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How to Balance About a Million Kinds of Qualitative Research with Toast’s Head of Product Design and Research

Researching for hardware and software and service design can be—a lot. Here’s how Susan Rice manages it all.

Restaurants can be complex places. There are employees, managers, and guests, all trying to accomplish different things, all dependent on one another. Susan Rice, Head of Product Design and Research at Toast, is working to create a better experience for all of them. To do this she and her team work on a variety of hardware and software products.

Toast covers a lot of ground, serving B2B, B2C, and B2B2C (which is a thing), so Susan has her hands full. She and her team juggle things like researching for Toast’s new hardware, a handheld POS system called the Toast Go, and working on a brand new payroll and team management platform.

The Toast Go’s are pretty cool, we saw a few in the wild at our recent team-wide offsite in Austin,TX.

Researching for hardware

Recently, Susan got a call from one of the hardware developers, who wanted to learn more about how hand sizes affected a user's experience with the Toast Go. So they threw together some quick research that involved the hardware engineers and some UX designers. They asked people questions about the Toast Go, and then afterwards sent them to a designer (who was literally hiding around the corner) to have their hands measured. All in all, they surveyed 90 people in a few days and validated the engineer’s direction, so he could move forward with confidence.

Susan and her team use both high and low fidelity 3D printing to create mockups of the hardware they want to test, as well as tools like Invision and Figma to test new software designs. They test both with customers and internally. Since the hardware lifecycle is so long, Susan says it’s incredibly important to do research and get it right the first time.

Bringing it all together through service design

Everything Susan designs sits within a complex restaurant ecosystem, so she’s constantly thinking about the ways each new product or feature affects the bigger picture. Toast is out to design the entire restaurant’s operations, from taking orders to paying employees, so Susan spends a lot of time thinking about service design.

To Susan, service design is about creating meaningful experiences across all platforms and touchpoints, whether it’s a customer interacting with the Toast POS system and getting through the checkout process better, or empowering managers to do their jobs more efficiently by creating powerful payroll management tools. It’s a holistic way of thinking about not only the UX of the hardware or software you’re designing, but how those things can change the service as a whole.

This holistic way of thinking about things doesn’t just translate to the products Susan’s team builds, it’s also baked in to the way they work. The teams on her product design and research teams are organized around customer journeys. For example, one journey follows the restaurateur, from the time they sign up, through their onboarding process, and into their use of the products. Another journey follows the guests, from the time they walk into the restaurant to the time they pay the check.

When we asked Susan what she loved about user research, she expressed her holistic way of thinking again.

At the end of the day, we’re really just lucky to be in this field. You get to learn all the time every day. And you can’t ever assume you know all the things because you just don’t. That’s just a human thing. To learn from our customers and to serve them, it’s just so meaningful.

A lot of times, it’s easy to get caught up in the nitty gritty of features and deadlines. Qualitative research, as part of a design process, brings it back to the humans you serve. And when you seek to serve a complex system of interrelated people and platforms, that research is incredibly invaluable.

Listen to the episode

Click the embedded player below to listen to the audio recording. Go to our podcast website for full episode details.

About our guest

Susan Rice is Head of Product Design and Research at Toast. She's excited to be back in the restaurant world, since she spent 12 years working in the restaurant industry early in her career.


Erin: Hello everybody, welcome back to Awkward Silences! We are here today with Susan Rice who is the head of product design and research at Toast! JH is here, too.

JH: I'm here, this is going to be a fun one. Susan and I used to work together at Vistaprint and haven't caught up in quite a while. I'm excited to hear what she's got to say!

Erin: Cool. Toast is an interesting product that has a B2B component, a B2C component, a hardware component, and a software component. We're going to talk about what research and product design looks like in that ecosystem, but really focusing on researching for a physical product for hardware solution which is not something we've talked about a lot. Susan, just to dive right in, tell us a little bit about your role at Toast?

Susan: Sure. I've been here about 9 months, and it's been a whirlwind, I would say. Toast is a really exciting company in that we're going through progressive growth, in terms of the UX team and what we cover, there's just a breadth of products that we cover. You mentioned quite a few of them, in terms of the coverage like B2B, B2C, there's a B2B2C concept as well, and one other thing you didn't quite mention was our service design aspect. We're also just helping design for streamlining the on bringing experience, working very cross-functionally across the organization to make that a really great experience for our customers.

