What we do and why, and what’s on the horizon.
Studio D is a design, research and strategy consultancy based out of San Francisco. We specialise in getting teams on the ground, anywhere in the world, figuring what is going on through ethnographic research and applying what we learn to make an impact.
Most of our work is, and will remain confidential.
This is our fifth year in operation.
2018 has been both exhilarating and humbling. It included many memorable moments, from negotiating checkpoints in the Beqaa Valley, immersing clients in the sensemaking process in our Marin popup studio, herding sticky-fingered police in Tajikistan, dawn runs through the mist in St James Park, ham-fisted attempts at extortion from a candidate for the world’s least-professional criminal, a coke-buyer’s motorbike tour of São Paulo, to administering advanced yak care in Afghanistan. Lessons learned from diverse experiences have informed our training schedule for 2019.
All this year’s projects and clients will likely remain confidential.
The Origin of Insight, The Impact of AI
This feels like the year that AI/machine learning broke into the mainstream. What impact will it have on people and organisations that are in the business of generating and applying insights?
While ethnographic data, quantitative data, and analytics provide insights into what people do and how, only well run ethnographic research can reveal why people behave as they do. A fundamental question for clients is whether understanding why is important for the the optimal outcome. In most cases (and always for our clients) it is. If you’re not versed in ethnographic methods, you might assume that “why” is the first question we ask, when in reality we rely heavily on evidence drawn from the context, known behaviours and other patterns to reach our conclusions. The why question is only interesting when compared to other convergent data because only then it can reveal the difference between the identity the participant wants to project and the reality of the choices they make.
Why is AI an interesting disruptor for insight generation?
Firstly, never underestimate the value of novelty/black boxes to engage people in a process and its outcomes — both are widely applied in consultancy business development to win projects, and many clients (let alone the consultancies that pitch to them) often don’t have the literacy to understand the veracity of the claims. Novelty is neither good or bad, but it focuses on short term solutions rather than integration into a larger system. Looking ahead, the literacy of all parties evolves over time, not least from failed or sub-optimal outcomes.
Secondly, being software the models and their outcomes can be studied and refined over time, rapidly building upon best and worst practice as seen through the eyes of different stakeholders. The meta-trend to watch is the regulatory environment governing algorithms, starting with those that impact public services.
Thirdly, for tightly defined problems, such as identifying a particular disease in a crop, removing backgrounds from photos, or transcribing and annotating an an audio interview, it can be relatively easy for someone to ascertain whether it improves on the accuracy, value or other metrics of what went before. However for more interrelated issues, and let’s face it many of you are working on system level challenges that involve wonderfully diverse humans, the allure of improvement in one area can mask unintended negative consequences in others. Changes to parts of the whole, are of course an issue whenever we change systems, with one important caveat for AI — the algorithm coder may not know the reason why a particular outcome was chosen, only that in a discrete task it performs better by the metrics that were set. Who sets the metrics and what interests do they represent?
Fourthly, the biases in the training data can result in marginalising or otherwise negatively impacting many of the users/consumers/constituents that the AI touches, without the “designers” being aware it occurring, assuming they care.
A well run ethnographic research process will surface cultural, experiential and cognitive biases within the team and the tools that they use, and proactively address them. Is the process perfect? Of course not. But it’s one that is manageable and when optimally applied, is transparent to those that need to apply the insights. For further reading on bias in AI and machine learning, read up on the research of Kate Crawford and others at the AI Now Institute at New York University.
Finally, and most overlooked, the prevalence of AI applied solutions through novelty and tightly defined wins, will shift the landscape of what is considered “a good enough solution”, particularly when cost is the primary driver. Most people don’t have the time or skills to consider the broader system, so these successes can and will lead to death by hitting the numbers. The scale of deployments will lead to non-trivial social disruption, also at scale. Which brings us back around to field researchers, and practitioners with social science, arts and humanities backgrounds: the overarching trend of having more data, requires more practitioners capable of asking smarter and more representative questions, understanding the difference between sympathy and empathy, processes for uncovering the unknown, and being in a position to impact what the insights are applied to.
The smart researcher recognises that AI is merely a tool, and that like all tools, it has the potential to amplify what she is capable of, assuming time is taken to understand its use in a given context. Experiment with tools, learn the language of your engineering peers, and figure out how it can improve your, and their work.
As a side note, I’m happy to see more conversations about ethics bubble up, particularly in Silicon Valley. Ethics are ingrained in the choices we make every day, and while we can make decisions on life-principles the complexity of the world out there mean we’re never going to get it right every time. Being brutally honest about our own failures is ultimately what defines character and is the foundation on which positive impact can be built.
