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Getting Real, But Not Too Real, In User Interviews with Cat Ganim of Mylestone

Designing product around price, the value of user research in the early stages, and more.

“Other side of the table” is a series featuring user researchers, their work, ideas, and challenges along the way. This week we’re featuring Cat Ganim, product manager at Mylestone, a startup that helps you recall your memories through chatting with a personal biographer about your photos.

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

I live in Providence, RI with my wife, Megan and our surly cat, Ginger. In our spare time, we play in a duckpin bowling league, enjoy all the awesome restaurants in Providence, hang out with friends, and watch the Red Sox on tv.

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

Currently, I’m a product manager Mylestone, a startup based in Boston. We’ve spent a lot of time focused on helping folks reflect on their personal memories. Here’s the quick pitch and shameless plug: Mylestone helps you reflect on your past and preserve your life story by chatting about your photographs with a personal biographer. We're currently offering access to a limited number of users while we learn and improve; feel free to try Mylestone while we’re in our alpha.  

My journey to Mylestone came by way of working with our fearless leader, Dave Balter at BzzAgent. While at Bzz, I worked in several groups: account management, then as a project manager in the engineering team, and ultimately moved into a product ownership role—it was an amazing growth experience. After Bzz was acquired by a customer analytics firm out of the UK called dunnhumby, I stayed with the company for a more few years, learned a lot, but started to miss the nimble and scrappy days. In hindsight, I asked Dave what his next project would be at just the right time.

Switching gears a bit — what’s the best random thing you’ve found on the internet recently?

I love maps, so when my colleague shared an amazing weather app called VentuSky with our team, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It’s like this from a few years ago, but fancier.

And what’s your most useless skill?

By definition, I don’t think any skill is useless; scratch that, my tendency to be pedantic is probably not as useful as I think.  

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

When we started Mylestone we were focused on solving problems specifically within the “death space.”  Before we started using User Interviews, we recruited folks from Craigslist to talk about their grief and loss associated with the recent loss of a loved one—tough stuff.

Participants really opened up and it taught me that as a researcher, I have a responsibility to make people feel comfortable, really listen and ultimately empathize, regardless of the topic. That said, a research session is not a therapy session. When you’re giving someone a chance to talk about intensely personal experience, you need to mind the boundaries closely.

One session that stands out was a lengthy phone call with a man who was a caregiver for his mother during her deterioration due to Alzheimer’s disease. He watched his mother suffer for 5 years and the magnitude of change and his grief after her passing was intense. He was very open, which helped us learn, and he was relieved to talk to someone about his experience. That said, the boundaries got a little blurry and it reminded me to be more mindful about how we keep our sessions focused while asking deeply personal questions.

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

Design thinking is amazing—it’s even more so when it converges with other sound principles that help teams understand their customers and work effectively. My colleague, Drew Condon turned our team onto Lean UX and we’ve been evolving it to include “designing the product around the price” from a really helpful book called Monetizing Innovation. For our team, it’s been a seismic shift and I think the convergence of these principles merits more discussion in the community.

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

I’m not sure if this deviates from conventional wisdom or just conventional user research. Either way, we’re running research at a rapid-fire pace to answer emergent business questions. We’re running at a pace of 6-8 sessions per week and readout results in a 30-minute session. The biggest recent change is what I mentioned above—we’re focusing sessions on customer “willingness to pay” and we’re designing the price around the customer, not the other way around. It’s caused a huge mental shift for me personally and has armed us with the confidence we need around selling our product.

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

A trap I fall into frequently because our pace is so fast is making sure our questions and our targeting are designed around a clear learning objective. Speed to learning is great, but when it becomes unfocused, it’s a total mess. Another issue is always remember to ask “why” when a user reveals something about themselves or their habits. The underlying motivations are key to truly learning. I imagine others must also experience these issues.

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.

People are weird; Don’t expect them to be less weird on your research calls. Prepare your scripts, prepare your questions, but mentally get ready for humans and their many idiosyncrasies.

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?

I head to the meeting room or wherever I’m starting the session 5 minutes ahead of time. My script is on screen, my notes document is on screen (even when someone else is taking notes), I get any screens I’m showing up and ready and I start the conference 1 minute ahead of time. When this happens, I can start confident that everything I need is in place and visible.

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

Currently we’re using to hold video conference sessions, which also allows us to record the session. We use InVision prototypes to show screens, google docs for the script and google sheets for the notes. If the session was about usability, we use InVision or Marvel more heavily and design the session around recording the user’s interactions with our screens.

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

If I’m relaxed and friendly, the participants are immediately relaxed and friendly. Prep your intro, memorize it and you’ll feel more at ease and natural when you say it.

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

Very quickly.  Sometimes I will create a presentation with key findings, other times I’m gathering quick notes with highlights to share with the team. It’s not overly scientific for the stage of our company, but I can imagine spending a lot more time on findings readouts if this was a less frequent affair.

Mylestone is working on a really innovative offering, how does trying to get users comfortable with an entirely new paradigm affect how you build and market the product?

The short answer is that it’s been really hard, but we’re getting better every day. We’re still in the early stages of our company and we’re working on finding product-market fit, so our sessions are designed around customer development and problem-solution fit.

Our problem-solution sessions are designed around painting the picture of where we’re headed, explaining the problems we solve and seeing if the user identifies with those problems. Then we’re showing a possible solution (with pricing questions in there) and discussing it in detail with the participant. The area that’s challenging is we’re talking through something that the user needs to experience to truly understand so the nuance of how you paint the picture really matters. It’s certainly been a growth area for me, but it’s been amazingly fun too.

Getting users to trust you with their photos and memories is a big deal, how do you guys think about building trust and empathy with your users through the product itself?

The short answer: deliver something users truly value. Users won’t trust you with something as precious as photo libraries if you don’t show them the value early and often. We’re laser focused right now on the experience that builds trust. Since we’re in an alpha stage with our product, it’s early on, but we’ve got an amazing team working hard on this every day.

If you'd like to be interviewed for Other Side of the Table, reach out to

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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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