Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Design Research Conference 2010: Speed Talks, Don't Forget This!, and the Panel that Wasn't

Speed Talks
Five-minute speed talks were one feature of the conference. The concept was good -- an open invitation to submit a presentation with a panel of judges to select the best. The results were spotty; all of the presentations had good production values but about half of the topics were trivial (to me). Here are my notes on three of them:

"Adventure Research" - ask a not-entirely together homeless person to give you a tour of San Francisco. "What's All This Fluffy Stuff?" - there was a story wanting to be told but she didn't tell it. "Steampunks" - this is so 1980's; these are some nice ideas for furnishings but why do we have to be subjected to one person's fascination with another couple's fantasy life?

Speed talks that did pay off for me were Lawrence Swaider's presentation of a project to rebrand birth control -- how to package the message for teenage women today; Lorissa MacAllister on using cross-functional teams in healthcare design; and Arturo Pelayo's conjoined twin presentations: Design is Diplomacy.

Arturo was very rude in bundling two presentations into one, chewing up so much time that a later speed talk got bumped from the schedule. But I really liked his first segment where he challenged designers to answer for the social and environmental impacts of their work. The second part was a feel-good piece about empowering children to engage with their community.

The last useful speed talk was on Brains, Behavior and Design. It discussed patterns of irrationality that have implications for design -- for example, losses have more impact than gains; the present counts for more than the future. The project team designed a paper-based toolkit to help designers reframe a solution to better influence people to the desired decision. See BrainsBehaviorAndDesign.com for more information.

Don't Forget This!

We learned that Patricia Moore pioneered the use of disguise to directly experience the target population's reality (see video clip). And we were reminded about the book, "Black Like Me", another pioneering work in this vein.

We got the phrase "New York Verb" and some negotiation advice from Dominic Misino - find out as much as you can about the person; call them by the name they want you to use; find out what's important to them by asking them what they want; know your own bottom line and walk-away point; make them specifically promise, as in, "I promise I will do X, Y, Z".

Ikea Effect - if you do it yourself, you love it more. Heather Reavy called this out as a strategy for getting business buy-in for a design solution. Only rough things out enough that people can imagine possibilities. Big bulletin boards of sticky notes help to surface insights. Frame ideas in words. Balance a description of the feature / solution with evocations of values and aspiration. Leaving space to imagine possibilities gains advocates.

You can see videos of all (almost all?) of the conference presentations on Vimeo, click here for the list.

Earlier I posted some links about design research in China. This is the definitive article, to date: Consumerism in the Wild, Wild East.

The Panel that Wasn't

The ID conferences that I've attended in the past few years have usually concluded with panel discussions. This seems like a good idea and no-brainer to pull-off but usually there's something a little flat and artificial about them. There are generally some decent summary statements or reiterations of key positions but genuine conversations with sparks, ah-has! and gotchas! never really develop. A skillful moderator can bring some tricks to deflate talking heads and lessen the participants' sense of being the equivalent of performing seals - but what do you do when the selected moderator is a talking head himself?

My favorite tweet about this year's panel went something like this, "And now the panel finally gets to talk and ohhh, we're out of time!"

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Design Research Conference 2010: Day 2, part 2

The afternoon of the second day seemed to carry the most value for the attendees, based on the coffee break buzz. Three speakers focused on design research activities outside of the US - primarily projects in China, India and the African continent. Two of the three speakers talked about getting past cultural barriers and stereotypes. The third speaker gave a concrete framework for evaluating whether a design concept had a viable chance of making a positive impact on third-world conditions.

Cathy Huang: She caught our attention by asking the audience to mimic a monkey in the US, Japan, and China. Each culture has a uniquely different gesture to signal a monkey -- two hands scratching armpits, one hand scratching head, one hand shading eyes looking into distance. So if we can't communicate "monkey" effectively, what else might we get wrong if we try to design and market products and services for consumers in China?

Cathy tackled some typical symbols in Chinese culture: red = happy; shiny = rich or precious; big = royalty or power. A superficial understanding of how these symbols apply in Chinese society could suggest that big red cars will be popular. They're not. And less is not more. In China, a product has to physically express its functionality. A simple exterior suggests a useless item.

Instead, other more subtle values, derived from Chinese philosophy (Doctrine of the Golden Mean), drive Chinese preferences -- social conformity, avoiding attention or suspicion, concealing real wealth, absorbing influences, and utilitarianism.

These conservative values present a variety of problems for design research in China. For example, research results do not equal the real choice. In interviews, users praise one product but choose another for their take-away gift. Likewise popularity does not equal sales. Ikea is a popular destination but more for the experience of being in the store and for getting furniture specs than for shopping. After visiting Ikea, shoppers will have furniture made to order by higher-end craftspeople because the culture values furniture built to last.

Copying (absorbing influences) is a big driver. The Chinese economy and business structures reward results-driven behavior, making it more preferable for businesses to copy existing products rather than innovate. But simply copying or selling a successful model from Country A in China is not guaranteed unless the designer understands where Chinese values and opinion will differ from the consumers in Country A. But Chinese consumers may prefer a product or its copy for completely different reasons from other markets. Designers need to go beyond the intended usefulness of a product and understand the Chinese view of its value. For example, reduced water use was a key feature of a washing machine marketed in Japan and was the reason for its success there. But the exact same machine did not sell as well in China until other aspects about its washing capacity and versatility were highlighted. Functionality was more valuable than water conservation.

