Mixed Methods

By Aryel Cianflone

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A podcast interested in the how's and why's of user experience research. Through interviews with industry experts and hands-on trial and error, we indulge and celebrate curiosity. Expect to test assumptions, examine methods, and engage in some old fashion experiments.

Episode Date
How to Work Internationally - Jan Chipchase, Studio D

Jan Chipchase has done it all. Before leading the global research practice at frog, the well-known design & innovation consultancy, Jan was a Principal Scientist at Nokia. He specialized in entry level products and his work caught the attention of a writer for the NY Times magazine. He became the center piece for an article titled, Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty? Jan was working on a product at the time that collectively sold over a billion units. He now runs a consultancy, Studio D Radiodurans, a luggage brand, SDR traveller, events all over the world and is the author of the popular, Field Study Handbook.

Click here for more details about upcoming masterclasses and retreats Jan is putting on in 2018 or to learn more about the Field Study Template Kit.

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Feb 15, 2018
Outside the Lab - Emily Goligoski, The Membership Puzzle Project

After studying journalism in college, Emily Goligoski began exploring less traditional paths that would allow her to merge her love of journalism with her love of human factors. A few years and a master's degree later, Emily found herself working as a design researcher at the NYTimes. In 2015, she became the first researcher to go into the newsrooms, helping reporters better understand topics ranging from archiving to readers’ need during breaking news events. Last year she moved on to The Membership Puzzle Project, a NYU and De Correspondent collaboration exploring sustainable paths forward for public service news organizations. In this episode, we discuss Emily's work, the new methods she's experimenting with, presentation formats, and so much more. Here are a few examples of what Emily has been up to:

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Jan 25, 2018
Combining Qual & Quant - Jeff Sauro, MeasuringU

Jeff Sauro has had an amazing career. In addition to having a PhD in educational statistics and research methods, he’s worked at GE, Intuit, and Oracle. Jeff is probably best known though for his work at MeasuringU, the quantitative research firm he founded in 2004. As it says on their about page, they focus on “the statistical analysis of human behavior and quantifying the user experience.” When it comes to qual/quant research, Jeff is a leading voice in the community and in this episode we discuss what motivated this approach and speak a bit about how UX researchers could begin to incorporate this type of thinking into their practice, including How To Make Personas More Scientific

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References from episode:

Jan 11, 2018
The True Value of UX Research - Matt Gallivan, Airbnb

Matt Gallivan has had an amazing career in research. From the redesign of NPR's website to Facebook ads, Matt has worked on amazing projects as an individual contributor and as a manager. For the last three years, he’s been at Airbnb and is now responsible for a team of researchers working on the Host side. This experience has given Matt a unique perspective on the role and value UX researchers bring to a product organization.

Check out Matt's article on the true value of UX research here.

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Nov 30, 2017
Mental Models - Indi Young, Co-Founder of Adaptive Path & Independent Researcher

Indi Young has been doing UX research since before it was a thing. With over 25 years of experience in various consulting roles, Indi is a wealth of knowledge and good stories. Not only about co-founding the well-known consultancy and UX think tank, Adaptive Path, but also the conception of mental model diagrams. She has now written two books about this method, Mental Models and Practical Empathy. Check out indiyoung.com for more resources about how to make your own mental model diagram. Enjoy the episode!

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Nov 16, 2017
Career Transitions (Grad School Pt. 2) - Sara Cambridge, Google

Sara Cambridge has had a long and interesting career. After working as a graphic designer for about 14 years, Sara decided she was ready for a change. Not to give too much away, but Sara is now working as a UX researcher at Google. This episode is about how she made the transition from designer to UX researcher and the crucial role grad school played.

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Nov 02, 2017
Building Rapport - Michael Margolis, GV

Michael Margolis is a pioneer in the field of UX research. After studying anthropology at Stanford University, Michael began applying his social science degree in an unusual way for the early 90s, redesigning products with a customer centric view. He's worked at The Learning Company, EA, Walmart.com, and Google. In 2010, he was asked to join GV's design studio as the first, and only, UX researcher working for a VC firm. Michael is known in the industry for his exceptional interviewing skills.

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Oct 19, 2017
Impact That Matters - Dan Perkel, IDEO
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After getting a PhD from UC Berkeley, Dan Perkel went to work at the world-renowned design company, IDEO. He started as a design researcher, and is now responsible for co-leading the design research discipline for the San Francisco office. In this episode, Dan discusses what impact means to him, and how he's seen it over his career.

Transcript (Unedited)

Dan Perkel: So my name is Dan Perkel. I'm a design researcher her at IDEO. I've been here for five years. I immediately beforehand was doing a PhD at UC Berkeley in the School of Information where I was really exploring the anthropology and sociology of technology and media. So that was my focus there, and that's not even a focus yet, but as academic careers. It's a broad focus, but I feel like ever since I was a kid, or at least an undergrad many years ago, I kind of had these twin sides. I was interested in liberal arts and technology and that defined my undergraduate major was something called science and technology studies, which at the time was a very small. Now it's quite big, and I worked as a designer and did some work in client services before doing a master's degree, and in the course of doing a master's degree in which was really focusing on design and human computer interaction design at the time, I got more and more drawn to research as part of the design process.

So then I was fortunate enough to get a chance to try my hand out at getting a PhD and the academic route, and realized that I wanted to go back out into the world and make things, and put research into the service of design. So I guess that's the ... I don't know if that's the short introduction or the long introduction [inaudible 00:02:44].

AryelCianflone: Yeah, I would love to hear a little bit more. You just said you do have this very rich background in academia, and now you're obviously working at IDEO. You've been here for a number of years. What inspired that change? You mentioned wanting to get your hands dirty a little bit, but what inspired that and what kind of keeps you on this side?

Dan Perkel: Yeah, that's a great question, and it's one that people are defintely trying to explore when they're starting a career. I think for me it was a couple of those core values that we have here, and one is the ability to collaborate with others on everything, and I found that when I was doing a degree, grad students were collaborating all the time and we were talking all the time, but we were never really helping each other solve each other's problems. There was almost a disincentive to do that as much as we were trying to help each other, and I found that for me that this didn't feel right. It wasn't as productive. Looking back I do wonder if we had all helped each other write our dissertations if we could have actually all finished in half the amount of time just by putting multiple brains on one problem. 

So that's one. I want to be able to really collaborate, and the other I think having your work be more than an article that sits behind a pay wall somewhere.  I know that as you get more and more senior in your career, certainly the ability to be a public intellectual and to write publicly and to have more folks see what you do. That's great, and that's certainly a great way to get your voice into the world. I wanted to help make things and so being out in the world where I could make things and not just write things was really important to me.

One of those things I don't think I realized when I started a PhD but certainly by the time I was done, that's kind of where my head was at.

AryelCianflone: Yeah, I mean I think even this year I had the opportunity to attend Kai, and it was my first time. It was amazing. There's just such thought leadership there right in the space. You really can't find another space exactly like that, but I think what you've just described is something that I noticed there because as someone who has really been in industry more it's like for me, "Oh I learned something I should write an article about it," or "I should share it or talk about it," but there it was like this amazing discovery, and I was like, "Well how can I read that article?" It was, you had to be a member of this and you had to log in and you had to get past that pay wall.

Dan Perkel: Yeah, I think it's true of academia in general. I think there's some good to being protected. You want to be able to explore longterm research for research's sake at times, and you don't want that pressure of making it all commercially viable and successful. That's the really important part of what happens in academia, but it's good to be able to find ways to translate that over.

In my research practice here and our design practice here, I really believe in harnessing the power of experts. So as much as I can I really try to get folks from academia either into our project spaces, or we do great interviews and we're consistently impaired by that work, and so that's one way that I've tried to make sure to bridge the two sides in the work that we do.

AryelCianflone: Yeah, totally. So I loved what you said, you were kind of talking about that decision to move from one space to the other, and being able to actually make things and in my mind I think have tangible impact that you can see in front of you as opposed to something that's a little bit more difficult to know the value of the work that you're doing. That's something that I've been thinking about a lot because this is a newer space, and I think in a way we're still really looking for those examples of high impact to be inspired and also to give researchers more confidence in the work that they're doing. That was part of the reason that I wanted to have this conversation was to hear from someone like you who's had an opportunity to work on some amazing projects and really see the impact of your work.

So yeah I would love to hear a story that comes to mind for you when you think of the impact of design research.

Dan Perkel: Yeah, that's a great question, and I'll say that what's interesting about the work that we do here, as opposed as to folks who are sitting actually in a product company is that we're ... it always works in like layers of impact. We're working for clients who themselves are trying to impact the world, and we're trying to either impact them at the organizational level or actually touch their actual products that are going out. So as you know there are only a certain number of details that I can share about most of that work, but I think one story that kind of comes to mind off the bat is we were doing some work with an organization that is trying to help older adults. Help them during times of crisis, and as they learn to manage their lives as they get older and older. Our system right now, especially in the United States is fraught with difficulties. It forces people to really manage a lot on their own, and they knew there was a problem and they went into government services and went into different organizations and try to see how people were trying to string all these things together on their own, and they said, "That's an opportunity for us to make a difference in people's lives. Help them connect all the dots between organizations."

So they came to work with us. So they came in with a hypothesis about what the solution would be, and what's really fun for us is that over the course of ten weeks we got to iterate with design and research going back and forth, and changing the way they thought about the problem in a way. A few things that we did, we spent several weeks over time hanging out in the community center, targeted around older adults. That was, the actual center I wish I could say more about who it was, but it's a wonderful group. It's oriented around this is a club. This is not an old-age home, and people come and they visit, but there's also social services that are incredible. So they're providing all these services, and they were so excited to have us work with them.

So we did things like participate socially. We attended Zumba classes, and in the course of these Zumba classes it was like, "Yeah, this is where people are being social and being active, and look at the things that these folks can do." So much of older adulthood is defined by what folks can't do, and so that was really important to see and feel and experience first hand, but also on the social services side, we attended a class on Alzheimer's and dementia was intended for caregivers of some of the older adults who are experiencing these for the first time. We, one experienced what it meant to be in that kind of class. We then listened to the questions that people were asking, and realized some of the key pain points around the problems that our clients were wanting to solve weren't really about helping older adults per se. It was, but it was really helping those caregivers. Those people who never necessarily defined themselves as a caregiver, or still didn't, but they were sort of thrust in this role by something.

AryelCianflone: By giving care.

Dan Perkel: Yeah, thrust by something that happened in their lives, and we realized first of all in terms of who we should be helping. The opportunity to help caregivers, and there was a person in that organization who defined it as the accidental caregiver. Kind of riffing on the old book and movie, "The Accidental Tourist." I think that was a very funny phrase that we learned from this person. 

So that was one shift as we shifted who we were really trying to design for, and one is really focusing on the caregiver. Another is that by having our clients along for this journey, they came to us in a moment. I remember we were sitting having lunch after a few different design sessions and research sessions. They said, "I think we've been thinking about this problem all wrong," and he made a drawing of, "Here's how we've been thinking about the problem," and he basically flipped it upside down and said, "This is what I think the solution is." Honestly our team had been seeing it in the same way, but we hadn't told him this, and for us it's always incredibly important and meaningful when we have clients along with us and they see firsthand and experience this stuff, and they help us synthesize and [inaudible 00:10:40] conclusions. Then it's like, "Oh yeah."

That's the impact by being out with us doing this kind of research and participating in research and design with us. It was able to flip that problem with something that I think is ... that is something at that moment I was like, "This is great. This is exactly what we want." So that's a moment of impact there, just on the way our clients are starting to see the problem.

With any luck the work we've done is hopefully on the road to being out in the world in some capacity. I can't say too much about it from that sense, but at least we know right away the way our clients even see the problem they were trying to solve is completely different and hopefully more human-centered than what it was before.

AryelCianflone: Yeah so I love that call out. I would love to hear a little bit more for you, because you're saying, "I'm not sure exactly from this work that we did what translated." What's going to be out in the world and when. So for you when you're working on a project, at the end of the project what makes you feel like, "Oh yeah that was great. We were successful," versus, "Oh man maybe we should tweak how we're doing that going forward," or something.

