My guest in this episode is conversation designer, Daniel Stillman, author of “Good Talk - How to Design Conversations That Matter.” We talk about his journey into design, the shape, structure and dynamics of conversations and how to facilitate them.
- Daniel’s website
- The Conversation Factory
- Daniel’s book, Good Talk – How To Design Conversations That Matter
- Daniel on Twitter
- Daniel on LinkedIn
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N.B. This transcript is partially machine created, so there may be a few errors. Timestamps are included for accessibility and listening along.
Andy Polaine: [00:00:00] Hi and welcome to Power of Ten. A podcast about design operating at many levels, zooming out from the thoughtful details through to organizational transformation and the change in society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine. I’m a service designer and innovation consultant, coach educator and writer. My guest today is Daniel Stillman, a conversation designer, and he’s just written the book “Good Talk: how to design conversations that matter”. Daniel, welcome to Power of Ten.
Daniel Stillman: [00:00:36] Andy. It is a distinct pleasure to be here with you, honestly.
Andy Polaine: [00:00:41] Thank you. It’s a… I’ve been listening to your Conversation Factory for a while too. The podcast that you also run should I should’ve mentioned in there in the title.
Let’s come back to what a conversation designer is in a second, or maybe we can do that by asking you, how have you got from here to where? Or from there to where you are now, the journey here.
Daniel Stillman: [00:01:03] I mean, where’s there and where’s here, but those are deeper questions. I mean, so like in, in a nutshell, like I, I actually wanted to be an exhibit designer. When I went to industrial design school, I went to industrial school at Pratt, and this is going back more than a decade. And I thought to myself, I studied science and I was like, and I loved education. And I thought like, Oh, this is so cool. You can make a space and just set people loos in it and they can learn, right? And so I, I just love this idea of automatic education, but it turned out that in order to do that-I was working at the museum of natural history-and I thought maybe I would be able to sneak my way in. And I was managing a research lab. A secret lab on the roof of the museum of natural history. It was really one of the coolest jobs I’ve ever had. My, the elevator to my office was gigantic, like big enough to put a dinosaur skeleton into it. But it was a nowhere job. I was making nothing. And so I remember going around and interviewing people about how to get into this design world. And this guy was like, “Well, you need to, you need to study design, ha ha.”
And he had a two year, there was a two year program in exhibit design, but it was like an Associate’s degree and I’d already had a Bachelor’s and I was like, I don’t want to go to a two year program that gives you a, like a basically nothing degree. And so I went to, I went to.. Or was it one year? Anyway, I went to Pratt. I went to Pratt and I studied industrial design. I got my masters and along the way in industrial design, I think what I discovered was human centered design co-creation and stuff. All that good stuff, that the design process. And I also discovered that the museum industry has actually wound up doing a studio in exhibit design.
I realized that the museum exhibit design world was like a really slow moving political, challenging context. And so I wound up working in product design or what was called… the only type of products that product design was back then, right? This is, this goes to our, Slack rant the other day designing physical products, but this being 2007, we were on this cusp of also starting to realize my boss realized that like, everything we were designing had a screen and someone else was designing for the screen.
And so,yeah, totally. So we were designing the TV and going off and doing all these interviews on the future of home theater and then somebody else was designing the interface for the TV. And so they made a very concerted effort. They said like, what is this interaction design thing that’s going on?
And I, they sort of sent me off to go learn about it. And I, I discovered the interaction designers association and started going to those conferences. And so in a way I feel like my work has been a growing awareness of other types of design. And so I was, I was in industrial design and then we were doing this hybrid, total design, where we were like, okay, well we’re doing interaction design, but most of the people talking about interaction design are talking about web design.
We were designing weird ebook readers and modular computers and GPS devices and whatnot. And then service design popped up in my awareness and experience design. And, and it was in 2015. I started just teaching design thinking to non-designers and about. Like maybe 2010, 2011, 2012 was when I started doing it full-time I didn’t know that it was an industry. I just thought like, wow, I learned all this stuff after design school, everyone should know this and we can collaborate together better. Wouldn’t that be delightful? Very naive, I guess, also there wasn’t really an industry when I started in it.
And so in 2015, I worked with a group in Australia called Second Road and, yeah, who you might know. And I did a small stint with them as a consultant. They called their facilitation practice-and I had sort of identified as a facilitator and that workshop design and facilitation design was something that I was good at and enjoy teaching people-they called their practice conversation design, which I found very confronting.
Because I was like, you’re not designers and designers are very petulant group. Like as much as we talk about co-design and co-creation we still are, I believe, very posessive of what’s up about the actual design and, you know, the boundaries of who gets to be part… we invite you in, right? You don’t just call yourself designers.
And I was like, what does it mean to design a conversation? And they have a very interesting perspective on it. And it really was eye opening for me and very, and very confronting, as I say, And I remember in January of 2016, doing four test interviews with four professionals that I respected on what they thought it meant to design a conversation. And I interviewed Dave Gray, who co-wrote Gamestorming and Liminal Thinking and other books. I interviewed Abby Covert who wrote How To Make Sense of Any Mess and is, you know, brilliant. And a beloved friend. I am interviewed Leland Maschmeyer who’s now the Chief Creative Officer at Chobani. I eventually had him on my podcast and my friend, Phil McKenzie, who is a cultural consultant and also a DJ.
And I just, to me, I was like, well, what does it mean? Maybe this is the next type of design. I think that’s what my hypothesis was. And that’s how I got to here. This is the long story, but it’s like, it was, it took me a year to actually officially start my podcast after that. But I think the whole time I was like, we’re all just designing conversations, everything.
And I was doing a lot of work with the Luma Institute in 2016. And I was like, all these templates and all these modalities, they’re just ways to design a conversation, you know, being like, okay, let’s do some abstraction, laddering. And if you know the game, you can play the game and it’s an, and it’s a design for dialogue.
