The Beth Toland Hypothesis: Impactful UX Research Teams Don’t Just Report Information, They Engage in Conversation

Beth Toland is the Head of Experience Research at Asana. A seasoned researcher with a passion for data-informed design, Beth leads the user research team at Asana, working closely with the product team to drive the company’s strategy. Prior to joining Asana, Beth led user research teams at consultancies, design agencies, and larger in-house companies, spending her early career at AOL and Sapient. Beth has a BA in Museum Studies and an MFA in Communication Arts & Design from Virginia Commonwealth University.

In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about how to build a research team from the ground up and what kinds of questions can help product succeed.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Beth Toland Hypothesis: Impactful UX Research Teams Don’t Just Report Information, They Engage in ConversationHow did Beth end up in user experience with degrees in museum studies and print graphic design? How did Sapient’s strong culture and rigorous processes help her refine her skills? Why was it so helpful that they forced her to specialize? What unique research practices did she learn there and how does she use them today? What are the two conflicting viewpoints businesses have when it comes to user research?

What did Beth learn working in the Intelligence Unit at the Economist? How did they work with researchers? What was it like working in a pocket of innovation in a larger company? What tensions has she experienced between a small innovation team and the company at large in her career? Why didn’t she have that problem at the Economist? What did she learn moving from Sapient meticulous style to AOL’s quicker pace of work?

What was it like starting a research department at Asana? Why is wanting to hear the truth the secret to Asana’s success with research, and why is that harder than it sounds for organizations to achieve? How do you make research collaborative?

How does research work at Asana? How is their team organized, and why have they lately been moving to cross-pillar work as their product gets more mature? What is the role of the product manager in research at Asana? What questions does the research team ask the product department? How do they help product to refine the questions they want to learn more about? What questions is UX research useful for answering and where is it not so helpful? What do they discuss in debriefs together to adjust their approach?

What does starting out in user research look like, and how does your role change as your career progresses? Why do they say at Asana that you don’t have to be a people manager to be a leader? How do they work on research in an organized way? What have been the most challenging aspects for Beth of building and leading the research practice at Asana? What are the keys to building a solid team of people? How is user research different in a B2B context?

Quotes From This Episode

The type of research that our team practices is really thinking about the business implication of the research and focusing more on strategy and influencing the roadmap and company with your work. Click To Tweet You have to be able to not just execute the research but also make sure people believe in the research and that they're going to act on it. Click To Tweet When we’re conducting research, product is right there with us--quite literally, they're physically there. And they help us shape the direction of the answers we're looking for once we get in there. They're real partners. Click To Tweet


Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi, and welcome to the Product Science podcast, where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through real conversations with people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host, Holly Hester Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
This week on the Product Science podcast I’m excited to share a conversation with Beth Toland. Beth is the head of experience research at Asana. A seasoned researcher with a passion for data informed design best leads the user research team at Asana, working closely with the product team to drive the company’s strategy. Prior to joining Asana, Beth led user research teams at consultancies, design agencies and larger in house companies spending her early career at AOL and Sapient. Beth has a BA in Museum Studies and an MFA in Communication Arts and Designs from Virginia Commonwealth University. Welcome, Beth. I’m super excited to talk with you today.
Beth Toland: Thanks, Holly. Me too.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So I always like to start by just hearing a little bit about how my guests have gotten into the industry, in the role. So how did you get started?
Beth Toland: I was thinking about this. I don’t know if my route was any more or less circuitous than other people’s routes, but it feels pretty circuitous. As you mentioned in my intro, I started out as a museum studies major. Then I realized that there was just not a lot of work in museum studies. And so I went back for graphic design, the paper kind. So my degrees are in museum studies, photography and then in actual graphic design for print.
