May 18, 2022

Exploring Human-Centered Design With Mariah Hay of Help Scout

As the Chief Experience Officer at Help Scout, Mariah Hay is very focused on delivering amazing product experiences. In this episode of Product Chats, Mariah dives into how to leverage human-centric design to better serve your users. We also explore how to foster cross-functional team collaboration, build product teams, and practice tech ethics.

Time Stamped Show Notes

Important skills that help you succeed in product [02:14]

Building product teams [04:38]

How cross-functional teams support human-centric design [06:36]

Human-centric design [08:03]

Fostering cross-functional team collaboration [10:47]

All about tech ethics [13:24]

Advice on practicing tech ethics [16:10]

Tips for aspiring product managers [20:26]


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Kayla: Thanks for tuning into Product Chats. On today's episode, I talk with Mariah Hay, who is the Chief Experience Officer at Help Scout. And we talk about human centric design working cross-functionally and tech ethics. So hope you enjoy the show and don't forget to leave us a review.

Mariah: Hey

Kayla: Hey Mariah. Thanks so much for coming on today.

Mariah: Thanks for having me..

Kayla: Awesome. Well, in a minute or less, can you tell us about yourself?

Mariah: Sure. So I am obsessed with human centered design in the context of technology. And right now I am focused on building teams that can implement great human centered design in the deployment of creating digital products.

Kayla: And so can you tell us more like how you got into product?

Mariah: I'd be happy to. I was a frustrated art student that kept making art that was functional, I would make things that were product like instead of art like, and my art professors would be like, you're not making art. And finally, I had a professor go, have you ever looked into product design?

Mariah: And I'm like, what's product design? And back then product design, mostly was physical product development. So, you know, designing iPhones, water bottles, cars, you name it. And so I ended up going into an industrial design program. Where I learned all about how you understand humans and get to the root of their need, and then design a solution that is useful, usable and emotionally engaging for them.

Mariah: And I kind of segued from physical product development to digital product development shortly after the app store hit the market when the iPhone became a thing, because there was such a need for good human centered design and digital products that hadn't existed historically. So a lot of folks that were in industrial design, like myself, kind of segued at that time.

Mariah: And I've been working in kind of the tech, digital product development space ever since.

Kayla: And so you kind of talk about that you have this transferable skill set, right? You went from one type of design to another type of design. So like for anyone who's like an aspiring product leader or even looking to get into product, what would you say is like the skill set that's really played to your advantage to succeed in like leading teams, but also in building out product?

Mariah: I would have to say that you have to be a critical thinker. And you have to be a good researcher. And so I always think about product skills, whether you're in product management or product design, or even if you're an engineer and you're building something, you still have to get to the root cause of like, what is the problem the person is trying to solve.

Mariah: And then how do I design something for them? And so what that includes is, qualitative and quantitative research, good research synthesis, and then being able to understand how to prioritize, which need to tackle first with what feature based on product market fit from a business perspective. And I think that last one is the hardest, because you've got MBAs over here that talk about business with education, and then you've got the human centered design, which is how do you do all the research stuff to figure out what needs to be solved?

Mariah: It's the intersection of the two of those that can be pretty tricky, but it also kind of leaves the profession wide open for people to come into roles like this from many, many different angles, which is what I did. And I have so many peers that have just come into it from different areas.

Kayla: And with that intersection, like how do you actually balance that?

Kayla: Like, are you using frameworks? What does that look like?

Mariah: So for me, it's kind of a trial by fire. You learn and pick up skills as you move through your career. Early in my career, the skills that I started with were really good primary research skills. How do I go talk to a group of people and interview them and understand contextually what they're experiencing so I can design a solution for them.

Mariah: And then you figure out how to prioritize solutions based on like groups of people that you're trying to go after, and then you figure out financial models around it, but the stuff comes kind of slowly. And I don't think that it's really possible to get all of that in education and then step into a job, nor will you need it

Mariah: earlier in your career, when people are individual contributors, you're typically not doing all of those things. But once you get to the point where you've been the individual contributor for awhile, you want to start to build teams. You have to think about all of those different skill sets that are needed

Mariah: cross-functionally in order to start to hire within a discipline. Like say you decided to really go into product management leadership, or engineering leadership, thinking about those skill sets. And then the higher up you go, the more of a generalist you have to be. So for me now, I lead all of the different disciplines that help build digital product.