Dan Perkel: Yeah that's a great question, and I think just to go back to ... One of the things that's really important for us in our process is that one is internally we're incredibly collaborative. We believe that we need all these different perspectives on research to be useful for design, and that includes working with our clients. We know we're being successful when we realize our clients are actually going out and changing the way they do things even before we leave, or the way they have the conversations with their colleagues or with their managers, or when we get ready for a final presentation and we say something like, "We would love for you to lead the work," and they say, "Oh absolutely," and they are incredibly comfortable and confident. They really learn something from the shared experience.

That's one way we just know that there is something going on fundamentally that's going to change. When our projects end, our relationships don't end, so we kind of see how things are progressing and where they're going. We often reengage. With the project I just mentioned, we know there are positive steps being made forward since that project, so we were like, you know we've been helping out so we're excited to see things that have been tested out in the world and potentially going out.

Yeah, have I answered your question?

AryelCianflone: Yeah, and I think as someone on the outside looking in, IDEO is such a thought leader in this space. Like when you say human-centered design, I first learned of human-centered design through IDEO. Through reading different publications and different things that you guys had put out, and when you talk about that story, for me that totally resonates, and I've had similar experiences and I defintely think when you're talking bringing the client along for the ride. It's like I can make the most delicious meal in the world, but if I can't get anyone to eat it what's the value? As a researcher sometimes you spend so much care and love on a project, but if you don't bring those people along, if you don't get them to sit down at the dinner table it's like, "What's the point."

I would love just hearing that story, something that comes to mind for me or something that I would love to get your perspective on is how do you ... you talked about your perspective being switched to the caregiver. I'm curious when do you feel confident in a finding? When you're going through a project like this with a client, is it when the light bulb goes off for them, or are you at a certain point like, "Oh I've heard this five times. This is something that feels really important."

Dan Perkel: Yeah, that's a great question, and one I know that as a researcher you're kind of always like asking that.

AryelCianflone: Asking yourself.

Dan Perkel: "How confident are we," and I guess it operates at a few different levels.

So first there is the research finding or something that we hear, and yes absolutely patterns. You start to hear the same thing, and especially when you hear similar things from people who you've intentionally recruited to be different from one another, then you're like, "We're on to something interesting there." That's one moment.

We're also defined in a way by our constraints, so when we have a certain amount of time to work on a problem, we don't get the luxury of saying, "Oh I'm going to go back and learn more." We have to sometimes put design on paper. We try to present a breadth of possibilities. One of the things about doing research in service of design is that design naturally should our options should be different. It shouldn't be, especially early on, three variations of one little thing. We could go in this direction like A, and here I'm moving my hands around kind of wildly in the space, but could go A. Could go B, and those should look very different, and then we work out with our clients.

Based on these insights it could lead us in these two different directions and so which kind of makes more sense. It feels like the richer opportunities which are more testable in future rounds of research. Which are you more inspired by? What's the kinds of things you want to be doing? So sometimes it isn't always about having 100 percent confidence in a particular insight, but it's about having a lot of confidence that you presented an array of possibilities that are really exciting and where this company or organization could move their products or move their design or move their, in the case of other things that we do, move whatever it is we're trying to design forward in a really powerful way.

So it's a little bit different than maybe just typical research and getting findings that you're confident in. Certainly we do a lot of validation research as well where we try to go back and test things out and put things back out there. Sometimes we try to quantify those things. Sometimes we don't. It really depends on the questions that we're asking and what kind of confidence is needed from any particular problem.

AryelCianflone: And I think that's such a great call out because it's something that I see pretty regularly as there can be that tension between well we want to do a lot of research. We want to explore. We want to live in this ambiguous space, but then you get to a point where you have to make a decision and you have to move forward. So I think that's such a great call out. You can do research up to a certain point, and then you have to move forward to the next stage of research and keep moving forward. It can't just be like this forever exploration.

Dan Perkel: Yeah, yeah I think that's what our work is about.

AryelCianflone: Well and something else that you mentioned was even sometimes recruiting people for the extremes, and I think that that's something that's really interesting within the idea of philosophy is kind of like going to those extremes and trying to be flexible. Kind of in that exploration and I was wondering if maybe you have a story around the extremes and kind of trying to look into those.

Dan Perkel: Plenty of stories come to mind. That's the kind of bread and butter of almost all the work we do which is recruiting for extremes. I'll say, so there was a project that we did that involved working with a technology company who was trying to understand media in the home in southeast Asia regionally. That's a huge swath of space. We had to focus somewhere, so we ended up doing some work in Indonesia and in the Philippines, and even there that could be, we could be there for years like most anthropologists are when they study these places. They're just there for the rest of their lives trying to learn.

Here we had to decide which dimensions were going to be really important for us to learn from. Which behaviors, which things. We really spent a lot of time thinking about household composition. A particular kind of extreme like looking at people who are starting to model their lives more on a western style. Maybe smaller family own home versus folks who are living multi generationally. Many families under one roof, or people who are doing these incredibly long commutes which might have them staying in a city for a few days, and then coming back to a home.

So those kinds of extremes as one dimension, and we had other dimensions as well around lifestyle and other patterns of other behavior, but even just that one on household composition and who's living with you when suddenly opened up our eyes to whole new opportunities. Looking at technology in the home and media in the home in ways that we hadn't really anticipated when we went in.

So there's an example of how looking at extremes can be particularly powerful.

AryelCianflone: Yeah, how did you decide to focus on that? In terms of the dimensions that you were going to look at, and then you decided households. Was it probably a collaboration with the client. I would love to hear about that.

Dan Perkel: Yeah, there is a collaboration with the client. There is our team, so this where we're kind of gut-checking each other. We don't, even though I'm ... and on that project I was the design researcher, and my job was to kind of guide and help our team see this [inaudible 00:20:15] experience. We'll get in a room at the beginning as a whole team and with our clients when they're there and say, "What are all the things that might matter here?"

So what are all the things that might matter for our design outcome. What are all the things that might be really inspiring to a design outcome. We might put those all on, like you saw our phone core and all our Post-It notes, we'll map those out in relation to the research questions and the designs questions that we have, and go for the ones that we feel are the most promising. In a way almost like any research especially when you're in a more exploratory mindset, you just go with whatever feels right.

The other thing I would say for me personally is that having an academic background as well I've been informed a lot of by theory which we don't talk about too much in a design context, but I've done enough of my own research and reading to know that we're talking about media in the homes that things like family, family structure, the way families engage with one another is going to be pretty critical to how things like phones and televisions and radios or whatever it might be, how those are going to function in that space.

So knowing that and having good colleagues and talking to experts, just knowing that was going to be pretty key as a thing made me have more confidence that, "Yeah, I'm taking that experience that I have and bringing it in," and other design researchers here with different backgrounds use other forms of their previous knowledge or current knowledge to know what they feel like is going to be kind of gut, and that gut is based on experience and knowledge and expertise from other folks and then we kind of use that with our teams and say, "Hey we could do all these things. I think we should lean here." Our teams respect the craft of design research being on that can point them in the right direction.

AryelCianflone: Yeah, well and it's so interesting hearing you say kind of your past life informing this life, and those theories. When you're in a project around here and you, for example this project in southeast Asia, and you're saying, "Well I think that all these things are going to be super important to inform this text base that we're looking for because family is communication. These things are really relevant." Is that just you saying it, or are you actually bringing in experts, showing other people on the team research articles. How deep does it go or how much of it is just trust because you know that each member of the team has the certain expertise that they're coming in with?

Dan Perkel: It's a mix, and that's where it varies project to project. I always trying to bring in secondary research and academic perspectives is really helpful, and other folks and teams do as well. Sometimes we have a project where we literally have to start a project and starting to be in the field so fast that it becomes a gut call, and we'll say, "Where do we think we can get the most inspired," and show it to the team, and make an argument and folks are like, "Yeah, let's do it. Sounds good."

I like to rely on other things as well. So it can be either. We try to use that stuff as primary material. It's like ... so there's an example of we were doing some research in the media space about ... I don't want to get too specific here but about a certain behavior in television watching that we kept noticing, and everybody was like, "This really happens," and I went out and found some academic research and was like, "Not only does it happen, there's a nice quantitative study of this phenomena," and it's broken this thing down into several different groups. We're seeing a different mix, but it's important to be able to bounce back and forth between studies out in the world and to give more confidence that we're on to something interesting.

AryelCianflone: It feels like academia it takes ten years or something for a discovery to be made and then for that to actually trickle down, and it feels like because of your relationship with academia and probably a lot of people around the office, you're kind of able to speed that up, right? So instead of it being ten years later it's like, "Oh I know the person who did this study," or, "I'm so used to using this tool," that you're able to use that for inspiration to inform a project at the start.

Dan Perkel: Yeah, I think your assessment is right. The one thing ... It's interesting I think. There's, not to get into the politics of academia, but certainly in technology and engineering the speed at which stuff translates can be a lot faster because of grad students getting paid extremely high salaries to leave academia and go become engineers.

So there is that translation. I try to make sure that the sociologist and anthropologists and the folks in the humanities are also looked after in terms of that stuff that they're excited about, and so I do think that there is kind of an imbalance in how knowledge is disbursed into the world. I do get excited when I have an opportunity to shine a little spotlight on some research that maybe it's longterm impact in terms of knowledge out in the world. Maybe it needs to take ten, 15 years to diffuse. Maybe that's a good thing that it takes that long, but in terms of it impacting design and just feeling our insights and inspiration, we can kind of push it along.

AryelCianflone: What would you say for like what are the resources that you use to keep that connection? So you went and found this article. I'm wondering are you using Jay Bisco or something?

Dan Perkel: Oh EBSCO, JSTOR all those. I still do literature reviews sometimes. Not nearly, not even closely to as thoroughly as I would have back in my academia.

AryelCianflone: Back in the day.

Dan Perkel: Yeah there's just not time for it.

AryelCianflone: Maybe blogs, whatever.

Dan Perkel: I do try to read the people who I know have been writing about this stuff. There's some great blogs. One good one that I love is called, "Ethnography Matters," where some folks I know started that app out of a few different places. It's a really useful way to get that sort of cross between academic professional perspectives. Then you see what people are writing about publicly and then you kind of use that as little leverage and hooks into maybe more of the formal studies, and you just do your best. Follow the outcomes of conferences. I follow a lot of academics on Twitter to see what they're doing and what's percolating up. Whether it's computer support or cooperative work or it's Kai potentially or other places.

Yeah, there's so many conferences that former colleagues I know who are doing incredible work are still presenting at and doing things. Communications conferences. I don't know, is this what you're getting at?

AryelCianflone: I'm excited to look Ethnography Matters.

Dan Perkel: Yeah, it's a great one. I try to read books. I try to see what my former colleagues are publishing and what they're pointing to as best I can. I say book reviews are really good sources. This is what we tell grad students as well. Go read book reviews first and see what they're saying, and as a researcher I still go to book reviews as a way to shortcut a lot of that.

AryelCianflone: Yeah that's a god tip.

So I want to jump back for a minute. You were talking about the study in southeast Asia and I would really like to talk about kind of what made you feel in that circumstance, and I know this is kind of a theme of this conversation, right, is the impact, or what made you feel with that project, "Oh yeah we really had impact. I feel like that work mattered."

Dan Perkel: I'm curious when you're asking that question, matter to whom? What's the kind of hope that you have in that question?

AryelCianflone: Yeah, well and we can totally define terms here. That's a good call. I mean to you, because that's the thing as researchers we spend our lives doing this work, and I think we want to make sur that our work is having impact. When I say matter I guess it depends researcher to researcher. For example in your first story, you really were able to change the perspective of this client, and I think that matters, right, especially when that starts to impact the product that they're making.

So with this second story I'm curious. Was it a similar case where you felt like, "Oh the client perspective really changed or the product that they were putting out changed," or what makes you think of that as an example of research having an impact.

Dan Perkel: I think that's a great question. I think in this case we were working with something that is very very early as part of an R and D group, so even that by itself regardless of us was going to be years for them to be putting things out in the world. So we kind of knew it wasn't going to have that -

AryelCianflone: Immediate.

Dan Perkel: ... immediate. So that's the one thing. I think for us the biggest change there is again when you see our clients are approaching a problem when they start and how they finish.

