Design Ethnography for Lean Teams

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By WIll Evans, Director of User Experience Design, TLC Labs

"What people say is not what people do" - Cheskin

There has been a lot of hot air about "getting out of the building", and "just go talk to customers", but rarely are those statements backed up with strategic and tactical advice about HOW and WHY. Well, this talk is meant to help. Honestly, getting out of the building and talking to customers is only valuable when done right. As my old martial arts sensei used to say, "practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect!"

Design Ethnography is usually conducted to gain a *deep* understanding of the our target customers in order to apply a customer-centered approach to the product strategy. Design ethnography takes the position than human behavior and the ways in which people construct and make meaning of their worlds and their lives are highly variable, locally specific as well as intersubjectively reflexive.

One primary difference between ethnography and other methods of user research is that ethnography assumes that we must first discover what people actually do, the reasons they give for doing it, and just as importantly, how they feel while doing it, before we can assign to their actions and behaviors interpretations drawn from our own experiences.

Many people believe that design ethnography is only viable in the context of "Big Upfront Design", while many Agile and Lean teams believe they simply don't have the time, or that big upfront design is synonymous with waste. During this talk, we'll explore various myths, methods of ethnography, and ways in which agile or lean teams may use it to gain deeper insights into customer behaviors to create richer experiences without waste.

Questions I may answer in this talk:

What is design ethnography?
What are some of the qualitative and quantitative methods?
Isn't Design Ethnography and LeanUX contradictory?
When and where is design ethnography appropriate for teams?
Is Design Ethnography appropriate only with Big Upfront Design Research?
How can teams use Design Ethnography for sense-making?
What are the practical steps for engaging in design ethnography tomorrow?

Will Evans is the Director of User Experience Design and Research at The Library Corporation as well as TLCLabs, the enterprise innovation lab. At TLC, Will is responsible for working across the organization to create extraordinary user experiences and new product innovations.

Before TLC, he led experience design and research for TheLadders in New York City. He has over 15 years industry experience in interaction design, information architecture, and user experience strategy. His experiences include directing UX for social network analytics & terrorism modeling at AIR Worldwide, UX Architect for social media site Gather.com, and UX Architect for travel search engine Kayak.com.

Mr. Evans’ research and design has been featured in numerous publications including Business Week, The Econom

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  • Good Evening!

    Welcome to the first iteration of a talk about a Design Ethnography - a form a research done to gather insights for product teams.
  • Here are a few rules.
  • This is just one definition of a startup. Another is that it’s a human institution formed to search for a viable and scalable business model.

    The thing is, though, that many organizations and institutions face extreme uncertainty. If you work on a product team for a large company like News Corp, you have been disrupted.
  • If we have data, let's use data. If we only have opinions, let's go with mine!

    A lot of people think they shouldn't do research. They also think that they have a perfect vision of the marketplace. They also wonder how many people they should potentially interview.

    The key thing about research is just about any, done correctly, is better than nothing. It's certainly better than using your gut.
  • Most people incorrectly assume - project - their problems, habits, desires, onto another person.

    It's easier to simply assume that everyone uses technology just as you do.

    Some companies - a very very few, believe that if they design something for themselves, others will love it, and 1/1000 actually succeed.
  • And people often argue - if I solve this problem for myself - I'll probably hit it big.

    This is a huge risk, and the numbers just don't support it. This is the 37Signals approach.

    #Designing a solution based on your own experience is like placing a bet on a black swan
  • Lean Startup, and Lean UX, are risk mitigation strategies which are most effective at invalidating your most risky assumptions.

    Nothing can remove risk completely, and it's possible that by reducing risk, you also decrease your probability of a home run or a black swan, but it definitely reduces the risk as wasting vast resources on a HUNCH.
  • The dirty little secret is: Most Lean Startups aren’t doing the research they should;

    Many teams do no research at all (or very little); those that do are usually doing it wrong, and it's really not much better than just sitting in your cubicle designing your assumptions.

    Moving from your present Assumption Driven Design to a more disciplined Evidence/Research-based design takes time.

    It takes coaching. It's a learned habit. You won't get it in a 1 hour lecture, you won't get it in a weekend workshop.

    Its something you must practice everyday, for at least a year. It's like martial arts. It's the practice, shithead, not the talk.
  • Another issue we see is that someone is assigned to do the research. Perhaps an external researcher, maybe a ux research person, or a product owner, or a product manager.

