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I’ve been meaning to blog about this for about a month but this posting has repeatedly been overtaken by other events.  Finally, I have found time to sit down and think.

A few months ago, I concluded an agreement with Pelco, a leading maker of security systems, to conduct a series of trainings with their Solutions and Technology Office (STO).  STO is embarking on a program of customer visits aimed at better understanding customer needs and developing products that distinguish Pelco from competitors.  Director of User Experience/Design, Arjen de Klerk, and his colleague, Kirsten Medhurst, contacted me to see how I could contribute.  I’d met de Klerk, Medhurst and some of their user experience co-workers at the monthly Software Partnership meetings held at the Central Valley Business Incubator and we saw that we shared the same user-centered philosophy to product design.  When they contacted me this past spring, on the verge of a new customer visit program, the time was ripe for launching a collaboration.  As a result, in May and June, I gave a series of four sessions at Pelco, emphasizing both the principles behind user-centered design and some how-to instruction on using an ethnographic approach to customer visits.  Senior VP and CTO, Greg Millar, committed about 25 of his people and some from other departments to a total of 15 hours in my sessions – a fact that reflects just how serious Millar is about launching a high-quality, systematic program of customer visits.

On the level of principles, I emphasized the exploratory nature of the customer visit process and argued for an inductive approach, heavy on observation and open-ended questions and light on the kind of feature-listing that has marked previous efforts to collect product design insights from customers.  Pelco people have a good deal of knowledge about their customers, but they know that there are things they have missed – a good opportunity to conduct some in situ observations of users at work with Pelco products.

For practice, I worked with Kirsten Medhurst to develop a mock research project for the session participants.  Everyone went to area sandwich shops to observe the ordering process with an eye for improving the customer experience.  This gave participants a chance to practice naturalistic observations, record-keeping and some preliminary analysis.

Customer visit training session at Pelco, June 10, 2010. (Photo by Arjen de Klerk)

The engineers, marketers and programmers in the sessions took quickly to the idea that open-ended, exploratory research can turn up some unexpected insights into improving the user experience.  The most telling interaction came as we discussed some findings one of the teams made at a local Panera.  One team observed a woman who came in holding a bag, phone and keys.  To this, Panera added a receipt with order number, cup and straw.  The woman clearly needed a third, if not fourth and fifth arm to handle it all.  One of the engineers suggested that this was a “customer side problem,” not Panera’s.  Others in the room responded by pointing out that customers with full hands are a reality Panera needs to confront.  “Panera puts a lot of things in your hands,” someone pointed out.  The exchange revealed quite a bit about the way the participants have taken user-centered design to heart.  For this, I can clearly take only partial credit.  I believe the observation exercise was eye-opening, but I was clearly building on a the existing experience, expertise and brainpower of those in the room.

But Pelco faces some serious challenges in making user-centered design a reality.  Pelco products make it to users via a web of customers that include equipment dealers, installers and integrators.  Hence, Pelco’s customers are not its users, and customers do not always sell Pelco products based on their excellent design and usability.  Some dealers are stuck on a path of products with which they are comfortable, and may not perceive Pelco innovations as making their lives better or easier.  That said, Pelco is definitely on the right track long-term.  Over the next few months, Pelco researchers will be out in airports and casinos, observing end users at work, and the results will be better design and a unified user experience across product categories.  As word gets out, we hope, users will demand the best products Pelco has to offer, and dealers, installers and integrators will have to follow suit.

Thanks to Greg Millar, Arjen de Klerk, Kirsten Medhurst and their STO colleagues for a great series of sessions.

Fresno State anthropology student Marisol Torres (left) takes input from community members.

Since taking office last year, Mayor Ashley Swearingen has charged the newly-created Downtown and Community Revitalization Department with making the Lowell neighborhood a community development test case.  As part of that process, the city has been hosting a series of Lowell community meetings.  The fourth such meeting was held on Tuesday, April 13…but my involvement with the meeting process goes back to last year.

