Why Product Development Requires Human Connection With Mariah Hay

With technology evolving nonstop, the tools and software that will be developed in the future are surely more sophisticated than the last. But without designing them around human connection, they will just become mere objects that cannot be used to their fullest potential. Mariah Hay, Chief Experience Officer at Help Scout, discusses why the human element must never be set aside in product design and development. She emphasizes why an inclusive mindset is needed to come up with powerful ideas that can help change people's lives. Mariah also talks about her own challenges as a woman in a male-dominated space, the advantages of remote work, and the most effective approach to managing a geographically dispersed workforce.

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Why Product Development Requires Human Connection With Mariah Hay

I am blessed to have Mariah with us here. Mariah, welcome. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

At the core of who I am as a professional, I'm inspired by human-centered design. What that means for folks that have never heard what human-centered design is problem-solving for people. I started my career as a physical product designer designing things like cars, computers, and furniture. Whenever you're designing something, you want to understand who is the person you're designing for, what the problems are that you're solving for them with this thing that you're creating, and who are the range of folks that could potentially use it.

For example, I like to use a chair. Are you sitting in the chair in your living room at your desk? Is it an outdoor chair? Thinking about how people use things helps you make decisions about how you design the product. That has translated for me into the area of digital software design. We're trying to tackle a problem that a business is trying to solve for a group of customers. We're building teams of people with different disciplines who can understand those humans, build the right things for them, and then continue to evolve the product. That's who I am within a human-centered design. Tangentially, I'm also interested in the field of ethics, which is highly related to this.

What about you, the human? What do you like to do for fun?

I used the opportunity of working remotely to move back to Coastal Georgia. I live at the beach. When I'm not solving problems for humans, usually I'm taking a walk on the beach, or I'm getting out on a boat, or I'm outdoors. I lived in Utah before that. We lived by the mountains, so there was a lot of skiing and outdoor stuff. I'm a big fan of all that.

That's why I live in the West, but also, Cumberland Island was one of the best vacations I ever took in my entire life. I love Coastal Georgia as well. I want to dive into something you talked a little bit about with us on the prep call, where both of us work for technology companies, which is great. What I found unique and loved about us connecting was that we work for technology companies building the human connection. Everything that both of us work on is centered around that human piece and that human element.

One thing you touched on was, let's use your chair analogy, how you use the chair. How you use a chair and how I use a chair and the different types of chairs might be different. When you're building a product, how do accessibility and inclusion play into your design when you're thinking about the products you're building and the problems you're trying to solve?

I love that you caveated accessibility and inclusion. They are separate but overlapping areas. I'll start with the inclusion piece. You can't design for humans unless you understand the humans that you're designing for. That in and of itself is inherently inclusive. Let's say you're designing a medical app where somebody is self-reporting their blood pressure or depression symptoms or something like that.

It's understanding the population of people that will be using this app so that when you're designing, testing, and releasing it, you're looking around every corner. For example, I worked for a company called AMC Health back in 2015. We were designing an app. I made sure that I included people that had sight impairment and had never used a smartphone before and had to do it on the most basic phone models because there might have been economic restrictions and understanding all of the circumstances that people are bringing to the table when they're coming to use this app.

That inherently helps you be more inclusive in how you tackle your design, which overlaps with accessibility. There's another thing that gets forgotten when you don't necessarily have accessibility impairments. For example, I'll use the medical app. Folks that are older tend to have more difficulty feeling things with their fingertips. Using smartphones can be a little trickier. Make sure your buttons are large enough, or your button blinks or does something when somebody touches it because they might not feel it at their fingertips. Understanding all of the medical things that could get in the way potentially if somebody using your product comes back to accessibility.

Unlike inclusion, accessibility has a set of industry standards that you can choose to adhere to that are recommended. Make sure that as a leader, you understand if you are adherent to those in your design and then continue to design into the future. Giving people the skills to be able to meet those is important. In the company that I'm Chief Experience Officer at, Help Scout, back in the late 2000 year, we decided we wanted to double down on accessibility. We were able to, but we didn't have an accessibility expert per se within our small company.

