UIE Book Corner: Russ Unger’s “Designing the Conversation”

Sean Carmichael

May 24th, 2013

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Designing the Conversation

In this latest installment of the UIE Book Corner, we catch up with Russ Unger to chat about the book he co-wrote with Dan Willis and Brad Nunnally, Designing the Conversation: Techniques for Successful Facilitation. Russ is a Senior UX Leader at GE Capital along with being a well regarded author and speaker.

In an increasingly distributed workforce world, collaborating with design teams becomes much trickier. It’s not without it’s benefits. It opens your team to talent that may not otherwise have been available. Simply hopping on a Skype chat or GotoMeeting can be a solution, but often facilitation is the missing piece to the puzzle.

Facilitation is an important skill, whether with collocated or remote teams. It drives conversation and collaboration. The ability to facilitate well is integral when conducting participatory design activities, giving a presentation, or even giving a virtual seminar. Russ joins Adam Churchill to discuss the book and the various types of facilitation in this podcast.

Recorded: May, 2013
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Full Transcript.


Adam Churchill: We’re continuing what we’re calling the UIE Book Corner series, with a look at “Designing the Conversation,” co-authored by Russ Unger, Brad Nunnally, and Dan Willis. The book was published earlier this year, and one of the things we like to do is take a look at the Amazon reviews and see what folks are saying. Among some of the things that we saw, “It’s a great book for anyone presenting, moderating, or facilitating.”, “The book offers lots of great insights into improving the conversation surrounding design with your teams and within our organization.”, “If you ever have to run a meeting, make a presentation, or even just ask your boss for a raise.”

We’re thrilled to have Russ Unger join us to discuss the book and its important concept. Russ also co-authored “A Project Guide to UX Design.” We’re recording this so you can listen in to what he has to say.

Hey, Russ.

Russ Unger: Hey, Adam. Thanks for having me.

Adam: Yourself, Brad, and Dan, that’s quite a lineup. Tell us a little bit about how the idea for this book came about.

Russ: You mentioned my first book that I wrote with Carolyn Chandler, called “A Project Guide to UX Design”. When the first edition came out, we got a one-star review on Amazon, and we got criticized for having a chapter that was called “Facilitating.” Now, the funny thing about that is there was no chapter in there, but it really kind of got me thinking about it. When it came time to write our second edition, I had earmarked facilitation as a chapter. I’d been pretty fortunate to take part in Cranky Talk Workshops that Dan Willis had put together, and facilitation was really on my mind. Especially since I’d been working with Todd Zaki Warfel on a book called “Guerilla Design and Research Methods” that’s still somewhere in the ether, and seems to remain almost finished.

Well, to make a long story short, I couldn’t find a way to fit worthwhile content about facilitation into about 10 or so pages of the second edition of “Project Guide.” Fortunately, we could put those pages to better use, and my wheels were really in motion. While we were doing this “Tweak Your Talk” session at South by Southwest last year, I started talking to Dan and Brad about the idea. Before long, we pulled together a proposal, and we found that there was a whole lot to talk about. In fact, I think about 240 pages of it, all on facilitation.

Adam: Alright, cool. Let’s jump into the book, taking a look at the way the book is structured. Section two is on group facilitation, section three is on one-on-one facilitation, and section four is called “One-on-Many Facilitation.” I’m just wondering if you can help folks understand, what’s the difference between group facilitation and one-on-many facilitation? What do folks need to understand there?

Russ: That’s a really great question. The biggest difference is that group facilitation is focused on working with groups of people who are essentially activity-based. By that, I mean that they’re engaged in workshops or brainstorming activities, focus groups, participatory design activities, and things like that. The group is essentially working toward a goal and an outcome, and they’re really setting out to achieve something. When you get into one-on-many, it’s more about a person, or a group of persons. People who are being the point of focus for a group of people, who are interested in their content. Kind of like your own virtual seminars or a presentation.

It’s those scenarios where there’s a lot of sharing, storytelling of information to a group of people, who are fairly limited in the way that they are responding or reacting, and even in how they contribute. In that section on one on many or one to many, its things like conference presentations, virtual seminars, like I just mentioned, lectures, which then all have their own set of challenges. Given the way technology and connectivity are moving along, these are becoming more and more important to know about. Particularly as we start seeing more and more distributed teams in content.

