User Experience NZ

UX and Design Research from a New Zealand viewpoint

Context is everything, even in a motorcamp

Posted on | April 16, 2014

Design research, especially ethnography, means being right there with your customer while they interact with your product.

In my current project this means collecting stories from tourists in their campervans around a few of the hotspots we are lucky to have ‘Down Under’.

I’m working with Ed Burak, who knows these ropes and the value they bring to designing a great product.

“Tough gig”, I hear you say…

…but we’re doing what the real anthropologists call ‘getting off the verandah’.

Design research on the road

We’re studying the customer journey of these rolling tourists via observation, and interviews at various stages of what is a highly-anticipated holiday experience. For some tourists it’s a ‘bucket list’ item – so under the surface of a relaxing holiday, the stakes can be high and the details matter.

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The value of immersion

The tourist experience is in striking contrast to the patients I shadowed in hospital wards this time last year, where their situation was undesirable, unplanned …and the sooner it ended the better.

One aspect, though, is the same – the value of being immersed in their environment.

This value reveals itself immediately, demonstrating the closer you can get to experiencing your customers’ reality the better you’ll understand what matters to them.

Breaking the ice

Parking-up and staying in motor-camps moves us across an invisible, but tangible line. Somehow the ‘ice’ is broken for us when approaching our likely subjects, we’re seen less as nosey researchers – more as fellow travellers. This sense of ‘permission’ makes the vital first few minutes of an interview so much easier - rapport and empathy are built much quicker than I’m used to.

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Research in context

By walking (well, driving) in their shoes, we’re also relying on the same tools they use, like maps, guidebooks, facilities etc. We’ve also fallen into the rhythm of the campsites, observing and being part of activities happening at different times of day / evening. All this context provides a vital frame of reference for everything we’re observing, and helps us relate to experiences described to us.

Sure, it would be more convenient to snaffle these customers at the tail end of their trip, herding them into an office to collect holiday anecdotes but the opportunity cost of missing out on those rich insights is too great.

…and it’s much easier to focus when you’ve had your eyes opened that little bit further.

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My sharpest user research analysis tool

Posted on | March 13, 2014


I’ve found it’s easier to ‘see the wood for the trees’ if you’re chopping them with a sharp axe.

Yep, I just had my usual cord of firewood dumped by the shed and once again I’m finding it’s a useful medium when analysing data from a UX research study.

I’ve just had a week on the road interviewing people in their homes and am now faced with the mammoth task of reviewing all my footage / notes / photos and artefacts from the trip, then making sense of it.

A formally trained researcher might call this process extraction, collation, analysis and synthesis of data. For many like me who come into research ‘through the side door’ (like I did from the surf industrythere’s a certain mystery to the process, and it can take a few projects to get comfortable with it. What’s more, it can be straight out daunting…

…yes, a bit like a truckload of firewood needing to be cut, sorted and stacked into piles.

… Back to the pile of data though and most likely your first encounters will involve shuffling hundreds of sticky notes round the walls of a small room, bumping into furniture and getting high on solvent-based markers. There’s a lot of pattern spotting and theme building and as a rule it’s a hugely immersive process.

Time can equally stand still, or race by, and your brain aches under the weight of a thousand echos – things you saw, heard or felt during your interviews.

I’ve found it’s important to step away from the piles of sticky notes, into a new environment where your mind can wander. A monotonous task like chopping, sorting and stacking firewood is a perfect partner to working through all that data.

Running or the gym might be your thing, but for me, it’s chopping wood.

I escape the pastel patchwork walls and kill those echos in a single chop of the axe as I try to guess which way the log will split, or whether I’ll need the bigger axe for the knotty pieces?, which way the grain goes? and so on.

Time can play tricks on me in this mode too, but I surrender to it. As I’m splitting and stacking away I let my own thoughts come into play alongside the project objectives. This is where the strongest insights emerge for me, and they seem to come from instinct.

There’s something magic about walking back into the ‘war room’ with a few splinters and a fresh perspective, or even a challenge to the direction you’re on, and I’ve found it comes not from total immersion, but from giving yourself the space to let your own mind sort through the findings.

