AMA with Alex Wykoff

by | Nov 29, 2018 | Community

Welcome to the ninth post in our series of BAT Community-run AMAs.

The ongoing AMA series on Reddit is a seven-month-long event that features various guests from the Brave and BAT teams. The goal of the series is twofold: to give fans of the project an opportunity to interact directly with team members, and to give team members—especially those who operate largely behind the scenes—a chance to share their insights and offer the community a window into their work.

The most recent AMA took place on November 28th and featured Alex Wykoff, User Research at Brave. Over the course of the AMA, Alex fielded both pre-submitted and live questions from Redditors concerning a variety of topics, including what compelled him to join Brave, and findings from Brave’s recent ad trials. Alex also shared his views on the “Korean Wave,” the state of browser UX, and offered excellent advice to anyone interested in pursuing user research. He ended the AMA by reminding folks of all backgrounds and skill sets about the open-source nature of BAT and Brave: “The thing which I think folks forget to ask is how they can participate. This is an open source community and we can achieve unbelievable things if we can leverage the power of contributors,” he said, adding, “I hope that everyone, regardless of where you come from and what you’ve learned, knows that they have an opportunity to collaborate and do something great with us.”

Highlights can be found below, with a link to the full AMA at the bottom of this post.

The next AMA will take place on Wednesday, December 5th, and will feature Jan Piotrowski, Brad Flora, and Des Martin from the Business Development team.

For the full list of upcoming BAT Community AMAs through February 2019, see below.

dcwj: What does your average day working at Brave look like?

Oh gosh, it's kinda all over the place. I spend an inordinate amount of time on Slack talking with teammates which is good and bad. I also spend a good amount of time quietly listening on our various feedback channels (community.brave.com, reddit, telegram, twitter, etc).

There is also a painful amount of overhead in sourcing participants, conducting experiments, and organizing results to make meaning out of the data. If I were to livestream it, I think you'd be awfully bored.

The fun comes when I get to sit with a user or get on a Zoom call with them and explore Brave or various user behaviors. That is an absolute joy to see what kind of adaptations we all make to deal with these weird abstract electronic systems.

dcwj: What do you think about the current state of browser UX? (I personally think things got pretty stale as Google got complacent and I'm excited to see Brave restart the competition).

I think there are efforts being made by everyone (except perhaps Chrome) which are rather interesting. Kudos to Mozilla and their hard work to bring motion graphics into the browser experience. Opera's Flow system is also superb. Vivaldi also impressed me with their sidebar, split pane, and especially their History functionality.

These people deserve credit and I do hope we would celebrate our collective growth.

I would say though that no group has brought all of these things together. Because the effort is diffuse it doesn't feel like a strong push by any one player. That can lead to an overall feeling of malaise, but you have to realize that's the side effect of competing products looking to differentiate. All of us are doing really great work and if there are any desires to collaborate, I would welcome that with open arms.

kirkins: Any updates on ad-trials? What was the response? Will full page tabs be the main form factor for Brave Ads? I also saw something about publisher banner ads.

The ad-trials went well! The fundamental question which needed to be answered was whether or not the Growl-style notification would work or would people hate it. The answer is they are totally cool with it.

There are certainly some things to be tweaked like DND times and relevancy (expect that to get better with a non-demo ad catalog and ML tweaks). But overall it's a resounding success.

It's likely that we'll keep the notification form factor the same and they will link to a page, yes.

With respect to banner ads, I think you may be confusing that with Brave Rewards publisher custom banners for tipping?

bat-chriscat: Hi Alex, what are some of the most surprising findings you've made while doing user research for Brave? For example, were there any major divergences between how you and folks in the company perceive Brave versus how a total newcomer perceives Brave?

I try to approach my research from a point of ego neutrality so there isn't much which is surprising to me. I think the results which tend to surprise or shock the internal team have to do with preconceptions of technical ability, problem-solving routines, or habits around technology.

Perhaps the one major point of contention lately is around how to solve web compatibility issues. We have an expectation for users to click on our brand logo and understand that by toggling switches next to very technical terms, that will somehow fix their problems. That's a gross overestimation of a general user's technical ability and patience. It's also a misunderstanding of how lay people solve web compatibility problems. (Don't worry y'all! We are amply aware and solid changes to shields are coming!)

