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
Coaching for Creative Professionals - Laura Weiss, Design Diplomacy

Laura Weiss never expected to be a leadership coach. Growing up she knew that she was meant to be an architect and after earning an undergraduate and masters’ degree in architecture her fate seemed all but sealed. That is until she decided to change everything less than a decade later. She had realized that while she loved architecture, it wasn’t quite for her. So she decided to follow another passion and get an MBA from MIT. She went on to find a home for herself in the emerging field of design thinking, combining her love of design and business as a consultant at IDEO for almost 10 years. Today Laura is focused on helping others navigate tricky moments in their careers and grow design leaders through her work as a professor and as a coach. More and more people are turning to professional coaches as a way to grow, transition, and find fulfillment in their work, in this episode Laura shares a bit of what it means to be a coach and what you can gain from having a coach.

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Interview Transcript

Aryel Cianflone:
Welcome to this week's episode of Mixed Methods.

Laura Weiss:
First time you realize there's something else you're meant to do or you feel that there's something else you want to do, it's really hard.

Aryel Cianflone:
Laura Weiss knew she was destined to be an architect. And after earning an undergraduate and master's degree in architecture, her faith seemed all but sealed. That is until she decided to change everything less than a decade later. You see, she had realized that while she loved architecture, it wasn't quite for her. So she decided to follow another passion and get an MBA from MIT.

Aryel Cianflone:
After graduating, she found a home for herself in the emerging field of design thinking. Combining her love of design and business as a consultant at IDEO for almost 10 years. Today, Laura is focused on helping others navigate tricky moments in their careers, and grow design leaders through her work as a professor and as a coach. I've noticed that more and more people are turning to professional coaches as a way to grow, transition, and find fulfillment in their work. So I wanted to talk to Laura about what it means to be a coach, and what you can gain from having a coach.

Aryel Cianflone:
Today's episode is sponsored by dScout, a platform that makes qualitative research fun again. From recruitment, project design, to interviews, you'll get that feeling that got you interested in user centered work in the first place. Capture remote insights that spark your next big aha moment. Check out dcout.com/mm to get started.

Aryel Cianflone:
This is Aryel Cianflone, and you're listening to Mixed Methods. Today's episode, Coaching for Creative Professionals

Aryel Cianflone:
I'm so excited to have Laura Weiss with me today on the show. And I thought Laura, that we could start with just a brief introduction.

Laura Weiss:
Sure. Happy to. I am a facilitator, a mediator, a consultant, and a coach for creative professionals.

Aryel Cianflone:
So Laura, it's unusual for somebody to have so many different roles. How did you get involved in all of these different things? How did you get to this point in your career?

Laura Weiss:
Yeah, it's interesting. I actually paused at a point a year or two ago and actually asked myself that same question. And I actually realized that I could draw what my career looks like. It made sense when I made it visual. And the way I thought about it was that most people I know or people that I've come to know, their career looks like a pyramid. If you picture a pyramid where they come out of high school, they're not really sure what they might be interested in. They might have an interest, but they use college to explore different options. They might eventually settle on a major, and that major will guide them towards their first job. And then that job leads to another job, and they might eventually find their space within a certain industry they love or a company that they love, and eventually work their way up to the top of that pyramid and really find their spot. Their role, the thing that they've decided that that's who they are professionally.

Laura Weiss:
And I realized that my career was actually an inverted pyramid. If you picture it. I knew I wanted to be an architect when I was 12 and I was one of these crazy people that even when I went through high school and had other interests, I decided I would still become an architect. And I did two professional degrees and I got licensed, and I taught at the university level, and I worked for several firms. I was an architect. But something interesting happened as I say on my way to becoming an architect for the rest of my life. And it set in motion three pivot points that I've identified along the way up that inverted pyramid. And in fact, I do a talk on this topic where I draw the inverted pyramid without a top on it because that's the crazy thing about this is that I'm not sure I'm done yet, which is kind of cool given that I'm beyond middle age.

Laura Weiss:
But the first pivot was after years in the world of architecture, I realized that the design in the business world, our ability to inverse effectively with our clients around the benefits of and the value of design in terms of the built environment was really limited. And this was almost 30 years ago when design and business were not really talked about. Design thinking was not yet out there in the world. It was there but it wasn't being talked about the way it is now. My first pivot was this realization that I needed to understand better the business side of the world in order to better broach those two topics. So I went and got an MBA. That launched me into a whole other world of broader world of innovation and product and service design ultimately, and spending 10 years with IDEO.

Laura Weiss:
And that led actually to the second pivot point, which is despite doing amazing design work and developing a lot of really interesting concepts that would have probably solved a lot of critical problems in the world, things weren't really getting out into the marketplace. There's a statistic. Yeah. And design and innovation in particular. I think there was one statistic I read years ago, it may still be true that nine out of 10 new ideas, this is probably true of many startups as well. Never see the light of day for a whole variety of reasons.

Laura Weiss:
So I found it very frustrating that we were doing all this great work and a lot of it never came to fruition. And I realized what was probably sticking or getting in the way was happening outside of the consulting space and on the inside of the organizations we were working with.

Laura Weiss:
So I left and went onto this next pivot, which was to go inside of organizations who were trying to develop an innovation capability, and understand how it worked from the inside. What was getting in the way, what was maybe stopping these great ideas, whether they came from work with a consulting firm or from an internal group, from really making it out into the world or into the marketplace? And that led to the third pivot, which was the insight that a whole lot of what was standing in the way were the human beings. It wasn't the lack of a great idea. It wasn't the lack of technology. Anything and everything can be built for a price obviously.

Laura Weiss:
But ultimately, it was the way people were working together around those ideas, how decisions were being made, how people were communicating. How people were leading ultimately.

Laura Weiss:
So that led to the third and most recent pivot was you can see a reduction in scale here down to the individual and leadership level. And especially people involved in creative processes, whether they're actually designers or business people who are working and have some kind of mandate to innovate with a group as part of their role inside of an organization.

Laura Weiss:
So that's ultimately what led me through this path of doing a lot of facilitation in the context of the design work to learning about mediation and how to resolve conflict in those processes, to ultimately talking to individual and working with individuals in a coaching capacity. So that on an individual level, people can be developing a heightened ability to lead in those difficult situations, to lead through a creative process, which is naturally ambiguous and multifaceted. There's no one right answer. So that's the most concise version of my story that I've been able to come up with so far. So it's still a work in process.

Aryel Cianflone:
Well, and I love hearing about it because I think you're so right that a lot of times we have this rigid idea or conception of what our career should look like or what success looks. And you're right, it's this we get more and more specialized, we move up, and up, and up. And I think it's so cool to have somebody in a position like yours who's thrown that away and been like, "I'm going to make up a new shape that works for me that I'm passionate about." And it's so flexible.

Laura Weiss:
Well, and to be honest about it, the first pivot was the hardest. It was really hard to leave. The architecture world was something I hadn't invested a huge amount of time. And again, it was something I had a passion for from a very young age. And I followed that passion and made a lot of investments in terms of time and education, getting licensed and all that stuff.

Laura Weiss:
So the first time you realize there's something else you're meant to do or you feel that there's something else you're meant to do, it's really hard. I mean, it took me four years to finally decide I'm going to take the leap out of that profession. And it gets a little bit easier. Leaving a place like IDEO, which had been my job coming out of business school, it was one of the only types of work I could imagine back in the mid '90s that would naturally blend design and business. Fortunately, there's a lot more of those options now than there were 20 some odd years ago.

Laura Weiss:
It was only slightly less hard. Because again, I'm like, why am I leaving? But I'll tell you by the time I'm where I am right now, it's like, you know what, it will all work out. And that's a big part of what I've learned from my coaching training and working with coaches myself is that there are so many possibilities out there, and oftentimes we are the ones that are limiting our ability to see what they might be.

Aryel Cianflone:
Yeah, and I'm so glad you brought that up. I'm so interested in excited to talk to you about coaching, and what this audience in particular might be able to learn from it. I think for myself and maybe for others, I'm less familiar with the idea of a coach to help in designing your life or designing your career. I think a lot of us are a lot more familiar with therapy or those roles. So I would love to hear what you see as the role of a coach. What do you do as a coach?

Laura Weiss:
Yeah. Would it be helpful to first maybe distinguish between coaching and those other helping professions? Yeah, because you raise a really important point. And mentoring is the other one I always like to call out is something that is related but different.

Laura Weiss:
So the biggest difference between therapy and coaching is that with therapy, there's really something that needs to be healed, and it's often times connected with a past event or a set of experiences that impair an individual's emotional functioning in the present.

Laura Weiss:
And coaching on the other hand which is what I find so marvelous about it, is fundamentally future oriented. There's absolutely no reason to know anything as a coach about somebody's background, which seems weird because people want to tell you their whole background as if it's relevant. A lot of times it its, but a lot of times it's not.

Laura Weiss:
So coaching is fundamentally focused on what the future could hold. And it's based on an underlying belief that really nothing needs to be fixed. There's nothing wrong with the individual. And again, there's nothing necessarily wrong, there may or may not be in the therapy world. And oftentimes people will use these in conjunction. There'll be people who are working with a therapist and a coach.

Laura Weiss:
But coaching actually is predicated on the belief that the client is really capable of determining the best path forward if they're guided in new ways of looking at the possibilities and new ways of making deliberate choices as opposed to passively letting life happen to them. So I always like to say, and I'm sure I got this from someone else is that coaching really helps us get out of our own way.

Laura Weiss:
Now the difference between coaching and mentoring is a little bit more gray because I'll hear people use terms interchangeably. And the biggest difference is that a mentor or an advisor will draw upon their own personal experience as a way to provide guidance and make recommendations. So in other words, I might say to you, "Aryel, when I was looking for a job, here's what I did." Or, "Here's something you might do," or etc.

Laura Weiss:
And a coach will really resist doing that. It's really hard to not do that because you, people will ask you, "Well, what did you do and what would you recommend?" And periodically you'll collaboratively brainstorm in some ideas. But ultimately what a coach is trying to do is enable the individual person that they're coaching to identify what those potential next steps or some ideas for things they might try.

Laura Weiss:
And the reason why this is critical is that it actually is more sustainable. It leads to a more sustainable outcome. People use the example of telling your kids what to do and how well does that work, right? People will oftentimes, they'll nod and pay lip service to something advice you've given them. But if it isn't something they've fundamentally, a conclusion they've come to on their own. The odds are it's not really something that's going to really have impact and be something they're really going to commit to and take action on. So coaching is really about enabling three basic things. Identifying what the dream might be, something that someone might be yearning for and can't quite articulate it or imagine it. And then the second part is making some identifying and making some deliberate choices like around some different various possibilities, and then ultimately committing to action and doing it. And it's a cycle that can be repeated. It's iterative a lot like, it's a lot like prototyping.

Aryel Cianflone:
Just like your life.

Laura Weiss:
Exactly, exactly. There's this balance between action and reflection. And in the coactive model of coaching in which I've been trained, they work in tandem really nicely in the same way that if you think about prototyping and that being an iterative discovery process. There's usually a question or something you're trying to understand or something you want to explore. But if all you did was sit and think about that for a long time, you'd never take any action. Or you'd find ways to not take action or reasons to not change the status quo. If on the other thing you're just taking action with no reflection, it's like the proverbial throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks. It's really random. It's not terribly efficient. It's probably not going to get you where you need to go.

Aryel Cianflone:
We'll be back after a quick word from our sponsor.

Aryel Cianflone:
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Laura Weiss:
Probably not going to get you where you need to go. At least not very quickly. So it's a cycle of working with a coach to identify what's it that I'm trying to achieve or what's the thing I want to learn more about myself, or who do I want to become? And then very quickly identifying some things that you can try or reflect on or explore, derive the insights and learning from that. And that will yield the next thing to do. And that's exactly how prototyping works. Which is why I think the other reason I maybe not accidentally came into coaching is I saw an awful lot of connections with the design process. Right? Because both are very much discovery driven.

Aryel Cianflone:
Yeah. Well, and I wonder if as a coach you see people struggling with that idea of action. I'm sure there are a lot of people who if they're thoughtful enough to engage a coach like yourself, that are probably thinking a lot. And I wonder if you ever see a struggle with people being willing or ready to take these different actions that are required for progress.

Laura Weiss:
Yeah, absolutely. We live in our heads, right? There's a lot of neuroscience behind coaching, which I'm just beginning to learn about. And it's absolutely fascinating, and there's a lot of reasons why coaching actually works. It isn't just one of these a fad kind of thing. And what we do is we oftentimes are making decisions based solely on what we think in our head. And what we think in our head oftentimes are stories of our own creation, right? How we see the world sometimes is, it's exactly how we see it, but we're oftentimes interpreting it in ways that are false.

Laura Weiss:
There's a great term in coaching called the saboteur. And the saboteur voice is essentially that voice in your head telling you can't do that, or you don't have enough experience, which is one I hear a lot is the classic imposter syndrome. You're not ready to do that or you'll never be sufficiently trained to do that role. Or you don't have the background, etc.

Laura Weiss:
And the saboteur is essentially as someone once told me, your best friend who gives you all the wrong advice. Because it's a mechanism for protection, right? At the end of the day, our brains are wired to protect us from pain and enable us to seek reward, right? Those are the two most basic motivations for everything we do in life. So when you're on the edge of are considering doing something that's different and that maybe has risk, like all great things do, right? It's anything that changes the status quo. That voice or there could be different versions of this voice will try to protect you and say, "Don't do that." Or, "You're not ready to do that."

Laura Weiss:
So there's a bit of self compassion that goes with it and a recognition that that's what's happening. But then the next step is to kindly tell that voice to go take a hike. In coaching, we talk about giving the saboteur another job like, "Can you go do my laundry? I'm busy working on this other thing." There is some humor because it's a very serious thing on the other hand. It's you have complete agency in how you manage these different voices that are telling you what to do or not to do.

Laura Weiss:
So the getting to action is the proof, right? When people have lack of confidence, for example. That comes from first having some courage to try something, and then seeing some competency. Once you try it, you might have to try something few different times and then realize okay, I can actually see myself doing this. And then that's where confidence comes from. Right? So I just think about it's these three steps that happen to be all be C words. But it all comes from action. You have to take action in order to start to move into some kind of transformative way.

Aryel Cianflone:
Yeah. And what are some of the actions that you recommend for your clients or you guide them through?

Laura Weiss:
Yeah. So there's a lot of really fabulous aspects of coaching that I could touch on. And homework or action in between the sessions is the biggest area that addresses what you just asked. A lot of people think that the magic of coaching happens exclusively in the session with the coach. And although oftentimes you can sense a shift happening in real time through the conversation that the coach and the coachee are having, the real magic oftentimes happens between the session.

Laura Weiss:
So a lot of the times the cadence of coaching is biweekly, for example, where there's a week or so in between the times that that we'll meet because the idea is that you're out trying something, or doing something, or reflecting on something. And oftentimes we'll codesign that together. As a coach, I might come up with an idea for something and make it into a request or even a challenge is a really cool idea about in the coaching world about coming up with a really crazy challenge.

Laura Weiss:
If someone's trying to write a book for example and they're stuck. And you say, "Well, can you have a manuscript for me in a week?" And they'll be like, "No," but they can make a counter offer and say, "But how about in two weeks?" So you're getting off of the starting block.

Laura Weiss:
So there are a lot of different ways to construct homework. And there are also a lot of techniques that we use in the session as well to kind almost simulate what some of the action might be that people are hoping to take, but they're in a stuck mode.

