The research funnel - iteration 2

Last year when I'd been in my job at Monotype a few months, I wrote about something I'd thrown together called the Research Funnel. Since then I've moved teams, been joined by a colleague and am now focusing on research across the whole of Monotype rather than just one business unit. When I first showed the funnel to my new colleague Dave, we decided that this could be a really useful tool for us to use as we talk to the different business units. We iterated upon it and it now looks like this. 

The research funnel

As I wrote about previously, research should be designed to address a problem - either to solve it or to get closer to a solution. The funnel categories describe research as something that can and should happen at every stage of a product/project lifecycle. They describe how close you are to the problem or solution. At the top of the funnel you are furthest from the problem and at the bottom you are closest to the problem. 

It also describes how broad the data collection should be - how wide or deep to go. The funnel isn't one way and research doesn't necessarily need to move through the stages in order. For example, insights from the bottom of the funnel can be dripped back into the top or middle of the funnel to inspire creativity, inform strategy or provide direction and tactics.

Much of the day to day research done in the web industry sits in the tactical and operational research categories and is often handled within product/production teams directly rather than centralised siloed research teams. Tactical and operational research work really well in agile and 'everything all the time' workflows and in ongoing product development. Exploratory and strategic research work well in a 'discovery phase' in a waterfall workflow or at the start of a redesign or new project. You often can't do strategic or exploratory research without data gathered operationally though. Whilst analytics give us a lot of detail, they need charting, tracking and interpreting to be useful. We need to think about what this builds into - how we join the dots into a bigger picture or strategy.

I believe that good research helps you to make good decisions. I think that research and experimentation should be a way of working and approaching design or content creation. Experimentation through research can bring a sense of playfulness and curiosity to your work. Research can bring you closer to solving the problem and meeting the needs of your users.

Industry Conf further reading

Yesterday I did a talk entitled "Research is Everyone's Job" at Industry Conf in Newcastle. I had a bunch of links and resources to recommend for further learning/reading but rather than post them on slides, I thought it would be easier to post them here.



Workplace exclusion

My six year old came home from school upset today. Her best friend didn't want to play with her and instead wanted to play with the friend who was going to tea at her house. My daughter felt excluded and upset. She didn't understand why she couldn't join in too. I comforted her by telling her that I understood and felt the same way sometimes.

Social exclusion is something I've struggled with since being a teenager. I've definitely been excluded by both friends and colleagues in the past. The most painful times have been deliberate. Most of the times I haven't found out the reasons but I've guessed. There were pretty standard reasons why you might choose to disassociate yourself socially with someone in your school years - I was a 'swot', I went to church, I had a weird surname, I had awkward teenager appearance issues - bla bla bla. The workplace exclusion issues were equally obvious - I got promoted over other colleagues, I worked hard and took my job seriously, I stood up for colleagues others bad mouthed - yadda, yadda, yadda.

Since running my own business, workplace exclusion isn't something I have felt quite so much, other than the obvious 'I am your boss not your friend so sometimes you might not like me.' Mark and I tried to create a healthy, honest, collaborative culture at our company. We talked to our team as much as possible, involved them in decision making and asked that they raised issues before they escalated into problems. For the most part, it worked well.

Since our team joined Monotype, we've been exposed to different team cultures and ways of working. We are now part of distributed teams working in offices and remotely across the world. Our team communicate constantly and work very iteratively, other teams are very structured and more formal, some are siloed and very ad hoc. It's really hard to get right and suit everyone's preferences. Inevitably people get left out - this has happened quite a lot to me, quite unintentionally. My role is new and people didn't know to include me! I work at home more than I used to so I have sometimes missed ad hoc conversations. Whilst not deliberate, sometimes it's hard not to take it personally.

Some of the things I find helpful are structured times for face to face conversations so I know I get to have an actual conversation with my colleagues. Daily stand ups are great - both in the studio and dialling in remote workers. The structure of 'what I did yesterday, what I am doing today and what I need from others' is a level playing field and forces even the quietist person to talk. It gives everyone a voice. Likewise weekly production meetings or project catch ups are a great extended version of stand ups - everyone has a say and goals and outcomes are tracked.

For remote teams, social/project software such as Slack, Twitter, Yammer and Basecamp are great for keeping in the loop about things. They can also be a massive time suck and extremely distracting. We are still working on the 'we shouldn't be talking about this here - let's talk in person.' As well as in person meetings, Skype and Google hangouts are great for this kind of talking - hearing the intent in someone's tone of voice and seeing people's expressions! Conference calls are still somewhat buggy and tricky to arrange however with multiple time zones, internet inconsistencies and busy schedules.

Mostly though, nothing beats face to face communication which often means travelling or going into the studio when it would be easier for me to work at home. It's easy to feel paranoid and excluded when I'm squirrelled away at home working on something mostly on my own. I don't know the in jokes, what the latest news is, or what someone's new haircut looks like (because who puts everything online for the benefit of the one or two remote workers?). To stop this, I make sure to spend part of the week in the studio. Likewise, how do my New York or Boston colleagues know I'm not a bossy, annoying person if they never meet me and only get emails asking for things? And how do I stop myself worrying about people thinking these things - get on a plane and get to know them of course!

It's our responsibility to be inclusive in our workplaces and not exclude others deliberately. It's easy to be comfortable and lazy in the way and whom we communicate with. To sustain a collaborative working culture, there should be openness and honesty from everyone. It's easy to place blame on the other party when we feel excluded - I am my own worst enemy in this respect - but we have a duty to ourselves to stop and think whether it actually might be our own behaviour that's causing the feelings. If you feel a divide, or a wall between you and a colleague or boss, it's your responsibility to bridge it or knock it down.


