The Insights Event: Leaving the Dark Side of the Two-way Mirror

By Mona Patel

Published: June 2, 2014

“Our goal … is to discover insights with clients, not for them.”

This week, we launched our new service offering: co-conducting design-thinking, innovation research with clients. Our goal for such projects is to discover insights with clients, not for them. On our first project providing this new service, our goal was to bring the client along on the research journey, get them closer to the customer, and help them to break out of their status quo and current thought patterns by conducting insights research.

Agency—Does It Just Mean Work?

“I started realizing that I had internalized more of their customers’ issues because I was sitting with them on the other side of the two-way mirror … rather than sitting with the client looking through the mirror….”

Our client is in the financial space and is very special to me because they were one of my first clients under my Motivate Design brand. My first project for them was doing a few rounds of usability testing, but even during these early sessions, I was pushing them to do more during their time with customers. We ended up discovering a lot more about the customer’s drivers, motivations, and barriers than you would find through typical usability testing. The results led us to working with this client on everything from conducting a mobile diary study; to doing a hybrid of focus groups and in-depth interviews (IDIs)—for example, running a focus group on a topic, then picking a person to do a deep-dive interview on that topic—to conducting online moderated and unmoderated research.

However, the common thread through all of these projects was that they hired us, as a UX agency, to do the work, while they oversaw the projects. They approved the screener and script, attended the research sessions, and commented on the reports and the resulting insights. While they were happy with the work, I wasn’t.

I started realizing that I had internalized more of their customers’ issues because I was sitting with them on the other side of the two-way mirror—looking into their eyes and hearing their voices tremble as they talked about the state of their finances—rather than sitting with the client looking through the mirror, as shown in Figure 1.

While we were hearing roughly the same themes across these research projects, these themes weren’t yet being addressed in the user experience. For example, people are overwhelmed when it comes to managing their money. Thus, a strategy that nearly every financial institution is tackling is how to simplify managing finances while still giving people a feeling of being in control.

Figure 1—Looking through the two-way mirror

Looking through the two-way mirror

What If There Were No Two-way Mirrors?

“We altered our approach, working with the client to craft an Insights Event. Insights because we aren’t really doing research, we’re digging for ideas and inspiration. Event because this isn’t your typical project. It’s really an event….”

So we altered our approach, working with the client to craft an Insights Event. Insights because we aren’t really doing research, we’re digging for ideas and inspiration. Event because this isn’t your typical project. It’s really an event—complete with an official invitation and RSVP, orientation meetings, the nearly perfect execution of a full experience whose goal is to provide a good user experience—and let’s not forget the goody / snack bags.

We started the week with friendship group innovation sessions. We invited people who we think of as thought leaders to the sessions and asked them to bring other thought leaders along. These people operate on another level, and I’ve never taken notes so fast in my life. The Motivate Design team served as the event and table moderators, and members of the client team paired with the thought leaders to complete the design-thinking activities together. We did a few rounds of these activities with debriefs in between. The following are descriptions a few of the activities that are part of a friendship group innovation session:

  • Act It Out—Be the design. Feel the design. Think the design. We encourage each participant to become the design, acting out what they would expect the design to do. This activity uncovers insights into participants’ emotions regarding the way the design would intersect with people’s lives and allows researchers to cross-check how the design flows, behaves, and handles each participant’s context. 
  • Deconstruct / Reconstruct—We use this activity to capture participants’ initial, honest reactions to commonplace, overused, and sometimes meaningless words in user interfaces. We prepare for this activity by putting each problematic word that we’ve identified during an earlier design review on a cue card. Then we pair up participants and ask them to take turns placing a card over their forehead and asking their partner to give them clues to help them guess the word on the card. This activity identifies over-used words that have lost their wow-factor, as well as contextual discrepancies between form, function, and overall meaning.     
  • Dot to Dot—Using a brand as a metaphor—for example, What if a grocery store was like Uber?—we encourage participants to attribute its brand characteristics and promises to another experience. Participants sketch their brand experience and a new experience, making connections at each touchpoint and identifying important brand and experience elements. This gives participants the ability to see traditional experiences from fresh, new perspectives.

We started the next day by conducting a class on today’s social trends, then sent the client associates out on field trips, giving them the opportunity to experience these trends firsthand. For example, one of the trends that we identified was Back to Basics, people wanting to create, make, and explore with their hands. We sent pairs of participants to locations in Boston where they could see this trend in action, including the Makerbot store.

It was rewarding to hear the feedback that the planning around who went to what store mattered. During the experience debriefs, we were able to point out parallels to what our client’s customers experience with their brand. For example, the people on the client team felt that they were in the “outer circle” at Makerbot because they didn’t quite understand what their target market is or exactly what they sold. Think of financial institutions: Do you understand how your bank works? What it sells? How they make money off you?

A Glass of Design Thinking, Garnished with Disruption

“Our goal … was to move the client out of the back room in the research lab—the dark side of the mirror—and into the play space, where they would feel that they were responsible for coming up with solutions to their customers’ problems.”

The evening work consisted of a mixology class—yes, it was work!—where we encouraged the client associates to experiment, create, and disrupt. Again, part of our goal for this project was to move the client out of the back room in the research lab—the dark side of the mirror—and into the play space, where they would feel that they were responsible for coming up with solutions to their customers’ problems. Solving problems requires experimentation and a willingness to fail and try again, as well as some creativity. Mixology offers all of this and more! The evening ended with a shared meal, which gave the group an opportunity for bonding and more discussion that explored the day’s events and looked for parallels that would help us to create great customer experiences.

During the last day of the Insights Event, we formed teams comprising a member of the thought leadership–friendship group, a Motivate Design UX researcher, and a client associate to conduct a 3-hour ethnography session during which they could dive deeper into how each person manages his or her personal finances.

Next week, we’ll work together on the analysis of our findings and identify next steps. We’ll also edit the video that we recorded throughout the entire event to showcase the approach and present some of our findings for those who were unable to attend.

Wrapping Up

“Today’s UX agency is evolving from having relationships with clients who hire us to do projects for them to having clients hire us to educate, inspire, and help them to invent new ways to conduct the projects that we do with them.”

During the Insights Event, we spent a great, inspiring week with our client. This morning, as I was leaving, a senior member of the client team said, “I don’t know how you guys do this,” indicating not only an appreciation for good research, but also an understanding of how much work they need to do to truly start solving their customers’ problems.

Today’s UX agency is evolving from having relationships with clients who hire us to do projects for them to having clients hire us to educate, inspire, and help them to invent new ways to conduct the projects that we do with them. For us, the days of starting a UX research project with a kickoff meeting, then going away for a week to come back with insights are fading fast.

1 Comment

Mona, you’re spot on with this and the way you’ve helped your client to adopt a new approach. Clients who actually want to change are hard to find, but exposure to the customer’s world can help bring a few across the line.

In my article “Redundant, by Design,” I describe taking a similar journey up the value chain: from doing for, to doing with, to helping become.

It’s a rewarding way to work for us and this type of client.

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