Capture the moment with video diary studies

Video diary study highlights screening

Selfie videos make for super engaging viewing and really put you in the picture.

Two and three at a time, 25 diary study packs arrived back by courier – this time containing not just logbook and photos but a video camera – 300+ self-recorded clips from selected moments during the previous week.

I had no idea what to expect from the video, but very quickly began to wonder why I hadn’t done this before?
Yep, after watching the first few clips I had struck ethno-gold by using video-selfies in a diary study project.

Diary studies are great for capturing interactions with a product or service which play out over time. I’ve tended towards keeping things old-school with paper based diary studies followed by exit interviews and always been pleased with the results, but after adding video to the mix, it’ll be hard to look back from here.

What resulted was a raft of in-the-moment, rich and raw footage offering an intimate, personal perspective which unfolds beautifully over time. With clips from different times of day, contexts etc. you really get a feel for the way the person’s week went and feel somehow more connected to their mindset during each interaction or moment they documented.

workshop ladies with wayne

Self-shot video combined with stills and printed verbatims combine to provide a powerful platform for conversation.


Here’s how the project unfolded, and a few things I learned along the way:

How to capture the footage?

We looked at a few options, with our main goal being to keep things as simple as possible for the participants capturing the data, and us wrangling it later.
We considered using their own phones, setting up video blogs, and even using managed services like www.watchmethink.com, but we needed to move fast and to have control over the technology and format, so opted for buying a fleet of cameras. No guesswork!.
We went for fairly basic and compact point-and-shoot cameras with HD video and of course stills too. Looking back it’s hard to think of a cleaner, simpler way to go about it.

Setting up the diary packs:

Diary study laid bare

Camera-CHECK, Charger-CHECK, Logbook-CHECK etc….

We put together 25 identical packs, containing;

  • Camera with stills and video capability.
  • Intro sheet – describing the objectives of the project and where the participant fits in.
  • Idiot-proof instructions on how to use the camera – recording video, charging etc.
  • Guidelines on some types of moments to capture with video.
  • Log book and pens, with a mix of simplified multi-choice checkboxes for recording the what, where, when, and how, plus an open text field for the why?…which is what we were most interested in.

Keep it loose.

The last thing you want is a participant thinking twice whether the thing they think is important will be useful to you, so don’t be too prescriptive with your suggestions of which moments are worth capturing.

I had figured on filming a sample clip to give people an idea what I was looking for, but am glad I didn’t as our sample exercised their creative freedom to capture some surprising moments in ways and from contexts we never would have imagined.

We let our participants decide themselves which moments were important / relevant to them. This seemed a little ‘open to interpretation’ but paid off in spades as it revealed key differences between individuals – super relevant to our study.

Unboxing and setup.

boxes and packaging

Allow several hours for getting the cameras ready. (I completely underestimated this).
Next time I’d make this a two person production line – opening boxes and packaging, charging batteries, prying SD cards from impenetrable plastic shells, printing info sheets, numbering and assembling all the kits.

sd cards clipped

Come face to face with consumer guilt as you unpack all this guff.

If you’re of the green persuasion, perhaps go plant a tree afterwards to get over the consumer guilt of dealing with all the packaging. Ok, better make that two trees actually.
Set up every camera the same, particularly the video capture resolution. This saves handling different image formats during editing.

Test pilot.

Absolutely DO Run a pilot. Ask a friend or two to follow your instruction sheet to shoot a couple of clips. You’ll quickly discover where more information, (or less) is needed in your supporting material.

Say what?

Get creative with your prompts, but let your participants do their own thing too.

Get creative with your prompts, but let your participants do their own thing too.

We put a sticker next to the lens with some very loose prompts to help our participants get to the ‘why?’. We did this after the pilot session and it worked a treat across the sample.

 

Packs away!

Include your contact details in each pack, on the camera if you can, so participants can let you know if something’s up. I’ve been contacted on every diary study I’ve done.

Also, a day or so after they’ve received the pack, call the participants to make sure they are in the groove with what’s expected of them. Keep this call short, a minute or two should do the trick.

Primed to share.

I’ve found diary study data is pretty bland on it’s own and the real flavour of the individual comes through in the exit interview. Somehow the act of logging their actions raises participants awareness of their intentions and behaviours. While there may be some downside to this, I believe this ‘priming’ opens some doors in their mind, making for deeper and more valuable, access-all-areas exit interview conversations.