Let children be children

I overheard someone refer to climbing, abseiling and aerial rope activities as 'boys stuff' earlier - her son had enjoyed trying out these things on a recent family trip. I was bemused but also started raging a bit. In my 6 and a half years as a parent, I've got used to hearing diggers, cars, trains and so on referred to as 'for boys', even by my own daughters. I've encountered lots of times where I've had interesting or tricky conversations with my two girls about what is 'for boys' or 'for girls' after they've come home from school having formed an opinion after talking to friends and peers. Children are children but they don't have sophisticated existing opinions at age 6. They get opinions and ideas from other places (including peers) such as parents, teachers, other adults, television, books, games and by example and so on. If your 6 year old hears you refer to an activity as 'for boys', what will they think?

Daughter number 1 enjoying a bungee trampoline earlier this year

Daughter number 1 enjoying a bungee trampoline earlier this year


At the beginning of September, my 6 year old started Beavers with some of her friends. It's a brand new Beaver group in our town and had a long waiting list. It turned out her and her best friend were the only girls amongst a group of around 18. She had a wonderful time and came home enthused and excited. Her friend however found the experience difficult as the boys were very excited and boisterous and she didn't want to go back. My daughter was really upset. She found the confidence to go to something new and unfamiliar through being with her best friend but couldn't face going on her own amongst a big group of boys. I was gutted for her. This was the first time in her little life that she'd gone straight into an activity without clinging to my legs, crying, making a fuss or hesitating nervously. She'd run in, not looked back and had a lovely time playing games. I'd been really keen for her to try Beavers as the activities the leader has planned sound wonderful - adventurous things, outdoors things with nature, crafty things, fun games and more. Not particularly 'boyish' or 'girlish', just simple, natural and fun. I didn't want to press her to go on her own without her friend as I understood how she was feeling but I still can't help feeling sad that no other parents of girls had the same idea as us.

I've climbed trees and enjoyed adventurous outdoors activities since I was a tiny girl. I was a Girl Scout, and enjoyed trying out loads of cool outdoorsy stuff with the help and guidance of leaders until I left age 20. Since then, I've hiked, kayaked, bungee jumped, climbed, abseiled, dived, snowboarded, surfed, and camped my way around the world. Is any of this 'for boys'? I don't think so. I've often been the only girl or one of the only girls doing these things but does that mean I'm different or weird? I don't think so. I'm just me. Last time I looked, I was definitely a girl. I definitely have girls apparatus - I've given birth to two children and breast fed them both. I sometimes wear dresses and makeup. I tick the 'female' box on surveys and forms. Yes, yes, I'm definitely a girl. I'm no less feminine because I get a kick from throwing myself down a mountain with a plank of wood attached to my feet or climbing to the top of a very high wall with only a rope and a caribeena holding me up.

Daughter number 2 climbing a tree earlier this year

Daughter number 2 climbing a tree earlier this year

Both my daughters regularly climb trees, hang on monkey bars, make bug homes, try to go very high on the swings and run around shrieking and fighting with each other - these are also sometimes referred to as 'boys things'. They also like to dress up as princesses, play babies, wear sparkly pink shoes and do colouring in and craft which are also sometimes labelled as 'girls things'. I think all these things are called being a child (actually you can also do all these things when you are a grown up too but that's another blog post). Please, please, please: friends, friends of friends and strangers, stop labelling the things our children do as 'for boys' or 'for girls'. Please encourage our children to be open minded and adventurous. Please just let our children be children and experience the world in whatever way they want. 

Researching the research

Whether you're a freelancer or at an agency and working with a client, or you are part of an in-house team, it's a good idea to start every new research project, by asking a few key questions about the business landscape:

  • What is the brief? What is the problem or set of problems I need to research?
  • What is the context? How does this piece of work fit into the bigger business picture?
  • Who are the stakeholders? Who do I need to talk to? Who should be involved?
  • What will the outcomes be? How will this be used? How will this be shared with others?
  • What do we already know? Is there existing research or knowledge we can use?

Very often, a conversation about research seems to take the form of, 'I want to do some user interviews on x.' 'I am going to do a survey to find out about y'.

Now it's commendable that people want to get stuck into solving problems through research but thinking about the bigger picture and the context of the research before you decide on the methodology can help inform the approach, the methods and the type of questions you might ask. It all comes back to the research funnel I've written about previously - knowing where your project lies in the funnel and how close you are to the problem.

Thinking about these key questions in turn:

The brief: You might be focused on testing a particular feature you are designing. If you step back from the immediate problem you are interested in solving and think about the tangental aspects, you might decide to add a set of broader questions to your interview discussion guide and get further useful insights.

Context: You might be focused on the strategy of a particular product, that sits alongside other products in a family of products. Rather than just honing in on your specific product in a customer survey, you could widen out your questions to find out where you share things in common with your sister product.

Stakeholders: If you know that your client has a very opinionated workforce, rather than delivering a research presentation at the end of the project to the team, you might choose to involve them very closely in the research. For example, you could run an internal survey, run stakeholder workshops or even get them to do their own research.

Outcomes: If you find out that the outcome of the research is going to be a whole business strategy, rather than taking a guerrilla 'quick and dirty' approach, you might choose to pay or partner with a research agency. You might run a large scale survey with a really robust sample, that is statistically weighted to ensure there is no bias.

