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AMA with Jenny Arden (Lyft)

8 months ago from , Director of Design @ Lyft

Hi there! I’m Jenny Arden, Director of Design over at Lyft. My second title is “Head of Consumer” which means I help connect all our consumer facing products and experiences like ridesharing, bikes, scooters, transit, and even autonomous vehicles.

Prior to this relatively new role (been at Lyft for about 7 months) I was Director of Design at Airbnb. I helped grow the Airbnb host community from 2 million to the 6 million unique hosts and properties it is today. I also worked for about a year as a General Manager which was an interesting jump into business leadership.

Before Airbnb I worked at Google. Led design for Waymo (Self Drive Car Project back then) and I was one of the first mobile designers on Google Search. I’m also lucky to have worked at IDEO, Razorfish, a bunch of banks, and even ran my own agency in NYC for a couple years. I also know A LOT about financial services.

I think it’s fair to say I’m 50% design leader, 50% product/business leader. To me it’s all interconnected.

I’m really grateful to be here today and would love to answer any questions you might have. If for any reason I can’t answer the question directly (ya know, NDAs and stuff) I’ll let you know. But please, fire away! I’ll be here until 1:00.

38 comments

  • Jordan IsipJordan Isip, 7 months ago

    Thanks for the AMA! I'm curious to hear how your teams are organized and what your team process looks like for tackling work. I'd also love to hear which methodologies you've found to be the most effective? Eg. 2-week design sprints in coordination with dev sprints.

    Appreciate your time answering questions on this thread.

    3 points
    • Jenny Arden, 7 months ago

      Hey Jordan, right now our company is organized by "Lines of Business" and though design is centrally managed, we imbed design teams into each business. Process is really different from team to team because the work is really different. Ridesharing is definitely our largest and most mature business so they require multiple forms of deliverables and communication to drive projects forward. Early stage work might have several rounds of vision and "clarifying the problem" meetings. Smaller and more nimble teams are able to work a little more fluidly, testing and iterating as they go. I also oversee our Industrial Design team which has an entirely different process that's appropriate for their world. My job is to really support my managers as they set the process that's most appropriate for them (they determine if it should align to dev sprints). Of course I coach a lot and provide guidance when things could be done more efficiently, but in general I let the team determine what process works best for them.

      Now that I've said that, there are some consistent threads to managing a team that I can offer that's in my playbook.

      1. Create a sync or operational meeting early in the week with your managers. This is your air traffic control meeting. Know what's going on and raise any issues that might come up. Avoid fire drills with this meeting. Also use this time to cascade information from leadership.

      2. See the work at least once a week. I setup a crit with each of my main teams and I never cancel (even on vacation, I'm always there). This is often the one time a week the ICs see me so make it count.

      3. I have a monthly All Hands where we talk about the big picture. Sometimes we bring in actual users and hear from them, sometimes we talk about the future. This is not the time to talk about the work but focus on what we're really trying to do as a team and why we're all there. Inspire people!

      Hope that helps!

      2 points
      • Jordan IsipJordan Isip, 7 months ago

        This is very helpful. That all makes sense and thank you for your detailed response. Love the weekly and monthly breakdown.

        0 points
  • Dan Marino, 7 months ago

    How does your Design Director role & responsibilities at Lyft/Airbnb differ from a "Creative Director" or being a design lead at a project? What are some of the challenges faced in each of these types of roles?

    (Bummed I miss the time-window for the AMA, but appreciate this thread and your input!)

    3 points
    • , 7 months ago

      Not a problem, happy to keep answering questions (it's not like I'm going any where!).

      Usually a Design Director for a product team is responsible for all aspects of design that contributes to the end-to-end experience. This includes interaction design, research, content strategy, production, and program management. They might not directly manage all those roles but they're accountable for the final output (what lands in user's hands). In addition to growing leaders/managers under them they are setting the vision, strategy, and process in which their team(s) operate. There are many flavors of this based on personal strengths. Some people lean more into operations and are especially skilled at team management and creating well-oiled machines. Some are stronger at vision and can see the future (and the path to get there).

      Biggest challenges of a Design Director

      • You need to be highly effective at influencing other leaders not in your function. These are individuals that may not understand design or how you can help.

      • Your job is to advocate and represent what the user's need which is often in direct conflict with what the business needs or what can be built (in a reasonable timeferame). This means you have to be willing to respectfully debate your PMs and Engineering partners. Often you have to let go and compromise. You have to be willing to commit to a plan even if you don't entirely agree with it sometimes.

      • Typically a Design Director covers a large scope and many surfaces. The trick is to stay close to the work while seeing horizontally across. Magic happens when you are able to connect dots for your teams.