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Dream design research projects from 2013, Part 2

Posted on | February 3, 2014

The second half of the year was no less exciting with client work, but was boosted by the buzz of my own product hitting it’s stride in the market.

From July to December: Home brewing, TV, Mr. Tappy and Motorhomes.

Here goes…

5. Craft brewing insights

Location: Portland, Oregon. Micro brewery capital of the world.

Client: imake / (Part of the Better by Design programme).

Portland is the world’s capital of micro breweries and craft brewers. Visiting with imake’s team from NZ, Australia and USA, we stepped inside the garages, basements and minds of craft brewers, aiming to understand what makes them tick, and how they approach brewing.

My role as part of Better By Design is to help build design capacity within NZ export companies like imake. In many cases this starts with understanding customer needs, so getting out in the field like this was a perfect first step towards customer empathy.

In Oregon, I briefed the team on how to get the most from contextual interviews, supported them in the field, then coached them through collaborative analysis.

A deep dive into brewing culture, but my satisfaction came in that it was the client team who drew out the insights and identified opportunities for marketing and product development.

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6. How do you view?

Client: SKY TV.

Location: Around NZ.

A classic contextual study in homes around NZ to understand how TV fits into people’s lives and how? / when? / where? / why? they get their fix.

Having run studies like this for BBC and SKY in the U.K. back in the late noughties it was super interesting to see shifts in consumer expectation and behaviour. Back then it was ‘time-shifting’, now it’s ‘omni-screening’. From devices to content sources, this felt like a ‘snapshot in time’ in the dynamic landscape of TV.

Insights from this project fed into new product development and an upcoming redesign of SKYTV.co.nz.

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7. Tapping into the mobile market

Client: My alter ego – Mr. Tappy.

Location: My kitchen table, and 30 countries.

Yes, from kitchen table to global tech giants in 2 years and just 700 easy steps.

My side-project, Mr. Tappy, (a product I’ve developed to help film people interacting with mobile devices) continued to surprise me with sales to the point where I can nearly hear myself blush when I see my list of customers.

Taking this product to market has been a humbling learning curve for me. Even when working alone I find myself being design, marketing, sales, distribution, customer service, etc., discovering how easy it is to work in silos and lose customer focus - Something nobody can afford to do, especially when your customers are expert product evaluators.

Having ‘skin in the game’ has resulted in greater respect for my design research clients‘. Running day to day operations, and shipping product is challenge enough let alone keeping an eye on customers. This first hand experience helps me understand my role as a design researcher with each client.

The entire product is made right here in NZ (some in my home workshop) and the next iteration will ship with a purpose designed HD camera.

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8. Living the dream, via your own motorhome

Client: Tourism Holdings.

Location: Australia and NZ.

We’ve all been stuck behind one on a hill on the way to the beach, but what’s it like to buy a home, and a vehicle at the same time? We set out to find out.

I worked alongside Ed Burak, THL’s lead experience designer to provide research muscle on a project around motorhome sales. Motorhome buyers are a fairly relaxed bunch, usually at retirement age and with some time on their hands, but buying one of these rolling holiday homes is not always a holiday.


From a few dozen interviews with owners, buyers, salespeople and experts, we poured our insights into a customer journey map highlighting parts of the buyers’ journey where the experience could be improved.

… and as you’ll see, some of my illustrations  for the journey map were verging on the autobiographical. Yes, the waves were always like that in my memories.

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…What’s next?

All the talk of holidays and time away was perfect timing for the end of 2013 and inspired me to use the caravan (which was once my office) a few times over the Christmas period. Good timing.

If you missed my previous post, here are the first four dream design research briefs from last year.

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Dream design research projects from 2013, Part 1.

Posted on | January 25, 2014

Be careful what you wish for.

When I moved from design into design research, I dreamed of projects like these.  2013 was the year they arrived.

Contexts ranged from hospitals to homebrew, motorhomes to mobile devices, television to truck driving.

I was repeatedly humbled and surprised by the people I worked with, both research subjects and my client collaborators.

As much as I’d love to write a blog post from each, 2014 is in full swing, so…

Here are the first four of eight standout projects:

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1. Hospital in-patient experience

Client: CDHB.

