The Color of Design

Now that it’s finally spring here in Boston, with bright sunny days and tulips in every garden, it seems like a great time to talk about the IDSA Northeast conference that I recently attended.  I was particularly excited because the theme of this years conference was color! Although I regularly attend color and trend focused events, they aren’t normally from the perspective of fellow industrial designers, so I was looking forward to hearing how other designers approach color.

Color excites me; it’s what catches my eye and draws me in. Little shifts in hue have a profound impact on my perception of design, quality, and brand. Often times color is difficult to translate through the design process and we are relegated to ‘safe’ colors. Chris Murray, of Bresslergroup,  presented an almost scientific approach, a way of removing the emotional factor of color and making the color decision process more rational. On the opposite end of the spectrum was our friend and frequent collaborator, Karen Reuther, who in my opinion best expresses the joy of color. She talks about the power of color to connect to users, and presents it as an opportunity to further reinforce a brands relationship to their customer. Although of seemingly opposite approaches both speakers grounded their decision making process in a rich understanding of the user.

A little off topic, but still valuable were the talks by Tiffany Vailchik of Material Connexion and Gary Natsume of ECCO Design. Tiffany, obviously talked more about materials than color, but it was fascinating to see new material development being tied to the same trends that drive color. She also presented a more holistic approach to color, material, and finish, which is normally one of the final stages of the development process. Instead, she proposed using materials to inspire and drive innovation. Gary Natsume presented the process of designing for other cultures, as a Japanese designer living and working in New York. His projects focused on both American and Asian markets, which was a fascinating look at how another cultures approache design.  Specifically he referenced how the Japanese color preference has shifted to pink (which symbolizes hope and peace in Japan) and lighter more optimistic colors in the wake of the shattering earthquake and tsunami in 2011. This seems fitting given how beautiful and uplifting our spring colors feel right now.


Bill Hartman Presents at Essential for the UXPA Monthly Meeting

To a crowd of about 50 professionals in the interaction, industrial, and user experience design fields, Bill Hartman shared insights and frameworks we can leverage to demonstrate the financial and process benefits of human factors in medical device design. Originally presented at the Design of Medical Devices Conference in Minnesota, the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA Boston) asked Bill to represent his work for a local audience. Attendees asked questions ranging from how to infiltrate findings of human factors research to specifics for effectively recruiting participants to get credible results.

After the presentation, several attendees stuck around to get a tour of the Essential studio and talk about trends and shifts in the medical device industry. The real benefit of the UXPA monthly meetings is to get folks in Boston's user experience community to come together to learn, share thoughts, and network. A tight knit group of professionals, this meeting was particularly unique because it drew in many new faces, for some in the crowd it was their first UXPA event.


Boston Service Jam: jamming, making and grow^ing


Prototyping often provides the path of least resistance when it comes to communicating a design concept, regardless of the form the prototype may take. Last weekend, designers, professionals, students, and others came together around the world to envision new service experiences and to make them tangible through rapid prototyping techniques. The Global Service Jam encourages local communities to gather at the same time around the world, to literally "jam" or improvise together under the same umbrella theme. The goal? For teams to take an idea beyond a post-it note sketch without looking back.  

The theme "making, not talking" forms the backbone of the GSJ mission. Teams form organically around shared interests and work together to envision and execute new and exciting service experiences that address a need they identify through guerilla research techniques. Service experiences here are loosely defined, and can be composed of a variety of influences and touchpoints, including products (physical or digital), places, processes, and most importantly, people.

Globally, this year’s jam was composed of nearly 120 local communities, with nearly 3,000 participants. Here in Boston, our local event was comprised of 15 creative folks, including a sizable contingent of Bentley grad students and several professionals and students hailing from elsewhere in the city.  