Aryel Cianflone:
Yeah. What would one of the simulations be like or look like?

Laura Weiss:
I'll give you an example. I was thinking about this this morning of a homework in a way that it was a simple reframe of what this individual is trying to do. But framing it in terms of something that she was actually quite adept at doing. It was a little bit of trickery, but it actually worked really well. So I worked with an individual who was trying to make a significant career shift at a much later age in life, so a couple of different things working that added some difficulty to that endeavor.

Laura Weiss:
And this was an individual who was very hesitant to go out and just do even informational interviews, that really didn't believe that they had the qualifications to move into the world that they desired to move into, even though they had a graduate degree and they had a lot of years of experience.

Laura Weiss:
And yet this same individual was a very intrepid traveler. She would travel all over the world and go to crazy places, and do all sorts of really, amazing, exploratory things.

Laura Weiss:
And I said let's think about your job search as a walkabout. She actually came up with the word walkabout. I said, "Could it just be a series of little travel adventures," right? Because if you think about what you're doing in the early stages of a job search, where you might be just doing informational interviews, you're going on an exploration to a place you don't know, talking to people you've never met. But you have an agenda. There's something you want to see there. Or maybe you just want to learn something new.

Laura Weiss:
And that reframe of a job search or series of informational interviews to reframing it as a series of travel adventures. And she came up with the word walkabout. Which I know is a British term actually. All of a sudden she's like, "I can do that. Okay. I now can see how I could actually plan, and schedule, and execute a series of job interviews because it's now been framed in terms of something I am familiar with in terms of something I do have confidence around."

Laura Weiss:
So that's a taking a basic kind of request, but framing it in a way that places the individual in a place that starts at a place of familiarity and then allows them to move from there.

Aryel Cianflone:
Yeah. It's so interesting to hear as you're talking about your clients who are moving through somewhat uncomfortable situations. I think career transitions and things like that can often be very scary for us because we so often have so much of our identity tied up in what we do. And I think it's so interesting to realize that so many of the that make us afraid and those moments of transition are really about framing, right? It's the exact same action that you're asking her to do, but now it's interesting and fun.

Laura Weiss:

Aryel Cianflone:
As opposed to this really intimidating and scary process of being vulnerable and putting herself in uncomfortable positions.

Laura Weiss:
Yeah, that's exactly right. Yeah.

Aryel Cianflone:
So I'm wondering as you walk me through these different activities that you do with clients, it makes me wonder how much is the same client to client and how much is different? Are you redesigning this client coach relationship every time you go around or is it 50% is shared across different relationships? Or what does that look like?

Laura Weiss:
That's really interesting. One of the things I've had on my to do list is to take a step back from myself and see are there themes that I see regularly? But the real question I think is what do these relationships look like? And they're all unique, right? The interesting thing about a coach is that you really need to show up with being incredibly present, si the way of many things these days that it really can work to your benefit. And just there's a term called dancing in the moment with the client. So whatever they bring up in that particular session is what you're focused on then. There be some carry over from a prior conversation. You may be talking about the homework assignment if there's a desire to be held accountable. A lot of clients want you to hold them accountable for doing the thing they said they would.

Laura Weiss:
But each session really is a unique session onto itself. So individually, they can client to client, they're all unique and yet there probably are some common themes that people are struggling with. Certainly career and career transition are oftentimes the trigger that bring people to a coach to begin with. So I could probably think about some classic scenarios that I tend to hear about in the coaching, the type of coaching that I do. It's usually a transition associated with the desire to move into a new job or desire to change careers altogether. Can also be a transition within an organization. Somebody that's being tapped for a leadership role or has a desire to progress to a leadership role. That's just a different type of transition.

Laura Weiss:
So thematically, those are pretty common. How you engage with an individual one on one in their particular session is really unique to that individual, and what they need at that particular time, and going with where they need to go. Just really fascinating. The coach does not hold the agenda. The client determines the agenda and the coach is going along with them. It's fascinating.

Aryel Cianflone:
Yeah, it's funny because I think I have this innate desire to get a list of the five activities that a career coach would do with you over five sessions or something like that. But as you talk through it, it becomes so apparent that it's much more the five activities that I would design for myself and having someone to walk with me on that path as opposed to being alone and afraid in the woods.

Laura Weiss:
Yeah. It's funny because there are a bunch of different activities that, some that have come from my training, some that I've invented along the way. You really can't go in to a session with the, "And here's what we're going to do." The only time I do that is the very first session, which is the discovery session, which is 90 minutes and it's really laying the foundation for everything that's to come. And I've designed this, I invented this one activity that I do every time now because it's the dinner party. I won't reveal how it works because if anybody listening becomes a client, I don't want them to know. It's this way of revealing values, an understanding of values and self awareness on the part of the client of what their values are is at the heart of a lot of effective coaching because it becomes an important touchdown.

Laura Weiss:
So even though I have a grab bag of things that I've used in the past or things that I've been taught, or things that I've designed and invented. I don't go into any given session thinking this is what I'm going to use today, right? A lot of it is improv, right? Is receiving what the client is telling you, listening and hearing it, and then figuring out in that moment what to do next. And oftentimes it's asking a question or saying let's try this. Right? There are a lot of very interesting little activities you can do in real time together, not necessarily just outside as part of their homework, that are pretty effective and are part of my standard playbook. But none of it's premeditated.

Aryel Cianflone:
Yeah. And it's interesting to hear you say that the first conversation is really about figuring out values. Right? Because I don't know, I guess part of me thinks don't we all have similar values? But you're right. For example, the woman you spoke about, it sounds like discovery, exploration are things that she highly, highly values and would need to be a part of a fulfilling career. I guess it leads me to the question of are there other milestones for you like that along the coaching path where it's like first we determine values, then we determine actions, career options?

Laura Weiss:
Interestingly enough, at least in my view of coaching and am sure it will evolve over the years as I do more of it. And everybody eventually despite their training develops their own process.

Laura Weiss:
But for me right now, the ultimate thing to focus on really are the goals, right? And the goals, and/or a life purpose. That's another thing oftentimes that is coupled with all of that. It's almost like your north star, it's a term a lot of people like to use instead. Even if you don't have a particular goal, and some people do and some people don't. There's the idea about having a capital A or big A agenda item that you're coming into coaching with. And sometimes there are little little A's or small A, if you think about the word agenda. And sometimes they work in tandem. Sometimes the little A agenda items or stepping stones to that big one, sometimes they're disconnected. So a client may say ultimately I want to start my own business, but I also in the meantime want to get healthy and want to start working out more. Right?

Laura Weiss:
So one's a little A agenda because that you can start right away. The setting up your own business might take awhile. Sometimes the little A agenda is the thing that is going to get them one step closer to that big A agenda.

Laura Weiss:
But sometimes people don't even have a goal. They're just like, "I just want to figure out what I'm meant to do with my life." Right? And that's more of a larger life purpose.

Laura Weiss:
So I think it within, there's the overall career or the overall coaching arc rather is towards a goal, or something they're trying to figure out or make progress towards that was the trigger for entering into coaching. And the coach's role is to really continue to monitor where are we relative to that, right? I've worked with clients also where their goals change, right? Or they've accomplished that goal and they're ready to do it. They're immediately ready to do something else, right? Oftentimes that might also be the point where your coaching relationship is complete, right? Everybody moves on. So it's completely determined by the individual coachee when that happens. And the coach's goal is to help stay aligned with whatever the stated goal is or whatever it is they're trying to accomplish at that point in time.

Aryel Cianflone:
Yeah. I feel like I'm a little bit in awe imagining someone coming to me and saying, "Help me figure out what my life purpose is." It seems like such an intimidating or huge endeavor.

Laura Weiss:
It is. And it's an exploration, right? So there is an activity or a couple of different activities that a coach can guide somebody through to help them actually start to elicit insights into that life purpose. But again, that's something they could change. Right? Again, it's another prototype. It's something you might come up with a working version of. And then over time as you play with it or try it on and live with it, that you realize it needs some tweaking. It's a little bit of that, but more of this other thing. So yeah.

Aryel Cianflone:
And it makes me think that so often when we hear things like life purpose, I think instantly we have this conception of right and wrong or there's this one answer, this thing that I need to discover and once I dig up this diamond, I'll have my life purpose. And I think hearing you talk through how you approach that request, it feels much more doable. It's much more approachable to say, "I'm going to start thinking about this." I'm going to start messing around with different ideas of what this could be versus I'm going to figure out my life purpose, which is so daunting.

Laura Weiss:
Exactly. Or the belief that I have one life purpose. If you think back to the diagram I described of my career as this inverted pyramid or without a top to it. Right? It's like if I had just believed that, and I did for a long time, that architecture was my life. And how could I do anything else? That was the choice I made. I would probably still be an architect and maybe a very unhappy one.

Laura Weiss:
So I think there are things that we believe because it's what society tells us. We don't live in isolation. We live in a world that informs and influences how we think about what we should do, right? If we have this kind of education, here's what we should do. Or we live in this kind of a community, here's what you should do. Or we came from this family of origin, etc. But that's a social mindset. That's not what might really be in your heart of hearts of what you want to do.

Laura Weiss:
So coaching really helps bridge those two because we do live in a real world, right? Coaching is not about creating a fantasy world that you can never actually find your way into or to create for yourself.

Laura Weiss:
But yeah, it is about opening yourself up to, looking at new ways of looking at possibilities, which also is a design exercise. That's the other interesting, that's what designers do naturally is you go wide and look for divergence before you converge on a solution. It's almost exactly what a lot of coaching is about, is first considering lots of things before you pick one thing.

Aryel Cianflone:
Yeah. And as you describe that, it's interesting to think about how it sounds like probably part of coaching as well is giving people a safe space to put away the model that they have in their head for what it's supposed to look like. To just have the freedom to say maybe I'm somebody who is this other shape.

Laura Weiss:
That's why distilling it down to values and also strength, so there's a Gallup StrengthsFinder is a tool that I've started to develop to use as an adjunct aspect of my coaching. And the concepts of values and strengths or talents which are all interwoven because they're at the core of who we are, it is the way to do exactly what you've just described. If you remove the labels, or the roles, or the job descriptions and go back to essentially what you value, what your natural talents are, that's a way to reveal different, I love the term shapes, right? Different shapes for how you spend your life. Right? And by the way, I don't use the term career coaching because it is a holistic view. Career tends to be the trigger. But oftentimes, decisions made about career affect what happens in your relationships or how you spend your time. So what I found interesting is that there are a few clients that I've been working with for more than half a year now let's say, some much more than a year. But it started out as a conversation about career has become also a conversation about relationships. Because they're all intertwined, right? Decisions. Things you say yes to in one area might suggest you say no in other areas and then that changes over time. So yeah.

Aryel Cianflone:
Yeah. Laura, I'm wondering how similar or different you feel like the client coach relationship and that journey that you go on together is from let's say a project that you did at IDEO during your time there.

Laura Weiss:
That's interesting. There's this tool that we used to use at IDEO called the mood meter, and it was a way to set expectations with the client about what the journey with us as consultants were going to be. In other words, it was like a sine wave. If you picture a horizontal line that represents time, and a smiley face above the line and a frown face below the line. We draw a squiggly line that at various points in the project went up and down above and below that line. And it was a great way of setting expectations that sometimes this is going to be a lot of fun, and sometime you're going to be like, "What is going on? How are we ever going to make a decision? How are we going to reach our desired outcome?"

Laura Weiss:
And I think sometimes for coaching, and really any kind of project can take that arc. Certainly not knowing, there's no prescriptive outcome. There's a desired outcome, but what it actually looks like is the thing that's to be determined. And I think that's maybe what a creative, or design, or innovation process might look like that's similar to the way a coaching relationship might look over time. I'm not sure I answered your question though.

Aryel Cianflone:
You answered the question. I think what you're saying is that both are creative processes. Both require flexibility and a willingness to be comfortable and uncomfortable.

Laura Weiss:
It's like mindedness. I like the term discovery driven. It's not hypothesis driven. It isn't like here's the solution we think should pop out the other end. Let's now work to prove or disprove that. Right? That'd be the same as a client saying, "I think I need to continue to be a lawyer, but I'm not sure. Can you help me figure that out?" Right? That's starting with the hypothesis as opposed to, "I'm not sure what's next for me. I want to figure that out."

Aryel Cianflone:
Yeah. Coming in with that open mindset.

Laura Weiss:

Aryel Cianflone:
Well, and as we talk about some of the clients that, or the characteristics of clients that you enjoy working with most or that maybe have the most favorable outcomes of the interaction. I'm wondering, yeah, how would you describe that person? You just said someone who comes in with an open mind?

Laura Weiss:
Totally. Open mind. A willingness to learn something new. Again, a lot of this is about, it's about self discovery, right? So if you come in with here's who I am and I have a fixed mindset about that, and I just need help with my resume. Right? That is not a good use of a coach. Right? There are other professionals that can help you with something like that.

Laura Weiss:
So I think a desire and willingness to learn, and open-mindedness to what you might learn, right? Being open minded to discovering something about yourself or about a possibility that hadn't really occurred to you. A desire to be collaborative. This is another thing that's really unique and I think really powerful about the client coach relationship as opposed to a client or a student teacher, or an employee boss kind of relationship, is that it's highly collaborative. It's empowered. There's this concept of the designed alliance, which is a tool that comes out of coactive coaching, that I now actually use outside of coaching when I facilitate large groups. That's a different story.

Laura Weiss:
But in the coaching context, it's another one of these things that's established at that very first session. And it's essentially how are we going to work together? How are we going to be with each other client? What do you need from me as a coach? And then I can make similar requests.

Laura Weiss:
And it becomes this living document that, and it's literally written down so that if weeks or months later, something's not working, we can refer to it and say, "Hey, what do we need to change?" Right? So that's where the collaborative nature comes in. It isn't just like the client shouldn't have the expectation that I tell you what I'm trying to do and you're going to give me some answers. It's like we're going to work together on this. So the desire to have that interplay and do it in a mutually empowered way is I think what makes for a really healthy and productive client coach relationship.

Aryel Cianflone:
Yeah. And it sounds like both priorities are co-responsible. I don't know, that seems like a funny way to put it. There's so much that I think a lot of people, myself included thinking about a coach or these different people who can help, so to speak in your life. Sometimes it's like I have this problem. I'm going to engage this person and they're going to solve it. But it's so much about you facilitating this person solving it for themselves.

Laura Weiss:
Yeah. And back to the design process just because I think there's so many great connections. The most productive design projects that I was ever involved with were those where we would engage the client to codesign the solution with us. Now there are obviously appropriate points in that process to bring them in, but as soon as they understood what was going on and had a hand in actually interpreting or discovering the opportunities, and almost co-designing the solution with you. Again, it's back to that sustainability of the outcome. The odds are that's something that's actually going to stick. In the case of a new product or service, it may actually get launched. In the case of coaching, those behaviors, those actions, those new ways of being and doing, become part of that person's life. So that collaborative codesign, mutually empowered relationship is I think critical to successful coaching.

Aryel Cianflone:
Yeah. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. The more we feel ownership, the more we actually hold on to something.

Laura Weiss:
Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Aryel Cianflone:
That last comment reminded me of what you were talking about at the beginning of the episode where going and working in these organizations is really what got you inspired in coaching because you saw that it wasn't actually a lack of technology or resources, it was really people. And I'm wondering as we're getting to the end of the conversation, what is your hope, what have you seen in terms of how coaching or engaging in these coaching activities, behaviors, can have that change that you were hoping for in the beginning?

