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9 Tips from Design Research: Getting More from Your Conversations

October 24, 2016

Design researchers are experts at quickly identifying business and design opportunities from brief conversations with users or by observing them work through a process. However, during typical business meetings, it is usually difficult to achieve such clarity and agreement so quickly. Avoiding rounds of circular discussion, notes from a devil’s advocate, or last-ditch efforts to push people’s individual agendas is often impossible. However, you can use design-research techniques to combat many of the problems that commonly occur in meetings.

Design researchers rely on a toolkit that includes myriad research methods—from observation techniques such as shadowing and ethnography to facilitation techniques such as gamestorming and whiteboarding. Anyone can apply these methods and the theory behind them to run more effective meetings, diagnose business problems more quickly, understand users’ tasks and needs, and better comprehend what their colleagues and customers really think.

In this article, I’ll present nine ways in which, by acting like a design researcher, you can get the most out of your conversations.

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1. Divide and conquer.

Getting everyone in a room together to hash out an issue sounds like a noble idea, but in practice, this often results in group-think or long-winded soapboxing that leads nowhere. Without an effective facilitator and a series of well-founded activities, group workshops can be tricky to say the least. So, before inviting an entire group to participate in a workshop, first meet separately with individual teammates or small groups. These discussions will help you to understand their separate points of view. Then, take the time to synthesize the data you’ve gathered. You’ll end up using everyone’s time more effectively and come to consensus more quickly.

2. Create something tangible.

When relying only on discussions, team members may experience disagreements because of differences in their interpretations of each others’ vocabulary. However, design researchers inherently favor design, so find it beneficial to bring something written to a discussion or, better yet, a visualization. Such artifacts provide a common benchmark and help people to set aside their differences in terminology and focus on the real issues at hand. When capturing feedback during a discussion, you’ll get better results by documenting that feedback directly on a design artifact rather than simply talking and taking notes. Without the use of such tangible artifacts, conversations may lead to circular discussions that lack deep insights.

3. Clarify your purpose first.

All too often, meetings begin before participants have aligned on their objective. Instead of coming to agreement at the beginning of a meeting, they may rely on an email agenda or even just the subject of a meeting invitation. Design researchers know that, when there is limited time or a team is using an unfamiliar approach, it’s important to set clear expectations up front. So, at the start of a conversation, be sure to introduce your goals and the topics you hope to cover before diving into discussions of specific issues. The conversation will flow much more smoothly, and you’ll be more likely to reach your goals if the people with whom you’re discussing issues understand your overarching motivations regarding specific questions.

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4. Start off slowly, then ramp up.

People have a tendency to jump into heady topics of discussion right away, leaving others in the room feeling unprepared. So, rather than jumping right into asking detailed questions, start with broad topics, then get more specific as the conversation progresses. Though making small talk is not necessary, it can certainly help people to feel more comfortable. At the beginning of a meeting, it’s easier for people to answer softball questions about recent achievements or new responsibilities, and this will help them to get comfortable responding to your questions.

5. Avoid asking Why?

While everyone will ultimately be interested in discovering the why behind the issues you’re discussing, simply asking people Why? is the wrong approach. In a business setting, asking Why? can feel antagonistic or cause people to psychoanalyze or think more theoretically about perceived motivations rather than realistically exploring the topic at hand. Design researchers are question-askers by trade and know how to phrase questions to get to root causes. You’ll get more specific information more quickly if you ask people What, How, and When questions or just encourage them to talk about an area of interest. You might use such prompts as the following:

  1. What do you think might be the result of this change?
  2. How did you do this before? What was the trigger for the change?
  3. When do you perform that action? In what scenarios?
  4. Talk to me about your decision.

6. Ask for specific examples.

When talking about the past, people often speak in generalities—for example, their perceived memories of a broad process. In contrast, design researchers typically inquire about specific instances of a process whenever possible rather than seeking a general description. People provide more accurate information and have a much easier time articulating what happened the last time they experienced something than when describing what happens in general. You’ll also be better able to understand edge cases if you refer to the last time something strange happened and ask probing questions about the frequency with which such cases have occurred. This will allow you to identify what may be an outlier rather than an integral consideration.

7. Build in natural transitions.

It’s okay to cover a variety of topics during a single discussion, but make sure you do so in a manner that maintains the flow of conversation. Walking through a strict checklist of questions that you need to answer without regard for the natural sequence of a conversation breaks people out of their flow and makes them lose their train of thought. Design researchers build well-thought-out discussion guides that group questions naturally by topic and use transitions during interviews to ensure a better, more thoughtful conversation. For example, a researcher might say, “I want to switch gears now and talk about….”

8. Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to respond.

Everyone has his or her own point of view, but when you’re trying to come to an agreement or identify potential opportunities, it is important that you put your own agenda aside. When listening, focus on fully understanding what the person is saying rather than on formulating your own response. You’ll gain more from any conversation if you take the time to truly listen and ask relevant follow-up questions rather than immediately responding with your own viewpoint.

9. Avoid being a devil’s advocate.

While counterpoints are important to draw out potential problems during any discussion and to help you address them proactively, identifying a potential negative just to play devil’s advocate is counterproductive. Everyone you’ve invited to participate in a discussion should bring their own unique, valuable experience to the table. So, if no one believes there’s a tangible reason to counter a decision, it’s not worth bringing one up just to be contrary.

Remember, coming to agreement is not the same as engaging in group-think or design by committee—common assertions of the devil’s advocate. So any counterpoints should be driven by real motivation, not the desire simply to disagree with the group. 

Practice Lead, Design Research and Strategy, at LiquidHub

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

Justin WearJustin currently leads experience-design and business-research projects that help Fortune-500 companies understand the complex services they provide to their customers. Over the past decade, he has been successfully mapping human needs to product strategy, whether a project focuses on gesture-controlled television, cat-food packaging, or a dashboard for a warehouse supply chain. Justin earned a Bachelor of Science in Design Engineering and Economics and a Master of Science in Engineering Design and Innovation from Northwestern University. He currently teaches classes in interactive advertising at Temple University.  Read More

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