Impact That Matters - Dan Perkel, IDEO
After getting a PhD from UC Berkeley, Dan Perkel went to work at the world-renowned design company, IDEO. He started as a design researcher, and is now responsible for co-leading the design research discipline for the San Francisco office. In this episode, Dan discusses what impact means to him, and how he's seen it over his career.
Dan Perkel: So my name is Dan Perkel. I'm a design researcher her at IDEO. I've been here for five years. I immediately beforehand was doing a PhD at UC Berkeley in the School of Information where I was really exploring the anthropology and sociology of technology and media. So that was my focus there, and that's not even a focus yet, but as academic careers. It's a broad focus, but I feel like ever since I was a kid, or at least an undergrad many years ago, I kind of had these twin sides. I was interested in liberal arts and technology and that defined my undergraduate major was something called science and technology studies, which at the time was a very small. Now it's quite big, and I worked as a designer and did some work in client services before doing a master's degree, and in the course of doing a master's degree in which was really focusing on design and human computer interaction design at the time, I got more and more drawn to research as part of the design process.
So then I was fortunate enough to get a chance to try my hand out at getting a PhD and the academic route, and realized that I wanted to go back out into the world and make things, and put research into the service of design. So I guess that's the ... I don't know if that's the short introduction or the long introduction [inaudible 00:02:44].
AryelCianflone: Yeah, I would love to hear a little bit more. You just said you do have this very rich background in academia, and now you're obviously working at IDEO. You've been here for a number of years. What inspired that change? You mentioned wanting to get your hands dirty a little bit, but what inspired that and what kind of keeps you on this side?
Dan Perkel: Yeah, that's a great question, and it's one that people are defintely trying to explore when they're starting a career. I think for me it was a couple of those core values that we have here, and one is the ability to collaborate with others on everything, and I found that when I was doing a degree, grad students were collaborating all the time and we were talking all the time, but we were never really helping each other solve each other's problems. There was almost a disincentive to do that as much as we were trying to help each other, and I found that for me that this didn't feel right. It wasn't as productive. Looking back I do wonder if we had all helped each other write our dissertations if we could have actually all finished in half the amount of time just by putting multiple brains on one problem.
So that's one. I want to be able to really collaborate, and the other I think having your work be more than an article that sits behind a pay wall somewhere. I know that as you get more and more senior in your career, certainly the ability to be a public intellectual and to write publicly and to have more folks see what you do. That's great, and that's certainly a great way to get your voice into the world. I wanted to help make things and so being out in the world where I could make things and not just write things was really important to me.
One of those things I don't think I realized when I started a PhD but certainly by the time I was done, that's kind of where my head was at.
AryelCianflone: Yeah, I mean I think even this year I had the opportunity to attend Kai, and it was my first time. It was amazing. There's just such thought leadership there right in the space. You really can't find another space exactly like that, but I think what you've just described is something that I noticed there because as someone who has really been in industry more it's like for me, "Oh I learned something I should write an article about it," or "I should share it or talk about it," but there it was like this amazing discovery, and I was like, "Well how can I read that article?" It was, you had to be a member of this and you had to log in and you had to get past that pay wall.
Dan Perkel: Yeah, I think it's true of academia in general. I think there's some good to being protected. You want to be able to explore longterm research for research's sake at times, and you don't want that pressure of making it all commercially viable and successful. That's the really important part of what happens in academia, but it's good to be able to find ways to translate that over.
In my research practice here and our design practice here, I really believe in harnessing the power of experts. So as much as I can I really try to get folks from academia either into our project spaces, or we do great interviews and we're consistently impaired by that work, and so that's one way that I've tried to make sure to bridge the two sides in the work that we do.
AryelCianflone: Yeah, totally. So I loved what you said, you were kind of talking about that decision to move from one space to the other, and being able to actually make things and in my mind I think have tangible impact that you can see in front of you as opposed to something that's a little bit more difficult to know the value of the work that you're doing. That's something that I've been thinking about a lot because this is a newer space, and I think in a way we're still really looking for those examples of high impact to be inspired and also to give researchers more confidence in the work that they're doing. That was part of the reason that I wanted to have this conversation was to hear from someone like you who's had an opportunity to work on some amazing projects and really see the impact of your work.
So yeah I would love to hear a story that comes to mind for you when you think of the impact of design research.
