5 Reflections for better Immersion

Sydney, 16th July 2013

Field research, immersion, observation, shadowing… whatever you wanna call it, that raw and confronting bit of design research is what I’ve been up to the last couple of weeks on our latest project at work.

Is been a while since I’ve hit the streets to do this type of stuff, the last time was in 2012 in a cheerful but desperately underprivileged scheme just outside Dundee in Scotland. Yet even in (mostly) middle class Sydney it’s been nice to be reminded of the challenges, the stress, the high’s and the craft involved in talking to complete strangers about their sometimes pretty intimate experiences.

Researcher badges from the Snook studio

I’m sure the likes of social workers, journalists and whatnot get some sort of basic training in these things, but as a designer I’ve only ever learnt this stuff through good old trial and error. So after some reflections I’ve tried to make a list of a few things I use to help me in digging for those insights of gold.

  1. Fight or Flight – first things first, when I’m approaching someone I always make sure I never walk directly up to them. There’s probably some evolutionary thing at play there, but I’ve simply noticed that it makes people a bit defensive and threatened. Instead I deliberately craft an indirect route, I try to look occupied, I might check my phone and I make sure to avoid eye contact. Finally when I’ve shimmied my way into good proximity I politely introduce myself with what I hope comes off as an endearing, not a salesman’s, smile.
  2. I’m not trying to sell you something – no matter what comes out of my mouth in that first 15 secs I know they’re not hearing a word, all they want to know, is ‘What does this girl want from me?.’ So my strategy is to squeeze out as many non-marketing words as possible in order to redeem myself and break down some reluctance, words like… researcher, designer, (sometimes student), independent, not-from-the-government have worked in the past.
  3. Humble pie – maybe it helps me feel more comfortable which in turns puts my subject at ease, but I dress down for field research. No collared shirts, no blazers, no heels or flashy jewelry etc. This process is about listening to their stories, its not about me, so I try to dress neutrally. I think this helps minimise any hierarchy or judgement issues and gets focus back on the subject of discussion.
  4. Give em an out, to get em in – A response I’ve got a lot lately is ‘How long will this take?‘ and I’ve found this question actually helps me make a point about control. As soon as they feel they’re driving the discussion it shifts from being an tolerable annoyance to a chance to share or vent. I always invite them indicate when they need to go but more than once I’ve had people take phone calls mid interview only to tell me to wait so we can finish our chat.
  5. Sharing is Caring – I blame this trick alone for vox pop fatigue, but if I do just one thing it’s this…care! Now I’m an introverted person but I just can’t help myself get wrapped up in real stories and real truths. This excitement can’t be faked because in many ways it’s the reason I became a designer. The obvious upside of all this caring is that my subject can sense I’m geniune and feed off the good energy, which hopefully giving me just that little bit longer to dig for gold.

Service Design Safari Downunder

9th March 2013

This past week I’ve had the pleasure and delight to host my good buddy (and Service Design celebrity) Sarah Drummond in Sydney. Between flat whites, ferry trips and flip-flop mishaps we’ve been busy on a Service Design Safari visiting local agencies and meeting lots of interesting personalities around Sydney and Canberra.
Having been away from Australia for several years I’ve been so impressed by the activity and evolution of the industry here, and of course the openness of clients.

Here are some interesting things I learn’t this week…

  • While the industry may be young, Australia is exploring so many different ways to bring design thinking to market. Particularly interesting to me is how some are leveraging more traditional business thinking as an avenue to introduce design thinking to new audiences.

  • In-house service designers or teams working inside a public body have got it tough. They require the patience of angels and an ‘ask for forgiveness not permission’ attitude. Respect to you guys.

  • Service Design is hard to sell anywhere, but lately we’re really being challenged to demonstrate its value. I’ve noticed 2 ways ways people here seem to be doing it:

      Before: demonstrating the team’s capabilities to develop a business case (“we got number crunchers”)
      After: demonstrating hard evidence of previous success (“we’ve already got the numbers”)


  • As an industry we are a little bit guilty of fetishizing our own tools and our language… whiteboards, method kits, ‘body-storming’ etc. We don’t have a long history so a tendency to cling to emblems helps stake out our territory. I can appreciate that, but party people, let’s not forget it’s what we do with the tools that makes us awesome.
    Our sarfari destinations: Second Road, Protopartners, Meld Studios, Department of Future Services Division (Dept of Human Services, Australian Government and ThinkPlace.

