The transformation of a legacy automaker: first 30 days
Dreams of growth.
Dreams of growth.
20 February 2023
UX Research Lead Ki Aguero is reporting on her experiences at the coalface of digital transformation at one of the world’s most famous automakers.
Everyone jokes that starting a new job is like drinking from a fire hose. 
The first few weeks and months are jam-packed with new information: company culture and policies, common acronyms, new coworkers. You have to study org charts and trace paths from direct reports to managers to their managers to understand how your organization works. There’s hardware and software to set up and, often, a new industry and customer base to understand. 
In technology, you’re also introduced to new product areas or breakdowns. Agile vs waterfall vs everything in between. New project management tracking systems, design and research platforms, and all the structure, rules, and processes that go alongside those tools.
But I’m sitting here reflecting on my first 30 days as UX Research Lead at an international automotive company, and it doesn’t feel like I’ve been drinking from a fire hose. It feels more like spring rains just before everything explodes into bloom.
See, vehicle manufacturing companies don’t usually have an internal team handling their dot-com experiences. They hire out to an agency (or, more often, multiple agencies) to create brochure-style websites. Those websites might cover the basic vehicle specs and get you excited about owning one of their latest models, but that’s historically been the end of the journey. A hopeful car owner would then head to their local dealership and sort out their future ride in person. 
Only…not all customers want that. Some people love to haggle and negotiate in person while it makes others uncomfortable. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the convenience of online car-buying experiences like Carmax or Carvana, people are getting more comfortable with the idea of taking their car-buying experience digital. 
So automakers like my new employer are bringing product teams in-house. Over the next year, our team is adopting site experiences across multiple domains previously owned or supported by multiple agencies. We have two central missions:
  1. Streamline their entire dot-com experience to make it seamless and interconnected, from initial car shopping to vehicle ownership
  2. To stay competitive in the twenty-first century, enable customers to purchase a vehicle through the company’s website
So, why does joining this team feel less like drinking from the proverbial fire hose?
Because there are no processes defined. No “we do it this way” or consistent method of writing a user story, estimating team capacity, measuring effectiveness, et cetera. How do we want our product team to operate? What’s the site’s tone and voice? What components are we going to use? 
Nobody really knows the answers to these questions right now. Most of the team is in the first few weeks or months of joining. We’re still transferring site designs and tons of other resources from agencies, and we don’t necessarily have to stick to what they’ve been working on. 
It’s blue skies right now. The team is brimming with energy and potential, and we have the support of leadership to decide for ourselves what an effective process will look like. We’re soaking everything in and getting ready to shoot up out of the ground and transform one of the last, worst customer experiences: buying a car. 
Okay, so that’s the big picture. Now let’s focus on my role in this massive transformation. 
As the only product team member specializing in UX Research, it’s on me to establish that discipline internally and explain how to weave user insights into the larger product lifecycle. 
Among many other things, I’ve spent my first month learning how the product managers have divvied up their areas of responsibility–what domains they own, what part of the sales funnel they own, where their efforts end and the next product team takes over. There’s an org chart available to us, but I have also maintained a Miro org chart of my own, with additional notes—something about building it out for myself helps me forge the connections a little stronger.
I was also lucky enough to join just before a quarterly product review, where each PM presented their future roadmap and capacity estimates. It was an excellent opportunity to learn names and faces, and I kept my ears open during that call for which teams might need some UXR love. Those product managers got bumped to the top of my list for one-on-one intro calls. 
I spent several hours in my first few weeks brushing up on the research platform available to me. I’ve always done most of my testing through UserTesting or a market research platform called FlexMR, but now we’ll use a different primary test platform. As someone who knows the user research basics, it was super hard to make myself watch videos about the importance of screeners, setting good objectives, and so forth—but understanding how it differs from my past research tools will be essential to keeping research projects flowing smoothly. 
