Article written for the EpicPeople blog. Originally posted here: (Authors: Stuart Henshall & Dina Mehta – Convo)

How can we move from observation to co-creation? Or, from observer to co-conspirator and change agent? This post shares part of a project design that took that journey.

It was Friday in Tokyo. We had been there just six days and this was the second country in thirteen. It was Friday, almost 1:00pm and the Co-creation Workshop with 18 young mums, our clients (8 attending) translators (4) and ourselves (3) was abphotoout to begin. We were in a large room. A part had been screened off earlier for “baby care”. The majority of the room was filled with three large stations (large round tables and rolling whiteboards and a large U for 18 people with whiteboard and instructions up the front. Planning: We’d planned the Co-creation Workshop to follow a series of days immersed in-home. We ran a prototype workshop that morning with the local moderation team and translators. After four hours they remained skeptical and not 100% confident about the instructions. We apparently were about to break a lot of “rules”, and anyone who’s done research in Japan must know how hard that may be! They were not completely happy, although quite curious; we had already earned their trust by behaving appropriately, at the in-home immersions. Each table was filled with creative materials, pens scissors, glue, magazines etc. After some deliberation, we agreed I’d give the warm-up instruction through a translator, and then continue to do the same for the rest of the workshop. Expect the Unexpected: The noise was now deafening in the room. As each Mum arrived and left her baby with the caretakers they started screaming. It clearly wasn’t workable. We asked for another room for the children. At first this was impossible. Not in the contract, not signed by the Mums and more. In the end it was sorted out and the room became silent. The Mums assembled and sat down in the large U. [click to continue…]


Research to Co-creation

We put together this deck for a 1.5 hour session at IIM-Lucknow’s Noida Campus. The workshop was on Leveraging Power of Qualitative Marketing Research for Achieving Marketing Excellence.

From Research to Co-Creation: how technology reframes participation and qualitative research methods! (download Convo – IIM Presentation)
 – Shubhangi Athalye & Dina Dastur Mehta,  with inputs from Stuart Henshall – our Co-creation Leader at Convo!

In this deck we talk about broad trends, and how they influence our approach, processes and practice. We continue to apply them, to continue to engage our consumers and clients in much more participative ways.




This debate has been around for years! How do you deal with Clients who are often uncomfortable going beyond focus groups?

Here are Stuart’s thoughts on it – am cross-posting it in full,  from his personal blog, Unbound Spiral:
When a client asks for focus groups and you believe in ethnography what do you do?

You value-add to the focus group program. You get subtle on how you do it rather than trying to force them into a choice between the two. You wait for the ah-ha moment later. I’ve been involved in many projects over the last few years for clients that really believe what they want is focus groups. I’ll never debate that with them (unless I know them really well). It is even more important if you are just on the end of an RFP and in many cases we are; typically for international firms doing exploratory and new product research. They then send researchers and staff out. There are two things you can do….

  1. Treat them as a few focus group events. Forget the fact that they are “away from home”.
  2. Or add to the learning experience.

I’m a big fan of doing the second. It is where we can bring ethnography into play. It’s perhaps easier when people have traveled far and are in foreign lands although I think it should apply at all times. Grassroots, opening your eyes to what’s around you complements the groups. It won’t change them, it may add richness and understanding to the guide.  Most importantly, it can provide valuable context.

So what do we (at Convo) like to  do? 


We try to bring in “market” visits. Visiting stores, following the milkman etc. It is exploratory, the opportunity for a little show n answer. Often works well to help put things in a cultural context. Examples. How are you going to understand “cars” in Mumbai if you don’t see them washed daily (not by the owner), a gas station visit (argh the under hood probing), the parking lot security check, a showroom, and hours in traffic. Similarly, you won’t understand food unless you start visiting supermarkets, stalls, and seeing what people buy on the street.  Or understand the notion of chai breaks in offices. I could go on!

Go to a few homes in addition:
Even when it isn’t part of the “groups” per se’ we try to get our clients into homes, or offices of our participants or profiles.


You can listen all day in a focus group to how people use an ingredient and simply fail to grasp that almost no one has an oven in India. One visit can clean up such misconceptions. It may also identify the role of the maid or the kitchen help. Will it matter if your food is served in “steel” and what’s the implications later. How do you think of innovations around milk products when there is a huge chain of milk processing that happens within each home. I could provide example after example of how companies have really missed the basics by not spending the time to go beyond the guide or a focus group. This is particularly true of many multi-nationals where R&D is often concentrated far away from the market.

Bring the client home: I’ve observed the power of this now many times. Particularly when in foreign lands. Clients get tired of traveling, want a safe place, and often some simple food. It’s another look and understanding and it provides context around “you” the researcher / ethnographer that the client can take back home; I hope as a friend and an ally.

