A home is one of the biggest purchases many of us will ever make, and here in the States, it can be an overwhelming and cumbersome process that leaves you feeling left out. But not anymore, says our guest Annie Tang, Design Manager at Opendoor, a company using technology and innovation to put the power of buying and selling a home back in the hands of the customers. In this episode, Annie shares how she’s using user design to reshape an entire industry.
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The Girls in Tech Podcast is produced by Tote + Pears.
Music By: Adrian Dominic Walther
Featured In This Episode
Annie Tang is the Design Manager for Seller Products at Opendoor, where she works on creating digital experiences that transform the way people traditionally sell a home, including the seller experience, trade-ins, partnerships and mortgages.
In her role, Annie helps lead vision and strategy for Opendoor products, developing design processes, hiring great talent and elevating design culture. Prior to Opendoor, Annie designed products at YouTube, Google and Microsoft.
Annie’s deep love for design has taken shape in many forms: She holds a BS in Architecture from MIT, and spends much of her free time creating ceramics, painting and exploring interior design.
Adriana Gascoigne (00:00):
I am Adriana Gascoigne, founder of Girls in Tech. And this is The Girls in Tech Podcast, where we’re discussing the ways tech is always evolving and helping the world evolve too. Listen in, get inspired and learn how you can use your skills to create the change you want to see in the world. Here’s your host, Zuzy Martin-Aly.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (00:20):
There is a company that will value you for you. There’s a tech job where your skillset and unique perspectives are appreciated. By inviting you to share the real you, the Girls in Tech Jobs Board helps you find that job so that you can take the next step in your career with confidence. Go to jobs.girlsintech.org today. That’s jobs.girlsintech.org.
Annie Tang (00:44):
On the traditional market, we leverage agents in order to give us a price for the home, but our awesome data science team leverages a lot of property information that’s actually made available publicly already. So every time you transact on a home, it gets recorded publicly, and we use that data in order to generate fair, honest offers on the home, so that you can take that offer whenever you want to.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (01:10):
For those of us who are lucky enough to be homeowners, we all know the process is a bit of a whirlwind. First-time home buyers and sellers are often left confused and overwhelmed by the lack of transparency and all of the moving pieces. And with owning a home being one of the biggest purchases the average person will ever make, it can be super intimidating to even start the process, which builds a barrier to what is still — to many — the American dream. Fortunately, the availability of data and tech innovations are giving more power and information to home buyers and sellers, helping them make better-informed decisions quicker and more simply.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (01:46):
And we just can’t deny the influence COVID is having on the market right now. Whether it’s a push for a more socially distanced transaction or influence mortgage rates to plummet, the market is definitely moving with a very different end-to-end user experience. To better understand the role of user experience and trends in real estate, I turned to Opendoor’s Design Manager for Seller Products, Annie Tang. Here’s my conversation with Annie.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (02:12):
Hey Annie, I am so excited to speak with you today because I actually just went through the crazy home buying process and got my first apartment. So, it was so crazy and I want to know what Opendoor is doing to modernize the process and how you’re using technology to make things easier for buyers and sellers. So, thanks for being on The Girls in Tech Podcast.
Annie Tang (02:33):
Thank you so much. I am so excited to be here, and congrats on purchasing your home. That’s an awesome milestone.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (02:42):
I know, I know, it’s so exciting. And purchasing a home is for many people the absolute biggest purchase anyone’s going to make in their whole life, and unfortunately, it is very complicated, unnecessarily so, I think. I want to know what Opendoor is doing to make things easier, and also why not keep the status quo?
