In Exchange With Katie Gillum

Katie Gillum is the lead researcher at Mule Design, but you may already know her as the co-host, along with Mike Monteiro, of the popular 5by5 podcast Let’s Make Mistakes. She is also involved in producing and directing advocacy film as well as conducting talks on visual communication, media and implicit learning, an example of which can be seen in her work for the Disposable Film Festival, an event centered around the democratization of cinema made possible by new video technologies. Katie was kind enough to take time from her busy schedule to sit down and talk with me about why anthropology is important in web design, dealing with SEO and the role of research in the design process. What follows is our exchange.

SB: According to your profile on Mule’s website, it states that your background is in anthropological sciences. I’m curious to know, how did you get end up in design? What does an anthropologist bring to a design studio?

KG: So I actually have 2 different undergraduate degrees in anthropology. I started out in cultural and social anthropology because I was interested mostly in the way that ideas and systems affected the way people behaved so I started an independent research grant and project on Sexual Behavior Decision Making in Ireland. However, I ran into the schism between 2 types of anthropology at my university (they’ve since been forced to join back together despite hating each other) where the “cultural” side hated the scientific process and any study that wasn’t mostly focused on how the researchers own perspective and background determined everything else was seen as too scientific, reductionist. They just didn’t like biology or any historical explanation for things. So basically I did a lot of preparation for field research, spending 2 summers conducting my own projects and all the prep and post field work. I’m very interested in how people make decisions and how structures affect what they do, so when I returned from a few years of living over seas studying and working, my friend Rebecca told me her employer needed someone to do a lot of different types of work, one of which was research, and I thought I’d give it a go. I never particularly gravitated to interaction design; I consider myself as more of a curriculum producer, academic, or health studies kind of person, but I found a great amount of satisfaction in applying what excited me about anthropology research to user interaction and needs.

SB: I wanted to ask that first because in hindsight, it seems so obvious that the “web” is a system in itself, but I don’t think many people talk about it in that sense, at least on a deeper level. So finding out your background was in anthropology made sense. Is the web more anthropological or sociological?

KG: I think everything is anthropological. I guess I usually, and forgive me if you love or are a sociologist, think of sociology as data without the extra context, or without the historical perspective. I think anyone doing in-depth field work needs to be an “outsider” to some degree and thus anthropology research covers more than people realize.

SB: In that case, let me ask it this: What does anthropology bring to web design that sociology can’t? I think a lot of web companies are obviously data driven and a lot of that data has to do with what we do and how we do it? I think what you’re getting at is that data alone is just an outline, and that an anthropological background fills in the color in that outline. Can you describe how, or give an example?

KG: Yeah totally. I think often the data this is captured by web companies or fixated on by the people who make design decisions is “how long do people stay on this page?” and use that to answer what page is the most important to people or try to get their other pages or tools to be as popular as their page with the highest traffic. But you have to ask a series of strategic background questions before you could even hope to get an answer to “why do people bounce from this FAQ?” Anthropology is great research experience for web design because in some ways it is just a constant exercise in empathy, asking yourself and others “what is it like to be a human with these constraints on me and these tasks to get done?” It can get rather economical at times, but most people do not just hang out and think about web pages for fun, they’re there to do something, so we need to think about the very specific tasks that they want to do there and the information they need to make decisions or complete tasks. So for example, if I’m asked what should go in someone’s FAQs for a product or say, a health campaign, I would usually respond that I think the FAQs are an opportunity to find out what information the rest of the pages are lacking and that people need this information to do whatever it is your site is supposed to let them do that they’re now taking the time to email you or ask you about. People, myself included, do not want to work too hard or to have to learn how to use someone’s site unless they know the benefit they’re getting from it.

SB: So in a sense, where most people hone in on optimizing a certain behavior, you’re looking to see why that behavior exists in the first place?

KG: Right. I’m understanding whether the traffic or analytics actually are showing us a behavior or if they are showing us a byproduct of what a site or service is or isn’t doing.

SB: Taking a macro view of a micro situation…

KG: Right, and obviously the Micro changes are what ad people are usually totally excited about. Clicks and eyeballs! So you’re combatting that from time to time.

SB: Is there often resistance to your approach? Do you end up doing a lot of educating on why this approach could be better for clients long term?

