Category Archives: Design research

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 my book – USERPALOOZA – A Field Researcher’s Guide I cover the three types of question I use in every interview; starting points, prompts and qualifiers.

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.

Outsourcing user research… to your customers.

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.

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.

All-hands-on-deck …for rapid user insights

Taking notes form the user's point of view...This year I’ve surprised myself by recommending some super short approaches to user research.

When there’s no time, money or buy-in for a ‘full noise’ project I’ve been running a 2 day process where I put my clients in the research seat as they work together to make their own observations, draw their own conclusions and insights.

It felt risky and compromised at first, but it’s working out well so far.

Here’s how…..

(Once the objectives and scope are nailed down)

  • I invite stakeholders to attend and observe interviews with customers.
  • I set the stakeholders up to take notes.
  • Then facilitate interviews with paid participants.
  • Between sessions we gasp for breath and I draw out the top-of-mind observations from each stakeholder.
  • After the last session, I guide them through a hands-on exercise where they match and group individual observations into themes.
  • Together we agree on what these mean for the design/business and prioritise them into an action list.

This is a collaborative, intense and compressed way to work but has massive value to the client. … even if you are exhausted at the end of it.

Some things I’ve learned from working this way:


Critically, this requires time investment and commitment from the stakeholder team – be crystal clear from the start that this is totally a ‘get out what you put in’ scenario. Participation is required if the client is going to see value.

It’s best to have a mix of stakeholders involved, different parts of the business, levels of seniority, familiarity with the product, market etc.

I can’t imagine doing it justice with less than 3 stakeholders.

Try to make this an off-site activity to minimise distractions.

Make sure food for them and you is arranged in advance. The sessions will be almost back to back so there will be no skipping off to lunch.

Recruitment – You should consider all-day ‘standby’ participants in case of a ‘no-show’.


Stakeholders need a strong briefing around observation. Reinforce that it’s a team effort, several stakeholders observing the same behaviour can take different meaning away – It’s all valuable.

Keep note taking physical and portable (paper / sticky notes).

Don’t be precious about format, it’s most important that notes are actually taken, not how.

Suggest notes are written from the customer’s point of view. This helps the stakeholder to think through what they are writing, and these ‘quotes’ really come to life during the analysis.

For a usability type project, you could have a sheet of paper for each participant with columns; Where, What and How – Where was the customer at, What did they say/do, How does it impact their experience.

Pinning the objectives up on the wall can remind observers what they are looking for.

Start a ‘discuss’ list and encourage observers to add items as they come up rather than talk through the session.

You need 5-10 mins between each session to conclude what was learned, what was confirmed etc. Asking each stakeholder to write down them share their ‘Top 5’ observations works well.


Aim for a 2 hour analysis and wrap-up.

Collate all the notes and get them up on walls, grouped by customer, topic etc.

Have everyone spend time (10-15 mins) scanning the data and writing down what they feel are key observations. Go for quantity. 100 is a good start.

Go for some sort of ‘KJ’ collaborative analysis to group individual observations into themes. Name each theme and what it means for the product and customer.

Roll this into a prioritisation exercise by ranking / voting, plotting on a scale etc.


Making decisions based on first hand observations is a powerful experience.

Getting answers in hours to questions which have been hovering for weeks is a liberating feeling for clients.

Clients arrive at conclusions and reach consensus and create the output together.

This approach can also show the client it’s something they can do themselves.

… and of course, questions emerge which they didn’t know they needed to answer.

Suddenly… where time, budget and buy in for customer research was lacking… it miraculously appears!

I was nudged over the fence into taking this approach by Dana Chisnell, so thanks Dana for the nudge!

I’d love to hear other people’s experience with this…
In another blog post I’ll tell you how it goes when you send the stakeholders out into the field to do their own research.

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?

Customer insight from… the Yellow Pages

The dull thud of a phone book hitting the desk. …Probably not a sound you’ve heard since the 90’s, but the humble yellow book, and it’s smaller, newer, blue cousin can be useful to explain the value of customer insights, especially those gathered in context…

20 years ago when the Thomson Directory went into battle with the ubiquitous Yellow Pages in the UK they wanted a point of difference – and to become the ‘most reached for’ directory over their competitor…

…By visiting people’s homes they saw the Yellow Pages not only next to the phone, but in drawers, under stairs, propping up computer monitors etc. Importantly, they noticed peoples’ behaviour – They stacked smaller books on top of  larger books.

