listening posts

Building Rapport With Users Is Building Rapport With People December 17th, 2014

We use specific techniques to build rapport in user research, but of course those techniques work to build rapport in other situations. Here’s two great examples of rapport in relationships that map quite closely to rapport in fieldwork.

Caution: Stuffed Shirts Ahead [NYT]

Instead, miss no opportunity to chat congenially with your new colleagues — lunch, coffee, the proverbial water cooler, whatever. But remember, these conversations aren’t about you. Though you don’t want to seem evasive, avoid leaping into a happy reminiscence about foosball tournaments with your delightful former colleagues.

Think of the process as the workplace equivalent of politicians’ “listening tours” during the run-up to election season. Don’t ask, “So what’s it like to work here?” or “Do you like it here?” or anything else that requires a point-blank value judgment. Ask neutral questions like, “So how long have you worked here?” Then keep quiet.

People love to talk about themselves, and if you can signal that you’re actually interested in what they’re saying — and not merely waiting for your turn to talk — most will do it all day long. (One of the oldest interview tricks that reporters use is silence: There’s a human tendency to fill a conversational void, so let the other person do it.) In addition to signaling that you’re going to fit in, you’ll likely pick up useful clues to help you do precisely that.

It may take a little patience, but you’ll gradually be able to piece together what you need to know about how this new environment works — and who among your new colleagues has the same kind of sensibility as yours. Remember that even if the company is formal and bureaucratic, chances are that at least some of the people who work there are, in fact, agreeable human beings — the kind who like doughnuts.

5 ways to build a good relationship with anyone [The Week]

I picked up a copy of an underground indie best-seller called It’s Not All about Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone. The author, Robin Dreeke, is in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s elite Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program. Robin combines hard science and years of work in the field to offer practical tips to build rapport and establish trust.

  1. Ask them questions.
  2. Don’t be a conversation dictator.
  3. Allow them to talk.
  4. Genuinely try to understand their thoughts and opinions.
  5. Leave your ego at the door.
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Keeping the Humanity in our Technology Work December 17th, 2014

A few articles about the practice of medicine echo each other in significant ways, but I share them here as a reminder that all of our work that increasingly relies on technology (e.g., developing digital products) will suffer terribly if we fail to engage the human who thinks, talks, listens and tells stories.

With Electronic Medical Records, Doctors Read When They Should Talk

Even if all the redundant clinical information sitting on hospital servers everywhere were error-free, and even if excellent software made it all reasonably accessible, doctors and nurses still shouldn’t be spending their time reading. The first thing medical students learn is the value of a full history taken directly from the patient. The process takes them hours. Experience whittles that time down by a bit, but it always remains a substantial chunk that some feel is best devoted to more lucrative activities.

Enter various efficiency-promoting endeavors. One of the most durable has been the multipage health questionnaire for patients to complete on a clipboard before most outpatient visits. Why should the doctor expensively scribble down information when the patient can do a little free secretarial work instead? Alas, beware the doctor who does not review that questionnaire with you very carefully, taking an active interest in every little check mark. It turns out that the pathway into the medical brain, like most brains, is far more reliable when it runs from the hand than from the eye. Force the doctor to take notes, and the doctor will usually remember. Ask the doctor to read, and the doctor will scan, skip, elide, omit and often forget.

Like good police work, good medicine depends on deliberate, inefficient, plodding, expensive repetition. No system of data management will ever replace it.

Why Doctors Need Stories

I have long felt isolated in this position, embracing stories, which is why I warm to the possibility that the vignette is making a comeback. This summer, Oxford University Press began publishing a journal devoted to case reports. And this month, in an unusual move, the New England Journal of Medicine opened an issue with a case history involving a troubled mother, daughter and grandson. The contributors write: “Data are important, of course, but numbers sometimes imply an order to what is happening that can be misleading. Stories are better at capturing a different type of ‘big picture.’ ”

Beyond its roles as illustration, affirmation, hypothesis-builder and low-level guidance for practice, storytelling can act as a modest counterbalance to a straitened understanding of evidence. Thoughtful doctors consider data, accompanying narrative, plausibility and, yes, clinical anecdote in their decision making. To put the same matter differently, evidence-based medicine, properly enacted, is judgment-based medicine in which randomized trials, carefully assessed, are given their due.

