April 3, 2019

Lead(H)er: Susan Rice, Head of Product Design and Research at Toast

Susan Rice’s career in hospitality began at Knott’s Berry Farm, where she worked at the Southern California amusement park’s famous fried chicken restaurant as a host. She remained in the restaurant industry through her high school and college years and beyond, supporting herself with a restaurant job while she figured out what she wanted to do next.

“Somebody said to me in a very casual conversation that I was creative and should look into this web design thing,” said Rice, now the Head of Product Design and Research at Toast. “I had no idea what that was, but I did look into it.”

Susan Rice

The decision launched a career in user experience that has bounced Rice between Boston and California and back again. The field first enthralled her when an early employer hired a consulting firm to help with usability testing.

“Previously, our work was based on best practices, but not actually learning first-hand from users,” Rice said. “It was a little more subjective and opinion-based, and now I understood that you can actually put these things in front of customers to get better feedback and understanding of what actually works.”

Rice’s interest in UX led her to pursue a Master’s in Human Factors in Information Design at Bentley. Then, she took on roles at Staples and VistaPrint before returning to California for a job at MINDBODY, a platform for scheduling health, beauty, and fitness services.

She led a team of user experience professionals working in all areas of the field, from writing to design, and helped grow the team to increase its capabilities and impact within the company. When the job opportunity at Toast opened, Rice saw plenty of parallels between the two.

“I’m a little bit of a change junkie, and so that works really well for this size of a company at this stage,” Rice said.

Toast creates a combination of point-of-sale and ordering software that allows restaurants to manage orders on the floor and customers to place orders in advance. The company’s Toast Takeout app, which recently launched in Boston, lets users skip long lines. In addition to software, Toast designs and installs its proprietary hardware for restaurants.

Rice has a hand in each of these elements of Toast’s business. She oversees product design and research for the company’s digital offerings, works closely with the customer success team to improve the onboarding experience for customers -- including hardware improvements -- and maintains the teams that make it all happen.

“We want to make sure that we're able to have that voice early into defining the roadmap and the strategy around UX, and right now we're playing catch up a little bit,” Rice said. “I was really lucky to acquire a team that was gelled really well, so as we grow aggressively and get more involved, I also want to make sure we’re protecting what we already have.”

Creating community has always been important to Rice, and she developed a strong UX network the last time she worked in Boston. And the connections are now paying off. Rice has been at Toast for around seven months, and within the last six, she’s been asked to speak at two conferences, participate on a panel, and become a guest lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She and Diana DeMarco Brown, who leads the UX team at SmartBear software, will be presenting at the highly selective UXPA Boston conference in May as well.

“It’s an amazing swell that organically happened since coming back to Boston and coming to Toast,” Rice said. “It’s an opportunity that I want to capitalize on for now.”

Rapid Fire Questions

What do you like to do in your free time?

Spending time with family is key. We like to ski, and I love the fact that everyone can ski together now. I also really enjoy working out. I tend to be moving and grooving all the time. It’s good for me to get some energy out. Sometimes I have to get some energy out by going dancing with friends -- it has to happen something like once a quarter, otherwise, I get itchy.

Susan Rice Toast

How do you manage stress?

Usually by working out, but in the last year, I’ve recognized the value of meditation. We had a big kickoff at Toast, and it was the first time that I was going to have to speak to the R&D team. There were so many other things happening in that day, so I did a little bit of meditation prior to speaking, and I think I should do it more often. The other thing is being able to relax and have fun with friends and family. I’m really motivated by fun, so I try to bring that to work, too. We spend so much of our time at work, so why can’t we be productive and fun?

How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?

I enjoy a cup of coffee every morning except on weekends. I sometimes forget to drink it then, so I guess it’s more of a ritual than anything. I really enjoy the flavor.

What do you consider one of your greatest accomplishments so far?

I feel really proud of that MIT class -- it’s such a career highlight. The other one is getting to be part of the leadership team at MINDBODY that went and rang the bell at NASDAQ. How many people get to do that? Even if you work for the company, it doesn’t mean you’re there for that moment. Ringing the bell is very different than what I imagined, by the way. I thought it would be a physical bell, but it’s more like a flat screen with a button. I saw it and thought, “Really? That’s it?” I wanted a bell!

Is this where you saw yourself 10 years ago?

I don’t really know. I knew I wanted to continue to pursue leadership roles and help grow teams, so I would say that came to fruition.

What’s your advice for recent college graduates?

I would say research, network, and don’t be afraid to reach out to people to ask questions. Personally, even though I’m always balancing a lot of things, I still always appreciate when people are self-motivated and unafraid enough to reach out. Don’t expect that people are going to be able to spend a ton of time with you, but it’s not going to hurt to ask. It’s also important to do your research -- what companies do you need to target, what interests you, how do you determine what your passions are? All those things help narrow the space when it comes to finding a job. If you’re in a field like UX, there are plenty of conferences and meetups and opportunities for you to go out and learn more. Always come to things with a beginner’s mindset, be curious, and ask questions.

Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a Contributor to VentureFizz. You can follow her on Twitter @smcstnz.

Images courtesy of Susan Rice and Toast