This is part 2 of my argument that focus groups with fun activities can and do yield useful results.

We consider the case of civic engagement: City of San Jose uses Budget Games to get residents to give feedback on annual budget proposals. Negotiations with play money about real proposals gets genuine feedback from 150 people during a single Saturday morning. Budget Games, organized by Every Voice Engaged and Innovation Games®, in conjunction with the City of San Jose’s staff, aided by volunteer facilitators and observers, have been the successful alternative for 3 years to traditional methods for getting public feedback about municipal budget proposals.

The same general technique that we show here can be used to help make decisions about new product features in a corporate setting, and equally well for other decisions where there are too many choices, not all of which require the same amount of resources or effort. And, other related playful techniques are useful for getting authentic feedback from a small group.

As mentioned in the previous post, the role of the moderator of a focus group changes when we make the group about interacting with other players, and not with the moderator. For Budget Games, a moderator at each table tracks which citizen, representing which neighborhood, led the effort to fund the library proposal or the additional police officers. The observer at each table took notes on arguments put forward for or against each proposal, and who supported those arguments. This way the organizers (other trained facilitators) can analyze the outcomes (which proposals were funded by which tables – the “WHAT”), as well as the rationale for those outcomes (the WHY). Moderators for this event come from user experience research, agile software development, project management and design backgrounds.

Facilitators & Observers for San Jose Budget Games 2013

Facilitators & Observers for San Jose Budget Games 2013

For more about the Budget Games in San Jose, see the articles in Business Week  from August 2012 and Financial Times from November 2012. For reflections on being a facilitator at this event from others, see posts by Steve Rogalsky  and Wil.


I’ve made this case a number of times, especially as I train people in how to incorporate games, including Innovation Games®, in a program of user research.

User experience professionals need to get clear about what’s wrong about focus groups, and what’s so attractive about them. The March (2013) BayCHI monthly program abstract ends with the words, “why you should never, ever hold a focus group.”  Now we’ve got a timely discussion.

Later this week, I’ll be adding additional information about what kinds of useful results you can expect to get from a focus group that uses activities (vs one that follows a script narrowly), how these newer kinds of focus groups are changing the face of civic engagement, what kinds of questions will get useful answers, and how to recruit people to provide meaningful answers.

Prototype for interactive belt

"Prototyping with Junk" at UC Berkeley

Award for Junk

Did you catch the New York Times word of the year (WOTY) for 2010? It’s junk! The editors of the “On Language” column chose this word as representative of the zeitgeist of the past year. The honor acknowledges the basic meaning of rubbish or trash, debris or detritus, as well as extended meanings: From junk bonds (devalued securities) to junk food (nutritionally empty), to junk shot (stuffing debris and mud into BP’s leaking gusher in the Gulf). Their award called out one euphemistic sense, the male genitalia. The TSA started full body pat-downs in 2010, as an alternative to scanning, and air travelers gave warning, “Don’t touch my junk.”

Next month I’ll be hosting the activity “Prototyping with Junk” at Interaction Design 2011 (IxD11) in Boulder, Colorado. As I’ve previously written, I occasionally get pushback from people who feel junk is not appropriate language for professional settings. Or, perhaps their reaction is that junk — the actual stuff — is not for the workplace. Now I can respond to those objections with the citation of WOTY2010. I’m hip!

JunkFest (2007)

And I’m in good company: Bernie DeKoven, author of Junkyard Games, and funsmith extraordinaire, recently shared a video from 2007 celebrating Junkyard Sports. Here’s an news report from JunkFest in Redondo Beach [warning: narration lacks captions]

Kinetic sculpture with junk

Another wonderful example of how using apparent junk (PVC pipes plus a bunch empty plastic bottles, and other stuff) can turn into something magical: see how kinetic sculptor Theo Jansen simulates animals walking, powered by the wind near the sea.
[warning: narration lacks captions]

Read more at Talking Science: Dance of the Strandbeests, the BBC article about this project.

Jansen’s example shows how prototypes evolve into working “products” or art, depending on your perspective. His process of successive refinements suggest agility: at each juncture, he stops and tests his creatures, from human-propulsion of walking machines to wind-propulsion (which simulates self-propulsion), and all from vernacular materials with clever engineering.

Learning with junk

We used Prototyping with Junk at ACM CHI2004 (in Vienna, Austria), when we challenged the participants in the pre-conference design collaboration to create a product for elders. As I’ve written for interactions magazine special issue on prototyping, this is an opportunity for creativity and fun in a social context. And, it’s yet-another communication tool for your collaborative design kit.