And so that, like, it just, it just infected my brain. And that’s how I got to where I am now, which is just a hopeless over-intellectualised hack.
Andy Polaine: [00:07:18]
It’s interesting. You know, one of the things I, I had a similar realization a while ago, and I remember I was. Facilitating a workshop or teaching it, I think. And said, you know, all of these methods exist because we don’t have telepathy, you know, almost everything that you are trying to do and all these design methods are, “I’m trying to extract something that you have in your head and get it out there and make it tangible in some way so that I can mix it in with the thing I have in my head.”
Daniel Stillman: [00:07:45] Yes. And then hopefully incept in your mind where I want you to go with with the project. Oh yeah.
Andy Polaine: [00:07:54] There’s that too. But I mean, there is, there’s an awful lot of you know, a lot of the process is really about that. It’s really about trying to make tangible the thing that I have, you know, in your head. I don’t know if you’ve read the book by Ken Kocienda, it’s called Creative Selection. He’s an ex-Apple engineer and he was the guy who designed the- or came up with-the predictive touch typing or predictive texting on the iPhone when they shut down the whole can development of everything because they couldn’t get the keyboard right. And so they had the whole, all the design teams or the engineering teams were working on demos of keyboards and he talks about the demo culture and he worked with a guy, Dutch guy, I think he’s called Bas somebody whose name I’ve forgotten, who did all of his demos in Macromedia director, which I was happy to hear of, you know, to try things out.
And he goes in kind of detail about this whole idea of if you’ve got an idea in your head and I’ve got an idea in my head of something, we can argue forever about it because they’re still ideas in our heads. And we can kind of say now, you know, my… he gives an example of a puppy and said well, you know, my puppy is much cuter than yours. And even if you do a kind of crappy sketch of it, that kind of helps, but you know, then it’s like, Oh, but your sketch is better than mine. It’s not until you do a demo of a thing. And for them, it’s not a prototype. It’s a demo. It’s that this is how the thing would be that you can actually, you’ve got that artifact in front of you and you can actually have a proper conversation about it. Does this work, does this not?
Daniel Stillman: [00:09:18] So can we unpack, unpack what this idea of having a proper conversation is? Cause I think it’s really interesting. One of the things that woke up for me when I started the podcast in earnest and started interviewing people on this. I don’t know if you want to call it a conceit, but it really was a curiosity for me of like, if we can design conversations and I say we can, what are we designing when we design them?
And what part, what are they made of? And I interviewed this guy named Paul Pangaro, who is professor of cybernetics and his diagram of modeling a one-on-one conversation has this really interesting implication for me as a UX, a former UX designer is that conversations have an interface. Like they have a place where they happen and the place where most conversations are happening in our heads and our, and the air.
And so our heads, we actually can think, unfortunately I forget the statistics and I should know them better, but, you know, from your own experience that you can think a lot faster than you can express. Right. And we also think incredibly non-linearly. I mean, our brains just goo and our thoughts are goo and they’re just electricity firing all over the place and trying to create a coherent thread.
Of thought from all of that in coherence is actually a… that’s why writing a book is crazy process, but air is also a really bad place to have a conversation. Cause air is whispy and fluffy. And if I say something and you say something, it goes away. And so that’s why having a shared place for the conversation is so deeply transformative.
And I don’t care if it’s a whiteboard. I mean, can you imagine having some of the conversations we try to have without a whiteboard it’s, it’s mind boggling and sticky notes, and that’s why people are so stressed out right now in this remote moment of like, well, where do I, what do I do? Do I use MURAL? Or do I use Miro?
Like, what do I, how do I do it? Can I use Google slides? It’s like, I don’t care what your shared interface is, but the dialogue of design needs a place. It needs a home, and that’s why having quote unquote war rooms-and we need like a non-military, you know, analogy for that-but like, that’s why it’s so helpful to have those persistent spaces for dialogue where, hey, the group’s all in this room and the client comes into this room and we put everything up on a wall and it exists from day to day and week to week.
Otherwise it just… it gets… there’s so much lost because we just can’t hold it all in our heads. And so all of that to me is designing the conversation, setting up those spaces for the conversation is design. It’s a design process.
Andy Polaine: [00:12:12] It’s interesting. I mean, I think that the thing that gets overlooked both in spaces and also in their current kind of online , all sort of remote thing, is asynchronicity. You know, I think for everyone involved is one of the things is obviously It’s very useful, particularly if you’ve got something very political, to be able to have everything up on the wall and bring different groups of people through at different times, rather than, I mean, it’s also useful to have everyone together in the same place and looking at it.
And so, but that’s a different kind of conversation isn’t it than having, I’m going to bring engineering through and then I’m going to bring the marketing team through, rather than having all those people in the room at the same time.
Daniel Stillman: [00:12:49] Becuase of my friend Leland, I went to the five, like a week long negotiation intensive at Harvard Law School. He, in, in our podcast interview, he said it was like the best educational experience of his life. And there was a lot of money to invest at the time for me to spend $5,000 to go to a week long. And to hang out with a bunch of lawyers. And I learned so much, I know, well, but I learned so much, it was a wonderful intellectual vacation because it was thinking about things in a new way.
And I, and I met my professor, Bob Gordon, who I had on the podcast. Like I learned so much from this process because he talks about creating negotiation systems inside of organizations and the idea that you can, over-engineer a negotiation system or in negotiations so that no real dialogue happens. And so in a way, like if you fracture the dialogue so much, and control it. And you I’m sure-I know for myself that I’ve committed this act in a workshop that I have fragmented and templatized and gotten people to like nuggetize everything so that the conversation is super, super safe and there’s no crosstalk and there’s no argument, but there’s also no friction to know nothing interesting that happens.
And so there’s definitely the spectrum, right?