I would say one of my favorite discoveries was around the rationale for bookmarking and tab hoarding. If we look at the base event, it is a discovery of 'the right content at the wrong time'. As humans, we have a profound sense of Loss Aversion which leads us to hold onto things even when the value is marginal. So we bookmark or leave a tab open. Unfortunately, we also have a mechanism for moving things out of active working memory called the Zeigarnik Effect. Once an item has been written (or stored), it is out of sight, out of mind. So we never have the cue to return to that content. I am deeply interested in solving this problem.

s4mm1ch: What is your best piece of general advice when it comes to working in this field?

I don’t have a pithy one-liner when it comes to advice, but to quote Deckard Cain, “Stay a while, and listen”:

If you’re looking to participate in any project, realize that it is the creation of humans, so you are dealing with human social dynamics. I’ll explain by way of analogy. Imagine you are a lone hunter and you are looking for a new tribe. You happen upon them. Do you rush up to them and excitedly start talking to them? The smart approach is to appear non-threatening, stay within their vision.

First piece of advice: Show up. Be non-threatening. Observe and listen. Find the obvious points of contact and public spaces and build familiarity with the product or service and common user issues.

Back to the analogy, if the group doesn’t perceive you as a threat, have something to offer. If you are starting from zero, try replicating issues users raise. Try finding workarounds. Even if all you can do is say, ‘It’s happening to me too,’ that’s rather helpful. There are never enough support engineers in ANY project. You will always find an open door there.

Second piece of advice: Have something to give.

If the group is paying attention, you should start to receive recognition and thanks. That’s a signal that you’re on the right track. Depending on the circumstances, you may be invited to certain discussions.

Third piece of advice: Look for opportunities. Organize your findings, look for gaps, then take a shot.

Fourth and final piece of advice: Document EVERYTHING. Literally keep a running journal of what time you spent on the project, even if it’s just rolling through community posts. Blog, Vlog, or Stream it. The exhaust from that effort will prove immensely useful for you to make sense out of how you’ve been spending your time. Solid blog posts and videos get noticed.

I have a ton more tactical things to go into with respect to QA, Eng, Design, Product, and Research specifically, but I’ll be blogging those over the next year. ^_^

hericcoleric: Can you already quantify what percentage of the Brave users you expect to opt-in for also using/earning BAT?

A lot.

I'll take this opportunity to bring up two related topics.

If we take a position of 'get paid to browse,' that is a very simple thing to say and would certainly ease initial adoption as most economists would like to believe that we are 'self-interested rational actors', however it carries some significant risks.

a. If we use the term 'pay' that undermines utility. That's a big no-no.

b. There is a substantial risk of the Undermining Effect. Not only for ad engagement but browsing as a whole.

c. If people only cash out, how will publishers actually be paid?

Seeing this, we need a more nuanced message which conveys the current exploitative ad ecosystem and how we protect your data while making sure that your favorite content providers can pay their rent, eat food, and make the things you enjoy.

and

2. My favorite soapbox - Quantitative data and qualitative data are not the same things and both are valuable. The purpose of quantitative data is to derive a model for prediction. The purpose of qualitative data is to derive a model for the purpose of provocation. The former will answer 'what' and 'how much' whereas the latter will answer 'why' and spur 'what's next'.

In my particular role, I lean on qualitative data most frequently and reserve quantitative data for specific cases when it is the more useful too. It's quite the transition coming from an engineering-heavy background (CS degree, nearly 10 years as a QA). There is a natural bias for folks from an engineering background to believe that things which are countable are somehow more factual and (they hope) more controllable. Therefore they will often choose methodologies which favor this form of data collection and, in fact, we now have a whole division of computer science (and many organizations) dedicated to 'data science'.

From a product leadership perspective that puts one in a horrible position of having to say 'we'll know once we ship it'. It's my personal belief (informed by from practiced experience) that you can actually save tremendous development costs by building the right thing after you have tested prototypes and have an informed intuition of the user need and opportunity rather than spending so much resource on building a thing and trying to shoehorn and crowbar it into position after deployment.

So to circle back on the question, it is my expectation that we will have an incredible amount of participants, but how we message that and the tools we use from a research perspective will make all the difference.

s4mm1ch: What has been the biggest roadblock when it comes to developing Brave (based on user feedback, behavior, etc)?

Speed, in a weird way, has been the roadblock. The pace has been relatively breakneck to create and adjust features. Dependency on Electron was another interesting problem because of the pacing with their dependency on Chromium. So we’d want to roll in the latest Chromium faster, created Muon for that purpose, and inevitably ran into horrific bugs because we wanted to land a ton of features while our base dependencies shifted under our feet.