More recently, students at UC Berkeley’s iSchool engaged in Prototyping with Junk as one among many prototyping techniques they experimented with this past fall. You can see still images and a few short movies. Notice all those smiles!

Eager to meet the group in Boulder. I’ll bring one of the several design challenges I’m currently mulling over, …and plenty of junk.

Flexiflyer with wheels

Flexiflyer with wheels (used with permission)

Long-promised video here!

Here’s an historical post. The key part is the video below which was created in 1972.

The video has been promised to accompany my chapter in the Festschrift for Ursula Bellugi and Ed Klima published in 2000. In that chapter I analyzed Lou Fant’s live interpretation of a spoken reminiscence.  I was the (English) speaker; Lou used American Sign Language (ASL). My story told about trying to ride a Flexiflyer down a steep U-shaped driveway and back up.

Spoiler alert:  I crashed.

Key Findings:  Fant managed to get the description of the relationship of the house, the driveway and the sled’s riders correct, if mirror-image of the actual space, without having seen the place, without any gestures from me (the speaker), and with the English input message being pretty sketchy. And the cool part? He continues still interpreting for at least a full minute, before he commits himself to those spatial relationships.

It takes a village…

Support from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation over the past 40 years fueled the research of Klima and Bellugi, and many of their students and colleagues. I was privileged to be a member of the laboratory research staff from Fall 1970 through Spring 1973, and an irregular visitor thereafter. This video was created in 1972 at the Salk Institute. It was preserved during the early 1980s (on VHS cassette). It was digitized in 2000 with help from Stanford’s Academic Technology Laboratory (a support facility for faculty), and from Treehouse Video. I’m thrilled to report that the .mov (Quicktime format) video still plays, and has now been uploaded to YouTube, and is presented for your viewing pleasure, with gratitude to all those who helped along the way.

Pack rat unveiled

I saved that bit of video from Fant’s first (or perhaps second) visit to Salk Institute on one of my irregular visits back to La Jolla. When copying from helical scan 1/2″ videotape to VHS cassette, I remembered that I had consciously chosen to tell about an event that no one in the room had heard before, one from my childhood, so that it would be a genuine listening and viewing experience for both the hearing and deaf people present (not a retelling of a familiar story). Of course the interpreter hadn’t heard this story before, and he didn’t have much context about me either. I thought I had been quite clear about the physical space – I could picture it even many years after the event – how the house was situated, where the driveway started, turned, and ended at the street again, and what it was like to ride the wheeled sled. On listening again, I realize that the physical space is difficult to imagine if you were depending on the spoken message only.

Interpreter stays vague for a full minute

Our visitor, the exemplary interpreter and sign language educator, Lou Fant agreed to contrast “transliteration” and “interpreting.” I’ll offer a brief definition of these terms, knowing full well that other experts out there can elaborate in greater depth. Transliteration is a more English-influenced rendering into signs; interpreting is provides simultaneous translation into ASL, a different language, with English influence kept to a minimum. The excerpt shown here was the first part of the illustration of “interpreting.” The key surprise for me in reviewing the video was that Fant managed to keep the message vague as he worked out how all the different parts of the space described fit together. The ability to be vague had never been catalogued as a characteristic of the competent interpreter before. When I told him I was planning to look at this bit of video at long last and asked whether he’d like to see what I was finding and writing about him, he gave his blessing to my work without his review. I’m delighted to be able to present his spontaneous interpretation now almost 40 years after it was first produced.

And thanks to an interpreting instructor who uses the chapter from the Festschrift for asking where that video is.  Rachel, it’s here now.

Poster announcing Course 27 at CHI2010

Poster announcing Course 27 at CHI2010

What can you do in 90 minutes to introduce a professional audience to the set of practices which are Innovation Games®? Quite a bit!  But not all of what we had planned.

The course announcement

Here’s what people saw on the web when they considered whether to enroll in this course “Innovation Games® for User Research in an Agile Environment”, which competed against about 10 other sessions in the same time slot.

This course describes a set of qualitative research methods that will be attractive to user researchers, customer satisfaction specialists, Chief Happiness Officers, marketing professionals, among others. People who participate on Agile teams and those who are considering making a change to Agile practices will enjoy learning new techniques that fit into an Agile framework. Designers, engineers, and others with limited research background are welcome to join in the fun. (more…)

Alice Rigby was the first person who came to mind to honor on Ada Lovelace Day 2010.  In fact I thought of her for 2009, but didn’t manage to write it in time. Here’s hoping no one will mind that I’m just an hour or so beyond the deadline in my timezone. (Let’s pretend we’re in Hawai’i where it’s still not midnight.) Oh, have you not heard about Ada Lovelace or the celebration? has a quick biography of the inventor of software, who lived from 1815-1852.

