Chatting Design with Mario Hall, Lyft

I'm really honored to have had the chance to catch-up with Mario Hall and share a bit of his story. Mario is as outgoing as he is thoughtful and considerate. He has had an interesting path into the world of product design and is currently working for Lyft in San Francisco. You can follow Mario on Twitter, or jump to the bottom of the post to watch a raw recording of our conversation.

Stephen: I'm here with Mario Hall, a designer at Lyft. Mario, thanks a lot for taking the time to chat with me today and tell a little bit of your story. Would you care to introduce yourself?

Mario: For sure. Thanks for having me. Like you said, my name is Mario Hall. I'm a product designer here at Lyft and I came here by way of Square. I had started my own music startup when I was younger. As I've gone through my career, I've been learning a lot, so I'm really grateful to be where I am today and happy to talking with you.

Mario hanging out at a Lyft offsite

Stephen: You've had quite a career trajectory, one might say. Lyft, Square, and your startup Cymbal, before that. You went to school at Tufts, too. I think it'd be interesting to hear how you got into design and what that path looked like.

Mario: Looking back it makes a lot of sense that I ended up in design, but during those moments I felt very lucky to have ended up here. I went to college undeclared in a major. I thought I might purse economics or journalism, something like that. I just so happened to go to a school that had a program called Engineering Psychology and Human Factors. A program that involved designing for the brain and body, and understanding how our internal systems process information; how our body handles different ergonomics. I stumbled upon this program after printing out any possible major and crossing them out until I found some that looked interesting. But now that I think about it, it makes a lot of sense that I ended up in design.

When I was little I really loved to draw and invent. I would draw cars all the time and come up with different ideas for small gadgets. But I never really had the ability to turn them into realities. As time moved on I just sort of forgot about that until I was at school and I was working at the Career Center. I was an assistant helping host events where companies would come in and try to recruit students. Microsoft was one of the companies I was hosting and they had an information session that very few students attended, that day. And so I was sitting there, in the back, watching this presentation and the speaker was asking questions in hope that students would answer for prizes.

Questions about Windows, computers and how things worked. No one was answering. I felt really awkward, like, ”All right come on somebody!” So I started raising my hand and answering the questions because I was kind of a gadget freak who was always reading the Verge, Engadget, and Gizmodo.

At the end of the talk the woman asked me, "Why aren't you applying for this?" And I said, "I don't know how to code, I'm not an engineer." She told me that there's this role called a designer. I looked into it and ultimately ended up applying for the internship. That's how I got started. Lucky.

Stephen: That's exciting!

Mario: It's crazy to think about the butterfly effect. If I hadn't taken the career center work study job I wouldn't have been there and I wouldn't have ever known about this whole world of design.

It's weird to think about, I never thought about how the applications I used were made. I never really put two and two together — especially on the design side. I just thought whoever made it, made it and they put the buttons there because that’s where they go. I didn't think about all the thought that went into design.

Stephen: Yeah. It's kind of like when I have to describe what I do for my living to an uncle.

Mario: Oh my God, yes.

Stephen: After trying, people usually say I don't get it. Isn't this app just there? Doesn't the iPhone just work?

Mario: That means we did our job well, right? If they think that technology just works for them.

Stephen: Exactly. I get the sense too, that you were the outgoing guy at that event. That raising your hand and putting yourself out there helped you move down this path. Would you describe yourself as an outgoing person, as that type of designer?

Mario: Totally. I think that I'm kind of the goof ball who makes a fool out of themselves hoping that it makes other people feel more comfortable in the room. I definitely remember actually getting that feedback as an intern.

There’s a delicate balance where you need to be kind of quiet and let others speak up, while also helping others speak up by being a voice for them. But definitely I think it helps to just kind of go for something when you see it.

Even after my transition from Square to Lyft I’ve learned how different I approach situations, and especially relationships with people, across teams and how many more opportunities have come to me because I've been someone who tries to be friendly, open and build relationships.

Stephen: Yeah. Maybe a little bit more rare too in the design world where there are far more introverts. Yet the more you put yourself out there, the more you may carve out your space in the room.