Existing knowledge: If you find out that someone has already done some research in this area, rather than reinvent the wheel, you might decide to instead take a different approach, use a different methodology and focus your work on the gaps or holes in the previous work.

This type of approach doesn't just work for specific projects but also for new jobs or clients. I recently started a new job as Research Director at Monotype. In contrast to my previous in-house research role at the BBC, this was a new position, so the boundaries and remit were more wooly. I have to be honest, I just didn't know where to start getting stuck in. There seemed like so many interesting things happening and so many people and projects where research could help. I decided to get to know other people around the business and understand how research is used and perceived at Monotype. I ran an internal survey which had a 20% response rate and have been arranging meetings and talking to people across the organisation. This has been a tremendously useful exercise and has already informed my approach. I now know the research landscape at Monotype and how my role fits into this. I understand what's in my remit and what falls outside of that. I can see what the gaps are and have some ideas about how to fill them.

It's not often you start a new job but the next time you start working with a new client, why not ask these questions and see if the answers take you in a different direction. Understanding the business landscape and the context that you're working in - researching the research - is the key to making an impact with your research.

Focus groups aren't worthless

I first read about Erika Hall's hate for focus groups in her A Book Apart book 'Just Enough Research'. It rubbed me up the wrong way then but I was prepared to overlook it as Erika's book is one of the main user research books I recommend to people who want to do more research. 

Yesterday Erika wrote in more detail about why she has a problem with focus groups as a methodology on Medium, 'Focus Groups are Worthless.' I found myself again disagreeing with her stance and rather than send several 140 character tweets about it, I thought it might be useful to write some of my thoughts down in long form.

The Medium piece started with this:

"If I achieve one thing with my time here on earth, I might be content if that one thing could be burning to the ground the practice of running focus groups in place of actual user research."

The piece mainly talks about the use of focus groups as a user research tool but there are several places where the whole practice of focus groups as a useful methodology is questioned:

"A focus group is an artificial construct that is so much about the group dynamic." 
"If you are doing market research, and want to keep doing focus groups because that’s your jam as well as your bread and butter, don’t let me stop you (although I invite you to stop yourself). But if you are doing research to inform the design of a product or service, run far away from that two-way mirror."

Now, whilst I don't tend to recommend focus groups to anyone doing user research and haven't actually commissioned or run any myself for the last 5 years whilst running research projects for our clients at Mark Boulton Design, I don't think this is a helpful way to talk about a whole industry (Market Research). It implies that all projects relying on focus groups are worthless. It seems to imply that user researchers are better than market researchers and have better tools. This is either extremely arrogant or extremely ignorant.

Of course, choosing the right methodology for research always depends on the scale of the brief, the goals of the work, the audience, the context, who the stakeholders are and the product or service. I recently wrote about the Research Funnel, a category system I have been thinking about for commissioning and planning user research at Monotype. I talked about how research should be designed to address a problem - either to solve it or to get closer to a solution and there are a range of ways to get closer to a defining a problem or a solution. One of the ways of getting closer to a problem is to run focus groups. An example of this is a large strategic research project I am currently working on. The first stage of my research is internal, individual stakeholder interviews and perhaps some focus groups with various internal teams to establish 'what we already know' and to further define what we think the gaps in our knowledge are and the problems we want to investigate further.

I once worked on a client project where we suggested internal and external stakeholder interviews during our sprint zero. The client came back and said there were 24 people she wanted me to interview. These 24 people were both a range of people with useful experiences and knowledge but also crucial to get 'on board' with the project at an early stage. When we costed this, it soon became clear that this wasn't going to be possible as most of the budget would be used before we'd even got started on the project. We scaled back the number of interviews and did further research later in the project instead. I would also have had no problem suggesting internal focus groups if the team dynamics and company culture had been right for it.  

'Buy in' is such an important thing for a lot of projects, especially when a big change occurs to a service or product. Involving people in research - both directly and indirectly can be crucial to its effectiveness as I've written about previously in the Danger of the Big Research Reveal

"...the times I've seen the most 'lightbulb' moments have been when clients, producers or designers have been fully immersed in the research process and not just a receiver of research findings. Just like in design/client relationships, there is a real danger with a 'big reveal' for research projects too. The Research Debrief, PowerPoint strategy or the 32 page report is not the research. It's an artefact of a conversation, of a collaboration. Being involved in the process is the research and will give you, the decision maker, the insights you need."

There are plenty of ways to involve people in research. I've used plenty of methods including getting my clients at CERN to do their own internal interviews with people we were designing a new app for; sending BBC Wales Senior Managers on 'home visits' to meet their audiences in the context of their own homes and observe life during the early evening when the BBC news programmes are scheduled; I've used members of the audience in ideas workshops; and I've got designers designing their own surveys and running user interviews. I have also commissioned focus groups and invited along managers and production staff to observe them. Yes, in fact, I spent a large portion of BBC Wales's sizeable research budget on focus groups. And it was money well spent for the most part. I have worked with some really fantastic researchers at Market Research agencies in the UK who are smart and progressive and aren't afraid to suggest bold methodologies. I have watched many really well facilitated focus groups by these very researchers. It's quite a skill to do well and I have to say that after facilitating groups myself, it's easier to sit on the sidelines and find fault.

Group discussions can be extremely useful and can evoke responses that interviews might not (if well recruited). Some of the most interesting and useful focus groups I watched were where the moderator used collaborative techniques such as respondent mood boards to produce visual representations of a brand. This kind of exercise really doesn't work well with individuals and needs pairs or more to help tease out interesting discussions. I've seen this work well with card sorting for IA too. Another example of groups being more useful than depth interviews is topics that people have very strong opinions about and can be recruited accordingly such as TV 'soap' fans. The context of TV viewing is often social so friendship groups are a perfect example of a good way to get around people feeling nervous to share their opinions in front of strangers. Watching people argue about whether Eastenders or Coronation Street is best was very enlightening!

