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Theodore is a user experience practitioner with over 8 years of experience conducting user research.  His experience includes leading design and research initiatives, managing and scaling research agendas, and connecting teams with real people to build great products.  His particular area of expertise is conducting lean user research to develop and test new products.  He has a passion for mating insight with design to create meaningful products.

Today, Theodore is leading mobile, content, and insurance research efforts at NerdWallet.com, where he and his fellow Nerds are working together to create tools and products that make it easier for consumers to choose the best financial products and services (think credit cards and insurance) and tackle major life goals, like paying off student loans and saving for retirement.

In the past, Theodore helped launch Payoff.com, a lending company that aims to improve the customer experience of paying off consumer credit card debt using technology and behavioral science.  

Theodore also previously led user experience research at The Enthusiast Network and mobile research at Kelley Blue Book.

Connect with him on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/theodorechao

He will be live on Sep 29 starting at 930 AM PT for one and a half hours during which he will answer as many questions as possible.

  • AA

    Aldin A

    5 months ago #

    Hey Theodore,

    Great to have you here!

    1)What, in your opinion, are the top qualities founders need to succeed?

    2)What do you think are the top skills/traits that a manager needs to have to bring out the best in their employees?How do you go about empowering employees and what does that look at nerdwallet?

    3)How do you look at balance in your professional and personal life? When it comes to work, how do you decide what you have to work on today (I'm sure you have a lot of fires to put out every day)?

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Aldin

      1) Aside from the basics like a great idea, a vision, and business sense, I think people skills are essential. People skills meaning being able to communicate well, respecting others, having empathy, and having the ability to trust and to listen. I believe some founders can succeed without these skills, but only on a small scale. In order to grow and expect that others can help grow your vision, you need to be sure that you can trust others to perform in the best interest of your company, as well as allow them to say no, even when you think you’re right.

      Another quality would be curiosity. Curiosity to learn and try new things, and not to assume that he/she has a complete view of the world and how people think. The world is constantly changing, as well as the way we use technology and do business. Curiosity allows people to be receptive to others opinions and feedback allowing businesses and products to respond and adapt to feedback.

      • TC

        Theodore Chao

        5 months ago #

        2) A great trait for a manager would be self-confidence. Being self-confident allows you to speak on behalf of yourself and your team, outside of your personal best interests. It allows you to confidently share ideas without fear and allows you, in turn, to empower your employees to grow.

        Another great skill/trait would be something like humility and showing gratitude. I think being in a management position at a startup is often times the result of luck and timing. As you scale up, often times, people can either choose to hire people who are more skilled than them, thusly growing their teams capabilities, or they can hire people less skilled or subservient, and be forced to dictate, control, and limit their teams. Having humility allows you to recognize your position of privilege and responsibility to help an organization grow by hiring the right people - and then making time to understand their strengths and create opportunities to leverage them.

        Personally, I do this through spending time to really understand my team. What are their interests and motivations? What inspires them - on a day to day basis? Where are they trying to go? If they want my job - even better!

      • TC

        Theodore Chao

        5 months ago #

        3) Balancing personal and professional life can definitely be challenging, especially during the years where your career is getting the most traction and you’re seeing growth and advancement. I have to say it can definitely be challenging, but certain things you can try are making sure you have a balance of friends inside and outside of work, and making sure you invest in your relationships outside of work, as much as you do inside of work. Sounds crazy, huh?

        When it comes to prioritization at work, staying close to the “pulse” is essential. That pulse can exist in cross-functional standup, within your teams, or within private conversations. Make sure you make time to stay close to where decisions are being made, and at the same time, stay close to the people who matter in your decision making. Make time to have conversations and schedule regular 1 on 1s (even monthly) with key people to your role. They will help identify fires for you, and help you put them out as well. For me, it doesn’t matter how many small fires you put out if the building burns down.

  • TU

    Tauri Urbanik

    5 months ago #

    Hi Theodore,

    Thanks for doing this!

