Posts tagged “institute of design”

Human Behavior

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.


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


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.


Related posts:
On using objects for generative research

On noticing
On prototyping and fidelity

DRC08 Workshop: Tapping into super-noticing power


Last weekend was my workshop (“Did you see that? Tapping into your super-noticing power”) at the Institute of Design’s Design Research Conference. Most of the folks in the workshop completed a homework assignment where they went out and took photos of something they noticed (similar to the assignment I had given to the students I taught at CCA, discussed here). During the workshop itself, people presented their photos and stories, while I asked both speakers and listeners to think about the noticing process more than the details of the specific examples (all of which were interesting and enjoyable).

We did just a first pass at synthesizing the observations, and some of the things that came out may or may not be obvious to others. Here’s a sampling:

  • To notice, we filter on our previous experiences, our personal backgrounds, and our professional experiences
  • We react to something that evokes an emotion in us
  • Rather than noticing details, we may simply grasp the gestalt of the details in the moment
  • Taking the picture helps you notice, even if you go back to the picture later and notice things in that picture
  • The importance of slowing down, relaxation, being calm/still, having a time of contemplation (in contrast to “trying” to do a noticing activity…several people reported that they couldn’t do the exercise when they tried to do it, but then later on they noticed all sorts of stuff
  • In contrast, for some, there is no on/off button for their design research way of thinking/being
  • There’s a need to give ourselves permission to look silly by stopping to pay attention to something seemingly trivial
  • Notice similarities when you expect differences
  • Notice differences when you expect similarities
  • Most importantly to me, was that it’s okay not to know the “why” of something; this was tough during the workshop when some people had a strong urge to try and explain what others had noticed; to rationalize, clarify, or even solve it

I look forward to the next opportunity to lead this workshop again.

See also: Ever notice? by Steve Portigal and Dan Soltzberg at AIGA Gain

The Ethnography of Marketing (or, rather, the marketing of Ethnography!)

The Ethnography of Marketing is another BusinessWeek piece about, well, ethnography. (It should be entitled The Marketing of Ethnography, perhaps).

The Institute of Design…[has] developed the User Insight Tool, an ethnographic methodology designed specifically for business. It relies on disposable cameras, field notebooks, and special software that teases out new understandings from consumer observations.

How does the User Insight Tool work? Researchers decide what human behaviors they want to observe. They give observers disposable cameras to take photos of those activities. With pictures in hand, researchers talk to the people using a standard framework outlined in their field notebooks. The goal is to understand each person’s activities over a number of dimensions such as comfort level and product use. The notes are analyzed and entered into the software along with general insights and the original field notes.

The software lets the researchers look for similarities among all the insights gleaned from the different subjects. It organizes them graphically on the computer screen so large patterns of similarities appear as dense patches or clusters. The value of clustering is that it can reveal hidden patterns of behavior.

Interesting. The Institute of Design has been talking about this tool for a while now, and this is as close to an actual description as we’re probably going to ever get. It’s still remarkably opaque. Is this some advanced Artificial Intelligence system that does Natural Language Processing? That would be surprising to see emerge from the ID, wouldn’t it? If not, then perhaps the article is suggesting that the “observations” that are entered into the system must be put into a set of categories (pre-defined?) and then it does some rudimentary sorting on them? For it’s the creation of that categories that seems enormously challenging.

In science, you can determine your parameters ahead of time; you can even set up all your stats before you do your data collection. But in fieldwork, you don’t really know what the categories are, you can hypothesize, but the pattern recognition has to let you go broader than you imagined (that’s why you are doing this in the first place!).

I’m always a little nervous when I see a piece of technology emerge as the panacea to complex human problem (and we see this all the time, either it’s software, or hypnotism, or MRIs or something else presumably objective). In this case, we’ve got messy people (those who we study) and a slippery skill set (doing ethnography). And it seems that the story here is throwing some gizmo at the problem to eliminate that. Are the people doing the “observations” considered ethnographers or are they simply data collectors working to a script?

There’s always a market for short-cuts, easy answers, quick-and-dirty solutions. Although their case studies sound intriguing from the little bit of detail we’ve been given, I would want to know much much more about what they’re actually doing to get to these results.

When the Institute of Design compared the ethnographic data of both the P&G and Lenovo studies, it found that while the kitchen is the center of family activity in the U.S., the parents’ bed is the family social center in India. This is vital information for any company making global consumer entertainment products.

Is “the parents’ bed is the family social center in India” an ethnographic insight or something that any Indian would be able to tell you? On that note, Dina Mehta has documented a whole series of Indian cultural norms around business, consumption and beyond. It’s a brilliant reference piece. Check ’em out: part 1, part 2, part 3.

BW on ethno

BusinessWeek has a new article about ethnography. The author posted a blurb about it on a mailing list I’m on, asking for feedback (I guess some on the list provided input into the piece) and expressing interest continuing the conversation. So far my comments have gone unanswered, so I’m summarizing them here.

It’s nice to see some fresh examples of success in the application of ethnography. The GE example is very cool and goes beyond the usual fix a product case study and into the evolve a business’s culture that really rang true from my own experience.

However, I was disappointed to see the article buy into the ethnography = anthropology myth and the corollary that all ethnographers are anthropologists. Indeed, the article incorrectly attributes the anthropology credential to some people such as Tony Salvador who I believe was trained as a psychologist, or the people at Steelcase, some of whom I know as graduates of the Institute of Design, and are definitely not anthropologists. IDEO may have anthropologists, but a great deal of their people involved in “human factors” (as they term it) are coming with other educational backgrounds.

It’s tempting to see a conspiracy of highly-placed anthropologists who work behind the scenes to ensure that any conversation about user research in product development and consulting succumbs helplessly to this myth, but I think really sloppy reporting is more likely the culprit here.

John Thackera Thackara writes about the article in his typical sanctimonious style (seriously – I will have to give up on In The Bubble because it’s filled with mean-spirited judgment of one profession or endeavor on one page, and then a capricious about-face on the next page to drool over another effort that meets his opaque standards).

Do ethnographers need exotic names to do well in business? A story in Business Week features two guys called ‘J. Wilton L. Agatstein Jr’ (who runs Intel’s new emerging-markets unit) and ‘Timothy deWaal Malefyt’ (an anthropologist who runs ‘cultural discovery’ at ad firm BBDO Worldwide).

Whoah. Racist much, John? Portigal is a pretty funny name. So is Thackera Thackara. What of it?

About, With, and For conference

For the fourth year running, I’ll be speaking at About, With, and For, organized by the ID in Chicago. This year it’s October 28-29, at Navy Pier. The details of my talk aren’t up, but I’ll be doing a workshop about the relationships between improv and ethnography and innovation. It’s similar to the tutorial I’m teaching at DUX in early November. AWF is always a great event, and the first set of speakers they’ve announced looks pretty good; check it out!

about, with & for – advancing the practice of user-centered design research

The about, with & for conference website is was up.

Now in it’s fourth year, AWF is a collaborative forum offered by the graduate students of the Institute of Design to address issues within design research. It is targeted at professionals and academics who develop ideas based on insights into people’s behaviors, perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes. Within this forum, we explore a range of methods to uncover insights and translate them into meaningful systems, products, organizations, services and communications.


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