Ajay Sampat, Instacart: "The key obstacle to creating and delivering on digital experience goals is building the right team and mindset.”
Interview

Ajay Sampat: DX Growth Is All About Team Synergy

7 minute read
Sharon Florentine avatar
Ajay Sampat of Instacart discusses growth engineering, getting to the right DX mindset and the importance of teamwork in delivering exceptional DX.

Ajay Sampat has been fascinated by product development, growth engineering and digital experience since his university and graduate school days. During those years, first at Ohio State and then at Santa Clara University, Sampat developed a deep interest in the ways computers interacted with each other. He started his professional career working on block storage and supercomputers at HITACHI. "I learned a lot from the Japanese work culture about focus, dedication and quality," Sampat said. 

He knew he wanted to work for a consumer-focused company, so his next step was joining a startup. "I spent the next nearly six years learning about growth culture and tactics — building out full-stack teams at KIXEYE, building Top 10 grossing Facebook games and then TextNow, which is a Top 50 android app that focused on business intelligence and the growth funnel of acquisition, activation, retention, revenue and referrals," he said.

From there, he took that knowledge and experience to Lyft, where he served as senior engineering manager. At Lyft, his team was responsible for saving the company hundreds of millions with machine learning-driven marketing automation.

Now Sampat will tackle a new role as senior engineering manager at Instacart, where he’ll focus on leveraging data and rapid experimentation to help build out delightful user experiences. The common thread, Sampat said, is to better understand the experiences that customers find meaningful and engaging and then build customer journeys around those to effectively communicate with those users.

Coordinating the Many Pieces of the DX Puzzle

"At a high level, the goal of the team is to better understand the different user personas, their needs and the channels (email, SMS, push, in-app) that our customers find meaningful and engaging, and build truly world-class customer UX/UI to engage with our users," he said. "It sounds simple, but it requires coordination across multiple teams in marketing, product, science, engineering, design and research to understand what matters to different segments of users and then to build as close to a personalized and highly relevant journey as possible. Success is a culmination of rigorous planning, technical stack evaluation and experimentation with hundreds of designs and campaigns."

Sampat is a speaker at CMSWire’s DXSummit, held Oct. 21 as a virtual event. Sampat’s presentation will focus on the people and teams necessary to build a delightful digital experience, and the mindset needed to achieve digital experience goals. He spoke with CMSWire about product design and development, the role of mindset in digital experiences, and how startups and legacy enterprises can best deliver on the promise of DX.

CMSWire: Whats the correlation between growth engineering and digital experience?

Ajay Sampat: Growth is the overarching umbrella which encompasses the growth funnel. To achieve low frictional growth, companies need to rely on various digital channels and technologies to attract and retain their audience. Growth is not limited to digital channels — it can also occur on offline channels — but these days every business has an online, digital footprint, so that is where we put the majority of the focus. Good user experience is a vital ingredient of growth — so digital experience and growth are closely related.

CMSWire: Whats an example of an ideal digital experience”? How does that differ from what most companies today are delivering (or not)?

Sampat: Interesting question. The ideal digital experience may mean different things to a customer and to business. From the customer perspective, it is a seamless and highly relevant combination of messaging, onboarding and usability experiences that strikes all the right emotional and logical chords. From the business perspective, it may be the most scalable, predictable and efficient lever for growth.

CMSWire: Where do you see the biggest gaps between the optimal digital experience and the reality? Why are companies missing the mark, and how can they do better?

Sampat: Different companies have different challenges based on their size, stage of growth and digital maturity. Some classic ones that come to mind are:

  • Lack of depth in the user research phase to truly understand customer motivation and preferences.
  • The correct build-versus-buy trade-offs of the technology stack.
  • Focus on perfection rather than step-by-step progress and analysis paralysis.
  • Overreliance on third-party marketing channels.

Leveraging Tech to Achieve DX Goals

CMSWire: What are the biggest obstacles to creating and delivering on digital experience goals? How can you leverage technology to help? 

Learning Opportunities

Sampat: The key obstacle to creating and delivering on digital experience goals is developing the right team and mindset — this will be the focus of my DXSummit talk this year. 

Here are two technical challenges that come to mind:

  • At the top of the funnel — meaning new users at the acquire stage — tracking and attribution are challenging. With the increased focus on user choice and privacy, modification to advertising IDs like ID for Advertiser (IDFA) and Google Advertising ID (GAID), obfuscating of bidding algorithms, having the ability to accurately and effectively measure channel performance and incrementality in a scientific way has become a major investment area for businesses who heavily rely on performance marketing.
  • Deeper in the funnel — meaning existing users at the retention stage — the obstacles are more around building a truly personalized omnichannel experience with consistent data logging and analytics so that companies have a more complete understanding of the customer and their pain points and the ability to quantify causation over correlation so you can deliver the right value with the right message at the right time.

CMSWire: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted organizationsdigital transformations and digital experience projects? 

Sampat: COVID-19 has changed consumer behavior dramatically — some for the short-term and some for the foreseeable future. Digital experiences have become even more important than the real world ones. Some of the major impacts for marketplace businesses is a key focus on the health and safety of our entire community, transfer of budgets from offline to online channels and increased reliance on internal communication channels to keep our community informed and up to date.

Team Goals and Execution

CMSWire: You've worked for some larger, more established companies as well as for startups. What lessons can they learn from each other when it comes to digital experience? 

Sampat: These are not limited to just digital experience, but I think are important for overall team health and execution.

  • Lean on the team for ideas — some of the best ideas come from the team.
  • Hire the best people, inspire them with repetitive stating of the goals and hold them to a high bar.
  • Study what has worked — or not worked — in the past. The past can sometimes be a good indicator of the future.
  • Small things matter: one less field to fill out during onboarding, one less click to get to checkout, one less scroll. They all add up to build a truly magical customer experience.
  • Always take a portfolio approach when it comes to projects and bets. You should have a good mix of long-term, mid-term and short-term.
  • “Buy” to build a minimum viable product (MVP) at first, then when you’ve proven value, you can “build” internally as you scale.
  • No experiment is a failure — it's a learning experience.
  • Do not overly rely on third-party marketing channels; have better control of your own destiny.

CMSWire: What do you like to do in your spare time?

Sampat: My wife and I cherish quality time with our toddler and infant boys outdoors — this can be in the form of drives, nature walks, hikes, camping trips or cycle rides. Recently, the most enjoyable thing to do is strapping the kids to the bike seat and going for a ride on the electric bicycle to the beach or Golden Gate Park while pointing out the wonderful world around them. This has become a joyful and convenient escape during these times!

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