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(For more background, go back to my two previous posts.)

Kiel Schmidt and I just got out of the National Charrette Institute course on their NCI Charrette System.  Bottom line:  we’re psyched.  We’re psyched to learn how much we already knew, and psyched to add to our skills the robust planning and management tools that NCI has to offer.  Most of all, we’re psyched to put on a full blown charrette in Fresno, because we’re convinced that it’s a great tool for producing plans in a collaborative way, with good buy-in all around, fewer reworks, and lower costs .  Here are a few highlights from the last few days.  (Check out Kiel’s viewpoint at archop.org as well.)

I came in thinking that a charrette was a part of the design or planning process.  Now, I’ve concluded that the charrette, or the charrette system, IS the design or planning process.  The prep work, stakeholder outreach, public meetings and workshops, production of design alternatives, settling on a preferred plan, and producing renderings and other deliverables at the end — all of this is part of the charrette system.  If you execute it well, you’ve completed 90% of the planning work, and — here’s the real selling point — all with intense public and stakeholder involvement, resulting in a very high chance of successful adoption and execution.

Right at the end today, someone asked Steve Coyle, “If I’m a consultant and I’m telling a client about this, in five words or less, how would I make the case for executing the NCI charrette system?”  Steve answered, “You can’t afford not to.”  Five words – that guy is good!  After hearing from the presenters, and the seasoned planning and design professionals at my table who have been using the system, I’m convinced of its value.  The NCI Charrette System has a track record of producing plans and designs that communities, jurisdictions and developers buy in on and — collaboratively — get behind.

One thing to think about:  As I said in a previous post, our lead instructors, Bill Lennertz and Steve Coyle, definitely believe in the power of public, transparent collaboration among all stakeholders to achieve better plans and designs, better buy-in, and decrease costly reworks.  However, the way they talk about public participation sometimes paints the public or the various stakeholders less as indispensable players in the process and more as obstacles to be overcome.  This may stem from the highly contentious nature of planning – and Steve and Bill have been thrust in the middle of some very contentious situations.

Another thing to think about:  The NCI Charrette system emphasizes preparation for the charrette, and they give consultants a wide range of tools and tips for getting to know the communities where they work.  Bill characterized it as a process of coming to see the “obstructionist neighbor” as a real person with a point of view – and he called on us to spend the time to be able to see that of all the stakeholders.

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Actually, I didn’t say much about Day One last night.  I can’t give a blow by blow of this event, so I’ll stick to the high points.

I’m here in Portland with Kiel Schmidt (aka Archop) attending a National Charrette Institute training on how to do a charrette, which NCI defines as a “multi-day collaborative planning event that engages all affected parties to create and support a feasible plan that represents transformative community change.”  In other words, a charrette is an event in which interested parties can participate in the planning of something (e.g. a revitalized downtown) by sharing design-related desires and insights.  (Coincidentally, while we’re here, the public meetings related to the new Downtown planning process, including a future charrette, have begun back in Fresno.)

Our instructors, Bill Lennertz of NCI, and Steve Coyle of Town-Green, are very experienced and knowledgeable.  They have a habit of answering questions with examples, which enhances my understanding.  At the same time, they’ve done a lot of work to pull out some general principles and best practices behind good charrettes.  They have also developed some great tools to help with charrette planning in particular.

Bill and Steve have made it very clear that they really do believe in the power of public, transparent collaboration among all stakeholders to achieve better plans and designs, better buy-in, and decrease costly reworks.  On the other hand, the way they have posed some of the problems and exercises reveals some indeterminacy in this stance.  For example, at times they have recommended processes of developing guiding principles or alternative plans that emphasize the role unelected powerholders and de-emphasize involvement by the communities that will be affected by the plan or design.

I really respect Steve and Bill’s experience and appreciate their insights, gained over many projects.  But I have come to realize that the charrette methods they have developed truly are their own proprietary version of charrette methods, the NCI Charrette System.  In the framework of the NCI system, the traditional relationships among clients (usually, a jurisdiction or developer), consultants, and other stakeholders still holds.  Ultimately, the consultants work for the client and the implicit focus remains on the client’s needs.  Bill and Steve argue that clients need the collaborative charrette process to achieve transformative change…but the focus is still on the client’s needs.  Hence, the community participates because their participation decreases the chance of failure.

Maybe this is enough for now.  Last day is tomorrow – looking forward to more good stuff.

Steve Coyle and Bill Lennertz

Steve Coyle and Bill Lennertz

Kiel Schmidt and I are in Portland attending three days of charrette training and certification with the National Charrette Institute.  I was going to launch right into a recap of day one, and then I realized that I should not take for granted that it would be clear why we are here or what I hoped to get out of this.

