In 2010, during her first week as TED.com’s head of product, an author who was visiting the company’s offices gave Thaniya Keereepart a copy of his book. She thanked him and put it aside; she hadn’t heard of him, or his book, before.
Several years later, the book and the author’s TED Talk would become an invaluable for Keereepart as she set out to convince her colleagues that they needed to completely rebuild TED’s website from the ground up. The book was called Start with Why and it’s author, Simon Sinek, has the fourth most watched TED Talk in the site’s history.
The message at the core of Sinek’s book, and of Keereepart’s guiding design philosophy, is that nothing is more important than curiosity. It’s a tenet Keereepart has taken with her throughout her career, from her time as head of product at Major League Baseball, TED, and Patreon, to advising organizations like StoryCorps and National Geographic.
She sat down with us to tell us just what makes “why” the key.
dscout: You’ve said asking “why” is the most important thing you can do in product development. So: why why?
Thaniya: In product development, what often happens is that people come to you for a solution, but they haven’t really spent enough time thinking about the problem. So to really get to the root of things, you have to ask why, and you have to do it more than once. You can’t just take the first answer as the final answer. If you keep asking why, eventually you’ll get to the root of what it is that really needs to be solved.
Why don’t we get to the heart of that on the first why?
It’s an interesting question. From a design perspective, sometimes I think it’s due to the different ways we speak about things. We each describe concepts using the vocabulary that we already know. If you’re a creator, you might have a different vocabulary than a consumer. So if a consumer stumbles on something that doesn’t feel right or that they can’t figure out, the only way they know how to communicate that is to say it doesn’t work.
That’s why it’s important for creators to ask a lot of why questions, so you can get to the bottom of where your user or consumer is really stuck. If you don’t, you run the risk of getting feedback to fix something that isn’t necessarily what needs to be fixed. It’s just feedback that is limited to the vocabulary the user knows.
That’s why it’s important for creators to ask a lot of why questions…If you don’t, you run the risk of getting feedback to fix something that isn’t necessarily what needs to be fixed. It’s just feedback that is limited to the vocabulary the user knows.
You mentioned the creator and the consumer working with different vocabularies. I imagine that linguistic divide is something that comes up quite a bit at Patreon, which is a marketplace that connects creators—artists, writers, musicians, podcasters—with patrons.
Absolutely—finding the right language and the right way to speak about things is key. I just got back from Berlin where we were doing quite a bit of field research. One of the things that we understood from our market research and quant analysis was that, in Germany, not many people on the platform were using credit cards. But when we got there, we dug a little deeper into why that was. What we found was that the reason people weren’t using credit cards wasn’t because their socioeconomic status didn’t give them access to one, or because of any cultural reason. It was actually connected to privacy, and anxiety about trusting a big tech company to store their data and information. If we hadn’t asked why customers weren’t using credit cards again, we wouldn’t have found that answer, and we wouldn’t have gotten to the root of the problem.
Now that we had, our challenge as an organization was to design an approach that would address concerns related to privacy, as opposed to concerns related to access. Part of the solution was that we needed to support the payment methods they were using—like bank transfer and bond outlets. But that wasn’t the only thing we needed to do. We also had to rethink how we spoke about and described our product, and make sure the language we were using was all with an eye toward building trust with the customer and making them comfortable.
You’ve spoken about how we can borrow principles from product design to help us overcome everyday bias.
Yes—a few years ago I was at a conference, and I was approached by a reporter who asked me if I’d noticed differences at my workplace in terms of how people were treated when it came to gender. I observe people’s behavior for a living—especially when it comes to how they interact with digital products. And yet I didn’t have anything to say. I realized I couldn’t answer the question because I hadn’t looked. So I started to look, and I started to see more and more of a divide. The more I looked, the more I found—and I realized it wasn’t just about gender. It was about seeing how we’re all different—we behave different because of our gender, and our ethnicity, upbringing, culture. Equality isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. To get there, we need to design small changes that enable us to work better together, not despite our differences but while acknowledging them. I wanted to think about how to address this—about what I, as a designer, could do to be a part of the solution. And I realized: we use design principles to shape how people interact with digital products every day. What if we also used them to shape how people interact with one another?
There are many different ways we can do this, but here’s one example. One of the main things that’s really interesting in product design is this notion of the engagement loop (a concept that originated from the book Hooked by Nir Eyal). The engagement loop is at the core of what makes anything and everything addictive. You post a photo on Instagram, and someone “likes” it, they’re giving you instant gratification, appreciation and recognition of what you’ve done. So what do you do? You post more pictures. It becomes a cycle: you post something, you get positive reinforcement and recognition from a very large group of people, which reinforces repeating the behavior, creating the loop.
