Mona Patel wants to help others rediscover their creativity. After a career working in research and design, she decided to start a company that would help others do just this. Almost a decade later, Motivate Design’s “bottom-up” approach to challenges has made it into one of today’s most unique agencies. Mona is also upending traditional research approaches with Insider Insight, which encourages more personal and spontaneous conversations. In addition, she is an educator and author of the book “Reframe: Shift the Way You Work, Innovate, and Think.”
In our conversation, we discuss the strategy behind Motivate Design, why she is rethinking core research needs, the future of the research space, and much more.
Respondent: Hi Mona! Thanks for joining us today. In the introduction of your book, “Reframe,” you wrote about some of the beginning challenges you faced with Motivate Design. Specifically, you were trying to teach entire companies how to use established design processes to solve business challenges — a “top-down” strategy that ultimately did not work.
Could you talk about facing this challenge and how you were able to turn it into an opportunity?
Mona: I guess the down and dirty of it was that we were working with teams that had the capacity to do the work but perhaps needed more guidance to do the training, or even more confidence to launch the more compelling and differentiated design strategies. To actually get an organization to want to do something new when there’s nothing, quote, “wrong” with what they’re currently doing was super challenging. But that’s a great example of the kind of work I love to do, where executives need some inspiration and faith to do something different before things start breaking. They’re often willing to make changes when things start breaking, but by then it’s usually too late.
So how can we get the necessary information to them in a format that’s compelling and engaging? While the “top-down” involved working with executives and saying, “We need to do this project,” the “bottom up” involves getting them to actually see the need. The questions become: How might we engage in engaging them? How do we get them to see they’re not meeting customer needs?
Respondent: Was that a hard switch to make, going from that “top-down” approach to a more “bottom-up” approach? Or did that align with your original goals for the company?
Mona: It was definitely the latter. Kind of a side story: Yesterday I was meeting with a client at a hotel bar and, as I was waiting, the table next to me had an executive from a very large digital firm. He was just so loud! So much testosterone! Doing the gun fingers, screaming really loudly, and making very brazen comments. It reminded me so much of 2009. That was how so many people were approaching design work: It’s like we know better, you don’t know anything, so you must hire us to solve your problems because we’re smarter than you. And I had such an allergic reaction to that mindset and posturing. To me, this “bottom-up” approach was a natural opposite. I wanted to take people along the journey rather than be precious about owning the knowledge. I’d much rather teach people how to fish.
Respondent: You’ve described what Motivate Design does as “promoting creativity from within.” Is a lack of creativity an old problem or do you think it’s symptomatic of current cultural issues?
Mona: That’s such a great question. I’m not sure if it’s either one of those, to be honest. What I do know is that when we teach kids design thinking, they seem to get it in a heartbeat. To them, the idea of taking a problem and looking at it from multiple perspectives is just fun for them. But when we’ve taught it to adults, they struggle with it. To me, that’s fascinating. Somehow, from childhood, when everyone is creative, to adulthood, people lose their sense of creativity. I don’t think it’s the company’s problem — maybe it’s the schools, maybe it’s mentors — but somewhere along the way you start wanting to fit in, which can make you scared of change. And change is a big part of innovation. For really great design, thinking and rethinking are necessary.
So how can we have innovation, how can we have design, if we’re working with a team that wants to keep everything the same? I wouldn’t blame an organization at all. I don’t blame anybody. I’m just fascinated with it, enough so that I like to dig in and help people see that this is just a mindset that they are in right now. But they don’t have to be in it anymore. They can choose to see what it’s like to come up with a new idea.
— Mona Patel, Motivate Design
Respondent: Can we talk a little bit about the techniques you use to do this? Specifically, I’d love to learn more about your approach to ensuring good design.
Mona: At first, when we were only doing what we were calling user-centered design, we would work with a client and say, “What are we talking about here?” Let’s say they were creating a mobile banking app. We’d begin with a basic understanding of what we were going to do, then we would get some more color and context around it and hear the customer’s perspective. Before we would start designing, we would come up with a lot of ideas, then come down to a few ideas, then start mocking those up and getting customer feedback on them.
That’s the bulk of what we do at Motivate Design. We can do it ourselves or we can hire people who have the background and ability to practice it within an organization. But in 2015, we noticed our clients always seemed to know what they wanted to build before they called us, which made us wonder if they’re building the right thing. We wanted to know how might we get them a steady drip of information about what is going on in their customer’s life, but without being disruptive. I wanted to create an offering that would help our clients see around the corner and stay more in tune with what customers need. That’s where our newer work in research has been: What if we stopped asking so many questions and just found better ways to listen?