I myself work in an office in Chicago, but I’ve got teammates who are in Michigan, Connecticut and Minneapolis. This, to me, is a really important section to understand.

Adam: The book has lots of voices. That is, experts in our field weighing in on the concept, in that structure. I guess we’ll call them sidebars. You’ve got people like Dana Chisnell, Richard Dalton, and Kevin Hoffman. Super folks that we’re fortunate to work with, voicing their opinions on topics within the book. Besides the fact that it’s an all-star lineup of user experience design, how are those going to add value for anyone who’s going to pick up a copy of this book?

Russ: One of the things that Dan, Brad and I all know is that you don’t know everything about all of these topics. Frankly, there’s always more than one way to do things, too. You can look at just about anything you do, and somebody’s hacked a different version of it. We’re all pretty confident that we could be dropped into just about any scenario in the book, and we could likely pull that off. When it comes to sharing expertise and putting it in someone else’s hands to learn from, we wanted to make sure that our voices were helping to provide a great starting point. A core foundation for the activity, if you will.

And then, provide perspectives of others who are pretty deep into the topic areas. So for example, we have a chapter on practicing that gets input on about 20 different people, including myself, about how they practice before they get into a live scenario. The more I work with other people in facilitation activities, the more that I learn we’ve all got different flavors of approaches. For example, if I practice presenting something, I’ve got this crazy method to my own madness here. I start out with pencil and paper and doing outlines two or three times. Then, I get to something that’s digital. Then I will go back to note cards, and I may sketch on them. I design slides, if I need to. Then I will get into a digital tool, and start pulling that content all in place, making that its own entity. It may seem like that’s all part of the research and information gathering aspect of things.

But for me, it’s also designing and refining the content. Learning how to kill some of my darlings, and get familiar with the points that I want to drive home. After I get slides together, I will find different opportunities to go through that content. Frequently Brad and I will do Skype, and JoinMe sessions where we’re looking at content. Walking through it, and finding out where I’ve missed a beat or something.

I’ll do that with a local guild that we have in Chicago. Fortunately, for my kids, sometimes it’s with them. So they can see, and I can see where I’m tripping up. The thing of it is, that’s just my way of doing it. The more I do things like read Scott Berkun’s book, “Confessions of a Public Speaker”, he’s got his own method for doing these things. Then you look and you’ve got people like Eric Reis, Cennydd Bowles, Margot Bloomstein, Andy Budd in there.

Who all have different approaches. The idea is, we want to give you this core foundation. Here’s a really basic way to get started. But now go, and learn from these other people. It’s not just Russ, Dan and Brad say, “This is the right way.” They say, “This is a great starting point. Now you can learn from some of these other folks and tailor your approach.” I don’t really see that there’s an exact formula for practicing, as an example.

This is a great way to show that and help others. And also get some of our super talented friends into the mix, to help people along.

Adam: I’m going to be selfish for just a moment, but my goal here is to extract some nuggets of wisdom, to pass along to folks that I work with. I, of course, run the UIE virtual seminar program. Chapter 16, in your book, speaks to the challenges of virtual seminars and how to maximize the opportunity. What would you say the key take away is, for someone that’s planning to facilitate one on many, in this case, through that means?

Russ: For starters, chapter 16, Dan wrote that and he did a phenomenal job on that. What I think is, you have to get comfortable with that absence of feedback. You and I are having a conversation here, and so there’s a little bit of back-and-forth. In general, I’m the type of person who, I don’t know, I struggle with silence. I’ve really been working on taking a breath, having strategic pauses and the like. You already know this, I’m a really fast talker. I’m trying to read an audience and be measured. I also play to them and get a sense of what parts of the content are hitting home, and what parts I need to tailor or adjust for depending on my audience.

When you’re in a virtual seminar, there’s a lot of things that can go wrong, too. I do these things in Chicago called ChicagoCamps. They’re day conferences. You guys are always super sponsors. Shay and Brad, who I do these with, we always try to do things a little bit different. We did remote sessions the last time, and they’re pretty similar to a virtual seminar. While we pulled them off and expected some glitches. That’s just it, right? There’s glitches, so much can happen; an Internet connection can go down, the software you’re presenting through can crash, hardware can have its own set of gremlins, so on and so forth.

