Ha Phan – Product Design Vision at Porch.com

[quote style=”boxed”] Design is about solving problems, so ideas have to come from listening to users and observing the world around you.[/quote]

Ha leads the Product Design vision at Porch.com. An award-winning designer whose work has won Webbys, Ha is responsible for making the Porch.com experience beautiful, simple, and engaging. Ha’s goal for Porch.com is to leverage big data to provide a contextually nuanced experience that will help homeowners find the best home service professionals and improve their homes. Prior to Porch.com, Ha worked at the Active Network (ACTV) where she led the design for B2B products and collaborated on the B2C strategic vision. She has consulted for brands such as NPR Music, KCRW, Life Technologies (LIFE), Hasbro (HAS), and Fox.

Where did the idea for Porch come from?

The idea for Porch.com actually came from market research that our VP of Product conducted early on, where he discovered that the home improvement market was ripe for disruption. He engaged our CEO Matt Ehrlichman around the same time Matt had started the process of building his home. Hence, Porch.com was born. The name “Porch” came from our Creative Director after we had generated hundreds. One of the final candidates was, “Superbia.” I’m so glad we didn’t pick that name. It sounds like a parody of Porch.com.

What does your typical day look like?

Mornings are all scrums where I meet with internal development teams as well development consultants. Afternoons are split between aligning priorities with stakeholders, reviewing designs, solving problems with engineers, and tactical design work — whatever is the flavor of the day.

One of the things I’m most proud of is the healthy collaboration between Engineering and Design at Porch.com. You will often find me sitting next to developers or data engineers problem solving or looking at raw data. I’ve worked at many other companies where the relationship between engineers and designers is often tenuous. At Porch.com, it just feels like we have one Product team.

How do you bring ideas to life?

It doesn’t happen all at once. It’s the intersection of learning, conceptualizing, and observation. I don’t believe in building cool stuff for coolness sake. That’s sophomoric. Design is about solving problems, so ideas have to come from listening to users and observing the world around you. The difference between an idea and a product is vetting the viability of the implementation and possible ROI for investment. Bringing an idea to life is often about facilitating and lobbying for investment with the right stakeholder. Sometimes it requires just a sketch on a napkin and other times, you need a full prototype.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The use of data to infer meaning from our past and present to predict what we may want and need is magical. I believe that days of the one developer sitting in the garage building a single utility app is over. Smart products anticipate users’ needs and that requires data, loads of data; and loads of data takes people and deep pockets. Everything we do now leaves a digital footprint. So although our experiences are fleeting, data is residue that remains forever.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive?

Isolation. I’m an extreme introvert. I love my teammates, but I’d be just as happy sitting alone a white padded room all day long. At our office, everyone sits together in one giant warehouse, but I’ve been known to move into a small meeting room until a task is complete.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I’ve had many low paying jobs in college, but the worst jobs are actually the better paying ones where the boss micromanages you. I was a consultant for 10 years and worked with countless clients. They all think their problems are unique and their visions, extraordinary. What I learned from being a consultant is that everything is temporary, but your word and your reputation is forever. When you’re a consultant, the only thing that counts is solving the problem well and quickly. Repeat business is the best compliment you receive. If the client is nice, that’s a bonus. If the client is not your cup of tea, it’s temporary. If you feel you cannot be successful, then you figure how bow out gracefully. It’s not personal. Whenever I get frustrated, I think about how I would handle it as a consultant. I work to have choices. Employment is a two-way street. It’s as much your decision to work with a company as it is theirs to hire you. After all, every jo b is just a long term contract.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

If I were to start again, I’d study something completely different just because I always wanted to learn something new. I don’t look back. When I started my career, they weren’t teaching User Experience Design in schools, but I landed here because I was led by curiosity. My career has been about nothing going to plan, but boy has it been a fun ride. I believe in happy accidents.

What is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I’m always looking for ways to optimize process. Sometimes the goal is to save time; and sometimes it is necessary to invest more time, get clarity, and do things right because the risk is high. In design, there are typical deliverables. Don’t just deliver an artifact for process sake. Question if the artifact is the right tool for the audience and if there’s a better and quicker way to communicate the design.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

We are still too new for me to say, but I believe that our differentiator will be data. As our data acquisition grows, there will be more opportunities to provide insights and spin off products from it. Where Facebook owns the social graph, Porch will own the home graph. Data acquisition in combination with content and viral strategy will be the gift that keeps on giving.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Early on in my career, I was part of another startup with 2 friends. We all came from the educational software industry so we built a product focused on content for an electronic toy. When that device failed to come to market, we pivoted by trying to repackage and eventually sold the content to an educational publisher. I thought we held on for way too long. Sometimes the best lesson is learn when to give up. The return on our investment was not worth the time we put into it. Time is the most prized commodity for me and the question I always ask is, “At what cost?”

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I am a writer first and a designer second. I don’t have enough time to devote to it, but in 2004, I won the Best Unpublished Short Story from the San Diego Book Awards competition. I entered the contest to see if I got what it takes and if there was an audience for my work. But writing is all consuming and I don’t have the creative energy to devote to it. Your head has to be in the story all the time. The other thing that most people don’t know about me is that the house I live in was built from scratch. My husband and I purchased a fixer-upper, razed it to the ground and rebuilt a modern beach bungalow in its place. When Matt Ehrlichman called me to help build Porch.com, the house had just been completed. The fact that I went to work for a startup focused on home improvement right after building my house is pure serendipity.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

We are starting to use HipChat. It enables us to create rooms for each functional team and we can easily attach files while chatting.

We also use JIRA to track requirements. It has some shortcomings, but with distributed teams, it enables me to track tasks, stories, requirements and design debt and linking them to development tasks. Tracking design efforts and artifacts around business goals forces clarity on prioritization and roadmap.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Web Analytics: An Hour a Day — by Avinash Kaushik

It enables product owners to gain actionable insights from analytics efforts.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

There hasn’t been just one, but many. I recalled an art professor who took me and my classmates out to a recycling heap and said, “If you don’t have money to buy materials, you can use this.” It reinforced my belief that you can create something meaningful out of nothing. You can always find a way to innovate and you do it from an authentic place. Creativity is the only thing that motivates and sustains me. Not money, not titles, and not stock options. When I think back on my journey, I’ve had many mentors who simply showed me that they believed in me even when my dreams seemed far fetched. And a lot of times, that’s all it takes. Learning is about figuring out how to contribute authentically to the world we live in. In that way, I’m always a student. I intend to pay it forward by choosing to believe in others. No one person owns all the great ideas. Their marketing team may brand them that way, but a successful leader is propped up by many smart people below him.


Ha Phan on Twitter: @hpdailyrant
Porch.com on Twitter: @porchdotcom
Ha Phan on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/hpuxixd