Posts tagged “listening”

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • IxDA SF presents Interaction09 Redux – Saturday, March 14th – I'll be leading a condensed version of my IXDA workshop from Vancouver (Well we did all this research…now what), looking at a framework for transforming questions into answers, answers into insights, and insights into actions.
  • Steve's photos from Vancouver, Feb 2009 – I was in Vancouver to run a workshop at the IXDA conference and to visit family. Some of the photos will make their way into dedicated blog posts but meanwhile here's the whole set.
  • Juice is in the details – Tropicana's redesign is being heralded for the caps that look like oranges. We've got a carton in the fridge and it's as plain as plain can be, so I'm not sure where these great caps are lurking. Meanwhile, back in 2006 we were seeing orange-looking caps on Florida's Natural packaging.
  • Tropicana reverts to "classic" packaging after their crappy redesign is met with broad scorn – Mea pulpa: "Asked if he was chagrined that consumers rejected the changes he believed they wanted, Mr. Campbell replied: “I feel it’s the right thing to do, to innovate as a company. I wouldn’t want to stop innovating as a result of this. At the same time, if consumers are speaking, you have to listen.”"

Listening vs. Hearing

In Fast Company’s Green Guru Gone Wrong there’s a sobering examination of sustainability architect William McDonough and the work that he’s doing. I am sure this type of investigation is highly contentious, especially when icons like McDonough are revealed to be less-than-perfect.

But it’s interesting to note that some the project failures are tied to a dramatic lack of understanding of the current behaviors and future needs of target customers.

Shannon May smelled the rot firsthand. An anthropology PhD student from UC Berkeley who lived in Huangbaiyu for nearly two years, May first met McDonough in 2005, the year the project broke ground. But within several months, it became apparent to May that everything from the village’s overall design to its construction was deeply flawed. The homes were suburban-tract style with garages, despite the fact that only four of the expected 1,400 villagers had cars. The backyards were too small for growing feed corn or raising animals, which the villagers needed to make their living. But most absurd to her eye was the plan to use agricultural waste to fuel the biogas plant to power the village: leftover corncobs and stalks were the winter food supply for the cashmere goats, the area’s leading source of cash. Using them meant the goats would starve.

“I started calling Bill and telling him these things, and he would be very responsive and concerned on the phone,” says May, the blonde seen standing behind McDonough in Friedman’s documentary. “What troubled me was that it was as if he knew nothing about the way these people lived. And he seemed concerned, but then nothing would happen after these phone calls.” May says McDonough visited the village only twice while she lived there “for one or two hours at a time, and only when there was a video camera following him.” The supposedly $3,500 homes were costing nearly $12,000 to build, more than 10 times the villagers’ median income. By 2006, only two families had moved in, and they did so because their previous homes had burned down. Even then, they had to use antiquated heating rigs because the renewable energy systems didn’t work.

And even more interesting is that the failure isn’t about a lack of information about these customers, it’s a failure of process to integrate that information into the project decisions.

Get our latest article: Everbody’s Talkin’ At Me

My second interactions column, Everbody’s Talkin’ At Me, has just been published. I offer some thoughts on the crucial but undervalued activity of listening within the context of storytelling.

Get a PDF of the article here. As the interactions website only has a teaser, we’d like to offer a copy of the article. Send an email to steve AT portigal DOT com and (if you haven’t given us this info before) tell us your name, organization, and title. We’ll send you a PDF.
Other articles

Connecting07 – Improv and Ethnography

If you are coming to ICSID/IDSA Connecting 07 in San Francisco later this month, I’ll be giving a presentation entitled Connecting the Play of Improv with the Work of Ethnographic Research on Friday, October 19, from 5:45pm – 6:30pm in the Fairmont Hotel, Crystal Room.

In the meantime, you can read more about an earlier version of this presentation

To the rest of us in the audience, both exercises were quite funny. Most of the participants couldn’t figure out at the time what we were laughing at.

All of which suggests that Improv is a powerful means of engaging with other human beings that is both immersive and “flow-like.”

Portigal then went on to define activities associated with ethnography, focusing on the guided interview process in particular.

He concluded his talk by identifying the key “overlaps” between the two disciplines:

* Balancing a “plan” with being in the moment
* “Yes and…” (Using positive reinforcement of the other’s statements to keep the conversation going.)

Dan Soltzberg and I will be attending the entire conference and we’d love to meet with folks to talk about how our work in uncovering user insights can help drive design and business decisions in your organization. Do let us know!

Even “good” surveys suck

They suck for us, the people who respond to them. Who wants to participate in something like this? (recorded after my conversation with a United rep to resolve the ticket cancellation I blogged the other day)

It’s not unusual at the conclusion of conversational bit of research (something interactive, interpersonal, and listening) for the person being interviewed to thank the person running the interview…at first you might think “you’re thanking ME? But I got great info from you…” but the fact is that an interview done well is a pleasure to participate in.