So when I graduated, I decided that I could parlay this museum studies degree into something web related. I thought if I could help people navigate the space of a museum, surely I could do that online and help people navigate the space of websites. That’s how I made it from the print world into the web world. Then from there, I think I’ve had just about every job there is to have, from information architect to designer. The only thing I haven’t done is engineering. Then I went to Sapient, Sapient is where I really learned to love the world of experience research. So that’s the long and short of ending up in this particular discipline.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s fantastic I think Museum studies, this is the first time someone’s told me that one.
Beth Toland: Yeah, it’s not a popular major as you could imagine. But yeah, there were far less jobs than I thought. I will go be a registrar, I’ll be a gallery owner. Those are bad business ideas for somebody who wants to make some money. It’s just a switch from the art world that you learn about. I think the same thing about design. The art world you learn about and the art world you work in are very different?
Holly Hester-Reilly: That was true for chemical engineering too which is what I studied. So even in the harder areas, what you learn about, what you study and then what you do when you go to the business world and someone pays you for it, they’re not really the same.
Beth Toland: There not the same. No.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So tell us more about Sapient. How did you get involved there and what sort of things did you work on?
Beth Toland: Sapient, so that was my second real job. I started at Anderson consulting which is very formal straightforward consulting which is complete opposite of all the things that my fellow design graduates were doing. But I got my chops there and then I went to Sapient which to me felt really fancy and cool. What was really neat about Sapient at the time, there was a very strong culture, the rigor was very high. That’s where I feel I learned to refine a lot of my skills and really have great appreciation for each of the disciplines in their own right.
So information architecture as a discipline in and of itself, the value of that, understanding systems and how they all work together. And then the expertise of designers and how that worked. You really had to pick a major. You weren’t as multidisciplinary, you picked a major and a minor. I feel over the years, we’ve seen blurring of lines and not the greatest of way. I feel we’re honing our skills now. But at the time, we just really had this discipline in this practice and you were really great at it.
That’s why I feel I was really able to get a deep learning apprentice model, as I say, because I didn’t go to school for the same thing that people are going to school now. Like I told you, I was a print designer. So I had a really great opportunity to learn on the job by the apprentice model there of what does it mean to be a great information architect and what does it mean to be a great project manager and have those skills? Then at the time, we also had acquired E-lab, which was an early peer to IDEO. That’s where I learned the type of research that our team practices now and I know a lot of researchers do but it’s not as common, I think, as some other ways of practicing.
Which is really thinking about the business implication of the research that you’re doing and focusing more on strategy and influencing the roadmap and the company with your work. That was really where I learned to love that and to learn from some of the greatest people in the industry at the time was that Sapient.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wonderful. It’s interesting, there’s a part of me that has a knee jerk reaction to what you just said and I want to be like, well obviously research influences the strategy at companies, right? But maybe not. Tell me more why you said it that way.
Beth Toland: Yeah, because… In fact, I had the same reaction. Probably maybe three or four years ago, I was on a listserv and there was quite a divisive conversation. All right, maybe healthy conversation. I don’t know if anybody took up arms or anything, but the idea of there’s one mindset that was like what we do as research is we point out the problems and we prioritize the problems. You can go fix them and it’s very UI focused, it’s very web interaction focused. Then there’s another side of the spectrum that is, “Hey, we can identify problem areas for you. You didn’t even know this was a problem that you were facing. This is an opportunity for you and here’s some ways that you might solve it. Let’s work together to figure out how we could solve this problem together.”
I’m way more on that side of the spectrum than I am on the other. But I learned in this debate that was happening, that there’s there’s quite a number of people who are on the other side of the spectrum. That’s completely valuable too. It’s just not where my heart lies.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, definitely. I think there are a lot of different ways to do research and sometimes we get caught in our spaces. The way it works at our company or among the people that we know and don’t realize that it’s done differently in other places. I know certainly early in my tech career, that was a bit of a rude awakening when I went to some different companies and got to see… I thought what I was doing was normal. That’s what I read in the books and that’s what we did. But it’s not always the case. You might not have been reading the same books.
