Category Archives: Observations

My expert-ness, mapped over time

On being an expert…

There was a time I was comfortable being the expert.

That’s changed.

I was asked to do an ‘expert’ experience review recently. Ever since it’s been playing on my mind – surfacing internal conflicts and self-doubt around how comfortable I am taking the role of ‘expert’ in this field.

It’s a feeling that’s changed with time, so I mapped it.

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Steve Portigal answering classic design research questions.

Patterns in design research. (Video)

As the business and design worlds adopt design research, I see patterns.

One of those patterns lies in the questions I’m asked by new clients.
Sometimes they are new to qualitative research, and increasingly they’ve done some lightweight interviewing as part of an innovation or design thinking exercise and want to know more.

My confidence in answering these questions builds over time, so to hear a design research veteran tackle the same questions … that’s gold.

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Nine nourishing nuggets

Over the NZ summer, I deliberately made time to nourish my professional self.

Inspiration came from 5 podcasts, 2 books and a 2 short but atmospheric films.

I’d squirrelled dozens of potentially inspiring articles, podcasts and videos over the year, waiting to filter them for quality, then absorb them… undistracted, to the sound of cicadas.

A few were memorable, including:

  • A peculiar ‘outsider view’ on UX research,
  • Podcasts on social research and why people do what they do,
  • Interviews with designers I admire about their work, and approaches to product development,
  • A couple of rather chilling ethno-books by people who gave their all to understand another people.
  • A couple of gorgeous videos spotlighting the beauty of heavy manufacturing – sheffield style,
  • A short surf adventure in Iceland, captured in inimitable ironic Kiwi narrative.
  • … and some envy-inducing lifestyle portraits of people who’ve made creativity into a lifestyle,

Here’s a snapshot of each, and why I found it worthy brain fodder for my work in design / research:

5 Podcasts

UX seduction at Etsy
Journalism meets UX research. This account of the interviewee’s perspective in a ‘usability test’ is a surreal experience given I’ve conducted hundreds of these sessions in my time.
The host of the podcast feels more like they’ve been part of an experiment than ‘helping improve a product’, and (tries to) delve into the ethics behind the way e-commerce sites steer our minds.
Hearing this makes me want to interview the interviewees from user research sessions to find out what level of cynicism and undercurrents of curiosity really does ship as standard with participants in these studies.

‘The big interview’ with Thomas Heatherwick & Monocle
I used to ride past his office in London when the models for his ‘rolling bridge’ were in the window, but the bridge hadn’t become a reality.

Now it’s in his back catalogue, and Terence Conran has declared Thomas Heatherwick ‘the Leonardo Da Vinci of our time. … a handle he’s clearly not comfortable with.
Though he gets a bit earnest at times, I was taken by his lack of ego. A humble designer untethered to a medium with a solid worship of idea over process.

He reminds me at times of the profile of Marc Newson, who in ‘Urban Spaceman’ share the same comments about being material and subject matter agnostic as a designer.

Thinking allowed
Fascinating sociology podcasts from the BBC. Laurie, the curious interviewer frames up myriad topics beautifully, then chats with people who’ve studied people in that context.

It’s good stuff. Highly conversational, so you don’t need to wade through the academic fluff as you find out about things like what motivates middle class kids who want for nothing but become drug dealers, or changing attitudes to how we navigate our careers, to children’s changing attitude to money.

Perfect podcasts for a walk around the block. If your block takes about 20 mins.

Paul Adams on Product
Never short on an opinion, and always worth listening to, Paul Adams is quite the influential voice on what it takes to make a great digital product.

We worked together at Flow, a company since absorbed into Europe’s largest UX consulting agency. Now – after serving a Silicon Valley sentence – He’s putting his learnings into play at Intercom, in Dublin, where he’s using what he refers to as the ’6-6-6’ roadmap for product development.

For those who (like me) suffer fatigue from the newfangled recipes for success, it’s summed up here as a 2min read, but the podcast is worth a listen to any product strategy or team leader.

Guerilla interviews in South Auckland 
This is guerrilla street interviewing at it’s best, by a master who really connects.
John Campbell’s authentic and probing dialogue makes you feel like you’re there with him. This is all laid down with brilliantly executed post production to stitch the story together.
There’s only a couple of these articles, but they are worth a listen, as he interviews people at the low end of the socio-economic spectrum, and very quickly gets down to brass tacks about their day to day struggle to live in our biggest city.

2 books:

On the run, with Alice Goffman

Reading this book is a little like a personal account of living in the series ‘the wire’…
…but instead of an HBO production crew, it’s seen through the lens of an ethnographer.

New York book review calls it an ‘ethnographic classic’, but it’s also been controversial.

Alice, a middle class academic moved in and spent six years living in a troubled Philadelphia neighborhood and saw first-hand how teenagers of African-American and Latino backgrounds are “funneled down the path to prison”.