Laura Weiss:
Yeah. One of the things I've really come to realize and have become a real advocate for, especially working with emergent or executive design leadership, is the leadership aspect of it, right? It's so easy to get caught up in learning the craft, which is critical, right? And understanding new technology and all of that. But the real leaders of the future. And if we really believe as I do, that design is a potentially really powerful, strategic tool in creating change in the world and all the things that we know need to be changed. Then we need to up their game as leaders. I'm still amazed, maybe amazed, but maybe not so surprised that a lot of people that I know and I have students who go off and work inside of large tech companies in the UX or other design groups. And oftentimes they're still seen as people who just make things look nice, right? Or make the screen work.

Laura Weiss:
And design has such a potential to be a leader at the front end of that creative process to determine what is the problem to be solved? How do we frame it? How do we explore it? How do we interpret the insights from research, etc.? That the skills associated to do that really are these human to human communication skills, right? The ability to understand how to listen, how to have empathy, how to ask powerful questions. How to frame, etc. All of those things that I was mentioning.

Laura Weiss:
So what I always like to say is that design leadership is the currency that you should be trying to cultivate or trying to invest in, in the same way you invest in your craft. I think places of education and other programs, professional development programs inside of organizations are just starting to see that and see the benefit of enabling development of those skills. And I think coaching can help with that as well. I work one on one, but I also work with teams of leaders, and project teams also that are trying to create better outcomes and effect change. At the end of the day, this is all about affecting change in the world. That's what design and innovation essentially is, is creating some kind of change. So being a leader within a system where that change is happening is absolutely key.

Aryel Cianflone:
Thanks for listening today. If you want to continue this conversation, join us in the Slack group for Q&A with Laura next week. You can find more details on Twitter. And if you aren't already a member of our Slack group, feel free to request an invite under the community tab on our website, mixed-methods.org. Follow us on Medium and Twitter to stay up to date with the latest UX research trends.

Aryel Cianflone:
Special thanks today to Denney Fuller, our audio engineer and composer. And Laura Leavitt, our designer. See you next time.


Aug 08, 2019
The Future is Life-Centered - Jane Fulton Suri, IDEO

Today’s guest, Jane Fulton Suri, always seems to be looking at the world in a new way and helping others to as well. She is currently a Partner Emeritus at IDEO, where she has been working since the late 80s in a number of different roles, including Chief Creative Officer and Executive Design Director. Jane is an expert observer and has a way of approaching each project with a voracious curiosity that has been inspiring the research world for decades. She is unequivocally one of the founders of the field of design research, a psychologist by training, who pioneered the idea that observing behavior and bringing principles of psychology into a design context could create a more human centered world. Listen to this episode to find out more about Jane’s path and her passion for not only Human-Centered Design, but something she is now calling Life-Centered Design.

Listen Now

Interview Transcript

Aryel: Welcome to this week’s episode of Mixed Methods and the third in our series about the future of UX research.

As you’ll soon notice, I didn’t host today’s conversation myself. Nadia Surtees a talented design researcher and friend did. Mixed Methods at its heart has always been about building community around research and what better way to show that than to include as many voices in the conversation as possible. So today is a first, but hopefully not a last. Here’s this week’s show:

Jane: I'd always thought about human beings as living beings, part of nature, not separate, personally. I began to want to talk about the opportunity to think of ourselves not just about human and human culture, but ourselves within a broader system, a broader ecosystem of other living things of which we are apart.

Aryel: Ever since I became a researcher, I’ve loved the work of today’s guest Jane Fulton Suri. She always seems to be looking at the world in a new way and helping others to as well. She is an expert observer and has a way of approaching each project with a voracious curiosity, I find so inspiring. Jane is unequivocally one of the founders of the field of design research, a psychologist by training, who pioneered the idea that observing behavior and bringing principles of psychology into a design context could create a more human centered world. I struggled with what to call this episode because Jane and Nadia managed to pack so much wisdom and insight into such a small amount of time from how to inspire and inform your team to how biomimicry and the circular economy will change the future. I hope you enjoy today’s conversation as much as I did.

This is Aryel Cianflone and you're listening to Mixed Methods. Today's episode, The Future is Life-Centered.

Today’s episode is brought to you by dscout, a platform that makes qualitative research fun again. From recruitment, project design, to interviews, you'll get that feeling that got you interested in user-centered work in the first place. Capture remote insights that spark your next big “a-ha!” moment. Check out dscout.com/mm to get started

Nadia: Jane, you're a psychologist by training. What inspired you to bring these philosophies and practices into the design world?

Jane: Yes, that was a long time ago, remembering back to being a psychologist. I think the thing that really got me excited about psychology was the application to everyday life. There are lots of branches of psychology that look at different things like education or, say, mental health. But I was just fascinated by people's behavior and the relationships that they had with stuff in everyday life. I wanted to understand more about that, and find ways that we could apply understanding to the things we make and the spaces we create and the services we provide. I just felt there was a big unmet opportunity to apply what seemed to be fairly academic and distant to everyday life.

Nadia: How did you get started with IDEO, and I believe it was ID2 back in the time that you began?

Jane: It was, yes. It was a lucky find for me. I had for many years, been struggling a little bit to find how to ... The idea of application of psychology, how do I get to meet the right people in order to do that? I started out working on finding things that had gone wrong. I had a job with a research institute that was basically troubleshooting mismatches between people and the stuff that was being designed, and mismatches meaning companies were discovering nobody knew how to use their product or they were having accidents with the product. I would go in and explain why, which was usually some sort of design assumption that had been made that was faulty.

I was coming from a place of, "Oh boy, it's too late. I need to get with designers when they're making decisions about things." So I knocked on doors of design companies for many years, and I did some early teaching on design courses, thinking, "Well, talking to students as they're becoming designers and helping them think about people a bit more deeply might be a useful way in." All of that was useful. But it was only when I had this almost chance meeting with Bill Moggridge, who was the founder of ID2 at that time.

I was staying in San Francisco, and a friend of mine said, "You should meet this guy. He's a designer and he thinks about people." So I went to meet him, and we just had an amazing conversation, and it ended up with him asking me, "What would you like to happen as an outcome of this?" I said, "I'd like you to offer me a job," which was very unlike me to just come out with something like that, but that's what happened. He said, "Well, let's see what we can do about it," and that's what we did about it.

Even then, in the early days, I had to meet everybody, I had to meet everybody in the studio in San Francisco, and of course being British, I was on a visa, short-term visa, and I had to meet everybody in the UK office. I just loved everybody. There was obviously really good chemistry, and I wanted to continue living in San Francisco and not go to London because I knew what working in Britain was like. Not that it was bad, but it was a special time back then of a new technology that was beginning to take hold, basically personal computing, and of course, San Francisco and Silicon Valley was ahead of the UK at that time, especially in a ... well, Silicon Valley, just being where it was all happening creatively.

I'd had the experience in London, I think, of failing to get people excited about the idea that I had. It seemed like a moment, in what was happening around Silicon Valley, including San Francisco, to be involved in those conversations because it was clearly something that companies were asking themselves, "This is a new thing. How are people going to work with this, and what should we call it, and how should we do it?" There were lots of firsts of happening, and a lot of uncertainty about how to design things. Yeah. In the UK, one of the phrases that I'd got used to hearing was, "Well, we've always done it this way. There's nothing wrong with what we're doing," and maybe some reluctance to think afresh, and it was inevitable in San Francisco. That was my thinking.

Nadia: You just brought up a really interesting point about how do you get people excited about design, and for me, what's really striking about your approach is how you've infused inspiration into design. How did you begin with thinking about how to bring inspiration into the design process?

Jane: I think I learned about that pretty swiftly, because ... I mean, even going through the interview process with Bill and meeting all the designers, I became aware of the responses that were excited and seeing possibility and seeing opportunity in things that I was talking about. I told them about my experience, and about things going wrong, and of course, they could see why things had worked out the way they had worked out. I could see the excitement that certain kinds of stories I would tell about things in the world would meet them where they were, in terms of, I'm a designer so I can do something about it. I can make a decision, I can do it differently.

I just learned, from day-to-day interactions with the designers, that certain ways of approaching things would result in action. I think I had come from more of a tradition which was that ... especially, a researcher would come with information, and you would present information, and a long list of points or things to consider or more academic way of rapportage out of the observations or discoveries that we were making. But I found that by working with designers together and making discoveries together, we would own it together and they would feel empowered to act.

That's a really important thing in design and innovation, is not just to hear how things are, but for that to be a jumping off point and a point that makes you want to actually do something. That's what I think of inspiration as that, really the thing that makes you ... I guess, the word comes from breathing in, and that gives us power to live and move and use our muscles' energy. That became a phrase, to inspire and inform. It's not just about inspiration, but it needs to be informed. That's become a catch phrase in a way to inspire and inform, or information and inspiration. They have to live together, one feeding the other, and they relate.

For me, the idea of inspiration does relate to insight, because I think I mentioned discovering together with the designers. I think that idea of, "Oh wow, I never saw that before," or, "I never thought of it that way," or, "I didn't really interpret it that way." That moment of discovering something that you didn't know before is inspiring, and that, I think, is what an insight is; when something hits you as a new frame or a new piece of information that ... and you have a relationship with it because it makes you want to react, respond.

Nadia: The phrase you used before about empowering these designers to act, can you share a story of how a designer who wasn't so familiar with human-centered design, perhaps a designer from a graphic design background, was empowered to act through this process of inspiration?

Jane: I remember a very early project was related to the design of a scanner for use in retail, a laser scanner that reads barcodes. The big idea that the client had about this was, it was great because the unit would sit just on an existing counter, so it didn't need to be built in. It was a really easy thing to adapt, and it was very inexpensive because he was using very few lasers, which meant that, when you brought a barcode into its realm, you had to be very careful and specific about where the barcode would show up, otherwise it wouldn't read because it was a bit scarce on laser beams.

We spent quite a lot of time understanding the pattern of laser beams and where the place was that these barcodes needed to be introduced and how were we going to communicate that to regular shop people, users, and how could they learn to use it accurately really, really fast? Because right now, it was taking ages to teach them. We all got a bit seduced into ideas that related to how to communicate the sparked, by describing the lines that the laser beam was taking. We did some quick user trials, just inviting people in to try out some of our prototypes.

That was always a bit of a struggle with designers, like, "I'm not ready yet. I'm not ready yet." I'd be like, "No, come on. Let's just try because we're going to be spending time investing in this. So we should be checking ideas quickly." Checked the ideas, and then we quickly realized, I too in a way, just through that experience, that we were really focusing on the wrong thing. All the person needed to do was to have guidance to ... We came up with the idea of a target to point at, that might have nothing to do, whatsoever, with the way the things working.

But if we did just a little target graphic, it was very clear that you're supposed to match this with the target, and it worked straight away and we just were like, "Well, this is why we show people things and do things with people and look at their behavior, and we don't spend all our time thinking about it in our heads and drawing things on our drawing boards. We'll build it, test it, we learn really quickly. That was a very quick learning for both of us to learn together and see how to reach a conclusion that was incredibly successful.

It was so successful that people that we were testing the devices with thought that we were using completely different technology, because they could make one work, the one with the target, and they couldn't make the other one work, which was actually exactly the same, but it wouldn't work.

Nadia: Where did you get the inspiration for the target, to place on the scanner to begin with?

Jane: The idea of the target would have come, I believe, through a conversation between myself and the designer, when we were talking about, what is it that people need to be successful? They just need a target. A target. Well, there's an idea. Let's try a target. I mean literally. It was used metaphorically or figuratively, originally, the word, but the word, the conversation led to the solution, I think.

That's very literal example of the conversation leading to a solution, but I think that actually is core to the idea of collaboration, that the conversation struggling with the what did you see, what did we make of it, how together we're reaching some sort of insight, and then of course trying it out. Then it became really obvious, like, "Why didn't we think of that in the first place?"

Nadia: One thing that inspires me about your approach is how you're constantly experimenting with so many new methods to the world, and borrowing from many different disciplines and infusing it into human centered design. How do you have the confidence to weave together so many different methods and continue to experiment?

Jane: That's interesting. Is it confidence? It may be confident, it may be desperation. I'm thinking ... I think an important idea there, for me, is trying to get to the root of what I'm trying to learn. In any design challenge, I think I'm trying to unpack what it is that we don't know or where we might learn something that could help us think differently about something that seems intractable, or just we're bored by the challenge and we need to get excited because we need to do this.

I think it's a little bit about stepping back to first principles to ask that question, "Where might we learn something interesting, inspiring, new, and who might we involve, and how might we do that?" I'm sure I've done things that didn't really work, and haven't probably talked a lot about those. When you said confidence, I thought, often, we have no idea where the answer is going to be. I would probably be wanting to try several things. It would be more about, "Let's try this, and see if we can learn something." If that isn't fruitful, we would try something else.

I think one of the things I've always struggled with is the idea that there is a way to do this. As we've formulated good practices and we've shared with the world ways that design research can weave into a program, it always makes me slightly nervous that we're defining activities to do because, in actuality, we need to create space to allow exploration and failure along the way, and pivoting, reset where we're headed. That can be hard when you've asked somebody to spend a lot of money funding you to do one thing and you turn round and say you want to do something wildly different.

Nadia: Could you tell us a story of a project where there was more of a radical departure from traditional research methods and how that shaped a project?

Jane: Yes, I can tell you one of my favorites. We were working for Havaianas, who make flip flops, and they ... Brazilian company, they had asked us to think about how they might expand their products to include bags, not just shoes. The team really wanted to learn about the essence of Brazil and Brazilianess that is threaded through Havaianas into their product line. So they went to Brazil, and when I talked with the team about how they'd approached the program, they sheepishly said, "Yes, but Jane, we didn't do any interviews." I said, "Well, okay. I don't have a big thing about interviews. What did you do?"

They said, "Well, we were so excited by the way that colors are used in Brazil, and we took photographs and made studies about the way that color is used." They had photographs, all in their project space, of color that was either tying elements together in what looked like they just brought several items together to build something, but they'd painted everything blue and they were wearing blue uniforms. So there was some unity created by color, or things that were just maybe more fun and demonstrable.

This had led to them thinking a lot about how they would use color in the bags, and they had a whole system worked out about inside and outside. Another thing that they'd been looking at was the way that design operates in a very ad hoc kind of way in a country like Brazil, and built that into their own process. I was like, "This is the most exciting design research I've seen in so long," because they had put a lens on the world that had informed the design very directly and effectively.

I thought it was perfectly appropriate way to address the challenge that they were given, and it made me think that, "Yes, I'm really glad, and they really shouldn't be feeling guilty about not interviewing anybody." They'd done a lot of observation, not just color, but also the way that people carried things, the way things slung gently over people's shoulders. It wasn't all tight and European. It was very loose, mobile feeling. They'd done a wonderful job.

Nadia: That's awesome. How do you continue to get inspired?

Jane: I think I'm a really lucky person, because I just get inspired by most things in some ways, and especially people. I mean, I find I'm excited by what people make, and I'm excited just by what people do. I mean, this sounds very general, but I've thought about it a lot. It is true that this is what inspires me, and I think also the opportunity with people to explore those things behind their making and behind their doing, exploring those things together so that it's more of a collaborative exploration than formal or interview, or me observing you and taking from you.

I like the opportunity to say, "Oh, I noticed that while you were doing this, you do this. Why do you think you do this?" And make that more conversational. That, I think for me, goes into even things that haven't got anything to do with any kind of project. It's just a way ... it's how I navigate the world, is this unbridled curiosity, which probably drives people crazy sometimes, but it feeds me and I think it creates a connection with other people.

