Interview with Thought Leader Dina Chaiffetz, Director of Product at Prolific Interactive
Dina Chaiffetz is a San Francisco-based product strategist and UX researcher who I had the good fortune to collaborate with at barre3. In her work at Prolific Interactive, where she serves as Director of Product Strategy, she partners with big brands including Sephora, American Express, WeWork, and Gap Inc to design and grow their mobile initiatives. In this interview, Dina shares how her background in behavioral science helps her to strategically address business goals and user needs. She frequently speaks and writes about the application of consumer psychology to product design, and serves on the leadership team of mBolden.
WHAT INFLUENCED YOUR FOCUS IN BUSINESS TODAY?
In college I was obsessed with IDEO, the agency that led the revolution in human-centered design. I consumed every article and TV show about them. They packaged their process and vision so well. I find it impressive that they managed to transcend being an agency by creating a unique brand with exceptional work to back it up.
YOU WENT TO U OF WISCONSIN MADISON, WHAT DID YOU LEARN THERE?
The main thing I learned at UW-Madison is that I didn’t want to pursue a career in science. At first, I was very interested in scientific research and prior to college did an internship at University of Colorado Health Science Center. I took a number of courses and learned that I didn’t have the patience for the slower pace of the scientific field. I went on to join the business school and completed a degree focussed in Finance.
Even though I decided not to become a risk management consultant, learning the approach is one of the most useful things I picked up in business school. The classes trained me to persistently identify the greatest risk threatening a project, team or company -- and manage for it. I don’t find taking risks to be stressful because I’ve learned to properly predict the primary points of failure and put buffers in place.
I also learned that I love dairy products and the down to earth temperament of midwesterners.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO TECH?
I didn’t actively pursue a career in tech but was recruited to by one of the founders of a tech startup called BrightNest. My role was to lead Marketing, since I had experience with market and user research, the critical first steps in establishing a business and a product strategy. As the first employee, I experienced building a tech company from the ground up, raising funding and building a team. I was able to make a few trips to Silicon Valley and participate in Batch 3 of 500 Startups with my team. Through this process, I met many brilliant and passionate people who leverage technology to change the world.
WHAT WISDOM DID YOU GET FROM YOUR EXPERIENCE WORKNG AT BRIGHTNEST?
BrightNest’s mission was to make homes happy and healthy by providing customized content - think of a car owner’s manual, but for your home. That means tackling home maintenance, one of the least sexy industries, and understanding the minds of homeowners. Creating a compelling digital experience was a challenge that required a completely different approach to the problem. I applied psychology -- specifically medication compliance -- because there are a lot of parallels. Medicine and home maintenance are similar because both take time to produce results. I learned a lot about how people think, and decision making systems, through psychology and behavioral economics.
WAS IT DIFFICULT WORKING FOR A START-UP?
I worked with an extraordinary group of people and had fantastic advisors, which helped me a lot. The challenges and twists that naturally arise in startups become interesting adventures when you’re working with the right people. My main takeaway is that when hiring your first 5 key employees at a startup, you need to pick people who you can trust in battle and who you can enjoy a drink with. Also, my working style and strengths are best suited for startups. I like wearing multiple hats, exploring unknowns and moving fast.
HOW DID YOU BECOME A PRODUCT DIRECTOR?
My transition from a marketing focus to product one started at BrightNest. I fully committed to product at Angie’s List where I realized that product is the pinnacle of marketing.
“If you can nail a customer’s needs in the form of product, you don’t need marketing."
In the grand scheme of products only a handful achieve scale, mostly through referrals and word of mouth. But, that’s something to strive for - a product so good it sells itself. Dropbox is a great example of a company that grew significantly with little to no advertising dollars. Instead, they created a product that had clear value to users and provided referral incentives that aligned closely with that value.
WHAT WAS THE TRANSITION FROM IN-HOUSE TO AGENCY LIKE?
The transition was smooth because I knew the agency from hiring them to overhaul our mobile apps when I worked at Angie’s List. I never planned to pursue an agency role, but I really enjoyed working with the agency team. It’s become a recurring theme for me to work with people I like and respect.
There’s a range of skills and diverse experiences you pick up working at an agency, or consulting setting, that you can’t get from working in-house at a brand or company. In a given year of agency work; there’s a wide range of work -- from massive enterprise partners like Walmart, to established tech companies like 23andMe, to startups like The Wing. When you get to work on a breadth of projects across different organizations; you get insights into the challenges organizations face, how successful teams are structured, and the tactics that work. It’s a bit like the matrix, I get see all the ingredients, and I get to help shape the environment and approach that an organization needs to make great products.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST REWARDING PRODUCT TO BE PART OF?
I was on the team that designed the first mobile App for Havenly, an interior design startup based in Denver. It was a great experience because I admired the leadership of the company, and was able to help the team with their first step into the mobile app world.
It was a challenging project; both in terms of the scale of the build and the ambitious timeline that required tight coordination between different teams. All the hard work paid off when the app was featured in the App Store.
WHAT’S IMPORTANT WHEN YOU DESIGN A NEW PRODUCT?
Context really is everything. Taking the time to gather and synthesize everything you can about the target user, relevant market trends and competition before you do a single brainstorm session or map out a single user flow.
Sufficient context - and ensuring key stakeholders are aware of that context - helps reduce subjectivity as much as possible at a stage where the product is most vulnerable to subjectivity. Often times established companies will skip or minimize this phase when designing a new product.
WHY DO PRODUCT’S FAIL?
“On the simplest level, products fail because they don’t provide enough value to a user in a way that’s scalable.”
In other words, it fails to meet both user and business goals. This can happen because the user or business goals weren’t properly established and prioritized, or because they exist and weren’t used as the guiding for the product roadmap - as they should be.
That said, failure also happens when organizations get in the way of a good product. All of the politics, organizational changes, budget decisions, and other structural aspects of running a business can take away from a product’s ability to serve its user. That’s why established brands with all the advantages of market share, resources, and capital can be upended by small startups. Strong products require the right environment to thrive.