Andy Polaine: [00:14:05] Yeah, it is. And it’s fascinating that I think one of the things I first learned when I, I learned when I first started teaching, actually it was I kind of went in and I was so teaching from my experience and that kind of worked pretty well. And then I got very interested in, you know, in learning more about teaching.
And I, I did a Graduate Certificate, which is like a kind of third of a Master’s in University Learning and Teaching and understanding, you know, how you teach adults and there’s a lot, you learn around learning and stuff and self-development things, which is yeah.
Daniel Stillman: [00:14:31] Andrew Gaji the weirdest, one of the stranger words.
Andy Polaine: [00:14:35] And then you get yeah. And so one of the things that it was, you know, then there’s all this literature about how to construct a learning experience and everything, and kind of threw myself into that and started really planning all of my courses and kind of over-planned them. And then I, there was a sort of a semester where I just thought, yeah, Well, not even a semester, there was a sort of few weeks where I just thought this is not only a little bit boring for me now, because I feel like I’m just sort of painting by numbers.
I could tell it wasn’t yeah, there wasn’t any room for kind of, for that. And so I actually, I sort of loosened it again afterwards. And I found that often with workshops too, I’ve seen , you know, otherwise very competent designers and you know, facilitators, or maybe they’re a little bit nervous kind of plan have like a, a spreadsheet of this five minutes is going to be that.
And then the next 10 minutes is going to be that and, you know, read it down. And I just can’t, I mean, other people may be work that way. I just can’t work like that. I have a kind of loose outline and a rough sort of points to hit.
Daniel Stillman: [00:15:29] But you have a backstop of experience. I mean, Okay. So there’s, I think you kind of need that and then know where you need to loosen up from that.
Andy Polaine: [00:15:39] Well you need some squash and stretch, right? So you need to be able to you know, sometimes you do need to kind of direct something else or let something unfolds like a conversation. So there were some times a particular activity, triggers, triggers people, triggers the group, and then they, we know this and I’m always loath to kind of really wade into that. Cause sometimes I feel like..
Daniel Stillman: [00:15:59] Yeah, but that’s a choice, but that suits, so this is where we like in the, in the book. And I talk about what your conversation OS is and, and it’s like you know what, when, when you look at the all the hings that are desirable or addressable in a conversation.
Then we have a series of choices that we tend to make. And you can say like, this is, this is Andy’s conversation DNA. My mother, who will definitely listen to this episode she, she once said to me, she’s like, “Daniel, I don’t always want to be designing my conversations.” And I was like, “mom, that is a design choice.”
And she was like, like, and so I’ve incepted her with this. And sometimes I think that the only design choice ever is tight or loose. Y
eah. I mean,
Andy Polaine: [00:16:47] I think that is probably the case with a lot of things that you, you know, you know, it’s that classic thing of you restrict your color palette and that kind of oil, you know, you, the grid.
You know, all of those things are, and you have a grid in order to break it, exactly right. Yeah.
Daniel Stillman: [00:17:04] Cause then you get some freshness from breaking it, right. So it’s only from the elimination of constraints that we get some, something new. Right. Which is the problem of teaching somebody a way that things are done.
Andy Polaine: [00:17:18] Yeah. And I think if you found this, this is one of the constant struggles of teaching is you know, when, you know, there’s something really nice about knowing your material really well, and you can, you know, look at it, you know, all the different sort of metaphors and ways of explaining it. And you’re trying to kind of find that kind of key to unlock it for someone. Versus I taught this workshop now 20 times and I I’ve kind of lost the will to live about it, you know? There is. And that’s where I think some of that kind of constraints versus looseness kind of comes in because you can also end up going so loose that you go, you know, everyone knows there, so I’m just going to move on and you’ve left people sitting there confused cause you haven’t brought them on the journey.
Daniel Stillman: [00:17:57] Yeah, I have felt that. And I think that’s why teaching design thinking to, non-designers got to be a grind for me because it’s, it’s like Groundhog day, like where he goes like, “Hey, Ned!” like you go through all the actions and you, you rev people up.
And so I think the only way that I solved that for myself, his I that’s one of the reasons why I started teaching my facilitation masterclass. So I. I get together people, a bunch of people who are already good facilitators, and then we just blow each other’s minds together. And the minus is I sometimes feel like I’m not teaching anything cause I’m just coaching and holding space and I’m, I’m feeding into the process, but it is also very satisfying and I learn something new every time from them and it elevates my game every time I do it. And it’s. So that’s nice.
Andy Polaine: [00:18:52] You just described you designing a conversation, right?
You’ve got a structure to this, though. In the book, you, you talk about the, the conversation OS and the kind of nine elements of it. I know you have a canvas of sorts as well
Daniel Stillman: [00:19:08] As one must.
Andy Polaine: [00:19:08] So take us through it.
Daniel Stillman: [00:19:11] It’s all designed for the conversation of thought leadership. Well, so, I mean, a lot of it comes from two sources.
One is from Paul actually. So Paul’s diagram. With this idea of what a conversation is made of there’s people in the conversation, and then there’s their goals and what they can agree to. Right. Which is like the flip side of goals and agreements and those, those, each, each of those, each, each of the per, you know, we model a two person conversation.
We’re like, okay, we’ve got these two people. They each have something they want and can they get someplace together? What Paul doesn’t talk about in his model is things that have come up in my own research, like power and like narrative. So narrative to me is something that’s always been a big component of what I do. I feel like narrative and narrative structure holds so much, but when you talk about conversation, this woman from Google, I interviewed-Google has uses some good conversation in theory, as the basis of their human computer conversation design, which unfortunately now is like taking over this term conversation design- and one of the things that they talk about is threading. And in the conversation theory, there’s this idea of the thread of a conversation, but it’s poorly defined, but we all know it from our own experience. There’s, we’ve lost the thread or we pick up the thread and the bigger thread it is when we are I have an agenda and a facilitation or the story of our organization.