Location: Christchurch, NZ.

The most sensitive environment and subject matter I’ve worked with so far.
I worked with hospital staff on wards and at patients’ bedsides to capture in-patients’ emotional responses to the experience of their stay.

After discharge we visited patients and their families at home for a reflection on the experience. A clear picture emerged, of what matters to a patient, from environment, to information to service, and their associated feelings. Together, the team formed key design principles to meet the emotional needs of patients.

In some interviews I used live-sketching to capture notes, It was fun so I wrote a short article about my technique, with ‘top tips’.
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1.5 Hospital ward prototyping

Later, in a GIANT warehouse, I helped lead a series of ward design / prototyping exercises with a super diverse set of stakeholders – from cleaners to clinicians, anaesthetists to architects.

I worked with a team of anthropologists and architects from Seattle-based design agency, NBBJ to facilitate full-size prototyping and simulation exercises, using  cardboard for walls, medical staff and actors to test various scenarios of use.

Those cardboard walls in the photos are a system called Mockwall designed specifically for spatial prototpying.

Since then the CDHB team have taken the prototypes through to a convincing level of detail where they can be validated through ‘almost real’ use. You can watch a short video showing where they’ve come to.

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2. No Trucking Worries

Client: Blackbay.

Location: Virginia, USA.

I was dropped into Richmond, Virginia and the world of the long haul trucker. As I found out, Richmond is smack in the middle of the Interstate 95, the busiest highway on the east coast, connecting 15 States.

My role was to capture the voice of the driver, the way they communicated on the road and the information they handled along the way.

Big rigs, 53 foot trailers, truck stops and the dedicated ‘tribe’ whose mantras were either ‘live to drive’, or ‘drive to survive’. After a few days of interviews I was talking their language of lumpers, spots, hooks, dead-heads and bob-tails.

I worked in classic diners and freight depots, alongside product managers to inform the design of plan an app to let drivers spend more time eating up highway and less time worrying.

Yes, the app is called No Trucking Worries

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3. Rock’n'roll radio

Client: Tait Radio.

Location:Christchurch, NZ.

To help Tait adopt a user centred approach to product development I planned and facilitated a rapid ‘learning by doing’ user centred design workshop focussing on installation of their in-vehicle radio systems.

This was a hands-on capability-building activity focussed on a specific project with the idea they could roll out the same approach on other projects.

I coached the team around research and analysis techniques, then took them through to prototyping and testing their concepts with their live customers.

I loved seeing engineers dig deep to define customer needs, then work together with plasticine and pipe-cleaners, receiving valuable feedback before moving designs forward.

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4. Border Entry

Location: London, UK.

Client: UK Government.

“What is the purpose of your visit to the UK today sir?”, became what is the experience of travellers entering UK borders?.

This was a dream opportunity to work in airports, a context I’ve always been intrigued by.

Unfortunately, with my curiosity at it’s peak a week into this project, the project timeline shifted and I couldn’t eat into my next project in NZ, so frustratingly found myself experiencing the NZ border entry earlier than expected. …Maybe another time.

Dream projects 5-8 next week…

The rest of the year saw me into the world of craft brewing, TV, motorhomes and wrangling supply chain, sales and distribution with my own side project, Mr. Tappy.  I’ll save all these for Part 2.

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User centred design, coming to a government near you.

Posted on | November 4, 2013

The UK government has built a serious design team, with a bias towards user research and a user centred approach.

All signs (Read below) are that our government is taking the same course. This will mean exciting things for the UX design community in New Zealand not if, but when we follow suit…

I’ve just returned from London, working with Government Digital Service, a massive team of researchers, strategists, designers, developers and general smarties with a lofty remit.

  • “To ensure the Government offers world-class digital products that meet people’s needs”
  • “The quality and user centricity of major commercial internet properties should be our minimum goal”
  • “Our aim is to be the unequivocal owner of high quality user experience between people and government”

They’ve literally put the user at the centre of their process, and adopted user research as a core design tool.

Their approach has been boiled down into a beautifully succinct ‘service manual’ which has become required reading for UX people, particularly in the digital field.