In fact, I think you guys did a virtual seminar with Todd Zaki Warfel. It was at his old office in Philadelphia, and you could hear the trains going by. [laughs]

Adam: Yeah, that’s right.

Russ: That’s one of those things that’s really hard to do. Even when we do different things, where there’s people presenting to a very large, disparate group. Again, it’s so challenging to gauge that audience and feedback. You’ve got people on mute, and sometimes you’ve got those phones that beep when somebody gets off the line. There’s always that one person who’s driving with their car window down, or your Comcast connection dies — sorry, Comcast — or whatever it is. Something seems to always be a challenge. There’s something that can always go wrong. That’s a strange sort of thing.

Samantha Starmer had a great quote in the book, and she says that once these can get to the point of being more interactive and engaging and not about someone presenting, and about the someones being presented to, that they’ll kind of level up.

I think it feels like we’re almost there. We’re in that phase that we really have to be doing these things and figuring out what’s wrong, and getting them right and how to make them better.

I also want to say that just the fact that we can do them at all is pretty amazing. I keep thinking about the Louis CK bit, when he says, “Everything’s amazing and everybody’s unhappy…”

[laughter]

How truly awesome it is that we can have people all over the planet sitting down in a comfortable office somewhere, trying not to crush their lunch bag with too much noise. Then getting to listen to the brilliance of a Stephen Anderson, or a Karen McGrane, or Adam Connor, and so on. While 100 other people all over the planet are doing it at the same time.

While they’re not without fault, they’re amazing. I really can’t wait until they’re, I guess, amazing-er.

You had asked about a key takeaway, and I know I took a long, winding road to get there. My key takeaway from all of this is, to really practice and know your content, and your timing. I tend to be loose as a presenter, but when it comes to doing a virtual seminar, I think you’ve really got to be that confident presenter. You’ve really got to know your timing and your beats. Once you have all of that down, and you’ve gotten all the hardware and software parts figured out, it frees you up to stress on the important things. Like, “Ooh, did that content land like it should’ve?”, and “Next time I’ll remove all of my jokes”. Because it’s hard to tell a joke to a deadpan audience when you don’t know if they’re laughing in a room in Philadelphia, or if they’re going, “Wow, this guy’s a dork.”

I think that’s one of the key takeaways, is really know your content and understand that the audience is there listening and taking notes, even if you can’t see them.

Adam: I think that’s really important. Because whether you are a new presenter, somebody that’s just at the beginnings of thinking something through, and finding out your way of communicating it to an audience. Or somebody like Jared, who’s spoken in front of thousands of people, that lack of interaction really is the trick. I think you’re right, being comfortable and getting confident in your delivery, regardless of the lack of interaction, is important.

Russ: My virtual seminar, I wouldn’t make that my first speaking gig, ever. [laughs] I would be really nervous about that. Unfortunately, I just said that and probably just made a whole bunch of people nervous. Unfortunately, you come out of college and you work for these locations with very large, spread-out teams. That could be your first speaking opportunity. I think it’s everything we just said, you’ve got to really know your content. Practice is what’s going to make you confident, and make you less afraid of that lack of reaction.

Adam: I’m sure you have lots of folks coming up to you and saying, “Hey. Got the book, loved it.” What are they telling you they love about it?

Russ: What’s been really great to hear is that people are seeing facilitation as one of those parts of design that is being a bit under-served. It’s kind of a core to what we do. I’m continually adding to my own facilitation toolkit, and learning from others.

I get to work with Josie Scott. She was somebody who contributed a chapter on focus groups. It’s really awesome to get to talk to her. In learning from her, one of the things that I got was, that being a good facilitator is kind of like being that really amazing drummer who can also sing. It’s all the limbs are going at once. There’s a lot of moving parts, and there’s a lot of things to consider. It’s really been great to hear that we’ve been able to provide some strong content to help people upgrade those softer skills.