    They then report back the research findings to the team or company. This is subject to all kinds of errors.

    Communication errors, cognitive biases, interpretation, fallacies. It's fraught with peril. Not only the communications problems, but empathy is not transferable.

    There are very few examplse where outsourced research doesn’t end up in a large binder on a shelf to gather dust.

    The insights, because they weren't socially constructed, are lost forever, like tears, in rain.
  • Ethnography should be seen as broad research approach or even a research perspective, rather than one specific methodology.

    It covers a variety of different qualitative methods, such as participatory observation, semi-structured interviews, and digital or video diaries than can be combined as needed to bring answers and insights to the surface.
  • The premise of design ethnography is that spending time in the contexts where people do the things that they do can inform and inspire the product design process with a nuanced understanding of what drives people’s behavior – which can then be used as a foundation for understanding and exploring various commercial problem spaces
  • Ethnography offers a way to make sense of this complexity. It lets us see beyond our preconceptions and immerse ourselves in the world of others. Most importantly, it allows us to see patterns of behavior in a real world context – patterns that we can understand both rationally and intuitively.
  • Ethnography is observing people’s behavior in their own environments so you can get a holistic understanding of their world – one that you can intuit on a deeply personal level.” – LiAnne Yu, Cultural Anthropologist.

    “If you want to understand what motivates a girl to pick up a skateboard, you could bring her into a sterile laboratory and interrogate her… or you could spend a week in a skatepark observing her interacting with her friends, practicing new skills and having fun.”
  • While the ethnographer is interested in understanding human behavior as it is reflected in the lifeways of diverse communities of people, the designer is interested in designing artifacts, services and experiences that will support the activities of people embedded in their context.

    #Drink
  • #Ethnography is a practice is mostly associated with up-front research at the beginning of the design process.

    #It is more valuable to think of it as a state of mind that can infuse, inform, and inspire throughout the design process and beyond – it doesn't have to be just part of Big D design up front.

    #There are a lot of reasons why Big Research and Design Up Front is a complete waste of fucking time.

    #The biggest problem with BIG RESEARCH is that often the entire product team is not involved

    A large amount of research is conducted and presented to the team, and then a 200 page report sits on someone's shelf and never informs the actual product development process.
  • Lean Startup, and LeanUX applied to design research can help - But Lean Startup Customer Research has some problems which need addressing.
  • I have coached and mentored many teams using Lean Startup methods for both startups and for teams inside of large enterprises.

    Here are some of the problems I see as it is practiced.

    Most teams practicing Lean Startup don't start with a customer hypothesis, they work backwards from a solution hypothesis. This is human nature.
    Because teams start with a solution hypothesis, it's almost impossible for them to generate multiple hypotheses
    If GOOB is not conducted in the appropriate context, it almost never yields useful behavioral data
    GOOB relies far too heavily on self-reporting, which is very problematic if not outright useless.
    GOOB, when done poorly, is particularly prone to confirmation bias
    Most teams have a very hard time formulating hypothesis
    Designing reliable experiments is a skill that takes time to learn - and most people aren't trained to run and learn from experiments
    People new to customer research are really bad at listening for weak signals
    When a customer interview is guided, it almost never provides opportunity for serendipitous insights to emerge
  • I have coached and mentored many teams using Lean Startup methods for both startups and for teams inside of large enterprises.

    Here are some of the problems I see as it is practiced.

    Most teams practicing Lean Startup don't start with a customer hypothesis, they work backwards from a solution hypothesis. This is human nature.
    Because teams start with a solution hypothesis, it's almost impossible for them to generate multiple hypotheses
    If GOOB is not conducted in the appropriate context, it almost never yields useful behavioral data
    GOOB relies far too heavily on self-reporting, which is very problematic if not outright useless.
    GOOB, when done poorly, is particularly prone to confirmation bias
    Most teams have a very hard time formulating hypothesis
    Designing reliable experiments is a skill that takes time to learn - and most people aren't trained to run and learn from experiments
    People new to customer research are really bad at listening for weak signals
    When a customer interview is guided, it almost never provides opportunity for serendipitous insights to emerge
  • While useful ideas can emerge during Lean Startup Customer Research, the most powerful insights come from a rigorous analysis of systematically collected narratives.