Mariah: So engineering, data, product management, product design. I wasn't an engineer. I didn't start my career in that. The last thing I coded was a flash website in 2003. So I don't really, that's not my strong suit, but you have to understand the skill sets you need to hire for as you build that team under you.

Mariah: And so now with my job as chief experience officer at Help Scout, I'd say probably about 45% of the company reports up through me and is the group that helps build the customer support platform that we offer today.

Kayla: And I think that's like, kind of what you talk about about like building teams. That's a really hot topic around how do you actually build a cohesive team and hire based on like strength, like product leaders I talked to is about hiring around strengths and understanding that people will have weaknesses, but really creating that like puzzle of employees or team.

Kayla: And definitely people are going to have weaknesses, but really hiring on what can these different people bring to this, and it makes up the bigger picture of the team, right.

Mariah: Definitely team building is a lot of fun in my opinion. It's also very tricky. You have to have a point of view about what is needed going into it.

Mariah: I think people that I hire for leadership roles, I hire them because they have a point of view around what is needed and what those trade offs look like. And the people I don't hire and leadership roles typically are like, oh, I'll learn on the job. And I'm like, no leaders need to have opinions about things.

Mariah: So it's like, you're leading right. For me, I always come back to, if the philosophy around how I do org design is human centered design, which is how do I connect teams as close as possible to customers so they can understand and solve those most critical problems. Then you start to go, well, what is it?

Mariah: What are the skills across a cross functional team that you need in order to be able to empower them to do that? And then what are the practices that they need to use? And so the practices and the team makeup really start to dictate, what do you have to hire for? And then what are the negotiable things and getting clarity around what you have to hire for, like, I need somebody that can come in and run research on the team and facilitate that and bring people along for the ride.

Mariah: What is negotiable for me is have they worked in customer support platforms before? Because you can learn that fairly quickly, the research skills are higher or harder because that would mean I would have to go and teach them how to do that. And I don't have the time or bandwidth for it. But customer support once they get their feet wet, anybody that has those research skills is quickly going to learn that other stuff and get up to speed without the need for support.

Mariah: So you're kind of looking at the whole ecosystem when you're making those decisions.

Kayla: And I think it just comes back to skill set, right? At the end of the day, it's hiring for skill set. It's less important about the actual experience on whether someone has worked in that industry because it's easy to learn, but it's just, do you have these exact skill set that we need to make our team complete?

Kayla: I want to go back to that human centric design piece and actually ask kind of like hands-on what are ways that you really put that at the center of your product.

Mariah: At the center of how we build is giving the teams, the practices and kind of the guide rails as to how they go about learning from the customer and in enveloping that within their daily workflow.

Mariah: So for us, when I started at Help Scout, the reason why I wanted to go to that company in the first place, I've been there about two years, but what attracted me to them is they were already highly customer centric. They already really paid attention to what the customer needed. And they were kind of at a point where they were starting to grow more and we now needed to embed skills across the teams.

Mariah: And so I brought in a framework called directed discovery. It was created by a guy named Nate Walkingshaw, who's also a product leader, and it basically takes the qualitative and quantitative research design and iteration, and kind of embeds that into the daily work of the team, through like a very easy three-step framework, which gives teams the flexibility to kind of do it in the way they need.

Mariah: So it's not prescriptive of, like, you must talk to 10 users, you must ask these questions. These are the questions you need to answer in this first stage. And if you don't know the answers to these questions, you need to go do research that gives you the answers to these questions kind of thing. So it really it provides that bolstering and support.

Mariah: And it also, one thing I found in tech, which is super interesting is that historically teams have not worked cross-functionally so you've got engineering over here on the side. You've got design over here on the side. Maybe even research live somewhere else. And research tells design what to design. Design designs it and then hands specs to engineers who build it.

Mariah: But they're not actually mobbing around a problem together and bringing their brains to the table. Like the designers and engineers aren't actually solving the problem. They're just being told what to design. It creates less effective solutions I found. And so my goal is to be able to, through a framework like this, give permission to people like engineers who have historically been told.

Mariah: You are only as worthy as the number of lines of code you write and say, you are only as worthy as bringing your technical brain to like collaborating on solving this problem. And it's okay not to always be writing code. Sometimes you're sitting and you're talking to a customer and you're really understanding what needs to happen.

Mariah: So you can bring your most creative perspective when it comes to deciding how you're going to technically solve it to the table.

