You head to the grocery store to pick up a few things. Subconsciously, you make dozens of tiny decisions: the brands you like, the right ratio of yellow to green in your bananas, how your cart is organized, how your bags are packed. Now, imagine a product takes over all of that for you. What does that even look like?
At Instacart, that experience is what designers are working to solve. More than pretty pictures or screens, the focus is touchpoints, process and what’s important to customers. As Head of Design, Mitch Geere is thinking about communication design, experience design and product design. In his mind, design is a verb. It’s finding solutions. Synthesis, and discovery. Mitch shares his story about getting the right people in place, the gift of design and how designers are partners rather than service individuals.
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Welcome to The Bureau Briefing, a podcast by the Bureau of Digital, an organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode, we're gonna talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now for your host, Carl Smith.
Carl Smith: Hey everybody, welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. It's Carl, and stopping by the Bureau studios today, we've got the Head of Design at Instacart, Mr. Mitch Geere. How's it going, Mitch?
Mitchell Geere: Hey, good on you, Carl.
Carl Smith: Now Mitch, we met in Koloa at Design Leadership Camp. I got to learn more about what you were doing at Instacart, and one of the things that really struck me was you had only been there for about nine months. I just started thinking about, what is it like to go into an established company that is in ... not a crowded space, but definitely a competitive one, and be put in charge of design? So if you don't mind, let's just dive in and talk a little bit about your background, like what you were doing before, and then how you came in to become the Head of Design at Instacart.
Mitchell Geere: Yeah, definitely. It is actually a really interesting industry to be in. It's crowded, but in a way that's not super obvious. Also, there's been quite a bit of large failures in this industry.
But to circle back to the beginnings ... Before this, I did multiple startups. My most recent one was a company called Daybear. Effectively, what we tried to do was make a way for people to provide childcare in their home without them actually having to run a business. So the idea is that if you're a preschool teacher or a stay-at-home mom, we can get you four or five kids that you can take care of, and we'll provide you with the licensing and all those kind of things. We'll take care of all the marketing, all the business logistics, all the payments, all those kind of things. So we did that for about two years.
Ultimately, we didn't quite make it. So I took some time off, and I tried to evaluate what I wanted to do with my career going forward. I'd had multiple careers before. I've been a CTO. I've done a lot of product. One of my earlier companies I did before anything else major when I first came to the U.S. was a company called Hornet, which couldn't be more different from Daybear. It's now one of the world's largest gay social networks. I think I was actually the only straight person in the entire company for a very long time, including the board.
So I did that for a while. Had a really terrible accident, and decided that anything that I do from there on out has to be something that makes a remarkable difference in people's lives. So that brings me to the Instacart thing, where I took that year or so off trying to figure out what I wanna do next. Instacart just kept coming to mind. My wife's in nutrition. She's a physician and she focuses on food being medicine, so it's the thing that keeps us alive and healthy. So it's a big thing in our family. We've been Instacart users. We were Good Eggs users. So when the opportunity came up to chat to Instacart, I did.
As I dug into it more and more and more, I realized that they'd done such a good job at building the foundation of this machine that can take groceries from one store to the person. But what's left was that experience, that immersive experience that when you get to the grocery store, you can feel the products, you can see the things, and they jump into your taste buds. Instacart was lacking that. So for me, the challenge was, could I build the team around creating that? Can I make Instacart an incredible experience that people can go to and immerse themselves in products and find those food items that can nourish their family and supply that bit of something that they really need in a convenient, fast way?
So that's the short story of that. But part of it was also ... A couple years ago when we were busy with Hornet, that company ... We were super busy, and we were trying to figure out how to optimize our life. So my wife and I put together this little database based on recipes that we eat often. What it did was, it basically spit out a grocery list off of those recipes. What I realized is that we almost halved our grocery list by being very specific with what we buy. That's just a little seed that was planted a few years before this even became a reality. So when I saw the Instacart opportunity, all of that came rushing back. So yeah.
Carl Smith: Was this a position that was open, or did you reach out to them just to say that you were interested in working with them? How did the connection happen?
Mitchell Geere: It was a position that was open. I didn't actually know it was open until they reached out to me. Yeah, I think just a few months prior, they had had a leadership change in the design group. It was open for a little while. They'd been searching for someone for a few months. They just couldn't quite find a fit. I guess I happened to be there at the right time and the right place, and I happened to be a fit with the team. I'll have to check with the team, though. I might be wrong.
