For everyone returning, welcome back to Project Medusa. You're (still) invited to this party! Every AIGA member who wanted to participate was invited to this party, in fact, which ensured a great cross-section of designers. Intrigued? (If none of this makes any sense to you, click here.) Ziba produced this research effort to look into AIGA's future, and learn directly from its members—working in Reno, Providence and everywhere in between—what the future of the organization should look like. This meant, implicitly, that younger members' voices were key, and that drove decisions about many of the elements we're going to look at in Part 2. The key to designing your own research project is know your audience... you can't expect much success hunting for a totally unfamiliar animal.
We'll start with some overarching considerations, and then get into the nitty-gritty, with a checklist for conducting rich, relevant research.
1.) Preparation is key.
If you take only one thing away from this series, it should be the importance of being prepared. Without proper planning, you can only try and catch up after the fact: too little, too late. This flows directly out of advice from Part 1 of the Project Medusa How-To series. We can't emphasize enough that you need to do your research before you start the research. What do you want to know? It's difficult find anything of meaning unless you know (at the very least) where to start looking, even with highly sophisticated design research methods. With your goals identified, think back to your audience: if you don't ask the right people, it won't matter how good the question is. Rubbish in means rubbish out, no matter how you slice it. (More on this in Part 3, still to come.)
2.) Everything is intentional... and should be directed.
Project Medusa took the form of an interactive film with coordinating activities, to guide individual AIGA chapters to host their own informational workshops and sketch a new vision for the entire organization. This allowed Ziba to control the overall look and feel, in keeping with a designed research outreach, while still allowing us to leverage the personal knowledge and connections that each local moderator brought to the table.
Even if your research effort will be a simple web survey, consider how your presentation might affect your results. Be intentional with whatever tools you've got: slips of paper, a series of roundtable discussions, or formal focus groups. Consider your biases—what you think you know starting out, and any other assumptions surrounding the inquiry—and do what you can to make these supposed liabilities into assets, too.
3.) Leverage your assets.
An early work session with AIGA stakeholders made it clear to Ziba what everyone hoped to learn through Medusa and also revealed our assets: we had a huge sample size and a lot of freedom to get results. It provided an opportunity to embrace weaknesses, too. We knew, for example, that not all of our moderators were experienced at running research sessions, so the scrappy, DIY flavor of Medusa, along with its highly participatory elements, turned honest amateur status into a positive. Medusa's structured, interactive video format was calculated to take some pressure off the moderators, freeing them to focus on other important things. You'll have to account for high-order stuff like getting the right people on board, preparing the scene, and keeping time and energy on track, too.
4.) Leverage "their" understanding of community.
For your project, take advantage of whatever's socially relevant to the audience you need to reach. (Assuming designers like drinking, drawing and taking pictures together was a safe bet for #projectmedusa.) Consider, at the same time, that not everyone communicates or participates in the same way. Think about how the quietest people in room can make their voices heard, too. This can have to do with the moderator's skill at balancing personalities and methods, but also with how the situation is set up physically, how time will be managed, and what kind of expressive and recording tools are made available. Don't worry too much about making it a presentation: research tools should be interactive.
Photo by Jay Larson
Photo by Jay Larson
5.) Utilize the power of a strong theme/metaphor.
For our purposes, a mashup of the Dharma Initiative and the films of Wes Anderson created an instructional aesthetic that was weird enough to get people's attention, clear enough not to be distracting, and also easy to execute quickly and efficiently. Make the most of what your audience already likes, knows and understands; a good strong theme has worked wonders at parties for centuries. Our watchwords were fun, mysterious, endearing and (a little) bizarre; what are yours?
The Nitty-Gritty: A Checklist of Specific Considerations
Make sure everyone involved knows why they're participating. This can be handled neatly with your invitation, which also gives people time to have a bit of a think beforehand.
Choose the right space. Then have that environment properly set up, with everything you'll need to succeed. Paper, pens, whiteboards, markers, sure... what about music? Snacks?
State the rules of your engagement up front. Why can a group of strangers come together and enjoy a game of Monopoly? Because it has clear rules, parameters, and goals. Proper briefing is also essential in case everyone just accepted the invitation and didn't read it, or read it and forgot.
Pace your activities, and balance writing, drawing, speaking, conversation and breaks.
Take chances, as appropriate for your group. We've had good success with encouraging people to contribute as early as possible, as visually as possible—everyone can draw, even if it's only a stickman.
Don't be afraid to "waste" some time on throw-away activities or even jokes... warming your group up will have an effect on the quality of the atmosphere as well as the results.
Use strong reference points to help everyone get up to speed fast. (This goes back to your choice of theme.) Consider how relatable and believable each and every touchpoint along the way is.
Take advantage of every channel that's appropriate: movies, music, physical activities, books, or thank you cards.
Record everything: photos, audio, notes. Remember, there are no wrong answers, with this kind of research, so be sure to capture as much as you can.
Finally, keep it simple, stupid is time-honored advice for good reason. By the time you've finished preparing, things should be so clear and concise that you could sit down and write up a quick-start guide to your research project.
How many cracks you'll have at your participants matters a lot in terms of prioritizing decisions. If your contributors will only come together for one two-hour workshop, then lots of preparation and careful targeting become even more essential. Time spent getting ready will always pay off in the end. If you've got lots of groups, spread all over geographically, taking part over time, like we did in AIGA's case, it doesn't absolve you of the need to be prepared, but you are freed to take bigger risks and learn from your mistakes as you progress. This rolling iteration amounted to a safety net for Ziba, allowing us to continually try something else, something different. The whole enterprise worked well, and the feedback we've received has (mostly) been positive. The third and final installment of this How-To series will delve into synthesizing results: what do you do with all the information you receive, as a result of your brilliant research effort?