An interview situation is also an artificial construct and especially when 'user testing' in a 'lab'. I'm not a big fan of labs but understand the reasons for when they are necessary, some of which I have talked about - people being able to observe research, cost effectiveness, ease of managing and so on. You could throw the same criticisms at labs that Erika throws at focus groups:

"Design for the real world, not the fictional one you’ll hear discussed on the other side of the looking glass."
"User research should be ethnography."

True ethnography is the study of groups and can happen collectively or with individuals. The researcher is supposed to observe and record what happens without interfering too much with events and remaining distant. This isn't really what happens with most user research in my experience. I can't say I've observed anyone officially in this way. I prefer to use the word 'contextual'. User research should be contextual. The context of the customer/respondent/audience should be considered but also the context of the research remit - who is a stakeholder, what the goals are and what the outcomes will be.

Research often has a hard time being taken seriously, clients won't always pay for it and designers don't always have the time or remit to do their own. Debunking a methodology and a whole research industry is damaging and unhelpful. I'm all for discussion of appropriate methods and new ideas but in a positive, supportive way. As researchers we should be promoting best practice and facilitating the conversation about research but not by slinging mud. I want the designers I am encouraging to do their own research to be confident in knowing when to pick one type of method over another but I don't want someone's whole research project to be thought as rubbish by someone else because they once read an article that said focus groups are worthless. There is no 'one size fits all' in my research toolkit. There is no black and white 'this thing is good, this thing is bad'. There is a lot of grey and a lot of it depends. I'd encourage you to take the same approach.

Making a meaningful contribution

I've only ever cried at a job interview once. It was one of the most embarrassing and unprofessional things I have ever done. The reaction of the team interviewing me helped me make the decision to work there after the job offer came through. The way they handled my distress, told me that this was a company that cared.

The company in question was Monotype who acquired our company in April this year. The 'interview' was the due diligence process. The moment I broke down came at the end of two days of very serious discussions. We started to discuss my working hours if the process went in the direction everyone was hoping it would. There was just Mark and I in the room with three of the senior team.

I am not sure why I started to cry. My working hours were stated on my contract that we had shared during the process so it should have been a case of just saying I wanted to work the same number of hours. Thinking back now, it seems so silly but it was the commitment of agreeing to something and of not being able to commit to as much as I'd like to in an ideal world that made me crack. Trying to express my 100% commitment to the process and my excitement for the possibility of working at Monotype but that I could not commit 100% of my time to working there made me feel scared and exposed. Would they still want me/us? 

Jennifer, the VP of HR said a number of reassuring things in that room that made me feel so much better about crying but it was when she said that Monotype was a results orientated business and that it was important for me to feel that I was making a meaningful contribution to that (however much or little in terms of hours), I knew that this was right for me. I wasn't really sure how it would work out entirely but I knew then that this was a company that could be flexible and allowed employees to make decisions about their working hours, working processes or office location to suit themselves and deliver their best work.

I've worked part-time since I went back to work a year after our first child was born six years ago. Everyone is different and I don't judge others on their choices, but this was the best thing for us as a family. I've varied my hours over the last five years - I took nine months off completely when our second child was born and I only did a few hours a week at first for the first two to three months after that. Most recently I've been working between three and a half and four days a week now our children are six and three and both in school for at least part of the day. Occasionally I'll work pretty much a full week, either because I'm travelling or just because things are busy and I have to pick up lots of extra things in my evenings. 

The reasons I choose to work part-time are varied but centre around what I need, what support my husband needs and what my family needs. When I work more, the balance is tipped for me and things tend to suffer at home. I just can't keep the plates spinning, I don't see my kids, my husband is under even more pressure than usual and I just don't feel right with that. When Mark works more, for instance when he's on one of his many work trips abroad, I often feel like I should work less. It's partly psychological I think but there's also the sheer amount of stuff to do when you are lone parenting and I tend to feel pretty tired after a stint of more than a week. With both children in school, both doing extra curricular activities and being invited to parties etc, the amount of juggling can be daunting. The result of this is I often get stressed, I sometimes forget things and I take short cuts with my parenting (letting them watch tv for an easy life anyone?).

When things are 'normal' I am at my best. I am generally motivated, focused and usually pretty productive. I have to leave the studio or my home office at a certain point to pick the children up so if I faff about and spend too long reading Twitter or browsing industry news or articles, I don't get what I need to done. I hate wasting time and whereas before kids, I would often work late, I am now a clock watcher. The downside of this is that I sometimes have to leave half way through something and my brain won't switch off, so I end up logging back on in the evening to finish it.

The other positive side of this work/life balance is that even though it's hard, I really do have to switch off when I am looking after my children or things go pear shaped. I do get a completely different perspective when I am with them and I generally feel more refreshed when I am in work mode. I am also a much happier mummy because I work. I adore my children and I loved being at home full time when I had them both but long-term, it's just not for me.

It boils down to what Jennifer said to me about making a meaningful contribution. If I feel that I'm making a meaningful contribution to the company I am working to build, I'll be happy. The fact that we no longer own the company we're building is no longer important to me. If I am respected by my colleagues for my experience and expertise, produce helpful and necessary pieces of work and facilitate more collaboration and communication of research, I'll definitely feel fulfilled.