    Coming full circle at Hyper Island

    10th January 2013

    I often go on about things, rant, get on my little soap box about issues that bug me, that I think everyone needs to care about or should know about. But never before have I been given the opportunity to do that in any kind of official capacity. Last October Lauren invited me to join her in Stockholm facilitating a 2 day Snook workshop to the current crop of Hyper Island, Interactive Art Direction students.

    On the morning of day 2 I took a little chance to try to convince 73 creative minds, basically not to go into Advertising.


    Video credit: Lauren from Snook

    Happy Days at The Design Council

    2nd November

    After a lovely week in Paris reuniting with the city and friends from when I lived there I’m in London today with Snook presenting some work at the Design Council.


    Snook got a small grant from the Design Council to make one of our crazy, late night studio idea’s real, so we come on down to old Londontown every month or so to share our progress. I love this about Snook, we have classic client projects but occasionally we find a little bit of seed funding to bring one of our own ideas to life. I’ve been lucky enough to work on one of these projects, called The Matter.



    So here’s the elevator pitch, ahem:

    The Matter is project about transforming public consultation. The Matter takes an issue that an organisation (Government, Brand etc) wants to understand better – not in data terms but in human, ethnographic and qualitative terms. It then musters up a small group of young people who care about this issue and supports them to form a temporary enterprise that spend 8 weeks researching it, gathering opinion, distilling out insights and making its own recommendations and ideas. This all gets presented back to the organisation as a single edition Newspaper. Voila.


    So I love the project and presenting with Snook is always a buzz. Their optimism and get-shit-done attitude never fails to excite a room and yesterday was no exception. Design Council’s board of advisors on this project (The Working Well Design Challenge if you’re interested) are an outstanding bunch. And amongst the encouragment they always push us on the right things, this time being mostly about how to tell our story, packaging it all up into a sellable little thing and make it into a shit hot business.


    Easy right? Watch this space.

    What I’ve Learn’t

    Snook, Week 1

    Holy cow, my first hour, of my first day of my first week and I was already getting experience with how to tackle one of the biggest issues of being in an emerging sector – how to sell your services. Lauren was on the phone with a client explaining empathetically and determinedly that Service Design processes were not an a la carte menu and without real commitment from their side it was all pretty pointless. If they’re not getting the message at least I am: hang up the phone and play pokies for an hour and you’ll have spent your time and money better.

    It’s not easy explaining what Service Designers do even within the community, but I do feel sorry for clients in these situations because not only is it tricky to grasp what we do but then the client/agency relationship is totally flipped on its head. I suppose the usual run of things is a solution handed to them on a plate with a very large bill and as little interaction as possible thank you very much.

    What I’ve learnt from working in these types of traditional agencies is that clients really want to be a part of the process – its their business we’re potentially transforming after all – and they’ve probably got some rather good ideas about it. And yet when it comes to the crunch they’re often ill equipped to know how to contribute, the potential source of tension and even conflict when they either dominate the process doing the Agencies job or wait till the grand finale presentation to blow their carrot top when they don’t like the work.

    Service Design and it’s tools – notably co-creation – are a rather good thing then. It helps us and Clients collaborate and gets both of us out of our Ivory Tower’s and create solutions to real problems. Breaking those old relationship habits will of course then take a wee bit of time.


    The joys of christmas branding

    You’re one of two kinds of people really – a person who loves shopping or a person who hates it. Me, well I love it.

    Its not so much the spending money part or the getting new stuff part, although those bits are awesome, what I really love is spending hours checking out all the packaging. The colours, the strange tag lines, all the wild and various products humans decide to create for ourselves fascinates me. Its like a fun museum excursion each time Im at the super market.

    So this December it didn’t take me too long to start noticing a not-so-subtle transformation in supermarkets all over Stockholm.

    Suddenly products that previously sat quietly on a shelf in the appropriately allocated isle were now lurching forward at me in the ‘look at me’ parts of the supermarket and now they all had the word ‘Jul’ attached to whatever name it was they previously had. Hello Swedish Christmas branding season!

    This is one of the things I adore about living in a foreign country – brand blindness. Because I have no knowledge or sentiment attached to brands that I haven’t grown up with it’s easy to get smacked in the face with the crudeness of these kind of marketing techniques. While Swede’s eye’s glaze over when sipping their beloved Julmust I’m left wondering what a sweeter version of coca-cola has to do with christmas.

    Yet don’t take me for a scrooge here, in fact it’s quite the opposite. While tradition may barely exist in my western, urbanised world I find this once-a-year-only mass production hearteningly reassuring that rituals, even industrialised ones, will continue to adapt and survive. Skál!