Category Archives: Customer insights

Chinese medicine vendor catching some zzz

Deer pizzle ethnography (Part 1)

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.

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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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Nick prototyping a customer journey map

Visualising Design Research

How to put down your bullet points and pick up a pencil…

I’ve almost given up on delivering written reports as a UX research output, favouring video and large scale visuals instead. (I explain why here)

How to:

In this article I’ll walk through my process and the tools I use, in the hope you can do something similar for your clients.


This is also a way to share some of the content of a few talks I gave in NY and SF in 2015, about visualising design research.

My talk ran through how I’ve blended communication styles from former careers in art and architecture to communicate the types of insights we find in UX research projects, where I’ve found traditional reports just don’t cut it.

One thing I wanted to be sure my audiences took away was a feeling of “I could totally give that a go on my next project”.

So if after reading this article you’re not thinking like that, I’ve missed the mark. Doh.


Here’s one I prepared earlier:

Design research illustration by Nick Bowmast

For ‘Ward life’, a project for a healthcare client – I was asked for only visual deliverables, as the team found the video/poster combo so compelling on our previous project it left the report in the dust. 

Knowing there would be a visual at the end, I photographed the process so I could share it.

The goal was to understand the social and emotional experience of patients in a shared hospital ward situation. I partnered with a chaperone (who’s also a natural interviewer) and we hit the wards – spoke to nurses, patients, their families etc., emerging later with insights – as you do.

This part of a research project is where you need to start considering how best to communicate what you’ve found…


 

Here are the steps I took to convert a set of findings into this visual:

FIRST: Lay out your key insights.

These can be single words, or statements.
Arrange these in a way which best frames the messages you want to communicate.
Insights-on-floor-600

Group around themes and sub-themes, relationships, this one feeds into that one etc.
While doing this I’m thinking of a narrative. A starting point and the flow, or the way I want the viewer to take in the content.
In this case I’ve grouped the insights around:

  • The patient’s context
  • Their mindset and moods
  • Environmental factors which contribute to their experience
  • The importance of distraction
  • The psycho-social aspects of being in the shared ward, and in a single room.

… and as I’m doing it I’m realising, how these relate to each other.

Thinking in two dimensions.

This is a bit like ‘storyboarding’ – you’re essentially weaving a story, frame by frame.
I’ve found moving the parts around directly on paper is a great way to build a story, and helps me join the dots between the things I’ve found and what they mean.

Sketch-1-600

You’ll need to be acting out a dialogue in your mind, between the content and the audience… converting this dialogue into a visual format. Think about the story you want to tell, where you want to place the accent and importance, and the quotes you want to use (speech or thought bubbles).

Rather than drawing all the ‘things’ I’ve just drawn text boxes or a description of what it should convey, like here it might be ’Patient in bed with ipad’ so my collaborators have an idea what I’m thinking.
Working at this basic level means it’s easy for people to contribute, add texture or meaning where it’s needed. (Like suggesting ‘patient wearing headphones’ etc.)

Add people and props.

This is the part where you literally put the people in the picture and think about the words and phrases you want to use.

Sketch-2-600

Your audience will be drawn to illustrations of people and the text immediately connected to these, so give thought to where you want this attention. At this stage I use a few stick or bubble figures with speech bubbles as placeholders to give myself, (and sometimes a client) a sense of how we could portray what’s going on in the moments / interactions in the patients’ world.

Make a list, and go shopping.

When I’m feeling happy with the arrangement and have an idea of which parts of the story should be supported by illustrations , it’s time to give the stick figures an upgrade.
I literally list out all the drawings I need and think about which ones I can draw, and which ones I’ll need help for.

ShoppingList-600
And when I say help, I mean Google Image Search. Here I typed in ‘Hospital bed’ to get an idea how these looked from a couple of angles. If you’re not so confident at drawing these things from screen, try printing them out and tracing them. Just hold them up to a window if it’s from a photo.

Keep it simple.

I try to avoid drawing busy scenes, so reduce illustrated elements to only where they will add value and support the narrative.
This means blob-headed androgynous people, sometimes without arms and other details. My experience is that it’s about what’s written in the speech bubble rather than whether your sketch of a person is wearing trainers or brogues. That’s why you didn’t realise the person pushing the tea trolley was male or female, let alone naked (!)

teatrolley-600
As you can imagine a finer level of detail can be handy at times, for example I could have had a stethoscope round the neck to identify a doctor in this image, but it wasn’t important enough to add it.

By the end of this you should have line drawings on paper ready to be scanned so you can put them into a digital document.

Drawings-in-ink-600

Get digital.

Open up a layout program that handles images and text. (I use Adobe Indesign) and set a massive document size. This one was about 1400mm wide x 900mm high. (You’re going to print this out BIG).

indesign-600

From here, use the ‘Text box’ tool to add in all your text as individual elements, then import your scanned drawings and go to work arranging these, being faithful to your paper mock-up.

Establish hierarchy.

Ok, it’s bit of a high-falooting word, but once I’ve got all the content loosely arranged I usually go about assigning a few type ‘styles’ so I can use sizing and bold etc. Creating this visual hierachy adds prominence and weight where it’s needed.

IndesignDetail-600

I’m usually thinking – “If someone’s only going to spend one minute looking at this, what do I want to be sure they’ll take in?”

… then assign extra weight to those elements. It’s not just a matter of making things bigger, sometimes giving more space around them can help with this.

Boxes and arrows.

It’s no coincidence that software toolkits have boxes, arrows, shapes and lines. This combo (and text of course) is all you really need, and doesn’t take long to get the hang of.

In this visual I’ve used boxes to say ‘these belong together’ some triangles for big arrow heads, and for the floor and walls I used the line tool where you just keep clicking corner points, then choose a colour for the ‘fill’.

closeup-600
After text and speech bubbles, (an oval and a triangle joined together) arrows are one of the hardest working tools in the box – particularly for non-linear artefacts like this one.  They help guide the viewer around, and show the links and sequence of things.
Indesign or even much less sophisticated programmes will have an easy toolbox and menu of line and arrow types, thin ones, fat ones… Mix it up!

Colouring in.

I keep things in black-white and greys as long as possible to make sure the message is getting across without colour, then go to Adobe Kuler to pick a palette of 3-5 colours, using some to add depth, and one or two for accents.

Printing.

Go BIG.
I recommend you call your local print shop, ask them how wide their roll is, and make this the shortest dimension of the printout.

Printing a UX research poster
A ‘wall sized’ visual (as opposed to individual A3 printouts) gets more eyeballs.

A poster provides a shared experience, get’s people out of their seat and generates the sort of response and conversation that matters to your project.

If you’ve read this far, you probably agree that ‘generating conversations that matter’ is a job text based reports all-too-often fail at.

So …pick up your pencil and start a conversation.

 

 

Curiosity-tablets

Ethnography. Only the curious need apply

How can a product team gain empathy for their customers and draw meaningful insights if they aren’t driven by their own curiosity?

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.

It seems all the tips, techniques, handbooks and best intentions aside, it seems 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.

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…

I love a great metaphor, like this one from the 2015 Better By Design CEO Summit. The speaker likened an organisation to a growing sphere to illustrate 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.

Games people play during user research

How and why I use games as ‘tools for talking’ during fieldwork interviews…

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!