We’ve now delivered thirty-three Field Study Fundamentals Masterclasses, and in 2018 our line-up included Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Jakarta, London, Mountain View, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Seattle, Singapore, Shanghai, Stockholm, and a number in undisclosed locations on behalf of private clients.
In spring 2019 we’ll run another world tour, that includes classic The Field Study Fundamentals, and the upcoming Sensemaking for Impact. Schedule to be announced via the mailing list (complete with a new identity) mid-January.
When the numbers of attendees for Masterclasses and Field / Retreats are combined we’ve trained over 700 people in Studio D field study methods. Attendees hail from many of the vibrant players in the markets we’ve run them, for example in the US this includes Adidas, Airbnb, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Lyft, Nike, Shopify, Twitch and Uber, most of the major consultancies, numerous independents, with many organisations buying multiple tickets (we offer a 5+1) and a few hosting a masterclasses internally.
Numbers aside, each attendee is a seed of an idea planted in their organisation and community, that will lead to better, more meaningful, and more impactful ways to engage with users, consumers and constituents in the world out there.
The working principle for retreats is to find a sprawling, beautiful home that is surrounded by nature and mountains, and invite sixteen people to hangout, work, in an environment of good conversations, food and drinks. In 2018 we ran Field / Retreats in Japan, Myanmar and Lebanon and a Focus/ Retreat in Japan.
A lot of thought goes into finding suitable venues and capable hosts. Our venues this year have included a 400 year-old sheik’s palace in the Chouf mountains of Lebanon, an eco lodge in Shan State Myanmar and minkas (traditional lodges) near Kyoto and Kanazawa.
As a student of human nature, I love observing the social dynamics of the retreat evolve over the four days, from the initial stiffness on the first evening, the negotiation of social spaces, the self organising that occurs to ensure things run smoothly, through to the bonds that form over late night conversations. The art in running these is in priming the space, setting the tone and pace, so that relationships evolve organically. Someone described it as “social engineering with positive intent” which sounds about right.
While we want everyone who attends to find their groove, we don’t offer comfort in the classic sense of a hotel room + bathroom, but rather nudge people into situations that requires engagement. To provide a few examples of the character of the retreats: in Lebanon our 400 year old sheikh’s palace, had some folks sleeping in the vast living room under faded photos and paintings of past residents, an inquisitive ram by the name of Abdul who roamed the grounds, and two bathrooms that could have done with more modern plumbing.
Not that we push it this far on the retreats, but in our field work I’ve come to appreciate that any team can survive three nights in pretty much any new environment, compromising on things they would previously been unhappy with, as long as they are aligned to the mission, and there’s a clear end-point (after three nights interpersonal and privacy issues often become an issue). When the Lebanon retreat attendees were asked their preference for modern bathrooms in a modern venue or staying in the sheikh’s palace, the (anonymous) vote was unanimously for the latter. Our tribe understands our intent and embraces unique experiences.
Next year we’ll run four different retreats, the details of which will go out in January’s newsletter.
- Field /
- Sensemaking for Impact /
- Operating in Challenging Environments /
- Focus /
My co-host for the Focus / Retreat is the ever eloquent Craig Mod. This year we held the event in a farmhouse near Kanazawa, Japan. While tickets for the other retreats are open for sale, we send out personal invitations and curate attendees for Focus. The goal is to produce the optimal mix of people, life-experience, gender and goals. The theme of Focus is Side Projects — the things we are passionate about and commit time and energy to, but may not necessarily be what we’re known for. We believe that side projects are the truest indicator of who you are and what you want to become.
The event includes a broad mix of attendees, and while some have created products used by hundreds of millions of people, there are others just starting out, pulsing with potential. We’ve found everyone has something to contribute when given an equal platform. And regarding the scope of work, in the words of Craig: “its OK to find a scale that is meaningful for you”.
To apply, complete the Focus / Retreat Application Form.
If you’ve known me for a while or have experienced my permaphucked state, you might balk at the idea that I’m sociable enough to host these events. Eighteen months ago I would have concurred, preferring the solitude of a remote mountain range to engaging a sprawling mansion full of people. However, I hadn’t anticipated how enjoyable they would be, the opportunities for personal growth and from bringing members of the tribe together. Thank you.
A few things stand out from the year.
