Interview: Netflix Lead Product Designer, Ghaida Zahran

Ola Nilsson

Ghaida is a lead product designer at Netflix with over 12 years of experience in design at e.g., Change.org and ZURB. And she is one of the speakers at From Business to Buttons 2020! We had a chat with her.

I get the impression that Netflix is extremely data-driven in how you approach design. It feels almost like the algorithms are part of the design team, what're your thoughts about that? How would you say that differs from organizations that don't have access to that amount of user data?

 – I can't speak to the content decisions since that's not my area of expertise, but on the product design side, there are many data sources that factor into our decision-making. Data is informative, but it's one part of the picture. As a design team, we're passionate about understanding and advocating for our members, and in the Growth team's case, the non-members. We partner very closely with the Consumer Insights team, to come up with questions we'd like to answer together through quantitative and qualitative research studies so that we can better understand the customer. 

– I would also say that we're more data-informed than data-driven. For example, after the results of an A/B test are analyzed, the project team gets together to discuss the data and our next steps. In my experience, productization is never 100 percent straightforward, and there are almost always tradeoffs to make when interpreting data. The team that discusses those tradeoffs is cross-functional, with engineers, researchers, designers, and product managers all weighing in with different perspectives. I would encourage organizations that don't have access to data or A/B testing infrastructure to expand their definition of data. For example, conducting a qualitative study with eight participants yields data that can inform design decisions; the key is to approach design as a vehicle to ask questions, and sometimes that question can be answered by a few people trying a scrappy prototype.

 UX is a foundation for Netflix, is the impression for many. Is it obvious for every part of the company, or is it sometimes a struggle like in other companies?

 – UX is understood to be a valuable component of our business. I've found that once I've engaged with an internal stakeholder on a project, they're open to collaboration, and they get the value of design. Where there might be challenges is keeping that collaboration door open, and we recognize this challenge and are constantly working to figure out ways to address it. For example, we have a weekly design show where designers are encouraged to show their work no matter how early or late in the design process they may be. That design show is held out in the open so passersby can stop and see what we're up to.

 And you are global. 158 million subscribers in more than 190 countries and territories around the world! How do you work with cultural differences?

 – This is one of the main challenges and joys of working at Netflix, and it feels like we're approaching this challenge the right way, with humility and an open mind. We let our curiosity and lead the way, and we understand that one size does not fit all.

You are also into Girls Develop it – what's the story about that?

 – Girl Develop It is a non-profit focused on empowering women through affordable classes and workshops on coding and design. I got involved with the organization in 2014 when I was speaking at a conference in Baltimore that was partly sponsored by Girls Develop it, and I got to learn about their mission from one of their instructors who was also speaking at the event. When I realized they did not have a San Jose chapter, I founded it and co-led the chapter for three years. I stepped down from leading the chapter after I moved to Oakland, about 50 miles away, and having grown the chapter to about 1500 members, I felt like it was in a good place for new leadership. I passed on the torch of leadership to a student who had become one of our instructors.

But you are still up to lots of things, in your work of course, and you sail, and you play the drums, I have seen on a picture of you after a Google search... How do you manage it all?

 – Well, I don't know about my drumming skills now – the last I played was in 2015, but yes, I do sail. I've always wanted to learn how to sail, and when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2012, it seemed like the perfect place to learn. In 2018, the timing was finally right, and I started taking sailing lessons. I'm now certified to charter boats of any size anywhere around the world, and I often take my friends out for day sails around the bay during the summer.

Thank you, Ghaida! We're very much looking forward to having you as our guest in May!

– Thank you! I've heard great things about From Business to Buttons, and I'm looking forward to coming!

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