Insight and experience, concentrated

Methodology & Insights

A peek behind the curtain at our ever-morphing methods and tools. Primarily focused upon design strategy, user-centered design research, and design thinking.

I did my own research…

It’s a phrase that’s gotten a lot of scrutiny this past year. Experience has taught us that surveys and online resources can only take one so far in the design process. Getting out into the field for first-hand observation, communication, and context provides a more nuanced understanding to enhance those “armchair” methods.

You don’t have to be a user to be a good designer of the product – but you must be prepared to watch and listen intently to them.

Humanscale Ergonomic Reference Reissue

This very cool reissue of the Humanscale ergonomic design reference guides arrived earlier this week. An old-school tool for sure, but also one that has proven very effective and usable throughout my career. It was frustrating to find out when outfitting our new studio that old sets of these were going for major bucks as collectibles. Thanks to IA Collaborative for making this available again!


Does Big Data Always Equal Big Understanding?



** This is a re-post of a past article from 2013 that is highly relevant today.  Some lessons need constant reminders to take hold.


Lots of chatter about Big Data out there these days. Huge possibilities lie ahead for those who can use it smartly, but there’s a flip side for those who jump aboard without a good understanding of what it really represents. Some of the cautionary discourse centers around privacy fears, potential for misinterpretation, or even stunted creativity in favor of easy commercial successes.

Big Data may not lie, but it doesn’t always tell the whole truth either. Making the leap to assume that chasing raw data on grandiose scales equals understanding is similar to assuming that more complexity in computing operations equals sentience. No matter how complete your quantitative dataset, it still needs scrutiny and interpretation to be meaningful.

An intriguing approach is to maintain the complexity and depth of the original data – but dramatically improve the accessibility.  Rather than present your pre-packaged analysis of the inputs, empower your audience to interrogate the inputs directly and construct their own conclusions.  Perhaps not the ideal approach for a short presentation by a consultant, but maybe perfect to build an engaged audience?  I’m interested to see where this can lead and how those bounds can be blurred…


“The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers”
– Sydney J. Harris



The Coming Storm…



“Let’s brainstorm on this – I’ll check schedules and reserve a room…” Do those words fill you with anticipation or dread?

Often characterized by playful exercises and “absolutely no criticism” decrees to force us out of figurative boxes, I can understand why some of the more pragmatic types amongst us may look at it all as a bunch of superfluous goofiness. It doesn’t help that formal studies have witnessed solitary subjects generating more solutions to a complex problem than a brainstorming group in the same amount of time. More always means better, right?

Which leads me to ask – why do we brainstorm?

There are reasons I remain committed to the group brainstorming process, but not all brainstorming is created equal, nor equally appropriate. For one, it can be an investment in building cross-disciplinary empathy – which is healthy for the project well beyond the session itself. That, and the cross-pollination that you get through this process will be sorely missed in other solitary approaches. You may not always see eye to eye, but that’s kind of the point.

Quantity of ideas is part of the mechanics of the session, but it is not the prize outcome in my experience. A structured session can look like a way to get a lot of great ideas – but I believe it is much more valuable and valid as an intense “immersion bootcamp” to get an extended project team heading in the same general direction with compatible goals. Coming out of a complex discovery research phase there are a lot of factors and motivations to balance, and some may still be forming. A well-directed group session is often the best way to internalize the research findings for the team so they can proceed into collaborative concept development most effectively.

It is not a silver bullet. There are times that concentrated effort from an individual toward a complex mechanical or geometric problem is unbeatable. More often than not though, I find that rubbing two or more heads together over a problem produces something more meaningful than just static-charged hair.

Years ago I tried to be an island. I valued my design input by how much I could do alone – in quantity, quality, and breadth. But I was so much older then – I’m younger than that now…


image credit: 惟①刻¾
quote: Bob Dylan “My Back Pages”

Is Your Design A Pile Of Garbage?



This video made the rounds on the internet a while ago.  I later realized that it inadvertently illustrated a pitfall many young designers fall victim to – in this instance exploited in reverse as a wonderful surprise.

Many of the tools we use in product design are 2D in nature, with many that purport to be 3D suffering from this “portal view” effect.  CAD tools are a wonderful thing which I’ve taken advantage of throughout my career, but I didn’t learn form through CAD – I learned to understand form by sculpting clay and carving wood first.  Both the blank page and the on-screen Cartesian plane are 2D interfaces for design: flat windows to a simulated 3D world.  It is a worthwhile trade-off for the ability to explore multiple concepts in quick succession, but it can also lead some to shortchange the process at early stages believing they have thought things through adequately.

