by Emily Cotler
In 2003, when tweeting was something only birds did, and websites were by and large built in tables (shudder), my friend and colleague Kelly Goto stood on the rooftop of her San Francisco Mission District loft and made the decision to redirect a significant slice of her company’s resources into mobile design—except it wasn’t called “mobile” at the time. “Wireless” was the buzzword. Colleagues thought she was crazy. Cell phones were for talking. And besides, who really needed or wanted to be connected everywhere they went?
History is laced with these kinds of foresight stories. Not obvious-from-the-get-go innovations like the light bulb, the birth control pill, or the printing press. Many brilliant ideas seemed ludicrous at the time. Like Fred Smith’s famous C+ from Harvard Business School for his Fedex business plan, because how many people would pay extra for overnight shipping? Or Richard Sears’ foolhardy belief that people would actually shop from a catalogue for things they couldn’t see and inspect first. Or the preposterous suggestion put forth by Jobs and Wozniak that every household would someday have a personal computer. I mean, really.
Pioneers. People who audaciously question accepted status quo thinking. Kelly Goto doesn’t necessarily think of herself as a pioneer. Always an evangelist for immersive research methods, she is looking at how today’s experiences with devices are moving quickly into touch, voice-activation, and other sensory levels of interaction that had not been designed for previously: the emotional side of the user experience. “Understanding the triggers of emotion is a vitally important aspect of controlling an online experience,” she points out. “And if companies can utilize this thinking, they can better prioritize and plan to meet these needs.” The implication is huge. This innovative approach to understanding audience may revolutionize the way we weigh demographics in favor of tapping how people feel. This may be new territory for online and mobile design, but it is not conventional wisdom … not yet. But neither was the on-demand video service project she helped design in 1990 (well before internet-streaming) featuring girls on roller skates delivering VHS tapes to a bank. And ten years ago, when Kelly saw the way people everywhere were becoming attached to their handheld devices, she knew she was at the forefront of something big.
“With the mobile thing,” Kelly explains, referring back to a time before data-plans, “I started to think in terms of combining what we did on the web with what we could be doing with device and web-to-device experiences.” She would hold her cell phone and stare at it, knowing we had not even scratched the surface of its possibilities. And then she did what any hotshot with an idea does these days: she began blogging about it. “I certainly didn’t articulate it as such then, but what I was exploring was the emotional way in which people craved connection.”
In her humbler moments, Kelly Goto is just a designer who pushes the envelope. Just another hardworking mom managing family life while maintaining a successful business in today’s incredibly challenging economic climate. But in her near-eponymous role of design ethnographer, she has been at the forefront of “user experience” (UX) since before it had a name, much less an acronym. And in 2003, while on sabbatical in New Zealand, Kelly started conceptualizing the Mobile User Experience, which at the time did not exist. “It was a world of coders focusing on handsets and BREW, completely run by Europe and Asia,” she remembers. “And in the US, no one was thinking or talking about the mobile user experience.”1
Kelly soon joined World Wireless Forum and connected with Rudy DeWaele, an entrepreneur out of Barcelona, and Jaakko Villa, then CEO at Idean Research in Finland. Together they began convincing clients, industry, anyone, that the “device experience”—how our devices shape our experiences—was relevant and deserved extensive research. It was 2003. We called our mobile devices cellphones, and all decisions were driven by cost and convenience; the actual experience of using the phone did not enter into corporate America’s marketing plan. The US was way behind with a cellphone penetration rate of 67%, while Japan and South Korea were at 99% and over 100%, respectively. Globally, people were doing a whole lot more than talking. Mobile users around the world were developing patterns and habits and emotional attachments. A collective experience was forming.
As she talks, Kelly starts moving her hands as if sliding something open and closed. “I had a Helio phone back then that was shaped like a pod with smooth, rounded corners. I loved that phone, particularly the strangely satisfying little click it made when fully opened, or fully closed.” She is remembering the tactile part of the experience, and it’s not such a stretch to connect that with the left-to-right swipe required in opening an iPhone. Now, eight years later, we are hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t think of their smartphone as a personal cybernetic appendage.
A design ethnographer studies the creation of people-friendly experiences, inspired by first-hand observation of context, behavior, and needs. Kelly considers herself a practitioner who finds design solutions through direct observation and interaction with her subjects. She is a curious creative who takes the time to understand the true needs and behaviors of her audience. Her passion lies in the areas of research and design, in combining the two to inform design challenges into more than just a subjective solution. These days her company, gotomedia, LLC, has moved beyond the desktop and into connected user experiences across device and context. Its goal: to capture unmet needs and desires which can jumpstart a company’s approach and product migration. And over time, she has become one of the industry’s leading experts in the evolution of connections. “I’ve just completed a series of interviews with a few dozen students on local Bay Area campuses,” Kelly says. “It’s a pilot for a larger study, and I’m gathering as many insights as possible into the world these students live in. I am interested in how they envision their world and the future. And how technology fits into their lives and learning.”