So when they started they were thinking, "Oh innovation means one thing." That's interesting. That's innovative at the feature level which is fine, but maybe we can be innovative at a much bigger level if we actually understand what else we could be doing. We again saw that transformation in the team that was working with us.  It's beyond just a feature ad. It's something much, much bigger or could be much bigger, and then we have to just hope. In this case that that stays. I would say that work has had a lot of impact here especially. There are insights from that work that just for those of us who are on that project or we do internal project shares, they kind of just stick with us, and so in a way it's a little bit of internal teaching and knowledge sharing where it's like, "Yeah." Maybe for the next project going out and doing work in media it's like, "Look what these guys learned when they focused on a certain topic," or "Can we push that idea even further."

So I can't reveal too much about the insights in that one, but it's the same kind of thing. That impact is ... by doing the research and by actually going out and learning and documenting and bringing that. Working with people and then sharing these stories. Future projects are defined differently and future research projects are done differently.

AryelCianflone: Yeah, it's funny. You really can't avoid benefiting yourself when you benefit other people right?

Dan Perkel: Sure.

AryelCianflone: Yeah. Well I'm curious because you're talking about your internal team benefited and you even mentioned earlier in the conversation these relationships that you've maintained with different clients. Like following up with them, and I wonder how do you socialize or communicate what you're finding? How do you archive those things to kind of enable that learning going forward, because I think something that I've seen happen is, "Oh cool we did all these interviews and we learned all this stuff," but a year later, even six months later it's like, "Where is that," or how do we continue to learn from that?

Dan Perkel: Yeah, that's a great question because I'll be honest. It's one that can be tough here because we are a very oral culture which is, I don't know if that's contradictory or not from a company that actually makes a lot of things that are very tangible, but we really believe in the power of storytelling and we also believe almost implicitly that knowledge is produced in communication and relationships. So we, whether self-consciously or not, we kind of embody that.

So we do have systems where we have documents and repositories and people can try to find things, but almost everything we do is like, "Hey where can I learn more about this," and it's like, "Well don't look at this deck. Go talk to this person." That's always the first place to start. That has its drawbacks. I think what's nice about it for somebody like me is having a background in information science the history of knowledge and management is full of really bad systems where you can database and archive everything and then nobody finds it.

AryelCianflone: Yeah.

Dan Perkel: It's nice that we -

AryelCianflone: 99 percent of people's Dropbox accounts.

Dan Perkel: It's nice that we don't just rely on that, but we are kind of oral and storytelling based to the extreme and so maybe we could do better in terms of finally making those stories easier to access, but it's really important for us to ... I think that's because we believe that like the stories only make sense in the context, and the only way to really understand the context is to talk to the people who are involved is a really critical part of that. The research is always sort of like this fluid thing that what we've learned from it can be adapted and changed over time.

AryelCianflone: Yeah, so just as you were speaking about the relationships involved with this work and the oral nature of this work makes me instantly think of community and really IDEO has created such a community of making people start to think about humans, right? Like at the center of all of our designs and anyway all of that is a long way to get around to my next question which is for you personally, being in this space trying to make design a very human practice, what makes this work meaningful for you? When you're in a project? When you're in southeast Asia or you're in a community center with elderly people. What keeps you here?

Dan Perkel: To me what makes it meaningful ... well first of all I think as somebody who's trained as a researcher, going out and trying to understand what's going on the world, like the world of people. What's going on in their lives, how they're experiencing life is incredibly rich and meaningful, and I'm guessing most of the folks that you talk to have some version of that as an answer. There is something incredibly powerful about just learning about people and seeing their world through their eyes just for a moment, whether it's through the course of an hour and a half interview, or it's a short conversation at a mall, or it's six hours over dinner, or even a longer extended stay. Whatever the case may be, it's like it's amazing to get that experience. It's a huge privilege.

There's that. Even more of a privilege in a way, I don't know but the ability to kind of teach as you go. So everything we do is so collaborative that as a researcher you can't help but be consistently be teaching the practice of research to your colleagues all the time. Whether by demonstrating it or by having side conversations about why we just did the thing that we did, and seeing your colleagues go from, I don't know maybe never having done research before or having done tons of research even though they're interaction designers or industrial designers or brand designers, but starting to see the world a little differently because of their engagement with both me, but also the people then that I have facilitated their conversation with. That's also so meaningful to me. It's like, "Wow I'm really affecting their lives or affecting all of our lives together."

So that's another big source of meaning for me, and then I think just the fact that there is a translation between research and design and how those things go back and forth. Then I get to see, "Wow look at all that stuff we've learned," and then to hang out with somebody who in a matter of hours or maybe days or depending on what it is just like turn our collaborative design efforts then into something that's physical or digital and just beautiful and fascinating. The way they turned an insight into a new problem, and we work on that together, there's certainly a shift to where their passions and skills start to drive the process more, and it's really humbling. You have that and it's like, "Wow, look what we just did and look at what you just did that I couldn't have done." So that's where there's so much meaning.

So maybe you combine those levels of meaning together. Maybe that's a good reason to stick around. It's like you get to do that like literally all the time, and then you get to go from project to project, and if you have a project where two months go by and you're like, "You know this project's not great. This is kind of a drag." It happens. There's another project coming. You have something else you can work on if you're tired of a certain topic and you've been doing it for a while, you have power here. You can see to try and work on something different, and I think that's also another reason. You can never get bored here. It's impossible to get bored here.

AryelCianflone: That's a great insert. Each level is great in its own way, and I think defintely the first level that you mentioned of just the opportunity to see the world through someone else's eyes I think as human beings we're after that all the time, right? You see that by us going to the movies, making art, reading books. We're constantly after that, but the interesting thing I think about this space is that you get to do that with another actual human being in front of you as opposed to a book or a movie or something that maybe gives you even deeper or a more unique perspective, but it's still removed. There isn't that face to face interaction with another human being.

Dan Perkel: Yeah, absolutely.

AryelCianflone: Yeah, so one last question. You just mentioned the opportunity to get to work with someone actually take these insights and make them real so quickly which I think is super unique and the skills that are kind of at play with that, and I would love to hear from your perspective as someone who really has had this broad spectrum of experience from academia to design research to now design lead. I would love to know what are the skills you feel like have been most important in your practice and in successfully being able to get those insights that allowed those people to make something amazing right in front of you.

Dan Perkel: Another great question. You ask very good questions.

A bunch of things come to mind. I don't know if these are in a prioritized list. I don't know if these are the most ... if I'm ranking them in any way subconsciously. The skill of listening and observation. These are things that we do everyday and as part of our lives, but if you've ever taken a methods course or been an apprentice to somebody who's kind of a master at this, and I don't even consider myself there yet, you realize that there is a lot of skill involved in seeing things a certain way, and clearing your mind. I think in Steve Portugal's book, "Interviewing Users," somewhere in there he talks about you're not only ... in the interview for example, you're not only talking to somebody, you're also monitoring everything going on at the same time which is an incredibly hard thing to do.

When I was first starting out, I didn't even realize that was a thing I should be trying to do or that's skill I was working on, and then years and years and years in you're like, "Oh yeah that is what I do," and "Oh I am probably better at it than other people who have never sharpened that skill."

So that ability to listen, to monitor to do all of those things at the same time, that's a really important skill. Another one I think reading like the skill of reading and knowing how to apply these things, and that really gets into like when you think about reading and interviewing and observing. There's a skill to synthesis, so both the analysis and the synthesis which is really a critical part of our process here. It's maybe an undervalued part of the general research practice. I know we like to focus a lot on field methods, but the importance of synthesis and how to get into pattern finding and clustering and turning that into stories and knowing which things you're just going to let go of given a particular context.

Again I think that's also a skill and a practice. How do you work on that? I guess you just do it a lot. You know it's something to be done and then try to work on it. There are more. Storytelling is incredibly important. I think folks you've talked to before have also pointed this out, but it's not so much the ability to go out and find things, but to be able to communicate it both to yourself, to your teams, to your clients, and creating rich documentation of research isn't just documenting it, but it's also finding new things in the research.

So you might see things through photographs or through video or through media that through the process of telling the story you're actually learning new things about what you saw. So storytelling itself is important for communication but also for finding insights. That's a really important skill, and that could be storytelling through Dex, you know at a PowerPoint using video or audio. The more skilled you get at being able to tell your own stories and not relying on others and communicating them in a kind of multi-modal way, in a visual way and a textual way. I would really recommend folks work on, any researcher to work on storytelling.

If they're an academic researcher to understand that the research report in academia is a particular form of storytelling that's important, but there are other forms out there in the world that will also have importance in understanding your audiences. There's more. Design skills, always vital to a design firm. I could go on and on, so maybe I'll stop.

AryelCianflone: No I'm glad that you brought those ones up particularly storytelling because especially when we're talking about, you mentioned bringing a client along for the ride, and having that impact is really being able to tell the story at the end when someone comes to your desk and they're like, "Tell me about this project."

Dan Perkel: Yeah.

AryelCianflone: That's why I love that one. Well thank you so much for taking the time today, Dan.

Dan Perkel: Absolutely, thank you.

AryelCianflone: It's been so cool to hear from you.

Dan Perkel: Sure, yeah and thank you as well. It's a privilege to have a chance to talk about this stuff.

AryelCianflone: Yeah.

Thanks for listening. If you want to continue the conversation, join us in the slack group. You can request an invite under the community tab on our website mixed-methods.org and if you have a second, write a review of Mixed Method wherever you listen. It helps a ton. Special thanks to Danny Fuller our audio engineer and composer and Laura Levit our design mastermind.

See you next time.

Oct 05, 2017
Generative Listening - Thomas McConkie, Mindfulness+
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Thomas McConkie, has been practicing meditation for 20 years, studying developmental psychology for 10, is an author, fellow podcaster (Mindfulness+), and faculty member at Pacific Integral. His study and practice has allowed him to create safe spaces for what he calls generative listening. This type of listening actually allows individuals to generate and share experiences otherwise inaccessible. As a community often trying to do generative research, this is an invaluable skill.


Aryel Cianflone: I'm so excited today to have Thomas McConkie on the show. I originally met Thomas through a mindfulness course that he conducts. A friend had taken it and recommended it to me, and so I actually wanted to invite Thomas because I felt like I learned some things that were really beneficial for my practice as a UX researcher, and I thought we could start today just with a little bit of a brief introduction, Thomas of how you got into this. 

Thomas McConkie: Cool. Thanks, Aryel. Yeah. It's good to be here. As far as mindfulness goes, I remember being about 18 years old when I was a freshman in college, and I just showed up in my first dorm room and realized that I had no life skills, like I had no idea how to manage myself outside of my parents' house. It's crazy because I grew up in Salt Lake City, not a place that was considered to be a mecca of medication back in the '90s. I mean, it's pretty counter-cultural to do meditation here, and yet, I just gravitated towards like I have this intuition, meditation could help me calm down, it could help me with my anxiety, and as luck would have it, I actually was just two blocks away from the largest order of Zen Buddhism outside of Japan and the entire world. Two blocks from my college dorm room, so I had stumble into the Zen center, and pretty soon, I'm meditating, and it really changed my life. I've been doing it ever since for about the last 20 years.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. I mean, obviously, this isn't a podcast about meditation. 

Thomas McConkie: Right.

Aryel Cianflone: This is a podcast about user experience research, but you also have a background in developmental psychology, and there's so much from your practice and from your study that I think could be really beneficial to the kind of skills and the conversations and things that researchers are doing in the space, so maybe you could talk a little bit to your background with developmental psychology as well. 

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. I'll say a word about that. I had been practicing mindfulness for maybe 15 years when I was introduced to some psychologists and researchers at Pacific Integral. This is an institute based in Seattle that's done some really pioneering research in adult development, and they took me in and trained me as a developmental researcher, even though my background was in eastern contemplative practice, and it really changed the way that I looked at meditation. It changed the way that I work with human beings. 

Over time, spending a lot of time with the research and spending a lot of time with the people who participate in our research, I started to appreciate just how different the way different adult minds construct meaning and their experience of the world. We all as human beings, we have sense gates. This is a Buddhist term, but we see, we hear, and we feel. All right? That's basically the combination of see, hear, and feel. 