Because, it's interesting when somebody is interested in something about you that wasn't necessarily what you were projecting or the way you thought that people were thinking of you. This kind of what's behind it, what's underneath it, but probing, but in a friendly way. I think I find that really inspiring to me.

Nadia: Has there been a moment where you've spent time with a person, where this underlying behavior has led to a really unusual insight on a project?

Jane: I think one thing that comes to mind is realizing the power of turning the camera off. I'm sure there's lots of instances, but as you were asking that question, I thought of a rather dramatic moment, which was, we were doing something about dog food, I think. For some reason, it was not my tendency to use video actually, but we were videoing these interviews, and we were asking somebody about dog and how they feed their dog and all of this kind of thing. Then we finished the interview, packed up the camera, ready to go, and then we started ... I think the dog probably leapt into the room or something, and we started talking more about the dog.

There was a moment that was this realization that everything that we'd heard on the interview, and this was something I shared with the guy as he was talking, was a view of a dog which was different from what I was observing as his relationship with his dog, which was that, he enjoyed the wildness of his dog, like the wolf of the dog, and not this member of the family kind of ... Anyway, that just did feed an insight around how to talk to dog owners about dogs, especially big dogs. It just struck me that that wouldn't have happened if we hadn't just hung out for that time after the formal interview.

Nadia: That's really interesting, observing this wolf nature. Maybe it was talking to something instinctual that we all have in our own hearts, of wanting to let out an animal out in some way. Thinking about that, I'm really curious about the set of nature cards that you created, and your connection to living systems.

Jane: Yes. Well, I suppose ... Let me think. I mean, that's something that's been with me all my life, but I didn't really find an opportunity to make it connect until, well, I mean, fairly recently. I suppose it's only been 10 years I've been really thinking about that. But I think it came to me through exposure to movements like the biomimicry movement, for example. I've always been an admirer of Jeanine Benyus, and the ... yes, and Biomimicry, but it always felt a little separate from human-centered design. I knew that, we at IDEO, and I personally, had this really strong belief in human-centered design because design is a human thing, and we're doing it for ourselves.

But the biomimicry movement has its own process and is somewhat ... well, is it incompatible with what we were doing with human centered design? But I'd always thought about humans, the wolf. I'd always thought about human beings as living beings, part of nature, not separate, personally. I began to want to talk about the opportunity to think of ourselves not just about human and human culture, but ourselves within a broader system, a broader ecosystem of other living things of which we are apart. As we started to develop more opportunities around design challenges that were really big, global challenges, where food for everybody or fresh water or even air quality start to play in with thinking more systemically.

It seemed like a natural place to reassess our place, human beings' place, within the idea of a system, and not only laddering up to ecosystems and that we depend on these intricate systems around us for the things we need, like food, but also the fact that we're discovering all these things about ... that we are, ourselves, host to millions and millions of little microbes that are contributing to our own health. The micro level and the macro level, the system and our place in it, is really important and how might we be more aware of that as we're taking on these systemic design challenges.

It began to make a lot more sense to think about the role of nature and natural systems. I hired a biologist and we did some work in Cambridge with a biologist for a couple of years, and it was working with him that led to the development of those cards because he found himself on a whole range of different projects, referencing things in nature that might be relevant to that project, and changing the form of the conversation a little bit.

Nadia: How would a life-centered designer think and act, as distinct or maybe as a build on how human-centered designer might think and act?

Jane: I think, well, it's yet to be seen in some ways, because I don't think it's fully got traction by any means. But I think some of the things would be around, well, thinking systemically, thinking about the relationships between things, that nothing exists outside of relationships with other things, and people, also. But, as we think of ... Historically, we as designers did a lot of designing a thing, and now I think we need to think more about how that thing co-exists in the system. I think that is a life-centered way of thinking.

Also, looking for synergies and benefits, where one solution or say one client company needs to, or has the opportunity to create something that's more of a platform for others to engage in. Maybe more collaborative and less competitive in the way that we might approach things as design problems or design opportunities. I think maybe there would definitely be more emphasis on endurance and resilience in the face of change or in the face just of time, is a way to think more life centeredly. We're designing a lot more these days for the emergence of behaviors, so that when we deliver something, quite often we're delivering some sort of platform or some sort of system that will evolve over time, and that we don't know quite how it's going to play out.

I mean, in truth, we never did know how it was going to play out. But I think now we're actually designing more deliberately for things that will have a life of their own in the outside world, because people will engage with them in different ways, they'll grow, they'll change. All of those attributes and a consciousness of them, I think, are what would make a life-centered designer think differently. In some ways, I think maybe what I'm doing is describing systems designer. But where the life-centered design part comes in, for me, is that I think that life as a system is really inspirational.

When you start to learn about, "Oh yes, people used to think that juniper trees were being destroyed by the mistletoe that grows in them, that the mistletoe's a parasite and just takes, takes, takes. But then biologists have discovered that actually what's happening, is that the mistletoe's attracting birds to the tree, and while the birds they're eating the mistletoe, they're also picking up the juniper berries and they're spreading them around the world more effectively as part of a distribution, and so, in fact, it's symbiotic but we didn't actually know that because we had a frame around it being competitive. Doesn't that make you think about things that we've always assumed were competitive, might actually be ... What's the word? I just said it.

Nadia: Symbiotic?

Jane: Symbiotic, yes. Symbiotic.

Nadia: Thinking about symbiosis, the rise of circular design is really starting to take off. How can inspiration play a role in helping companies think about being more circular, both in the inputs and the design and the outputs back into the whole process?

Jane: I think there are lots of examples, in nature, that we can learn from that, are maybe more physical and literal, like the way that things compost. I mean, there are companies who are taking waste from one industry and using it to create their output and then passing that on to another company who uses it in some other way. I think those kinds of relationships of how things get transformed through time or through decay, are really powerful examples. I mean, they're powerful examples both metaphorically and physically, because we can look at the way material is structured as examples.

Looking at ways of achieving ends without toxicity, and the world is learning from adhesives that are used in nature ... though that nature uses, that we can apply as bonding methods, and manufacturer all of that kind of things happening. Because I'm not really that kind of a scientist. I guess I think about it quite a lot more from a metaphoric point of view. One of the things I learned from the biologist that I really loved, was about the way that old trees die, where he talks about the fact that we think of it as the tree going back to first principles of just becoming broken down.

But what he taught me was that, what a dying tree gives to the ecosystem around it is far more useful molecules than just basic ones. There are essential acids and material that's been processed already, that can be used. There's still an energy in it. It's not completely entropic, the dying tree is giving away IP in a way. The way I like to think is, as we think about things like destruction or failure or companies needing to, well, just stop trading or something, there's always value there that could be built on by somebody else bringing some new energy to it.

I just find things like that really inspirational ways of talking about some of the issues around the circular economy that are at a higher level, obviously, than the material science of it. But both, I think, relate.

Nadia: You're making me think of how Tesla gives away a lot of their IP and they're clearly in a state of abundance, but fueling the ecosystem at large, by being generous with their learning, in a way that a tree might give.

Jane: Yeah, that's perfect example. That actually is one of the examples that I use about the idea of reciprocity in nature. I mean, it isn't driven from kindness or ... and neither is in Tesla's case. There's a really good business case for empowering that whole industry to get bigger and grow the pie, as it were. In nature, I think, in life, organisms find this balance of intention between taking and giving, and I think that's a great model.

Nadia: Thinking of taking and giving, we're now in a world of so much data, able to take so much from people. I'm curious, when you're thinking about the future of design research and a research world where we have so much data now to play with, how do we continue to give back to people in a really meaningful way to support their life and them living their best lives?

Jane: Well, there's lots of that. Lost there, really. One, I think would be, as I think in the practice of design research as we've evolved it, we have more thought about it as a core discovery. I think that's going to ... I think we should be continuing to think about that, that as we're learning, we're learning together and sharing those insights, even in the moment or in the immediacy of it, and then staying true to the purpose of human-centered design, I think, or life-centered design, as in ensuring that we are using data science and the outputs ... I mean the systems that we create, that we're using them as an adjunct to expand human capacity rather than replace it.

We've been careful or choiceful in the way we've described the way we're applying data science here, not just as artificial intelligence, but augmenting intelligence, augmented intelligence, which is about human beings are intelligent and let's use our intelligence to help create data systems that augment our intelligence. I think that's really ... I think that's key to keep that at the center of what we're doing.

Nadia: Thinking about the future of design research as a field, where do you see this industry going?

Jane: It's hard for me to think about the field of design research without thinking about design, because I think about design researchers being basically one of the explorations that we need to do as designers in the world, to make sure that we're doing good stuff. It's part of design, just to frame that. Anyway, but having said that, I think some of the things that interest me about that are ensuring that we're, as we were talking about before, always not just assuming that we're going to interview people or get information from people or do surveys with people, but that we're continually, with our colleagues on a journey of discovery, using whatever tools we can get our hands on, or draw us forward.

I think some of the things about sensing and data are really interesting. They're used carefully, and with that idea of reciprocity that we talked about. I've been impressed by, as we're working on systems that are more touching lives of people that we have very little familiarity with, and that are in communities that we don't engage with through our own lived experience, of working with people who can act as design ambassadors in their own community, and how can we tap into that and empower them to help us learn in ways that we wouldn't be able to otherwise. I'm really interested in that building networks and practices that help other communities become maybe more able to engage with us in design.

Nadia: Where have you seen that in practice, of engaging communities in that way?

Jane: Oh, I know that's happening through some design projects, well, in ideo.org, who are working on poverty in countries where we really would find it difficult to get the level of understanding of what's going on in communities that people who live in those communities can help us do. I think in areas where we're thinking about equity of access to financial services or health services, we are beginning to explore some of those techniques.

Nadia: As a researcher who's brought so many new methods and tools into the world, what advice would you have for designers who are starting out, who are looking to bring new tools and methods to fruition?

Jane: I don't feel like I invented very much. I feel that maybe it was more about acquiring or applying things that other people were doing. That would be definitely a key idea, would be, what are other people doing exploring in other domains? I mean, it might be in biochemistry or certainly in anthropology or journalism or filmmaking or all sorts of different pursuits, where I think people are exploring human behavior, human potential, staying open to what's being learned about ways to learn in those domains. I think, stepping back a bit of …

I think I mentioned earlier, trying to step back and understand what is the nature of the challenge that we need to inform and inspire ourselves about, and starting a little bit from first principles as a team, thinking about how we might do that, and just trying new things. I think using our senses very broadly ... well, our senses, not just talking, not just listening, but looking and directly experiencing using our full sensory set. So directly our senses, and also our sixth senses, the things that we know that we know that we don't know how we know, those kinds of things. I'm interested in exploring more around that.

Then thinking about the world of data, I mean, I think about data as basically the sort of dust. I think it might've been [Colita Stafford 00:37:31] who said there's something about the dust that humans create. Data usually is coming from some mark that humans make, that we can't necessarily see directly. I like to think about the way that we use other forms of sensing and create a ... provide ourselves with new ways of seeing or new ways of understanding because we have been able to sense it beyond our own bodies.

Nadia: That mark that humans make almost sounds artistic in nature? Like an imprint people leave behind?

Jane: Well, I think it is, and I like to think about it that way because it sounds so mechanical otherwise. It sounds very inhuman, doesn't it? We think of it as inhuman, but I think it helps me a lot to think it's ... It's just like footprints or something else that we leave behind. I was hearing about how, apparently, we leave our microbes behind, those little microbes that we share our bodies with. We live them behind all over the place, so that forensically, people come into this room after we've left and they could identify exactly who was here and how long we'd stayed and how long we'd been gone, by virtue of the microbes we leave behind. Isn't that amazing?

Nadia: It seems to come full circle to life-centered design in that sense too.

Jane: It does, indeed.

Nadia: Well, thank you so much, Jane. It's been wonderful speaking to you today.

Jane: Thank you very much. I've enjoyed it a lot.

Jul 25, 2019
The Future is Scalable - Kate Towsey, Atlassian

When it comes to Research Operations, Kate Towsey is an expert. In addition to her current experience leading the team at Atlassian, she has years of experience working independently for a variety of clients. In her free time, she also started the largest community for professionals in this space. As the field of UX research continues to grow exponentially, scaling effectively will be paramount. Join us to better understand how to scale your growing research team.

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Interview Transcript

Aryel Cianflone: Welcome to this week's episode of Mixed Methods in the second in our series about the future of UX research. If there was one person to ask about ResearchOps, it would be our guest today, Kate Towsey. Kate has been working in this field for years, but what really changed everything was her decision to start a Slack group. What she thought would be just a few practitioners exchanging best practices has actually turned into a worldwide movement.

 Aryel Cianflone: I wanted to pick Kate's brain about her journey and what she's found most helpful in setting teams up for success. I believe that understanding how to effectively scale research within an organization is crucial for UXR to continue to grow at the speed and scale that we're currently experiencing. Today's episode is brought to you by Dscout, a remote research platform that helps you learn from more people more impactfully in less time.

Aryel Cianflone: Dscout sets you up to do field work from the office by connecting you with participants via their smart phones. Get qualitative studies completed in a matter of days. Head dscout.com/mm to get started. This is Aryel Cianflone and you're listening to Mixed Methods. Today's episode, the future is scalable. I'm so excited to have Kate Towsey on the show today. And Kate, I thought that we could just start with a brief introduction to you and what you're up to right now.

Kate Towsey: I'm working as the ResearchOps manager at Atlassian based in Sydney. I moved to Sydney 10 months ago now. A whole new home, a whole new role. Moved away from contracting for the last 10 years on research and research operations and actually content strategy right at the beginning. I found myself running around the world as well talking about research operations. My life is a research operations for most of it.

Aryel Cianflone: One thing that I think is so interesting about your career is that you did move from a role that was more focused on user experience research to a role that was more focused on research operations. I was just wondering what was the inspiration for that?

Kate Towsey: It's actually interesting because I started out as a content strategist when I got into research operations. I wasn't a researcher. People are now starting to hire, which is a really great thing, and feeling like they need to find a researcher to do research operations. And in fact, I wasn't a researcher when I started doing operations type stuff, I was a content strategist. All of my team except for one are not researchers, have never been researchers and they're excellent research operations people.

Kate Towsey: I had been working as a content strategist for I guess a few years in London as a consultant. Prior to that I had worked on customer services and technology and redesigning systems for E-commerce which now I realized was a little bit of content strategy and a whole lot of operations. Lisa Reilly and I had worked together on a project for the University of Surrey in the UK. I was there as a content strategist and she was working as a user researcher.

Kate Towsey: And then she invited me when she went to work for Government Digital Service in the UK, GDS. She said, “Do you want to come and help us figure out how we document our research and how we archive it and keep it and know what we know?” I had no idea what that meant at the time but I eventually said, “Yes. Okay, let me come and see what it's all about because that seemed like a very content strategy thing to do.” I got in there and realized quite quickly that I had to do research on these researchers because I really needed to understand what the problem was.

Kate Towsey: The thing is that I had never really engaged all that much with research. This is now 2012. I was working with some of the best researchers around, about 40 of them and I had to very quickly learn from them and kind of test myself out in front of them and trying to research them and figure out what they needed. Ended up doing a good couple of years of research on what do researchers need and what things do researchers make and what is the process that they have in doing research and what journey do these things that they make and need and use at different points.

