I’m currently ‘recovering’ from an intense project – interviewing criminals for a week.
…A project during which a relative I was staying with questioned whether I was cut out for my job…
I’m currently ‘recovering’ from an intense project – interviewing criminals for a week.
…A project during which a relative I was staying with questioned whether I was cut out for my job…
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:
Here’s a snapshot of each, and why I found it worthy brain fodder for my work in design / research:
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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!
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.
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…
In this ‘People understanding company’ in Europe, women outnumber men two to one.
… 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…
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?
How to put down your bullet points and pick up a pencil…
I’ve almost given up on delivering written reports as a UX research output, favouring video and large scale visuals instead. (I explain why here)
In this article I’ll walk through my process and the tools I use, in the hope you can do something similar for your clients.
This is also a way to share some of the content of a few talks I gave in NY and SF in 2015, about visualising design research.
My talk ran through how I’ve blended communication styles from former careers in art and architecture to communicate the types of insights we find in UX research projects, where I’ve found traditional reports just don’t cut it.
One thing I wanted to be sure my audiences took away was a feeling of “I could totally give that a go on my next project”.
So if after reading this article you’re not thinking like that, I’ve missed the mark. Doh.
For ‘Ward life’, a project for a healthcare client – I was asked for only visual deliverables, as the team found the video/poster combo so compelling on our previous project it left the report in the dust.
Knowing there would be a visual at the end, I photographed the process so I could share it.
The goal was to understand the social and emotional experience of patients in a shared hospital ward situation. I partnered with a chaperone (who’s also a natural interviewer) and we hit the wards – spoke to nurses, patients, their families etc., emerging later with insights – as you do.
This part of a research project is where you need to start considering how best to communicate what you’ve found…
Here are the steps I took to convert a set of findings into this visual:
These can be single words, or statements.
Arrange these in a way which best frames the messages you want to communicate.
Group around themes and sub-themes, relationships, this one feeds into that one etc.
While doing this I’m thinking of a narrative. A starting point and the flow, or the way I want the viewer to take in the content.
In this case I’ve grouped the insights around:
… and as I’m doing it I’m realising, how these relate to each other.
This is a bit like ‘storyboarding’ – you’re essentially weaving a story, frame by frame.
I’ve found moving the parts around directly on paper is a great way to build a story, and helps me join the dots between the things I’ve found and what they mean.
You’ll need to be acting out a dialogue in your mind, between the content and the audience… converting this dialogue into a visual format. Think about the story you want to tell, where you want to place the accent and importance, and the quotes you want to use (speech or thought bubbles).
Rather than drawing all the ‘things’ I’ve just drawn text boxes or a description of what it should convey, like here it might be ’Patient in bed with ipad’ so my collaborators have an idea what I’m thinking.
Working at this basic level means it’s easy for people to contribute, add texture or meaning where it’s needed. (Like suggesting ‘patient wearing headphones’ etc.)
This is the part where you literally put the people in the picture and think about the words and phrases you want to use.
Your audience will be drawn to illustrations of people and the text immediately connected to these, so give thought to where you want this attention. At this stage I use a few stick or bubble figures with speech bubbles as placeholders to give myself, (and sometimes a client) a sense of how we could portray what’s going on in the moments / interactions in the patients’ world.
When I’m feeling happy with the arrangement and have an idea of which parts of the story should be supported by illustrations , it’s time to give the stick figures an upgrade.
I literally list out all the drawings I need and think about which ones I can draw, and which ones I’ll need help for.
And when I say help, I mean Google Image Search. Here I typed in ‘Hospital bed’ to get an idea how these looked from a couple of angles. If you’re not so confident at drawing these things from screen, try printing them out and tracing them. Just hold them up to a window if it’s from a photo.
I try to avoid drawing busy scenes, so reduce illustrated elements to only where they will add value and support the narrative.
This means blob-headed androgynous people, sometimes without arms and other details. My experience is that it’s about what’s written in the speech bubble rather than whether your sketch of a person is wearing trainers or brogues. That’s why you didn’t realise the person pushing the tea trolley was male or female, let alone naked (!)
As you can imagine a finer level of detail can be handy at times, for example I could have had a stethoscope round the neck to identify a doctor in this image, but it wasn’t important enough to add it.
By the end of this you should have line drawings on paper ready to be scanned so you can put them into a digital document.
Open up a layout program that handles images and text. (I use Adobe Indesign) and set a massive document size. This one was about 1400mm wide x 900mm high. (You’re going to print this out BIG).
From here, use the ‘Text box’ tool to add in all your text as individual elements, then import your scanned drawings and go to work arranging these, being faithful to your paper mock-up.
