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A lifelong obsession with patterns and people

A People Nerds interview with Kelly Goto

Words by Kari Dean McCarthy, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Kelly Goto is obsessed with patterns and people. It drives her evangelism for great design and impactful research, which led her to launch gotomedia and gotoresearch: two highly successful companies dedicated to design research and service design.

Kelly sat down with dscout to discuss her longtime love of diary studies, and how integral she makes research to the design process. Following is an edited version of our interview.

dscout: We heard that you have an obsession for diary studies. That’s pretty nerdy! What do you find so fascinating about that methodology?

Kelly Goto: I love finding patterns in things. I've been fascinated with patterns since elementary school, always creating studies and trying to figure out why people were behaving in certain ways. Understanding why people do the things they do, and being able to put it into some measurable, pattern-like format that we can look at and say, "Oh, that makes sense." That's what I love. It translates into the rest of my career.

In college, I went into digital design, and when I started gotomedia, my focus was always about integrating research with the design process. All the way back in 2002, we were the U.S. arm for Nokia, doing all of their ethnography and digital research. That's when I started conducting formal diary studies, on paper of course.

What drew you to that particular methodology?

At the time, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book on flow—how people are motivated based on increasing difficulties, but in a way that feels challenging so they just rise to the occasion, they continue to focus." It's flow, not addiction. Then he created the experience sampling method, ESM, which is diary-study oriented. I became fascinated with ESM as a method, mixing qualitative/quantitative data to truly measure the emotional experience. It didn’t seem possible.

That was 15 years ago. During that time I interviewed amazing people like Genevieve Bell, and ethnographers at Microsoft and others who were working as ethnographers in the tech industry. Microsoft was using ESM to track and measure usage and emotion—I think it was truck drivers at the time—and Genevieve Bell spoke about how important it was to have people be inherently involved in the process, and how important context was, especially in the foreign studies she was conducting.

Nokia and Intel—is that where you connected your fascination of diary studies with mobile technology?

That's where the experience sampling comes in, because that was a quant look at qualitative data, and I became immersed in ethnography, focusing on the mobile space. We needed context and ethnography to understand it, so I became an evangelist for ethnography as a discipline at a very early time in the industry when they weren't really thinking about it as hands-on, and this type of research was considered very academic.

When mobile came about and people were using interfaces in different contexts, it became important for me to see what was happening not just on the desktop, but elsewhere. This migration meant that I needed to understand the way people lived — and ESM was a diary study version of that that allowed you to collect information about people and quantify in order to begin to build patterns. At least that was the goal!

Have you found any instances where diary studies aren’t a good fit? Or other methodologies that do or don’t work for you?

Matt Killingsworth created track your happiness as an app to understand happiness and context, and it was ESM-oriented. It enabled people to track moments when they were happy, however it didn't work for me all that well. Because when you're sitting there having fun, the last thing I wanted to do was pick up my phone and login and rate how happy I was feeling in that moment. He’s improved the app over time and it is still available in the app store now.

I also don’t believe in focus groups. They are often led and mostly swayed by the moderator or are presented in a way to prove certain concepts or business goals work (when they don’t work.) In my first job at Warner Bros., the management kept bringing groups of people in, and asking, “doesn’t this advertising look great?” with no concern about real-world usage (They were billboards and signage that was in a city montage as hidden advertising.) It was false to me, not real. I wanted to see how people were using the website, in context. I was against focus groups from that moment on.

I also heard that you're something of a pioneer in using agile methodologies for design research?

I moved to San Francisco in 1997, when the web started to explode. I watched and experimented. I wrote a book. I became friends with Steve Krug and Jared Spool, who are advocates for the user-centered process, which became, of course, user-centered design.

We built web presences for, and Webvan. Somewhere in the mix, amidst tomes of technical specs and our design team weighing in on radial buttons or pull-down menus just before launch, I felt there had to be a better way. I started to pair researchers with IA’s and visual designers and was dedicated to this grouping of mixed practitioners to create a better user experience. I started integrating cycles of testing into the process. I fought hard to get usability testing and research methodology into the system at every turn of the process.

“Lean” came from the business side, “Agile” came from the technology side, and “User-centered” design came from the design side. We have been utilizing iterative research and usability from that point forward, and these methods have become a driver for user centered design, which is now known as UX (User Experience).

You said gotomedia was always about both research and design. Then what made you decide to start the second company, gotoresearch?

I started gotoresearch because there are a lot of research projects that are more generative or future-focused in nature. We work a lot with R&D groups. We work a lot with innovation and start-ups. We work with companies that have big questions about their market, and they aren't satisfied with traditional research.

I'm focusing my time and energy into the research side, because not only is it where my passion lies, but I also believe it is where the market is. If we take the work that people have been doing with surveys and segmentation and focus groups, and we replace it with diary studies and contextual research, we're finding that the information we're getting back to the client is much more relevant and actionable.

Each method takes an exorbitant amount of time and money, so I'm really a proponent of getting into the emotional and the contextual layer of the experience. I believe that's where you're either going to make or break an experience, and you're going to have success or failure. Service design is a disciplined approach to integrating research into the business process, so that is where we’re really honing our skills.

If we take the work that people have been doing with surveys and segmentation and focus groups, and we replace it with diary studies and contextual research, we’re finding that the information we’re getting back to the client is much more relevant and actionable.

Kelly Goto

What is the most exciting thing you’re working on now?

I’m focused on a vision where the work we’re doing is going to make real change. And have huge impact. That’s what drives me. Sometimes all the gadgets and startups can seem meaningless. But, I started working with the disabled and aging communities and realized that we can actually change lives.

I believe technology has a place, not to add one more gadget to the environment, but maybe technology can help someone stay in their home for ten years longer. Maybe technology will create a less lonely person. Maybe it can help a blind person see.

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

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