The first is that when you attract people who are or want to be part of the tribe, they’ll work with you to overcome challenges, to achieve the end goal. Every expedition includes high stress moments that can’t be predicted in advance, and in that moment you find out who you and the people around you really are. Two of the attendees on the Pamirs Expedition had the skills and temperament to have lead it, and if I’m honest probably could have done a better job than me, but worked within the existing structure with support and personal sacrifice. Consider for a moment on your goals for next year, and given your challenges ahead—what do you want to achieve, and who do you want alongside you?
The second is the importance of personal and team reflection. Being at high altitude surrounded by magnificent mountain ranges is highly conducive for the first, and keeping an expedition log, where all members of the team can contribute supports the second. Each expedition ends with a debrief to reinforce lessons learned.
The third is being brutally honest about one’s own weaknesses, systematic about breaking down why the challenges arose by tracing decisions back to their source, and proactive about addressing them going forward. Accept that if you’re doing things that are out there on the edge it’s not about getting everything right, but being in a problem-solving mindset and doing what it takes to push through as a team in one piece, in good spirits.
What do we have cued up for next year?
I’m looking forward to return to the Pamirs in July 2019 to lead Pamirs I (sold out), with friend of the studio Gyula Simonyi, leading Pamirs II (two seats available). This year we’ve invested a lot in process, resources and network, to ensure attendees experience the best of the region, including remote, high-altitude communities, border crossings and culture. We’re also making an investment to support the nascent trekking infrastructure in the Wakhan Corridor in a part of the world that has an abundance of positive experiences to offer but still faces many hurdles to become financially sustainable.
Our third is the 2019 Short Walk Expedition — a three-week trek through the Big Pamir in Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. If you’re looking for a life challenge for next year, this one’s for you. To read up about what The Short Walk entails, and submit an application for one of the eight places on the team head over to the Short Walk Expedition page.
Publishing / Field Institute
This year I committed to long form writing, and published one noteworthy piece online, On Retirement that tapped a vein of interest. In a world of fluid labour practices and remote working our parents notion of “retirement” is now moot and it explores what retirement means today. If you skipped the article, no, I don’t consider myself retired. Or not.
As for long form writing, I’m pleased to announce a new publication, published by our imprint, Field Institute and going on sale in February (the gods of import brokers permitting).
The Little Book of Fixers reveals how to identify, screen, onboard and work alongside fixers and guides anywhere in the world. It includes principles of operation, a detailed process including which communities to tap, the common pitfalls of hiring from particular domains such as local journalists, students, agency field operatives, includes nine case studies and an extensive glossary. It’s the answer to the question “why would a stranger, living halfway across the world, often with significantly different values to your own, not only give you the time of day, but extend their social and other capital to help you out when you’re on the ground?”
In conjunction with the book, we’ll also launch The Fixer Template Kit, with all the essential tools we use to ensure you can effectively integrate fixers into your process.
It’s fair to say that our ability to deliver great work on international studies depends on building, maintaining and following through with these relationships, and I’ve poured the knowledge of working with over a hundred fixers and guides into this book.
I’m occasionally asked why we publish the inner workings of the studio when it provides a competitive edge? There are a few reasons. The first is that while it’s easy to start, the process can take years to refine. The second is that the studio’s broader mission is to help organisations more meaningfully engage the world out there and that working with local teams is an important part of the process. When one of you adopts this process, and manages to improve upon it we’ll all be better off. Finally, by putting it out there, it forces me, us, to keep moving forward to find the next edge.
The 2nd Edition of The Field Study Handbook continues to sell well and has shown the potential to be a an evergreen product by meeting the sales predictions we set last year. Expect some news related to the Handbook coming in the coming months.
The Field Study Template Kit continues to be popular, and this year we started offering the gratis Education Edition for people who want a taster but aren’t yet applying the knowledge professionally. I’ll come right out and say all Template Kits (and there are a lot of them out there) are useless unless you take the time to understand the principles behind them, and worse, they enable people to sound like they know what they are doing, without actually understanding what it takes to deliver meaningful work.
Finally, the stress testing of democracies that is happening around the world today has made me reflect upon an earlier Field Institute publication, Ghost Factory. The book details a six-month experiment, run in 2013 to explore whether it is possible to crowdsource subversion without anyone knowing what they were subverting against until that exact moment when it all comes together. Sounds kinda topical. Given the global uncertainty out there, what experiments can you run that will help us predict the next wave of social disruption?
We’d been testing variations of the satchel for years, and finally settled on a design that provides the right balance between accessibility, volume and security. An important part of the process is in understanding how the material evolves over time in a given form factor. As with all our Expedition Grade Dyneema products, it starts out with a slight sheen and becomes matte with use, generating a lovely patina.