Beth Toland: It’s not, yeah. I think you’re so right. It has so much to do with where you are, the company that you are. Because I often get asked, how do you sell or how did you get people to invest and have ideas? Just being the very first researcher at a very small company, they already believed and so I didn’t have to do a lot of heavy lifting. I do that in other companies, but in where I am in particular, that’s just not a topic of conversation that we have to have. We just have a huge ton of support from leadership, from product and all over. So it has a lot to do with where you are and what the company believes in.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So what are some of the interesting steps on your journey after Sapient and before Asana?
Beth Toland: Let’s see. I think you also said at the top, I was at AOL. I worked on email and messenger. Somebody on my team recently said one interesting product that they would love to have worked on was an AOL Instant Messenger. I was like, “Fun fact, I actually did that.”
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow.
Beth Toland: So early on, I think another interesting little turn is that when I went… After I left there, I was a recruiter for a little bit but a recruiter of designers and things that because I just had connections into the community. I think then maybe the other interesting one was working at the economist. There’s a division of the economist called the intelligence unit and I worked there, not exactly as a researcher even though I did some researcher type of things, but I acted more like a product manager type there and got really cool experience with data visualization.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh, interesting. Were you on a team that built software for the economist or was this more of a generalized including their content and editorial?
Beth Toland: It was a very specialized team. What we did is we worked with the team of economist researchers. They researched food safety in the world and they would come up with indexes. We worked a lot with indexes and we would partner with other major companies who wanted to fund this research and then there would be a partnership. Then once you have this data, what does food security look in the world? What does it look for the retail industry in over the next couple of years? Cyber security was another one that we worked on.
These companies would want to have a position on them, they would need research in order to have that position. We would put those things together and then put a user face on that to interact with the data and manipulate and say, what if we change the GDP of this country, what would that look like? And that kind of thing. It was a niche part of the economist and we were our own little tiny team that did this work. But it was really cool because it’s really scrappy inside of a big company. It wasn’t that huge but a more standard traditional type of company.
Which is a bit of a, I guess, a theme in my career. I think most of my career have been… May be all of it. This one little niche of pocket of innovation or goodness and some really big, big companies. That’s one example of that.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So one of the things you often hear from people who work on innovation, focus groups, within larger companies is about the tension that there is. Did you experience that in the role you were in?
Beth Toland: So not in that particular role but 100% yes. I was connected to an innovation team at AOL and at revolution and there is that tension because that group gets to do the fun stuff. The people inside… It same with when you hire agencies and stuff. They’re the ones who get to do this discrete fun work and the internal folks don’t. I have to say, so not at the economist. We didn’t have that problem because it wasn’t taking work away from anyone. It was this very specialized thing that we did. I wish I had great stories of but we fixed it. Not this time, the tension was there and we fixed it. I have not really been in an environment where there has been this strategy team, the SWAT team inside of another group and that’s worked out well because I haven’t.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I hear that. Neither have I. Our two data points here, making that look like a good plan but you never know. Tell us more… I’m super fascinated about you working on AOL Instant Messenger because like many people, I used it a lot. What did you do for that?
Beth Toland: I worked on the UI. I had come from Sapient at the time. It was a very different way of working. Like I explained, at Sapient I was making incredibly detailed IA, specs and their wire frames and they were annotated. I mean, pristine stuff. AOL was quick, quick, quick. Take a Photoshop screenshot of this, add a button and add a thing here. I was like, “What, I don’t know where that button will go.” They’re like, “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got a review at five.” I was like, all right, I’m not used to this. So it swung my pendulum the other way for how to work more quickly, how to build up a product intuition, how to understand a product very deeply.
Because at the same time, I came with my fancy wire frames to my first end review and they were like, “People are going to go to hack in this way. People are going to hack in this way.” I was like, “Why would anyone to this? What are you talking about?” There’s this rig of product that I didn’t have because Sapient was agency and we were consulting. We got to do a lot of big picture thinking and then we handed it off at that time. We handed off it was a very waterfally type of approach. But then it well taught me how to move more quickly and how to have a product mind which I thought was really valuable and got me closer to leadership in a way. It was a very startup environment when I think about it back now.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Interesting.