Carl Smith: You loved the product. You used it and you saw that it was functional, but that it had so much that it could add to the experience. How could they say no? If you come in and you got the chops and that attitude, it would be pretty hard to turn you away.
So you get in and you get yourself acclimated in those first couple of weeks. Then how do you lay out your plan to start improving the experience?
Mitchell Geere: I think it's still not quite there yet. It's one of those things that-
Carl Smith: Well, it's only been nine months. Give yourself a year.
Mitchell Geere: Exactly, yeah. I think that the first thing is just really understanding the drivers of the business. 'Cause from the outside, everything looks simple enough. But we're a four-sided marketplace, if you think about it. We have partners on the one side, which is our CPGs like Procter-Gamble, those kind of folks. On the other side, we have retailers like Albertsons, Krogers, those kinds of things. Then we have shoppers, the people who fill out orders. Then we have the consumers, the folks who ultimately buy these products. So just understanding the dynamic between those things, then thinking about what the flywheel is, essentially, of the business. What drives what to make this business move forward?
Then the other component that I really had to get in sync with is just the kind of margins that we deal with. The grocery industry is not known for massive margins like a payment solution or something along those lines. We're talking about nickels over here. So being very mindful in how we spend our time and our money. One of our values here is, "Every minute counts." So it really makes you sit back and think, "What is the team that I can build that's gonna drive the most value to the business at this point?"
So some of the things that we're thinking about is ... One is just our shopper relations. What are we doing for them? How are we making their lives better? So putting a lot of emphasis there from the design team, from the product team. Making sure that we're paying attention to them. Making sure that we're creating systems for them to be effective for them to drive a higher quality output ultimately for our consumers. And on the other side, really thinking about, what is that discovery experience for a consumer?
So my focus right now is on those two entities, so the [inaudible 00:09:09] and consumer side, and just thinking about, what's the ideal team set for those? One of my first things was to make sure that I get agreement with product and business that I can at least match a good ratio with our design versus engineering team. Prior to that, our design team was grossly understaffed and over-utilized. I think we had a ratio at one point of 1 to 27, or something along those lines. But now we're eking towards that 1 to 8 ratio, which I think is more ideal. So we can actually have that bit of space where we can think about, what is that little step further that we can do as a design team, as opposed to just reacting to tasks, where we really make a remarkable difference in the experience as a whole?
So the team sets that I'm thinking about is communication design, experience design, product design. Product design obviously focusing on the screens and the tasks and the things that users wanna accomplish. Communication design is how we think about making those things delightful. How do we communicate effectively out to which of the sides? How can we communicate effectively to them? Then experience, thinking about a particular actor, be it a shopper or consumer. What is their end-to-end experience along each touchpoint? And having those people communicate to the product designers, the communication designers, making sure that there's just this cohesive experience all the way.
That's rough touchpoints of how I'm thinking about the design team, what I'm building towards. Then obviously thinking about this whole thing that everyone's excited about, which is getting design with DesignOps. Going back to the agency world of trying to bring in producers, those kind of things. Those are all interesting battles to fight here. This has traditionally been-
Mitchell Geere: Those are all interesting battles to fight here. This has traditionally been a very logistics-heavy, engineering-heavy company. And so there's two parts. There's obviously building an actual team, getting them excited, onboarding new people. But then also convincing the company that these roles are very, very important and makes us a better company. So I think that the challenges are interesting.
Carl Smith: And given that Instacart itself is only six years old, right?
Mitchell Geere: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-
Carl Smith: So it came out of the gate fast and grew fast to a point where it became national. Anytime something's in Jacksonville, which Instacart is, I consider it national. So at that point, I can only imagine there was a lot of growth that had happened a little sporadically. And so now along with design is the product side and the business side, are they also going through hiring and reforming kind of how they're doing what they do?
Mitchell Geere: Yeah, absolutely. I mean they just recently hired their CPO, David Hahn. He was formerly at LinkedIn. He basically grew the amortization and advertising platforms. So he's an incredible addition to the team. We also just added ... sorry, I just need to get the name real quick.
Carl Smith: No worries.