I don’t think that psychiatry — or, again, medicine in general — need be apologetic about this state of affairs. Our substantial formal findings require integration. The danger is in pretending otherwise. It would be unfortunate if psychiatry moved fully — prematurely — to squeeze the art out of its science. And it would be unfortunate if we marginalized the case vignette. We need storytelling, to set us in the clinical moment, remind us of the variety of human experience and enrich our judgment.

From October 2003, Diagnosis Goes Low Tech

“This technology has become a religion within the medical community,” said Dr. Jerry Vannatta, former dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine. “It is easy to lose sight of the fact that still, in the 21st century, it is believed that 80 to 85 percent of the diagnosis is in the patient’s story.”

Yet medical educators say that doctors are insufficiently trained to listen to those stories. After all, there is no reimbursement category on insurance forms for it. It is this lost art of listening to the patient that has been the inspiration behind a burgeoning movement in medical schools throughout the country: narrative medicine.

The idea that medical students need an academic discipline to teach them how to listen may strike some as farfetched. After all, what should be more natural — or uncomplicated — than having a conversation?

But the narrative medicine movement is part of an ongoing trend in exposing medical students to the humanities. It is needed, educators say, to teach aspiring doctors to pay close attention to what their patients are saying and to understand the way their own emotions affect their perceptions, and ultimately their clinical practice.

The basic teaching method is to have medical students read literary texts and then write about themselves and their patients in ordinary language, rather than in the technological lexicon of the traditional patient chart.

Venerable medical journals like The Journal of the American Medical Association and Annals of Internal Medicine are increasingly publishing reflective writing by doctors, their editors say. And now some medical schools even have their own literary journals. At Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, there is Reflexions; Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine publishes Wild Onions; at the University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center, there is The Medical Muse.

Columbia also publishes a semiannual scholarly journal devoted solely to narrative medicine, titled Literature and Medicine, which is edited by Maura Spiegel, a literary scholar, and Dr. Rita Charon, a professor at the medical school and a founder of the narrative medicine movement.

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Interviewing Best Practices from Stephen Colbert October 22nd, 2014

The first episode of Working (a new podcast) features Stephen Colbert explaining in great detail the process of creating The Colbert Report. The entire episode (embedded above) is really good process stuff (creativity, collaboration, finding the story, media firehose, working under pressure) but I want to call out the section about how he prepares and uses the questions for interviewing his guest, as it’s is quite consistent with what I wrote in Interviewing Users.

And then I read the two sheets of questions that the writers have come up, what their ideas are. I usually pick 10 or 15 of those. But I don’t look at them. I don’t look at them until right before I go over [to the set], and then I read them over once again in front of my producers to get a sense of, oh, this is how my character feels about this person.

Come show time…I take them out and I go, oh, yes, these are the questions I chose. And then I try to forget them and I try to never look at the cards. I just have a sense in my head of how I feel. And the cards are in front of me, but I try not to look at them at all. I’m pretty good. Maybe I look once a week at the cards. I put my hand on them, so I know I have them if something terrible happens, but as long as I know what my first question is for the guest I kind of know what every other question is, because I really want to react to what their reaction to my first question is.

And I usually end up using four of the 15, and the rest of it is, what is the person just saying to me? Which makes that the most enjoyable part of the show for me. Because I started off as an improviser. I’m not a standup. I didn’t start off as a writer, I learned to write through improvisation, and so that’s the part of the show that can most surprise me. The written part of the show, I know I can get wrong. You can’t really get the interview “wrong.”

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Stories fuel listening November 1st, 2013

StoryCorps vehicle
StoryCorps is “an independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.” And they’ve just turned 10. Founder Dave Isay reflects

It was about a year into this thing when I began to, I think, fully understand the power of this very, very simple idea and decided to devote the rest of my life to building it into something that I hope eventually in this country moves the needle on getting people to listen to one another.

