Permission to Keep Dreaming
Strategy, poetry & the reincarnation of a single insight.
This piece first appeared here on Medium.
If you’ve ever discovered you were living your work in a creepy but kinda beautiful way, I’ve got a story for you.
Some time ago, I conducted an ethnography for a client, a home builder, who wanted to reimagine the model home tour experience. My client had identified key benefits and obstacles, and like many clients, had in mind a few solutions for my team to investigate.
Better signage, for example, was on the list of improvements to make, and I was asked to observe the way that potential home buyers interacted with the signs, as well as which signs were noticed, what information was retained, and maybe if I wouldn’t mind seeing what energy-saving feature diagrams’ color schemes were preferred, that would be super. So, kinda specific for a reimagining.
You might expect what comes next is a soapbox about clients jumping to conclusions, but it isn’t. I’ve stopped getting mad at clients for that. After all, few of them may know the pleasure of “leaning in to the problem,” and I’d bet all of them have once received the feedback: “more solutions, fewer complaints.” I mean, they think they are helping. So, if given the option, and we always have the option, why not assume the best of our clients and collaborators? It may feel righteous to vent about their ignorance of our sacred methodologies, but venting helps no one. I digress.
A Behavioral Psychologist, an Ethnographer and two Experience Designers walk into a model home…
The Model Home Tour Experience Discovery Phase (a.k.a. Operation Better Signage) started a bit like the set-up for a punchline, and that punchline was this: nobody reads the signs. It was fabulous news, as it provided us a rock solid rationale for dismissing the signage improvement ask, but we were then left with an intimidatingly clean slate. What, then, might we reimagine?
If home buyers don’t look at signage in the model home, and don’t like being guided by a sales agent (and they mostly don’t), how would we get them the information they need? What’s more, there was a whole thing about the interior staging. Many model home tourers didn’t like looking at empty models, but bad decor could be a turn off. So: no signs, no guides, and not too much or too little styling. Right? Wrong. Those were quick leaps based on a handful of observations. We needed an insight.
You just have to wait. But, while you wait, it helps to make yourself as welcoming as possible. For attracting a cat, I try to be warm, still, and packing treats. For an insight, same. That usually means a few hundred sticky notes, a daily salt bath soak, and a trail of vaguely related mind-candies including ancient music, science videos, trending topics, strange dances, untranslatable poems, geometric patterns, and uncommonly intimate conversations with strangers. But that’s just me.
If you will kindly refrain from pointing out that you did this in a poetry workshop, I’ll respectfully omit that I learned it in therapy.
Once I’ve mentally built and styled a home for the insight I’m trying to attract, I play simple brain-games with myself. On this particular project, I played one that I call, Say It Another Way, where I write each observation on a sticky note, and then make myself, you know, say it another way. In this case, that other way was to answer the question, “what are tourers doing in the model home?” I read their quotes about furniture, lifestyles, and events, and surmised that they were “imagining personal scenarios in the floorplan.” Said another few ways, home tourers were:
visualizing their current lives in a new space
time-travelling to a hypothetical future
having reverse flashbacks
repositioning their daily activities to fit a different container
inducing no-tech augmented reality
mentally testing activity possibilities
role-playing with a building
trying on a house-outfit in the fitting room of life
daydreaming while strolling
sleepwalking? (which is where I stopped. Because “sleepwalking” takes us out of the realm of the true. And truth is important. More on that later.)
Pinch me, I’m strategizing.
With a working assumption that visualization was the central event, our experience designers began looking at friction. What got in the way of the visualization experience? Sometimes it was too little info, and other times too much. If tourers had a question whose answer wasn’t immediately apparent, the dream froze. The remaining part of the tour was then spent collecting more unknowns to be researched later, if that time ever came.
But packing the homes with informational materials did not resolve the issue. In fact, doing so amplified the problem. If tourers were offered heaps of data on price, material science, paint finishes, window treatments, etc., they stopped to check each item against their mental deal-breaker lists, yanking themselves from their imagining, possibly not to return. (Realtor personality quirks also had this effect, as did carpet stains, dead roaches, and bad art.)
“Doorframe, are you wide enough for the dining table I have in storage? It is 12 of my feet long. I’ll just take a quick moonwalk to measure and, yes. Great… now I am handing my son lemonade through this sliding window, is it included in the price? I don’t see a price… How much do these things usually cost? Will I be able to afford a mortgage once the tuition payments kick in? That kid better get a scholarship.” …and just like that, the dream is over.