    ) How does your ordinary day look like?
    2) What tools are you using for user research?
    3) What is your biggest day to day challenge you need to overcome while contacting user research in a company like NerdWallet?
    4) If you had only 10k to spend for increasing retention rates. On what would you spend this money?

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Tauri!

      You're welcome :)

      1) Probably like a lot of people's days. Trying to keep meetings at a good balance. Trying to carve out time to do good work. That mostly amounts to creating opportunities to conduct user research (buy-in), writing user research studies and surveys, and working with teams to put findings into action. Every day is different.

      • TC

        Theodore Chao

        5 months ago #

        2) Tools specific for user research...

        Phone/Google Hangouts - Nothing beats talking to real people.

        UserTesting.com - Quick responses and essential to scaling research. It allows research to be approachable, cheap, and easy to use.

        SurveyMonkey - It's cheap and allows you to bring some quantitative backing to your qualitative insights.

        UserZoom - It can be pricy, but if you have the budget, this helps you achieve both of the above.

        2 Share
      • TC

        Theodore Chao

        5 months ago #

        3) My biggest day to day challenge is probably focus while context switching. Currently, I support several individual teams, each tackling very complex problems (both for consumers and internal stakeholders). Carving out time to "switch brains", even by blocking off my calendar, can be essential to focusing on good work.

      • TC

        Theodore Chao

        5 months ago #

        4) Coming from a serious researcher bias here, I would spend half of it on conducting an in-person user research study (or focus group) to have the company get familiar with user research and what it can offer. If you can't do it yourself, hire a contractor. If you don't have the money, buy some Starbucks gift cards and get out of the office.

        Then, use the rest of the money to pay for incentives for UserTesting or interview incentives and test everything with real people! Get in their heads about what's sticky and what isn't and get at the "why" of what's happening. Email them, call them, retarget them through Facebook - get to the people and talk to them.

        2 Share
      • TC

        Theodore Chao

        5 months ago #

        @anujadhiya re: "several individual teams, each tackling very complex problems" - can you talk more about one of these and what makes it complex?

        One of the teams I'm supporting is focused on insurance products. Insurance is a tricky space where carriers are in a prisoner's dilemma on sharing pricing data on marketplaces. To monetize our traffic to its fullest potential, we're exploring new ways to deliver value to both customers and carriers.

        Also, our org structure is matrixed and very specialized, so making sure we're aligned and coordinated means taking part in lots of planning and making sure we communicate well.

      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        5 months ago #

        re: "several individual teams, each tackling very complex problems" - can you talk more about one of these and what makes it complex?

  • PT

    Paul Tyrrell

    5 months ago #

    Given low traffic numbers, and a goal of getting early insight while longer surveys, and analytics data is comes in over several months, what is a good early stage research activity to lead to insight into Onboarding conversion rates in your experience. Or what are your top three favorite quick wins in the research space.

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Paul

      Qualitative research is essential here. In-person user research (at your office or a coffee shop), UserTesting.com, Skype/Google Hangouts. Get to people and test your products. Start at the source, whether it be a SERP or a landing page and see where friction and discomfort exists. Understand the questions being asked and really put yourself in the shoes of your users. Also, spend time to understand how people differ, and make sure you test with different groups.

      3 quick wins would be - conduct a large sample survey with your audience to understand trends and form hypotheses about segments. Test with these segments to understand how they're similar and how they're different. Iterate on your products/designs using your findings and measure your performance.

  • HQ

    Hila Qu

    5 months ago #

    Hi Theodore,

    Great to have a user research expert on GH. I am always interested in learning more about user research, and have a few questions for you.

    1) Can you describe the typical product development process at Nerdwallet? Where does user research fit in?

    2) What type of decisions user research can help make?

    3) Do you have a framework/procedure to conduct user research from initial set up to the end ? Can you share that?

    4) What do you think is the relationship between user research and A/B testing?

    Thank you!