I attended my first Lowell meeting last November and found the Lowell Elementary School cafeteria packed with nearly 200 residents, city officials and members of community benefit organizations.  One goal of the meetings is to hold city departments responsible for responding to community concerns.  Hence, the first half of the meeting was occupied by a series of city department PowerPoint presentations about their activities.  The second half of the meeting consisted of a mass input session, with the moderator taking comments from the crowd.

Everybody present saw potential for the meeting to be a significant forum for city-citizen communication, but it was also apparent that the format presented some obstacles.  Most importantly, the feedback session – one mass feedback session – set a high bar for participation.  Attendees had to be willing to voice questions and concerns in front of the entire group.  Some were willing, but I suspected that many were being left behind, especially Spanish-speakers in a meeting conducted in English (albeit with simultaneous translation).

In the months that followed, I entered into a series of discussions about the format of the meeting with Craig Scharton, director of downtown revitalization, and his staff, including Elaine Robles-McGraw and Dawn Steele.  Phil Skei of the Fresno Institute for Urban Leadership joined in some of the meetings, and I also consulted with the Lowell Neighborhood Association and La Union de Familias (two sides of the community organization coin in Lowell).  With their consultation, Kiel Schmidt (of ArcHop and Spacio Design) and I developed a plan for a new format, intended to maximize community participation and provide a model that community leaders might use to “take over” the meeting in the future.

Our efforts involved some significant design challenges, including the organization or time and space and the delegation of roles to the right people.

The main change over previous meetings came during the community feedback portion.  Basically, we broke the room down into eight smaller sub-groups, each with its own moderator, to provide a more intimate and relaxed setting for neighborly participation.

Fresno State student Pete Serrato at the kids table.

Here’s how we did it.  We moved the clunky cafeteria tables out of the room and the city brought in eight tables and 200 folding chairs.  We set up the chairs facing the screen in front and distributed the tables throughout the room.  (Thanks to Kiel’s keen eye for spatial organization for this set-up.)  Nine of my anthropology students from Fresno State and two Fresno Pacific students were assigned to the tables; each table had both Spanish and English language moderators.  We decided not to split tables up by language group in order to oppose the existing tendency for neighbors comfortable in each language to go their own ways.  At the end of the department presentations, meeting moderator, Elaine Robles-McGraw, called on everyone to find a table and share their input on three questions:  progress made in the last year, remaining challenges, and what they felt they could do to make their own community better.  The moderators recorded all comments on 2′ x 3′ post-it notes in both English and Spanish.

During the input sessions, Craig Scharton and Elaine Robles-McGraw of the city and Ivan Paz and Araceli Almadan from the neighborhood circulated among the groups to gauge the trends in the input.  At the close of the meeting, Craig and Araceli delivered their impressions of the major themes to the entire meeting – Craig in English and Araceli in Spanish.

We are still in the process of compiling the comments from the post-it notes, but I can definitely say that the volume of input by both English and Spanish speakers was much higher than the previous meetings.  I also know that the issues raised in the small groups varied from those voiced in front of the entire meeting.  The large meeting provides some space for certain controversial issues to emerge, such as the problem of “slum lords” and poor building maintenance.  However, it’s understandable that barriers exist for some issues to be voiced for all to hear.  In at least one small group, a Latino woman complained that driving home from work late at night, she has been pulled over and she felt she had been a victim of racial profiling.  The fact that she felt she could voice this concern to the moderator of her small group is a victory.  Craig told me another story that is even more encouraging.  As he circulated among the groups, he came to one in which an elderly Latino woman was doing a lot of talking.  One of her neighbors told Craig that the woman has attended every meeting so far, but this was the first time she had spoken.  Craig was elated.  We feel that these stories, and the objectively higher rate of commentary, vindicate the revised meeting structure as a way to greater and more candid community participation at the meetings.

Mai Lee and Elfego Franco listen to Lowell residents.

We still have some challenges to address.  The city department presentations occupied a full hour, leaving only about 20 minutes for community input.  The student moderators agreed that their group discussions were just getting rolling when time was called.  This needs to be balanced out more.