As a researcher, Kelly is adamant that one cannot ask those questions directly and expect to learn what students’ actual needs and desires are. And what she learns is never precisely what she expects. One student in the study reported that the passion his teacher displayed for the subject matter was a bigger driving force in his learning experience than the teacher’s methodology in conveying it. Another said, “Sometimes I feel I learn more from my peers than I do in the classroom.” And whether that is truth or bunk, the fact is that all of these students have access to and are actively using the latest technology and online learning tools. “But what they want and feel comfort within,” Kelly explains, “is connection—connection to their teachers and to their peers.”
Connection. The online mimicking of human interaction, something we all crave. That was what was missing from the early web. Back in the mid-’90s almost all websites were, essentially, brochures. It was considered fantastic to be able to click not only from page one to page two, but to any page. Anything that actually loaded and worked in a streamlined way impressed people. To be able to update info without a full reprint was amazing. But sites did not engage the user; sites were there to provide information. And as far back as 1996, when Kelly was on the team that launched Warner Bros. Online, with its forums for all the shows and chats tied to what was quite possibly the first-ever online store (“Nobody will ever trust inputting their credit card number over the web” was the established market research at that time), Kelly started articulating what no one was actually saying: It’s all about audience.
Today, there’s nothing groundbreaking in that sentence; there is no aha! there. But in 1995 this was a seminal thought. The idea that the “user experience” would actually drive the success of a site (and by extension, effectiveness of the business model—just ask Borders Books)—was as alien to an early-web designer as an air-to-ground battle strategy was to Napoleon. In the late ’90s, designers were simply trying to make things work. We were all either Lewis-and-Clarking, or trying to follow the designers who were.
But then, at the end of the 1990s, the dotcom bubble made everything appear so easy that the online model simply had to have a concept to attract IPO interest. The UX requirement that Kelly had foreseen wasn’t yet driving the dotcoms. But after the bubble was no more, businesses tightened budgets, and corporate survival necessitated an entirely new approach to online design. Usability testing demonstrated that people’s online habits, understanding and capabilities were not necessarily what business owners or designers had assumed. Watching site users in real-time lab settings generated acutely important data that exposed everything from overly complicated logins, to cumbersome ordering, frustrating navigation, and more. Other pioneers like Jakob Neilsen and Jared Spool touted the heuristic value of watching what people actually do rather than listening to what they say they will do, or less reliably, what web site producers assume they will do—or much less reliably—what C-level executives think they will do.
For the last ten-plus years, Kelly Goto has been convincing clients that major budget slices should go into rapid prototyping and shaping user experiences. Seiko Epson Japan was one of these clients. After gotomedia force-fed seven rounds of usability testing and prototyping printer interfaces into a two-month process, it was clear, contrary to Epson’s assumptions, what the test group’s moms and non-techie grandparents wanted: simplicity over features. Result: the product was changed from corporate projection to fit audience desires.
“We used to bury the cost of research inside the design process budget,” Kelly admits. “But now, with this challenging economy, companies are realizing the importance of shaping their customer experience across multiple devices and locations. Integrated services and interfaces that literally respond to your touch are now a reality. While we have not yet moved to voice-activated home systems, it’s not far away. As designers, we must continue to create experiences that connect people with the experiences they crave.”
Since Kelly started her journey as a designer, she has seen the role evolve. Gone is the day of the designer who had to have little beyond a good eye for layout, color, and typography. Today, they must hybridize and consider technical possibilities and limitations just as much as the color palette and font. The creativity that goes into the Photoshop layering of that stunning masthead must also consider the usability of the navigational presentation and the integration of login, forms, community, and any of a dozen other user-driven functionalities. Visual designers must be able to think in the dimension of information flow and, and, and … There is a lot of user experience research to be integrated into the visual now, where ten or twelve years ago there was none. What used to be the sole franchise of branding specialists now must be pondered by designers as well.
In 1993, Kelly led a six-figure promotional print project for Infiniti USA that incorporated stunning, wildly expensive photography and rich custom paper. The abstract piece had a Velcro closure and interesting folds. But in the showroom, it fell apart. No one opened it the way Kelly intended, and she watched as it clearly frustrated every person who held it. In horror, she realized that at no point during production had she let anyone actually open the brochure without showing them first. It was an incredibly painful lesson, but it has stuck with her.
She tells this story now in presentation after presentation—nearly 20 years later—to demonstrate the critical importance of learning as much as possible about user experience before producing anything. The spectacular failure of that piece was the first step in the evolution of a heady career that in hindsight has been 100% colored by the understanding of how experience, with all its myriad aspects including emotion, the senses, usability, convenience, cost, and yes, connection—must drive every aspect of design. And whatever the future holds, whatever today’s pioneers are dreaming up, designing experiences that map people’s real needs and desires will play a leading role.