Mitchell Geere: For some reason it just jumped out of my head. Dani Dudeck. She's now the communications officer here. And so we're just filling out those roles that we hadn't thought about before. Just trying to make sure that we are in step with what the market expects of a company of our size, right. We might still be smaller in size but our footprint, like you mentioned, it is getting big, right. We are becoming a national brand so we have to be very aware of just how we come across, right. Because if we keep sort of moving fast and breaking things, there's a real impact on people's lives with that, right. It's never nefarious. It's never someone trying to hurt someone. Oftentimes it's "How can we make this better?" And so having people like those in place really helps us get this control in play and make sure that we're being very, very thoughtful of what we release and don't release. So things like that.
Carl Smith: And just explaining earlier on when you were talking about there are four different, I think you said, well, you said four-sided. So you've got the actual big Proctor & Gambles and the people producing. You've got the retailers. You've got the shoppers. The shoppers are the interesting one, right? That's kind of, when you're designing the experience, they're the frontline. Everything's amazing and then the person that brings the groceries makes it feel off. What role do you play all the way through to delivery?
Mitchell Geere: So us as Instacart, the role we play is really that, it's that we're that touch point between the grocer, or the grocery store and the consumer. And so how the shopper kind of shows up at the consumer store with the bags and hat and saying, "Here's the groceries that you've got." What's in those bags is everything that you ordered in those bags. All those kinds of things adds to the experience of Instacart. That person, that individual that comes to your door, really is showing up as Instacart, in a way, right? Just even though we've set up the marketplace the way it is, as most efficient and makes sense for everyone, ultimately that's how we're perceived, right? Whether it's true or not. And so we're very mindful of that.
A lot of what we're doing right now is making sure that the shoppers have what they need to be able to shop [inaudible 00:14:55] and what they need to be able to represent the company in a way that makes sense for longevity in that.
Carl Smith: So when you first came in, I'm just curious, how did you get your feet under you? Did you try to do ... I understand what you were saying about, I mean you got immersed. But were you trying to do an audit of what were the easiest things for you to fix and get some big wins? Like how did you approach it? Because it seems like there's so many things you could have looked at.
Mitchell Geere: Yeah. I mean it really started with research. So when I started, we had a super small research team. It was pretty much a research team of one, a woman called Heather Young, she's actually really amazing. She was utilized for a lot of small little tasks here and there. And so my advice to her initially was, "Pick something gnarly, pick one big thing, and just go deeper in that. Just ignore all these small other things and just go deeper in that." Because she was thinking about, "How can I have an impact in the business?" The advice essentially, "Say no to things and say yes to things that matter." And that's a risk in some ways, right? People think, "Well, does this really matter?" And so she did. So she dove deep on shopper communication and shopper access to work and all those kinds of things. Because that seemed to be where pain was, right? If you go on Twitter, you'll see that people aren't necessarily happy with us.
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Mitchell Geere: And so she dove deep into that and unraveled a whole bunch of stuff that we realized was not ideal. And so it got this whole sort of thing flowing where we started digging even deeper into that. Now it's massive projects that we're unearthing and realizing that it's not just about the website and the app and how consumers show up, but it really is about how shoppers show up. Those are our touch points, right, in the market. So now we're super mindful of that. We're super mindful of making sure that any change that comes down the pike that shoppers are aware of it and there are no more surprises and things like that. Yeah, so it really started with research. Really started with speaking to users. Which I think is the ultimate sort of gift of design is that you go out and try and speak to customers, to users, to people who these things really impact and you reflect back to the organization so we can align with them.
Carl Smith: Absolutely. So she goes deep on the research, finds this information and then what do you do with it at that point? Do you try to put together a plan to make things better and then take that to the other people in the company? How did you approach it?
Mitchell Geere: Yes. So fortunately we have amazing people on our team already. So another woman, Himani Amoli, she was her design partner in that. So Himani, Heather, and the rest of the shopper team effectively, they just ran with this. I was in tune with everything. I knew what was going on. I tend to have this thing of trust. When I've pointed people in the right direction and I see that they're kind of heading there, I tend to just sort of be hands-off and just kind of tap in when I need to. And so the answer directly is, I did nothing other than just make sure we provide a place for them to do amazing work. Yeah, so the honest answer, right?
Carl Smith: And given the amount that there is to do, and the fact that you had a small team that you were building, you really didn't have a choice, right? But you have to have the right people in place or else, as humans, we won't be able to let go.