And when we can say like, what’s the metaphor like this organization is like a… if we can say what is happening in our organization. I think we are picking up off of many, many threads and bundling them together and saying, this is the story of what’s happening in this whole organizational conversation.
Andy Polaine: [00:21:04] I mean, some of it’s also about uncovering what the actual conversation is or the actual thread is versus this is what the kind of explicitly stated one is. I mean, that, that kind of tacit culture and tacit narrative versus the real one, which we’re right in the middle of the sort of coronavirus thing you’re seeing exposed quite brutally sometimes from different companies.
Yeah. So like
Daniel Stillman: [00:21:28] with anything, like, I feel like with the, with the nine elements and I, and I made it nine elements because I was doing the podcast for like a year and a half and I was still teaching facilitation, but through the lens of design thinking and a lot of what. I learned from Dave Gray, opening, exploring and closing, just basic good structure.
And I, I honestly didn’t know how to start bringing the OS stuff into it because it felt so weird and theoretical. So I was always looking for ways to ground it. And so I was like, what’s the smallest number of elements that I can give. And that nine box is sort of nice. And so at one point, what I put in the middle was a invitation.
So invitation is what kicks off a conversation. And I learned about the importance of invitation from, I interviewed this guy, Daniel mesic, who talked about opens space conversations, open space technology, and invitation, and how you start or frame or hold a conversation so important. And I feel like half the time when I’m coaching somebody.
Doing leadership coaching or whatever. And they’re like, well, I need this. I need to talk to this person about it. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I’m like, well, how can you actually frame it? So that they’ll want to actually come into the dialogue. How can you send somebody an invitation to a party that they’ll want to come to?
And so invitation is terribly important, but I, I no longer have invitation in the middle. I have it on the edge and what’s in the middle is the interface. Okay. Cause the interfaces from, from in terms of like what’s designable and what’s addressable, the interface is like right there in the middle of where everything comes together.
So the interface is crucial. The narrative is crucial. The conversation is made up of people and it doesn’t matter if there’s one person in the conversation or a hundred it’s shaped by the people that are invited in. Either or, and then it’s also shaped by power because whether or not people feel like they can speak or feel like they can show up or can bring their whole selves.
So power and diversity are both like really important components. And there’s kind of like two sides to one coin, basically in…
Andy Polaine: [00:23:32] Particularly in those well, both in the kind of just general daily dynamics of, of work and sort of corporate spaces and meetings, but particularly in workshops too, right.
Daniel Stillman: [00:23:41] Oh, yeah, totally.
And, and there’s two, it’s funny writing the book was such an interesting process cause I, I had these nine elements and I, and I, you know, kind of wrote a little mini chapter for each one about like the principles and the story and blah, blah, blah. And then I sent it to the publisher and they’re like, you know, three of these seem like they’re all the same.
And I was like, they’re totally different. And so yeah, I will tell you, he looked so, so turn-taking, which is so very essential. And cadence, which is like the rhythmicity of all the turns taken he’s like, but isn’t that just an emergent idea. He didn’t say the term emergent property. But he’s like, isn’t that just the same thing?
And I was like but cadence is something you feel. And cadence is a little fluffier because I think each of us has like, this is the sprinting thing. Like there’s some people like my cadence as a design thinking facilitator five years ago was go, go, go, rah, rah. And that was just my approach to everything was like, let’s go fast.
And now after several years of doing more men’s work like and I’m like now, like let’s slow everything way down. And I have that range. And so every, the turn-taking kind of fits inside of the cadence. I feel like we feel the cadence and then, you know, the knob that we turn to sometimes.
The turn-taking and then the third one was threading. He was like, but aren’t, they all just like macro, micro and meso. And I’m like, yeah, but I mean, you can design them differently.
Andy Polaine: [00:25:14] When I think of storytelling and or film and stuff, you know, a turn, turn-taking happens within a scene. You know, you see it in, in dialogue and the sort of a classic thing where, you know, one person wants something off the other person and attacks them in various different kind of ways to, to try and get that thing.
And then, you know. And so, but you know, you’ve got this whole thing of first someone might be try and be kind of you know, schmooze someone in to get it. And then the next thing, they start to become verbally threatening and then they start to kind of become physically threatening stuff.
So all that stuff kind of. Yeah.
Daniel Stillman: [00:25:47] And so that’s the musicality and that’s why I think I try to talk about there’s this idea of like, what sounds and combinations of sounds are interesting. Music will tell you like forte and fortempiano and metso forte, and then a glissando. And that to me is like the musicality is where cadence goes like slow, slow, quick, quick, quick, quick, slow, slow.
And a great movie has that. Like, it’s not just all slow. Cause that’s boring and it’s not all fast. Cause then you’re just need…
Andy Polaine: [00:26:13] It’s a French film
Daniel Stillman: [00:26:15] Just lots of smoking, a lot of smoking and a lot of nothing’s happening. Right. But then you’re like, you have the secondMmatrix movie where I, like, I literally needed to take three Advil and take a nap after like the two hour chase scene that is the second matrix, which I will watch anytime. I love it’s a great movie, but yeah…
Andy Polaine: [00:26:33] IT’s interesting that I, that just as a complete side thing, I’ml it’s probably just an example of getting old, but I. I have to say I don’t get to go to the cinema very often cause I’ve got an 11 year old daughter. And when I do, I get like I’m fortunate if I get to go and see a Pixar film or something , but you know, the I’d like to go and see a full on, you know, Marvel movie or something just feels like an assault. And I just feel battered by it.
Daniel Stillman: [00:26:56] Right but think about, think about the people who listened to Tchaikovsky. That’s what I’m saying is that like, we’ve we, our tastes evolve and our flavors. So like right now, I think in the, in the sprint world, a lot of sprint people are like called now to do other site types of workshops and. They have less resources for these other things. People are coming to be saying like, I have to do these strategic conversations and leadership conversations.