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      4) It's a very close relationship. User testing tends to be qualitative in nature (although there are quantitative user research techniques). Having a close relationship is essential. At NerdWallet, I participate in planning A/B tests and also make sure to user test our variants, so we can triangulate why something is/isn't performing better.

      • HQ

        Hila Qu

        5 months ago #

        very interesting point that you have users test the A/B testing variant to help understand why something is/isn't working.

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Hila!

      Happy to be here.

      1) User research fits in many places here. Because NerdWallet covers a breadth of financial decisions, there's always a lot of unknowns when it comes to consumer behavior in new growth areas. Qualitative research is essential during this discovery phase to help us dispel any assumptions we may have.
      This research helps unify the teams by driving a consensus of what the real users look like and what their problems really are.

      Research also sits closely with designers, so user testing/usability testing is also a crucial part of the process. This is where we test as often as possible, in low-medium-high fidelity prototypes to improve our designs as much as possible before we go into development.

      We also conduct user testing after designs have launched. We conduct follow-up interviews with users of our products/tools, and even make sure to user test our variants of A/B tests to help triangulate why things are happening.

      2 Share
      • TC

        Theodore Chao

        5 months ago #

        3) As for a framework, I don't have a specific one, as each team/company I work with is different. What I do recommend, however, is front-loading heavily with a lot of qualitative research. Spend time talking to LOTS of people, and make sure to include other stakeholders. Also, make sure to have conversations as early as possible about key decisions that need to be made, and carve out time to conduct user tests. You want to be able to test before you launch (and hopefully iterate). People are always in a rush to get their products to market and THEN learn, which often means a biggest lost opportunity.

        There are plenty of books out there on Lean UX research, but the reality is, the solution/framework that works best is the one that drives the most change, preferably proactively - rather than reactively.

      • TC

        Theodore Chao

        5 months ago #

        2) I think user research can help make a variety of decisions, because it can help remove biases from the conversation. These biases may be from being a SME-related or HiPPO-related. Hearing (and seeing) someone outside of the bubble using a product helps people from different backgrounds see new options and avoid conflict based on self-interests.

        2 Share
  • SA

    Shaker A

    5 months ago #

    Hi Theodore,

    Thanks for doing this AMA!

    1)How do you increase your chances of determining that a feature that you are thinking of building is of genuine value to the user vs just leading down the path to a more bloated product? Do you have a process for vetting features? Additionally as your product grows how do you make sure your product doesn't become bloated?

    2)What are the most valuable lessons you've learned in your career?

    3)In your opinion what are things early stage startups have to do to not only survive, but thrive? Conversely what do you see startups messing up that they can't afford to, and how do they fix them?

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      2) Work/your career isn't everything. There are a lot of great ideas out there and a lot of great causes. Definitely, find something you care about and work towards it. Find people who care about the same things as you do, and spend time with them to do great work. But also know, at the end of the day it's work - and your job shouldn't be your life.

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Shaker!

      1) Test with a lot of people and with different TYPES of people. Get an understanding of the types of behavior that drive them to use your product/service. There are ways to get more confident about your decision, like responding to user feedback in user tests and user surveys, but real value comes from seeing/hearing delight and measuring it. Eventually, you have to launch, but make sure you spend time to measure your performance, whether it be through user tests, NPS, surveys, social media, a panel, or all of the above.

      To avoid bloat, you have to understand your user personas or archetypes. Understand what features/tasks are essential and to whom. Make sure you get close and stay close to these people, and test with these different groups when you make changes.

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      3) Biased researcher answer, conduct user research. Learn about who your users are and who they aren't. Get realistic with yourself and be brutally honest. Ask your users/non-users hard questions and get at the real truth.

      A lot of startups waste a lot of time trying to be different in ways that don't matter. It's nice to have a brand, to be clever, and to stand out - but a great product can speak for itself. Also, planning. It's good to plan for explosive and exponential growth, but being ready to respond to less favorable outcomes helps to keep people aligned and motivated.