Permission to keep dreaming was the ask from every room, every feature, every throw pillow and walk in closet that visitors encountered. It was a big, beautiful, actionable insight that the experience design team soaked up and turned into pure genius magic. I should admit, I suppose, that I stole it.
Deja Vu and the nature of stickiness.
My saving grace is that I stole it from myself. See, I’d had the exact same insight for another client nearly 3 years earlier. (Pre-owned, like new!) The interesting part is that the first client was not in the home building industry at all. They were a provider of domain names for small businesses. Their search site is the place where you go when you have a crazy good idea for a name and you must immediately check to see if the domain is taken so you can keep riding the imagination train you’re on.
In the case of the domain provider, we were designing an awareness campaign, not a shopping experience, so I felt a little braver with the poetics. Awareness initiatives tend to have more creative wiggle room, because, let’s face it, half of awareness is visibility, and visibility can be bought. What can’t be bought–the other half–is stickiness: the emotional magnetism that gets an image, message or story past the mind’s front door, though the corridor of distractions and into the sleeper sofa reserved for welcome guests.
And some of her closest buds are kinda shady characters: attachment, addiction, seduction, obsession, temptation, compulsion, craving, possession. All precious goods in the marketing world. The good news is that, like us, her shadow self is literally defined by her light. (See how I just threw that giant spiritual idea right the heck in there? Spoiler alert: that’s where we’re headed.) Of all the baser things stickiness can do, from the shallow to the unconscionable, her power is undeniable, and measured by how deeply she connects to our inners.
As an ethnographer, my task is to generate insights deep and true enough to inspire stickiness, but the creation of stickiness is the magic of the makers. The writers and designers who receive whole-person strategies take raw insights and create messages, images and experiences that reach inside of us and take hold. Which parts of us get held is a matter we shall discuss, but for now, suffice to say, in case it seemed I was leaning otherwise, stickiness isn’t inherently slimy. In fact, the purest, most consensual stickiness brings us devotion, loyalty, curiosity, investment, commitment, dedication, endurance, adoration, and even love.
What love has to do with it.
Since I’ve addressed making one’s mind a nest for an insight, it is worthwhile to mention the state of my own, as any qualitative researcher who claims to be objective is either problematically delusional or egregiously lying. With that in mind, I’d like to rewind pre-insight, to the beginning of the Model Home Tour research, for an important look at my own interior at the time.
Our fieldwork began in Phoenix, on a Monday in early October of 2017. Most of the team had come in the day before, scouted the locations and gotten decent sleep. I, on the other hand, flew in early Monday morning for whatever reason, and–balls, I’m going to have to tell you the reason.
I’d had a friend in town that weekend, who’d come on an emergency support visit, because I was walking through a significant personal setback of the #metoo variety. Let the record reflect that #metoo, the hashtag, had just, that very weekend, touched down on social like a category 5 hurricane everyone saw coming but no one boarded up for. So, while processing my own trauma, I took in the piercing reverb of others’ with each scroll.
Now, anyone who thinks I’ve just ventured off-topic has not properly understood the topic. So let me pause for a moment to clarify:
Human-centered design requires human-centered insights.
Human-centered insights address the whole human: body, mind, heart, spirit.
Insights are shaped by and made of the human who has invited them.
At the time, this particular insight-inviting human was still counting days since the trauma, having asked HR for time off to get therapy and recover. This project was my first return to work. So, underslept due to an early flight, and wildly unsure of my ability to be fully present in the research process, I started the fingertips exercise in the back of an Uber from the airport to the first observation, and kept it up all day.
At the close of session one, I went out with my colleagues for quittin’ time beers, where I received a text message break up from the man I’d been seeing, and I might have, I don’t know, chugged 3 pilsners and cried at the table.
A series of small miracles that can be summarized with the word “team.”
Over the next few weeks, Megan Hopkins, Geoffrey Priester, Cady Beansmith and Matt Scott (to say nothing of the support crew at home base: Dave, Michelle, Audrey, all angels) brought me back to life. And here I’d like to insert a montage including the following scenes:
The team eating take-out in unfit locations, including a tiny real estate office, a pristine model living room, and a rental car
Me napping behind the dark glass of the focus group facility
Megan navigating construction areas not yet on google maps
Me deep-breathing on a curb in an empty neighborhood
Everyone around one laptop in a dingy motel suite on video with home base
Matt working on his sticky note photography
Those cold scrambled eggs at breakfast-included hotels
All of us looking for working toilets in the models
Me crying on a curb outside a salad place
Cady shoulder-dancing to Beyonce in the backseat
Geoffrey opening a model door to find a portal to chaos
Megan and I talking about the real shit at the end of a long table
Me snapping 36 release forms into a clipboard
Everyone sleeping slack-jawed on the plane home
We did a week in Phoenix, another in Austin, and made it home to Kansas City, where we got to work in a makeshift war room at the far end of no one’s favorite floor. Then, a truly remarkable thing happened. I got laid off.
