Hyper Island 2016 – Week 2

Hyper Island

Hyper Island does bring out the best in students. Despite a 5am start to be in Manchester each Monday there’s always insightful and interesting conversation with a group of professionals keen to not just learn, but understand.

The focus for week two is preparing for the user interviews. We took the teams though the process of planning a session, joined by Senior Design Researcher Kate Wakley, our recommendation was to treat this interaction like any other experience to be designed. We shared the tips and tricks that we’ve developed over time.

So, what jumped out?

Design Research Ethics

Kate shared IDEO’s latest publication The Little Book of Design Research Ethics. It’s the culmination of work done by design researchers around IDEO and collects up our advice on how to handle the complex situations that can arise during design research interviews.

The three core principles are:

Responsibility – act to protect people’s current and future interests.
Respect – honour participant’s limits and value their comfort
Honesty – be truthful and timely with communication

We strive to keep these things front of mind overtime we go out into the field.

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This new work on Ethics is still being defined, in fact there isn’t even a site or pdf that I can point to towards. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Advice not rules

The most important thing to about any ethical advice is that it is only ever a starting point to form your own best practice. The ethics that surround design should be front of mind as much as possible as it’s very easy to skip over things when you’re moving fast.

It’s also very important to shape your ethical position as a team or group. As you’ll be working together consensus is vital. You’ll find this consensus through discussion, never assume that you opinions are shared by others. Even if they are, it’s better to know for sure that than risking conflict, or worse, silent resentment in the team.

Human: Professional

A Design Research interview isn’t like a conversation. Nor is it really like a interview in the traditional sense (such as a job interview); it’s a structured conversation that needs to be treated professionally – just as every other activity you’ll do as a designer.

During a Design Research interview you should assume a professional persona both to make the participant clear on the roles you each have but also to make sure you get the most out of the session.

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But before you launch into a professional demeanour, arrive as a human. You can transition into a more formal tone once you introduce the topic of conversation and start asking more detailed questions. Usually participants are new to the experience of this kind of interview so make sure you spend enough time at the beginning to make them feel comfortable, answering any questions they have.

When the interview is complete you should also make time to transition back from professional to human. Coming out of your professional mode can also be an opportunity for the person you’re interviewing to relax and reflect on the conversation.

Pass the Question

We also shared a little cheat sheet with some techniques that might help you out of a tricky spot in your next interview. So if you find an interview going slowly, or a participant not being entirely co-operative give the following technique a whirl:

It’s called: “Pass The Question”. During the interview, while you will be asking the majority of questions, you may have a participant ask you something back to you. Rather than answering try to pass the question back to them. Here’s and example:

You: How would you like to access this new service?
Participant: Will it be on a website?
You: Would you use it if it was on a website?

There’s an art to doing it without looking contrived, but most people don’t notice it and it’ll feel more obvious to you than them.


I also mentioned a few resources that the group might find useful while preparing their research

Design Kit

A very comprehensive collection of Design Research methods, activities and techniques.

A bit clunky, but links to useful templates along with activities to try in an interview.

An IDEO collection of content to make you a better Human Centred Designer.

A list of toolkits for design research. Almost too much to take in. Thanks @dalmakad for sharing.

Hyper Island 2016 – Week 1

I was delighted to return to Hyper Island in Manchester again this year to teach the User Research module for the Digital Experience Design course. As with last year, I thought it might be good to capture the points that generated most discussion. If you find this usefulor want to talk more given a shout on the Twitters.

Design Thinking in 50 diagrams

Having shared the design thinking process with may different audiences recently (clients, startups, students) I’ve noticed quite how many ways there are to visually describe the process. A google image search for Design Thinking yields at least three main types:




Perhaps most surprising is that we at IDEO, who lay some claim to the process, don’t actually have a definitive version on our website. How could it be that there isn’t a generally agreed picture of a process which is so widely shared an apparently understood?

The theory that I shared with the students is that while the process is generally understood, it’s also a flexible approach that requires each designer and team using it to define in their own terms and precise usage. Much like language, it is defined by usage. I wonder if this is why it has been so successful in the last 10 years, and continues to be adopted by new and old organisations: it requires it’s participants to be creative just in the act of use.


It does raise a new question for those of us employing this way of working: do we all agree on the method and goals? Is there a danger that the loose definition leads to ambiguity? I’m now much more aware of the way I describe it to those who’ve never done it before. How will you make sure there is consensus and confidence in your team’s use of the approach?

Ethics and Principles

This year, our client has forced our students to have an active discussion about their ethics and principles as designers. While most courses raise the question of ethics, very few actually have the students really address the situation. It’s very easy in the idealised world of academia to denounce projects for arms dealers, petro-chemical companies or big pharma, but we’ve given the students a far more complex situation to resolve.

