UX research and the power of influence

Pablo Sanchez Martin, Senior Vice President and Head of Design at Lightstream, shares some compelling thoughts on how UX insights and data have the power to transform business.

Pablo Sanchez Martin is Senior Vice President and Head of Design at Lightstream. In this episode, Pablo shares some compelling thoughts on how UX insights and data have the power to transform business. He advocates that business leaders need to lean into their research teams, giving them the space to ask hard questions and influence strategic directions.


ALFONSO DE LA NUEZ: Welcome to UXpeditious! A show that brings you quick, insightful interviews with design, product, and UX leaders.

DANA BISHOP: In each interview we dive into how UX research impacts user insights; shaping the design and business strategy of some of our favorite tech tools and products.

ALFONSO: I’m Alfonso de la Nuez, Chief Visionary Officer and Co-Founder of UserZoom.

DANA: And I’m Dana Bishop, VP of Strategic Research Partners at UserZoom.

ALFONSO: On today’s episode we are very lucky to chat with a guy who has seen it all! Pablo Sanchez Martin has over 20 years experience in the UX and design industry - he worked with some big companies like US Bank, Yahoo, and TiVo to name just a few. I think we are going to learn a thing or two from him in this episode.

DANA: I completely agree! Currently, Pablo is a Senior Vice President, and Head of Design at Lightstream; An online consumer lender offering small low-interest, fixed-rate loans for almost any purpose.

ALFONSO: So, hey Pablo, thanks so much for joining us today. It's wonderful to see you. Can you please start by introducing yourself?

PABLO SANCHEZ MARTIN: Yeah. My name is Pablo. I was born in Spain. I've had a long career United States. I came here in 2007, but also in Asia, I've worked there in Singapore and many different places in Europe, like London, Czech Republic, Madrid. Pretty much what I do is I build design organizations for large companies, Hewlett Packard, Yahoo, Chase, Santander, which is the largest bank, or used to be the largest bank, in Europe.

And lately, what I've been doing is focusing more on innovation. I took two years to... Went to graduate school of business Stanford. And also now I'm continuing that with my MBA. And that has been kind of a shift in my career instead of managing very large and complex organization, more focused on smaller but more impactful teams. And that's in a sense what I do. Currently I'm senior vice president of design at Light Stream, which is a division of Truist, which is the fifth bank in United States.

ALFONSO: Awesome. You certainly had a long career. So, tell us more about, from your perspective as a Head of Design, how do you see UX research?

PABLO: The disruptive nature of research is tremendous. You would say that the game changing potential of design is only unleashed through research. And I have a couple of professional experience that have proven that. And I would say that not only transforms organizations, great user research when it's done properly, it almost transforms your career. It makes you look at your job in a total different way. It makes you humble. It makes you very aware of how powerful this tool is. And one of the things that I'd like to share with you guys is precisely my transformational journey. The last job that I had in Europe was at Monster.com. It used to be the LinkedIn of its time. It used to be a very large job board. And I used to be the US director in Europe for all the European countries.

I was asked with the task of redesigning their websites. At the time, there was no mobile experiences. It was the coolest thing on earth just to design a website. But the point I'm trying to make is that you and I were brave enough to conduct a very, very large user experience research job. It was remote disability testing across four different markets with their own different languages, have to manage translations back and forth. The scope was phenomenal the level of insights that we collected was so phenomenal. We changed the organization, changed completely their point of view. The project was so successful, to me, that is a great transformational story. How research when you unleash it, it is a phenomenal force of nature.

Opinions don't transform businesses, period. Everybody got an opinion. I got my own opinion. You got yours. The CEO got their own opinion, but is this battlefield of dead opinions, which provides the opportunity for user experience research professionals to shine, to say, let me bring something that... It's impartial, it's neutral. It's not biased. It's the truth as far as we can get. And again, when you as UX lead... You're brave enough to conduct tests and exercises in this fashion where you become impartial, neutral, that you don't want to inject yourself into the actual, I would say, battle of ideas or who is going to win. You just simply let the data speaks for itself. Then you see lots of transformation in organizations.

But again, there is a difference between collecting data and collected insights. I was working at Yahoo, Head of User Experience for the homepage. It was a beautiful job. We serve 45,000 variants of the homepage, every five minutes, which means 13 million variations every day, it was just massive. But to me, the one thing that shocks me is still today is the fact that nobody ever thought that we were losing the battle, the battle against Facebook, the battle for attention, it wasn't about how many variants we create of the homepage. It's like, do people really care about the homepage?