KG: Well, that resistance is something I’m constantly trying to identify in our business development process. I used to run both the business development and research here[at Mule], so the vetting of a potential client is really part of the research here. And I would say that on at least half of the projects I work on, 50% of my work is actually conducting research and 50% is explaining the process. And that totally works. We definitely get people who question why all of our projects have a discovery process when they “have a ton of their own research” or they’ve “already done a lot of focus groups.” (I gagged on those last two words… not a fan) but those people who understand why we push back and see the benefit of what we do are the ones we end up working with. The one’s who don’t, we give a pass. We need to develop our own understanding of a design problem and its users that don’t come in a powerpoint or spreadsheet put together by someone else!

SB: Definitely. Let me try something. Say I’m a client, and I say that my main page doesn’t get a lot of traffic, and my “research” indicates I’m not getting enough referrals or whatever other SEO metric. Instead of saying “More links!”, you might say(or ask)…

KG: I’m going to give you more of a character here so i can respond more specfically…

SB: (laughs)I don’t have much experience to lean on…

KG: Let’s say you’re the founder of a small company that built an application and you’re building, say, the marketing site. I would say, “So what is your goal for having a person hit your homepage? What do you want them to do there?” And if the answer is to dig deeper in order to find out about your awesome product (which is going to make it easier to find the exact right music to play for the animals you are rescuing from fires or from some sort of environmental degradation…. or something) and maybe sign up for the service, I’ll want to know where that information you want them to dig for is and why it’s not on that main home or landing page. Or why anyone would care to read this page in the first place.

We had this issue with a marketing site we designed for the creators of a financial tool. They had a pretty site with a bunch of stuff on it and internal pages with tons of SEO success and they basically said: “We want it all to be as popular as these pages.” After they said that, what we realized after some prodding was that what they really wanted is all of those pages to convert people into users of their product, so if we could increase the number of users without doubling any page views, that would be success.

People often get hung up on these little goals which are proxies for the big overall goal: for people to use their sites, their programs. I think what good design researchers bring to design is the ability to plumb those myriad specific requirements, then find the overall goals and principles and apply that back to specific changes. But you can’t skip the middle step otherwise you’re just pushing pieces around.

SB: It’s an interesting perspective because it runs so against the SEO gamification so many others would have you think is important. Even for a small website like mine, I get caught up in that. But the questions you’re saying we should ask ourselves run so counter to conventional thinking. When I started this site, I decided to measure success as pageviews because that’s the metric I assumed everyone uses for measuring success. What I understand from your answer is that even asking basic questions like “Who is this for?”, “What do I actually want people to get from this?” or in my case “What do I want to get from this?” is much more productive, even if my ultimate goal is actually just to maximize pageviews.

KG: Totally. I’m guessing your ultimate goal is to maximize readers right? Not just views?

SB: Yeah, but it’s also about who’s reading, why they’re reading.

KG: I understand the excitement that pageviews arouse in people. It’s people LOOKING at the thing that you MADE. I’ve made films and videos and I’ve totally refreshed on YouTube until the damn cows came home, but what i reeeeeaaaallly wanted was people who would

  1. Listen to the song.
  2. Would share the campaign with other people who would see it, like it, and do something about it.
  3. Would give me another job, etc.

I think calling attention to the “gamification” of SEO is right on the money. You can’t GAME actual interest, or actual interaction. If you have something interesting for people to use or do and you build it in such a way that it complies with standards and understands tagging etc. You don’t have to trick yourself into thinking that people like you, you have to get people to actually like you. A click is not love, despite how much it feels like it at 3am when you’re looking at analytics.

SB: I was a budding photographer at some point, and the goal was always to get more gallery shows, the equivalent of pageviews, but whenever I has shows, the best part wasn’t how many people came to see it, but the overall process, the people I met, and how that helped shaped ideas I had for future projects. So I sort of view my site that way too.

KG: Right. What new ideas or work came from it?

SB: That maybe I wasn’t so much interested in the photographs as much as I was in the idea or theory behind them. So I realized maybe another medium would be better for me, or that I don’t have to stick to just one.

KG: Maybe I’m a funny filmmaker in that respect… I could do a better job of just promotion than the work I’m doing (better at it with other people) but for me the excitement is in who I met and what new work could be done based on what I’ve accomplished. In the case of a website I’m working on, that could be what new product OR new market OR new type of user…something like that.

