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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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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

 

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.

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.

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.

Customer Experience conference in NZ

Next week I’m presenting at this conference.

With the US and Europe groaning under the weight of web-focused User Experience conferences, it’s refreshing and encouraging to see this offered in New Zealand.

I’ll be sharing some experiences from a home-grown design research project.

From what I can gather I’ll be the only researcher presenting and I’m hoping to demonstrate the versatility as well as the value of design research.

Maybe I’ll see you there?

10 tips for usability studies with children

Usability-with-kids

Children are some of the most demanding and discerning users of interactive products, making them difficult to design for and challenging to moderate in a usability or UX research situation.

Whilst they can’t always articulate their thoughts and you can’t rely on what they say, with a careful approach you can generate incredibly useful design feedback by watching them use a product.

Before kicking off a recent project with with 7-14 year olds, I spoke to teachers, parents and others who have worked with this age group. I’ve added to their collective advice:

1. Have a guardian introduce you

Kids will trust you if their parents do, so meet them first, then have the parent introduce you, they’ll also do a better job than you can.

2. Avoid letting the guardian sit in
Kids behave differently when they know their parent is watching.

3. Explain everything
Kids have an amazing bullshit detector. Be transparent about the purposes of the research and why they are  involved.
The usual upfront introduction to the purpose of the research cannot seem like a formality with kids, tell them why they are involved, let them ask questions at the beginning, or they may ‘sit’ on a question waiting for a time to ask it.
Explain any recording equipment. Kids will be distracted by their curiosity so get all the waving to camera etc. out of the way at the start.

4. Use pairs of friends
Pairs feel more comfortable with a stranger (safety in numbers) and are less likely to get stage fright.
Have them take turns interacting, leaving the other free to talk. This can be difficult to manage at times but creates a great dynamic generating rich feedback.

5. Start easy
Kids, (esp. boys) don’t like to be wrong. Make sure they feel confident and reassured by asking super easy icebreaker questions like; “what are your favourite …” etc.

6. Free range
Thinking aloud while using a product can be very distracting for kids and results in unnatural behaviour, so aim for free-range activities with absolute minimum instruction. Slip into the background as much as possible while they are interacting with the product.

7. Together, then one at a time
Start off directing questions at both kids together before addressing them individually, this saves you putting one of them on the spot and will also help you work out and manage the dynamic when one kid dominates.

8. Choose your words carefully
Try to match your language with the kids (particularly nouns). This might mean you refer or point to ‘things’ until they fill the gaps, then gradually adopt their descriptive terms.

9. Leave the room
Choose your timing and make an excuse to exit the room (assuming you have observation facility). This is the best possible way to observe natural behaviour. Don’t blow your cover though, if you say you’re going to get them a drink, bring one back.

10. Don’t load them up on e-numbers
Their concentration levels can quickly evaporate once sugary or coloured foods kick in leaving you short-changed of feedback. …and their parents will curse you on the ride home.

Anyone want to make it a top 11 or 12 ?

UPDATE: I stumbled across a more theoretical article about usability testing with children. It’s coming from a more academic and psychological angle.

Are we headed this way?

The direction of User Experience in New Zealand ?

With UX still taking shape in New Zealand I think we can learn a lot from what’s happening in other centres. Having just returned home to New Zealand from User Experience research contracts in London, I thought I’d share a few observations:

Everyone’s hiring, especially UX recruiters
There are now several recruitment companies who cover or are dedicated to filling UX roles. They seem to be overflowing with work, but there’s still a skills/experience shortage …anyone who’s good is booked.

Boom time for freelancers
UX Agencies are facing stiff competition from lone consultants, especially for Usability and UX research projects, where the short engagements really suit the freelance ‘gun for hire’. Clients are winning as they get all the insights without paying agency rates. My friend Harry elaborates.

Specialisation
Generalists are recognizing their strengths and doing what they do best. Most noticeable here is a split between designers and researchers, with ‘full service’ UX agencies having a pool of each, complementing each other on a typical project.

Some UX people or agencies specialise by content or industry (Social, Retail, Banking etc.) …some by environment (Mobile, Gaming, etc.) As an example, I met with a small team of consultants who run usability studies for IPTV and in-flight entertainment interfaces. … that’s getting really niche!

Financial sector is poaching top UX talent
Some of the strongest consultants have been pulled across into the world of finance and investment banking, specifically working on trading system interfaces where the smallest improvements in efficiency can result in big gains (or losses, depends which way you look at it).

Informed clients
Clients who are veterans of the User Centered approach now have a mature understanding of UX processes, when to use them, how to commission them, what to expect, and how much to pay.  The standard ‘5 user’ usability testing study has become relatively commoditised as a result.

UX stops at the screen
Multi-channel customer experience projects are (still) thin on the ground. I put this down to siloed teams client-side and that User Experience is still (arrogantly) ‘owned’ by digital, even within organisations. This has to change, and it might be the emerging Service Design agencies who pull it off.