Human Connection: Unlike inclusion, accessibility has a set of industry standards that you can choose to adhere to.

We found this great group called D-Q. They not only did a complete audit of our system to see how compliant we were or point out things we needed to upgrade, but they also had D-Q University. We not only understood what we were doing wrong, but we made sure we got education and training for every single person on our team and every single area that works on the product so that we weren't making those same mistakes moving forward. Now that's part of our normal training so that we can be compliant.

My next question was, how does that then translate across the company? You're building a product, but not everyone in your company probably touches the product piece of it. You might have customer support. How do that inclusivity and the thought process around design thinking with humans at the center translate across the company internally and externally with your employees and with the customers you guys reach?

One of the reasons I joined Help Scout is because they were a highly customer-centric company, to begin with. I'm happy to report whole company's support has always been a thing at Help Scout, which means that every single employee jumps into the customer support queue. They answer tickets like our customer support folks do to give people a taste of what some of our customers are experiencing periodically.

Above and beyond that, we work hard to make sure that sales is capturing win-loss and customer feedback. Our C team, our customer support team, does a great job of capturing what's coming in through the queue and what they're hearing from customers. It's the same thing with marketing. Our product marketing group does a great job of understanding the different markets we want to go after and the unique needs there.

All of these inputs feed into our experience org, product teams, and product management. We use those to understand what we want to tackle next on our product roadmap. This company, more than others that I've seen, is more sophisticated and connected in terms of hearing what the customers need. We also are working hard to make sure that our roadmap is understood by all of those groups. Sometimes you might sit in sales, and outbound sales might want one feature, but for our customer support team, something else is top of mind from them. We work hard to communicate trade-off decisions that we're making and why we're not choosing to pick something up because you only have many people working on many things at one time. It's a priority for us.

That's hard to translate sometimes. You have a geographically dispersed team. How do diversity and inclusion play into the geography you have to deal with? How do you make sure that those right people are at the table to help with the build and make the decisions about what to build? How does that employee community come together and be inclusive on your team when they're literally all over the world?

Inclusion starts with building a team of people that can look around corners as much as possible for a small team. We do try to have a four-hour overlap of synchronous time for everybody that works on the team. Even though we have people across the Americas and Europe, we've even had folks that are in Australia, which does break the paradigm of a four-hour overlap and makes things a little trickier. Generally, we try to have that time so teams can get together and work through things. They also have non-synchronous work time as well. Looking at the group of people that you have, gender, race, background, and age, trying to create diversity inherently within the group as much as possible, we aim for that.

Inclusion starts with building a team that can look around corners as much as possible despite its small size.

I lead the experience org, which is engineering product management and product design. What that is, is twelve little pods of humans working on different parts of the product. Each little pod has a mix of those disciplines on it. They're focusing on one part. Because they focus on docs, our knowledge-based product at Help Scout, they can understand who is using docs and why they are using docs. Are there customers we want to reach that we're not reaching now? We are understanding the small and medium business landscape of the folks that are going to buy and use this product and the roles within the company that uses the product. It's the laser focus and also having strong research skills on the team.

In order to be able to do that, having product managers that have qualitative and quantitative research acumen that can bring that little cross-functional team along on the ride of understanding who those users are and making sure that design is being done for them so that everybody design can bring their creative brain. Engineering can bring their creative brain to the table. It's funny people think of software development as a STEM discipline, but it's highly creative. It is problem-solving. It's not putting together widgets. You're trying to understand new technology that might be able to help you solve the problem in a more elegant way. You're understanding sociology and behavioral patterns.