I won’t go into specific details – other than to say that the client isn’t in one of the industries above – however the group has already dealt with more mature and important discussions than most professionals have in a year. I have immense respect for their willingness to deal with things head on, and hope that they see the value in the process.

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Probably the most important thing that’s emerged is the need for the students to both form a personal stance but also to respect the views of those around them. Very often the most vocal members of a group will set the tone for everyone and it’s important as a vocal participant to see the effect of their actions. It’s equally important for people to stand up for their beliefs and be vocal when they believe it is the right thing to do. Thus defining a grey area between passion and tolerance.

And you thought this was just about design?

How many interviews do you need to do?

Finally, and to bring a little levity back to this post, I shared a recommendation on the ideal number of participants for a Design Research programme. We would suggest 5-8 participants will give you all the inspiration you need to move your design forward.

“You expect us to base our future on the views of just six people”

In a word yes.

In a few more words, yes but they need to be very carefully selected. Furthermore, we don’t take these 6 opinions and build an idea, we looks for underlying patterns in this carefully selected group. The common themes between them will absolutely be enough to inspire a design team to build the right thing. And at this stage, we aren’t looking for market sizing or business cases – that detail can be added once we’ve built something concrete – for now we just want to make sure we’re building something people actually want.


The process of interview 6 people doesn’t replace the 1000 person beta prototype, or the business model design process. The 6 interviews replace the hunches that lead you to start the project in the first place. Very often teams have set off on a path to build something new based on their instincts and combinations of past research. The goal is therefore to make sure that these things are right.

We’ll repeat the process of testing multiple times as we iterate towards a solution, each time we’ll select 5-8 carefully chosen participants – in fact you can think of them as members of the design team as we want their opinions on very specific things.

Don Norman has an excellent chart that illustrates the point. Here he shows that the first 6 participants will identify 90% of the total UX problems in a prototype. We feel this graph is equally true at every stage of the design process.

Always remember, your goal is to inspire the design process and build the right thing.

Next week

We’ll be getting into the details of running a design research interview, and the ethical issues the teams might encounter while out in the real world.

Speaking at ‘Design Manchester’

On the 20th October I gave a talk to a group of students at Design Manchester: a festival for design and its role in the present and future of Manchester and the North West of the UK.

My talk was entitled ‘How To Make Yourself Indispensable’ and aimed to give students advice on making a success of their early career. It was inspired by my other half @amycooperwright.

Click to read a write up of the talk on Medium.


After the talk the fantastically engaged audience asked lots of smart questions generally giving me plenty of faith in the future of the design industry in Manchester and beyond.

My three favourite questions:

What is the most important skill you’ve learnt in your professional life?

One of the most formative projects in my design career was designing bus maps. The skill I used the most on that project was not a creative one, it was writing emails. Lots of emails. In fact, more time was spent justifying our design decisions than doing the original design work.

If you think that doesn’t sound like a designer’s job, but you’d be completely wrong. Having a great idea is key design skill, but an equally important skill is being able to communicate your thinking.

No piece of design speaks for itself so developing the ability to critically analyse and justify design will actually be something you do more often than actually designing. Being able to communicate is the more important skill.

I’m a graphic designer working on an architectural environment project, I seem to be doing work that moves away from graphics, is that the right thing?

In short yes!

If your research and design work is taking you to the overlaps with adjacent creative discipline don’t be afraid to go and spend time with the people in those fields.

Learn their language and tap into their expertise: there’s a chance that their deep knowledge will unlock opportunities back in your world. Learning enough about architecture, coding or data science to be able to have a smart conversation with other professionals is a core skill for any designer so the sooner you get into this way of working the better.

The only caveat is this: don’t spend too long away from your own expertise area as you risk becoming a generalist. The downside of being a generalist is that you won’t be able to offer anything back to the architect (or coder or data scientist) you’re hoping to collaborate with.

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What skills are you looking for in new graduates?

Whatever your starting design profession is today the chances are you’ll be doing very different things in a few years.

If you’re a graphic designer today it’s safe to say that, even if it’s still called graphic design in 5 years, it won’t be the same set of skills, tools and activities as you do today. Get comfortable with that coming change: it’s an opportunity not a threat.

The skills that I’m personally interested in are informed by the fact that I’m an interaction designer and do I’m thinking about that and the adjacent disciplines. I’m always in the look out for designers who have strong coding skills.

It’s incredibly difficult to maintain deep skills in both design and coding, but those that do are in high demand. For the digital designers out there code is one of your raw materials and so at the very least you should have proficiency in some of the front end languages. If you can find a way to push both the creative and the programming forward together I’d like to talk to you. I’m also interested to see if designers start to pick up the ability to manipulate data – as another raw material to design with.

Have a look at this Medium collection that I’ve written for, if you’d like to learn more.