Anjali Kelkar: In her opinion, designers researching in foreign countries do not take enough time to empathize. "Why are we in such a tearing hurry? Is our need for rigor too rigid?" In a complex country like India a cultural quirk can become an "insight" when really it is just that, a quirk that does not mean much about the real problem or users under research.

To arrive at an effective level of empathy, her firm devotes a lot of time to pre-research in order to build relationships and get over assumptions. Before arriving onsite, Anjali holds "assumption breaker" sessions with her teams to get everything out in the open. It's a giant brain dump of sticky notes (everything you think or have heard or expect to experience about X) that the teams can re-visit and confirm, dismiss or elaborate on after their initial visits and during research.

She conducts pre-research visits to become familiar with people and their surroundings; including the domestic help. Then she asks her subjects to prepare self-documentation through photos or video. Meanwhile, the research team goes through remote and on-site immersion workshops to experience the culture and setting; revisiting their assumptions and refining their questions. They use the self-doc photos to conduct the research interviews. Interviews are just as likely to be on-the-fly, rather than scheduled. The researchers adapt to the rhythms and interruptions of daily life rather than force a pre-planned schedule. They include any domestic help in their research, if possible, since these are often the real users of home appliances instead of the person who made the purchase decision.

Flexibility is necessary. This means being able to redirect the entire hypothesis and purpose of the research depending on what comes to light during the pre-research visits. For example, one project began with a hypothesis that the economies of small villages could be improved by increasing the availability of repair shops and mechanics. Immediately, the pre-research visit to the area brought the response that what people there really needed was an improved delivery system for drinking water.

Some similar links: Googling Cathy Huang + China Bridge or googling Anjali Kelkar, produce lots of links to interviews and articles with, about, or by these women. But nothing comes up right now that is specifically along the lines of these two talks. So I've added two links here that amplify their themes; a paper from Kaizor on cultural differences in China and one on how ZIBA used cultural immersion in their Chinese design work for Lenovo.

Kevin Starr: I really liked this talk for the specific criteria Kevin shared with us. These criteria come from his work with the Rainer Arnhold Fellows. If you want to design a thing or a service to improve life for a portion of the one billion people living in poverty today, how do you know your idea has a chance of being effective?

One: Know your real mission. Can you state it as a verb + a target + an outcome in nine words or less?

Two: Measure the right thing. Get real numbers, think ahead and get a baseline, determine reasonable re-measurement intervals and sample the right size. Play the "best indicator" game. What one thing can you measure that would give you the best indication you are making a difference? For example, when subsistence farmers have excess produce to sell, they use the proceeds to eat more protein, educate their children, improve their housing, and have more festivals. These are possible measurements. Now consider microfinance. Repayment rates are measurable and certainly show if the investors succeeded but does that measurement say anything about the borrowers standard of living? In one case study, it was found that 25% were better off, 50% the same, and 25% worse off.

Three: Connect the behavior dots. If there was a change can you show that it was due to your project?

Look at the steps in the process that have to be right in order to get the desired result:

1. Identify a need the thing will satisfy
2. Verify there is a demand to satisfy that need
3. Follow a design process (see next paragraph)
4. Realize the thing (viable prototype)
5. Obtain manufacturing capacity
6. Identify / create a distribution channel
7. Establish a market (place and means to procure the thing)
8. Verify the usage behavior is aligned with the thing (will the use feel natural and easy/enjoyable compared to alternatives?)

Having a formal design process to follow increases the likelihood you will have taken the appropriate steps to cover the other points above and will have a plan for contingencies. A formal design process ensures that you have done / will do the necessary research into such things as the physical setting, the users and their customs, previous history of other efforts, ideas about markets and distribution, emerging technology, your competition, and have come up with adequate specifications.

He was scathing on some ventures that failed - the playground merry-go-round as water pump is too hard for kids to push and no fun. The use reverts back to women or animal power. The Life Straw. Does sucking water straight out of a river or pond through a filtered straw really solve everyday water needs, plus you have to replace them eventually. One laptop for every child. Duh...who needs this when you haven't got a school, or health care or food (and where's the money to keep it running?) Even the successful manual treadle pump was slow to start until they got the marketing right.

Next up: Speed talks, odds and ends, and the panel that wasn't.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Design Research Conferce 2010: Day 2

The second day of the conference had a much better sense of theme and structure than the first. The morning focus was on the use of technology in design research and the afternoon talks covered design research activities in Asia and developing countries. This post will cover the technology topics of the day.

Kim Erwin: Discussed how online tools were allowing design research to change. Traditional methods either put the user and researcher in the same time and place - interview/observation - or they separated the researcher from the user by time and place - surveys/logs collected from the user and analyzed via automation or in the researcher's office. Online tools now provide platforms where the user can do self-reporting at different times but the researcher comes to the same place where the user reports -- blogs, forums, narrative building sites. Online tools and platforms support expanded access, mobility, intimacy and collaboration. Kim presented three tools that her student team has been working with: Revelation, QualVu and Civicom.

Revelation allows the researcher to set up projects containing a variety of assignments that the user performs online at different times such as questionnaires, diaries, discussion forums, etc. The researcher can review user inputs and tag them for querying and comparison. QualVu is a tool that lets users create video diaries in their home or workspace. The researcher can access these videos and create accompanying text commentary that is stored with the video by QualVu. The researcher can also pull video clips together to create online reports and presentations. Civicom is a voice and text platform that lets researchers and users phone or text it in. Communication is pull or push, researchers can call users on a regular basis for planned information-gathering and users can text feedback whenever motivated.

