One of the great things about working at Expedia is the company’s passion to make travel easier. Scratchpad is a tool we released last year that allows you to store your travel searches and quickly pick up where you left off. I recently chatted with Greg Mushen, who was on the team that developed the concept for Scratchpad and helped turn it into a reality, to learn more about the feature and about how he got started with the company.
Tarran Street (TS): How long have you worked at Expedia and what made you want to work here?
Greg Mushen (GM): It’s coming up on 12 years; it’s hard to believe. Doesn’t seem that long. I was really interested in what the company was doing—at the time it was very different from how others were approaching travel. I’ve always loved travel, and working here has allowed me to help offer tangible improvements to a passion of mine.
TS: Tell us a bit about your role as a principal product manager.
GM: My job is about three things repeated over and over: Formulating hypotheses based on problems travelers face and how we think we can make it easier, making adjustments to our product to test these theories, and gauging the response so we can scientifically make new hypotheses. Right now, I’m really focused on Scratchpad, which came from an observation we had in our research testing. We observed that travelers were taking notes while doing travel research. So we made a hypothesis that if we took notes for our customers, they would want to come back! Our hypothesis is proving true so far, so now we’re testing other things we can add to Scratchpad to enhance it further.
TS: How did you get into programming? Anything special you did to gear up for your job at Expedia?
GM: I joined the company in a technical role, but I was largely self-taught. My family got a computer when I was about 8. From there, I was a pretty big nerd child. I would read through a whole bunch of programming books after school. One thing that really sticks out in my memory is watching “War Games” as a kid—the guy hacked into a system to make a reservation for him and his girlfriend to go to Paris. I loved that idea. It was one of the first things I tried to replicate in BASIC.
TS: What is one of your proudest accomplishments at Expedia?
GM: Launching Scratchpad. I felt like it solved a real customer problem. And we’ve seen it work.
TS: Was there anything unique about the team structure or the support you felt from our tech leaders that helped you achieve that accomplishment?
GM: There’s a lot of trust and mutual respect. The teams work really well together in defining what needs to be built, designing it, and getting it released. And we have that level of support in all directions, from people writing code up to the executive level.
TS: What has surprised you about how people are using it?
GM: I’ve been really pleased in general with how frequently people are using it and what it means for people wanting to return to our site. But one example I thought was quite fascinating was in Japan. Scratchpad is relatively easy to understand and pronounce in the US, but it isn’t a phrase that translates easily. We decided to initially call it the phonetic translation of “Scratchpad” in Japanese. But we didn’t have a good idea for how the user base would respond and we didn’t know whether the name would be a hindrance to usage.
We had a hypothesis that the feature as a whole would help them with typing—the idea being that if you can type less, and instead just click on a couple buttons to repeat a search, which is the core of what Scratchpad lets you do, then it would be successful. Turned out we were right. Our customers in Japan actually use it more frequently than our other regions.
TS: Are there other products you think lead the way in great product development? What inspires you in the tech industry and how do you bring it into work?
GM: Oh, I keep a really long list. One of my biggest inspirations right now is around recommendations. Any app that can give me a recommendation to do something and tell me WHY it is offering that recommendation is a winner in my book. It’s the WHY that’s important—it becomes really clear on why you should believe an app to tell you something.
ProductHunt is also a pretty inspiring story. It’s a great example of having a hypothesis (people in the Bay Area want to know about hot products), testing it small (the founder, Ryan Hoover, started it with an email list), taking feedback, and keep it growing. Hoover has an API out there now and others are building on it. It’s a great example of the tech community at work. But it comes down to a good process of starting small and testing first; focus on one thing and see how far you can get with that approach. So many people get lost in the potential of what something could be without confirming a small test case first.
A couple other products I absolutely love are Uber and Dropbox. These products probably don’t need much introduction. I am inspired by both companies and how focused they are on making their products better and better every day.
Another product I really like is Peach. They are a local Seattle startup that delivers lunch to local businesses. They send you a text each morning with the selection of the day. You text back if you want the dish and they send you a text once it’s delivered. It’s a great product.
I wind up taking screenshots of products I like and keeping them in a list. A lot of products inspire me, but oftentimes it’s the little features that make the big difference.
TS: What’s the tech product you’re most looking forward to this year?
GM: Can I talk about Scratchpad Notifications and other work we’re doing?
TS: Let’s keep that under wraps for now! What about in the broader tech industry?
GM: Apple Watch. I think it’s early, but it will be really interesting to see how things go over the next year.
TS: Finally, complete this sentence: “A vacation isn’t complete without a…”
GM: …great travel companion.