In my engagement with Craig Scharton and his staff, I have found collaborators with a sincere desire to build community capacity for self-governance.  Thanks to Craig, Elaine, Dawn and Elliott Balch, as well as Phil, Ivan, Araceli and other members of the Lowell Neighborhood Association and La Union de Familias, the meeting was largely successful.  I’m lucky to have Kiel Schmidt as a collaborator in this and other projects – his eye for space and feel for community-based work is invaluable.  Next, we will focus on helping community leaders replace me and my students and ultimately take over the meeting.

I would especially thank the student moderators, Fresno State anthropology students Kim Arnold, Jackie Cortez, Selena Farnesi, Elfego Franco (actually, a recent graduate), Jim Hoak, Mai Lee, Courtney Perry, Pete Serrato, and Marisol Torres.  Two Fresno Pacific Students, Miguel and Suzy, also helped moderate the tables.

Yesterday, I (Anthroguy, aka Hank Delcore) had the pleasure of visiting Jeffrey Scott Agency for a guest lecture to the JSA staff.  The visit grew out of my recent acquaintance with JSA’s Director of Client Strategies, Jim Lowe.  Jim is doing some great strategic work on behalf of JSA clients using a variety of market research methods.  Meeting up — a link facilitated by Travis Sheridan — Jim and I quickly discovered common ground in the use of strategic information to inform the design and marketing of client products and services.

My talk to the assembled staff focused on the use of ethnography to get at the implicit, contextual level of users’ experience of various product and service areas.  I used some examples I’ve laid out in a previous posting, as well as some drawn from the Library Study we did at Fresno State and a recent advance in hearing aid design.  As Jim and I discussed before my visit, the puzzling thing about this kind of work is: how do you translate strategic information into the actual design of effective, experientially rich products and messages.  In other words, what exactly takes place in the space between the collection and analysis of the design/marketing data and the final product.  The data is advisory: it never actually “tells” you what the final design should be.  So, typically, the creatives, ideally in conversation with the data, work their magic and come up with the final message or design.

I don’t think any of us really know what that “magic” is.  Afterall, this is art we are talking about, whether it’s a carefully crafted radio spot or a beautiful product.  What I can say, however, is that the chances of a smooth and effective shift from data to design get better with close collaboration among project managers, research types and the creatives themselves.  This was what I tried to leave with the folks at JSA:

“Product or account managers, researchers and creatives – we need to keep each other close, perhaps even closer than our own kind.  In the Library Study, we had the interior design students attend the design workshops [on the interior spaces of the Henry Madden Library] to see firsthand how we gathered the information.  Afterwards, we all sat together, anthropologists and interior designers, and watched the video we shot of the students making their designs in the workshops.  We hashed out the meaning of the way they placed the blocks and the meaning of their explanations for their choices.  This was frustrating, puzzling, time consuming, exciting and rewarding.  But in the end, we need to be in each other’s business as much as possible.  There is no substitute for crossing boundaries and hashing things out, together, despite (or because of) all of our different specialties and interests.  I am sure that there is no other way to excellence.”

Thanks to Bruce Batti, President of JSA, and to Jim Lowe, for the chance to exchange experiences with the strategic end of client services.  The staff that gathered was attentive and engaged and we had a lively discussion afterwards.  Looking forward to more collaboration with JSA in the future!

On Nov. 23, I (meaning Anthroguy, aka Hank Delcore) visited the Microsoft campus in Redmond, WA, to give a talk and do some knowledge exchange with colleagues in user experience and product planning.  Nelle Steele, an old friend from grad school in Madison, WI, facilitated the visit.  Nelle works on a user research team associated with Microsoft Office, obviously a massive MS division.  It was fascinating getting an inside look at MS workspaces, organization and work style.

Being Thanksgiving week, many people were gone and others who had planned to come excused themselves due to looming deadlines.  (Jonathan Grudin had accepted an invitation to come but unfortunately couldn’t make it.)  One thing others have noted about MS was confirmed during my visit:  this is a hard driving, “type A” organization where it’s all about what you can deliver.  One designer brought some sketches to work on while I spoke — which I thought was great.  He had a meeting the next day and had to have something ready.

The purpose of my talk was to fill the MS folks in on design anthropology at Fresno State and the work of the Institute of Public Anthropology.  I ran down some curricular innovations we’ve fielded recently and described some recent IPA projects with ArcHop and the Library Study.