I am comfortable talking about markets and clicks but at heart I’m a campaigner and educator so I guess I think of these as principles for understanding and then teaching about how people use things.

Let me add before we move on from the SEO stuff that I know some tactics in SEO work, or they seem to work, but you can’t really know how something is working unless you talk to the users. You need to be intentional about what you want people to do. I think of SEO as an independent practice, not simply part of design strategy. I think of that gaming of which you speak as an analog to our current financial system. There’s an AMAZING article in the New York Times Magazine last week called “don’t blink” about the way that we find out we are wrong about our theories and remain undeterred in our confidence of correctness despite the evidence to the contrary. SEO “gurus” and financial traders are seem increasingly related in my eyes.

SB: Now, your research obviously has a client-side aspect to it, but you also work day to day with designers and creative types of all sorts. It’s funny because at the start of our conversation you mentioned how even at school you ran into conflicts with different branches of anthropology, and I was going ask how you navigate the relationship between the scientific process and the creative process. I’d imagine there’s friction there too sometimes.

KG: Hmm, I guess things are slightly different but for me because I’m engaged everyday in producing “research” and “creative” things like the Let’s Make Mistakes podcast or my own film work or stuff with the Disposable Film Festival, no matter what I’m doing I am trying to make sure that everyone has a totally clear understanding of what and why we’re doing things and that the things I’m spending time on are making things better. So I approach the beginning of a research period the same way I approach production of a film. Obviously there are different tasks involved, but the same themes are there throughout: figure out who the audience is, figure out what they want, agree on the medium and general purpose and then develop an idea with those contraints.

It sounds crazy abstract but working on a small team where everyone needs to be totally clear about tech and workflow and time constraints tempers any sort of reverance about the creative process. It’s all part of a production process and you just have to make sure you allot time to experiment creatively.

SB: Maybe there isn’t so much of a clash in your case because your team is already on the same page…

KG: Well we certainly do not ever start on the same page. If someone has anything that they “want” the page to look like they have to be ready to defend that desire with an understanding of how things should work. And this definitely happens.

SB: Maybe what I’m trying to get at is how does “boring old” research cooperate with “trendy” design?

KG: That’s a good question because research is really just coming up with a set of design mandates: things that have to be on a page, functionalities the site has to have, setting priorities for what shows up where. After which we decide which flows are most important and nail down all the interaction in IA(ed: Information Architecture). I work super closely with IAs to make sure that when they’re trying to decide what an article page on an editorial site has on it that they’re keeping most visible and accessible the tasks and features that help people get what they need. For example, Facebook integration on a site where they want people to share or maybe a stream of recent related tweets instead of a “sharing box”. Once those constraints are nailed down, people have to explain how a particular visual direction meets those goals set in research. So as part of some of my research I will create brand attributes; lists of things we have to move towards, feelings we want to inspire in people and things we need to avoid. Then, our team and the clients will agree on the best brand attributes and features before visual design starts. This ensures that if we’re doing a visual design review for an editorial site for older doctors to interact with their patient info and the designer is showing me three directions that all look like a fashion blog or something from MTV, I can push back with our research and have them justify themselves. I guess the crucial point is that design should never be trendy, right? It should appeal to it’s audience which can look trendy but that’s just because it is what appeals to that audience at the time. Design is “good” when it does something AMAZING within the constraints research puts on it. There’s push and pull here and we argue, but I’ve honesthonestly never felt like we delivered a visual design that I didn’t “like”. I know there have been certain compromises we’ve made that I haven’t been excited about at the time but overall they’re usually for the best because they make the site more updatable or internally useful for the client.

SB: So research provides the framework, the constraints for the creatives to use. What happens when those constraints become old or outdated? How do you use research to look ahead to what’s next in design. It seems to me that research is based so much on the here and now, but doesn’t design sometimes have to leapfrog ahead to create something entirely new?

KG: Well that new thing is still going to be based on how humans today are going to use it. I think the really wild or new things come from people who challenge one element of a constraint.

SB: Does challenging sometimes mean rejecting the research altogether?