Yes, that’s right, an organization that is nominally about getting people to tell stories is really seeking to improve listening. Storytelling has that power; it leads to listening. The fuel for listening isn’t silence, it’s stories.

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The art of the interview July 9th, 2013

Here are two insightful takes on the art of interviewing, from two different sources.

First, Ira Glass is interviewed by Jacob Weisberg (the short video is embedded below). Glass explains how he helps people feel comfortable sharing with him by bringing himself into the conversation (a technique I’m not so keen on for user research, although I’ve seen some people be successful with it). He also reveals that what is edited out of the broadcast interviews are tons of clarification questions, where he’s following up to understand the sequence of events, or the different people involved in the story, etc.

Second, How to Listen makes a good case for the authentic personal elements that we ourselves bring to our interactions with interviewees.

Dr. Mason had a simple method of getting me to begin. He would lean slightly forward, all the while maintaining eye contact and then when he got my attention, he would nod. I will never forget that nod; it was a signal that he was with me and I could safely express myself about whatever was on my mind, but I realize now that he was controlling the conversation. A cursory nod encouraged. Elongated ups and downs, (and the raising of eyebrows!) symbolized agreement.

This is the first lesson for writers – or anyone – who conducts interviews: If you want someone to talk, you’ve got to know how to listen. And good listening is a surprisingly active process. The interviewee is your focus of attention; you are there to hear what he says and thinks, exclusively. When I say, “interviewing,” I am talking from the perspective of a narrative or creative nonfiction writer. Interviewing for news is somewhat different; reporters usually know, more or less, the information they need to unearth. The writer of narrative, by contrast, is often seeking the unknown – the story behind the facts. You won’t always know the story until you hear it; your job as an interviewer, often, is to keep your subject talking.

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Body language changes you inside May 10th, 2013

interviewing-users

Interviewing Users is now available. Get your copy here!

In Chapter 2, I talk about how body language (see good and bad examples here and here) not only signals that you are listening to your interviewee, it also signals you to listen better. I based on this on some writing by Malcolm Gladwell (in Blink, but originally in The Naked Face) about how our physical self can induce changes in our emotional selves.

Now there’s more research to back up that claim. From this WSJ article

Researchers are finding that wearing a smile brings certain benefits, like slowing down the heart and reducing stress. This may even happen when people aren’t aware they are forming a smile. The work follows research that established that the act of smiling can make you feel happier. Frowning also may have a health effect: Preventing people from frowning, such as with the use of Botox, can help alleviate depression.

“You can influence mental health by what you do with your face, whether you smile more or frown less,” says Eric Finzi, a dermatologic surgeon and co-author of the study on frowning.

Bonus: the article includes this compelling image, explaining “Holding the sticks in the mouth activates the same muscles we use for smiling.”
chopstick-smile

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Interruption or Interjection? October 19th, 2012

Deborah Tannen writes in the New York Times about interruptions. She’s riffing on this week’s presidential debate but I thought this part was relevant to interviewing:

You might think it’s obvious that an interruption is when a second person starts talking before another has stopped. But how long a pause means “I’m done” rather than “I’m catching my breath”? This, too, varies by region and culture – and the difference can lead to unintended interruptions. In 1978, I tape-recorded a Thanksgiving dinner conversation involving two Christians raised in California, three Jews of Eastern European ancestry from New York and a British woman. At times the Californians felt interrupted when their Jewish friends mistook a pause for breath as a turn-relinquishing one. At other times, exclamations like “Wow!” or “That’s impossible!” which were intended to encourage the conversation, stopped it instead. An interruption takes two – one to start, the other to stop. The New Yorkers in my study assumed that a speaker who wasn’t finished wouldn’t stop just because someone else started. If she does, then she creates the interruption.

In my book I look at interruptions and turn-taking in interviews. If someone is going on and on and we need to redirect them, how to do so elegantly? If we are having trouble not talking over someone, what are the sources of those missed pauses and cues? Tannen’s exploration of interruption is useful fodder for thinking about this.

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This Week @ Portigal April 23rd, 2012

Monday is well underway and the week is filling up with meetings and work sessions! Away we go!

