Erika Hall is the co-founder of Mule Design, and the author of “Just Enough Research” – a handbook for improving design with smart, effective user research. Erika uses business goals to focus a project – and targeted customer insights to inform the design. She’s got a big bag of research techniques – and knows which ones to pull out to get the job done. If you’re into customer-centered design, Erika’s work is right up your alley.
About this episode
[Amy Jo Kim] How did you first get started in design and tech?
[Erika Hall] I was always a big nerd growing up and I spent more time at Radio Shack probably than most little girls in Los Angeles and was just out of … I’m not sure out of where … I was always very interested in programming and computers.
When I went to college, I went to a liberal arts school and I ended up studying philosophy which might seem very impractical but it turned out that that was right in the very, very early days of the web and it turned out that that was a really fantastic course of study because I find in thinking about experience design, and interface design, a lot of those questions of “What are we doing? Why are we doing it?” Thinking about different elements of a system in an abstract way, as well as having that ethical component to thinking about what you’re doing has been really, really helpful in design.
After I graduated my first job was in a venture capital partnership, just randomly, it was the first … I need a job out of college … and that was fascinating to see. I was just an assistant but I really got to see that whole side of entrepreneurship, that was my first view of it, was from within the VC office, and then after that I went into online publishing and from there into the consulting side of it, kind of hired gun, come in, and really understand and solve different business problems for people with design and communication. I found that so interesting that my partner Mike and I ended up founding Mule Design in 2001. We’ve kept it small, and we’ve just really been able to work the team of usually about 10, a dozen people, and we work on just a really interesting range of different business problems in publishing, application design, branding and strategies, all those sorts of things, so that was the really super quick, how I got to where I am.
You say you’re a nerd philosopher?
Yeah. My first major was Russian, so it was a journey.
It sounds like you really enjoy the challenge of having an ongoing stream of new projects coming in. How do you go about crafting a new project? I know there’s probably many steps and many people involved, and probably depends on the scale of the project, but when you sit down and start to say, “Here’s this client and we’ve decided we’re going to work with them and they have this problem to be solved.” What is your process, how do you get your hands around it early in the design process?
It all comes from their business goals. Sometimes an organization, or individual, or entrepreneur will approach us and say, “We’d like to work with you.” but they don’t really have clear business goals, that’s not a good fit for us, that’s not a situation in which we can work because in order to have a design project like the kind we do, what we do is use the tools of design to help somebody with their business, and that’s business construed very broadly.
If they don’t really have a clear goal, there’s not much for us to do there. Sometimes we can do a research and strategy project with them to understand if there’s an opportunity, we do sometimes do something like that, but we really make sure not only that we clearly understand what the goal is, but that everybody on the client’s side is also very clear on that and what their priorities are, because from that we can decide, “Oh, who are the audiences we need to understand? Who’s the competition? What’s the real challenge here?” And we can often uncover maybe … the exciting part for us in uncovering potential opportunities that maybe the client didn’t initially see because they were thinking about something very narrowly. It really, really all comes down to the clarity of their goals.
How do you incorporate lightweight user research into your design projects?
We always start no matter the size of the project really, we try to talk to some representative end users, and depending on what the questions are … because once we have the goals and once we sort of understand the general scope of the project … then we say, “Well, what are the big questions that we have at the outset that we need to answer to meet those goals?”
We take a very strategic approach to make sure that we are making the best use of our client’s resources and our time, is to say, “What are the things that we most need to know about the target customer, and about the general business context?” Because frequently, clients will come to us and they will have some amount of research or some understanding or some strategies, and we say, “Okay, this gives us this amount of information so what are the big sort of assumptions or big unknowns?” and start from there, and then from that we understand who we need to recruit, what types of people we need to talk to, and what we need to understand from them.
We typically do interviews, they may be in-person, they may be remote, there might be some initial usability that’s sometimes something we do if we’re working with an existing product or service. We can do benchmark usability in a remote context. I’m a huge, huge advocate of remote research because I think that really allows you to talk to as many different types of people in as many different locations as possible, and I think that’s much more important. You do lose something by not being in somebody’s home or office, but what you gain is the ability to talk to far more people with a much lower overhead.
