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.