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Ideating with Artifacts: A Blueprint for Workshops that Create Unignornable Insights

An inside look at Stitch Fix's "Passport to Personalization" workshop—an innovative way to socialize dynamic customer personas. 

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Allison Corr

As the UX researcher for Stitch Fix, Patricia Donnellan’s charter was to bring the customer to each and every meeting—helping decision makers see as they do, feel as they do.

“Stitch Fix is very quantitatively data focused in so far as we are very committed to using that data to personalize the experience for our clients and our potential clients," says Patricia. "But at the time, I was the only one charged with sometimes putting a human face to that, and explaining the why behind certain behaviors that we're seeing, or certain feedback that we're hearing. That's why I use dscout.”

As part of this effort, Patricia created a customer journey map, then used that map for the foundations for a persona-building study. The confluence of these personas, alignable to their stages of the journey, created a rich, multi-dimensional user understanding.

Patricia: “With those two things, you get an idea of who somebody is, and what their needs are in their life. At any given time, are they having a baby, are they transitioning to a new job, are they trying to look more official right out of college? Or do they just need to break out of their style rut?”

The resulting deliverable, however, created with an external partner, was flat, two-dimensional, and unrealistically “linear.” Even as the work hung prominently in public spaces for all to see, engagement wasn't matching the richness on display.

How to motivate folks to linger, empathize, and really engage with the mission-critical data, turning it into insight? And to understand this intersection of personas and the client journey?

The answer involved a “Passport to Personalization” workshop—facilitated in 2019—geared at getting stakeholders to interact with, experience, reflection, and create artifacts related to their key personas.

The workshop

The workshop strove to make abstract concepts concrete, and to get participants engaged, with, and empathizing with the data—not just going through the motions.

“We wanted to have an intersection of who a person is, and where they might be in their journey with us. That led naturally to this idea of a passport and boarding pass. The passport represented the user persona, and there were four that we used. And then the boarding pass represents your state, where you are with us in the company, in your journey with the company. Whether you've just signed up, whether you're contemplating trying Stitch Fix, whether you've used us for a while and are happy and things are going well but you still want to connect with us. As well as those people who maybe have paused or stopped thinking of us for their style needs, and what might be going on in their life.”

Each passport contained an overview of the persona work in the front, followed by blank sections for each artifact (akin to country stamps).

"Your persona might be that you're a very busy mom who just wants to continue to look and feel stylish, but you also have a lot of other things on your plate. That might be one type of framework that you're looking through. We told them to think of that as just the lens. Just think of the passport as the lens you're looking through what matters to you.

And then they were given a boarding pass that says, now this represents where you are in your relationship to Stitch Fix. Given those two things, walk around the room and interact with these artifacts.

They would go around and explain, from their point of view, from the user's point of view, who they are. They're introducing each other already in character. And then the instruction is to, based on where you are in your relationship to Stitch Fix and your journey with us, and what matters to you on your style journey, you just walk around the room and see what inspires you, see what you're drawn to. See what repels you. Nothing was meant to be literal. The artifacts were all analog."

Passports and boarding passes were designed by Yueran Zhao, who was also instrumental to setting up the workshop.

The artifacts were purely for spurring creativity (and were whatever Patricia could find in her house!).

“They could take a step out of their day-to-day reality and become this other person, and remove all the barriers that would keep them from doing that. There was no meaning to the artifacts other than the meaning people gave to them. So we could collectively talk about what people were drawn to, what they were repelled from and why. And people went into the classic active listening, questions, reflecting, trying to find common themes—while the researchers took notes and sketch notes.

I was amazed at how people made the artifacts their own. I was struck by how many people referenced this Wonder Woman action figure that had been given to me as a birthday gift that I just threw in, you know? So many people wrote poignant things about how ‘I feel like I'm a superhero in my career, Stitch Fix makes me feel like I can be a superhero in style.’ That's a really powerful statement about your need and about how you feel underrepresented by the fashion world.”

Photos from the Passport to Personalization Workshop - Conducted @ Stitch Fix in 2019

Encouraging stakeholder participation

Patricia worked ceaselessly to sample a cross-section of folks from across the organization: from market and consumer insights, product, and engineering to other data-hungry teams and even the executive team. She asked for an hour of their time and only told them a conference room to meet in.

“We identified the key person in a department, and then said, ‘Your colleague has identified you as somebody who would be really valuable to attend this workshop," We learned early on just to assign people to a workshop because the scheduling of having people sign up is just too hairy. But trying to get cross-disciplinary, cross-functional representation with the small groups—no larger than 6.”

Not only did stakeholders take to the personas, they continued thinking from their assigned persona's standpoint in future meetings, saying things like, "Well, if I'm ____, I'm not interested in that as much as I am ____." From engineers to executives, the personas (and their specific needs for personalization along the Stitch Fix journey, because more common discussion points.

“There’s an idea that there's only certain people within our organization that are responsible for empathy—which was thrown out the window. Researchers like to consider ourselves as ‘the empathy folks,’ but actually there's an enormous capacity for empathy if you give people the opportunity. Stakeholders just jumped in and were so committed to their worldview, needs, desires, and motivations of these personas. “

Patricia credits the space to think (an hour is an eternity for an executive), the physical movement and interacting with the artifacts, and the creative energy needed for producing such long-lasting, sharp outcomes.

“If you're going to be an experience creator, that means you can't do it just externally and then create slide decks or printouts for your internal audience. You have to be willing to go a step further and create something more alive and more immersive.”

Sample participant passports and observations

Key takeaways for your next workshop:

  • Impress upon your stakeholders the importance of the shareout: Align to OKRs or KPIs, discuss findings pertinent to outstanding problems: just get them to the workshop.
  • Meet your stakeholders where they are: From the first invite, “personalization” was stressed as critical to the workshop’s agenda. Personalization is core to Stitchfix’s company culture and philosophy. So this subtle maneuver aligned an org-wide value and priority,
  • Set an agenda: Patricia was clear with the instructions, activities, and intended outcomes, which helped alleviate uncertainty for stakeholders (like executives) who might misunderstand or mis-perceive the goals or objectives. The clearer you can outline, the better they'll feel (and more likely they will to attend).
  • Leverage a mental prop for creative engagement: Post-its can only go so far. How can you get stakeholders participating with and in the insights and data? Acting things out, drawing, staging, building, these are the foundations of creativity and innovation solution-finding.
  • Document it for further sociability: Patricia took photos and had sketch notes made, which she then shared with the wider org. This shows the habit of human-centeredness and concern about personalization. It also offers credibility to the role of UXR and the power (and fun!) those shareouts carry. Induce others to join.

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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