This is journalism meets ethnography, and you’d expect rigour from the daughter of the “most important sociologist of the last 50 years” … So reading about her in-the field practices of note taking, logging of events etc. .. I shudder to imagine how much data she was wading through while examining these lives at such close range.

Academic sociologists felt she was too close to her subjects and took liberties in the way she wrote, while Journalists, (likely stunned at the depth and richness of her account) simply picked holes in the details, dismissing it’s value as a true account.

If you haven’t got the time to read the book… here’s a TED

Patched. when ethnography goes underground.
This book is the result of New Zealand’s largest ever study of gangs in NZ, with much of the story captured via a long and dangerous ethnography.

“I hung out with the gangs” says Jarrod Gilbert, and the stories he’s dredged up paint a rich and sometimes raw picture of this part of our social history.
He spent six years researching gangs, which meant drinking with them, listening to them, tuning motorbikes together and figuring out what to say and what not to say. He admits he was “on the wrong end of a couple of beatings” and his liver took a beating as well.

This all led to a prize-winning academic book, Patched, but like Alice and her book on life as a fugitive in Philadelphia, This author too has had their work controversially discredited by authority (in this case the Police) because he was too close to the subjects.

 2 Short films

For some eye candy I soaked up these two gems:

Barry Can’t arf Weld.
A totally gorgeous piece of atmosphilm – this short but powerful video essay rips into you with sound and motion.
Follow the journey of a few kilos of molten metal all the way to becoming a railway bogey. It’s so raw, noisy and dirty it makes you want to reach for the Swarfega.

…But then you kinda wish you could don a pair of steel caps and join in the fun in the dark and forbidding bowels of this Sheffield foundry.
Delicious.

‘Brass monkey’ surfing in Iceland.
A somehow timeless surfing ‘roadie’ flick. Filmed in in Iceland of all places by three Kiwi wax-heads mad enough to take this on.
Equal parts warming and super frosty, with the kind of dry, tongue-in-cheek-narration to bring you along on the romance of the trip.

Oh, did I say 9?

… come on, just one more …

As a some-time architect of my own lifestyle. I’m a hoover for inspiration … pondering other people’s existence. … and here at Freunden von Freunden (friends of friends) is where I found a stack:

These are styled portraits showcasing the lives of a privileged few creative people who have made a life from what they love and seek and create. Including a few Kiwis

Ok, and one more makes 11

I’ve also been piecing together a wee story about my own product development – of Mr. Tappy, a mobile UX research tool. I’m as proud as I am surprised with how it’s evolved.

Great to have found the time to indulge, and now share some brain fodder and use some of those muscles which -during the year- only get a 2 minute workout on short articles.

Thanks for reading and here’s to 2016!

siggy

 

UX-gender-spectrum-sketch

The UX gender spectrum…

Does UX research attract more women than men?

I sometimes refer to the various roles within UX as running along a spectrum from research at one end to design at the other. It might be more convenient than realistic, but I’ve found it’s a pretty solid metaphor when asking colleagues where along the spectrum their deep skill-set lies or where they have the most fun.

…but I’d never considered each end of the spectrum might attract a different gender.

In fact, after moving from earlier careers of men and machines, I’ve enjoyed working in what’s seemed like a gender-balanced environment of UX / user centred design. I’ve even spoken out before on this when I’ve felt things weren’t quite representative.

Top Tip from IDEO's (hu)man Centred Design Toolkit.

Top Tip from IDEO’s (Hu)man Centred Design Toolkit. (2009)

So last month when speaking about visualising design research to audiences in New York and San Francisco I was surprised to notice men were significantly out-numbered by women.

In one talk there was only one man in an audience of dozens,
Another talk, only two men.

This made me wonder… was this representative of the profession?

This job ad for a design researcher at an agency in Minneapolis seems to suggest so…

designresearcher worrell2

In this ‘People understanding company’ in Europe, women outnumber men two to one.

https://www.happythinkingpeople.com/the-team/

… and a LinkedIn search seems to think so too:

A search for ‘design researcher’ in the SF Bay Area returns 26 women and 4 men in the first 30 results.

So, if there is a pattern like the rudimentary graph above…

  • Why is this?
  • What is it about the profession, that attracts more women than men?
  • Is it that women are somehow suited to design research? Why is that?
  • Has it always been this way, or is it changing?
  • What does it say about the other end of the spectrum?

And – on a professionally embarrassing note – how did I miss such a fundamental demographic trend in my own industry, given that spotting patterns in people is a core part of my work?

Perhaps some of you lovely men AND women readers can answer some of these curly questions?

 

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.

8.5 Postcards from People-watcher’s Paradise

Montage

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

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

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

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

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

Kerbside clawback.

