"The pandemic is a powerful reminder of how little I need in my life to feel satisfied." says Grab's Head of Design Randy Hunt
Grab is likely the most well-known startup in Southeast Asia. Its expansive range of different products and services is serving millions of people daily, and it's not a secret that the company has ambitious and lofty plans for the future. A visionary design-centered executive from New York is currently at the helm of the decacorn's design. In this in-depth interview, I talk to Randy about his journey from NYC to Singapore, handling the pressure to innovate quickly amidst the pandemic, the importance of business savviness for designers and even touch on topics revolving around life-changing lessons and philosophies.
By Jan Takacs, 19th November 2020
From New York to Singapore
Hello Randy, welcome, thank you for taking the time. Before moving to Southeast Asia, you have been living in New York for a long time. How was the transition for you? Any highlights you would like to share? What was surprising - or not so surprising? How is your experience so far? Randy: Hey, Jan, my pleasure. I was living and working in New York City for more than 15 years, and I would say that New York is for sure the busiest and densest city in North America. It still does not compare to the busyness of Jakarta or Ho Chi Minh City. But if one could be coming from the US and have the most preparation you could from that experience - I suppose that New York is as close as you could get, but of course, they're very, very different.
What is perhaps the most surprising to me is how infrastructure in the US is kind of old or ageing and in Southeast Asia, much of the infrastructure either doesn't exist, it's starting to exist, or it's brand new.
That was the first fascinating thing that I could observe quickly. Because on the one hand, one place may seem more developed, but then you live in another place, which is developing rapidly and in a much more contemporary way. That is quite exciting - especially with so many new things happening here for the first time.
The COVID-19 pandemic is obviously on everyone's mind right now. Do you have any intriguing observations from these challenging times? People seem to be connecting with the more fundamental parts of life, for example - at least for the time being. I think on a personal level, what I've experienced myself directly, builds on what you just suggested there. Which is that it's a powerful reminder of how little I need in my life to feel satisfied.
Even now, when I do get out for a workout, long walks or something like that - it's all within the same few kilometres. Also, many of the things I would typically do for recreation, entertainment or intellectual stimulation are just not available. So everything is just much simpler, stripped down to the basic elements. That's been, I think, really nice to experience actually. I am kind of thankful for that part of the experience.
The other thing that I observed, and it's a business observation, is how amazing it is to see the strength and resilience of a diversified portfolio.
Which would Grab be an excellent example of, I assume? Yeah, an enterprise like Grab is serving countless customers and many different kinds of customers in various geographies with a lot of different products and service verticals, you see all of these offerings affected in different ways.
A big part of our business and our history is in transportation, which of course, changed radically but changed in different ways in different markets based on local needs, competition, regulations and otherwise.
Then there are offerings like food - meal delivery, grocery delivery and other kinds of essential items. The need for that product and service became much stronger very quickly. And those are just two examples.
There are many other offerings we are currently developing for our customers. Overall, it's fascinating to see how these can be affected on macro and micro levels.
"An enterprise like Grab is serving countless customers and many different kinds of customers in various geographies with a lot of different products and service verticals."
How did the pandemic affect your product roadmap? Were there significant changes or just little tweaks? That's interesting. Did it change? It necessarily did, some of the new features we did in response as quickly as possible - those related to health, safety and hygiene. Some were already in the pipeline, and we brought them forward, fast.
We also added new offerings to the roadmap to address newly emerging needs and opportunities, and some live products and services were repurposed or put in a different context to best serve customers in the new normal.
An excellent example at a feature level is part of our driver experience. Previously, we used selfies for identification purposes. Now, with the same technology, we also use them to verify if someone is wearing a mask or not. So we were able to deploy quickly at scale distributed mask-checking interventions.
Very minimal interference from a technology standpoint and something that wasn't a part of the roadmap, but we have been able to get it done quickly in a time of need.
Delivery services in Southeast Asia see spike in business because of COVID-19 (Source: Channel News Asia, Photo: Mediacorp)
Grab exists and operates in one of the most diverse regions in the world. Every country is different with varying needs, mindsets and wants of people. How do you approach design in such a unique place? The answer is probably as complicated as the context you just described. I think it happens in a few different ways. One is to find the common problems that can be solved in common ways. Another is to look for the most impactful unique needs.
We pride ourselves in hyper-localization. Being able to localize is extremely helpful, and it compliments where you're able to identify things that can be the same. Understanding those two things is powerful because you're efficiently operating and executing things at scale when they're the same—and you're meeting deeply unique needs when it's critical.
To be able to identify both kinds of opportunities is helpful in being most impactful. We can put our time and energy appropriately into the things that are either shared and broadly impactful or other areas that are more difficult. When you save effort with shared solutions, you have more time and energy to put into the non-shared solutions.
Combining this all is done through methodologies that most designers would be familiar with—a lot of qualitative research, product validation, usability testing, and foundational research.
