Design Thinking Explored

Design the New Business – English subtitles from dthenewb on Vimeo.

I’m a researcher who happens to love great design. So, it’s probably not surprising that whenever a client project comes up that is tackling a product or service design challenge, I leap at the opportunity to work on the team. Over the years, my absolute favorite projects had one thing in common; a team of diverse thinkers with very different backgrounds and skills. Something about the differences among the team members always brings out the best in our work.

If you’ve never had an opportunity to work on a design project but are interested in learning more, the above video is a great introduction. What I like about the video is that it dispels some of the hype surrounding the term “design thinking” and focuses on the rich opportunities to meld design and business thinking for greater impact. Well worth watching for inspiration!

Then, if you are interested in exploring design thinking further, a really great online Coursera class to explore is Karl Ulrich’s design class at the University of Pennsylvania. His class is fun, challenging and will definitely improve your design skills. He combines design theory with hands-on skills development so you will learn by doing. You’ll create a project website and take your idea through the design process. The lectures are fantastic, particularly the ones where Karl talks about his own experiences launching new products. The class should be offered again later this year so if you check out the course page you should be able to sign up for updates.

If you are not familiar with Coursera, it’s part of the massive open online courses (MOOC’s) movement in education and offers classes from more than 60 universities on a wide range of topics. I’ve taken classes on behavioral economics and design and so far have been impressed by the quality of the classes and the great ideas I could apply to my consulting practice.

Enjoy exploring!

Heat Maps Capture the Big Picture

Heat maps may not be used as much in research reports these days but I think they are still an excellent way to visually capture and share complex information in one compelling snapshot. The appeal and magic of a heat map is that it’s easy for just about everyone to quickly see, process and grasp patterns in the data. It also generates a lot of attention when the heat map reveals an interesting pattern. A well-constructed heat map is still a great tool to quickly capture attention and spark a BIG picture discussion in any presentation.

Consider the above example—a partial heat map I recently saw in a blog post. Without knowing anything more about the context of the data represented, you can quickly see the large red patch indicating that something really bad happened along the right side and consistently down the page.

What if I told you that this was part of a larger heat map that Vanguard’s chief economist used in a recent presentation while discussing the future of the economy and housing sector? And, that the x-axis (horizontal) is a timeline and the y-axis (vertical) is housing market data by state. Now, the information presented quickly takes on additional meaning. In just a few moments, you have processed a snapshot of a very complex data set spanning 20+ years. That is the power of a great heat map.

Visual Thinking Matters

Ask five people for a definition of visual thinking and you’re likely to get five slightly different answers. After all, visual thinking is a complex subject. But, at its core, visual thinking is about finding and sharing meaning through the use of visual tools such as graphs, maps, photos, drawings and diagrams. So why should market researchers care about visual thinking? Let’s face it, one of our biggest challenges is not conducting complex research, it’s about communicating the results in a meaningful and memorable way so that clients can leverage the insights in their business decisions. Whether you are a client side researcher communicating findings to stakeholders or a supplier of research conducting the study, visual thinking matters.

The Power of Visual Thinking.

I saw the power of visual thinking in action when I was helping a client with the implementation phase of a new segmentation. The research materials provided by their research agency were top notch. But, getting up to speed quickly and becoming an expert on a segmentation study when you weren’t involved upfront is a little challenging, to say the least. As I read through the 200+ page report the first time, I found information overload quickly setting in. So, I turned to one of my favorite tools of pen and paper to create some visual sketches about the data. By the end of the second reading, I had about 10 drawings that helped me understand the segments better and create meaningful connections within the data. The drawings also helped generate some hypotheses and potential areas to explore further.

When I presented the segmentation data at the first workshop, I wasn’t completely surprised to see that a few participants were struggling a bit with information overload. I wondered if they were visual learners who might benefit from a few visual cues. I moved to the whiteboard and recreated a chart that I had sketched to build my own deeper understanding of the data. I then started to create a visual on the board to introduce each section of the workshop. What happened next was almost magic. I found the pace and quality of the discussion picked up and participants started connecting the segments to business issues, often pointing to one of the graphics on the whiteboard to build their case. After that I started including the graphics in the workshop presentation materials. Within weeks, I started to see the graphics pop up in product development and strategy presentations and discussions. Now, that’s the power of visual thinking.

How to get started?

A good place to start is reading David Armano’s post on “How to Think and Communicate Visually.”

Next, I’d recommend investing in a few new books for your bookshelf and spring/summer reading list. These are books I turn to often when I’m stuck on a visual thinking issue.

