try the “lightning quick” method

When I was making a lot of mental model diagrams in the get-it-to-market-yesterday boom of the late 1990’s, I used a technique that resulted in a mental model diagram plus gap analysis in the course of one day. I think this technique is still valid today. It can serve to get you started in this practice, which you can later add to in a more carefully-contemplated fashion. Here’s an example of my session with a group of nine talented design agency folks. We spent 2.75 hours putting together a set of towers based on 24 individual stories, and then spent rest of the day brainstorming ideas to support those towers. Here’s how we did it.

Solicit Some Stories Ahead of Time

A week in advance, solicit stories from people. If your proposed audience segments happen to be online, ask for stories via email, tweets, Facebook, etc. If these folks aren’t online, then ask as many people as you can to solicit stories from friends & family in their daily life and write you a summary, using that person’s voice. (Use the personal pronoun “I” when recapping the stories.) When you ask for a story, be very explicit about what you want to hear, and give examples. As the stories come in, sort them roughly into piles of similarity.

[Note: Someone wrote in asking for more detail about this part of the Lightning Quick Session. Here are step-by-step directions that you might send out, say, in an email blast to folks who are members of the audience segment you wish to study.]
  1. Use a heading like “Bring Me Stories.”
  2. Ask the one question that represents/summarizes the scope. For example, “Tell me a recent story of how you discovered & contacted a local business.”
  3. Add a few specific “why” questions, such as, “Why did you think of this business or type of business? What did you want to ask the business? What else were you thinking in this vein?”
  4. Add some example stories as short paragraphs that can be read quickly. These examples help to show the level of detail you need. “My new house that my wife and I bought last August flooded in this huge rainstorm this January. Well, the basement flooded, where I keep my office, and all my computer power cords and router wires got wet! I pulled them all upstairs and set them to dry out, but what about the wires *inside* the walls of the house? Were those wet, too? Was it safe to just plug stuff back in? I decided I didn’t know enough to safely answer the question, so I wanted to hire an electrician to check things out and make sure they were safe. It’s an old house, so maybe the wiring will need replacing. I emailed a friend who also owns a house in the area and asked her if she could recommend an electrician. I tried Googling for a kind of rate sheet thing, to see what kind of expense range I was looking at, but couldn’t find anything. So I asked my neighbor, whose father is a contractor, what the costs might be like. My friend also got back to me with the name and number of her favorite electrician, so I called and explained my fear and need for an appointment asap. I didn’t want my new house to burn down, especially not in all that rain. Oh, and then one of my sump pumps went out, and I started to suspect an electrical problem. OMG, please come help! And what will this cost? I know it’s got to be done.”

Read & Write Labels

On the day of the workshop, gather everyone together either in a room with lots of sticky notes, or online with a shared Google spreadsheet. Assign one person to read and comb out verb+noun labels, and two or three people to scribble these labels down, either on sticky notes or in the Google spreadsheet. Assign the rest of the folks (at least one) to organize the labels as they are created. So, yeah, that’s four people minimum for this exercise. You probably want to cut off the number of people participating at 10 or so. Alternately, you can split up a larger group into two sub-groups, each combing a different set of stories.

The person who reads and combs needs to have some experience combing and labeling, needs to know the rules that make it easy, and needs to know what to skip and when to toss out stories completely because they are not detailed enough. (I tossed three out of 24 stories on the floor, with a memorable flourish.) The reader has the option to read the stories out loud or to herself. Reading the stories out loud is more of a learning opportunity for the whole team, but takes a lot of time. Reading them to herself saves time, but makes the day less interesting to the other folks in the room. No matter which option she picks, the reader will announce verb+noun labels out loud, indicating which of the folks scribbling is supposed to write it down. With multiple folks scribbling, the reader can call out labels in quick succession, without having to wait for each of them to be completely written down. In today’s session we managed to produce about 100 labels in 2 hours.

Writing labels on sticky notes as they are called out.

Writing summaries on sticky notes as they are called out. Each person writes a different summary, round-robin around the table.

As each label is generated, another person (or set of people) accepts each label and puts it with other “like” labels, grouping by affinity of behavior. Encourage these folks to group into small groups of 5 or so labels. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule–some of our groups had 10 and 20 labels, but most groups had 5 or 6 labels.

Again, it helps to have someone with experience lead this group, as making affinity groups by intent takes practice. Often beginners will end up grouping by the nouns on the sticky notes, like “these are all the labels having to do with using the phone book” and “those are all the labels having to do with comparing the service features.” Neither of those are intents. Instead, you might group by “read through a list of names hoping to remember the business I used four years ago” or “figure out why the bids I got are so different.”

Another problem beginners run into while grouping is panic to make groups in a short period of time. Usually this surfaces as making up a structure in their heads such as “here’s the pre-purchase phase, this over here is the purchase phase, and that’s the post-purchase evaluation phase.” These are structured labels coming from internal work being done by the team, not labels coming from the stories and intentions captured in the labels.

Re-Organize the Set & Make Headers

Once all the stories are read and the labels are written and in rough groups, as a final pass go through these groups and make adjustments. The team I worked with today had a really good grasp of grouping, yet we still spent 40 minutes re-jiggering things and putting the stray emotional label with the behavior that engendered it. As we adjusted things, we made up headings (again using verb+nouns) for each tower of things. We were careful not to make up a heading based on just one label. Instead, we made a solid tower of labels, stared at it for a second, and then made up a heading for it.

Negotiating how to group the sticky notes in front of us.

Negotiating which summaries go with others based on the intent of the person speaking, so that we can form patterns and then towers of the mental model diagram.

Brainstorm by Tower

As the final step of the day–the one that should take at least half the allotted time, visit each tower and brainstorm ideas for it. Write these ideas up with little notes and align them underneath the tower you are studying. We used red font on sticky notes to easily distinguish an idea from the original set of labels. Start with a tower that seems interesting. Keep brainstorming and building on ideas for that tower until you hit a lull, then move your focus to another tower. You don’t have to go in any order. To keep the creative juices flowing, it’s better to follow the path of interest. Maybe you will find towers that just aren’t exciting, and that’s okay. Skip them for now. Come back to them next quarter, because I guarantee your team will come up with enough other ideas to keep you busy for a while.

This lightning quick approach gets your team going in a day. You still get to work with real outside stories from real people. And you move to brainstorming and gap analysis quickly, giving folks in upper management (for whom the word “research” induces queasiness) a sense of confidence and progress.

Wish You Could Have Help?

If you don’t feel experienced enough to do the combing on the fly or the grouping and adjustment of the labels, I’m happy to get you going with a bit of personal assistance. I’ve helped teams produce a perfectly-worded call for stories to send out to their audience segments. A week later, the team will send me the stories they solicited, organized roughly into themes. I will either get on the phone or show up in person to read through the stories and comb out labels, which is where a lot of teams feel unsure of themselves the first time through. Just a few hours of my time helps you feel sure you’ve got a solid beginning to your mental model. I’m happy to help!