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Steve’s “The Power of Bad Ideas” published on Core77 May 21st, 2012

Core77 has published my latest column, The Power of Bad Ideas

Bad ideas are not boring, meh proposals. Bad is not the absence of good. These ideas should go beyond provoking “That’s stupid!” to eliciting a much stronger response. Bad ideas might be immoral, dangerous to the user or bad for the business itself. In one session I led, a team proudly showed me their sketches of homeless people packed onto trains and shipped away from the downtown core they were trying to improve. At the time, I reacted to the general lack of humaneness in the idea and saw that as visceral proof point of how they were challenging boundaries. It wasn’t until much much later that I appreciated the horrific evocation of the Holocaust. In this writing, and perhaps in the reading, in the cold pixels of this piece, this feels grotesque. That’s because in reflecting here we are outside the environment of ideation. Within the context of the brainstorm, we have a “safe place” where exploring what’s possible without judgment is crucial.

Check out the full piece on Core77.

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ChittahChattah Quickies February 23rd, 2012

Why You’re Doing Customer Research All Wrong [Inc.] – It comes as no surprise that many innovative ideas hit the cutting room floor before ever seeing the light of day in consumer testing. The author suggests that too many great ideas don’t get chosen for testing and this is where the problem lies. While I agree that this is a grave problem for customer research, it’s not nearly as reprehensible¬†as the omission of consumers from ideation sessions, and the failure to converge in the ideation process. In fact, I’d argue that the problem could be averted with two steps upstream in this process. First, start with the end in mind when planning a brainstorming session and invite customers and executives to help generate stakeholder-inspired ideas. Secondly, make sure those ideas get clustered and prioritized before anyone leaves the room. Ideation should include both divergent and convergent thinking!¬† This results in more collaborative value-added ideas and less ‘intuitive’ choices about which ones merit further testing.

Affinnova studied 100 testing campaigns that its clients had done in the past. Typically the testing process went like this: A company came up with a long list of potential ideas to test, whittled it down using mostly executives’ intuition, and then tested the much shorter list of ideas. Affinnova, on the other hand, took the initial brainstorming list and tested everything on it, presenting the ideas in groups and asking participants to select their favorites.

Looking To Hire And Keep Great Innovators? Focus On The 3 Rs [Co.Design] – When companies look inward in a quest for amping up their innovation capabilities, they undoubtedly see the potential of their human resources. The three Rs of getting and keeping innovative employees are Recruiting, Retraining and Rewarding. Given the very premise of the article a fourth R, Reflection, seems mighty important. While the ROI (yikes, another R word!) of a strategic debrief may be hard to justify in some cases, the cost of ignoring valuable lessons learned from experience can be catastrophic. Consider how many times companies learn the same lessons over and over again. It’s Ridiculous. Besides, a healthy organization that engages its employees in regular reflection is likely to keep those folks feeling engaged, valued and loyal, thereby reducing the need to look outside for more innovators.

Innovation relies on people more than other processes. This reliance on employees, management, and executives in an organization requires that the “right” people are attracted, and then given the appropriate tools and techniques for a sustained innovation success. Their passions and capabilities also must be ensured to align with the needs and expectations of the firm.

Building Self-Control, the American Way [New York Times] - Although this article is focused on parenting strategies for cultivating self-discipline, I think the lessons can be applied to nurturing innovative thinkers. This article talks about the importance of play in allowing children to practice and develop skills like self-control, self-esteem and social interaction. Companies who rely on their people to continually generate creative ideas should explore opportunities for productive play experiences that challenge and nurture their employees’ essential abilities to manage themselves through intrinsic motivation.

Fortunately for American parents, psychologists find that children can learn self-control without externally imposed pressure. Behavior is powerfully shaped not only by parents or teachers but also by children themselves. The key is to harness the child’s own drives for play, social interaction and other rewards. Enjoyable activities elicit dopamine release to enhance learning, while reducing the secretion of stress hormones, which can impede learning and increase anxiety, sometimes for years.

 

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ChittahChattah Quickies June 2nd, 2009
  • Hallmark Cards to feature licensed audio content from NBC Universal – NBC Universal has sealed a new licensing deal with Hallmark Cards that includes the use of the company's film and TV content. Sound cards from Universal films such as "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," "Sixteen Candles" and "Jaws" will be included as well. Ditto "The Office," "30 Rock" and "Battlestar," as well as NBC News archives. Beyond cards, the deal includes "a wide range of social expression products."
  • Escapism in Minutiae of Daily Life – nice NYT review of Sims 3 – It is almost impossible to avoid the temptation to make a Sim version of yourself, either as you really are or as you wish to be. In that sense the game presents basic but important questions: What kind of person am I? What kind of person would I like to become? How do I treat the people around me? What is important to me in life? What are my core values?

