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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!

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

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).

My last few postings have been about ArcHop and plans for developing more affordable, high-density living spaces in downtown Fresno.  But now that the Feb. 5 exhibit is over and we’re in data analysis mode on that one, I’m back to having the library on my mind more than ever.

Fresno State just opened a new library this month — find it on facebook by searching “Henry Madden Library.”  But already for the last six months, The Anthro Guys and our students have been studying student life for the library.  Dean Peter McDonald commissioned the study last year.  His goal is to increase student usage, enhance the experience of all users, and make the library central to campus life.  That’s a tall order, but when we met him, Dean McDonald was already aware of Nancy Fried Foster and Susan Gibbons’ “Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester.”  Rochester anthros Foster and Gibbons, in collaboration with their campus librarians, probed student study and paper-writing habits and translated the results into design insights for library services.  Dean McDonald saw the potential for an ethnographic study of Fresno State students to help him achieve his goals for library services, and the study was off and running.

What are we doing?  Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to post about our actual research activities.  Last fall, we attended the Participatory Design Conference at Indiana University and came away with a wealth of new methodological ideas.  Most are united by the reality that merely asking people what they want in products and services is woefully inadequate to inspiring better design for rich user experience.  In general, people simply can’t tell you what they want from something as complex as “the library.”  However, they do know — at some level — what makes for a rich experience.  The challenge is to get that out of them, find the design insights, and translate them into actions and policies.  Consequently, one thing we’re deep into right now is Student Theater. In Student Theater, we direct some student participants in the first half of a skit that implicates the library somehow, then invite other student participants to direct the players toward a conclusion.  In a related exercise, Bootlegging, students induced elements of library use (who uses the library, what do they do there, what technologies do they use, etc.) onto index cards.  We then shuffled the cards, re-dealt them, and asked the students to construct skits based on the new combinations.  In these exercises, we are all moving, laughing, thinking on our feet, and creatively trying to put our understandings of the library into action.  This catches people off guard and breaks down the barriers of the usual “tell me, what do you want from the library” approach.  The value of this technique is that it inspires subjects and analysts to think outside of the box.  Looking at the video, we can then induce design insights from the latent, off-the-cuff things the student-subjects produce.

In the last round of skits, a common theme was that someone was misbehaving in the library and other users call them to task.  The line, “call security,” kept coming up.  Interestingly, our library doesn’t have “security” per se, though we do have campus police who sometimes patrol the building.  So why did this “call security” line keep coming up?  These are the sorts of issues that our team is now focusing upon.

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