What we’ve done at Motivate Design has been to ask a group of people we call Insiders to have conversations. Insiders are not just UX people, but people who have a thirst for learning, are curious about the world around them, like listening, and are engaged and activated to have conversations on our behalf. Sometimes these conversations are directed and sometimes they’re open, but they use their personal network to help us understand what is going on.
For example, a company that wanted to launch a new baby product used Insider Insight to ask new moms what they feel most guilty about when it comes to their child. From there, we looked at dads, at grandparents, at preschool parents, at nursery school parents. We attacked it from different angles. That started to unpack a space where no one was playing and allowed this company to see a project they could create that would meet an unmet need.
Respondent: Insider Insight is a really interesting concept. Could you elaborate on how it is “rethinking core research needs,” as its website describes?
Mona: What’s funny is that Insider Insight resonates least with researchers. Product people, entrepreneurs, CEOs, CMOs get it in an instant, so it has been really fascinating for me to talk to UX researchers and market researchers about it. It’s different for them because it violates some rules we’ve been taught in research. For me, that’s intentional, but it just takes a moment for researchers to get their head around.
For instance, there’s no interview script. That right there causes a bit of a challenge for some people. I don’t guide the conversations. Instead, I ask my Insiders to have a conversation about a topic, like what do you and your spouse argue most about when it comes to money, or what are your parents most scared of as they decide to age in home. I don’t know what the answers to these topics are going to be. All of this is recorded and then my team starts to find these moments that we wouldn’t have thought to ask about but that the conversation revealed, and then we present those to the client.
What we’re telling our clients is that knowledge begins with having content you didn’t expect to have. When you think about organizations that say they can deliver insights, I don’t even know how you do that. I can deliver knowledge, and that knowledge, if it’s new and fresh and gives you some desire to act or react, can be insightful. That’s my job, to provide this knowledge to you. So our team will unpack it all and present it to the client. If it’s a simple project we’ll present it simply, but if it’s one of our genuine explorations, we’ll present it as a story.
These stories are also another thing that is difficult for researchers to understand because we’re not using data or proof from a numeric perspective. Instead, we’re trying to engage our stakeholders in feeling a need that a customer has. In my life, when I’ve made very big decisions, I’ve had some data, some proof, but usually I’ve had a feeling, and that’s what inspires me to change. I have always been fascinated with getting stakeholders in large organizations to shift the way they think about a problem so it’s less business centered and more customer centered. Our stories are one approach to making that happen.
— Mona Patel, Motivate Design
Respondent: How do you source for these Insiders? What are you looking for?
Mona: Each goes through a 10-step process to become an Insider. All are word-of-mouth and referrals from the original network we had. Our original network used to have a lot of UX people, but we found that UX people weren’t quite getting what we were asking for when we said conversation. They still treated it like an interview. So we then expanded our scope to include a variety of perspectives in our Insider pool. There’s everything from entrepreneurs to life coaches to salespeople to stay-at-home parents to retired executives to graduate students in psychology. It’s a really beautiful mix of perspectives. And remember, we’re not asking them to be the target. They go out and talk to their sister, their mother, their neighbor, their college roommate, each of whom happen to be a doctor, a new parent, someone we want to study.
I’ll reveal a little bit in terms of the secret sauce. When we first started, we tried training the Insiders. That worked kind of. [Laughs] There’s a challenge in training people. I’m not sure how many people want to be trained, to be really honest. Our pivot to inspiring them and challenging them and rewarding them for having the best conversation ever was a good move. So we’ve put together a set of techniques and tactics to do just that.
The Insiders are all friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends that have come together, so there’s a high quality there. They’re screened personally. They’re put into a community that has content that reminds them they signed up to be part of a practice to be a better listener and connect with people. This community is enabling us to do the rich work that we’re doing.
Respondent: Do you give them requirements in terms of how many people they need to talk with or anything like that?
Mona: Nope. We put out a call for a topic and usually more than what we need will let us know and we pick from there.
Respondent: And it sounds like the results have been really good for you.
Mona: I think so. Early on, we did a comparison for AdCouncil. They had already done some research around Alzheimer’s and what gets people screened for it. They had some of the answers, which was people didn’t even know what screening means. So if you told people what it is and how they can do it and who they can contact, then it would likely sound like a smart idea, especially for people with Alzheimer’s in the family.
With these results, they were starting to build a campaign. I asked if we could do an Insider Insight study just to see what the difference was between this technique and a focus group. So we launched a mini Insider Insight study and found the same thing, that people didn’t know about screenings and that they would have to unpack what a screening meant in order to feel comfortable doing one. That, in and of itself, even if I stop right there, is significant. We did it in a week and a half. The focus groups took four weeks. So we found the exact same thing in a third of the time.
