“What conversation are we in?”

This is a question you’ll hear frequently in a Contextual Design team. This simple question is one of the primary ways we keep a meeting — any meeting — on track.

Handling conversational chaos

This is what conversational chaos sounds like:

“Here’s what the user said.”

“I don’t believe that, I just talked to someone at a user group meeting who said…”

“We couldn’t do that in our implementation anyway because…”

“I’ve been telling you since forever that if we changed the implementation this way we could…”

Sound familiar? It’s easy for a meeting to spin out of control. Each participant responds from his or her own point of view, and the conversation wanders all over the place making no progress and wasting everyone’s time.

Fortunately there are tricks to keep conversational chaos under control.

The ‘mainline conversation’

Every meeting has what we call a mainline conversation. (If it doesn’t, it’s not a meeting — it’s a muddle.) The mainline conversation is the topic of the meeting. A CD interpretation session’s mainline conversation is: “What happened in this interview and what do we learn from it?” The mainline conversation for a design review might be: “What does this design propose, and what design criteria does it violate?”

The mainline conversation is the only conversation allowed in a well-run meeting. Any talk that doesn’t contribute to the mainline conversation is by definition a rathole: a distraction, a waste of the meeting’s time. Be ruthless about this and you’ll find that your meetings run faster and more smoothly.

The simplest way to ensure that the meeting stays on the mainline conversation is to ask our original question: “What conversation are we in?”

A recipe for a meeting

Here’s how to put the idea of a mainline conversation into practice:

  1. Set the focus of the meeting publicly, with all participants, when you start. State what the mainline conversation is and state the ground rules: no other conversation will be allowed.
  2. Appoint a moderator to keep the meeting on the mainline conversation and (gently!) bring the meeting back to the topic when it wanders. The moderator needs to be able to participate in the meeting and track what’s going on in the meeting at the same time; someone who gets too caught up in the content will not be a good moderator.
  3. Flag the ratholes publicly. Anyone in the meeting can help identify ratholes. “Rathole!” they cry, and everyone grins sheepishly. Do this publicly because the very act of identifying ratholes reminds everyone that they are supposed to be keeping the meeting on track.
  4. Capture off-topic conversations. “But don’t I get to say…?” asks some participant whose comment has been declared a rathole. Your answer is: “No. I’m sorry, you don’t.” But you want to capture those thoughts. They will be important later, in some other meeting when they are the mainline conversation. So give all participants pads of sticky notes and let them write their thoughts as they have them. That gets the thought off their minds and ensures it isn’t lost.
  5. Summarize your learnings at the end of the meeting. Wrap up the mainline conversation, and then collect the side thoughts and off-topic insights that people have been writing down on their sticky pads. Make sure each thought, issue, or problem will be dealt with at the appropriate point in the process.

Contextual Design practitioners have a reputation for running tight meetings and being intolerant of poorly run meetings. As users of a cross-functional team design process, they have to be. These techniques will help you keep your meetings more tightly focused, more efficient, and more productive. In fact, you may have the same experience as many Contextual Design practitioners, who find that these techniques spread into other parts of the organization and positively impact all kinds of meetings.