How to Design Contextual Research

November 3, 2015 by UX-RADIO


Welcome to UX Radio, the podcast that generates collaborative discussion about information architecture, user experience, and design.

Today’s spotlight is on Kendra Shimmell, managing director of Cooper. As an educator and designer, Shimmell is at the forefront of product strategy, design, and business innovation. And her sweet spot is research. Proper contextual research. Kendra Shimmell understands how to ask the right questions and has a keen eye for observation. In this podcast Kendra talks about how she discovered design and the progression of her career as a designer. And now your host, Lara Fedoroff.

Lara Fedoroff:            Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

Kendra Shimmell:        While I was taking my other classes I did a trade school, studying printing and graphic arts. And had an internship – actually had two internships. One of them was working at a little paper, kind of printing and designing the ads and the stories and doing page layout. And for a 16 year old this was a really big deal.

 The other internship was at a place called Holland Litho and I learned to run a large lithography press. And just hung out with the crew there, got to know what it was like to be in the real world working. At that time I didn’t really know that that was related to anything I wanted to do. But I screen-printed a lot of t-shirts, you know, back in the lab there. I made stickers. I did the typical high school thing, you know, so the stickers were all over everyone’s car and we were stoked at how cool we were.

I started taking philosophy and psychology classes at the local community college. And I thought, “Oh maybe this is what I want to do.” So I was really in this mode of going, “Is this what I want to do, is this what I want to do?”

And eventually I thought, “I’m going to study occupational therapy.” And so I worked in a group home, and I was taking my classes and I became a legal advocate for one of the patients in the home, and went through the process of learning what that means. It’s somebody who can’t advocate for themselves and so you advocate for them, with physicians, in terms of getting them funds for certain things that they need, and just making sure that generally that the community of caregivers is giving them the care that they need.

And I was 18 or 19 at that point and it was a pretty eye-opening experience, so what I started to do was realized that this gentleman that I was working with a lot had a hard time learning a lot of things, doing a lot of things. So I started experimenting with bringing – and I worked with his care providers on treatment plans – and we would bring him for rides down, like a gravel road so that his head would bounce a little bit, and it would stimulate something, and he would pay attention for a short window of time. So we figured out that if you got him to kind of move he could focus more. So we would create this curriculum or these little activities that he would do during his windows of awareness to help him learn how to do things. Things like tie his shoe, that kind of stuff.

And I also started designing this different little tools and games to help him learn things. And I’ve always made things, even when I was a little kid, if I got a toy for the holidays my parents would not put it together, I would put it together. I would look at the picture and I would construct the thing. So I got really excited about this and I thought, “Okay maybe this is what I want to do. Maybe I want to be a designer.” And for me at that point the definition of design was really broad.

So I started checking into programs around industrial design, and graphic design, and information design, and this was around the time – this was in the ’90s – and it was around the time that we were hearing more and more about the internet, and I thought, “Okay, well maybe there’s something there but I don’t really get it.” So I found this program at the Ohio State University, and it was a foundational program, a bachelor’s of science in design that covered product design. So it was a product design program that focused on products at scale, so industrial design. It also focused on information design. It had a strong research underpinning. And then we also did interior architecture and space planning. So it was really this very holistic thing. And the intention of this program is for you study – it was kind of foundations in Swiss design, and you study the basics of design and you figure out what it is you want to do, where you want to focus. And then you go this excruciating test and admission process to pick your area of focus. So I focused in visual communications, still with a big ___ on brand and product, sort of the intersection of brand and product, and research.

Went through that program. My thesis ended up being around design research for service design in retail environments. So I designed this whole shoe store and the communication. I actually designed the environment, like the physical environment, the point of purchase, the information online about it, and really did the research with our customers and sort of help them transform and pivot their brand, because when I thought about brand then, I didn’t think about logos. I was thinking about the cohesive experience. Now we call it the design for experience, we used to call it brand. It’s kind of similar.

From there I started doing internships. My first internship was with technology enhanced learning and research and it kind of turned into a job. It was with the Ohio State University and I helped to create asynchronous online learning environments. And the topic that I was helping teach about was plant pathology. I didn’t know anything of plant pathology and so I really had to use the research techniques that I had learned in my other design classes, and really begin to interview people who were experts both in practice and in the university, to learn about what it was that I was going to be creating stuff to communicate about.

That was a really good learning experience. And also when you’re helping with communication of curriculum and also creating a cohesive learning environment that’s online, it’s a challenging thing. So it was a really awesome experience to have right out the gate while I was still at the university.

My second internship was with the Ohio State House and that one also turned into a job. And that one was in studying and communicating about the law making process, and so I was right there – there were senators walking around – and really trying to understand, how do I help connect the general population with what it is that these people are doing, that’s going to wildly impact the lives of the general population? So that was my mandate there.

And again, really heavy in trying to ramp up on a topic or a subject area that I am absolutely not an expert in. I did not study political science. So how do you ramp up? You interview and synthesize themes that come out of it. Try to understand as much as you can about that particular topic. Not to be the expert, but distill the messages of the experts out.

Lara Fedoroff:            And communicate it clearly in a way people can intake the information, understand it, and use it.