Martha Cotten: When stakeholders are in corporate silos such as production, finance, public policy, risk management, etc. how do you get collaboration that is not accidental? Two tools that are good for bringing the team together: GuapoVideo and "Digital Binder". GuapoVideo is another video management tool that lets researchers upload video and then clip, tag, share and chat about it with other members of the research team. GuapoVideo keeps a running log of team inputs that everyone can see.

The "Digital Binder" is a new tool under development at gravitytank. Martha showed us a prototype. The goal is to produce an online version of a research project binder so that all artifacts (text, drawings, video, photos, voice, etc.) can be easily searched, sorted and shared by any team member or stakeholder.

Usman Haque: In an example of technology happening first and then seeking a need it can fill, Usman introduced us to his creation, Pachube . Pachube is a platform for aggregating sensor data. Anything that has a sensor or electronic monitoring device such as electricity meters, heating and cooling systems, etc. can be hooked into Pachube for public or private reporting or to manage buildings or systems to respond automatically to change. As people figure out what they can track and compare, they figure out ways to make use of the technology.

There is a lot of potential for using this information to influence voluntary desirable social behavior around energy consumption. In a example experiment, sensors were wired to plants and lamps in a network of homes. Excess use of your lamp could cause the network to kill someone else's plant. Since members of the network know which locations are the excess consumers, all members regulated their behavior to avoid killing plants. When the network included a lamp and plant at a trade show however, the anonymous show attendees kept the lamp switched on to the selfish, plant-killing setting.

Rob Tannen: This was an interesting discussion of things a designer has to consider about physical behavior when creating products. Because of the broad range of problems, this was not a how-to or what-to do kind of talk but just a series of example to provoke thinking and awareness. Rob suggested we think about a two-dimensional mapping as a starting point: scale & skill. Scale refers to the physical dimension (distance, weight) of the product and skill pertains the training required for use. Example, a cutting tool for gardening vs. a cutting tool for a surgeon.

There is a lack of vocabulary for qualitative ergonomic information so Rob proposed four categories where users can have difficulty or have unintended results: posture (standing or seated), reach (finger/hand, hand/arm, leg), clearance (amount of space to leave free above and around a thing; e.g, keys too close on a keyboard), and strength (minimum and maximum amount of force).

Charting physical space in buildings is important too. Where are people located, what are the flowlines along which they move? What are their lines of sight and the visual clues they look for? (see for inspiration, or entertainment, Synchronous Objects)

For more insights, Rob has a 48 minute presentation on ergonomics as well as additional articles at the Bressler Group and his blog on Fast Company.

Heather Reavey: This was a more general discussion of how designers can connect with their clients to get to breakthrough ideas. I will come back to those thoughts later, in this post, I want to stick with the technology theme. One thing that Heather called out was the problem with too-realistic prototypes. If it's too real, people immediately begin to focus on what's wrong, not what's possible or good. As cautionary tales, she reminded us of zombies, alien invaders, and the failure of a certain digitally animated film. She suggested we investigate Masahiro Mori's Uncanny Valley hypothesis.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Design Research Conference 2010: Day 1, part 2

Each day of the Design Reference Conference included five minute speed talks and Day One also included planned table topics for lunch but I will come back to those features in a separate post.

Meanwhile, the second half of Day One continued the grab-bag feel from the morning -- one of the two case studies, one of the two big-name thinkers with their POV, two presentations of a more practical "(how to/what to) (do/think)" flavor, a report from a large corporation design leader, and a "where should we be going" presentation from another design celebrity representing a friendly academic institution (the Rotman School).

Rick Robinson: Scheduled as the counterpoint or bookend to Don Norman, Rick was talk -- and theater -- gradually removing layers of t-shirts with slogans that matched the progression of his career from the University of Chicago to today.

He disagreed that technology is always the driver and design is about needs. He suggested that was an outdated way of thinking. He posited that we imagine a better way and then grapple with technology to get there. Perhaps, the design industry has been in a stuck phase for the past 20 years just executing approaches and pre-occupied with the search for needs. Maybe we should not be delivering insights like they were commodities. Maybe it should be more like design thinking which has a stance but not a methodology.

Design thinking just seeks to move from the concrete to the abstract and then make something new that is concrete. This requires a description and an interpretation towards an envisioned end within constraints -- with no specific steps, just broad frameworks. And you have to take some level of responsibility and ethical accountability. In the end, the final t-shirt read, "We don't know. Yet."

To get more of a feel of this talk, see Rick's essay on Uncertain Answers.

Allan Chochinov: This talk was more inspirational than instructional or informational. Allan's key phrase was: "I work with my ears." Meaning that careful listening to people is a primary source of insights. If an interviewee says, "Let me tell you what's really going on here," then you have it made.

Most of the time was spent showing examples of this principle through student projects that illustrated how one response to a question led to a new idea -- a new device for exploding landmines, a "hair" dressing kit for cancer patients, a better way to give career advice to high-school students, "stretch" buttons for people with artificial or arthritic arms, swimwear that compensated for missing or malformed limbs.

Additionally, he gave four primary questions used in any interview he conducts. "What is the biggest issue you have right now?" "What periodicals do you read?" "What questions have I neglected to ask you?" "Are there two other people you suggest I talk to?"