There's nothing radical in those methods. It's more about what we choose to do with these techniques, and then what we want to do with the insights that we gain. To understand that bucket of similarities and which things can be shared and which elements may need to be localized or hyper-localized.
"You're efficiently operating and executing things at scale when they're the same."
Grab operations span across 8 Southeast Asian countries (Source: Grab)
You mentioned specific design methods that you currently use in Grab. How is it different from your previous gig at Etsy? Is it similar, or did you have to change your approach to design leadership now when designing for a super-app? There are similarities and differences. It's similar in a sense that many best practices around building software products and services remain applicable. The role of research needs to be the same. The relationship between design and engineering needs to be strong.
There are also similarities in content strategy, localization and how you do quality assurance at scale.
When I was at Etsy, it was undoubtedly more complicated than it appears on the surface because it's a multi-sided marketplace, where you have a buyer experience and a seller experience.
There are also additional web-based products and services for different kinds of third parties - a mix of app experiences and web experiences.
All of that is similar, so what's different at Grab? First, it's far more complicated. We're involved in so many businesses. We have our general consumer, that would be someone who orders food, orders groceries, takes a ride, gets telemedicine services, buys insurance, tops up their sim card, and more.
Then we have our drivers and delivery partners. We have a whole set of product experiences for them that help them know where to go, what to do next, what stage of the process they're in, how to walk around the shopping mall, what turn to take, how to communicate with a passenger, what they've earned, how to be safe and more.
Then we have our merchants. We have enterprise customers that utilize our services as part of their business. We have each of those in different geographies and different languages, different regulatory environments, with various payment methods. Those permutations are very complex, and that's when the nuance comes in.
If I summarize, the high-level principles are the same, but the context and level of complexity - it's in a totally different universe.
"You can't solve the problem from within the problem."
You're responsible for a huge design team in Grab (there are well over 100 designers in the organization). Can you share some of your most essential learnings from managing design teams of this size? How do you, for example, resolve conflicts within the team? First, you can't solve the problem from within the problem. You have to zoom out a level to solve it.
I often try to take myself out of the situation and see things from a different perspective where you don't have A or B or where one direction is seen as right and another as wrong.
I try to understand the situation and its possible impacts over a slightly longer time arch. You may define different evaluation criteria when you view a problem from a higher level, and then you gain alignment around those new criteria. This allows everyone to meet on a new, shared playing field.
Once you've done this, you are in a position to work through the solution together with others. The answer could be – and often is – a third different outcome from what the original conflicting perspectives believed.
But sometimes you also realize...that it's nothing. That's one of my favourite moments: when we look at a problem through a new perspective and see there is actually no conflict at all. The right answer is to do nothing and not worry about it.
Randy as a speaker at IxDC Conference 2019 in Beijing, China (Source: Zhihu.com, IxDC 2019)
Business of design
Currently, one of the most important topics - if not the most important - is the business value of design. And the ability to connect the worlds of business and design. A lot of designers still struggle with this and are not comfortable speaking the business language. What is your take on this, and how do you see this crucial topic evolving? The topic front and centre for us right now. The way we're approaching it internally at Grab is really around education and with the utilization of simple frameworks. In a way, it's like improving our designs - it's kind of like a critique. Every single project should attempt to articulate its business contribution things. We created some guidelines to help our designers think it through. From there, it becomes about the practice and learning by doing.
When I look at this topic holistically, here is my hypothesis: designers have made this problem far more complicated than it needs to be. We've somehow placed business as the "other" thing.
Designers often treat it as a complex foreign topic. I can hear the inner voice, "Oh my goodness, our brains have right-brain tendencies and could never possibly comprehend this." Or we think that because we're creative, we can't engage with it. I believe designers have created this problem as much as anyone else because the fundamental concepts are so straightforward.
Once you understand fundamental business concepts, then connecting the dots between that understanding and applying it in your work is also fairly simple.
We are investing in our design organization, learning more about this perspective. We recently invited an old friend of mine from the Bay area to share a business value of design framework with the team. They have developed twenty different ways to measure how design creates value, divided into four categories: direct cost savings, indirect cost savings, a direct increase in revenue, and indirect revenue. That's pretty much it. These twenty ways fit into one of these four buckets. And when you understand them all, you see that they're all quite straightforward.
I think to follow through on them requires a willingness to be precise about our work and acknowledge that all parts can't be exact. By doing the rigour around the areas that can be precise, it creates the space or permission also to address areas that simply cannot be measured that way.
When you're trying to create a change in an organization or build with other business stakeholders, you have to ensure that you quantify or measure what you're pursuing, because that's an integral part of their regular focus.
"The business value of design is the topic front and centre for us right now."
The four core buckets for measuring the business impact of design (Source: Designer Fund)
If you can quickly say, what would help a designer or a design leader to be better at this? What would be your suggestion to people who are asking a question around "How can I be a better business thinker?" It might sound a bit weird, but I will share it anyway (laughs). I am sharing this because it worked for me. It's a very personal answer. For me, when I learned it, the whole thing became familiar, it became safe and not this scary "another thing".