And the tools of the sprints are a greatest hits of design thinking, but they’re not enough to do some of these others.
Andy Polaine: [00:27:32] Yeah. And I think some of the, the, you know, reflection time, basically the time. Cause that’s also what’s going on in, you know, in a story or in a well-structured story that you can’t have a climax without having the kind of the softer bit beforehand or the, you know, or the denoument afterwards. Right. So you have to, if you don’t have the value either side, you don’t have a peak, right. If it was just all peaks it’s just kind of shouting. And so I definitely think for your brain, I really think we’re pretty hard-wired to have conversation. Of course, you know, the thing around active listening, and if anyone’s ever done that kind of exercise, when you’re learning to kind of interview users where you’re forced to ask a question and then not say anything for a couple of minutes, you know, it’s excruciating because it can have the silence stretches out and it makes you feel, and you learn the kind of power of using silence to kind of draw people out and so forth.
But all of those things allow you.. one of those, the reasons for doing that is the person’s already coming up with their answer in their head before you’ve even finished asking the question and that comes out. And then if you say nothing, it gives them a time to think. Plus they want to fill the awkward silence. And then they kind of say the thing that they want to say, and that’s why classically, you know, as you’re walking out the door, they say, “well, you know, the real problem here is” and you’re like “Oh no! I turned off my audio recorder!”
Daniel Stillman: [00:28:50] So this is designing for the material. This is why I think conversation is a material. And while we have to understand the material better, you know, my first year of design school was like, okay, let’s design for sand, a sand cast, aluminum let’s design for molded plastic. Yeah. There are different design processes and there’s different.
Things that each process demands of you. And so my friend, Nick, who is a wonderful young man and an amazing designer was struggling with like his first serious girlfriend. Cause he’s like, you know, she tells me a problem and then I give her some options and then she gets angry with me and I was like, Oh, this is classic.
I was like, what do you do when you interview somebody for like doing user interviews? And he’d basically like, could rattle off cause he’s a very smart designer. He rattled off all the things you just said. Oh, well I asked them really good questions. I leave pauses. I don’t fill the silence.
And I was like, well, why not? And he’s like, well, I really want to get their ideas and not my ideas. And you’re like, Oh, so like, why do you ask really good, clear questions? And he’s like, well, I, you know, I, I really designed my questions to make sure that I get the information I want. And I was like, and when they give you an answer, do you ask your next question?
He’s like, no, no. I ask really thoughtful followup questions to make sure I probe their mental model for thoroughly. I was like, all right, your girlfriend is the research subject and you’re the user researcher. And, and you’re, you need to design this conversation to get the best information out of her.
And I, I, you know, when I say that to Janet, my fiance, when she comes to me with a problem, like, do you want me to coach you? Do you want me to fix you? Or do you want me to hold you? Like, do you just want to be listened to, or do you want solutioning? And I was like, you get to choose, but here’s the thing I’ve made a choice already.
Cause I, a lot of people don’t know what their choices are. Nick wasn’t making a choice, right. Nick was going by reflex. And this is where you talk about an OS and changing your OS. He was introducing just a tiny bit of slower squishy or cadence into his conversation to be like, okay, I’m going to take a moment.
I’m going to be like, okay, where do you want this conversation to go? She’s like, I really would love for you to just tell me that my boss is terrible. Like cool. Like, I want you to agree with that. But treating my fiance, like an adult human being, which she is and saying, like, what do you want? And letting her check in with herself and saying, I just want you to listen to me or no, no. I actually really need you to help, like, and I’ll tell her, like, I would love for you to listen and to like, tell me what you think is possible in this. Cause I don’t know. What’s possible.
Andy Polaine: [00:31:29] There’s a very good podcast called Scriptnotes by Craig Mazin and John August and both very well-known screenwriters and John August has this thing where he’s got a couple of people who he trusts to read with, not even the first draft, but their kind of first draft he’s willing for anyone to read. And one of those people who always says to him “well, do, do you want me to tell you what’s wrong with it or do you want me to tell you it’s great?” And it, and it’s a kind of you know, a nice way of kind of paraphrasing that thing of, no, actually, I just want you to tell me I’m just not a complete waste of time or no, I’m, I’m feeling strong enough for you to actually get dug into that.
Daniel Stillman: [00:32:09] And I was just talking to somebody about this. I interviewed Aaron Irizarry and Adam Connor on my podcast about discussing design, which is my God, one of the most important conversations that needs to be well-designed. What type of feedback do you like when you show somebody a demo going way back to that, you know, when you, when you show somebody a demo, do you say, do you like it, or do you say what don’t you like about it? Or do you say, tell me how you would use this?
Andy Polaine: [00:32:38] It’s interesting, isn’t it? I mean, we we’ve had this conversation before, cause I’ve been teaching this course called leading conversations on this Masters of Design and I’ve talked about it a few times on the podcast. My colleague, Jan Eckert wrote this really good paper about this point, which was, there’s a whole load of stuff you don’t get taught in design school. And particularly once you get into kind of leadership position, you know that all of your effort is actually around leading conversations and it’s not it’s not around… very little of it is this is a really difficult design problem I can’t solve. It’s really about people stuff.
And yet, you know, you don’t really get taught it kind of properly in design school. And it’s interesting for me, you know, I’ve, I’ve taught in Switzerland, in Germany, in England and in Australia and other places in workshops, but in sort of academic settings, all of those places and the cultural difference is amazing. The crit sessions in the UK are renowned for being really brutal. Whereas in Australia and in Switzerland you know, you go, so, you know, what do people think of this? “Yeah, it’s great.” “Ah, yeah, but why is it great?” “Dunno I just really like it.” It drives me nuts. So to a lot of the efforts and starts to go into, how do you critique work? How do you talk about the work in a useful way? But I see that kind of ripple into sort of professional settings too, and it’s surprising how difficult it is actually to get that kind of crit culture. Partly also because of a time thing. Right. Cause you need to actually sort of make some time in a safe space and all of that stuff for that to happen. And with everyone’s sprinting, no, one’s gonna read it. You got time for a kind of retro, but it’s not quite the same thing.
