Use a Listening Session Approach for Better Design & Innovation Research
This blog is intended to offer a high-level description of a qualitative data collection method called Listening Sessions that can yield deeper understanding of people’s reasoning, emotions, and guiding principles. This approach is particularly valuable for practitioners of design research, and for those who contribute to the innovation process.
This approach was developed by Indi Young, who invented Mental Model Diagrams (MMDs) when she was one of the founding members of Adaptive Path. Find her at IndiYoung.com. When I interned with Indi, I learned this approach as part of her methodology. Adopting this approach made me a better interviewer for the Discovery work I do in Service Design.
Research for Design – it’s Not Designing a Calorie Tracking App, it’s How to Look Good at a Reunion
Research for design and innovation is tasked with understanding how people make decisions as they progress toward achieving a purpose. The “thing” that’s being designed, like an app, is always part of a larger goal. For example, I want to keep track of my calories by using a tracker on my phone. The thing being designed is the tracking app. But my larger purpose is to look good at a reunion. The app will help me in that goal.
For innovation, it’s not just about one thing (the app), it’s also about what else the company can do to support me in trying to look good at my reunion. Needs will be surfaced that the company can decide whether they want to pursue supporting. Revealing these needs, figuring out how to support them in a competitive way, and commercializing them is fundamental to innovation.
Change Your Mindset from Interviewing to Listening
Conducting qualitative research for design and innovation requires a shift in mind-set. It requires that you “listen” rather than “interview.” You may be thinking, “I have been listening to people for my entire career — I listen for a living!” That’s how I felt, too. Then I learned that an Interview is to a Listening Session as Moderating is to Facilitating. They look similar, but the intent, the process, and the outcomes are different.
There Are Two Critical Differences between an Interview and a Listening Session
First, Listening Sessions belong to Problem Space research; Interviewing tends to belong to Solution Space research.
Problem Space research is concerned with how a person (not a user) thinks and reasons their way to achieve a goal. It is disconnected from a particular company, brand, product, or service. Problem Space research is foundational and can be used to fuel many solutions.
An easy way to think about Problem Space research is that the research focus would be just as relevant to someone your grandparent’s age as it would be to your grandchild’s. Examples include: How do you groom yourself for an important day at work? How do you decide to attend a performance? How do you prepare for a good night’s sleep? How do you make yourself look good to see people at an important get-together?
Solution Space research involves speaking to people about their relationship or an experience with a product, service, or brand — i.e., the solution. The words “users”, “members,” “customers,” and “employees” imply a relationship with a “solution.” Product development, marketing communications strategy and tactics, brand positioning, customer experience mapping, packaging, user experience, and content development are all examples of solution space research.
The table below summarizes the difference between Problem Space and Solution Space research.
The second difference is that you listen for and nudge people to reveal what is underneath a preference, opinion, explanation, or description. Compare this to a Solution Space IDI where we are often interviewing for Perceptions, Opinions, Behaviours, and Attitudes (shout out to Naomi Henderson for her acronym POBA) around a brand, a product, etc. In the Problem Space, when POBAs are articulated, we take them as our cue to nudge people further into their thinking, their feelings, or the “code” they live by to identify what is underneath.
These two differences make an enormous difference in the approach between being a Listener and being an Interviewer.
Difference 1: There is no Guide
In a Listening Session, there is no Interview Guide. The conversation begins with the study scope question, like, “Tell me about how you made sure you looked your best for your reunion…” And it continues from there. In this example, the participant may or may not have used a calorie counter app. They may have used one from a competitor. (Note, they would have been recruited such that they prepared to look their best for their reunion.)
In place of a guide, there is a disciplined ear; the Listener nudges the participant when they hear more surface descriptions. The box to the left summarizes different types of surface descriptions that need nudging to get more depth. The box to the right provides some examples of question stems that will redirect participants to reveal their thinking, reasoning, and emotions.
Difference 2: The Conversation Is Free from Externally Introduced Topics
In many guides, there are questions that we — and our clients — want answered, like reactions and opinions about things participants have not brought up. In a Listening Session, nothing is introduced or queried that hasn’t already been mentioned.
Difference 3: Outputs Are the Starting Point for Innovation and Design
In the Solution space, research outputs are usually an “answer” of sorts: which product package should be produced? Which creative delivered the message most compellingly? Which call to action content resulted in the most conversion?
In the Problem Space, Listening Sessions identify people’s needs as they progress toward a goal or purpose. These needs are the starting point in the organization’s quest to figure out solutions (services, products, experiences) that better support people. Examples include: a website that is more reflective of their needs, a calorie tracking app that corresponds more closely to their purpose of looking good for others.
In other words, while qual in the Solution Space tends to supply the “answers” to problems, qual in the Problem Space tends to supply the “questions” that spur a company to explore one or more directions.
Try a Few Question Stems and See Where it Leads
Integrate a few question stems into your conversation; when a participant say,s “Mostly we go to movies on Wednesday night…”, ask, “How did you figure out that works best for you?” When someone describes a statement of fact — like a describing a scene — ask, “what’s going through your mind in that scenario?”, to get them back to their own thinking and feelings.
For more than 30 years, Kunyi has helped organizations deeply understand the people they wish to serve and assist them in using this understanding to make decisions and move forward with more certainty and less risk.
She is a senior consultant at Mara Consulting, working to help organizations improve service delivery through technology, privacy & security, business consulting, and human centered design.
Linked In: linkedin.com/in/kunyi