How Amy Buckner Chowdhry leads AnswerLab to create the ultimate user experience

Amy Buckner Chowdhry, CEO & Co-Founder, AnswerLab

The future is all about digital, and the companies that will come out on top will have the most outstanding user experiences, Amy Buckner Chowdhry says.

The CEO and co-founder of AnswerLab, a consulting firm that helps many of the world’s leading brands build user experiences across digital platforms, focuses on client research to help guide companies throughout their product development process. Founded in 2004, the firm of 30 has worked with clients such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Honda.

Smart Business sat down with Buckner Chowdhry at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how AnswerLab works to create and implement user experiences that meet the needs of both company and customer.

Q: What was the impetus behind AnswerLab?

My co-founder Dan Clifford and I both worked at a company called Vividence, and Vividence provided a piece of software that would allow you to measure and benchmark the customer experience of websites. That was one method of many that could help clients improve their digital experiences. Having built some knowledge there, we felt we wanted to offer the whole tool kit — that no matter what a client’s business question is when they’re developing a digital product, we wanted to be able to offer the right research methodology to answer it.

Q: How is bringing in an outside firm beneficial to the development process?

In your average organization, you don’t have one person who’s that decision-maker. You have multiple people, and what happens is that the competing needs of each of the groups can result in an experience that gets watered down.

It’s incredible to see how easy the user experience within an organization can go south because there are too many stakeholders — there are too many people involved in making the decision around what gets launched.

When you bring in an outside, independent and objective research firm to help in your process, you can get back to what the voice of the customer is.

Q: How do you engage the customer to identify their needs?

It typically involves recruiting them into a research environment where we’re engaging with them one on one or in a group setting.

We can start with a database or a list that our client has of their customers. We reach out to them for a particular research study and maybe do focus groups with them. We may visit them in their homes to watch how they use a product, bring them into the lab environment and watch them behind the mirror as they try to use a product, or bring them in to do something on a page to track their eyes to see what they’re looking at on the page. Do they notice the fad or do they not notice the fad?

Q: What process do you have to turn a good idea into a tangible product or service?

The day to day is about getting these projects out the door to clients. That’s what most of our teams focus on. But we need to also be innovative in taking what our services and research are and taking them to the next level. We go through a rigorous strategic planning process where our entire management team meets quarterly.

We do a SWOT analysis and we sit down and look at what are the opportunities here. When a new product will help address some of the items that come up on our SWOT analysis, we turn that into a strategic priority for the quarter and we track against it.

If we identify that a specific threat may be that a competitor has a competing product or if we identify that there’s a huge opportunity on the table to basically grab this unmet need from our clients, then that becomes a product or a goal that we drive through as a strategic priority. We take the results of strategic planning process and put it into a one-page plan … and that’s on every single person’s desk in the office.

We have an online tool that we use. Everyone has to log in to on Friday and update it, and it shows our progress toward implementing these strategic priorities. So there’s the goal to get this product launched, and there are all the tasks associated with it and all the people who need to help make sure that happens.

Q: When you’re developing a digital experience, do you try to go that extra step to surprise users with something unexpected?

(There’s) a big difference in our world of user experience between a game user experience and your traditional user experience on the Web. One is called usability, which is your traditional ‘Can you pay this bill online without getting confused?’(or) ‘Can you register for this website?’

In a traditional usability experience, you could have elements of delight, but you want to avoid elements of shock.

(Another user experience is) what we call playability, which is ‘How easy and enjoyable is it to engage with this game?’ And in a playability sense, it’s OK to have a surprise. It’s good to have gaming elements that are discovered as you go, and it’s important for that game overall objective to be clear to you. And it’s OK for things to be difficult.

Q: What is the difference between a surprise and a shock?

The difference between a surprise and a shock is that surprise delights you.

Sometimes it’s just making an assumption, skipping a step for you so that you don’t have to think about extra steps as you go through the process. If it adds to ease of use, satisfaction, delight with a product, then that’s a great surprise. The bad surprise is what often happens with user experiences, which is actions that you take that have unintended consequences. You have an expectation that you click X or add Y to your shopping bag then Z’s going to happen, and it does not.

A really great surprise has to delight and not take someone for a loop.

Q: How do you stay motivated and keep creativity flowing for yourself and for your organization?

Our company works with the innovators. We are able to see incredible products or ideas for products before they go live.

Simply by doing our jobs, we stay incredibly energized and feel creative because we’re part of this process or this energy …  around building something new and creating something new. We get to see it first, and we get to have input into it.

We focus a lot on trying to ensure that our team can get the right professional development that they want. We have a series of learning luncheons that we set up where we’ll bring in outside speakers to talk with the team and keep them engaged. We’ll watch a ‘Ted talk’ during lunch together. We’ll have individuals within the company present on the work that they’ve been doing.

Q: How do you recruit new hires?

For our research team, who are day in and day out connecting with our clients and consulting with them and doing the research, we typically recruit straight out of school. They’ve just got a Ph.D. in cognitive science or cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction or computer science, and they’ve done a lot of work in their academic field. They’ve done a couple internships. Then we put them through AnswerLab University. And we do an exercise with them when we’re going through the recruiting process to make sure that they can think on their feet. We give them a very quick assignment to do that they have to turn around to make sure that they will be able to adapt to our environment coming out of academia. So they have a great foundation, and then we help put on the rest, the consulting component.

When I think about growing AnswerLab, a lot of that is focused on ‘How do I create opportunity for everyone there?’ And it’s not growth for the sake of growth. It’s growth for the sake of every person within the company having an opportunity to learn a new industry, try a new product, build a new skill set, move into a different role, open a new office.

Q: What was your biggest barrier for growth in the early days?

The biggest barrier truly for me was not stepping out of the day to day. If I could start all over again, I would have hired our smartest, most senior people first and had them run the rest of the business while I stepped out of it and focused on growing it and setting the vision and the strategy for it. I spent a good couple years still doing the front-line research myself until we got big enough, then slowly but surely started hiring people.

How to reach: AnswerLab, (415) 814-9910 or