Every once in a while, Gabriel Trionfi, a user experience researcher at Pinterest, will walk over to his designer colleagues, and start nagging. "Come on, let’s go drive around and visit people!" he’ll plead some designer glued to his computer screen.
It’s Trionfi’s job to understand how Pinterest users ("pinners," as the site calls them) actually use the service, and how Pinterest in turn might make the service better for them. And though Trionfi often invites pinners into the office for interviews, he frequently does something unusual: He’ll make actual house calls, to see how pinners use the service in their natural habitat.
When you go into someone’s house or apartment, Trionfi explains, you learn things you wouldn’t learn otherwise. He gives the example of the young nursing student who recently welcomed him into her home. "She started talking a lot about her boyfriend, how they used Pinterest together to plan what they were gonna cook." She described how sometimes her boyfriend would wrestle the iPad away from her. Trionfi began to realize that there were ways in which Pinterest led to people bonding offline, not just online. "You don’t necessarily think about people using a website together," he says. "That’s interesting."
Trionfi finds his subjects either through friends or colleagues, or sometimes by posting on websites. "It’s a tremendous honor when people invite you into their home," he says. It's also a responsibility: He does everything he can to make his interviewees comfortable. "I’m a big, bearded guy," he says. "I’ll tilt my head a little, lean in, and smile really big," he says. "I say, ‘I’m a guest in your home... if you need to answer the phone, that’s okay.’" Sometimes people start off a little nervous, he says, but by the end, they’re usually laughing and asking, "When are you gonna come back?"
That’s not to say it’s all smooth sailing. Trionfi cites encountering a few tough personalities, often in the form of older men who are a little set in their ways. He’s encountered a few "bristly" characters, he says. "The best thing I’ve ever done in those scenarios is to scoot the chair a little closer, put my hand on the table, tilt my head, lean in, and say, ‘Interesting. Tell me more.’" The key to dealing with difficult personalities is simply "embracing them," he says.
Trionfi’s path to a job in tech was circuitous. After college, where he played football on scholarship, he moved to Utah to become a stage manager at a regional theater. He wound up in graduate school for psychology, where he wrote his dissertation on imaginary friends. (That research, he says, is relevant to social networks; both imaginary friendship and e-friendship are popularly undervalued, he believes, and translate into real social gains.) After reading Dan Pink’s book A Whole New Mind, Trionfi became interested in the world of tech and innovation; he applied to Google, Yahoo, "everyone," and was "universally ignored." A job at a small boutique design firm in Arizona led eventually to a job at the design firm Ideo, and later at Facebook. He joined Pinterest in September of 2012.
User-centered design was always an interest, and he began his habit of house calls well before his days at Pinterest. For an Ideo client looking to build a better microwave, Trionfi was dispatched to find an "extreme case"—someone who exclusively cooked with a microwave. He ended up sitting in a cramped room in a pay-by-the-day motel in Las Vegas, with his interviewee’s cat in his lap, "just talking about the experience of cooking with a microwave, and what he was looking for in a product."
Ultimately, says Trionfi, would-be entrepreneurs, designers, and coders should all get out of the office and into the field more often. "It’s the Achilles’ heel of the tech industry," he says of the armchair tendency. "It’s easy to think you can sit at your computer and come up with the next big thing." But those designers he cajoles into joining him always wind up thanking him later. "I get them outside of their comfort zone, pile into my ’97 Toyota Camry, and we head out," he says. Even if it might seem less directly goal-oriented than throwing down another line of code, sojourning among the user is time well invested. "If you just start with the people, and gain inspiration from them," Trionfi says, "you end up at a place where you just create things really quickly."
[Image: Victor Ng/Pinterest]