Some chapters are: Digital by default –  User Centred Design –   User Needs

Throughout the approach is a strong bias towards user research, with 25 researchers on the team (and growing), tackling every type and method of research I’ve heard of and the ultra broad spectrum of users which is… the UK public, and every way in which they interact with goernment.

This quote from their website demonstrates how committed they are to basing their design work on user research and the needs of their customers:

  • “People come to GOV.UK with specific needs. Anything that gets between our users and meeting those needs should be stripped away”

To achieve this standard, they’ve set 26 Criteria, of which the first is below:

Their work extends way beyond digital into service design and interactions in the built environment, as it should.

So to what degree is this happening in NZ?

Last month an initiative from the DIA came onto my radar…

It’s called Transforming the System of Service Delivery and lays out the same goals and principles as a way to redesign the way services are delivered to Kiwis.

  • “DIA will put the customer at the centre of everything we do “
  • Designing and delivering our products and services around how New Zealanders live their lives: we will develop a deep understanding of what our customers want and need, and work collaboratively to put customers at the centre”

Here’s an illustration of their customer’s world:

I know IRD and the MOJ have some internal capability but when a wide reaching project like this kicks off, our telcos, banks and digital agencies will have to fight even harder for the best UX talent from the tiny pool here in NZ.

and now look what’s been floated by the director of the Design Museum … a Minister for Design.

Exciting times.

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Lost and found in the design process

Posted on | August 26, 2013

Which is better: Having courage to explore the unknown, or a map to help you find the way?

When heading on a design journey, I’m beginning to think courage and a good compass is better than a map.

This year I tentatively drew up a map of the design process for a specific client and their design challenge…

It became a 2m long poster to help a team of healthcare professionals new to design see what lay ahead, and refer to as they progressed towards their goal. A ‘you are here’, ‘look how far we’ve come’, kinda thing.

I enjoyed pulling this together, thinking about the likely journey ahead for this team, reflecting on my own experience of design and building on top of classic frameworks promoted as ‘best practice’ by the likes of IDEO, Design Council, and what I’d learned during my time with Stanford d.school as part of the Better By Design program.

Over a couple of years ‘collecting’, I began to see these design process diagrams as sales tools for design agencies, each claiming to have a point of difference and perhaps to have some ‘secret sauce’ that the other’s hadn’t discovered.

Semantics aside, they all promise gold at the end of a rainbow if you’re prepared to challenge your thinking upfront.

Other metaphors are funnels, diamonds, snakes, vortexes, washing machines, the list goes on, but essentially they describe a few phases of lost and found with a bit of loopback before finding that gold.

They make nice visuals and the theory seems sound enough, but when you start to actually apply one of these to a live project you realise how futile it is to try to map the design process.

A sequence of steps is convenient and tidy but the reality of design is more like this:

Maps and guidelines give us comfort. They can provide a sense of shared understanding of where we are going and what to expect…

… but the reality of most meaty design projects is that we don’t know where we are going, and we need to find a new kind of device to help clients feel comfortable with the unknown.

What makes the journey-maker comfortable with the unknown?

Is it time to throw away these maps and find a design compass?

Yes, it’s another metaphor, but perhaps it’s the designer’s job to be that compass. Something the client trusts to navigate through the messy reality.

Designers are comfortable with the ‘lost’ feeling, because we’ve ‘been there done that’ and believe in great outcomes based on our own experiences.

So how do YOU convince a nervous client you know where ‘north’ is?

Do you roll out a map, or are you the compass?

I’d love to hear…

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Redundant, by design

Posted on | July 30, 2013

I’m willingly doing myself out of a job, and it feels great.

After a 6 month pilot period, I’m on the design integration coaching team for Better By Design, and you’ll see on this page why I’m humbled by the company I keep.

So, who are Better by Design? in their own words, they:

Inspire and enable New Zealand businesses to success by design. Our mission is to assist companies increase their international competitiveness through the process of design integration.

Each ‘design integration coach’ has a specialism. Mine is customer insights and user centred design.

So how does this mean I’m doing myself out of a job? the answer is right there in the word coaching.