If you ask me to teach a class for university students now, this is what I would do. There's a fee to participate in this class; you have a lab fee. It's $100. And the project of this class is to take that $100 and turn it into more than $100 using design. You'd need to break that down into its constituent parts. "I need to create something that someone would be willing to spend money on. I need to validate that the thing I created is something people would spend money on."
Why do you think that a lot of designers still perceive these relatively simple frameworks as something complicated and unthinkable? When, in reality, it's quite simple and logical? I don't know if we inherited this as a design industry from our origins that focused mostly on client service work, a kind of service providing mindset. There is so much going on in design, especially now, but I would say that there are two main branches of design happening today, one that evolved from human factors, industrial design, and engineering. Then the second one that originated from communication and graphic design.
The part of the design that evolved from advertising and communication design, there was a lot of pitching involved, a lot of selling activities. It's almost built on this history of a creative genius where they disappear into a cave, some magic happens, producing a design answer. Then you come back and try to convince people of how good it is through almost wizard-like presentation skills.
The problem with this is when it gets applied internally inside a large organization or with your business partners. Then your default mode is, I need to sell or explain my work and convince people of it as opposed to sitting down and partner with them to accomplish what they want to accomplish.
Rather than "Here's why the design is great!" More like, "What is the business opportunity? How can we help you capture it? Here are things that we've learned about your users that we think could help you achieve it." It's not about convincing people that the design is good.
If you can partner with people much earlier, you end up not having to convince them in the first place.
The crux of the job
Now to change the topic a bit. Can you share how your typical day looks like? I am sure many aspiring designers are curious about the daily activities of Grab's Head of Design. Well, if you were to observe and watch me, I'm reading a lot, I'm writing a lot, I'm using products and prototypes of products. And of course, these days video meetings. Some of that writing is communication, and some is more long-form writing as a form of thinking through concepts. I work on operational plans, proposals for new initiatives, and understanding the progress of particular initiatives.
I also spend time understanding research studies and customer learnings. All of this, I'm doing to try and enable, support, and focus our team to create products people love and use every day.
Would you say that communication is one of the most critical aspects of your role? If not the most critical? Absolutely. I think that it's communication and critical thinking, which includes awareness of the business and many of the other things we were discussing previously. The ability to translate design into other things and other things into design for people - this becomes communication as well.
And then finally, there's an element of judgment and taste. And I don't say that I'm sitting around creating directly any of our designed experiences. That's what the big team is for.
I offer a consistent perspective for what we should be doing and how it comes together in a greater whole.
By communicating that perspective to the people making things or to the managers of the people making things, we also create more of a shared view, which makes the end experience and the enterprise overall much more coherent.
Custom-designed sketchbook by Randy with a line from his book Product Design for the Web (Source: Randy Hunt, Instagram)
A life lesson
OK, I got a heavy one now. Can you share what is the most important thing that you have learned in your life so far? Maybe a piece of good advice or something that is still in your head after a long time and it's always beneficial in your life. Oh, wow. I can think of several, but I'll pick this one, which is the concept of the beginner's mind.
Can you elaborate on that a bit? It's a nice phrase that I like to repeat for myself at times. It's a reminder to start everything from a place of intentional naivety. Not assuming I'm right. Not assuming I know the answer. But to actively approach the situation from the perspective of a beginner.
Of course, you end up bringing with you all this other stuff. You can't erase your lived experience, but to me, this has been helpful in both my personal and professional life in so many ways.
"The most important thing I have learned in my life so far? The concept of the beginner's mind."
Essentially to have that ever learning mindset? To always be open to new perspectives and to be able to change your views if somebody gives you a good argument, for example? Yeah. That's exactly right.
"I like it best when it’s not quite right." (Source: Randy Hunt, Instagram)
What movie did you see the most times in your life? Haha (laughs). I would say Back to the Future 1 & 2, and probably The Usual Suspects. I can watch these anytime.
On your Instagram, you have this phrase "always black and white". Why? I enjoy it aesthetically, but I also love self-imposed constraints. I love the idea of choosing something and sticking with it. I always choose to make photos black and white. Actually, my whole life is this way. I only own black and white clothing.
"I love self-imposed constraints. I love the idea of choosing something and sticking with it."
So it's not only Instagram. You really translate that philosophical approach into your daily life as well. It's very satisfying. It's deeply gratifying, but it's also fun and silly.
Randy thank you very much for taking the time and for all the answers. Take care, and stay safe! Thank you, Jan, good to talk, take care!
About Randy Randy is an American design-centered executive living in Singapore, where he works as Head of Design at Grab. Before moving to Asia, he spent all of his adult life in New York City, where he dedicated more than 15 years to designing and building multi-sided marketplaces - namely Etsy and Artsy. He also authored a book titled Product Design for the Web that was published by New Riders in 2013. You can drop him a note via LinkedIn here.
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