Love Letters & Break Up Letters

To evaluate how your product is doing, you can ask customers or users to engage in this fun exercise.



Recently at IBM we did this with an exceptional twist. We asked several users to write their choice of a love or breakup letter to the product we’ve been working on. After the letters were written and collected, we had other teammates read them out loud on camera.

This created a short video for our team to share around – bringing customers’ pains and joys to a very visceral level. Often one of the biggest challenges with research is making it actionable, and this did just that.

Asking the Right Question, the Right Way

To learn more about people, we have to discover their hidden desires, unpack their meanings, and unravel their emotions. Doing this isn’t easy, as people don’t often want to share personal and intimate feelings with someone they don’t know. To get behind the wall people put up, we need to:

  • Build a trusting relationship
  • Withhold judgement
  • Be a curious student
  • Ask the right questions
  • Build a dialogue based on answers

Louis_Theroux_at_Nordiske_Mediedager_2009Louis Theroux, a British documentary filmmaker and broadcaster demonstrates the fine art of inquiry through asking the right questions, the right way, at the right time.


Empathy Maps

Design Methods - Empathy Maps
Empathy Map

Understanding who we’re designing for is one of our first tasks. This popular method allows us to explore and map the psyche of our user/target market. I first learned this one at IBM Design in Austin TX.

It’s worth noting the apparent contradictions that arise. People often say one thing, but are thinking another. And as we know, we often don’t do what we say. Empathy maps are a great way for understanding these emotional and cognitive paradoxes.

Use this method at the beginning of a project and throughout as you gather more qualitative research.

Beautiful Questions


Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”
 -E.E. Cummings

The questions we ask largely influences the answers we get. To unearth innovative insights, asking the right questions of not only potential users but of ourselves, consider the power of beautiful questions.

In his book, A More Beautiful Question,  Warren Berger defines a particular type of question:

A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

Perhaps it’s been our schooling, reinforcing answer driven responses.A popular TED talk from Sir Ken Robinson echoes this antiquated education paradigm. The power of divergent thinking, or lateral thinking, is often fueled by powerful questions.

We’re talking about open ended questions here, non-leading questions, and a healthy report between the inquirer and the master.

Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”   -Pablo Picasso

1. Why? Why does school start at 8am? Why is there so much traffic? Why do people go to the gym? Why questions often have a feeling of naivete or innocence. We grow accustomed to accepting our world in a way that reduces cognitive load and creates a sense of familiarity. But when we start with simple why questions, we set the stage for innovation. The Five Whys Methodology, developed by the founder of Toyota, is simple way to dig deep on an issue.

2. What if? What if school started based on kids sleeping schedules? What if kids slept more at school? What if more of school took place at home? What if kids learned certain things right before bed?

3. How? Once deciding on what you want to implement or achieve, how you go about doing that can also be posed as a question. How do we get parents on board? How do we redesign a school attendance system? How do we let kids sleep more at school?

As simple as it sounds, framing innovation in questions and in this order can and has lead to some of world’s most exciting, meaningful, and breakthrough innovations.

ERAF Systems Diagram

Entities, Relations, Attributes, and Flows.

Systems thinking. Have you ever had to tackle a complex problem? This type of visualization helps clarify relationships between elements within a system. It’s a rather intuitive process that often gets left behind by long conversations.



I recently tried this when consulting  for, a Human Rights organization in NYC. Our conversation had been circling around their multi-sided platform and where users were getting stuck. After drawing it out, we all circled around and the conversation began to dig deeper as we pointed at the diagram.

IMG_0199As you can see above, this diagram only has Entities and Flows, no Attributes or Relations. Something I’ll keep in mind and add next time.


This method was originally learned from the 101 Design Methods Book:
Kumar, V. (2013). 101 design methods: A structured approach for driving innovation in your organization. Pages 146-147. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.