  • JP

    John Phamvan

    5 months ago #

    Hey Theo!

    Thanks for doing this AMA! With your experience in FinTech and financial products, can you tell us about some of the difference between user research in other consumer facing products and financial products?

    Could you tell us a bit about how you got into user research? How does one start a career in user research? Is it related to academic research?

    Lastly, I really like yellow, fizzy, flavor-less beers. My friends say I need help. How do I start appreciating those bitter and sour beers?

    Thanks!
    John

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      I found myself very interested in business, as well as psychology in school, and decided to pursue a career in market research. At the same time, I freelanced building websites for small businesses. Eventually the two careers/interests merged. As for starting in user research, I think there are a lot of ways in - taking a sole UX practitioner role (designer/researcher), going to grad school in HCI or a similar field, or even taking vocational courses. It's definitely related to academic research, and much of the world of user research is founded on academic research practices.

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi John,

      Recruiting in user research in finance can be tough, because personal finance is often a heavily guarded subject. Debt is even harder to get people to talk about, let alone finding people. There's a lot of distrust towards financial institutions in general, and stress makes it difficult for people to want to touch products.

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Visit a local craft brewery and get a flight of beers you've never tried before. Then repeat. Then repeat...

  • KG

    kalki gillespie

    5 months ago #

    Hi! I'm in a similar category of sites as nerd wallet (publisher who makes affiliate revenue) but we mainly focus on consumer electronics...

    I'm interested in how you find insight into your users...like... how do you THINK about them.

    Also lets say you are tasked to "make the site better and generate more revenue" ...where do you start?

    How do you deal with internal stakeholders who are uncooperative or who don't trust your process?

    Do you think you will ever prioritize email subscriptions? If so what criteria would you use?

    How do you optimize the UX for "returning visitors"? How often do you focus on returning users and gaining a following compared to just making revenue by pushing quote requests?

    Why no ads on nerd wallet?

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Kalki!

      Great questions!

      I think about users as real people (they are) and I also think about how others think about them. I do what I can to humanize them - using qualitative research (in-person, videos, surveys, journey maps, etc) to bring people in alignment.

      Where to start? Watch someone user your website. How do they respond? Are they interested? What questions do they have? What do they do? How do they feel? UserTesting.com is a cheap way to try this, but you can also get out of the office and ask a stranger for the real truth. Grab some gift cards and go to an outdoor mall or coffee shop. Bring a coworker!

      This can be challenging, but a fun challenge. User research is helpful at validating ideas, dispelling assumptions, and unifying people. Invite your difficult stakeholders to your sessions, not to watch but to participate. Allow them to ask questions. Also know, you can't win over everyone. Sometimes you have to hope that your work speaks for itself and make sure you're persistent. Also, remember that it's not about you - so don't take it personally.

      2 Share
    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Not sure what you mean about prioritizing email subscriptions. I think email can be a hugely important engagement tool, but it's important to test your email. You can a/b test it, but you can also user test your email! Get feedback on what works and what doesn't. Make sure your email is valuable.

      I think return users are essential. It sounds cheesy, but focus on delight. Aspire to make good products, that people want to share with their friends. Make sure to look at user experience metrics that represent positive engagement, these can be likes/follows on social media, net promoter score, referrals, etc.

      Currently, NerdWallet makes money through its affiliates. Our goal is to help people make the best possible financial decisions, so removing ads helps us maintain our visitors' best interests.

  • DH

    Dani Hart

    5 months ago #

    Hi Theo,

    Great to see you on here! Thanks for joining.

    1. What's the most challenging aspect of imposing change driven by your research?

    2. What advice do you have for companies that are just beginning with user research? What creates a welcoming culture for user research?

    3. Knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself 8 years ago?

    Looking forward to hearing what you have to say!

    Cheers,
    Dani

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      2. Start today. Try it cheap, involve a lot of people, and don't be afraid to make mistakes. Make it easy, but have hard conversations afterwards.