Why We Use Pamir Stone In Ultralight Products
A little backstory to why we use Pamir stones on the zip pulls of the D3 Duffel. The first is that, counterintuitively, the materiality perfectly compliments the Dyneema, a natural edge to the hi-tech materials.
The second reason is more personal.
When my daughter reached the age of being aware her father was away, I wanted to bring her a keepsake from the journeys. With limited (hand) luggage space the gift needed to be small, so I would pick up smoothed stones from my travels for her to play with — from places including Brazil, India, Morocco, Afghanistan and Tibet. The idea came to use them on zip pulls so, donning protective glasses and with her tiny hands controlling the lever of the diamond drill bit, we holed the first few and threaded them. She wore one on the zip of her favourite fleece, and I added two to my duffel. Every time I opened or closed the zip, it was a reminder of what I left behind and had to come back to.
As the business began to grow, our meagre initial supplies (from the Lhasa river in Tibet) dwindled we needed to source a larger batch. On my first trip to the Pamirs I asked locals in Murghab to collect river smoothed stones for me to buy. Initially they couldn’t believe a foreigner was dumb enough to pay for things that literally could be picked up off the ground. It only took one payment for the whole village to cotton on, and we signed up a number of families to supply us for our next visit.
Fast forward to July this year with me sitting at a low table in the Pamir Lodge in Khorog, with our trader network traveling in from the mountains to bring us sacks of stones to evaluate. You might imagine that after setting the colour, size and shape specifications it would be a straightforward affair, but in reality less than 10% passed Q/A. These are the stones that are on the D3 Duffel when you buy one today.
Related reading — 61 Glimpses of the Future.
We’ve been busy prototyping a couple of SDR Traveller products related to this year’s travels, to be launched when they are ready.
Scholarships & Fellowships
As part of our 2018 investment in the community, we offered eight scholarships to the Field / Retreats in Japan, Myanmar and Lebanon, and three for the Focus / Retreat in Japan. The criteria for applying is that you need to be native of the country in which we host the retreat (we’ll tweak this criteria next year to include nearby countries). It was a pleasure hosting this year’s winners, not least for their fresh minds, and the local perspective that they brought to proceedings.
We favour applicants who are in the early stages of their career, who are familiar with the work of the studio, and the mailing list is a good place to stay abreast of what we’re up to.
One of our Short Walk Expedition attendees needed to drop out due to an injury, and generously offered up his place to a member of the Studio D community so we setup the Short Walk Afghanistan Trekking Scholarship. It attracted exactly 300 applicants, of whom ~62 were strong candidates, and 10 made the short list. The winner Sam Kellogg joined the expedition team as a wilderness medic, bringing a beaming smile, good energy, focussed determination and his medical skills to the fore. He turned out to be the perfect choice and contributed significantly to its success.
Finally, the Studio D Travel Grant winner spent a month at the edge of the grid, and recently turned in a draft of the manuscript, to be published next year.
2019 Scholarships & Mentorship
We will offer a total of eight scholarships for next year’s retreats in Japan, Lebanon and Nepal. Applicants must be a native of the country where the retreat is run, with the exception of Nepal, where we are extending the criteria to include applicants from India and China. Apply on the Retreats & Scholarships Application.
I’ll also provide a remote mentorship to one research practitioner with at least five years intensive experience that has room to grow, but lacks the current setup to do so. Apply using the Studio D Mentorship Application. The winner will be informed in March.
Understanding the community
The revelation this year has been the strength of the community that has coalesced around the launch of the handbook, through attendance of masterclasses, retreats and expeditions. The level of engagement points to a hunger for more knowledge, to experience the ethos of the studio in person, and a desire to meaningfully connect to like minds.
Naively, I used frame the value of the events in terms of the content that we delivered. This past year I’ve realised that the studio provides a viable reason for people who share our mission to come together, and that much of the value is generated by the attendees.
Our community is innately curious, culturally diverse, thinks and acts globally, and rarely takes things at face value.
Where we host the retreats also reveals the nuances of what people are attracted to. For example attendees of the Dar el Berkeh retreat in Lebanon had significant work-travel experience in some of the world’s more challenging environments. Our side conversations spanned tricky border crossings, money laundering and understanding the key moments in higher risk social dynamics. Building on these conversations we’ve pulled together a new curriculum called Operating in Challenging Environments (OCE) which will be run as a retreat in Northern Lebanon not far from the Syrian border. We have space for 14 attendees.