To say this was a surprise would be putting it mildly, but the truly confounding-yet-delicious part of my layoff experience was that, while I was one of dozens getting the ax, the others were free to go, whereas I was asked to stay for another month. To deliver the Model Home Tour Experience presentation. Because they couldn’t do it without me.
Here’s why all that matters. Number one, I’d run clean out of shits to give. But number two, I felt powerfully compelled to do the best work I’d ever done. Because my team deserved it, my portfolio needed it, and, in truth, I wanted my final presentation to make every person in the room (read: just one person) feel piercing, haunting regret that he’d let me go. There was no time to waste, so I started crying immediately. (What. Crying isn’t a waste of time.) It was the first step in making my mind a place that a true, actionable and clear insight would come to visit.
It is my feeling that the phrase “eating your own dog food” is poorly conceived, but the thing it means is what happened next.
In order to generate something true, we must be honest. Honest about what we observe, but also honest about the lens through which we observe it. And my lens had become hyperbolic. I found myself saying the words, “I’ve lost everything.” Hideously untrue when spoken from a healthy body to a trusted friend on a new phone in a beautiful kitchen while drinking honestly pretty good champagne, which was precisely the circumstance. What can I say. Perspective is fleeting.
Determined to get it together, I attempted to observe my situation the way I’d observed the model home tourers’, asking, “what did you lose, truly? What is the central event?” Then I started playing Say It Another Way with myself, rattling off dozens of bitter variations, and landing on a realization that what I’d lost was confidence in my path. I had taken a leap of faith in relocating to Kansas City for what seemed like a dream job. I believed I was on the right track, manifesting a grand vision for my life.
In a span of about six weeks, my dream-come-true came undone. A thing like that can shake a gal’s confidence, and it shook mine. I asked myself what I needed, and heard, “I need a sign that it’s ok to believe in something again.” Then a little light came on, and I recalled a slide from my old web domains presentation.
No matter who you ask, we all ask permission to keep dreaming.
My 3-year-old insight for the domain provider defined my own moment, but it worked for the model homes, too. And just as elegantly, which is how I know that this particular insight touches something deeper than the specific occasion. My hunch is that when we engage human-centeredness by addressing the whole person, we find powerful truths that inform and evolve ideas across innumerable boundaries. These kinds of insights are emotionally specific, but not circumstantially specific. They describe symbolic events that have resonance in many areas of experience, and because of this, their expression is uncommonly versatile.
In theater, permission to keep dreaming informs the “suspension of disbelief.” In romance, the idea is virtuosically embodied by the burlesque art of the tease (and more awkwardly as the “is this a date?” talk). It is offered by magicians’ strategic disclosures assuring you of their illusions (“see this hand is empty, there is nothing up my sleeve”). And most overtly, in science (yeah, science!) it is the very method of testing hypotheses. The psycho-emotional event of seeking clearance to continue along a train of thought is nearbout universally relatable, and therefore, profoundly useful.
But recall that stickiness itself doesn’t require insights of the divine sort. For example, had I not-so-thoroughly done my personal homework, I might have concluded that model home tourers were primarily Nit-Picking for Deal-Breakers. Which one could argue is also true and actionable. Functionally, it is nearly the same. And one might see these two themes in a half full/half empty relationship. But then I’d fuss.
As a thought experiment, imagine the solutions generated by the question, “How might we grant each visitor permission to keep dreaming as they tour the model home?”
And now think of those generated by question, “How might we prevent visitors from nit-picking for deal-breakers as they tour the model home?”
These phrases describe the same behavioral friction point. But the solutions generated by them feel worlds apart.
What is happening here?
Consider the aforementioned polymorphic nature of stickiness, the emotional glue that produces both loyalty and greed. When we want to create something sticky, there is risk to consider. In our work, in our lives, and with our clients, we must define our stickiness strategy in clear terms, describing exactly what parts of a person’s mental, emotional, spiritual or physical being we intend to take hold of, and why.
Permission to Keep Dreaming seeks to bond with the part of the self aiming higher, looking forward, imagining a best life. Nit-Picking for Deal-Breakers bonds with the part of the self that is never satisfied, always critiquing, destructively perfectionist, self-sabotaging. And don’t get it twisted: I’m not suggesting a choice between two separate audiences; these qualities exist side by side in the same human beings. I am proposing we take responsibility for the parts of an individual that our work calls forward.