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      3. Always be listening, always be learning. Surround yourself with like-minded and positive people, and help each other grow. Be humble and know it's not a race.

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Dani - thanks for having me!

      1. Conducting research requires a lot of buy-in and so relationships are really important. Making sure to find time to understand internal stakeholder wants, needs, and fears is as important as external stakeholders. Sometimes, it can be hard to keep efforts balanced.

  • RB

    Ry B

    5 months ago #

    Theodore,

    Excited for this AMA.

    1)How do you look at hiring? Can you talk about some of the mistakes you've made hiring (and also seen others make)? What have you learned about hiring A+ talents?

    2) Can you name some of your favorite resources to learn (books, podcats, blog, courses, etc)?

    Thanks

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Ry!

      1) Hiring at an early stage is essential. I think culture matters a lot, but also competency. I think transparency in hiring becomes essential, and that means, including others in the hiring process, and taking others opinions seriously. Nepotism can cause fiefdoms that can ruin companies. I've made this mistake before in hiring someone because I had a specific goal in mind, and I didn't listen intently about the concerns others shared. As for A+ talent, hire people who you think will want your job.

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      2) Nielsen Norman puts out some of the best reading on user research.
      https://www.nngroup.com/

      Jeff Sauro is brilliant when it comes to stats and user research.
      http://www.measuringu.com/

      Tomer Sharon is an incredibly insightful author and hugely dedicated to the craft. https://medium.com/@tsharon

      Attend local meetups and have conversations with practitioners outside of your office. Learn and grow from hearing about the challenges of others. It's a fast growing industry and it's good to be curious and adaptable.

      2 Share
  • MW

    Mick Weinstein

    5 months ago #

    Hey Theodore, as a fellow consumer financial app marketer, I'm really impressed by what your team has accomplished at NerdWallet. You're leading with content at NW, so I have a few questions about that:

    1) How do you differentiate your content from the sea of personal finance content out there?
    2) What are your main UA channels to content - by percentage (if you can share)?
    3) What is your mobile/desktop breakdown? How do you see the role of a mobile app for NW going forward?
    4) How do you do user research on a content-centered funnel like NWs? Do you adjust it by content vertical at all?

    Thanks!

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      3) Sorry, I don't have the answer on this one. As for the mobile app, I think our new mobile app as an innovative way to humanize personal finance assistance and make it accessible to everyone. I also see it as a way for us to connect with an increasingly mobile user base.

      Check it out! https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/nerdwallet-personal-finance/id1077539127?mt=8

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      4) Each vertical is tackling financial decisions in different ways, whether it be through content, tools, or other solutions. Each vertical also has different types of users, each with their distinct user behaviors and needs. Also, we have new non-content products coming out all the time, including credit scores and our new app.

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Mick,

      1) The best answer I can give is that NW hires top-notch talent from the editorial and journalism world.

      • TC

        Theodore Chao

        5 months ago #

        2) I can't give you real numbers, but we get a lot of traffic from search and we're also now advertising on TV!

      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        5 months ago #

        re: advertising on TV - how did that come up as an acquisition channel to explore over all other possibilities? What signals/data did the team see to even consider prioritizing testing this channel over others?

  • GH

    Glen Harper

    5 months ago #

    Hi Theodore, thanks so much for being on the AMA. In your career have you executed an UX strategy internationally? If yes how do you handle the different experiences for the different locations around the world? Looking forward to your response, cheers!

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Glen,

      Nope, I haven't, sorry. I think there's a lot of strength in in-person user research, so getting someone on the ground in each country (even with a contractor) would be a good idea. However, tools like Google Hangouts/Skype and social media recruiting can help you reach almost anyone.

  • MD

    Mark Anthony de Jesus

    5 months ago #

    Hi Theo,

    Two questions.
    1. Coming into various companies during different stages of their lifecycle... what are the different strategies you've used to help identify and address different potential issues? i.e. Issues in UX, product messaging, etc.
    2. Do you have any funny / interesting stories (you can share) that you experienced while interacting with users?

