New Research Project: Founders


“Tell me about your customers.”

That’s how I’ve kicked off each of two dozen interviews over the past few weeks, asking founders and business operators to share their thoughts, stories and insights on customer discovery and product development. There are plenty of bloggers and thought leaders asserting the most assured paths to success, but I decided to dig in and find out for myself how people in my network are actually going about it. (more…)

Introducing IDEAVIS


Last summer I kicked off a new project called IDEAVIS, a visualization tool built for design researchers and ethnographers. My intention was to scratch a personal itch, mentioned in several previous posts about idea visualization.

Creating relational maps and models can be quite an ordeal with static vector editors like Illustrator, where every little tweak or adjustment means refactoring dozens or hundreds of shapes and path endpoints. The digital rendering process also doesn’t really lend itself to open collaboration… someone inevitably becomes the document owner and surrogate pixel-pusher for the rest of the team.

Enter IDEAVIS: the goal is to make rich qualitative modeling lightning fast, intuitive and collaborative. There’s still plenty of work to do and the overall site design is very crude, but create an account, kick up a new canvas, and take it for a spin!

Heroku DataClips + D3.js

Here’s a fun demo of how to use D3.js with Heroku DataClips:

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 12.31.58 PM


Do The Model Mash: Frankenstein Visuals for On-Demand Insights

The purpose of science is not to analyze or describe but to make useful models of the world. A model is useful if it allows us to get use out of it.
Edward de Bono

Design researchers and strategists spend a lot of time with models. A lot of time. What kind of models? Mental models, cultural models, concept maps, affinity diagrams, customer journey maps, Blue Ocean canvases and grids, business model canvases, system maps, flow diagrams, 2×2 matrices. Wherever there is a known pattern to exploit, there is probably a visual model of some kind to capture and articulate it.

Cultural Model

But there is an implicit risk of constraining our imaginations to the known models of the moment when we should be looking for entirely new relationships and patterns. I think there’s a subtle difference between using models to express and share what we know, and using models to unveil and understand what we don’t. Not a big difference, but one worth exploring and discussing.

Here’s a fun exercise: take two random visualization models that have nothing to do with each other and force them together. Break them apart and see if you can put them back together.

Stretch Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs across a second dimension, like RKS did with their Psycho-Aesthetics® Map. That x-axis could be anything: time, money, frequency of any particular behavior or social interactions. Make something up. It’s that easy.

Or maybe bend a cultural map around a 2×2 matrix. Cultural maps tend to float around, spatially unhinged like flip flop guy at Coachella on a existential walkabout. Let’s give it some polarity and see what shakes out. Here’s a visualization I created that illustrates interviews with local farmers as a cultural map framed against the 4 Ps of Marketing: Product, Promotion, Place, and Price. The connections between entities are also color-coded by sentiment; green means positive, red means negative. Color-coding for sentiment is a powerful concept that can be applied almost anywhere.

4Ps + Cultural Model

Cultural maps are a massive distraction in a slide deck, so I stripped it down to focus solely on sentiment. There’s much to be said about friction and the future. This visualization hints at the possible evolution of local food networks toward collaborative production, in the form of joint-offering CSAs.

Color-coded #1

Color-coded #2

This visualization started on paper and took a few iterations before arriving at what you see here. The magic is in the process of reconciling these two unrelated models, revealing a treasure trove of deeper nuance and interconnectedness.

Your turn!

What crazy one-off visuals have you created?

What other models could we mash together to visualize sentiment?

This article was originally published at

Visual Dialogues with Farmers

Our field is full of tools and techniques for planning and executing contextual research projects, but the truth is sometimes you just have to make it all up as you go. I ran into this during a project while interviewing local farmers in Savannah. I wanted to understand how their business models changed throughout the year, whether their biggest challenges occurred during the peak of off-season, and how seasonal transitions were managed.

So, I decided to make a one-page worksheet out a full calendar year, and invited my interviewees to join me in decorating the page with notes, timelines.

Exercise template


Here are a few interviewees’ worksheets:

Farm Cycles Exercise

Farm Cycles Exercise

Farm Cycles Exercise


Looking back, I’m still delighted by the conversations that took place on these worksheets. By visualizing their thoughts, my interviewees each told a great story. Sometimes they would get lost in a long pause, thinking back to last year, that long deathly grind of a summer, or that early spring cold snap that hurt market turnouts for an entire month. These conversations brought a richness to the research that I might have missed, had I not created a place for them to take shape.

Composite illustration of multiple worksheets:

Farm Cycles Illustration


This post was originally published at

Designing for Design

I stumbled onto this recently and got really excited.  Mohionote is a prototype from a group of students at The University of Auckland, New Zealand. It builds a graph visualization of notes and tags from an Evernote notebook.  I’ve been looking for something like it and even considered building one myself.


I think this type of visualization for emergent taxonomies has a lot of potential, particularly for finding patterns and relationships in a pile of digital assets like text snippets, photos and websites.  That should get your attention if you’re a design researcher or ethnographer.

