User Interviews is growing a lot lately. Since closing a $5M round of funding a few months ago, we've been expanding our team and thinking a lot about what we want our company culture to look like. So the entire team got together to build a culture handbook that would reflect the quirky, cool, hardworking, crazy smart people that are what makes User Interviews amazing. We wanted something that would clearly reflect the values we held as a team and hold us to those values.
As a fully remote company, we felt it was important to write all this stuff down and make it accessible to everyone. We were inspired by culture documents at places like Basecamp, Zapier, and Buffer, and things like Amazon's hiring criteria from the early days.
So, without further ado, here's our culture handbook (it's also included below). It's a V1, so it will continue to evolve, change, and grow as we do.
When we update the handbook, we'll document it in this blog post and provide links to previous versions of the handbook. Any major changes will move the handbook to V2, and we'll update this post, detailing what changed, why, and provide links to previous versions.
We're making our handbook public because we believe wholeheartedly in these values, are striving towards transparency, and just in case it helps you, dear reader, as you build your own culture handbook.
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What even is culture anyway? And why do we need a handbook about it?
There’s no perfect definition of culture, but perfect is the enemy of good, so how about a good definition of culture?
Seth Godin writes “The work we do every day, the stories we tell, the paths we follow and the connections we make define our culture, and culture determines what’s next.” User Interviews client, Stephen @ Zoho writes “And that’s what culture is, right? A pattern of behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs based upon an agreed upon set of norms.” So yes to all that.
Culture is the stuff we do every day. It’s maybe the most important “special sauce” of the company as we scale.
Is this the kind of place a diverse, and talented set of people can do their best work? That’s what we want to achieve.
For User Interviews as a unit, best work means innovative, constantly improving work that puts the user at the center. We should make mistakes, but not the same ones twice. We should ask: “What do we already know?” before seeking to learn more. We should challenge what we actually know. We should make sure we’re asking the right questions, in part by asking enough of them. But we shouldn’t wait for consensus or certainty. We don’t go around looking for problem solvers. Each of us can solve problems on our own or in self-organizing groups.
This won’t be a place for everybody, because that’s a place for nobody, but we do want User Interviews to be a place where smart people who care about users, each other, and their work can be fully realized as individuals, and a team.
If Facebook’s operating mantra was “Move fast and break things,” what is ours? How about:
Solve real problems fast, guided by research.
Below are the words the team who came together in Austin in April, 2019 came up with to summarize our culture. You can see the range for yourself.
We also talked about psychological safety, “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” In cultures that are too defined by rules, precision, or even fear, interpersonal risk taking would be out of the question. But we believe we can be our most empowered, curious, human/genuine, inspired/imaginative, autonomous/take ownership/ambitious, collaborative, geeky, oh-so-meta, engaged/energetic, humble, truthy selves if we aren’t told exactly how to do it.
At the same time we try to be as inclusive, respectful and open to new ways of thinking as possible, without losing the chance for discourse and growth in trying to be "agreeable" or overly diplomatic.
Frameworks > rules. Guardrails > policies. Context > consensus.
This handbook is for new people to have a starting place beyond raw observation of norms. It’s also for everyone to have a place to refer: are we living our values? Do we need to adjust our handbook to better reflect where we want to be and go? The handbook is meant to highlight our shared standards and ambitious in terms of how we want to work together to achieve our best.
Just as important, though, is what this handbook is not. It is not a series of rules or even guidelines. The handbook may link to various procedures and guidelines, etc, but if there is a continuum of formal vs informal, freedom vs control, we err on the side of informal freedom, bound by a shared dedication to constant improvement, action, and user obsession.
We’ll review the handbook annually at the end of the year each year (subject to change as the rest of this). We’ll either do a retro dedicated to talking about parts we should adjust/adapt change, or work it async.
The core internal version of the handbook will live in Confluence, so anyone can comment in line at anytime, AND! People can jump on with likes if they like a comment and over time we’ll just figure out how we want to keep this thing updated and living and breathing. It’ll work out. We don’t know all the answers now OK? Leave me alone. 🙅♀️😉
The external version will live in Google Docs. It will be updated to reflect changes made to the internal version, and we will keep a public folder of all previous versions of the handbook as well. Because updating the Google Doc every time we make a minor change is a lot of work, we'll bundle minor changes into the next version, along with major ones. Any major changes will move the handbook to the next version, and we'll update this post, detailing what changed, why, and provide links to previous versions. We've left the public version open to comments as well, so feel free to let us know your thoughts!
At User Interviews our mission is:
To help teams discover and embrace user insights
User insights are any suggestions, feedback, thoughts, requests, or observations that users give companies. They’re extremely valuable and the best companies treasure them.
Discovering and embracing these insights has not been easy for companies. Popular analytics tools focus on what users do, but not why they do it—they are incomplete. User insights help explain the why. They help add a layer of context which can both expand the universe of product and business options, and also serve to validate solutions at any stage, from prototype to live iterations.
