Category Archives: design research

Insights in Malmö

Our week in Malmö, Sweden for The Conference was filled with warmth, inspiration, and connection. I was honored to be part of the speaking lineup and look forward to returning. (Tickets sell out quickly every year, so I suggest signing up early for the next one.)

For the design research nerds, my talk, “From stories to action: Insights at scale” was about techniques for bringing together qualitative and quantitative research in order to make strategic product and business choices.

Research Snapshot

Sao Paulo street art

Today I am in São Paulo. It’s raining but the drought still looms.

Today we are launching a survey to Brazilian news readers. We are also interviewing a magazine editor at his office and two news readers in their homes, and then talking to five more news readers in a group research session. We’ll have lots of pão de queijo. We’ll be caffeinating.

International field work is exhausting in the moment but rewarding in hindsight. Sometimes it takes several days for the lessons to settle in. In a week we’ll look back on this day and know what we learned, but for now we are shaking off raindrops, eating cheesy bread, and just listening.

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.

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