Daniel Stillman: [00:34:10] I call this taking a, I always try to get people to use the analogy of like, who here take showers on a regular basis. And I was like, Oh yeah. I’m like, who here takes a bath on a regular basis?They’re like, no, it’s like, what’s the function of a bath? And they’re like, it’s definitely not to get clean it’s to enjoy it. And I’m like, okay, this is a bath, like wanting to take a bath in this data. And really just like some bubbles and some candles like this. I’m just like, but, but people don’t have time for that anymore and, but, but, Oh man, it’s so frustrating. Cause like what, what, what could you possibly expect to get out of two weeks of user research if you’re not willing to spend at least a couple of days analyzing it?
Andy Polaine: [00:34:53] Yeah. I mean, I, I was on a LinkedIn thread about this recently about you know, The need to take the time and the need to, I was talking about red teaming.
So I was talking about this idea of you, you know that Zoom clearly didn’t do, which was, you need to have, take some time to try and really break and abuse the thing you’re making and think about all the different ways you could kind of possibly hijack it. And then someone wrote, well, that’s all very good, but you know, in, in a startup, I’m in a SAAS startup and that’s just a luxury we don’t have.
And I kind of thought, well, you know, if not, then when? Because once you’ve, if you’re successful in you grow, we never have time for it then. Right. And then it’s a real problem. And then you get to the kind of Facebook thing where, you know, 1% of people being excluded or biased against is, you know, 20 million people or whatever it is.
Daniel Stillman: [00:35:41] It’s this is cadence, right? So to me people don’t realize that silence is just as important as talking and listening is not the opposite of speaking. It’s it’s actually necessary. It’s two sides of one coin. And so if we only have talking and we never have listening, it’s not a conversation.
And if we only have speed and we never have rest, it’s not a conversation. So there’s, I feel like maybe the essence of the whole thing is balanced, which is an unsatisfying conclusion.
Andy Polaine: [00:36:10] I refer to it as sort of mindfulness in design, but that’s annoyingly kind of hipster, really because, well, yeah, I know, but that’s the thing, but it is a bit of that, which is take the time with intent to, to do all of those things. And I have a great quote from Usain Bolt and he said it’s something like you know, sleep, how, how important sleep is to me, you know, half of my training happens when, when I’m asleep which is why I’m hoping if I sleep a lot, I’ll end up with a body like him. Well, you know, at that point in time, if, if, you know, as I started looking into sprinters, I’m thinking, well, what is a sprint?
You know, if you were sprinting all the time and what triggered, this actually was a sprint team who had got the end to the end of a very long set of fortnightly sprints. So to launch the kind of first iteration or something, or and they weren’t, they’d been doing it for several months. Right.
So it’s even then sprinting sort of fortnightly sprints for several months. Pretty tiring. And their boss was like, well, well done tomorrow. We get started on the next one. And I just thought, woah, you know, you, you kind of need to give them, you just not burn them out for starters, but also some time to unpack what they’ve learned over those but it was like 14 sprint cycles, like 28 weeks.
Daniel Stillman: [00:37:20] I interviewed this woman on my podcast named Kate Crawford and she introduced me to this four seasons model of. Conversation design, but she uses it to design her school. She has a school for the arts and she uses winter spring, summer, and fall design…
Andy Polaine: [00:37:36] Oh, so do I!
Daniel Stillman: [00:37:37] Oh, this is amazing.
Well, we can talk about this. She uses a design every lesson every week. The whole semester and this idea of winter’s about reflection and spring is about planting the seed and summer’s about tending the crops and sweating things out and fall is about celebration and good God this leader needs to know a little bit about how you look at a sprint and literally most workshops are missing half of this. There’s no reflection and there’s no celebrate.
Andy Polaine: [00:38:04] Yeah. So my, I get my whole talk was all about this called the Four Seasons of Design. And it was that very thing that you know, any…
Daniel Stillman: [00:38:09] WHo else talks about this? I didn’t know that somebody, anybody else like this is fascinating.
Andy Polaine: [00:38:13] Yeah. I don’t know. So it came from actually I know of Kate K. It was a talk I gave a couple of times in Australia and and it was, and once in Barcelona and it was So when I was a kid, one of the books I used to look at was the the book version of the Eames’ Power of Ten film after which this podcast is named.
And then the other thing was the Self-Sufficiency Handbook by I think it’s John Seymour and it had these kinds of nice illustrations, those, those kind of like old textbook style kind of illustrations. And it had the, the, the sort of the summer garden, you know, the spring garden, autumn, I’ve got those out of order now and winter garden and you know what you do at each time.
So there’s always work to be done. But what I kind of liked about it was this idea of-and that’s what my talk was about was this idea of-and you can kind of start anywhere, but in spring, your spring is like the kind of design research phase and concept shores phase. That’s where you’re kind of sowing the seeds for everything to kind of get in, pretending that kind of preparing everything once something launches you’re in summer and, you know, make hay while the sun shines and it’s, everything’s kind of, and everything kind of grows explosively, right.
And it’s kind of gets a little bit out of control and then come autumn, you start to kind of tend to things and pair stuff back and, and kind of sort of set things up for the winter. And then in winter in the Northern hemisphere, you stop. And, and certainly, you know,some medieval peasants literally used to stop. They would kind of spend almost the whole time doing nothing and sleeping and completely cause they, they couldn’t partly cause they were conserving kind of food and energy and staying warm and stuff, but it makes it this very interesting time. And then, you know, you, you sort of inwards and then I think that was partly, what’s been so depressing about the whole coronavirus thing for a lot of people in the Northern hemisphere is the moment in time when you feel like just coming out of winter and you should be kind of blossoming and going outside, stuck in inside. And so I was talking about that, whether that’s a daily thing or a weekly thing or monthly, or a yearly thing for people in project teams. So that’s really, really important to kind of have that cadence.