User Interviews makes discovering this important context simpler, faster, and more affordable for teams of any size so businesses can make better decisions.
The real start of the User Interviews story is the start of MobileSuites. In short, MobileSuites was an app for ordering room service and other amenities from any hotel. It started with Dennis and Basel working together as consultants. Upset with the process for checking in, they decided they wanted to try and build an app that would act as your room key so they could bypass the front desk. They brought Bob on board to help develop the app, and he became the sole developer.
At the time, Basel was enrolled at Harvard Law School, so the founders were able to use the resources at the Harvard Innovation Lab. They were also accepted into the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator in New York City. They raised a bit of money through friends and family as well as an Angel round which allowed them to ramp up the application and the data it needed.
Sadly, as the company grew, it became more and more obvious that they were not hitting the mark and so they started trying to communicate with users in any way that they could. They “famously” bought refundable airline tickets so they could talk to business travelers in the one place they knew they would be, the airport waiting for their plane to take off.
Once they had finally decided that MobileSuites was not going to work out, they got to working on the next product they wanted to build. They spent the summer of 2015 brainstorming ideas, testing them out, and getting rid of any that didn’t perform. In doing so, they kept running across the same issue: it was really hard to talk to your target users. Finally the light bulb went off and they decided to see what a solution would look like. They started with an MVP that involved posting on Craigslist, asking researchers to fill out a Google form with who they were looking for, and then would also post ads looking for those people. Before they even had a product, they had customers paying them to help them find the right participants.
Two years later, in 2017, they received their first seed round of funding from Accomplice and brought on their first employee, Melanie. From there, they grew the product and the team into what it is now: User Interviews.
After testing our MVP, we built a simple platform that would replace the Google form we gave to researchers and the spreadsheets we were using to track participants. We asked participants about their basic demographics and asked researchers what types of demographics they were looking for. We made it so researchers could tell us when they were available and then would manually schedule participants some time in that range.
Next we added the ability for researchers to give us a screener survey and we would recreate it in Wufoo and then manually sort through the participants to see who qualified. That led to an internal survey tool, which allowed researchers to codify what would and would not allow a participant to qualify for the study. Along the way we added the ability for us to pay participants in Amazon.com gift cards as well as via PayPal, but after a few bumps we ended up dropping support for PayPal.
At this point we realized manually scheduling participants wasn’t going to work out so we changed how scheduling worked to allow researchers to pick specific sessions times and showed those times to participants once they were approved. Somewhere in there we added the ability for participants to sign into their account, message researchers about their scheduled projects, and added the ability for researchers to collaborate with other researchers on a project.
The biggest change to our product came when we built Research Hub. This included the ability for researchers to upload their own participants into a private population, where they could then provide custom data about their participants, track when participants were last invited or scheduled, and manage a study using our screener, scheduling, and messaging tools already built for Recruit. This introduced tools for researchers to customize the emails participants were receiving, as well as a less branded version of User Interviews, so we were able to live behind the scenes.
What we have now is a tool that allows researchers to tell us what types of people they want to talk to, how they want to conduct their research (i.e. online, in person, or over the phone), and when they want to talk to those participants.
From there we notify the participants who match the desired characteristics and location and ask them to fill out a provided screener survey. Once a researcher has selected the participants they want to talk to, the participant is invited to schedule themselves and use our messaging tools and reminder emails to coordinate the research to be done. Once that research is done, the researcher is able to mark that session complete, which triggers participant payment.
The grand ideal for User Interviews is to become the central command center for user research. Our mission is to help teams discover and embrace user insights. Previously we focused on ensuring that researchers were always talking to the right people, but we have gotten pretty good at that.
Next we need to help them use those participants in a more cohesive manner. In helping teams discover insights, we would like to ensure they are able to use the tools they already use to allow them to conduct research through our platform.
Once the research has been completed, we want to help the researcher embrace those insights so they can use them to build better products. This means we have to enable them to connect the insights they are getting with the people they come from to allow them to build a more complete picture of what their users need and deserve.
If every researcher is able to do most of their job through User Interviews, we are well on our way. If they and others can lean on User Interviews to share user insights, to make user research a team sport, to help their businesses do more research and get more value out of the research they’re doing, then we have succeeded.
We look for intellectual curiosity, empathy, courage, and caring. This makes everything else possible.
We want self-starters and problem solvers (not merely problem namers). If there’s something you want to test, do it. If there’s something within the company you want to change, set it in motion. Taking action towards making the changes you want to see is the only way to ensure they happen. Put things on the calendar and hold others to the deadlines they set for themselves. Most changes can be reverted, but inaction leads nowhere.
Everyone talks to users and participates in Research @ UI. We learn the most about users by connecting with them directly, and we make the most use of the research we are doing by sharing it broadly across the team.
We practice what we preach. We exist to help teams discover and embrace user insight. We do this because we believe user insight is key to making good decisions. We know we need to make good decisions to be the massive success we believe we can. We need to build our decisions on user insight.
