2014 in Review

Sunset over Central Park Reservoir

Before we get too far into 2015, I’m taking a moment to reflect back on 2014. A year that was cleanly bifurcated by west and east, it was a time of transition, as I moved from SF to my new home in NYC. I packed up my things and unpacked them again. I cleared out old art supplies and bought new ones. I scrutinized my book collection but ended up keeping almost all of them.

I taught and connected; with Whitney Hess and Irene Au I spoke on emotional intelligence and innovation. With Maria Molfino I built two workshops on procrastination and barriers to creative work. For SF Design Week I spoke about building habits for innovation. At Strata in Barcelona I spoke on data and design. As a change of pace, at Pinterest I taught two workshops on building lightbulb terrariums.

I said goodbye to IDEO and hello to the New York Times, where I’m helping to build an in-house incubator for new digital products. My first area of focus is on understanding and growing our global audience, and in four days I’m getting on a plane to lead fieldwork in Mexico City to explore the journalism landscape there. After five years as a consultant, it feels great to work in-house again and be embedded, in a way that’s rarely possible as an external collaborator. For a long time I’ve been interested in how organizations adapt and change, and my time at the NYT is an experiment in how design research can play a part in those transitions.

In 2014 I traveled and I ate, from deep dish pizza in Chicago to Arkansas breakfast sausage to Navajo Reservation fry bread to Hawaiian shave ice to the local beer on a breezy rooftop in Belize to lobster tacos by the ocean in San Diego. I ate Blue Bell ice cream every afternoon in a small town in Florida, interspersed with reading novels and learning how to play Canasta with dear friends. I snacked on tiny fried sardines in Barcelona and soupe à l’oignon every rainy day in Paris.

This year of exploration and movement was a good one, and I’m looking forward to the adventures that await in 2015.

Liminal Spaces

(Note: I wrote this back on July 19)

I’m typing in a yurt nestled in the San Luis valley in Colorado, hearing tiny drops of rain tap the canvas roof. I’m facing the Sangre de Cristo mountains, with my back to the San Juan mountains. At 8,000 feet of elevation, this high, flat valley seems like a place from another world.

We are driving a very long distance. We set out from California on July 10 and are planning on rolling into NYC on July 29, with many meanders along the way. Right now, I don’t live anywhere; I have no address, no job, no stuff other than a suitcase. In a few weeks, I’ll have a new home, a new job, and the boxes carrying my material life will show up in a large truck. For now, though, life is very simple; where are we driving today? Do we have enough ice in the cooler? Where should we stop for lunch? These small, simple decisions fill the days.

I woke up today with the word “liminal” echoing in my brain. I think it was triggered by this echoing valley, this in-between space. But I’m also in a liminal moment myself, as a new life opens ahead of me — soon, but not quite yet.

A month ago I said goodbye to my amazing friends at IDEO. It was not a simple decision to make. I’d been there for four years, and felt deeply connected to the work and the people. But I was feeling called, both by NYC, and also by the sense that after four years, it was time to graduate.

Over these transition weeks I’ve thought a lot about what it means to graduate. Last month I gave a talk as part of SF Design Week on habits for innovation — ways of seeing the world that allow you to see opportunities for creating new and useful products. But it was really about sharing the best advice that I’ve gotten over the past years, and the most profound shifts in thinking that I’ve experienced, mostly through my experience with IDEO. Essentially, it was the commencement speech for my own graduation.

Today I’m going to jump in the hot springs pool across the meadow, drink a little more tea, clamber up the Great Sand dunes, eat dinner in Santa Fe. Tomorrow we’re hopefully making it to Oklahoma. We’ll decide where to eat lunch, where to eat dinner, what little town to stop in for the night. Little choices, big choices.

It’s Simple, But Not Easy

(Day 5 of 5 Days, 5 Themes)

This week I re-read George Saunders’s graduation speech that he delivered at Syracuse University last year. If you haven’t read it yet, please just go do that now. It’s really lovely.

He spoke about the value of kindness: “It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

As a design principle that holds up pretty well. Try to be kinder. Design research can guide us by helping us see what problems people are having and where we can help.