Beth Toland: You could instant message the head of product. And I was like, wow, that’s close.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. what was the one you mentioned in the middle there? You said AOL, you said The Economist.
Beth Toland: I was a recruiter for a while. Just one of those weird things that is so valuable because like I said, I’ve [inaudible] done everything. So now as a hiring manager, when I interface with my recruiting partners it’s really… Oh yeah, I know the problems that you’re having. I know, when you say this thing what you’re talking about. I know what’s a realistic timeline for getting folks in. Recruiting has come such a long way. Gosh, there’s such strategic partners now than when I was was doing it, but still, again, it’s very helpful to round up the picture of what I do right now.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that’s really interesting. How long have you been at Asana?
Beth Toland: Coming up on my seventh year.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Wow. That’s as old as my daughter.
Beth Toland: Crazy.
Holly Hester-Reilly: You could have a first grader [inaudible] Asana.
Beth Toland: I think before that, the longest time I was at [inaudible] places, two and a half years. You look at my CV it’s two. Two and a half to two.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Mine too. I’ve been at my own company for almost four years now and that is the longest stretch I’ve ever done. I’m so glad I didn’t have to leave my own company.
Beth Toland: The culture is so great, right?
Holly Hester-Reilly: I didn’t get fed up with it. I totally get that. What is the journey at Asana been like? What did you start out doing and what did that look like?
Beth Toland: I started out as the first researcher. That was the third time that I’ve helped to start up a team. I just… At the time when I saw this will come through about seven years ago, I said, “Wow, people still need researchers? Not all the companies have figured it out and gotten one yet? What luck.” Of course there’s still lots of really great companies who are getting their first researcher and stuff. But that was my journey as the very first researcher there.
There was a product manager, another one who just joined and then the handful of couple few designers and a good amount of engineers, because we were surrounded by engineers and product. They had such belief and understanding the problems facing the customer. The other important thing is they really wanted to hear the truth.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s fantastic.
Beth Toland: Man, I can’t tell you that’s probably one of the biggest things that has allowed this team to thrive and continue the way it has been. Aside from our head of product who’s really just helped us continue the journey. But the co founders, they had strong beliefs. But they were so open to hearing difficult truths. They welcomed it, they challenged us for it and I think that’s one of the things that often you people say that they want out of a role like research and they don’t really mean it.
Holly Hester-Reilly: yeah. Were you able to discern that in the beginning? Were there any tells where you could realize that they really meant it, that you’d be able to do that there?
Beth Toland: Yeah. So I mean, early on, we would have product reviews. Everybody has a variation on that theme. In those product reviews, our co founder, JR, he was in there. He was leading them and then pulled back a little bit to let some of the other design leaders participate. But he’s fully in there and he would poke at an insight that I have, push at it, and then just be like… We’d have a really deep conversation about it. Then he would say, “Wow okay, yeah. I get it. Thank you.” It was nice because… Really those conversations with him and with anybody that we can have them really, I think fortifies your work. It makes it better because it does… You get poked at and you like, “Point I hadn’t thought about. Okay, going to have to refine that. Yep.”
And so it was very much a dialogue. Very, very collaborative and that collaborative environment, not I’m going to do a read out. I think a lot of people say a read out. I’m just going to tell you the information and it wasn’t like that and it’s still not like that for us. We’ve got some things that we’ve learned and that we’re learning. We want you to be a part of this conversation. You asking me questions, asking me hard questions will help me refine and get to the real answer. So there have been plenty of times where we’ve had a back and forth.
It’s interesting to do that with a co founder who’s… I mean, when were they there? Maybe three or four years before me? So they’ve got some experience. They know the product, they know the space. They would even ask just… I believe this thing but I also believe that there’s another way. Prove me wrong kind of a thing. It’s very healthy debate culture that made me feel like you really want to hear it.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That’s sort of the dream I think.
Beth Toland: I know it is. Yes.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s really what you want.