The Research Funnel

I'm creating a research knowledge base for those people who conduct, commission or use research across Monotype. It'll be a place to share ideas, resources and examples of good practice. A place we can talk about the research we're doing and how such research can inform decision making. With only one dedicated researcher (me) and some such as the amazing Dr Nadine Chahine, who are part researcher, part designer but many people for whom research forms part of their job, it's important to support a culture of research and insight at Monotype.

I was recently drafting a research plan for some of our products and services and came up with a simple category system for commissioning of all future research. I thought it might help everyone know what kind of research they were working on and what the likely outcomes would be. I called it the Research Funnel. Here's a (slightly messy) sketch I did:

The Research Funnel

The Research Funnel

Research should be designed to address a problem - either to solve it or to get closer to a solution. The funnel categories describe research as something that can and should happen at every stage of a product/project lifecycle and describe how close you are to the problem or solution. Category 5 = furthest from the problem and Category 1 = closest to the problem. It also describes how broad the data collection should be - how wide or deep to go.

If we use our existing product Gridset as an example, here are some ideas of how research could be used along the whole lifecycle of the product.

A category 5 project might be to research a completely new market or underserved customer group. For example, you want to develop a web app for making Responsive Web Design easier. You might have some hunches or assumptions to test - for example, grids and layout are difficult in RWD. You might have some ideas how this might affect different people in different ways - for example, a designer designs a layout and then the front end developer has to work out how to make it work for different screen sizes. You have some broad areas to investigate and an idea of who to speak to. After doing a piece of research like this, you might come up with an idea for an app - Gridset.

A category 4 project might be to do some research to define the strategy for your new app or to define the target users more closely. For example, you have come up with the idea of an app that helps with Grids but you want to create some personas and empathy maps to encapsulate the target users and user needs. 

An example of category 3 project might be once the app has launched, to get some broad feedback of the whole service via a customer satisfaction survey. The outcome might be a set of trackable measures to look at over time.

From your customer satisfaction survey, you may notice a lot of requests for a particular feature - for example, adding SASS capabilities. During the design process for this new feature, you might conduct remote user interviews to get some feedback on your prototype. This would be an example of a category 2 project.

You may have noticed a drop off in the sign up process so you decide to do some A/B testing on the copy used in the user flow. The outcome would likely be a clear difference and therefore a solution but it might be that the results were much the same. In this case, more research or another approach would be needed. This would be an example of a category 1 project.

The way I have described the flow here seems to imply that each stage happens in order but of course research can happen in any order in the funnel - this category system just describes how close you might be to the problem or solution and what the likely outcomes might be. I wrote about using some of these different methodologies - both in-house and agency side - on 24Ways last year. This is the next stage of gathering resources for my knowledge base. Examples, ideas and documentation for how to carry out these different methodologies.

I'd be interested to find out what you think of this system? Is this way of thinking about research helpful? Does it work in practice? Particularly for non researchers - maybe designers (or developers) carrying out their own research. Does this help you come up with an appropriate research solution for a problem you need help with? Does this make you think beyond just the same old methodologies such as user interviews or personas? What can I do to improve this?




This last year has been a bit of a roller coaster for us and I've had a hard time dealing with it at times. We've had a number of life changing events to deal with - the most significant one for us was selling both of businesses and becoming employees again.

At the start of the year I saw an idea posted by one of my friends on Facebook. The suggestion was to write down every little happy moment on a scrap of paper and to collect them all in a jar. On New Year's Eve you look through them all and remember all the happy times across the year. It was a way of being in the moment and being aware of the emotions being experienced at that time - a helpful way of practising mindfulness I thought.

At the start of the year I was really struggling to cope with stress so I started to do this. I made several notes over the first three months of the year - small things like when we had made pizza together and bigger things like my daughter's 6th birthday party on the 6th April.

Earlier tonight I was thinking about a happy time we shared this afternoon. I took both my daughters to the beach near our house after school, where we met a friend and her two daughters. My friend and I were sitting on a rug, catching up on our lives, whilst our children played. As often happens, I was watching out of the corner of my eye for danger but enjoying my discussion with my friend. I was half way through a sentence when Vicky said,

"Hang on, I've got to just go and capture this moment."

and got out her phone to take a photo of our two eldest daughters. They are best friends and thick as thieves at school. I looked over to see them absorbed in a lovely game they were playing, creating and decorating a pretend rabbit hole in the sand. At that moment, the wind and the salt from the sea was blowing through their blond hair, the sun was shining on their freckle kissed, smiling faces and they both laughed at each other, sharing a wonderful intimacy. It was one of those moments that made my heart melt and the love I feel for my first born pour out. I wished I'd been as quick as Vicky with my phone but instead I just sat and drank in the picture.

I was thinking about this as I went about my chores this evening. A couple of weeks ago I went on a yoga retreat in West Wales and practiced some mindfulness meditation whilst I was there. I haven't been doing too well at meditating since I've been back. I was thinking about this moment at the beach and how I needed to get better at mindfulness when I remembered the jar. I decided to add the memory to it and then noticed that the last memory in there was 3 months ago - my daughter's 6th birthday party which took place two days before the acquisition.

I feel sure we've had happy, family memories since then but my mind is blank trying to recall them. Maybe I've been too busy to stop and reflect. Maybe I've just been on the treadmill of life dealing with everything reactively. Maybe I've actually been feeling a lot happier and haven't felt the need to write things down. Who knows.