Dan Perkel: Yeah, that's a great question, and I'll say that what's interesting about the work that we do here, as opposed as to folks who are sitting actually in a product company is that we're ... it always works in like layers of impact. We're working for clients who themselves are trying to impact the world, and we're trying to either impact them at the organizational level or actually touch their actual products that are going out. So as you know there are only a certain number of details that I can share about most of that work, but I think one story that kind of comes to mind off the bat is we were doing some work with an organization that is trying to help older adults. Help them during times of crisis, and as they learn to manage their lives as they get older and older. Our system right now, especially in the United States is fraught with difficulties. It forces people to really manage a lot on their own, and they knew there was a problem and they went into government services and went into different organizations and try to see how people were trying to string all these things together on their own, and they said, "That's an opportunity for us to make a difference in people's lives. Help them connect all the dots between organizations."
So they came to work with us. So they came in with a hypothesis about what the solution would be, and what's really fun for us is that over the course of ten weeks we got to iterate with design and research going back and forth, and changing the way they thought about the problem in a way. A few things that we did, we spent several weeks over time hanging out in the community center, targeted around older adults. That was, the actual center I wish I could say more about who it was, but it's a wonderful group. It's oriented around this is a club. This is not an old-age home, and people come and they visit, but there's also social services that are incredible. So they're providing all these services, and they were so excited to have us work with them.
So we did things like participate socially. We attended Zumba classes, and in the course of these Zumba classes it was like, "Yeah, this is where people are being social and being active, and look at the things that these folks can do." So much of older adulthood is defined by what folks can't do, and so that was really important to see and feel and experience first hand, but also on the social services side, we attended a class on Alzheimer's and dementia was intended for caregivers of some of the older adults who are experiencing these for the first time. We, one experienced what it meant to be in that kind of class. We then listened to the questions that people were asking, and realized some of the key pain points around the problems that our clients were wanting to solve weren't really about helping older adults per se. It was, but it was really helping those caregivers. Those people who never necessarily defined themselves as a caregiver, or still didn't, but they were sort of thrust in this role by something.
AryelCianflone: By giving care.
Dan Perkel: Yeah, thrust by something that happened in their lives, and we realized first of all in terms of who we should be helping. The opportunity to help caregivers, and there was a person in that organization who defined it as the accidental caregiver. Kind of riffing on the old book and movie, "The Accidental Tourist." I think that was a very funny phrase that we learned from this person.
So that was one shift as we shifted who we were really trying to design for, and one is really focusing on the caregiver. Another is that by having our clients along for this journey, they came to us in a moment. I remember we were sitting having lunch after a few different design sessions and research sessions. They said, "I think we've been thinking about this problem all wrong," and he made a drawing of, "Here's how we've been thinking about the problem," and he basically flipped it upside down and said, "This is what I think the solution is." Honestly our team had been seeing it in the same way, but we hadn't told him this, and for us it's always incredibly important and meaningful when we have clients along with us and they see firsthand and experience this stuff, and they help us synthesize and [inaudible 00:10:40] conclusions. Then it's like, "Oh yeah."
That's the impact by being out with us doing this kind of research and participating in research and design with us. It was able to flip that problem with something that I think is ... that is something at that moment I was like, "This is great. This is exactly what we want." So that's a moment of impact there, just on the way our clients are starting to see the problem.
With any luck the work we've done is hopefully on the road to being out in the world in some capacity. I can't say too much about it from that sense, but at least we know right away the way our clients even see the problem they were trying to solve is completely different and hopefully more human-centered than what it was before.
AryelCianflone: Yeah so I love that call out. I would love to hear a little bit more for you, because you're saying, "I'm not sure exactly from this work that we did what translated." What's going to be out in the world and when. So for you when you're working on a project, at the end of the project what makes you feel like, "Oh yeah that was great. We were successful," versus, "Oh man maybe we should tweak how we're doing that going forward," or something.
Dan Perkel: Yeah that's a great question, and I think just to go back to ... One of the things that's really important for us in our process is that one is internally we're incredibly collaborative. We believe that we need all these different perspectives on research to be useful for design, and that includes working with our clients. We know we're being successful when we realize our clients are actually going out and changing the way they do things even before we leave, or the way they have the conversations with their colleagues or with their managers, or when we get ready for a final presentation and we say something like, "We would love for you to lead the work," and they say, "Oh absolutely," and they are incredibly comfortable and confident. They really learn something from the shared experience.