This is something we say all the time, technology is the tool. How you design it has to have the human at the center because, at the end of the day, it's not another technology using that. It's not a computer using that. It's humans that are using it. Technology is always the tool that leads me in with your diverse team and everyone geographically dispersed and being cross-functionally. How do you guys use technology to your advantage so that everyone feels like they have a voice, that they're part of the project, and part of the community? How do you guys leverage technology in that way?

We have a handful of tools we use within the company, but I don't think they differ greatly from other companies. You have to have tools to be able to connect and meet with each other, Zoom and Slack. We use Dropbox Paper. Some companies use Microsoft Word or Google Docs. There's no magical software. It is how the team themselves get focused on clarity around an area that they're trying to build for, and then how they build trust with each other where they feel like it's a safe space where they can try things and bounce ideas and make it a team sport in order to solve the problem together. It's less about the tools, and it's more about the psychology that you want to create within your organization.

There is no magical software that can improve team communication. It is all about building trust with each other and cultivating space where they can bounce ideas.

It goes back to our point of, at the end of the day, we're humans. Technology is just a tool. It's always nice to be invited to the party, but if you don't feel like you fit in or belong or feel comfortable speaking up or saying what you feel, is it worth being invited to the party? Probably not. I love that you talk about safe space and using technology as a tool, but coming back to the human side of that. In the same space thinking about humans, being a woman in tech is sometimes we're the minority at a lot of things that we go to. I know you volunteer a lot with women in tech groups. What are some of the challenges you've overcome or experienced in your career that didn't feel as inclusive to a project?

The biggest barrier initially is being the only person in the room that looks like you do. What that means is there are a lot of lived experiences that you've had that other people haven't had. It's not that they can't be empathetic, but they haven't shared them. That in and of itself can create a barrier. At the last company that I worked for, Pluralsight, when I showed up, I was the only woman on the team. Not only the only woman leader but there were no women product managers and women designers. That's an uncomfortable place to be in. You start from a place where at least three people in the room look like you do. One is lonely. Two feels like collusion with the rest of the group. This is a psychology thing. Three is the magic number where you start to normalize.

What I try to do in larger groups is you try to always aim for three as your baseline and build from there. I find that getting initial people in is the hardest part because you don't want to join a group necessarily where you're going to feel like an outsider. That's what I've aimed for. I was able at Pluralsight over four and a half years to take us from 0% to 40% of total team members for both gender and race of underserved groups. I was really proud of that. More than that, it creates a more inclusive environment where you can create a better product for the customers that you're trying to create.

That's impressive and commendable. You should be proud of that. What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome to build that team to get to that 40% and start with your first three team members?

Oddly, even though I am a woman leader in tech, I haven't had the opportunity to lead a lot of women like my male colleagues. When we started hiring women, we had some maternity leaves we needed to cover. My male colleagues looked at me and said, "How does this work?" I'm like, "I don't know. We're going to have to figure this out together." It's understanding what you need to do and create to support employees. A different population of employees with different needs is going to be at the crux of being successful in retaining people.

Human Connection: Understanding what you need to do to support your employees' differing needs is the crux of being successful and retaining people.

That's a great example to highlight inclusivity because if you have an all-male team and then all of a sudden you have one woman on there, and she's going on maternity leave, no one's ever dealt with that. I don't have children. I wouldn't know what to do either.

I don't have children, either. They look at me, and I'm like, "You all are the ones with kids. You tell me."

That's a great point in talking about accessibility and inclusion. That's another example that you probably don't come to mind at first thought when you think about inclusion, things like maternity leave and paternity leave, and how important that is in engaging and supporting your team members. It's going back to the human side of things. I love that. What are some of the goals you put around your team when you think about engagement and making sure that everyone feels included where you're developing that safe space? If there is a team building now from scratch, and they're starting at zero like you did, what are some of the goals that they should think about when they think about engaging their team members?

