For the past 2 years, my professional and academic area of interest has been focused on Design Strategy, which has meant using the techniques of ethnography and psychology to understand people, culture and relationships better to craft innovative products, services or business models. I’ve had the opportunity to meet a wide range of users during the course of different projects, ranging from farmers in the most remote corners of India who still live a traditional lifestyle, to businessmen and businesswomen living in the most affluent neighborhoods of Mumbai and millennials who are questioning everything about the way the world works. I am a staunch believer in experiential learning, and these are 10 key learnings over the last few years in this profession, which may/may not really fall into any of the traditional design thinking methodologies. Some of these have been things that my mentors/colleagues have taught me directly and indirectly, and some have been my own personal learnings from doing fieldwork.
1. Tiny details and unspoken words matter. A lot. Sometimes more than what people say.
People love to be perceived by others as a logical, orderly and sensible human being who perfectly knows and means what she is saying/doing. But often underneath all this fluff, is a lazy, jealous, nervous, slightly sadistic and lunatic kid who admirers the Joker over Batman or craves chocolate at 3 AM in the night. And this is why Game of Thrones sells so well. In Freudian psychology, it is called the bottom of the iceberg. In order to figure out the madness/deeper layers of personality, you need to go beyond their surface level responses to your questions.
Maybe it’s the tattoo on their forearm, or the old notebook on their desk or a portrait hung on their walls. Maybe it’s the way they wash their hands every 30 minutes. Sometimes they are sentences which end with, “but… Never mind that’s not important”. These are the clues that can lead you to the deeper treasure chest of emotions and motivations that ultimately drive them as a human and not the top-level superficiality that often manifests as answers to questions. Understanding the core mental models can give you a powerful tool to really make a difference in their lives.
2. Empathy cannot be just ‘work’ mode
Empathy is a mental workout. So much of our life revolves around the ‘I’ at the center, and pretty much everything we do is self-centered or self-fulfilling to a certain degree. Therefore, putting ourselves in others’ shoes and seeing the world from their perspective is not an easy undertaking. It requires deliberate practice. Constraining that practice to just your work might mean that you hardly get to practice at all.
In order to be an effective listener and observer in your practice as a Design Strategist, it is important to master this skill in your personal life as well. And surprise! It might just be able to make you a better person and make more friends in life. I’m still on the path of sharpening my empathy toolkit, and I do find myself under-doing and overdoing it at times. Empathy is a thin line between ignorance and creepiness. While trying to understand another person, it is also important to not try to get too much under their skin as to make them feel uncomfortable.
Empathy could also be detrimental to your health, if overdone. A good approach to consider is ‘Empathic Detachment’ — which means that you take the best measures to understand people’s problems and communicate concern for it while also empowering them to deal with it and solve it by themselves, rather than trying to be the Messiah every time.
3. Stop calling them ‘interviews’
I cringe a little every time someone talks about user interviews/customer interviews. It almost feels like treating the users are test subjects. Providing answers to questions one after another is not the natural way in which human conversations go. They are non-linear, feedback-based, informal and curiosity driven.
It does help to have a questionnaire to make sure that you get all your areas covered, but rather than shooting them like arrows at your user one after another, try to get a discussion going after each answer. Try to get them to tell stories, and reflect on them. Try to insert moments of silence that they can fill in with their thoughts and feelings. Try to make them feel comfortable enough to share things with you that they would never share with a stranger who keeps asking questions. This article sort of encapsulates the art of having user conversations than user interviews.
4. Noise filters and Noise absorbers
When you are working on a particular problem space, you often end up reading 100-page reports done by leading research agencies/consultancies, find your users talking about 100 different problems, and your clients giving you 100 different directions to think about. Among all this clutter, you have to come up with that brilliant idea which is going to make a billion dollars for your client. Sounds familiar?
Being a design thinker is all about absorbing and filtering noise. It’s about constantly feeding your brain information without letting it go into overdrive. Which means that although in your project plan, you might just have two iterative research phases, in your head that might be about 50 iterative phases. I can connect it to swimming and taking breaths in between strokes. By taking a breath, take in all the information you can, from whatever sources you find, and document them well. Do not even think about filtering them. When you come back to the stroke, start pruning information, constantly labeling them and clustering them into buckets. And let this process constantly keep happening throughout the research. This will (trust me on this) lead you to the best possible insights from the study and will lead you in the right direction. Whatever be your superpower, you have to accept the fact that you are not going to be able to solve all the problems in the world at the same time.
In order to really find out the ones worth solving and which can be solved, your mental filtering system needs to be multidimensional (looking at micro, macro, and analogous phenomena), temporally structured (looking out for time-based flows) and always on the lookout for those ‘branch webs’, a term I use personally for connections which are unidentifiable on the surface but have a common source/behavioral origin. If the human mind is the trunk of the tree, it’s up to the researcher to find the connections between the divergent branches/sub-branches and pair them up with the information clouds from the external world, in terms of the current and changing trends, culture, social norms and economic/political thoughts.