Beth Toland: It is.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So let’s talk more about research at Asana. What does the process look like? I’ve read some of the things that you’ve put out into the world. It sounds like a really mature and well operating place and I’m curious to hear more.
Beth Toland: Yes, I think so. I think we are always striving for that maturity. But at the place that we are in growth in the company, things are always changing and so you’re always having to just adjust and things. Which is one of the reasons why I love being here so much is because I enjoy that environment. I enjoy the unknown and that kind of thing. The way we operate now is we are… Our product areas in pillars. I think everybody’s got some variation on that thing too.
We happen to be in pillars and we’re generally allocated to those pillars. We had been on a program level. We had been really… You will work on mobile and this area and this area and this area. But we’re finding as we’re growing that we’re evolving and moving further and further up the double diamond which is the general design process that we follow. Again, pretty common. But when I first started, I was doing a little bit down like [inaudible] let me help you get comfortable with this and then go back up here and think about more strategic work.
As a whole, as a team, we’ve sort of been marching further and further up the double diamond. We’re now seeing our projects and things shift to be more cross pillar. It’s not as neatly contained. I think a lot of our work in general, the product areas happening like that just because of the maturity of where we are in our product lifecycle. We are hugely collaborative with our fellow disciplines. We don’t have research. Go figure this out and come back and let us know how that goes. Design is very involved. Engineering PM is super interested to hear what customers and potential customers will want to say and hear. Very close to customer success so we leverage them a ton. Not only to access customers, but as proxies. So trying to get creative with our work.
Holly Hester-Reilly: What is the role of the product person in the process there?
Beth Toland: We work with product on a couple levels. I work closely with them on boring stuff like staffing. Like resourcing and stuff like that. But we’ll also ask them to identify what are your big questions that you’re going? The pillar level. What’s eating away at you? From a pillar perspective, from a strategic perspective, what do you feel would inform your entire pillar? So we ask questions like that. Then there are program PMs. We ask them, about your particular program area, what do you want to know about your program?
Then it’s a dance. At that level, it becomes a dance of them asking… Helping them to refine their questions and say these are questions you don’t really need the answer to you can just go. These are questions that you don’t need us for. These are the questions that we can really help you with. That’s a dance that we often do at the program level to figure out where are we best leveraged. Is the UXR team answering the toughest questions, the highest leverage questions that we could given our skill set and our unique capabilities?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Can you give an example, what is a good question? Maybe something that you would say, you know what actually, you don’t need us for this? And something else where you would say, yeah, this is for us. This is what we should be answering.
Beth Toland: There are plenty of design questions you don’t need us to answer. Things like are you… Is this thing that you’re doing different than anything else that you’re doing in the product? Is it bucking any consistent trends that are out there in the world? You don’t need anybody’s eyes on that. You don’t need us to do that kind of a thing. Things that I think we are more uniquely qualified to help answer are things like, what is the opportunity around messaging and one to one collaboration?
We can help you identify what those opportunities are and how to start prioritizing them. We’re more excited about what is the problem space. What is the depth of pain felt. As opposed to how widely is that felt. And so we partner with our PMM and our QMR teams to figure those other two things out but we can say this is a really big pain that people are having. I think the other thing is we are great as helping give frameworks to people and help them think through something that is more durable way to think about something than answer a single point in time question, is another way I think about it.
Holly Hester-Reilly: So you’ve mentioned that the process is really collaborative, that you’re getting the other stakeholders involved all the way from the beginning about what questions should be answering. When you go out to actually conduct the research, what is the role of product then?
Beth Toland: They’re right there with us. They’re right there with us. Collecting the data here it’s very remote. Meaning there sitting on calls. But the other way that I think is really important, that they do a great job of participating in our debriefs. I’m a huge fan of debriefs. After you talk to the participant, you debrief at the quarter mark of your project and however much. Then at the end, because I was saying before, the value there is the poking of the whole saying, “I thought this. What about this? Did you go at it this way?” You can as you go adjust your approach. You can also be listening for ponies that people have like, “That’s another time you brought that up. You really care about that thing.”
