I Follow My Heart To A Good Ecosystem, A Good Team, And A Suboptimal Product Experience

Since April 2003, I have worked at four companies in China and the US: Lenovo, Intel, Google, and currently Uber. With each company, I’ve been asked “Why do you want to join X?”, “Why do you leave Y?”, and “Why now?” I’ve been asked these questions by HR at every company, as well as by my family, friends, colleagues, and even candidates that I’ve interviewed.

Responding to to these questions, I’ve basically boiled down my long, complicated narrative down to this:

I follow my heart to companies that exist within good ecosystems, that have good teams, but that still offer a suboptimal product experience. The imperfect product experience is where I come in. As long as I have a good team and a good ecosystem, I love to work to improve the product experience for the user.

I. So, what does that mean?

Figure 1. Ecosystem, team, and product experience

Good Ecosystem. No single company works alone to serve its users: it always works with upstream supplies, downstream channels, and partners. A good company leads all its partners to work together for a goal — best serve its users’ needs. Very likely a brand-new ecosystem will emerge from old ones, disrupt, outgrow, and finally replace the old ecosystems.

For example, Intel leads the ecosystem of chipset and PC, Google leads the ecosystem of online search and search ads, Facebook leads SNS and display ads, and Uber leads the ecosystem of future transportation and the gig economy.

Good Team. To me, “team” means the stakeholders, the function partners, the managers, the teammates, and whoever you will work with regularly to enable the product excellence that is measured with user experience at its core.

Like most of my friends, I actually started getting to know the team from my job interviews.

I looked into how soon and how satisfactorily a recruiter would respond to my request, how open the cubicles looked like, how well the micro-kitchens were stuffed, etc. And most importantly, I paid great attention to how upbeat the vibes my interviewers gave off, how competent and trustworthy they were, and to what extent they knew what they were talking about.

A tip to interviewees: never join a company when the interviewers BS you about what the company is, what they do, and what they expect you to do. Never join the company as long as these interviewers work there. I withdrew myself from a well-known SNS company last year just because of it. (One update in March 2019: I’m so glad at this point that I had made the right decision in 2015, given what happened within and around that SNS company from 2017 to nowadays. )

A tip to interviewers, myself included: never BS any candidate in an interview. I never did.

Suboptimal Product Experience. Nothing can stop me from trying out a dream company’s products as a user and as a user experience researcher. I become a user, and then pay great attention to the moments I feel good about, neutral, or suboptimal.

If I get delights first, and then many bumpy moments, I would pour myself a glass of wine or beer to celebrate. It’s a really awesome opportunity for a UX researcher like me to improve the product experience. It is even more celebratory when I figure out that the bumpy moments could have been caused by the company’s business and technology advantages.

Back to 2006 in China. Google’s Chinese query segmentation was often appallingly wrong (see evidences here and here). Its Chinese search result pages were noticeably messy when the Latin-based CSS was applied directly there. One of my well-educated, technically sophisticated friends failed in the middle of Google’s AdWord funnels.

Because of many bumpy experiences like these, I was excited to think of joining Google China: it’s a once-of-a-life chance to optimize user experience inside Google. The suboptimal product experience in Google Search excited me, helped me get hired in 2007, and eventually had me work there for 9 plus years.

In any company that offers all three aforementioned things, I would find that I am working on what the world needs, what I love to do, what I am good at, and I can get paid for (usually get well paid for). All four beautiful things occurred in combination simultaneously, like an Ikigai (Learn more about it at the end of this post.)

II. Why Did You Join Uber?

Now let me explain why I left Google to join Uber in June 2016.

After 9 plus great years working on Google Search Experience in China and the US, I have seen Google Search grow to be a daily assistant for billions of information seekers. Later on, its experience was so great that most well-designed experiments often resulted in mixed metric changes or sometimes no metric changes at all.

Don’t get me wrong: I was happy and busy at Google working on innovative breakthroughs such as Google Chatbot & Taskbot, Mobile Maps Offline, Parking Search, and of course, the delightful Google Doodles.

I was happy, but life isn’t all about being happy on your own when you still have a chance to change the world.

“Find. the. next. great. thing. to. do.” A whisper started lingering in my ears since about 2013.

I looked within Google, and looked around Silicon Valley now and then. Slow and painful. Nothing actually turned me on again until one chilly winter day in 2015, when I took a trip to NYC from Google’s main complex in Mountain View.

My first ride with Uber was just magical. I was a pretty late Uber user. Residing in the South Bay, taking wifi-enabled limousine shuttles on the workdays, driving my own car on the weekends, using rental cars or taxicabs for business travels, I didn’t need Uber. But I read lots of interesting news and heard lots of good words from my friends who used Uber a lot.

So one day in November 2015, out of curiosity, I downloaded an app, scanned my credit card, pushed a button, and my driver Michael showed up in minutes. I was totally wowed by how magical it was to hail a cab this way. But I was unsure about how to pay Michael because I didn’t see a POS machine anywhere in the car.

Once we arrived at the San Jose airport, I reached for my wallet to find out how much cash I had. Michael looked over his shoulder at me and noticed my open wallet.

“No. Uber will charge you from your credit card, and I will take my share from Uber. You’re all set. Have a great flight, sir!”

It’s really a mind-blowing experience as a user, and I believed there must be something extraordinarily excellent that supported the push-to-hail-a-car service.

Figure 2. My first trip with Uber on November 2015.

So I looked into Uber’s ecosystem and the brand-new gig economy like doing a research project.

