Connecting The Play of Improv with The Work of Ethnographic Research


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In this session we look at the connections between improv and ethnography. Improv is not "stand-up comedy." It's a series of games with rules that offer huge degrees of freedom within a set of constraints. In these games we bring out a lot of basic, quickly understood and communicated rules of culture that are implicit, not explicit. User research has interesting similarities with improv: Both are in-the-moment processes; we learn upon reflection; there's enormous unspoken collaboration and there is often an "aha" moment.

You will learn more about improv, listening, creativity, ethnography, and how they all connect together.

Published in: Design, Education, Business

Connecting The Play of Improv with The Work of Ethnographic Research

  1. 1. Steve Portigal ICSID/IDSA Connecting 07 October 19, 2007 Connecting the Play of Improv with the Work of Ethnographic Research 1
  2. 2. This Talk An (quick) exploration of the connections between two very different tools (improv and ethnography) – Also available as a half-day workshop – Google “portigal improv capstone” or “portigal improv dux” to read more about full workshop 2 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  3. 3. About Portigal Consulting We help companies discover and act on new insights about themselves and their customers 3 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  4. 4. What is User Research? Examine users (consumers, professionals, whoever) in their own • context – What are they doing (“usage”) – What does it mean Infer (interpret/synthesize/etc.) • – Find the connections – We are not simply collecting data but are processing it to find the insights Apply to business or design problems • – Use products, services, packaging, design to tell the right story 4 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  5. 5. Examine Users? Observation 1. – Watching what people are doing, how they do it Interviewing 2. – Interacting directly with some people who can shed light on our problem, (customers, users, former customers, future users, lead users) – Asking questions, doing exercises, showing artifacts – Listening to what they say, how they say it, what they don't say – Paying attention to where what they say and what they do does not align Understanding cultural context 3. – Considering the culture within which our people are making decisions – Looking at media, trends, advertising, and other symbols of cultural quot;normsquot; 5 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  6. 6. Outcomes Improvements to internal processes for innovation • Insights about people and their environments • Concepts for products, services, communications, etc. that support • new insights Understanding of barriers to adoption • – Features, meaning, stories or other triggers that can overcome those barriers Learning about the culture in a new market • Detailed, specific task-related needs • Evaluation and prioritization of features/concepts/solutions • Exposure to the details of the lives of “real people” • 6 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  7. 7. Recent Projects Who/What we What was being Key Insight studied designed New mothers Infant formula packaging Lack of feedback when preparing and following instructions led to serving infant non-compliance formula Ritual of opening and Credit-card newsletter Consumers make rapid sorting mail decisions to discard items not perceived to be of value; specific details cue (lack of) value Workflow and Next-generation interface Despite sharing most of the environment of for trading software; market with one other currency traders internal business player, startups were processes; customer- capturing mindshare and facing strategic initiatives deskshare 7 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  8. 8. Recent Projects Who/What we What was being Key Insight studied designed Construction workers High-value and high- To sell a high-end version and their gear performance protective of an otherwise free product headwear requires creating pull by improving performance as well as aesthetics Communication and Digital tools for Leverage the “culture of collaboration collaboration and celebrity” by tagging practices of knowledge management documents with human data knowledge workers (name, image, etc.) at large multinational corporation Music enthusiasts Online service for Users of apps other than and their MP3 managing digital music iTunes had abandoned any collections and ripping/distributing notion of managing and existing music collections organizing digital collections 8 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  9. 9. Improv Funny will come… 9
  10. 10. What it isn’t Improv is not stand-up comedy • (it’s the name of a chain of comedy clubs) • In contrast to improv, stand-up is • – Highly scripted – Rehearsed with timing nailed down to the nanosecond 10 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  11. 11. What it is A form of performance that is highly constrained but with several open • parameters Unscripted • – Specifics assigned right before performance starts – “Your first idea is often your best idea” Emphasis on being “playful” more than being funny • – “I could never do that, because I’m not funny” – It can be (at times) funny to watch, but not about trying to be funny – “The funny will come” – “Don’t let logic impede your fancy” Moving the body – connections to dance • Cheaper than therapy • 11 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  12. 12. Improv, Applied Entertainment • Acting • Corporate training • – Meeting facilitation and brainstorming – Help companies become more “creative” – Parallels with “Drawing on the right side of the brain” – Pixar: used improv to create “the most trusting environment possible where people can screw up”…when someone suggests an idea, others should respond with “Yes, and ...,” Product ideation • – “Informance” (from Interval) - give in to the urge to demonstrate – Take personas and extend them User research • – Users show what they can't talk about, free from constraints of what is (now vs. the future) 12 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  13. 13. Benefits Learning by doing • – Collaboration (“throw an idea”) – Humor – Timing – Presentation – Listening Did I mention therapy? • 13 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  14. 14. Let’s Play Storytelling Circle 1. Broken Telephone, v2.0 2. 14