Erica Eden: This was maybe just silly, or at least naive to state that testosterone and estrogen can account for all the preferences men and women have for products. And naive to claim that rules about designing products can be boiled down to a few sure-fire characteristics that women will flock to. Cute, soft, childlike, simple, rounded-edges? Doesn't that sound a lot like major cultural preferences of the Japanese (Can you say, "Hello kitty?")

And maybe hormones have nothing to do with food containers. Maybe men and women like refrigerator containers with rounded-edges because they evoke a memory of growing up with Tupperware, or maybe it's just easier to grab those containers when the refrigerator is crowded. (I don't know. Yet.)

That was the main take-away from this talk -- that a designer can be very successful designing any type of product for these predictable, hormonal driven preferences women have and men will buy the stuff (cars, tools, electronics) too, if it isn't obviously girly-girl ("Don't shrink it and pink it.") But obviously, culture and physics have something, or a lot, to do with preferences and needs, too, and these influences were not acknowledged. Too bad.

I did love the hilarious bonus video from the Monday workshop: people reading Dear John/Jane letters to products or services they were "breaking up" with. It was a great, fun idea for getting people to surface issues.

Note: Fast Company presents a more balanced sense of Femme Den's mission.

Doug Look: Great introduction from "Up in the Air", portraying himself as "that Asian guy" in the airport security line. Design research is like air travel; there's pre-boarding, challenges, opportunities, and landing. Pre-boarding is the tools and methods; interviews, journals, clustering, etc. It's time to get over the fascination with these tools and get on with design.

Challenges -- Technology comes first, then we bring the "who" and "for why". Engineers need data. We bring and format data. We need to understand and work on different time scales and horizons to solve problems at multiple levels: 12-15 weeks, 12-18 months, 5-6 years. We must be strategic and pragmatic at the same time.

Opportunities -- found through research applied to markets. What's needed? Methods? No. What's needed is leadership and vision. Inspiring others, facilitating and making connections, empowering others. We must be committed to being integrative and not stay in our assigned silos. "Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form" - Nabokov.

Heather Fraser: Heather continued the emphasis on designers playing an integrative role between business silos. Design research is just a platform for doing the real work. The ultimate goal is to move to designing the business.

As the design practice matures, the capability to deliver sustained value increases so that the team's design focus can move from style to form & function, to problem-solving to creating or redefining a business entity/venture.

Three gears mesh together: Empathy and deep human understanding drive concept visualization which leads to business design. You need to engage people from all parts of the business. The first question to answer in design making is, "Who matters?" Answering that question helps everyone create a better design process (for the situation).

You need these elements:
  • Team Engagement (empathy & ownership),
  • Stakeholder Connections (be sure to map all the touchpoints and know who is really affected, it's more than an org chart),
  • Strategy Enhancement (pull all of the data together, quantitative and qualitative, be sure the strategy is in line with the data),
  • Enterprise Motivation (apply techniques and tools to get everybody on board with the new direction).

She illustrated these points through the redesign (physical space, patient care practices) of the cancer treatment department of Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. How did they get buy in? Nobody likes change, everybody likes progress.

Notes on Day 2 to follow...

Friday, May 14, 2010

Design Research Conference 2010: Day 1, part 1

Day One of the Design Reference Conference seemed a little disjointed. The majority of the schedule was skewed toward opinion or state of the industry talks by leading personalities with a few case studies and research how-to talks thrown in. Some of these felt more like advertisements for the presenter's design firm than real knowledge-sharing. In retrospect, I could have voted for throwing out some of the presentations in favor of giving more floor time to Don Norman and Rick Robinson.

But I generally collected something useful from each talk. Here's the run-down, in approximate order of presentation, broken into two parts (since there were a lot of presenters).

Don Norman: There are two kinds of innovation, incremental and radical. Design research and designers deal with incremental innovation to improve and find uses for existing technology. No major innovations came from design research. Radical innovation comes from technological inquiry and scientific discovery: ideas first, justification later. Technology --> Applications --> User Needs.

Design research <> new product categories. Design research shifts the market by finding a change in meaning for a product. For example, mechanical watches vs. digital watches. A traditional mechanical watch is equivalent with status, fine jewelery and craftsmanship; that market is small. The arrival of digital technology let the market shift the meaning of a watch to an everyday tool - but you still only needed one. Swatch changed the meaning to fashion creating a market of users who changed watches multiple times a day to match their mood or clothing.

But there is a fundamental (Design) Research - Product gap. Design research does not know how to produce product. Product producers (engineers, marketers) do not engage with/know what to do with design research. What's needed is a new specialization, Translational Engineering, which fills in the gap between the two to complete the communication flow. (Yep, that's what senior business analysts and tech leads/architects are supposed to do for software development projects.) The challenge for design firms is to figure out how to deliver that translational service and, by the way, do it faster and just good enough to keep things moving forward incrementally; it's not necessary to deliver perfection all at once. (Oh, I get it, agile product/service design.)

Gerald Lombardi: Discussed corporate pressure to deliver 80% of the value of ethnographic research for 60% of the cost in one-half the time. To satisfy such demands, you either have to increase workers, increase velocity (longer hours, faster pace), or change the process to de-skill each step. In all cases, wages on average will go down. But this approach implies inevitable failure to the corporation by narrowing the ability of the company to evolve and adapt. (For example, see Trapped in the Net, by Gene Rochlin and Corporate Failure by Design by Jonathan Klein.) The illusion of endless growth historically ends with societies that ultimately destroy their base. Lombardi challenges design firms to figure out how to set expectations so they can take more time and charge more for their work.