When you're starting a team from scratch, people getting to know each other is crucial. That's one of the harder things that isn't talked about as much with remote work. I'm a huge believer in remote work. I've worked for two companies that have been fully remote and many companies that have been hybrids. I believe teams can be more productive by being remote. One thing that's a little trickier is the human connection because you're not in a room with other people. What I would encourage when teams are forming early on is to spend some time together, make that a priority, get to know each other, and get to know the non-work version of the people. When you asked me at the beginning of this episode, "Mariah, what do you do for going outside of work?" It's stuff like that. Make time in space for that periodically.

Human Connection: Teams can actually be more productive being remote. Because they are not in the room physically, they must make it a priority to spend some time together and get to know the non-work version of people.

Teams need to work closely on collaborating and norming around, "What does communication look like? How do we collaborate together? How do we get clear as a group on what we're focusing on? How do we understand each other's roles?" When you're in a cross-functional group, people can go, "What does a product manager do again? What is the scope of the designer? Who's going to drive delivery on this team?" With these cross-functional teams, every company has its own little different flavor. You've got to establish what those boundaries are so that people can feel confident in their recommendations, how they work together, and what that collaboration looks like. People are highly worried about stepping on each other's toes, often more than bulldozing each other. Usually, people are more fearful.

Helping create that helps create that safety and that autonomy within your individual role, which then contributes to the autonomy of the team. It's about spending an extra amount of time on that upfront, finding a problem to tackle, and keeping the scope small so that you can experiment because this work is never done. As teams get closer, they can shed some of the extra overhead. Remember that, as people, we like to solve problems by adding processes, but it's the removal of the process that can make things easier and less burdensome. We've all worked at companies where it's way too much process. It's been added to over the years, and it's to the point where it's so painful to do anything. You always remind the team they have the power to always constantly try to walk that back to make work more frictionless.

As people, we like to solve problems by adding processes. But it is the removal of processes that can make things easier and less burdensome.

Do you find that making it frictionless and focusing on communication makes it a little easier to potentially have the hard conversations? When you're building, I imagine there are competing ideas. We've talked about competing agendas, like what do we build. We deal with that here at my company at JUNO as well. Product, sales, and our customer success team generally don't always agree on what we're building next. That's okay. We have to have hard conversations and disagree. It's a matter of how we do that. How do you guys focus on communications? Does that make it easier? By making things more frictionless, does it lend to better hard conversations?

Clarity around the goal is the thing that always breaks the tie and creates ease in the work. Teams that are most successful, in addition to all of the stuff I mentioned, also have a leader that is creating that clarity for them and does not whiplash back and forth. We know that creating software, particularly software at scale with companies, takes time, patience, and focus. We live in the quarter-to-quarter earnings capitalism model that we do now, where it can be easy for the tail to wag the dog and you to have sales pushing the agenda, the C team pushing the agenda, or the board pushing the agenda. What you have to do is create clarity on what good looks like for your company.

You're looking at metrics, users, revenue, and your funnel, and then you're letting the people you've hired do the hard product work. Sit down and trust them to hit those metrics. Unless you create clarity around that, it will always be an argument over what feature to build instead of talking about what feature is going to try to accomplish for both the customer and the business.

The way it translates into my world around the community is we have all input into our community. Without a clear vision of what we're trying to accomplish with the community, what the purpose of it is, and why we've gathered people together in the first place, then it allows all this staticky noise around it and is supposed to have this vision and to say, "That doesn't fit within the vision of what we're doing. It's maybe time to pivot or remove that." Whatever the situation might be. Last couple of questions as we're wrapping up here, Mariah. You are passionate about ethics. I would love to know how ethics play a part when we think about inclusion and diversity. Sometimes that can be a tightrope walk between all of that. Give me your thoughts on how ethics and inclusion fit together.

Human-centered design is inherently ethical because you're understanding people and their impact. You're making sure, at the very least, you're not weaponizing the product against humans. I find that there has been an unfortunate amount of weaponization against populations that have not been considered when a product is being developed. This is in healthcare. This is in the justice system. This could even be against not being accessible to folks that might have site impairment and blocking them from working at a specific job because the company might be using software that isn't compatible with a screen reader. There are many groups that get forgotten.