My other goal was to gauge how well we are prepping our students — anthro majors, business, engineering, etc. — for design-oriented work at places like Microsoft.  What I heard was that we are doing lots right.  One UX research manager singled out our emphasis on interdisciplinary teamwork as crucial — that’s the reality at MS, but the weakness of many highly capable experts from all fields.  The other important thing we do is to help students, in their IPA-related projects,  make the leap from data to design insight to concrete recommendation.  MS and many other organizations demand you justify your existence by pointing to real impact, which means it’s not enough to produce good research — you have to effect change and drive implementation.

One thing I took away that I need to work sensitivity to product life cycle more into our curriculum and IPA practice.  You have to know where you are in the product development cycle to know what kind of recommendations are helpful — our students need to know more about that.  One product planner also noted that it’s helpful to know how to think about the links between the product and the larger strategy behind the product or even the entire organization.

This was all good stuff.  It was helpful for me to see a slice of how Microsoft works and hear from some people on the front lines.  On the Microsoft side, they seemed excited by the IPA’s emphasis on design research and the rich educational experiences our students are receiving.  We discussed some possible points of collaboration between the IPA and Microsoft — we’ll see how those develop over  the next few months.

Thanks to Nelle Steele for making my visit happen!

This posting was motivated by the following quotation I found in my in box this morning:

MultiExposure-webI like not to know for as long as possible because then it tells me the truth instead of me imposing the truth. Michael Moschen

TheAnthroGuys spend a great deal of time trying to use and teach the use and limits of analytic induction.  This is more than just a curricular objective; it is an impassioned crusade, a holy war against the zombies of common sense.  This may sound somewhat over-eager for some but the power of common sense is typically unassailable.  Left unchallenged, “common sense” – supported by humans’ penchant for retrospective sense making – claims the final word in most cases.


A case in point is a colleague’s reference to our use of the term “analytic induction” as oxymoronic.  But analytic induction is not an oxymoron.  Rather, it is an effective methodology of managing many observations made in most research contexts.  Deduction and induction can be thought of in cyclical relationship to each other.  With analytic induction, one is able to think outside of the box systematically.  One can approach problems and expect more than the accidental inspiration of the “ah-ha moment”.


In Ethnography for Marketers (2006), Hy Mariampolski references a term he calls “magic”, to invoke such terminology for the very same reason that we are trying to focus on this problem.  In a section entitled, “creating imaginative interpretations” Mariampolski urges readers to move beyond the initial assumptions about what one sees in the field.


Recently published a fine line (2009) further illustrates the power of systematically thinking outside of the common sense.  Written by Hartmut Esslinger, founder of Frog Design, this sort of advice could not come from a better source.  Esslinger starts the book by pointing out how “out of the box” his approach has been and how very successful it has been due to its rigor.

It is not easy to liberate the truth from the burden of one’s own gut instincts or the sense that seems common to all, but if given enough time, time to “not know for as long as possible”, as Michael Moschen states, then the rich rewards of true creativity become available.

Greeting from Chicago, where I (Anthroguy) am attending the CEO Conference with some colleagues and students from Fresno State.

What does anthropology have to do with the market “hit rate” for new innovations?  Blogger and design anthropologist Eva G:dotter Jansson answers this question nicely in a recent blog posting.  Jansson makes an extended argument for the value of design anthropology and ethnographic user experience research for increasing innovation hit rates in the marketplace.  The secret to hitting?  Know what users really want and need.  The method for finding that out?  Ethnographic research – research that takes you into firsthand, face-to-face contact with users in their natural habitat, where you can observe, interact and talk with them around and about the product or service area in question.  From Huggies to Lexus, user experience research has delivered the results (see Jansson’s posting for details).

Jansson cites two main sources to back her anecdotal evidence.  First, she touches briefly on Standish Group’s CHAOS Report, an annual report on IT project success and failure rates.  The 2009 CHAOS Report recounts the worst project failure rate in a decade.  More importantly, a consistent finding across CHAOS reports over a 14 year period is, in Jansson’s words, a “lack of deep understanding of the user’s context and expressed and hidden needs.”  As Mitch Bishop said over the summer:   “When are companies going to stop wasting billions of dollars on failed projects?  The vast majority of this waste is completely avoidable; simply get the right business needs (requirements) understood early in the process.”

