My name is Susan, and I am a baby.
During his Ferris Bueller days Matthew Broderick did a skit on Saturday Night Live in which he dressed as a baby. Other passengers on the New York subway mocked him. I remember John Belushi. “Look at the BAY-bee!” he said. Mr. Broderick’s baby answers, “Well, yes I am a baby…”
Mr. Broderick has since revisited the theme: here he is, avec diapers and bonnet, with the much-missed Phil Hartman as a Fairy. As in a Tooth Fairy-like fairy.
Actually, Saturday Night Live makes a point more about social perceptions and diversity which I leave aside because humor is best left unexplained.
Besides, I’m serious here. I don’t mean to say I am an infant. Sure, I’m intelligent like an infant, but I have years of experience racked up that supplement wisdom I was gifted with. I possess a certain kind of analytical ability and persuasiveness. Yeah, sure, I’m not rich. Shut up.
I did not come to the realization that I am a baby on my own. I did know that I have a tender heart that requires some protection and nourishment. It was, however, a perceptive man of my acquaintance, someone whose father was an obstetrician and came from a family of eight siblings who gave my traits a persona. At first I recoiled, as though I had been called a bad name.
He gently asked me, “What do babies do?”
“They laugh, they cry, they play and learn by wandering away and putting stuff in their mouths. Also - sleep a lot, wipe food all over themselves, delight in a rubber duckie, and roll around on their bottoms.”
I immediately understood.
I want to be clear that this doesn’t mean I think less of myself. I am not a victim to be pitied. I am not socially or personally inferior. I simply recognize a facet of myself which helps me understand certain behaviors and thoughts.
Like babies, I do gutsy, sometimes even ill-advised things, like heading out to open territory without telling someone where I’m going. I grieve mightily when disappointed especially with myself, am betrayed by those I thought I could trust, or suffer a wounding loss. I also feel the pain of those who are hurt. Buffering helps.
I enjoy experiencing other realities – my imagination and natural curiosity lead to plenty of wonder. I enjoy getting “lost” and returning to my reality having been away. I require stimulation. Cooped up motionless in a small, dark, silent office cube = a coffin.
So why announce this in public? Why not jot these thoughts in my Moleskin?
Here’s why. Again and again startups are advised to have someone on board who expands the group’s creative thinking; a non-engineer, a non-MBA. Startups are told to expect things to be messy (read: inefficient), to involve all ideas, to expect unexpected outcomes, to ask the right questions and investigate, and to roll with the reality checks, to pivot and refine accordingly and rapidly.
Startups need Babies. Frankly, all companies need Babies.
By now I’ve read the first chapter of Phil McKinney’s book “Beyond the Obvious: Killer Questions that Spark Game-Changing Innovation" online. I heard the podcast. There have been reviews. And now there’s been a Silicon Valley book tour interview at the Computer History Museum. This is his first book; Mr. McKinney’s thoughts after leaving HP.
The book is another essay pressing the message that to innovate businesses must dare to break out of their ruts. His prescription is to stop accepting common knowledge and preventing the boat from rocking. To allow the less conventional thinking its day in the sun.
So we’re hoping that the real news is in the execution. Riskiness is all well and good until rubber meets the road. Stakeholders, bonuses, and weekend homes are on the line.
And so it is: Phil McKinney suggests we ask Killer Questions. Questions that require thought and maybe a little digging (Daniel Kahnemann’s System 2). Specifically, we should ask: Who, What, and How.
Who are the customers? No actually – who are they really? Two nominally legitimate methods are outlined. But first, an ad hoc data collection story.
As a VP at HP Mr. McKinney became a regular “visitor” at Best Buy, quizzing new laptop owners about why they didn’t buy an HP. Once he learned about a buying pattern from the Geek Squad that he forwarded immediately to HP. Of course, actual research may or may not validate the cause -> effect observation, but everybody likes a good story.
Let’s be clear. It’s an executive privilege to get away with guerilla research inside a retail store. A UX researcher for HP would get the bum’s rush. Wouldn’t it be great to compile these data; to collaborate with the UX team. Except that, bottom line, this kind of off-the-cuff research is unethical and certainly unscientific. People should be informed that they are participating in research. Allowing such research makes Best Buy complicit in the research. It also interferes in the shopper’s overall experience. And it’s not systematic. Upshot: executives get a jolt from directly influencing product development. Shows that they know their own shop. But let’s not pretend that this is more than anecdotal inquiry that is useful to executives.
So what is legitimate inquiry? Phil McKinney does reverse engineering. Look at how things are and try to figure out how they got that way. And then think of even more ways things could have gotten this way – go beyond the obvious.
I do reverse engineering, too. We all sometimes skim through the New Yorker Magazine just reading the cartoons. Sometimes they’re immediately funny because the point is obvious and not very profound. Most of them also make a deeper socio-cultural comment. So it’s fun to figure out the cartoonist's original observation and then trace how the cartoonist arrived at this visual and verbal expression.
What’s cool is that in scientific method this is called “generating hypotheses”. The next step in considering possibilities is seeing if anyone else has tackled the question and derived potential explanations. Eventually one whittles down the list of hypotheses, arriving at a handful of better-educated guesses.
But wait - we're not done. Before leaping to solutions, how about some real life observation and testing of variables?
So reverse engineering is one person “brainstorming”. The other method Mr. McKinney touts is for team reverse engineering, generating educated guesses and solutions in a compressed time period. The classic brainstorming session. Timing is a little rough on this one considering recent raps against brainstorming here and here.
The key, he says, is to rank the final results for better implementation. That’s an idea for handing off actionable possibilities for executives to get behind. Finally a team is being given latitude to exercise their expertise.
The What question is something related to the product or service. This might be where product development or marketing considerations may come into play.
The How question pertains to organizational execution.
I’m glad Phil McKinney makes these points to his peers - the executive echelon. A stronger correlation from these ideas to UX research would be useful to the rest of us.
Frog Design posted a piece called Making Sense of Occupy, extolling the virtues of well-aimed photographs to avoid stereotypes and to tell a complete story.
I'd extend the observation about the value of photographs to include the value of primary recording of any kind, including audio. A first impression of something vs. what can be seen or heard in a later moment away from the event can be night and day.
Once when I interviewed a woman I thought to myself that she had nothing significant to say. Listening later to the recording, it was like a ghost in the room was saying stunning things - how could I have missed this on first hearing? Well, the act of seeking can be a distraction from taking it in.
Researchers and designers under great time pressures push for immediate discoveries from observations. All the more reason to "cover" an event. Yes, discover onsite. Focus on the hypotheses at hand and the unique behaviors being expressed. But also remember to pull back, allowing for the possibility of discovering points later. In the processing ("groking") is where many significant discoveries and new research questions pop up.
Moral: Don't rely on notes or your memory. Don't rely on your own socio-cultural categories or those of others. Get it on camera or on audio. Practice "covering" the parts and the contexts.
Experience researcher in high tech and built environments with an anthropology provenance.