The art of hearing and being heard: Kristian Simsarian and Design Consultantship

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Amy Quinn recently spoke to Kristian Simsarian of IDEO about his Interaction 2011 workshop titled “Design consultantship: The art of hearing and being heard”. Their conversation centered on hearing about some of what he has to share with user experience consultants, how design and design relationships have changed, and learning more about what he plans to cover in his workshop.

How long have you been doing consulting?

Kristian Simsarian

I’ve been at IDEO for ten years and during that time I’ve had an amazing array of experiences. I’ve worked with very large companies (e.g., Nokia, Microsoft, AOL and SAP), startups, non-profits and governmental organizations like the NIH and FBI.

For Nokia we had this great project where we redesigned Ovi Suite, the PC desktop app for Nokia’s mobile phones. It is essentially like iTunes plus the iPhone. Nokia is an international mobile giant, and for this project, we were designing for over 300 million people worldwide and we travelled to just about every continent to do research. We did version 2.0, which has a much simpler and cleaner interface with fewer features than the 1.0 version. This is perhaps one of the first times a later version design got smaller, but here definitely “less is more”. This was an exciting project and our design team won an IDEA award this year for the design.

Before IDEO, I worked at research institutes. We always had sponsoring clients in government, the military or at technical companies such as Sun, HP and IBM. In many ways, these relationships were similar to the client relationships I’ve experienced at IDEO where there is a sponsor investing millions in what they hope to be a wise investment with high return in value.

For the Interaction 11 conference, you are doing a workshop on how to be a better consultant titled “Design Consultantship: The Art of Hearing and Being Heard.” I’m excited about this workshop since I think those of us who do UX consulting can really learn from each other. What are the main points you are going to cover?

We are going to work through designer-client case studies that should feel familiar and real to designers. The format includes reading email trails, recreating a presentation, and walking through a review transcript. We’ll do some role playing and try to explore and understand what is going on, going wrong and what might have been different. As you might expect, each case is problematic in some way. There will also be a framework presented to hold these points together as well as reflection on how it relates to the participant’s own practice.

I am now also a professor, starting a new Interaction Design program at the California College of the Arts, and I now find myself taking learning more seriously. The basic components of learning are theory, activity and reflection. The workshop is built around these as well as being fun.

One of the key skills we’ll focus on will be setting expectations. The other day, I was talking to a project lead and he said, “I don’t know if I like this job because all I do is fight fires.” During our discussion, I said “Actually the secret is to this job is to put out fires before they start or even better, remove the fuel.” A lot of people who encounter these situations realize that the issues that arise can often be traced back to how expectations were set.
A few more skills include: 1) active listening, 2) realizing what is important, 3) seeking idea integration and 4) asking for, receiving and giving feedback (both on content and process). Many of these skills are not part of standard design education and we usually need to learn these through experience. It’s important to pass these skills on.

The secret is to this job is to put out fires before they start or even better, remove the fuel.

How do you best listen to clients while also encouraging them to listen to you?

You first need to find your curiosity about where your client is coming from and developing empathy with that place of origin. It’s the same type of thing we do with our user research. You can bring those research skills that we use to understand our users to understanding clients.

With this information about what’s important to your client, you then need to prioritize what’s important to you and the project and reframe the direction accordingly. There’s something powerful about empathy. It allows you to understand how to frame what you say so you can be heard and this opens up dialogue.

More and more I find myself not only educating clients but facilitating meetings with clients. What advice do you have for being a successful meeting facilitator?