Why is it so hard to get the user’s needs right?  In my own experience, and that of others in my field, managers often rely on marketing to tell designers of all types what the customer wants or needs — yet, ironically, marketing often don’t know customer needs very well.  Or, to put it more subtly, they know a certain kind of something about customers: they know what customers say they want.  However, since people often have difficulty articulating needs, this kind of verbal report is unreliable.  At its worst, taking verbal reportage of customer needs straight to the design process results in feature-listing, over-loaded products, eventual customer and/or user dissatisfaction, more feature requests, etc.  (And the difficulties multiply when the customer and end user are not the same.)

Ethnography aims for the a deeper understanding of user needs, at a more general and hence more basic level than the feature.

Which brings us to the Doblin Group, a leading innovation consultancy.  Doblin founder Larry Keeley has been touting for years the value of design anthropology in increasing hit rates.  Going back to 2005, he told Nussbaum On Design that “companies can increase their innovation effectiveness by 35% to 70% or 9 to 17 times the norm. The norm, of course is the incredibly low 4.5% ‘hit’ rate of successful innovation that companies generally have. Keeley said that ‘if you just use anthropologists, you can triple your innovation effectiveness by three times.’” Blogger Jansson cites Keeley’s figures approvingly.  The hit rate boost from using design anthropology/ethnographic research makes perfect sense to me – after all, there is no other method that gets at user needs and desires any better.  But, I’m still trying to track down the data on which Keeley bases his numbers.  If I turn anything up, I’ll post more.

By the way, thanks to Tim Stearns and the Anthrogeek for encouraging me to blog about this.  Actually, what happened was, the Anthrogeek and I were taping The Pulse radio show (dated 10/24/09) with Tim when Jansson’s blog came up and the Anthrogeek told the listeners to tune into TheAnthroGuys for more.  So, here’s that “more” A-geek promised for you.

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]

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

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”.

On Tuesday night, MW Steele returned to the Tower District to present a first draft of a redesigned Tower streetscape.  The draft design is in part the result of a design charrette that Steele and the city put on last Saturday.

Tuesday night was a good chance for us to get more information about the process Steele used to take the input from the charrette and come up with a design.  It turns out that after the charrette was over, Mark Steele and Diego Velasco stayed in Fresno to look at the results.  For example, they showed us pictures of them laying out and looking over our designs in the corridor of their hotel.

Steele definitely showed that they are serious about community input for their design.  They broke the charrette results down into a list showing how many tables asked for what features.  They also came up with six guiding principles that any design should follow (e.g. historical continuity, pedestrian friendly, etc.).

One of the most intriguing items they presented was an interpretation of the unique layout of Tower streets.  They called it “The Zipper,” referring to the way north south streets do not cross directly over Olive Avenue, but instead dog-leg, creating a zipper pattern when viewed from above.  The only streets that go straight through are Van Ness and Wishon, the old streetcar routes.

Steele presented one design rather than a set of alternatives, apparently because the input seemed to lead in one clear direction.  The major features are a north-south pedestrian corridor from Fulton just south of Olive to the businesses along Fern Street, liberal use of sidewalk pop-outs, and two traffic circles at Van Ness and Olive and Wishon and Olive.

The north-south pedestrian corridor was a big hit with the 80 or so attendees Tuesday night, but the traffic circles generated some concern.  I for one am very skeptical about the utility and authenticity of traffic circles on Olive Avenue.  (City Traffic Engineer Bryan Jones spoke approvingly of circles as traffic calming devices.)  The biggest problem with the proposed traffic circles is that they do not fit the historical context of the Tower.  You can see a recent piece by the Fresno Bee’s Mike Osegueda and the large number of comments for some of the issues involved.