It interweaves to create this kind of a human matrix, this experience of human life. Right? What I learned is that there are very discreet stages that unfold sequentially throughout adulthood, and that we actually know a lot about these stages. We know a lot about, we could say the different minds that construct meaning from the raw experience of the see, hear, feel. The short of it is, for a long time, humanity, and for a long time, including myself, I would approach a student in meditation and just teach them the practice as I knew it. What developmental psychology has taught me to do is really adapt my teaching and adapt my style to a given student based on the way that they're processing experience, and what I find about developmental psychology is when you learn just enough about the stages, you really start to strengthen your intuition of how you can optimize your offering, whether it's technology that you're offering and you want the user to be able to engage with it and as satisfying and fulfilling a way is possible or if you're teaching meditation. It doesn't matter what you're doing, but just that sensitivity to the stages of development, it really polishes the way we interact with one another. It's really, it's fascinating. I mean, it's this field of research that has a huge evidence-base, and the implications for society are really significant, and it's just not quite at the point where popular society has absorbed it, but I think over the next few decades, we might be more of a thing that we consider with educational policy, politics, climate, all the wicked problems in the world. I think development really bears on them because development determines how we'll interpret problems, how we'll construct them in our minds, and you can't have a fully integrated conversation with different stakeholders unless you're aware of how they're constructing the problem in their own mind, and development is really good at bringing precision to how people make meaning. 

Aryel Cianflone: I mean, I would love to get more resources for people who want to read more into that as well.

Thomas McConkie: For sure. 

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah.

Thomas McConkie: A great place to start is pacificintegral.com. There's a wealth of information and new research on that website. That's a good place to start.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. I want to dive more into listening because I feel like that's a really unique skill that you have, but before we do that, I would love to just have you say a word about ...

Thomas McConkie: Yeah.

Aryel Cianflone: I think we're all familiar with the term 'Mindfulness', and we're familiar with the term 'Meditation', even if we have different interpretations, but you have Mindfulness+, even a podcast actually called 'Mindfulness+' with the plus sign inside the word plus right now. 

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. Yeah. Mindfulness+.

Aryel Cianflone: I would love to have you just quickly say what's the thing that sets that apart? Why is there that plus?

Thomas McConkie: For sure. Mindfulness. I'll just assume people listening don't know exactly what mindfulness is. A lot of people don't. I'm still learning what mindfulness is 20 years later. I think about mindfulness as a practice, an art, and a science of paying attention to how we pay attention.

We're going to get into this when we talk about listening in a moment, but if you think about it, we're always paying attention to something. Right now in this moment, you're having a particular experience that has a particular composition and texture to it. You're attending to your life, and in one moment, you're listening to a podcast. In the next moment, you're cooking some pasta for dinner. The scene is always changing, but we're always attending.

Even when we're spaced out, we're attending to some daydream. Right? Mindfulness is just this exercise of paying attention to how we're paying attention, and when we pay attention to how we pay attention, a choicefulness arises, because we realize that we can actually choose to pay attention in different ways to different things. I can pay a lot of attention to a grudge. I've been nursing for 20 years, or I can pay attention to the positive attributes that this person has that challenges me, and maybe that gives rise to forgiveness. 

That's an example. That's mindfulness. That's the 60-second crash course on mindfulness.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. I'm so glad that we're having this conversation because this is something that you mentioned earlier, but I think that this study of developmental psychology will only become more important in the coming years. 

Thomas McConkie: There's a tremendous evidence-based for it. I've talked to different scientists. Amishi Jha is a good example. She's a neuroscientist, rockstar, who rubs elbows with the Dalai Lama, one of those types, and -

Aryel Cianflone: One of those types.

Thomas McConkie: One of those types, and I've talked to her about her neuroscience research, and she'll say that it takes a certain number of years for what we know in the laboratory, like the scientific evidence is really clear. It doesn't mean we know everything there is to know. We just know there's a there there, and that will take a certain number of years, decades even to trickle down into just popular consciousness. I think for me, I've been following developmental research for about 10 years, and seems not inevitable, but likely given the overwhelming evidence that adults develop throughout a life span. Adults do not reach physical maturity, and then just plateau. Right? 

We continue. We have the potential to develop cognitively, emotionally, interpersonally in increasingly complex ways throughout a life span, and development is the science that points us to like, "What are the patterns, and what can we learn about ourselves and about others by understanding these patterns?"

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. Definitely. This is exactly ... I think I've already mentioned this, but this is exactly why I wanted to have this conversation because so many UX researchers spend their days interacting with strangers and trying to get really personal really quickly. Right? 

You're sitting, having this one-on-one conversation with someone that maybe you met five minutes ago, and you might be talking about buying a car as a decision, or you might be talking about a really personal family topic or something like that.

Thomas McConkie: Yeah.

Aryel Cianflone: I was I guess surprised when I took this mindfulness meditation class that I felt like there was this real element of listening, and I was surprised by how quickly you were able to create such a kind of environment of safety for a group of strangers where they were opening up and sharing things that were just so personal, some of them. I'm thinking of there was an elderly woman who was talking about with this group of strangers in a way that felt really sincere about sexual awakening, and you had other people talking about the death of a family member, and I would just love to talk about how you created that environment of safety for people.

Thomas McConkie: Yeah, I appreciate. That's a real compliment to hear that you felt safe in the environment and could feel the effects of what a high-quality attention does for the experience of being with another person or people, so thanks for that. An image comes to mind actually that's never occurred to me as you just say that. Imagine you're crossing a kind of rickety footbridge, and a hundred feet below is this raging Amazonian river, so it's precarious. 

Aryel Cianflone: Rocks over it. 

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. It's precarious, but you have to cross it, let's just say for the sake of argument, and the way you're going to do it is to really set your foot down really gently on a plank of wood and see like, "Can I trust my weight to this?" If it feels like you can, then you trust all of your weight to it. You lift your back foot, set it in front of the other, but you have to test the ground beneath you to see if you're held to see if it's safe. In a sense, listening, what we call at Pacific Integral 'Generative listening'. We call it 'Generative listening' because the very quality of your presence, and you're listening to the other. It gives them the experience of being safe, that the ground beneath them as it were will support them. My basic approach, the kind of ... I'm giving away my trade secrets here.

Aryel Cianflone: Please. 

Thomas McConkie: My basic approach to bringing a room full of strangers together and creating a lot of trust and intimacy in a short amount of time is to really just drive home the teaching, that the quality of your presence is it's not a passive act to listen to another person. It's a creative act that draws a person out of themselves. It allows people to express things they didn't know they could express, they didn't know they had to express if you're fully present. It's the opposite of casting pearls before swine, that on the other end of the spectrum, there's, "Here's my pearl, and I'm going to show it to you because I can tell how reverent you are towards it", and it actually feels really relieving to get to show this to somebody because in my heart of hearts, I long to share this part of me with somebody. 

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. 

Thomas McConkie: That happens. What I've found is that adults are so game for that. If you give them an excuse to relate and get personal, we all really want it. We love intimacy. We love to be vulnerable, and we're terrified of it.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. I mean, yeah. It was almost shocking honestly. I can't remember the last time that I had an experience like that, where it was like you walked into this room, and all of a sudden, you were in this just completely different, just like the emotional vibe or something was so different, and I'm so happy to have you share your trade secret, and I would love to have you say more about, how do you actually do that? How do you actually become a generative listener? I love that term.

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. It's profound. Another teaching, and this gets back. We had spoke a moment ago about what mindfulness is. I talked about paying attention to how you're paying attention.

Metaphorically, we could say that in a given moment like right now as you're listening to me and right now as our listeners are listening in on this conversation, we bring a particular listening filter to the conversation, meaning that in a given moment, we might be listening with the kind of filter like, "Is this useful information to me? Is it not useful? Is it interesting? Is it not interesting? Is it true? Is it false?", and so on and so on.

We have countless filters, but there's a category. There's a class of filters. Again, this is metaphorical, but there's a class of filters we could say that's inherently defensive. It's distrustful, and I don't say that in a negative way because we need this filters to survive.

Sometimes, when someone approaches you, and they don't have totally trustworthy intentions, they don't have the best intentions in mind for you, then it's helpful to say like, "What's the scam? What's this all about?" What happens is we encounter so many of those situations in a given day that we become hardened, and those filters become our default. We forget that we're actually at a deep level. We're making a choice to listen that way. 

Generative listening comes in when we actually realize that, "Oh, I'm actually paying attention in a way that I'm actually trying to find what's wrong with this person. I'm listening to Thomas talk right now, and I'm wondering if he's totally full of it or if he might know what he's talking about." Then, we point that out. Never lose that skepticism. 

Aryel Cianflone: Still to be determined. No, I'm just kidding. 

Thomas McConkie: Totally. Never lose that. I warn my students, "Don't ever totally discount the possibility that I'm totally full of it", but in terms of generative listening, we'll give a different instruction like suppose that you sense a genius in this person, something great that wants to be expressed, and it just takes a proper audience. All this person needs is somebody to be present with them in order to put words to this beautiful possibility, or how would you attend to the Dalai Lama? If it were you and the Dalai Lama or some revered figure, whoever it is in your life, you're just one-on-one with them, let's say it's an ancestor, and they've come back from the dead to have a single conversation with you. 

Think of how attuned you would be to their expression. What kind of listening can you bring to that moment, and can you bring more of that quality of listening into just the Water Cooler?

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. Totally. I think that resonates with me so much because I definitely have noticed that there are certain people ... I mean, we're different people with different people, and it's a lot of it is because of the way that they listen to us. 

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. 

Aryel Cianflone: Some people we know, we have more of an adversarial relationship, so we're going to tread lightly, and not say things that are as vulnerable or things that are closer to our hearts. 

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. Right.

Aryel Cianflone: I thought something that really stuck out to me in class and I think was the moment when I was like, "Oh, I've got to have Thomas on the show", was we were sitting and doing a group activity, which was something that I didn't really expect in a mindfulness meditation class was how often you had us actually do group activities. I had imagined like sitting cross-legged, like trying to not get distracted or whatever, but this one day, we were sitting, doing a group activity and we were supposed to share I think what we've been thinking of during our personal meditation, but you gave this very specific instruction to the other people in the conversation to listen as if it was the most precious thing that this person had to share.

Thomas McConkie: Right. 

Aryel Cianflone: I was just like, "Oh my gosh. What a different way to approach a conversation."

Thomas McConkie: Right.

Aryel Cianflone: "What a different assumption to be making", because I definitely agree with our default becomes the doubtful or the defensive or the skeptical, and it's just such a different place to start, and you get such a different response. 

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. Exactly. Consciousness is incredibly fluid, and mysteriously, we seem to have a great deal of control over how we modulate consciousness, attention moment to moment. It's an incredibly creative act just to be a human being, just to be sentient, and we start with that premise, and in a Mindfulness+ class, we start with that premise that every moment is a creative act that we're actively generating. 

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. I would love to just pick your brain more, and this is probably a personality thing, but how? What are some of the specific things that people can do to become more that way? I think even that activity of just thinking, imagine if this was the most precious thing, but what are some of the other activities or resources that -

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. Something that comes to mind, this was maybe more specific than you're going for, there's a scripture in the Upanishads that says, "Where there is other, there is fear".

Aryel Cianflone: What is the Upanishads? 

Thomas McConkie: This is from the Hindu canon that predates Buddhism, so some of the oldest scripture we have on the planet.

Aryel Cianflone: Okay. Yeah.

Thomas McConkie: There's this phrase that echoes across time, "Where there is other, there is fear". I bring that up because as we talk about listening, every time we encounter the other, whoever it is, there's this sense of like "Not me", and there's this sense of, "I don't know what this person is about". There's a certain level of transparency I can read based on your nodding right now, and you're being polite, and I can tell you kind of ... Right? I have clues as to who you are, but there's a depth and an opacity to who you are, like I have to guess, and to the extent that I have to guess, there's a little bit of anxiety. 

There's a little bit of fear. I work a lot with just the fact that somewhere in our experience, it's subtle for some of us, and it's not as subtle for others. There's an element of fear in every single encounter. We can actually make use of that as an object of meditation. I can notice like, "What's the quality of my fear, my anxiety, my sense of ..." Social anxiety is a very common form of this fear that I'm speaking about.