      Creative Director tends to be more of a marketing and artistic/creative title. At Airbnb we had Creative Directors in Marketing and at our Art Department team which was like an in-house creative agency. These individuals lean more into aesthetics and can really articulate the abstract concepts and goals of the project. They still manage people but their reports are usually focused on more specific skills/trades/crafts (copy writing, photography, illustration, marketing strategy). Their scope can range quite a bit depending on the company and team.

      Biggest challenges of a Creative Director

      • Often their teams are operating like an agency and have to triage a lot. Managing requests and prioritizing constantly.

      • Getting introduced to the work early enough to be able to drive some of the strategy and direction is always challenging. Often these leaders are getting late requests and time just prohibits stronger ideas.

      • There's always a threat to 'take it outside" and hire an agency instead, especially if the team is already at full capacity. The risk is losing oversight of high impact work and Creative Directors often find themselves overextended as a result.

      There's also a new title/role that I see emerging. As orgs become more complex and Design VPs/Directors are taking on more strategy and business leadership responsibilities we're finding that we can't do the job like we used to. Often vision is deprioritized and teams (across all functions) feel that they don't know where things are going. They want to know how work now will connect to the future.

      In enters the Senior IC!

      I see a future where product centric Design Directors are partnering up with product "Principal Designers". The first will manage the team and handle the operations, they will stay in the know of decisions and do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to gaining alignment with cross functional partners. The second will stay close to the work and guide the teams with a strong and compelling vision. The crossover between them is strategy and communication. We're testing this at Lyft, honestly not sure if this exactly how it will work but I believe strongly that 1. not everyone should/can be in every meeting 2. we need to divide and conquer based on strengths at all levels to succeed.

      6 points
  • Matthew Hollingsworth, 8 months ago

    Hey Jenny. This is awesome. You're background and experience is pretty incredible!

    What was the most surprising aspect of your intro into business leadership? Could you elaborate a bit on what major challenges this presented for you? Would love to hear more about that transition and why you decided to make the leap.

    Thanks so much for doing this!

    2 points
    • , 7 months ago

      Thanks, Matthew!

      Most surprising - I thought I would be giving up a lot by not focusing on the "creative" side of the business (the fun stuff). Turns out, where I'm the most creative and impactful is in strategy. I love coming up with a plan no one else has considered before. I am an entrepreneur to my core and design certainly satiates that a lot but business leadership gives me a full set of tools to work with.

      0 points
    • , 7 months ago

      Challenges for me - getting my financial literacy skills up to snuff. I needed to learn (and really understand) basic and complex business concepts very quickly. At times I felt like Neo learning Kung Fu in the Matrix. Download and use immediately at a master level.

      1 point
  • Taylor PalmerTaylor Palmer, 7 months ago

    Hi Jenny, thanks for AMAing! I recently moved into management and I've been thinking a lot about the hiring and interviewing processes across the industry. My questions are:

    1. What are some of the best interviewing practices you've seen at the many companies where you've worked?
    2. What are some lessons learned from bad experiences, or situations you'd never want to be in again?

    Thanks for your time!

    1 point
    • , 6 months ago

      Hey Taylor, congrats on the new role!

      First best interviewing practice I can give is ask the same set of questions to everyone interviewing for the role. Often we treat interviews as "conversations" but that is riddled with bias and without knowing it, candidates may be vetted inconsistently. Create a list of questions before starting to interview and stick to it. Request the same be done by the people interviewing candidates for your team.

      Second, never compromise when it comes to recruiting. It can take FOREVER to find someone that meets the bar. You may be so under water that it's tempting to just give an offer regardless of red flags. Please don't do this. It will be much more painful in the long run.

      4 points
  • Freddy MayFreddy May, 7 months ago

    Hi Jenny!

    Great to be able to chat here, love Lyft!

    Had 2 questions:

    1) How has the Covid-19 situation impacted you and your team? Are you designing features/product around what's happening or do you carry on as business as usual?

    2) What is your current toolset at Lyft right now? Do you use anything else in your 'design stack' (including documentation)

    Thanks!

    1 point
    • , 7 months ago

      It's hard to imagine anyone is not impacted right now and the same goes for my teams. The most obvious is the way we work. My teams were already distributed across two offices (NYC and SF) but now we're fully distributed. We are making it work. Lots of remote best practices are being created. We're leaning on each other more. We're doing our best to redistribute the load based on personal situations (like parents with no support). As for designing features, our approach is to continue focusing on quality and long term bets. I think the entire world is taking a big step back and determining what really matters, and we are doing the same.