Day 1: Warming up with an ice-breaker exercise at Essential’s studio

Day 1, which was held here at Essential's studio, primarily set the stage for the rest of the weekend. The global theme was revealed via a charming video from the Helsinki Jam, purposefully left open-ended and intended to provoke interpretation. The GSJ13 theme was:

grow ^

Friday, jammers brainstormed into the night and then pitched specific ideas that appealed to them. Teams self-identified with one another.

Day 1: Jammers assess brainstorm concepts
Saturday and Sunday's day long events were hosted at Hostelling-International Boston (HI-Boston), just down the street from Essential in Chinatown (the most impressive hostel facility many of us had ever seen – highly recommended!). The first half of Day 2 was all about hitting the streets. Jammers were encouraged to get in touch with their bold sides and strike up conversations strangers to uncover fresh feedback about their service concepts. Many jammers constructed hand-made prototypes and signs to help get the conversations going.

Day 2: Preparing to hit the streets to conduct guerilla interviews

Day 2: Rapid prototypes ready for testing

By Day 3, we could all see finish line. Jammers came in a little groggy but remarkably well-motivated to see their visions through.The hostel’s community room was characterized by a low hum of activity all day.

Day 2: Jammers “making-not-talking” at the HI-Boston

As the sun set outside, each of the four teams presented rich and personal projects:

  • Open Neighborhood
    Helping new transplants love where they live through
  • Land Marks
    Where personal histories meet city histories
  • ShoeDate
    Offering idle fashion resources to individuals who need access
  • Speak Aloud!
    Growing the public voice in physical spaces

Day 3: Teams were encouraged to demonstrate their service live


As the Jam came to a close, I walked away feeling sentimental, and inspired by our jammers. Their excitement was palpable, and their commitment was admirable. Service experiences don’t come to life without the participation of individuals. As service design professionals, we can generate beautiful products and attempt to orchestrate seamless processes, but nothing hangs together without active engagement of the players in our services. The Jam, to some degree, represents a similar construct. We as hosts and organizers set the stage, but the Jammers bring whatever screenplay they invent to life – all in 48 hours! 

Check out more about the Global Service Jam event:

Visit the Boston Service Jam blog:



Late last month I had the privilege of taking part in the MIT Media Lab's Health and Wellness Hackathon as a User Experience mentor. This event brought together students, clinicians, and industry professionals to collaborate on technology-based solutions to major problems in patient-focused healthcare. Each of the six teams dreamed, focused, and ultimately delivered some pretty amazing systems in only eight working days! And it was easy to envision these systems being used together since each was built on open-source components (called Indivo and CollaboRhythm) that unified data collection, presentation, and storage.

The challenge that guided this Hackathon was uniquely effective in focusing the design and development efforts on what counts: building new functionality to enable each team's specific scenario while simultaneously enriching the overall CollaboRhythm user experience. This empowered teams to create in this limited time both some pretty cool hardware and the software to engage real users in future use. And throughout the event the organizers ensured that each team remained focused on credible and compelling user scenarios that ultimately told the story of the system through video.

In this process I learned a great deal about not only the details of the medical conditions at hand (including epilepsy, congestive heart failure, Parkinson's disease, hypertension, HIV, and peri-operative care) but also the challenges facing clinical practitioners in the field when managing these conditions. There certainly is a big role for design to play in empowering each of us, as patients, to take a more proactive role in our own health care!

I'd like to thank the Hackathon's organizers--John Moore, Scott Gilroy, and Frank Moss--for inviting me to be a part of this tremendous event, all the team participants for making this event such an educational experience, and my UX mentor colleague Maeve Donohue for a great partnership.

And best of luck to all the teams in making these projects a reality!


Preparedness is Essential. 


As I sat working at my desk with a snow storm fast approaching, a thought popped into my head. What does it mean to be prepared? Many people are having the same thought right now with the snow starting to fall heavier by the hour.

As an engineer, I am tasked with the challenge of being prepared to bring any idea that crosses my desk closer to reality. I love this challenge, but there is a large difference between the “what do we do now” conversation vs a series of preemptive “what ifs” throughout a project. This is the essence of preparedness.