Mitchell Geere: That's really key. Yeah. The people in place in really key. And that's a lot of what I think about as I build the team out now. Himani, for instance, she had been here for, I think she's going on three years now, right? So half the life of the company. So she knows it really well. And she was a senior designer for the longest time. I think about three and a half, our months ago, I decided the best decision we could do is basically promote her into design manager so that her reach would be a lot more. So she's functioning heading up the [inaudible 00:19:21] design team. A lot of that comes off of the work that she executed on with Heather. So a big thing for me is really highlighting amazing people and giving them the room to shine. I'm definitely the type that, like I said, I'm kind of hands-off but I really want to support the real heroes, right? The people who do the work on the ground and who are really making an impact. And so that's kind of how I show up, right, is I try and remove obstacles, essentially, and just provide bumpers for people to be successful.
Carl Smith: And what a gift you gave Heather. Because having the institutional knowledge and then understanding the real-time research of what's going on out there and then being able to have a team to make it better. I'm not blowing smoke. A lot of people I don't think would have seen that connection. They would have come in and probably been a little more worried about the existing team, right? So it's like, I'm the new person, I'm coming in and now everybody's a little bit nervous. But for you to be able to go in there and align her and then give her the ability to fix things, that's amazing, man, that's great. And so how is it going right now with Heather? When did the research finish up and they start approaching a solution?
Mitchell Geere: Yeah. So I think they've kind of moved past that a few months ago and they're in different cycles of a bunch of other things, right? So like I said, that really opened a hornet's nest. When I say hornet's nest, I say it as a good thing. We didn't unravel trouble necessarily but it showed us more things we should be looking at and so, as far as I know, she's sitting on three other projects right now. She grew her team by an additional two researchers and we're adding more people to that. But that whole team is just doing amazing things, amazing more things. Everything from trying to figure out how to get shoppers more work, right? Trying to figure out how to increase not just the number of items that they can get in a shorter period of time, but how high of a quality can we meet, right? When someone says, "I want some Fuji apples," are we always getting them Fuji applies or are we getting bruised apples that are kind of actually Pink Delicious, those kind of things.
So we're looking at all those kind of things, how to just up that game. One of those things, like I said, is very much being driven by research and design and by Heather and Himani on the performance side. But, yeah, we just keep opening up these new headaches and
Mitchell Geere: Opening up these new projects that just keep getting better, and better, and better, and better, and it's just amazing that happens actually just as you speak to customers and just reveal more things that's important to them.
Carl Smith: Yeah. And obviously talking to the customers and hearing directly from them is great, and feeds that energy, and keeps the team going because they see that they're making progress. Are there other systems in place or other metrics that are being watched to make sure that things are staying good once they get good?
Mitchell Geere: Yeah. Obviously the verbatims from shoppers and from consumers, so making sure that paying attention to what people are saying live on Twitter and those kind of things, and also just looking at the support tickets coming in. And I'm trying to also not reveal certain stats and what sort of stats we look at specifically, because it's super competitive market, but it's really just that we're keeping our ears to the ground with our customers. And we have a few buy very specific set of metrics that we keep monitoring to make sure that numbers are going in the right direction, be it up or down. Yeah.
Carl Smith: And it's great because this shows how important design is to any company. And I love that the research and design are hand in hand because that's the fastest way to fix something. So, how is it been accepted within the company overall, the role of design and the way that it's leading this charge?
Mitchell Geere: Initially I would say it was interesting because what we had to do was change the narrative around design, we had to change the view of design being a result of pictures, and screens, and those kinds of things, and more towards it's a process. Design in my mind is a verb, it's something we do, we design things. And designing again is more than just painting a pretty picture, it's trying to find solutions, it's synthesis, it's uncovering things through building things. And so, just educating the company and the teams around that and how design can effectively be a partner as opposed to in service to the rest of the group, be it product or engineering. Yeah, so it was just a lot of branding I guess that had to take place, and obviously it's not solid in every single team, so it's a team-by-team kind of effort and it depends on who we have on that team in terms of seniority and the ability to show up as a partner as opposed to a service individual.
