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A storytelling pioneer in design research

A People Nerds interview with Christopher Ireland

Words by Kari Dean McCarthy, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Christopher Ireland spent two decades at the helm of Cheskin, a pioneer of design research and digital ethnography — going way, way back to the ‘90s.

She’s advised Coke, Microsoft, Gap, GM and countless other powerhouses, identifying every feature of human life that could possibly affect design. (Can you think of one that doesn’t?)

Today, Christopher’s time is split between Tahoe and teaching. She leads aspiring researchers and designers at Stanford University and California College of the Arts to discover for themselves a truth of design: that it begins with a keen understanding of what makes people think, feel, and do as they do.

She also assures her students that such an understanding is merely the beginning of design research, not the end game. For the researcher, there’s still the little matter of explaining it all — conveying the scope, nuance, and most critical takeaways of hundreds of research hours.

She tells those students that for critical presentations to stakeholders, they can expect to be given about 20 minutes. Then, like any good professor, she gives them only two.

Crafting a two-minute story from 200 hours of research requires a design process of its very own. Very few of us are born with that kind of talent; the most enchanting storytellers have learned, practiced, and mastered the skill.

Christopher spoke with dscout recently about the current state of research communication — what’s working, what’s not, and where it’s going.

dscout: You’ve said that the way research findings are communicated is in need of an overhaul. Why is that?

Christopher Ireland: In the article I wrote on Medium recently, I followed their guidelines pretty closely. Their statistics show that the most read articles are, I think, seven and a half minutes long and highly visual. So, that’s what people want, and they’re only going to want it more. They want to get the most out of a document as quickly as they can.

I’ve been saying this for about 15 years, and it was based on just watching the behavior of decision makers. At the time, people in airports were carrying around People magazine. The things that get read tend to be visual, compelling, fast reads. You just want to use the best tools of journalism.

And still, researchers don’t do this. I look at studies all the time, and most of them are still very dry, poorly written. Their only visuals are bar charts, or if someone’s feeling wild and crazy, a pie chart.

You rarely will see a magazine report. We used to do them all the time, and now I hardly ever see them. You rarely see animation used. You’ll see a video, but it’ll be a video of an interview. There’s all these tools out there, all these things that could be done, and yet they’re not.

I look at studies all the time, and most of them are still very dry, poorly written. Their only visuals are bar charts, or if someone’s feeling wild and crazy, a pie chart.

I look at studies all the time, and most of them are still very dry, poorly written. Their only visuals are bar charts, or if someone’s feeling wild and crazy, a pie chart.

Christopher Ireland

What do you think is stopping people from focusing on visuals and presentation?

First, you have to do it deliberately. If you’re a designer, you have to learn to understand numbers and how to communicate research visually. And if you’re a researcher, you have to learn the design techniques. It’s in one of those cross-disciplinary areas that isn’t well populated right now.

Another reason is that it’s costly. At Cheskin, we used to work in cross-disciplinary teams, so we would have a designer working with a researcher. You’re duplicating work, in a way, because the researcher has to explain to his designer what the findings are.

Another is that I think there’s some level of distrust from the audience. Some companies are just like, “You’re trying to manipulate me,” or somehow using a lot of visuals is dumbing down the data. But we’ve also had a lot of clients that loved it and did not distrust it.

I think that’s one of the science community’s biggest problems: they know a lot, but they have trouble communicating. If you go to any of the big conferences or symposiums, see the posters that scientists have made to communicate their findings. Out of 50 posters, maybe 1 or 2 will be understandable.

But if “highly visual” is not necessarily what a client wants, why do you still think it’s a good idea to present it in that way?

If your goal is to simply satisfy the client at all costs, then you probably shouldn’t do it. If your goal is to communicate the findings in a more effective way, then I think you can teach your client to appreciate it. That was something that we did at Cheskin, and it’s something that I am doing now at CCA and at Stanford to some extent.

For many clients, you try to capture your main meaning in a very clear visual, because that very clear visual is the selling point of all your work. That very clear visual is what makes it’s way through the many layers of the organization, and finally ends up in the CEO’s hands. If you hadn’t sent that very simple visual — and in fact you’ve buried your client with 40 pages of findings — it’s going to stay at the most junior level.

Are there many design students aspiring to be researchers?

Design students are most definitely going the research route. It’s one of the most popular career paths out of CCA. And at Stanford last year, about 10% of the class came up and wanted to know how to get into a program that would teach them to be a design researcher.

What do you recommend for researchers without a big design budget? How can they increase the impact of their presentations?

There are so many online resources for that. Get skilled in basic design principles. Teach yourself illustration, teach yourself animation, teach yourself how to do infographics. Get better and better at it.

I think researchers have the easier time with learning that than designers do trying to learn how to do research. It’s scary to interview people. It’s not scary to teach yourself to draw.

Storytelling is always hard.

Christopher Ireland

How have you encouraged your students to rethink their own approach presentations?

We posed a challenge to about 42 students, and said, “Get familiar with the Hyperloop being tested. It’s a concept; it doesn’t exist yet, but it’s being developed and tested. Identify the most salient user pain point.”

To do that, they had to do a behavior journey map that thought through how the concept would be used, and when, and so on. Then, each team had to do 10 in-person interviews, trying to understand what people’s fears were, or what their expectations were, trying to understand where they came from.

After they identified the pain point, they had to come up with a solution that addresses that problem. They had to do a rough prototype — their research prototype — and get feedback on their prototype. And then, they had to present their findings as a PechaKucha — that’s usually 20 slides, 20 seconds each. I think we made ours 10 slides, 20 seconds each.

Storytelling is always hard.

When you say storytelling, do you mean they had to tell an actual story, with a beginning, middle, end, characters, and so on?

Right. For instance, one story was of two sisters meeting their father in San Francisco. I think he was flying in from China. One daughter lived in Oakland. She came by car. The other daughter lived in LA, so she used the Hyperloop.

The daughter with Hyperloop arrived refreshed and happy, and the daughter who took the car had arrived later than the one with Hyperloop did. She was frustrated and stressed.

It was all based on the students’ research with real people. What they learned from their interviews, from their prototyping, they were then able to communicate with the story.

I’m guessing your students are digital natives who grew up with Twitter and other short-form communication as the norm. Do you think that made this type of brevity easier for them?

Actually, it was hard for them — it was very hard for them. Most of their challenges had to do with getting really interesting, rich data, and then being forced to communicate it in a really simplistic way. It was hard both from a strategic management level, and it was hard for them to just let go of the details that they wanted.

We had a poster challenge where we had them communicate all their findings in one poster. It had to be understandable within two or three seconds of viewing it. And it took us hours and hours of mentoring to get many of the teams to just let go of detail on these posters.

It’s as if they felt that if they didn’t put in more, that meant they weren’t doing the work.

Kari Dean McCarthy is a seasoned brand communications strategist, award-winning filmmaker, and gnocchi expert.

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