At Essential there is a strong connection between the work of our designers, engineers and researchers, enabling the “what if” conversation to occur frequently throughout a project’s lifespan, versus an over the wall handoff. In order to be able to create well designed products and be able to preserve design intent the whole way to market, every member of the team needs to be prepared for each “what if” that could occur to prevent a “what do we do now” moment.

In 1948, Mayor James Curly wrote a letter to MIT president Karl Compton, in regards to finding a way to clean up the record amount of snowfall that occurred that year (proposed in it was the use of a large number of flamethrowers). A true “what do we do now” moment. Though there was a good correspondence between the Mayor and the institution, there was no immediate solution besides the current application of salt to the roads (BostInno did a nice write up of this correspondence). It seems that perhaps this would have been a good conversation to have prior to the snowfall.

Don’t get me wrong, avoiding these moments in our lives is near impossible. Often times it takes a few “what do we do now” moments to frame up a “what if” conversation.  Some of these moments can be the catalysts of our biggest innovations. Conversely, characterizing as many “what ifs” as possible is a good way to be prepared for any “what do we do now” moment!

We can’t avoid the upcoming storm, and similarly sometimes in product development we arrive at a tough “what do we do now” moment. A good way to deal with these moments is to be as prepared as one can possibly be, which means cross collaboration and openness throughout the development cycle. I find that this is one aspect of what makes the Essential team tick.

Happy snow day everyone. 



Lessons in Resolution

As the newest member of the Essential team, I’m constantly learning new engineering and design principles, in addition to many other skills unique to the industry that cannot be learned in school. Every day presents a new challenge as I’m faced with starting a new project, collaborating with a coworker to provide some engineering input, or helping brainstorm on a different project to provide a fresh outlook.  

In college, I often focused for weeks or months on a single problem or concept. In the consulting industry, the pace just doesn't allow for such a deliberate approach.  Over the past few months, I have been observing how my colleagues work and how they interact with one another and our clients. This has taught me an important lesson: I must fine tune the way I communicate when presenting ideas and concepts with coworkers and with clients.

Every day, dozens of ideas are passed between my colleagues and I. The way an idea is communicated often dictates its worth in the present situation. What good is an idea if it cannot be explained to an audience at the time it is needed? Contrary to the way I used to work in college, where often the communication and presentation is at the end of a project, communication is happening at every step of the developmental process. This being said, resolution of an idea is a critical facet of effective design. Be it a hand sketch or detailed CAD model, everything needs to be thought of  in regards to who is receiving the idea and what purpose it serves; a brainstorm, prototype, a small piece to a large puzzle, etc. Sometimes, the simplest of executions, be they physical, through paper or electronic medium can tell the best story in the most efficient manner. 

The idea behind tailoring the resolution of your work for different tasks, environments or recipients allows us to have a faster, cleaner flow of ideas without being held behind by investing too much time in the details too early on. Making several complex representations of potential ideas, when elegantly simple concept illustrations can communicate the same idea, allowing the team to move more quickly and efficiently toward the end goal? Over the course of the past few months, I have learned to hone this and many other new skills I'm building at Essential. Each day I look forward to lessons like these that have helped me become a better engineer in this community and I hope to continue to learn and grow. 




Finding the Right Participants

I think it's safe to say that the most mundane part of my job is putting together a rock solid participant screener. Anticipating all the exciting research to be had once we've found the right participants is what pushes me through this process. In the past few weeks I've been in Screener Land--a dry place where the inhabitants dress in black and line up obediently against a white landscape-- and thought I would share some techniques on screener development.