Design x Data

Teaching at Hyper Island – Week 4

thumb_IMG_8862_1024The final week at Hyper Island and the team’s visited the BBC at Media City in Salford. We’re very grateful for the BBC’s involvement in this project – providing a real brief and venue for the final presentations.

Each team did an amazing job and, despite each being set the same brief and taught the same methodology, came out with unique perspectives on the BBC’s challenge.

Presenting without screens

thumb_IMG_8861_1024One stipulation I made for the final presentations was the banning of screens. The teams had to be creative and hands on in order to present and think more about their individual roles.

At IDEO our equivalent mid point presentations often have the same physical design with posters and props taking the place of projectors and laptops. At this point in the process presentations should feel like ‘work in progress’ and open to questions and improvement. Screens signal completeness, worse still you’ll spend/waste time finessing the way it looks rather than what it says.

There are challenges of course: you should plan very carefully the layout of the room, and how it can support your storytelling, but generally tangible presentations better engage your audience.

Cat Buckets

The students in this year’s Digital Experience Design crew were very lucky to have Colin Burns as thier client. After the presentations he made time to review each group and gave fantastic constructive feedback.


One area we discussed was the naming of Opportunity Areas. At IDEO we use the term Opportunity Area to encompass an area rich with potential for ongoing design. We often share them at the halfway point of a project and work with our clients to pick the ones we want to dig deeper into in the second half of the project. The teams from Hyper Island were tasked with presenting their areas, but most lacked a memorable name.

Colin recommended something evocative and arresting. For example “Cat Buckets”. When you hear the phase cat buckets you’ll immediately picture something, and the chances are you’ll remember it. It’s a great example of a simple phrase that contains a lot of information. Something you should strive for when naming your own Opportunity Areas in the future.



The final thought from me is to say congratulations to all of the students for completing the Understanding People module, and good luck with the rest of the course.

The whole group was highly engaged throughout and picked up new ideas and methodologies with great skill and thoughtfulness.

I’m sure they’ll all go onto great things, and I hope to cross paths with them in the future.

Teaching at Hyper Island – Week 3

By the third week of teaching the Understanding People module at Hyper Island in Manchester things got serious; we went through the process of synthesis and sense making. We did it in just one day.


Moving from the foggy start of the day surrounded by post-it notes to a coherent end point was tough but very satisfying. I was joined by two fellow IDEO Design Researchers – Jenny Winfield and Kate Wakely. They brought great experience and knowledge to the day and helped each team to shape their research into a clear set of insights, themes and opportunity areas.

This was probably the hardest and most enlightening day for the group. The feedback at the end of the day was very positive and it’s testament to the abilities of each and every member of the Digital User Experience cohort as it was a new process for them all.


Synthesis is a simple concept but a difficult process; you learn it by doing it. I learnt what I know from working alongside more experienced colleagues and observing the way they approached the challenge. The IDEO designers worked alongside each group throughout the day. This certainly wasn’t about giving some tips and letting them try it alone.

As with previous posts from my work with the group, I’ve picked out a few points that generated discussion

Synth setup basics


Five rules for a successful synthesis session – preparation is everything.

1. Close laptops, phones on silent. Get rid of anything that will distract you. You need to get lost a little, and your email beeping will break this up. Print out your photos, and your notes should be handwritten (as you wont have used a laptop to make note in the first place).

2. Everything in one space. Before you begin make sure you have enough post-it notes, wall space, pens, paper and anything else you’ll use to capture a structure your ideas. You should also have all of your downloaded research activities in the room with you. If you haven’t downloaded everything, do that first.

3. Snacks and sugar. It can help to have a few snacks in the space with you. It’s a draining process and so you might find you need the sugar/coffee/tea close to hand to get through it. Going to get a drink will be the first thing that breaks up your flow; once it’s broken it’ll take at least 15 minutes to get back up to speed. If anyone needs to go to the toilet, go now. And wash your hands.

4. One conversation at a time. This is one of IDEOs Rules of Brainstorming, it’s vital for several reasons: making sure only person talks at a time means that everyone hears what is said. It means that the group’s focus in magnified in one place and not dissipated around the room in multiple conversations. It’s also polite to listen to everyone, it signals that everyone in the room is of equal importance – and if they are in the room, they are.

Rules of Brainstorming

5. Explain every Post-it note – tell stories. When you take it in turns to share an observation or quote make sure to explain it fully. If you don’t understand a post-it note ask the owner to clarify it. Everything that comes out of the session is owned by everyone involved. It’s your responsibility to understand everything.

Spatial memory

During this week’s synthesis session I reflected on the physical nature of post-it noting in a room surrounded by other post-its. It struck me that the process is no accident. As a group, when we structure our shared intelligence as many small fragments stored spatially we essentially create an external map of our collective brain.

When you move, or introduce a new post, it’s vital to explain it; everyone needs to understand and agree with it. Don’t just read it out, tell the story that inspired it.