JH: Just to make it really simple, for anyone who's maybe not familiar with Toast, the best way to probably think about it, right, is the Point of Sales system in a bar, restaurant, or I guess, other food service-type establishment.

Susan: Yeah. We have kind of quick-service restaurants and full-service restaurants, you would go up to the counter and you would order coffee and maybe a salad or something else as well. That terminal, that kind of Android platform, is what is typically thought of the Android POS, so the Point of Sales System, but that talks to other systems, right, so there's where it pushes out to a kitchen display system, so that's for where a kitchen, a chef or somebody might see a printed ticket, in some cases, or in this case they'd see what would be a ticket system on a display. We also have things like, okay if you have a handheld, so we have these handhelds that, we put them out last year, our Toast Go, that are flying off the shelves.

Susan: If you think about like a full-service restaurant, a really large restaurant, it takes a lot of time between when your waiter goes to your table, and they take your order. If they had to go run to a terminal, you could lose 5 minutes there waiting for somebody so instead you can actually have them serve or use this handheld and take your order right at the table. We have that Toast Go, for instance.

Erin: Susan, I had never seen these before and I saw them everywhere I went in Austin. I don't know what your Austin penetration is like, but everywhere you went had these Toast machines, which I had never seen before, so they're doing very, very well in Austin.

Susan: Yeah. Our sales staff is really great in Austin, for sure. Across the country!

Erin: But I interrupted you, you were telling us about your variety of products.

Susan: Yeah, well there's just so many aspects to it. Even if you go to a quick-service restaurant, you might have a guest facing display that's attached to the POS terminal, and that's for consumers to be able to see the price as it adds up, the tally, or what have you or, maybe they'll sign up for our loyalty program there. We actually just recently launched this year our Toast Take-Out app. Launched in Boston now and piloting in a couple other cities for now. It's really new and it's exciting. That's a new product for us.

JH: Very cool. A question I have, restaurants as we just kind of, went over, are very complicated. Restaurant operations seem kind of crazy, how do you go about finding the biggest pain points, for the folks in those environments, I'd imagine a lot of the success and growth you've had is that your solution is better, and the people in restaurants prefer using it. It seems really hard to understand and factor in all those different variables of how the kitchens are set up, the different staffs, the different places it might have, and how do you actually go through that sorting exercise to figure out where you can help?

Susan: There's quite a few people, about 3/4 of our staff, or 60% of our staff at least are from restaurants. Whether they're restaurant owners, servers, or bartenders, whatever that is, so we have a lot of empathy just built-in naturally because we have that experience, myself included. There's that aspect, but we definitely do research as well as capture feedback all the time. Whether it's through our call system, calling for having a question and talking with one of our tech support agents, or if we're out in the field, or if we're reaching out to customers with specific questions and trying to understand an area or pain point. We just launched our Toast Payroll, today, literally. It's a new area for us, which is really, super exciting, so we've been researching payroll and the pains of people having to, restaurant owners and managers, having to manage their staff. Things like that.

Erin: It feels like, strategically, Toast is doing so many things as we've been talking about and the service design component of really having to understand all the touchpoints between the business, the employee, the end customer, and then having a software, a device, and a solution for all those interactions, feels kind of like what's going on here. Now you have payroll, too.

Erin: How did you start researching and building these products without it becoming completely overwhelming? Or is it overwhelming?

Susan: I'm like, is it not overwhelming?

Erin: But how do you approach it? Where do you start?

Susan: We have different teams, in different areas. We do break up the work. The way that I've mapped my team is by journey, so we have more of the restaurant journey, based on the different roles within the restaurant and what happens for a restaurant. For instance, you go through the sales process, you've decided to sign with Toast, what happens at that point, and the different phases. That's where we're really hyper-focused in terms of the service design and streamlining on boarding. Then, once you're on boarded and you pass the configuration stage, then you have to operationalize your business and also continuously add and acquire new guests and what tools are we providing from that perspective? I kind of mapped the team, my UX team, based on the journey of the restaurateur as well as when it's actually the guest experience. In this case the consumer. We want to make sure we're also designing for that end-user as well, so it's not just the different roles in the restaurant but the guest.

Susan: We're actually starting to think about the manager and the employee journey, and how that might be different, especially as we're talking about this payroll product. Did that answer your question?

