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Interviewing Users By Steve Portigal: A Quick Review

June 13th, 2013

Nate Archer

Interviewing Users By Steve PortigalI have followed Steve Portigal through his articles and ever insightful blog for many years and have used many of his approaches and methods in my own design research. So, when I heard Steve was writing a book on the art and craft of design research, I immediately ordered a copy. After reading “Interviewing Users” I wanted to share my impressions and thoughts.

First off, the book was really insightful and inspiring from beginning to end. I found that Steve was able to capture the essence of many techniques and methodologies at expert level depth, while still delivering novice level understanding. As an experienced design researcher, this allowed me to easily grasp new ideas and learn extremely nuanced elements about common practices I was already familiar with. The use of case studies and stories from the field, quickly and vividly illustrate these points.

At many points in the book, I found myself stopping to think about and integrate new ideas into my own practice. This not only helped reveal gaps in my process, but also new ways to improve and expand on existing methods and techniques.

On frist read the book provided tremendous value, but I can also tell that I will be flipping through its pages again. The book is a tremendous reference point and will be very useful for studying up prior to my next user interview or design analysis session.

It’s a quick read, at only 158 pages, but still dense enough to warrant careful reading. I would recommend it to anyone starting out in the field of user experience design, especially students or industry first timers. I would have been miles ahead If I had read this book when I first got into design research, but better late than never.

My one complaint is the brevity of the research analysis and synthesis section, but Steve even points out that these two subjects warrant their own books. However, after tweeting Steve for more info on these domains, he steered me to John Kolko’s book, “Exposing the Magic of Design: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Methods and Theory of Synthesis”. The book was already on my wish list, so it will be interesting to see how the two dovetail together. He also suggested watching his presentation “We’ve done all this research, now what?“, which does a good job at exploring some elements of analysis and synthesis in more detail.

Be sure to pick up a copy of the book and follow Steve’s blog for ongoing insights and ideas.

How To Successfully Facilitate Groups

June 5th, 2013

Nate Archer

“The great leaders are like the best conductors – they reach beyond the notes to reach the magic in the players.”

Blaine Lee

As a designer, I frequently find myself leading sessions to retrieve insights from clients and internal teams. In this somewhat unfamiliar role, I have often struggled with the processes and techniques used to keep a group on task and productive, while letting their creative urges run wild. Over time, I have improved my skills and led a number of quality sessions, but I was still relying on intuition and past experiences. After looking for help in structuring and running such events, I soon discovered the world of facilitation. This practice of facilitation focuses on processes and techniques designed to enable people to work together, extract results and grow as groups.

I recently had the pleasure of participating in “Group Facilitation Methods”, a two-day workshop held by ICA Associates, here in Toronto. The course is ICA Associates’ foundational course: “a thorough grounding in facilitation practice”.  Along with a dozen others from a wide variety of backgrounds, we were guided through the course by professional facilitator Jo Nelson.  Not only is Jo a great facilitator, but also a talented instructor who deftly combined experiential learning with theoretical knowledge and practical application of the topics at hand.

Focused Conversation

The first day of the course is designed to teach participants the art of the focused conversation- a simple but nuanced technique that allows a facilitator to guide a group through four stages of thought & discussion. The approach is designed to mimic the progression of our natural thought process, and stages are categorized by the kinds of questions asked by the facilitator.

The four stages in this process are:

  • Objective- focuses on surfacing the facts or the directly observable data.
  • Reflective- explores subjective responses to the subject as well as associations, emotions and images.
  • Interpretive- attempts to make sense of the situation by articulating the values, meaning, significance and implications surrounding the topic.
  • Decisional- focuses on the outcomes of the conversations and future resolves, not necessarily solutions.

These four kinds of questions are asked in sequence to enable individuals and groups to discuss the topic in depth while progressing toward the goal of the focused conversation.

While these conversations can be facilitated on the fly, those that are successful begin with a well-planned structure and series of questions. Preparation is a key to successfully running a session. Most importantly, the conversation should begin with a rational objective that it aims to achieve. The questions posed in the decisional stage should hopefully link back to these objectives.

After working through various approaches to this method, all the workshop participants tried their hand at planning and facilitating a focused conversation. This was daunting but even after only a few hours or practice, I immediately felt more confident in my facilitation skills. Having a solid  structure in place helped me focus on reading the group and responding to the flow of the conversation. It also made me realize the complexity involved in making facilitation seem effortless to the participants. Interpreting responses and understanding where they fall within the four stages can be difficult, but essential for keeping a conversation on track; something for me to practice moving forward.