We have to make sure that we really nail that perspective otherwise it’s going to come down in the end and we’re not going to have a good answer for it. So the role I think they play is quite literally, they’re physically there. Then the other role that they play is helping us shape the direction of the answers we’re looking for. Because sometimes you don’t know until you get in there. When people hear they’re like, ah, this isn’t the kinds of input that I was looking for. What I needed was something else. I’m not talking about the answers, like I don’t like that answer. But just like, ah, no, no, no. What I was really hoping for was this other thing and so then we can adjust and tack together. So they’re real partner.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, absolutely. I completely ascribed to the same perspective. One of the things that I’m curious about is how does somebody… I guess how many levels of researchers do you have and how does somebody go up in their career as a UX researcher?
Beth Toland: Let’s see. So we have levels in a growth path. I think that’s pretty common in most companies. You go from an L whatever, to an L10 or something like that. So we have those types of ranges. But generally speaking, I mean the broadest way of talking about it, there’s Junior, mid and then senior and senior manager. One thing that we want to have a better process and perspective, well we have a good perspective. [inaudible] better process for is the non manager, people manager IC.
Super, super important to me and my team. It’s just a belief that we hold very strongly is that you don’t have to be a people manager in order to be a leader. It’s neither a philosophy that Asana holds either. You don’t have to be a people manager to be a leader. But we want to make it really clear what that pathway looks like and what you get for choosing the path that you think is best for you. So we’ve recently put some things in place that help that growth path that you were asking about.
How do you move? Again, typically there the things that are building up your toolkit, doing it in a repeatable fashion, in multiple different scenarios and have to [inaudible] for management to help and mentorship to help create those opportunities. So going through that and then the other, besides craft, being able to tell your story and to be persuasive about it and help make a point. Because these are… We’re saying important things that have real impact on people and have real impact on the product. You have to be able to not just execute the research but make sure people believe in the research and that they’re going to act.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. So how do you do that? What are the keys lessons there?
Beth Toland: To get people to act?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah.
Beth Toland: So gosh, that’s a toughy. We’ve tried all kinds of things. We use Asana of course to track the work that we do. Our insights and so it’s referenceable. As part of that, everything is a task so we can assign tasks and say this is your area to focus on. This is yours. We found this insight, this is yours to own. So we’ve tried that approach like, “Hey, every PM needs to address X number of insights across their roadmap for this quarter or this episode?” That works for some things but not all things. I think what we have found has worked the best is being super close to our partners and getting things on the roadmap.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, getting people on the roadmap usually it’s one way to make things happen depending on how good the team is. Road mapping in general, which is it’s a whole other can of worms.
Beth Toland: Which is a whole other can of worms but they’re also little things that we’ve just gotten a really great process for, we call them snacks. There’s a really great process. That is we work with PM and there’s UXR representative, and someone from voice of the customer. Sort of a SWAT team that works together to really move some of this small stuff through that we find, or the PMs find in the DIY process and things like that. Just another way to get things executed.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I mean, yeah. You can’t always only be working on the big stuff. Sometimes you got to have the polish going on to.
Beth Toland: You do. I found that out when I first joined Asana. [inaudible] there was a team of three and I was like, we’ll each do a strategic project every episode. [inaudible] there would be three really big forward thinking efforts that happened every three months. It’s a lot of stuff. How are people going to act on all this stuff because what we’re telling them is this is future big picture thinking stuff. If we’re cranking that stuff out all the time, no one’s going to be able to know what to do with it when they finally do get around to doing it stale.
It took me a couple years to get the cadence right of how to go abroad and then help… Where we go for generative stuff to foundational. That mix it’s taken time to figure that out.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, interesting that you call them episodes. Is there a history to that?
Beth Toland: We’ve always been in episodes and I don’t know why.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Okay.
Beth Toland: That was our framework. Now we have episodes and quarters but we still have held on to the episodes and I can’t for the life of me remember why we started there?
