Category Archives: user experience

Design Research Fieldwork and Saying Yes

These last 2.5 years as a design researcher at IDEO have involved a lot of saying “yes.” When you’re doing fieldwork you’re entering someone’s life and quickly understanding what they need in order to feel comfortable — so that you can learn what you need in order to inspire a design process. It’s tricky, and also beautifully human.

Here are some ways I’ve said yes:

Yes, I will taste your mysterious spice blend! I will climb to the top of your water tower on the totally rickety ladder! I will attach this thing to my shoe so I don’t create static electricity and blow up the factory! I will ride in the back of your police car! I will eat your favorite granola bar! Yes, I will peer deep inside this vat of paint solvent and almost pass out!

And in return, our research participants say yes.

Yes, strange people, come into my home! Ask me intrusive questions about my favorite vegetables and how I install software! Take photos of my refrigerator/car/insulin pump! Yes, come to my acoustic gig! Yes, I will show you the secrets to sword swallowing and beer brewing! I will tell you when I’m on vacation and how much my electronics cost!

The trust on both sides is extreme and appreciated.

Pausing to appreciate the whirlwind

In ways both small and profound, the past few weeks have been awash in extraordinary moments of connectedness with the people around me and with the world at large.

  • Two products I helped design are now for sale on
  • An icon I thought up and sketched on a Post-it with a Sharpie is now part of the Noun Project.
  • Data from a meditation session with an IDEO friend was shared at a conference at MIT for the Dalai Lama.
  • I spoke remotely on “Empathy and Innovation” to a group at Harvard Business Publishing, inspiring conversation on really knowing the people you’re designing for.
  • In one night I watched a giant meteor flash across the Mission, saw a 3D sonogram of a dear friend’s soon-to-arrive baby, and reconnected with a relative I haven’t seen in 22 years.
  • I read a frend’s book in 24 hours, found a charming reference to my ongoing side project that he’d included, and watched said book climb the NYT best seller list.
  • I heard the news of a former colleague from Harvard Business School winning the Nobel Prize in Economics.
  • I cheered from the sidelines as one friend’s startup was acquired, and another’s major product was released.

This, plus my “normal” work of leading clients and colleagues in field work in three locations, helping to design the future of a product that we all know but probably haven’t seen for a while, co-leading IDEO’s work in hybrid qualitative/quantitative insights, writing another talk for next week, prepping for an interview for an upcoming book on creativity, and more sketching, researching, synthesizing, writing, guiding, and plotting.


Innovation, Idealism, and Cynicism

Buddhist Geeks 2012 Innovation Panel

Most of my brain cycles are devoted to either tech/innovation or the dharma, so I was understandably delighted to discover the Buddhist Geeks conference, and even more delighted earlier this year when they asked me to be a speaker. The conference was held in Boulder, Colorado a few weeks ago, and there I met lovely people who are “playing at the intersection of Buddhism, technology, and global culture” and inspired me to do more of the same.

A highlight of the experience was the panel discussion I was on with Vince Horn, Rohan Gunatillake, and David Loy, speaking together on the topic of “Reinventing Buddhism.” We described it in the conference brochure thusly:

Reinventing Buddhism: The Role of Innovation in a Rapidly Changing World

What we call Buddhism has often been a radical experiment in understanding the nature of human suffering and exploring ways to alleviate it, as well as exploring deep potentials of the human mind and heart. As we move further into the 21st century — a time marked by unprecedented change — those of us who wish to respond to these changing conditions are forced to look at what it means to innovate, how it works, and what the potential risks and rewards are.

At the beginning of the panel we each presented for a few minutes. For my part, I spoke about innovation as a process, and how core principles of the human-centered design process align in interesting ways with what dharma practitioners do.

I introduced the idea through this quote, from a conversation I had with my design research colleague Dan Soltzberg:

“When you go to meet someone to understand their world, which is what we do in qualitative design research, you have to be aware of and put aside all your own personal biases and filters to the best of your ability… There’s a suspension of judgment that creates incredible compassion for people. Doing research interviews is a deep moment of being with people.”

This process of being fully present, accepting what is, and connecting through compassion is at the heart of what dharma practice is all about — and it’s also at the core of the human-centered design process.

I also talked the part of the HCD process where the team moves from insight and synthesis to prototyping. During the prototyping phase, we deliberately foster a spirit of non-attachment through going broad with a large number of initial sketches and low fidelity prototypes. (Too often, designers get a hunch for something and get attached to one design solution without exploring the range of possible options.) As the prototyping process continues, we winnow down the possible options and bring them into higher fidelity forms, so at the end we might have only one design expression — but it will be the right one. Along the way we will have lost possibly hundreds of other directions. This is great training for another core dharma principle, the impermanence of all phenomena.

Vince, David, and I then kicked around other points related to how Buddhism is shaping culture in the West and how it in turn is being shaped through collisions with our institutions and systems. Kelly Kingman recorded it all beautifully in these sketch notes:

Sketch notes by Kelly Kingman

(She also wrote a nice review of the session.)

My favorite moment of the conversation was when Vince brought up how idealism and cynicism both prevent real innovation. He noted that idealism blocks us from being able to accept the world as it is and situations as they are, for example insisting that we want for organizations to be non-hierarchical despite that not working terribly well. He remarked that we should move from this idealism to a place where we can make decisions for our current reality. And on the other hand, that we should not fall victim to a cynical perspective that the systems are broken and we’re “all basically going down with the Titanic together.” Being stuck in this space keeps us from taking action or accepting responsibility.

I’m looking forward to returning next year. If you are at all dharma curious I highly recommend it.

[photo credit Al Billings]

Mobile User Experience Research in Seattle

Next month I’m traveling to Seattle to speak at the first ever Web Directions Unplugged conference. I’ll be talking about research mobile experiences with a focus on remote methods.

Here’s the blurb:

Most user experience research takes place sitting behind a computer. And yet these days, most networked experiences are happening on mobile devices. Some common user experience research methods work well in a mobile environment; others don’t. In this talk, Juliette Melton will guide you through how to use some great existing research methods in a mobile context, how to incorporate some new (and fun!) methods into your arsenal, and propose next generation tools and services to make mobile user experience research even better.

Use the discount code WDMELTON for $50 off registration.