Consensus Workshop Method

On the second day we went a step deeper, combining the focused conversation with the consensus workshop method. At its most basic, this is a workshop format that is designed to help a group solve a problem by generating ideas. While extremely basic in concept and appearance, it’s a powerful method of brainstorming that uses subtle processes to build consensus and meaning from disparate ideas.

Like the focused conversation method, the consensus workshop begins with thorough planning and in this case, a focus question to guide the activity. This question forms the jumping off point for exploration, so its creation and even wording is very important to the success of the workshop and delivering the results you desire. Constructing a focus question is a multistep process that incorporates elements of the rational and experiential objectives of the workshop, the desired outcome and the topic being discussed.

Once you have a quality focus question you can begin the workshop by asking participants to brainstorm ideas. This can be done in groups or individually, but the key is to narrow down this set of ideas to deliver the best results in the end. Each person should write down a specified number of their ideas on cue cards to prepare for sharing with the group (writing big and clearly is key).

Clustering the ideas happens next, but instead of throwing all the ideas up at once, starting with a select number enables everyone to focus on just those. Asking the participants to pair the first set of ideas helps them quickly group like concepts without getting too deep into exploration. These pairs are grouped under different heading cards on the wall that are represented by symbols instead of being labeled or left blank . This helps participants focus on the contents of the grouping not the title or label attached to them which comes later in this approach.  Slowly bringing the rest of cards up using some other techniques begins to complete the sorting of cards into a series of distinct groups.

Once these groupings are complete, then we can begin the naming process, using the focused conversation method to discuss, reflect, explore and make a decision on the name. With all the columns named we can then begin to review the results and take action, whether it’s planning next steps or prioritizing results.

While using a focus question to guide idea generation, sorting, naming and action doesn’t sound like a revolutionary idea, the little details that Jo pointed out make this process almost fail-safe. Small tweaks or verbal turns of phrase are incorporated to work with the groups natural thought process and quickly deliver results that everyone can get behind.

I have already incorporated this into my design process, using a consensus workshop to guide the generation and prioritization of goals for a design concept. But the simplicity of the method means that I have already spotted multiple steps in a project’s lifecycle that this method can be used to generate ideas or filter in on a select number of objectives that can easily be prioritized.

Facilitating Forward

Overall the training was extremely helpful and something I would recommend to designers who are regularly working with clients to guide projects and product development.  I was immediately able to apply the learning  at work and I also have confidence to facilitate my next workshop in a more intuitive and relaxed manner. However, I do know that it will take years to perfect and practice these techniques, especially the nuances of the focused conversation method.

Seeing a great facilitator in action is amazing to watch and the results they foster can having lasting impact on the topic at hand and in the lives of participants for years to come. I look forward to my next chance to help harness a group’s wisdom and facilitate them to achieve great results.

A quote worth sharing

April 24th, 2013

Nate Archer

“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

- Roger Ebert

Applicable to life, work and even design.

A new kind of artist

February 24th, 2013

Nate Archer

From Design as Art By Bruno Munari quoting the prospectus for the Bauhaus school written by Walter Gropius in 1919.

Thus our task is to make a new kind of artist, a creator capable of understanding every kind of need: not because he is a prodigy, but because he knows how to approach human needs according to a precise method. We wish to make him conscious of his creative power, not scared of new facts, and independent of formulas in his own work.

Writing and Design

February 7th, 2013

Nate Archer

Drawing from the creative process of discipline outside my own has always fascinated me. Earlier today I listened to the Longform interview with Susan Orlean and was struck by the overalp between her process for writing non-fiction stories and design process. One quote really caught my attention:

“I had a revelation some time ago that writing or certainly the kind of writing I do, has two very distinct parts. One is you’re a student and the other is you’re a teacher. When you are in the phase where you are a student and you’re simply being bombarded with new information and absorbing. And then it’s almost like a sponge that’s over saturated. It starts flowing back out instead of being absorbed. And that’s the point where you are ready to be a teacher. And that’s when you know you’re ready to write.”

The image of the sponge really connects to the art of conducting design research and transitioning into the design phase; there comes a point when you just can’t absorb more information and just have to start designing.

Listening to Orlean discuss her creative process in very subjective terms made me also se the link to design synthesis. Like good writers, designers have a knack for synthesizing information to reveal deeper insights. The comparison continues when we talk about this process, like writers, designers are a mysterious black box that absorbs information and extrudes insights. However I believe as designers we need to remove ourselves from this approach and instead materialize and demystify the process of synthesis as Jon Kolko has often explored.


the interview really revealled to me the unconcious