Aryel Cianflone: Definitely.

Thomas McConkie: "How do I work with social anxiety in a skillful way that creates a creative encounter that can give rise to more creativity?", and so I have students attend to that social anxiety, attend to that fear, and allow it to be this invitation into trust, meaning ... This is a paradox that safety, fear and trust end up being deeply related to one another.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah.

Thomas McConkie: You notice you're afraid. You notice you have social anxiety, but I also notice that I can take a risk here. I'm going to say something. I'm going to reveal something about myself to test this boundary with the other. What you notice is you get better at this. 

You notice there's just the really natural melting. As I come up to the point of contact with the other, I'm honest about the quality of fear, anxiety in the moment, and I take a step towads like a gesture of intimacy. People just melt.

Aryel Cianflone: I love that. Yeah. I love that phrase, that people just not ... No, and I think you're so right that when you recognize the fear as opposed to just a lot of times when we feel social anxiety, we just clam up, and we're like, "Oh, I just feel so uncomfortable", as opposed to thinking, "Oh, I feel a little bit of social anxiety because I'm afraid that this person is going to react negatively to me, and I'm going to be brave in this moment", as opposed to just being paralyzed in that fear.

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. We just brace. Yeah. Right. Exactly. 

Yeah. Exactly. Again, this is all a mindfulness practice. We notice we have social anxiety, the default response that is to just brace like, "Oh, crap. How do I get out of this conversation? Let me make some small talk", but we all have our patterns of contraction around this anxiety, but if we can make it an object of awareness, if I can notice that there's anxiety there, then all of a sudden, I can be creative with it. I notice I am paying attention in a new way, and I can say, "Oh, maybe this anxiety is an invitation to ground, just feel the ground beneath me, take a breath, take a risk". 

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. 

Thomas McConkie: Really, everything I do, it starts on that basis, and they're dance steps that we are all actually remarkably intuitive, and there are really techniques and approaches that help us create greater intimacy and fulfillment in all of our relationships, whether that's with like a long-term life partner or it's with my client that I've just sat down with and I hardly know him, and it's not going that well right now. It's the whole gamut of human experience and relationship.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. I mean, for example, if we were sitting here and we had never met before and we were about to have a conversation about something intimate or important to that person, what would be maybe something that you would say to attend to that social anxiety and help us move past it?

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. It's a great question. One thing I often say to students on a lot of my exercises, I'll say, "Okay. There's a speaker and the rest are listeners, and give them two minutes uninterrupted", and without fail, five to 10% of the class at the end of the first round, their hands shoot up, they're just like, "I wanted to say something so bad and it just killed me". 

"Why wouldn't you let us say something? It felt so rude." They were sharing something personal, and I just want to tell them how much I cared about what they're saying and what I often tell students is that, "You can learn to trust just how potent your presence is". We think that we have to say something like, "Oh, I totally get what you're saying. It reminds me of this other ..." 

We have these ways of signaling to people that we're with them, but really, as you learn to deepen your presence and the quality of your awareness, you realize that so much of what we habitually say in an encounter is just habituated. It's not necessary. It's not serving intimacy. We do it just because it's habit, and the power of presence to just fully receive somebody, to just take them in, you realize that these interactions, they have an intelligence on their own and they just know where to go and they know how to deepen, and a lot of our practice is just learning how to stay out of our own way.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. It's just funny because I'm thinking of the first time that I came to class, and you're right. It wasn't necessarily something that you said, although, you did say a lot of things I think to put the class at ease, but there was a calmness to it, and you're right. I think the word is presence, and it's interesting to think about that especially at work, kind of bringing that because even just allowing yourself to be fully present in that way feels vulnerable or intimate, so I'm imagining being in a conference room and just being present with the stranger, and it makes me a little bit nervous.

Thomas McConkie: Exactly. Yeah. Totally. It's vulnerable. 

We have to really let our guard down and reveal our soft underbelly for this happen, but yeah. I mean, this is where the magic happens. Another image that comes to mind, just to help listeners really start to feel this in their bodies. I mean, what I'm describing here, it's not a concept. It's an embodied experience of being a human being and being in an intimate encounter. I think about an opera singer. Think about an opera singer who just has trained their voice for decades and they can just belt it out and fill an entire auditorium. 

Imagine that opera singer belting out their most beautiful note in a telephone booth. Right? It's like, "I don't want to belt it out on a telephone booth. This isn't the time or the place", but then, symphony opera hall where their voice just spreads to infinity. It's the most natural thing in the world to just fill the immensity of space with their voice. 

Our awareness can be that space for another. Our awareness actually, again, metaphorically, it has a shape to it, and sometimes, when we meet somebody, the shape of our awareness is like a telephone booth. We have 10 seconds for them to say what they need to say, and then we're not interested and we're moving on. Then, there's the quality of listening where it's that opera hall quality, and it's like this person just knows I can sing in this space.

Aryel Cianflone: Expansive. That's such a beautiful analogy. That might be the most beautiful thing that's ever been said in my podcast. 

Thomas McConkie: Sing to me, Aryel. 

Aryel Cianflone: As we've been talking about this, I had the thought I think there are so many things that we consciously or unconsciously do to be the telephone booth, and I'm wondering if you have any examples of maybe things that you can call up that we do that turn us into the telephone booth as opposed to the symphony hall just for people to be aware of, because I think we often fall into these little habits like we've been talking about.

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. For sure. I'm thinking about a lot of listeners will know Brene Brown. 

Aryel Cianflone: Of course.

Thomas McConkie: Cool. She came and spoke to us at a meeting a few months back. It's just the group of us back in Massachusetts, and she said something really beautiful that has stuck with me because she has a way of just saying something plain and insightful. 

Aryel Cianflone: With your Texas accent?

Thomas McConkie: We love you, Brene.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. We love you so much. 

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. If you're out there listening, Brene, we love you. Yeah. She said that in her research, the most compassionate people she's ever met and studied are the most boundaried. That's what the room did. We're like, "What does that mean?" She -

Aryel Cianflone: My eyebrows are definitely furrowed right now.

Thomas McConkie: Right. Right. Yeah. Back to your question, "What is it that creates a small telephone booth listening experience in us? Why do we collapse on ourselves and not listen as generously, not be as present as we're capable of?" One really simple practice on Brene Brown is to notice how much you actually have to give. To be really honest about, this is how much space I have right now. These are my boundaries, and I can love you fully through these boundaries. If I pretend like I have more to give than I do, I will exhaust myself and I will resent you for it, and I'll start to get surly. 

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah.

Thomas McConkie: To just be really honest like when you're with a client, when you've worked a long day and you're suddenly drawn into this new conversation that doesn't seem to be letting up, to just do a quick mindfulness scan, like, "How much energy and attention do I truly have to bring to this moment?" If something like, "I don't have that much" is coming up, then you find a very polite way to say, "You know what? I want to be really present to what you're saying, and I'm just done for the day. Can we find the time where we have enough space?" I say this to people all the time, like, "I want to hear what you're saying, and I feel like we need a little more time and space to do it properly. Can we do that?" 

Simultaneously, I'm taking care of my boundaries and I'm letting them know that what they're saying is really important. What we often do, I do this a lot and I know this teaching just by having not done it a million times, but I tell myself, "Oh, I can power through this", "Oh, I can show up for my friend", like "I just had a long day at work and they had an even worse day and now, they want to talk to me about their bad day. I can show up for them, but I really can't", so I pretend that I have more space, more energy, more stamina than I do, and that's when my listening actually gets really small and reactive. That's one hygiene practice we can do to take care of our listening, and it's okay if we're a telephone booth. The teaching is not that you for the rest of your life, Aryel, now that you've taken my class, you need to attend to every person's expression as if they were they Dalai Lama, because people take that [inaudible 00:30:40] -

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. It's exhausting to listen to that. 

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. You can, but the point is we have a choice. We can actually modulate through. We can transition through countless filters and we get to choose creatively as artists which filter is the most appropriate in a given moment for a given interaction.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah.

Thomas McConkie: That's incredible.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. I mean, first of all, it resonates with me because it's Brene Brown, and we all love her. It's interesting because you're right. It's counter-intuitive. When I heard boundaries, it seems like the exact opposite of intimacy, but, yeah, it's interesting to call out that you can't have one without the other at least, not genuinely.

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. Exactly. Right. Exactly. Just like fear leads to deeper trust. 

Boundaries leads to deeper compassion. They're these paradoxes that we find in these practice. Mindfulness is, it's a practice of paradoxes. You realize they're all over the place. 

Aryel Cianflone: Are there any other things that ... I mean, not such a good one, but are there any other -

Thomas McConkie: Right. You got anything. I don't know.

Aryel Cianflone: I'm like, "Do you have anything else though?" Yeah. No. I'm just like, "Wow, that was so good. Is there more?" We just like speaker phone call Brene Brown. I'm wondering is there any other little things that ...

Thomas McConkie: Countless. I mean, we're riffing here, and I'm just free-associating with the basics. I'm interesting on this show in communicating some very basic practices. You do not have to shave your head and retreat to the misty mountaintops of China or Japan to learn mindfulness so that you can finally be a generative listener. I want to share some practices, like we actually all know how to just take inventory in a given moment and notice, "How present am I?" 

If I'm not that present, let me show the other person I care by saying, "I can be totally present with you. Let's do it another time." 

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. 

Thomas McConkie: It's a really basic practice, and we all are really intuitive about ... The moment I used the metaphor listening filters, people are like, "Oh, that's my favorite listening filter, to find the flaw in what someone is saying". 

Aryel Cianflone: Totally.

Thomas McConkie: Right? Then, the moment I suggested there's a generative possibility where you can just actually treat someone's expression as something precious with some reverence.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. 

Thomas McConkie: Everyone knows exactly how they go to that place.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it reminds me of Edward de Bono's Thinking Hats, and I like how he does this thing where he makes it physical, where he's like, "When you're wearing a yellow hat, you're thinking in this. What you're thinking, really positively and just riffing on everything and saying yes to everything, and you're wearing a black hat and you're approaching everything in a really negative way, so I love that we're seeing this same patterns of thought and approaching conversation from you and from these different places, and I think it's because you're right. They really resonate with people, and they hear filters, and they're like, "Oh, I'm totally doing that myself as well". 

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. Right. That's something I really stress in a mindfulness practice. It's easy to believe that when you hear the word 'Mindfulness', you're like, "Oh, I don't know what that is", or "I've heard what it is, but I don't do it". Mindfulness in its essence is who we already are. Right? 

We're this aware presence, and it's a choiceful awareness. We can be creative with our awareness. That's all mindfulness is. We're all at our very hearts. Mindful, and we just need some reminding.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. For people who are listening to this and they're like, "Oh my gosh. This is totally ..." I keep saying 'Resonating', but give me a different word. Anyway, for people who are listening and feeling like this really is resonating with them, what would be a next step or article or a book or something that you feel like is really helpful and progressing that path or developing those generative listening skills?

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. There's a wealth of resources out there. One thing I tell people is to be discerning. There are a lot of teachings out there, a lot of different schools and styles of practicing mindfulness. 

I encourage people to really be discerning, and if they don't resonate with a particular teaching, that's okay. I mean, after 20 years, there have been teachers that I study with for an hour. I go to a single class, a single talk, and I take it in, and I move on, and then there are teachers that I've been studying with for almost 20 years, and it's just a bottomless well and I sense there's something in it for me. For people who feel like, "Yes. What this guy is saying right now, it's landing in me. I know it means something and I want to pay more attention to it", I would say to just follow your nose, and reserve this right of refusal. 

If one teaching isn't resonating, feel free to move to the next, and I promise over time, you'll come across something. It's like, "Woah. I need to spend a little bit of time here", and that's a really satisfying thing to come into that relationship with a teacher or with the teaching. 

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. Thank you so much for taking the time, Thomas. I mean, every time I sit down with you, I just feel like, "Wow. I really did learn some things that's meaningful and that's beneficial."  I mean, even also when I'm listening to your podcast every time, it's like a moment to just breathe out and be calm, and yeah, pay attention to how we pay attention.

Thomas McConkie: Thank you, Aryel. Yeah. I appreciate that. Yeah. Mindfulness+, it's a podcast.

