A year in the life of this design researcher

“So, what do you do for a crust?”

When asked about my line of work, I talk about the project I’m currently working on. It’s fresh (if not dominant) in my mind, and often results in some conversational common ground.

But one project alone doesn’t describe the variety, or the common thread — people.

Regardless of the product, service, or context, I’ll be studying how people think and behave around a certain experience, to inform a way they might experience it in the future.

It’s immersive, personal and usually involves visiting individuals in their environment during their routines. It’s a unique and private situation where people open up, giving access to sometimes ordinary parts of their lives they might not give much thought. Always there are insights. Often there’s emotion. Sometimes tears, but none of this before trust.

The level of connection and sense of discovery are a privilege I never tire of. 2017 was no exception…

Focus and moments from 9 projects and 2 events:

Gap/Old Navy.

LA, Orange County & San Francisco, CA.

Julie in shopalong mode, with bag-cam rolling. My vocal rendition of Melissa.

Focus: In-store retail experience, studied via a diary, then by going shopping with people spending their own money, studying how the environment influences their choices and experience. A lifetime’s shopping in one week for me. I partnered with the brilliant Julie Francis, who also hates shopping. A perfect team.

Moment: Sometimes you have to wing it. I performed a live voice-over, during a stakeholder share-back when the speakers failed on my laptop. I mimed an edited video profile of Melissa, a glamorous and decisive shopper. Should have practiced my curtsy for the applause.


San Francisco, CA.

A well-shod insights team, and their thoughtful gift to me

Focus: Diet and exercise habits and routines of people who use fitness trackers. Featuring degrees of willpower, motivation and ritual. 
Part of some bespoke training for the research and insights team.

Moment: Ok, maybe not so high, as I was unsure when they told me they wanted to ‘Bowmastify’ their research approach, but honoured to work with such an experienced, generous team (I was even gifted some Chinese RMB to spend on my next adventure).

NZ Alpine Deer

Guangzhou and Xi’an, China

Struggling to block out the visual assault as I tune in to realtime translation in a Xi’an pharmacy.

Focus: Beliefs, behaviour and perceptions of deer penis, placenta, tail and velvet, how consumers judge quality and perceive efficacy. A fascinating ethnographic foray into the world of TCM, traditional Chinese medicine. I worked directly with the CEO and a local team, visiting people in their homes and shopping for product. (Read more)

Moment: A tough call between gulping down a hearty deer penis and fungal worm broth, or the relief of retrieving my laptop from a guy in a Xi’an airport Starbucks after leaving it on a domestic flight.

Maori Incorporation and subsidiaries

New Zealand

I was humbled, rendered almost speechless by a traditional welcome into this Marae

Focus: Exploring cultural and commercial values around what it means to be an owner of collective assets and how best to generate value for whanau. It’s not every year you get to work with an organisation with a 400 year plan.

Moment: Experiencing my first powhiri (Maori welcome) as I was welcomed onto a Marae. The most serene and moving experience I’ve had in recent years.

Energy provider

Canterbury, NZ

When you plan to talk about energy, but end up being educated on e-juice.

Focus: How moving home impacts the lifecycle of an energy customer. Should I stay or go? What triggers or influences their decision? Vital intelligence for a utility in a crowded market where it’s hard to differentiate.

Moment: A participant was a professional ‘vape — mixer’, who excitedly demonstrated to my colleague Nicole and I how he concocted chemical cocktails in his home ’lab’. Custard and cream was a favourite, but I personally wouldn’t store it next to the gorgonzola in the fridge.

Flow Conference

Covent Garden, London

I designed this T shirt 10 years ago. Many of the attendees still had theirs.

Focus: I organised an intimate, invite-only conference at a small theatre, to connect with colleagues in the trenches of design and research. An allergy to excel and committees meant I planned the whole thing with the delegates on an online whiteboard with only a couple of emails. No lanyards, no sponsors, no goodie-bags, but a ton of experience in the room.

Moments: Refuelled connections, learning by osmosis, and actually pulling it off.

Nervous speaker

UX Homegrown conference, Auckland

Architectural design, meets pop-surrealism to communicate research insights

Focus: I delivered 25 minutes of patter and graphic splatter on how I combined visual approaches from careers in architecture and fine art to bring research insights to life. A nerve-wracker to deliver to a local crowd. In the video I go from a hospital ward, to a motorway fender-bender and back in just 20 minutes:

Moment: Every speaker was gifted a personally illustrated, custom printed shirt by the homegrown team. Having run my own conference, I was gobsmacked at this thoughtful gesture. Get to the gig next year if you can.

Luggage brand

SF Bay Area, CA.

The luxury of a dedicated, discreet videographer, roaming as I interviewed interesting individuals.

Focus: How and why people think, prioritise and rationalise as they pack for ‘carry-on’ travel. Interviewing, and watching all manner of nomadic entrepreneurs pack their bag for a trip. Crypto-currency trader, augmented reality designer, cocoa bean buyer… to uncover the psychology of packing, and how what a person packs says about them. I worked with the founder, and Ryan Fielding, a truly intuitive film-maker. (Read more)

Moment: Meeting a woman who catalogued her entire wardrobe into daily outfits, modelled each in front of the mirror, numbered and indexed them with photos on her phone. 3 days away = 3 outfits. She said it took a week, but paid x10 in not having to decide what to pack. Also, the best ice cream of my life thanks to Steve Portigal.

Healthcare software

Sydney, NSW

Doctors have the best office ornaments

Focus: Picking apart the human side of Australian GP’s workers injury comp process. In and out of medial clinics and community health consulting rooms discovering workarounds, hacks, and yes, the occasional fax. GPs are surrounded by paper. Paper. I’ve never seen so much paper. Bring on the digital thanks to Jonny Lim and Ella Obreja.

Moments: War stories with colleagues between sessions, tootling through Sydney’s ‘burbs with the jacarandas in full bloom.

Cable TV platform

NSW, Australia

Who’s got the remote?

Focus: What does the way people view stuff say about who they are? Do they control the viewing experience, or does it work the other way? Where does Cable fit in today’s viewing landscape? Millennials, are you even there?

Moments: A surreal experience interviewing a young venture capitalist in a $10m mansion overlooking Sydney Harbour. Finally meeting Natalie from Redrollers, Oh, and best Yakitori I’ve had outside of Japan.

Banking, ATMs

Wellington, NZ.

It’s much easier to find a florist who’ll let you film their feet, than using the ATM.

Focus: What’s it like being a retailer and banking the week’s takings at an ATM? How do all those notes fit into their increasingly cashless world? What makes them prefer the machine over a human? All so fascinating, and loaded with context and emotion, but the most challenging recruit ever. Try to convince a business owner to let you interview them about how they run their business, then follow them to the ATM to watch them banking their takings. All while being filmed. Tricky, but if you need an amazing recruiter in NZ, Let me know.

Moments: Backstage pass to the inner workings and characters behind so many small businesses. This was total curiosity fodder for me, at a dog groomer, florist, skate shop, cafe, mechanics, craft shop, etc. etc.

Thanks to my:

Participants, who shared more than their time to allow us to learn.

Recruiters, who helped find and charm the people we could most learn from, into taking part.

Clients, who trusted me to run these projects and often rode shotgun during fieldwork.

Collaborator, Nicole, who worked with me on some of the meatier projects. Having academic smarts around how people think adds a new layer to my usually intuitive approach.

During 2017 I continued to evolve and ship my side product, and adopted an almost daily routine working on another product born of my experience in this field. I’m excited to share this in the next month or so.

Bring on 2018.