Kate Towsey: What happens to those things on the way. In the meantime, while I was trying to figure that all out and realized that I had taken on this massive thing, Lisa said to me, “Well, we actually need to use a research lab.” And I said, “So you do know that I've never walked into a lab before?” And she said, “Yeah, but you get shit done. You'll figure it out. Go and have a look at these labs and see what it's all about.”

Kate Towsey: And so off I went and looked at a few really great labs in the UK and then built GDS's first user research lab in 2013. That then became a three year contract in between other contracts where people hired me as a user researcher even though I argued with them and told them I wasn't a user researcher. Eventually no one was hiring me as a content strategist because I was so kind of entrenched in that world that I had to give in and say, well, I do this kind of base level of research and if that's what you're fine with then I can do it for you. That's really where it all began.

Aryel Cianflone: I mean, it's such an interesting place to start, right? To start by researching this profession that you got deeper and deeper into. I'm curious with that project, what were kind of the main takeaways for you. When you were doing all of this research on researchers, what did you find that they needed or what was most effective in terms of organizing what they were learning?

Kate Towsey: The main thing that I was researching at that point was actual documentation or assets they're making. I spent a lot of time hanging out with information security and privacy and learning what the rules in Cabinet Office in the UK. Very strict rules were around keeping data about people. The main thing that I learned there and kind of things that I'm bringing back into my work literally this week, I've now got a digital librarian or researcher who's taking on the role of digital librarian for us to figure out this problem again. 

Kate Towsey: Researchers don't make decisions based on reports is my learning and it seems to have been corroborated over the years but there's always an alternative argument. Researchers don't tend to take a report and read it and go, “Oh, this is great. I don't have to do the research. It's been done.” Or, “Oh great,” And you have to do half the research because I can see half it's been done. They might read it and go, “This is interesting, but I don't know this researcher. I don't know how good a researcher they are. I don't know what their sample was.”

Kate Towsey: “I don't know that their discussion guide was accurate to my needs and so on and so forth.” And so there is around this research report sometimes kind of unacknowledged kind of cloud of doubt around... And even if they knew the researcher, they're still not quite sure if the research quite fits their specification. And so if they do know the research or know who did it they might arrange a conversation with that researcher and that empathetic, real, I can hear you, I can understand what you're talking about.

Kate Towsey: That conversation might then make them say, oh, that's really interesting. I could build on that a little bit of insight or whatever. In terms of libraries is that it really changes the game because building a library that just provides PDF reports that have a cloud of doubt for research around it is not necessarily useful. And so what are we actually trying to do with a research library? I think that's a very interesting question that I have opinions on or hypotheses around that we're starting to work on now and see if we can prove them out over the next year at Atlassian.

Aryel Cianflone: And it's so interesting to hear you say that you have hired this digital librarian and even what you just shared because I've definitely found as well that researchers often we start from square one even though there actually is so much good work that's been done both in professional space or industry spaces as well as academic spaces. And so I'm curious what the role of this librarian at your organization will be? Is it just bringing research that's already been done up? Is it kind of tying the wider industry, the wider academic world? What is that role? What is the role of a digital librarian?

Kate Towsey: Well, for us we are as with a lot of things in the space figuring it out. It's kind of a funny thing because I'm always saying, oh, I'm figuring it out and I might've been working on operational type things since 2013, six years now, coming up for seven. But I haven't run a team. I haven't built up a research operations team in an organization like I'm doing now which is really why I took on the role that at Atlassian. Well, two reasons. One was to work with Lisa again. I guess three.

Kate Towsey: Two was just Australia and the sunshine seemed like of great alternative as a South African to England which had been my home for more than a decade. Number three was it really is my sandpit. It is where I make mistakes and I have been making mistakes and where I then get to learn from those mistakes and share those back out to anyone who's interested to perhaps not make the same mistakes so make different ones and hopefully share those ones back to me so I don't have to do the same thing.

Kate Towsey: Back to your question about a librarian. Georgie is our new librarian. She's a researcher dedicating a portion of her time to us over the next year, well, all of her time over the next year or so and possibly more to helping us solve the problem. This week actually the OPS team has met in San Francisco to really look at what is our next financial year in Australia. Our financial year starts on the 1st of July and what are we doing to meet the new, very exciting research strategy we've got from Lisa.

Kate Towsey: It has been with Georgie saying, well, she's going to go and do a discovery like I did when I was at GDS because I think I know a whole bunch about it but what does she find out and what do the researchers at Atlassian need? We now are very different to government. It's a distributed team. It's structured differently. Maybe there are all sorts of things that I would never thought about. And similarly with Atlassian again to access the library. What do they think that they need from it?

Kate Towsey: My niggling feeling is that they're probably not going to know what they need from it, but let's ask them and find out. I've got a couple of months of discovery coming up on that and then also auditing and going through how have people been documenting the research they've been doing so far? What does it look like? What kinds of questions are people asking in our support channel? When they come to our help research Slack channel, what are they asking for?

Kate Towsey: A bunch of desk research before we get to any point where I throw in my kind of sense of knowing and go, I know about this. I've done years of research on this like so many years ago and I know it all instead of doing that really, diving back in again to the question, what do we need to make?

Aryel Cianflone: I'm so in love with the idea of a digital library and with so many organizations, again, there is just so much knowledge and lately I've been kind of learning this lesson over and over as I take on new projects and really kind of try to dive backwards first and see what we already know not only from a research perspective but also what data analysis projects have been done that could inform this or what other work exists beyond the parameters of my particular company that could inform this.

Aryel Cianflone: There really is just so, so much value. And also I think there is a legitimacy that it brings to your work because it's interesting hearing what you're saying about researchers kind of doubting these projects that they come into contact with because when that happens to us as individual researchers with our product teams or something like that, it's really hurtful. And so it's interesting that we even do that to ourselves.

Aryel Cianflone: I really believe in the role of a digital librarian or some sort of role like that or even an individual practice of kind of being a digital librarian to kind of add that legitimacy to your work for everyone that you work with. I think it's such a cool idea. Sorry, go ahead Kate.

Kate Towsey: I wanted to add in there, there are some people doing some really interesting work in the space already and Georgie for instance she's going to be getting in touch with everybody to find out what others have learned. It's people like Erin at Microsoft they've been working on a library for five or more years I think and have a significant work done there. Brigette Metzler who leads the research operations community now. She's got an entire team in Australian government working on a library for them.

Kate Towsey: There are people doing some really interesting work in this. What I found interesting about it is that it's at the end of the continuum of a research project in a sense. You've done your research recruitment and as a operations you've hopefully supplied spaces for the research to happen with a virtual or in person. You've provided spaces for the data, the raw assets, the AV, the audiovisual content or the physical assets or whatever it might be to be stored safely. 

Kate Towsey: And then you provide a space with their report to be stored or whatever kind of format it takes to acknowledge at least a log that this research happened and it was done by this person. And for me that's one of my hypotheses is that's the most important piece because then that gives the research to the log that we have done five projects on JIRA say for instance in the last year and these are the people who have done it and what have they learned? 

Kate Towsey: Now, our model of research now is probably going to get away with some of that because we've got a researcher working on JIRA. But how does that become helpful to other people across the organization to acknowledge that there is so much research going on on the product and then who they should be able to speak to. I'm sort of going off track on there and I want to come back to something that Brigette brought up at some point and thought it was interesting was almost having a meta-researcher in the library because they end up with a superpower. 

Kate Towsey: That the librarian is seeing all the reports coming through from across the organization and while everybody else is focused on their own campfire, they're like the god of the campfires or the goddess of the campfires. They can see every single campfire. That's a very very interesting case to be where if they've got a researcher's mind or researcher training hopefully.

Kate Towsey: They can then be able to look through this and say, hey, there's some interesting stuff coming in from our quantity mile survey squad or we've got some interesting stuff coming in from support that's been analyzed and so on and so forth and really there's something that lines up as a narrative here that we might be able to take notice of. It's kind of interesting talking to you about that in terms of mixed methods where you are then able to look across the mixed methods that are coming into the library and find out if there's any kind of consistent story that's with a new insight that's worth looking at.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, definitely. Kate, I'm interested you have this digital librarian, but you're also talking about growing a ResearchOps team. I'm wondering what does your ideal ResearchOps team look like in terms of the roles and the responsibilities.

Kate Towsey: It's a great question because we are right at the apex of FY-20 planning. At the moment we're now five people. Someone has gone back to research. Unfortunately for us, but we will get a replacement soon. But very nice for her. The team at the moment is me as a research operations manager and it's been a really good learning curve for me, learning what is a ResearchOps manager. I think I can speak for Lisa. We continue to learn how does a ResearchOps manager work with a research leader with her as head of research and insights.

Kate Towsey:      There's a lot of learning there for me personally in my role. And then I have Serit and Vanessa leading on research recruitment and their job is to go involve and find participants. But also if we ever get the time because we are not running around and finding the participants to really design an experience for the participants. Ben Cuban in the UK did some really nice research on that I guess a few years ago now. What do they need to know at various points in their journey to feel comfortable with the process.

Kate Towsey: And how does that help the researcher to have an even better research session because their participant is relaxed and comfortable and knows how the data will be used and where it will go and all these kinds of things aligned up and they know they're going to get their thank you gift at the end. They're working on that. And then we have Teresa in technology lead role and her job is to look at our full technology stack across research recruitment because it's actually quite a lot of technology that goes into that and it's not working well it makes the recruiter's lives very difficult.

Kate Towsey: And very much for the survey team, what is our quantitative tooling stack from our survey tools through to our analysis tool and even into our customer database as Atlassian? And how does this data move from tool to tool? It's a really big piece of work. Her role is also very much working on with our legal team and we've now very very nicely got some resource from legal to really work with us which is such a blessing. I didn't even ask for it. It came down from heaven.

Kate Towsey: Such a resource is going to work very closely with the Zita to figure out what is our governance plan around research data and really tidy up on what we're doing at the moment. Then I've got a Georgie who's just come in as to work on the research library. Then there's a two roles that I've got open and I'm kind of hoping for some headcount at some point. The one I'm very very excited about and that is events and communications. This is someone who will organize all of our internal and external events, our summits, but also our team onsites and offsites and our team meetings and things that we do as a team together. 

Kate Towsey: And when I say as a team, not just operations but within the entire research and insights team. We're very much close and part of that team. We're embedded in it really. But also looking at our communications, so blogging internally and externally. We don't do any blogging externally and I think it's a real shame because we're working on so many things that are potentially interesting to people. Making sure that we've got conference sponsorships in place that we are excited about and also that we're all speaking at conferences and it isn't Lisa and I.

Kate Towsey: But that there are really incredibly smart researchers and ops people are getting out there and sharing what they're doing. The next piece of that which I'm even more excited about if I could get it right is I'm looking and working with our state management team, our workplace experience team. We're really getting customer experience out on the walls and into our spaces and not just secure a couple of pictures with quotes, which is great, but something possibly a little bit more creative or interactive.

Kate Towsey: Something that really engages people in how our customers experience our products. That could be around accessibility requirements or anything really. Not a lot but I have heard of companies and seen a couple of tech companies who have these kind of immersive experience spaces that make you a little closer to the customer than just a research report or a quote on the wall or something. I'm really excited. When I can get that role in I think it's going to push how our research becomes impactful forward quite a lot.

Aryel Cianflone: Even when you are in field, you can't be with your participants 24/7, but there's one thing that can be, their smartphones. Dscout is a remote research platform leveraging just that which saves you from missing the moments that matter. Set up a diary, study and see your participants daily lives in context. Use Dscout live and conduct interviews on a platform actually built for research.

Aryel Cianflone: Bring your own participants onboard or handpicked from their hundred thousand person scout book. To start connecting with more people more impactfully, head to dscout.com/mm. Hearing you talk about the different roles on your team, it just sounds like you are so effectively setting up your team to have huge impact at scale.

Kate Towsey: Yes. There is one addition. I guess there's one caveat to that and one addition. There's a lot of paper cuts in the world. I think in all our lives we can talk about paper cuts and there's a lot it can potentially sink you in research operations. I was saying the other day when I was talking it's at Strive in Toronto that moving inefficiency from researchers to research operations is not a great way to do operations. It is where we've been for the last 10 months because there has been a such a radical amount of growth in my team from me 10 months ago to now five of us, six and then and then five.

Kate Towsey: Even in that itself is sort of managing what are we supposed to be doing here and the team that the research team itself growing and things like that. But you have to find time as a team to design your services otherwise you're just being, you just taking one efficiency to another team and it's not the way to do things. I say that because if you don't watch out for paper cuts you can end up sinking underneath them and never get to the point where you design your operations.

Kate Towsey: I'm hoping to hire in someone junior who can come in and take on a lot of those bits of admin like booking room spaces and ordering cakes and condolence cards and celebration things and booking dinners for teams and all these little bits and pieces that can come through. The other thing for the comms person would be also team branding. Give our teams logos and give stickers and bunting and whatever other things that we can do to make it known what we're doing and what is produced by us.

Aryel Cianflone: I love the term paper cuts because I feel like so much of the inefficiency is either poorly designed systems or also just context switching. I feel like with research there are so many tasks that need to get done and a lot of which, based on what you just said about the research operations team that you're trying to set up, it sounds like you have kind of moved from the researcher to the research operations team. But those contexts which can be so costly where you're moving from working on your discussion guide to having to respond to a bunch of emails with participants.

Aryel Cianflone: If you're doing your own scheduling or send off a couple incentives it seems like it's not a big deal but I think in the end those little paper cuts so to speak can end up being really really costly and slow down the productivity of the team. Another question I think that comes to mind for me is, what do you see as kind of the mission of research operations? How do you determine whether you are successful as a research operations team? 

Kate Towsey: It's such an interesting question. Rosenfeld media recently did a survey on DesignOps and ResearchOps. There was one result in there. I'm not probably going to quote numbers specifically, I'll get them wrong. But it was specific to research operations and it was a question around how do you measure your success. Of the people who seem to have had teams there was a very low percentage that have figured it out which indicates I think that it's a new space. It's not brand new.

Kate Towsey: There are teams just to be clear that have been doing operations for a long time at booking.com that had an operations team focused on research for six years and Microsoft is winning by a long mile over 20 years. And not just one person doing something, but big teams of people doing things in significant lab spaces and things like that. Although 2018 seems like the kind of year possibly that research operations rose, there is a lot of precedents.

Kate Towsey: How do we measure our success as a team? I was chatting with Serit who leads the recruitment team yesterday and saying it's really interesting because you can get in a position just as I was saying you can move the inefficiency from researchers to ResearchOps and you've just moved the inefficiency. And yes, you might've gotten rid of that kind of context switching for the researcher, but unless you've moved that inefficiency to a bigger team who can handle them and stick on one context, you've also just moved the switching of context.

Kate Towsey: And what can also happen is that, I'm hoping I express this correctly, you become inservice to researchers where you just end up running around like becoming the PA of researchers and that's really not our aim eventually. It's not necessarily going to help anyone and you don't have to have a massive team to do that. Basically give every single researcher some amount of personal assistance time. And so a lot of what we're looking at at the moment with a team of five looking after 20 researchers or 19, wherever we are right now, we keep growing.

 Kate Towsey: That ratio I think is about right. But it's much more about cutting the pathways so that the researchers can walk the path so they can get their recruitment done but we're not necessarily holding their hand. Or maybe we are holding the hand, but we're not doing it for them. In a sense where we've been the last 10 months like don't worry, we will just deliver your participants to you. It was an enormous task and I realized that it was just not possible with the amount of people we had to deliver that. We're now saying, what parts of this do we have to do for you and what can you do on your own?

