Unlocking Your Market Potential

Report on BayCHI event:
Getting from Research to Design

Palo Alto, June 9 2009

Hosted by BayCHI, The San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of ACM SIGCHI.


In a fascinating, interactive pair of presentations on product and services design, the audience gained valuable insights into design thinking and the design process. Both presenting companies, Adaptive Path and Portigal Consulting, help companies with the design process for product and services creation and improvement. The session dispelled any notion that these companies work in an intellectual ivory tower, remote from their clients. We saw how their methodologies effectively engage a client in the process, and how the design concepts get pushed through to final product creation. As an added bonus the audience got to join in, be creative and become part of the design process ourselves.

Kate Rutter, Adaptive Path

With “See -> Sort -> Sketch: Pen & Paper Techniques for Getting From Research to Design”, Kate Rutter, an Experience Designer at Adaptive Path, started the evening by emphasizing the importance of getting large teams, including both clients and design consultants, engaged in a collaborative, open design process. Drawing from her past experiences, Kate described recent research/design engagements with team members from different departments, locations, and levels of involvement, where visual elements derived from user research proved essential in binding the group and the process together, providing a more holistic and relational way of understanding and communicating.

Kate explained that the “See” aspect involved reviewing raw user research data, and getting raw ideas and concepts visualized. This was done by pulling out the important concepts onto paper in both text and images, over time accumulating a range of visual notes. Then comes the “Sort” – arranging these elements on a board and clustering them into concept groups, followed by the final “Sketch” of binding concepts together into storyboards, conceptual models and design ideas. This process allows insights to be carried from research into design.

The audience got warmed up with the simple task of jotting our names on a piece of paper in a pictorial way that communicates something about who we are, to get us to start expressing ideas other than in a purely verbal way.

With some furious scribbling on pieces of paper with colored crayons and sharpies, it was revealing to see how quickly people became engaged in the activity, and after a few minutes an array of sketches were enthusiastically held up high.

For me the exercise was not so much “thinking outside of the box” but rather starting with a blank canvas. For Kate, the canvas is actually different shapes and sizes of paper – large, small, square, but interestingly not the standard 8½ by 11 inches as this format can constrain you into thinking only in text and words.

Words themselves move more towards pictures as you vary the text with different weights, highlight important words with color, using fat, thin and flat sharpies for bolding and underlining, to produce more of a non-verbal emphasis and convey pictorial ideas such as fast/slow, relationships between words, and illustrations or icons. By creating image-rich notes, you can break down observations into their most fundamental parts that capture the weight of each idea. You can include pictures, icons, and other visual elements as part of a broad visual lexicon.

The key point was the emphasis on the hands-on, visible and tangible methods of research analysis, and that the visual approach activates a different way of working. Visual ideas get through faster. Pictures communicate a more complete idea. Images help groups move faster together. The images certainly don’t have to be polished, in fact rougher sketches encourage a higher level of feedback.

In the second exercise for the audience, we were asked to extract key concepts from two different narratives representing transcripts of user interviews: the first a short written paragraph, the second a two-minute audio track of a person’s impressions of their home and home life.

Although the audience produced a wide array of visual notes from both narratives, the audio track produced a far richer and varied set of visual interpretations. This was an interesting demonstration of how the raw material that you are working from can influence the process of extracting these ideas.

To make the final bridge to the design process, we saw how to create theme boards that aggregate notes and keywords into concept sketches, moving towards diagrams and conceptual models of world views. These can include mind maps, graphs, quadrants, grids and other visual layouts.

These storyboards, concept models and diagrams capture the core ideas and the relationships between the insights gleaned from the user’s voice, giving clear implications for design, new perspectives, a shared understanding and compelling insights that are actionable and get channeled by the client into product design.

Steve Portigal, Portigal Consulting

Steve pointed out that he doesn’t design, but enables the client to design better, by helping organizations discover and act on new insights about themselves and their customers. The presentation title: "Well, we did all this research … now what?" poses the question that Steve showed us how to answer in providing a methodology to get measurable results, unblocking the research bottleneck and getting raw data from research directed through into the design process.

Steve is often asked by clients to help designers determine what’s going on with their products and services and find out what the future holds. For Steve, conducting research and turning field data into insights consists of two main aspects:

  • Synthesis – turning field data into insights
  • Ideation – turning insights into solutions

To illustrate, Steve presented some transcripts of interviews and dialogues, in text format, collected by interaction and dialogue with research subjects as they talk about the issues they were facing with using, in this example, financial services. This is the field data – a documented report of what the researcher saw, and what happened.

The research also involves working in teams, an important aspect being a daily debriefing and discussion with other team members on the experience of collecting the data - who were the people on the study, how did they react, how did things happen. people’s motivation, etc., but also including the researcher’s opinion on what’s happening, patterns that were striking, and so forth, documented for reference by the team. The client can also review these points and indicate preferred directions for further exploration.

The next step is to synthesize the data, i.e. derive meaning from the sessions by running through the transcripts, calling out noteworthy points of interest, annotating observations, reflections and comments that serve to extract meaning from the dialogues.

These abstracted observations are then clustered, to provide outlines of themes and main concepts.

In the ideation process, the client goals are reviewed and used as filters to turn these insights into ways to resolve issues, in effect turning questions into solutions – how can we change what people are doing or better support people’s behavior. Distilled into user experience briefs, these are ultimately what enable the client to then design better.

As our very rapid taster of a much longer workshop, the audience ran through a very compressed workshop in mini-groups (basically our neighbors in the next seats), for an imaginary client, a large office supplies retailer, with the task of finding new opportunities for products applicable to the meeting and collaborative space.

Instructed to think about tools, how people use them, what works and what doesn’t, our very small team launched into some brainstorming and came up with ideas for collaborative software for local and remote users, different colors for different participants, and recording of the evolution of storyboarding. In an extended four-hour session, ideas would have been plastered on the wall, clustered and refined, but even in the short amount of time it was interesting to see how our own ideas surfaced and developed.

In a quick run-through of how this might work in a real design session, Steve outline an example:

Here’s the research finding: people are rejecting organizing technologies that have a perceived high barrier to usage.

The ideation process turns this around into a question: how can we enable obvious utility in a low cognitive load way or, alternately, challenges the finding by seeking ways to change people’s behavior to lower the barrier to usage.

Strategies then arise: leverage the visual language of children’s toys to provide ease of use, or in the second approach, create learning opportunities to improve cognitive task management.

These strategies then lead to specific solution ideas: use of primary colors and easier packaging on one side, creating brain games to address the other strategy, thus closing the loop from research to design.


Similarities between the two approaches were the abstraction of concepts, collation into themes, and synthesis into design constructs. Steve’s approach was more text based, with copious notes from dialogues, and with some heavy lifting work reading through transcripts, abstracting themes to feed ideation and strategy development. Kate emphasized the non-verbal and visual elements that facilitate communication. Both showed the pathway from initial concepts through to design implications, showing how research manifests itself into actionable concepts, along the way involving the client in understanding the decision-making process, validating the findings and ultimately facilitating the client to reach their own design conclusions. All in all a very intense and rewarding evening.

Keith Rayner, Kemarra Inc: June 2009


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