Mario: Yeah, I hope so. I think it's really hard because I don't want to take my privilege too far and feel that I deserve to speak. People want to hear what I have to say, but I think at the same time hopefully people start to notice that and say, "Oh, I should speak up too."

Stephen: After Microsoft you founded Cymbal. How did that take place?

Mario: That was another lucky thing. I really didn't expect Cymbal to become a company. I thought it was a little side project that would be a fun thing to put in my portfolio. Gabe and Amadou, my co-founders who I knew through Tufts were looking for a designer and they reached out to me. It had always been a dream to work on something related to music because I'm a musical person, so I thought, why not? I have this job lined up at Microsoft for post grad and it can't hurt.

I started designing with them and immediately fell in love with the idea of getting to build something from scratch, and think through the philosophical decisions that we were making early on. For example, does how often you can post — editors note, Cymbal was a music sharing and discovery app — change the way you share music? Could we make it feel like sharing music felt in the past? Where you put a record on a turntable for your friends; when you’d use that precious moment to share just one album. Questions like those, to visual design, to marketing. Getting to have my hand in a lot of different areas of design, even when I didn't know what I was doing was exciting. I didn't always think holistically, or understand the implications one decision, on one screen, may have on other decisions.

That was a really fun learning experience. As time went on we realized Cymbal was becoming more and more real. People were really taking to it at our school and asking to have their friends added to the beta. We reached a pivotal point, we had to decide if we wanted to pursue Cymbal full time or if we wanted it to be a side project while we moved on to the jobs we had accepted, post-college.

Stephen: So you ultimately raised some money during this period. Was was that to help you do that full time?

Mario: Totally. That was really what it was, we were so new to this world. Personally, the idea of leaving behind a job at Microsoft or Google — in the case of Amadou — was just crazy to our parents. I think we needed a little bit of stability and success in raising money in order to take our project to the next level.

Stephen: Is Cymbal still around?

Mario: No, it's not actually. It's fans are, how about that? I left in January of 2017 after a death in my family. I needed to take some time off. I helped freelance to bridge the gap. In around June of 2017 they shut it down. They stopped working on it and the servers were just running in a zombie state for another eight months or so. But now it's all gone. We tried to get acquired and we tried to figure out ways to have the community support it, but there just wasn't a critical mass of people using it where we really afford to keep it running.

Stephen: It's such an interesting experience to go through all that. Seeing something that you're so passionate about shut down hurts, but you learn a lot from that too, right?

Mario: Oh, yeah. I feel so lucky to have been part of it. My understanding of how a business works, how to build a community, how to engage with your users and the experience of thinking about all aspects of design has led me to be more of a well-rounded designer. I feel much more comfortable working with others across different mediums.

Stephen: That experience offers a perspective for what goes into building, not just a product, but a business more importantly.

Mario: Totally. When I was at Cymbal I remember calling myself Head of Product. I then questioned myself, was I Head of Design or whatever? Ultimately I thought, it doesn't matter, we’re just four people. I don't know what I'm doing everyday I'm just learning and working.

What I loved about Cymbal was how much we would work with our users. We were located in New York, along with many of our users. They would come by our office for coffee so that we could chat and learn from them directly. We had different kinds of users, too. From individual listeners to bands and labels. We would feed off of our users to figure out how we could build a business. Those conversations helped us prioritize our product strategy and understand what our users needed, or rather, what they said they needed versus what they actually needed. It was really interesting.

Stephen: Those are two different things quite regularly.

Mario: Yeah. Now that I have had time with larger tech companies it’s been interesting to see the difference between designers who have worked at early stage companies versus those who have built their employment history with larger companies. There’s a difference between someone who thinks, “this is a business”, versus someone who thinks, "I'm a designer and I'm solving the design side of things.”

I really tend to work well with people who have startup experience.

Stephen: Have you found a lot of those folks when you transitioned over to Square, from Cymbal? Did you find people with a business oriented mentality, at Square?

Mario: That's a good question. I think at Square I would say that it had more of an agency background. I think that was because Square acquired an agency to bolster their design efforts early on in their tenure. Here [at Lyft] I think there's many more people from the startup world — or even people who have been here from the beginning when Lyft really was a startup. I get to work with the first designer at Lyft, Mark, which is pretty incredible. Being able to hear his background and the historical context he has, is just invaluable.