Artifacts – What They Reveal

In the 2007 issue of Artifact Volume 1 the authors, Akama et al, explore the roles artifacts can play in doing design research. They conclude that artifacts are an appropriate methodological tool. (Akama et al) Below are three of their statements about how artifacts can be used while interviewing participants, followed by my analysis interpretation:

1. Triggers for reflection and imagination

The authors make a distinction between indigenous and introduced artifacts. Indigenous artifacts are familiar and more meaningful to the participant and can help trigger the reflection the authors speak of. Introduced artifacts can serve as a conversation starter and spark the participants imagination. (Akama et al)

2. Tools for the articulation and communication of ideas and experience

Bringing in artifacts as playful triggers can give the participants new means of communicating their ideas and experience beyond words. This can help facilitate visualization, co-creating meaning, and helps communicate relationships and interactions. (Akama et al)

3. Facilitators for participation and generative meaning-making

The authors found that artifacts can help the participants engage more with the interview process. By playing with toys and other artifacts, the participants are able to make meaning of their context, scenarios, and thoughts. (Akama et al)

What kind of information can artifacts reveal? Provide at least one example with an explanation.

Artifacts can reveal behavior, cultural norms, historical influences, and much more. For example, someone who has a lot of athletic artifacts, sporting equipment, could presumably value an active lifestyle. Further investigation might reveal something else. Perhaps they no longer play those sports, or they are simply a fan of watching the sports and keep the items around as memorabilia.

Yoko Akama, Roslyn Cooper, Laurene Vaughan, and Stephen Viller. 2007. Show and Tell: Accessing and Communicating Implicit Knowledge Through Artefacts. In Artifact, Vol I, Issue 3. p 172–181.

Focus Groups – Do You See What I See?

Focus groups and card sorting are interesting design research methods. It seems the consensus is that they’re useful in particular circumstances such as gathering initial insights and structuring information hierarchies. As we add more tools to our toolbox, these are worthwhile methods to have; comparing users’ perceptions to our own. I enjoy their flexibility.mg_3626_0832

Card sorting doesn’t have to be confined to just pairings, and like artifacts, can serve as a conversation starter and point of reference in a general UX research practice. Focus groups can often turn into a casual conversation amongst friends or acquaintances. And both are simple enough that I anticipate they’ll always be around.

“What kind of role does perception play in design?” 

They say perception is reality. And it’s an art and a science in deciphering whether participants of a UX research study perceive things accurately enough to constitute a valid opinion. They say a democracy is only as smart as its citizens.

“If I would have asked them what they wanted
they would have said a faster horse.” – Henry Ford.

Group think, confirmation biases, social desirability bias, priming, framing, the observation effect… It seems radically difficult to study people and their perspectives without influencing it. I think action speaks louder than words and imagine candid observation of peoples’ actions and habits to be more insightful for design than getting a group of them together where they’re susceptible to the concepts listed above. Look at this picture below. Can’t you just see the social dynamic? I can’t help but notice retrospectively the apparent judgement we’re casting on the participant’s every move. What affect does this have on the study’s outcome? I imagine it brings the deviation closer to the norm.



Oh the coveted ‘persona’ seems to be in every blog, book, and talk on interaction design, user experience, and innovation.

Why does it bother me? I guess for how personal it’s supposed to be, it feels impersonal. Perhaps that’s depending on how it’s done. So let’s look at how different teams, authors, and organizations define, use, and interpret a ‘persona’.


  • Adaptive Path: archetypes of your customers and users that can act as surrogates for those people in the design process. “In our experience, effective personas are drawn from ethnographic research rather than demographics, market segments, or gut feelings about your audience.”
  • Alan Coopera model of our users, represented by composite archetypes, based on behavioral data gathered from the many actual users encountered in ethnographic interviews. Personas are not real people, but they are based on the behaviors and motivations of real people we have observed and represent them throughout the design process. 
  • Leah Buley: a composite picture of a collection of users boiled down into one relatable, human profile.