Say vs. do.

I like to think I’ve got a great bullshit detector, but hearing participants speak in retrospect about their behaviour during the week, and comparing that to the self footage was a good reminder that what people say they do and what they actually do can be very different. For this reason, be sure to watch some of the footage before the exit interview, and even better then watch it again without he participant. They might even surprise themselves.

Pulling it all together.

clips in window

With so many clips to sort through I key-worded the file names to remind me what they contained.

How to handle and share all that footage?.
From the 300 or so short clips I weaved together a carefully edited highlight reel of a few dozen ‘moments’ from the video-selfies. When combined with snippets from the exit interviews, this offered a colourful and authentic ‘voice of the customer’ narrative as a ‘week in the life’ unfolded across many contexts.

Being there in the moment.

I’ll definitely be doing this again, but welcome any other techniques for getting into people’s lives when it’s just not possible to be there in the moment. I know there are other ways to approach this, so please hit me with your top tips in the comments below…

Or go ahead and record a selfie?

diary close up

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Use a smartpen to free your eyes and mind during UX research

Smartpens are such an essential item in my kit, I've got a few for when a team hits the road.

Smartpens can really earn their keep during solo UX research in the field.

Two eyes, two ears and one mouth – We’re all born with these essential three tools for user research.

The proportions are about right too. …until your eyes get busy looking at the notes you’re taking rather than observing behaviours and maintaining eye contact during the interview.

If you’re a solo researcher, electronic eyes and ears are useful too, but it’s a depressing reality that from one hour of interview footage there may only be a few minutes from the recording that are used to frame your insights later.

When you’re listening, thinking to yourself “this stuff she’s saying is total gold” the best case scenario is to be able to quickly find those nuggets when you’re back in the office… which is entirely possible if you take notes like this:

If you're taking notes like this AND trying to interview someone, you're missing the point.

If you’re taking notes like this AND trying to interview someone… you’re missing the point.

Capturing verbatim notes comes at the cost of having an only halfway natural conversation. This is why despite experimenting with many approaches and technologies, I keep coming back to using a smarten to take notes during fieldwork, or even usability testing products.

A smartpen lets me focus on the conversation, then just nip back to highlighted moments later. It records audio as you scribble, synchronising the audio to the marks you make on the page.

This frees my eyes to pick up on body language, expressions and mannerisms, and think about where the conversation is going … meanwhile, I’m highlighting key moments in the conversation, for quick and easy recall after the session. Having the exact wording wrapped in the tone of voice from the moment, at the tap of the pen is simply brilliant.

Knowing you’ve got full ‘recall’ from the pen means you can take notes as detailed or skimpy as you like, so over time I’ve adjusted my notes to the bare minimum. Most of what I write is written without looking at the page, except for a quick initial glance, so I’ve adopted a ‘shorthand’ note-taking format of keywords and symbols:

These spirals tell me where to tap to go back to the magic moments

These spirals tell me where to tap to go back to the magic moments

I scribble squiggly circles next to key words according to the ‘weight’ of the moment, in the moment. More circles means more emotion / intensity etc.

I might write down a short quote if I can do so without any interruption to the flow, but I’m much more likely to jot down a keyword or phrase as the person is talking, holding their gaze while drawing a star or squiggle etc.

These marks are my visual shortcuts to audio moments

These marks are my visual shortcuts to audio moments

In an ideal world I don’t take notes at all. I film the whole session and transcribe it while reviewing the video footage.

This allows total focus during the interview and is a great way to re-immerse in the moment, but it can be a painful trawl through the footage to pin-point those moments or killer quotes for an edited video.

So my new default is to get the smarten AND the video camera rolling at the same time.

As I’m going back to ‘tap and play’ my notes, I can read the time code from the little screen on the pen. Having this time code makes a total doddle out of pulling together a ‘highlights’ clip from acres of footage.

Tap - and Boom! you're back in the moment to the nearest second.

Tap – and Boom! you’re back in the moment to the nearest second.

Best of all – knowing all the goodness is being captured and I can cherry-pick the best bits later means I’m able to relax during the interview and build real rapport with the person, and frees up my eyes to do their job.

At the end of an hour of interviewing, I might have 2 or max 3 sides of pretty scrawly notes on an A4 pad with a couple of dozen scribbly dots of different sizes, some underlined words, maybe some little sketches or doodles .. and it’s all time linked to audio.