Connie Malamed’s, Visual Language for Designers is by far one of the best books I’ve read on understanding the principles of how we process and store information. It’s the fundamental building block to understand visual communication. If you buy one book this year on visual thinking, this would be the one I recommend.

I also recommend two books by Nancy Duarte. Resonate will inspire you on how to put together compelling content, while Slideology guides you through the process of translating the content and story into a persuasive presentation deck.

If you are struggling with the mechanics of what should be in a quality chart, then I’d add a fourth book to the list. The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics by Donna Wong is a great book if you are new to creating and presenting data graphically.

Last, I’d say practice, practice, practice. It’s the only way you can truly improve your visual thinking skills.

Finding Inspiration

Research presentations are not just about sharing charts and data, but also about taking the audience (even briefly) on a journey from the consumers’ point of view and experience. Whenever I’m working on a research story for a client, I have my short list of “go to” sources that I turn to for inspiration. Inspiration sources help keep the creativity flowing on even the most complex of qualitative and quantitative projects. Actually, inspiration sources have one other advantage. It helps to show the client a potential approach we could take to get the story across to their stakeholders.

One of my current “go to” favorites is the video Green Tunnel by Kevin Gallagher. In 5 minutes Kevin takes viewers on an amazing 2,200 mile journey of the beauty, ruggedness and changing topography of the Appalachian Trail. I’m not likely to ever hike the trail, but watching the video I get a sense of what that experience would be like. If Kevin can take the viewer on a 6 month journey in 5 minutes, I should be able to find a creative way to synthesize a mountain of qualitative and quantitative research data to share a compelling consumer journey. While I don’t have Kevin’s ability to edit such a masterpiece, I have drawn inspiration from this amazing video to brainstorm, synthesize and interpret research in new ways to build empathy and understanding.

  • Create and narrate a storyboard of consumers’ brand experience (e.g., field notes and images captured at an airport, navigating all the touch points with a brand).
  • Create a visually rich slide show of captured moments, places, interactions and items recorded or photographed, narrated with consumer quotes (e.g., Ken Burn’s documentary style).
  • Compile and edit video footage from ethnography, shop alongs, focus groups or interviews in a succinct 10 minute clip, organized by themes or topics or even key questions (e.g., similar to how Big Think presents interview segments).

Having inspirational sources helps keep story front and center whenever I’m pulling together a presentation. Are there other sources of inspiration that you recommend?

Image: ©

To Be a Better Writer, Play

Watch children at play and you quickly realize that their approach to learning new skills is very different than most adults. When learning to play a new game, children typically use a 3 step process: listen to a few instructions, watch others briefly and then join in and start playing the game. It’s primarily through trial and error and continuing to play that they master the game.

What can children teach writers about the learning process?

We typically spend a lot of time on step one. We take classes, more classes, read books and take a long time, if ever, to progress to step two and step three. However, to become a better writer requires the same approach to learning as children. We need to move to step three: dive in and play.

I think that’s why one of my favorite books on the art and science of writing is Gabriele Lusser Rico’s book Writing the Natural Way. I first discovered her book in the 1980’s and it’s been on my bookshelf ever since. The format of the book quickly nudges you from reading about a technique to practicing the technique outlined in the chapter. Throughout the book you practice techniques like clustering, trial webs, recurrence, imagery and metaphor, to name just a few.

Recently I picked the book up again and was amazed at how many of the techniques that I learned back then I still use today. One of the most interesting chapters explains how our left and right hemispheres of the brain process information. This was the first book I remember reading that demystified the use of right brain and left brain thinking skills in the creative writing process.

If you are looking for a book that quickly immerses you in the craft of creative writing techniques through play, I recommend checking out the book. The last edition available was published in 2000.

Image:  ©

Five Reasons to Thank Pew

Every industry has a short list of quality sources for research data.  If you’re lucky, some of these sources also have a long history and deep expertise in the subject.  And, if you’ve hit the jackpot, you’ll find sources that offer all this at an affordable price.

One trusted source that I turn to often while working on a technology research project or business case is the Pew Research Center. In fact, it’s amazing to look back and see how much Pew’s coverage of technology and telecom research has expanded since they published their first report tracking consumer online activities.

Many thanks to the Pew Charitable Trust and Pew researchers for funding and sharing technology research over the past 10+ years!  Here are five reasons I’m especially thankful for Pew’s research efforts.

When you need to develop or fine tune business case assumptions.

