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Transforming user insights into business value

A People Nerds interview with Katy Mogal

Words by Kari Dean McCarthy, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Katy Mogal is now in a research role at Google. While the company has changed from the original interview, the values of research and insights have stayed the same. 

Few companies are as intimately connected with their users’ every moment as Fitbit.

As Fitbit’s director of design/user research, Katy Mogal oversees the integration of user insights into the product development process. Katy and her team of social scientists and researchers work with designers and product managers to create new experiences. Those experiences are rooted in a deep understanding of user needs, behaviors, and desires.

Katy combines a love of science and measurability with her need to understand people. This approach to research and design is both enhanced by and brought to her teaching at California College of the Arts and Stanford University. She recently spoke with dscout about the importance of understanding people and the science behind what her team does.

dscout: What are some of the first things you do when you launch a user research project?

Katy Mogal: The most important work, and the work that most determines the success or failure of the project, is the work that’s done upfront. We work really hard to get a clear understanding of the decisions we’re trying to inform, objectives for the research, the stakeholder questions, and in-going hypotheses. One of the key components of the researcher’s job is to listen to what the stakeholder or client really wants and then figure out how to translate that into a project.

One of the key components of the researcher’s job is to listen to what the stakeholder or client really wants and then figure out how to translate that into a project.

Katy Mogal

UX researchers often say, "It all starts with knowing the user.” Do UX designers say that, too? And if they do say that, do they mean the same thing?

Obviously a lot depends on the company, the culture, and the individuals. But in general, there’s broad recognition in consumer tech firms that technological advancements are being commoditized, and that true competitive advantage lies in delivering a great user experience. User experience designers by default have to start with thinking about the user.

For me, starting with user knowledge means spending time developing a foundational understanding of user needs, behaviors, and desires through rigorous approaches that are customized to the research question. That entails a couple of things:

Because each user's experience is subjective, does that mean UX design is subjective, and therefore, UX research can’t be very useful?

At the end of the day, every product that is successful is addressing a basic human need—to be connected to others, to achieve goals, to improve oneself. Each category has a limited set of needs to address. Take Facebook as an example—there are probably five or so basic needs that are being fulfilled in using the core product. Status, identity, connection—we could brainstorm a few more—but they aren’t infinite or unique to an individual user.

Katy is speaking at People Nerds San Francisco in May! Learn More

Are there any particular methodologies or types of research that you find exciting or particularly meaningful?

What I find really valuable is delivering information that helps stakeholders move forward and make decisions. I really get a charge out of delivering insights. I get a real kick out of ethnography because you learn so much about people in context.

I did a project at Logitech that was really fantastic. It was about understanding hardcore gamers. [Logitech] came up with the positioning and tagline, “Science wins.” My team was tasked with understanding gamers’ needs and figuring out what this positioning might mean to users.

It was suggested that we use semiotics to understand how the concept of “Science Wins” was showing up in media. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols. The people doing this research have PhDs in cultural analysis. They look at how words or colors or lines might affect the meaning. It’s like doing design research, except instead of talking to people, you’re looking at how it’s used already.

Right now, a big understanding of “science” in cultural media is “natural,” which has nothing to do with what we we’re doing. So we really had to think about how we were positioning science. According to the research, there were approximately six different ways that you could express science in a product, and the way that you choose is going to determine if there’s an alignment with what gamers want from science or not. It made a huge impact on the media campaign.

Part of delivering results is a matter of being able to read the tea leaves and have an understanding of how to deliver research to different people.

Katy Mogal

Given your interest in having a measurable impact, how do you deal with delivering results?

Part of delivering results is a matter of being able to read the tea leaves and have an understanding of how to deliver research to different people. At Fitbit, a lot of our research filters up to the CEO. You deliver research differently to a designer or project manager; it’s much more about creating knowledge or developing empathy. But, when you get to delivering research to management, it’s much more about, “Here are three things you need to know.” You need to understand how to tailor the message and what resonates. It’s almost like you have to be an ethnographer in your organization.

Circling back to one of the first questions: How do you know when you know the user? Or at least know them “enough” to move forward?

I don’t think you can ever say definitively that you know the user, especially in a rapidly developing and changing sector like consumer tech. In an interactive products company like Fitbit, where you’re regularly shipping new features in accelerated cycles, one of the biggest constraints on research is time. So we get as much knowledge as we can for the project at hand, given our constraints; but with each subsequent project in the same area, we look back at the work we’ve already done, and build on it, so we continue to add to that foundation over time.

Kari Dean McCarthy is a seasoned brand communications strategist, award-winning filmmaker, and gnocchi expert.

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