      0 points
    • , 7 months ago

      We just moved over to Figma as our primary tool in January. Dylan Field has already heard this from me but I'm a big fan of what that company has build (also shout out to Noah Levin!). Frankly, I'm so grateful we made the switch when we did because it's made this time of working remotely much more feasible. We're still working with a suite of other tools for various production and prototyping reasons but I think it's fair to say we're a Figma shop now.

      As far as other tools - Lyft is HEAVY on documentation. We use Google for most documentation and share aggressively. We primarily use Slack for cascading info and sharing these docs.

      Lastly, at Lyft we are using a system called the 3Ps (stands for Progress, Plans, Problems). It's a quick and standardized way to share status of projects in lieu of countless standups and syncs. As a leader that's generally in back-to-back meetings I'm so grateful for this system as it keeps me up to date and saves time.

      1 point
      • Jordan IsipJordan Isip, 7 months ago

        That 3P system sounds interesting. Do you mind expanding on it? How often and through what channel is this information shared?

        0 points
        • , 7 months ago

          Most teams report 3Ps weekly and they writeup three bullets for each P.

          • Progress: Three ways that the team made progress last week

          • Plans: Three things we plan to do this week

          • Problems: Three problems/blockers/obstacles we're facing now.

          We share these on Slack to appropriate audiences. We start at the top (our leadership team will post to the entire company) all the way down to our pods.

          1 point
  • Will Mitbrodt, 8 months ago

    Hi Jenny,

    What advice(if any) would you give to someone that wants to transition from software engineering to product design?

    Is this a fairly common transition?

    Thanks for being here!

    1 point
    • , 8 months ago

      Yes! Lately, I have seen so many people transitioning from one function to another. In fact, we recently hired a designer on one of my teams that just converted from software engineering. Why did we do that? Well, I have a strong belief that the strongest teams have overlapping skills among teammates. Designers that can code. Researchers that can speak to the business/financials. Product leaders that get into Figma (in a good way). In this case, our team needed to beef up prototyping to reduce the gap between design and engineering. It's a communication tool between the functions. What better way than to do that than hire someone that used to be an engineer and speaks that language and have them create the deliverables that will help articulate what design is trying to achieve.

      So my advise -

      1. lean into your already developed skills and make that a connection point.

      2. Get a design mentor and learn the hard skills of design as quickly as you can (tools, typography, mobile best practices, behavior patterns, etc). Take on small side projects and ask your mentor for direct and specific feedback so you can learn.

      3. Pay close attention to the words used when talking about design. There is a vocabulary (which you probably partially know from working in tech). Write down anything that’s foreign and then ask someone to articulate what it means. Most designers I know love teaching so never be afraid to ask “what does that mean?”.

      1 point
      • Will Mitbrodt, 8 months ago

        Amazing.

        Love this quote: "I have a strong belief that the strongest teams have overlapping skills among teammates. Designers that can code."

        Thanks again Jenny!

        0 points
  • Richard Piperot, 6 months ago

    Hey Jenny, from all your years of experience, what would you say is the best team size that is still manageable, easy to align, and still delivers a great output?

    0 points
    • , 5 months ago

      That's a tough question because it totally depends on who is on your team. If you do not have managers reporting to you, you can probably manage up to 8-10 reports before things start to fall apart. If you have strong managers, each can take on 5-7 people (assuming they're also rolling up their sleeves). If you also have more senior designers you can run a very slim team and accomplish a lot. I have had a team of 3 complete rock stars do more than 20 people before.

      I think I would approach this by determining what you need to accomplish and carving out clear and reasonable chunks of ownership. The more people have autonomy and understand what they control the easier it is to gain alignment and deliver that output you're looking for.

      0 points
      • Richard Piperot, 5 months ago

        That's such a good answer! Thanks for clarifying. I do believe in the 3 > 20 (if you have the right people)

        0 points
  • Steve Johnston, 7 months ago

    Hello Jenny,

    Great to have this opportunity to connect with you. Can you speak to how your team engages with developers and what your process looks like for design handoffs, testing and such?

    0 points
    • , 6 months ago

      Hey Steve,

      Our teams are very integrated and functions are woven together pretty tight. PMs, Engineering, Data Science, and Design work together at the start to gather requirements and review PRDs. Lots of alignment happens upfront. Though designers have their own process for getting to an official hand off (crits, reviews, approvals) PMs and Engineers are invited to all of those forums and often field questions about the strategy and implementation in a design review. We also have separate product reviews which is more focused on the data, metics, and strategy.

      Though we're pretty good at handing off projects to engineering (because they've been in the conversation the entire time) we're still not great at design QA. Making sure what lands in our user's hand is what we intended is achieved through time consuming testing and auditing my individual designers. Engineers also don't always know what it means to finish the work down to the last detail so this can often be a breakdown in the process that we want to fix.

