For the past 15 years, I’ve been running international projects for multinational corporate, nonprofit, and socially driven organizations. With considerable input from the teams required to pull these together, I’ve built a comprehensive understanding of what it takes to create an optimal space to gather data, draw insights, and apply experience to guide both strategy and the design of new products and services.
My firm Studio D has run projects across the globe in situations with a high degree of control over the spaces and locations where conditions are relatively unknown in advance. A single project might require traveling to four different countries to understand the motivations of the next billion consumers. The next journey might probe notions of female beauty across Asia, or the hopes and fears of parents encapsulated in a can of bug repellent. The next might probe what someone living on three dollars a day looks for in a financial service or what drives the household purchase decisions of Indian housewives. No matter what is being studied, every project requires time on the ground to build a foundational understanding, an affinity with the participants and subject matter.
Our solution is something we call the pop-up studio: a live/work space optimized for teams working toward a shared goal. It is highly suited to international research, design, and innovation projects that require speedy immersion into new consumer segments and need to rapidly iterate on ideas and designs. The approach is particularly effective at bridging interpersonal and cultural divides on multinational teams from very different backgrounds and building trust with locals. It’s also effective at elevating the creativity and productivity of individuals and the team, and achieving a state of flow.
Why A Pop-up Studio?
The pop-up studio approach was born out of international consumer research, and while it has naturally evolved to encompass more domains, it is worth reflecting on its origins. For a corporate employee who requires a consumer perspective from a distant market, a typical setup involves conducting desk research, poring over data analytics (if the product already generates sales or a data trail), and making a business trip to visit offices in other countries. Consumers, when the interaction is in person, are engaged through the one-way mirror of a focus group room. The corporate accommodation options on the business trip are pre-selected to allow team members to cope with travel but are rarely designed to inform and inspire. It’s as if the body has traveled but the mind stayed at home.
A pop-up studio is different. Both the physical space and the experiences it engenders are designed to allow ideas to percolate, at their own pace.
The minimum requirements for a viable space are a safe place to sleep, clean drinking water, and somewhere to bathe. This might sound rudimentary, but even this simple list is already more than many people on the planet experience. The rule of thumb is to find accommodation that matches the demographic of the people being researched. If they live in a slum, the team should live in or close to a slum. If they live in opulence, the team should find something more luxurious. Once people on the team understand that almost everything is open to discussion, they can focus on what would make the optimal space. The aim isn’t to create an intentional hardship, and on most projects, the studio outdoes hotels for comfort.
From there, the pop-up studio needs to support distinct team activities. Many of these map to the fixed studio setup, albeit with the need to balance the necessary live/work spaces. They include space for all-hands meetings, small groups, solo working in addition to wall space for analyzing data, synthesizing findings, and coming up with new design concepts.
But these spaces must be planned carefully in a pop-up studio. When you live where you work, you can get too close to the design process and suffer from information overload. You can address this in a number of ways, from better visualization of the information (such as through a graphic recorder or frameworks) to removing or relegating information from the space to changing the team’s working environment.
Who To Invite (And Who To Leave Back At Corporate HQ)
A small percentage of people are wholly unsuited to spending time infield, and to the pop-up studio approach. The warning signs to look out for include narcissism and oversized egos (which will be challenged by the process at every stage), a brittle personality combined with a position of authority (ditto), and very limited independent travel experience. These warning signs turn into major concerns with the everyday stress of corporate life–reorganizations, back-biting, obsessing over career trajectories–all of which are amplified by being away from the mothership. Translation: You have a powder keg ready to explode. Learn to spot the warning signs, and don’t be afraid to say no upfront.
A significant benefit of a pop-up studio over regular corporate accommodation is being able to house guests–people who are not part of the core field team but are invited to stay one or two nights. This can include senior executives who can contribute to the process, clients (or the client’s internal clients) wanting firsthand experience and to check in on progress, or special teams whose expertise is needed at a certain stage of the project.
There are two rules for guests:
Rule No. 1: The whole team needs to agree to their presence.
Rule No. 2: No tourists. Everyone–no matter how senior–is expected to roll up their sleeves and be put to work.
How To Address Emotional Impacts
Over the years, we’ve dealt with an attempted suicide (a cry for help from a junior member of the local crew), bereavement of close relatives (tricky when it occurs 10 time zones away), people working through messy divorces, and more mundane corporate issues. The pop-up studio approach naturally reveals more of the team’s personal life. It means being exposed to the challenges they face–breakdowns in relationships, divorce, illness, financial woes, and frank discussions about careers and the organizations they work for. Some projects also include working in higher risk and/or high-poverty environments, which can be additionally emotionally draining. Recognize that this kind of project has a greater emotional impact on the team than a typical corporate project.
You can support the team in a number of ways: providing the time and space to informally discuss personal matters with selected members of the team, being proactive about identifying and addressing working issues that are affecting them (e.g., a particularly difficult day working in the slums), and providing decompression time at the end of the project–as well as a decent bottle of whisky along the way.
How To Get Your Organization To Buy In
Pop-up studios rarely fall within the norms of corporate accommodations and require buy-in from the organization. Think of the corporate accommodation booking norms as the default to which your colleagues have calibrated, and that any major deviation requires team buy-in.
Organizational management, especially human resources, will naturally be concerned about the well-being of employees and as such be wary of this different approach. Issues commonly raised by the organization include whether accommodation can be booked through existing hotel booking systems (most likely not), whether they fall within a comparable corporate budget (easily), and whether men and women will have separate rooms (in almost all instances). Some clients have strict rules around the type of accommodation that can be billed by the agency and where their employees stay, but you can work around most of these. A useful way to position the pop-up studio to the organization is as an “international off-site,” something where the purpose is sufficiently known, as is the reason for going outside existing processes.
How To Explain The Return On Investment
The return on investment on most projects is framed in terms of deliverables, and is typically measured in short-term organizational impact. Aside from delivering in the short-term, the pop-up studio also offers a number of medium- and long-term benefits, namely a deeper personal and cultural understanding–stories about the journey that prime the potential audience for what’s to follow.
People naturally want to talk about the experiences that shape their lives, not out of obligation to the project or the organization that they work for, but because those experiences define who they are, who they want to be, and how they want to be perceived. The project and the deliverables don’t need to be the topic of the conversation. They’re present by association. This awareness can generate sustained organizational interest in the project goals long after the project is complete.
Jan Chipchase is founder and director of Studio D Radiodurans. This article was adapted with permission from the forthcoming book The Field Study Handbook. Support it now on Kickstarter.