Erika, what are some of the mistakes that you see especially first time entrepreneurs making that you would love them to get smarter and not make?
I think that the biggest one is generalizing from their own personal experience and preferences. That’s the biggest and most obvious one, is to say, “I have this problem, or I’m in this situation, so I’m the user.” There are far, far more people who aren’t like you than there are like you, and so really finding those people and sort of expanding your idea of who might be in your market and who really has a real problem and whether it’s a real problem. That’s the big one.
The other one is just wanting to be proven wrong without necessarily building a prototype first, because I think there’s this idea of, “Okay, step one is build a prototype.” I think first you need to really understand what problem you’re solving and whether it’s a real problem, because your prototype … prototype is like a hypothesis and it can be really good to go out there and build, but I think there are things you can do to determine if you’re solving a real problem before you put all the time and effort into actually building that prototype.
One of those things is really talking to people to understand the problem you’re trying to solve from their perspective, and I think that can do a lot to make sure that you’re building in the right place.
That’s awesome. Drilling down on that a little bit more, if you were giving some … I know there’s a lot of skill and nuance that goes into being a great researcher, there really is … but if you were going to give two or three tips to entrepreneurs who said, “I believe you Erika, I buy into it, can you give me tips to help me be a smart researcher as I have these conversations?” What would you tell them?
The most important one is to get comfortable, just being very quiet. I think a lot of people think of interviewing as talking, as having to have really good questions and wanting to demonstrate your skill as an interviewer, but I think if you get the right person and you just get them talking. Entrepreneurs have a lot of enthusiasm. You have to have a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm, but I think sometimes that can lead to them interjecting themselves too much into an interview process or into the research, so just saying, “Okay, I know what my question is,” and really giving the stage to the people and to the situations they’re researching and trying to get themselves out of it as much as possible … which that’s a real practice. I think that’s something that you learn. You do a lot of interviews, you do a lot of research and just trying to watch yourself to see, “Oh, I kept jumping in there, I kept interjecting.” I think that’s the hardest thing about being an interviewer doing research is just letting the silence happen and let the other person, let the participants and your research subjects come in to fill that silence because that’s when you’ll get the really good information.
You don’t really have to worry too much. If people worry, “Am I going to have the right questions?” You want to learn about things you might not have even thought to ask about, so I’d say that’d be the first piece of advice I give.
That’s fantastic. What is your superpower as a designer? What’s your sweet spot? What projects … I know you love all your projects and all your clients … but what kind of projects really tickle your fancy and you love to work on them most?
I actually asked this in the office today, I said, “Hey, anybody, what’s my superpower?” Somebody actually said … one of our designers said … he described this in these terms and it was seeing the big picture. He said that he had actually told somebody, “Oh, Erika’s superpower quite literally is being able to see the big picture.”
The projects I really enjoy are the ones that are very transformative, particularly of an established business, because a lot of times in helping organizations see themselves differently … this isn’t as much of an issue for early stage companies. With them it’s more really clearly understanding as your talking about what your value proposition is and making sure that you’re making the best use of your resources … but to go into a very large, established organization and show them that … because a lot of times people come in and they say, “Oh design is the surface, design is the experience that you’re showing to your end users.” What that really requires is so much change in the way people work with each other and communicate with each other. To be effective requires this level of openness and honesty that isn’t necessarily a part of a lot of business cultures. There can be a lot of politics, there can be ego, there can be insecurity about putting your idea out there, and the fact that when we come in we create a space in which people can talk to each other in a way they’ve never talked to each other before and work in new ways, and to see that that’s actually design work is, that’s what’s really interesting, exciting to me.
Then all of the things that people are often attracted to and really see as part of design, the visual interface, the branding, the really elegant behaviors we can introduce into a system, that all flows from those business goals and the ways that people in an organization can work together to create and support whatever product or service we’re designing.