KG: Do you mean “Oh we have to give people a way to comment, how about if we let them comment on things away from a site and write little things on Twitter?” when you say “the research”? I guess the crux of the issue for me is that “the research” is just all of the preparation you are doing. If you don’t have any constraints or preparation, you could still make a cool thing but really, you are operating with constraints that you might not be acknowledging explicitly.

SB: Well, how do you account for improvisation then?

KG: What sort of improv? Like humor? Or film? Or music?

SB: In the not being prepared sense. “Winging it”.

KG: Even when you are winging it, you are bringing your past experiences of what works and what doesn’t. For example, I have to talk in front of people all the time, for design presentations or for announcing stuff for the festival, and I “know” what relaxes people, right? Certain jokes usually work, certain phrases get people excited, until suddenly they don’t. You look at the crowd and you or look at the client and they’re not responding. So you try something new but that still comes from tailoring what you’re doing to how and why people are responding a certain way. “Winging it” is actually you resetting the constraints.

SB: That’s what I was getting at, what happens when someone discovers something outside the frameworks set by the research that turns out to be the perfect solution. I think your answer was that in those cases, the discovery shows something the research hadn’t dug up. Or that you’ve simply changed the constraints.

KG: I think I see what you’re saying but I guess I’m not clear by what you mean when you say “the research hadn’t dug up” because the visual design or the strategy always pushes things in a new place and does awesome shit which can validate research or not. Sometimes research doesn’t get everything but the designer is still responding to that research nonetheless. Does that make sense? I guess I’m averse to thinking that “research” is just a set of data or a set of commands that people have to respond to [unilateraly]. We test against them and we use them, but in practice things have to change or have to be modified.

SB: Absolutely. Let’s flip the tables. You described how research can inform and aid designers. How does the creative process inform and aid a researcher?

KG: I’m going to call “creative process” the production process because in design and in the type of film I make, the goal isn’t strictly art, it’s making something with a goal in mind. Just so you know what i’m meaning here.

If your job on a certain project is to do the research and understand everything about what needs to get done, you have to understand how that design problem will get solved or you won’t give people the information they need. If i don’t really understand everything it takes to create the brand for a nonprofit newspaper as part of a new site design, I might end up spending all my time focusing on how people read and who the users are. I might spend all my time focusing on how people read and who the users are. Then the designer I give my research to could just manufacture some perfect visual branding without actually knowing what the paper’s ethos is or what the users think about themselves. I wouldn’t be giving them the info that will help them take those steps towards creating a killer identitiy

Let me give you a little example that I think applies to both sides of this question. We went into the visual concept phase of a project that I really cared about (they had an educational mission I believed in and support a community I totally and completely support: journalists) and so I hammered out a lot of the constraints and still after a few rounds of internal review the visual designers came back with a concept that totally slapped me in the face, and I mean that in the best way possible: It was totally whack. There were things we needed to tweak but overall it met a lot of the goals and looked just so damn cool. I had not had that design in mind when I was researching; I never have any explicit design in mind. I want to give people enough information to go wild and then help them reign it in.

That’s also what works for me on my films and I’m happy to support others in it.


SB: I’m asking you… (laughs)

KG: Okay well then I’ll tell you resoundingly. I create strong theories about HOW things should work and WHO will be using them and WHAT they need to get out of those interactions but I don’t start designing it. That might be where some people in my situation have clashes. I’m a designer in the sense that I find and respond to constraints and can come up with concrete ways in which a design does or doesn’t meet those goals. I’m more of a design editor, more editorial than generative, and that form of research totally works for me and works well here at Mule.

SB: So when a particular design comes back and blows you away or take you by surprise, does that in turn change the way you might approach your research on another project that’s similar?

KG: Maybe it helps me to think about how I delivered that information to the visual designer in the first place. Can I frame things or draw attention to goals in a similar or different way that will lead a designer to make another amazing thing in a different circumstance?

I view that mostly as a communication challenge

SB: That’s probably essential in your line of work…

KG: It’s ALLL communication, and explaining, and selling an idea or theory. It’s listening, and then talking. Being able to make explicit those systems means a designer or a teacher or a filmmaker or a photographer or whatever can be intentional in how they respond to those forces!

SB: And then it’s a happy marriage.

KG: Exactly!

SB: Katie, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

KG: Thanks Shadoe, it was great fun!

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