Love, Hate & Design Research

By    Mar 20, 2017

Sigh. We live in interesting times. Increasingly folks are driven further apart, retreating into factions that love one thing/person or hate another. Naturally, we are right and they are wrong. What to do?

My wife works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (At least she did as of the writing of this post.) Despite being great at her job and doing incredible work cleaning up the planet, her job… in fact her entire department… is in danger of being cut. So too the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and sadly the list goes on and on.

Bleak stuff to be sure but last week, the EPA started receiving cookies with thank you notes crowdsourced by a local baker and activist. (There was a great Washington Post article about it.) The notes were a powerful gesture that helped lighten the mood… if only for a fleeting moment. They also provided some important, nuanced data on the value the Agency creates for its customers (i.e., people who like to breathe).

Today is Arts Advocacy Day… a day when we reach out to our government overlords representatives, armed with the best data we can find to make our case for why the arts matter. The stakes are a bit higher this year. Is our data keeping pace?

At the risk of sounding like a television infomercial pitch man, what if I told you we can tap into those currents of love and hate? And, that we can mine them for data on the value we create? What if I told you that the answer is as simple as that activist’s and baker’s gesture?

Put down the oven mitts. It’s the notes.

There are some very successful design researchers who routinely ask customers to write love notes or break up notes to their brands. Ok. I know… but our organizations, programs — our brands — are built upon relationships. We are (or at least we should be) constantly evaluating and trying to figure out where we stand in those relationships. This is a creative and fun design research method that can (often unwittingly) get powerful insight into the perceptions of customers. The resulting data gets at the heart of what works, what doesn’t and why. It can also give you a very nuanced understanding of your customers’ needs.


How does it work?

FIRST, give some thought to the following:

  1. Which relationships you are most curious about? Is there a particular set of stakeholders, students, partners you want to hear from?
  2. Is there a particular program or offering you want to evaluate or are you looking to cast your net wider and let the letter writers tell you what they like most or least?
  3. Given your audience and your scope, what do you think will be more valuable? The negative or the positive?

THEN, make your plan. Here’s a basic template:

Based upon where you’ve landed, approach that set of stakeholders from #1.

Tell them you are running an evaluative experiment that will be fun and useful to you.

Tell them to take 10 minutes to write a love note or break up note (depending upon your answer to #3) to your organization or a specific program, performance, etc. (See #2).

Tell them to be very specific.

Once you’ve received a batch of letters, go through and find common threads. Rank the themes in terms of importance to the customers.

Whenever possible provide feedback to the letter-writers.

Some helpful tips:

  • One path for a break up note would be to ask them to choose a one thing in your organization that they want to break up with… any one thing.
  • Writing the letters could be a good exercise to have a group do in-person after an activity. If you provide some nifty cards, it could be something that you can proudly display.
  • The display could be on-going and could elicit even more notes/feedback.
  • The examples provided are great but they can lead folks to over think it. We aren’t all as witty as those folks were. Sometimes earnest is best.
  • It could be fun way to engage your board. (Maybe even with that first bullet. You might be surprised by their responses.)
  • Make the review and analysis of the letters a team sport. It’s always better to have more input and it will likely be a good morale boost.


Give it a try

Ask a handful of stakeholders to write love notes and/or break up notes. Give them a tight deadline to signal it shouldn’t be onerous. Feel free to write your own love/break up note of your own. Write one to the NEA, your local congressman, state arts funding, your board, whomever. Share your letters with us (cookies optional) and we will post them here.