Like I said, there's a lot of good mindfulness teaching out there. Mindfulness+ incorporates more of the developmental components, so that's something that I'm really passionate about and I love to share on the podcast, so you can check that out.

Aryel Cianflone: Thank you so much.

Thomas McConkie: Yeah. Thanks, Aryel. It's good to be with you.


Sep 21, 2017
Becoming Jared Spool - Jared Spool, UIE
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Jared Spool is one of the most influential voices in UX. After a brief stint as an engineer, Jared went on to found User Interface Engineering in 1988, a leading consulting firm that specializes in website and product usability. Jared is a prolific writer, speaker, and advocate for UX with the ambition goal of ridding the world of all bad design. He's also more recently taken on the challenge of starting his own school to create the next generation of UX professionals. This episode focuses on finding out a bit more about how Jared built the enviable career he's now so well know for and what's inspired him to do it.

Transcript (Unedited)

Aryel Cianflone: I thought that we could start today with just a brief introduction, so if you want to maybe just speak a little bit briefly about your career, what you're doing now.

Jared Spool: Oh, I'm not good at introducing myself, other than to say "Hi, I'm Jared." Well you know I'm the co-CEO and co-founder of Center Centre and founder of UIE. I've been doing this for 29 years. Before that I was a software engineer and my work is all around trying to figure out how to eliminate all the bad design from the world.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. Not an ambitious goal at all.

Jared Spool: Yep. I figure it's a 100 year mission and that I'm probably 30% into it. It just means I have to live a really long time.

Aryel Cianflone: I love that goal. That's a great goal. I think if your goal isn't going to be ambitious I'm not sure it's worth having. That's a great introduction. Obviously you're leaving out that you're one of the most influential voices in UX and as you've said you've had this long and amazing career. One of the things as I was thinking about having this conversation with you, that there's so many things that we could talk about and I just wanted to kind of start with what got you interested in this work. You know you started out as an engineer. There's so many different directions that you could have gone, so yeah, how did it kind of start for you?

Jared Spool: Yeah I don't know how influential I am. I mean every time I hear myself talk it always feels like things I've heard before. It doesn't seem that new or novel, but other people seem to like it. What got me started initially was I was mostly interested in, I was designing software and I was just sort of in the right place in the right time. I was working on personal computers designing software for sort of the first generation of personal computers. We were trying to figure out well if you're going to have a computer on your desk, what does it need to have on it. Right? There was a time when there were no desktop computers and so the things that we think of today of having an email client, or having a spreadsheet or even having a desktop, those things didn't exist because you didn't need them when you had other types of computers, but you did need them for a desktop computer, and they weren't obvious.

I mean there were lots of attempts to do this and I was involved in a whole bunch of those designs and spent a lot of time studying what other people were doing. At the time we were making systems that were really built by engineers for engineers and it was expected you would read manuals. It was expected you would go to training and that you would never use something without having done a lot of preparation before you sat down and started to use it. The idea that you would sit down and just be able to figure it out by looking at it was a novel idea. This idea that you would go and sit down and use it, we didn't know anything about how to do that, I mean nothing, and we were all figuring that out and that really intrigued me. It was such a radical idea. Nobody thought it was possible at the time because no one had ever done it.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah.

Jared Spool: And just figuring out what the methods are for figuring that out was fascinating.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, so how did you get from that to the goal that you just stated of eliminating all bad design from the world?

Jared Spool: So we've been plugging away at that, and we'd been plugging away at that for about 10 years and at that point I had this tragedy in my life. My first wife passed away, and she wasn't supposed to die. She had at the time, and for many years before, she had multiple sclerosis, which is a debilitating disease, but it doesn't kill you. It just makes you miserable for much of your life, but she had gotten complications due to that, and part of the reason that she had gotten complications was that a computer system failed. Because she had a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, she had been maintaining her quality of life with regular physical therapy and occupational therapy and those were expensive, difficult sessions and the insurance company looked at them and the computer decided that multiple sclerosis is a disease that can't be cured, so therefore it doesn't make sense to keep paying for these things. It just started rejecting payments and we didn't know it for months. In addition to having racked up unreimbursed claims for months that we didn't know we were supposed to be paying for, we had to stop that stuff and it stopped for about a year and a half.

In that year in a half, her mobility dropped tremendously to the point where she struggled to just do basic things that you and I take for granted, like getting out of bed, getting on and off the toilet, things like that. When your mobility drops and you spend a lot of time in a wheelchair, you end up getting rashes in parts of your body that come in contact with the chair and those rashes develop, if they get bad enough, they develop into open sores and then in one of those open sores a bacterial infection crept in and that killed her. The really sad thing was, was that about a month before she contracted the infection and died 24 hours later, a month before that we had convinced the insurance company to assign us a human case representative. They looked at what the computer had decided, decided that it was wrong, and reestablished the occupational therapy and the physical therapy, but it was too late.

At that point, or at a very short point after that, I came to the conclusion that it was poorly designed computer systems that had killed my wife. And it wasn't the only story I'd heard about that, I mean I heard this story from lots of people very similar things happening and realized that we had to rid the world of all the badly designed things.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, that's an incredibly powerful story. I mean I feel like that kind of even changes the way that I think about you and your career, because it's just such an incredible and such a powerful personal way to start a career like this.

Jared Spool: Yeah, I mean it's, in some ways it wasn't the start of my career. I'd been 20 years into it at that point, but it definitely reframed why and how we were doing what we were doing and it gave us whole new meaning. Up until that point UIE, the company that I started in 1988, my wife died in 1996, so up until that point the company was basically just a design services firm. We did usability testing and some design work and things like that, but after that point our mission became much more clear and it's not just about doing any usability design. It was all about how do we figure out what the bad design in the world is and then how do we start to eliminate it. We knew at the time that this was probably an impossible thing to do, but we decided what the hell.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, all of that kind of, you really did just kind of articulate a little bit of what your conception of UX was at the beginning of your career and how it changed, but I would love to kind of hear you speak about that specifically because I think one of the things that's so valuable and so interesting for someone like me talking to someone like you is, you just have this different perspective, right? Like you have had the benefit of seeing the industry change so much and have a lot of experience. I would love to hear you kind of say a little bit about what your conception of UX was when you were starting and then now as someone who's 30 years in, how you think about that.

Jared Spool: Well we didn't think of UX when I was starting. That was not even a term that we thought about. The word usability didn't even really come in to common use for ... you know I started in 1976, so you know it's not unusual for me to be standing in front of audiences that weren't even born then. In fact there are projects that I worked on that are older than many of the people I speak in front of these days.

At the time it was called software human factors, and it was an extension of the human factors works that had started in the, really coming into form in the 50's and 60's and early 70's, which was in the 70's there was a big push towards ergonomics. Everybody was now sitting in chairs all day long. Before that you were up and moving around all the time and doing physical work, but in the 70's a large number of knowledge workers were now sitting in chairs and if you had the wrong chair you would be temporarily or permanently damaged, so people were working on physical ergonomics. What's the best way to sit in a chair? So in that period we started working on software ergonomics and software human factors and trying to understand how do you make software that accommodates the form of the human just like we're making physical things that accommodated the form of the human.

It was a branch of sort of cognitive psychology though at that time. Cognitive psychology had not thought about design. So this was all fascinating right, because there was no where you could go to study this. There were no programs. There were no schools. I ended up studying social psychology because social psychology was the best place to learn experimental design and I was interested in the experimental design portion of it. Could we iterate over designs and change something based on a series of experiments and that fascinated me. That's where I got started was there, but you had to go into social sciences and social psychology, which at the time all the studies and experiment design was could you design an experiment that would predict heart failure. Could you figure out what medications actually improve longevity in life. There was a lot of work done around pain and around the perception of pain.

There was a lot of work done because of, well it's a popular topic these days because of the Nazi's basically, to figure out how do people become those people. A lot of that was done by this notion of nature versus nurture. Are you genetically inclined to be an evil person or is that something that you're ...

Aryel Cianflone: Socialized.

Jared Spool: You're socialized into. And you get into things like the Milgrim studies and all sorts of things. That's where all the experiments were being done. When I studied experimental psychology I was studying Milgram studies and how did they actually conduct the experiments to come up with the results and what is the science and the math behind that. Then I was turning around and applying that to my work and saying how do I apply this stuff to designing software. Nobody knew how to do that. We were inventing it. I was in the very first usability tests that were ever done on computer software.

Aryel Cianflone: That's amazing.

Jared Spool: Yeah. It's weird to think of it. Oh yeah, I just happened to be in the room. I was one of five people who were involved in that project.

Aryel Cianflone: No big deal.

Jared Spool: Yeah. At the time it was no big deal, right? It was just a bunch of us in a corner not knowing that this was going to become an industry. We didn't think this is, like we have to get this right whatever we do here, it's the first thing. It's like I don't know, the whole attitude was hey, what if we did this to the point where the first usability lab for software ever built was an air conditioning closet, which had a big, giant air conditioner in it and we had to shut the air conditioner off in order to conduct the usability tests.

Aryel Cianflone: Oh my gosh. I love stories like that because I mean that's the reality of experimentation and discovery and exploration is like typically you don't know that you're participating in this moment in history so often, so it's amazing to hear someone talking about that moment and just being in an air conditioning closet.

Jared Spool: Exactly, right. We had no idea. We didn't know that what we were doing ... it's really funny, so that building was in Maynard, Massachusets and about 20 years later I got invited to speak in that building but by then it had been completely refurbished and the floor that the lab was on was now run by monster.com. That was their offices.

Aryel Cianflone: How funny.

Jared Spool: Part of the meeting that I was at where I was speaking, they had just build this beautiful usability lab and before I went to speak they offered to give everybody who was coming to the meeting a tour of their usability lab. So they gave this tour and it was a lovely lab and it was way bigger than what we ever had. And I turned to the person who had built it and I said, "You do know that the very first usability lab was built on this floor just down the hall from here." He goes, "No." I said, "Yeah the very first one it was right here," and so we went down, it turns out that space now is a kitchen. That's where the company kitchen was and I said, "We're standing in the usability lab, except it's this corner of the kitchen."

Aryel Cianflone: You're like we need to get a plaque or something.

Jared Spool: Yeah, this is a historic spot. This kitchen used to be the first usability lab ever built.

Aryel Cianflone: That's got to be so amazing for someone like you who was there at the inception of this to see how much its grown. Like all these usability labs, all of these professionals, really like this whole community that started with just this little teenie group in a little teenie closet.

Jared Spool: Yeah, it is. In some ways it's very weird. It's a very strange thing to think that something we were doing that from our perspective was just this hack turned out to be so important and so big.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah so you talking about that story, which is so fun to hear as someone whose kind of the beneficiary of that work that you were doing and that experiment that you were doing, yeah, maybe talk a little bit now from your perspective like I don't know, I guess I'm curious to hear where do you see all of this going next or what are you most excited about from what is happening right now. I'm curious because it's just such a unique perspective to have been one of the people in the small closet to now being one of the voices of this community that's really leading this community. What are you excited about? Where's the next experiment and the next place that you want this community to go?

Jared Spool: Oh yeah, when you said I was one of the people in the small closet, I actually have never heard it phrased that way and it makes me feel like somehow I came out of the closet, which I'm perfectly happy to have done. At some point I emerged from the closet.

I want to point out that there were a lot of people who are really smart who were in that project who became really fundamental. It wasn't just me. I've gone my path. They've all gone theirs, but there was a woman named Sandy Jones who basically invented contextual design along with a guy named John Whiteside who really taught us everything we knew about psychology at the time. He built the team. There's a guy named Bill Zimmer who is the manager of that group that had the foresight, he had no idea what were doing, but he had the foresight to let a bunch of smart people do really smart things. Dennis [Wixon 00:25:52] went on to become the head of UX for Microsoft games and invented the RITE method and did this magical stuff around iterative design. Jim Burrows, there's a whole bunch of really great people. The second generation included people like Karen Holtzblatt, who sort of popularized contextual design, Sandy's original work. There's some really wonderful people who were involved in that. I was just a, at the time I think I was 20 years old, so I was just this child amongst all these amazing people. I just happened to be there.

Aryel Cianflone: Right time, right place.