I worked alongside a designer for many years who, knowingly or not, mentored me in this approach.  He kept his early sketches very rough and often started from the inside out – sketching at full scale on cardboard and foam as he experienced the volumes directly.  As soon as he had a hint of a layout in mind, he would jump to mocking it up in low fidelity materials.  When it came time to review concepts, whether we reviewed models or limited it to 2D renderings, it became apparent that his designs lived in the real world – designed to interact with the user’s actions and body noticeably better than the rest and not relying on tenuous “view-constrained” relationships in place of form.  In mock-up format his concepts would visually hold together as you walked around them, always displaying a visual logic.

“Flat view” tools such as sketching and CAD are essential parts of the mix when designing product form, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can repeatedly short-cut the process without missing out on a significant part of your design’s visual story.


Take A Step Back, Squint If You Must…



Architect Eliel Saarinen once stated: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”  This is wonderful advice for designers, and an important principle to keep in mind for those working with designers.  Countless times I have been pulled to a co-worker’s workstation to sign off on a detail tweak we’ve discussed, only to find the detail in question filling the entire screen.  Nice blended surface, I guess – but how does it visually balance with the scoop surrounding the button that would be about 12″ to the right of your screen at this scale?

This is why designers often don’t give the quick “yes/no” answers others expect of them.  They need to take a step back, squint, and get a sense of a detail from multiple angles and within the larger context.  Over time, I’ve found that this principle doesn’t just apply to the proportional relationships on a product.

In our design research we aim to uncover latent needs of the user, and build a deeper framework of empathy for their decisions and motivations.  Context bears heavily on those aspects, and much of our research employs in-field ethnography to observe and interact with users directly within those environments and scenarios.  As tangible as it is, the physical context can be easy to overlook.  Lighting, noise, and access can all be significant in influencing the appropriateness of a design.

But context can also shift due to other factors, including urgency, infrastructure, distraction, and so on.  It is important to comprehend how the full environment of your product morphs and shifts throughout its interaction with the user.  The context of a medical device may very well be defined by the infrastructure of selecting, delivering, and paying for that physical item you are designing as much as the ergonomics of the handle or the sterility of the work surface.  They may not be as direct as a sharp edge against the side of your finger, but many times they can still be an influence (and be influenced).

Never forget to take a step back and assess the context – it is usually where the most meaningful insights you will discover lie.



Being My Father’s Son (why you are no longer the typical user)



I was at a design conference in Seattle talking with a colleague when it arrived with a buzz.  Instead of the sweet note of longing I hoped for, I received this vaguely foreboding statement – and I deserved it.

A little background… My father had a way with cars.  He had the intuition and touch, and at times it seemed he related to them better than to any of us children.  I was in awe of his skill and how he seemed able to see and understand things that eluded the rest of us.

Well, one of our cars would have a carburetor flooding problem in very specific circumstances.  He knew that, and knew how to correct it when necessary.  Problem was, it was the car my mother drove most, and she wasn’t blessed with his “car whisperer” gifts…  One frigid winter night I remember him talking her through the process over the phone: remove the air cleaner, stick a hair comb into the choke plate to lean out the mix, and so on.  It wasn’t really a problem in his eyes because he understood the system intimately, and how to address problems it occasionally had.  It sure was a catastrophe that victimized my mother on nights like that though.

Keeping that in mind, let’s pull this all forward…  I had recently added a soundbar to our television and left the wiring in a “functional” state, planning to redo it when I wall-mounted the television in a week.  The universal remote wasn’t playing well with the soundbar, the HDMI ports and routing were a mess, but I knew exactly what was going on and could navigate it well. That was me – my wife didn’t understand it, couldn’t visualize it, and had no patience for it (or me) when “Chopped” was about to start.  Didn’t help that this was the third setup she had to deal with in as many weeks as I experimented.

My wife was a typical user, and it is often easy for product development professionals to lose touch with their point of view.  You may think you are just like them – heck, you use the product at home too!  But the more you know as a professional in the field (designer, engineer, marketing specialist, etc…), the further you get from being a kindred soul of the mass market consumer.  The mechanisms of accomplishing a task are apparent to you, and you’ve gotten to the point of developing sophisticated jargon to describe the elements and actions you deal with to make the magic happen.  Most of the time they don’t care – nor should they.  A convoluted description or excuse doesn’t solve their need, regardless of how proud we may be that we figured it all out.

I already know this well, but an occasional humbling reminder is a healthy thing.  I had grown to be my father’s son, but my wife was clearly not my mother’s daughter (as is the custom, I suppose).



Brand Is A Melody



Defining a visual/emotional target for a new product is at the heart of what every designer does. It is one of our “bread and butter” skills.  Things get exponentially more interesting when the challenge shifts to a line of products instead of simply one.  Does the line of offerings have similar basic forms to deal with (such as automobiles) or do they vary greatly (as in sporting goods)?  Do the different iterations imply differing levels of expense and quality, or does each target some unique functional segment of the market – maybe a mix of both?

