Part 2: Exploratory research
When I started the research phase for this project, my client and I had already fixed our target audience as artists whose creations demand a lot of color. In my research, I wanted to understand how these artists organize and prepare their material as they work on an art piece. With that in mind, I came up with a research plan, and started recruitment for interviews. The research phase took about three weeks.
I started recruitment in my own community, since I know several artists in San Francisco. I wanted to have a pipeline of people to talk to as soon as possible. My initial casual texts turned out to drown my point. So, what I had to do was to limit the text message to a quick request for an interview, and then link a short project brief.
Here is the message I settled on
“ hey, [Jim], I am working on a project and I need to interview artists. Let me know if you are interested to talk or if you know others who may be. Here is a link to the project.”
Here are my three takeaways about how to approach people close to you when recruiting:
- You are pulling on social bonds when you ask a friend to interview with you. Make it easy for them to say no without feeling guilty if they don’t want to do it.
- There is no need to start off with a lengthy description of what, and why and how. Just tell them what you need. This is your community. In my case, once I switched to asking clearly for an interview upfront, some people would agree to do it without even probing any further.
- A short, well structured brief not only can help people find answers to their questions, but it will also convey how serious you are.
Other avenues that I tried in order to reach out to artists were:
- opening nights at art galleries,
- referrals from friends.
Now, you might be thinking, why not just do guerrilla research? For example, corner an artist on the bus, stalk another in the sauna at the gym and ask them your questions.
I tried, but I quickly had to backtrack. I realized that for a lot of artists it’s their creations that they pay attention to, and that the details of how they organize their tools isn’t something they can talk about easily. I learned that for many artists “inventory” is associated with the collection of works they had produced over time rather than the accounting of their work materials. To call their art supply “inventory” sounded unnatural because it implied too much structure, and contradicted their understanding of their own process.
So, my research became much less about going down a list of interview questions about “ how artists keep track of their inventory”. It became about understanding artists in their work environment and piecing together their different approaches to organizing and keeping track of their tools.
I had to draw on ethnographic research techniques. Luckily, about this time, I was taking a series of online workshops with Indi Young on mental models. Indi’s work in UX research is highly prized and she is the author of mental models and practical empathy. I incorporated the techniques I was learning in the workshop in my research. For example, I formatted the interviews as listening sessions, and used Indi’s notion of thinking-style segments when analyzing the data.
I also wanted to be able to observe artists’ workspaces. An important part of this research was about understanding how artists deal with physical objects in the physical space. By looking at their environment, I could ask them about how they find or prioritize their tools. I could also point to a tiny bottle on a shelf and ask questions about it, and why it’s placed where it is.
By the end of the three weeks, I had interviewed five artists:
Francesca makes puppets, exhibits, and installations. When I visited her, she was working on a phoenix puppet. Color has an important role in her creations. She uses all sorts of colorful materials, from paper tissues to actual moss to convey the right color and texture.
Andrew is a prodigious artist. He is an innovator in matters of technique as well as aesthetic, and he is the founder of United Artworks. He gave me a tour of his studio in Oakland. At first sight, the studio seems very crowded. But upon closer inspection, you can find the spatial order and hierarchy that Andrew has established.
Alex is a San Francisco based artist. He has worked with a range of different materials. He is now mainly working with markers. I noticed that Alex groups his markers inside the plastic bin where he keeps them. He adds stickers to the caps to make it easier to find different colors.
Mark is a full-time studio artist. He has exhibited his work around the US, and he has a profound vision and sensitivity for art on paper. In our conversation, Mark mentioned that he mixes his own colors, and that he usually works with whatever color he has available.
Maryam is an Iranian artist based in San Francisco. She draws inspiration from floral patterns and fabrics and uses a combination of markers and color pencils in her work. Maryam arranges her markers based on what colors go together in the current project.
The process that artists follow to create a piece influences whether or not they need to keep track of an inventory of their materials
- Spontaneous creations are less in need of an inventory system.
- Planned and structured approaches could benefit more from a supply inventory.
The versatility of the medium the artists use in allowing them to mix and create their own colors affects how much artists would gain for tracking their colors.
- Certain tools, such as watercolor or oil paint, allow artists to make the colors they need. In that case, running out of a particular shade of color is not that big of a deal, as the artists can make it by mixing other colors.
- Certain tools don’t give the artist the freedom to make their own colors. For every shade or hue artists must purchase the corresponding item. These artists may end up spending a lot of money on their coloring tools, to make sure they have all the shades they need.
Based on the results of this research, our MVP should target artists who were more structured in their approach, and whose medium is not versatile. These could be artists working with markers, spray paint, or embroidery. To summarize the findings of the research, I make up with Trisha.
Trisha uses Copic markers to create colorful paintings. On every painting she uses somewhere between 15 to 30 colors. She uses a rubber band to keep track of what colors she is currently using in a painting. She also relies on color swatches she makes on paper to know how she is combining her colors. She finds it inconvenient at the start of a new project to constantly refer to her color swatches. She also finds hard to know all the colors she has, so she sometimes ends up with multiple of the same marker. Copic markers are expensive.
Trisha’s medium is restricted to copic markers, because Copic Markers are expensive and there is a large base of artists that use them. Copic has put out different digital tools to help artists manage their markers, but these can be complex to use. So, by focusing on copic, I hope to ensure that our first MVP can find an eager audience. That said, the design must anticipate the possible expansion of platform in the future.
I will discuss how I combined all the findings and the results of my meeting with my client into an internal project brief that became the fuel for the design phase.
Part 1: What’s the big problem?
Part 2: Exploratory research
Part 3: Design phase kick off
Part 4: Exploration of the design through low-fi
Part 5: Iterating and finalizing MVP designs
Part 6: From mobile to web