Eric Wilmot: argued for the "fail fast" approach to innovation and collaboration (another proponent of agile design). See the TED talk: How kindergartners think like lean start-ups.

He gave some other interesting numbers: 75% of new products fail, 85% of new service firms fail, 80% of corporations believe they are getting it right, 8% of customers agree. 50-90% of learning occurs through direct experience. So design firms and their clients should allow for experiential learnings to disrupt business paradigms.

Case Studies: There were two. Very similar in that each dealt with improving an existing product that aided people with physical disabilities: hearing aids (Ron Pierce) and braillers (Yanz, Patadia, Pulik) . Each presentation followed this pattern: background info about the problem --> we did research --> examples of problems to solve --> final solutions --> happy ending.

I preferred Ron Pierce's talk as it included more direct evidence of the research techniques (video clips of interviewees) and it tied the story to a persuasive concept he called 360 Degree research. By persuasive, I mean you could take this presentation to a prospective client and show them that they have to do user research throughout the product improvement cycle; you can't just do a little fact-finding at the start and then throw a problem over the wall for engineers to fix in one cycle (which happens a lot, at least in software development).

But others preferred the brailler presentation for its slick story flow, a definite feel-good piece that would be effective for fundraising. In hindsight, it would have been very cool if the conference organizers had set up a brailler comparison station at the event so we could play with the before and after machines but at least you can click here to check out the variety of Perkins braillers and see the difference.

Bill Lucas: This was the most fluff piece. I took very few notes. The presentation was a description the types of programs the LUMA Institute is evolving to introduce design research concepts to non-designers. He gave examples of workshops with corporate employees, college students, high-school students and a (his?) toddler at home. The message was that anyone can learn to identify a problem, think of ideas to solve it, and make a rough model of one or more of their ideas.

More about Day 1 to follow...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Don't Personify Me: Design Research Conference report

Every year in Chicago, the Institute of Design, the home of the New Bauhaus in America, hosts several spring and fall conferences. I have been attending most of them since about 2006. This year, the spring conference focus is on the future of Design Research.

Monday was a day of elective workshops with the formal conference happening on Tuesday and Wednesday. I decided to attend the workshop titled "Don't Personify Me: Evoking the User in Ideation".

Since my personal experience is "persona creation = big time waster", I was eager to sign up thinking the afternoon would involve a lot of useful discussion about how to talk employers and clients out of spending time on this technique. WRONG!

After the usual round of introductions, the moderaters quickly dealt with personnas by saying something like, "Knowing that Sammy G made XX salary, drove such-and-such car, had N children and liked to do Y in his spare time never helped me design anything." AMEN.

Creating personnas means spending a lot of busy work creating a fantasy removed from the real users which dilutes the value you got from the original design research and usually, inadvertently adds in your own biases.

There were about 25 design professionals from around the world in the audience and they didn't seem to have any problem with this point of view, so we moved on to talking about the real problem...keeping the design research findings available to the stakeholders.

Research findings may be statistical, representative (documents and forms), narrative (journals and interviews) or illustrative (photos and videos); the main challenge is finding ways to easily reference them throughout the project to get a reality check on decisions.

With that in mind, the workshop moved on to its sub-titled promise, "Evoking the User in Ideation". Ideation, or brainstorming, is simply, whatever you do to brainstorm possibilities with whomever you need to involve from your initial set of subjects, researchers and stakeholders. Note that the keyword is "possibilities". At this stage, all you want to do is list out anything that is possible as a problem, or a need, or a solution, or an opportunity. Evaluation happens later after you've allowed time to recycle through the possibilities for refinements.

So we formed into groups and thought about what we would do to structure an ideation session. In short, it was a very useful exercise in thinking about what you need to do to facilitate any successful learning/sharing meeting, very similar to things I learned in my TWU "Train-the-trainer" classes for developing course and lesson plans.

We talked about the natural sequence of such meetings and the five stages the facilitator had to plan for:

  • Preparation: Is there anything you want attendees to study or do before the event?

  • Entrance: When attendees arrive, what will you do to break the ice and kick off the session?

  • Engagement: What do you see the attendees doing during the session? What will you do to keep them involved in the proceedings?

  • Reflection: What will the participants do to review and digest the results?

  • Extension: How will the group handle unresolved issues? What will you do keep the connections alive?

  • For each of these phases, the facilitator should plan in advance what they might need to handle the situation: how do they want the participants to interact - formal seating or free-form movement? What activities do they need to assign and instruct? What tools, supplies, technology, and environment setup should be on hand? What challenges and issues might they have to confront? What follow-up might be needed?

    Saturday, April 24, 2010

    Why Open Source is good

    I'm reading The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson, PhD. On page 117 of the paperback there is a discussion about communities of interest and what makes for genuine science. Since computing is one of the sciences, I thought it the best short argument for Open Source one could make. Robinson quotes from Michael Polyani:

    "Scientists, freely making their own choice of problems and pursuing them in the light of their own personal judgement are in fact cooperating as members of a closely knit organization....Any attempt to organize the group...under a single authority would eliminate their independent initiatives and thus reduce their joint effectiveness to that of the single person directing them from the center. It would in effect, paralyze their cooperation."

    Tuesday, April 20, 2010

    My Bangalore Adventure, part 21: The Fabulous Intersection

    My last post described a mis-guided, but ultimately interesting walk in search of 80 Foot Road. I had just passed a neighborhood mosque and I kept thinking about the little map from the hotel guidebook. If the fork to 80 Foot Road was not coming up shortly, then I had already passed it though I couldn't see how that could be as there weren't any street signs saying such.