Kayla: With that, like, cross-functional working, how do you foster that? Do you set up like weekly meetings with different teams or how do you make sure that your team feels supported in and I mean, you run like 45 or you manage or oversee 45% of the org. Like, how do you make sure that you're fostering that kind of culture so people feel comfortable to work cross functionally?

Mariah: One of the things that I did when I came into HelpScout was actually empowering teams to start setting their own goals. And when I asked them to set their own goals, it's not enough to make a laundry list of what you're going to go build. What's more helpful is to create key results that you're trying to change behavior on.

Mariah: So for example, it's one thing to say, oh, go build an integration with Facebook. Well, okay. They could do that a number of ways, but it might not actually meet the needs of the customer. So instead it's helpful to have a goal that says enable customers to be able to respond to Facebook messages within X period of time in like as few steps as possible.

Mariah: And that way they can start to actually measure metrics of how the design is implemented, how the technical backend is working well. And instead of just shipping this thing, They're actually shipping to these other things and it gives them the bandwidth to solve it and be creative around how it gets solved in a number of different ways.

Mariah: And it allows them to iterate. So like if they deploy something and it's not hitting those goals, they can go in there and be like, why isn't it working? Let's look at user behavior, let's tweak it. And so it's putting the power back in the hands of the team instead of, a lot of product leaders sometimes, usually sometimes for better, mostly for worse

Mariah: will want to be very prescriptive, particularly in early stage startups, when one of the co-founders potentially could have been a product person and they were the original person being autonomous and being close to the customer. But as the company grows, you have to put that power down at the team level so that they can do that.

Mariah: And if you can do that, then you can scale because suddenly you've got all of these teams of really bright people, who are creatively solving, like understanding and solving problems for your customer instead of just waiting for a laundry list of things to build that may or may not create the outcome.

Kayla: And I think a part of that, right, it's just empowering your team to create their own goals. And then something you'd mentioned was like creating these more detailed goals. Right. And actually having like milestones, like when are we going to deliver on this? Or what do we want to deliver? And so I think that's really cool that you're being a little bit more like pointed about what your teams create and what they're building.

Kayla: It allows your teams to fail quicker because they say, okay, what are the nitty-gritty pieces of this? And what's working or what's not working right?

Mariah: Exactly.

Kayla: So now I want to pivot to something that you're especially passionate about, which is tech ethics. So tell us a little bit about your view around tech ethics, and we'll just kind of dive in.

Mariah: Yeah, it's interesting. I guess that was like 2017 or 2018. I got asked to speak at this conference and they said, and at the time I was working in, an ed tech platform. So basically it was a company called Pluralsight that is around and lots of people use. It's very popular for educational content for technologists.

Mariah: And, and they said, we want you to come speak about education because that's like the part of tech you're in. And so I started researching. What I wanted to talk about. And I ended up going down this ethical rabbit hole around availability of content for people and developing nations that don't get access to technical content.

Mariah: And I kind of kept going on this ethics streak and going, well, why, why are some things available to some people and not available to others in the space of tech? And I went back to the conference organizers and I said, Hey, I actually just want to talk about how do we design products in a way that don't block opportunity from humans, not just about education, but about anything.

Mariah: And at that time, I started getting really interested in how do we do that? How do we, how do we make sure that we don't design things that could be A weaponized against people. Or B has negligent design and it ends up hurting people because it just wasn't thought through correctly or the right people aren't working on it. Because all of that ties back to the human centered design.

Mariah: If you're doing the human centered design practice as well, then it actually mitigates all of those problems for the most part, which is why it's so important that technologists need to be aware and really think about what does ethics mean to me and ethics mean to my company and mean to my practices.

Mariah: So I'm not just shipping things that other people are telling me to, which could be breaking the law, mindlessly hurting other people or empowering kind of anti-pattern behavior that we don't want in society. And at the same time, the whole Cambridge Analytica scandal around Facebook and how they were allowing Cambridge Analytica to gather and use data that users were not giving permission.

Mariah: Really got it, got my wheels turning on that. And so it's something that because of the human centered design, it's very important to me as a practitioner. And I think should be more increasingly important to our industry of people within companies, as they make decisions around where they want to work and who they want to work on and how they draw personal boundaries ethically within, you know, what they're spending their time doing.

Kayla: Right. Like you mentioned, it comes back to this human centered design of really understanding your users. Right. And not just understanding a select group of your users, but understanding all the users that you can serve. And so what I would ask is like, what are a few tips or tricks or questions that people should be thinking about when they're thinking about like tech ethics?