Annie Tang (03:04):
Yeah I mean, that’s such a great question. The entire real estate experience really hasn’t changed in the last couple of decades, and it’s really overdue for innovation because our customers really crave a very convenient, simple, digital way to buy and sell that actually puts the customer first rather than all these other third parties that are involved in the transaction. So, for instance, when we buy a home with Opendoor, what we try to do is we let you take care of all the fun stuff like looking for a home, browsing for a home, even touring a home. We make it really easy for you to do on your own. But when it gets to actually buying, we match you with an agent that is matched to your needs and takes you through the process and is your one point of contact so that you know exactly what’s going to happen. Just more transparency and a more seamless process in that.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (03:59):
Yeah, and thinking about what you’re saying regarding transparency, people stay away from things because there is no transparency, it’s confusing, there’s no information. And when you change that, when you remove the unknown — the overwhelming parts — you’re actually empowering people. By simplifying the process, you are making it easier for people to walk in that direction. That’s awesome.
Annie Tang (04:24):
Totally. That’s honestly my dream for the future of home buying is that it becomes much more equitable, and it becomes much easier to enter into home buying because it’s much more transparent, it’s cheaper, you don’t have all the crazy fees. Thinking back to … I remember my parents buying a home because they were first-generation immigrants, and we bought our first home when I was in middle school. Just thinking about not knowing the process and not knowing any agents or not knowing who to talk to for it, it’s a really daunting process because there’s not that much out there to help you navigate it, and it’s the biggest transaction of your lifetime.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (05:06):
Yeah. I mean, imagine designing a world where buying a home is as easy as leasing a car, right? That would be awesome. I’m curious to know, as a design thinker yourself, I’d love to hear your vision for the future. And also any predictions you might have that we should expect.
Annie Tang (05:24):
One prediction I have is that this space, the real estate space, we’re going to start seeing a lot more companies try to really tackle the end-to-end experience and make it a lot more modern. In the past, we’ve seen companies tackling little parts of the experience, such as making browsing for homes easier by making it digital or making document signing modern and digital. But we’re going to see a lot more people in this space actually tackle the end-to-end experience and provide a seamless way in order for you to buy and sell as simple as if you were to trade in your car and upgrade your car.
Annie Tang (06:02):
The second thing I’ll say is that I think similar to what I said before with what Opendoor is trying to do, but technology is really going to make entering into this home buying process a lot more available and a lot more accessible. I’ve heard customers say that, “I’m ready to buy, but the process just seems so daunting, and it’s going to be next year’s problem.” And I think that the trend will be that because we are going to have these companies tackle the end-to-end experience and modernize and make it really digital and awesome and easy, it’s going to be a lot more easier for people to start thinking about buying a home. There’s not going to be all that cognitive overhead and they’re going to be put at the center of the experience. So, technology will make real estate a lot more equitable for everyone.
Annie Tang (06:51):
And then the last thing is a lot of the adjacencies around home buying is going to see a modernization as a result. For instance, home renovation and customization also driven by this younger group of people buying homes the home is such a representation of yourself, and so you want to make it what you want. So I think that other antiquated industries such as renovation, construction, updating personalization of your home, we’re going to see a lot more interesting things coming out of that world too — where getting a bathroom remodel isn’t going to be a huge headache that takes way longer than expected and is way more expensive and we’re going to see a lot more transparency in those areas as well.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (07:36):
I cannot do an interview without talking about the influence of COVID. So I’m dying to know has COVID propelled the buyer and the seller more towards the Opendoor model, where it’s more streamlined, there’s less physical contact, seemingly more control in a space where people really want to feel safe but also, as we know, are still moving, there’s a lot of moving going on … Has COVID changed the market?
Annie Tang (08:04):
Yeah. I mean, totally COVID has really changed the entire landscape based on external factors as well. The mortgage rates are at all-time lows right now, and it’s really not going anywhere. Plus, people are really investing a lot in the home now. Now that a lot of people are working remotely, the home is even more of an emotional place than ever because it’s your home and your office and you are place-based. It’s everything to you.