    Still, according to the map in my mind, if I had passed it, then I should be walking mostly parallel to 80 Foot Road and I should certainly be there if I turned right at the next large street.

    The lane I was on got narrower. I passed a small dark shop with live chickens in cages: were they selling meat or eggs? Maybe both. Next door was definitely about meat, a peice of fresh-that-morning lamb was hanging from a hook outside.

    Popular Mutton Stall by mpries

    There was a shoe & leather repair shop; a shop stacked full of old newspapers; a few other uncertain businesses; knife-sharpening, old metal, candy and soft drinks. The shopkeepers were invisible, nobody was on the street. Since the call to prayer had just ended, perhaps the entire area was Muslim.

    All the shop fronts were faded wood with peeling paint and wide-open doors or shutters -- not many windows, nothing shiny, nothing freshly painted. Just when I was thinking maybe this lane would dead end in a collection of trash heaps and ramshackle huts, it connected with a wider, busy street with cars and buses. 10th Main!

    Uncertainty turned into expectation. This looked promising. My little lane might have continued on the other side after a short jog around a sharp corner, or maybe not. It didn't matter. If I turned left, 10th Main would take me back toward 100 Foot Road which would be a straight shot home to the Diamond District.

    None of the storefronts here matched the nighttime scenery I had seen the last time we went to dinner on 80 Foot Road. And I still did not see that name on any street sign. I decided to turn right. I had faith in that hotel map. 80 Foot Road could be ahead of me, still parallel to me. Maybe it was just the next block down.

    Well no, it wasn't there. But walking along 10th Main was pretty good. Lots of activity, businesses, gated residential complexes, doctor's offices, restaurants. I walked and walked. No sign of 80 Foot Road. In the distance was a tall broadcast or electrical tower. It seemed to be located in a park or along a rail line and it seemed to be near a major traffic intersection. That was a good target for a destination. From there, I could decide what to do - retrace my steps or take that bigger road ahead toward Airport Road.

    On the left was a park with squatter's tents and a cricket grounds. I crossed a busy street. The electrical tower was further away than I thought. Oh well, it's not worth the effort. I turned right at the very next corner. Again I was on a small narrow dirt street, crowded with parked cars, empty carts and a few standing cows. Nothing was moving. The street got narrower the further I walked and turned more and more into something that looked like a country village. Then this little street ended. I was on an even narrower, dark dirt lane crowded in by two and three story wood and stucco apartment buildings. I could go left or right but straight ahead was a gate and a walkaway to a building.

    This building had a small sign that said Saint Somebody Home(John or Joseph?). This surprised me. I don't know why but I was always surprised by all of the evidence of Christianity thriving in India. It didn't really make sense to be surprised, after all, Americans and the British have been shipping missionaries to Asia for decades. Yet, I guess I never expected those efforts to have really caught on amongst all the competition.

    Briefly, I thought this was a home for priests or monks, or elderly believers. Later, I decided it might just be an apartment building that had been given a hopeful sounding name. I turned right so at least I would be heading back towards the Leela Palace and the Diamond District. After a few more buildings, the lane straightened out some and I could see it intersected with that busy street I had crossed a few minutes ago. I was zig-zagging from side-to-side down the lane trying to dodge puddles and cow flops in the dirt so I didn't see the features of the intersection until I was right there in the middle of it. The puddle I was avoiding had caused me to face left and I looked up from my feet.

    Two Religions Coexisting by mpries


    There, next to a lively yellow Hindu temple was a white church topped by golden crosses looking as European and as Catholic as could be. Through a glass window you could see Mary praying. It was a painted wooden statue but of a size and attitude as if you were looking in on a living person in their home. The Ave Maria Church. Again, I was surprised by Christianity in India. How did this come to be here? And who were the people who came to this church?

    And then, as if to utterly destroy that question, as I looked across the street, I saw a towering Hindu goddess, Ammavaru, three stories high in glorious color. Oh, my, a face-off between divine women. Or maybe they collaborated for universal harmony when no one was looking.

    Plus, if religion wasn't your thing, there was a shop behind me that was filled to the rafters with an undescribable rainbow of plastic exports from China -- toys, housewares, jewelery, flip-flops, etc. It was magical. Everything that was wild, wacky, unexpected, and contradictory about my Bangalore adventure was summed up in this accidental walk to this fabulous intersection.

    The Faboulus Intersection by mpries

    (Ironically, the Google map shows clearly that I was on 80 Foot Road all along and just turned the wrong way at 10th Main.)

    A few more adventures to come....

    Thursday, March 11, 2010

    Enterprises - Is too much experience a good thing?

    In a recent blog post, Innovation in the Enterprise, my friend Sumeet Moghe raised the question, "Is too much experience a good thing?" He speculates that "...increasing experience in a company eventually stifle[s] innovation".

    I agree the observation is valid; established enterprises are generally less innovative, relatively speaking, than start-ups. But is the general experience level of the employees to blame or is it a more complex question of the overall structure and culture of the enterprise?

    Inertia, the preference to not change, is a powerful driving force in people. If there are 14 reasons to do something and 1 reason not to do it, it generally won't get done. This is partly explained by a principle that Robert Cialdini talks about in his "Influence" book -- people are conditioned in early childhood to be wary of taking risks. They learn this from burning their hands, hitting their heads on or falling from tables, etc. So later in life, they are afraid to do something new, even if there is no risk involved.