5. Presence over productivity
I have conspicuously plagiarized this phrase from one of my favorite bloggers on the internet, Maria Popova (www.brainpickings.org)
“Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshiping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
The professional attributes of a Design Strategist are intricately woven with their personality and mental traits, and it is quite difficult to detach one from another. Design Strategy is one of those rare professions where the output reflects so heavily upon the inner workings of the person who is doing the job. In order to be truly immersed in understanding/observing people and things, it is important to understand the value of ‘being present’. This is a day and age where digital distractions are almost unavoidable. You have to check your phones, e-mails and social media accounts almost every day for work and personal life. Therefore it is even more consequential to let go of the habits of distraction and have a grounded relationship with the present reality and truly embrace it with an open mind and open heart.
In the mad rush to get things done and become more productive, we often tend to stress out our minds, put our thinking on hold and miss out on the tiny details, nuances, assumptions, revelations and pressing questions. As a Design Strategist, I’ve repeatedly experienced that it is so much more useful for yourself and the project you are working on to do 5 things really well rather than do 10 things with mediocrity. But do those 5 things with complete awareness and in a state of flow, so that you not only come up with the best work, but you also enjoy the process to the best possible extent.
6. People know much more than you would credit them for
During a research phase in the rural agriculture space in India, we came across a young farmer who seemed really confident and diligent with his profession and practice. Since our research hypothesis was related to agricultural technology, we showed him some clue cards related to emerging technology to probe on whether he could think of any potential use for them. When we were trying to explain to him what a drone was, he stopped us midway and asked, “Is that a drone? I know what it does.” We were flabbergasted, to say the least.What had happened was a rapid mental deconstruction of our entire perception about the persona of a rural Indian farmer.
In order to avoid such awkward situations, I make it a point to adopt what I would call the ‘Alien Mindset’, or conduct research in a way that you don’t know anything about the people you are talking to or the problem that you are trying to address, and whatever little you know is from other people who have told things to you. Always go in with the mindset that users are much more aware than you would think them to be about things that are happening in the world, especially if it relates to their professional/personal lives.
A little caveat here: Although it’s good to sound ignorant with users, it is better to sound a little smarter with experts, since they might expect to have an intellectual and well-informed conversation with you than waste time on explaining you the basics.
7. Time is scarce. Respect it.
The problem with time is, that it does not give a s*it about what you think of it. Many of the projects that I have worked on in the past have not been up to the mark due to a simple flaw — poor management of time. Deadlines are set for a reason. The client might need time to escalate and expedite decision making based on the research insights, they might need to get the necessary ‘buy-ins’ from senior managers to move the project forward and actually implement the solutions. Your pixel-perfect presentation would be of no value to them if it comes in 10 days late.
Researchers and Designers often have the luxury to go easy on time, treating it as a collateral rather than the primary framework to work with. But the truth more often than not is, a lack of time-boundedness is a lack of maturity, and the inability to come to decisions quickly and get things done. This might seem a little contradictory to my rebuke of the cult of productivity, but it is actually quite the opposite. The best way to get work done in time is to be completely present in it, physically, mentally and emotionally.
Time management is just energy management, and knowing what to work on based on your energy levels is a great way to become a happier, fulfilled person.
8. Manage expectations, early on.
The biggest threats to your professional and personal reputation are the expectations you set in other people’s mind. We often tend to overvalue our capacities and abilities, and often end up making false promises to ourselves and others in terms of what can be done/achieved.
Expectation management is key, especially if you are someone who wants to become a project manager/team lead. The SMART framework can be quite helpful for goal setting, and the goals need to be communicated to all the stakeholders, early on in the process, without distorting or magnifying the expected outcomes. Write everything down and ensure that it is documented in the communication channel you are using. Another phrase that is commonly used is “under-promise and over-deliver”. Being self-aware and being able to correctly articulate your deliverable could be the difference between making and breaking a relationship with your client/teammate/employer or anyone else. It often takes a lot of courage to say ‘No’ to someone’s request, but saying that often makes things so much easier and smoother for you and the other person. This is something where I have repeatedly found people around me (Including myself) faltering, often badly.
9. Leave your blinders at home
Stop drinking the kool-aid. No seriously! It has been repeatedly proven by science that each one of us perceives the world differently from others. The only universal truth is that there is no universal truth. Therefore, putting on your blinders/preconceived notions about how the world works is about the worst thing that you can do to yourself as a Design Strategist. Any statement that begins with “I think..” needs to be thrown out of your mind as soon as possible. The only way to arrive at something which is a true insight (a phenomenon which you did not know before) is to empty your mind of all the mental structures you have created, in terms of generalizations, stereotypes, models causations, and others.
Seeing and observing things with a completely blank slate of mind might sound ridiculously impossible at first, but on a deeper level, it is really not. Think of a 3-year-old child who aimlessly wanders about the house, getting genuinely curious about new objects that her dad has bought, trying to build a house with the cardboard cover for the new TV or trying to wear the newspaper as a dress. Everyone has been this child at some point in our lives. We have just outgrown and become afraid of being genuinely curious without preconceived thoughts obstructing the process.
But as a Design Strategist, you need to become that 3-year old again. Companies pay more money to those who can become that 3-year old but can also communicate their findings articulately because almost every adult in the world has kind of lost that ability.
There isn’t a #10. Don’t try to fit everything into boxes/frameworks
Stop using maps and frameworks just for the sake of them. Let them evolve as a part of your study and inquisitiveness, rather than adjusting your study to revolve around the maps. Stop rounding off your insights to the next good number.
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