Human Centered Design – Moving from Research to Recommendations

I just finished teaching a User Centered Design Course in the University of Washington Human Centered Design and Engineering Evening Masters program.

This course is project based and this year’s project was to create a mobile application for a smart phone device (iPhone, Android Phone, or iPad) using the user centered design process.  Seven project teams worked for the quarter to produce designs that were desirable, viable and feasible.  Each of the seven teams did a great job and one of the teams even produced a functioning app that had both a smart phone component and a cloud based component.

However, the next to last class before the final presentations was frustrating for the students and very frustrating for me.  The questions that I was getting asked seemed to indicate that the students had not learned the core topics that are important to the HCD process.  While I deeply wanted to lash out, I restrained myself and slept on my frustration.

During this particular quarter, in parallel to the class I performed an exciting HCD user research project for a client to develop a next generation visual analytics software application.  I suddenly realized that a large part of my frustration was not with the students, but was with where I was in the project.  I was shifting from the research and analysis phase to the synthesis and recommendation phase.  I always get frustrated and hard to live with for the couple of days that it takes me to fully go through this shift to a different way of thinking.  Then I laughed when I realized that the students were going through that same phase shift – from the three different research activities with hundreds of insights to having to make a few specific recommendations for a mobile application that fits in a very constrained environment.

I sent the following email to the class:

As we switch from the analysis portion of the class project, we move into the sense making phase or synthesis phase.  This phase requires a switch in focus and thinking.

    • We need to remember why we wandered into this “swamp” in the first place.  What was your overall goal?
    • We need to look for the whole that is our project, rather than all the different insights and evidence and prototypes that we created.
    • We need to make some focusing decisions for our SPECIFIC recommendation.
    • We need to be able to communicate our recommendation in a way that leads to action.  This is the role of engaging stories.

There is a tendency in doing a final report to become a news journalist and present the sequence of work and the steps that you took, rather than switch gears into developing a compelling story for your recommendations.

In the book Minding the Law, the authors summarize the litigation process in three phases.

“So we take as the agenda of this book to make some very familiar routines in law-thinking strange again. We want to concentrate especially on three commonplace processes of legal thought and practice, to target them for consciousness retrieval. They are processes without which lawyers, judges, and students of the law could not possibly make do for as much as one hour: categorizing, storytelling, and persuasion. What distinguishes a contract from something “not worth the paper it’s printed on”? That’s legal categorizing. How do you describe to a court the circumstances surrounding the contract’s alleged breach? That’s legal storytelling. You tell the story differently-in a quite different tongue-depending upon whether you represent the plaintiff or the defendant in a breach-of-contract case. That’s legal rhetorics. Categorization, narrative, and rhetorics-the stuff of everyday life in the law. But life in the law is not lived in a vacuum. It is part of a pervasive world of culture. If law is to work for the people in a society, it must be (and must be seen to be) an extension or reflection of their culture. Therefore we shall have to explore as well what culture is, how it operates and through what instrumentalities. Obviously, lawyers are not the only ones steeped in these processes: nobody could live without them. Yet the ways of lawyers and judges and students of the law are specialized ways, often so ostentatious in their specialization as to suggest the esoteric flimflam of a jealous guild. We will want to examine these specializations with particularity, but without assuming that they are as unique as they often appear and profess to be. So, we need to ask, how do legal categorizing, legal narrative, legal rhetorics, and legal culture differ from-and how do they resemble-similar doings outside the realm of law?

“But our efforts to explore the processes of categorization, narrative, rhetorics, and culture will also lead us to use other techniques of estrangement. Perhaps the most powerful trick of the human sciences is to decontextualize the obvious and then recontextualize it in a new way. We will be about this constantly; and if some of the new vantage points from which we examine the familiar rituals of the law seem remote-as when we view the United States Supreme Court’s 1992 opinion terminating the era of school-desegregation efforts in Freeman v. Pitts through the lenses of the dramaturgic structure classically used to write the quietus of Agamemnon and Julius Caesar-that Caesar-that will only be with the aim of getting far enough outside law’s enclave to see afresh what appears to be going on unseen inside.”