Now things have started to feel more normal again, we're settling into our new work routine, and the cortisol levels are lowering, I might be able to stop reacting so powerfully to negative emotions as they occur and get better at mindfulness. I am also hopeful that the happy moments I experience, like today, might be easier for me to sit back and enjoy too. Life really is for experiencing.

The danger of the big research reveal

Earlier in the year, I ran an industry survey about the use of research to inform a piece I was writing for Net Magazine. 79% of those I surveyed said that audience/user research played a key role in their decision making process - brilliant! I then asked about audience/user research findings being readily available to them and 22% said 'no' - they didn't have access to such information. This made me sad.

Sad cat was sad

Sad cat was sad

I recently started my new job as Research Director at Monotype. This is a new role for Monotype. Research already happens a plenty at Monotype, it's just that there wasn't one person co-ordinating and joining this up across the division before. It's now my job to pull together all the great research being done, to make sure it's coordinated and really has an influence. It's a little daunting if I'm honest but I'm up for a challenge.

I've written previously about how I think research is everyone's job and can help you make better decisions. I believe that I am not here to get in the way of all the great work already being done and to do every single piece of research, for every single project at Monotype. I see my role as more of a Research Facilitator. My aim is to empower everyone in the team to get involved with research - whether that be running a research project, watching people use our products, drafting a survey or facilitating a session where research insights are used.  

Prior to this job, I've spent an equal amount of time working in agency side research roles and as an in-house client side researcher. In both roles, the times I've seen the most 'lightbulb' moments have been when clients, producers or designers have been fully immersed in the research process and not just a receiver of research findings. Just like in design/client relationships, there is a real danger with a 'big reveal' for research projects too. The Research Debrief, PowerPoint strategy or the 32 page report is not the research. It's an artefact of a conversation, of a collaboration. Being involved in the process is the research and will give you, the decision maker, the insights you need. Discussing, sharing and jointly deciding on outcomes is the important bit.

Getting people involved in the research process is key - get them to be part of a project or to do their own research but also involve them in the analysis. For example, our preferred method of analysis for interviews is the collaborative post it note, affinity sort method (nicely documented on the GDS blog) and preferably this should be done in a physical space. Remote analysis is trickier to get right. The act of sorting and moving physical bits of paper and conversations around this is way easier and (I think) more insightful than the same process via Trello boards and skype or similar. With globally distributed teams at Monotype however, this is something we need to get right.

So, if people are involved that's enough right? Well you may have had the most fantastic collaborative session, 'lightbulbs' going on all over the place and you came up with some fantastic recommendations but this is no good unless you are transparent and share what you have learned. Your process and outcomes need to be captured and documented clearly for others to see. Straight forward and clear is better than snazzy and fancy. You can build on straightforward with snazzy for different audiences who absorb information in different ways after the fact - eg posters, videos, personas, user stories. MailChimp and GDS have documented some interesting ways that they share learnings across their organisations.

I'd argue that sharing specifics is pretty simple but what about the general insights/stuff you learn that's not always the core remit of the research but crops up along the way? What if it might come in useful at another point? How do you capture this without building an expensive and complicated database? Again, with a globally distributed team and research happening across the organisation, the challenge for us is to pull learnings out of individual heads and find ways to share them across teams. 

Two months into my new role and I am still yet to meet many of my new colleagues and get to grips with how things work. There's an awful lot to learn. I am really enjoying it though - being a client side researcher again feels a little like coming home to a comfy pair of slippers.

Five Simple Steps: A New Chapter

A month ago today, I announced that I'd become an employee again as Mark Boulton Design Ltd had been acquired by Monotype. Five Simple Steps wasn't part of the deal. We delivered the news of the closure of Five Simple Steps with heavy hearts. Our friends and industry peers were thrilled for us but the closure of our little publishing business was met with some shock and sadness.

Step forward Craig Lockwood and Amie Duggan, the clever couple behind Handheld Conf, Besquare, Foundershub and later this year, the Web Is. As of Tuesday the 6th May, I'm delighted to say that Craig and Amie are the new owners of Five Simple Steps. Mark and I are thrilled that Craig and Amie are taking over the company. They see the value in the brand and the catalogue of books we have developed and want like to grow and develop the business in ways we would never have been able to.

Mark has talked about some of the business and personal reasons why we could no longer run Five Simple Steps on his blog. We loved what we built but it had become unsustainable. Since the announcement, it's been a tough few weeks working through the transition between old and new. It feels like I've been going through the breakdown of a relationship! The range of emotions I've experienced have been extreme. This wasn't entirely unexpected but hard none the less. It's also been difficult for our team to go through this - this decision was made by Mark and I but they have had to deal with the fall out. They have all been amazing and kept up their professionalism throughout.

At first, we continued to try to find a resolution for Five Simple Steps as a whole that suited each author individually. When that didn't seem possible, we worked hard to support our authors, to help them find a way forward and provide all the necessary information and assets they needed to continue selling their books elsewhere. The major sticking point was the physical stock. No-one wanted a pallet of books turning up on their doorstep. Another sticking point was the lack of cohesion. Despite the authors coming together and supporting each other, there was no place for all the books to exist together anymore. The wonderful thing we'd built was falling apart.

Craig and Amie's proposal came at the perfect moment and just felt right. After a lengthy discussion it was clear we all had the same vision for Five Simple Steps. The decision made itself. Finally, I felt like celebrating! It was going to be ok.

Mark and I are really excited that Five Simple Steps is going to still be alive and kicking and helping web designers everywhere to make great things online. I want to thank our customers everywhere for being part of the first 5 years of Five Simple Steps and I sincerely hope you'll join the next part of Five Simple Steps's journey. We can't wait to see where it goes.