If you're making sure you're not forgetting them, you won't run into as many of those things, and you won't do that long-term sustainable damage to huge groups of people. People who build software and products, generally communities, anything that serves environments, anything that serves humans. In particular, like digital experiences, we can impact millions of people by pushing a button or a feature or forgetting something. Like that, we have more power in our roles than has ever existed in the whole history of humanity to impact large groups of people. With that power comes a lot of responsibility.

If we don't take up arms as individual creators and leaders feel that responsibility and accountability, we're doing a disservice. I always like to liken ethics to codes of ethics in other industries. For example, the medical industry. Doctors take personal accountability for what happens to their patients. Hospitals can be liable and stuff too, but the doctor is taking the oath of do no harm. I believe that we contribute as people that need to do the same. If we see something, we say something.

Maybe don't watch the new Showtime show about Uber. It might blow your ethical mind.

I can't. It makes me sad. There's a book called Design Justice that I highly recommend. If anybody's interested in learning more about this topic, I will start there.

Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need (Information Policy)

Here's my last question, which I don't even want to get to because it was such a good place to end. If there were one piece of advice you would give to teams when they're thinking about building inclusive communities or teams, however you want to define community, what would it be? You answered for me that the more you can be inclusive and think about all the people that your community, your product, and whatever it might be touches, the less ethical issues you have. That's what I heard you say. The less chances you might have a pitfall along the way because you're thinking about everyone that could be, or potentially affected, good and bad, by what you're building in the community. Having that inclusive mindset from the beginning puts you in a better position to be ethical and a brand that people can stand behind.

I couldn't put it better myself.

I'm glad we touched on that because it's an important topic that when we talk about DE&I and accessibility and all of those, ethics play a part in there. I'm glad we had a chance to touch on that. Mariah, any final closing thoughts as we're wrapping up here?

If you are interested in learning more, the Design Justice book is quite good. I highly recommend that. I do a talk personally called First, Do No Harm. If you google Mariah Hay, First Do No Harm, something will come up. It's online. If you want to follow me on Twitter, my handle is @MariahHay.

It was such a pleasure having you. I love women in tech conversations because we're crushing it over here, bringing a more inclusive and diverse spin, building better products, and building better communities that support everybody that look like us, might be similar to us, or have a certain thought process like us. I very much enjoyed the time. Thank you, guys, for joining. I can't wait to see you around.

Thanks, Megan. I appreciate your time.

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About Mariah Hay

BIDC Mariah Hay | Human Connection

Mariah Hay is the Chief Experience Officer at Help Scout, a customer support platform for small and medium businesses. In her role, Mariah leads all of R&D (including engineering, product management, and product design) across eleven domestic and international teams, delivering a product that boasts a 20%+ trial conversion rate within a B Corp business model. Under her previous leadership roles as the Vice President of Product and Head of Practices at Pluralsight, they successfully launched its technology learning platform in June 2016 and by mid 2017 it was serving more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies. In the following years Mariah has led the product team through a successful 2018 IPO, and complete learning platform integration with Code School (a Pluralsight Company), bringing learn-by-doing experiences to Pluralsight learners globally.

Mariah has spent her career teaching and advocating for human-centered design. In 2017 she was awarded the Excellence in Product award by the Women Tech Council for her outstanding product leadership and success in promoting practices coupled with organizational and philosophy design for measurable business impact. Before joining Pluralsight, Mariah served as the Director of User Experience for Universal Mind, one of the largest independent digital agencies in North America, where she built their Dallas office. She also led user experience for AMC Health, and under her leadership, the company developed a remote patient monitoring software that connects with medical devices and clinical services. Prior to that, Mariah served as a professor at Savannah College of Art and Design where she developed and directed graduate coursework focused on interdisciplinary collaboration and the integration of tangible design thinking on all levels of strategy, planning and management.