    The desire to reduce complexity is another factor that drives people to inertia. Faced with too many choices, or choices where the outcomes are difficult to evaluate, people tend to make no choice and stick with the status quo or default option. (You can read more about this in Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein.)

    But there are many examples especially from music and art, that demonstrate that experience can deepen creativity. Consider the later symphonies by Mozart, Beethoven's late period string quartets, or the late works of Picasso, including that iconic sculpture in Chicago. On the other hand, certain studies indicate that some categories of creative thought, science and poetry for example, tend to peak early in life. Why?

    A Wall Street Journal article "Fleeting youth, Fading Creativity" takes a look at the field of academic science and, while citing many examples of young scientists who made breakthrough contributions, it also questions whether the structure of that industry discourages creativity in older scientists.

    That raises a related question. Does the industry tend toward those structures because older scientists have lost their creativity or does the industry structure drive the creativity out of scientists?

    But we are losing focus here. Sumeet's original question was about the nature of the enterprise. What causes an enterprise as a whole, as the sum of its people, to become less innovative over time? Even if the current staff is skewed toward younger people, as a company grows and acquires recognition, it tends to become less innovative.

    Another friend would attribute this to the "monkey-butt" theory. As a monkey climbs higher in the tree, its butt gets more exposed and he feels the need to cover it. As a company grows, it establishes layers and divisions of management to handle operations and external relationships. The layers and divisions process ideas up to a board or similar small body of decision-makers. Each layer or division is another monkey in the tree looking to avoid the embarassment of a bad move.

    Yet, in the field of applied science (consumer products) there are examples of enterprises that consistently innovated for long periods of their existence, usually driven by one or a few influential leaders who deliberately set up an innovating culture. One of these is 3M which for a long time had a "15 Percent Rule"; an employee was allowed to spend up to 15% of their paid time on independent projects of their own choosing. And another famous example is Xerox Parc.

    (Click here for a long video about creativity factors at Xerox Parc.)

    But those firms are outliers. Most organizations, it seems to me, reach such a size and position in their market that their primary objective becomes "defend the status quo".

    They have passed the start-up phase thanks to their "guaranteed product or process or method for success." Their brand grows and most operational resources get devoted to selling the "guaranteed product or process or method." This compells them to seek out and train employees who are excited to be associated with the "guaranteed product or process or method." A culture evolves that believes in and defends this one sure thing. Innovation loses momentum.

    A company can't break out of this dependency on the status quo unless it is willing to set up and fund independent internal ventures as 3M did. In effect, the enterprise must be willing to recognize and fund its own competition from within.

    Wednesday, March 10, 2010

    My Bangalore Adventure, part 20: Confined to the Neighborhood

    My Bangalore explorations ran into a wall after that weekend in Bannerghatta. the The preliminary outings and introductory classes of ThoughtWorks University (TWU) were over and the students and trainers alike were digging into the hard stuff.

    My week days generally ran like this:

    7:30-8:00: get to the Royal Orchid (a very nice hotel behind the Diamond District) around 7:30 for breakfast, class setup and the trainers’s morning huddle.
    9:00: start class.
    4:00-5:00: End class.
    5:30-6:00: Get to TW offices in time for after-class student presentations or student one-on-one coaching, or grading homework, or trainer meetings or preparing for the next day’s classes.
    9:00 approx.: Eat dinner.
    10:00-11:00: finish dinner and go back to work. Or sleep. Or maybe blog.

    Even Saturdays and Sundays would have TWU things going on.

    I’ve included a little chart of my hours before, during, and after TWU to illustrate. That big dip is a a week of vacation and traveling home before starting my next assignment in Chicago.

    Given such a schedule, there was little opportunity for getting out beyond the neighborhood. The only birding was along the drainage canal on the way to the Royal Orchid and I was seeing the same birds over and over. If I needed a little more greenery, there was a pretty good public garden down the road across from New Santhi Sagar. A big sign made me think the park’s name was Puravankara but after seeing that name in several places in Bangalore I figured out it was just the name of a real estate developer. The formal name of that park is Domlur SAARC Park.

    Puravankara Park Domlur by M Pries

    SAARC stands for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, a body that promotes socio-economic development. The second summit of the SAARC was held in 1986 in Bangalore and was the incentive for building out the golf course that is adjacent to the Diamond District and the Royal Orchid.

    You can probably figure out what I'm thinking; Puravankara probably developed and donated that little park down the road as public space in conjunction with various deals going on to showcase the area for the benefit of the golfing elite and visiting dignitaries.

    Besides that park, taking a walk now meant “going to get the basics” like shopping for groceries on 100 Foot Road or at Total Mall (where we had gone for McDonald’s). Or hunting down a book at Axis Books on the Inner Ring Road in Domlur. None of these destinations were much more than a mile from my apartment, so “taking a walk” also just meant doing the “same-old, same-old”.

    One Sunday I decided to get out and really do something different. We had gone to some very nice restaurants on 80 Foot Road that Rixt, another trainer, knew about. We always went there at night in rickshaws but it seemed fairly close, just a few turns down twisty streets and voila! ... dining and shopping sophistication appeared. I had a small paper map from a hotel tourist magazine and it looked like I could walk there in about 20 minutes.

    That little map suggested that 80 Foot Road branched directly off a street that joined Airport Road beside the Leela Palace Hotel. Easy! Let's do it!