Mark Steele reported that sidewalk pop-outs and traffic circles were among the most popular features that came out in the streetscape plans that participants developed Saturday’s charrette.  However, the materials we had to work with virtually assured this outcome.  In addition to maps of the Tower business core and paper cutouts and stickers of various street features, we were also provided several sheets of paper with a few specific features on which to elaborate.  One was an intersection with pop-outs and the other was a traffic circle.  Not surprisingly, these features cropped up in a large number of designs we produced at the charrette.

Check out Kiel Famellos-Schmidt’s posting on the draft designs for more.

Hank Delcore, Ph.D. (AnthroGuy), and Kiel Famellos-Schmidt (; this blog post is also available there)

Saturday from 10am to 2pm, about a hundred Tower District residents and business owners gathered for a design charrette put on by the City of Fresno planning department and MW Steele Group.  Steele has the contract for planning a redesigned Tower District streetscape as part of the Tower District Specific Plan.  Saturday’s event was a day of community input, with Steele returning this Tuesday night to present some design alternatives.

We laud City Councilman Blong Xiong, the city, various Tower District advocates, and the Steele Group for putting on this event.  Mark Steele and his team listened, took some hard questions, and were willing to engage in some good give and take.

As professionals in participatory design and community design methods, we also noted some things about the program that can inhibit the quality of community input and seriously limit the degree of real community participation in the design process. This critique is intended to increase the quality of design charrettes and community input in Fresno as well as raise awareness about the potential of participatory design.

Expert focus of the event:  The organizers stated that the day was all about the participants, but in practice, the more consistent emphasis was on the expert status of the architects/planners vis a vis the participants.  After an introductory presentation on the distinctiveness of the Tower by two long-time Tower advocates, Mark Steele took the stage and talked mostly about his firm and their approach to the project.  He presented his goals for the project, despite acknowledging that the day was about understanding our goals and aspirations.  His associate, Diego Velasco, followed with the firm’s views of the strengths and challenges of the Tower District – again, topics that the charrette was supposed to probe.  Expert statements are not the best way to begin an event meant to foster community participation in the planning and design process.

It wasn’t until 11:15am that the twelve tables of participants were unleashed on the first design drill.  By that time, some participants had already turned their attention away from the stage and were fingering the maps, stickers and other supplies on the tables.  An hour is too long for facilitators to dominate the stage at a four hour event.  The long lead-in both cut down the time for participants by a quarter, and set a strong expert-focused – not participant-focused – tone.

Diversity:  The tower district is a very diverse place. It is called home by many including: African American, Asian, Caucasian, Latino, young and old, the progressive community, and the GBLTQ community. Economically, there is a mix of home owners and renters, working class through upper class and even homeless. As well, Tower is a destination for those throughout Fresno and beyond in search of unique cultural, entertainment and dining experiences.

The participants at the charrette were overwhelmingly white and weighted toward local property and business owners; the average age looked to be about 50.  Conspicuously absent were youths and Latinos, two large and important resident/user groups in the Tower.  Tower visitors from other neighborhoods were also missing.  Those who attended are important, but they are already the most likely people to have their voices and preferences heard in this process, and they have a partial view of issues at stake in the streetscape.  For example, there were probably relatively fewer public transportation users among the participants than some other Tower constituencies, an important point when it comes to redesigning bus stops and associated features like sidewalks and bike racks.

Tight format, short time:  For each design drill, the participants had 15-20 minutes to work through complex issues, like recommending placement of street furniture and other features all across the Tower District business core.  Each exercise time was followed by thirty minutes of often repetitive presentations from each table to the entire group.  The design charrette had us wrestling with important and potentially highly creative design issues, but the exercise/presentation format was too tight and the table debriefings often came off as uninspired.

Constrained approach to community participation:  Finally, with the design alternatives meeting coming up Tuesday, we wonder how much of Saturday’s charrette can really be incorporated into the process.  Again, we agree that Mark Steele and his colleagues (and by extension the city) are sincerely trying to listen.  But it’s hard to believe that Steele and company didn’t already have some designs in mind or drawn up before the charrette.  If not, then they would have to work day and night from Saturday afternoon till Tuesday night to synthesize ideas from a hundred participants and come up with some design alternatives to present – and even then, this time frame is probably too tight.  Surely they are working with the charrette data right now, but they also probably had some designs already laid on and ready for their return to Fresno Tuesday night.  This raises the question:  how much community input can really be incorporated when the goals, strengths, challenges and preliminary design work have all already been done before the community is consulted?  (In fairness, Mark has said that the design alternatives they will present Tuesday night will not be very detailed; we’re sincerely curious about the firm’s process for analyzing charrette data and incorporating it into their designs.)