Alice was a family friend and supporter long before we became colleagues at IBM. Alice was raised in Upstate New York. She played the doting aunt to her sister’s 4 children. Those kids thought the initial “A” in her signature looked a lot like an “S,” which was the source of her nickname “Slice.”  In our house we referred to her by initials “A.R.”  She attended Mt. Holyoke College in the late 1930′s or early 1940′s, and upon graduation took a teaching position in mathematics at a prestigious private girls’ school in Virginia.

She stayed as a high school teacher only a few years before being recruited to IBM in the mid-1950′s. She arrived at IBM during a period of rapid expansion of the IBM workforce, along with my father Mort Frishberg and Dick Bergstresser, the now-retired Director of IBM’s US Scientific Centers.  Both Mort and Dick were Applied Science Representatives in their initial assignments, comparable to technical marketing support specialists. I don’t recall what Alice’s first assignment was.

By the time I met Alice, she had been in IBM about 10 years, and was living in a small house in Saratoga, California. She was an instructor for new technical marketing people along with the rest of her team; her specialty was databases.

For me she was a role model of a single professional woman: smart and knowledgeable, yet interested in continuous learning; a homebody, yet interested in travel; non-confrontational, yet informed about public policy and active in making her views known to public officials. She participated in her church choir, seemingly as much for the companionship as for the musical or spiritual content. She was active in her alumnae association, again both for the relationships and as a way of giving back to the community she felt grateful to. And, she held both her family of origin and her created family of friends close. She supported civility, yet could disagree. She acknowledged discrimination exists, but wouldn’t be strident in challenging the status quo. For example, she loved the sentiment within the aphorism “the brotherhood of man,” but couldn’t abide the surface exclusion of women in the phrase. She took great pleasure in wearing a custom T-shirt celebrating “The Siblinghood of People.” I’ll find the photo of her wearing it.

Alice was not a complainer. I heard her express frustration with IBM only once, late in her career:  She  had a new manager and felt he was underprepared to manage her very experienced team. She said in effect: Why are we, a well-functioning team, expected to train this guy who is going to be promoted beyond our group, and yet we will get no reward or recognition for doing this? He’ll just come in here, try out the latest business school trend on us, and we’ll have to spend a lot of energy helping him either figure out why it won’t work in this context or needs tweaking to make it work. Why not let us manage ourselves instead of training someone less able?  The subtext to me was Why have I been passed over as a potential manager of our group or a similar one? Why are my gaps not supported and coached in the way we provide support and coaching for yet-another newly minted executive?

She was a person of regular habits:  she ate the same thing for breakfast every day.  She smoked daily but limited herself to two cigarettes, one after lunch and one after dinner. She planned her vacation route well-ahead, stayed a few nights with each of several friends in her drive up the Eastern Seaboard, or down the California coast. She bought a retirement home well ahead of her anticipated retirement.

One summer she took an assignment teaching in Brazil for several months, and loaned me her sewing machine and her car, which made this high school student very happy. I remember at least one project I made that summer, but nothing I’ve done in the sewing domain equals her prowess at making a slipcover for her living room couch. While it was not actually upholstery, her project was both an ambitious undertaking and a masterful accomplishment. It required that she first make a pattern before cutting the actual upholstery fabric. When she finished it looked like a professional job, with the pattern of the fabric matching at the seams, and an apparently endless amount of handmade welting.

Alice hid her disappointment as best as she could, when I turned down entry to Mt. Holyoke (South Hadley, Massachusetts) and registered as a freshman at nearby Smith College (Northampton, Massachusetts). She had written a strong alumnae support letter supporting my application, which was no doubt influential in my being accepted. She may have been secretly relieved when I made the decision to leave the East Coast women’s college milieu, and return to California to attend UC Berkeley for the remainder of my undergraduate career.

Roughly 20 years later, I was an IBMer. Both Dick Bergstresser (then my manager) and I were invited to her retirement luncheon from IBM. Dick and I were working in Milford, Connecticut, and we made the trek across the country for the celebration in Los Angeles. What a pleasure for both of us to fete this old friend!

When Alice died several years ago, she left no biological children. I will claim her  – if not as an extra parent, then – certainly an aunt-without-portfolio, a quiet advisor, and special person in my life. Perhaps a few of those pesky managers who were thrust upon her ought to pay tribute also.

[I reserve the right to update this piece with further details about Alice Rigby's career and life, as I contact the people I know who remember more about her than I may.]