  15. 15. Exercises What did we see? • Molotch on change and conformity in balance in • product usage “Folks pick up on the surrounding cultures in at least somewhat idiosyncratic ways…Even with a world of conformers, each conformer thus acts differently. With each striving to emulate the other, there will be a never-ending chain of adoptions and adaptations that, as they move throughout the network, change the substance.” 15 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  16. 16. Ethnography The Story of a Culture 16
  17. 17. Ethnography? Ethnographic interviews • Video ethnography • Depth-interviews • Contextual research • Home visits • Experience modeling • Design research • User-centered design • Observational research • Camera studies • User safaris • 17 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  18. 18. Ethnography? Ethnographic interviews • Video ethnography • Depth-interviews • What-ever! Contextual research • Home visits • Experience modeling • Design research • User-centered design • Observational research • Camera studies • User safaris • 18 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  19. 19. Ethnography Examine users (consumers or other) in their own context • – What are they doing – What does it mean Infer (interpret/synthesize/etc.) • – Find the connections – The ethnographer is the “apparatus” Apply to business problems • – Use products, services, packaging, design to tell the right story 19 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  20. 20. Benefits Learning about yourself and your own culture by having an opportunity • to reflect it against things you didn't know – Understand “social norms” – i.e., how messy your house is – Your own reaction is data Human beings are judging beings • 20 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  21. 21. Techniques Listening • Listening • Listening • – Listening – Listening Note: most people actually can’t do this without extensive training and • practice Listening is more than simply not talking when the other person talks • – How is what you do next, after they finish talking, influenced by what they just said, or have said previously? – Looks and feels like ordinary conversation – but isn’t Theater of interviewing – the video camera is an example of a quot;propquot; • (Goffman) 21 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  22. 22. Connecting What do you get? 22
  23. 23. The Overlaps Balancing a “plan” with being in the moment • – In ethnography, an interview guide is used to anticipate the flow of the discussion, but it can go in new directions – that’s the surprise you are looking for – the connections the user makes – In improv, the basics of the game give structure, we have a beginning, and then we “look for the ending” “Yes, and” • – “I’m a crab” – “No, you’re a lobster with an attitude problem” – TiVo interview – No wrong answers – suspending judgment Make your best contribution by not talking • – Giving space to others – Multiple interviewers – Allow learning to happen – Let there be silence interviewing technique 23 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  24. 24. Learning By Doing Things have meaning • – Clichés and other cultural shorthand – Populate a scene with “space props” – but everyone recognizes them! Improv is a form of prototyping • – We don't know what it is until we play it out New insights from being inside the experience • – Getting to another perspective requires being open and surrendering some of your own perspective – But also a process for getting there – these discoveries don’t happen without work 24 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  25. 25. A-ha In interviews we experience “synthesis in place” • – Not data collection for it's own sake, but to create and achieve new insights and see new patterns – Experiential, flow-like moments – Silence the inner critic (or “gatekeeper”) - get past the “stacked” ideas – By bringing in energy and spontaneity – By slowing down and bringing in silence (!) – “How do you know when it’s an important story” – Spider-sense, camera zooming In improv, we’re performers without a script • – “Look for the ending” – Know when the scene has hit its high point 25 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  26. 26. So What? For our purposes, consider improv and ethno as • similar flipsides of the same coin – tools that drive and inform innovation Without being preachy, our list includes • – Listening – Participatory learning – Open-ended exploration (balanced with an agenda) – Acting out/prototyping – Yes, and… – Getting outside of your zone – Understand the environment – The learner facilitates the teacher (bottom-up vs. top- down) – Others? 26 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  27. 27. Resources 27 ©2007 Portigal Consulting
  28. 28. Contact Information Portigal Consulting 2311 Palmetto Ave., Suite D1 Pacifica, CA USA +1-415-385-4171 28 ©2007 Portigal Consulting