Sasha Lubomirsky Has Held Design Leadership Roles at YouTube, Android, Airbnb and Medium. Damn! Here’s Five Questions With Her.

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I met Sasha Lubomirsky during our YouTube days where she led User Research for the Design team. Sasha helped us uncover many learnings about how the community was using YouTube and her work informed many subsequent product decisions. When we started Homebrew, Satya and I were thrilled to add her as an advisor that our founders could turn to for questions around design, product and user research. Here’s a bit more about what she’s been up to!

Hunter Walk: What initially attracted you to User Experience Research as a career path? Did you steer towards it or did it emerge from needs at companies you were working at?

Sasha Lubomirsky: I learned about user research in the middle of my time at Stanford, and became obsessed with it immediately. I was into the internet in a way that many of my friends weren’t pretty early on and I also loved psychology, so when I saw there was an overlap, I thought: maybe this is it, a way to combine two of my loves into an actual, real life job! When I graduated, Google was hiring junior researchers, so I started as a researcher right away.

HW: The role can mean so many things at different companies – you got to see this across Google, YouTube, Airbnb and Medium – all amazing places. Were there notable differences on how these companies think about UER?

SL: It’s hard to do a true apples to apples comparison because there were two other factors in play as I went from place to place: my own evolution as a product person, and how the discipline evolved in general. Initially, there was a strong orientation towards usability studies — hilariously, my first official job title at Google was “usability engineer.”

As time went on, the work became a lot more foundational and strategic: what problem are we actually trying to solve vs. can they figure out how to finish this flow. The latter is still important but it became balanced with much bigger picture work. In fact, right now I’m doing some straight up PM work, and it doesn’t feel all the strange given the world I’ve been living in most recently.

HW: Obviously products are team efforts but can you remember an example of where product direction was dramatically impacted by a specific set of findings you delivered?

It’s interesting because some of what I think about as the most impactful stuff is also the most fuzzy because strategy and shifting how a company fundamentally thinks about its product can be harder to measure – not to mention, less easy to talk about publicly.

I can give you an example of some impactful tactical work though. I did some work on conversion at Airbnb. You think about conversion for Airbnb, and what does that mean? It’s not about making the button bigger. It’s about understanding that there are two humans who are deciding to do something rather strange, which is to trust each other without having ever met. Conversion is the moment where this really comes to a head and decisions have to be made, on both sides.

Without getting into too many details, after doing some research, we were able to create a taxonomy of all the reasons things don’t work out and give specific recommendations on how to address the ones that were addressable. Obviously, conversion is measurable, so it’s easy to be able to look at the impact of the implemented recommendations and say, “hey that made impact!” and that is awesome. But again, I think some of the big picture stuff feels more exciting in some ways: expanding how leadership and the company fundamentally thinks about the product they’re building is pretty rad.

HW: When you’re working directly with a user community (or potential users), how do you ensure there’s diversity of experiences and background within the sample set?

SL: One hugely helpful thing is to do remote studies — meaning, using screensharing via Skype or something like it to run the study— so you can get the hell out of the Bay Area. It’s also awesome because people are in their real environment, on their regular device, feeling comfortable. And it’s more convenient for them to make it to the study. So this helps a lot, not just in terms of geographical diversity, but in generally expanding the potential pool so you can get other types of diversity, too.

It has shortcomings, of course—there are technical issues with the call sometimes, and certain things aren’t easy to test, like prototypes you can’t easily give the participants access to, but overall, it’s a really helpful approach.

HW: You’re part of a “dual career” tech couple since your husband is an engineer at Dropbox. Any specific things you guys do together to make sure your lives aren’t 100% tech tech tech?

SL: Great question. It’s definitely a double-edged sword. Talking shop can be really fun, and outright helpful. There’s been countless times when talking to each other has helped us think through something related to our work, something that would be significantly harder if we didn’t have a shared understanding of each other’s worlds.

But, there very much comes a time for a break. A couple things come to mind as helpful. First, an obvious one is interests outside of work—both things we do together, and things we do on our own, like writing and improv for me, and DJing and drawing for him. Traveling is big for both of us—we just got back from Myanmar which was quite an adventure, and basically a break from the internet since it’s not that easily accessible there yet. Relatedly, I think keeping perspective on our very strange, very privileged world is really important to both of us. We talk about that a lot, and that helps us not lose sight of the bigger picture. Lastly, sometimes just a simple, “time out, no work talk for awhile,” can work remarkably well.