These surveys aren’t really interested in you; they’ve already forced you to think and respond in a completely unnatural and awkward fashion.

Sure, surveys do have their place and I’m being pejorative here only to highlight the bad user experience being created by this sort of research.

FreshMeat #17: She Blinded Me With Silence

FreshMeat #17 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat 

FreshMeat – the official snack of the Zeitgeist
Talk is cheap, and silence is golden.
“Accustomed to the veneer of noise, to the shibboleths of
promotion, public relations, and market research, society
is suspicious of those who value silence.”
John Lahr

First things first: a shibboleth is a word (or phrase, or
form of language) that is used by members of a group to
identify themselves as being part of that group. Fans of
The Simpsons might exclaim “D’oh,” or software engineers
may make middleware references with their sandwiches. The
choice of words indicates something beyond the meaning of
the words themselves. One may (briefly, please!) ponder
what group I am claiming membership in through my use of
shibboleth here.

At any rate, Lahr’s quote nicely encapsulates some
thoughts I have had about silence, spurred on by a pair
of experiences over the past few months. A while back I
was in my first public improv performance. We were all
amateurs, some with many years of experience, others with
a year or less (such as myself). In this performance we
started each scene with one idea (often from the
audience) and proceeded from there with some sort of
structure. What often happened was a scramble to move the
idea forward – everyone speaking at once, with too many
ideas thrown in the first few moments to ever really
solidify into a great scene. Have you ever seen 8-year
olds play soccer? The ball and both sets of kids are a
whirling cloud that moves up and down and across the
field like the Tasmanian Devil. That was us.

But then the next night I saw the Kids in the Hall – a
comedy troupe that has been performing together for a
very long time. After the scripted material had finished,
the audience was clamoring for more. In advance of the
encore, they all walked on stage and thanked us, then
improvised a few jokes before heading off stage to
prepare for the encore. All five of them managed to hold
the stage coherently. Not everyone spoke at equal length
in those few minutes, but at no point did any of them
speak on top of another. It came off as natural and easy,
but it was really quite incredible – grab four people and
try to do that some time.

Where they succeeded and we didn’t-succeed-as-well (for
there are no losers in improv) was in allowing for
silence. Each Kid in the Hall was silent for most, if not
all, of their unscripted segment. What a powerful
contribution they made by not speaking. Yet what a
strange statement to make – that a comedy performer
helped by not speaking – how can that be? We tend to
expect performance to be the explicit utterances, not the
space between them.

But, as the word shibboleth reminds us, there are layers
to communication, and there’s a lot that can happen
without verbalization – posture, gestures, breath sounds,
eye gaze, facial reactions, and more. The Kids in the
Hall were doing all those the entire time – and they were
paying attention to each other. When silent, they were
actively silent – sending and receiving information.

This behavior is crucial in ethnographic research. When
interviewing, ethnographers speak minimally (reviewing
videotapes suggest as little as 20% of the time). Yet,
the interviews are directed and controlled by the
interviewer. Nodding, eye contact, and body language all
support the respondent in providing detailed information.

More tactically, we learn to remain silent for a beat or
two after someone has answered a question. People work in
“chunks” and often there are several chunks required to
deliver a response. Simply remaining silent (and this
does take some practice) and allowing the respondent to
answer in their own time is remarkably effective.

Of course, there is often more than one researcher on
hand. If the first ethnographer remains silent, waiting
for the respondent to continue, the second ethnographer
must recognize that, and also listen silently, rather
than using the opening as their chance to interview. This
collaborative use of silence is something the Kids in the
Hall managed and my improv group did not.

We experience these same challenges in more familiar work
settings – brainstorming, meetings, etc. We work in a
society that judges us primarily by our own contributions
rather than the way we allow others to make theirs. If
the collaborative silence is not a shared value in a
group, there can be a real problem for those who default
to listening, not speaking. We’ve learned how to give
credit to those who utter the pearls, but we don’t know
how to acknowledge the value of those that choose their
moments wisely, that allow others to shine, and that
ultimately enable those pearls.

I don’t propose any solution and I won’t condescend to
suggest “gee, if we each would try a little harder to…”
Indeed, so as to not end on a preachy note, I should
point out a 2002 episode of The Simpsons (DABF05, “Jaws
Wired Shut”) in which Homer’s jaw gets wired shut. He is
physically unable to speak. He does become a better
listener, but most interesting are the positive qualities
the people in his life project upon him. Simpsons
Executive Producer Al Jean said: “When Homer gets his jaw
wired shut, it makes him into a really decent, wonderful
human being.” I don’t know if Al Jean is getting post-
modern on us, but Homer’s internal change, through his
silence, was fairly minor compared to the differences
that other people perceived. For even more on that theme,
check out “Being There” by Jerzy Kozinsky (with Peter
Sellers starring in the film version).

Soundbites from “Jaws Wired Shut” here.


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