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ARLD Day 2014 Keynote: Seinfeldian Design: Observation, Problem Finding, (and Ethnography)

Photo: Barry takes a selfie with us.

Presenter: Barry Kudrowitz, Assistant Professor of Product Design, University of Minnesota

Barry gave a very informative and fun keynote on how to innovate (generally), a skill we all need, especially in libraries, where we have specific user populations which we serve.

Here are the highlights!

Don’t just see, observe.

We did a few small exercises to demonstrate that if you pay too much attention to the big picture, you can miss the little details, and if you pay too much attention to details, you may miss the big picture.


Recommended viewing from Barry. HOMEWORK!

  • Did you see that?!, Dateline
  • Ted Talk by Apollo Robins. Barry says a drastic change happens, but even though we’ve been warned, we’ll still miss it. ;) Can’t wait.

The point? Like an ideal driver, to best facilitate observation and problem (or more positively, opportunity) finding, one needs to use both types of observation at the same time, details and the larger picture.

Opportunity Finding

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

Some problems/needs are obvious, but what about locating problems where it’s not as clear? Latent needs.

Barry gave this example:


  • The problem: braille labels (as in for food cans) needed!
  • Current solution one: the braille typewriter
    Braille typewriter.

    Braille typewriter.

    • pros: 6 dot, useful for braille typing
    • cons: heavy
  • Current solution two:Dymo label makers.
    Dymo Labelmaker.

    Dymo Labelmaker.

    • pros: lightweight
    • cons: lots of symbols! Intended for sighted users
  • Solution Suggested by users: make the dynotape cheaper!
  • Solution created through innovation, empathizing, and opportunity finding:

    Braille labelmaker.

    Braille labelmaker.

“Finding latent needs leads to major innovations” such as smart phones – Barry Kudrowitz, PhD

How to do it? The Three Levels of Ethnography

  • Level One: Ask.

    • Surveys
    • Focus – or (un)focus groups.
      • There are arguments for – different opinions! A convergence of minds!
      • and against – if everyone is too polite and afraid to offend, nothing good will come from it…just something boring.
    • Interviews! We did a small version in pairs which was a helpful guide for illustrating the following
      • tips:
        • encourage storytelling (no binary questions, use open ended),
        • be neutral (don’t bias the person’s way of relating their experience), don’t lead or have bias
        • keep them talking (not you)
        • and if they don’t talk, ask why, why, why – it helps keep you from making your own inferences
        • don’t be afraid of silence (that’s a technique to get you talking)
        • record it!
          • video
          • audio (but you may miss gestures and facial expressions)
          • notetaking (but you’ll miss interaction) – for notetaking, have a silent party take notes if possible.
      • putting it together
        • start the interview
        • probe further (why why why? get more information about the issues)
        • capture your findings
          • locate needs: things the person is trying to do (usually verbs taken from your notes)
          • determine insights: inferences from what you heard regarding feelings/worldview/behaviors
      • define a/the problem statement (like mad libs)
        • subject needs a way to need because insight
  • Level Two: Observe.

    • Don’t just think about it.
    • Apply cultural probes!
      • Ask someone to document their experiences for you.
      • Make your own observations.
      • BUT beware! that what you’re using to measure might affect what you’re measuring (Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle)
    • Example: children’s toothbrushes.
      • Children = small
      • Children’s toothbrush = small?
      • But in use, since children have fine motor skills still developing, a BIG handle actually works best.
  • Level Three: Experience

    • Do it yourself! Shadowing, following, emersion.
    • Bodystorming” trying to recreate and pretend you’re in the same situation. (video)
    • Empathy (as in the case of the braille label maker)
  • Level Three REPEAT: OVERALL experience, start to finish

    • Good examples: IKEA, Apple – from parking to shopping to purchasing to getting it home, to when it’s done.
    • Learn from failed experiences (like airport security lines – a perfect opportunity for innovation)
    • Make sure you’re solving the right problem!
      • The problem: clamshell cases
      • Possible solution: clamshell cutter
      • Better solution: packaging which isn’t clamshell
    • Storyboard – walk through the whole experience yourself!


  • Bad design makes for opportunities
  • User modifications, adaptations = opportunities
  • Keep an Idea Wallet

    • Store things which are inspiring and interesting
    • Watch jet-setters, first users (to see how they use their products)
  • Keep a Bug List

    • Things which bother you (and others)
  • Question the Status Quo

    • What are we doing now that our children and grandchildren are going to be astounded by (as in, WTF)?
    • Think like a child (question what we don’t question)
    • Remember that habits take a long time to break
    • Think about reverse designing (for instance the QWERTY keyboard was designed with typewriters in mind)
    • Look towards the past to predict the future: historical evolution.




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