That's one way we just know that there is something going on fundamentally that's going to change. When our projects end, our relationships don't end, so we kind of see how things are progressing and where they're going. We often reengage. With the project I just mentioned, we know there are positive steps being made forward since that project, so we were like, you know we've been helping out so we're excited to see things that have been tested out in the world and potentially going out.
Yeah, have I answered your question?
AryelCianflone: Yeah, and I think as someone on the outside looking in, IDEO is such a thought leader in this space. Like when you say human-centered design, I first learned of human-centered design through IDEO. Through reading different publications and different things that you guys had put out, and when you talk about that story, for me that totally resonates, and I've had similar experiences and I defintely think when you're talking bringing the client along for the ride. It's like I can make the most delicious meal in the world, but if I can't get anyone to eat it what's the value? As a researcher sometimes you spend so much care and love on a project, but if you don't bring those people along, if you don't get them to sit down at the dinner table it's like, "What's the point."
I would love just hearing that story, something that comes to mind for me or something that I would love to get your perspective on is how do you ... you talked about your perspective being switched to the caregiver. I'm curious when do you feel confident in a finding? When you're going through a project like this with a client, is it when the light bulb goes off for them, or are you at a certain point like, "Oh I've heard this five times. This is something that feels really important."
Dan Perkel: Yeah, that's a great question, and one I know that as a researcher you're kind of always like asking that.
AryelCianflone: Asking yourself.
Dan Perkel: "How confident are we," and I guess it operates at a few different levels.
So first there is the research finding or something that we hear, and yes absolutely patterns. You start to hear the same thing, and especially when you hear similar things from people who you've intentionally recruited to be different from one another, then you're like, "We're on to something interesting there." That's one moment.
We're also defined in a way by our constraints, so when we have a certain amount of time to work on a problem, we don't get the luxury of saying, "Oh I'm going to go back and learn more." We have to sometimes put design on paper. We try to present a breadth of possibilities. One of the things about doing research in service of design is that design naturally should our options should be different. It shouldn't be, especially early on, three variations of one little thing. We could go in this direction like A, and here I'm moving my hands around kind of wildly in the space, but could go A. Could go B, and those should look very different, and then we work out with our clients.
Based on these insights it could lead us in these two different directions and so which kind of makes more sense. It feels like the richer opportunities which are more testable in future rounds of research. Which are you more inspired by? What's the kinds of things you want to be doing? So sometimes it isn't always about having 100 percent confidence in a particular insight, but it's about having a lot of confidence that you presented an array of possibilities that are really exciting and where this company or organization could move their products or move their design or move their, in the case of other things that we do, move whatever it is we're trying to design forward in a really powerful way.
So it's a little bit different than maybe just typical research and getting findings that you're confident in. Certainly we do a lot of validation research as well where we try to go back and test things out and put things back out there. Sometimes we try to quantify those things. Sometimes we don't. It really depends on the questions that we're asking and what kind of confidence is needed from any particular problem.
AryelCianflone: And I think that's such a great call out because it's something that I see pretty regularly as there can be that tension between well we want to do a lot of research. We want to explore. We want to live in this ambiguous space, but then you get to a point where you have to make a decision and you have to move forward. So I think that's such a great call out. You can do research up to a certain point, and then you have to move forward to the next stage of research and keep moving forward. It can't just be like this forever exploration.
Dan Perkel: Yeah, yeah I think that's what our work is about.
AryelCianflone: Well and something else that you mentioned was even sometimes recruiting people for the extremes, and I think that that's something that's really interesting within the idea of philosophy is kind of like going to those extremes and trying to be flexible. Kind of in that exploration and I was wondering if maybe you have a story around the extremes and kind of trying to look into those.
Dan Perkel: Plenty of stories come to mind. That's the kind of bread and butter of almost all the work we do which is recruiting for extremes. I'll say, so there was a project that we did that involved working with a technology company who was trying to understand media in the home in southeast Asia regionally. That's a huge swath of space. We had to focus somewhere, so we ended up doing some work in Indonesia and in the Philippines, and even there that could be, we could be there for years like most anthropologists are when they study these places. They're just there for the rest of their lives trying to learn.
