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September 25, 2019

Becoming More Design Driven with Geordie Kaytes of Heroic

John-Henry Forster

For our first installation, we’re checking in with the founder of Heroic.

“Other side of the table” is a series by User Interviews. This week we’re featuring one of our favorite design strategists, Geordie Kaytes, who has done a little bit of everything in his career. He has just embarked on a new venture to help organizations manage the difficult transition of becoming more design driven.

Let’s get started with the basics, can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where you live, hobbies, family, etc.

I live in Salem, MA with my wife Janna and dog Opie, who is currently sitting on my feet. We spend most of our free time exploring the North Shore and going to events where we’re the youngest people there by 40 years.

What’s your current role and how did you get there?

I’ve recently started a new company called Heroic, where we’re helping companies make the big organizational changes needed to become truly design-driven. Up until recently, I was Director of Strategy at Fresh Tilled Soil, a UX design firm in Watertown, MA. Think of Heroic as “teaching you to fish”, and Fresh Tilled Soil as “serving you the sushi”. Each is valuable in different ways, but at this point in my career I’m more interested in creating permanent change at the company level than I am in directly designing more digital products.

Switching gears a bit — what’s the best random thing you’ve found on the internet recently (preferably with links)?

My favorite tech analyst recently posted a map of the best place to watch the eclipse from a Waffle House.

And what’s your most useless skill?

Circular breathing.

Alright, let’s get into it — what is your favorite “war story” from a user research session you were involved in?

We were doing in-lab user testing for the Logan Airport website, and one of our testers asked to use the bathroom. While she was out of our sight, she ransacked the office kitchen and took all the snacks.

The best stories about user research

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There has been a big surge in “design thinking” recently, how would you like to see that trend continue to evolve?

The first big shift was Agile, where we admitted that we don’t know what the solution looks like until we’ve tried to build it. We’re now trying to layer on Design Thinking, where we admit that we don’t even know what the PROBLEM looks like. I fear that we’ll go down the same cargo-cult path Agile did, where it became highly systematized and the true precepts were forgotten.

At its best, “design thinking” is about realizing that we designers don’t have all the answers. It takes a lot of confidence and maturity to admit that, and I don’t think most companies are there yet. It also requires a major shift in mentality, which isn’t going to happen on its own. That’s one of the big reasons I started Heroic — not to hit people over the head with “you should be doing design thinking”, but to actually plan that organizational transformation for them, and help them execute on it.

In what ways do you deviate from the conventional wisdom around user research?

You’re supposed to start with broad, exploratory ethnography and contextual inquiry to build up a sense of the user’s goals and activities, then use that to inform your design ideation. I don’t love this rule. I feel like I get a lot more out of the interview if it’s based on discussing some kind of design artifact, no matter how wrong or off-base that artifact is.

So, for early-stage interviews, I generally put together some potential design solutions based on my limited understanding of the issue at hand. People LOVE telling you that you’re wrong, that you don’t understand, that this stupid thing you’ve made could never work. Those are the best conversations, because they let you really drill down to, “well, why not? What am I missing?” You get a lot of insights that way, because people don’t really know what is obvious about their experiences and what isn’t.

What do you think is the biggest mistake people make when approaching user research?

It takes a lot of training to suppress the instinct to “sell” your company’s solution or point of view during a user research session — especially in a startup, where you are so immersed in your vision & elevator pitch that it’s hard to avoid uncorking it in the direction of your interviewee. This is why startup CEOs are the WORST at conducting user research. They just believe too hard. They should listen to every research session, but shouldn’t conduct them.

After years of doing user research, what is biggest lesson you’ve learned? The type of thing you wish someone had told you about when you were getting started.

Be smart about your panels. One time we almost shut down a product build because users kept hating on it during testing. Reviewing our recruiting demographics, it turned out that almost all the testers’ profiles matched a persona type that we had already identified as unlikely to find value in the product. We wanted to test with a few of these people to validate that assumption, but because we weren’t careful about quotas, we ended up with way too many of them.

Let’s wrap up with some quick hits. How do you like to prep right before sitting down with a user for a research session? Any habits that you find effective?

Nothing crazy. Bio break. Water. Clear throat. Review facilitator guide. Make sure video conferencing software works.

What tools do you use during sessions? For interview guides, notes, recording, prototypes, etc.

We use Zoom for conferencing and recording. For interview guides and notes, we run everything off Google Docs. We use Google Sheets to organize recruiting.

Are there any tricks you use to make participants feel relaxed or more expressive during sessions?

Just the usual.

Otherwise, nothing too special. Remind them that we’re testing the product, not them, and that there are no wrong answers. I like to say that they’re “doing us a huge favor by helping us find issues now when they’re cheap to fix.” I even say this when the issues AREN’T cheap to fix, because at least it’s better to know about them!

How do you and your team document and share the insights you collect from user research?

We usually have the research recordings transcribed and pull out key quotes. Since we’re a small team, we don’t have a huge need to socialize & formalize the findings — basically everyone involved in the product design can listen to or read the interviews directly, and probably should.

That’s everything. Thanks again for taking the time and hope you keep crushing it at Heroic!

Thanks — this was fun!

Need more? Follow Geordie Kaytes on Medium (or on Twitter) and check out his company.

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John-Henry Forster

Product leader who enjoys learning new things and is working hard to read fewer productivity articles.

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