Nobody could understand the notes but me… but it just so so rich with the audio accompaniment.

Weeks later you can go back and re-listen to a particular utterance at the drop-of-a-hat. Tap, listen, bingo…

I’m obviously sold on this, but would really love to hear…

How do you handle the dual task of note taking and interviewing when flying solo during in-home customer experience research?

Meanwhile, I’ve got my Two, Two and One… plus the smartpen.

The one I use is called a Livescribe , and in the 5 years I’ve been using them they’ve developed a raft of additional functionality, but I literally only use the pen to record and playback, but if anyone’s found a reason to use the extra wifi whizz-bang, I’m all ears.

Ethnography. Only the curious need apply

Curiosity-child-washing-machine

We’re born with curiosity. Empathy comes later.

Two questions:

  1. How can a product team gain empathy for their customers and draw meaningful insights if they aren’t driven by their own curiosity?
  2. For clients light on desire or time to learn, is outsourcing that curiosity to a design research specialist even worth thinking about?

I’ve been helping client teams to plan and conduct their own design research, ‘going ethno’ with small teams to meet and study their end users in context. Initially I had my reservations, (and many live on) but…

…it’s been a learning experience on both sides:

I generally encourage clients to ride shotgun with me during fieldwork. It’s an engaging way for them to meet their customers, get inside their heads and fall in love with their problems.

Increasingly these teams want a lasting version of design research goodness – learning how to do it for themselves – often as part of a broader move to a customer-centred mindset, and as a rule I’m all-for passing on my approach and techniques.

But where to start? I’m self-taught through running dozens of these projects without a scrap of training, or ever reading a book, so how should I go about passing this goodness on to my clients?

With a mild dose of impostor syndrome, I initially tried up-front ‘ethnography 101′ style coaching, role-playing, ‘primer’ exercises, guerilla research and even wrote ‘how-to’ field guides covering interview and recording techniques etc. – only to be disappointed.

So, why weren’t all these client teams as interested in their own customers as I was?

In search of a tutorial silver bullet and a way to get these clients into the right mindset, I’ve read, gifted, recommended, quoted and paraphrased from all four of these books for my clients:

curiosity-book-covers-455

If in doubt – consult your manual?

These books are great fodder for the aspiring or even seasoned researcher, reminding you that what you do actually is ‘a thing’ …(and you can even call it ethnography) but having tried a few methods of ‘coaching’ I’m not convinced any amount of reading can move the needle on your clients’ curiosity-meter.

…in fact latent curiosity seems all-too-rare regardless how much permission and context you provide or how well you prepare teams upfront to ‘go ethno’.

Exposure to customer-world can ignite this desire to learn, but even well-intentioned members of a product team can fail to gain empathy with their customers or draw meaningful insights if they aren’t driven by their own desire to learn.

Yes, that glimmer of curiosity in your clients’ eye is worth more than all the ‘how to’ books ever published, and on these assignments, my goal is to bring that out in my client. Tossing the books aside, I’ve found it’s way simpler than I thought.

The glimmer of curiosity is a platform to build their skills on, and my response is to go with less ‘how to’ and more ‘let’s do’:

  1. Lay a few ground rules, (rather than a lecture or lesson)
  2. Dive into a live project. (something they care about, not a hypothetical example)
  3. Review and share learnings as you go.
  4. Fuel and follow your team’s curiosity.
Curiosity-tablets. Fast acting

Always read the label.

So all the tips, techniques, handbooks and best intentions aside, it seems you just cant neck a couple of curiosity supplement pills – real world experience sorts the ‘men from the boys’ in terms of building this desire to learn.

…But the changing and unpredictable nature of peoples’ behaviours and now knowing what you’re going to learn is addictive, and the curiosity and drive to dig deeper can spread by osmosis. So if you’re in a ‘coaching’ role, show them the rewards and they’ll want to make the investment in learning the skills.

Still not getting traction? A good question to ask is:
Can, or should curiosity be outsourced?

Jared Spool, a UX research veteran says a big fat NO:

“Outsourcing your user research work is like outsourcing your vacation. 

It gets the job done, but probably won’t have the effects you were seeking”

…and in many ways I agree, but I’d say it’s more about degrees of involvement and exposure to customers rather than a hard rule.