Thomson used these behavioural insights to their advantage, producing a smaller book so it would sit on top, and be the first directory people grabbed.

The purpose, function and content remained unchanged, but a practical human behaviour sparked this significant change in the design and form factor of their product.

I’m not sure there’s a digital equivalent to ‘stacking’ items like this… but can you think of other products or services which have been shaped so fundamentally by behavioural insights?

Thanks Simon in London for the photos

…and to Ofer Deshe who told me the story a few years back.

Visualising UX research

I’ve never seen clients stand around a written report gesturing at various pages discussing their implications… but when this happens with a drawing, I really feel like my job is done.

A written report can be restrictive when working with rich, emotive material, so I often use visuals to communicate insights and what they mean to my clients.

The same drawings I use to help myself ‘see the wood for the trees’ can be a valuable tool for sharing findings and concepts.

Until recently I’ve produced these to a simple but polished level:

Polished visuals can extend beyond initial graphic impact to tell stories, build context, explain relationships and show processes.  Until now I’ve used these as part of a final deliverable as they can be absorbed in a fraction of the time it takes to read a report, are well circulated and fantastic for getting buy in.

…more recently I’m using sketches earlier in a project as a different kind of tool – a platform for discussion.

Although clients don’t always consider it up-front, consensus building can be a valuable outcome from customer research. Teams across design, product, marketing etc. often need to just ‘get on the same page’.

Bringing the voice of the customer, or insights from their behaviour alive with a simple cartoon and can really get people talking.

A polished deliverable always has it’s place but the pencil is getting a workout earlier in the process these days. I’ve realised different stages of a project require different styles of visual and by using the appropriate level of detail for the audience and the decisions they face at the time, they can be one of the most powerful tools in the box.

By popular demand I’ve put a few more examples on the ‘approach’ page of my design research consulting website. … and there’s a link there to request a fuller set.

Life or death usability

Over the last couple of years I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the R&D programme for a ground-breaking medical device to help diabetics manage their insulin treatment.

Part of the project was to reach a regulatory milestone, which has now been achieved.

To reach this milestone we tested the usability of the device to prove it was intuitive and the design prevented people from giving themselves a mis-dose or even fatal dose of insulin.

It was amazing to work in this ‘high-stakes’ context with so many facets to the user experience:

  • an ‘out of box’ experience with crucial set-up to match the device to the user’s insulin sensitivity
  • a physical product which is injected with insulin and attached to the body
  • a touch screen device presents a learning curve for diabetics in their 70’s
  • online monitoring and visualisation of blood glucose levels – data presented in new ways
  • …and the big one… people’s health and lifestyle literally in their hands and plugged into their bellies.

Aside from having my eyes opened to the world of diabetes and being humbled by the courage of the people I met during the research, …it’s been so satisfying to see design research deliver such a tangible impact.

I worked in conjunction with London User Research Centre and with Design Science in Philadelphia.

Getting a Grip. Prodesign Magazine showcases my approach to UX

Design Research and User Experience article in Prodesign

This month I’m featured in Prodesign mag.

The article harks back to my days designing surfboards and the moment I became ‘hooked on usability’ during a project for Sony Playstation.

Read the Prodesign article ‘Getting a grip’ here as a PDF.

It turns out this is the last issue of this magazine after 16 years.

What does that say about design in New Zealand?

…or does it say more about print publishing?

End to end customer experience for Swiftpoint

All too often, I’m working on one aspect of a product while valuable insights emerge relating to other areas of the broader customer experience.

Classic example: A website usability study generates feedback around physical product, brand, delivery, billing or in-store interactions.

In theory this offers double or triple whammy for the sponsor of the project. …but not always in practice.

…In some (often larger) organisations, each channel of the customer experience is ‘owned’ by a separate department, and there’s no guarantee insights will be shared with those who can use them to improve their part of the product or service.

In a welcome change I worked with a bite-sized firm where it was possible to actually ‘get everyone in the same room’, for industrial, web, marketing, packaging designers and copywriters all able to benefit from each round of research, acting on insights relevant to their design process.

Swiftpoint, a nimble Kiwi start-up were well aware their customers would interact with more than just their website, or the physical product.

I ran several streams of user research, covering all customer touch-points, knowing every insight would be put to good use.

…A refreshing change to know each part of the team could have their part of the customer experience informed by the research.

Here’s a step-by-step case study to reveal the approach I took.

Anyone else had similar experience getting this level of buy-in with small teams? … or better still, with departments in larger companies?