Pew provides an extensive library of data and reports to explore whenever you need a trustworthy source to build business case assumptions or develop hypotheses for new research. Over the years, I’ve referred many clients and colleagues to the site as a starting point to explore consumer trends and insights. The Pew Internet & American Life Project tracks attitudes and use of the internet for all kinds of activities, dating back to the first report in 2000. Pew does a great job of trending the data over time and by demographics to compare and contrast differences.

When you want to expand your knowledge of Millennials.

Pew created a multi-phase ongoing research project to better understand the youngest generation of adults, Millennials (born ~1980 to ~2000). The research provides insight on the Millennial generation and also how they differ from other generations. A great place to start is to take the quiz to find out how Millennial you are.

When you’d like to understand how behaviors are changing across generations.

Pew has extensive research that explores how generations differ when it comes to adopting and using new technologies.  They also track over time how attitudes and behaviors are changing.  The latest Generations report released in December highlights which generations have narrowed the gap on some online activities.

When you want to move beyond the media hype to understand mobile behaviors.

Pew continues to expand their coverage on mobile devices and activities to track and understand how consumers are using the internet while on the go.  They take a pragmatic and fact-based look at how consumers are using social networking, location based services and apps on their mobile devices.

Quality data and tools at no cost to you.

Pew provides complete transparency into the details of their study designs and offers a database of all the questions that were asked. This makes it easier to compare results across studies, fine tune assumptions for your business case or plan new research that builds on Pew’s research data. They also provide access to all the data files in the form of cross tabs or SPSS data files for further analysis.  And, if you are just looking to add a chart to a presentation, they have extensive trend data available to download as ready to use charts or data excel files.

Image: © 

Story Lesson From NASA

NASA archive photo of Apollo 8 Firing Room December 21, 1968

Story is a powerful tool that can draw an audience into a presentation by taking them on an unexpected journey into the consumers’ point of view.  If it’s a great story, it also creates new meaning for the audience and enters their long term memory to be stored and retrieved again.

So, why don’t we include more stories in presentations?

It can be difficult and time consuming to find and assemble a good story.  It also requires skills that may not be part of our core strengths so it’s a skill most of us need to learn.  And, while there are many great books and classes that teach the science of storytelling, we need a lifetime of observation, experimentation and practice to master the art of story.

I still buy books on the topic, but these days I find the most valuable lessons in storytelling come from watching great stories unfold.  One lesson happened quite unexpectedly while on a visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.   An early stop on the KSC tour is the Apollo/Saturn V Center Firing Room Theater.  This relatively low-tech, yet highly effective reenactment of a launch is a reminder of how a few simple techniques can help tell a compelling and memorable story.

1:  Set the stage.

NASA painstakingly recreated an Apollo-era firing room on a stage to show visitors where NASA employees and contractors monitored Apollo launches.  Each chair is draped with a jacket carrying the logos or names of the companies that were present in the firing room on launch day.  Surrounding the stage are large monitors and a countdown time clock.  The attention to detail on the stage immediately transports you back in time.  I remember being surprised at how primitive the computer equipment looked by today’s standards and yet how complex the engineering task was given the number of chairs and companies represented on the stage.

2:  Add context and shared understanding.

As you stand in the theater and absorb the details of the stage, a NASA presenter steps forward to explain that we are about to experience the final 3 minutes of the Apollo 8 launch, a historic mission with many firsts.  It was the first manned mission using the Saturn V rocket and the first mission to orbit the moon.  History and space buffs also know that 1968 was a tumultuous year in US history and that the Apollo 8 launch at the end of that year was the most watched event of its time.

The presenter didn’t make the assumption that everyone in the audience knew the story of Apollo 8, the problems that occurred in the previous unmanned tests of the Saturn V rocket or the events that defined 1968.  He took the time to share video clips that recapped the deeply emotional historical events leading up to the launch so that everyone in the theater understood the context of why tensions at NASA were very high on this launch day of December 21, 1968.

3:  Build creative tension.

With the introduction complete, the presenter starts the reenactment and the clock’s final 3 minute countdown begins.  At the same time the audio from that day between the firing room and the astronauts starts to play, lights on control panels light up and monitors surrounding the firing room stage display news footage from that day, all synchronized to the countdown clock.

You immediately feel the tension and excitement of that early morning in December more than 40 years ago.  Time slows and you start to understand how long 3 minutes can take to count down.  You become aware of the complexity of the systems integration and communication that needed to happen among many NASA employees and contractors for the Apollo 8 astronauts to complete their mission.  Most of all you gain a greater appreciation for how difficult this was to accomplish and what an impact the launch had on people who watched it live.  You understand that the Apollo 8 launch was an inspiring achievement at the end of a very challenging year.