Ok, it’s bit of a high-falooting word, but once I’ve got all the content loosely arranged I usually go about assigning a few type ‘styles’ so I can use sizing and bold etc. Creating this visual hierachy adds prominence and weight where it’s needed.
I’m usually thinking – “If someone’s only going to spend one minute looking at this, what do I want to be sure they’ll take in?”
… then assign extra weight to those elements. It’s not just a matter of making things bigger, sometimes giving more space around them can help with this.
It’s no coincidence that software toolkits have boxes, arrows, shapes and lines. This combo (and text of course) is all you really need, and doesn’t take long to get the hang of.
In this visual I’ve used boxes to say ‘these belong together’ some triangles for big arrow heads, and for the floor and walls I used the line tool where you just keep clicking corner points, then choose a colour for the ‘fill’.
After text and speech bubbles, (an oval and a triangle joined together) arrows are one of the hardest working tools in the box – particularly for non-linear artefacts like this one. They help guide the viewer around, and show the links and sequence of things.
Indesign or even much less sophisticated programmes will have an easy toolbox and menu of line and arrow types, thin ones, fat ones… Mix it up!
I keep things in black-white and greys as long as possible to make sure the message is getting across without colour, then go to Adobe Kuler to pick a palette of 3-5 colours, using some to add depth, and one or two for accents.
I recommend you call your local print shop, ask them how wide their roll is, and make this the shortest dimension of the printout.
A ‘wall sized’ visual (as opposed to individual A3 printouts) gets more eyeballs.
A poster provides a shared experience, get’s people out of their seat and generates the sort of response and conversation that matters to your project.
If you’ve read this far, you probably agree that ‘generating conversations that matter’ is a job text based reports all-too-often fail at.
So …pick up your pencil and start a conversation.
I’m off to New York with Better by Design, for a fresh take on being customer centred – shifting focus to a different type of customer…
The customer of design.
Prevalent models like Lean Startup, Design Thinking, Jobs To Be Done etc. all stress a primary need to understand the end user of the product. In fact, it’s hard to find a contemporary ’best practice’ example of design or product development which doesn’t include ‘getting out of the building’, ‘walking in their shoes’ or having ‘empathy’.
…But there’s little thought given to the customer of user centred design – the business decision-maker considering investing in the often unquantifiable value this approach will bring, and wanting assurance they’re doing the right thing by leading their team down this path.
Who’s walking in their shoes?
Where’s the empathy for them?
Being a coach with Better by Design certainly takes this direction, and joining 25 Kiwi CEOs on a tour of NY businesses offers a great opportunity to take a taste of my own medicine by getting closer to my own customers.
The businesses we’ll visit have all been built on or have adopted a customer centred approach, from mainstays like Ideo & Google, to more ‘recent’ arrivals IBM (who’ve hired hundreds of designers in the last year) and a bunch of more ‘Kiwi sized’ product and service companies.
At each business we’ll get a taste for their approach and hear how they believe they’ve applied it in their business, through staff culture, product attributes or the way they decide ‘what next?’.
Yes, a great set of case studies to learn from, but my interest lies in the response of the curious but yet-to-be-convinced CEO or Product Manager who’s perhaps too close to their product or has lost connection with their customers’ world.
What does a user centred approach look like to them?
I’ll be looking to see what resonates, what scares them, what raises eyebrows, or triggers an inhale through the teeth.
Plenty to learn, and as with all customer insights work, the answers to these questions lie beneath the surface and between the lines. So if you’re in New York in Late October, that’s where you’ll find me.
Two and three at a time, 25 diary study packs arrived back by courier – this time containing not just logbook and photos but a video camera – 300+ self-recorded clips from selected moments during the previous week.
I had no idea what to expect from the video, but very quickly began to wonder why I hadn’t done this before?
Yep, after watching the first few clips I had struck ethno-gold by using video-selfies in a diary study project.
Diary studies are great for capturing interactions with a product or service which play out over time. I’ve tended towards keeping things old-school with paper based diary studies followed by exit interviews and always been pleased with the results, but after adding video to the mix, it’ll be hard to look back from here.
What resulted was a raft of in-the-moment, rich and raw footage offering an intimate, personal perspective which unfolds beautifully over time. With clips from different times of day, contexts etc. you really get a feel for the way the person’s week went and feel somehow more connected to their mindset during each interaction or moment they documented.
Here’s how the project unfolded, and a few things I learned along the way:
We looked at a few options, with our main goal being to keep things as simple as possible for the participants capturing the data, and us wrangling it later.
