Teaching At Hyper Island – Week 2

Week 2 was full of interesting discussion on the Digital Experience Design module i’m teaching on at Hyper Island. If you didn’t read the previous post you can catch up here. As with last week I’ve pulled out a few of the points that generated the most discussion.

This week we focussed on getting setup for interviews and other research activities. At IDEO, one-to-one ethnographic interviews are at the heart of our research process and to get the most out of the interviews we often design exercises to help prompt discussion; one exercise that caught everyone’s attention was the Relationship Map.

Relationship Map

Relationship Map

Originally developed by a team in our San Francisco office, the Relationship Map is a simple tool that encourages people to think about their connections with a set of brands, or products, or services. Essentially any set of comparable ‘things’. In the example below the team asked the participants to think about their relationships with high street retailers.

Map in use

As the participants express their relationships with brand as if they were relationships with people (“true love” or “flirtatious”) it encourages a level of self-reflection that most people don’t often do.

The map is important as answering the question “describe your relationship with Etsy” is difficult to answer. People don’t think in terms of relationships, but when you help them to think that way you can unlock new insights.

Exercises like the relationship map can take many different forms, but they should help you investigate an area by giving the people you’re interviewing something to interact with. We often use card sorts, or share sacrificial concepts. These are great ways to get people thinking differently.

I’ve attached a pdf of the Relationship Map below if you’d like to give it a try. It’s a fun way to get people thinking about the way they engage with various services.

Download the Relationship Map

Tips for the end of an interview

At the end of a one-to-one interview there are a few simple things to make sure you do – say thank you, tell the participant what happens next in terms of your project, remember to get a photo. The most important thing, though, is to keep listening.

There’s a strange phenomena that we often talk about at IDEO—and was confirmed by Jenny Holland from Esro*—where participants will share some of the most revealing information just after you’ve finished the interview.

When you wrap up, make sure you keep your eyes and ears open. At this point participants will often relax and speak more candidly. Or i’ve often heard people say

“I thought you were going to ask about my…”

and suddenly reveal some amazing fact about themselves.

Within reason, it’s fine to capture these notes; even if it means remembering it and then scribbling it in a notebook later.

Some of the most revealing facts have come out while leaving someone’s house; it’s in these moments people talk more freely. Don’t miss these opportunities!

How to use post-it notes

You might wonder if you really need advice on how to use a post-it note. While these aren’t ground breaking rules, they are good practice and will make your life easier when you come to synthesise your notes later.

I’m not a stickler, but…

The first rule of post-it notes is to write clear and concisely. Remember that you and your colleagues will need to be able to decipher the content in an hour/day/week’s time. By then you’ll probably have forgotten the context of the original idea. It’s very easy, in a moment of feverish clarity, to write something so brief that it’s essentially meaningless just 5 minutes later.

Secondly, label each the post-it with the name of the interviewee that the observation came from. Or, if your note came from a piece of secondary research label it accordingly. When you come to synthesise your notes it will be easier to track back points to their original source.

The third golden rule is another organisational one; try to keep the same type of notes on the same colour of post-it. For example: quotes on blue, facts on green and ideas on orange. It is much easier to glance at a wall covered in notes and get an idea of the mix of observations.

How to use a post-it note

Finally, and possibly most importantly, use a fat pen. Something thick enough that you can read from a few metres away. Writing in very thin pen might be easier but it means you’ll spend your whole time walking back and forth from the wall to read everything. 

Clients love to use thin pens. Most people only ever use thin pens. Don’t let them**.

A fat pen will limit how much you can write on one note. The simple limitation of a big pen and a small piece of paper forces you to be concise and efficient.

Who knew post-it notes could be so complex?

Next week

The groups will be back from their research with hundreds of (well written) post-it notes and we’ll be synthesising all day.

If you’re interested in the Digital Experience Design course you can read more here in the Hyper Island Site.

I’d also recommend course leader Lauren Currie‘s blog Red Jotter, check it out.

* Many thanks to Jenny Holland from Esro for doing the day and giving the team masses of great advice for interviewing participants.

** Seriously.

Intermediate Impossibles

I first heard the term Intermediate Impossible in a presentation on creativity given by John Cleese.