Kendra Shimmell:        Yeah. And so one of the projects I was involved in there was – the State House is actually a museum and so this is in Columbus, Ohio. It was all around creating an experience while exploring the State House that helped you learn about the law making process.

After that I got my first full-time job. When I had my internship with Nationwide I was about to graduate and so I realized that I had an opportunity to step right into a role. At that time they were building a user experience division in the company, which is kind of crazy because it’s a financial and insurance company, and that was like 2002, that they were already thinking in those terms. And they were doing proper, contextual research.

That was part of what I was brought in to do, is I developed research methodologies, went out into the field, I met with insurance agents, I met with customers that were purchasing these products, you know, and really felt that insurance, in general, is super abstract. You’re really buying a promise and nothing more. I met with people and learned about their stories about when their house flooded or burned down and how devastating that is, and what the company could have done in service of helping them throughout that experience, or to better prepare for that experience.

And so again, really cool first job to have out of school. I was part of designing and launching an online auto insurance quote, and this all sounds like, “Oh whatever.” We all take that for granted now, but this was really right in the beginning of when all of this was happening. You know, of kind of figuring out e-commerce online.

I worked with Chris Rockwell, who is the president of a company called Lextant, and he and I really enjoyed working together, and eventually I had a chat with him about potentially working at Lextant and he hired me.

Then I spent the next six years or so at Lextant, and what I did there was I quite quickly became the Director of Design, Research, and User Experience Design. My role was to really be mindful of defining what problems companies should be solving in the first place, and this goes way beyond the screen. We would be defining whole product portfolios and service design, and so it was really about looking at the end-to-end customer experience, for everything from medical devices to consumer products, retail. It was pretty broad.

I had the opportunity to lead a couple of programs that really impacted me, and it was really awesome to have the opportunity to go into these companies and really help them shape from the ground up – for example, look at an end-to-end medical procedure. And look at everything from patient intake and what that experience is like, all the way through looking at and studying how cardiologists and radiologists could be more successful overcoming a certain type of heart lesion. And looking at their sources of information, how they planned for the procedure, how they conducted – and looking at that entire ecosystem and thinking that way, and coaching and working with clients so they were thinking that way, and being able to identify all of these touch points throughout that experience where we could really transform it. Whether it was redesigning the packaging so that it minimized data entry errors. You know, you can make part of the package sticky. Stick it to the glass. The data entry behind that – there’s things that are even more technologically advanced now, but it was something that was observed, that there was multiple devices used in this procedure and they would set the packaging aside, and then someone would go in at the end of the procedure, capture all of that packaging, and then enter it for insurance purposes. You know some of it gets thrown in the trash, some of it ends up on the floor and so we identified that as a real issue.

They were testing devices that made loud buzzing noises during procedures when patients were awake, and the procedure would not go as well if the patient’s heart rate increased. But the minute someone is awake even though they’re sedated and they hear a buzzing noise, their heart rate increases because it’s stressful. And so we were really able to identify all these really subtle things that made the end-to-end experience better. That was awesome.

So over the years working there I hired an intern and her name was Alexa Andrzejewski. And her and I worked together for several years on a bunch of different projects and she eventually ended up leaving and going to Adaptive Path. And a few years after that, she came in and grabbed me from Lextant and brought me to Adaptive Path and we worked together there.

So my advice to anyone who is trying to advance their career, learn more, whatever, is to be absolutely hungry about any topic. Whether it’s auto insurance, cardiology, plant pathology. Realize that in the middle of that topic there is somebody that is totally passionate about it – the professor that’s dedicated years to it. And there’s also a whole other community that wildly needs the expertise of that person. And as a designer you’re a facilitator of that. You’re a facilitator of that relationship. You’re a facilitator of helping those two groups achieve their goals and that’s really exciting, so be wildly, wildly hungry. Always hungry to learn more, to listen, to investigate.

I carry a notebook with me everywhere I go and I listen to people’s conversations – I mean it’s kind of creepy actually. You never want to be on the bus or the train next to me because I’m totally listening to your conversation. I take photos, I document, I mean the world is full of inspiration and full of insight, and just be hungry to learn and realize that your network, the people that you meet – and do it authentically – if you don’t connect with someone, if you really don’t emotionally connect with them, don’t invest time there.

Find the people that you share interests with, passions with, that you truly connect with, and pay attention to those relationships, because you’re just going to help one another throughout your entire career because that’s what we do. We’re a relatively small community and we’re here for one another.

Lara Fedoroff:            Well it sounds like from your experience at Ohio State that you really had such an amazing opportunity to see all these different facets of design, but along the way you put together this sort of amazingly detailed process for investigation. But not only that. It’s not only asking the right questions and asking several questions and observing. I think something so unique about you is also being able to translate that into a higher level of product or service. Something that is delightful. Something that does surprise them and not only meeting the basic expectations, kind of, but surpassing that.

Kendra Shimmell:        And I think that comes from generally having a love for life. And when you really enjoy life and are really present with what brings you joy, really observant about what brings other people joy. And joy might mean totally different things, depending on context.