Tuesday, March 9, we got the next update on YouTube’s automated captioning efforts. I heard it on NPR’s “All Things Considered” afternoon program, in which Robert Siegel interviewed Ken Harrenstien of Google with a (female) interpreter providing voice for the Google engineer.

Audio and transcript are available at

Harrenstien acknowledges that automated captioning today stumbles on proper names, including trademarks and product names:  ”YouTube” that comes out “You, too!” And automated captioning has difficulty with videos that have music or other sounds in the background. But, he characterizes himself as a technology-optimist, anticipating that in 10 years things will be much improved.

Benefits of captioning

Like “curb cuts” which have become the symbol indicating that solutions for disabled people (here, those in wheelchairs) resolve needs for others (strollers, roll-aboard luggage, shopping carts), captions have benefits that extend beyond hearing impairment.

  • Deaf and hearing impaired people can enjoy the huge inventory of videos on YouTube. (The still frame that opens this post is from an announcement by President Obama in response to the Chilean earthquake. Making emergency and other time-sensitive news available to those who cannot hear meets the requirements of laws and regulations in the US. And more importantly, it meets the moral or ethical standards we expect from a civilized society where we include everyone in the polity.)
  • If you’re in a noisy environment or located close to others who will be bothered by the audio, you can figure out what the video is saying even without benefit of headphones
  • Small companies can afford to provide captions on their webcasts, often the heart of learning about new products
  • Non-native speakers of English have a much better chance of understanding speech at ordinary (rapid) rates with the assist of captions
  • Captions provide input to machine translation services, so that there soon will be captions in other languages besides English as well; as automated speech-to-text technology improves, we’re going to see other input languages as well
  • Captions provide much better input to (current) search technology than speech does, so there’s hope of finding segments of videos that might not appear in written form

Professional captioners need not despair

I read the YouTube blog post of March 4 and the comments following it, and recalled the announcement of the limited trial with selected partners last November.  James expresses concern in his comment about the recent YouTube announcement that people, like him, who earn their living as captioners for post-production houses will lose their jobs as a result of the automated captioning.  My response seconds HowCheap’s comment that professional captioners will continue to find work both as editors of the automated speech-to-text and for organizations prefer doing their own captioning. Organizations that produce professional quality video typically start from a written script, adjust for the few changes that happen in the spoken version, and then set the timing of the text with the video.

The huge number of videos on YouTube are uploaded by individuals or by small organizations who may not be aware of the benefits from captioning, and likely don’t know about the tools available.  According to YouTube’s fact sheet: “Every minute 20 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube.” That’s a volume that is beyond the capacity of professional captioners and the organizations that employ them.

A proposal for improving the quality of captions

How shall we improve the quality of automatically produced captions?

I’d like to see interpreter training programs (ITPs) make editing automated captions a course assignment, a program requirement, or a component of an internship. Engagement with spoken language, not one’s own, is a challenge.  People phrase things in ways you don’t; they use unfamiliar vocabulary and proper names (streets, towns, people, products) that I need to look up.  Both ITPs for training sign language interpreters and those for people learning to interpret between 2 spoken languages may allow entry to students whose skills in listening, writing or spelling may be lacking.  How many caption-editing assignments are enough? Shall we also coordinate quality checks by others in the same or a different program?  Such assignments will guide students toward greater appreciation for the challenges of speech in online settings, with a task that provides an authentic service.


In the case of ITPs for sign language interpreters, the improved listening to online speech is great preparation for work settings such as VRS and VRI.  Video Relay Service (VRS) in the US is regulated by the FCC: deaf signers who cannot use the telephone (because their speech is not intelligible and they cannot hear well enough to understand speech over the phone) make use of intermediaries (interpreters) to communicate with hearing non-signers. (Think of simple tasks such as calling the school to notify them that your child will be absent; scheduling a haircut; ordering a pizza for delivery, not to mention more complex transactions involving prescriptions, real estate contract negotiation, billing disputes.)  Video Remote Interpreting (where the deaf and hearing parties are physically together, with the interpreter remote from them) is a service with similar requirements for the interpreter (listening to speech over a phone or data line, and rendering accurate translations in real time).

Broad multi-disciplinary open source content quality

Programs training instructors in English as a Second Language (ESL) could also participate.  Students in speech therapy and audiology would benefit from both the direct engagement with spoken language “in the wild” and with future colleagues in other disciplines. There are advantages to engaging a variety of people who are studying for professions that emphasize expertise in spoken and written English.

Looks like an open source content development effort to me. Yes, it will require a little bit of coordination, but not terrific overhead. How about it, ITP program directors?