An overplayed but potent metaphor for purposes of demonstration.
For a moment, let’s consider our theme, Nit-Picking for Deal-Breakers. It is problem-centered, perhaps problem-defining (arguable), but it certainly, let’s say, deals more with the shadow self–the more default (ok, lazier) instincts and urges. Now, shadows are not good or bad, they simply are. Beautiful at times, necessary at others, and sometimes full of virtue. (Recall that a mini blind is a great mercy on hangover day.) But a darkened silhouette, no matter how sharp and clear, has no more than 2 dimensions.
To get the kind of multi-dimensional insights that inspire stickiness of the highest and deepest quality, defining the shape of the shadow isn’t enough; we’ve got to figure out where the light is coming from. The location of the light is why the shadow is shaped that way.
In the research process, discerning the lightsource is done by asking why. Yes, my customer feels this feeling, but why? Sure, they are doing this action, but why? Ok, I am interpreting it this way, but why? We can also root out the light by saying things another way, declaring war on hyperbole, and being vigilantly, radically honest with ourselves about our own lenses. Locating the light requires observing the shadow from multiple angles, watching it change as we shift, and connecting the dots to the source behind it.
If you’re thinking all this lightspeak sounds a little fluffy, you’re in good company. When I bring these metaphors to working teams, with the light and the shadow and the dreaming and what have you, I am usually met with eyebrows. You know the ones. And often I’m asked to Say It Another Way that makes more, you know, sense. And, when forced, I do.
And that, too–the challenge by my colleagues–is a clever little place where the permission to keep dreaming pokes its head in. Because I am only one person with one distorted perspective, I rely on my team to give me permission to carry on. We who work in the qualitative must do this to remain in the land of the actionable. I haul in my ethereal, sappy or flammable ideas, present them to my team, and ask for clearance to proceed. Does the data support this? Does history? Does psychology? The market? The moment? Is this testable? Comprehensible? Feasible? Truthful?
On the Model Home Tour Experience project, I asked my team for permission to keep dreaming about Permission to Keep Dreaming, and it was granted. Geoffrey found behavioral models that supported it, and Megan charted the bimodal thinking patterns toggling between emotional and rational. Cady developed design principles to promote the effective use of the imagination state. And Matt bolstered our ideas by asking dozens of unexpected and frankly really irritating questions. (Bless you, Matt.) Which is to say that, while I’d love to claim otherwise, great design strategy is not born in one moment of clarity on the heels of an emo fit-throwing. It takes at least three of those. And several other strong points of view.
I’d love to give you a grand finale on the project’s marvelous success, but we didn’t have any, and I promised to be honest.
Having praised the merit and utility of Permission to Keep Dreaming as an idea, let me not persuade the reader that such permission is itself a benefit. Whether false, farce, or fantasy, some dreams, it turns out, are meant to be crushed. The merit of the insight at hand is not in the dreaming, but in the asking permission to do so. (And from the correct authority, but that is another matter.) The act of challenging our illusions either lights the path forward or exposes the mirage. Or both, as was the case on the morning of November 30, 2017.
But it was also the Date Of Last Employment I later entered on dozens of Missouri Dept of Labor benefit request forms. So there’s that.
The morning it all came to a close, we each put on our credibility pants and filed in at the head of a conference table where 5 suited, tight-ponytailed women had stashed their rollerbags, fresh from the airport. The client side. On our side, we added our account guy, the SVP of Intelligence, and a designer who knew said ladies from some other thing. Our company’s president, the one for whom I deeply wanted to revenge-win, did not show, which was, like my disappointment, as conspicuous and disowned as a gamy fart in an elevator.
To make things weirder, two of my teammates had just put in their 2 weeks’ notice, and another was already gone. But the real honking sad trombone is that, shortly before the project wrap-up, our agency had abruptly fired the client, guaranteeing 1) nothing would ever come of the work we’d done, and 2) every smile in the room was formed by the clenching of cheeks. Even so, perhaps especially so, we killed it. Then shook the tension loose with an encore of clammy handshakes, missed high fives and shoulder-based hugs.
Permission to keep dreaming my dream was not granted.
Not this company, not this companion, not this team, not this client, not this position, not this work, not this state of mind. And in the months that followed, I’d add to my dream dud list: that city, that apartment, that life, that career, that industry, and many of those friends. This insight, though? That day, I got the green light to dream on.