My approach is to be inclusive and ensure the client has a deep enough understanding of the customer to take ownership of the insights.

First-hand experience is obviously top of the list here, but it’s not always practical or possible. Some of the hardest hitting projects I’ve run have been for large organisations where only a small subset of their staff were able to attend a handful of sessions.

And it’s those clients who usually end up wanting to be up-skilled in running their own user research …  Are you seeing a pattern here?

So… what about you…?

How have you managed to up-skill your clients in user research?

Has this been deliberate, at their request, or a useful bi-product of attending your fieldwork?

The books I read and shared from were:

Interviewing users. Steve Portigal

Practical ethnography. Sam Ladner

Talking to humans. Giff Constable

Practical empathy. Indi Young

A formula for losing touch with your customers

Open young business - thick skinned mature business

I don’t play golf, but couldn’t resist visualising this metaphor…

Last week at the Better By Design CEO Summit a speaker used the metaphor of a growing sphere as a model for how organisations can lose touch with what happens out in customer-land.

There were actually ome laughs amongst the serious business of 'balancing transformation' the theme of the CEO summit

That’s Joe, he’s quoted below…

The speaker was Joe Lassiter. A professor at Harvard Business School and chair of their Innovation Lab. He was sharper than sharp, and here’s what he said:

“Information enters and leaves organisations at the interface to the outside world.

If you think of an organisation as a sphere growing over time that interface to the outside world is the surface area of that sphere while the internal organisation is the volume of that sphere.

If you look at the ratio of surface area to volume, it reduces to 3/r where r is the radius or distance from the centre of the sphere to its surface.

If you imagine the senior team of an organisation at the centre of the organisation, the unfiltered information that they get decreases with growth. 

That can be pretty dangerous…”

Ok, so I’m not really across the 3/r bit, but the picture he paints is clear to me - of organisations as spheres, becoming victims of their own volume, less able to breathe insight from the outside world despite their greater ‘surface’ area.

… and here I was thinking pie was 3.14 times the diameter of the pastry minus the hypotenuse of the gravy!

User research is valuable. Now get on with it.

It’s official, customer insights lead to better products.

During 2014 I noticed a proliferation of articles like this one (McKinsey) championing user research as a somewhat untapped source of design inspiration and product innovation.

It’s no surprise with ‘design thinking’ infecting the corporate world with it’s 5-step process, beginning of course with … understanding the customer. (Thanks d-school)

So while the business and design worlds are falling in love with customers problems, healthcare and other public sector services are adopting a user centred approach, why is user research still flirting and wanting to be noticed?

User Research UX design researchGoogle have a stab at answering this question in their article ‘What fuels great design and why most startups don’t do it?

Through my own experience I can vouch all these barriers exist, but they are increasingly being broken down, and if the UK government can be wrangled into shape (good work to @leisa, @jwaterworth & the team at GDS) then … the future has never looked brighter.

So with the world we’ve been trying to win-over for so long realising (and exercising) the value of this work, being all ‘empathy‘ and ‘get out of the office‘. And with armies of corporates tasting the design thinking kool-ade during half-day versions of ‘ethnography’ … then coming back for more … it would seem our day has come. No?

Let’s put the years of ‘broken record’ evangelism of UX and bangings-on about how valuable our role is to bed and redirect this energy into delivering value.

Well, that’s my plan and I’m sticking to it.

Will you join me?

Nick.

Curious? Go cold turkey to gobble the insights

Curiosity is one of a UX researcher’s most valuable traits, but it’s also a vulnerable one, because it can be dissolved by a little knowledge.

I’ve found it’s handy to have a few hunches in my back pocket, but when I’m trying to understand a customer – the less I know about them, the more curiosity I’ll need to find out.

Wary of this, I work hard to defend my naiveté, particularly during the early stages of a project. I’ll try to be selective about what information I take on the road, and what I leave parked in the office…

Here’s an example of how I try to maintain my curiosity:

At kick-off, I usually help my clients brief a recruiter with criteria to fetch a representative sample of customers*. The recruiter provides a schedule and participant list with granular details of every participant - name, address and three contact methods will be their demographics, customer type, attitudes and attributes which were collected when they were screened. It’s an eye-bleeder, but part of the process.

Design-research-spreadsheet

A recruiter typically provides an ugly-but-data-packed spreadsheet with more than you need to know.