Stephen: Yeah. Historical context is so important when you're designing something and you know you've got someone there that understands the bureaucracy behind it all.

Mario: What's actually cool about Lyft in particular, I've noticed, is that the world is changing at the same rate that the product is and things that wouldn't have worked two years ago do now. For instance, the fact that people were scared of getting into a stranger's car when Lyft launched — and how they had to design for that need — versus today where that has become table stakes. It's really fascinating to see how quickly design can change and evolve.

Whereas, in a lot of industries they're just like certain things that will never be changeable in terms of user behavior. Like the lock icon associated with payments because that's just what people expect and they're worried if it's not there. At Lyft, I feel like our users are constantly evolving and getting better at managing fear, in a way.

Stephen: That's an interesting. The psychology behind sharing is changing, so something that didn't work a few years ago, you could revisit today, perhaps.

Mario: Exactly. And sharing especially, that's a good point. What I love about working at Lyft is that most of the design isn't just pixels. It isn't the icons, it isn't the visuals. It's how users are relating to each other on our platform and how they're perceiving things like a wait or way-finding in a new city. It's really fascinating. Most of what I'm doing is more in the world than on the phone.

Stephen: That's really neat. How are you guys working? If you could go broad on how the design team at Lyft works in general, that’d be great to hear!

Mario: Yeah. I'm so in love with this design team and it's such a breath of fresh air from my past — just the resources that we have are fantastic. We have a huge team of researchers that are incredibly valuable to help get day-to-day insights. Yet, if you have a specific question, we'll go out and walk around the city or we'll go to New York, or Denver and talk to real people about their needs to better understand how different they are. So there's a whole research arm.

There’s a producer's arm. I’ve never worked with a design producer before, but I think it comes from the agency model. They’re really great at project management and timelines, allocating resources and making sure everyone is able to get the work done that they need to. That's been amazing.

We also have content strategy and copywriting, who tackles the voice of our brand. This is such an important component of design when you're dealing with something as intimate — and private — as getting into a stranger's car or sharing space with a stranger.

Finally we have illustration. We have some of the best illustrators in the world here, I am so happy to work with them. They help explain these complex metaphors in the same way that content strategists explain the language.

Stephen: That sounds like the dream team right there! To have illustrators and researchers on staff.

Mario: We have about 130 to 140 people now, total. Included across all those different disciplines, which is amazing.

Stephen: Are there engineers under the design arm or is that kind of separated out?

Mario: There are a few engineers who are really great at building our components. They have that design eye, which is really nice.

Stephen: Yeah, don’t let them stray too far from the nest!

Mario: I had one coworker at Cymbal, Sam Purcell who was like that and it was such a game changer for us. That talent is definitely something that I believe people overlook. Whenever I start my next company, that's a number one hire.

Stephen: It sounds like you're kind of dipping your toes in a little bit of everything, but mostly UI, UX and hardcore product design these days at Lyft?

Mario: Yeah. Like I was sort of talking about before, I have this background of solving for business needs more than I think the average product designer might. So that's been fun. I've gotten to pitch new modes and different marketing efforts and other things like that that. It's fun to dip my toe in while still focusing on product design.

I also do a lot of research, as well. I'm really close with our researcher on the marketplace team — the team I'm on — and help out there whenever I can. I’ve been able to do some remote research for different markets as part of the projects I've been on.

Stephen: That's interesting. When you say remote, are you referring to localization or just outside of San Francisco in general?

Mario: I think maybe the reason why I call it remote, is just different markets like Denver, or New York, or Seattle. It’s more about understanding the needs of a different city.

Take Denver, for example. I was amazed by how many people drove their personal cars despite also being very avid Lyft — or Uber — users. There was a difference between when they're going to use their car verses Lyft.

They made the decision by checking traffic or parking conditions, or by checking the weather before doing anything. It was a fascinating difference when compared to San Francisco where the norm is you're either using ride-share or you're taking public transit. In New York, you're definitely taking public transit and maybe you'll take ride share if public transit doesn't work. So yeah, I think it's equally as foreign as going to a different country and designing for that.

