Chinese medicine vendor catching some zzz

Deer pizzle ethnography

I’d heard of nose-to-tail eating, but apparently there are parts of certain animals which do more than provide nourishment.

Yep. I’m talking about Pizzle. (Deer dick – ick!)

One of the great benefits of operating from New Zealand comes in the shape of exposure to the diverse range of niche products we export.

So when a large-scale deer farmer and venison exporter came knocking, I jumped…

…but this time higher than usual.

Higher, because they wanted to learn about what drove Chinese consumers of deer products for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine – parts of the deer revered for their aphrodisiac and performance-enhancing benefits, amongst others.

Being a design researcher means helping producers understand far flung customers, visiting them individually, in-market, usually with the client.

This time it’s a market – of sticky-up and dangly bits, raw and processed. Yes, a world of medicinal qualities, but – most enticing to me – people and their beliefs around the product as much as (or perhaps more than) how they choose and use it.

Typical TCM store, vendor checking his Wechat feed.

Typical TCM vendor checking his Wechat feed between weigh-ups.

We’ve arrived in a day early – To acclimatise and peruse the sprawling Quinpingdong Drug Market. Block after city block of traders’ stalls peddling raw materials in sacks or stacks, sometimes in packs. All of it belonged to something that once walked, swam or grew.

Tomorrow we hook up with a local crew of researcher, guide and translator for a week of retailer, doctor and consumer visits across two cities.

No project comes close to the amount of pun and innuendo this one has generated, and the same goes for the amount of planning.

Long a follower of Jan Chipchase’s far-flung ethno-adventures and having quizzed colleagues who’ve worked in these regions, it’s taken actually arriving in-market to fully appreciate the methodological tradeoffs, logistical challenges and rich layers of cultural nuance we’d struggle to navigate without local support.

I’ve always used a local recruiter for projects in USA, UK and Europe, but this is a whole new level.

Jan and others recommend using ‘fixers’, well connected and resourceful locals who can make shit happen, while remaining discreet about your project. Another key tenet of making the most of this work is staying in the area to ‘unpack’ which makes total sense. A long haul flight can undo a lot of context.

But the real learning is just beginning on this project and I don’t want to think about unpacking of any kind just yet.

In the mean time, I’m taking every opportunity to roll with the lingo. One more time – Pizzle!

Here’s some in the raw:


If you shop around, you’ll find a vendor where each pizzle comes with a ‘matching pair’.


War stories. ‘Those’ user research projects…

There are user research projects where the exact objectives fade over time.

…but certain moments, and the people leave lingering bright spots, ripe to be shared.

I’m talking about those design research projects, where you meet people you could never have imagined, or entered into a person’s life so unfamiliar to you …

These experiences leave a dent – especially when people open up, sharing deep or private stories. Stories that stick, or are even hard-to-shake,

I’ve experienced my share  of these, like during (often teary) interviews with offenders in corrections facilities, patients in hospitals and with teenagers on both sides of bullying.

Then there are the memorable moments you simply can’t prepare for. The ones you can laugh about afterwards, and which remind you to stay open and flexible.

Like the time I arrived at the house in the photo above:

Everyone has their storage and parking preferences, but it was clear nobody had parked in either of these garages for a loooong time.

…in fact, it was even difficult for a person to enter this ‘hoarders’ house… as I found out when I helped the research participant make space for us to sit down to map her customer journey.



I stood outside, while she passed me boxes of stuff out the door to pile up outside so I could enter the house, (without climbing over relics from the 70s) and we could both sit at this table.

As you can see in the photo(bottom right), it took so long to get across the mountain of stuff that she used a thermos flask when she bought me a cup of tea so it was still hot when it arrived.


She was the kindest woman, bringing me cheese and crackers, then going on to tell me her heartbreaking story of a series of family and financial events which resulted in a series or mortgage rejections, stone-walling her to move to a smaller house (presumably staging the epic garage sale before calling the moving truck).

She never mentioned her surroundings or her house became this way, but there were long, telling pauses and distant, sad stares which had us both welling up.

War stories

Every researcher has these stories, some sad, some strange, some confronting… all which test your social skills.

Steve Portigal calls these ‘War Stories’ and has one of mine in his new book: Danger, doorbells and dead batteries, a book of awkward, affronting and amusing anecdotes from design research fieldwork.