During this process I invariably learn about customer segments, what they mean to the business and a taste of the client’s base level understanding of their customer. It gives some insight into each person I’ll meet, but I find it’s better not to know at this stage.

Start with a blank canvas.

To defend my curiosity, I pick only three of these details** to stick to the car dashboard:

  1. Time of appointment
  2. First name
  3. Address
Spare the details: I leave all the other customer information in the office and out of mind.

Spare the details: I only take the basics on the road.

I do this because…

I want to interview a person, not a ‘customer segment’…

Because I’m starting the interview with such minimal information, I let the customer paint me a picture which brings all those details the surface, and it’ll take every bit of my curiosity to draw them out.

It’s a small detail, but I believe this makes a big difference to the pace and direction of the interview.

For example – on my current project, we’re interviewing a mix of three customer types; subscribers, non-subscribers and ex-subscribers. All three are relevant and I don’t want to be pigeon-holing them in my mind before I’ve walked in the door, or for them to feel like ‘they’ve been picked for a reason’.

If I know she’s an ex-customer, a part of me will be wondering, “why did she cancel her subscription?” I’ll be looking for clues, reading between the lines and may draw this to the surface before she’s had a chance to fully describe her context. Or she might detect I’m on this thread and defend her reasons for leaving the service, which isn’t what I want to hear.

… so I prefer to go in ‘cold-turkey’, letting these details all come out ‘in the wash’ in the customers words as part of a natural, unbiased conversation. (at least, that’s the way I want it to feel for the customer).

There’s plenty of time for answers later, these are valuable and expected outputs of any design research project, but I’ve found NOT knowing the answer is the best possible position to be in when you’re heading into the field to interview and observe people interacting with your product.

This is part of trusting your instinct as a researcher, being comfortable with ambiguity and being ‘in the dark’.

Earlier in the year I wrote about how a Calligrapher / Monk / and Ex- Xerox PARC innovation researcher approaches these uncomfortable research situations: Humble pie, served on a bed of chaos.

…but he doesn’t mention being in the dark with a cold turkey?


*If you’re going to invest in spending some time with your customers, it pays to be sure your sample is representative of your customer base and represents the challenges . I believe this is worth taking seriously, and well worth paying a recruitment firm to handle for you.

**Sometimes I’ll add the age and/or gender of the participant. Gender is not always obvious from the name and in mixed households having a little more information helps you get your greeting right at the door.

Respect, instinct and bedside manner – My patient experience toolkit.

Interview

Design research in a hospital environment is super rewarding. You’ll reveal a wealth of insight and opportunity to improve patient experience but face some unique challenges, especially when interviewing patients at their bedsides.

With a few of these projects under my belt it’s time to share, in case you’re ever in the humbling position to do the same. (yes, more humble pie)


My top tips for patient experience research:

Instinct:

This work will squish everything you’ve got in your soft skill set. You’ll be relying on your instinct for what’s ‘right’ and ‘polite’ in the circumstance. I think doctors call this ‘bedside manner’ …you’re going to need a good one.

Respect and empathy:

visiting-hours

Be considerate - happy hour or not.

It goes without saying to be sensitive to this context.
You’re asking people to share their thoughts or story when out of their comfort zone and feeling vulnerable, emotional, philosophical or all of the above.  Try to relax patients – make them comfortable, offer to top up their water, pass things, adjust curtains, charge their phone.

Authentic moments:

I prefer to ‘cold call’ on patients at their bedside, inviting them to share their experience on the spot. This lacks the certainty of ‘appointments’ but adds in-the-moment authenticity you simply don’t get if you give people the chance to collect their thoughts and arrange themselves in advance.

Mood-reading:

A chatty, social ward is a good place to find stories.

Each ward or room has it’s own atmosphere, from patients trying to sleep while machines gently beep, through to chat and laughter of visiting families. You’ll need to quickly read the mood and adjust your tone and approach to suit. Pick a lively, social ward and you might find patients are more willing to participate. (but beware of the bias this introduces).

Occupational hazards:

While you’re building empathy for each patient’s circumstance and viewpoint, some of their emotional load will shift to you by osmosis. This is a sign you’re doing a great job of listening, but be ready for emotional exhaustion at the end of each day.
To avoid becoming a patient myself, I start necking immune boosters and vitamin C the week before this work and wash your hands frequently during each day.