There were many market research reports, many news highlights, and fortunately we’re not lacking in such data here and there.

Overall the big picture to me was that the industries of automobiles, taxicabs, and smart-phones all either got plateaued or started declining; urbanization was accelerating globally and traffic congestions piled up everywhere; the youngest generation was giving up car ownership and valued it less than their parents and grandparents in developed countries; and, more than ever, the workforce appreciated flexible earnings and better control over when and where to work and live.

I also started using Uber more often and chatted with drivers wherever I went — NYC, Boston, Nashville, Seattle, and, of course, the SF Bay Area. Their genuine appreciation and excitement gave me the ultimate confidence to reach out to Uber in April 2016.

The interview experience was as magical and delightful as my first ride with Michael.

I submitted my resume and was contacted in a few days.

Next I shared a comfortable coffee with a hiring manager at Uber’s SF headquarter, and a few weeks later, I had a one-day on-site interviews.

In contrast to what I read through online news, everyone I met with was nice, genuine, agreeable, and upbeat. More importantly, they knew what they were working on with great passion that I could see in their eyes and faces. They were so earnest, humble, and ready to learn, and so receptive to UX research insights that we even jammed on exploratory product problems.

In the end of that day, I found I learned more about Uber from my interviewers than I could give them. The feeling revived excitements from the bottom of heart. I could see a bright future working together with these lovely team mates. The offer was delivered the second day, which literally shocked me. I accepted it without a second thought.

Suboptimal Product Experience? Right. Suboptimal is a figurative word just for my convenience here. I mean that the products work technically and functionally but the user experience could be further improved to be usable, useful, engaging and delightful to all global users.

I knew I would work well with the Uber Driver team, but I didn’t know what driver experience I’d signed up for. The best way to learn that was to do it on my own. Before joining, I signed up with Uber as a driver, got my car inspected at an activation center, and then drove my Odyssey minivan like a real driver completing 67 trips over 7 days in May.

During the sign-up and driving process, I noticed dozens of bumpy moments and tricky problems. The first trip was really stressful because I didn’t know how to get online, how to make a stranger comfortable in my car, how to drop off the rider without blocking traffic. Sometimes new requests came back to back for hours and I couldn’t go to a restroom. I also got dispatched farther away just as it was time for me to go home. A specific rider called me a cheater and angrily slammed my door when I couldn’t explain the surge price. I was happy to collect so many low-hanging fruits beforehand, so that I could jam solutions with my team members on my day one.

This great excitement and confidence grew out of my understanding of Uber’s ecosystem, team, and driver experience, and helped me join Uber with delight.

III. Why Still At Uber?

To be honest, 2017 has been a tough year in my career, if not the toughest, simply because of endless news cycles, and occasional friendly questions like “Does Uber deserve you?” or “Why don’t you go back to Google?”

But ultimately, when I reflect on these questions, I remember why I joined Uber in the first place. I find that I am still fascinated at Uber by good ecosystem, good team, and a product experience that I can optimize.

I still believe I can help Uber change the world for the better, for global drivers and riders and other users, as I did in Google Search (e.g. Suggest, Results, Images, Maps, Doodles, Translate, Parking, Chatbot, etc.) for global information-seekers in my past decade.

Ecosystem. Regardless of numerous, continuous media cycles, I’m seeing that the gig ecosystem that Uber leads advances forward continuously. Many amazing things are happening at Uber like the 180 days of change.

Team. Once I started working at Uber, I found I myself time-traveled back to 2007 and became young again, primarily because of the teams I am working with. Ambitious, upbeat, and hard-working are understated words to describe their way of attacking challenges. My teammates are also relentlessly data-driven, and fiercely future-forwarding. Some have worked at Uber for years, some only for months, but from what I’ve seen on a daily basis, all have treated each other with great respect.

Again, I’ve found them especially open to UX research and new ideas, which in turn makes researchers better partners for them, to identify people insights and innovate for the present and future. In facing the news cycles, we become more empathetic, humble and considerate to each other. That’s what I’ve seen and felt in the past 5 quarters.

Product experience. As you may have noticed, Uber product experience, especially driver product experience, has been improved over time. Recently, Driver Profiles has launched with a huge successful impact that I have seldom seen in my career. And I’m glad to see that UX research has become instrumental during the entire product lifecycle (see the design case study). Many more customer-obsessed product features like driver profiles have been implemented (see other case studies), and I’m thrilled to see that the UX research quality and impact had been elevated so quickly. However, there is still a long way to go, and plenty of low-hanging fruits and challenging problems ahead of us, to improve the product experience for various active users and prospective users. In some sense, the experience is still suboptimal enough to get me up with passion every day.

IV. The Center of Ikigai

In the end of my retrospection over my 5 quarters at Uber, I see myself getting close to the Ikigai. Ikigai (生き甲斐) is a Japanese word whose meaning translates roughly as “a reason for being, encompassing joy, a sense of purpose and meaning and a feeling of well-being”. As shown in the Venn diagram below, the closer you are to Ikigai, the more meaningful you will find you life to be. Working at Uber gives me such a great opportunity to stay close to Ikigai, and makes me super-pumped every day.

Figure 3. Ikigai Diagram (Source: dreamstime)



Sr. Director of UX Research at Course Hero. Formerly Google, Uber, Intel. Received Ph.D in I/O psychology.

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George Zhang

Sr. Director of UX Research at Course Hero. Formerly Google, Uber, Intel. Received Ph.D in I/O psychology.