If we had the luxury of slowing down, that would impact quality for sure, however, you wouldn’t get features but twice a year. It’s a tradeoff every organization has to face and I believe the Quality and Engineering teams have worked outrageously hard to get turnaround on bugs within a release or two after discovery.

bat-chriscat: Given your experiences, what do you think about the recent rise of Korean culture (the "Korean wave" or "Hallyu")? And on Brave, how do you think Brave & BAT will be received by Koreans, especially given that Koreans don't depend on Google nearly as much as other countries?

I should probably start off by saying that I’m not a super-expert on Korean culture and outside observations carry my own bias. I would certainly look to my Yonsei classmate Sayuri Fujita for a more insider perspective (given her on-air time and acute observations as someone who has immigrated) and Elise Hu for an outsider perspective as the former NPR lead there. There are many other folks who would be able to provide in-depth answers, but these two come to mind first.

From what I can tell, we’re actually on the tail of Hallyu2 or beginning of Hallyu3. Hallyu1 came in the early 2000s with movies like Oasis, JSA, Memories of a Murder, and of course, Oldboy. Television played a part as well with the Korean drama to end all Korean dramas, Winter Sonata and toward the end of the wave, My Name is Kim Sam Soon. Hallyu2 came by way of musical acts like SNSD and PSY and focused much more on Kpop as the cultural export of choice.

/u/bat-chriscat your question is quite astute as each of the waves is founded upon a skillful use of a technology. With Hallyu1 it was torrents and misc assemblies of subbers. With Hallyu2 it was an artful use of YouTube and social media to connect with and organize geographically disparate fans.

It’s too early to call the shot on Hallyu3 but I believe we see inklings of it with mukbang (why it was romanized that way is beyond me since 어 is typically romanized as eo or o, but I digress). Twitch is choc-a-bloc with normal people eating, playing games, making art, and even going out into the world. These are people who do not have a big production agency, no training camps, etc. yet they are finding an audience and growing it.

As to how Brave & BAT will be received specifically, that’s a very interesting question. China, Japan, and Korea are 3 standout countries for their resistance to Google taking over as the dominant search engine. There is a confluence of factors which caused this, but what stands out to me are the influences of Confucianism and regional history. I’ll start with regional history and the impact on China & Korea specifically. As countries which have been invaded and occupied (particularly looking through the lens of World War II and reconstruction) we see that the notion of being further occupied or influenced by outside interests in any capacity leaves a particularly bad taste. These areas absolutely do not want to be beholden to any foreign power, so there is a strong psychological resistance, especially in the older generations toward an outside tech group coming in (hence Baidu for China, Daum & Naver for Korea). On Confucian influence: it would appear as though there is still an effort to maintain group harmony as the bedrock of either culture (why 우리 ‘OUR’ 엄마 mother is said instead of ‘my’ mother for example). To be on the outside and disrupt the group harmony would be a faux pas.

The strategic entry into these markets then has to be an appeal to facilitating a better connection between people and an enrichment of the lives of peers rather than as an extraction of value by a foreign entity. Brave the browser can do reasonably well as long as we keep up with l10n. For BAT though, if Hallyu3 is streamer-based, then the tactical targets are https://twip.kr/ and https://tgd.kr/, not Daum Cafes.

s4mm1ch: Do you need any QA testers for the project?

We absolutely love having contributors of every shape, stripe, and color! In general, community.brave.com is the right place to start. (More thoughts on this in the 'general advice' question)

investorpatrick: Hi Alex, we have heard there is a possibility that Brave ads, in some capacity, will be launched before EOY. Do you envision an announcement and the launch of ads happening simultaneously? Or would there be an announcement prior to the actual launch date? Say 24 hours before.

If you've had the pleasure of going through the ad-trial with me, you'd know I'm pretty good about keeping some things internal. ^_^

I'm a happily married dude, so no dates. 😛

Read the full AMA here.  

Read Luke Mulks’ AMA from November 21st, 2018 here.  

Follow the BAT Community’s Updates here: https://www.reddit.com/r/BATProject/

Upcoming BAT Community AMAs:

December 2018
Ryan Watson and Kamil Jozwiak, DevOps and QA

January 2019
Tom Lowenthal, Security and Privacy Coordinator

February 2019
Holli Bohren, Chief Financial Officer
Ben Livshits, Chief Scientist

March 2019
Marshall Rose, Senior Software Engineer

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