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.


PopTech 2012

Every year, the Pop Tech conference in Camden, Maine brings together an eclectic collection of innovators and thinkers from diverse backgrounds, including science, technology, design, corporate and civic leadership, public health, social and ecological innovation, and the arts and humanities, among others. It’s safe to say that this cross-section of thinkers was well represented at the 2012 conference.

The thought- provoking theme this year revolved around the big idea of “Resiliency”. Over the three days, this central theme was discussed and debated through diverse lenses; resilience to environmental disaster, resilient communities, resilient genetics, resilient economies, resilient climates, resilient cultures and resilient individuals.

Each story presented an inspiring and thoughtful perspective around what enables cultures, individuals and organizations to absorb and adapt to disruptive change through the creation of resilient systems. The idea that resilient innovation is about shifting the discussion from designing systems for risk mitigation to risk adaptation.

Some of the highlights included:

Natural disasters created a relevant backdrop to several presentations. The most meaningful was C.J. Huff's account of resilience and human kindness following the tornados that ravaged Joplin, Missouri. He made the important connection that resilience in this situation is about focusing on the obvious: getting your hands dirty. It’s not just about a monetary donation. Community is the anecdote to disaster and resilience is the requirement that brings it about.

Two interesting tales of personal resilience were brought up. The first was the story of seventeen-year-old, female boxer Claressa Shields, from Flint, Michigan. Through incredible persistence, Shields won the first ever Olympic gold medal for women’s middleweight boxing. The second was the story of Amy Purdy, who lost both of her legs at a very young age following complications from bacterial meningitis. She is now a world-class adaptive snowboarder and has won three back-to-back Paralympic World Cup gold medals. Purdy has since started working for Freedom Innovations, a prosthetic feet manufacturer, as Amputee Advocate. She has gone on to co-found her own non-profit organization, Adaptive Action Sports, for individuals with physical disabilities who want to get involved in action sports.

Social and community innovation was a strong thread throughout the event. Speakers discussed a variety of strategies to enable sustainable economic models in underserved and developing economies, where simple adaptation of technologies such as basic SMS-delivered information about markets, commodities, places to buy and sell and as communication tools to promote community peace as described by Rachel Brown, Founder & CEO, founded Sisi Ni Amani [We are Peace].

From a community innovation perspective, topics ranged from local to country-wide initiatives. For example, Asenath Andrews is reinventing a model for high school in Detroit for teen mothers, providing early education services for the children of those high school moms. Another great example of community innovation is the new community driven constitution in Iceland that rose out of the ashes of economic collapse and is contributing to the country’s recent success. 

Of course, no conversation today could be without a perspective on Big Data. Pop Tech was no exception and for me, this was best exemplified by Jer Thorpe’s incredible visualizations and his expression of the potential meaningful application of data as the tool to shape the way we think about our health, our communities and our economy. As Jer Thorpe stated, “data is the new oil”.

Finally, the conference wrapped with a way to bring together the Pop Tech community.  Pilobolus, a modern performance company enlisted attendees and people form the local community to participate in a large-scale, live performance using umbrellas fabricated with multi-colored LED lights created by the MIT Distributed Robotics Laboratory. It was great way to finish off three days of conversation and inspiration.


Color: in 2014

One of the great things about attending the Color Marketing Group International Summit is not the amazing speakers, although there are plenty of those, or the weather, (Hello Miami!)... but the workshops. Over several days, there are a series of workshops with people from all industries: product design to horticulture. Yes, the flowers you buy are purposely bred to achieve trend colors. (Crazy, I know.)  It’s really fascinating to hear about the individual micro trends in each industry as well as tie together the larger macro trends.  Some were completely new to me and some I’ve been excited about for a little while now. After 4 days of trend talk, my head is buzzing with new colors, combinations, materials, and trends. Although I can’t tell you exactly the colors we picked to for 2014, I can talk about some rising stars and a little about 2013: 

1. White!
Yep, the anti-color.  Everyone was talking about white. White alone, white with other colors, white in homes, white in fashion, and white in technology.  The appeal isn't really the color white, white is a place holder for invisibility. A vision of our future where technology integrates seamlessly into our lives. In products it’s the new smart color. No longer is technology signified by black and neon blue, it's soft translucent white.   

2. Saturated Desaturation.
In the same way, white and translucency soften what was once hard and dark.  Adding color to blacks and grays gives them depth and softness. These color infusions favor the cool side, so dark rich blues and greens, so dark they are almost black and soft grays with a purple cast.  

3. The Colors.
Although blue was talked about almost as much as white, in a way it was almost the new neutral. Rich dark blues have become as ubiquitous as black.  In general hues are intensely saturate, but a little muddy.  Much like the saturated neutrals, color is become more complex. Greens were very yellow and acidic, reds were pink and orange.  

There are many more on my list of exciting trends, but some are more 2014 and some things have to be a surprise. 