In the past year or so, I have experienced a few things that made me want some more formal training in charrette methods.  One was the Tower streetscape charrette that Kiel and I both blogged about.  If you read our critique, you will see what we found lacking in that event.  (So far, my experience at the NCI training confirms that the Tower streetscape process was seriously flawed.)  Then, last summer, I went to an event held by the city in which firms competing for downtown specific planning gig were introduced to potential local collaborators.  Several firms touted their experience and expertise running charrettes.

At the time, Kiel and I talked about our skills in community-based design research, and agreed that while we had a lot of experience, we could use more formal training in charrette methods.  Since then, Kiel and Shaunt Yemenjian founded Spacio Design Studios, and we have looked for opportunities to bring the Institute of Public Anthropology and Spacio together on community-based design projects.  So, attending the NCI training is part of a plan to increase our capacity to be a local source of excellent design planning and research.

I’ll try to blog more about the training itself and I’m sure Kiel with have a blog post up at some point, too.

Recently, I spoke to a locally respected and experienced business advisor about the process of learning about consumer needs.  I said that I thought you can’t simply ask people what they want because most people can’t articulate – at least not in a verbal Q&A context – a clear vision of future products and services.  He said, “Hank, I’m gonna have to disagree with you on that.”  He went on to describe how he had once complained to his wife about a glaring blind spot in consumer electronics – a spot that was in fact filled years later.

These kinds of consumer anticipations certainly happen, but they tend to fall into a few categories.  Sometimes, when we’re deeply engaged in a product area, we produce good ideas – ideas that others are also having and acting upon.  Many people engage home electronics regularly and deeply, and so it makes sense that consumers will have all kinds of ideas for improvements and innovations – good ideas that often do make it to market.  Of course, if the consumer in question is an aficionado of the product area in question, then they are even more likely to produce great ideas.  (However, even in consumer electronics, breakthrough products take more than simply asking people.  The iPod, for example, was the result of a long process of research and development by Apple researchers; simply asking people what they wanted from a good MP3 player could never have resulted, in a straight-line fashion, in the wildly popular design of the iPod.)

But most product areas are not like consumer electronics.  We engage many products and services sporadically and superficially.  Some, we even use grudgingly, hoping to be done with them as soon as possible and with as little engagement as possible (like laundry detergent – see below).  And, most consumers don’t develop consciously articulated ideas about problematic products and services.  Instead, they either simply put up with the flaws of existing offerings, or they develop workarounds that help them to avoid the problem.

One of my favorite stories about the inability of people to talk about the problem with existing products concerns the genesis of ColorGuard.  A few years ago, I met a market researcher from P&G.  She told me that P&G spent many years surveying people, asking endless questions about laundry and detergent.  Their findings revealed the obvious:  when people do laundry, they have cleanliness in mind.  So for years, P&G focused their detergent development efforts on cleaning power.  Then, P&G started sending teams of researchers into peoples’ homes to observe laundry and other household routines.  Through observation, they learned that many people were turning dark clothes inside-out to protect the color from fading.  P&G research participants had never told P&G that they were struggling with fading clothes.  Afterall, they had developed a workaround to address the problem.  Also, since most consumers were not chemical engineers, they probably had trouble conceiving of a possible engineering solution to the problem of fading clothes.  However, armed with the observational data, the P&G researchers went back to their chemical engineers, who developed ColorGuard.

I am not suggesting that people are stupid or that they lack good ideas.  I am suggesting that people are often not very good at consciously articulating their needs and desires vis a vis future products and services.  If there is one thing that the past century of scientific research on human behavior has taught us, it is that most human knowledge is tacit and implicit.  (If it weren’t so – that is, if we held all our knowledge at the level of conscious recall – we’d probably keel over and die from the mental stress.)  Thus, consumer desires tend to be encoded in behaviors (e.g. workarounds) or buried under a few layers of consciousness.  (The Handbook of Marketing Research [2006] by Grover and Vriens has a good discussion of tacit knowledge.  Chapter 4 is online:  see especially pp. 110-117.)  In most cases, you cannot simply ask someone what they want and expect to receive to very insightful answer.