What We Would Do

In our experience, facilitating dozens of participatory design charrettes, as well as observation of other charrettes and research of best practices, here’s how a truly participatory design charrette might look:

Participant focus:  At one point Saturday, Mark Steele said, “today we’re gonna make you into streetscape designers.”  In other words, the experts were ready to teach us how to do something of what they do.  But a community design event shouldn’t be about transferring knowledge about design practice from experts to community members.  Instead, we start from the principle that everyone is a designer already, without expert help.  In other words, we all have design ideas and practices related to our surroundings, including our streetscapes.  A community design charrette should be aimed at unlocking the design insights we already have (or could have, in the right context), and making those insights available to professional designers.  Professional designers apply their experience and expertise to produce the actual design, inspired by community input.

In practice, a participant focus means that you deemphasize the role of expert or facilitator.  No long and potentially intimidating statements of who has what degree or affiliation or expertise; instead, you dive right into the participatory design exercises and maximize the time that the participants have at center stage.

Recruitment means diversity:  If you open the event up to “concerned citizens and business owners,” you tend to get a self-selected group of the usual suspects, as we saw on Saturday.  Instead, we recommend targeted recruitment among all user groups to ensure a diversity of participants in the design process. This of course takes more work up front in recruiting and screening. The result is much more useful data that can more accurately influence the design process.

Loosen up the format, take your time:  Getting true participation takes time and flexibility.  We would have recommended a series of three participatory design charrettes, with smaller yet more diverse participants, and more creative exercises involving, perhaps, larger scale prototyping and methods drawn from theatre and the arts — this is after all the Tower!  (Diego said that they considered a skit-making exercise but time constraints precluded it.)  Participants could act out common Tower interactions with streetscape props. Examples we bounced around included: the bus stop, the sidewalk café, the tower rat hangout, bar hopping, Rogue, etc. This would give the designers data about our culture and spatial needs. Using audio and visual recording, can capture both the data and the process through which it was produced for later analysis.

Another method we thought would be useful is to have different tables focus on different areas of the project area. With twelve tables of participants at the event all focused on the same design drills never more focused than the entire project area, a lot of redundant results were produced. The area is easily broken into six overlapping parts. Each area is then worked on by two tables. This would get all of the project area equal focus. At Hank’s table and the three tables Kiel facilitated, we noticed input was light at the edges. Also at the 1”=30’ scale aerial photo that was the last of the design drills, it was hard to definitively place streetscape elements and furniture represented by stickers in our tool pallet that included: sidewalk cafes, potted plants, streetlights, handicap ramps, benches, bike racks, etc.

Some of these measures would increase costs at the event level.  However, we have Fresno-area expertise to accomplish participatory design and planning work and the savings from keeping the work local would more than pay for the changes we suggest.

True participation:  Let’s face it, whenever we create something, we become wedded to it: we want to defend it, sometimes not even consciously.  From talking with Mark, and Diego, observing how the community was prompted, and the tight timeline, it seems much of the design is already in place.  Community consultation should take place before any designer digs into a project or puts pencil to paper.

While we value and honor the expertise of MW Steele Group and the work done by the City of Fresno and the Tower community, this is our honest assessment of the design charrette process and how it could be improved upon. Please attend the next meeting Tuesday, July 28th 7-9pm at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre, where the design alternatives will be presented.

Tower District Streetscape Plan

Q & A with Diego Velasco

Tower District Streetscape charrette video

Bored in Fresno? Become an Anthropologist

ArcHop Construction Proceeds

Below, Tower District resident Jay Parks presents his table’s ideas from a design drill at Saturday’s Tower District streetscape design charrette while Diego Velasco of MK Steele looks on.

table 11

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