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.


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.

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…)

“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.

Photograph detail UPI © 1980

I met Ted Kennedy only once.

In an earlier part of my professional life, I worked as a sign language researcher and interpreter based in New York City.   (more…)