You can watch it on YouTube, I highly recommend it. The term was originally coined in 1973 in the book ‘Po: Beyond Yes and No’ byEdward De Bono, he introduces the concept as a tool to use in the creative process. An Intermediate Impossible is an idea that in itself is impossible (or highly impractical) but that spurs better ideas that arepossible. Think of them as wobbly stepping stones while crossing a river – not a great place to stop, but they can help you to get to your goal.


In the creative process these bridging points can be the key to opening up new directions; they might even take you to some completely new ideas. This is in contrast to the processes of incremental change which is better suited to the refinement of an established idea.

In short, they are the wild ideas and opportunities that help when you’re looking to create something new.

What do they look like

The best way to describe and explain Intermediate Impossibles is to look at some of their defining characteristics. The list below represents some of the facets of Intermediate Impossibles that i’ve seen, there may well be others. This isn’t an exhaustive list they may be one, or a combination of, the following…

On the surface a bit dumb

They might look stupid for any number of feasibility reasons, they might have a child-like naïvity, they might make most people roll there eyes dismissively. They are probably the kind of ideas that would have got you into trouble at school because they weren’t “sensible”. The important thing is to let the idea live for a while so that others can analyse it an find hidden value.

Often funny

For me, the best sign of a healthy creative process is laughter. When you hear a project group laughing and talking and sharing ideas it’s a sure sign that the creative juices are flowing. An Intermediate Impossible can often sound a bit like the punchline to a bad joke (chocolate teapot? Inflatable dartboard etc). A playful state of mind is one of the cornerstones of creativity (see this film about an Elementary Class demonstrating amazing creativity) and a funny ideas are useful both as ideas and triggers help everyone get into a playful state.

Likely to dismissed for practical reasons

Intermediate Impossibles are easy targets for early dismissal by traditional measures of quality. The worst thing you can do to to anIntermediate Impossible is analyse it too quickly – it’s natural when coming up with ideas to give them a quick mental check to make sure they wont make you sound stupid. Whatever you do, don’t fall into this trap, it’ll limit you possibilities and kill your creative flow.

The simple solution here is to say “there are no bad ideas” and encourage everyone to postpone their analysis and judgement; there will be plenty of time for that later.

Deliberately provocative

Intermediate Impossibles might be a little risqué or inflammatory, but these provokative ideas can prompt the even quietest member of a team into action. It’s also common to see a provokative idea generating more discussion, and from this discussion can come more interesting questions and answers.

Half formed

This is a difficult goal to aim for when shaping an idea, it’s natural to want to think it through before sharing it with a group; however a half-baked idea can encourage others to step in and add their own input. The group may not build in the direction of the original thought but this is fine, it might actually fly away in a new and better direction, one the first contributor hadn’t even considered.


Many of the best Intermediate Impossibles look exactly like something only a child could dream up. A childlike mindset is an openness to play and exploration, it’s a willingness to take voyages into the fantastical. If you can embrace this mindset you’ll come up with much more interesting ideas.

It’s this ‘state of play’ that John Cleese talks about as a key part of the creative process (see the video above). If you’ve got a spare 36 minutes it’s really worth a watch/listen.

Dumb Ideas

Impossible Possibilities

So what’s so good about Intermediate Impossibles?

I’ve been working at IDEO for about two years and have seenIntermediate Impossibles used in three key ways. We use them in various stages of the creative process (although they don’t get referred to asIntermediate Impossibles when we work – that would be far too pretentious).

So here’s three ways you might use them in your creative process:

1 — The Icebreaker
At the very beginning of a brainstorm encouraging people to imagine a deliberately stupid ideas can be a great way to break the ice and get the creativity going. Throw out some dumb ideas and get the ball rolling. This approach is very similar to another Medium post by Jon Bell calledMcDonalds Theory, you should read that too.
2 — The Generative
Once you’ve got specific questions to answer, and you’re trying to rapidly generate ideas, Intermediate Impossibles can be thrown into the mix at any point. This is the most common time to use Intermediate Impossibles and the way that Edward De Bono discusses them as well. It’s very important at this stage that the ideas aren’t dismissed too quickly, at IDEO one of our ‘Rules Of Brainstorming’ is to defer judgement this means withholding your concerns to allow others the chance to build on the idea to get to somewhere new.
3 — The Sacrificial Prototype
The final use for Intermediate Impossibles is when developing products or services along with potential users (often refered to as co-creation). Once you have an idea with potential, build a sacrificial prototype* that you can share it with others. We call them “sacrificial” as we don’t mind if a potential user rips them to shreds (sometimes literally), so long as they articulate their concerns at the same time. People are much better at telling you what’s wrong with an idea than what’s right with it.