4:  Create a lasting impression.

Once the simulation is over, you exit the theater into an enormous room and see a 363-foot Saturn V rocket on display, covering the length of building.  The rocket is displayed horizontally in sections allowing you to see some of the wiring and components contained within, leaving you with a lasting impression of its size, power and overwhelming complexity.  You start at the bottom of the rocket and as you walk the length and approach the top of the rocket, your final impression of the Saturn V rocket is the tiny capsule where the astronauts sat on launch day.  You immediately connect back to that morning in December when Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders were preparing for the Apollo 8 launch and imagine what it must have been like when the Saturn V rocket launched them into space.

It’s been a couple years since I was at the Kennedy Space Center, but I still think back to this lesson in storytelling whenever I need a little writing inspiration.

  • Have I set the stage with enough detail to capture the audience’s attention and interest about the business challenge and research goals?
  • Have I added context to explain why this particular research story matters?
  • Is there an opportunity to create an unexpected journey using audio, video, narrative stories, quotes or images to help the audience understand their customers’ point of view?
  • What is the final impression that the audience should take from this story?

Photo:  NASA archive photo of Apollo 8 launch firing room on December 21, 1968


Getting Unstuck

Happy New Year!

Every New Year brings resolutions and for me that includes taking time to clear my office shelves of books that I no longer use or that simply didn’t live up to the book’s marketing hype.  For the past 15 years, this annual ritual has helped make room for new discoveries and formed a collection of resources that continue to inform, influence and inspire me today.  In 2011, I’ll share recommendations on some of the best resources I’ve come across on topics in design, research, story, strategy, and visual thinking.  Some books may be harder to find or may not be available digitally, but I’ll share a link to a source whenever I can.  First up is a strategy book I discovered a few years ago and continue to recommend to colleagues, clients and friends.

When you need a creative excursion to get unstuck.

I recommend checking out Unstuck by Keith Yamashita and Sandra Spataro whenever you are feeling stuck and need to challenge your point of view or get a fresh perspective, particularly when a team project is losing momentum.  While the book won’t solve the problem, it will help you reframe and rethink your approach and explore potential paths to get the project back on track.

What I like most about the book is that it takes a refreshingly non-linear approach to think creatively about issues and is not intended to be read cover to cover.  Instead, the authors have designed the book to be a visual journey and exploration to think about a problem, diagnose its symptoms and causes and start formulating ideas to move forward.  The authors meld systems thinking, design, simplicity, visual tools, case studies and exercises to create a playful approach to thinking about problems and potential solutions.  The cornerstone of their approach is that the best way to get unstuck is to have more fun.  When is the last time a strategy book suggested that you need to have more fun?

This is a creative resource you can pick up and flip through anytime you are wrestling with a problem, need to reframe an issue or generate ideas to create momentum.

Photo: © Glab

Find Your Chairlift

There’s a point in most quantitative research projects when you enter the saturation zone.  You become so immersed in the data that you start to feel a bit overwhelmed and it grows increasingly difficult to see the big picture.  If you’re under a tight deadline your first instinct is to press on, but I’ve found when I reach the saturation zone it’s time to step back, take a break and go to the chairlift.

What do I mean? A few years ago I was wrapping up a project while on vacation in Whistler, British Columbia. The more I worked, the less I accomplished.  That’s when I knew I reached the saturation zone and it was time to take a break.

It was a warm, sunny late spring day and the weather was ideal to take a chairlift up to the peak of Whistler Mountain to explore and enjoy the spectacular view from the top.  I spent an incredible couple hours watching the snowboarders and experiencing the sights, sounds and clean crisp mountain air.  I expected it would be fun and relaxing, but what I wasn’t expecting was a creative breakthrough on the project.

Turns out that what I needed more than anything was something to jump start my right brain thinking process after all that left brain thinking time in front of the computer.  As I was riding the chairlift back to the base of Whistler Village I started to think about the project waiting for me back at the hotel.  I watched the village grow closer and ideas about the project started flowing.  Something about the movement of the chairlift and changing views helped me to brainstorm and connect ideas emerging from the research.  I grabbed a sketchbook from my backpack and was able to capture some great ideas in the last 15 minutes of the ride.

These days when I reach the saturation zone and need to “go to the chairlift”, I grab my camera and head out for some physical activity like kayaking or hiking.  Anything that gets me physically moving and immerses me in an activity works.  So, the next time you find yourself in the saturation zone on a project, my recommendation is to take a creative break and find your chairlift.

Photo: © Goodwin