An internship at one of the coolest “workshops” in the world where the future of products, services and customer experiences are made real.
In the Fall of 2011 I had the unreal opportunity to work as a design strategist and storyteller at Continuum Innovation, a global design consultancy. For me, it illuminated the softer side of usability and design, by demonstrating the power of solid ethnographic research and thoughtful analytical frameworks. I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a building with more brilliant or insightful individuals. It was simply awesome, akin to Santa’s workshop or the Q lab from James Bond.
As an “Envisioner”, or design strategist with a focus on storytelling and illustration, I learned to appreciate the power of a story in design, from beginning to end. A good design addresses a need. Stories provide a vehicle for needs to have a voice within a context. Ethnographic research is the act of collecting many stories, from many people, and drawing out where those stories overlap, diverge, or contrast.
In my 5 months with Continuum, I was fortunate enough to work on a project from start to finish. It provided me with the special opportunity to see how those stories change and evolve, and how designers strip them to their fundamental details, and build them up again in the context of a design.
I believe that with the proper insight and tact, a story can be more revealing than a spreadsheet of numbers or a plain list of requirements. That said, nearly all designs can certainly benefit from the more discreet and quantitative aspects of data and more “hard” science. The Continuum process represented to me an incredible blend of the two, that was accomplished in a mature, calculated, inventive and creative practice.
This, at its core, captures my initial fascination with the human factors practice. I take some issue with the professional and academic practice of HF, as I think it is all too easy fall back on numbers, HF guidelines, CAD models and psychological frameworks. The designers at Continuum occupy the sweet spot between hard science, intuition and inventive design thinking. My time there was an incredible opportunity to really immerse myself in that dynamic way of thinking, and to observe many of the best in their field. As an aspiring designer myself, I’ve got a lot to practice, but Continuum provided me with a vision, a model and an opportunity that will prove invaluable in my growth as a designer and creative thinker.
While I can’t speak to the specifics of the projects on which I worked, I can touch on the powerful process applied to projects at Continuum.
People are surprisingly poor at enumerating how their frustrations and errors manifest themselves in a design or process. However, a keen observer and tactful interviewer can dance around potential issues in a non-invasive and insightful way. Out project, while narrow in its ultimate goal, was founded on numerous interviews that sought to paint a complete picture of the context and situation in which people work and operate. Many of the questions or activities seemed tangental to the ultimate goal, but in analysis, often proved invaluable to connecting patterns and drawing conclusions. We even created a board game activity to help people talk about their process in a more structured and consistent way.
From the many pages of notes, quotes and pictures, we assembled large profiles of our interviewees that represented a first pass at organizing and classifying the qualitative data. From these, and inspired by several psychological frameworks and past experience, different behaviors, motivations and triggers were categorized and recorded on unique sticky notes.
With the sticky notes we could physically manipulate and interact with our data, and quantify it on a basic level. They were arranged, re-arranged, and re-arranged again until certain themes and frameworks began to emerge. The goal of the whole analysis phase was to boil down all of what we saw in the Learning phase into the most fundamental blocks that would inform our design. Ultimately, we boiled our 2 weeks of learning into 8 requirements and one “call to action” sentence, which would serve as a guide and decision aid in the idea creation stage.
Archetype personas served as prototype users that allowed us to decide where to focus and what needs those types of people would have. Throughout the process, the role of storytelling was invaluable not only to keeping the design team aligned and focused, but in a position to really understand the problem and spot opportunity areas.
Ideas are delicate. They are composed of parts, some of which are integral and others that are more nuanced. As an innovation consultant, the pitching of an idea is almost as crucial as the content of the idea itself. As an envisioner, my role was to tell the story — what were the inputs that shaped the idea and how are they addressed in the final iteration? My experience producing several animatics for the delivered ideas was invaluable in shedding light on the delicate nature of such a story. It needed to be compelling, succinct, informative, engaging and relevant so that the vision and effectiveness would remain in tact as the idea moved into implementation.
In addition to my primary project, I was also involved in doing research for publication and preparing materials and decks for innovation workshops and presentations. See my Visual Language of Images and Video page for a look at a side project of my own invention, conducted during my time at Continuum.
Due to confidentiality agreements, much of what I worked on is confidential. However, I’ve included some photos that capture some of the process and atmosphere that make Continuum so special.