In these ways we may not get a day long ethnographic study or inquiry. The slices and images will be shorter, and we know we can always go back for more. Still it gets the message across that we’re “watching” not just listening to what they say. That’s also useful input when it comes to doing a better job of moderating the groups.

As a little reinforcement of this principle. When we work – even if the client isn’t involved we do our market snooping, talking to others etc. That’s curiosity and it should be embedded into every research project you do. For without it… there are no breakthroughs.

As a client: ask yourself if your research company is prepared to get curious, go out on a limb and take you out and about. Could you simply push in one or two one-on-one interviews on the days of the focus groups. This is often at a marginal additional cost. Can you think of “adjacent” exploratory areas that might stimulate further thinking around your focal questions? Who else might you like to meet? What might you like to see and learn more about? What a tremendous opportunity is is, to learn, in-market.

Note and a little plug: we love running our Learning Journey programs and have urged a few Clients into working those into research programs and projects!

There’s been an interesting discussion around this on Linkedin too where Jamie Gordon adds:

“I often integrate ethnographic approaches to data collection into qualitative studies. At Northstar, we actually have a best practice methodology we call PSS (Progressive Sample Selection) whereby we start with a larger pool of respondents who participate in an online dialogue with ethnographic assignments like journaling, sharing images, etc. around a topic. We then will select a smaller pool to conduct focused dialgues with in the qualitative group setting, then either selecting from group participants or the larger panel to do in-context deep dives (in their homes, shopping, etc…depending on the objective of the project).

And there are other ways to enhance qualitative research to make it more ethnographic: homework exercises are always great – allowing participants to generate data for you from the context of their lives. Anything from photo journals to videos to metaphor elicitation through collaging / imagery, etc…..”

I like how Jamie’s described the PPS methodology. We’ve adopted a similar method in a few studies, and, with a lot of success. It’s a wonderful way of getting the participant to take on a very ‘real’ role as a participant and not a mere ‘respondent’. That way they are invested in the process and add real value. And we get both breadth and depth as you mention.

We also sometimes create learning spaces (when researching certain profiles) where we bring in our Clients into a shared space online. Here’s an example of a project we had done for Wikipedia. Participants have a separate view with tasks.



The Future of Insights

June 5, 2012

I made this presentation at the India Social Summit 2012. It is probably better suited for a market research or consumer insights event rather than a social media summit :).  Here’s the deck on Slideshare – in fully downloadable format, along with the talk script:

And here’s a video of my rather rushed presentation at the summit.




Brand 2.0 Bootcamps

March 28, 2012

As I am planning my talk on the Future of Insights next week at India Social Summit 2012, I couldn’t help but look back on how my thinking about it has evolved over the years. While doing so, I stumbled upon our 2005 Brand 2.0 workshop brochure – and one of the things we had written then:

The brand no longer lives with consumers and marketers alone. We acknowledge that in the experience economy, the is the nexus of a new connectivity between employee and customer, organization and stakeholders, evangelists and community. There is a third space that is evolving – the social web.  It is changing how we ‘consume’ brands and promises.

Way back in 2005, Stuart and I had started to bring our research and strategy skills together and launched these bootcamps and workshops.  We quite quickly learned two things ….. we were about 3-5 years ahead of the market – it was a hard sell; and that we were  better off moving towards thinking of strategic conversations which ultimately resulted in us launching Convo – where we would leverage our learnings but not restrict ourselves to the Social Media space.

Now, going through the brochure, I can’t help feeling that maybe there’s value in updating the offering and running them again. What do you feel – should we? What changes would you suggest?

Here’s the 2006 brochure: Brand 2.0 Bootcamp


Hacking Life is a presentation my colleague Dina Mehta made at Microsoft SCS 2012 in January. The session was “Unintended Consequences and Unexpected Practices” organized by danah boyd and Mike Ananny.

When she first told me she was going, we started talking about hacker culture as an early question pointed to looking at file sharing, pirated copies and more. In this presentation Dina makes a nice case viewing “hacking” as a generative construct for thinking, and an organizing principle for life … hacking life and living … rather than it being just about hacking infrastructure to do different things. In other words think about how hacking empowers the user and betters their life, rather than the technical approach or the work around. And this presentation is not about the much-touted concept of Jugaad!

Watch the video. Frankly my favorite examples come towards the end.

What happens when people reach for more… and see the advantage of “hacking towards a better future”? Consider what you have hacked recently, or your kids, or something you’ve seen that was unexpected? Hacking often has the connotation of geeky, rather than creating something new. Yet many of the simple examples above show how people are “hacking” the environment, the public and private space around them. Example – if you have no space or privacy then how do you hack life for intimacy?




