Archive for the 'research' Category

Hey Interaction Designer! Are you a rocket scientist?

I was having dinner with some friends, we inevitably came across some pretty geeky topics: recursion, evolution and relativity were amongst them… To make it more interesting for me, I drew analogies to my work in my mind. The techniques that Turin, Darwin, and Einstein all used to help them arrived at their world-changing scientific discoveries and theories are the ones core to our Interaction Design work. Maybe “design is rocket science” after all? Well, I haven’t figured that out yet, everyday passes, I feel differently about it.

Turing and simplification

Turing, the father of computing, whose work led us to early computing theories like recursion and eventually led to progress in artificial intelligence, used the simplication method to design his Turing Machine studies.

When challenged with the question of can machines think, Turing devised the Turing machine experiment to answer this question. “Turing originally proposed the test in order to replace the emotionally charged and (for him) meaningless question “Can machines think?” with a more well-defined one. The advantage of the new question, he said, was that it ‘drew a fairly sharp line between the physical and intellectual capacities of a man.‘” (Turing on Wikipedia)

What can we learn from this?
Interaction Designers are often faced with trying to answer deeply complex problems. Like Turing, we have to rely on the method of simplification as a way of problem solving. When we are handed a problem, they are often accompanied by a lot of opinions, conjectures, solutions; we are handed documentations written by stakeholders, SMEs, and even customers themselves. We read and listen to all of them, and we have to distill all of that into a very simple problem definition in order to help everyone see clearly what really is the problem that we are trying to solve. My experience is that when we can do that well, we provide a clear vision for a product beyond the design work. And that is when we get to sit in on strategic level conversations. Thus, this ability can help us make huge changes in places we work.

Darwin lets his observation lead his scientific inquiries

Darwin, the father of modern science, began his scientific inquisitions with observation in the field. Like modern day designers and scientists, he spent time in the field. He attentively saw everything around him and let nature be in control of guiding him to answer questions and to raise questions he didn’t know to raise.

(From Wikipedia, “The voyage of the beagle”):

“The Beagle survey took five years, two-thirds of which Darwin spent on land. He carefully noted a rich variety of geological features, fossils. At intervals during the voyage he sent specimens to Cambridge together with letters about his findings, and these established his reputation as a naturalist. His extensive detailed notes showed his gift for theorising and formed the basis for his later work. The journal he originally wrote for his family, published as and living organisms, and methodically collected an enormous number of specimens, many of them new to science.The Voyage of the Beagle, summarises his findings and provides social, political and anthropological insights into the wide range of people he met, both native and colonial.

What can we learn from this?
In a business world, we are taught to focus on figuring out the problem and coming up with a solution with as little time as possible. Designers can find themselves in situations where their stakeholders and those who pay for their work do not appreciate observational research. It’s not just business people, I have even worked with people who are UX professionals who did not have that appreciation. When you are asked to find out questions to a fixed list of questions, you may be motivated to just do that. Well, don’t! That prevents you from doing great things. If Darwin had a preset of questions and only followed them, the world will be a different place today.

Noticing things while we are out in the field is probably one of the most important things a designer can do for his/her own work and for organizations that pay them.

Einstein went with his hunches

When Einstein was solving the relativity problem, he had a hunch about something – “the speed of light is constant”. While it was just a hunch, he was willing to let it lead him for a while on this scientific inquisition and see where it would take him. This flexibility in thinking ultimately led him to the theory of E=MC2 and his theories changed the world we live in.

“A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. That means it is not reached by conscious logical conclusions. But, thinking it through afterwards, you can always discover the reasons which have led you unconsciously to your guess and you will find a logical way to justify it. Intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.” (Via article: Einstein’s Discovery of Relativity by John Stachel)

“I soon learned to scent out what was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind.” (Via article: Holy Curiosity,

What can we learn from this?
Often, when we conduct user research we get these inexplicable hunches – be it some new inspiration, a new idea about the customer behavior you can’t quite articulate and have not enough evidence to back up, a design idea that is premature… If you pay attention to these hunches and let them pull you a bit in your research, they often help you form powerful inspirations at the end for solid design concepts.

Be flexible in the field and let your observations guide you instead of the list of questions your team came up with before you started the research. Because once a problem is better understood, the list of questions you started off with will no longer be relevant. Because as you observe and listen to your customers, they tell you things you didn’t even know to ask.