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

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

Honouring the craftsman.

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

Tweezer geezer (top) is a third generation craftsman.

Display perfection.

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

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

Service culture.

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

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

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

Visual calm.

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

The Okura. Steve Jobs’ favourite hotel. Mmm.

Visual chaos.

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

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

Stationery supermarket.

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

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

Greening the fringes.

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

A far cry from mowing the verge.

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

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

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

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

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

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:

PLANNING:

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’.

THE SESSIONS:


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.

AFTER THE FINAL SESSION:

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.

OUTCOMES FOR THE CLIENT:

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.

Tool tips – When should design explain itself?

My Hacksaw and Stapler basking on the lawn

Should a hacksaw or staple gun need a manual?

Mine have permanently moulded instructions to help get the most out of using them.

Handy hints built into my stapler

This hacksaw pre-dates the internet by 20 years, but look at all those tool tips!

This sort of thing has become commonplace in the digital world too. Hover your cursor over any button or tool  and you’ll see prompts, tips, guidance, explanation etc. as you explore and use websites, software and devices.

Tool tips could help you find this remote New Zealand surf spot

Whether you’re using software or a saw and need that extra ‘tool tip’ …you’re generally alone, doing your own thing … so what about when you’re around other people… Can we learn by watching others?, does the ‘how to’ of using things travel by osmosis in a social or group situation? or, in other words – do people become the tool tips?

In the physical world, it seems this is true, as I noticed on a Sydney train recently.

These Sydney train seats can be switched to face either direction

You could argue the train seats should have a ‘tool tip’ to show that they can be reversed, but there’s also something satisfying about discovering it for yourself, or through watching others.

…My latest UX research project is for a multi-user ‘touch table’ designed for an exhibition space. The content is navigated by individuals and groups with a similar emphasis on ‘discovering’ how to interact with the environment, rather than being signposted at every step.

Often things in the physical world help explain user behaviour in the digital world and I’m thinking this train seat scenario might be a good analogy… but despite how much more natural it feels to be facing forward when getting from A-B, few passengers actually do change the seating around…

So, I wonder…

  1. Would a visual cue take the satisfaction away for the few to improve travelling for the many?
  2. Do people suffer performance anxiety the first time they try to move the seat? (I waited until I had an empty carriage)
  3. Are those ‘in the know’ motivated to share what they’ve learned, or do they keep it to themselves?
  4. Are we more likely to make these ‘discoveries’ in the physical or digital world?
  5. Is it possible to move through a digital journey facing backwards?
  6. Is it more valuable to discover a feature by serendipity, or to learn by observation of others?

I’d like to hear of other scenarios where people learn how to interact with a product or service purely by watching others…

…Do you know of any?

Motivations. Delivered fresh to your door

I’m in London this month and just received a boxful of fresh produce from Abel&Cole.

Two things become very clear upon opening the veggie box;
They know who their customers are,
…and that
each customer has a different set of motivations to use the service.

A great example of this is in the friendly Spring magazine inside the box.

From a quick flick through, I’ve split out the content and some potential motivations Abel&Cole might be targeting in their customers.

  • Spring issue.  To know I’m eating what’s in season
  • Recipes.  To feel inspired
  • Large close up photos.  To feel close to the goodness
  • Place of origin.  To know where the food comes from
  • Names of growers.  To feel a connection to the source
  • Foodie person profile.  To feel I’m in good company
  • Tone of voice.  To know I’m dealing with down to earth people
  • Food facts.  To feel informed about what I eat
  • Animal welfare article.  To know that Abel and Cole cares
  • Green credentials.  To know I’m having lower impact on the planet
  • Eco focussed articles.  To feel part of a movement for good
  • Fitness related article.  To know I’m eating what’s right
  • Recipes on a budget.  To feel like I’m getting value
  • Photos of the staff.  To know who I’m dealing with

Only some of these are relevant to me, but I do see a pattern of :

To know’ and ‘To feel’

At first glance… about half of these appeal to the customer knowing they’ve made a good choice, the rest speak to their emotional motivations.

Abel&Cole have clearly done their research and spent a lot of time to deeply understand their customers. It shows in the way they’ve appealed to their motivations, peppering  emotional hooks and affirmations throughout the magazine.

I wonder though…

Does anyone actually read the magazine?
Does the usefulness of the content matter or is the message and motivational triggers behind it more important?
After thirty years in the vege business does this level of customer understanding come by default?
Perhaps Abel&Cole is a business which is by its ethical nature brimming with empathy for it’s customers?

How much of their intelligence and feedback comes through their social media channels?
To what extent do they use their delivery drivers to capture customer feedback?
Have I read too much into this?

As for the contents of the box …The veggies are all great, but as I discovered in a recent project,

It’s a lot more than just the fruit and veggies which can add goodness to the customer experience.