66 minutes | Jul 25, 2019

24. Ashley Graham of IBM

This episode of Dollars to Donuts features my conversation with Ashley Graham, a design research leader at IBM. We discuss synthesis as a collaborative, co-located activity, being mission-driven, and building a process that addresses complexity. When I look at the wonderful research community, I don’t see a ton of people that look like me and so even by talking to you today I have a hope that we’re growing and that we’ll continue to see more diverse faces, diverse ways of thinking and diverse backgrounds represented in the field. – Ashley Graham Show Links All Those Books You’ve Bought but Haven’t Read? There’s a Word for That My Father’s Stack of Books Nextdoor Freecycle The Year’s Best Science Fiction The Best American series Goodreads Steve on Goodreads Ashley on LinkedIn Ashley on Twitter IBM Design Phil Gilbert Ginni Rometty Sarah Brooks Transdisciplinary Design Howard University – Architecture General Assembly Follow Dollars to Donuts on Twitter and help other people find the podcast by leaving a review on Apple Podcasts. Transcript Steve Portigal: Hi, and here we are with another episode of Dollars to Donuts, the podcast where I talk to the people who are leading user research in their organization. In 2018, Kevin Mims wrote in the New York Times about the Japanese word tsundoku – a stack of unread books. In a New Yorker article entitled My Father’s Stack of Books, Kathryn Schulz reflects on what her family referred to as The Stack, the books that accumulated in her parent’s bedroom, especially on her father’s side of the bed. These weren’t just books to be read, but also books that were recently read that should be kept near at hand. She estimated that The Stack contained 3-400 books. For me, I switched a few years ago to getting rid of most books, passing them onto someone who might like them, or giving them away in the community via Nextdoor or Freecycle. I felt like hanging onto every book was becoming increasingly unmanageable, and in some ways was creating a barrier to acquiring – and thus reading new books. My tsundoku serves as a last-in-first-out queue, but for me unread books go in the bedroom and books that you want to keep should be displayed on bookshelves. I was a voracious reader of books as a kid, and at this point in my life, it’s something I need to make a deliberate effort towards. I read on the Internet all day; I read several magazines regularly. I read a print newspaper every dat. Plus I’m trying to watch a ridiculous number of television shows and movies on all the platforms. And oh yeah, podcasts, right? As a kid, I really got into science fiction and especially sci-fi short stories. At a certain point I set that genre aside but maybe 15 years ago I came across a phone-book sized annual collection of sci fi short stories. And then the annual best American short stories series. These books have got built-in portion control – read at least one story in bed, before going to sleep. But then I’d find myself in a bookstore staring at the shelves without any clue about which ones in the series I’d read. And even if I was home, if I’d given the books away after finishing them, I couldn’t just go check my shelves to avoid repurchasing something I’d read. That’s when I found Goodreads – a website and an app where I can organize the books I own but haven’t read, the books I have read, and the books I don’t own but want to read. There’s a whole set of other things you can do on Goodreads. You can connect with other people and get their updates in your feed. You can post progress updates as you go through a book, and you can write and read book reviews. But for me, my primary motivation was to have a single location, available to me anywhere, to see what I had already read. My Goodreads usage stayed casual and intermittent for a couple of years. But when my local library opened a brand new building, I went in and renewed my library card and that triggered a deliberate and focused shift to reading more books. I think the stack beside the bed has not decreased much in size, but I’m fine with that. I’m making use of the library website to put books on hold, maybe it’s a book I learn about from Twitter or an article in the newspaper. I’ve also been saving books on the library website that I’ll want to put on hold later. I’ve been getting books from other libraries in California. I’ve been reading graphic novels and regular novels, both in print and on my iPad. One of the cool things about the library is that borrowing a book means that I have a deadline. It’s not just that the book is expected back, it’s that the deadline makes reading the book into a tangible accomplishment. It’s due back on a certain date, and I finished it, and I returned it. I mean, I’m also free not to finish the book, but even so, that’s something I can metaphorically cross of a list. And then this is where Goodreads comes back in, because even though I haven’t connected with many people and I don’t care too much who sees my updates, going to the site and marking the book as “read” with today’s date is another marker of closure. I am definitely doing the reading for the reading, but there are these additional rewards, other bits of satisfaction, I guess we call this gamification if that’s even still a thing. I might write a tiny review, occasionally I’ve asked a question when I didn’t understand something, but mostly it’s about making that mark when it’s done and then feeling a sense of pride or accomplishment from the accruing list of books that I’ve read. This public-ish list announces something about me and what I value, and I enjoy building that even if it’s just for me to look at and reflect on. Taking a book off the stack has a tangible satisfaction, but I find it a bit more diffuse, to move an actual book from a stack to a shelf, than to do the analogous operation on an abstracted book in a digital interface. Go figure. But this is just how I use Goodreads. I’m sure it’s hardly unique, but it’s also one of many different ways that people could and probably do use the site. I mean, I don’t have any idea what other usage models are. But of course, we have processes and tools for finding out! And this isn’t just about Goodreads but for any product or service that has many features, different sections, different experiences, it’s essential to try to understand how people are using your product. The risk is in only considering the product as a set of separate features. Who is using this particular feature, and how? And for another feature, how is that being used, and by whom? If you are working on a product that has this many facets, you are better served in learning about the bigger picture that may weave its way through different features, as well as other tools or products that support the underlying goal. If you want to improve, or optimize, or extend the capability you are offering, you’ll want to do so based on an understanding of those goals, not just feature by feature. That means you need to think about how your teams are organized, and sometimes the way you’d organize a software team to build different features isn’t the same as how you should organize designers to design those features, and almost certainly not how you should organize researchers to inform the different decisions you’re making across features. Of course, this is the kind of thing I can help with. Often I work with clients to help them get a handle on what their customers want to accomplish, and look at how the team can focus product and design decisions to best support the people that use their product. The teams I work with come from a variety of industries and have varying levels of experience in learning about their customers and acting on those insights. I see this podcast as an extension of that work, something that I’m able to share with you. And so, the best way to support this podcast is to support my business. Hire me to lead user research projects or to coach your own team as you talk to users. Also I run in-house training workshops to teach people how to get better at fieldwork and analysis skills. Get in touch and let’s discuss what we might do together. I’d also love to know more about how this podcast is helping you in your work. Email me at DONUTS AT PORTIGAL DOT COM or on Twitter at Dollars To Donuts, that’s d o l l R s T O D o n u t s. Let’s get to my conversation with Ashley Graham. She is a design research leader focusing on digital, at IBM in New York City. Thanks for being on the podcast. Ashley Graham: Thank you for having me. Steve: I have a very, at this point, traditional way of starting which is to ask you to introduce yourself. Who are you? What do you do? Ashley: So, I’m Ashley Graham. I lead design research for the digital part of IBM. That means we focus on the customer journeys that our clients, or potential clients, are taking. And we bring a mixed methods approach to both qualitative research, quantitative research and generating insights that can help drive our business and drive innovation for our users. Steve: Can you give a little context about the digital part of IBM? IBM is this huge company, that for those of us outside – like I personally don’t have a good mental model like what this company does even in 2019 and how it’s divided up and sort of where you are and what your efforts are focused on. Ashley: Yeah. So, as you can imagine, IBM is huge. We have a large breadth and depth of a portfolio. Digital really sits across all of that, right. So, we have more legacy parts of our business. We have newer, innovative parts of o
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