Simply, if you get a hunch about something, treat it like an information scent. Tirelessly pursue it. Pay attention to it and keep following your instincts. Keep inquiring about it. Notice it in the environment, in conversations, in artifacts, in the way people express their needs, desires and emotions… As you keep paying attention and letting yourself connect, this connection will eventually serve as the ground for your design. It will help you inspire others.

When I let myself do research this way, I come up with designs that have cores. Designs that don’t break. Once you put a core in your design, it is like the personality we develop as children; it’s not something people can easily change. When a design doesn’t have a core, it breaks easily when people question it or when they want to add things to it. The personality you develop as a child stays with you no matter how much you’ve been through, it’s genuine to you, it makes you you. A design that has a core will not be frankeisteined when it grows — all products grow, you can’t help that — but you, the designer can help it grow healthily and beautifully by first providing it a core.

I started to realized the powerfulness of hunches when I had an experience working with someone who doesn’t work this way. When I expressed my hunches, I was questioned, and when I couldn’t back up the fuzziness, I was discouraged to keep pursuing them. I couldn’t convince my team to give up the list of questions and let the evidence lead us. Well, due to my own inexperience, I thought maybe this other way is a more certain way, so I went with their method. Later on in the project, I realized that I should have pursued my hunches because though I managed to give the design as much integrity as possible by articulating the business and user needs to back up the concepts, the design had no core. I know now that it is something that will cause us problems later as the design grows. Certainly, that happened before we even got out of the concept phase and the concept phase dragged on and on.

In conclusion…
So, I didn’t answer the question if you are a rocket scientist or not. But you certainly can use the same scientific inquiry techniques as these great people:

  1. Simplify problem definitions: problems are complex, simplify them, your solution will follow in that course.
  2. Observe and follow scents: when you are out in the field, observe the environment, listen to what people say, follow the information scent they are trying to give you. Put your subjects in control of delivering you questions and answers. Trust them, they will lead you to find what you need to know, not a preset fixed list of questions.
  3. Follow your hunches: following your hunches will lead you to ask questions that helps you get to a good design. This allows you to give a core to your product, allowing it to grow elegantly.

Participate to Innovate – Marty Gage

I found Marty’s talk interesting because lately I’ve been thinking about how to conduct research in cultures where people do not like to be watched, particularly in work environments. That makes it difficult to do ethnography.

In that context, participatory design techniques can be great tools to create situations where a researcher can still observe behavior and language people use via artificially created contexts. Marty talks about one of these techniques that he has mastered.

He laid out his research method in a 4 part process:

  1. Prime
  2. Dream
  3. Embody
  4. Evaluate

1. Prime
Give participants a home work. Marty first interviews the business stakeholder and SMEs about the domain and what they want to accomplish with the design effort. From that, he preps photos and words along with instructions and a experience board to send to participants as homework. I’m going to try my best here to illustrate how those artifacts might look like, since Marty didn’t make his slides available yet.

words.gif pics.gif pic2.gif

In the homework, he asks the participants to write down the steps that they take to finish do a thing. Think about the feeling you want to have at each step and also pick a picture to represent that feeling. Draw a line through the middle of the poster board. Above the line, write down feelings you would like to have when completing that step. Below the line, describe feelings you would not like to have. Each of the participants are asked to do this before showing up to the study.


2. Dream
Once the participants get together. They are each asked to present their “experience map”. They each get to see how the others want the experience to look like. This is a great opportunity for the researcher to observe and listen. While the participants share their dreams, the collective aspiration serves as the dream foundation for the group.


3. Embody
Then, the group is asked to put together one experience map and summarize each step in the process to further define the ideal experience. They have to get consensus on the step, what the feeling they want is, and pick an artifact to represent that feeling. The observer can just watch them interact and learn how they made that final decision.

What does everyone have in common. What are some of the steps that are common in the group? What do they want to call them. What are some common pictures in those steps? What do they mean? The moderator helps the participants get to consensus. Through that process they embody the experience that vision.

4. Evaluate
Based on the study observation, the design team come up with concepts and go back to the participants to test the idea against the benchmark they came up with.