Holly Hester-Reilly: It’s one of your own things, right?
Beth Toland: Yeah. One of our things.
Holly Hester-Reilly: What has been the most challenging about building and leading the research practice there?
Beth Toland: I think what I might say is finding the researcher with the right attitude and the right set of skills to grow with us. Because I’ve had to promise things for a long time. When you’re a small team, your mix, your balance is different. You have to do more program area work and is probably more evaluative than you want it to be and you only get to do a couple foundational things. The constant, “Hey, I swear we’re going to get there.” Here’s this foundational regenerative project. In the meantime, I need you to do this. Having the right mix of people who are excited about ambiguity as I am but who can see a future is a pretty special person.
Then to find a bunch of those who is different in their own way, team building is not particularly hard at Asana, it’s just a tough thing in general to make sure you have the right mix of people. That dimension of being in a growth company is… I think that’s probably been my biggest challenge.
Holly Hester-Reilly: When you’re in a growth company, it all changes so often. You think you got it tuned right and then you got to retune it again.
Beth Toland: Yeah, we’re constantly changing process and updating but I really love process. I really love thinking through those things. The reward is very high for me because also when you’re this close to it, the influence that you can have is so clear. In bigger companies it can be slower, further away from you, diluted, and that’s just not the case here. To me the effort is really… The trust is really worth the reward there. But not everybody shares the perspective.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Right. Yeah. One of the other things that I know I had seen you write about was the experience of working in B2B. How do you think that impacts what it’s like to do UX research?
Beth Toland: Yeah, I think one of the biggest things I would say is that in the consumer world, there way many more ways for you to learn. There are other… Everything’s public. It’s just out there. If you are in retail, you just go shopping. Just go online. It’s there for you. You can see how other people are doing their checkout process, how they’re doing their wish lists. Then you’ve got things like Amazon training people. So you’re like okay, well we know how they’re going to work.
In B2B and SaaS, you just don’t have that same opportunity. Go try and look at your competitor or go… You can’t just dabble in Salesforce and be like, “Let me just do a quick…” By design, they are handling complex workflows and complex concepts. It’s very difficult to get quickly up to speed or understand how you might be able to leverage what other people are doing. Then again, from a complex product, you can’t just be like, “Show me how you would find a book and check out.” We don’t have that luxury. It’s way more complex. Your own data is very important. Connecting the whole process is very important. I think those are the two biggest things that come to mind for the differences.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I love the complexity of the B2B space. It’s-
Beth Toland: I know.
Holly Hester-Reilly: It’s so immediate, a lot of fun stuff to really uncover. And when you find nuggets it’s so rewarding.
Beth Toland: It’s so rewarding. I’m totally with you Holly.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Let’s see, are there… This isn’t a question I usually ask people but I’m curious. If you could pick any other career in tech, what else would you do?
Beth Toland: Meaning I’m not at Asana or meaning I can’t be a researcher?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Can’t be a researcher.
Beth Toland: Holly. It’s the best job. I think if I weren’t in research, I’m going to cheat and say I would want to be in strategy.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I could see that.
Beth Toland: Yeah. That would be the next fun thing. Would not want to be a designer. Everybody’s got an opinion about design. I wouldn’t want that. I’m playing the role of PM right now. Filling in for one of my colleagues. Jury’s still out on whether or not that would be something that I’d be excited about. Taking on full time, I think I would have to go… I think strategy.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, okay. That’s fair. Is there anything that you wish you’d known 15 years ago? And by the way, apologies on the New York siren in the background.
Beth Toland: If I’d have known… What’s the rest of that sentence? I wish I’d have known to what?
Holly Hester-Reilly: 15 years ago about the career path that you are going down?
Beth Toland: I think that’s a good question. I feel very lucky in the mentors and the relationships and things that I’ve had. I do think that it is useful to be very close to business. So I might have forged more business relationships. But I think… I’ll puzzle a little bit of a different question. Things that I felt particularly valuable.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Okay.