A lot of times when we go into a client’s business to sit down and talk with them about these issues, often we don’t have necessarily any special genius. I like to think we’re smart and good at what we do, but frequently … I’m thinking about a design problem … people inside the organization have already been thinking about it, but they don’t have … one way of thinking about it is they don’t really have permission to say something, but we can come in and we can ask very naive questions. For example, we can come in and see how things are currently being done and look at the current workflow and we can say, “Why are you doing it like that?”
Whereas somebody who’s been working in an organization for a few years and maybe somebody who isn’t at the very highest level, that’s a question they couldn’t ask either because it would seem disrespectful or out of line, or people might think, “Isn’t this something you already know?” We can come in and just by asking the very naive questions, the very basic, “How do you do things?” People might explain it and say, “Oh, I don’t actually know how we do this.” or they might say, “We’ve always done it this way.” or “We’re doing it this way for a very strange legacy reason.” Just coming in from the outside can start those conversation and then everybody can participate and they can say, “We’re just following on a conversation that Mule started.”
Nobody else gets in trouble for anything we might say, and we can really come and we can challenge things, we can questions decisions or opinions that are held at the highest levels and we don’t get in trouble because we say, “Well, that’s what we’re hired to do.” We can provide cover for other people in the organization to come in and agree with or disagree with us in a way that isn’t threatening to the established order in the same way.
I think that’s one of the most powerful things that an outside agency can do, is just to come in from the outside frequently.
A lot of times it really is just a matter of sitting down with the team and reviewing, and there’s the pretty common technique of writing things down on post-it notes and grouping them and arguing about them, and it really is just talking it through to see- Often the patterns that emerge will be pretty obvious, especially if we are looking at a particular behavior grouping or segment of the customers. The patterns typically … even with 8 or 10 people … start emerging pretty quickly.
Sometimes we might say, “Well, when we look at these patterns we’re starting to see that maybe the people we talked to were too similar and we might want to expand differently demographically or something to make sure that we’re not just seeing something particular to that narrow geographical or age grouping, or something like that.
Really in just talking it through the patterns do emerge, and I think that’s why it’s really important to do this as part of a team because that way you can sort of check, “Are we really seeing a patter or is this just something I personally want to be true?” That’s where having that group dynamic to sort of check each other really helps.
That’s a great point. I’ve seen that happen a lot with my clients where it’s almost impossible to not see the pattern that you want to see if you’re very invested in your product. Again, that’s another reason of having an outside firm can be very useful, is it’s very neutral, you’re not invested at all, you just want truth.
We don’t just want truth, when we come in … and this is something we always talk to our clients about … is if we’re working with somebody we really, really want them to succeed and sometimes we talk a lot about users have habits, well organizations and people in organizations have habits too, and sometimes breaking those habits can be very uncomfortable and so we’ve been in positions where we’ve had to argue with people in the interest of their business because they say, “Well, if you have a goal, you’re goal is not just doing things the same way you’ve been doing because it’s personally comfortable or you don’t want to get new resources or something in your organization.” Sometimes we have to say, “We’ve heard you have this business goal, we believe you have this goal, in order to meet that goal you really have to do some hard things.”
We find ourselves in that position of possibly, actually arguing with them because they’re more concerned with doing things in a certain way than they are with achieving … like really taking the steps to achieve that goal.
Then what happens?
It depends on the organizational will. In some cases people do recognize- We’re working with some clients right now where it’s a struggle to see in the way that we see, and we have to … that’s our challenge, and that’s something we talk about a lot, is we don’t like the phrase educating the client. That can seem a little condescending, but we say, “They know their business, but how can we really help them understand why they do things in a particular way?”
They’re myths … that’s the best way I can think to characterize them … of how to create an effective online information resource or service or something, and they’ll really get focused on a particular solution and we have to help them understand why a particular solution that they might have already fallen in love with is, or is not the right thing for them. That’s on us to communicate to them, to help them really have that understanding and be able to develop their own discernment so that they can see, “Oh, this will get us there.”
Sometimes they just want something to be true, and that’s the whole research process, is breaking yourself of that need of saying, “I really want this thing I’ve already thought of to be true.” but actually wanting to find the truth. That can be very different mindset, and sometimes we’re more successful in that, and sometimes we’re less successful. Sometimes people do come in and say, “This is the thing we’re doing.” We do the best we can.