But because it was our Insiders talking to their grandmother, their stepmother, and on and on, they were able to enter into a conversation with a person in their family or their life — we had asked for people who have a higher probability of having Alzheimer’s — so the conversation ended up being about the person who had it and the impact it had on the family and on both the Insider and their connection. When that safe space opened up, we ended up finding even more insights. I’ll name two. One was that people don’t really want to know if they’re going to have Alzheimer’s. Knowledge is not power in this storyline. Another was that a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is your first death. It’s better to not know, to let the symptoms start showing up and use that as the screening. When I start forgetting things again and again, let that be the first sign versus finding out six months before I’m going to get it. I don’t want to know and I don’t want to die twice.
As both a strategist and as a person who has often required valuable insights in order to do something, I need stories like this. That’s why I think this offering has resonated more with designers and creative directors. They don’t want to have prescriptive information that tells them they should do this or that. Instead, these insights inspire them to think about what they could do for a grandmother, a family member, to help make them feel safe. Opening up this space of ideation is what these stories allow.
Respondent: In a recent Forbes article, you wrote that you’ve “seen many [companies] take less interest [in research]. There is a sense that findings will only deliver to clients what they already know.” Why do you think this is?
Mona: Because we’re asking questions that are safe. As soon as I say, “Go find out why people aren’t screened,” I know my mandate and I stick to questions around that. This has been the hardest part to unlearn for our team, which is how do we let go. For example, the mission for us was to hear how people are processing Alzheimer’s in their family. We wanted them to just share stories and tell us what was happening. This organic nature has allowed us to hear what questions we should have been asking in the first place.
In ideal projects, clients give you that room. You can just help them learn the questions they should be asking. What’s actually going on in their consumers’ lives? What are they struggling with most? And that’s where we often don’t get to start as researchers. It’s not the researchers’ fault. It’s just that we’re starting at a place where we have one question that we need to answer and then, when we have the answer, we often find we already knew it.
— Mona Patel, Motivate Design
Respondent: I want to move on to what has been referred to as the democratization of today’s research: the fact that so many tools and services now enable non-professionals to do the jobs of professional researchers. Could you comment on this and the role that professionals still have in today’s industry?
Mona: I love it. I have to be honest. When people take something and make it more accessible, I think it’s a good thing. Especially when you boil research down to understanding what people want.
Even as an owner of an agency, I’m glad those tools exist. The reason being is that it means more people are including customers in the process because it makes research more accessible. The other is that it pushes me to come up with what my value is. I don’t mind being pushed. I think that’s what the difference is. I don’t mind if you do my job better because that means I need to offer more value, and I embrace that. I should be able to do that if I’m a professional who has been doing this for 20 years, which I am.
I think it’s creating an environment for me to constantly innovate and push myself forward. However, I have met a lot of people who use tools to do, quote, research but don’t know what they are doing. They ask leading questions, they don’t get the right sample size. I worry about that. So I also think we could spend more time and effort as a community making sure that the knowledge base that is there — whether it’s running a Sprint or a usability test — is at a level where someone can pick it up and do it.
But that’s a caveat. The more the merrier in my view. I like when product people want to do their own research. I think it’s tricky and they need to learn how to remove their biases and be more objective, but to have them caring about what people want and whether they served people, that’s a great thing.
Respondent: Looking ahead, could you identify any future trends or challenges facing researchers?
Mona: If you’re working at a startup or a large organization and are tasked with looking at a product and coming up with a way to improve it, it’s fun to be the person who finds the answer. Everyone wants to do that, but as an agency, can we help people find that insight? Rather than being precious and owning it ourselves, can we give them the framework to find it? We’re currently trying to enable people to get that “a-ha” moment themselves. So that’s a challenge I’m excited by.
The second is this shift from research to understanding. Research has rules you need to follow, while understanding is a bit more fluid. Having an understanding of something doesn't require formal research. It requires immersiveness, perspective, some creativity, curiosity, among other things. As we figure out what all those are, we will need to be able to better distinguish customer understanding from customer research.
The last that I’ll mention is something I’ve already alluded to, which is control. You almost need to get familiar with the unfamiliar, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, in order to learn something new. If we keep trying to control the customer understanding or customer research, can we learn anything? The more we can inspire people with new questions, different perspectives, I think, the more we’ll learn.
Respondent: Mona, thanks so much for talking with me! This has been a fun conversation.
Mona: Thank you! I hope it’s been helpful!