Just as there are a multitude of scenarios to contemplate, there are a multitude of approaches which can be taken.  Some approaches opt to rigidly define a language and apply it in a systematic manner to the line.  This can be very successful in regards to customer recognition, but it also can be very limiting if your brand needs to serve a wider customer base or react to changes in those markets. Not exactly niche concerns – I know, right?

To effectively support a brand vision over time a Visual Brand Language (VBL) strategy needs to be agile and adaptable.  The mutability of a brand language is what gives it strength. We don’t want it to be so rigid that it is fragile; one element out of position makes the whole house of cards come down.  We want a VBL strategy to be more like a melody – where if I whistle it to you out of pitch, out of time, with inconsistencies in interpretation, you can still easily recognize it for what it is intended to represent.



Insight Steers The Ship



A while ago, I attended a talk by James Ludwig of Steelcase. This event was presented as part of the MIAD Creativity Series, and it was a wonderful opportunity to hear a design leader share some insights. Discovery World’s inspiring surroundings and mission certainly didn’t hurt the evening’s proceedings…

While James shared several interesting principles that evening, two in particular piqued my interest. Intentionally or not, I believe these two guiding lights are intertwined.


If There Is No Insight, There Is No Project:

Before commencing with the “what’s” and “how’s” of NPD, make sure you have a firm grasp on the “why’s”. In supporting this point he stressed the value of synthesis in research, not mere observation. It can be overwhelmingly tempting for designers to immediately jump to direct solutions for the numerous small issues they observe in the field. Doing so before they have enough inputs to understand the interrelations and complexities of why the user is doing something can lead to a perpetual game of NPD “Whack-A-Mole”; a never-ending chase for incremental changes.


Invention Happens At The Programmatic Level:

I found this principle particularly interesting from a selfish standpoint. Creativity often is pigeon-holed as the activity of designers, who wield their markers like magic wands as they solve the world’s problems. This romanticized view has certainly served me well, and has been a lot of fun when everything falls into place just right. But as I’ve progressed in my career, and I’m certain that many designers in my circumstance feel this way as well, I’ve grown to understand that the need for creativity only increases as one takes on responsibilities extending beyond traditional “designer” skills. The toolbox and scale may change, but the pursuit doesn’t. Your creativity at the programmatic level is key to the success of your team.



Am I Constructivist Or Am I Memorex?



As discussed previously, in order for a Visual Brand Language (VBL) strategy to be applied successfully across a diverse line of products, we understand that there needs to be some level of mutability to it. The “amount of stretch” required may vary depending upon the nature of your product line, but it is always there at some level.

But if a strong VBL relies on recognition and mutability simultaneously, do we have a conflict? Well, it turns out those two factors are not as mutually exclusive as it would first appear. In his book “This Is Your Brain On Music” Dr. Daniel Levitin explores how our brains interpret and process musical stimuli. Throughout the book he uses musical examples to illustrate aspects of how our brains access memory and recognition, and relates these examples to the competing Constructivist and Record-Keeping theories. While this is all well above my pay-grade, in a nutshell it can be stated that Constructivists argue that we store relational information to inform a reconstruction of events when needed, while the Record-Keepers argue that memories are recorded verbatim as in a video file. Both schools of thought have evidence to support their views, and in the end it appears that each contain a part of the truth.

If you were able to successfully identify a popular traditional melody whistled to you out of pitch, out of time, and with inconsistencies in interpretation, your brain would be illustrating behavior consistent with the Constructivist theory. You took an imperfect input and broke it down into sets of relationships which you could interpret and derive meaning from. Each individual pitch may be off, but if the relationships between them is somewhat consistent with the intended melody (not even in amount, just direction up or down) you will most likely be able to identify the song.

Interestingly, if we turned the tables around and asked you to whistle a recent hit song to me (one with a singular, definitive performance), you would perform it closer to the original performance’s key and tempo than chance could account for. This is true whether you had musical training in your background or not. Relationships are not the lone factor of recognition, your Record-Keeping brain maintained a persistent reference for you to recall in this scenario.

The Constructivist theory demonstrates to us that in the absence of specific sensory information, even in spite of it at times, our memory is capable of dynamically reconstructing a story. This is at the core of why a VBL framework can be manipulated so dramatically yet still remain recognizable to the consumer. Your VBL is a melody, which is reinterpreted time and time again through the multitude of product offerings you bring to the market. The individual product may be a cappella, mellow acoustic, death-metal dirge, or a dance remix, but The Song Remains The Same…