Annie Tang (08:31):
So, in terms of how COVID has driven companies like Opendoor — Opendoor specifically — a lot of the safety things that we actually implement make it, the home buying and selling process, a lot safer and gives people a lot more peace of mind. One example of this is once COVID happened, all the inspection that happens after your interested in a home — so take, for example, when you’re selling a home. After you find a buyer, each party needs to do an inspection on the home just to make sure that everything is not broken, everything is in the right place and to log all of that. That inspection means that a lot of people might be coming to your home, like the roof inspector, foundation inspector. A lot of people are coming in, so we really quickly launched a new way where we actually do virtual inspections. So that’s really safe for the customer and it’s also safe for us. And we actually use technology to guide the customer to do the inspection themselves and send it over to us so that we can analyze it for them.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (09:28):
I’m super excited about technologies that are coming, especially things like advancement in virtual and augmented reality and IoT. Can you give us a glimpse of what’s next?
Annie Tang (09:41):
Yeah. I mean, Opendoor currently uses a lot of that technology in order to make a richer customer experience. So, I’ll list out a few that we use. So we have a Opendoor app with geo-fencing, which allows for automated on-demand entry whenever you want to tour a home. You can unlock a home with the app, and it’s geo-fencing and automated in order to allow that to happen. For those homes that we have, we use IoT monitoring systems to provide real-time analytics, and it helps us ensure that the homes are really safe for our customers, and we monitor them. So we actually build that in-house, and for each home, we actually have one of these monitoring devices so that we can make sure that we understand what’s going on in the home so we can provide a really safe touring experience for our customers.
Annie Tang (10:34):
We also leverage 3D modeling of our homes for additional touring options as well as use video conferencing with our sellers for contactless home assessments. We are also developing a lot of internal proprietary software to streamline all the work of the field operators that we have. So Opendoor employees who are there to manage the homes and make sure that there’s all the things that are being fixed about the homes, they’re being in top shape when we sell them. And we have our own software to help with the assessment process for vendor management, all of that stuff. Those are all things that today are quite integrated and done on pen and paper.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (11:22):
So, let’s talk about the future and jobs. So many of us are curious about how do we get into this world of product designing, whether it’s in real estate or any other industry. Can you share a little bit about what skills people need or what direction they should go in if they want to do what you do?
Annie Tang (11:41):
Yeah, product design, oh man, it’s such a big field now, and I would say that my personal journey into product design was not super linear. Most of my colleagues who land in product design have a plethora of different backgrounds — architecture, graphic design, all that stuff. And so, looking into the future, the way that I see the product design field morphing is that back in the day, when you think about product design it’s really about designing the product — a toaster, a toy, a physical thing. And then we had a wave of apps and online services and websites, and product design then became more digital design, and it became more screen-based. We’re going to see a lot of the industries that need a lot of design thinking in these antiquated industries that marry digital and the real world experiences.
Annie Tang (12:41):
So product design is going to start shifting or at least already shifted into more experience design, where it’s both online and the offline experience. Skills that I would say are needed … there are the hard skills, where ultimately rooted in design is helping people simplify complex problems through a visual way of representing it. And so, hard skills like being able to do visual design prototyping — those are all going to be really great for you. But as you think about the future of product design, it’s really important to be able to be extremely customer centric and be able to visualize a end-to-end experience very succinctly to people. So like flow diagrams and being able to map out experience and thinking about the experience is going to be really, really important.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (13:33):
Yeah. I love that. I mean, I just picture a whole wall of Post-It notes and diagrams and flow charts and really visualizing the whole world and then creating the experience from there.
Annie Tang (13:47):
Yeah. It’s no longer about like, “Okay, I’m going to design this perfect screen and this app and have that be put on the customer.” It’s actually more, it’s inverted, where you really have to like you said understand the customer, understand their journey and then lay on, “Okay. What are the moments where it’s going to be amplified by a digital experience, and what are the moments where we have to embrace the real world experience?”
Annie Tang (14:14):
For example at Opendoor, the home touring experience, where you use the app — and we design this awesome app in order for you to download the app and unlock the home — but the actual touring of the home, we don’t want you to be on this app during that period of time. We want you to enjoy the home. So, we take you away from the app and you look at the physical space and you walk around and you see that space. And then when you leave we ask you a couple more questions in the app. So, thinking about the future of product design, there are a lot of other areas like this. For instance, maybe you have Alexa at home and that’s a marry of physical product and also a digital experience but also a voice spatial experience. So, that’s really where product design is going. It’s becoming broader and less screen-based and more about what you’re experiencing in the real world.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (15:05):
That’s great. So in real estate specifically, can you share some job titles that people may be looking into in product design in this area for people that want to get into this field?
