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Creativity and the business of social innovation.

Jan Chipchase: Designing Design Research

There is a long list of specific insights that Jan shared about how he 'designs' his research expeditions. These have been covered elsewhere in bits and pieces. I thought I would highlight some of my favorites:

1. Integrate Local Teams:
Most of his research involves a combination of a few nokia colleagues and a local team - that need to cross HUGE cultural and economic barriers. He placed special emphasis on the need to rapidly integrate these teams. A lot of this is motivational. He sets huge store in establishing a sense of equality from the start - everyone eats, sleeps travels in the same manner. He likes to rent houses or small hotels that the team can take over within the community. This has posed some risks on occasion, such as a recent trip to favelas in brazil. But in most cases this model seems very strong and worth applying even if you are not traveling so far. See if you can find an alternative to the embassy suites next time you are doing a set of in-homes in Omaha. Some place with some common space.

2. Establish Boundaries:
This is a crucial for a guy like Jan. He is interested in so many aspects of social life. Where do you draw the line? Establishing boundaries is not just important for the team, but also for the research participants. He showed some 'Day in the Life' examples in which he documented a very deep and intimate portrait of an individual over the course of 4 hours and ~ 800 pictures. Your subjects need to sense that there are boundaries. One effective technique that he has developed is to provide each subject with a copy of everything that was capture - images, notes... This provides an automatic check on the research team as they know that the subject will see everything that they captured. A nice / ethical check & balance on a process that has inherent imbalances built into it.

3. Think Outside the Project:
He looks at each trip as a chance to gather a wealth of data, much of which does not fit the parameters of a specific project. My guess is that his blog / speaking engagements provide a nice rational for this. But the truth is that you dont get too many opportunities for this kind of rich social immersion in a slum in Ghana. So capture as much as you can - and index the notes / photos before you split. He hinted at the fact that they complie all their research into a common repository to mine later. And had developed a rich taxonomy for this data. But I couldnt pin him down on whether that was really the case.

4. Take a Breather:
Research is intense.  Jan offered some nice suggestions for how to pace things so that you do not burn out before synthesis. He tries to map out the trip so that each of the researchers has a down day to reflect. In most cases they dont take these days off, but it allows for some reflection and redirection before you finish. Smart! Also he tries to grab a day for himself at the end of each trip to ride around on the back of a motorcycle and shoot pictures around the community. Seemed like that was the best part for him. And we all benefit from the results on FuturePerfect. He also tries to build in a 'spa' day or two - some kind of retreat - to pamper the team as they head into synthesis.

These recommendations do not apply to every research practice, particularly when you are not in-house.  We talked about the challenges around synthesis in particular. We all know that synthesis is the most valuable stage, and Jan builds in signficant time for synthesis after each trip. But for consultants like frog it can be hard to communicate why we need two weeks, and not two days, to get our thoughts together. We joked about a 12-step process for synthesis. We need to break synthesis down into a set of tangible activities that we can communicate to clients so they get it.

Unfortunately, Jan didn't provide any answers for that one. Maybe next time. Fortunately I tagged him as a speaker at CHI in April 2009. So get me your questions as I will have a second chance to pin him down.

As frog's Vice President of Creative, Robert Fabricant leads efforts to expand the impact of design into new markets and industries. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert is lead partner in Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat HIV and AIDS in South Africa. He is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York.