So again, this is a very complex discussion and I don't want to kind of oversimplify it, but sometimes the trees do not let us see the woods. Our mind are clouded by our own cognitive bias, our interest, our job titles. And we need to, again, let the data speak, be humble, let the data spread themselves through organizations, as they typically say, let's democratize the data. So the interpretation of the data, the validation of our assumptions rose to prominence.

As a UX leader, don't get to close to your user experience research team. Don't try to impose your vision or to influence too much of them. But the other way around. Try the user experience research influence you and everyone at your level, at executive level, let them be impartial. If you have the opportunity, make sure that the user experience research team do not report to you. Try to stay away from that ring of power. Don't get too comfortable using the ring too long.

ALFONSO: So Pablo, just to understand, The Head of UX design and Head of UX Research, working separately and independently.

PABLO: Right. So let me give you the example of Light Stream. I am the User Experience Vice President, but the research team do not report to me. They report to the larger organization at Truist, and that separation of a state and church is absolutely necessary. Right?

ALFONSO: Very interesting.

DANA: So product design and user research, and then there's a third component. And I'm curious, based on that last statement, where you think content strategy fits in with design and research and what that synergy looks like, what's an ideal state for that to function well.

PABLO: What I've always said is that content strategy and research should be the first competencies jumping at a new project. Typically that happens in what we call design sprints. When we work two sprints or three sprints ahead of the development, and we were defining discovering a project, the researchers and the content strategies should be there influencing the direction from the beginning. But that is different from having again, the researchers reporting to you, right? So as a Head of Design, you got to hire the best user experience research talent. You have to inspire them. You have to empower them, but never allow them to get too close to you because they would like to please you. And that is where the ring of power lives, so close that you cannot resist the temptation to influence. You would like to know what is the inside? What is the outcome of that piece of research? And you have to remind you that is the one thing you should avoid at all cost.

DANA: I love that perspective. And obviously you've built and led many UX teams at many organizations as you've mentioned. So what's the secret of success if those research folks are not reporting to you? How do you instill that culture of continuous experimentation, data driven, decision-making? How does that work if you're separating church and state?

PABLO: First of all, there is this misconception of researchers being scientists in white coats. And I think more, it's a different kind of designer period. Maybe the kind of designer that has more questions than your average designer who challenges more hypothesis or preconceived ideas than your average designer. But that's good. That's fine. Is the person who it's always trying to understand the why. Right? most people jump directly into the how and the what. These people are trying to figure... Why do we think this idea is a good idea? Why do we think our existing customers, they embrace this new feature, why, why, why. And they dig into the behaviors and the understanding of motivations. So I think of a researcher as another designer who has a really different angle of attack of a problem, but again, not because they have different tools and different perspective is not a member of a team. It's just a different member of a team.

ALFONSO: So Pablo you've been around for a long time and have worked with mostly large companies, as you said earlier, but also maybe not so large ones. And I'm just wondering what your thoughts are on the state of UX as an industry. We're in 2022, post pandemic. It's a very interesting moment. Lots of digital transformation projects, and you've seen it all because, boy has it changed from being in the lab to being a lot more virtual and of course, agile development and all that. So just wondering, an expert and a mature leader like you, where would you say we're at today?

PABLO: Well, it's a fascinating question. I feel like design has a point of maturity that definitely wasn't there 10 years ago. Design definitely has a seat at the table, but that is a blessing and a curse. One of the reason it's a curse is because the expectations are very high. In the past you could have some sort of design organization being, I would say, reactive to what the product organization may like or may expect or receiving some require... High level requirements from the business. Life was somehow easier, simpler. Now the expectation has dramatically evolved. Now because we have a sit at the table the question for us is what do you want to build? What is your vision? What is it that you want to bring to our customers? What is your differentiator value? Right? We cannot be a reactive discipline anymore. We have to become a partner to the business period.

ALFONSO: Very well said, and I completely agree, Pablo. Thank you for joining us, for all this wisdom with us today.

PABLO: Absolutely. My pleasure.

ALFONSO: That was Pablo Sanchez Martin - SVP, and Head of Design at Lightstream.

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ALFONSO: UXpeditious is produced by UserZoom in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to our production team: Christopher Ratcliff from UserZoom; and the team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, Hannah Pedersen, Colleen Pellissier, and Michael Aquino.