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InfoQ Homepage Articles What Makes Joy,Inc Work? Part 3 – High-Tech Anthropology®

What Makes Joy,Inc Work? Part 3 – High-Tech Anthropology®

Last year I met Rich Sheridan, CEO and Chief Story Teller of Menlo Innovations and author of Joy, Inc.  I heard him speak at Agile Singapore and got to interview him and Linda Rising together after that conference.  Both of their presentations from that conference can be viewed here.  Linda’s interview of her visit to Menlo can be found here.

I found his story inspiring and wanted to hear more – does the company really operate that way, is there really a culture of joy in the workplace, are teams really that empowered and are management really that transparent?  If they are then what makes it work, what is the secret sauce that allows the organisation to function like that, can other people learn it and will it take in other organisations?

To try and answer these questions, and to see what I could learn and bring into my own classes SoftEd paid for me to attend the Menlo Innovations Deep Dive class in September 2015.  Five days of deep immersion into the culture, working practices and skills that it takes to be a Menlonian.

The story of Day 1 – The Menlo Way™ can be found here.

Days 3-5 – High Tech Anthropology®

If there is a unique role and activity at Menlo Innovations it is the High Tech Anthropologist.   Putting the ultimate user of the product front and centre results in a focus on making products people want to use, and High Tech Anthropology® (HTA) is considered to be the key to how they achieve this.

HTA is an approach to user needs identification, requirements elicitation and product design that draws elements from a variety of existing disciplines and adds some Menlo-specific tools and approaches.  As with the other Menlonian practices, it sits atop the solid foundation of the Menlo culture – collaboration, trust, respect and teamwork are baked in from the beginning.  Without this solid foundation the practices would not work.  The underlying culture is the secret sauce of Menlo Innovation’s success.

The HTA class was three days long – it is the most knowledge intensive of the Menlo practices and requires a deeply experiential learning approach.  This class was also led by a pair of HTA’s.

They started by taking the participants through the whole process, as shown in the graphic below:

Each of these steps has a set of tasks and activities which the HTA does in conjunction with users and stakeholders.  The whole process is designed around truly hearing the voice of the ultimate end user of the product and ensuring that the user is at the centre of the product design.  This really is user CENTRED design aimed at making products people enjoy using. 

When undertaking an HTA project they will consciously choose team members who have little or no domain knowledge – they are looking for the novice mind, uncluttered by preconceptions and assumptions.

In the class we ran through the process from end to end in two iterations, working on realistic problems rather than made up case studies.  The first exercise enabled the course participants to get a feel for the steps and how the process elements fit together, the second round was far more intensive as we had real-world customers whose needs we had to satisfy.

The first round activity had us wandering the streets of downtown Ann Arbor, MI, observing and interviewing people using the parking meters in the town.  There are three distinctly different types of meter and there are definitely opportunities to improve the user experience.  It truly is amazing when you step back from prior knowledge and look at the way people have to interact with technology how many potential design improvements can be identified.

The second project was much more challenging – Menlo have a relationship with the Ann Arbor Hands on Museum whereby the museum allow HTA trainees to come and examine the museum and identify potential improvement opportunities.  A number of the ideas from classes have been implemented at the museum and the museum management feel they get value from the ideas produced. 

At the end of the process the museum CEO came to the showcase presentations, where the three different suggestions were put forward.

The project was done under time pressure – from 3:00pm on Thursday until 2:00pm on Friday with no overtime allowed to be worked.   All work was done in pairs and the teams consisted of two or three pairs.

The steps in the process are described below, with the museum project activities used to explain how we worked.

Project Kickoff

The project kickoff activity is where the HTS’s gain an understanding of the business problem, working with project sponsors to identify the goals and outcomes they are looking to achieve, and getting a feel for what success will look like.  This activity puts constraints and boundaries around the work and identifies what will not be covered in the project.

For the museum project each team was allocated a floor of the museum to work on and tasked with finding ways to improve some aspect of the work or activities undertaken on that floor. Our team was assigned to the second floor of the museum.

Observations & Interviews

In this activity the HTA’s go out into the field and watch people interacting in the environment where the product will be used, passively observing and taking notes as well as actively interviewing the people to understand what they are doing, what they like, what they dislike and hearing the voice of the customer. 

For our team that meant walking around level 2 of the museum to get a feel for what exhibits are there, what other spaces are in the area.

For reference please see map.

We spent most of our time in the “World Around You” space as that was where the patrons were.  We also interviewed two of the museum staff in the administrative offices to understand what their frustrations and ambitions for the museum were.

We met a variety of museum patrons, families, nannies and grandparents with young children, single parents taking their child out for a day and a young couple who were enjoying some time in the museum before working in the evening.  Being a school day most of the children in the museum were preschool age and they were enjoying the hands-on exhibits in the space. 

We came away from the museum with ideas buzzing around our heads and the impression of a really fun place for children to explore.

We refined our problem positioning statement as follows:

The big picture:  Between video games, destinations like Disney World and the increasingly intense after school and weekend activities like sports and lessons, the Ann Arbor Hands On Museum has a lot of competition for kids attention

The focus of the project:  To optimise what exists today within the museum by making nominal financial investments to enhance the childrens’ experience.