Jared Spool: Yeah. To answer your question about where it's going and stuff, for me the thing that's most interesting is this idea of bringing everyone into the design process. It went from software human factors to usability work to user experience work and now it goes under the moniker of UX design. Design sort of got molded into this process because we realized that just evaluating things all the time is not good enough. You actually have to change something at some point and so you've got this idea of a UX designer and that became this sort of career path for the longest time and however that path of being a UX designer, I think is a numbered idea that everybody is at some level a UX designer.

Aryel Cianflone: What do you mean by that?

Jared Spool: Well the clearest example is when I would be hanging around places with Dana Chisnell and I would introduce her to people when she was back working at the White House in the US Digital Service, I would introduce her as the highest placed user experience designer in the federal government. And she would always snicker at that and then correct me, and she would say, "No, I'm not. My boss's boss is the highest placed user experience designer." Her boss's boss was the President at the time for her work in the White House. At the time I thought, "Oh, that's cute," but now that that guy is no longer president and we have another president, I actually believe her right? I mean the whole user experience of interacting with government has changed since November 2016 and that person is designing the experience of being part of this country, whether intentionally or unintentionally. That happens all the time right?

When the person from legal comes in and says you have to change the screen to put this check box up that says, "I agree to the terms and conditions," or worse they say, "We have to present the terms and conditions and make the user scroll all the way to the bottom before we let them use the software." They're designing, and because they're designing, they are now also a designer, yet they're designing very poorly just like for decades we've had lots of designers designing very poorly. They're no different than any of them and the way we've always gotten from poor design to good design to great design is through learning about design. If we could help that person from compliance understand that they're designing, understand the difference between good design and bad design, understand how to predictably get good design outcomes and then understand how to go from good design outcomes to great design outcomes, they will design something that's a much better experience. That accomplishes the goal, because that's what design is.

Design is the rendering of intent and they have this intent that the person understand that there are rules to using this thing, but have they rendered that intent the best way by forcing them to scroll to the bottom before they can use the software. Design, that's design. Design is the rendering of intent. How do we help them be designers. This recognition that designers aren't just the people who HR has given the official title of designer to. Everybody who has any influence over the product is doing design. They need to understand how design works to do a good job of that because when you don't understand design, the odds of accidentally coming up with a good design are very slim. The odds are against you.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah and it's interesting hearing you talk about this particular subject because I feel like your career, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like your career really demonstrates a desire to help everyone become a designer. You're one the most prolific writers that I've come in contact with in this field and I wonder if that's partially because, well I should ask you, like what has made you so prolific in terms of the content that you're putting that you're putting out there for people and is that related to this idea of empowering everyone to become a great designer, a great user experience designer.

Jared Spool: Well it goes back to the mission right? Right now there are not enough designers to help all the products and services in the world have great design. There's no where near enough of them. We either have to make more or we have to take people who aren't designers and turn them into designers. If we're going to eliminate all the bad design from the world, then we have to create more designers and the only way to do that is to make people more aware of what design is about. I mean to me it just seems like, I mean I don't have any other way to do it. I got this mission and this is how we're going to complete the mission. I have no clue how to do it any other way.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, and I think that's such a great segway into one of your most recent projects, which is Center Center, and I would love to maybe have you just give a brief description of that for people who are unfamiliar and then talk a little bit about what you're doing with it and why.

Jared Spool: It's a school. It's a school in Chattanooga Tennessee, a bricks and mortar school. It takes two years to complete your degree. You get a diploma in UX design and technology, and the whole purpose is to create designers and our goal, our ambitious goal, is to within five years have 500 students in the school and to be graduating students every six to eight weeks. And basically what we're trying to do is for all the products and services that don't have designers today, we're trying to create an army of designers to serve their needs.

To do that we had to design a curriculum and we had to design a whole program. We built the school from the ground up and to do that, to figure out what that needed be, we went out and we did a ton of research with hiring managers and asked them what do you look for when you hire designers and have you tried hiring students and what's gotten in your way. What do you wish designers knew that they don't know when they come into your business? From that we got a deep understanding that hiring managers are very frustrated in general and they're particularly frustrated around students and recent graduates because they are not ready to work. They don't know how to do design work in their company.

Many organizations that bring in more junior designers have to build this incredible infrastructure around taking a junior designer that's this very rough individual and turning them into this finely cut jewel that can execute effectively to the point where some companies like IBM have built an internal school. In the case of IBM it started at 6 months, they've got it down to three followed by a three month internship where they take people right out of design school and they put them in this program and for the first three months all they're doing is teaching you how to work at IBM, except there's only about three weeks of material in that three month period that's actually specific to IBM. The rest of it is just like how to sit in a meeting and how to write emails and how to think about a design process and how to present your work and all of these things that you need to know but aren't taught in school.

Then the next three months are just putting those things into practice. So we looked at that, we talked to the folks at IBM and we talked the folks at about 40 other companies and we compiled a list of what we call competencies that define what it would take for someone to come out of school and be what we call 'industry ready.' Could they come out of a program and be ready to start work in a program and then we went from there and designed a program to teach students how to be competent, proficient at those competencies. That's what Center Centre's become.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, first of all I think it's amazing as I was mentioning before, just the resources that you've created for this community because there's Center Centre. There's also the All You Can Learn Library. I'm curious who you would say Center Centre is meant for versus the All You Can Learn Library versus maybe a more traditional masters program like Carnegie Mellon's, HCI, or something like that. Who would you refer to each of those resources and why?

Jared Spool: Right, so the more traditional universities are just, they're academic schools. Even though some of them have more practice oriented programs, they are still built on an academic model and the academic model hasn't changed since the first university that was started by St. Ignatius back in the 13th century, 14th century right? The Ignatius of Loyola. It was started in 1500's is when he started this school and Loyola was intended to just teach people to teach the teachings of the Pope. Its entire purpose was to spread the gospel of Jesuits. It was set up to create teachers because what they needed at the time was to be able to help have more teachers in the world. They had the same problem with teachers that we have with designers. There weren't enough teachers to teach everybody. They knew that the only way they were going to survive is if they could make people understand not just religion but just life in general.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, get the word out.

Jared Spool: Exactly. In order to actually read scripture, you have to be able to read and you have to have a mastery of language and in order to expand on the scripture and to be able to explain it, you have to have an understanding of philosophy and you have to have an understanding of the human psyche, and so all the of what we now call the humanities sort of started out of that program and programs today all come from how we teach the humanities and that hasn't changed since 1539. The basic process of we're going to open your head and pour a bunch of knowledge in and then seal it up, give you a test to make sure you've got it in there safely and then send you on your way. That method hasn't changed and frankly it doesn't work. It doesn't work for the humanities and it doesn't work for engineering and developing and designing and all the things.

I go around I give these talks and one of the talks I ask people to write down all the things they accomplished in the last week. I say "Take out a piece of paper. Write down all the things you accomplished." Then I suggest that they then next to each of the things that they accomplished I say, "Okay I want you to write down a number between zero and a hundred that represents the percentage of the skills that were needed to do that job that you learned in school. What percentage of that work did you learn how to do in school?" And hardly anybody ever has more than a 25 as their highest number for all the things they did last week. The reality is is that most of the time, most of the work we do, we don't learn in school, we learn on the job and we don't train people to learn on the job. We don't train people to be good at that. We don't create our workplaces to be good at learning on the job. If we're going to create workplaces that allow us to be better at working on the job, we need to change the way we think about learning. All You Can Learn is our first attempt at this.

Aryel Cianflone: And maybe say a little bit about what that is for people who aren't familiar with the All You Can Learn Library.

Jared Spool: So All You Can Learn is, we do these conferences, for people who couldn't come to the conferences we started doing online webinars. We call them virtual seminars, and every time we did one we recorded so it became this repository, so it's this library and it's got more than 300 UX presentations from industry experts all over the world. We highly curate it so it is basically the best experts talking about really important topics and we spend a lot of time working to make sure the topics they're doing are in fact the most important things and they're at the state of the art. So they're not just any random presentation. They're all high quality stuff.

We have them all in there and they become this resource for people. We've got thousands of people now who are using these things on a regular basis and we have all this stuff. We've been doing that for about 8 years and no, we've been doing since 2007, so we've been doing it for 10 years. All You Can Learn is 10 years now. Well that's not true, All You Can Learn, the first version of it came out in 2010 so it is seven years old, but the webinars and the recordings go back 10 years. Gosh this is making me feel old today.

Aryel Cianflone: We appreciate your experience.

Jared Spool: Well that's good. That's what we've been working on is these 10 year old things. That's what that is and it's an attempt to help people get that education into the workplace and work there. Center Centre is not following the model of the conventional Loyola descendant university, but instead is completely designed from the ground up. For example, we don't have semesters and you only take one course at a time. Each course is three weeks long and you take it from 8:30 in the morning to 5:00 at night. You'll take 30 of those courses to graduate. You don't get summers off because it turns out that that's a horrible idea for education because people lose much of what they learn in the previous year when they take a break at summer for six or eight weeks. So instead we give you six weeks off, but we spread them out through the calendar year more like a job. Very few jobs allow you to take six weeks off at a shot every year.

We're trying to prepare people for the workplace, which is exactly what the hiring managers told us. They told us that students coming out of programs, big universities, things like that, develop bad habits like thinking that if you can sit still for 90 minutes you then can go out and play Frisbee for a couple hours. That's what university life is like, but that's not what the workplace is like. You have to learn how to be productive for an entire day and that's a learned skill. You don't learn that at school, so that means that the company has to teach you how to sit and work for an entire day and managers don't like having to teach that. They really resent it. That's sort of our job and we take that on. We teach people to be able to work for an eight hour day, five days a week, just like you would in the workplace.

More importantly we teach you to work on teams so the students are always working on teamwork and the teamwork is led by a seasoned project leader not by another student who's never project led anything. Therefore, the project is led haphazardly but no one ever critiques the project leadership, which is how team projects are often done in conventional schools. Our projects, you work on five to eight big projects while you're at Center Centre. They run 10 to 14 weeks long over a five month period, five to six month period. Those projects get in depth. When you have 14 weeks with a six person project team, you can do a tremendous amount of work that you can't do in a conventional school project where if you do group work it might be a team of three students and you're expected to put 30 hours into it. Right?

The standard for design programs for out of class projects is 30 hours of work outside of classwork is what you're expected to put in. Which when your classwork is about 18 to 24 hours, it doesn't seem like an unreasonable amount. I mean 30 hours on top of 24 hours of classroom time more than doubles the time you're going to spend on that class. But in industry, we have a name for the 30 hour point in a project, we have a name for the 30 hour point in a project, we call it Thursday. No projects are four days long in real life. Right? You need projects that go on for weeks. You need projects where you spend a couple weeks on discovery, and a couple weeks on initial design ideas, and a couple weeks refining those design ideas, and a couple weeks prototyping, and a couple weeks evaluating. That's a real project.

Our projects are much more in depth and the courses are only three weeks long but the projects are fourteen weeks long, which means instead of having little projects inside bigger courses, we actually have bigger projects and smaller courses. You're coming into the project with having learned something new in your classroom work. The way it works is you take one week of classroom work and then two weeks of project, and then one week of classroom work and another two weeks sprint a project, and we do that five times, or six times or seven times to get to 14 weeks of project. You're learning.

Our students for example are working on a project right now where they're redesigning the marketing and communications website for Marquette University. They've been working on it, they're in their, they're halfway through their second and a half sprint and last week they took their ethnography course. This week they're applying what they learned in their ethnography methods course to the project. They'll do this for two weeks and then they'll take their information design course, this is the first cohort.

They'll take their information design course. Information design is how do you take large amounts of design and represent them in charts and graphs and tables. It's all the stuff that Tufte talks about and Stephen Few and Brian Suda. And they take that course, and then they'll come back and they'll work on the next thing and there'll probably be some information design aspect of the project by then and they'll have to figure out how to design it. They're always integrating what they learn in the course work right back into project work, which is very much like what my education was like when I was going to school and studying social psychology at night and then asking the question, well how do I apply this to my software development during the day.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, you know and I'm so glad that you called that out. I feel like when I hear the story of your work and your career, it seems like there's this common thread of learning something and applying it. Learning something and sharing it. Learning something and creating a school to teach it to other people and it makes me, just kind of as I'm reflecting on your career, it makes me wonder you have been so, when I'm looking into the industry and I'm looking at all of the most influential voices I feel like you have been so, so skilled at sharing and really creating community and I wonder what has been most crucial to your success doing that and just in general.