I also spent considerable time hunting down past research and organizing it* according to product area. Agencies had some past test results to share but seemed genuinely surprised to have to share those with anyone client side (I’m sure the longer-term product managers relied on the agencies to draw their own conclusions without ever looking at results themselves). I reached out to the team that owns site feedback and got access to that platform. I connected to analysts and researchers in three different departments. I read hundreds of slides about site performance, usage trends, and KPIs. 
Was it all useful? Meh, not really. I could often only assemble two or three takeaways from any given report that had any meaningful impact on how our product org might work. But hunting down what’s already known gave me an excellent baseline of the current state of our sites’ experiences, and now I know what gaps need to be filled first. 
The remainder of my time was mostly spent doing one-on-ones with my new colleagues. I have a standard set of stakeholder introduction questions, and I rarely touch on all of the topics in one meeting, but the big question I’ve asked everyone is:
“What’s your familiarity with UX Research?”
While most folks have brushed up against it, and most UX Designers have worked alongside UX Researchers or done research for themselves in a pinch, it’s clear to me that the discipline is a bit of a question mark. They’re not sure where it fits or how I can help. They’re unsure how often they should work with me or what the timelines will be like.**.
So after my first month, I’m committing to two overarching goals for our seedling of a UX Research team:
  1. Devote time to provide UX Research insights throughout the product lifecycle, 
    not just when it’s time to test prototypes
  2. Educate the product organization as a whole about when they might need UX Research 
    because I simply can’t be everywhere at once
To impact digital products throughout the lifecycle, I will have to be loud. And to educate, I’m going to have to be persistent. 
I’ve done my best to make a little noise already. In my first week, I shared a great blog post where UserTesting had participants compare and contrast the dot-com experiences for Tesla’s Cybertruck and Ford’s F150 Lightning. The results were a bit surprising and definitely chuckle-worthy. I posted the link in our product-wide chat room and mentioned that this was the content I hoped to provide—voices and perspectives from real humans. It got tons of reaction emojis and was referenced later in a team call, so I know the word started getting around that I’d be bringing research insights to the team going forward.
I created an introduction deck to acclimate new team members and focused on answering the questions that kept coming up during my one-on-one meetings, such as “how do you fit into the work I’m already doing?” and “how much time is it going to take?” In the next 30 days, I’ll work on more educational content for the broader product org and plan more deep-dive training for my designers so they can advocate for UX Research when I’m not in the room.
I also plan to institute regular customer interview sessions that our entire team can attend. I know enough about our product areas and customer types to map out how often we hear from whom. My goal is to create a steady trickle of opportunities for customer exposure hours—what Jared Spool considers the “Fast Path to a Great UX.” 
This kind of program is great for establishing and maintaining empathy, of course, but it’s also a regular opportunity for everyone to lift their head up, sit back, and consider what they’re working on from a broader, interconnected perspective. 
Do I sound overly ambitious? Way in over my head? Or do you wonder if maybe I’m on to something? 
Well, I’ll do my best to check in again at the 60-day mark and let you know how things are going. 
Until then, let me share a realization I had on my very first day:
My welcome email included a video explaining our company’s mission. It’s about empowering people to be mobile and the company’s 100-plus years of supporting customers. Then it starts talking about the importance of transformation, with examples like Blockbuster losing out to Netflix by ignoring customer signals. My favorite line was, “When you ignore the need to change, what you’re really ignoring is the customer.”
I had to pause the video for a minute after I heard that. 
When I finally picked my jaw up off my keyboard, I went back and took a screenshot of the graphic, which was an illustration of a woman with her back turned away from a big building with our logo on it. 
I’ve never heard a company admit the stakes are so high to transform into a digital-first, interconnected-focused business. Most “customer first” language is nothing but lip service, something companies say but don’t actually have a clue how to do
If this is really an idea that the company has embraced, UX Research has the opportunity to make an amazing impact. And they hired me to make it happen. 
No pressure. 
Follow Ki’s journey as she continues to grow the UX research practice at Ford. Find out how her next 30 days unfolds—the trials, the tribulations, and, of course, the celebrations, in the next instalment of the transformation of a legacy automaker.

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