1. Be explicit with logistics and instructions.

In the screener I include a participant matrix with desired quotas, and an introduction to the study. I wrap up each screener with a detailed invitiation script that includes: further details about the study, incentive information, recording, directions, and homework assignment (if applicable). I expect the recruiter to communicate all research details to the participant because often we are going into people's homes with a video camera. I've been in several situations where participants were caught off guard: "this wasn't expected." This American Life aired a piece about the fine print in contracts, referencing a myth that popstars like Madonna are highly demanding because they include line items like "all blue M&Ms must be removed from the candy jar" in their contracts. The reality is that these line items are included to ensure that the folks who are setting up the concert actually follow all directions to a tee: if blue M&Ms are in the candy jar, what other line items were overlooked? 

2. Write down who you want to recruit, and how samples might diverge based on behaviors, attitudes, and demographics.

When I talk with recruiters, I usually describe the desired sample in high-level ways: "Mostly young women who eat oatmeal every morning because (Group 1) they like the taste (Group 2) they believe it's good for them." I often find that this initial description (devoid of specifics, but that which captures the essence of who we want to recruit) is what sticks with recruiters, so be sure you are being adequately descriptive. Beyond that, I jot down on a sheet of paper how I might describe my sample in three different categories:

A. Behavior

  • Do they buy instant oatmeal or steel cut?
  • How many times a year do they go to Whole Foods?
  • How likely would they be to try a new kind of oatmeal?

B. Attitude

  • They believe that instant oatmeal doesn't provide the same health benefits as steel cut
  • They rank the taste of oatmeal higher than health benefits
  • They agree that oatmeal has changed over the past 5 years

C. Demographics

  • Mix of ages between 18-45
  • 80% female
  • Income range must fall between...

3. Don't reveal too much about what you want to study (unless you need to). Avoid making respondents hyper-aware of what population they might represent.

 When it comes to the topic at hand (oatmeal), I like to broaden it to a larger theme (breakfast food) and begin with questions that will eventually lead to oatmeal eaters. I try to continue the theme throughout the line of questioning.

BAD: We are working in conjunction with a client who wants to talk with oatmeal eaters.

GOOD: We are working in conjunction with a client who wants to know more about what you think about breakfast foods.

Avoid questions that compel a Yes or No response.

BAD: Do you eat oatmeal?

GOOD: I'm going to read a list of breakfast foods, which ones do you eat at least twice a week..."

Introduce options that may not be relevant to your study (in particular to behavior and attitude questions) to avoid serial participants.

BAD: I'm going to read a list of statements about breakfast foods...which ones apply to you?

GOOD: I'm going to read a list of statements about what is important to as a part of your morning routine...which ones apply to you?

4. Make edits, and let others make edits for you. Pilot your screener.

My process involves the unforgivable hardcopy print out. And dare-I-say, I opt for one-sided in this step. It's important for me to spread out the entire screener on a large table and think-aloud as I proceed through the screener logic. With my trusty orange Sharpie, I make changes big and small that will reduce confusion and ambiguity for the recruiter. With orange marker all over the screener, I hand it off to someone else on the research team who may be marginaly invovled in the project: they ALWAYS have great suggestions that leave me slapping my forehead. ALWAYS. Oh the power of working in teams! I then pilot the screener with someone who isn't in research so they can tell me if a particular question makes no sense.

5. Stay involved in the recruit, this allows you to ask more precise questions.

When I work with third party recruiters, I like to include "HOLD" questions that compell the recruiter to be in touch with me. This method works for me because third party recruiters I've worked with tend to recruit during the day anyway when I am accessible at my desk. These hold questions compel the recruiter to do their due diligence and find the right participants for the research. This technique also allows me to be a bit more nuanced in my line of questioning (i.e., more open-ended questions as opposed to multiple choice).

6. Validate your participants during the research session.

Knowing that I have the right person doesn't end when I receive a schedule of participants. The first line of questioning I employ during the research aims to validate some of the assertions the participant made in the screener itself. Face-to-face questioning often yields more candid responses that will help you identify if someone is a true representative of your population, or someone who simply slipped through the cracks.

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