Daniel Stillman: [00:40:15] Yeah. And, and this is where the power of having a shared narrative sharing, having a shared process, having a shared ritual is so powerful to be like, okay, it’s time to high-five and, and have a celebration of what, of the harvest, right. And actually have a harvest celebration and a feast of Thanksgiving.
Andy Polaine: [00:40:38] It’s true. I mean, all of those things are not there for no reason, you know, that’s, that’s the kind of…
Daniel Stillman: [00:40:42] They’re human, they’re human.
Andy Polaine: [00:40:44] Yeah. And I think we need it. I’m very fortunate where I live, that there’s still quite a connection to the So the land so we really have a lot of seasonal food and now we’re coming into strawberry and asparagus time, and then we’ll be coming into…
Daniel Stillman: [00:40:57] You love your white asparagus.
Andy Polaine: [00:40:59] And then you come into the kind of wine the new wine and then the kind of wine, and all of this stuff. So it’s a thing I really kind of enjoy about living here that I felt so disconnected to in, in Australia, in the UK, we’ve got so everything all the time.
Daniel Stillman: [00:41:13] Yeah, but the, I mean, it’s a total side note, but the food in Australia is wonderful because it is so much of it is local.
Andy Polaine: [00:41:21] It is, yeah. And it’s a permanent… that and coffee is a sort of permanent source of conversations.
Daniel Stillman: [00:41:26] The lucky, lucky country.
Andy Polaine: [00:41:27] So listen to one last thing. So you’ve got on your grid, you’ve got people, invitation, power, turn-taking, interface , cadence, threading goals.
And there’s one last thing which is error and repair.. Before we go, I just kind of wanted to… Tell me about that.
Daniel Stillman: [00:41:42] Yeah. Well, I mean the easiest, the way I talk about it in the book and the easiest way to sort of notice is that eventually we’ll, we will always bang into each other in conversations. And the easiest one is like, people just we’ll, we’ll talk at the same time.
And so if we, if we talk at the same time, there’s a pause and we both start, we collide, we bounce off of each other and we go, Oh no, no, no, no.
Andy Polaine: [00:42:06] Like you’re doing on the pavement and kind of walking.
Daniel Stillman: [00:42:08] Yep. Yeah. And so somebody has to yield a turn or somebody has to be more forgiving. And when I think about, if we dive into like the operating system, like, what is your OS of error?
There are some people who are always on a trigger hair and they just, everything is a slight and there’s other people who like…
Andy Polaine: [00:42:27] Not somebody who’s in the white house at the moment? [N.B. This was recorded in the middle of 2020]
Daniel Stillman: [00:42:31] I, you know, let’s, let’s not go there. Let’s not go there. It’s I know it’s so embarrassing. But then the flip side is just as bad, which is like, Either not seeing the slights or not feeling like you can do anything about them.
And so error, like the, the question in the, in the OS of errors, how do we know if somebody has made a mistake? And when I teach in my in-person masterclasses and I, we haven’t done it in my online master class yet. We talk about this idea of difficult people. When we unpack, rather, I used to teach a model of difficult people, which I, and I don’t teach a model anymore, but we view, as we say, what are the types what are, and then what are our choices?
And one team said, okay, each team sort of develops their own that they focus on and what their options are. And this one team was said, well, let’s, let’s unpack what the unmet needs are for all of these people. And I was like, Oh, wow, this is so beautiful. Because instead of looking at a difficult participant as somebody who’s opposing my agenda and not going along with my plan and who is slowing things down and making me look bad, you can say, well, here’s a person.
Who has some needs and what are they, what aren’t they getting right now? And how can I make sure that I provide a good experience for all of the people in the room? Right. And so that’s, that’s where you look at error management is like for, for for a facilitator, I try to just take the 10,000 foot view and say, well, what’s really happening here and what’s my real goal? And not get offended by somebody showing up late or needing to leave early, which I used, you know, I used to as a facilitator to be like, You know, when somebody comes up to you and says, I need to miss an hour, like I need to leave an hour early. Will I miss anything? And I’m like, no, you can totally leave an hour early and, and it’ll, it’ll be the same experience. And there’s this thing that rises up in me. Right. I’m like you…! Right. And that’s my error recognition mechanism. In me being like reactive. And so you can look at, I think you can look at that part of the OS as,your reactivity.
But also like what you think is possible to do, because right now I was just coaching a young woman who works at a major bank on a design innovation team had just hired her first person on that team. She’s got a boss, she’s like a team of one. Now she’s a team of two and she chose this person internally. And it turns out she’s a dud. And so HR is like, okay, well now you have to start this process whereby you make her want to quit because we can’t really put her any place else. Right. I hear you breathing in and she’s like, but I want to do something more human.
And so she’s actually like, well, how do I actually heal this breach? How do I explain to her what she’s doing wrong? And I’m like, well, do you think it’s possible? Is she coachable? Can you teach her how to do this thing? Or is she actually insolvable? Like, does she want to learn?
And so if you say to somebody, “Hey, we to talk”, right. That’s the classic. Like, that’s like, Oh my God, you’re breaking up with me. That’s what everyone thinks like, Oh God, it’s over. And so how do you actually invite somebody into a conversation where you’re like, “Hey listen. So like this isn’t working, but I’d like to know if it can work. Yeah. So what do you think we can do?”
And that’s that process of like, how do you manage that? How do you spot and heal errors? And it’s tremendously important and it’s really hard.