Kate Towsey: But we're going to make it easy for you to do those things for yourself because we'll make sure that the vendors have money. You don't have to worry about procurement. We'll make sure that you know exactly where the consent forms are. We'll make sure that all these things are set out and are easy for you to walk the path on your own. In that case, success looks like that researchers feel that there's less friction in doing their work, but they are still doing some of the organization just because it's impossible to offer it any other way.

Aryel Cianflone: And Kate, I feel like you kind of walked me through the positions that you feel are most useful to have in a research operations team. I'm wondering in terms of kind of setting up researchers to be in this reduced friction environment or really allowing researchers to scale, these research teams to kind of scale themselves. I'm wondering if there are systems or programs that you have found to be really useful or successful.

Kate Towsey: I think that you'll probably get more out of me if you ask me that question in a year's time. We're moving into a whole new strategy, something exciting at Atlassian which I can't talk about. As a team we've had a very interesting three days here in San Francisco to look at what does the strategy mean to research operations and how do we deliver on it. And so we're looking at things like menu cards for the various types of research. What do you need when this discovery is happening?

Kate Towsey: How much time do we need to prepare for discovery versus preparing for a cadence of usability testing? We went to the Exploratorium in San Francisco this week. Georgie organized this genius idea to go and spend some time touring the Exploratorium. Anyone who doesn't know the Exploratorium, I now know, is this amazing science interactive museum in San Francisco. Really worth your visit if you're curious about presenting knowledge and experience. It's amazing for researchers to go to.

Kate Towsey: The operations manager of the building took us around and showed us his operations for the Exploratorium which feels very kind of off center for a research operations team. But there were things that he shared aside from the fact that they used JIRA that were interesting to us. This is talking about programs and systems. They have this thing it's called Atlassian e-maintenance ticket and pipe bursts in the building and they've got the system. It's really cool. They showed us this whole screen and they see all the pipes and what's going on with them.

Kate Towsey: A ticket comes out of a machine literally like receipt and it will say this is what's happened and this is the tools that you need to take to that site. You must have a hammer, you must have wrench and you must have a towel or whatever the story might be and this is who you need to phone and this is the story. And so you get this kind of like little menu card basically of how to approach the problem. I love that.

Kate Towsey: We looked at that and thought if we had something like that for the methods that we're going to be using as researchers and certainly the methods will be providing operations to then helping delivers as operations. That becomes really interesting in terms of working with a program manager who now gets to understand this is the menu card for discovery and then also this is how much it's going to cost most likely.

Kate Towsey: It helps me to plan forward financially and say, well, we are planning on having 3 discoveries or 10 discoveries and 6 usability cadences which means that it should cost X amount of money and we're going to need this amount of resource in terms of people and participants and so on and so forth and spaces to deliver on this quarter by quarter. That's a system that we're looking at putting in place and working on at the moment. Also with Georgie's discovery project researching the researchers to discover what do these menu cards look like? 

Aryel Cianflone: It's so interesting when you find these really really great inspirational analogy opportunities. But it actually is this really interesting way to think about an approach or a way for research operations to set up the research team for success and themselves. Kate, something else that I wanted to ask you about when it comes to research operations is you've obviously become so well known for starting a research operations community and I was wondering what inspired you to start that community?

Kate Towsey: Sure. I had spent a long time working on research infrastructure and support or something like that. I can't remember now. It was some job title like that. I remember hating it because I was like, support? I'm not support. I felt like I might be the only person in the world that really cared about this. For some reason I really care about this. I still to this day cannot understand why I'm so passionate about this work but there you go. I felt quite lonely. I just kind of felt like this doesn't seem to anyone else out there that's doing the kind of work that I'm doing.

Kate Towsey: But over time, particularly with putting blogs on the GDS user research blog which became really well known, people would get in touch and some really interesting people from the US government, from companies like Etsy and so on and so forth just to say, hey, I've been reading your stuff about audiovisual data and storage and I just wanted to have a chat. There were handful of people that I got to meet over time and I'd have these individual conversations and have very similar conversations over and over.

Kate Towsey: I started to feel that there were at least a handful of us that were really interested in this and why did we not meet more regularly together? I set up the Slack channel thinking that it would be me and them because we'd spoken about me flying to the states for us to meet and actually kind of map out what this operation thing was. That didn't seem viable for various reasons or that it was ever going to happen. I set up the Slack and figured it will be me and these five people in there.

Kate Towsey: Within a couple of weeks there were 200 people in there and not just hanging out but really enthusiastic and really caring about the topic which was really surprising. Of those there was a kind of a small crew, I think three or four of us who gathered people I knew in the UK and then some of these people I had known already. We devised this idea of doing workshops just in five spaces in all five countries to figure out what do researchers need from operations and what does this thing mean. It grew to a lot more than that.

Kate Towsey: In the end we had 17 countries take part and I think it was 37 cities. And then we took that data and made a framework out of it. It was really based on what do researchers say are their biggest concerns at the moment. And then also just having years experience working, knowing where the areas of weakness were in operations. I no longer run the research operations community. The only reason for that is that I found and discovered that it just kept growing and growing and it's still growing to this day.

Kate Towsey: It's now 2,500 people or something like that in the space of a year which is mega. That's half the size of Atlassian, that number of people. The amount of work that goes into maintaining a community like that with any dignity is enormous. And I don't know how Brigette and Tim are carrying on with it. It's really quite something.

Aryel Cianflone: Just kind of going back for a second to what you were saying about all of the workshops and the huge amount of work that you put into this ResearchOps community and then this framework that came out of it. I'm curious, I guess for people who aren't as familiar with the framework, what kind of some of the top learnings were and what the result of creating this framework was?

Kate Towsey: It was interesting for me because without wanting to sound obnoxious, a lot of it came through and I was like, yeah, this is the stuff I've been working on for years anyway. But there was some interesting thing that came through was this real need for guides and templates which going back to we're talking about this less friction. Frictionless is probably not going to happen. That would be boring anyway. But a less friction environment for researchers to work in came across as what they were looking for.

Kate Towsey: That was interesting and not necessarily surprising but yeah, give me guidelines. Tell me where to go and find the consent form. Help me know that the consent form is right. Train me on what it means to be a GDPR compliant researcher. Give me the tools and the knowledge I need to be the best researcher I can be. Make it easy for me. The other important and interesting thing that came out of that was really this notion of team care.

Kate Towsey: We would provide opportunities for learning, opportunities for engaging with people in industry and inspiration like distinguished speakers or book clubs or get togethers or training like I'm at this moment looking at how do I provide data security training to our research team. What does that look like? And things like that that can help support researchers in growing their skills. And then also things like, I've spoken quite a lot about this I think is so important, is things like counseling in place.

 Kate Towsey: If you're doing challenging research or you're going into the field where you might them into something that is uncomfortable, we have got and it's known that you've got access to a counselor that you can debrief with or spend time with and that's already organized and paid for. Things like that are really important and I wasn't expecting that. I'd never thought about that in the terms of operations.

Aryel Cianflone: Is that framework available just to anyone? I mean, it sounds like it's so useful for example what you just shared about counseling. I've never considered that, but it makes so much sense. I'm curious if that's a document that's available to the wider audience or if that's something that's specifically just for the ResearchOps community.

Kate Towsey: It is available on Medium. I think actually now, which is kind of amazing, if you Google ResearchOps framework, possibly my name at the end just because that's how it is at the moment. But try and go for the ResearchOps framework and see if that pops up. You should find it and there's a PDF download and there's access to The Mural. Mural the company have given the ResearchOps community and therefore in some ways me as well free access to Mural to host that, which is very nice of them.

Kate Towsey: And so you can look at it on The Mural and you can download it as a PDF. I think there's a Dropbox link for that that I set up at some point. It's available to everybody and it always makes me very happy when I walk into someone's office and see it on the wall. Someone sends me a photograph of it next to their desk or says to me, gosh, this has really helped me explain to my program manager or my head of research or my head of design or whoever it might be what operations looks like and that it is a multi-skilled, multi-person job. It cannot be done by one person.

Aryel Cianflone: It sounds like such a powerful resource, especially just because of the thought and the time and the energy and the experience that was put into creating it. I can only imagine that it's super valuable and I'm excited to kind of dive into that deeper myself as well. As we wrap up, my last question is really, for individuals who are working at organizations that either have no research operations teams or are trying to figure out how to grow a research operations team, I wonder if you have any advice for them.

Kate Towsey: Sure. I have an entire day of advice. I've just run a workshop called Mr Trump's one-on-one kind of from the ground up. Where do you start? It's easy to run around and be like, well, it's a multi-person, multi-skilled job. And that's like, that's nice, but where do you start? I've been very blessed in that I work with Lisa who brought me in because she believes in operations and she was the person who set me on this path. I get the support that I need and I don't have to fight very very hard for it.

Kate Towsey: I need to prove points and I need to have my numbers together but not everybody has that and I appreciate that. Where to start? Start with one person. I am leaning in and tested this with various colleagues in industry who are running teams that if you've got five researchers, one ops person is a really good idea. And again, not to move the inefficiency and the paper cuts from five researchers to one person because that's just overloading one person. But to give them a space to set up systems that make the running of the operations efficient and then they manage that.

Kate Towsey: That might be cutting the pathway for researchers to work on their own, if that analogy makes sense. It was interesting because, as I mentioned, as a team we are five people now to say 20 researchers. You can look that we're one to five. A little bit more even and we're still feeling squeezed a little bit and some stun to even look at this ratio or this algorithm and say, well, is it that you need slightly more in the beginning and you get to a certain point where then it's one ops person to five researchers.

Kate Towsey: But to start out with you need slightly more than that to actually get yourself off the ground and get all the systems in place because it's not just about delivering the services, it's about building the systems to deliver the service and that takes a lot of time. Where to start? More to your question. You start with your one person but make sure that you focus them on a maximum of three things that your team really needs and give them the time to design in the services and your researchers will still be looking after themselves.

Kate Towsey: They'll still be possibly recruiting their own participants. But hopefully this person can work on making sure that there is finances in place so they're not having to deal with procurement every three months and figure it all out because it's changed in three months or whatever the story might be. That's a great place to start. And if your team grows, given another ops person as soon as it gets a little bit bigger so that as your research team is scaling your ops team are scaling along with it. 

Aryel Cianflone: Thanks for listening today. If you want to continue the conversation, join us in the Slack group for a Q&A with Kate next week. You can find details on Twitter. If you aren't already a member of the Slack group, you can request an invite under the community tab on our website, mixed-methods.org. Follow us on Medium and Twitter to stay up to date with the latest UXR trends. Special thanks to Danny Fuller, our audio engineer and composer and Laura Leavitt, our designer. See you next time.

Jul 11, 2019
The Future is Ethical - Tristan Harris, Center for Humane Technology

Welcome to the third season of Mixed Methods! 

This season will be full of people and conversations aimed at helping researchers think more deeply about their practice. In this episode, we’ll hear from Tristan Harris, a world renown design ethicist first at Google and now at the Center for Humane Technology, which he co-founded. The Center’s mission is to make technology more humane by starting a conversation about the ways in which tech often ends up unintentionally harming users. Tristan offers context and suggestions for how researchers can not only make products usable and useful, but also ethical.

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Interview Transcript

Aryel Cianflone: Welcome to the third season of Mixed Methods. This season will be full of people and conversations aimed at helping you think more deeply about your research practice. I decided to spend the first half of the season exploring the future of research. Today, in part one, we'll hear from Tristan Harris, a world-renown design ethicist, first at Google and now at the Center for Humane Technology, which he co-founded in 2018. The center's mission is to make technology more humane by starting a conversation about the ways in which tech often ends up unintentionally harming users.

Aryel Cianflone: I can't think of a more important topic for us to consider as researchers. As we continue to advocate for our users and as our field continues to grow, I see researchers becoming a powerful force for not just making our products usable and useful, but also ethical.

Aryel Cianflone: Today's episode if brought to you by Dscout, the tool that enables teams to do in-context field work without leaving the office. Dscout connects you with people via their smartphones and allows you to handpick recruits, design diary studies, conduct live interviews and access the moments that matter. Learn more at Dscout.com/mm.

Aryel Cianflone: This is Aryel Cianflone, and you're listening to Mixed Methods. Today's episode: the future is ethical.

Aryel Cianflone: It's such a privilege to have the chance to talk with Tristan Harris. I've been following your work for so long. I thought just to get started, maybe you could briefly introduce yourself and your work at the Center for Humane Technology.

Tristan Harris: Yeah, sure. Thank you for having me. So oftentimes, when I tell the story of my background, it actually starts when I was a magician as a kid because magic is a very different way of looking at people. I mean I did because I was a shy kid looking for easier ways to connect with people and having an excuse to talk.

Tristan Harris: But I was always astonished when I look in the mirror and you're doing like a coin trick or something like that, and you're doing something incredibly simple like you think that you're passing the coin from one hand to the other, but you're not. It's just so, so, so simple. And I would watch how something that I was for sure thinking would not make it through the deception filters of the other person's brain, but it would work every time. And that led me to realize that we have this sort of overconfident view of how our minds make meaning and how they see the world and how cause and effect can be manipulated. And so that was my first entrée into really seeing that the mind works differently than we think. I did a magic show when I was I think in sixth grade for my elementary school.

Tristan Harris: And then, I studied at this lab later, jumping way ahead at Stanford called the Persuasive Technology Lab that is somewhat famous now maybe. Contrary to popular belief, it's not a lab where they diabolically train you in how to manipulate human nature. It's just a lab that studies everything that we know about the psychology of persuasion. It's like taking an advertisement class or taking a rhetoric class. I mean those are the conscious levels of language persuasion, but then really, you go up and down the stack, and you get clicker training for dogs, Pavlovian rewards, you get ...

Tristan Harris: So the founders of Instagram and I were both in that class, Mike Greger. There, I learned a lot more about the social psychological persuasion, that if you lined up all the tools of your persuasive weapons or arms, there would be nudging and subtle color changes and things like that one side, which are the very weak persuasive tools most like behavior change, nudging. But if you go deeper, you get social persuasion.

Tristan Harris: That's where social media gets really dangerous is that it taps into our social meaning-making and social validation and approval, social reciprocity. That's like email where I feel like I have to get back to all these people or I got tagged in a request, I have to answer that request. I think that that person invited me on LinkedIn, I have to get back to them. These are really persuasive in a whole new order of magnitude. It's like going from non-industrialized weapons to industrialized weapons.

Tristan Harris: So that was my foundation for thinking about how technology is working. It's persuading us at a deep level that's often invisible. In the same way that only magicians notice what other magicians are doing, seeing the world through a lens of persuasion is a very different way of looking at technology.

Aryel Cianflone: Partially, I feel like listening to your description of our kind of inherent human weaknesses, I feel like those are on the other side as well with technologists where we often overestimate individuals' behaviors or individuals' capabilities to kind of make a choice for themselves, even though we already have kind of stacked the deck against them.

Tristan Harris: Right. Yeah, it goes on all sides. I mean the fundamental thing that we're trying to do is say: human nature doesn't work in the way that we think it does. It's not that we're weak or that we're ... It's like weak little race or something like that. It's not that. It's just that, and this was in the beginning of our big April 23rd event that we held in San Francisco, and the focus of all of our work is this E.O. Wilson quote who's the father of sociobiology: that the fundamental problem of humanity, that we as a species have to figure out, is that we have paleolithic emotions, we have medieval institutions and we have God-like technology. So we have ancient paleolithic brains, we have 18th century governance, and we have nuclear weapons, Facebook, and narrative warfare.