The programme exists to build design capability within the staff companies already have, rather than make them reliant on external consultants.

Design often begins with design research, so this is where I step in as a coach – taking people away from their desks to learn new skills while gaining valuable insights for their business.

This is a new way of working for me, and has me thinking about what I do from a fresh perspective.

I’ve been consulting for 12 years – starting with being what I now see as a ‘hit and run’ gun for hire, then moving towards a more collaborative approach, involving clients where possible to help them benefit from the process.

…but coaching is about more than collaboration and as the crude graph above shows, it feels like a step up in value to client and satisfaction to me along the way.

I’ve been taking teams with no experience of design research out into the field to run ethnographic studies with their end users, dropping them in the deep end, and the driver’s seat as much as possible. If it’s scary for me, it must be even more so for them but the fully immersive approach is engaging and it works.

My first client in this programme is now able to plan and run their own projects. Next step is for those involved so far to coach their colleagues to their newly-found skill level. Despite the feeling of being less useful to the client over time, seeing them make increasing use of the skills like this is a real buzz.

All ‘teach a man to fish’ proverbs aside, I’ve found this to be a hugely rewarding way to work, with lasting value.

If you’re a freelancer or consultant and have a client who could benefit from bringing the skills you offer in-house, take them on the journey. It’s a win-win.

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To uncover the story, first lose the script.

Posted on | May 21, 2013

A while back I clocked up my 1000th interview. This got me thinking how much my approach has evolved over the years.

Interviews with customers / end users of products and services are often the foundation of my research.

In the earliest projects I’d work from a page or two of questions all lined up in advance, in the shape of a ‘script’, or discussion guide. These were questions I’d literally recite to each participant. Sometimes these had been contributed to, signed off by, or even provided by the client.

I’d been told I should ask the same questions to all participants to maintain consistency, but found it awkward to work to the script, and at times like I was only hearing half of the story from the subject.

Over time, I found the questions I asked in response to the answers revealed more than the questions on my script, so I developed a more conversational approach.

Sounds like a convenient way to take the effort and rigour out of the process, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

Whilst interviewing, you’re running a mental cache of what’s been said, where you need to take the conversation, how much time is left etc. …and all the while you’re trying to make the participant feel like the conversation is following natural twists and turns, rather than being steered by you, the interviewer.

There are plenty of techniques to learn in the craft of interviewing; building rapport, non-verbals, open ended questions, asking ‘the 5 whys’, repeating their words etc.

In fact, there’s a great book dedicated to interviewing customers by a cohort of mine, Steve Portigal. Totally recommended for design researchers / UX people.

These techniques, combined with your curiosity will get you so far. …But they are not enough.

When clients ask (and they still do) “So, what are the questions you’ll be asking them” …

I explain:
When it comes to asking the right questions, there is no substitute for actually wanting to know the answer.

Instead of a script, I agree on a set of objectives with the team. This describes the ground we’d like to cover during the conversations and reads like a list of topics around which we’d like to learn.

Some of these might be framed as questions, but it’s far from being a ‘script’.

As an interviewer, you need to truly understand the context and objectives of your client / project sponsor:

It all starts with a set of questions to which I need the answer in my own head, before I begin planning the interviews…

  • Where is the business and product at in the development process?
  • Why is this the right time to conduct the study?
  • Which aspects stakeholders agree / disagree on?
  • What assumptions exist about the market, end user or value of the product to end users?
  • How will the client measure market success for the product / service?
  • How will the research be used, by whom?
  • What design decisions do the team need to make based on the insights you uncover?
  • Why are we including these types of participant in the study?
  • Which areas does the team have enough insight about already?

This goes beyond the due diligence of taking the brief, scoping the study etc.
It’s a deep understanding of the business, product and design context and should be embedded in your curiosity.

The flow of the conversation and lines of questioning should all come naturally if you’ve built this level of empathy for your client’s position.

In the end it’s about user centred design – The user of the research is your client, so you need to understand your end users’ needs to be able to design the product (interview structure) to give them the best outcomes. In this case, rich and useful insights.

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Outsourcing user research… to your customers.