Stephen: That's cool. I'm local to Colorado as you know and Denver is certainly a car city. But once you're in that bubble of a place like Boulder commuting by bike becomes popular.

Mario: Yeah, I think even in the last year the way that commuting by bike has changed San Francisco for me, and many others, is wild. The proliferation of e-bikes has changed the game. I now commute everyday via bike and it's so much more fun and happy.

Stephen: There's a lot of conversation going around San Francisco lately with all the tragic, avoidable deaths, unfortunately. How do you guys think about that as a voice for transportation?

Mario: I think that people think about Lyft right now as a ride-share company and I think we want to be seen as a transportation company and that will become more and more apparent in the next months to years. But I think that we really are putting our money where our mouths are by acquiring Motivate — the bike share provider for many large cities — and integrating public transit and fighting for redesigned streets for bike lanes and public parks. Trying to reclaim all the space that's lost by parking spots and make it both safer and more enjoyable to be in a city.

Last week I participated at Lyft in an amazing safety workshop where we brainstormed a ton of different ideas for increasing the safety of Lyft drivers, Lyft riders, cyclists and scooter riders, and then the city as a whole. And what's really tough about it is that certain things are immovable. Certain things just take time and money and lobbying and a general change in public opinion. There are certain things we can do to push the envelope on our end that hopefully pushes the envelope on theirs.

Stephen: That's exciting. It definitely sounds like a lot of your work maybe leans even more towards the strategic thinking and product thinking than actual pixel work.

Mario: Yup. I actually have noticed I'm in more meetings since joining Lyft then I was at Square but feel a lot more impactful despite that. Like, even though I don't sit in front of Sketch for as long per week, I feel like when I do, I'm so much more powerful because of the product thinking and general collaboration that is going on within this company.

Stephen: I like to hear that because I believe that a lot of decisions should be made before you jump into a tool. Early in your career it's easy not to do that. It’s easy to rush into Sketch and start designing.

Mario: Oh yeah. I think Abraham Lincoln, said "If you ask me to chop down a tree, I'll spend the first hour sharpening my ax and then the the next one cutting down the tree versus hitting with the dull axe for four hours." I don't know the exact words, but…we’ll edit that in post. Edit: it was Abraham Lincoln.

Stephen: That's a good quote for people for sure. Because your tool [problem definition] has got to be sharp, man.

Mario: Once you get to a certain point in your career, the pixels are not that hard, it's not that time consuming to whip up what you're thinking in your head. I think what's really hard is solving your problem; figuring out what to whip up in the first place.

Stephen: Yeah. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. For me and in my personal experience, I had originally worked at large companies like Reuters and AOL. I then went over to the start-up world. And I think having a little bit of experience on both sides sets you up for success in a larger company. It can go either way.

Mario: Yeah, I think that there's pros and cons to both, but I think that working at the big companies, kind of sets you up for this expectation of you fitting into your spot, staying there and doing the thing that relates specifically, to you and your job. When you come from the start-up mindset — or have spent time there — you start thinking a lot more holistically. And I think in doing so you build a product that feels a lot more cohesive to your users because you're not shipping an org chart, you're shipping a solution to your users' needs.

Stephen: That's good advice. I know we're running up on time here…this has been a lot of fun to get your perspective. Is there any other tidbits of information you’d have for a young designer getting out college?

Mario: For me I’ve always felt that ambition and passion lead you through your career. I think getting excited about solving problems, staying proactive and creating relationships with no expectations, are key. Try to follow the idea that you're building yourself and others up so that down the road, you can collaborate on something incredible.

I highly recommend that you dive in and get excited about what you're doing. The moment that you start to get complacent and start thinking about design as something that you're handed and you have to hand something back, is when you’ll start to fail.

During my own time at Square, I remember feeling unsure of my own status and thinking, “If I'm at this level and this guy's at that level, he's right and I'm wrong.” I think that something that I've learned the longer I've worked in this industry is that having perspective and having the passion behind that is going to help you.

Stephen: That's perfect. Good feedback and I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me, Mario. Thanks a lot.

Mario: Yeah, it was really fun.

Watch the interview on Vimeo

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