Over the years I’ve found this three step process to be a good way to summarize my research and persuade a client or investor to invest in the project to take it to the next phase.

One way to think about the journey that we’ve been on these 10 weeks is each team is part of a scouting mission.  We started with each team having an idea for a mobile application they wanted to build.    If we think of each team as a small company doing a startup or a research team within a larger company, the goal is to go out and explore your selected area and come back with a recommendation as to how to proceed.  You can think of your team as being on a scouting mission in exploring the territory.  A good scout tries to get a “map” of the unexplored territory.  They then bring that map back to the decision maker with a recommendation for which path to follow through the territory.  A scout has to think through how to present the evidence (the facts, the categorizations) of their search in a story that makes sense of the facts.  Then this story must evolve into a story of persuasion.  Not just make a recommendation, but persuade the decision maker that your recommendation should be pursued.

So the final presentation and briefing book are first and foremost about making a recommendation for why it makes economic sense (Value) to pursue building a desirable mobile application (Prototypes) for a particular category of consumers (User Research, User Experience).

Many of you have expressed frustration at how much more work there is just to make sense of what features to recommend, let alone create the viability and value components of the recommendation.  Welcome to the wonderful world of a human centered design consulting project.  There is never enough time.  On my current client project, I am swimming in the middle of a 150 pages of my observation notes, 100s of photos and 100s of sketches I’ve created over the three months along with over 500 pages in client artifacts.  This week I have to boil that into a 10 slide, 2 page document for a one hour meeting with the exec team to persuade them to hire an engineering team with a budget of ~$1M which could generate $25M the first year in incremental revenues.  The analytical part of me would dearly love to have 16 hours of time to do a workshop to teach them all the things I’ve learned about their business over these three months.  Yet, my research project is just one of 30 projects vying for scarce R&D dollars and more importantly scarce executive attention time.

Similarly at the recent ZINO Society Marketplace Forum, 12  companies gave a five minute pitch.  For an entrepreneur this is a form of cruel and unusual punishment.  How do they present their life’s work in five minutes?  They were vying for one of the four finalists for the $50,000 investment award.  In those five minutes they had to give us an idea of their product, their target segment, compelling user stories, the market opportunity, their competition, their financial projections, and the terms of the deal.  Facts, Stories, Persuasion.   Desirability, Feasibility, Viability.  Most of the presenters did a reasonably good job of it.

So at this point in the project you have to do two things.  You have to use your judgments as a design team based on the information that you have to make an evidence based (user research, prototyping) recommendation.  You then need a compelling story that is internally consistent and logical – for the user and for the entity that would be providing funding for the next phase of your project.  To do both of these you need to be as specific as possible – in terms of the features, the target customer, the benefits, and the value (for the consumer and for your hypothetical company or business unit).

Now comes the switch to communicating your research and recommendations in a compelling story.  Based on the “story presentations” you did in Class 8, each team has demonstrated the capability to come up with a compelling story.  In class 9 with the Marketing 4Ps (product, price, place, promotion) exercise, we illustrated the importance of being specific on the value side.  All of the pieces are there.  I look forward to your presentations.

As I reflected some more on this shift, I decided to sit down with a wise mentor, Professor Jan Spyridakis, Department Chair for the HCDE Department.  As I described the phenomenon the class experienced, she related it to how her students struggle with good technical writing.  Her framework is that you have to think inductively in order to understand what you are writing about, but then you need to write so that the consumer can read deductively.  This framework is for the article as a whole and for each paragraph.  Her mantra is to “put the interpretation of the results at the beginning of the paragraph.”  She shared that for students this is always annoying and the hardest work.

So the next time you are on a research project and find yourself frustrated, check and see if  you are in the middle of having to switch from analysis to synthesis or from researching to making recommendations.  Take a moment to laugh and then step back from the work and do some exercises to help you shift from the left brain thinking to right brain thinking.  If you haven’t found your own ways to make this shift, Paul and Gail Dennison devised several exercises to help this shift.

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4 Responses to Human Centered Design – Moving from Research to Recommendations

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