I mean what brings a cardiologist joy during his procedure, that’s a funny term to use in that context, but there are things. It might be they’ve developed a special relationship with the patient and they have made a promise, or commitment to helping them get through a lesion or get through a situation that their body is presenting. That maybe they’ve been to two or three other cardiologists beforehand and have been unsuccessful. And they’ve made that commitment, so joy in that context is really following through on their promise to their patient.

And joy in the consumer product world is very different, but I think having a zest and joy for – and really enjoying life, you’re looking for ways to amplify people’s experience, and you’re looking for ways to give them joy, because that’s my posture. I think the world is really funny and I have a lot of fun, and I want other people to as well.

My main mission is to just acknowledge that life is chaotic. People are overworked, over connected, stressed out, and my mission is to help all of that suck a little bit less, and to bring a lightness to people’s experience so they can have fun.

Lara Fedoroff:            It sounds like you probably have a lot of opportunity to amplify the experience at Cooper with all the different clients that you have, but what do you hope to be your legacy? Your leave behind? What is the thing that you dream for?

Kendra Shimmell:        These are the two daydreams that come up. The one is that I kind of imagine this world where on talk shows and in pop culture, there’s a lot more knowledge and sensitivity to this relationship that all of us are having, not just with one another but with these things that we interact with all the time. It sounds funny when I say it but it’s really about a general sensitivity to the fact that this stuff can either mediate communication and enable people to have a really awesome day, or it can just totally get in the way and be a complete joy kill. And I want people to be more observant of the experiences that they have.

I love comedians because comedians are really observant and really stick it to shit experience. They observe human behavior, they make fun of it, they’re so clear about what’s going on around them.

Comedians are some of the most observant and spot on community in terms of being connected with the truth and oddities. And comedians are wickedly observant and are able to really pinpoint people’s pain, and acknowledge funny things that we do even when we know we should be doing things differently. And they’re really great at identifying patterns of behavior and poking fun at when products and services do ridiculous things, or when our government does ridiculous things.

And I think that the more and more that design as a role and as a contributor to all of this is – designers as contributors to all of this – is talked about and just kind of a general part of how pop culture, how the general population talks about things, that’s a future I’d like to see. That’s not super aspirational, it’s just more about bringing the conversation, and the practice in the profession, and the impact it has on the world both good and bad, into everyday conversation.

The other thing, and this is the aspirational one, is I want to see designers as leaders in business, first and foremost. I think that we’re great at facilitating other people who are experts in a variety of things that we are not experts in. And I think we’re really good at distilling and synthesizing out of that where there are challenges, where there are new business opportunities, where there are opportunities to really connect with people in a way that’s going to bring meaning into their lives.

I really don’t like it when designers act like designers are going to save the world. I don’t think we are going to save the world. Teachers are going to save the world. But what we are going to do is we are going to observe people’s experience in a very raw and real way, and acknowledge where things are out of sync with people’s goals. Acknowledge where things are out of sync with the environment, the ecosystem of the business that this is all part of too. Or the actual physical environment. So we’re not going to save the world, but we are going to point at lots of problems and identify opportunities. And I think that we’re the ones that tend to both challenge and provoke, but also be able to walk this line of facilitating business marketing, engineering – when we’re at our best.

So I want to see designers striving to be the leaders of businesses. I want to see designers be the leaders of our big businesses because I think putting empathy and candor and a little bit of humor into these big important roles, really helping these business see how they can, A, design a business model that makes money, and, B, be very aware of the life or the lives that are part of the world that their product is kind of plopping into the middle of, and the impact on those lives. And impacting them in a more positive way. That’s a big deal and I think that designers are equipped to do that.

Lara Fedoroff:            That’s good. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

Kendra Shimmell:        I appreciate it. This is fun.

Announcer:     Thanks to Perry Norton for voice over and audio production to Steve Crosby for digital development and original score piece by Cameron Meshell.

This episode is sponsored by WeWork. Meaningful connections are essential to the success of every entrepreneur, freelancer, and small business owner. At WeWork, meeting new people and having interesting conversations is natural and effortless. From the design of the WeWork space to the events at their buildings, WeWork does everything they can do to support the idea that if one of us is successful, we all benefit. So whether you’re asking for advice, looking for product feedback, or just meeting like-minded entrepreneurs, WeWork is a seamless extension to the community. For more information, go to WeWork dot com. That’s w-e-w-o-r-k dot com.

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Kendra is Managing Director of Cooper. As an educator and designer, she has brought product strategy, design, and business innovation to companies ranging from Fortune 500s to startups in a range of categories, from healthcare systems and medical devices to retail environments, consumer electronics, financial services, enterprise management, and more.

In addition to developing Cooper’s groundbreaking UX Boot Camp, Kendra also created Cooper’s popular Design Leadership course from the ground up, offering new tools for designers to lead and succeed in business.

Always with a soft spot for healthcare, she initiated Cooper’s partnership with Rock Health, which has since grown to a successful mentorship program, matching Cooper designers with their healthcare startup teams.

Active in the design community, Kendra has served on the Board of Directors of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) and speaks at numerous industry events.

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