Tristan Harris: So this ... And they operate at different clock rates. That's the important part about this quote is that your brain is fixed. It's like running Windows 95 and never getting an upgrade, right? So it happens to work at its base level in a certain way. And then the medieval institutions get an update every four years when you get some new people elected or something. But then our techy is ramping up at an exponential rate. And so whatever issue we're worried about now with social media are small compared to the speed and acceleration of things that are coming.

Tristan Harris: So when you zoom out and say, "Okay, this is really the problem we have to solve," which is our paleolithic brains, which were built for gathering berries and being with tribes in the savanna or whatever, are not built for climate change. Imagine, we used to make this joke, Aza and I, that looking at climate change as a human being is almost like a deer looking in the headlights. It's just too big. It's too big for our brains. And when you look at as technology designer and say, "Okay, with this design choice, I'm going to affect two billion people." Show me the part of your brain that was evolved to give you the capacity to imagine what would happen to two billion different people with 200 different languages and different cultures if I make the newsfeed work this way or that way. We just don't have that function in our brain.

Tristan Harris: And so ultimately, this is about recognizing how to realign technology with our own minds and limits. And the good news about this is that we're the only species that even has the capacity to study and understand our own limits, like that we can understand the ways that our minds get deceived. It's not really just about deception. When I say it this way, you might think, and often people think, and the TED people when the first TED talk came out, the first title they gave it was: the manipulative tricks that companies play on your brain, which makes it sounds like it's this kind of lightweight coin trick that maybe LinkedIn or Facebook or Snapchat are just like fooling you here and there. And this is just so far from the truth.

Tristan Harris: It's really more like this sort of civilizational mind influence, mental influence machine, which might sound too aggressive until we go into the details of why that's actually true. But think of it this way, that two billion people wake up in the morning and from the moment you wake up and your phone's buzzing at you from your alarm and you have to turn it off, to the 80 times during the day you check your phone, to the moment you set your alarm at night and then actually still end up checking social media anyway before you go to bed because we all do it, we have people completely jacked in.

Tristan Harris: I mean more than the size of Christianity in terms of number of people are jacked into Facebook. Facebook has 2.3 billion users. That's more than the size of Christianity as a, just a comparable psychological footprint. YouTube has more than 2 billion so. Well, we say it's more than the size of Christianity, more than the size of Islam. Nothing about the content of those religions. But people don't even have an empathy for what that really entails. Everything from "I'm late to my morning meetings." That thought doesn't just show up in your mind. It shows up because email and calendaring together make up for the psychological construct that gets pulled over your eyes like the matrix.

Tristan Harris: Once you see it that way, you have a very different view of what has to be done, which is to say, in 2019 with impending threats of climate change and inequality and other things, what ought to be a sense-making and choice-making layer that we should pull over our eyes, and what is our obligation as designers to do that?

Aryel Cianflone: I feel like there's this question for me of what is the individual's responsibility and what is the responsibility of the individuals that make up these organizations because these same biases exist in both, and I wonder how you think of that. Is it the individual's responsibility to turn off notifications or is that just, it's so small, it's just like a drop of water in the ocean of distractions that we have today, that I wonder how you think about kind of the responsibility on either side?

Tristan Harris: Yeah, well, I mean it's, the thing that creates ... I mean once we understood behavioral science and behavioral economics and we started realizing that people don't just choose their way through life because that would take a lot of energy and research and being informed and all that, but instead, most people operate by the default setting, so they don't even know that there's a different option, right? That's true at a very deep level, like a spiritual level even. You just sort of wake up in your identity instead of saying, "Oh, what would be a different item I could choose from the shelf space of my mental identity I want to try on today?"

Tristan Harris: But it's just true at a very deep level. The simplest example of this came from drivers license studies, right? If you give people the option to become an organ donor, and rather, if you look at this chart of there's like, I think it's like 100 countries that ... The majority of countries do not become organ donors, and there's a small number of countries, mostly in Scandinavia I think, that do become organ donors, and you ask like what's the difference? Are they just more generous? Are they better? Are they more charitable and other-centered, empathic, compassionate country with different culture, or it's actually just that those are the countries where in the drivers license registration form, the default setting is that you give up your organs in case you're in a car accident.

Tristan Harris: This just shows how much the world is really run by default. And so when it comes to technology and the fact that most people don't really question the technology that they're given. Their phone just shows up in their hand, and they hand it to their kid, and they hand YouTube to their kids, and they don't know how and why it's designed or if YouTube has ... I mean surely, it's not designed by evil people. But they're not going to change the default settings. And so one of the simplest standards that we can apply to technology is: what is the default setting that I would happily design and give to my own children to use?

Tristan Harris: One of the famous lines that we use is: the CEO of Lunchables food didn't give his own children Lunchables, right? It's a billion dollar a year product, food product line for kids, and he didn't let his own kids eat it. So it's a very simple moral standard to say: what would we want our own children to use frequently? And designing products for that standard would eliminate half of the problems we probably see in technology today.

Aryel Cianflone: And what do you think is the, kind of the challenges that are preventing us from doing this now or why haven't we just naturally made the default something like that?

Tristan Harris: Well, I think the real question you're asking is: why aren't we just designing what's best for people?

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah.

Tristan Harris: Why aren't we even thinking that way on a daily basis?

Tristan Harris: So the first thing is the advertising business model. When I say advertising business model, it's probably better to reframe it as the engagement business model because it's not the rectangle of the ad that's the problem. It's the incentive to say, "I cannot allow your brain to be free from your relationship with me. I, like a drug dealer, must create a obligatory loyalty relationship where I have to crawl down your brainstem and create that loyalty where you have to come back every day."

Tristan Harris: Now critics of our work would say, "Oh, come on. Aren't there times when people consciously want to come back to something every day?" In my worldview, everyone is manipulated all the time by everything. I think the point is that people don't realize the extent to which this manipulation exists and how long it's existed. In the attention economy, it used to be that we had to get your attention, so everyone's competing to nudge us and notifications and infinite scroll and things like they're just light tricks to keep you there. But that wasn't enough. It's much cheaper if, instead of trying to get your attention, I can get you addicted to getting attention from other people.

Tristan Harris: And so that means if I add, for example on Instagram, the number of followers you have. So now, you have a reason to come back every day to say, "Well, did I get some more followers?" More importantly, it creates the social dynamic where now, people are following each other all the time, they're always are new followers, and they're always curious, and you're always following other people. And so suddenly, you create a whole culture of narcissism where everyone is addicted to being an influencer and having attention from other people.

Tristan Harris: That's what this race for attention is about. That's why the engagement or advertising economy is so problematic. It's not because of evil designers wanting to diabolically manipulate your brainstem. It's not that at all. It's just, the banality I think makes it even more sinister, which is that it's good people who are caught in a game theoretic race to the bottom. We call it the race to the bottom of the brainstem, to light up more and more parts of your nervous system because if I light up more parts of your nervous system than the other guy, I'm going to get more of your attention.

Tristan Harris: The problem is that this creates a connected system of harms that we have to recognize as one whole system like climate change. Like imagine a world where climate change is happening, and people just don't see it. They only see polar bears. They're like, "Oh, my God. We lost all these bears. We lost another polar bear." That's what I see when people talk about screen time. Talking about all of these issues of the attention economy in terms of hours on screen is like talking about the number of polar bears with climate change, instead of talking about a billion climate refugees, permafrost melting, methane bombs, a whole bunch of dark stuff that's rally a serious risk.

Tristan Harris: So with technology, those interconnected harms are shortened attention spans, downgrading our attention spans, downgrading civility because outrage works better. Why does outrage work better and why is polarization happening? Because in the attention economy, short burst uses or your attention, so quick short brief attention bits are going to be better at getting your attention than demanding like do you want to sign up for this next two hour long chuck? That's harder. So that means that we're in this race to the shorter, briefer thing, which is why Twitter won that race to the bottom in terms of brevity.

Tristan Harris: But the problem is the world's increasing getting more complex. So to talk about anything that matters at any level of richness or productivity or constructiveness would take a long chunk of discussion to get to that complexity. But instead, you have the presidential debates where you say, "Iran, North Korea, and nuclear weapons. What is your answer? 30 seconds," right?

Tristan Harris: And so what that intrinsically creates is polarization because now, if I can only say simple things about complex topics, I'm only going to get some small percentage of people agreeing with the simple thing that I said because it won't map to the full complexity of the underlying territory. And so there's this whole interconnected system of harms that we call human downgrading. But just think of it like social climate change. It's an interconnected system so that shorter attention spans equals more polarization, more outrage, more fear, more isolation because it's better for the attention economy to have you by yourself on a screen addicted, spending more time with your esophagus compressed at 45 degrees, not breathing, and then more isolation means you're more vulnerable to conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories works better in the attention economy anyway, but now that you're isolated, it works even better. Saying the media is lying, which YouTube by the way does, not intentionally, but it discovers that there's this pattern that saying the media is lying is actually really good for YouTube.

Tristan Harris: Think about the perfectly omniscient, brilliant AI of YouTube. Imagine some future 10 years down the road. It doesn't know why the phrase the media is lying is good for watch time, but if you say over and over again, the media is lying, intrinsically, that means people don't go to regular media channels, and they're more likely to spend more time on YouTube. So if you zoom way out, distrust in institutions is actually also good for these AIs that are calculating what's good for us or what's good at keeping our attention. Critical distinction.

Tristan Harris: So that's zooming out what's going on here is that we have ... The problem really emerges from a race to capture human attention, and because there's only so much, and it takes nine months to plug a new human being into it and grow the size of the attention economy is the joke, you have to get more aggressive, and it becomes, you have to frack for attention, and so it's better off having you split your attention into four different streams, so now you're now partially paying attention to your tablet, your TV and your email and your Facebook at the same time. So now I'm selling slimmer slices of your attention to more advertisers so I can quadruple the size of the attention economy, but it's kind of the subprime markets where I'm selling fake clicks, fake users and fake attention to advertisers, and so this just isn't good for anybody.

Tristan Harris: And because the attention economy is beneath all other economies, it's beneath all cultures, it's beneath the regular economy because where we spend our attention is what makes up our politics, our elections, our mental health. Even when you're not looking at the screen, your attention spans have still been affected by the attention. I don't know about you, but most people I know can't even get through books any more because we can barely focus for long periods of time.

Tristan Harris: So this is a huge problem that, again, like social climate change, it's the climate change of culture. But the good news is that ... The bad news is that like climate change, it can be catastrophic. The good news is, and this is why we're here, is that only about 1,000 people in Silicon Valley have to change what they're doing to prevent all this from happening.

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, and I do feel like obviously, as you go through this, it's overwhelming, it's so problematic, it's scary. It's all of these things, but-

Tristan Harris: And notice that too, like that reaction, right? So there we are, are our brains like on the savanna, 20000 years ago, were they evolved to hear the sentences that I just-

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, the negativity bias that we have.

Tristan Harris: Yeah. Right. Well [inaudible 00:18:56] negatively-wise, but also like we just laid out a whole complexity. Were our brains evolved to see huge amounts of complexity to say, "Yeah, let's go do something about that." Or are our brains evolved to say, "There's a whole bunch of complexity that's negative. I'm going to shy away and put my head in the sand, and go back to watching Netflix because that was way too scary."

Aryel Cianflone: Yeah, take the ostrich approach.

Tristan Harris: Yeah. Yeah, and so recognizing that, though, we're the only species that could notice that that's what happened in the face of such complexity and negativity and say okay, so what tends to be the kind of thing that makes people feel solidarity and give people, that converts that learned helplessness into agency. That's what we need to get really good at.

Aryel Cianflone: So my next question is so often when I hear you speaking, you really focus on designers and the design process as someone in design research. Researchers have got to be such an important part of this because we're the ones who bring humans into this whole equation and expose them to these products teams and these different type organizations, but yeah, what do we do?

Tristan Harris: Well, notice obviously, because of the business model, I mean even my story, right? I didn't finish ... I mean I guess the other chapters of my life where I landed at Google as a design ethicist, actually through them acquiring a company that I was a part of called Apture. I landed on the Gmail team. And even with Gmail, so I was a product manager on Gmail. Even there, Gmail's business model is not "Let's get people hooked to email, and they can't stop checking and maximizing screen ... " They don't do that at all, right? But there are some innocuous metrics that say, "Well, we do care about how engaged people are, and we certainly want more Gmail users." And the main reason for that is the thing ... How much more money do you think Google makes off of a signed-in user versus a non-signed-in user?

Aryel Cianflone: On Gmail?

Tristan Harris: Sorry. On search. Google search.

Aryel Cianflone: Oh, I've never thought about it. Thousands?

Tristan Harris: So the point is that a personalized search make more money off of a search than a non-personalized search. And guess what the number one reason why you're signed into Google for a personalize search might be?

Aryel Cianflone: Because of your Gmail.

Tristan Harris: Because of Gmail. So that's sets up a reason and a business reason, a business rationale for saying, "We need you to be jacked in." Now it doesn't mean we want ... There's no again addictive designers at Gmail trying to get people to do this, but let's say per your question, there we are. We're UX researchers on the Gmail team. We're like, "Okay. Let's minimize how much time people spend on this thing. Let's give people the most peace of mind. Let's broadcast or make transparent within an organization people's level of email overload compared to usual, so that when you type in someone's name and it auto-completes the pill of their contact into the address field, it shows a little color saying how overloaded they are in their average response time." So that would cool off some of the intensity of expecting immediate responses and all that stuff.

Tristan Harris: Well, there are a bunch of things that they could do, but ultimately, I think, especially if you're a designer of one of these social media engagement products, you don't really get that choice to minimize how much time. I mean imagine Facebook could just be about helping you spend time with your friends. It could just be that. That's it. It could help people who want to go on dates find salsa classes. It could help people who want to be at dinner tables with rich conversations be at the next dinner table. It could help people organize climate resilience, urban farms and gardens in their cities. It could help people do all these things. Just like totally empowering, strengthening the social fabric outside the screen. But what's the reason why Facebook doesn't do that?

Tristan Harris: Their profits comes from ...

Aryel Cianflone: Advertisements and time spent on, yeah.

Tristan Harris: Advertisements, which therefore, on the screen. So this is where it's so invisible. It's like if you talk to the Facebook policy team or Nick Clegg or Zuckerberg, and they'll say, "Well, we tested it without the ads, but people like the ads." The point is it's not the ads. It's that the incentive of keeping you on the screens at all is what is exacerbating this whole problem.

Tristan Harris: Now, it's important we also say that even if you're a designer or a UX researchers at Netflix, your business model is not keeping people on the screen. It's the subscription. You just have to pay that $8 a month, but they still maximize for watch time because that tends to be correlated with whether or not you'll cancel. Overall, we just don't want a system where each company and product are maximizing for engagement. Maximizing in general is a bad optimization.

Tristan Harris: And the thing that could give people hope here is that companies like Apple who make iOS and specifically, the Android team at Google, or Siempro, the Android alternative launcher and other alternative launchers for Android, are in a position to redesign the incentives of the attention economy. So imagine they just kick out of their app store everyone who's trying to maximize screen time saying that's just like a fossil fuel company. We don't want those in our attention economy. Those are the extractive attention economy, and we want to only include the ones whose business models are helping people get to the places that basically make life worth living.