JH: Yeah. So it sounds like you are able to, everything's very interconnected in this world, but you are able to isolate specific journeys and have people focus, that makes a lot of sense. When you are dealing with the hardware piece, how have you approached that? You mentioned the Android sale device, is that something where you need to know where it's positioned in the environment or see people using it so you can see like, "Oh they tend to have a lot of stuff in their hands," so they don't have a lot of ability to hit small buttons or whatever. How does that factor into it versus just the standard designing screens and seeing if they're usable?

Susan: The hardware is really interesting because we offer third-party hardware in some cases but we actually design our own hardware in other cases. The Toast Go, for instance, is all designed in-house so that's proprietary to Toast. Like I said, it's very successful. In those cases we want to make sure that we're designing something that really meets needs, and actually solving real problems. It's everything from something like, "Oh, what are the considerations for now that we've had this Toast go out into the world, how can we improve it based on the feedback that we've been getting," y'know, through product management support. Also, we have so much hardware at the end of the day because there's different kinds of readers, credit card readers, and then with dip, when you're dipping your card these days or actually an SC where you're tapping your card. Kind of like Apple Pay. How did we provide our customers with the right experiences and enable them because they want to be able to offer things like Apple Pay. We're researching all the time in order to improve those experiences.

Susan: Did I tell you about how we were recently doing some prototype-testing on some Toast Go's? It was fascinating because our engineer, who's out-of-state, reached out and said, "Hey Susan, I'm coming to town next week," or actually it might have been like this week, "and I need to learn X,Y, and Z" Like, oh, okay. We can do that, we can learn. So sometimes you have to find quick and dirty ways to get those learnings because somebody needs to know quickly.

Susan: In this particular case, we're trying to figure out things everything from like the size of your hand, whether that matters or not, trying to determine how you curvature, a lot of different aspects and elements of this particular design. We threw together a protocol within like, "Okay, meet me on Wednesday, at 12 o'clock, in the hardware pod, I'll bring somebody," and we huddled together and we quickly came together and we quickly created a protocol that actually required, it sounds super complicated, but it was three people, the first, the moderator, a note-taker, and we had to hide somebody around the corner.

JH: The man behind the curtain, yeah.

Susan: We don't believe in that! Nobody knew what we were doing and these answers to all these questions and then we had to like shuttle them over to somebody else to measure their hands. We'd map this measurement to their responses. Our hypothesis was that, the size of hand is going to matter in this case, is that true?

Erin: Was it true?

Susan: To some extent. Not as much as we thought, maybe in this particular case.

Erin: Got it. Were any adjustments made if the results were, what did it validate the prototype?

Susan: It actually validated the engineer's direction, hardware engineer. The direction, which felt good, because it was based off of 90, we ended up doing 90 people.

Erin: In a week? You did 90?

Susan: Well it's really quick. What we did for each person took about, 10-15 minutes. So at first we were really supporting and setting up the right environment, and the right protocol. I think we did like 35 and then I'm like, "Okay, Bert, you're on your own!" And then he was great. He and a couple of other engineers took this cart around, and I'm like, "Yeah, go to the second floor because they don't get to see us very often." And rolled that cart around, and then he rolled it around the R&D, and the marketing and the sales and he captured 90 results.

Erin: So he served as the moderator with an engineer as a note taker? Who was the hidden person behind the curtain? Another engineer?

Susan: It was one of my UX designers or my product designers.

JH: What I love about this is and I feel like, I kind of fall into this trap, too, is you think about software prototyping as being something that's become so rapid, and iterative. And for me, not working the hardware space, hardware's slower and it takes longer to get feedback and it seems like it's true if you're clever and kind of scrappy, you can still get important data pretty quickly just through maybe different approaches and different techniques.

Susan: Basically, you're creating problem-solving tools and apply it to, in this case research, problem that we had. It didn't matter that we're tech-savvy in this particular case because we weren't testing on tech. It was really about the physical nature of somebody. They did go also, in addition to that, so it wasn't just internal. They also went to customers. A few customers. Just to vet that out also but it helped us iterate the life-cycle or I guess the life-cycle of a hardware product, it just takes a lot longer to build and finally release. So you do want to take extra caution in making sure you feel really confident in your results and your direction.

Erin: What was the validation or physical user research before that point, with the hand-size testing? How many different versions of the products had been created as prototypes and tested in some capacity?