Yes, exactly. Something that a lot of people in this program have struggled with is when they’re testing a lot of us are very early stage with our projects. A theme has bubbled up about doing somewhat opportunistic testing in the real world. Have there been any sort of best practices that you’ve gathered up about how to incorporate that kind of real world testing into a larger research program, like how to contextualize that, how to think about that?
I’d say, always be really clear on your larger question, what you’re trying to find out. I think if you always have that question in mind then you’re always gathering things up around that question. Not being too concerned with the specific … again, it’s not the specific questions you ask in conversation, but always think, “Here’s what I’m trying to learn more about.” Think of research as a process of aggregation. This type of research, we’re not doing research in order to be published in a scientific journal, so you don’t really have to worry too much about, “Am I doing this right?” You have to make sure, “Am I really getting an accurate picture of the situation, and am I doing things that really help answer the fundamental question?”
You can continue to gather the data as long … and collect it together. MailChimp is a company I really strongly suggest looking at because they have an amazing research practice and they’re very public with their methods and their methodologies. They have a wonderful system of coding everything and keeping it in Evernote and constantly referring back to it, because nothing is every wasted. As long as you can keep it all together you can continue to go back to the things that you’ve found again, and again, and again, so just being clear on what you want to know and being organized about it, and just having that mindset, that’s the best thing of all.
Always being self-correcting too, because you’ll say, “Oh, I took this opportunity and I asked these questions and that went well, why did it go well?” Then try to replicate that or share it with anybody else on your team. It’s also that self-reflection that’s really, really important so that you’ll always be like, “Oh, this was a good test. This was a bad test. Why? Why did I get what I needed or why didn’t I?”
Continuing to iterate on the process and not worry too much about, “Oh, we didn’t do it exactly the same.” This is applied research and you’re trying to test your idea, or you’re trying to optimize or perfect a product or service, or something like that. Anything that helps you is fine as long as it’s basically ethical and you just try to continue to learn.
I think a lot of times people rush to a prototype where there’s plenty you could do. We see this all the time where businesses have decided that they’re … for example what you said … like a programming course for kids, or we’re going to make this product, and their question is, “How can we make this product work?” The real question is, “Does it make sense for your business to do this?”
If the project’s already been green-lighted or if it’s already been resourced, that’s oftentimes a question people, they’ll say, “Well, I guess we’re doing it.” That’s what I wish business would ask more, is “Is this a real problem we should be solving? Is this a line of business that we are really suited to going into? There’s a lot of organizational questions like, “What does success look like for us?” and kind of back out from that.
To say, “If this project is a real success for us, this will happen.” A big part of it is kind of a thought experiment to say, “What has to be true?” I think if you just start by just getting all of your assumptions out on the table and then say, “Okay, what gives us confidence in our assumptions?” That’s where you uncover, “Oh, this is something we just made up.”
Sometimes this will happen in conversation, we talk to clients about this business case and they’ll say, “Well, this is what we think our users need.” We say, “Well why do you think that, what’s your evidence, what’s your basis?” Sometimes they’ll say, “Uh, I just guessed.” That’s a great time to say, “What can we do to check that guess?”
We had this happen not too long ago where we’d done some research and the client said, “Well, we don’t think you talked to enough people over 50 and we think they’re different.” We said, “Well, we don’t really think they’re different in the ways you do.” We went back and went back to the people we’d recruited and talked to some people between 50 and 65 and then we came back and we said, “Actually, the things that you thought were different are not different at all.” They took that and said, “There was a bit of wishful thinking there.” I think sometimes especially in thinking about addressing new audiences there can be this wishful thinking, there can be this, “Oh yeah, they need this, or they want this, or they’ll act in a certain way.” When you push on that a little bit, what you’ll find is it’s a hope, it’s a wish that’s unverified. It’s not that hard to verify, you can talk to some people and … you don’t even have to ask them specific questions … you can just talk to people and say, “What do you do, why do you do it like that? Walk me through you day.” That will reveal which of your assumptions might be wishful thinking and not grounded in reality.
