Design Research & Design Thinking: how and why to use mini-museums and hands-on workshops

In the past, I’ve supported product development with user insights in the form of Design Research reports filled with bullet points and bite-size clips or quotes. The implicit idea was that I could quickly hand over knowledge in a few choice words. The reality of learning looks different. Reports are easy to scan, but they’re also easy to forget or misconstrue. Here’s how and why I now create mini-museums and facilitate hands-on workshops, and why it’s much more fun for everyone. Hope this helps you out.

As a UX Design Researcher I focus on how people engage with our product in the following ways: Trust, Comprehension, Relevance, and “Discovery” (can you find what you’re looking for and follow along?).

In the summer of 2016 I transitioned from a UX Designer to Design Researcher — which was a new role for our company. I found that I was being asked to follow up with other designers, copywriters and PM’s to “make sure they’re reacting to the research.” While it was nice for my ego to be the “expert” on user needs, it wasn’t doing enough to help my coworkers make more informed choices for our users on their own: starting with objective observations, developing and owning insights, then working together to create design goals.

Sharing research is essentially teaching, and I have a background in teaching art and design in high schools, college and museums. The best way to teach people is to make space for them to construct insights on their own, not tell them what to think. Yet here I found myself, years later, playing that authority figure.

Spoon-feeding ideas is mediocre teaching, shoving ideas down throats.
Great teachers know that to “educate” is to “draw out”, not shove in.

I looked for inspiration. Over the summer, Facebook held a small symposium called Elegant Tools where Shivani Mohan shared the creative ways she’d been engaging people with her research, including Mini-Museums. I tucked Mohan’s techniques into my mental tool box.

A few weeks later I had a big study to share, and I was struggling. The study results were negative, and it can be tricky being the bearer of bad news even if you’re coupling it with clear opportunities for improvement. If people are resistant to the bad news, they won’t take those opportunities. To make it even harder, we had some fire drills, and my key stakeholders had not been able to participate in viewing the sessions (a topic for another time). I knew that walking them through a report of the outcomes sprinkled with a few choice user quotes or video clips could be met with defensiveness if I didn’t get them deeply engaged and feeling empowered. As they often are, the findings were complex. It’s nice and easy when you can point to one concrete thing that threw a wrench in the works, but the results are not usually that convenient. I needed my stakeholders to quickly (within 60–90 minutes) immerse themselves in what had happened in this funnel — the good and the bad — take ownership of the analysis and draw the conclusion for themselves.

So, I decided to put together a hands-on mini-museum and facilitate a workshop instead of a deck-review and I drew inspiration from my own research process. Instead of cooking an insights “meal” and serving it up, I captured my process Blue-Apron style and presented them with materials and instructions for assembling the insights themselves in “Synthesis Workshops.”

When I perform a study, I annotate transcripts and organize them in a specific way to help me curb any confirmation bias I may have. Here’s what that looks like:

Each purple row contains quotes from a user. The columns represent steps in the user funnel. The last column has quotes that capture their overall thoughts on the experience. I color code the quotes green/yellow/red for positive/neutral/negative. This way, I can easily zoom out and see where the trends really are, instead of letting one or two quotes that really struck me skew my overall perception.

In cases where the key stakeholders were able to participate in the study and the issues are fairly straightforward, I might pull together a report capturing the insights like this:

In my big study this summer, things were not so straightforward. My observations tend to fall under the category of: Trust, Comprehension, Relevance and Discovery (users’ ability to follow along and find things). The grid above is a screen shot from the actual study I’m talking about. You can see that the users with negative takeaways tended to start out fairly neutral and had some positive feedback along the way, but the last couple of steps really took a negative turn. Even the upbeat users with positive takeaways went neutral on that last step. What you can’t see is that users were losing trust because they didn’t understand things. Stakeholders need to fully grasp complex issues or they won’t be able to work together effectively to solve the problem.

So, how did I get people to engage deeply with all of this in 90 minutes? I literally recreated my grid on a giant blackboard:

From left to right, I printed out the entire funnel. Below each piece of the funnel, I stuck relevant quotes from users on the board with teacher’s tacky, which makes them easy to move around.

The next crucial step was finding a way to get people to interact with the quotes in a way that would help them analyze and synthesize what was happening. Below you can see lines that ran across the board. Each line is associated with a qualitative measure:

You don’t need all 4 lines for every study. After running this session a couple of times, I ended up ditching Discovery and Relevance as part of this particular workshop.

At the start of the workshop, the quotes are just hanging out below the screen they refer to. Each line (trust, comprehension, etc.) has a positive side and negative side. I asked my stakeholders (max 6 per session) to break up into small groups and work their way through the funnel, moving the quotes to the appropriate spots. A demonstration always helps, so I pick a quote and read it out loud:

“I’m not sure why you’re asking me to do this. Seems fishy.”

Now.. that’s clearly a negative quote. But does it represent negative trust or negative comprehension? Which category should this quote get moved to? Trust or comprehension? In truth, it didn’t really matter. What happened next does: the small groups started to have a real conversation about the relationship between trust and comprehension. They were on their feet, walking around, curious and invested.

People took ownership of the synthesis, and everyone was engaged and having fun. No eyes were wandering to phones or laptops. Because learning is fun and this is how you learn: by putting things together, disagreeing, finding common ground and coming to your own conclusions.

I also learned to mix it up. For example, in another workshop where I knew several of the stakeholders had done this already, I assigned each of them to a couple of users. The board was set up similarly, just without the lines. Instead of asking them to move quotes to a line, I asked them to simply read through what each user said throughout the experience, take notes and then present that user’s point of view to the group and act as their advocate for the remaining discussion on what was working and what wasn’t in this experience. It’s an old teacher’s trick you might remember from school, where you learn by teaching others.

The purpose of design research is to help improve the product UX for users. While pulling together workshops was a lot more work up-front, it greatly reduced the catch-up work I usually had to do after publishing a report. I no longer felt I was being pulled in to play quality-control referee (which is not a fun place to sit), and when I was pulled in for consultations, I could have a much lighter presence because stakeholders already understood what I had seen in the research more deeply. In short, my up-front work helped stakeholders internalize the research findings and think more dynamically about how users experienced their products.

How do YOU get your stakeholders involved & thinking together? I’d love to hear responses about things you’ve tried.