes back to what’s in it for me? Or even if they do they’re not able to use it because the question at the back of their mind is but how will it make me money? Right.
Kavita: And I’m not saying that oh you need to talk about monetization or your business model or revenue model every time or right away. That said, I think as UX professionals for us to be impactful and have a seat at the table when strategy is being discussed we need to be very, very mindful of that. And I think that’s one of my challenges when I look for UX professionals – you know when you interview them. It’s a unique sort of mindset and I – it’s very rare. I don’t always find it in UX professionals.
Steve: Part of what you’re describing to me sounds like empathy and you’ve mentioned this in a number of different points and a different words, thinking about what their concerns are. It’s not about the dollar signs in our eyeballs. It’s about thinking about – as you said what’s in it for them, as an empathy activity.
Kavita: I think that’s a very good way to put it. I had not thought of it that way, but thank you.
Steve: You can use that.
Kavita: I will absolutely actually. It’s more going back to yay, pat on my back. I always struggle with myself. You know this is an internal struggle I have about maybe I am not empathetic enough, right. I don’t have empathy for people. So thank you.
Steve: Cool. Is there anything else we should have talked about today?
Kavita: You know, this was fun. I’m feeling very introspective going back to my Fitch days and talking about Liz and everything. So yeah, thank you for just making me relive my – both, you know the fun moments and the reflective ones. Thank you.
Steve: I think it makes for a really nice story when you put it all together, especially as we bring it up to today and the challenges you are facing today. Do you have questions for me?
Kavita: I don’t. And there’s two things. I realize these are the kinds of challenges I like, getting into – Intuit had challenges, but they’re different. You know they’re already mature as a design organization and they have different challenges. Some people enjoy those. I do too, but this just getting in and sort of being part of something that is just formative is just what I enjoy and so I kind of love it. Right. Do I have frustrating days? Absolutely. But then when you see the rewards in terms of, you know, what you’ve accomplished and how people feel you made a difference in their outcomes, it’s just – yeah, there’s – it just feels good. And it’s very validating.
Steve: Well that’s just such a lovely positive note to end on and so let’s leave it there. thank you so much for sharing so deeply and personally and as you said reflectively, it’s been really wonderful.
Kavita: Well, thank you.