He shouted out for one where the user research participant did something illegal.

I had the story of ‘Aaron’ who decided to crank his diary study up to motorway speed, making selfie films of himself for a video diary study * while watching videos… while driving in fast moving traffic.

‘Aaron’ (Not his real name), happily filming himself as he records diary entries in his motorway down-time…


While catching up on some home-brewing vlogs on YouTube…


He’ll be first on the list for a driverless car at this rate.

A few minutes into the home visit he said “I could show you something which might blow you away right now if you like” … when I knew this would be one of ‘those’ interviews, and Aaron one of those people.

Now that story and a bunch of other user research war stories are in print, and there’s an archive online too.

Thanks Steve!

*This links to an article about using what are known as ‘cultural probes’ where you send out a diary pack including a camera for research participants to make a visual journal… Nowadays, I might consider doing the same thing using Dscout, or even Voxpopme

Sharing design research findings is a bit like one of 'those' jokes

You had to be there. (Video)

Like one of ‘those’ jokes, design research has the most impact to those who were there in the moment.

In this video – from a presentation hosted at eBay Design in San Francisco – I explain how I try to help client teams discover their own punchline from user research, by designing experiences for them rather than delivering findings to them.

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Steve Portigal answering classic design research questions.

Patterns in design research. (Video)

As the business and design worlds adopt design research, I see patterns.

One of those patterns lies in the questions I’m asked by new clients.
Sometimes they are new to qualitative research, and increasingly they’ve done some lightweight interviewing as part of an innovation or design thinking exercise and want to know more.

My confidence in answering these questions builds over time, so to hear a design research veteran tackle the same questions … that’s gold.

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Blog pic

Nine nourishing nuggets

Over the NZ summer, I deliberately made time to nourish my professional self.

Inspiration came from 5 podcasts, 2 books and a 2 short but atmospheric films.

I’d squirrelled dozens of potentially inspiring articles, podcasts and videos over the year, waiting to filter them for quality, then absorb them… undistracted, to the sound of cicadas.

A few were memorable, including:

  • A peculiar ‘outsider view’ on UX research,
  • Podcasts on social research and why people do what they do,
  • Interviews with designers I admire about their work, and approaches to product development,
  • A couple of rather chilling ethno-books by people who gave their all to understand another people.
  • A couple of gorgeous videos spotlighting the beauty of heavy manufacturing – sheffield style,
  • A short surf adventure in Iceland, captured in inimitable ironic Kiwi narrative.
  • … and some envy-inducing lifestyle portraits of people who’ve made creativity into a lifestyle,

Here’s a snapshot of each, and why I found it worthy brain fodder for my work in design / research:

5 Podcasts

UX seduction at Etsy
Journalism meets UX research. This account of the interviewee’s perspective in a ‘usability test’ is a surreal experience given I’ve conducted hundreds of these sessions in my time.
The host of the podcast feels more like they’ve been part of an experiment than ‘helping improve a product’, and (tries to) delve into the ethics behind the way e-commerce sites steer our minds.
Hearing this makes me want to interview the interviewees from user research sessions to find out what level of cynicism and undercurrents of curiosity really does ship as standard with participants in these studies.

‘The big interview’ with Thomas Heatherwick & Monocle
I used to ride past his office in London when the models for his ‘rolling bridge’ were in the window, but the bridge hadn’t become a reality.

Now it’s in his back catalogue, and Terence Conran has declared Thomas Heatherwick ‘the Leonardo Da Vinci of our time. … a handle he’s clearly not comfortable with.
Though he gets a bit earnest at times, I was taken by his lack of ego. A humble designer untethered to a medium with a solid worship of idea over process.

He reminds me at times of the profile of Marc Newson, who in ‘Urban Spaceman’ share the same comments about being material and subject matter agnostic as a designer.

Thinking allowed
Fascinating sociology podcasts from the BBC. Laurie, the curious interviewer frames up myriad topics beautifully, then chats with people who’ve studied people in that context.

It’s good stuff. Highly conversational, so you don’t need to wade through the academic fluff as you find out about things like what motivates middle class kids who want for nothing but become drug dealers, or changing attitudes to how we navigate our careers, to children’s changing attitude to money.