Introductions – Staff:

It’s essential ward staff know who you are, and what you’re doing in their working space. I’ve always had a chaperone who’s known and trusted by the staff introduce me and the project objectives. Without this, nurses will be suspicious of who you are and what you’re up to.

Introductions – Patients:

“Hi, I’m Nick, and I’m not a doctor”

Patients will assume you’re clinical staff, a specialist, or coming to discharge them, so get any expectation out of the way as part of your greeting.

Leaderboard

Ward staff will point you to the most appropriate patients to talk to, and those to avoid.

Ask staff to suggest which patients are appropriate, and not appropriate to approach. This can save embarrassment for you and patients if they are not completely ‘with it’.

Interviewing:

Maintaining eye contact and looking for non-verbals is essential in this context. You’ll need to record each interview and review later, or bring a note taker.
If it’s your turn to take notes, sketch-noting works very well for feelings, emotions, environmental factors etc. and is super easy to socialise later.

Patients love to see what all that doodling was about, and usually and valuable comment.

Patients love to see what all that doodling was about, and will elaborate on aspects given the chance.

Here are my top tips for sketch-noting during an interview:

Follow-up:

Ask for permission to interview the patients after discharge in their homes. The in-context interview will be revealing, but you’ll hear a different perspective and mood when they reflect on their in-ward experience.

Kit / recording:

Cameras are an even bigger distraction than usual on a hospital ward, so if you’re filming interviews (and it can be very compelling footage in this context) conceal your camera until you have each patient’s permission to film.

Clear audio is a priority.  Patients in a shared ward will tend to whisper out of respect for privacy of others, or so as not to be eavesdropped. Go for a wireless lapel microphone or at least a directional one.

The contents of my bag when I hit the road on an ethnography / contextual inquiry / design research

The contents of my hospital kitbag are sparse compared to this lot for home visits. (image from my article in link below)

Check out my article ‘Ethno unpacked –  A design researcher’s toolkit‘ for details of the gear I use.


Oh, and one more thing…

 SMILE

The more I work in this context, the more I feel like a newbie, and there’s much more to learn.

What have I missed?

What are your experiences?

Games people play during user research

User Research TechniquesA couple of universal truths stand in the way of discovering what people actually think and do:

What people do and what people say are rarely the same.

Equally, what people think, and what they say are very different.

Annoyingly, but reliably, these rear their heads during customer interviews and ethnographic studies – the two main methods I use to gain insights from people.

In practice they work like this:

Customers will alter their behaviour if they know they are being watched, This is known as the ‘Hawthorne effect‘.

And they’ll most certainly have a self-edit running while they are being interviewed, so they’ll tell you the things they think you’re wanting to hear.

Apart from a pretty strong ‘bullshit detector’ and the ability to read between the lines I use ‘games’ to get around these conflicts.

I make simple activities – prompts with words and pictures – for customers to arrange right in front of me.

These help customers express perceptions, beliefs, attitudes, emotions and preferences. Uncovering ‘the why?’ behind these, bringing a richer, more accurate picture to the surface.

Most commonly I use a variation of one of these:

Journey.

Plotting a sequence of events or process by placing items in the order they happened. I often have the participants add a series of ‘emotion cards’ to highlight highs and lows etc.

Here I've used yellow and blue cards as positive and negative emotions. Top marks to this participant for serving cheese and crackers!

Here I’ve used yellow and blue cards as positive and negative emotions. Top marks to this participant for serving cheese and crackers!

Grouping.

This is a bit like a ‘card sort’, but less about categorising and more about arranging by value, importance, usefulness etc.

Design research card sort

Here I asked customers to sort services by value to them – ‘could have’, ‘should have’, ‘must have’ and ‘deal breaker’ – Explaining their choices as they went.

I gained great insight for a retail interior design project by asking customers to arrange images of retail environments.

Mapping.
Working out which goes with what. Great for understanding why people make certain choices.

Customers here were able to map services to their preferred channel. Note: I've included 'It depends' as an option. Because sometimes, it just does.

Customers here were able to map services to their preferred channel. Note: I’ve included ‘It depends’ as an option. Because sometimes, it just does.

As you can see, the materials are bespoke to the project, and I take great care to plan them, keeping them to a manageable number (you don’t want to spend more than 15 mins on an activity like this)

So, here are my top tips:

It’s not data.
These activities are all about the conversation, not collecting data.
There may be some patterns in the arrangements, but on face value they are nowhere near as useful as the thoughts they helped elicit from the customer.
I might photograph the final arrangement, but the real value lies in what the customer has shared in describing it, justifying their placements and what this means to them.