Andy Polaine: [00:46:03] It’s amazing how much human resources has taken the human out of that stuff. I mean, I know from my experience, lots of people have had it that, you know, because it’s sort of big is actually become sort of how to legally protect the company rather than kind of the human side of things that it ends up, the stuff that’s put in place to so tight-going back to the very beginning-so, so tightly controlled the conversation ends up with some really toxic kind of experiences going on all around. I mean, I’ve seen managers, I just want to go and say to him, you know what the truth is, but you know, I, I can’t do it in you. He’s an all of that kind of stuff. It just boggles my mind. It kinda needs to be sort of redesigned from the ground up.
Daniel Stillman: [00:46:52] And she has to find a human. This is actually what she. The words she used ironically as human cause she was like, I want to find out more.
I asked her why she loved design thinking and whether or not you’d express that to this woman. And she was like, it’s because it’s this human process. And it’s about the humans. And I was like, okay, well this is, you know, this is HCD, right? How can we have a human centered design approach to this process?
And who are the humans? There’s this, these two women and the organization and the organization has needs, and these people have needs. And when you talk about error and repair, like this woman needs to be able to express what she needs and say, I’m not getting what I need from you. This is not working. And this is one of the hardest things to do is to say, this is not working for me in such a way that somebody can actually start the next conversation with you of now let’s… what’s next.
Andy Polaine: [00:47:42] Yeah, it is. It’s been fascinating. We could the conversation for a long time. But we’re coming up to time or it’s gone. It’s gone quite long today. As you know, the, the podcast is named after the Eames film Powers of Ten and the different relative sizes of things in the universe.
And so my, my final question is always what, one small thing, either that’s, you know, poorly or well-designed and overlooke ,d , needs to be rethought or reconsidered it and understood that would make a, has an outsized influence on the world.
Daniel Stillman: [00:48:15] Yeah. And not for nothing I think that thing is, is conversations, but if you were to like, to dive a little bit more deeply into it, I think turn-taking is one of those things that is so easy to fix. And lately with remote distributed dialogue, I do these warmups where we pass the mic. Firstly, we did it. We had an extended mic check, right? Yeah. This is thing on, so you do a mic check, but then you have to pass the mic and modeling mic passing and being like, okay, so I’m going to talk and then I’m going to pick someone else. Who’s going to talk. And then everyone’s going to talk that’s that to me is like this very, very fundamental thing of turn-taking. Yeah. And if we can, if we can repair that or redesign it better, we can have tremendously more powerful and inclusive dialogues.
Andy Polaine: [00:49:19] Turn-taking is the is the ultimate sort of slowing down too. Right? And when you think of games and stuff, what you’re really doing is going to completely deliberately and intentionally slowing it down with, with different rules and stuff in order to kind of create the, some kind of different experience.
Daniel Stillman: [00:49:36] Yeah. And if you can set up the rules that everyone’s going to take a turn. Yeah. If you can set up the rules that it’s worth hearing from everybody, and yeah, it takes a little bit longer if you’ve got a larger group. But it’s worth doing. So that everyone knows that everyone is allowed to contribute.
So that to me is like, turn-taking is the most physical, the most noticeable, the most controllable thing that if we’re designing conversations, it’s like, okay. And when we go to coffee, it’s very natural. You’re like, Oh my God, I’ve been talking the whole time. What’s going on with you. Right.
Andy Polaine: [00:50:10] It’s not natural to everyone.
Daniel Stillman: [00:50:12] Right. And so if we can become aware of. Wow. Men talk more than women. They hold the floor longer and they take the floor more often than women do. Why is that, should it be that way? Why should men and women who are 50:50 in the population, pretty much, why should men speak like 60 or 70% of the time and women speak 40 or 30% of the time?
Well, that just is patently absurd. If everybody’s in the room, why aren’t we hearing from everybody?
Andy Polaine: [00:50:41] Does that lovely cartoon with a guy dressed in, sort of hot dog costume at a party, he was the only one like that at the party, and he’s talking to a woman and he says, “but you know enough about me? What do you think of me? It’s how brands often kind of talk to their customers.. Well look, thank you so much for taking yourturn with me here on Power of Ten.
Daniel Stillman: [00:51:04] And I’m excited to have you on to talk about leading designs, students and conversations. So where can people find you on, on the interwebs?
Oh man, it’s so easy. I’m pretty SEOd. I think there’s not that many Daniel Stillmans, so they can go to danielstillman.com, but there’s honestly not much there. The Conversation Factory is where my podcast is and where you can download free chapters of my book. You don’t, you know, you can get most of it from the first two chapters, honestly, so save yourself…
Andy Polaine: [00:51:31] Don’t say that!
Daniel Stillman: [00:51:32] No, no, actually somebody, somebody who said like, wow, you stopped the free sample at the perfect time. Because you want, like, you want to read the third section.
Andy Polaine: [00:51:39] It’s a well-designed conversation.
Daniel Stillman: [00:51:40] I had that conversation with my editor. But yeah, so that, that is theconversationfactory.com has a place where you can find all things and on Twitter I’m @DAStillman and also on Instagram, if you want to look, see a picture of 36 frozen balls of cookie dough, that was my last Instagram post. I can’t make a whole thing of cookies. I will eat all the cookies.
Andy Polaine: [00:52:05] I’m I’m I do the same thing with my bread dough too. Yeah. But we’ll save that for the, you the bread…
Daniel Stillman: [00:52:10] The bread episode.
Andy Polaine: [00:52:13] There’s quite a lot of those going on right now. All right. Well, thanks very much. You take care,
Daniel Stillman: [00:52:19] Andy, thank you for taking this bath with me. It was wonderful
Andy Polaine: [00:52:25] As I’m sure you’re aware, you’ve been listening to Power of Ten. My name is Andy Polaine. You can find me at @apolaine on Twitter or polaine.com where you can find more episodes and sign up for my newsletter, Doctor’s Note. If you liked the show, please take a moment to give it a rating on iTunes. It really helps others find us and as always get in touch, if you have any comments, feedback, or suggestions for guests. All the links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening. See you next time.