Tristan Harris: Now that sounds normative or judgmental on my part, but only until you unravel all of the incentives and show how much every single apps design is basically self-dealing and extractive for their own interest. A quick way to get through this is just to ask people for say, LinkedIn or Twitter or whatever or Facebook, what are the most lasting like I would be proud of that on my death bed sort of choices that they tend to enable, right? Like maybe with LinkedIn, it's like, "I found that job that I was really looking to get," and with Twitter, it was, "I was in the same city during that conference, and I ended up with meeting up with drinks with my intellectual hero, and they were there." That's happened to me once, right? Or with Facebook, it's like who knows. You discover someone introduces you for someone on a date or something like this. And these things are great. And it would be great if the products were designed to just for wrapping around and empowering and strengthening those experiences, but that's just not what they're designed for.

Aryel Cianflone: Even when you are in field, you can't be with your participants, 24/7. But there's one thing that can be. There's smartphones. Dscout is a remote research platform levering just that, which saves you from missing the moments that matter. Set up a diary study and see your participants' daily lives in context. Use Dscout live and conduct interviews of a platform actually built for research. Bring your own participants onboard or handpick from their 100,000-person scout pool. To start connecting with more people more impactfully, head to Dcount.com/mm.

Aryel Cianflone: Well, and just on, I think my question, again, is like how do we get to a point because it feels, sitting here and listening to this, I feel like I'm also seeing this amazing future that could be that there is so much potential and so much promise in these different technologies that have been developed, but it also feels a little bit upside down of where we're at today, right? It's hard to imagine how we get there.

Tristan Harris: And how does that feel to notice that?

Aryel Cianflone: How does it feel? It feels uncomfortable a little bit. It feels sad. It just feels like I wish that we could be better, but humans so prone to short-term thinking, right? And all the humans that make up these organizations are the same way, right? They all have profit targets to hit. They all have stakeholders. They all have OKRs and different things that they want to hit. How do you get people to so fundamentally change?

Tristan Harris: Well, you said something interesting there, which is that humans have short-term thinking. It's true. We, in our own nervous system, are optimized for short-term immediate rewards. But what you really said is that the incentives are for that, and when you especially have publicly-traded companies, the pressures for short-term growth et cetera, make it impossible to makes the kinds of deep structural changes we're talking about. I feel uncomfortable raising this conversation sometimes because it's a possible world. There's nothing that is technically infeasible about what we're describing. And by the way, the more you lean into it, it's kind of amazing. It's a world where you can trust-fall into technology, and its sole purpose and design is just to be-

Aryel Cianflone: Is to help you.

Tristan Harris: ... helping people. They're literally like bumping each other's elbows out of the way being like, "No, no, no. I have an even better idea of about how to help Aryel." I want people to really imagine what that would feel like because that's at least the north star I think we could be aiming for.

Tristan Harris: Now between now and then, a lot of things have to happen, and the uncomfortable thing is the fact that we can't just snap our fingers and switch to doing that other thing. But if corporate boards were pressured by their shareholders, which happens, to say, "We have to get off this business model because we're seeing it as a long-term of source of investor shareholder risk," which it is by the way, because basically, all these companies, if they're incentivized by attention and data, it creates the long-term risk for privacy scandals and for people being aware that these companies interests are not aligned with ours and the public perception issues. If that starts to spread, as it's already doing with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and all these kinds of things that are tying themselves into knots, it's only a matter of time before any company that's in that business model is going to have a problem.

Tristan Harris: YouTube with maximizing watch time is going to have a problem. Twitter, Facebook, et cetera, Snapchat. And the ones ... So you could imagine a world where through corporate board resolutions, through shareholder activism, through policymaking, Paul Romer, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, proposed recently a ... I think he called it a progressive advertising tax, where you basically tax companies for having the advertising-based business model. The whole point is just like fossil fuels transitioning to regenerative or renewable energy, you want to increase the cost of the thing that's causing the harm and lower the cost of the thing that we all want to live in, that will not destroy civilization.

Tristan Harris: That is the game that has to get played. I think the thing that people on the inside of these companies needs to understand is that you all have a voice and a role in that. I mean I was inside of Google, and I didn't know how these things would ever change. I mean I literally ... I saw some of these things, and I made this famous presentation sort of in ethics [inaudible 00:29:44] to me becoming an design ethicist, it basically was a call to arms to the whole company saying we have ea moral responsibility in managing a billion people's attention and especially this race to the bottom for attention.

Tristan Harris: I was super nervous in making it and then when to release it. I worked on it for about a month. It was like a 136-page slide deck without any bullet points or anything, just big images. It's actually available now on minimizeddestruction.com. Someone had found it and posted it there. So you can see it. But it was an artifact that I sent around to the whole company. Actually, it's not true. I sent it to just 10 people, and then it ended up spreading virally.

Tristan Harris: I really want to say I was incredibly nervous about what would happen, and I was nervous about the quality of my ideas because I thought I could be wrong, surely, if this was true, then-

Aryel Cianflone: Other people would've brought it up.

Tristan Harris: ... other people would've brought it up. This is when you realize there's no adults in the room. The obvious thing here is it is a kind of capitalism that's sort of limbic capitalism that the paper clip maximizer is pointed at the brainstems of people, and that's why no one talks about it because it just goes against incentives. You know the famous Upton Sinclair quote: you can't get people to question something that their salary depends on them not seeing.

Tristan Harris: Anyway. This thing spread, and lo and behold, to my surprise, it spread to something like 10,000 people at Google. It became on a internal thing called meme gen, which is the culture tracker. People post memes and vote them up. It was the number one most-voted meme, like saying we want to talk about this at TGIF.

Tristan Harris: It led to me becoming a design ethicist, and then it led to, again, me trying to ... I was hosting lunches and meetups and conversations at the company and organizing round table discussions. Honestly, it didn't go further than that because the business model was still entrenched. It wasn't that anybody said, "Hey, we still need to make money. We can't do that." It was just that's not a priority. Sure, we can make people use Android a little bit less or check your phone a little bit less, but it's just not our priority.

Tristan Harris: And I had to leave to create that outside pressure for what we now see is an unprecedented level of change, and not just because of our work. There's been so many people that have been out there. Roger McNamee, Sandy Parakilas, and [Zeynep 00:32:00] and all these great organizations and people who've been raising the alarms, but it's led to now Apple, Google and Facebook adopting in our case, Time Well Spent for their ... The reason everybody has the chart or graph of where their time goes on their phone is because of this pressure.

Tristan Harris: The point isn't that it just happens from the outside. It's actually because it creates a conversation. So you show up on Monday at a product design meeting at Twitter or Facebook, and people say, "Hey, have you heard of the attention economy and the race to the bottom of the brainstem and what are we doing about this? What about Time Well Spent? What this TED talk."

Tristan Harris: I think that if everybody can raise this conversation and you hear it three times in one day, it becomes pressure because if you think about it, where does pressure exist? I mean memetically like where's the pressure for Time Well spent? Where are the atoms? Does like a big pickup truck show up and starts pushing on the walls and pressure on the buildings?

Tristan Harris: The pressure exists through people repeating something and feeling like it's really hard to go to work if we're not doing this other thing that I know is possible. It turns out to be a lot more expensive for companies to replace demoralized employees than it is to start doing more of the right thing because people need to feel incentivized to do something different. I mean they started launching these meaningful social interactions metrics at Facebook, which are basically the Time Well Spent metrics. Like how are we measuring something other than just engagement?

Tristan Harris: And if there's enough pressure, everybody who's listening to this podcast can actually raise this conversation themselves. And the reason why we focus so much on language is that we have to have language that describes this problem statement, this interconnected set of harms that we call human downgrading, you can call it social climate change in technology, so that we're not just solving addiction. We're not just solving screen time, which is just not the right way to think about it. We don't want to downgrade our civilization's capacity at the time we most need that capacity.

Aryel Cianflone: Well, and it sounds like you have seen some large successes in terms of Apple and Google and Facebook implementing these Time Well Spent features. I wonder if you've heard stories from individual designers who have heard your message and have gone out and done something different with their product teams, or I'm really thinking of the UX researcher who listens to this, and then they go into work, and they want to do something about it. what is the best way to start that conversation or find success in this?

Tristan Harris: I think also, to answer your question, I think people get blinded by wanting to do the absolute good when just asking what's the smallest step I could take in this direction tomorrow? What a small step? What's the smallest way that the product can be nudged and designed towards these outcomes? What's the metric that I can introduce? What's the way I could have this conversation? What's the set of design principles that might eliminate the problem?

Tristan Harris: I don't have all the answers. I mean we really want to encourage all of the people listening to this to think for themselves about in what way would you nudge the company that you're working for in this direction?

Tristan Harris: But to do so forcefully, I mean I think this change can happen only with 1,000 people together realizing that no one actually wants this. I mean that's the thing. It's not like when you see this, anybody's excited about the mass downgrading of attention spans, the mass dumbification, stupification of society. And if that's not enough to motivate you, by the way, not to make it the dark side, but China will choose not to downgrade their population. So it's a competition between the West and China about which country will downgrade their population the least, given these dynamics.

Tristan Harris: I think that that can motivate all of us much like climate change can at saying: what are we going to do to upgrade our capacity? That's something that actually I regret, by the way. We haven't yet sufficiently introduced the positive frame for the opposite to human downgrading. With Time Well Spent, we saw that people were repeating this positive phrase. I mean the beauty of that, as an example to answer your question, we had let's see [inaudible 00:36:09] Class Pass and Pinterest and all these companies walking to work and saying, "Hey, guys. We want to be part of Time Well Spent, and we want to ask our engineers and designers what's the metric that you're going to invent, what should that be? Let's have a conversation about what are the design features that we're going to do differently? What are the thing people find most valuable and lasting and time well spent for their lives?" It was a positive message and frame that created a lot of interest and implementation.

Tristan Harris: We don't yet have that frame and phrase for the opposite of human downgrading. We hesitate to call it upgrading humanity because it sounds techno-utopian, which is the same mess that got us here. We've been talking about upgrading humans and human capacity for a long time, and it got us exactly to this place where things have been going pretty bad. So whatever moral framework we need, it's certainly ... has a ... It's covering a missing blind spot that we didn't take into account before.

Aryel Cianflone: Well, and Tristan, I want to go back to something that we were talking about at the beginning, which is kind of this difference between individual responsibility and the responsibility of individuals within the organization because I feel like it's such an important point, especially for researchers who are interacting with both of these groups for so much of their time. So is the idea that ... I guess thinking about somebody going into a research session, right, with a user, what is the question that you can ask that individual to understand or to help your product team understand and see that this is time well spent or this isn't time well spent? Just kind of even spit balling about ideas on that because I feel like researchers have this amazing opportunity to make these things really apparent to large groups of people within their organization.

Tristan Harris: Yeah, Jo Edelman who is one of my collaborators and he was the CTO of Couch Surfing who invented, he co-invented this phrase Time Well Spent and a lot of the design methodology from his work at Couch Surfing, where he pioneered a bunch of surveys asking people what would make their time spent with someone hosted at Couch Surfing really meaningful? They actually did a retrospective survey. So six months later, they would ask you after you stayed with someone in Paris for four days, "How was that?"

Tristan Harris: But then they would also do this six month later retrospective. They would bring back that person and say, "How do you feel about it now?" They used that long-term six-month waiting signal to rank search results. So if you typed in Paris, and you were a 20-something-year-old woman from San Francisco, you would see often, if you looked at just your click patterns, you'd probably end up clicking on people who were in their 20s in Paris. That would be your default set of choices.

Tristan Harris: But because Couch Surfing was ranking by what people said in the long run, like six months later was the most valuable, they would end up finding these patterns like Joe's example was something like a 50-year-old Iraqi immigrant into Paris was like the person that everybody loved staying with. It was this Iraqi guy who was just super jovial and really heartwarming and charming and giving and loved cooking Iraqi food and taking you out to the local pub in Paris. That's awesome. That's the thing we're trying to figure out here.

Tristan Harris: I think as engineers, we have to watch out for the tendency to try to organize information into these simplistic buckets because life is so beautiful and complex. It just isn't reducible to these things. We need to find ways, even in our own lives a reflecting, like right now, when you think about the things that have been most transformative or growth-oriented in your life, what metric would have revealed that?

Aryel Cianflone: Oh, my gosh.

Tristan Harris: And yet, so it's hard. And actually, Joe and I worked on a project in 2016. I was in Berlin, and we actually mapped out the components of transformative growth experiences. I actually, I haven't really talked about this, but, and I was just talking with another friend this last weekend about these transformative experiences that oftentimes it's things like meditation retreats or Burning Man or psychedelics or death of a family member or falling in love or having kids. These are the classic growth experiences.

Tristan Harris: But what they have in common is often holding up a mirror to letting you see yourself in a new way. If you spend seven days or 10 days in silence on meditation, that's a really big mirror that you're holding up to your own psyche. And so what makes for the growth and transformation is that.

Tristan Harris: I think technology isn't really showing us menus that reflect the kinds of choices that are these deep, meaningful things. It's kind of reinforcing this microcosm, this tiny subset of that we say it's like a magician who says, "Pick a card, any card." And then of course, you pick whatever card, and it's like now you picked a card, it's totally free, totally your choice, but you don't realize that the deck only had a limited set of options to begin with, and as a magician, you stack the deck.

Tristan Harris: Technology's kind of like that. It's like on a day-to-day basis, the choices that it offers are the ones that conveniently fit into a engineering mindset. So Yelp can map the restaurants. There's this mappable set of index restaurants. So when you think like, "What should I do?" you're shown a limited index of restaurants, as opposed to I could do cartwheels on the street. I could grab my friend, and we could start singing on a corner and put out our backpack and ask for money. There's just a billion different creative, even creation-oriented options, and we're actually training our minds to think more passively about picking existing items from a tech-limited searchable index menu, instead of the what could we create together?

Tristan Harris: If you said to your phone, "Hey, I want to go on a date," it just shows you faces you can swipe through on Tinder. Imagine it says, "Oh, you could go buy face paint from this store right over there and then walk to this bar and set up a face paint booth, and people love getting face paint." Just these totally crazy creative options are showing up nowhere on the menu of technology.

Tristan Harris: So part of this is like a challenge for getting people to ask, in a much bigger ecological sense, for the social fabric, for the things that people find most meaningful in their entire life. Like how could technology be helping us grow? Because the crisis of meaning is the thing that is actually showing up and having repercussions everywhere. That's why Jordan Peterson's so popular. It's like he's giving people an answer to something to do that is an answer to the crisis of meeting, even if it's as simple as for young white men, just make your bet. I mean people love that kind of simplistic patriarchal advice. That people need to feel that there's something to live for. As our menus get confined to more and more consumerist, blasé, vanilla options and we're just choosing between things to click on on screens, we're so far away from that other world.

Tristan Harris: And so my biggest fear is that we forget as human beings, how to recognize this richer, beautiful menu of choices, especially for the next generation who won't have known anything different, and they will think this is the menu. So all that's to say I think there's a different way that we can do this if we really have to ask ourselves and hold up this mirror and say, "What does it mean to be human?" And how do we make ourselves not super human, but extra human?

Aryel Cianflone: Thanks for listening today. If you want to continue the conversation, join us in the Slack group. If you aren't already a member, you can request an invite under the community tab on our website, Mixed-Methods.org. Follow us on Medium and Twitter to stay up to date with the latest UX research trends. Special thanks to Denny Fuller, our audio engineer and composer, and Laura Leavitt, our designer. See you next time.

Jun 27, 2019
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