  • Last week we kicked off a super-rapid project. We didn’t know we were doing the project at the beginning of the week and by the end of the week we had started recruiting research participants. This week we’re lining up our participants and figuring out what we’ll do in the field.
  • I’m calling it “collaborative listening” – thanks to our officemate Olly, we’re experimenting with some networked speakers that lets us all listen to music together instead of individually over headphones. This will mean sorting out some social norms around volume, phone calls, and musical tastes. But so far, so good (oh yeah, because we’re listening to my music right now!)…
  • We’re hosting our first event later this week. We’ve invited a small number of folks for a discussion and will be sharing more once it’s all over. But we’re actively discussing our catering options right now!
  • More conference submissions to prepare, more conference acceptances to announce, and more conference presentations to start getting together!
  • This week we’ve begun reaching out to potential new teammates, partners, and collaborators. We don’t know where we’ll end up but the journey is sure to be an informative one.
  • What we’re consuming: A Visit From The Goon Squad, The Firestarter Sessions, Pizzeria Delfina
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Listen to Steve on the User Experience podcast August 16th, 2011

I was interviewed by Gerry Gaffney for his User Experience podcast. The topic of the interview was, recursively, interviewing. You can listen to the interview below, and read the transcript here.

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Steve: Yeah there’s something about interviewing. It is such an individual and it’s such a human activity that we can talk best practices, you know, all day. I think there’s something really great that happens when people make it their own. I think this is one of those “find your own style” things. I like to be dictatorial about best practices but I also have to acknowledge very strongly that what people bring is very interesting and different. Along those lines think about introverts versus extroverts and what’s easier or different for introverts or extroverts in these kinds of situations. Extroverts of course get energy from other people, introverts get energy kind of on their own and so that starts to manifest itself in interesting ways or in silence. But also just how much of yourself do you bring to it? And so I’ve seen extroverts be very successful at establishing rapport by talking about themselves, by being very open and genuine and giving.

My tactic as an introvert is to remove a lot of myself from it and really focus on them, express my interest in them, ask questions, ask questions, ask questions, ask follow-up questions, really drive everything towards my focus on them. So my long answer there is I think there’s a personal style thing that kind of comes out. I think if you reveal things about yourself, regardless of your style, I think it needs to be very deliberate. It’s a great tactic to give somebody permission.

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ChittahChattah Quickies April 18th, 2011
  • [from steve_portigal] No.4 Secret Soles – Rosso Solini [I Am Hiawatha] – [Louboutin shoes start at $300 and go up to several thousand dollars. Their red sole is a distinctive design mark that signifies the wearer's brand choice. A 15-year old student has designed and is marketing an aftermarket red sole that can add that signifier to any pair of shoes.] Rosso Solini ‘Secret Soles’ is a shoe customisation kit that gives you the tools and equipment to turn any high-heel into a red soled, Louboutonesque shoe.
  • [from steve_portigal] WET Design and the Improv Approach to Listening [NYTimes.com] – [Mark Fuller, chief excellence officer of WET Design explains what is unusual about his company’s culture] Improv is really about listening to the other person, because there’s no script. It’s about responding. If you have an argument with [your] wife or husband, you are just waiting for the other person to finish so they can say what they’re waiting to say. So usually they’re these serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening. That doesn’t work in improv. If we’re on the stage, I don’t know what goofball thing you’re going to say, so I can’t be planning anything. I have to really be listening to you so I can make an intelligent response….You’re sort of in this gray space of uncertainty. Most of us don’t like to be uncertain ­ you know, most of us like to be thinking what we’re going to say next. You get your mind into a space where you say, “I’m really enjoying that I don’t know what he’s going to ask me next, and I’m going to be open and listening and come back.
  • [from steve_portigal] Open Source Electronics Pioneer Limor Fried on the DIY Revolution [Wired Magazine] – [I've long wondered if our experiences consuming software have changed our expectations for the updatability and customizability of all products] People do want very specialized technology, and they just couldn’t get it. Now they’ll be able to get it. When I make stuff, I make it for only one person, myself. And, like, two of my friends. But it turns out that hundreds of thousands of people want the same thing. And I think that’s how good design starts. So instead of having to just put up with whatever Sony comes out with, consumers will have more choices made by people who are more like them. And they’re not just trying to manufacture as Sony; they’re manufacturing as a small company that is trying to fulfill the needs of a small community…We have no idea [where this movement will go]. It’s going to be weird and completely surprising, and we’re going to be just shocked, and it will be awesome.
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Easy Listening February 28th, 2011