They also tell us, by the way, how fantastic Dan’s illustrations are. I mean, those things are gorgeous, and he was nothing less than brilliant. Brad and I would write notes about the intro to the chapter and say, “This is what we’re trying to convey. In words, this is what I’m trying to get to you.” Then, Dan would show up with this magical pen, and — I’m not kidding you — every single time, he nailed it. There was no, “Go back, this idea isn’t good enough.” It was amazing. I think people are really enjoying that because it’s a great complement to the material. Mostly, it’s also been great to hear that we’ve been providing a starting point for people who are interested in facilitation.

It also helps to erase some of those lonely late nights of writing. I think as you know, I have a couple of kids, and so I tend to write from 10 at night till about 2 in the morning. Every time you’d get one of those nice-starred reviews on Amazon, it makes you kind of go, “OK, good. This wasn’t so bad. Maybe I’ll do another one sometime.”

The other thing is there’s a lot of texts out there that tell you about all of these different activities that you can perform. That’s just one part of it. In many cases, there’s an assumption that you’ve been setting up an event or that you’ve set these events up before that need to be facilitated, and you can more or less just drop in and do the task and activity. The reality is, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to being a facilitator. I mean, Adam, you had to set up the questions here. You had to get Skype set up for us and had to arrange the time.

We have to do small things for a conversation like this. When you get into groups of people, you start looking at things like, “Here’s the agenda. Here’s the supplies. Here’s the technology I have to manage. Here’s all the people I have to get into the right place at the right time, manage their expectations, manage the expectations that you’re putting upon them, including their personalities.” Sometimes you may even have to feed them. Then, you’ve got to get to know all about these things, all about your equipment, your supplies, the timing, and all about the place that you’re doing it in. I’ve been saying it a lot more and more lately, but it feels to me like we’re all event planners now, because of what it takes to plan facilitation activities.

I mentioned Kevin before, Kevin Hoffman’s been doing amazing work solely around meetings. That’s just one aspect of facilitation. There’s so much to consider when stepping up to the plate. We’re hearing that we’ve been helping people with that and that we’ve been doing a good job. That’s really awesome to know that part’s been really paying off.

Adam: You mentioned juggling your crazy life with the kids and finding time to write. I know you speak a ton at design conferences. You also do great design work. I’m curious as to when you’re going in talking to those clients and you’re armed with a copy of “Designing the Conversation,” when they’re talking about their challenges, what chapter do you find yourself turning to most often?

Russ: I hate that the only thing that comes to mind here is, “it depends”.

[laughter]

Russ: Because it does though, right? It depends on what the problems is, what we’re trying to solve. One of the great things about writing with Dan and Brad is that we were all our first-pass editors. I’ve probably read this book three to four times from cover to cover. There’s so much that sticks with me from taking that approach. I’m going to say we applied a lot of tough love when it came to writing the book, so we beat each other up pretty hard. We, at the same time, really respected and cared about each other and the content enough that we read it very meticulously.

It’s kind of funny, I can walk into a situation, and I can instantly think, “Wow, I wrote this,” or, “Dan or Brad wrote something Great,” and I can reference it pretty quickly. When you write it, there’s that quote that says, “When you write, you learn twice,” so I’ve got the benefit of more memory on the stuff. I think what I would say, I personally revisited workshops, participatory design, interviews, and focus groups the most. I say focus groups because my opinion, humbly, is that a lot of people are trying to use them wrong. I don’t think they’re successful when it comes to usability testing, and a lot of people think that focus groups can get you that. There’s some learning, relearning, unlearning that needs to happen around that activity. It really does depend on the kind of problem you’re trying to solve and what kind of access and availability you have from other people.

I did, just so you know, recently check out the “Virtual Seminars” chapter because we’re doing some distributed team training sessions at work. It’s always nice to have that book to look at what Dan, Brad, or I have written, to be able to use that as reference material quite a bit. It’s really nice to have a full paragraph that you can lift and put into an email for somebody, to give them some insight about what you’re trying to get across.

Adam: Very cool. The book is awesome. Thanks for spending some time with us.

Russ: Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity.

Adam: To our audience, thanks for listening, and coming to hang out in the UIE Book Corner.

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