Here we had to decide which dimensions were going to be really important for us to learn from. Which behaviors, which things. We really spent a lot of time thinking about household composition. A particular kind of extreme like looking at people who are starting to model their lives more on a western style. Maybe smaller family own home versus folks who are living multi generationally. Many families under one roof, or people who are doing these incredibly long commutes which might have them staying in a city for a few days, and then coming back to a home.
So those kinds of extremes as one dimension, and we had other dimensions as well around lifestyle and other patterns of other behavior, but even just that one on household composition and who's living with you when suddenly opened up our eyes to whole new opportunities. Looking at technology in the home and media in the home in ways that we hadn't really anticipated when we went in.
So there's an example of how looking at extremes can be particularly powerful.
AryelCianflone: Yeah, how did you decide to focus on that? In terms of the dimensions that you were going to look at, and then you decided households. Was it probably a collaboration with the client. I would love to hear about that.
Dan Perkel: Yeah, there is a collaboration with the client. There is our team, so this where we're kind of gut-checking each other. We don't, even though I'm ... and on that project I was the design researcher, and my job was to kind of guide and help our team see this [inaudible 00:20:15] experience. We'll get in a room at the beginning as a whole team and with our clients when they're there and say, "What are all the things that might matter here?"
So what are all the things that might matter for our design outcome. What are all the things that might be really inspiring to a design outcome. We might put those all on, like you saw our phone core and all our Post-It notes, we'll map those out in relation to the research questions and the designs questions that we have, and go for the ones that we feel are the most promising. In a way almost like any research especially when you're in a more exploratory mindset, you just go with whatever feels right.
The other thing I would say for me personally is that having an academic background as well I've been informed a lot of by theory which we don't talk about too much in a design context, but I've done enough of my own research and reading to know that we're talking about media in the homes that things like family, family structure, the way families engage with one another is going to be pretty critical to how things like phones and televisions and radios or whatever it might be, how those are going to function in that space.
So knowing that and having good colleagues and talking to experts, just knowing that was going to be pretty key as a thing made me have more confidence that, "Yeah, I'm taking that experience that I have and bringing it in," and other design researchers here with different backgrounds use other forms of their previous knowledge or current knowledge to know what they feel like is going to be kind of gut, and that gut is based on experience and knowledge and expertise from other folks and then we kind of use that with our teams and say, "Hey we could do all these things. I think we should lean here." Our teams respect the craft of design research being on that can point them in the right direction.
AryelCianflone: Yeah, well and it's so interesting hearing you say kind of your past life informing this life, and those theories. When you're in a project around here and you, for example this project in southeast Asia, and you're saying, "Well I think that all these things are going to be super important to inform this text base that we're looking for because family is communication. These things are really relevant." Is that just you saying it, or are you actually bringing in experts, showing other people on the team research articles. How deep does it go or how much of it is just trust because you know that each member of the team has the certain expertise that they're coming in with?
Dan Perkel: It's a mix, and that's where it varies project to project. I always trying to bring in secondary research and academic perspectives is really helpful, and other folks and teams do as well. Sometimes we have a project where we literally have to start a project and starting to be in the field so fast that it becomes a gut call, and we'll say, "Where do we think we can get the most inspired," and show it to the team, and make an argument and folks are like, "Yeah, let's do it. Sounds good."
I like to rely on other things as well. So it can be either. We try to use that stuff as primary material. It's like ... so there's an example of we were doing some research in the media space about ... I don't want to get too specific here but about a certain behavior in television watching that we kept noticing, and everybody was like, "This really happens," and I went out and found some academic research and was like, "Not only does it happen, there's a nice quantitative study of this phenomena," and it's broken this thing down into several different groups. We're seeing a different mix, but it's important to be able to bounce back and forth between studies out in the world and to give more confidence that we're on to something interesting.
AryelCianflone: It feels like academia it takes ten years or something for a discovery to be made and then for that to actually trickle down, and it feels like because of your relationship with academia and probably a lot of people around the office, you're kind of able to speed that up, right? So instead of it being ten years later it's like, "Oh I know the person who did this study," or, "I'm so used to using this tool," that you're able to use that for inspiration to inform a project at the start.
Dan Perkel: Yeah, I think your assessment is right. The one thing ... It's interesting I think. There's, not to get into the politics of academia, but certainly in technology and engineering the speed at which stuff translates can be a lot faster because of grad students getting paid extremely high salaries to leave academia and go become engineers.