I’ll freely admit to being new to community building and there’s been some pleasant mis-steps — the cadence of the Slack channel invites is probably a good example of how not to build a digital presence. Next year we’re looking at new formats to bring people together.
Finally, thank-you to John-Simon Purcell at Naspers, Behzod Sirjani at Slack, Aryel Cianflon at LinkedIn and independents Joana Casaca Lemos and Jon Tait for their contributions to the community this year.
Started two side projects in 2018 that are ready to share.
The first, armed with a grant from the HK Design Trust and partnering with researcher An Xiao Mina we set about mapping the Shenzhen ecosystem to better understand why memetic products such as the selfie stick, fidget spinner and hoverboards were able to rapidly reach critical mass globally. Our starting point, to quote An is that “Shenzhen is to hardware memes what Silicon Valley is to software”. We considered Shenzhen’s evolution and what it means for the (connected) products we consume globally, the cultural and legal assumptions buried within them, and how these in turn shape the societies in which we live. Given the scale at which Shenzhen-manufactured products are adopted they’ve already impacted global norms. Head over to MIT Technology Review to read “Inside Shenzhen’s race to outdo Silicon Valley”.
The second is more of personal project hatched with Jimmy Hayes (co-founder of Minaal) over coffee and walks in Tokyo. As a recent transplant to this fair city he raised the question of how to meet good people in a relaxed, non-networking environment. We now co-host the Shokunin Supper Club, a monthly gathering of interesting people living in or passing through Tokyo — bringing together locals and gaijin from all walks of life, with the emphasis on those who have an appreciation of the details of their craft. Attendees can nominate someone for future suppers ensuring fresh ideas and faces. We’ve hosted company founders, designers, programmers, policy wonks, writers, illustrators, explorers and have a rich pool of candidates for the coming year.
If you share the shokunin spirit, would like to attend, and you’re living in Tokyo or planning to visit drop your details at ShokuninSupper.Club.
We’re open to seeing the supper club grow organically to other cities, hosted by people who have already attended in Tokyo.
All side projects are as much about the process as the outcome. The guiding principles are to: find the right partner and align on motivation; remove money from the equation; and to document the shared learning. Good things grow from continued exploration.
Project Roles, Executive Assistant
While we have a solid pool of designers spanning UX, service, product, print, graphic), strategists and researchers, we welcome new applications. New teams are built around the client ask, and if you’re a fit we’ll reach out when the right project comes in.
We also have a new part-time role to fill—an Executive Assistant to support Studio D operations. For all jobs, drop your details in the Job Application Form.
The best mistake I made on day one of Studio D was not to rent an office or hire a full time team. At the time I had no idea whether the model would work given that it’s daunting selling oneself into medium sized projects without a physical footprint and a ready staff to back it up.
As it turns out (at this stage in my career) building good teams for projects is not that difficult, and that the limited financial footprint provides an unpressured space to step back, figure out what is interesting, and commit to new opportunities without truly knowing whether there’s a business model behind them. Today Studio D is a consultancy, a publisher, we run training, retreats and expeditions and a ultralight luggage brand for people who like to travel discreetly. Things will evolve, as they do every year. Not everything is worth pursuing or will work out, but that’s OK, as long as we, and our tribe stay healthy, curious and look out for another. I’m excited by the potential, not least from the many connections this past year.
This the first time since starting the studio that the year ahead is vaguely plannable. November and December were spent in Tokyo working on side projects, writing new training material, and cueing up our next consultancy project that starts January—it feels good to reacquaint with family, friends and the city. It also is conducive to revisiting some of life’s bigger questions, including what is the most effective use of our fleeting existence? With so many interesting things on the go, and no desire to grow the team for the sake of growth, prioritisation is the only way forward.
A while back I used to include a slide in presentations about UX researchers needing to aspire to understand “the sum of all human experiences”. This year has included significant challenges, some healthily brutal knocks, a few big wins and the steady evolution of craft that comes from applying oneself to things you love. It’s these experiences that enable me, us, and the members of our community to grow to reach our potential.
Finally, and most importantly, none of this is possible without the support of our clients, team, partners, collaborators and family. You know who you are — thank you.
Jan, on behalf of the Studio D team.
Stay in touch with Studio D via Radar our monthly mailing list.
Photos on this page: Gustav Hoiland, Gyula Simonyi and myself. Shokunin Supper Club logo by Luis Mendo.
Are we a community or tribe? Probably a bit of both.