Great, you’re ready to take the plunge! As a follow-up to “Fishbowl – A User Research Method for Future Scenarios,” here are general hints and tips on using Fishbowl in customer and end user research.

Our most important advice right at the start: conduct one or two pilot Fishbowls to get the hang of it! We ran several internal Fishbowls before we took the method outside SAP, which helped to fine tune our approach. Out of the various Fishbowl setups, we mainly used the “open” and “closed” variants:

  • Open Fishbowl: This is one long round of approximately 30 minutes, where 3-4 participants start the discussion in the inner circle. People from the outer circle are free to join the discussion in the inner circle, and participants from the inner circle can step out of it.
  • Closed Fishbowl: A fixed set of 4-5 participants discuss in the inner circle, undisturbed. After 5-10 minutes a new round is started with another set of participants from the outer circle.
  • There’s also what we call “inside-outside” Fishbowl: A fixed set of participants in the inner circle engage in a discussion. After each such round the moderator asks the outer circle participants what listening to the inner circle was like, and what they understood or learned.

We’ll cover these Fishbowl variants in more detail in upcoming Deep Dives.

When to use Fishbowl

In an IoT context, user research often is a learning situation: not only for the research team, but also for the customers and end users who have to get their heads around a new concept, scenario or vision. For this reason, using a learning method such as Fishbowl works well, especially if you:

  • Want to start a discussion among different persons or roles and want to be able to slice and dice the discussion groups according to your needs 

  • Want to introduce a future, complicated, or abstract topic and get feedback on it
    Similar to a focus group, a Fishbowl gets participants to actively think and engage, instead of passively watch a presentation or a demo. It opens and activates participants for ideation, and helps uncover questions, ideas or topics that can be explored further in a subsequent activity. Additionally, in a Fishbowl you can define who discusses and who listens, as appropriate.    

  • Need a structure to discuss a controversial or difficult topic
    For example, you might want to introduce a topic in its entirety first, without getting immediate input. Closed Fishbowls allow individual groups to express themselves without fear of being interrupted, and help to detect common (or different) topics, goals, issues, or preferences across user groups.

  • Want to make sure all people join in the discussion
    Once the method has been introduced all participants know they will be part of an active discussion group.

What to prepare

It certainly is possible to run an impromptu Fishbowl, for example, as part of a workshop. For research purposes, however, it makes sense to invest some time and thought in advance. Here’s what you should prepare and check upfront, and why:

  • Enough participants: You need enough people (best 4 to 5) who discuss in the inner circle, and sufficient participants to listen and observe from the circle outside, and to step into the inner circle as required. The participants must be happy to speak openly in front of the others, so get the go-ahead from your customer contact to use this method. Ask your contact to help you assign the participants to the different Fishbowl rounds to avoid difficult or long-winded discussions.

  • Enough space: Make sure there is enough room to accommodate two circles of chairs plus space for the research team. If things are too crammed participants might not swap in and out of an open Fishbowl as dynamically as you would like.

  • Enough note takers: As there are more people talking than in a 1-on-1 research interview you need more note takers. Two notetakers is the absolute minimum, best have one for each position in the inner circle. Use your pilots to find out the most suitable participant/note taker ratio for your setup.

  • Research topic and goal: Even if your research focus is as unspecific as “Get a rough idea on xyz”, it is still good to make a conscious decision on the topic and goal as this helps define the Fishbowl sessions. For example, you may decide to run two closed Fishbowl rounds, one each for a specific user group and/or topic, followed by an open Fishbowl for cross-group exchange.

  • Introduction to the Fishbowl method: Prepare a short method introduction. Emphasize that a Fishbowl depends on active participation – the more engaged the discussion the more information and knowledge will be shared. Explain the interaction rules (e.g. only the inner circle talks, how to cut in during an open Fishbowl) and discourage monologues.

  • Agenda: An agenda outlining the timeline and type of the different Fishbowl rounds helps to keep participants on track and lets them know what to expect.

  • Introduction to the topic: This could be a storyboard, a short presentation, or a challenge such as “How might we help <user role> to do <task> in the future“. A short introductory Fishbowl also works. In this, the research team is in the Fishbowl, introducing and discussing the topic, making statements or hypotheses to get the participants tuned in. This has the added benefit of showing a Fishbowl in action.

  • Questions/impulses for the moderator: They help to steer, enliven and focus the discussion. Prepare them with your team, a bit like an interview guide. You can also plan interventions such as including a devil’s advocate, technophobe, or similar role. Provide for a “joker“ chair which you can add to a closed Fishbowl to invite spontaneous input from the outer circle.

  • Usual workshop material: Pens, sticky notes, brown paper, flipcharts, pin boards, timer.  

Special notes for the research team

A few comments on moderation and note taking during a Fishbowl.

Fishbowl calls for less active moderator involvement than traditional research methods like contextual interviews or usability testing. The moderator introduces the method and the topic, and then lets the participants discuss freely in each round. As a moderator, fade into the background and don‘t react visibly on the discussion to avoid participants talking to you instead of each other. Still, stay alert and intervene if necessary, e.g. the discussion flags, goes off track or becomes too agitated, or if someone is hogging air time or isn’t contributing at all.

Note taking during a Fishbowl can be a challenge, so here’s a few recommendations:

  • Assign note takers to specific chairs/positions in the inner circle to spread the load
  • Get some note takers to record the entire discussion for your own subsequent analysis, and others to capture the main discussion points on sticky notes for deep-dives or post-Fishbowl discussions during the workshop.
  • If you run several Fishbowl rounds it is better to analyze the sticky notes with the participants once all rounds have completed. You lose some of the momentum if you stop after each individual round to discuss the notes.
  • You can also let the participants write up their own findings and learnings on sticky notes, best again after all Fishbowl rounds are done. Then have them present and cluster their notes and continue to work with this.

All in all, we found that participants easily appropriated and generally enjoyed the Fishbowl method. We’re keen to hear about your Fishbowl experiences, so please share them with us!

Use this link to find all posts about the Fishbowl method.

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