So there is that translation. I try to make sure that the sociologist and anthropologists and the folks in the humanities are also looked after in terms of that stuff that they're excited about, and so I do think that there is kind of an imbalance in how knowledge is disbursed into the world. I do get excited when I have an opportunity to shine a little spotlight on some research that maybe it's longterm impact in terms of knowledge out in the world. Maybe it needs to take ten, 15 years to diffuse. Maybe that's a good thing that it takes that long, but in terms of it impacting design and just feeling our insights and inspiration, we can kind of push it along.
AryelCianflone: What would you say for like what are the resources that you use to keep that connection? So you went and found this article. I'm wondering are you using Jay Bisco or something?
Dan Perkel: Oh EBSCO, JSTOR all those. I still do literature reviews sometimes. Not nearly, not even closely to as thoroughly as I would have back in my academia.
AryelCianflone: Back in the day.
Dan Perkel: Yeah there's just not time for it.
AryelCianflone: Maybe blogs, whatever.
Dan Perkel: I do try to read the people who I know have been writing about this stuff. There's some great blogs. One good one that I love is called, "Ethnography Matters," where some folks I know started that app out of a few different places. It's a really useful way to get that sort of cross between academic professional perspectives. Then you see what people are writing about publicly and then you kind of use that as little leverage and hooks into maybe more of the formal studies, and you just do your best. Follow the outcomes of conferences. I follow a lot of academics on Twitter to see what they're doing and what's percolating up. Whether it's computer support or cooperative work or it's Kai potentially or other places.
Yeah, there's so many conferences that former colleagues I know who are doing incredible work are still presenting at and doing things. Communications conferences. I don't know, is this what you're getting at?
AryelCianflone: I'm excited to look Ethnography Matters.
Dan Perkel: Yeah, it's a great one. I try to read books. I try to see what my former colleagues are publishing and what they're pointing to as best I can. I say book reviews are really good sources. This is what we tell grad students as well. Go read book reviews first and see what they're saying, and as a researcher I still go to book reviews as a way to shortcut a lot of that.
AryelCianflone: Yeah that's a god tip.
So I want to jump back for a minute. You were talking about the study in southeast Asia and I would really like to talk about kind of what made you feel in that circumstance, and I know this is kind of a theme of this conversation, right, is the impact, or what made you feel with that project, "Oh yeah we really had impact. I feel like that work mattered."
Dan Perkel: I'm curious when you're asking that question, matter to whom? What's the kind of hope that you have in that question?
AryelCianflone: Yeah, well and we can totally define terms here. That's a good call. I mean to you, because that's the thing as researchers we spend our lives doing this work, and I think we want to make sur that our work is having impact. When I say matter I guess it depends researcher to researcher. For example in your first story, you really were able to change the perspective of this client, and I think that matters, right, especially when that starts to impact the product that they're making.
So with this second story I'm curious. Was it a similar case where you felt like, "Oh the client perspective really changed or the product that they were putting out changed," or what makes you think of that as an example of research having an impact.
Dan Perkel: I think that's a great question. I think in this case we were working with something that is very very early as part of an R and D group, so even that by itself regardless of us was going to be years for them to be putting things out in the world. So we kind of knew it wasn't going to have that -
Dan Perkel: ... immediate. So that's the one thing. I think for us the biggest change there is again when you see our clients are approaching a problem when they start and how they finish.
So when they started they were thinking, "Oh innovation means one thing." That's interesting. That's innovative at the feature level which is fine, but maybe we can be innovative at a much bigger level if we actually understand what else we could be doing. We again saw that transformation in the team that was working with us. It's beyond just a feature ad. It's something much, much bigger or could be much bigger, and then we have to just hope. In this case that that stays. I would say that work has had a lot of impact here especially. There are insights from that work that just for those of us who are on that project or we do internal project shares, they kind of just stick with us, and so in a way it's a little bit of internal teaching and knowledge sharing where it's like, "Yeah." Maybe for the next project going out and doing work in media it's like, "Look what these guys learned when they focused on a certain topic," or "Can we push that idea even further."
So I can't reveal too much about the insights in that one, but it's the same kind of thing. That impact is ... by doing the research and by actually going out and learning and documenting and bringing that. Working with people and then sharing these stories. Future projects are defined differently and future research projects are done differently.
AryelCianflone: Yeah, it's funny. You really can't avoid benefiting yourself when you benefit other people right?