[Note: I was asked by a national print publication to join their crowded roster of design bloggers; Over a few months we worked together on my pitch and eventually I wrote and shared my first post. They were quite keen and ran me through all the technical and style guidelines for using their site. But then they asked me at the last minute to hold as they relaunched their blog. Then, silence. The discussion of my series fell down a hole. Given that almost a year has gone by, I’ve realized that it ain’t happening anytime soon. So here’s the piece!]

Rahul turned to Amanda, his eyes sparkling with excitement. “Hey, I saw a very strange dog today. You wouldn’t believe it!”
Amanda placed a finger in her novel and looked up. “What?”
“A strange dog. I saw a strange dog today.”
“Oh yeah-?” Amanda trailed off, her eyes dipping back to her book.

This is how we live today (I’m not saying it was always this way; did loquacious primitive Thag grunt enthusiastically while Klag scratched drawings upon the cave wall?). Sometimes we’re distracted, busy, tired, or just not that interested. Hearing these stories takes energy (isn’t that right, introverts?) or maybe we’d rather share our own story (isn’t that right, extroverts?). Even when we do engage in conversation, we’re often thinking about what we want to say next, and listening for those breathing cues that indicate it’s our turn to speak. Listening is a limited resource. No wonder we pay people to listen to us talk about ourselves!


TV’s Dr. Paul is a professional listener

And while companies acknowledge the value of listening to customers (what new feature, good or bad, isn’t announced without mealy-mouthed PR justification that “We listened to our customers and they told us-“), even at best that’s often just lip-service. As an individual skill that is crucial is so many business interactions, it’s woefully underdeveloped. While we’d all likely check off “good listener” on a self-assessment, it’s something we should probably get better at.

We don’t have the space (nor the qualifications) to help you get to a point where you care about what your client, customer, colleague or loved one has to say, so let’s just take that as read. But once you’re in the conversation, how do you stay in? One tactic involves your body.

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “act as if” from the worlds of life coaching, personal growth, or therapy (i.e., acting as if you aren’t anxious is a tool for dealing with anxiety). By the same token, if we act as if we are listening, we’ll find it easier to listen.


The body language of good listening


Not so much

In The Naked Face Malcolm Gladwell describes the work of psychologists who developed a coding system for facial expressions. As they identified the muscle groups and what different combinations signified, they realized that in moving those muscles, they were inducing the actual feelings. He writes

Emotion doesn’t just go from the inside out. It goes from the outside in-In the facial-feedback system, an expression you do not even know that you have can create an emotion you did not choose to feel.

It’s a likely extension of this finding to imagine bodily expressions that demonstrate emotion and intent similarly creating those matching feelings in us. Even if it isn’t true, these postures send strong signals to our interlocutor, further encouraging them to share with us.

One of my favorite ways to practice listening is via serendipitous encounters with loquacious taxi drivers, airplane neighbors, or social-cue-missing party chatters. Even if we can’t repair society’s listening inequity, we can use it to provide endless practice space.