The successful project: Kids have a fun and engaging experience at the Hands On Museum and they spread the word by telling their friends, who ask parents to come.  The increase in visitors will ultimately drive        greater awareness and increased revenue for the museum.

The mind-map of our exploration and discovery shows the things we saw, heard, experienced and inferred from the observations:

The Solution Bucket

A simple yet powerful technique which Menlo uses is the Solution Bucket.  One of the challenges when exploring opportunities is the temptation to rush towards a solution (a trap we certainly fell into).  If people can’t acknowledge these possible solution options and get them out of their heads they can become an impediment to the flow of ideas.  So there is a Solution Bucket – when you get an idea which could form part of the solution you write it down on a postit and put it in the solution bucket.  That way it’s not forgotten but it is out of your head.

Our solution bucket had lots of ideas, most of which got thrown away by the end of the project.


Personas are a technique that many design approaches use.  The Menlo approach is about quickly identifying the variety of roles and perspectives which may interact with the product or system and providing some important information with them.

The Menlo persona structure has:

  • A photograph to depict someone with this profile.  The photo helps make the person “real” to the team in the future.
  • A realistic name
  • Age
  • Organisation or place where this persona can be found
  • Three important attributes about the person, two of which are related to the project one which is NOT relevant to the project
  • Three goals, written in the future tense.  Two of the goals are related to the project and one not related to the project.

The facts and goals not related to the project are there to enrich the understanding of the person behind the persona and again make them feel real to the team when used in the project.

The first task on Friday morning was to identify the variety of Personas we had seen and extrapolated about.  We identified a total of 16 personas ranging from the two year old child to the elderly philanthropist, the event planner and a school teacher. 

In our exploration and observation we looked for opportunities and decided that none of us were experts at designing museum exhibits so the thing we could most significantly impact was the ability to get the museum more money.  We discussed possible ways to do that and were mainly focused in our thinking on fundraising and adult focused events.   Were we in for a shock!

Persona Mapping

An important part of the process is Persona Mapping where the customer (person funding the initiative, or someone empowered by them to make decisions) identifies who they want to target as the primary focus of the new initiative.  This is done by taking all the persona cards that have been prepared and picking six and then putting these on a target – one in the middle, two in the next layer and three on the outside.  The primary persona is the one for whom the product must work primarily and whose needs must be met.  The secondary and tertiary personas do matter, but everything must always work for the person in the middle. 

We had envisaged that our customer would align with our thinking and put the adult party-goer, or perhaps a philanthropist in the middle.  No such luck!  Our customer looked at what we had come up with, liked the idea of finding ways to increase revenue related to events and put the 2 ½ year old boy smack in the middle of the target as our primary persona.   We were gobsmacked, all our assumptions had turned out to be wrong. 

This was a fantastic learning moment for me – I teach about hearing the voice of your customer, focusing on the real needs and not making assumptions but had fallen into the trap of overlaying my own ideas on the initiative. Ouch!

So now we had to pivot our thinking – how can we achieve the stated goals and still keep Brandon (our 2 ½ year old persona name) in the centre? 

Goals & Roles

The next step in the process is taking the personas and exploring their goals and roles.  The Menlo brief description for the step says “Understanding the roles each persona plays and their various goals helps prioritize what’s important and sets a direction for each design”

Given the shakeup we had when our assumptions were upended we took some time to carefully think about what the roles and goals for this set of personas would be and mapped them into a grid.

This tool helped us understand what we were actually aiming to achieve and formed the basis for our brainstorming – what can we design that will fulfil the maximum number of goals, focusing on those which are important to the majority of our personas. 

We then explored a number of possible ideas and picked one to build a workflow for. On a real project you would probably build a workflow and prototype at least three very different design ideas, but we were time limited.

Our design idea was to add an additional aspect to the existing birthday party activity the museum offers.  One of the people we had interviewed was the party coordinator and she told us how the museum runs birthday parties for children.  Each party caters for up to 15 children and 20 adults and they are very popular – the calendar is pretty full and there is no space to add more parties, so if we were to use the birthday parties to raise more money and increase awareness of the museum we needed to find something to add to the event which would achieve the goals.

We came up with the idea of offering parents the opportunity to make their memories of the event long lasting by taking photographs of the birthday child and their friends in both posed and candid shots, then printing these for the birthday family and the guests. 


The next step in the HTA process is to identify workflows which will be needed to implement the design ideas.  Who will be involved and what the major steps in the process will be.  This helps understand that you’re never just building a product, you’re making changes to an ecosystem and the way you design will impact the way people interact and work.  The focus needs to be making sure that the workflow gives the primary persona the benefits they want and that it does so in the most effective way possible.

We then built a workflow which showed how the process would work and what roles would be needed to support it.

Our workflow was about giving the party host a camera so they could take photos of the children at the party as they interact in the museum, looking for candid moments and taking at least one posed shot of the birthday child and their friends.  The idea is that they should take lots of shots and then pass them on to someone in the back office who will select the best ones and prepare them for printing so the parents can collect them at the end of the event.