Dan Perkel: Sure.
AryelCianflone: Yeah. Well I'm curious because you're talking about your internal team benefited and you even mentioned earlier in the conversation these relationships that you've maintained with different clients. Like following up with them, and I wonder how do you socialize or communicate what you're finding? How do you archive those things to kind of enable that learning going forward, because I think something that I've seen happen is, "Oh cool we did all these interviews and we learned all this stuff," but a year later, even six months later it's like, "Where is that," or how do we continue to learn from that?
Dan Perkel: Yeah, that's a great question because I'll be honest. It's one that can be tough here because we are a very oral culture which is, I don't know if that's contradictory or not from a company that actually makes a lot of things that are very tangible, but we really believe in the power of storytelling and we also believe almost implicitly that knowledge is produced in communication and relationships. So we, whether self-consciously or not, we kind of embody that.
So we do have systems where we have documents and repositories and people can try to find things, but almost everything we do is like, "Hey where can I learn more about this," and it's like, "Well don't look at this deck. Go talk to this person." That's always the first place to start. That has its drawbacks. I think what's nice about it for somebody like me is having a background in information science the history of knowledge and management is full of really bad systems where you can database and archive everything and then nobody finds it.
Dan Perkel: It's nice that we -
AryelCianflone: 99 percent of people's Dropbox accounts.
Dan Perkel: It's nice that we don't just rely on that, but we are kind of oral and storytelling based to the extreme and so maybe we could do better in terms of finally making those stories easier to access, but it's really important for us to ... I think that's because we believe that like the stories only make sense in the context, and the only way to really understand the context is to talk to the people who are involved is a really critical part of that. The research is always sort of like this fluid thing that what we've learned from it can be adapted and changed over time.
AryelCianflone: Yeah, so just as you were speaking about the relationships involved with this work and the oral nature of this work makes me instantly think of community and really IDEO has created such a community of making people start to think about humans, right? Like at the center of all of our designs and anyway all of that is a long way to get around to my next question which is for you personally, being in this space trying to make design a very human practice, what makes this work meaningful for you? When you're in a project? When you're in southeast Asia or you're in a community center with elderly people. What keeps you here?
Dan Perkel: To me what makes it meaningful ... well first of all I think as somebody who's trained as a researcher, going out and trying to understand what's going on the world, like the world of people. What's going on in their lives, how they're experiencing life is incredibly rich and meaningful, and I'm guessing most of the folks that you talk to have some version of that as an answer. There is something incredibly powerful about just learning about people and seeing their world through their eyes just for a moment, whether it's through the course of an hour and a half interview, or it's a short conversation at a mall, or it's six hours over dinner, or even a longer extended stay. Whatever the case may be, it's like it's amazing to get that experience. It's a huge privilege.
There's that. Even more of a privilege in a way, I don't know but the ability to kind of teach as you go. So everything we do is so collaborative that as a researcher you can't help but be consistently be teaching the practice of research to your colleagues all the time. Whether by demonstrating it or by having side conversations about why we just did the thing that we did, and seeing your colleagues go from, I don't know maybe never having done research before or having done tons of research even though they're interaction designers or industrial designers or brand designers, but starting to see the world a little differently because of their engagement with both me, but also the people then that I have facilitated their conversation with. That's also so meaningful to me. It's like, "Wow I'm really affecting their lives or affecting all of our lives together."
So that's another big source of meaning for me, and then I think just the fact that there is a translation between research and design and how those things go back and forth. Then I get to see, "Wow look at all that stuff we've learned," and then to hang out with somebody who in a matter of hours or maybe days or depending on what it is just like turn our collaborative design efforts then into something that's physical or digital and just beautiful and fascinating. The way they turned an insight into a new problem, and we work on that together, there's certainly a shift to where their passions and skills start to drive the process more, and it's really humbling. You have that and it's like, "Wow, look what we just did and look at what you just did that I couldn't have done." So that's where there's so much meaning.
So maybe you combine those levels of meaning together. Maybe that's a good reason to stick around. It's like you get to do that like literally all the time, and then you get to go from project to project, and if you have a project where two months go by and you're like, "You know this project's not great. This is kind of a drag." It happens. There's another project coming. You have something else you can work on if you're tired of a certain topic and you've been doing it for a while, you have power here. You can see to try and work on something different, and I think that's also another reason. You can never get bored here. It's impossible to get bored here.
