Montana State University

At Montana State: Nate Bolt

March 14, 2016 -- By Audrey Capp for the MSU News Service

Nate Bolt, the founder and CEO of Ethn.io and a former design research manager at Facebook and Instagram. Photo courtesy of Nate Bolt.

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Nate Bolt, a former Facebook and Instagram design research manager, visited Montana State University last week to discuss the impact and importance of design research. Bolt visited MSU as a guest of the Jabs Entrepreneurship Center in the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship.

Bolt kicked off his visit to campus with a talk before a networking event for student entrepreneurs and high tech companies. He also visited with students in class, delivered a lunch and learn lecture and served as a guest judge during MSU’s first-ever startup business pitch competition.

Bolt is the founder and CEO of Ethn.io, a Los Angeles-based startup that helps companies recruit the best possible participants for user research from within their app, site or around the internet. Prior to his work at Ethn.io, Bolt was a design research manager at Facebook and Instagram, where he led interdisciplinary teams around the art and science of building better experiences for users across desktop and mobile devices. Bolt also previously served as the CEO of Bolt | Peters, which was acquired by Facebook in 2012. 

After delivering a lunch and learn lecture, “How design research impacts our world,” Bolt answered a few questions for MSU News, including the challenges involved with starting and running a business, how he comes up with great ideas and what keeps him up at night.

You spoke today about the impact and importance of design research. What’s your takeaway message from the lecture?

I’d like people to know and understand that design research can have a creative role in the design and development process. It shouldn’t only be viewed as a scientific cousin to the more creative side of product development.

Did you always know that you wanted to be an entrepreneur? What led you to become one?

Everything was very circumstantial. I never set out to become an entrepreneur. I was working at a design agency in the Bay area that went bankrupt, but the clients kept asking my co-worker and (me) if we could still do the same kind of research projects for them we had been doing as part of the agency. They suggested that we start a business together, which led to the creation of Bolt | Peters. The day we became a business, we already had a signed contract for a job, which was fortunate.

What is the hardest thing about starting a new business?

Being able to focus on the right way to grow the business. Usually the right way to run the business is top of mind – doing a great job on the client projects - but without growth you can’t do more of the work you’d like to do. When you are passionate about your business, you don’t step back and follow the business and marketing guidelines like you are supposed to because you are too caught up on running the business well. 

Where do you come up with your best ideas?

Always other people. It is always a team effort; it’s never solo. Any good ideas I’ve had have come from working with others on a project, solving a problem and then asking, “oh wait, what about this?” It’s through collaboration.

What piece of advice would you give students wishing to follow in your footsteps?

I have two pieces of advice. One: Find other people and try and make things together. Just for fun. Produce something in a group, in a team. College provides a unique opportunity for you as a student to forge relationships with others who have different skill sets than you. Creating something new is one of the most valuable things for you to do if you are interested in design.

Two: Don’t be afraid to just do research. If you are working on a project, for example, find six people, read a book or an article online on how to do one-on-one interviews, do the interviews, cut together a video in iMovie, and you will have just conducted UX research.

Name one thing about yourself that most people don’t know.

I was on the Today Show via Skype for a time lapse video of the Northern Lights from a flight between San Francisco and Paris.

What was your favorite toy growing up, and why?

Legos! You can build anything… there are endless possibilities to what you can create.

What books would you recommend that everyone at MSU read?

I would suggest a couple of books: “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson and Walter Isaacson’s biography, “Steve Jobs.” For a technical book in the design research field, I would recommend “Observing the User Experience: A Practitioner’s Guide to User Research.”

What keeps you up at night?

Skynet. Actually, I do worry about the impact of what these rapidly emerging technologies have on our lives in general and 30 years from now. We all use them. We are all addicted to them. What’s the reality for our lives? It’s complicated, and it’s fascinating. On the business side of things, though, I wonder if I’m building the right set of tools to keep the company moving forward and if I’m focusing on the right things [for my business].

What are the most exciting challenges in the user experience arena facing young professionals today?

Ever-changing technologies, how to seize opportunities in those areas and designing user experiences for those technologies. Specifically, I see the areas of semi-autonomous cars and virtual reality as being hugely impactful areas for professionals today.

Contact: Audrey Capp, (406) 994-7026 or audrey.capp@montana.edu