Our paperback legacy

I've become an employee again

Five years ago I decided not to go back to my job at the BBC in Cardiff after a year off on maternity leave. I'd spent 7 years in the Audience Research team and it was time for a new challenge.

I joined Mark to help him run Mark Boulton Design day to day. We both founded the company in 2006 but with a full time job, I hadn't much time to play an active role. Initially I took the Studio Manager role but gradually Mark handed over more of his unofficial hats to me - HR, Marketing, Finance and so on. A year later, we published our first book after Mark's and we were suddenly publishers as well as web design consultants.

As both businesses have grown, we've hired different staff and our roles and responsibilities have morphed and changed. I've most recently been the Commissioning Editor for Five Simple Steps, working closely with our editorial team to commission and develop our Pocket Guide Collections. I've also been able to bring my research background into some of our major client projects. It's been a priviledge. 

Today, I'm joining the team at Monotype as their Research Director and I couldn't be more excited. Since I first worked as an embedded researcher within a production team at the BBC 10 years ago, I have understood the power of breaking down silos and research being part of a product team. Working with clients can be very rewarding as a researcher but to be given the chance to get to the heart of an organisation again and influence it's very core, is something I couldn't turn down.

The decision to join Monotype and close Five Simple Steps has been an enormous one to make. With so many factors and people involved, it has almost felt too big for us to handle. It's been a real rollercoster of a ride running a company. The highs are addictive but the hard times can come at a price. So, this deeply personal decision has also come with a price - to say goodbye to some of what we've been doing. But, in doing so, it will enable me to focus on what I am best at and have real impact at the heart of a product team. 

I'm thrilled to be starting a new chapter of my career today and to be able to bring our amazing team along with me is the icing on the cake. 

Researching research

I've been asked to write an article about research for a web industry publication. Rather than make assumptions and base my arguments on conjecture and speculation, I though I'd better do some research! I've whipped up a quick survey and I'd be really grateful if you could fill it in for me. I'll share the findings in more detail on my blog at a later date. The bigger the sample, the more robust, so please do share and retweet to all web industry contacts.

Thanks in advance!

Why should I sponsor you?

Five Simple Steps and Gridset frequently get asked to sponsor industry stuff. Neither Gridset nor Five Simple Steps has massive budgets for marketing so I quite often have to say no (which is difficult).

Five Simple Steps is a separate company to Mark Boulton Design and pays for itself without any outside investment. Once we've paid our freelancers and direct costs, we split the profits of book sales with our authors. This is different to the standard publishing model where an author gets an advance and a small royalty once that advance is 'paid off'. The upshot of this business model is that we haven't got an endless supply of money to spend on marketing as most of the profit we make is reinvested in the company.

We love supporting the industry and of course getting our brand and books exposed to more potential customers is very important to us, so when we can help, we do. We give away a huge amount of our stock and merchandise for free to community events. We also create a lot of discount codes to give to people and try to work with educational establishments to provide generous discounts for bulk purchasing. 

Anytime a request comes in for sponsorship (monetary) comes in, we think carefully before saying yes. We mostly respond to every individual or company that contacts us but I thought it might be useful to talk about some of the things I would want to know before I agree to give you our hard earned cash: 


  • Listener numbers - weekly, fortnightly, monthly. 
  • Loyalty - how many are frequent listeners and how often do they come back? What is the churn (new listeners versus regular listeners)?
  • Engagement - how long do they listen for on average? Do you have varied listening across your show? Eg more at the beginning and then it drops off? 
  • Demographics - where are they located, who are they, what is their job role, what kind of company or workplace of they work in? 
  • Topics - what are the audience interested in? Is my product a good fit with your topics, your guests and their interests ? How will you talk about my product on your show?
  • Industry benchmark - how does this relate to other podcasts? Why you?
  • Case Studies - can you tell me about how this has worked for other sponsors? Is there a way to track effectiveness?

Conferences and events:

  • Attendee numbers - how many attend on average?
  • Loyalty - do the same people come back time after time, year on year? Are the same companies represented each time you put on your event?
  • Demographics - who are they (gender, age), what is their job role, what kind of company or workplace do they work in?
  • Topics/level of knowledge - are the people who attend going to hear 'big picture', inspirational stuff or practical, skills based talks?
  • Set up - do you have a marketplace I can have a stand, what is the location and event logistics, what other like minded companies will also be there?
  • Supporting channels - will you give me exposure on other supporting channels such as social media, printed materials and so on? 
  • Event specific - what makes your event special or different from all the others, why should I support it?
  • Case Studies - do you have any data on whether there is any/much uptake from your audience via previous sponsors? How can I track the effectiveness of the brand exposure?

I hope this helps you to build up an idea of the kinds of things potential sponsors might be looking for. As I said previously, we like supporting the industry and are always glad to hear from people. If you do need help with collecting this kind of data, I have a lot of previous experience, so please don't be afraid to ask. If I can find time, I might even write another blog post on it.



Well done team MBD

I was pretty chuffed to find out we'd been nominated for four Net Awards today:

As well as these, we helped organise the Line Mode Browser hack days with our clients at CERN which is also nominated for Best Collaborative Project.

Mark has already mentioned that it's great to get a 'pat on the back' from the industry but I wanted to talk a little bit more about the fact that I'm thrilled to get this recognition for our team.