For more about listening, you should check out

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ChittahChattah Quickies October 24th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] End Of An Era: Sony Stops Manufacturing Cassette Walkmans [Crunchgear] – [I share the author's surprise that this product was still being manufactured! The CD Walkman – its successor – has long been quaintly outdated, so cassettes? Perhaps there was a retro market, or perhaps other countries discarded formats differently than we have here] Sony announced it will stop manufacturing and selling these devices in Japan – after 30 years. Sony says the final lot was shipped to retailers in April this year, and once the last units are sold, there will be no cassette Walkmans from big S anymore. The first Walkman was produced in 1979. The TPS-L2, the world’s first portable (mass-produced) stereo, went on sale in Japan on July 1 that year and was later exported to the US, Europe and other places. Sony says that they managed to sell over 400 million Walkmans worldwide until March 2010, and exactly 200,020,000 of those were cassette-based models.
  • [from steve_portigal] PlumWillow Is Making the Customer Part of Its Culture [NYTimes.com] – [Employment criteria: do you represent our target customer? Hiring for insight as an internship strategy] They’re part of a team of 15- and 16-year-old interns who are being tapped for their own special brand of expertise and insight: a bird’s-eye view into the life and mind of high school teenagers, exactly the audience that PlumWillow is seeking. “They definitely aren’t shy about telling us what they like and don’t like,” says Lindsay Anvik, director of marketing at PlumWillow, who helps oversee the internship program at its offices in Manhattan. The interns are also emblematic of how Web-based businesses are doing more than merely shaping their products and services around customer preferences. The companies are corralling those customers in the workplace and making them part of the design and marketing process, according to Susan Etlinger, a consultant at the Altimeter Group, which researches Web technologies and advises companies on how to use them.
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Lunapads or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Discomfort August 26th, 2010


My second column for Core77, Lunapads or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Discomfort is up. Here’s a potentially knee-jerk-reaction-inducing excerpt, so I recommend clicking through to see the whole piece.

There are so many signals here that buck the mainstream norm for “feminine hygiene.” Where current imagery might feature billowing swathes of diaphanous fabric, smiling models and free birds winging on high, here we have two enthusiastic, potentially sexually aggressive women. Instead of handling the product discreetly, they are thrusting it towards us in celebration? Challenge?

If they were selling, oh I don’t know, maybe ice cream, I’d find this pretty hot. If I’m accurate in picking up (subtle for someone with my too-too-straight life) lesbian cues, then even more so. I’m kinda freaked out by these women, but mmm, sexy. But oh, no, it’s not ice cream. It’s definitely not ice cream. It’s menstrual cups (umm, what?) Good Lord, boys, head for the hills!

Also see previously on Core77 Homer Simpson’s Duff Beer: Barley, Hops and Cultural Stories?

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ChittahChattah Quickies July 20th, 2010
  • [from Dan_Soltzberg] The clever furniture designs of OOOMS [Core77] – Some wonderfully playful furniture by Dutch firm OOMS. The "Low-Res Chair" at the bottom of the page is sheer genius.
  • [from julienorvaisas] The art of slow reading [www.guardian.co.uk] – [Will unplugging from technology really help us read more attentively, as the article suggests?] First we had slow food, then slow travel. Now, those campaigns are joined by a slow-reading movement – a disparate bunch of academics and intellectuals who want us to take our time while reading, and re-reading. They ask us to switch off our computers every so often and rediscover both the joy of personal engagement with physical texts, and the ability to process them fully.
  • [from steve_portigal] Pandora, MOG, Apple, and online music’s future [The New Yorker] – [Sasha Frere-Jones writes about the digital listening experience with clarity and insight] No one knows what the future of the music business will look like, but the near future of listening to music looks a lot like 1960. People will listen, for free, to music that comes out of a stationary box that sits indoors. They’ll listen to music that comes from an object that fits in the hand, and they’ll listen to music in the car. That box was once a radio or a stereo; now it’s a computer… Sometimes we will be the d.j.s, and sometimes the machines will be, and we may be surprised by which we prefer.
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Skill Building for Design Innovators (from CHIFOO) July 16th, 2010

At CHIFOO in Portland this week, I presented Skill Building for Design Innovators.

How can you broaden your sphere of influence within the field of human-computer interaction? You can start by building your muscles! Steve will take a look at some fundamental skills that underlie the creation and launch of innovative goods and services. He will discuss the personal skills that he considers to be “the muscles of innovators” and the ways you can build these important muscles, including noticing, understanding cultural context, maintaining exposure to pop culture, synthesizing, drawing, wordsmithing, listening, and prototyping. Along the way, he will demonstrate how improving these powerful skills will equip you to lead positive change.

Here are the slides and audio:

Listen to audio:

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