These prototypes are intentially half finished, this way the user can help you build the idea further. As with other Intermediate Impossibleswe put aside feasibility concerns, a prototype might represent an idea that could be impossible to actually mass produce or not be cost effective. These sacrificial concepts are not solutions in themselves; the aim is to improve the idea with the user.

These prototypes will benefit from being neutral in terms of colour and branding, this way the user reacts with fewer preconceptions, they will fill in the blanks and reveal more than a simple interview could. The prototype can make many assumptions about feasibility and viability – put them aside for now – the aim here is to improve the idea with the user.

Intermediate Impossibles


Intermediate Impossibles often raise more questions than they answer, in some ways this is their purpose: they give you a new set of questions adjacent to your original. Where you may have become stuck in a rut with the old way of thinking they change your direction in search of something new.

As a final point, a reminder of the most important thing when usingIntermediate Impossibles: their inherent fragitily. As ideas they need to be allowed to exist long enough for someone to find some hidden value, this is best summarised by Edward De Bono:

“Instead of rejecting the idea at once you look at it a bit longer and find good points that you would never have noticed had you rejected it right away.”

First Published on Medium: https://medium.com/front-line-interaction-design/d02f26bd9a74

The Art Of Storytelling

Many moons ago I bought tickets for The Story conference (run by @matlock), when I first heard about it and read the blurb, something chimed about the idea of focussing on storytelling – not media, or platform, or industry, or any number of other ways of dividing and conquering, but the general idea of storytelling. I wonder if it planted a seed in someways because recently the notion of storytelling has come back to me from several different sources, in that zeitgeisty way things sometimes do

So why storytelling?

Well, for a start storytelling is quite a unique coming together of expert, audience and knowledge. Obviously there are many ways that these three things can combine – the teacher and the student, the preacher and the congregation, the singer and the crowd. But none of them are quite the same as storytelling, the art of storytelling is the transfer of knowledge along with context. In fact context often plays as big a role as the raw content. Maybe even more so…

Expert + Content + Audience

Context is all about what happened around an event, rather than the event itself, its extra data (‘meta data’, to borrow from the world of the web) and the right context can really make something relevant. Perhaps above all else the relevance of information is what makes it ‘stick’. So if you tell a good story you transmit data, and make it stick.

As a designer I deal in the communication of complex ideas to other people on a daily basis and this is where the art of storytelling comes into its own. Whilst design isn’t always about pure innovation it always includes an element of it; the process of design naturally leads new ‘things’ and new things  inherently come without context. This is when storytelling comes in; it allows you to explain something new, but with some kind of context. Context means relevance, relevance means it’ll stick. And in the best cases it sticks so well that the audience becomes the expert and will tell the story to others.

So long live the art of storytelling, especially in the world of design.

Time For a Change

After a Couple of years of chucking images onto this blog – mainly as a resource for myself – i’ve decided to take it in a new direction. In order to get me to write a bit more and generally dig a little deeper into ideas to help formulate thoughts in my head, and of course by some slim chance if anyone else is listening, perhaps start a conversation or two.

So here we go, a fresh start for 2012. A bit more depth, a bit less breadth, and hopefully something a little more insightful than passing glances at things around me.

Thanks, Matt.

Traffic lights

It’s fairly common to come across ideas like this in the graphic design world, where a designer has had a crack at solving a problem by introducing complication and nuance in a way that makes you less and less convinced it was a good idea in the first place:

Aside from the questions of red/green colour blindness (a problem not faced when stop is always top and go is always bottom) I can’t help but feel that this simly adds thinking time to a place where thinking time can mean the difference between life and death.

perhaps i’m overplaying it a bit but you know what I mean don’t you?

Digging deeper the designer has shown the cycle of information, and makes a serious error by having the countdown orange phase between red and green and green and red, so if you first see the light when orange you’ve no idea if it’s going to change to green or red afterwards.

Keep it simple. stupid.