But yeah, it's something that you keep needing to drive the narrative and sell ultimately, until the value just becomes so obvious as design shows up more in that sort of way. And then eventually just becomes habit, it just becomes a muscle that we have and we can just keep flexing that muscle. But I think what's most important, or what was most important, is really getting to the designers and letting them know how they should show up, how the kind of questions that you ask, and how they see themselves. Because even as designers and we often see ourselves just as pixel pushers. When we speak we speak about this font, or this color, or this treatment [crosstalk 00:25:32] And so, speaking about well, the impact of changing that color to the effect of this outcome was this. We just say, well that was a pretty color. And so really how we show up is ultimately more important. I think at the leadership conference we spoke about getting a seat at the table. The problem with a seat at the table is if you get a seat at the table and you speak nonsense, as far as the business is concerned you're going to quickly lose that seat.
And so I think a lot of designers get seats at tables but we tend to lose them because we're not speaking the language the business requires us to speak, because ultimately design is in service of the business where we're not our own little thing that exists for it's own sake.
Carl Smith: Yeah. Right. It sounds like you've got your seat at the table man. It sounds like nobody's speaking gibberish.
Mitchell Geere: I have a seat and it's at a table.
Carl Smith: Not sure.
Mitchell Geere: Well no, I think also to my common at the leadership saying I think it's also it's an obnoxious term. I try to even get away from the narrative of design and Instacart. I speak about experience instead of design because I think ultimately however we get there is what's important, and getting the right people in place to be able to get there is what's important, whether they called designers, or PMs, or engineers, that doesn't really matter. It's more about how we think about it and where we're heading, I think that's important. I think often times we get too hung about being designers that we lose sight of what we're actually there to do.
Carl Smith: Yeah. And, everything you're saying around experience, I read some research not too long ago that people will continue going to a restaurant that has pretty good food and great service versus a restaurant that has great food and pretty good service. It's like we want to be treated a certain way, we want something to feel a certain way. And so everything that you're talking about just resonates, and yeah. It's design even or designer is an interesting term, it's the experience team, it's the people that are creating the first and every touchpoint throughout. So, yeah. That's awesome. I got to use Instacart today. It's going to have to happen, I've got to see how it goes.
Mitchell Geere: Yeah. It's super interesting experience that I had was actually the shopping experience. And we basically mended everyone who saw us working on Instacart to do a shopping experience. It blows your mind, something that you've done so many times before, just shopping for groceries, now you're doing it on behalf of someone else, and it's the most interesting experience. You're making some weird decision where all the sudden I'm going to the produce aisle and I look at bananas, now I'm not looking at bananas the way I want to eat them anymore, I'm looking at how do I think this person wants to eat them. And so, it's the most interesting experience. I can't do enough of it.
Carl Smith: See that's the thing that gets me is the different levels or the different angles that you have to look at this from. It's not enough that it can't just be bananas. Is it ripe bananas?
Mitchell Geere: Right.
Carl Smith: And so, figuring out how you work that into the experience, those are some unique challenges.
Mitchell Geere: Yeah. Yeah. And obviously we have some constraints in terms of training and education that we can do on the platform for anyone. We have to be very mindful of how we do it. And so we really, yeah, it's an interesting challenge. Not to go down that hole, but obviously we have very similar challenges to Lyft, and Airbnb, and Uber, and all those kind of things where we can't make these people X person Instacart because there are ramifications to that. We want them to be, but for the whole thing to be able to work and the ecosystem to work we really need to think about how we scale back workforce in a way that still contributes back to the customer in the right way. And so, what we try and leverage is getting information from the customer. Who are you? What's important to you? Say that you want this particular cereal, there's some signal in that.
One of the signals could be something like you're gluten-intolerant, or you prefer high-sugar things, or low-sugar things, or high roughage. And so when the shopper gets to making that decision we have algorithms and machine learning systems that try and do best guesses and try and interpret what you might want based on people like you and based on what it is you've done before and things you've accepted before as alternative replacements. And so we try and give shoppers as much of that knowledge up front so they almost don't have to make that decision. They really just need to show up and say oh, that particular cereal is not there, what else should I get? And so that's really how Instacarts are showing up in a meaningful way to shoppers and consumers.
Carl Smith: Well, it sounds great and I'm so happy for you that you got in there and you're getting to be a part of this. So, thanks for joining us today Mitch.
Mitchell Geere: Yeah. Thank you Carl.
Carl Smith: Everybody listening, thank you so much and we'll be back next week. We'll talk to you then.