Take a different kind of design challenge:  showerheads.  Think you know what you want from your showerhead?  You may be able to say a thing or two, but most of your interaction with your showerhead is encoded in your body movements.  You probably use it without thinking about it too much, though your body movements tell a story about how the showerhead works or fails to work for you.  Ten years ago, a team of researchers from QualiData Research, Inc., in New York, tackled the shower product area for Moen.  They set up cameras in research participants’ showers to observe their behaviors (I’m not lying about this).  They then looked at the video and did follow-up interviews, and concluded that a large proportion of us shower not primarily for cleanliness, but for relaxation.  The problem was, peoples’ movements often resembled an awkward dance as they tried to aim and adjust the showerhead for just the right flow, pattern and direction.  Existing products were simply not satisfying the powerful, but tacitly felt and enacted, desire for a relaxing shower.  QualiData took their findings to Moen, which developed the Revolution Showerhead.  Revolution solved some of the problems discovered in the research by, for example, putting the adjustment dial below the showerhead so it’s more accessible to the user, eliminating much of the dancing the researchers recorded.

Business Week awarded the product a Silver Idea Award for Research in 2005, noting:  “Within eight weeks of its introduction at Lowe’s, the Revolution Showerhead became the number one selling showerhead (despite it being the most expensive showerhead they sell)…”

Henry Ford is widely quoted as having said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said, ‘a faster horse’.”  Whether he said it or not, the point is well taken:  if you seek visionary breakthroughs or even modestly successful innovations, you should do more than simply ask people.

[Final Report recently posted on the IPA website at http://www.csufresno.edu/anthropology/ipa/]

We are excited to announce the acceptance of a session of papers we organized about our Library User Experience Study.  We include the session abstract here and posted all of the paper abstracts at TheAnthroGeek.com

Practicing Anthropology in the Shelves: Designing Academic Libraries via Ethnography, a Presentation at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Philadelphia PA

Session Abstract: Anthropology is most relevant to the public when it improves the lives of non-anthropologists. Practicing anthropology, as a type of research done to solve practical problems with relevant stakeholders who stand to gain or lose from a project, has a long tradition outside academia. Conversely, practicing anthropology on a college campus, across disciplines is a relatively recent phenomenon. Responding to this year’s theme, the papers on this panel speak to an “academic public” comprised of non-anthropologists across college campuses. Acknowledging one potential “end” of anthropology as an independent university discipline, panelists illustrate a bright future for practicing anthropology amongst this “academic public”.

Using ethnography to empirically investigate the factors that influence human relations between each other and their environment, practicing anthropology helps provide stakeholders invested and interested in this research to adopt effective and efficient responses to the problems relevant to them. California State University Fresno’s Institute of Public Anthropology (IPA) is an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in California’s Central Valley through practicing design anthropology. By utilizing a mix of traditional and innovative methodologies, members of the IPA are able to make ethnographic approaches relevant to areas normally ignored by academic anthropology programs. The papers on this panel represent some of the latest research on user experience based upon a 15 month ethnographic investigation of CSU-Fresno’s Henry Madden Library.

In the first paper, Visser presents the context of the study, illuminating the relevance and use of traditional university libraries to “21st century students”. The following two papers by Barela, Arnold and Dotson provide a detailed explication of the background and methods of this study while emphasizing the strategies involved in ascertaining emic conceptualizations of “scholarship” (Barela) and ”library resources” (Arnold and Dotson) by predominantly ”first generation” college students. The next pair of papers by Mullooly, Ruwe and Scroggins explore some of the initial findings and that have evolved from the Library Study in terms of student/librarian disjunctures: disjunctures of the meaning of “reference” (Mullooly and Ruwe) “and of perception of time (Scroggins). The final paper by Delcore concludes the presentations with a discussion of the relevance of this sort of investigation to the evolution of design anthropology in relation to a variety of publics. Nancy Fried Foster, a leading voice in anthropological investigations of libraries, will discuss the papers at the close of the session.

The papers represent practicing efforts that analyze pressing issues in the contexts of scholarship, design, integration and innovation. Each presentation will be a rapid, data rich presentation (following the Pecha Kucha format) which will allow for an open discussion to follow including a critical analysis of the benefits of such approaches as well as the potential problems inherent in facing an “academic public”.

The AnthroGuys have been quiet but we’re still here, writing, moving, proposing, hiking, reading, researching, having our fall courses slashed, writing some more, and so on.

In the midst of all this I’ve had  something brewing about the relationship among data, insight/inspiration, and design — especially user-centered design.

First, I wonder if there is a false dichotomy brewing out there between design decisions based on “data” and those based on “insight.”  Second, I love how the data/insight issue mirrors some theoretical bugbears in anthropology and points to some affinities between good design and good anthropology.