    My walk started with an ordinary stroll along Airport Road, across the pedestrian bridge, and past the front gate of Leela Palace. I turned the corner onto Kodihalli Main Road, a broad shady street that borders the hotel. This section has some impressive homes across from the hotel and although narrower, reminded me of spots along 100 Foot Road. But after a few blocks, the street shrank and I fell victim to the mapmaker’s imagination, or was that misinformation?

    A pretty white mosque with green trim lay ahead near a fork in the road. According to my little map, the right-hand branch was the connection to 80 Ft. Road but to my eyes, it just looked like a crooked dirt alley running between houses. There were no obvious street signs to help me out. So I stayed to my left, on the side of the fork that went past the mosque. As I passed, it blasted my ears with a loud broadcast call to prayer.

    It was like a foghorn marking a ship’s passage into unknown waters. I had been sure I was headed for the trendy part of 80 Foot Road but soon it would seem I was on course, quickly, for some other place.... (to be continued)

    Thursday, February 11, 2010

    My Bangalore Adventure, part 19: Bannerghatta

    After the bus trip, arrival at Bannerghatta seemed a little abrupt, most likely because I had the mistaken idea the bus stop was associated to a hotel when really it stopped at a parking lot outside the formal zoo with a cafe pavilion across the way in the other direction. The lodge van was already there to pick me up.
    Bannerghatta morning hikers by MPries
    It was a about a 15 minute drive winding uphill into the forest. At two points, we glimpsed native deer browsing near the road or dashing into the brush. Then we passed a large lagoon complete with a night heron fishing for dinner and pulled into the lodge compound.

    After a gracious welcome and check-in, I had a little less than an hour to settle in before assembling with the other weekend guests for a whirlwind “safari” minibus tour of the large animal exhibits including a butterfly park.

    When I say "whirlwind" I really mean it. We took a drive that could have taken most of the day if you stopped at every scenic overlook and animal enclosure for twenty minutes of photography and/or bird-spotting. But, it only lasted about two hours. The driver only slowed down when the featured large animals were in easy sight; and since you were always aware that each area was carefully enclosed by moats and fencing, it was just like going to a zoo.

    Until we got to the butterfly park. Our short-changed time was paid back with 20 minutes at the butterfly park. Of course, since butterflies are things that can fly away, they aren't just loose in a park, you have to go inside a building to see them. But unlike a zoo where you are separated from the wildlife, in the butterfly park, the butterflies are fly freely about in a greenhouse garden and you can walk among them. They may even land on you. In such a setting, sheltered from the wind and with consistent lighting, if you have the right camera gear, you may have excellent photo opportunities. I was not so lucky that day but it didn't matter.

    Hunting Butterflies by MPriesWhat was more interesting to me was to learn in a conversation with one of the caretakers that the butterflies are merely to entertain people and maybe raise awareness and money for the zoo and environmental causes. Due to the risk of disease and parasites, no butterflies raised in this building are released back into the wild, instead wild butterflies or their eggs or caterpillars must be collected outside to maintain the stock in the garden.

    Even though I was a little sad to discover this twist on conservation, I really liked the butterfly park. The garden grounds surrounding the conservatory were just as lovely as going inside the building itself. And good for birding, too.

    The tour guides hustled us through the garden way too quickly, maybe because it was a weekend. I probably could have talked them into leaving me behind to visit the zoo and come back for me later but I didn't bother. I wanted to explore the lodge grounds which have a small hiking trail. And I wanted to get some quiet time outside with a good book before dinner.

    Actually, I didn't get so much quiet time. The lodge staff knew I was interested in birding because I had emailed about that when I made my reservation so while I was reading, someone came running to the restaurant pavilion to find me, “Quick! Come quick! A paradise flycatcher!” It was great!
    Asian Paradise Flycatcher by Koshyk, Creative Commons
    After that, there were other birds to show me, including some members of a threatened species, the white-naped tit that had built a nest under the office roof overhang.

    I ended up sitting at the park office for an hour or so talking with several of the staff about the birds and wildlife there, then there was dinner, a National Geographic video, and sitting around a campfire chatting (or zoning out) with the other guests. All of this was way much better than reading alone.

    The next morning, S. Karthikeyan (aka. Karthik) came to lead the advertised nature walk. He is their wildlife and birding expert and to my surprise, Chirdeep from ThoughtWorks was with him. Chirdeep explained that Karthik had told him the Sunday hike would probably be interesting because there was a serious birder visiting at the lodge and Chirdeep told Karthik that he bet he knew who that was.

    Since we were past migration season, there were not too many birds about but the ones sighted were excellent birds. And we got good looks at them. Probably the very best moment for me was being the first person to spot a pair of white-browed bulbuls. I didn’t know the name then but I knew I was looking at something really different from anything I had seen before. It’s a plain sort of bird but Karthik identified them and told me they are only found in these scrubby hill areas in southern India and Sri Lanka. We hiked for about three hours and I got 8 new birds for my list; too bad it couldn’t have gone on longer.

    In the end, I never got to the zoo but that little weekend of hiking and sitting in the open-air pavilion surrounded by nature becomes more and more one of my favorite times in Bangalore.

    Right now, if I knew that in about two hours I could be at Bannerghatta sitting on the mosquito-screened pavilion eating dal, some kind of chicken dish, and rotis with a big Kingfisher lager while twilight sets in and the evening birds and bats flit about, I’d be making arrangements in a hurry. It was the most relaxing weekend I had in my entire three months adventure in Bangalore.

    To be continued...