Beth Toland: That I have had are that strong mentor and leader who is fearless about whatever the current structure was and seeing… I know the way it is now but I know the way it could be and I’m going to make that path happen. I had a few of those people in my life and I’m ever so grateful because I think that has helped me with ambiguity and see past what’s happening right now and get into the future. Having connections to business and realizing that business is really important. It was a Sapient thing that I learned.
The ability to have dabbled in just about every discipline has really made my empathy meter higher for everybody. I get when designers are feeling a certain way or when… And just feeling a certain way. I’m like yeah, I know I was a designer, I can totally get it. And so it really helps to be able to speak all those languages. Even recruiting, right. Just very helpful. I’m grateful to have been a different version of the role and roles in so many different areas and consulting and small company, big company.
I just feel very grateful that I’ve got that perspective. I feel also lucky that that’s all come together and being able to leverage that here at Asana. Being able to pull on all those things now it’s just the right time for me to be able to leverage all that experience.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that’s fantastic. I feel happy for you that you’ve had such a wide range of experiences.
Beth Toland: It’s crazy. There are people who are… This is their first job or they’ve only worked in tech. And I’m like, oh wow. That’s interesting. It’s interesting like I said, to be able to have so many different perspectives and can be helpful.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, it is. I definitely find especially when you’re at a place that has a lot of young people. The world that they came of age in and enter the workforce in was so tech at the forefront that it’s just… I feel the whole perspective on it and why they’re pursuing this as a career is different. I don’t know about you, but when I went into tech, for me, it was between the booms. It wasn’t a time when everyone was angling for tech. It was like… And I live in New York City so the hot thing to do here was to go to Wall Street.
Beth Toland: Exactly.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Go to Wall Street was really a strange thing to do. I feel that was… I mean, that’s part of why I picked it. I wasn’t going to just follow a path. I was going to figure out what the path for me is.
Beth Toland: Well look now, the path has come to you. I mean, New York has gotten to be quite the hotbed of tech. Everybody’s coming there now.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, it’s definitely grown a lot and it’s been really fun to see the journey. Having been here back when there wasn’t as much tech here. It wasn’t so prominent and see it really… Now we’ve gotten all the Facebook and Google and Twitter and everybody, Slack. They all have offices here too and they’re all recruiting here. I guess one of the biggest changes for me has been the likelihood that I will be out at a random coffee shop and hear somebody talking about something like product management and be like-
Beth Toland: Oh yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That didn’t use to happen.
Beth Toland: Yes, you’re probably more likely to be surrounded by those folks from there than you would have been probably even, I don’t know, two or three years ago. It just feels lately there’s just a really big boom. Lots of people are out there. So new, it’s interesting because you’re right. Financial is where it was at. Publishing and all those kinds of things, advertising.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Media action.
Beth Toland: Yeah. And so now it’s just interesting to see tech is new-ish there, the community anyway.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. We definitely have a different vibe here. Well, are there any final thoughts that you feel like? Is there any topic we didn’t cover that you want a chance to cover?
Beth Toland: Just a question. I mean, I think we roamed the fields heather and [inaudible]. I think we’ve covered everything.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that’s how I like it to go.
Beth Toland: It’s been super fun. It’s just been super fun to talk.
Holly Hester-Reilly: It has been, it’s been really fun to talk to you, too. Where can people find you if they want to follow you or learn more about the things you have to say.
Beth Toland: LinkedIn is probably where I’m most prolific. I am really not a great social media person. I should probably be better at it, but I’m not. So LinkedIn is probably just the best and Beth Toland is [inaudible]. I will publish or participate in a thing But there are also a lot of great people who are in the community who are doing really cool stuff that I try and promote and make sure that they know what’s going on too. Because it’s a big and very loving community. There’s just… Everybody’s willing to throw up a hand and help out. I like to try and promote folks and their wisdom as well.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, me too. I’m so glad to have you here sharing your wisdom. So thank you again. I really appreciate it.
Beth Toland: Awesome. Yeah, thanks. I really appreciate the opportunity Holly.
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