Conceptual Design

At this point in the process you have enough information and understanding to start on the conceptual design – what will the end product look like?  The idea is to get a number of alternate conceptual designs mocked up so they can be shown to potential users and assessed.

Our designs were for the collage photograph which the parents would get after the party.   A collage photo showing the birthday boy in the middle with candid shots of his friends around the outside, and a fridge magnet or postcard for each of his friends to take home with their own candid moment.   We added the possibility of partnering with a printing service to produce T-shirts, mugs or other memorabilia that parents could order for later delivery.

Design Assessment

This step in the process is one of the hardest for the team as you are asking for honest and brutal feedback about your design ideas – what do potential users like and what do they not like about your ideas?  You need to step back from “ownership” of the design and really listen to the reviewers as they represent the people who will have to live with this product. A number of prototypes will be produced and reviewed with different representative users, gathering their feedback and improving the design incrementally.

In the full process the design concept-design assessment activities are iterative,

 One of the Menlo team represented Brendan (our 2 ½ year old target customer) and reviewed the initial design.  

The feedback was blunt and clear – it’s all about the birthday boy, he wants to be in as many of the photos as possible.  He was also quite keen on the add-on ideas we had about printing pictures on T-shirts.

Finalized Designs

This step is where the design concepts are consolidated and a more high-fidelity version produced – it may include graphics and screen mockups using electronic tools rather thn paper and postits, and possibly some prototype building.

With that feedback we revised our design to include the birthday boy in more of the photographs.  We retained the idea of the individual photographs of the party goers as that would help in the secondary goal of getting the message out about the fun times that can be had at the museum, and it does not conflict with the primary persona’s goals.

Customer Presentation

Our final task was to present all the concepts to the CEO of the museum, he came across to view the concepts with a view to possibly implementing the in the museum.  In his introduction he pointed out that this is not just a conceptual exercise for the museum – they genuinely value the association with Menlo Innovations and have implemented a number of the ideas which came out of the HTA classes over the last few years.

We presented our concept and he was very gracious – stating that we had achieved the goals as stated (find a way to make more money and share the museum experience with more people, without extending the space).

On to Development

Sometimes the engagement with Menlo is only for the production of the designs and the customer will take these and feed them into their own development production process. 

The ideal for Menlo is that the customer engages them to build the product as well, as this design process meshes directly into the development process described under Project Management above. 

Once the design is agreed to, the HTA’s break it down into a set of user stories which form the backlog of work for the implementation team.   The HTAs don’t just pass the stories over a wall – they are constantly interacting with the development pairs and refining the designs based on what is learned as the project continues.

So What’s Special About High-Tech Anthropology

In a word – everything.  It puts the user firmly in the middle, not the customer, not the company building the product but the person whose life will be impacted by the new or changed product.  This approach shares many ideas with other practices but the Menlo discipline makes that user focus absolutely the centre of all the work done.  It results in designs that people can use, and that people want to use.

It rests on the foundation of the Menlo  culture – safety, trust, respect for individuals, pair work, the ability and courage to experiment and make mistakes, the ability to let go of one’s own ideas in favour of what works for the user. 

It’s fun for everyone involved – a deeply satisfying experience as the design ideas evolve based on interaction with real world users.


Menlo DOES have a secret-sauce. 

It’s the foundation of an amazing culture, it’s not about flexible work hours, or fooze-ball tables in the office, or being a baby-friendly place, it’s about a deep respect for the skill and knowledge of the individuals in the team, their commitment to making products they can be proud of, the freedom to experiment, learn and make mistakes in a safe environment and the desire to collaborate.

They’ve taken all the good practices which have emerged over the last 20+ years, distilled them down to the pure essence and baked them into the way of working that makes it a joyous workplace. 

This Joy comes from fulfilling the human needs of their customers, users, employees, contractors, owners and guests.  They are serious about their mission: “to end human suffering in the world as it relates to technology™” and it shows!


I would like to thank everyone at Menlo Innovations for putting up with lots of questions and for exhibiting the openness and honesty which is so much a part of the culture.  They generously shared their time and opinions and really gave me a deep understanding of the how they work, and why it works.  Anna Flynn went out of her way to accommodate my schedule and to arrange for me to get time with the team members.  Rich Sheridan and James Goebel were hosts extradinaire and allowed me to interview them extensively about the Menlo way and culture.

Martyn Jones of SoftEd gave me the time and paid for me to attend the class.  Hopefully I will be able to incorporate many of these ideas into the classes I teach and bring them back into our own workplace in New Zealand.

About the Author

Shane Hastie is the Chief Knowledge Engineer for Software Education a training and consulting company working in Australia, New Zealand and around the world. Since first using XP in 2000 Shane's been passionate about helping organisations and teams adopt Agile practices. Shane leads Software Education's Agile Practice, offering training, consulting, mentoring and support for organisations and teams working to improve their project outcomes.In 2011 Shane was elected as a Director of the Agile Alliance.

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