We considered using their own phones, setting up video blogs, and even using managed services like www.watchmethink.com, but we needed to move fast and to have control over the technology and format, so opted for buying a fleet of cameras. No guesswork!.
We went for fairly basic and compact point-and-shoot cameras with HD video and of course stills too. Looking back it’s hard to think of a cleaner, simpler way to go about it.
We put together 25 identical packs, containing;
The last thing you want is a participant thinking twice whether the thing they think is important will be useful to you, so don’t be too prescriptive with your suggestions of which moments are worth capturing.
I had figured on filming a sample clip to give people an idea what I was looking for, but am glad I didn’t as our sample exercised their creative freedom to capture some surprising moments in ways and from contexts we never would have imagined.
We let our participants decide themselves which moments were important / relevant to them. This seemed a little ‘open to interpretation’ but paid off in spades as it revealed key differences between individuals – super relevant to our study.
Allow several hours for getting the cameras ready. (I completely underestimated this).
Next time I’d make this a two person production line – opening boxes and packaging, charging batteries, prying SD cards from impenetrable plastic shells, printing info sheets, numbering and assembling all the kits.
If you’re of the green persuasion, perhaps go plant a tree afterwards to get over the consumer guilt of dealing with all the packaging. Ok, better make that two trees actually.
Set up every camera the same, particularly the video capture resolution. This saves handling different image formats during editing.
Absolutely DO Run a pilot. Ask a friend or two to follow your instruction sheet to shoot a couple of clips. You’ll quickly discover where more information, (or less) is needed in your supporting material.
We put a sticker next to the lens with some very loose prompts to help our participants get to the ‘why?’. We did this after the pilot session and it worked a treat across the sample.
Include your contact details in each pack, on the camera if you can, so participants can let you know if something’s up. I’ve been contacted on every diary study I’ve done.
Also, a day or so after they’ve received the pack, call the participants to make sure they are in the groove with what’s expected of them. Keep this call short, a minute or two should do the trick.
I’ve found diary study data is pretty bland on it’s own and the real flavour of the individual comes through in the exit interview. Somehow the act of logging their actions raises participants awareness of their intentions and behaviours. While there may be some downside to this, I believe this ‘priming’ opens some doors in their mind, making for deeper and more valuable, access-all-areas exit interview conversations.
I like to think I’ve got a great bullshit detector, but hearing participants speak in retrospect about their behaviour during the week, and comparing that to the self footage was a good reminder that what people say they do and what they actually do can be very different. For this reason, be sure to watch some of the footage before the exit interview, and even better then watch it again without he participant. They might even surprise themselves.
How to handle and share all that footage?.
From the 300 or so short clips I weaved together a carefully edited highlight reel of a few dozen ‘moments’ from the video-selfies. When combined with snippets from the exit interviews, this offered a colourful and authentic ‘voice of the customer’ narrative as a ‘week in the life’ unfolded across many contexts.
I’ll definitely be doing this again, but welcome any other techniques for getting into people’s lives when it’s just not possible to be there in the moment. I know there are other ways to approach this, so please hit me with your top tips in the comments below…
Or go ahead and record a selfie?
…We’re all born with these essential three tools for user research.
The proportions are about right too. …until your eyes get busy looking at the notes you’re taking rather than observing behaviours and maintaining eye contact during the interview.
If you’re a solo researcher, electronic eyes and ears are useful too, but it’s a depressing reality that from one hour of interview footage there may only be a few minutes from the recording that are used to frame your insights later.
When you’re listening, thinking to yourself “this stuff she’s saying is total gold” the best case scenario is to be able to quickly find those nuggets when you’re back in the office… which is entirely possible if you take notes like this:
Capturing verbatim notes comes at the cost of having an only halfway natural conversation. This is why despite experimenting with many approaches and technologies, I keep coming back to using a smarten to take notes during fieldwork, or even usability testing products.
A smartpen lets me focus on the conversation, then just nip back to highlighted moments later. It records audio as you scribble, synchronising the audio to the marks you make on the page.
This frees my eyes to pick up on body language, expressions and mannerisms, and think about where the conversation is going … meanwhile, I’m highlighting key moments in the conversation, for quick and easy recall after the session. Having the exact wording wrapped in the tone of voice from the moment, at the tap of the pen is simply brilliant.
Knowing you’ve got full ‘recall’ from the pen means you can take notes as detailed or skimpy as you like, so over time I’ve adjusted my notes to the bare minimum. Most of what I write is written without looking at the page, except for a quick initial glance, so I’ve adopted a ‘shorthand’ note-taking format of keywords and symbols:
I scribble squiggly circles next to key words according to the ‘weight’ of the moment, in the moment. More circles means more emotion / intensity etc.
