Few companies are as intimately connected with their users’ every moment as Fitbit.

people-nerds.pngAs Fitbit’s director of design/user research, Katy Mogal oversees the integration of user insights into the product development process. Katy and her team of social scientists and researchers work with designers and product managers to create new experiences. Those experiences are rooted in a deep understanding of user needs, behaviors, and desires.

Katy combines a love of science and measurability with her need to understand people. This approach to research and design is both enhanced by and brought to her teaching at California College of the Arts and Stanford University. She recently spoke with dscout about the importance of understanding people and the science behind what her team does.


What are some of the first things you do when you launch a user research project?

The most important work, and the work that most determines the success or failure of the project, is the work that’s done upfront. We work really hard to get a clear understanding of the decisions we’re trying to inform, objectives for the research, the stakeholder questions, and in-going hypotheses. One of the key components of the researcher’s job is to listen to what the stakeholder or client really wants and then figure out how to translate that into a project.


UX researchers often say, "It all starts with knowing the user.” Do UX designers say that, too? And if they do say that, do they mean the same thing?

This may be controversial, but I don’t actually say that myself! In a company like Fitbit, which is operating at the intersection of emerging technology, design, and new business models, “it” (the process of developing a new product or service) starts with a number of inputs – knowing the market and where we expect it to go, technological developments in R&D, as well as a deep understanding of users.

Obviously a lot depends on the company, the culture, and the individuals. But in general, there’s broad recognition in consumer tech firms that technological advancements are being commoditized, and that true competitive advantage lies in delivering a great user experience. User experience designers by default have to start with thinking about the user.

That said, designers have varying degrees of reliance on a deep understanding of user needs, goals, and desires, developed through user research. My team is very fortunate that the Fitbit UX and product teams not only put the user at the center of the development process, they rely heavily on my team and our collaboration to get to know users, rather than relying on their intuition or hypotheses.

For me, starting with user knowledge means spending time developing a foundational understanding of user needs, behaviors, and desires through rigorous approaches that are customized to the research question. That entails a couple of things:

  • Developing empathy for our users so we can develop better instincts around what will resonate and what will really solve their problems
  • Developing knowledge about their problems and unmet needs to drive design of products and experience that really address those.


Because each user's experience is subjective, does that mean UX design is subjective, and therefore, UX research can’t be very useful?

That would only be the case if there were no patterns to people’s needs and behaviors. But as we know from conducting market segmentations, creating archetypes, and other types of work where we categorize users and consumers based on similar needs, attitudes, preferences, etc. - there are clear and strong patterns in every industry I’ve studied. So we can identify those patterns and design for them.

At the end of the day, every product that is successful is addressing a basic human need – to be connected to others, to achieve goals, to improve oneself. Each category has a limited set of needs to address. Take Facebook as an example – there are probably five or so basic needs that are being fulfilled in using the core product. Status, identity, connection – we could brainstorm a few more – but they aren’t infinite or unique to an individual user.


Are there any particular methodologies or types of research that you find exciting or particularly meaningful?

What I find really valuable is delivering information that helps stakeholders move forward and make decisions. I really get a charge out of delivering insights. I get a real kick out of ethnography because you learn so much about people in context.

I did a project at Logitech that was really fantastic. It was about understanding hardcore gamers. [Logitech] came up with the positioning and tagline, “Science wins.” My team was tasked with understanding gamers’ needs and figuring out what this positioning might mean to users.

It was suggested that we use semiotics to understand how the concept of “Science Wins” was showing up in media. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols. The people doing this research have PhDs in cultural analysis. They look at how words or colors or lines might affect the meaning. It’s like doing design research, except instead of talking to people, you’re looking at how it’s used already.

Right now, a big understanding of “science” in cultural media is “natural,” which has nothing to do with what we we’re doing. So we really had to think about how we were positioning science. According to the research, there were approximately six different ways that you could express science in a product, and the way that you choose is going to determine if there’s an alignment with what gamers want from science or not. It made a huge impact on the media campaign.


Given your interest in having a measurable impact, how do you deal with delivering results?

Part of delivering results is a matter of being able to read the tea leaves and have an understanding of how to deliver research to different people. At Fitbit, a lot of our research filters up to the CEO. You deliver research differently to a designer or project manager; it’s much more about creating knowledge or developing empathy. But, when you get to delivering research to management, it’s much more about, “Here are three things you need to know.” You need to understand how to tailor the message and what resonates. It’s almost like you have to be an ethnographer in your organization.


Circling back to one of the first questions: How do you know when you know the user? Or at least know them “enough” to move forward?

I don’t think you can ever say definitively that you know the user, especially in a rapidly developing and changing sector like consumer tech. In an interactive products company like Fitbit, where you’re regularly shipping new features in accelerated cycles, one of the biggest constraints on research is time. So we get as much knowledge as we can for the project at hand, given our constraints; but with each subsequent project in the same area, we look back at the work we’ve already done, and build on it, so we continue to add to that foundation over time.



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