    Children usually form their tentative answers to these questions without considering them explicitly. Adults, by contrast, often confront such issues, even tangentially, only in the context of intense emotional involvement, some sort of crisis or high-priced psychotherapy.

    Most video games exist to allow the player to forget completely about the real world. The Sims accomplishes the rare feat of entertaining while also provoking intellectual and emotional engagement with some of life’s fundamental questions. I love aliens and zombies, but a little reality in my gaming once in a while is not a horrible thing.

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Human Behavior September 29th, 2008

I was in Chicago last weekend for IIT Institute of Design’s excellent Design Research Conference, and spent a day walking around the city. (I’m happy to say I can now use the term ‘Miesian’ with authority.)

I ended the day in Millennium Park eating a hot dog and looking at Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture.

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Actually, to say I was looking at the sculpture sells the experience short. I’d seen the giant silver bean from a distance earlier that day, but once I was next to it, the combination of scale, surface treatment, and form made it such an unusual and compelling object that I couldn’t help but start interacting with it. Chicago writer Lynn Becker’s article on Millennium Park sculpture-as-architecture delves further into the interactivity of Cloud Gate.

After a few trips around and under the sculpture, I decided to sit back and watch how other people were responding to it.

I saw people

  • photograph it
  • photograph themselves with it
  • photograph others with it
  • have strangers photograph them with it
  • use it as a mirror and check their makeup, hair
  • clean it and (while being photographed) lick it
  • fit their bodies into the smallest possible space created by the sculpture’s curves
  • smear their fingerprints along the mirrored surface (this seemed like a form of graffiti, a recording of presence)
  • pretend to be holding the sculpture up
  • use it to hold them up
  • pose suggestively on all fours next to it
  • talk about having come there other times
  • lie on the ground in poses to create specific tableaux in the funhouse mirror-like underside

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It was fascinating to see how people reacted to having this functionless object placed in their midst. It struck me as a form of spatial/environmental prototyping, and I’m sure that noticing and examining what people do and what their patterns of motion around this object are and synthesizing that data could produce insights to inform many types of design.

In our research work, we periodically use objects to elicit responses from people to new concepts. Sometimes these artifacts take the form of storyboards, sometimes models, and sometimes we’ll just put something in a person’s hands to give them a starting point, something to react to. One time, I handed a person we were interviewing a CD box set that was on his coffee table, and he proceeded to talk us through a whole design for the product idea we were discussing. “It’d be smaller than this, I think the corners should be rounded, maybe this part could come off . . .”

We’ve been collaborating lately with a couple of our clients on the creation of storyboards and models for this purpose. It’s been interesting figuring out in each case the right balance of detail and abstraction; how to give people enough cues to get the basic concepts, while leaving them enough space to think about how they would like to see those concepts refined.

Of course, what gets created depends on where our client is in the development process and what we want to learn from the people we’re talking to, but I think that what I saw at Cloud Gate is a good model for what one hopes an artifact will spark in a research participant: the urge to experiment, to hypothesize, to test, to interact, to play, to see what’s possible.

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Related posts:
On using objects for generative research

On noticing
On prototyping and fidelity

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Words June 11th, 2008

A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
Thomas Mann

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Poet Kenneth Goldsmith calls himself an “uncreative writer,” and his works include: everything he said for a week; every move his body made during a thirteen-hour period; a year of transcribed weather reports, and the September 10, 2001 issue of The New York Times, transcribed.

My first reaction to Goldsmith’s work was that it seemed like a good piece of conceptual art scamming, but then I heard him read one of his transcribed weather reports on the radio.

Before he read the piece, Goldsmith explained that the process of transcribing these artifacts creates an experience for him of the poetry in everyday language use. And it was true-as Goldsmith read the weather report, in a fairly rapid, uncadenced style, I was struck by how vividly evocative the place names, the verbs of wind and temperature, the homey advice to “stay indoors” all were.

I think what Goldsmith is doing is a word-focused parallel to what we do in contextual research practice: we carefully observe and document the everyday, as much as possible suspending our own preconceptions of what is and is not significant, in order to see in new ways.

When I was younger, I effortlessly seemed to think in a more lyrical and poetic way than I do now. My hypothesis has been that this change is a result of being more involved with “putting my hands on things” than I was in my 20s. My creative energy now goes much more towards describing and solving problems-juxtaposing complex alternatives, articulating ideas that have the potential for real impact-and there’s just not the same kind of energy available for playing with language.

I’m happy with the direction my way of thinking has evolved, but at the same time, I feel a certain sense of loss for that earlier version of myself, and the ease with which I used to make words do tricks.