  • Adaptive Path: Quality personas can have far-reaching effects, because organizations can disseminate them to the furthest reaches of their org charts. Well-conceived personas are an efficient way to communicate insights and spark empathy. 
  • Alan CooperPersonas provide us with a precise way of thinking and communicating about how users behave, how they think, what they wish to accomplish, and why.  Personas must have motivations; some are obvious, and many are subtle. Understanding why a user performs a certain task gives designers great power to improve or even eliminate those tasks yet still accomplish the same goals.Personas help designers: 
  1. Determine what a product should do and how it should behave. Persona goals and tasks provide the foundation for the design effort.
  2. Communicate with stakeholders, developers, and other designers. Personas provide a common language for discussing design decisions and also help keep the design centered on users at every step in the process.
  3. Measure the design’s effectiveness.
  4. Contribute to other product-related efforts such as marketing and sales plans.
  • Leah Buley: Personas are made as human as possible to further enhance the sense that this is a real person with a messy life and quirky was of coping with very recognizable human situations. 


Alan Cooper: Personas can also resolve three design issues that arise during product development:

  1. The Elastic User– Every person on a product team has his own conceptions of who the user is and what the user needs. When it comes time to make product decisions, this “user” becomes elastic, conveniently bending and stretching to fit the opinions and presuppositions of whoever’s talking. A lack of precision about the user can lead to a lack of clarity about how the product should behave.
  2. Self-referential Design- When designers or developers project their own goals , motivations, skills, and mental models onto a product’s design. Similarly, programmers apply self-referential design when they create implementation-model products. They understand perfectly how the data is structured and how software works and are comfortable with such products. few nonprogrammers would concur.
  3. Edge Cases- situations that might possibly happen, but usually won’t for the target personas. Personas provide a reality check for the design. We can ask, “Will Julia want to perform this operation very often? Will she ever?” With this in mind, we can prioritize functions with great clarity.


It’s a classic! Why wouldn’t you have a conversation with a stakeholder/user/customer to better understand their thoughts, emotions and motivations?

Yet a lot can go wrong in an interview: leading questions, binary questions, complicated questions etc.

Adapted from Michael Barry, Point Forward
The Shape of An Interview, adapted from Michael Barry, Point Forward

“An interview” can have some scary connotations for people, and personally, the term feels.. impersonal; and it may not be an accurate description of the method. In their book Contextual Design, Hugh Beyer and Karen Holtzblatt have describe an ethnographic interviewing technique that they call contextual inquiry.

Contextual Inquiry is based on a master-apprentice model of learning: observing and asking questions of the user as if she is the master craftsman, and the interviewer the new apprentice.



Context- Rather than interviewing in a clean white room, go to the physical environment relevant to what you’re designing for. Observing people in their natural environment, filled with artifacts they use each day, can bring the all-important details of their behaviors to light.

Tone- One of collaborative exploration with the user (master-apprentice).

Interpretation- Here lies what currently interests me most. Much of the work of the designer is reading between the lines of facts gathered about users’ behaviors, their environment, and what they say..

Focus- Rather than coming to interviews with a set questionnaire of letting the interview wander aimlessly, the designer needs to subtly direct the interview so as to capture data relevant to design issues.


  • Shorten the interview process- Interviews as short as one hour can be sufficient to gather the necessary user data, provided that a sufficient number of interviews (about six well-selected user for each hypothesized role or type) are scheduled.
  • Use smaller design teams- It is more effective to conduct interviews sequentially with the same designers in each interview, allowing the members to most effectively analyze and synthesize the user data.
  • Identify goals first- Ethnographic interviews should first identify and prioritize use goals before determining the tasks that relate to these goals.


Empathetic Listening

Stephen Covey says it best,

When I say empathic listening, I mean listening with intent to understand. I mean seeking first to understand, to really understand. It’s an entirely different paradigm. Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person’s frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel.

Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is a form of agreement, a form of judgment. And it is sometimes the more appropriate emotion and response. But people often feed on sympathy. It makes them dependent. The essence of empathic listening is not that you agree with someone; it’s that you fully, deeply, understand that person, emotionally as well as intellectually.

Empathic listening involves much more than registering, reflecting, or even understanding the words that are said. Communications experts estimate, in fact, that only 10% of our communication is represented by the words we say. Another 30 percent is represented by our sounds, and 60% by our body language. In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior. You use your right brain as well as your left. You sense, you intuit, you feel.

Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you’re dealing with the reality inside another person’s head and heart. You’re listening to understand. You’re focused on receiving the deep communication of another human soul.