Nathan tweeted earlier:

All from 7 ppl in a coach house in Wales. 2013 @netmag noms:
@markboultondsg, agency
@fivesimplesteps, team
@gridsetapp, app
@CERN, redesign

There are just seven of us at Mark Boulton Design, and along with our freelance book keeper Jan, and freelance Five Simple Steps editor, Owen, we (get paid to) work with fantastic clients such as CERN, Al Jazeera, ESPN and UCL, and run Five Simple Steps and Gridset (I have to pinch myself sometimes when I actually stop to consider this).

There was a time when people thought that Mark equalled Mark Boulton Design and whilst he is the most visible member of our team, it's great to see the other individuals and the work we do collectively recognised. Of course, Mark is still at the forefront of what we do and is a daily inspiration to us but Mark and I both recognise and acknowledge that we/our businesses would be nothing without the contribution of each individual we work with. 

A lot of industry accolades and awards focus on individuals and whilst this is important, it's also vital to recognise the contribution of extraordinary teams across the industry who push things forward, break new ground and really shape the web that we all work on. Everyone wants to feel valued and respected and their contribution acknowledged.

I'm really proud of what we've built over the last 7 years and we've been lucky enough to work with many smart people along the way. If we don't make it through to the next stage, it'll be enough for me to know that in the last year, the industry has recognised the contribution of our team and the work we've been doing in the industry. For that, I'm very thankful and proud. Well done team!

Mark Boulton Design and the CERN web team at the UBelly Awards last year

Mark Boulton Design and the CERN web team at the UBelly Awards last year

Sit on your pen

Many years ago, I did a number of creative facilitation training sessions so that I could become one of the BBC's official creative facilitators. This basically meant I was called upon to run ideas sessions and brainstorms for any team who needed help across the BBC. I've always remembered one of the things my trainer and mentor, Paul said to us during one of the sessions, 'Sit on the pen'.

He was referring to the moment in an ideas session or workshop where as the facilitator you don't understand what you are hearing and need to stop writing until it makes sense. This has happened to me a lot when I've been facilitating over the years. The phrase sprung to mind again a couple of weeks ago, when I was facilitating a personas workshop with a client and I made a mental note to write about it.

Workshops are tiring, both as a facilitator and as an attendee and keeping everyone's energy up is one of the key tasks of the facilitator. One of the ways to keep things moving, is to go for a volume of ideas, captured quickly and not to appraise the quality until at the end or later. The problem with this approach, is that it can often result in hastily scribbled notes or half baked ideas filling up flipcharts that no-one can fathom later on. 

If you think about a classic 'brainstorm' or ideas sessions as I prefer to call them, ideally a group of 5 or 6 people, sit around with some kind of brief to have ideas around and perhaps some stimulus to help get away from the obvious run of the mill ideas that will often come out at first. So, when an idea 'happens', there is often an initial spark that comes from someone, that then generates other thoughts from other people, that are built into an idea.

It's important to recognise the difference between a 'thought' and an 'idea'. A thought is, 'apples are good for you'. An idea is, 'give an apple a day to school children for free'. You can 'do' an 'idea'. A thought is just that.

I have lots of thoughts, lots of sparks - often drawn from insights but I'm not always that great at building them into ideas on my own, just using the parameters of my own brain. I often spit them out at people I work with, jumbled together with other random thoughts in the hope that they can help me join the dots. Because they're a clever bunch, they often can help me join the dots and build an idea or throw it out as nothing important. This is also where I am hoping this blog will come in. I've downloaded the Squarespace notes app and Evernote app to enable me to scribble down the random flashes I get from time to time on my phone as well as the post it notes and notebook I already favour. Then when I get time, I might be able to join the dots myself by writing it out and finding a narrative in there somewhere.

Anyhow, what does all this have to do with sitting on pens? Well, as a facilitator, you need to learn the difference between thoughts and ideas, 'sit on your pen', and only start to write something down when you can see it in your mind, when it becomes tangible and 'do-able'. 

This is how I was taught to capture ideas, once you get the feel of how you would 'do' them. 

Apples for kids.jpg

Use A4 paper. Capture one idea per piece. Give it a title (in the middle) and enough detail, so that when you come back to it, you understand what it is and could get on with it. Sometimes, as people keep building on an idea they really like, you might hear  a new idea start to emerge. At this point, you need to 'sit on your pen' again and not keep adding details that you feel aren't relevant. I always tell attendees,

"I think that's a different idea, just jot that down for a second on your notepad and we'll come to it next."

This way, the person doesn't get frustrated that you aren't writing their thoughts down and know that you value what they have to say. On the example above, the 'school learning education packs' could actually be a new idea that warrants its own piece of paper.

Sitting on your pen can of course be applied to any situation where you are facilitating a session and capturing the conversation on behalf of a group - personas sessions, client workshops, team meetings and so on. If the job of writing and capturing is in order to communicate a summary of events, to the attendees and possibly others, it's particularly important that you are listening and appraising what you are hearing and not just blindly writing it all down to make sense of at a later date.

There are times when blindly scribbling everything down is really important (with some degree of comprehension of course). User interviews are not a good time to appraise what you are hearing apart from to be able to ask intelligent questions and probe more deeply on certain things. You shouldn't be too selective about what you note down or you will bias the outcome before you've had a chance to look across all the interviews. Sometimes, you might notice little things that pop out and become more prominent after several interviews. Interviewing is a time for listening and capturing without filtering and definitely not sitting on your pen. 

As designers and creative problem solvers, our instinct is to solve, analyse and jump to a solution. Next time you're in a situation where you need to listen, I challenge you to stop, open your ears and sit on your pen and only pick it up again when you have really listened and decided upon a course of action.