Annie Tang (15:18):
Yeah, I would say in real estate technology, we actually don’t have anything super specific just for this industry because a lot of the skills that you have are very transferable between these very complex industries. But the job titles that I would recommend are if you’re interested in design, UX designer, product designer, those are the titles that you’d have. There is also a lot other titles within the realm of tech in general like engineering, data science, analytics, program management. And these are not unique to real estate, and I think that’s actually part of the beauty of tech in general is that not every specific area has to have a super, super-specific role. If you are a product designer you have actually quite a couple of different industries at your disposal.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (16:16):
Any final thoughts of advice or anything else you’d like to share for people who might want to go in the same direction you have?
Annie Tang (16:25):
Yeah. I mean, I think that if I were to give advice to my former younger self about working in this field, I’d say really just go for it and follow your curiosity. The beauty of technology that I just mentioned is that it’s a really broad field. I mean as long as you are interested in technology, technology can help amplify so many different industries. And so, follow your curiosity. The best marrying of the two is finding the skills that you really have and are interested in, like design or engineering, and figure out what area you’re curious about. Like, if it’s real estate then, that’s the marry of the two. Or it might be something else entirely and go for it.
Annie Tang (17:22):
Another thing I guess I would also tell my former self is that a lot of times job postings or getting into this space is really daunting, but if you have that curiosity and you have some of the skills needed, just apply for that job or just go for it. And reach out to people. Now that I’m on the other side, I feel like whenever I get incoming emails from people who are interested in getting into tech or interested in getting into the real estate space and tech, I am super happy to give advice. But when I was on the other side, I was more timid and nervous to reach out to people. So I guess the last thing would be just reach out to people, apply for that job that you want to, and just follow your curiosity, and I think good things will happen.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (18:14):
That advice reminds me of how so many design giants have given people the advice to really explore their creative side and do something that’s totally different that you’re passionate about because it will inform your work in design. I think Steve Jobs is most famous for saying that. And your background is really amazing, not only from a design perspective but you’re into ceramics and painting and interior design. Can you share a bit of how that influences your day-to-day work?
Annie Tang (18:47):
Yeah. I mean, I think at the core of it I’m just, I’m a builder, I’m a maker. A lot of things related to building and making are interwoven. For instance, one thing that I keep thinking about when I was learning how to do pottery that is really similar to design is when you’re making pottery, you really have to be actually very quick to pull and form your shape. You can’t really tweak it over hours and hours just because the clay will just crumble apart.
Annie Tang (19:21):
So the best way to learn and grow and be a better potter is to make a lot of different vases very quickly. And actually, it’s the same way when you’re thinking about getting better as a product designer or UX designer. If you just noodle away at the pixels for one thing over a really long period of time, you’re just going to get into a dead end. But if you want to get better, do a design a day or do a flow a day, challenge yourself, not strive for perfection but strive for quantity. And that will actually, with each repetition will make you better and better. So, I actually feel like a lot of different things that you make or do there’s a lot of transferrable nuggets of insight that you learn from one or the other.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (20:07):
Annie, it’s been so much fun talking to you. Thanks for giving us a vision of the world you’re dreaming up behind the scenes in real estate.
Annie Tang (20:15):
It was great talking to you too. Thank you so much. This was really fun.
Adriana Gascoigne (20:20):
Thank you for listening to today’s episode. The Girls in Tech podcast is a production of Tote + Pears. Were you inspired by what you heard today? Head over to girlsintech.org to find more resources for starting and advancing a career in tech, including our jobs board and personal and professional development programs designed to help you excel. And be sure to tune in every other Tuesday for new episodes. See you next time.
The Girls in Tech Podcast is produced by Tote + Pears.
Music By: Adrian Dominic Walther