Susan: If I remember correctly, we did some internal feedback. Actually, I remember they had me go in there for instance and they'd already been talking about it so I just gave them feedback. They'd been giving each other feedback. That sort of thing. So this was the first time we had extended it past our R&D team and the hardware team. It won't be the last time either. We'll keep doing more revs because again, hardware it's just something you want to make sure you're getting right. It would take a few years again before another hardware, or another year. It's not like software where you're releasing all the time and if you, you know, you're like, "Oh I feel pretty confident this is okay," and then it goes out in the world and then you get poor results, you can just pull back. That hardware's a lot different in that aspect.

JH: Yeah the cost of being wrong is super high it seems like.

Susan: Yeah that's right.

Erin: Is most of the research that you're doing then, before a prototype makes it to an end customer? More discovery research and understanding context, field research, that sort of thing? Or how do you get to the point where you have this nearly finished, physical prototype for people to interact with?

Susan: It really depends. You're asking specifically for hardware?

Erin: Yeah, specifically for hardware.

Susan: For hardware, we actually give a lot of feedback even on the CAD designs, you know the prototypes that are just drawn up? Even before it's physical, we'll look at that, give feedback, maybe show it to customers to get a sense if there's a design sensibility factor. We'll actually run those through a 3D printer in some cases, depending on what this thing is, actually in that particular case what we did as well. We have a couple things that are prototyped right now and they are in the 3D printing stages and those vary in terms of fidelity. There's a lo-fi 3D printing and a hi-fi 3D printing. It gets closer and closer to the end result of what you would experience if it was manufactured. We're constantly going out in the field and sharing with customers, looking at it in terms of products that we already have, looking at the branding elements, there's so many different aspects of it.

JH: You have those tools, for the actual physical shape of the hardware and all that, I'd imagine that on the Toast Go that you mentioned, there was still a software component and there was a screen and other stuff, are you in parallel using more, I don't want to say 'traditional', but screen design tools such as whether that be InVision or Sketch or whatever to get feedback on the screens kind of independently and then trying to marry those together at the end? Or what does that process look like?

Susan: Yes. On the digital side, and we do some of that in parallel for sure, is we use the typical tools which are, you just mentioned two of them right, Sketch, InVision, we're actually trying out Principal right now for the first time. And then Zeppelin to deliver to deliver to engineers so it's pretty typical for most digital designers.

JH: And even though it's not a "standard screen", it's not like a laptop screen or maybe different dimensions in a little handheld device people are still able to interact with those and give meaningful feedback and still adjust?

Susan: Oh yeah. It's really easy to test, it's actually in some ways even easier to test, because you can bring it along anywhere. So yeah we would do any kind of testing that way. We have emulators as well if necessary, so we could do remote testing. I don't remember the last time we've done that for that product.

JH: Then, just more generally as you guys are looking for some of those pain points and stuff, will you do, this is like now I guess I've just created a fantasy in my head, where you guys do discovery research and you just get to like hang out at coffee shops at bars and restaurants and ask people why they did certain stuff or follow staff around. Is that a part of it at all or is that me, just creating a pipe dream on the side?

Susan: No, actually. It's really funny that you mention it because I was just in my team meeting and we were talking about that. Right now, we're doing a little bit less of that kind of, straight, "Let's go to a Toast customer and sit down and observe and not have specific questions that we're looking to answer or specific areas that we're looking to help solve for." So that's an opportunity for us and we if want to do it, it's a matter of time and resources. As of now, it's a little bit more targeted.

Susan: In the case of Toast Go, we have some customers, either a handful were using it already when we get feedback from or ones that could be potential users and we might have some broad general questions but then we'd also have some targeted ones as well. Yeah, I'd love to hang out in coffee shops all day.

JH: Yeah, that part seems fun.

Erin: You talk a little about service design, which is another topic we haven't spent a lot of time talking about on the podcast. I'm curious, that's an area you're passionate about and have spent some time on Toast, so curious about your experience there.

Susan: Yeah, I love service design. I love all of this aspect. I always love the fact that, we could debate that service design is the same thing as UX, is a bit different, there's a lot of commonality in terms of approach. Again, it's about how you apply creative problem-solving to certain areas. In this particular case, it's like these journeys and these experiences that you're creating that have some combination of digital and people, you know, the services that we provide. How could we streamline that as much as possible in meaningful ways and create moments that matter along the way, so when there is some kind of touch point it's meaningful to the user. It's not typical in the fact that it's beyond digital, but I also think of UX as being something that should be beyond digital. It's just somewhere along the line, it's what a lot of people think UX is, somewhere people became more digital focused, but if you think about the broadest terms about it's improving the user experience then it doesn't matter what kind of touch point is creating that experience. So that's what we're looking to help design for and help, ultimately, improve not just the customer's experience but also the bottom line for our company.