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      2. I once had to conduct an in-person user test because we had investors coming to visit. The investors came late and I had to repeat a session with a user. It was pretty awkward.

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Mark!

      1. Start with those close to you. I think user research can help all the things you mentioned, but it's good to focus on whomever you can influence directly. Get to know your team and find opportunities to integrate feedback into their decision making. Then scale out and find new ways to help.

  • DO

    Danielle Olivas

    5 months ago #

    Hi Theodore,

    How do you balance having great user experience while solving for business goals? Have those two ever clashed?

    I look forward to your answer!

    Thanks,
    Danielle

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Danielle,

      They clash all the time. What you find out is basically how user-centered your organization/team/product really is. You balance this by having hard conversations about the role of your product in the marketplace and in peoples lives and what kind of company you really want to be. As a UX practitioner who is entrepreneurially-minded, it can be challenging, but it's good to be honest with yourself and your teammates. Tracking these two objectives using metrics is important too, to make sure they stay a priority.

  • JF

    Javier Feldman

    5 months ago #

    Hi Theo! Nice to see you over here!

    Here's my question for you...

    What data would you look at to know that you might have a UX issue somewhere on your site?

    Thanks for sharing with us here today!

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Javier

      Quantitative - web analytics - engagement and retention metrics - bounce rates, onboarding drop-off, sign-ups, revenue

      Qualitative - user testing data, surveys, social media, call/support logs

      You're welcome!

  • TC

    Theodore Chao

    5 months ago #

    Thanks for all the great questions, everyone. This has been really fun. I'll come back later to answer anything I may have missed. Cheers!

  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    5 months ago #

    Hey Theo - super cool to have you on!

    What's your take on the whole -you need to be mobile-first/mobile only- sentiment that seems to be pervasive nowadays?

    Thx!

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Hi Anuj,

      Mobile is super important. For many, it's their primary or only way to access the internet. That being said, if your users are professionals who only use your product while at the office (where being on your phone a lot might be inappropriate), you may not need to focus as heavily on mobile (but it's good to stay attentive).

  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    5 months ago #

    One more: What is the biggest UX challenge you've ever had to work on and what did you do/learn during that process?

    • TC

      Theodore Chao

      5 months ago #

      Working for a company where everyone thought UX was just Design and that Design was just making things look pretty. Great UX starts with great UX leadership and understanding that great user experiences involve working with product managers, marketers, executives, and engineers to build something useful and valuable, not just pretty.

  • WJ

    Will Johnson

    5 months ago #

    Theodore,

    Missed the deadline but leaving this question here as you said you'll check back in later.

    My company is in the same space (personal finance) but coming at it from a different angle. A big hurdle that companies that aim to get people to change their behaviour is actually getting the person invested enough to take the time to do so. There seems to be a disconnect where a lot of people are unwilling to spend a little bit of time now for a large payoff later. In the 401(k) industry this is most obvious with the people that don't take the time to enroll and thus don't take advantage of the free money their employer would give them in the form of a match. More generally you can see it by the number of households that don't take the time to create a budget.

    So, my question is, does NerdWallet have a philosophy for UX, product, content, etc. with the end result being getting people to change their behaviour?

    Thanks!

  • TP

    Tim Perez

    5 months ago #

    Hey Theodore,

    Thanks for taking the time today to answer questions! Nerdwallet was a great help to the NFTE students I worked with over the summer in SF! Love the work that you guys do at Nerdwallet and love how they have a UX expert like yourself, it's pretty hype because of how much relies in your role for the company's success.

    I've designed a mini itinerary app suggesting local hangout spots/restaurants, and experiences for groups of friends. It would be a great help for feedback on our Adobe XD demo: adobe.ly/2bLOAye

    Thank you for your time in advance!

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