What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘Fishbowl’? I bet you’re not thinking about people sitting in circles and animatedly discussing a topic. It’s totally fine if you were thinking about an aquarium. However, we want to talk about Fishbowl as an excellent, future-oriented user research method.

This is the first article in a series of posts about Fishbowl as a user research method. In this post you’ll get a first peek into the method. The second post will take you deeper into understanding how you can use the method and what you should be aware of. Follow-up posts will highlight the major Fishbowl variants so that you can pick the one that best suits your workshop needs.  

Fishbowl is not a traditional user research tool from our methodological toolbox at SAP. But in the age of IoT and Industry 4.0, doing user research with end users is becoming more and more of a challenge. Looking beyond the traditional way of doing things has become a must.

Challenges for Researching Future Scenarios

These are the questions that we’ve repeatedly been asking ourselves:

  • Who are the future users?
    First and foremost, the end users or their roles don’t yet exist for some future scenarios. How can we conduct research for future scenarios with a person if these scenarios are likely to significantly change the way he or she works today? Existing research methods mainly revolve around the „as-is“ way of doing things.

  • How can we get access to the future end users?
    It is difficult to approach companies and ask for end user contact if they are not sure who of their staff will be working in the future scenarios we are generating for them.

  • How can we present the future scenarios to end users without making them worry about their jobs?
    Given today’s rapid technological advances, users are afraid of losing their jobs more than ever before. Is there a way to get users to help us shape their future workplace instead of just making them fear for their jobs?

The Fishbowl Method in a Nutshell

The Fishbowl may be a new method in the domain of user research, but it has been around for quite a while as a learning method used in schools, universities, supervision, or in business.

The basic setup for a Fishbowl, two nested circles of chairs, is always the same:

  • Inner circle
    4-5 chairs are arranged in an inner circle. Participants in this circle are the ones discussing a topic.

  • Outer circle
    Chairs are arranged in an outer circle. Participants in the outer circle listen to the discussion and have the chance to switch to the inner circle to contribute as well.

In the research setting we use at SAP, we have added a third circle of observers to the Fishbowl:

  • Moderator and note taker circle
    This circle consists of a moderator and (ideally) several note takers. The following picture depicts how we have run Fishbowls at SAP.

The method offers a variety of possibilities to mix and match the inner and the outer circles, so that you can adjust it to your research needs. The most popular variants are the Open Variant, the Closed Variant, and the Inside-Outside Variant.

Why a Fishbowl Is Suitable for Future-Oriented Research

With a Fishbowl you can not only address a larger group of people at once, but also a diverse set of roles. For example, you can have the managers, the current end users and some related roles in one Fishbowl giving input on a future vision.

You can use a Fishbowl to:

  • Get input on a vision, topic or scenario from different users
  • Uncover group-specific and cross-group topics and issues
    • By providing a safe environment for each group to express their thoughts, expectations and ideas  
    • By observing and analyzing in-group and cross-group discussions, statements and processes
  • Detect topics for further exploration
    • To cover a lot of ground in a short time
    • To unearth issues or topics yet unknown to you or the participants  

For a deep-dive into the method, an overview of the three variants, and an account of our experiences, have a look at the follow-up post, Fishbowl – A Deep Dive. Stay tuned as we’ll take a closer look at the different variants and provide more details in future contributions.

Use this link https://experience.sap.com/tag/fishbowl/ to find all posts about the Fishbowl method.


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