Back in May, the New York Times ran a piece about Douglas Bowman, who left Google for Twitter, where he became creative director; his team is credited with adding the “trending topics” sidebar to your Twitter screen.  Apparently, Bowman left Google because, as the title of the Times article says, “data, not design, is king” there.  At Google, Web analytics rule the day and bold creative leaps are usually not welcome unless they are backed by solid data, which means that, in effect, they are not welcome.  Design Prof Debra Dunn of Stanford Institute of Design noted to the Times that Web analytics and related methods are good for some things (tweaking an existing design, or helping choose between option A and option B), but Web analytics do not produce broad design directions nor, typically, big leaps forward.  For that, Dunn said, one needs close-in engagement with users, understanding what they do and their pain points, and then some healthy design decisions can flow from that — decisions which can then be subjected to the Web analytics, but which cannot be inferred from Web analytics.  Bowman, who credits Google with doing what they do well (who doesn’t?), said nothing about user experience research per se, but noted that Twitter fits his sensibilities better because the organization is more open to inspirational leaps and design innovation.  (As far as I’m concerned, the trending topics bar is a super addition to Twitter, especially considering that they fielded it before #iranelection hit the mainstream news; at this writing, it’s still in the top 10).

The Times story stuck with me, perhaps because the “data is king” line about Google implies (perhaps unintentionally) that Web analytics generates data while Dunn’s suggested approach (going out and being with users, watching them, etc.) does not.  User experience blogger Andrew Hinton got me thinking even more with a thoughtful discussion of some of the same issues.

Hinton considers data to be both quantitative and qualitative, valuable and often essential, a great use in challenging ones own design biases, something clients often demand , BUT, not by itself the end of the story: “It’s just that data doesn’t do the job alone. We still need to do the work of interpretation, which requires challenging our presuppositions, blind spots and various biases.”  I love this quote from Hinton because it up-ends the positivist assumption that the data speaks for itself.  Data never speaks for itself, it always requires an act of interpretation (yes, even statistics are mute until we give them meaning!).  In design, the fact that data doesn’t speak for itself is especially obvious, since, as Hinton says, “Data cannot tell us, directly, how to design anything.”  What then should user experience professionals do?  According to Hinton, we should “use data to inform the fullest possible understanding of the behavior and context of potential users, as well as bring our own [design] experience and talent to the challenge.”  In other words, research-savvy designers need both data and designerly inspiration for good UX practice.

All of this reminds me of the anthropology as science vs. interpretive anthropology divide in my own discipline.  While explanatory science vs. interpretive understanding is not a necessary dichotomy, many have practiced anthropology as if it were.  On the science side, we have data (quant and qual), variables, causes-effect relationships, comparisons, and scalable conclusions.  The best work in this vein often leads to modest but reliable conclusions about human behavior.  On the interpretive side we have data (mostly qual), its interpretation, some insightful leaps, compelling illustrations, and a story that, if it’s well done, quite often takes us toward a deep understanding of another culture.

But wait!  A few decades of STS have shown us that science, like everything else man-made, only works via social and cultural means, and that capricious insights and idiosyncrasies — personal, social, cultural — matter greatly in how the work of science gets done.  Likewise, every piece of (good) interpretive anthropology begins with data, usually generated by fieldwork involving first hand, face to face contact with others.  So scientific and interpretive anthropology both involve data and inspiration.

Sometimes, the criticism is leveled at the interpretive folks that their findings are ultimately based on some mysterious leap of interpretation, and their conclusions are unverifiable and probably hinge on the ineffable qualities or skills of the researcher himself.  However, in my opinion, the masterpieces of ethnographic writing in anthropology have been produced by interpretive-leaning anthropologists, and they succeed in conveying some feel for what life is like in other cultures in a way that science-oriented anthropology often does not.  If deep understanding of another culture — flawed and open to debate, for sure — comes from leaps of inspiration and insight, then so be it.  The result can be beautiful (or well-designed, if you like).  The most recent work of well-designed interpretive anthropology that I read was Steven C. Caton’s Yemen Chronicle: An Anthropology of War and Mediation.  Caton has data, but he also takes liberties (in my opinion, warranted), and by the time you are done the people of whom he writes are less “subjects” and more “characters,” different but comprehensible.

No wonder design and anthropology go together so well.  In research-driven design work, data and insight are essential ingredients, just as they are in any good bit of anthropology.  If data and insight are in tension, it’s a productive tension — in both fields.

I close with a nice quote from Bonnie McDaniel Johnson in Design Research (edited by Brenda Laurel):

“Design research is inherently paradoxical: it is both imaginative and empirical.  It cannot be simply empirical because the ‘typical’ customers that researchers need to understand are rarely able to articulate their needs.  Design researchers must go beyond what they can find: to see more than is visible, and to learn more than can be heard.  Accordingly, design research is an act of imagination, just as much as design itself.  Yet it must also be grounded in empirical evidence, for no business manager wants to think that the research on which her profits depend is made up in the research department” (Laurel 2003:39).

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