I find it works best to turn meetings into working sessions. When you think you are in a meeting, you know you are in the wrong place. Many of the clients I work with don’t work in design organizations and they often find the designers’ environment refreshing. You can work that by making the gathering itself something to be designed. Instead of calling it a “meeting,” call it something else, like “charette”, “workshop”, or “design review.” If you use design terms, then it becomes an experience to be designed. It’s exciting to see folks lighten up when we introduce play and make an event that is as inviting, lively, engaging and collaborative as possible.
Here are some specific examples:

  • Use breakout teams whenever possible. It often feels that if there are more than three people in a room, working on a task in groups of two is better. Break a problem down into something people can work on and then bring back and share with the larger group.
  • Create an environment. Sometimes a work-session can be created to feel like you are inside a “setup wizard” by creating a sequence of large posters with instructions and blank spaces that become the agenda of the workshop. This creates a collaborative space with collaborative surfaces. It’s also a powerful visual environment that enables participants to look around and know what’s coming.
  • Make it visual. I find it really valuable to give everyone some visual prework. For example, have attendees bring two pictures to the meeting of their product: one that represents the current state and one that represents an aspirational state. You almost always find that people have more design sensibility than you might think. I find people always come in with amazing things and it awakens a different way of sharing.
  • Find a place for everyone to be heard. Find creative ways to make sure everyone is heard while being sure to bring out all of the voices in the room, the business, technical and human design voices, and exploring that information together. Find the intersection between these voices and see how you might reframe the problem so that everyone can acknowledge the different aspects of success, not just design.
  • Of course there are tips for being an expert facilitator, but the overall thing is whenever you can, turn meetings into fun events. There’s also something to good food. Often we have surprises, like cookies or shakes or fresh local fruit that come in at a special time, especially at that 2 PM lull. Everyone loves to feel like they’re being treated to something special by just being part of the event, and nice food is a simple but good example.

How have you seen design consultant-client relationships change throughout your career?

I’ve seen a change from the world seeing design as a way to execute to design now being acknowledged as a bonafide way to create value. This has been one of the biggest and enlivening recent transformations for design. More and more leaders are looking to design for leadership in the creation of new value for their organizations and you find more companies trying to generally lead by design.

Business and technology are starting to realize they are not the only drivers of value and see the gap in what they deliver without design. Ten to fifteen years ago they really thought they had it all covered with comprehensive feature lists and efficient marketing. Toward the end they would turn it over to the “pixel guys.” Now everyone is seeing that designers have a complementary sensitivity and way to create value.

The US is a little late to come to this. Europe and Japan have certainly been doing this for a long time. Traditionally the US has been focused on business leadership. And now we have a number of companies that have shown that good design is good business. The obvious example is Apple and they have been marvellous at setting an example by doing both. There are other companies out there like Google, Mint and some design-led startups. People are finally getting it.

And we’re also at the point where the general population is becoming discerning as consumers of interaction. So whereas ten years ago, people would say, “I must be dumb, I can’t use this interface.” Now they’re saying, “This just isn’t a good interface.” So we’re seeing the rise of the discerning software consumer. A dramatic example of this is the consumer rejection of Windows Vista. There was a Time Magazine article entitled something like “Why people hate Vista” when Vista came out. First, it was amazing that a software review was in Time and second that there was a mainstream rejection. This was a big moment showing a new public sophistication that says, “Maybe I don’t need this.”

… whereas ten years ago, people would say, “I must be dumb, I can’t use this interface.” Now they’re saying, “This just isn’t a good interface.” We’re seeing the rise of the discerning software consumer.

How do these skills relate to designers having impact in the world?

You can’t do it alone. Having the idea is often the easy part; it’s actually the expression and the realization that is hard. It’s like the Edison quote, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” You have to have people collaborate on the 99% part. It takes a team of different skills to make things happen. You have to find a way to listen and be heard and make sure the client is part of your team.

Having the idea is often the easy part; it’s actually the expression and the realization that is hard  … you have to have people collaborate on [that] part.

Interaction 11

Kristian Simsarian is giving the workshop “Design Consultantship: The Art of Hearing and Being Heard” at Interaction 11, the fourth annual conference hosted by the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). The conference is sold out, but workshops (including his) are still available. Each year, IxDA aims to gather the interaction design community to connect, educate, and inspire each other. This year it is held in Boulder, Colorado (USA).

Amy Quinn

Amy Quinn is a Product Manager of UX Tools at Infragistics. For the past decade, she has been a user researcher and interaction designer both as a consultant and as part of internal UX teams. She has a Masters of Human Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon University.

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