When you’re working with a client … you mentioned earlier you need to steer them, you need to bring them along for the ride, you need to tell them the things so they figure out for themselves what the problem is. How do you manage their understanding of the different stages of product design? Is this something, will you build a fake landing page early on? How do you think about this kind of product development challenge?
When we talk about habits, we talk about habits a lot. What we talk about is what people’s pre-existing habits and patterns of behavior are, and that’s something that I think a lot of people don’t necessarily think about early on. I think there’s starting to be more and more work around this, there’s books and things coming out, so the idea about the power of habits. It used to be the case that people came in and said, “Oh, we want to innovate. This is what people want to do, we want to do something new.” We still face this with clients who come in and say, “We want to do something new, we want to do something original.”
We start unpacking that desire, “Do you want to do something new, or do you want to do something successful?” We start talking to them about an important thing to do is to piggyback on habits that people already have. You can’t just create new meaning, you have to understand what’s meaningful and you have to appear meaningful based on people’s pre-existing context, and you have to seem easy, and you’ve got to hook them there.
You can come up with something new, but the path to that hook has to be very familiar and people aren’t going to go out of their way. That’s a lot of the priming and framing we do for people, for people on the client side, which is often a new way of thinking for people because … we actually have a client we’re working with currently, they’re a financial services organization, and they came in … and I think part of this is because of the ad agency they’re working with … with a really strong bias against text information.
They said, “We don’t just want to have a lot of words.” This is a common thread through all things internet ever since Jacob Nielsen said people don’t really read online. They had a really strong bias because they thought any information presented in text, that’s old fashioned, people don’t do that anymore, we want to come up with a new way to inform people.
We did the user research and we talked to people in their target and we said, “You’re dealing with people who are very, very busy, and sometimes we can take the user research and draw the line to, that’s the time to say, think about how you are in your own life. If you’re looking for really important information, you’re going to be really impatient, you’re going to be concerned about credibility, and all these factors. You’re not going to spend a lot of time on something that doesn’t really deliver immediately. Sometimes the written information, if presented correctly, has immediate way of delivering it that other sorts of information or interaction don’t. Sometimes you can have other tools, things that are interactive, or video things and they can supplement that.” We had to help them understand how things … like I was saying earlier, what works online in certain contexts and kind of let go of these … I don’t know if they’re cliches or just ideas percolating in their heads.
They’d be like, “We want to do something innovative.” We’re like, “You want to be uniquely useful and you want to be fast, and you want to be intelligible and all these things, but that doesn’t necessarily map to an entirely new way of doing things.”
Talking them through somebody’s complete context, and the user’s … all of their behaviors and saying, “You are.” There’s often an exercise in perspective because with any organization or any entrepreneur, whatever they’re working on is their whole world, and so the first step is to say, “The thing that’s your entire world, or your entire vision, or your entire dream, is one tiny, tiny part of even your best customer relationship.” That shift of perspective is often the first step to being open to really thinking about these things.
When you look back on successful projects, do you see that they would have that kind of pivot moment with your client where they lean into it and say, “Okay, let’s do this right instead of the way we dreamed”?
Definitely, that is a moment where either they really get it or they can’t deal with it. So often, we’ve been talking about the day to day pressures that prevent you from seeing the big picture and seeing outside your own habits and your own context as somebody working on a particular product or service. That stepping back I think is, “Oh, of course.” It seems obvious. You talk to people and they’re like, “Oh, yeah.”
You just get in this mindset and you get in these habits. We talked about how powerful habits are in all context, it’s not just that you are trying to create a habit in your target customer, it’s that you have to look at yourself and say, “Wow, I have a lot of habits and some of those are work habits, some of them are cognitive habits and ways of thinking of things.”
If we can get that level of reflection in clients. Sometimes they get very excited about it, and that’s great, where they’re like, “Oh wow, I have a new way of seeing my work. That could also be very exciting for people because it creates more of a sense of contributing value and being able to think at a higher level, and not just sort of doing the same little task. That’s really great when we can work with people and help them see how their part of the work really connects to something bigger and they can open up their perspective. That really can be a big moment for people.
That’s your superpower?
That’s my superpower, yeah. It’s the big thing.