Jared Spool: Tenacity. I think to some extent it's just about sticking with something and trying and if it doesn't quite come out the way I wanted it to, trying again. Being very tenacious in that regard is been key. That's my sort of quick answer to that.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. Well what would be an example of that?

Jared Spool: I definitely don't always get things right the first time. Here's the thing, for the longest time we thought the web was one thing. We thought the web worked a certain way and then as we did more work we realized, no we were wrong. That wasn't quite right. This has happened many, many times in my career where something we thought, here's an example, there's this perception that with something like a usability test, you only need to test a small number of users in order to be able to see enough results that you can just say yes, we've seen all the big problems. If we test five users or eight users, that's all we need. We don't need anything more than that.

It turns out that everything we thought about that was not true. That was all done back in the 1980's and 1990's when computers were far less sophisticated than they are now, when there was no notion of being social online. When applications at best would be considered a hit if they had 10,000 users. Whereas now, we've got websites and services with billions of users. There's no way that five people will predict all of the major problems that a billion users will have. It just sounds stupid when you say it out loud, but this is still being taught. This is still out there.

Years ago we published research that showed how, sure five users is all you needed or eight users was all you needed, and then we tested our first ecommerce website and we realized, oh my gosh we just found out major showstopping problems on user 41 and we should have never found that out on user 41. We should have seen it way before then. Why didn't we see it? It turned out that we didn't see it because we didn't have enough people and we didn't have the right people and we didn't know how to recruit people and all these variables that we were not taking into account.

The first time we saw it was on a site that sold CD's. The first 40 users that we tested were all interested in pop music and user 41 was the first user we'd come in contact with that was interested in classical music. It turned out while the site was pretty good for popular music, it was horrible for classical music. You have this notion of an artist, but what does an artist mean in classical music? You could look up Beethoven, but people who search for classical music, actually don't, Beethoven is the easy part, it's which recording of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony that you want because there's seven million of those. How do you say, "Well what I really want is the London Symphony Orchestra version of that and I really want the London Symphony Orchestra version under Michael Tilson Thomas." How do you hone in on that recording? And that turns out to be a really hard search problem that you don't have when you're looking at Brittney Spears' albums because nobody wants ...

Aryel Cianflone: Not quite as many covers.

Jared Spool: Yeah, nobody wants Brittney Spears' albums, let alone that level of specificity on them. It turns out that that was a problem we didn't know. To get back to your question, the issue then becomes how do we have the humility to go back and say "You know that thing we thought was an unmovable truth, it turns out we were completely wrong." It's not true. In fact, our whole frame of reference tells us that in fact we've been collecting the data wrong and we've been doing everything wrong up until that point.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah. So just to summarize what you were saying, it's tenacity it sounds like paired with humility and a willingness to revaluate some of things that you maybe tenaciously thought or advocated for.

Jared Spool: Right, yeah I'm not completely committed to anything we've ever written or done. I believe that everything is still open for debate and we can go through. There are things where I'll argue with people because they present the same old arguments, but if there's new information, if there's something we haven't seen before and haven't tested against that's new for us. In those situations I'm very happy to say, you know that thing, turns out it's much more nuance. It's much more subtle. It's partially true in certain situations but it turns out there's a lot of situations where it's not true and we need to account for that. That is in my mind a critical part of the process.

Aryel Cianflone: You know I want to be sensitive to your time but one last question would be, if you're talking to someone who's newer in this field, what advice would you give to them? What do you feel like is most important for people who are starting to be involved and participating in this community?

Jared Spool: I think the biggest advice is to always be yourself. The coffee mug we have at the school says, "Always be yourself unless you're a unicorn, then be a unicorn." Figure out who you are. The number one critique that I have these days, people always show me their portfolios. They show me their resumes and I read through this stuff and I think to myself this is good stuff, but I don't see you here. I don't see who you are. In their portfolio they'll describe their process. This is my process. My process is that I first do research. I talk to stakeholders. Then I do research. Then I create sketches. Every portfolio seems to have this requirement where you have to have at least one shot of a bunch of people standing in front of a wall full of post-it's. Then I created these mock ups. Then I created these prototypes. Then I usability tested this. Then we shipped it right. The process is all the same. It's like okay good, you've got a basic process, that's a good process, who are you? Right?

What makes you, you? Tell me about that. Tell me what your challenge is. Tell me what part of this was hard because for some people the sketches are going to be hard and for other people the talking to stakeholders is going to be hard. What was hard and how did you overcome that? How did you get this result? Help me understand what you learned in that process. What did you not know at the beginning of that project that you now know? What challenges did you run into and how did you overcome them? Those are the things that I want to see that I never see in these first cuts of people's portfolios.

That's what I've learned the hiring managers want to see. They know what design process is and they don't really care about that because you're going to do whatever process they have anyways. What they want to know is how did you learn how to produce the work you did? How did you learn how to do the things you weren't taught in school because they have a whole bunch of things that you weren't taught in school and you have to be able to do them, so how are you going to learn that. They want to see that you are capable of being dropped into the middle of something that you're completely unfamiliar with and that you can navigate your way out of that and produce something pretty awesome in the process. That's what they want to see. How did you navigate your way out of not knowing at all what the hell you were supposed to be doing.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah.

Jared Spool: That's my advice. Always be looking for that story.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah I think that's amazing advice because so often, especially when you're newer to a career, I think you're afraid to show vulnerability or to show I had this challenge and it was really hard for me to figure out how to do this but, like you're saying it's so important to show our humanity. Show ourselves a little bit in the same way that as researchers we're here because we want to bring, as Elizabeth Churchill said, "We want to bring humanity into technology." I think that's really good advice.

Jared Spool: Yeah, I think that Elizabeth Churchill is one of the smartest people on the planet, so if she said something I would buy.

Aryel Cianflone: Me too. Thank you so much Jared. This has been such a cool conversation for me and it's amazing to kind of hear a little bit about what it's like, or how you became Jared Spool, the Jared Spool that we all know and appreciate today. Thank you so much for telling us a little bit about your story and what you've been up to.

Jared Spool: Oh excellent. I can't wait to hear how I became who I became.

Aryel Cianflone: I'll let you know. I'll send you a first cut.

Jared Spool: That'll be awesome. Thank you very much for encouraging my behavior.

Sep 07, 2017
Research Bento: Scaling through Collaboration - Donna Driscoll & Kassie Chaney, LinkedIn

Donna Driscoll is a senior principal user experience researcher at LinkedIn, while Kassie Chaney is a senior manager of user experience research at LinkedIn. They are powerful duo when it comes to innovating in the space. They have invented a number of techniques for doing UXR, the latest is called Research Bento. This designer led, researcher supported program allows research teams to scale by more deeply involving design in certain types of research projects. This conversation dives into the method. 

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Jun 15, 2017
Interviewing Workshop: Don't Leave Data on the Table

Ever wondered how you could get more insights out of your interviews? This week we have a few researchers who did. Marianne Berkovich, Elizabeth Baylor, and Beverly Freeman come from a variety of backgrounds, including a stint as an professor of anthropology. Together they have over 30 years of experience doing user research at companies like Microsoft, Adobe, eBay, PayPal, intuit, and Google. Our conversation was about a workshop originated by Marianne and Elizabeth, and now facilitated by Beverly as well. The workshop helps researchers continuously improve their interviewing skills. I found the takeaways helpful both personally and for a group. 

If you want a bit of extra reading, here is an article Marianne wrote about the workshop as well. 

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Jun 05, 2017
Ethnography: A 21st Century Interpretation (@CHI) - Sarah Garcia, UE Group

In any field there are some topics that are more widely agreed upon and some that are more widely debated. For UX research ethnography falls in the later. It’s defined as, “the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures.” Historically, the term has been widely used in anthropology to describe studies that can last for years and explore other cultures in an immersive way almost unheard of today. This type of ethnography, even in the academic world, is undergoing a transition as it becomes more and more difficult for men and women to dedicate themselves for such long periods of time to this type of study.

This year CHI hosted a workshop on ethnography. For UX researchers, this type of observation based study can be invaluable when trying to understand the way different groups think, feel, and behave. Sarah Garcia, who hosted this year’s workshop, sat down to tell us a bit more about it. She’s spent over 10 years at UE Group doing UX research for some of the world’s largest companies.

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Jun 01, 2017
The Future of HCI (@CHI) - Ben Shneiderman, U of Maryland

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the CHI conference in Denver. One of the people at the social and intellectual heart of the conference is Ben Shneiderman. Ben is one of the founding fathers of the field of human-computer interaction, or HCI. His publications, such as Designing the User Interface, are canonical at this point, and he founded one of the first HCI labs in the world at the University of Maryland. 

In this episode, Ben shares his perspective on the future of HCI and what we as researchers need to remember to get there. 

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May 18, 2017
Share Better: Rethinking the Research Report - Tomer Sharon, WeWork

Tomer Sharon has been doing UX research for more than 15 years. He's written two books and a couple years ago left Google to lead the UX team at WeWork, a co-working startup turned unicorn that's valued at close to $20 billion. We got together after I heard that Tomer was talking about the death of the research report. The inability of classic reports to effectively convey meaning and meet the needs of product teams seems to be a reoccurring theme. I wanted to hear how Tomer and his team at WeWork had rethought the paradigm.

Want to try Tomer’s approach yourself? Here’s the Airtable template

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May 04, 2017
Grad School: Yay or Nay Pt. 1 - Anna Turner, Google

Carnegie Mellon University, Master of Human-Computer Interaction

Anna Turner graduated with a BS in economics from the London School of Economics, but later decided to make a career shift to UX research. She used a 12 month masters program in Human Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon University to facilitate this change and ended up landing her dream job at Google!

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Apr 20, 2017
Usability Testing: Tricking Gov into Working for People - Dana Chisnell, Center for Civic Design

In the field of UX research, Dana Chisnell is a pioneer. As you will hear, she has lived and shaped it’s history and continues to do so. She is currently working as an adjunct professor at Harvard University, co-director of the Center for Civic Design, and as a principal researcher at UsabilityWorks. I went into this conversation with Dana, expecting to focus on usability testing, how to do it, what makes someone great at it, etc. etc. Dana is a world class expert on this. As you’ll see we did discuss that, but Dana’s experience in the U.S. Digital Service was a powerful reminder of the sometimes blurred lines between designer, product manager, and researcher that I couldn't help, but dig into. Enjoy!

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Apr 06, 2017
Class v. Office: Balancing the Study & the Practice - Elizabeth Churchill, Google

Elizabeth Churchill is a director of UX at Google and has worked on a number of projects, including material design. She received a PhD from the University of Cambridge in cognitive science and has since worked at a number of the world’s leading tech companies. Join us while we talk about how she has balanced the industry and academic sides of her career. 

If you'd like to check out some of the groups/publications mentioned during the episode, this should make it easier:

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Mar 24, 2017
I Have an Idea, Now What? - Sarah Doody, The UX Notebook

Sarah Doody is the creator of The UX Notebook and freelance consultant. She has been working in the UX world for over a decade and we got together to discuss what she has learned about Concept Validation, aka what happens when you or someone you work for has an idea and you’re trying to figure out if it’s worth building. 

If you want to try out what you heard in the episode, here are some helpful resources:

From Sarah - UX Research Interview Guide | UX Research Checklist | Research Course | Weekly Newsletter

From Sprint - Customer Screening Worksheet | Example Customer Screener | Example Craigslist Ad

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Mar 16, 2017
Big Questions, Better Answers - Jake Knapp, GV

Jake Knapp is a design partner at GV, formerly known as Google Ventures, and the inventor of the Design Sprint. This 5-day design process revitalizes a number of older methods to allow UX professionals to get over the day-to-day distractions and do better design work. He along with John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz authored a book on the subject called Sprint. This conversation dives into the method. Enjoy!

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Mar 09, 2017

A little preview of what's to come.

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Feb 27, 2017