Kickstart a conversation.
Many times I’ve had a conversation go from prickly to fluid around these activities, so it can help break the ice. Perhaps some people are more comfortable with ‘something to do’, during the interview. The customer will visibly relax, letting me into their stream of thoughts, where I want to be.

How to facilitate?
Depending on the person and the topic, I sometimes leave them to complete the activity on their own, making a mental cache of their movements, then reflect on these afterwards, or I’ll have them talk me through every step, (known as ‘think aloud‘ in usability world).

Either way, when I can literally hear them thinking, it’s a good time to prompt them for their thoughts.

Be a ‘thought sniper’.
You’ll want to seem ‘distanced’ from the subject, (they might feel like you’re watching them with one eye as you pretend to check your twitter feed) but you’ve got your sights on their every move.

Watch for the pauses and hesitations, confidence in placement of cards.

Underlying these movements are the nuances which, when expressed verbally, can reveal the kind of insights you’re looking for.

Freestyle.
Always include a few ‘blank’ cards and have a pen handy. You’re unlikely to have covered every eventuality or option in your set of cards, so let customers make their own.

Try to have the activity on a sheet of paper, so customers can draw rings around groups, links between items etc.

What have I missed?

There’s no way in the world I’m the only person who uses these techniques, so if you’ve got something to add, please add it in the comments or send me an example and I’ll add it to the post. Thanks!

8.5 Postcards from People-watcher’s Paradise

Montage

Numerous occupational hazards beset the professional observer of people, their contexts and behaviours.

Absorbing everything in a city as stimulating as Tokyo results in visual and mental overload. Without horses’ blinkers to turn down my senses from default ‘sponge’ setting, it’s taken me several days to process, but here goes…

On day two I met with a design anthropologist well-versed with Tokyo’s back-street charm and a man also unable to switch off the investigative mindset and his need to filter and pattern-spot in such a visually rich environment.

Yep, I was doomed to notice, notice and notice some more.

Here are eight and-a-half of my favourite themes from this wonderful city:

Kerbside clawback.

In a spectacularly vertical city, gutters become fair game for a few inches of horizontal gain where it’s needed, at street level.

Gutters made more user friendly by those who interact with them most.

Honouring the craftsman.

Absolute respect for the makers of everyday things. Mastery of a trade celebrated at an individual level.

Tweezer geezer (top) is a third generation craftsman.

Display perfection.

The art of retail merchandising taken seriously. Objects more beautifully composed and presented, and with far more consideration than I’m used to.

Artfully presented edibles, neatly stacked paper and all labels to the front.

Service culture.

This takes some getting used to. A minute seems like two or three at the complete attention of staff-members as they meticulously wrap and present your purchase. Working in silence and harmony, each knows their role. Every detail executed to perfection.

A bomb could go off while your items are being wrapped and the staff wouldn't flinch.

A bomb could go off while your items are wrapped and the staff wouldn’t flinch.

Visual calm.

The zen of traditional Japanese design. Rhythm, space, balance, warmth, grids, geometry, symmetry.

The Okura. Steve Jobs’ favourite hotel. Mmm.

Visual chaos.

Enough graphic stimulation to make your retinas bleed. Onslaught of type, characters, colour, contrast and a near-zero tolerance policy on negative space.

Half a step into a 100 Yen shop and the information ambush hits you.

Stationery supermarket.

I met my match in the Japanese love of expression through the hand-drawn and written. Pen, paper and ink. Every colour, weight, grade. Acres of it.

Stripes seem to be in fashion for those who like their pen and paper porn.

Greening the fringes.

What little space for green in this city is revered. Where planting doesn’t occur through civic planning, it’s created and nurtured by residents, usually in pot plants.

A far cry from mowing the verge.

Pride and care of doorstep plantings - a far cry from ‘mowing the verge’.

And something nobody tells you about Tokyo, and no photographs can convey…

The calm. A truly human level of politeness and respect.

I now understand Paris syndrome but for me, Tokyo syndrome appears to offer the opposite symptoms – Expectations exceeded.

Whilst in town I presented at Tokyo UX Talk, building on one of my favourite topics… visualising UX research. Thanks to Tom and the crew there for hosting.