Once it’s placed you aren’t allow to move it without everyone seeing where it moved to and from.

In doing this you build the shared brain of the group. Sticking the post-its onto walls means that you make use of people’s spacial memory skills. Humans are wired to remember things spatially, think about how easy it is remember the route between your home and work. It’s an amazingly complex sequence of stages, but you make it without thinking. Laying out the thinking from a group synthesis session spatially means we can literally free space in our brains and store ideas in a way that’s easy to find later.

Maybe this is obvious to everyone else.

The fog

One of the most disconcerting things that the group experienced is sometimes known as ‘The Fog’. It’s the murky place you might find yourself in as you complete your research phase. You bring together your notes and start to wonder if any of it makes any sense.


It’s marks the point of maximum divergence. The notion of divergence is sometimes expressed as a Double Diamond or a graph line. They both point to the process of exploring and looking outward, at first it’s fun – but after a while it gets a little uncomfortable.

This is the fog.

You can’t avoid the fog, and nor should you. It’s a natural part of the creative process, the best thing is to recognise it. You might even come to love and embrace the fog. But only if you have a clear path forward.

The next step will be to synthesise your ideas, it begins with downloading – you can read more about that here:

Design Research–From Interview to Insight: Part One, Summarising the Interview

Next week, final presentations.

Teaching At Hyper Island – Week 1

I’m lucky enough to be participating in the first ever cohort taking the new Digital User Experience course at Hyper Island in Manchester. My official role is ‘Industry Leader’ but i’m learning a lot myself, anyone who uses the phase ‘those who can’t do, teach’ has obviously never taught.

Digital Experience Design – find out more in the Hyper Island website.


We’ve just started the second week and it feels like a good point to reflect on the things that generated the most discussion in the first week. The course aims to get designers better set to work in the rapidly evolving digital/design/creative workplace, where traditional universities are struggling to keep up with the ongoing change in industry Hyper Island is looking to close the gap. This is a good thing. It’s also vital that Industry is actively invested in the designers of the future. Which is why i’m getting up at 5:30am every Monday and taking the train to Manchester.

Week One – Designing Your Research

At the heart of every great IDEO project is a great research programme that has inspired a design team to do great work. Research isn’t just about discovering opportunities, it’s also about building empathy for your users and getting a design team excited by the prospect of fixing a real problem for real people.

In depth user interview

The heart of our research process is getting out of the studio and going to meet people in their homes and offices. Great design starts in the context of the people you’re designing for. Not at your desk. We meet a small group of carefully selected users to meet in person for 1-2 hours. We want to meet them in their own context to observe the way they behave, to make them comfortable and ultimately to see the things that they take for granted.

Conversations are highly structured – we use ‘discussion guides’ to keep us focussed – and we prefer one-on-one as it lets us build up a rapport. At most we take three interviewers to meet one person. A ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 interviewers to interviewees is best to make people feel comfortable.

In home interviews are a great opportunity to have you preconceptions and assumptions tested. When you walk into an interview you must respect the participant and keep in mind that they are the expert. You are just the designer.

Analogous Experiences

Analogous Experiences

When investigating a new area you can often find inspiration in adjacent or equivalent industries. Analogous experiences will often reveal solutions to the same problems you are encountering in your project, for example the medical industry can learn a lot from the hospitality industry. The world of health and fitness can often be inspiration to the finance industry.

Most importantly it’s good to remember that the best examples of user experience may well be defined outside of your industry. How often have you heard the phase “we want to the be the Uber of x”? It’s a great example of the best UX coming not from your client’s competitors, but from an exciting startup.

Get out away from your desk and try things out, if you can take your whole design team along you’ll find even more as each of you spots different things. The picture above is from a design team who went scuba diving as inspiration for a healthcare project investigating anaesthetic gas.

Guerrilla Research

Guerrilla Research

As a more open ended suggestion I also shared some thoughts on Guerrilla Research as an area that needs more investigation and is ultimately defined by the designers testing it out. I wrote more on this on Medium is you’d like to get into the detail a bit more.

In short, this process (or more accurately, collection of processes) looks to tap into existing platforms and systems to carry out inexpensive quick research. Inspired* by Tim Ferris’s approach to selecting the ideal cover design for the 4 Hour Work Week, he simply printed the various options and put them in a real book store to see which one people gravitated to.

Take this mentality and seek out other way to quickly test. We have used Google Adwords, and the Google Adwords: Keyword Planner to understand which proposition people are more interested in. Setting up real adverts and seeing which generates the most clicks is a good approximation of future engagement. I’ve also seen people have success using Reddit, Craigslist and Task Rabbit to recruit people for example. Get scrappy and see what you can do quickly and effectively.

Next Week

The teams will be preparing for interviews

* The designer in me winces at the thought of using this process to select a ‘good design’, the researcher in me admires the reality check that it gives me