    During research, you will collect photos, videos, audio, diaries, and other contextual data.
  • Design Ethnography provides more valuable, richer, direct experience of people's lives and it allows us to:
  • People have a need for meaning in their lives.

    #Ethnography provides rich insights into how people make sense of their world because behavior is studied in context.

    #People incorporate rituals into their lives – but some rituals are large and public, while others are small and private.

    #It’s impossible to understanding the meaning of a private ritual divorced from it’s context that is derived from a survey
  • #Cultural signifiers can only be discovered and unpacked in their context.

    #For those that know the Tie-On-Doorknob, you understand the meaning, context, and cultural practices at play here.

    #This elegant social hack may never be uncovered during customer interviews - only by submersion in a culture will these insights emerge.
  • In Semiotics, we can unpack the meaning of signs –

    This is a Sausssuran dyadic model of tie on doorknob. Simply put, the signifier – Tie on Doorknob, signifies or Stands in For – Something else which is people getting busy.

    The sign is the whole that results from the association of the signifier with the signified.
  • #People’s experiences are enframed by their language – you must learn their language to understand their behavior.

    #Ethnography helps us learn how to communicate more effectively with people, in a language and way they understand.

    #By observing how people process information, we learn what words and design elements evoke desired reactions.

    We also discover whether people miss information completely.
  • Context is king

    #Ethnography helps us learn how products, technologies, and communications are used in various global contexts.

    #Branding, experience design and point of purchase artifacts all tell a story shaped within it's local culture.
  • Self-reporting is mostly shit

    #What people say is not what they do.

    #Ethnography highlights the differences between what people perceive they do and what they actually do.

    For example, while people may report going out with girlfriends and having a deep meaningful conversation, observation may show just how much time they spent facebooking their sociality instead of engaged in conversation.

    #By observing what people do, rather than taking them at their word, we learn more about their choice architectures, and how they perceive & filter their own actions.

  • Patterns of Pain will Emerge through observation

    #When you notice many people hacking around the same problem, you have evidence that there may be a customer problem there worth solving.

    Ethnography vividly identifies people’s work-arounds and guides the way towards solutions.

    For example, the obvious solution to improve morning commutes is a cup holder – but this only makes sense in cultures where drinking coffee while driving is an acceptable behavioral norm.
  • Here is a roadmap for doing ethnographic research. This image is from Down Under the Bowery – the first documentary to explore NYC’s Skid Row Alcoholics in the 1950s
  • Who do we believe has a problem or pain? Is that belief justified or is it just our assumption? How well do we know people like that? Make sure you team explicitly states who they think the customer is and what problem they have.

    This is a legitimate wicked problem.
  • Find the people and validate they exist. If you can't find people that experience the problem you hypothesize, there’s probably no market for your idea.

    Who are the people who can most likely shed light on the context, behaviors, and problems? Is it people that use certain products or act in certain ways? Are they people that live in a certain environment, cultural or geographic location.

  • Plan your approach (Where, when, who, how long…)

    #Figure out a game plan for observations and interactions with your target customers.

    #You will need to include opportunities for observation, documentation, self-reporting, diaries, as well as interviews.

    #Make contextual research part of your teams regular cadence.
  • #Pairing is the most effective form of design research

    #It mitigates the risk of cognitive biases during the research process

    #It also helps create a shared understanding of context and observed behaviors

    #It also allows the transfer of expertise and tacit knowledge / culture / values from one person to another
  • #Become a "habit-farmer" by intentionally curating data about the attitudes, mannerisms, habits, rituals of your audience

    #Hermeneutics is a natural part of the design synthesis process.

    #The process involves unpacking each data point, and interrogating the potential meaning of that data

    #What matters is the inter-relationships of the data to each other, not just the data in isolation!

  • #While data is being analyzed, search for themes or patterns of commonality;

    #Use frameworks like Cynefin to take narrative fragments cluster them into domains;

    #The teams should be able to tell that story to multiple audiences, and should have a clear set of “aha’s!” and next steps.
  • #Co-Generate and Share Insights.

    #The insights that are generated through ethnographic research are useful to the whole team,

    #So the process of analysis and synthesis must be a collective sense-making activity
  • Information presented both visually and as performance creates more resonance with the team! Empathy breeds passion!

    #Information that is presented in a visually compelling way is more likely to intrigue, inspire, and engage,

    #Weave your insights into a compelling narrative.