Download Convo Kids Brochure

Join us in 2012 in India for a learning and co-creation program; a deep immersion into the lives of 12 to 21 year old highly connected kids and youth. Secure at least 10 break- through insights to help marketing and innovation teams make better product and branding decisions over the next 2-5 years. Come and find out how they are going to change the world.

This longitudinal immersion and co-creation program is designed to help you:

    • Develop a deep understanding of how highly connected kids 12-21 years will influence India and the world in the years to come
    • Leverage the opportunity to collaborate and learn with peers across different industries
    • Experience and use groundbreaking research methods, and immerse yourself or team members with others in the Indian market
What you will do on this journey: 
  • Ongoing Conversations with Participants using a CMS – blography scrapbooks, diaries, tracking
  • F2F Interviews – participate in a portion of these interviews with us.
  • 6 half day Co-Creation Workshops with Participants One Five-Day Learning Journey
  • One Breakthrough Workshop for Sponsors Management of a 6 Month CMS

Participate in this highly efficient and cost effective journey of discovery!  Secure detailed insights and customize elements to your companies needs and areas of inquiry.

Contact Dina or Stuart for more details. [ or]

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Very rarely do we get the opportunity to showcase our work!  Our Wikipedia Mobile Strategy Project – Taking Wikipedia Mobile – is now online and free to access.  It is part of a broader global research program covering India, Brazil and the US.  You can review all materials we used, and view the final report. It’s a work in progress.

We set up a CMS blog site for sharing all data, observations, notes, transcripts, pictures, videos from our fieldwork and workshop. It operated as a learning space for our Clients. Participants had a separate view with tasks.

The Research was conducted across Bangalore & Delhi to provide us the opportunity to cover several Indic language readers and editors (English, HIndi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, perhaps Malayalam as well). A combination of face-to-face in-home/in-office ethnographic immersions, a blogography (online pre-tasks and diaries) and a participatory co-creation workshop.

Here’s the table of contents and a few key slides:  [click to continue…]


Discovered a link to an old blogpost I had done in 2008, when we were just beginning to refine our Learning Journey offerings. Three years later, its more true than ever!  Updated some links and reposting here:


Great piece on Social Learning titled Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0 by John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler. The supercool text illustrations are by Susan E. Haviland.

Some snippets I really enjoyed:

What do we mean by “social learning”? Perhaps the simplest way to explain this concept is to note that social learning is based on the premise that our understanding of content is socially constructed through conversations about that content and through grounded interactions, especially with others, around problems or actions. The focus is not so much on what we are learning but on how we are learning.

There is a second, perhaps even more significant, aspect of social learning. Mastering a field of knowledge involves not only “learning about” the subject matter but also “learning to be” a full participant in the field.

In a traditional Cartesian educational system, students may spend years learning about a subject; only after amassing sufficient (explicit) knowledge are they expected to start acquiring the (tacit) knowledge or practice of how to be an active practitioner/professional in a field.9 But viewing learning as the process of joining a community of practice reverses this pattern and allows new students to engage in “learning to be” even as they are mastering the content of a field. This encourages the practice of what John Dewey called “productive inquiry”—that is, the process of seeking the knowledge when it is needed in order to carry out a particular situated task.

Although this article has been written in the context of education, there are some great learnings for researchers, ethnographers and for business too. One of the greatest challenges and often a dilemma is how to leverage social tools into research and marketing that would create a shift from a much hyped must-do model based on explicit learning (yeah – lets go build a social network or lets start a Facebook community for our brand) to a more intuitive method grounded in tacit knowledge and real experience.

One reason why we believe researchers experimenting with these tools should immerse themselves in using them first, one reason why we believe all brand managers should build their own social media toolkits through actual experience! One of the problems with this is the time commitments required for these personal explorations, which could then morph into professional insights. I cannot emphasize more the importance of being touched at a personal level for developing a learning-to-be mindset. That’s what good Learning Journeys can accomplish.


For the right job, in the right situation there’s nothing more powerful than getting the client to come to grips with a persona they don’t know or understand well. We know that personas can help organizations have the conversations they need to have. Over the last few years working with technology products in particular we’ve seen this first hand. The engineers who are designing products and services sometimes don’t know or  understand how people really live, what conditions they live in, what work they do, what stress and painpoints exist in their lives. We believe Personas help in creating effective value propositions for a representative user group by understanding them in depth.

What’s a Persona: a description of a representative user.  Personas tell us who the user is, what they wish to do with your products or service, why they buy and use – what their motivations and drivers are, how your product/service fits into the context of their lives.

Examples of Personas we have co-created with our participants and clients in the last year. Categories we studied ranged from tech products, mobile phones, wikipedia, naturals based personal care product ranges.  You will notice that some of the personas are “kaccha” (unfinished) and deliberately so.  And in some cases, we’ve brught in a designer to help us create an impactful visual representation of the persona.

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