Mariah: The first thing that I really care the most about is don't weaponize your product. I think as people practice their craft, making sure you do understand who is impacted by this thing that I'm creating. It's not just the person that's buying it. It could be the data of people it's consuming. It could be information that's putting out into the world and really understand that ecosystem.

Mariah: It's your responsibility to make sure it's not weaponized because you're the one that should be closest to the problem and need to radiate that back up to your team, to your leaders, to your company. So people are a hundred percent clear about what kind of impact is being created as something is being built and brought to life.

Mariah: I also like to say we are all 200% responsible. I am 100% responsible for my own actions and I'm a hundred percent responsible for the actions of people around me and what that means is if somebody else is weaponizing the product, it's not enough to be like that's not me. That's not my deal. It's kind of like see something, say something and whether we like it or not, it's our responsibility to speak up

Mariah: if stuff is being used in an unethical way. Tech jobs pay a lot. It's a high demand industry. when people come to me and go, oh, but I have to feed my family. I'm like, ah, got a weak leg to stand on there. Like we all have choices here. And so I don't really, I don't buy into that, that role or that recommendation.

Mariah: I'm 200% accountable. Don't weaponize the product. I also believe that we need to make sure that we are aware of our own limitations and so as a practitioner, I'm not necessarily the strongest person to do data analysis. So if I have a question around impact and I can't answer it myself, it's my responsibility to speak up and go, I don't know how to do this.

Mariah: Like, we need to find somebody that has the skillset that can come in and do this, or I'm going and checking my work with other people and colleagues. It's so easy to have access to people because of all of the platforms that exist now. We're no longer in the silos that we were 15, 20 years ago because of online access.

Mariah: And so those are my three recommendations for making sure you got your practices, right. You're responsible for other people. And you're also responsible for not weaponizing the product.

Kayla: And I think with like off of your last point, right? It's about the leadership style also to make people feel comfortable to work

Kayla: cross-functionally. Like that just ties it all back around of, Hey, I want to create and foster a culture where people can feel comfortable to work cross-functionally it can also feel comfortable to ask for help. And I think that's something that I talked to a lot of product leaders about is like making it okay for people to ask for help and not have to like, know everything.

Kayla: And that also goes off to the, like the concept of hiring for people's strengths. Right. And maybe someone doesn't know something, but making them feel comfortable to ask for help or to say, I don't, I don't know where even to start. Right. And being able to create that kind of culture.

Mariah: Yes, I agree. I think that for me personally, you know, leaders can set up the environment where they're hiring the right people with the right skills and putting them on a team together, but they also have to help that team understand where their edges are and collaboration is and helping that team work and function well together and troubleshoot it.

Mariah: It can take a long time for a team to gel because vulnerability and trust are crucial components. And those things take time and human relationships and human effort to build. But the more that we can foster those things and the more the leaders can create that safe space for teams to work the faster it'll go, the better it'll go.

Mariah: People will be more happy in their jobs. They'll stay longer. They'll perform better. They'll create better product. Like it's better for everybody. If we can just avoid succumbing to some of the pitfalls of doing things the other way around.

Kayla: So on that subject, because we're talking about leadership.

Kayla: What's one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring product leader.

Mariah: The skill around effective listening is so underestimated. It's not just important to be a good researcher. As you move higher up in leadership ranks, you need to talk less and listen more. Yes, you need to have an opinion about how things should be done.

Mariah: But you should be constantly reevaluating that opinion by what you're seeing around you and what people are saying. And, you know, feedback is a gift. And so being vulnerable and, you know, listening to people and pivoting and admitting when you make mistakes. And really understanding how to be that nucleus and you know, direction for everybody it's highly underestimated.

Mariah: And it is, I have found it to be the most crucial way to indicate whether a leader is going to be very successful in their position or not.

Kayla: Awesome. And then last question, where can people find you?

Mariah: People can find me on Twitter @Mariah Hay, that's the easiest way to get in touch with me. You can also hit me up on LinkedIn.

Mariah: Same, same name. I have good SEO on my name. So I appreciate that. I'm also always hiring people, engineers, product managers, product designers, right now in particular, I'm looking for people with like architecture, skillsets, Java, Javascript, a little, I think we might still have PHP need. And then really great designers and product managers that love human centered design.

Kayla: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for coming on today.

Mariah: Thanks so much. Have a great day.

Kayla: Thanks again to Mariah for joining us today on Product Chats. If you want some product management resources, feel free to head over to