Perfect podcasts for a walk around the block. If your block takes about 20 mins.

Paul Adams on Product
Never short on an opinion, and always worth listening to, Paul Adams is quite the influential voice on what it takes to make a great digital product.

We worked together at Flow, a company since absorbed into Europe’s largest UX consulting agency. Now – after serving a Silicon Valley sentence – He’s putting his learnings into play at Intercom, in Dublin, where he’s using what he refers to as the ’6-6-6’ roadmap for product development.

For those who (like me) suffer fatigue from the newfangled recipes for success, it’s summed up here as a 2min read, but the podcast is worth a listen to any product strategy or team leader.

Guerilla interviews in South Auckland 
This is guerrilla street interviewing at it’s best, by a master who really connects.
John Campbell’s authentic and probing dialogue makes you feel like you’re there with him. This is all laid down with brilliantly executed post production to stitch the story together.
There’s only a couple of these articles, but they are worth a listen, as he interviews people at the low end of the socio-economic spectrum, and very quickly gets down to brass tacks about their day to day struggle to live in our biggest city.

2 books:

On the run, with Alice Goffman

Reading this book is a little like a personal account of living in the series ‘the wire’…
…but instead of an HBO production crew, it’s seen through the lens of an ethnographer.

New York book review calls it an ‘ethnographic classic’, but it’s also been controversial.

Alice, a middle class academic moved in and spent six years living in a troubled Philadelphia neighborhood and saw first-hand how teenagers of African-American and Latino backgrounds are “funneled down the path to prison”.

This is journalism meets ethnography, and you’d expect rigour from the daughter of the “most important sociologist of the last 50 years” … So reading about her in-the field practices of note taking, logging of events etc. .. I shudder to imagine how much data she was wading through while examining these lives at such close range.

Academic sociologists felt she was too close to her subjects and took liberties in the way she wrote, while Journalists, (likely stunned at the depth and richness of her account) simply picked holes in the details, dismissing it’s value as a true account.

If you haven’t got the time to read the book… here’s a TED

Patched. when ethnography goes underground.
This book is the result of New Zealand’s largest ever study of gangs in NZ, with much of the story captured via a long and dangerous ethnography.

“I hung out with the gangs” says Jarrod Gilbert, and the stories he’s dredged up paint a rich and sometimes raw picture of this part of our social history.
He spent six years researching gangs, which meant drinking with them, listening to them, tuning motorbikes together and figuring out what to say and what not to say. He admits he was “on the wrong end of a couple of beatings” and his liver took a beating as well.

This all led to a prize-winning academic book, Patched, but like Alice and her book on life as a fugitive in Philadelphia, This author too has had their work controversially discredited by authority (in this case the Police) because he was too close to the subjects.

 2 Short films

For some eye candy I soaked up these two gems:

Barry Can’t arf Weld.
A totally gorgeous piece of atmosphilm – this short but powerful video essay rips into you with sound and motion.
Follow the journey of a few kilos of molten metal all the way to becoming a railway bogey. It’s so raw, noisy and dirty it makes you want to reach for the Swarfega.

…But then you kinda wish you could don a pair of steel caps and join in the fun in the dark and forbidding bowels of this Sheffield foundry.

‘Brass monkey’ surfing in Iceland.
A somehow timeless surfing ‘roadie’ flick. Filmed in in Iceland of all places by three Kiwi wax-heads mad enough to take this on.
Equal parts warming and super frosty, with the kind of dry, tongue-in-cheek-narration to bring you along on the romance of the trip.

Oh, did I say 9?

… come on, just one more …

As a some-time architect of my own lifestyle. I’m a hoover for inspiration … pondering other people’s existence. … and here at Freunden von Freunden (friends of friends) is where I found a stack:

These are styled portraits showcasing the lives of a privileged few creative people who have made a life from what they love and seek and create. Including a few Kiwis

Ok, and one more makes 11

I’ve also been piecing together a wee story about my own product development – of Mr. Tappy, a mobile UX research tool. I’m as proud as I am surprised with how it’s evolved.

Great to have found the time to indulge, and now share some brain fodder and use some of those muscles which -during the year- only get a 2 minute workout on short articles.

Thanks for reading and here’s to 2016!