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
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
Subscribe to our podcast via ←This link will launch the iTunes application.]
[ Subscribe with other
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.
Russ Unger: Hey, Adam. Thanks for
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
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
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
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
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
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…”
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
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”.
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.