Pulling the lens back a bit, however, graph UIs like this have typically failed to grab mainstream users as hard as they grab their inventors. But that got me thinking… People regularly use whiteboards to map out big hairy ideas, so why haven’t these apps made it into the mainstream collaborative toolbox?  What’s different?

Then it hit me: it’s a difference of intent.  These types of interfaces are just a new flavor of documentation, visualizing the complexity of things already known. Most importantly, they are fully decoupled from whatever conversation shaped their content, and will need to be lovingly maintained for all time to keep pace with reality. The SaaS biz app marketplace is peppered with services that decouple communication from their artifacts.  They masquerade as “team collaboration” apps, but in reality they offer little more than static documentation, and punt the messy communication stuff (read: the magic stuff) back to your inbox.

On the other hand, the collaborative whiteboard experience usually goes something like this:

  1. Start with a single point
  2. Conversation ensues about the relationship(s) between the first point and the next point(s)
  3. Conversation goes on and on an on, recursively chewing through points and ideas, explanations, demonstrations and scenarios, occasionally detouring, diverging and converging again
  4. The board is full and/or the participants have reached their final destination (or are just plain exhausted!)

Whiteboard Example

Outsiders see a messy board, but for participants the outcome is (hopefully) reaching a higher level of clarity and opportunity around whatever they just hashed out.  The whiteboard allowed them to visualize their points and add greater bandwidth to their conversation.  If a simple chat in the elevator were a dial-up connection, this is 4G LTE.  The destination is what matters, not the means of getting there.

The difference?  Whiteboards become complex, and are then erased; their content is as fleeting as the conversation that shaped it.  It’s a combination of communication and impermanence.  Can that metaphor transfer fully into a virtual world, so thoroughly shot through with “document everything, measure everything” dogma of big data? says surewhynot:

<trolling> No mention of actual communication.. but it looks like the real thing!  </trolling>

Ok, to be fair, I took the photo of the whiteboard above just in case I ever needed to pull it back up; a practice I’ve perpetrated or witnessed thousands of times. I have hundreds more in a folder. I rarely return to them.

I’m dreaming of a tool that seamlessly blends real-time communication with automagically emerging visuals and ideas; a conduit for rich, vivid ideation among teammates who cannot stand together against a whiteboard. Patterns and relationships among the things discussed are easily articulated, bound together with story or illustration, and feed back into a more creative, insightful conversation.  I don’t know what this tool is called, what it looks like or how it will work, but I know why.

This post was originally published at

Storyboarding with Startups: Stolen Cars, Saucy Affairs, and Italian Translators

SURGE Storyboarding Workshop

Over the past few years we’ve had opportunities to work with many amazing startups, from one coast to the other and everywhere in between, but some of the most exciting (ambitious!) new companies we’ve encountered are all coming from the SURGE Accelerator in Houston, Texas.  (more…)

Quick and Dirty: Hi-fi Learning Loops with Low-fi Prototypes

Paper Prototype

Rapid prototyping isn’t about validating a concept, it’s about deepening the learning process. It’s about getting past the obvious ideas and on to the good stuff, faster. Make your thoughts tangible and take them for a test-drive.

Read the full article here

“The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What We Can Learn About Ourselves from Our Machines”

The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, by Clifford Nass

In The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, Stanford professor, sociologist and HCI researcher Clifford Nass shares dozens of eye-opening discoveries about human nature and sociality.  This book is chock-full of intellectual goodies and surprises surrounding relationships, team building and collaboration.  What’s truly fascinating about his insights is how they were teased out: through studying interactions with computers!  (more…)

“A chair is not a thing. It is a place of activity.”

“A chair is not a thing. It is a place of activity.”

Interaction Design is the design of the way humans relate to one another, through the mediating influence of products.

What is a product?

1. Useful (logos): technological reasoning, intellectual content, does work, the right materials (what you think is interacting).

2. Usable (ethos): speaks in a language that my mind can comprehend.

3. Desirable (pathos): a quality of ethos that you want to be part of and bring into your life.

“The material of interaction design are the purposes and desires of the people we serve. That comes to us as clay, and we form that clay.  We shape and express, give deep endurance, to the purposes and values of other people.”

Richard Buchanan: Keynote (by Interaction Design Association)

Get your hands dirty

The tale of a man building the most beautiful, but most dangerous machine.

Get obsessed

Watch the full video here.

Do-Ference makes FastCompany!

Some of the most interesting revitalization work in Savannah is coming not from the traditional–and often unsuccessful–saviors of decayed neighborhoods. It’s coming from design students, who are earnestly trying to find ways to work with local residents without igniting suspicion of outsiders wielding big ideas.

Read the full article at

Enter the Do-Ference!


Designers know how to throw a good conference, and the 2012 Design Ethos conference in Savannah, Georgia, was no exception. Conferences like this play an essential role in the evolution of the art and science of our work. (more…)

Startup boot camp? Design Management summer camp!

3 Day Startup in San Antonio

I would like to share a story about one of the most exciting weekends of all time. This past April I was accepted to participate in 3 Day Startup in San Antonio (more…)