5. Convince
Look at the qualitative data quantitatively. After doing the same thing with many different groups, the researcher sums up the patterns found. Communicate the experiential model visually and pitch the concept to stakeholder.
Marty wrote an article on the topic on Boxes and Arrows.

Making research work – Todd Wilkens

Slides & what I got from it:

What is generative research, what makes good user research?
Generative research is good for generating insight and empathy within an organization

Features to Experience is like
Lab studies to Meaning

More qualitative and contextual work = more empathy

It’s NOT about listing what they need or said, it’s about what’s meaningful in their lives. Let’s say that again!

A little bit of empathy in the hands of a designer is hugely more powerful than listing what people need and the features we will offer them…

Case study: People and their possesions.
The magic of things: symbolism and meaning: Motivations (lead to) —> behaviors (establish) —> connections

Interesting stuff doesn’t make research successful, why does good research fail?

Because no one understands its value, its relevance or how to make of it.

Who create successful products?

YOU! You create successful products. Designers, developers, business analysts, customer service, product managrers, researchers, executive manager…. WHOLE ORGANIZATIONS MAKE SUCCESSFUL PRODUCTS

We help organizations make successful products


Throwing research data over the wall -> so little of it is documented and gets thrown over the wall…

Todd calls this the “research martyrdom”

Research has to be actionable and durable:

Actionable: designers should be able to know what to do with it, not the 10 recommendations, they know how to do their job.

Insights should have longevity beyond the research findings meeting. someone else learned something and then someone else goes out and learns the same thing again.


1. Integrate research and design
2. Improve communication


Do analysis with them there

If you can’t get them to do this with you, then the next best thing is to communicate:

research reports: where good insights go to DIE!
Wilken’s law “the effectiveness of research is inversely proportional to the thickness of the binding.

Good research deliverables:

  • Are clear and straight forward —> people can do something with it
  • Engage the audience —> how is this relevant to various audiences.
  • Tell the stories —> stories aren’t told in bulleted lists, we have to be good story tellers: connect with metaphors, values….


  • Insight meets empathy
  • From the persona behavior and motivations drove a lot of the design
  • Obstacles, given situations, triggers, highlight problems
  • Archetype is not stereotype, stereotype loses empathy

Show your ideas to users in the field, even in the mist of research:
Fidelity doesn’t matter, whatever you can do:

  • Comic book
  • Hifi
  • Lofi
  • Prototype a strategy
  • A box
  • A pitch
  • A scenario

Find ways to develop empathy

Example: Dan strapped a pound of rock to himself and walked around with it for 2 days to see how it feels to carry the insulin machines around when he was doing the charmr project.

Keynote: Adapting the path – by Jan Chipchase

Jan is my hero. He’s like the James Bond of user research and design. For the first time, I think it’d be pretty cool to be a bond girl ;D

All joking aside, Jan’s doing some really cool stuff, jet-setting around the world engaging in researching the way people live in emerging markets. His group is located in Japan, tracking technology trends along with human behavior. Answering questions like:

  • Who are you?
  • How can you prove it?
  • How do illiterate people communicate?
  • What do you carry where and why?

Seems like a random set of questions, but I guess Nokia would be interested in that. To answer these questions, he and his team engage in some international investigation in allies and homes. They get challenges like: “you have one month to design a phone for illiterate people.” Turns out delegation is a big deal in that situation, good thing people who do that often live within strong knitted social networks.

He is now involved in the study of the future of urban spaces. Which turns out, as expected, to be a huge, elaborate study involving 20 translators, months to prep, tons of local guides, other experts, creative team, street survey team, running 6 types of social gatherings…

Co-creation (participatory design) is also a big part of what they do. Watching people express themselves can be a great learning experience.

Observations are the most important part of field work. What do things around people tell you about their values, perceptions, and how they will interact with your stuff.

Local norms are telling. For example, in Thailand they sell fake braces, people wear them to show status = being able to afford dental care.

All of this adds up to having an informed opinion. It builds credibility.

Our international man of mystery offered some valuable advice to the young ones:

What’s worked:

  • Make your colleagues smarter: how can I do what I do to make you smarter?
  • Know who you are: what are you interested in? what are you not interest in? Communicate boundaries, use resources at your disposal, shit happens in the field.
  • Let go: we want to know so much about people, let people in control of helping you find out more about them.

Jan’s blog.