This week I dove in deep with a set of fairly complex research methodologies. While I enjoy pushing the edges of where we can go as design researchers, on this last day of 5 Days, 5 Themes I wanted to end on a lighter, simpler note: to find new opportunities for design, just be kind. Pay attention to your customers, to your users, to people who could potentially be customers or users. Care about how people are experiencing the world, and notice where you can offer your services to make things better.

The skill of interviewing research participants, the primary arrow in the design researcher’s quiver, is grounded in these simple (but not easy) notions of being kind and paying attention. Start from there and keep going.

Read more:
For some thoughts on attention and research, read this article I wrote for UX Magazine a couple years ago:
Paying Attention: The Most Valuable Skill in UX Research

For a great in-depth exploration of building in-person research skills, read Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights by Steve Portigal

The Most Useful Ways That People are the Same: Better Segmentation

(Day 4 of 5 Days, 5 Themes)

Yesterday I wrote about how I used the Hybrid Insights approach to innovation research to uncover opportunities for the OpenIDEO platform to grow its user engagement. In that essay, I focused on a key finding about revealing the potential for fostering in-person connections among the OpenIDEO community.

In this case, the opportunity for delivering a useful innovation was relatively clear-cut; we learned that most people in the OI community were already connecting in-person to some extent, and once the OpenIDEO team became aware of this, they were able to build on the pre-existing behavior through hosting more meetups and other organized activities.

The community united around a desire to meet each other more often in-person, rather than just online. But in other ways, we could see some significant differences emerging. We saw very different patterns of behavior on the site based on usage data, and knew from user interviews that some people were using the platform as a way to lightly experiment with design thinking, while others were much more deeply involved.

When I’m seeking to uncover useful patterns in a population, I often turn to a segmentation approach. What this means is that I figure out what types of differences and similarities are the most meaningful for the design problem at hand, and use those distinctions to carve up one big group of people into, say, four or five smaller groups who each share a set of similarities. (I will be using the terms groups and segments pretty interchangeably here; bear with me.)

At this point I could have just divided everyone up into groups based on, say, age, or gender, or where they lived. It would have been easy, and would have felt nicely familiar. How often do you hear about “18-34 year old males,” for example? The problem with that approach is that it’s really hard to design for groups like that, since just knowing some basic demographic characteristics about someone doesn’t tell you what their real needs are. You are unlikely to discover something new or feel inspired to create a really novel new offering if you’re just designing for “young people” or “suburban moms” or whatever.

A more useful way to think about groups is: what are the behaviors, needs, or attitudes that unite and divide the population? Knowing what people are doing and needing helps us know how to design for them.

Since we learned through our initial interviews with community members that the impact they wanted to see from the experience was likely to be an important point of difference in terms of how they were using the site, we started from there. People’s attitudes about impact would then serve as the way to determine these groupings.

Here’s how we did it. In a survey that went out to the entire community, we asked “Looking forward, what do you most hope to see from OpenIDEO?” and provided sets of statements that respondents prioritized. (For the the true research nerds out there, we used maximum difference scaling to infer overall prioritization.)

I go into much more depth here, but the short version of the story is that we used a statistical method called two-step cluster analysis to understand how people formed segments based on how they prioritized these statements about what kind of impact they wanted. To make sure that these segments were meaningful, like that they made sense and were different enough to inspire good design, we crossed different types of data — from both the survey and from the registered site actions — against the segments. We then had four groups that we called Browser, Thinker, Maker, and Broadcaster, based on what we knew about what they were doing and what they wanted.

For example, for the Broadcaster segment, we knew that they were motivated by building a global community, and that they prioritized spreading ideas, but they were less likely to submit their own concepts than other segments were, and their primary form of engagement on the site was through “applauding” (the OpenIDEO form of “liking” something). As designers, we could look at this set of characteristics and ask ourselves: “How might we help Broadcasters start meaningful conversations on the platform?” Now we’re at a point where we can really start designing something valuable for this set of users.

This is what I find the most inspiring about approaching research with a human-centered and data-friendly set of tools: we can both support people in ways that matter to them and at the same time have confidence that what we’ve learned is significant across a wider population. By exploring the relevant similarities and differences in our sample, our offerings can be both more inspired and more relevant.