JH: So service design, the way you were justifying it there is just, it's really holistic. Whereas, UX gets used in a way that's become a little bit more narrow, whether that's correct or not. Is that the main distinction?

Susan: Yeah and so, I mean there's a lot of opinions on this, I mean there's a lot. I'm not saying mine's the right or the wrong, it's just my opinion. Which is, you know, I look at user experience at being the broadest notion on how to improve somebody's end user experience and it doesn't matter what that touchpoint is. At some point, people started differentiating between digital and services.

Erin: Of course, the problem, especially when you are focused on the research side and you know the user needs this, you know they're paying, you know they're context, anyone in the company can be part of that solution of delivering that user experience. Whether it be designers or engineers or customer support or whoever might be part of that digital, or service experience.

Erin: Have you found any interesting ways to impact that service side of things? Or interesting ways to gather research that translate to that piece of the UX puzzle?

Susan: We're in the middle of a really big initiative right now. I also look back at my time in it, my money and I think at the end of the day, it takes a lot of people and a lot of subject-manner experts across the organization to really be able to create a streamlined customer journey and a really excellent customer experience. The biggest thing to me is that it's very stake-holder heavy. That means in order to do that well you need a lot of different people with a lot of different lenses to provide the input to help create what that looks like. Create that kind of shared vision around where you want to head. That's where I think it comes a little bit different. It's a little bit different than having your [inaudible 00:24:03] working on that team to kind of iterate on a product or feature set or what have you. That's how I see it being different and where there's the opportunity to create really great things is because you're not doing that in isolation because you just can't.

Erin: How do you get a variety of intelligence stake-holders all on the same page?

Susan: Great question. Sometimes it can be hard! Right now, what we're trying to do is just do that like, "Hey, what's current state, let's make sure we collaborate on this, hey what are shared metrics because sometimes what happens is organizations have actually KPIs that can sometimes have a little tension against each other, they might be conflicting to some extent? How can we make sure we're creating shared KPIs or this journey, this customer journey. What can we do to create some artifacts that help articulate what that looks like, what the end experience looks like, so that we can back out and we can say, "Oh, all of these different things are happening within the organization because people are moving in every direction and moving fast." How can we make sure we're moving in the same general direction, we're roaming in the same direction, and sometimes I find that those artifacts are what helps. It's the process that's building those artifacts is so important. Again, you can't do that in isolation, right? One shared vision and shared outcomes, people have to be involved in it.

Erin: What's a sample artifact?

Susan: Like during mapping, is a very calm artifact. So what's the current state, sure, but what's a future aspirational journey look like? That's one. We're working with a consultant firm, so they love to use the Airbnb example. If you look up "Snow White", you're going to get Snow White. They have some really great storyboards and that helped define the guest journey, and also that two-sided marketplace and it unlocked quite a bit of the way to think about how to design for the guest journey.

Erin: Susan, I always like to ask at the end of these recordings, what we missed or if there's something you want to share that we will, seamlessly fold into the episode, or pull out in a little clip, something you've learned over the years? Something you believe most people don't agree with that you want to get on the record? Anything else about life at Toast or user research? Open for whatever.

Susan: So much pressure.

Erin: No, no pressure.

Susan: I don't know. I mean, at the end of the day I feel like we're really just lucky to be in this field. It's fun, it's dynamic, you get to work with people and really learn all the time, every day. You just can't ever assume you know all the things because you just never do. That's just the human factor is real. Learn from our customers and be able to serve them, it really is meaningful, so I love being in this industry. Like I said, I don't even know if I said that in this podcast, I have a restaurant background, so that was really meaningful for me to be able to work at Toast and be able to be in an industry that I've really loved. It was my first job and then I continued in the restaurant industry for 12 years, my husband was in it for over 20, maybe 25, I don't know, something like that. We're kind of restaurant people, so it's great to be on this side of it.

Erin: Thanks for listening to Awkward Silences! Brought to you by User Interviews.

JH: Theme music by Fragile Gang.

Erin: Editing and sound production by Carrie Boyd.

Carrie Boyd
Former Content Writer at UI

Carrie Boyd is a UXR content wiz, formerly at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.

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