Applying Design Studio in Radio: From traditional air-check to cooperative self-evaluation

The Quindo Experiment


What is this about?

I’ve always been — just a — radio guy. For most of my professional life, I’ve been a radio programme director. I have to admit my geekiness though, when twelve years old I was already interested in technology. I have a couple of friends working in design, and I find their work fascinating. However my knowledge about software development or concept generation in design studios (UX design, industrial design, architecture, etc) was nonexistent.

All of a sudden, that changed a couple of years ago when a bunch of software developers, project managers, engineers, data scientists (probably using singular would be more accurate, one of each) and myself founded Voizzup.

I surprisingly found myself participating in inception sessions, reading about Lean Startup methodology, and learning to generate concepts through Design Studio.

Today I’ll be spending some time with the last one, Design Studio. The first time I heard about this methodology from my colleague and friend Marc Burgauer I found it fascinating. Specially one core aspect of it that — I thought — was incredibly powerful: Abductive thinking.

For someone who tries to learn about something new, figuring out how to create enough options to safely explore that space you are working in is extremely difficult.

Every time we try to solve a problem, our presumptions constrain our decisions. By exploring as many options as we can (through diversion thinking) we start removing those constrains.

Abductive thinking. Exploration. Diversion. In order to understand these terms, I recommend you to watch this presentation by Jabe Bloom.

What is an air-check?

That’s how we call evaluation sessions with on-air presenters, show hosts or any other talents in radio. We generally audition a fragment recorded from the live broadcast in order to evaluate the performance of the talent on air.

I’m sure you can come up with a number of different applications for abductive thinking, depending on your field, your expertise or your interests. I chose air-checks in radio because that’s what crossed my mind repeatedly when learning about Design Studio.

But above all, the reason to the specific approach of this article is the recent opportunity I had to experiment it with a young and passionated bunch of people who make radio in Belgium.

I believed Design Studio Methodology could help me tackle a number of problems I had identified in traditional air-check techniques in the past:

  • Air-checks are usually conducted by someone perceived by the presenter as the boss (programme director, executive producer, consultant, etc)
  • The conclusions of the session are limited to the impressions of that boss. No matter how brilliant she is, conclusions are constrained by her presumptions
  • At the same time, the presenter will have her own presumptions. These will prevent her from believing some of those conclusions, agreeing on others or even understanding some of them
  • Without a common vision in which both parts agree, an effective action plan is almost impossible to achieve

Quindo: The experiment

As I mentioned in a previous article, Quindo is a community local radio station in the Flemish city of Kortrijk (Belgium), whose main mission is to educate and integrate (socially) through the activities of its medialab.

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Its coordinator, Tom Christiaens, and I had agreed to organise a workshop during a weekend in the Ardennes with the team of the station. We wanted to inspire them to think about the audience and coach them to evaluate themselves.

The experiment consisted in challenging the traditional way of conducting air-checks, trying to avoid the issues described above. For that, we apply two elements of Design Studio Methodology: abductive thinking and co-operative ideation.

Please, let me show you the structure of the workshop.

First: awareness of our presumptions

As Jabe Bloom says in the video, our presumptions constrain our decisions. In order to explore all possible options, we need to remove those constrains. And that requires that, first, we identify our presumptions:

  • Human brain can’t store all information that conforms reality around us
  • We need to be selective, we only perceive reality partially
  • When doing so, we are already interpreting, getting a subjective impression of reality
  • Human societies are hierarchical. We follow the leader
  • We have a lizard brain that makes us react to threat, aggression, risk or fear

Second: exploration through diversion

Once we identify potential presumptions, we try to remove them. I, acting exclusively as the *facilitator and not as a participant, explain the environment we want to create:

  • We want exploration first. Refinement comes only later
  • We don’t look for qualified opinions. Crazy ideas are allowed!
  • No hierarchies. Every voice counts the same
  • Quantity over quality. Multiple options versus analysis-paralysis

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*Note: You are probably a programme director, an on-air controller, a consultant, a coordinator… Basically, someone perceived as the boss. We all have an ego. Bosses too. And egos don’t get along well with explorative thinking. We should turn our egos off during these exercises. Let’s start by removing our own ego! It’s not time to be bossy. It’s important that you facilitate and guide the methodology. Do not participate. Do not express your own opinion during the collective evaluation. It’s a SELF-evaluation, remember?

Third: rules

You don’t get that environment just by saying. We need rules:

  • Time is king. “We need more time” is not accepted. Every exercise must be timeboxed
  • Speak up! Being respectful means avoiding personal attacks, not keeping things unsaid
  • Stealing (ideas) is allowed. Stealing is sharing, and sharing is good!
  • Back to the second bullet, in case it’s not clear yet: Help by criticising!

Exercise 1: Personas

Once we know the rules, let’s get some action! Here another two elements from Design Studio come into play: co-operative ideation and the pitch and critique process.

