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?