So how can we use this loop to shape how we interact with one another? If you think about what makes work successful, it’s often the teamwork and collaboration. But those aren’t efforts that are really evaluated by companies—performance reviews tend to look at individual performance, and they also happen only once a year. That structure misses a lot of things that actually help people and teams succeed —all those nuances of interaction and collaboration, and the advantages of the engagement loop. If you do good work, and then you have to wait a year to be recognized for it, you aren’t really getting that positive reinforcement.
If you want to cultivate a particular group mindset or behavior, you have to find a way to positively reward that behavior almost immediately as it happens. So if someone on your team or in your organization is promoting inclusion or a diversity initiative, you want to make sure that it gets recognized right away. And not just by the boss or by HR, but by the peers of whoever is actually introducing something good to the team and to the company.
There are a couple of companies that are doing this now using Slack. For one of my teams, I reserved certain emoji reactions for when people see someone doing something that's positive for the group. Then on a monthly basis, I shared a leaderboard that showed a tally of who had done something emoji-worthy for the team or the company. All of sudden it became instinctually competitive to engage in positive behavior.
If you want to cultivate a particular group mindset or behavior, you have to find a way to positively reward that behavior almost immediately as it happens. So if someone on your team or in your organization is promoting inclusion or a diversity initiative, you want to make sure that it gets recognized right away.
It’s gamification for good.
Speaking of gamification, one of the places you spent a lot of time early in your career was working for Major League Baseball, on their “Gameday” app, which lets users virtually watch baseball games from their phones. You were taking an experience—that of watching a baseball game—that’s incredibly personal and important to people and trying to reimagine it digitally. You’re essentially making it a totally new experience.
That was pretty early in my career, and I was just so excited to work at an organization that was such a huge part of people’s lives. It’s America’s pastime. It was at a time when everything was just becoming digital, and there wasn’t really a playbook for how to do that. We really just winged it—we were driven by this genuine curiosity and desire to solve the problem of making baseball more accessible to everyone. It was a big project that I had a chance to really sink my teeth into.
But you also had an interaction during that time with a user that you’ve said was one of the defining moments of your career.
I did. I love to travel—it’s been a passion of mine my whole life. And so while I was working at MLB, I was coming from a trip to the Argentine side of Patagonia, and I was on this tiny little airplane. It was very, very small—one of those planes where you feel like it could drop out of the sky at any moment.
You don’t generally find a lot of Americans on planes like that, and it turned out I was sitting next to this American kid who was traveling around the world. I asked him how he dealt with constantly being on the road—and didn’t he ever miss home? And he said: “I listen to this app called Gameday on my phone, and it makes me feel like I am home, in a way. I get to hear my home broadcaster and follow my team even though I’m on the other side of the world.”
In that moment it dawned on me what kind of impact my work had on people. On the product side of things, it’s so easy to hide behind a screen and just see users in terms of numbers. On opening day, we’d have 4 million concurrent users sign in and use the app. But looking at things that way is very different from thinking about the experience of one person on an airplane halfway around the world, and how using the app we were creating made them feel more at home. From that point on, my viewpoint changed. Whatever I’ve done, what’s been most important to me is that I create personal impact for people. For me, having that kind of compass in my career, that larger guiding principle, has been really important.
For me, those moments have led to a really important realization—the marker for success for the products I work on can’t just be measured in numbers. It also has to be measured in stories.
After MLB you became the head of product at TED—which is very much a destination for people specifically looking for ideas and inspiration that will have that kind of personal impact.
It’s interesting, I had a similar experience years later when I was at TED. I was in this tiny little beach town in Brazil, in the Bahia region. It was a solo trip, and so one day when I went out kayaking, I was paired up with a random person, a Brazilian man. The two of us are just kayaking across the estuary and he started making small talk, though he couldn’t speak English very well. He was asking me where I was from and what I did, and I told him that I worked at TED. And he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and opened it to the TED app—which is what I worked on. And he said: “I’m a corporate lawyer, but I just quit my job because of this TED Talk.” I was shocked. I said, “You watched a talk and you quit your job?” He nodded. He quit to start a company that helps fund public spaces in Sao Paolo.
It’s not a light thing, hearing that the work you’ve done has had that kind of effect on someone. I didn’t give that talk, of course, but I made it accessible. It’s an incredibly powerful thing to hear that what you’ve done has contributed to someone’s life in that way, and it’s even more powerful to hear that while you’re seemingly in the middle of nowhere, completely out of context. Those moments of realization and pride can be really powerful. They can influence how you work for the rest of your career. For me, those moments have led to a really important realization—the marker for success for the products I work on can’t just be measured in numbers. It also has to be measured in stories.
Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.