The goal of this exercise is to help the team design personas (customer profiles, in this case listeners). We’ll use this board as template:

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In the first round, the exercise is individual. Each person needs to come up with as many personas as possible — remember, quantity over quality — .

For the second round, we form groups of four or five persons. As mixed as possible. We don’t want groups formed by individuals from the same discipline. Now they discuss the personas created individually and agree five. One spokesperson per group will present the five personas to the rest of the groups (pitch).

In a third round, the groups will discuss all the personas presented (critique) and will come up with three to pitch again. They can use personas from their previous round, steal personas from other groups or merge them.

Again: spokespersons pitch the three personas of their group, for the last time. We’ll post the persona boards on the wall. After a short group delibaration, each spokesperson will vote for the three personas they believe represent their core customers (audience) best.

The personas that survived as final result — most voted — will stay on the board or wall in the room where we are conducting the workshop, as well as in the minds of the participants for the next exercise.

In this exercise we have started exploring options individually. We have gone into co-operative ideation later. We have refined by pitching and critiquing (and stealing) ideas. And we have finally focused.

Exercise 2: Co-operative self-evaluation

This exercise is based on a traditional radio air-check methodology that I first used when I had the opportunity to work with one of the radio professionals I most admire, Mark Story.

Before starting, I revisit briefly some of the elements already introduced earlier.

Presumptions:
  • We all have monsters: fears, insecurities, prejudices, etc.
  • Some of those monsters are real, others imaginary
  • The only way to find out is facing them

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Pitch-Critique:
  • Our pitch will be the traditional audition of a fragment recorded from the broadcast
  • Our critique will be the evaluation that both the person auditioned and the rest of the team will do. In writing during the audio is played, and out loud after the audio has been played.
Rules (in addition to the previous ones):
  • Everyone is obliged to make three negative comments and three positive comments about the content evaluated. No more, no less

In this exercise we are creating a safe environment for criticism. The positives and negatives are compulsory and limited to three. Therefore everyone is equally, proportionally and fairly criticised. Each individual evaluated has the opportunity to confirm if her fears and securities are real or just exist in her mind.

At the end of each evaluation, specific positive and negative comments will be counted in order to identify the ones that came up more often. We will focus just on the top weakness and the top strength. Those will define the action plan in the coming weeks for the person evaluated.

Theory of the two poles

I usually say that I have this personal belief that our strengths and weaknesses are somehow connected, like two sides of the same coin, like the two poles of a battery.

 

1-7gqbutht1mgql_d3ose3uwIt’s common in the 3 positives and 3 negatives exercise finding people making the same comment, but some as positive and some as negative.

During the workshop with Quindo, the team agreed that, for instance, some colleagues who were very energetic, spoke too fast. Others more calmed and clear, seemed to lack a bit of passion. Almost in all the evaluations conducted, strengths and weaknesses seemed to be related. Actually, elements considered strengths by most critiques, were mentioned in negative by others. Not having a powerful resource under control usually generates a balance issue.

UPDATE: I’ve recently re-formulated this theory. Now I talk about the balance in the Force.

Feedback

I admit I’m very satisfied with the feedback shared by the team at Quindo after the workshop. Please, let me ilustrate it with quotes.

It seems the methodology achieved to create a safe environment for criticism:

The workshop gives people the opportunity to be honest to each other. While, in ‘normal live’, we’re often too scared of how people might react. For me, it was an eye opener.

It is a methodology that’s based on confrontation in a safe environment. We are very aware of the fact that the safe environment is crucial, so we’d rather have it done by someone external. We can definitely use it for the ‘evaluation’ of workshops, radioshows, but also interns and ourselves.

It was also good to see yourself from another point of view and to see if you can really estimate yourself well. We’re not used to “judging” each other and therefore sometimes it was quite confronting for some people. I found it very good that we had to give positive and negative points.

The explorative nature of the methodology seems to have helped the team analyse what they do in depth. The expression DNA came up several times:

The workshop made us reflect, again, on the DNA of Quindo and the importance to keep on spreading the message of how multidisciplinary we are (education, information and social inclusion) as a medialab

It was really helpful to set clearly the DNA of Quindo

Follow-up

The team at Quindo is already finding new ways to implement the methodology to different aspects of the medialab. As I said before, the possible applications of the Design Studio in radio, specially the abductive thinking and the co-operative ideation, are endless. And not only for content or performance evaluation.

I’m looking forward to experimenting some of those applications. Ideas: creating new contents, targeting new audience segments, incorporating innovation to our current work flows, embracing new tools and technologies, etc.

Do you feel like joining the experience? Please feel free to replicate the workshop. Use the methodology on your own way. You know: stealing is sharing, and sharing is good!

 


All comments, ideas, questions or critics are welcome. If you are interested in learning more about Design Studio applied to radio or you would like to organise a workshop, please feel free to contact me at tommyferraz@gmail.com

© 2018 - Tommy Ferraz