Category Archives: Design ethnography

Dream design research projects from 2013, Part 2

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.

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.

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.

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.

…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.

Dream design research projects from 2013, Part 1.

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.

To uncover the story, first lose the script.

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.

Stories in stereo – Sketching customer journeys

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 and fat pen. This makes it essay to socialise later, and prevents you from getting too 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.

Ethno-unpacked – A design research toolkit.

Design research toolkit(UPDATED Feb 2016)

Every band needs a manager and a ‘roadie’. The manager books the gigs – The roadies set the stage so the band can focus on playing the gig. Between them, they’ve usually got a big truck full of kit, and lots of gaffer tape.

With design research (contextual inquiry or ethnography, if you like), there’s an amount of planning and kit required too. When running in-home interviews I need to play  both manager and roadie roles, but isolate these activities as much as possible from my role as researcher.

Every minute spent with a customer is valuable, so I can’t afford to be distracted by practicalities like recording equipment and timings.

After a few years experimenting with these practicalities I’ve arrived at a ‘toolkit’ of things in my backpack, so when I pull up at the customer’s house the ‘roadie’ can take a back-seat and let me get on with capturing the insights.

Here’s what’s in my bag:

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

1. Discussion guide. I try to keep this to a one pager with topic areas rather than ‘script’ like questions. I have the research objectives embedded in my curiosity, so by the time the first interview kicks off, this serves as prompts only. As you can read in my article: ” To uncover the story, first lose the script”, I’ll be completely free-styling after the first few interviews.

2. Livescribe Pen & Paper. Records every word and lets you playback what was said when you took notes or sketched. Here’s a detailed article about how I use a smartpen to free my mind and eyes during user research.

I tape spare ink refills to the book, as they run dry with no warning after about 50 pages. I use the display on the pen for timing – it’s less obvious and distracting to check the time on here than glancing at your phone. If a subject seems interested in the pen (or any technology you use) take the time to explain what it does and why you use it, this removes the distraction, so you can get on with it.

When I can’t use the pen,but know I need to record, I use  ‘Highlight’, a great iphone recorder app, with ability to add ‘moments’ just by tapping the screen… It’s very discreet. Olympus and Sony voice recorders also let you ‘highlight’ moments in recordings, but they are not so discreet.

3. Video camera.
I’ve tried many many cameras and always come back to a handycam with accessories.
Everything else has compromises in battery life, audio quality, zooming etc.

I use a Sony, with a stack of SD cards and a Sennheiser shotgun microphone – I find audio is more important than video quality.
A wireless lapel mic is essential when you want to cut out all the noise except the person you’re interviewing, or you’re in a sensitive context (like a hospital ward project I worked on) where the subjects may tend to whisper. I use a Sony ECM-AW4
I also have a beast of a battery on there, which can do a whole day of fieldwork on one charge, which has made #4 below obsolete.

4. Extension cord.  I used to carry this but opted for bigger batteries for the video camera. They are pricey, but essential.

5. Tripod. I carry a Gorrillapod SLR tripod with a Manfrotto ball mount and quick release, it’s compact, instant to set up and perfect for tabletop work. When you need to ‘walk and talk’ with someone, it’s a snip to just grab and use as a handle.

When I need the camera to be further out of the conversation, I go with an entry-level Sony tripod. It’s discreet, is smaller when folded than higher quality ‘mini’ tripods, goes up to about 1.2m high. I sort this out with the same quick release mount for the camera so there’s no screwing things on and off while you’re with the participant. This comes in handy

6. Laptop. I use this immediately after sessions to type up my reflections while they are still fresh. I always drive a bit down the road first …best they don’t see you frantically typing about them from behind their curtains.

7. Schedule. Who, When, Where and sometimes demographics; age, segment, occupation etc. I usually have a pared down version on the dash, but the full version stashed away in case I need phone numbers etc. This is a part of how I maintain my curiosity.

8. Map. As well as Google Maps I try to have a hard copy with all participants located, named, numbered and timed. This comes into it’s own in a city you’re unfamiliar with, when there’s a change in the schedule and you need to know whether you can actually shoehorn in a replacement participant and make it from A-B in the timeframe.

9. Cables, chargers etc. Including 12V in-car USB for boosting phone and livescribe pen while driving.

10. GPS / Satnav. Yes, I can use my phone, but sometimes I prefer a dedicated tool for the job, leaving my phone free for other things. I input all the addresses with names the night before. So when I arrive, the Satnav will tell me ‘arriving at ‘Daves’ number 26′. Geeky I know, but this really helps.
Yes. I make sure I delete all this data before handing it back to the rental co.

11. Smartphone. I use Alarm clock for when I can’t afford to run over the allotted time in a session, Voice to text to brain-dump my thoughts while driving between sessions, Camera for improptu shots, Messaging for contacting participants for timing / directions etc. and ‘Highlight’ for recording those moments.

12. Stills camera. As unobtrusive as possible. Must be usable by ‘feel’ alone (real buttons) and with one hand, so I can maintain my connection and focus while snapping away. Good as a secondary video camera too. I use a Canon S120

13. Rental car. Small & discreet – depending on the context, I sometimes park round the corner or out of sight of the address and appear to arrive on foot. …unless I’m in a rural area.

14. Cash incentives. In marked envelopes – for the participant’s time and involvement. Folding cash speaks everyone’s language – I avoid vouchers or direct payments. I always pay the participant at the start of the session and reinforce that it’s a payment for their time, not ‘for saying the right things’.

15. Receipts / NDAs. To be signed by participant. This keeps accountant and lawyers happy. I always include permission to video record session and detail the rights of use.

16. Smart/casual clothes. I dress up or down a bit depending on the topic I’m working with and neighbourhood I’m visiting – Dress smart enough to be credible, but not authoritative or superior in any way.

And the most important tools of all…

2 eyes

2 ears

1 mouth

…but I’m all ears if you’d like to add to my list, or suggest how I might adapt for different contexts?