      Hope that helps!

      0 points
  • James O., 7 months ago

    Hey Jenny, impressive resume! I'm not sure if it's too late, but...

    ...I'd love to know the most successful design experiments you ran while at Airbnb, Lyft (or elsewhere!)

    And the worst!

    Thanks!

    0 points
    • , 7 months ago

      Thanks, James!

      Honestly, it really depends on how you define success and failure. Philosophically, experimentation is all about learning so if the team learned something (even if metrics went down) it's still a win. Sometimes knowing what not to do is just as important, right?

      That being said, one of my favorite experiments at Airbnb was when we added the ability for hosts to create visual check-in guides for their guests. Project kicked off after we ran an analysis of how hosts were using image messaging. We discovered hosts were frequently using the messaging platform to help visually walk their guests through the check-in process. We took that finding and productized it into a standardized flow and a one-click action. I love when a team is able to perform a behavior analysis, identify inefficient hacks and workarounds, and then streamline that into an easy robust tool. 

      Worst experiment...any test where there wasn't a hypothesis. I don't believe in "testing to find out what works". Every experiment should have a clear goal and notion of what you're looking for. The point is to create repeatable findings. If you launch an experiment and have no idea why it created the results (either positive or negative) then it's a failure. This happens all the time so won't go into examples but just know there's a difference between hacking/testing and "shooting in the dark".

      3 points
      • James O., 5 months ago

        Love it! Thanks Jenny!

        Couldn't agree more with you about "Learning what not to do" is as important.

        Re: Win: Impressive. It's actually pretty uncommon for big businesses to find such a "niche" behavior and do something about it.

        Re: Worst: Indeed. I'm surprised this would even happen?

        In my experience, the other kind of "worst" experiments/research is when you do something but then you can't/don't act on the results. Those made me want to quit a few times ;)

        Cheers!

        0 points
  • Justine Shu, 8 months ago

    Hey Jenny,

    Really appreciate you taking the time to be here :)

    First of all, how are you doing today?

    Second, what initiative(s) have you been the proudest of leading throughout your career?

    0 points
    • Jenny Arden, 7 months ago

      Hey Justine! I'm doing ok, thanks for asking. I'm home with my two toddlers while working full-time. It was hard at first but now really appreciating the time I get to have with my kids.

      0 points
      • Justine Shu, 7 months ago

        Oh man, I feel for you! How have you been balancing this "new normal" of working at home with kids?

        0 points
        • Jenny Arden, 6 months ago

          On my team we are just embracing it. As a parent I'm no longer self conscious about kids in the background making noise. In fact, when a kid sits on my lap and I'm on a call (and I always have the camera on) everyone smiles. As a leader I need to set the example and make it clear what "normal" is. Kids, dogs, random roommates chatting in the background is now normal.

          1 point
    • , 7 months ago

      As for what I'm most proud of, it depends on the lens. From an impact on users POV I'm most proud of a project I did at Razorfish which was for the United Nations. It was a dashboard that gathered financial survey data on what it was like to start a business in countries throughout Africa. It revealed which countries were fair and helping small business and which were corrupt and extorting from small business owners. Visualizing this info in a digestible way and making it public really demonstrated the power of design and the influence and power we have on real people.

      From a leadership POV, I'm most proud of my time at Airbnb when I helped build a business. This meant looking at all angles of a product including user need, business need, market conditions, timing, etc. I became much more well rounded as a leader. I understood the data, I could read the financial trends and projections, I became a passionate (maybe obsessive) domain expert. I grew so much.

      0 points
      • Justine Shu, 7 months ago

        Wow, amazing! Great initiatives to be proud of, for sure.

        Follow up here -- during those times, did you face any challenges that now in retrospect make you go, "Oh, that was totally worth it and actually helped these initiatives become a milestone in my life."? If so, what were they?

        0 points
        • , 7 months ago

          Great questions!! The common thread with all things I'm proud of is that it has never been smooth. I have never strutted through a project and said "I'm proud of that, it was so easy!". No way. Countless iterations. Embarrassing presentations of early unbaked work (which of course would get hard feedback). Moments of recognizing I was wrong and having to pivot. All of this happens at lightening speed and the people that grow and come out the other end proud are the people that have the grit, stamina, and self awareness to embrace these moments quickly and keeping moving forward.

          0 points
          • Justine Shu, 7 months ago

            I love this perspective. It helps adjust this expectation of "in order to feel successful, everything needs to go perfectly." Thank you for sharing this.

            0 points