I might write down a short quote if I can do so without any interruption to the flow, but I’m much more likely to jot down a keyword or phrase as the person is talking, holding their gaze while drawing a star or squiggle etc.
In an ideal world I don’t take notes at all. I film the whole session and transcribe it while reviewing the video footage.
This allows total focus during the interview and is a great way to re-immerse in the moment, but it can be a painful trawl through the footage to pin-point those moments or killer quotes for an edited video.
So my new default is to get the smarten AND the video camera rolling at the same time.
As I’m going back to ‘tap and play’ my notes, I can read the time code from the little screen on the pen. Having this time code makes a total doddle out of pulling together a ‘highlights’ clip from acres of footage.
Best of all – knowing all the goodness is being captured and I can cherry-pick the best bits later means I’m able to relax during the interview and build real rapport with the person, and frees up my eyes to do their job.
At the end of an hour of interviewing, I might have 2 or max 3 sides of pretty scrawly notes on an A4 pad with a couple of dozen scribbly dots of different sizes, some underlined words, maybe some little sketches or doodles .. and it’s all time linked to audio.
Nobody could understand the notes but me… but it just so so rich with the audio accompaniment.
Weeks later you can go back and re-listen to a particular utterance at the drop-of-a-hat. Tap, listen, bingo…
I’m obviously sold on this, but would really love to hear…
How do you handle the dual task of note taking and interviewing when flying solo during in-home customer experience research?
Meanwhile, I’ve got my Two, Two and One… plus the smartpen.
The one I use is called a Livescribe , and in the 5 years I’ve been using them they’ve developed a raft of additional functionality, but I literally only use the pen to record and playback, but if anyone’s found a reason to use the extra wifi whizz-bang, I’m all ears.
How can a product team gain empathy for their customers and draw meaningful insights if they aren’t driven by their own curiosity?
I’ve been helping client teams to plan and conduct their own design research, ‘going ethno’ with small teams to meet and study their end users in context. Initially I had my reservations, (and many live on) but…
…it’s been a learning experience on both sides:
I generally encourage clients to ride shotgun with me during fieldwork. It’s an engaging way for them to meet their customers, get inside their heads and fall in love with their problems.
Increasingly these teams want a lasting version of design research goodness – learning how to do it for themselves – often as part of a broader move to a customer-centred mindset, and as a rule I’m all-for passing on my approach and techniques.
But where to start? I’m self-taught through running dozens of these projects without a scrap of training, or ever reading a book, so how should I go about passing this goodness on to my clients?
With a mild dose of impostor syndrome, I initially tried up-front ‘ethnography 101’ style coaching, role-playing, ‘primer’ exercises, guerilla research and even wrote ‘how-to’ field guides covering interview and recording techniques etc. – only to be disappointed.
So, why weren’t all these client teams as interested in their own customers as I was?
In search of a tutorial silver bullet and a way to get these clients into the right mindset, I’ve read, gifted, recommended, quoted and paraphrased from all four of these books for my clients:
These books are great fodder for the aspiring or even seasoned researcher, reminding you that what you do actually is ‘a thing’ …(and you can even call it ethnography) but having tried a few methods of ‘coaching’ I’m not convinced any amount of reading can move the needle on your clients’ curiosity-meter.
…in fact latent curiosity seems all-too-rare regardless how much permission and context you provide or how well you prepare teams upfront to ‘go ethno’.
Exposure to customer-world can ignite this desire to learn, but even well-intentioned members of a product team can fail to gain empathy with their customers or draw meaningful insights if they aren’t driven by their own desire to learn.
Yes, that glimmer of curiosity in your clients’ eye is worth more than all the ‘how to’ books ever published, and on these assignments, my goal is to bring that out in my client. Tossing the books aside, I’ve found it’s way simpler than I thought.
The glimmer of curiosity is a platform to build their skills on, and my response is to go with less ‘how to’ and more ‘let’s do’:
It seems all the tips, techniques, handbooks and best intentions aside, it seems real world experience sorts the ‘men from the boys’ in terms of building this desire to learn.
…But the changing and unpredictable nature of peoples’ behaviours and now knowing what you’re going to learn is addictive, and the curiosity and drive to dig deeper can spread by osmosis. So if you’re in a ‘coaching’ role, show them the rewards and they’ll want to make the investment in learning the skills.
So… what about you…?
How have you managed to up-skill your clients in user research?
Has this been deliberate, at their request, or a useful bi-product of attending your fieldwork?
The books I read and shared from were:
Interviewing users. Steve Portigal
Practical ethnography. Sam Ladner
Talking to humans. Giff Constable
Practical empathy. Indi Young
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.
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!