Watching the Oscars

Okay, I was embarrassed.  Just a little.  And I don’t need to be anymore.

We hosted the annual Oscar party at our place this past Sunday. Homemade chili, cornbread, slaw, plus tasty salads, yummy side dishes and amazing desserts to share. One guest came prepared with appropriate trivia questions involving statistics and history.

Only one of the guests was hearing impaired. He functions as a hearing guy, because he was a hearing guy for most of his life. After his surgery a few years ago, he’s now got a hearing loss and a hearing aid. I knew that. He knows I know (more than) a bit about deafness and hearing loss, including and especially how to include everyone in a group whether for a discussion or viewing media like this event. (more…)

detail of diagramUser researchers know that it’s possible to analyze qualitative responses with quantitative methods, given enough responses.

Research methods are divided into various categories. One familiar distinction is the qualitative and quantitative. Sometimes we think of these categories as distinct types of research:  either-or. A research project collects qualitative data (e.g., an interview with questions that invite open-ended responses) or quantitative data (e.g., a survey with multiple-choice, true-false, or scalar responses). Or is it that the analysis uses qualitative methods (affinity diagrams) or quantitative methods (statistical packages)? (more…)

“Bob’s House” marked a milestone for PepsiCo, for sign language and Deaf folks, and for the SuperBowl. This commercial aired as part of the pre-game activities in 2008. If you haven’t seen it, check it out by clicking on the image above.

Summary of the key points of the narrative

Two men are driving through a residential neighborhood at night, blaming one another for not knowing which house is Bob’s. The driver leans on the car’s horn, arousing the occupants of the darkened houses who turn on the interior lights, peek outside and even step onto a now lighted porch. The one house that remains dark must be the one belonging to their deaf friend. They park, ring the doorbell, and enter as their host Bob signs and mouths “sorry” to his neighbors. The passenger’s “We’ll miss the kick-off” cues the viewer that it’s Superbowl time; the driver drinking from a Pepsi bottle suffices to identify the sponsor.

Deaf culture

This commercial captures a traditional bit of Deaf folklore, in which creating noise annoys hearing people and simultaneously allows identification of the Deaf target of interest. Deaf (written with a capital D) carries the implication of cultural identification with the community that shares values, behaviors, and sign language. The usage follows the civil rights movement’s embrace of term “Black” from an ethnic slur to an identity of pride. (Little “d” deaf refers to the audiological condition of hearing impairment, where a deaf person cannot perceive the unaided auditory signal to understand speech. The term “hard of hearing” may refer to a person whose hearing impairment is less severe, as measured by a hearing test, but also has a sociological meaning, referring to the person with an audiological impairment who functions within a speech environment more easily, through hearing aids and speechreading.)

Beyond the narrative structure of the commercial, which reproduces a familiar sign language joke in a film treatment, there are additional messages in the commercial that indicate its genuine portrayal of Deaf culture.

  • Deaf (and deaf) people can drive
    The National Fraternal Society of the Deaf (founded 1901, closed in 2004) provided life insurance to deaf people who couldn’t qualify with other companies. The Frat functioned as a social service and advocacy group as well.  It meets for the last time in early March 2010 to close the books. As with many charitable institutions which hope their mission will be accomplished, the Frat is closing in part because deaf people no longer suffer discrimination in insurance coverage, but also because there are other mechanisms and organizations which handle the advocacy portions of its mission.
  • Turning on the dome light helps visual communication in the dark
    The driver turns on the light in the car to have the argument with the passenger about who was supposed to bring the street address.
  • Doorbells become flashing lights
    Perhaps you caught the fact that the guests’ doorbell press triggered flashing lights inside Bob’s house, a visual signal of a typically auditory message. Harris Communications is one of several companies that supplies specialty products, including vibrating alarm clocks and flashing lights hooked to audio signals, for the specialized audience, “Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, people interested in sign language, Deaf Culture, hearing loss and more.” Hmmm, sounds like everyone, doesn’t it?

The companion video presents the employees who perform in the commercial, capturing their genuine surprise and delight about sharing the Deaf world with the Superbowl audience.

Congratulations to PepsiCo for responding to a Deaf employee’s suggestion, and for involving the National Association of the Deaf in turning the suggestion into reality. The performers in this video are not necessarily trained as actors, but the authenticity of their signing is obvious to Deaf and signing audiences.

Here’s the big question:  What products shall we make so that we don’t have to retrofit the environment?

Additional resources:

Carol Padden & Tom Humphries, “Deaf in America: Voices from a culture” explicates of the foundations of Deaf culture through stories, jokes, poetry and the perspective of a Deaf-centered world.

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