AryelCianflone: That's a great insert. Each level is great in its own way, and I think defintely the first level that you mentioned of just the opportunity to see the world through someone else's eyes I think as human beings we're after that all the time, right? You see that by us going to the movies, making art, reading books. We're constantly after that, but the interesting thing I think about this space is that you get to do that with another actual human being in front of you as opposed to a book or a movie or something that maybe gives you even deeper or a more unique perspective, but it's still removed. There isn't that face to face interaction with another human being.
Dan Perkel: Yeah, absolutely.
AryelCianflone: Yeah, so one last question. You just mentioned the opportunity to get to work with someone actually take these insights and make them real so quickly which I think is super unique and the skills that are kind of at play with that, and I would love to hear from your perspective as someone who really has had this broad spectrum of experience from academia to design research to now design lead. I would love to know what are the skills you feel like have been most important in your practice and in successfully being able to get those insights that allowed those people to make something amazing right in front of you.
Dan Perkel: Another great question. You ask very good questions.
A bunch of things come to mind. I don't know if these are in a prioritized list. I don't know if these are the most ... if I'm ranking them in any way subconsciously. The skill of listening and observation. These are things that we do everyday and as part of our lives, but if you've ever taken a methods course or been an apprentice to somebody who's kind of a master at this, and I don't even consider myself there yet, you realize that there is a lot of skill involved in seeing things a certain way, and clearing your mind. I think in Steve Portugal's book, "Interviewing Users," somewhere in there he talks about you're not only ... in the interview for example, you're not only talking to somebody, you're also monitoring everything going on at the same time which is an incredibly hard thing to do.
When I was first starting out, I didn't even realize that was a thing I should be trying to do or that's skill I was working on, and then years and years and years in you're like, "Oh yeah that is what I do," and "Oh I am probably better at it than other people who have never sharpened that skill."
So that ability to listen, to monitor to do all of those things at the same time, that's a really important skill. Another one I think reading like the skill of reading and knowing how to apply these things, and that really gets into like when you think about reading and interviewing and observing. There's a skill to synthesis, so both the analysis and the synthesis which is really a critical part of our process here. It's maybe an undervalued part of the general research practice. I know we like to focus a lot on field methods, but the importance of synthesis and how to get into pattern finding and clustering and turning that into stories and knowing which things you're just going to let go of given a particular context.
Again I think that's also a skill and a practice. How do you work on that? I guess you just do it a lot. You know it's something to be done and then try to work on it. There are more. Storytelling is incredibly important. I think folks you've talked to before have also pointed this out, but it's not so much the ability to go out and find things, but to be able to communicate it both to yourself, to your teams, to your clients, and creating rich documentation of research isn't just documenting it, but it's also finding new things in the research.
So you might see things through photographs or through video or through media that through the process of telling the story you're actually learning new things about what you saw. So storytelling itself is important for communication but also for finding insights. That's a really important skill, and that could be storytelling through Dex, you know at a PowerPoint using video or audio. The more skilled you get at being able to tell your own stories and not relying on others and communicating them in a kind of multi-modal way, in a visual way and a textual way. I would really recommend folks work on, any researcher to work on storytelling.
If they're an academic researcher to understand that the research report in academia is a particular form of storytelling that's important, but there are other forms out there in the world that will also have importance in understanding your audiences. There's more. Design skills, always vital to a design firm. I could go on and on, so maybe I'll stop.
AryelCianflone: No I'm glad that you brought those ones up particularly storytelling because especially when we're talking about, you mentioned bringing a client along for the ride, and having that impact is really being able to tell the story at the end when someone comes to your desk and they're like, "Tell me about this project."
Dan Perkel: Yeah.
AryelCianflone: That's why I love that one. Well thank you so much for taking the time today, Dan.
Dan Perkel: Absolutely, thank you.
AryelCianflone: It's been so cool to hear from you.
Dan Perkel: Sure, yeah and thank you as well. It's a privilege to have a chance to talk about this stuff.
Thanks for listening. If you want to continue the conversation, join us in the slack group. You can request an invite under the community tab on our website mixed-methods.org and if you have a second, write a review of Mixed Method wherever you listen. It helps a ton. Special thanks to Danny Fuller our audio engineer and composer and Laura Levit our design mastermind.
See you next time.