We bring the voice of the customer to business conversations. When it’s time to settle a debate, leaning on user insight trumps any one person’s opinion. Similarly, we look for ways to solve business problems with user centric solutions and try to limit making business problems that are at the expense of the user experience.
We make decisions based on data. We can’t always test everything, but we should always strive to make decisions based on the best qualitative and quantitative data available.
We have a roadmap to follow. As a company and as individuals, we should always have a path of where we hope to go. We should be thinking about where we’re going both short-term and long-term. The roadmap will change, but we have one. We aren’t just throwing stuff at the wall. We are always working toward helping teams discover and embrace user insight.
We are educators and partners to each other. We work together and share our knowledge with each other to grow. We don’t hoard our expertise, but instead help others learn about the fields we know most about. This means we are also students, if you want to learn more about something, ask around, knowing your teammates will teach you what they can.
We don’t pull rank. Everyone here is valuable and has something to add. If you have to order someone to do something they don’t agree with, something’s wrong. Take the time to give and learn proper context or have a debate about the right approach. Consensus isn’t good or necessary. Run an experiment or see what happens and adapt.
We assume the best. Working remotely can be tough, especially when it comes to understanding our teammate’s tone of voice. We try to assume good intentions. We recognize each other for our achievements and lift each other up. We provide constructive feedback and work together to be our best selves. Everyone has a bad day too; be empathetic.
We use the right tools to share the right information. We use many different channels to share information. Be intentional in choosing the one that makes the most sense; some ideas are more fully expressed over video call than written in Slack. If you have communication style preferences, make them known. We should all be working to support each other, so let your most frequent collaborators know how you can best work together. Assess the urgency of the information you’re sharing or a question you need answered. Everyone is willing to help, but may not respond right away. Be a detective! It’s likely you can find a solution if you take the time to do a little digging (but don’t spin your wheels). Trust that if someone comes to you for help, they’ve tried their best to seek the answer on their own. If not, gently point them in the right direction.
We communicate clearly and transparently. Misunderstandings happen when we’re left to read between the lines. We all have different perspectives; do your best not to make assumptions about what someone else knows or understands. Share your point of view clearly, own your opinions, and be honest when you mess up or don’t understand something—this is how we figure out what is and isn’t working! We also default to making decisions publicly, so do your best to loop people in by including everyone who could be affected in your conversation, either through group DMs or posting in public channels.
We share and embrace feedback. Without feedback we can’t do better. Understand that everyone has room to grow, so aim to be as flexible and coachable as possible, even if you don’t agree right away. Show up with feedback when it’s asked of you, and know when and where to share and store these insights when applicable. Make sure any feedback you share is coming from a place of genuine helpfulness. Have a low bar for positive feedback, call out wins and show gratitude in the #wins channel.
We actively explore new territories. We encourage people from other areas of the organization to weigh in, whether through big interdepartmental group discussions or transparent slack channels and living documents. We actively seek to combat groupthink and know individuals from different areas bring with them a fresh pair of eyes and unique lens that may allow for a creative reframing of processes, problems and solutions.
We are lifelong learners and risk takers. We feel encouraged to ask questions and jump in to try new things. We know that sometimes failing means you're pushing toward something new and great. We encourage everyone to continue pursuing learning outside of work as well. We understand that cultivating curiosity makes us a more engaged team with a growth mindset. We think through new ideas aloud and collaborate with each other to develop our ideas into solutions.
We are excited to experiment. Gray area and uncertainty aren't scary; they are an exciting opportunity to build and play an active role in shaping who we are. We don't settle for how things are, but rather strive for how they could be by scratching that itch to explore the possibilities. We are as enthusiastic about others’ ideas as our own and ready to support them in diving into their curiosities.
We believe in bringing your whole self to work. People should feel free and secure to be themselves while being respectful of others’ boundaries and preferences at the same time. When you come to work you are not just Joe the engineer, you are Joe the engineer who has interests, stories, anxieties, motivations. It’s all you and it all has a place here.
We embrace vulnerability. No one is perfect, an expert in every aspect of an ever changing ecosystem, or has it all together all the time. We are stronger for admitting our vulnerabilities, giving others permission to do the same, and ultimately freeing all to feel secure, fully themselves, and trusting of the team we work with every day to accomplish great things.
Be you. We are not a weird cult. Sure, we may repeat our mission over and over so it becomes second nature, but that doesn’t mean there is an artificial or uncomfortable one and true UI way. Do you. Be weird. Be respectful. Be smart. Be curious. Be real. Please feel comfortable taking smart risks. It’s how we grow as individuals and as a team. Share GIFs, emojis, reactions, and anything else that makes your communication a little more you.
This is a fluid document, and we’re down to change it if and when what embodies us and what we strive for today no longer illustrates who we are tomorrow. Like each of us at UI, this document is open and ready to shift in a new direction as time progresses and as we grow and change as a team.
Interested in joining our team? Check out our open jobs.
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