    #This will allow opportunities, pain points, and solution hypotheses more valuable that the original ones that the team generated.
  • Here are some of the keys to getting good design ethnography done.
  • Delve deeply into the context, lives, cultures, and rituals of a few people rather than study a large number of people superficially. This isn’t about booty calls, this is about relationships.
  • Holistically study people’s behaviors and experiences in daily life. You won’t find this in a lab, focus group, or 5 minute interview on the street.
  • Learn to ask probing, open questions, gathering as much data as possible to inform your understanding.
  • Practice “active seeing,” and “active listening.” Record every minutiae of daily existence, and encode on post-its.

    How to do active seeing?

    I also spent my first year in NYC instagraming every sign I saw that used Copperplate Gothic

    Another example is from Thomas Wendt #ShoeUpBitches. That is his “Active Seeing” exercise he has been doing for over a year.
  • You can use a combination of tools like Tumblr, Instagram, and Flickr to gather all this rich data.
  • Use collaborative sense-making activities like cynefin and affinity diagramming to understand and formulate a narrative of experience.
  • Now you can think about your Solution Hypothesis.
  • Now you can think about your Solution Hypothesis.
  • Now you can think about your Solution Hypothesis.
  • Design Ethnography for Lean Teams

    1. "A startup is a human institution design to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty" - Eric Reis
    2. Malkovich Bias The tendency to believe that everyone uses technology exactly like you do.
    3. Lean Startup (and LeanUX) is a risk mitigation strategy
    4. A Dirty Secret People being either idiots or lazy
    5. Proxies Suck!
    6. Ethnography, WTF?
    7. Why Ethnography
    8. Complexity is everywhere Ethnography offers a way to make sense of this complexity. It lets us see beyond our preconceptions and immerse ourselves in the world of others. Most importantly, it allows us to see patterns of behavior in a real world context – patterns that we can understand both rationally and intuitively.
    9. “If you want to understand what motivates a girl to pick up a skateboard, you could bring her into a sterile laboratory and interrogate her… or you could spend a week in a skatepark observing her interacting with her friends, practicing new skills and having fun.”
    10. Ethnography + Design
    11. Lean Ethnography?
    12. Most teams practicing Lean Startup don't start with a customer hypothesis; they work backwards from a solution hypothesis Because teams start with a solution hypothesis, it's almost impossible for them to generate multiple hypotheses for testing If GOOB is not conducted in the appropriate context, it almost never yields useful behavioral data GOOB relies far too heavily on self-reporting, which is almost useless. GOOB, when done poorly, is particularly prone to confirmation bias Most teams have a very hard time formulating assumptions as hypotheses Designing reliable experiments is a skill that takes time to learn People new to customer research are really bad at listening for weak signals When a customer interview is guided, it almost never provides opportunity for serendipitous insights to emerge
    13. Design research as a systemic approach
    14. Design ethnography allows us to
    15. 1. Discover the semantics of living
    16. Context is king
    17. Self-reporting is mostly shit
    18. People's hacks are a great insight
    19. 8 Steps in Ethnographic Research
    20. 1. Define your customer hypothesis
    21. 2. Identify the people to validate they exist
    22. 3. Plan your approach
    23. 4. Conduct Paired Research #ShoeUpBitches
    24. 5. Become a "habit-farmer"
    25. 6. Search for Patterns & Themes
    26. 7. Co-Generate & Share Insights
    27. 8. Perform your narrative
    28. 7 Keys to good ethnography
    29. Delve deeply into the context, lives, cultures, and rituals of a few people rather than study a large number of people superficially.
    30. Holistically study people’s behaviors and experiences in daily life. You won't find this in a lab, focus group, or 5 minute interview on the street.
    31. Learn to ask probing, open questions, gathering as much data as possible to inform your understanding.
    32. Practice “active seeing,” and “active listening.” Record every minutiae of daily existence, and encode on post- its.
    33. Use digital tools for asynchronous data gathering: tumblr, facebook, twitter, instagram
    34. Use collaborative sense-making activities like the Cynefin framework and affinity diagramming for active sensemaking.
    35. Map the stories from insights back to the original problem. Did it validate or invalidate the customer hypothesis?
    36. Now you can think about your Solution Hypothesis Did the new insights provide potentially richer opportunities to solve?
    37. Thanks! Will Evans Chief Design Officer PraxisFlow @semanticwill

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