Images: (IrisPlicate watch, embroidery)


Innovation Week Stops by Essential

This past October, Governor Patrick pronounced the week of October 22nd through 26th as Innovation Week in Massachusetts to celebrate how the state's investment in education, innovation and infrastructure has made Massachusetts a global leader in the creative economy.  Innovation Week 2012 included coordinated events by organizations such as the Massachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange (MITX), MassChallenge, UMass Boston, BREW Boston, MIT Technology Review, TiE Boston and Xconomy.  

With multiple conferences and events happening throughout the city, innovation thought leaders from across the world flocked to Boston to take part in the dialogue on design,technology, marketing, healthcare and big data.

As part of Innovation Week, Essential hosted some very special guests at our Boston studio, including Secretary Greg Bialecki and the Massachusetts Creative Economy Industry Director, Helena Fruscio.



Feast On Good, NYC


Last week, I attended the Feast Conference for the first time. I wasn't quite sure what to expect but it's certain that I, along with many other attendees, walked away feeling optimistic and empowered. I walked in on Joseph Cohen's talk reminding us how Edison's phonograph revolutionized music in a time where concerts were the only way to experience it. Likewise, our technology and tools have caught up to enable rich experiences spanning many industries.

The Feast conference in NYC was, in simplest terms, an intensely inspiring mashup of great thinkers who ran with an idea. For two days our audience listened, intermingled and collaborated with each other on topics of health care, poverty, conservation, public works,  education, reform, and fresh spins on antiquated business models.

Some highlights from the Conference:

Partners In Health teamed up with the likes of The Arcade Fire to raise money through ticket sales and provide direct health care to the poor. In similar models, hip eye-wear maker Warby Parker donates a pair for each one sold.  

Bre Pettis spoke about his MakerBot, the community supporting it, and future practical applications of desktop 3D printing (we are SUPER excited to get ours!).

Geoffrey West told us that the problem to excessive power consumption is urbanization, which also happens to be the solution (in efficiencies) in our ever growing global population. 

Dan Barasch will harness light from the sun through mirrors to illuminate the worlds first underground park capable of photosynthesis in New York City.

Joshua Reich built an intuitive online bank from the drawbacks of traditional banking and decided not to make money from people's mistakes.

Catherine Rohr  screens former criminals for a second chance in a transformational program that leverages their "business skills" to create legitimate careers.

Story Pirates banks on the fact that learning must be memorable and relies on original stories written by children to produce theatrical skits.

Scott Heiferman from has enabled over 80 million RSVPs to people who wouldn't have otherwise crossed paths.

Why were all these people in the same room? Because at the basis of every project was a fundamental desire to do good. In fact, a few entrepreneurs designed their business models specifically to be replicated and built upon by others. In their train of thought, failure is an important component in the cycle of iteration and improvement. They agree that open collaboration is vital to their businesses, and have created small communities and subcultures along the way.

If technology has taken us from the phonograph to streaming music, then surely we can harness that brilliance to improve some of society's inequities. As Joshua Reich from Simple says, "look to highly regulated industries...they're ripe for innovation". The solutions could be right under our noses.


In Remembrance of a Brilliant Man and Designer, Bill Moggridge

This weekend, the design industry lost a friend and a design icon. Bill Moggridge changed the way we think, how we work and what we make.

Bill taught us all to think about design in a bigger way, in a truly interdisciplinary manner, bringing together people and teams from diverse backgrounds to create solutions that deliver greater meaning for business and society. In Bill's words:

“Our intuition, our ability to feel, our ability to understand without being able to explain. All of those things are relatively subjective and subconscious. And what design does is to harness those attributes in the process.”

He was an inspiration to so many of us, influencing the content of our work and our motivation to pursue better and more important solutions. His passing is a tremendous loss, but his boundless contribution to design will never be forgotten.

Bill Moggridge, 1943-2012


Interface Trends Going Mainstream

All of the product launch seasons are fun for designers, not so much for the big announcements, but to see which early-stage trends are moving to the mainstream. Recently, we have seen a shift in the cutting edge of interaction design; moving interactions off the touchscreen and into the behavior of the product itself.

In some circles, this is hardly new. MIT, CMU, and other universities have been hotbeds of haptic interface and ambient informatics work for the past ten or fifteen years. But this tangible, behavioral interface has been slow to reach the mainstream.

So while our cold-numbed fingers will definitely appreciate using the Nokia Lumia 920's new sensitive touchscreen from the comfort of thick winter gloves, we are especially jazzed by the JBL PowerUp speakers that launched more quietly alongside. The casual seamlessness of dropping your phone onto a charging pad, of tapping a speaker to shift the sound stream to it, is exactly the sort of natural interface that we see people primed to expect. A latent need waiting to be expressed.

The technology impresses us by working invisibly, seamlessly. This effect is not easy to accomplish. It requires talented designers and engineers collaborating closely and treating the physical and digital sides of the product as an integrated whole. Nicely done.

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