Design Leadership Interview with Radhika Bhalla
Hi Radhika! What do you do at DoorDash?
I lead a small but mighty UX Research team at DoorDash. My team works very closely with cross-functional partners to discover product opportunities, gather customer insights and evaluate the product/design decisions.
Tell me about your background:
I grew up in India. My family moved every 2–3 years because my dad was in the Air Force. I went to a boarding school for 9 years where I lived with students from diverse backgrounds speaking different languages. This was my introduction to observing human behavior.
I studied Architecture in my undergrad, determined that I’d solve important issues like low-cost housing for the world. When I got an internship at a government org, I found that many decisions were driven by the architects themselves without understanding the clients’ real needs, and that’s when I knew that this wasn’t the right career for me.
It’s always interesting to hear the stories of people who had a different start from their current career. How did you become a UX researcher?
I found my way to become a UX researcher through practicing a hybrid of design and research.
When I felt a bit lost as an architecture student, a mentor of mine who worked at one of the few design research companies in India introduced me to a research position. I got the taste of research for a year and really liked it.
In 2007, I came to the US to go to a grad school for Industrial Design at Art Center College of Design. There were many good grad school options in India, but they were mostly focused on Indian grassroots, and I wanted my learning to be more global for my future career.
Art Center had a program called Design Matters, and it partnered the design students with nonprofit orgs. One of the alumni initiated a fellowship around this program, and I was one of the first fellows. For a year, I partnered with a social enterprise called Sustainable Health Enterprises whose mission was to locally manufacture biodegradable sanitary pads for women in Rwanda. My job was to productize the prototype that MIT students had built. It was almost a mission impossible because in Rwanda, access to everything is expensive and people can’t afford to buy a biodegradable pad. We spent a lot of time lobbying the government to remove the luxury tax that’s put on the sanitary pads. It was an amazing opportunity to investigate what the women in Rwanda can do in their lives if manufacturing the sanitary pad isn’t the job for them.
What was your career journey like after school?
After graduation, it was time to get a real job, and I always had a heart in working for social causes. I joined Hot Studio as a Design Strategist which had a social innovation department. A lot of projects in my early career were centered around civic innovation or healthcare. Because of my design background, my job stayed as a hybrid — research and design. When Hot Studio was acquired by Facebook, it was the time when I decided to fully join the research lane.
Since then, I worked at Facebook for over 4 years and led the research of International Experience at Google for 2.5 years. While at Google, I was grateful to be able to spend a lot of time in my home country India to drive some meaningful differences.
Having been a researcher for a decade now, what is your own ultimate career goal as a researcher?
Firstly, I’m interested in defining what building a research team culture looks like in the world we live in today. In almost every company I worked at, products start very US-centric and then hack into global. I want the teams to re-envision what a good global product looks like from day one.
Second, coming from an architecture and design background, I love building stuff. I believe that the role of the researcher has been also evolving. I’m interested in changing the companies to be data-driven to “insights-driven.” The insights can come from big data or small qualitative research.
Third, people usually think that research slows things down. I’d love to find a path for the research team to change the perception. Many researchers want to be absolutely confident about the result they share and it takes a long time to perfect it. They need to learn how to scale back to give just enough insights to form a decision and be ok with some ambiguity to move faster. At Google, I learned that having a structured process helps move things faster. Similar to their well-known five-day design sprints, researchers also tried getting quick results in five days.
Through a lot of trial and error, I also learned to develop my own voice vs. simply reporting research results. Having a perspective on suggestions makes a researcher an even more valuable partner in the cross-functional org.
Now you’re in DoorDash as a Head of Research. We’re very lucky to have you join us. I’m curious what’s been unique about DoorDash that you didn’t experience in other companies?
Unlike other consumer tech companies like Facebook and Google where the product is the business, DoorDash stands for much more than just product. It’s about operationalizing the entire experience across offline and online.
In the Venn diagram of three circles — Business, Technology, and Human, every company had a different size circle. Google had the biggest circle in Technology while Facebook had the biggest in Users (through data). DoorDash seems like one of few companies with all three circles in equal size!
Also, I have never been in a company that is so into writing — it’s joyful to find so many docs and memos in detail. As you walk into meetings, there are reads on printouts, and people take 10–15 mins to read and ask very thoughtful questions to bring everyone to the same page. It’s interesting to think about how this culture influences the way the researchers should present the insights. It challenges how succinctly the researchers should write insights so that the large group can consume the content easily, but with just enough details.
Let’s switch the gear a bit and talk about your management experience. You have managed different teams in your career. How do you think your team will describe you?
I believe that you need to be a different manager to different people depending on what they need at different moments. And I’m proud that each person I’ve managed would have a different description of me. More junior researchers would say I provided a mix of teaching and mentoring. I take a more hands-on approach to solve the problems together. More senior researchers would say I was open to hearing their ideas on the research approach and constantly inspire them to stretch goals.
Another thing they will say is that I get hands dirty and help them whenever needs arise. And of course, sometimes it bites me back with the work and life balance! 🙂
I also hope they would also say I put the team before myself. My favorite managers and mentors gave their teams a boost to their shoulders and propped them up. So I hope to be the same.
As you build the research team, what qualities are you looking for in a researcher?
It depends on the level of individuals, but since we’re currently focused on hiring more senior talents, I can speak to what I’m looking for in senior researchers. “Senior researcher” doesn’t just mean they just have many years of experience under their belt. It means they have proactively led teams to scope out research roadmap and played a strategic partner while being deeply embedded in the cross-functional teams. Because we’re a small team and we train the cross-functional teams to self-run research, it’s important that you can mentor others. Also, I’m looking for someone who has experience of transforming the culture of the research team. Again because our team is small, every member shapes the culture of the team.
What kind of tips would you provide to the researcher candidate who might be interested in applying to DoorDash?
This isn’t limited to the research candidate — it’s important that you’re able to articulate why you’re applying to this position. In other words, why are you excited about DoorDash? For senior researchers, it’ll definitely get our attention if you can highlight your experience in mentorship or proactive research leadership in the cover letter.
Now on the personal side… What do you do for fun?
I adopted a cutest Labradoodle puppy back in Jan last year. His name is Frisco. I love taking a walk with him every morning and evening. And of course, he changed our life completely. Now my husband and I are on the lookout only for dog-friendly hiking places or drivable getaways.
Another hobby of mine is boxing. Yeah, real boxing! I discovered my interest in it 4–5 years ago when I lived in NY and met with a great trainer. He taught me the principles and strategy of defense in boxing, and interestingly those learnings were useful in some stressful situations with stakeholders at work. I haven’t found a good trainer yet here in the SF Bay Area (if you have a recommendation, please give me a holler), but my husband got me Fight Camp gear — I should get back into it.
I’m also into reading, especially historical fiction these days. I’d recommend the last book I enjoyed reading: Lost Girls of Paris. It’s about a small group of women spies during World War II.