Posted on | May 6, 2013

It took some balls to design and launch a product for the hard-to-impress and razor-critical user experience market a year ago…

My first batch of 10 weren’t quite ‘minimum viable product’, but small production runs and a direct feedback loop from UX folk who buy and use the product has fuelled iterative evolution of a ‘live’ product. It’s a bit like every batch is a prototype.

Originating as a ‘number 8 wire’ solution, Mr. Tappy now helps UX designers in 23 countries to capture user behaviour as UX research participants interact with their designs on mobile devices.

Looking to improve things is an occupational hazard for people with a usability background, but this is a breed of customers who go out of their way to provide constructive feedback. I’m not sure the product would be where it is without the input from my customers.

It’s been possible to adopt changes, make tweaks to the product, packaging etc. from batch to batch. From an added tip in the user guide, to a different anodised coating to minimise reflection.

Shipping with the current version is an alternative to the velcro attachment. I simply build this into the production run and keep my ear to the ground for a verdict – hey presto! user research is baked in.

‘Perpetual beta’ is an aspiration in some digital projects, but doing this with a physical product has been a great antidote to working with some companies product development cycles. Oh the the luxury of tweaking as you go, as opposed to the big ramp up to launch. At least my clients employ design research to get as close to the target (and target customer) as possible before hitting the ramp!

I’ll keep ‘launching’ my prototype and, thanks to my customers… with every batch – another slightly evolved design.

How lucky I am to have customers who are as articulate as they are demanding.

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Stories in stereo – Sketching customer journeys

Posted on | November 29, 2012

How do you share stories collected during dozens of interviews?

What if your ‘Customers’ are actually patients in a hospital?

…Rather than take notes and quotes, why not sketch it ?

Let me explain…

Collecting patient stories
I’ve been part of a team mapping the ‘patient experience’ through a hospital. The foundation for the project is collecting stories from patients in context.

This means interviewing patients at their bedside in emergency, on wards and later in their homes. The context can be sensitive and the content emotional.

The scale of the work means a raft of interviewers and large number of interviews, each with their own style. The stories have been so rich, diverse and engaging that working to a note-taking template went out the door…

So I began to experiment…

Getting sketchy
At one patient’s house I began sketching her story freestyle, in real time, as she told it.

My partner steered the conversation, while I scribbled furiously with a fat marker and a flipchart on my lap…

Below is a segment of about the first 15 minutes of an interview:

A small section of the sketch notes I took during an interview

I’m glad I tried it
I’ve spoken before about the power of visualising research findings, and particularly sketched visuals over polished.

A sketch on the project room wall is very accessible, so gets a lot of eyeballs - great for sharing the story. As well as a standalone artefact, It can be a great prompt for discussion - As you talk others through it, somehow the context and tone of the conversation comes flooding back to you. It’s not quite video, but it does bring the story alive.

Try it yourself…
Here’s a ‘Top 10′ …Some starters from my experience:

  1. This works best if your job is only to listen and capture. Have someone else lead the interview.
  2. Go BIG – use a large format pad fat pen. This makes it essay to socialise later, and prevents you from getting all detailed.
  3. Try to maintain a few seconds ‘buffer’ between what you’re hearing, and what you’re drawing.
  4. Don’t analyse as you go – just scribble like mad, or your ‘buffer’ will max out and you’ll miss bits.
  5. Use visual metaphors, e.g. If the subject is looking for something, draw binoculars, magnifying glass, map, compass etc.
  6. Pepper the notes with verbatim quotes, I use speech or thought bubbles.
  7. Use a couple of sizes or styles of text to indicate strength of a comment, specific themes etc.
  8. Talk the subject through the sketch at the end of the interview. They’ll be pleased to see what the hell you’ve been drawing.
  9. Ask for comment. “What else would you add?” They might correct you in places or add further texture to the story which you can add on the spot.
  10. If you’re recording with video sit away from the microphone, felt-tip markers make quite a racket when you’re going full-tit.

Give it a try…
This is something I’ll definitely be doing again, trying not to be admitted to hospital myself from marker pen fume inhalation.

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This blog was set up by Nick Bowmast as a place to explore and discuss User Experience in New Zealand. ...about Nick Bowmast

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