Hearing Goldsmith reminded me that I needn’t draw a hard line between between playing with language and solving problems, between the lyrical and the practical-that it’s all out there, evocative and full of potential.

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Observational Ephemera: Friday May 23rd, 2008

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The Cheerios Play Book. A line-extension designed just for the fist-in-mouth set.

See my previous screed on food companies teaching children to play with, rather than eat, their products.

See all observational ephemera.

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Connecting07: Connecting The Play of Improv with The Work of Ethnographic Research October 22nd, 2007

Here’s the presentation (with matched audio) from last week’s IDSA/ICSID conference.

Update: the synced audio is not working, but you can play the audio here:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

We spent about 1/3 of the time doing improv games (which may be “you had to be there”) and about 1/3 in discussion (in which the audio favors me over the audience), but maybe you can skip past some of those parts.

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Upcoming talk on improv and ethnography May 11th, 2007

It’s won’t be until October, but I’ll be giving another talk about the overlaps and intersections between ethnography and improv at the CONNECTING’07: Icsid/IDSA World Design Congress. It’s here in San Francisco, from October 17-20. More info as it it’s available.

(Yes, my face and voice both are part of the website. Connecting!)
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What am I in for? September 14th, 2006

I’m feeling eagerness and trepidation over the upcoming Applied Improv Conference. Eagerness because I find improv has enormous potential for creativity and collaboration (and even connections to ethnography) and discussions of improv can be provocative and intellectually invigorating.

And trepidation over whether this event will be filled with earnest, clowny, extroverted, unprofessional flakes where I’ve just got no common ground.

We have an exciting Plenary Session planned for Wednesday evening with Nika Quirk of InterPlay®.
InterPlay means “interaction” and what could be better to kick off a conference? InterPlay¬Æ is easy, fun, and life changing. It is based in a series of incremental “forms” that lead participants to movement and stories, silence and song, ease and amusement. In the process, we unlock the innate wisdom of our bodies and in our relationships.

Nika Quirk is a lifelong mover and student of dance, starting with her interest in wiggling to TV jingles at age 3. She founded and directed a Dance Choir using authentic movement and a collaborative choreography process she developed. Completing the yearlong InterPlay¬Æ Leadership Program in 1997, she earned certification in the methodology and has focused her application of InterPlay¬Æ in small groups, individual coaching, and “labs” exploring business partnership. Nika’s career spans law, business management, non-profit program development, academic teaching and professional coaching. In August, she began a doctoral program at California Institute of Integral Studies and is following her curiosity about the connections between improvisational ability and social creativity.

I guess it’s up to me to bring some open-mindedness back and cover up my cynicism (which I oh-so enjoy). The conference is local, so no travel costs, and is relatively inexpensive, and is an experiment for me. I’m passing on some of the typical conferences my peers are attending this year (and that I have been regulars at in the past) in order to branch out, but I can feel the tension inside me over that decision.

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Class, a number, a lizard May 17th, 2006

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We recently saw an amazing production of the play A number

The dramatic premise is as deceptively simple as it is uncompromisingly topical. In five short scenes — ‘Number’ packs an astonishing amount of thought and entertainment into less than an hour — a father, Salter (Bill Smitrovich), meets with three embodiments of his son. Two, both named Bernard, are the son he fathered and the clone he raised. The other, Michael, is a stranger to him, in more ways than he can comprehend. That each is instantly recognizable as a distinct individual, despite an exact physical resemblance, is a testament to the skills of Josh Charles, who plays all three roles.

There was a Q&A afterwards where we heard about a British production (the play was originally produced in London, I believe) in which the actor playing the three different sons had more degrees of freedom in how he presented the three characters – since class can be denoted through accent in a more significant way for the Brits. It was another interesting example of small and large shifts in meaning seen from a shift in context.

Now, I noticed recently that they changed the voice actor who does the voice for the Geico gecko. He’s gone from a somewhat refined sounding English accent to a rougher Cockney (or what sounds like Cockney to me) tone. That would have significant meaning in the UK. What does it mean to us in North America? First off, it’s odd that it changed so drastically after several years of advertisements, but what are we supposed to take away from the revoicing? I honestly don’t know. Here’s what Geico’s website says

Even when the gecko becomes annoyed with people calling him at home on the phone by mistake when theyÔø?re trying to reach GEICO, he always maintains his decorum in a very proper English tone.

I think they need to update that part of their site! And there’s speculation about who the new voice actor is (described as “less posh”) here and here while others rant about the change in the character’s voice (originally Kelsey Grammer in the first ad) and purpose right out of the gate.

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