Marta Spurgeon plays the roles of design researcher, innovation capabilities consultant, and sometime photographer at Doblin in Chicago.
I was fresh out of the Peace Corps. Somehow, through an educational background in photography and videography and a unique set of personal contacts, I landed myself in a contracting gig at a design strategy firm. It turns out this was the perfect place for me. It makes sense that all roads led here, though I wouldn’t have been able to characterize it at the time. My experiences on that first project would solidify both my approach to ethnographic-style research and my interest in innovation in the business sector. The techniques and tasks associated with international development share some remarkable similarities with those we utilize in business innovation and design strategy.
In our Peace Corps training, we were encouraged to “do nothing” for the first 6 months of our service, to just sit with the host-country nationals in their day-to-day activities, observe, ask questions. And indeed, most of my Peace Corps experience was composed of these moments of quiet observation, learning about a culture so foreign to me as to ultimately challenge my beliefs about my own. Many of us are familiar with this participant-observer stance as one of the foundations of ethnographic study. It requires us to put aside pre-conceptions and biases, to embrace the other as a credible expert despite the legions of difference between us. In both international development occupations as well as strategic design efforts, this anthropological approach to learning about the people we’re designing for is the foundation of an often ambiguous process to create and launch new concepts that will be adopted by those-or people like those-whom we’ve studied, and ideally help them improve their lives.
Though I certainly had more casual experience doing this as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was on my first professional foray into ethnographic-style user research. Our team was learning about people’s experiences using medical devices in the home. At this point, we had spoken with a couple dozen medical practitioners in their professional settings and patients in their homes. We were on our final interview of the study. My role had been to photograph and video the interviews, take notes, and generally to follow the lead of my teammates who were directing the session. But for this final interview, my colleagues asked if I’d like to conduct the conversation, and I took them up on the opportunity to lead my first formal in-context interview.
We drove to a relatively remote location in Connecticut to see a middle class family of two parents and three boys. Two of the boys had an immune condition that required them to pump medication for one to two hours every two weeks. The parents had decided that rather than stigmatize or de-vitalize the process of the boys’ drug infusion, they would celebrate it by joining together as a family for a pizza party and movies on Friday night. This celebration was in full-swing as we entered their home.
It was a lively atmosphere. It turned out this wasn’t just a family of five; they lived with a menagerie of animals in their small home-cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, reptiles, and guinea pigs, bringing their total number to between 20 and 30 inhabitants. We were introduced to the guinea pigs and shown the rabbits. Everyone was supremely generous and inviting. They gave us a little tour, encouraged us to get comfortable offering us food and drink several times. Cats snuggled up beside us, intermittently disrupting our video equipment or the conversation, while birds squawked in the background. Comfortable and confident amongst one another, this family moved freely and raucously around me and my two colleagues, us all a bit squished onto too few pieces of furniture for all eight of us humans.
The parents graciously answered our questions about their children’s health and their medical needs, as the boys played video games and watched cartoons energetically, occasionally peppering the conversation with commentary or a boisterous request for attention-“Watch this! Watch!” They showed us how they hooked up the medication pumps, from prepping their sons’ skin to inserting the needles, demonstrating how it all worked. Father proudly brought out two large toolboxes full of medical supplies that they took along whenever they got in the car. He had come up with the idea of creating toolkits for the supplies they needed to be mobile. The interview continued successfully, if a bit disordered, given all the different activities happening. Not at any moment were they embarrassed or ashamed of the boys’ condition or the things they had to do to treat it. To them, this was just their life.
And when we finally all said goodbye, and the door shut behind us, I think all three of us researchers breathed a small sigh of relief. Truthfully, it had all been quite chaotic, though we had done our best to take it in stride. But our last interview was complete, and we got into the car, heading toward New York to fly home the next day.
Driving along, one of my teammates offhandedly said, “Well, I don’t think we learned anything useful from that. That scene was a complete mess! What a waste of time.” This somehow infuriated me. Sure it was intense, chaotic, indeed a less tidy environment than might be desired. They had more animal friends than a small farmer might. The lifestyle this family lived was obviously busy and disorganized. Certainly they had some health problems, probably some difficulty making ends meet, and a shortage of square footage for all of the living things in their home. But they also clearly loved one another and were just doing the best they could to live full, healthy, enjoyable lives. I may have been totally green and unfamiliar with utilizing this research practice for new business innovation, but I knew it wasn’t our place to judge, whether we approved of their lifestyle or not.
I was so angry. Never one to hold back, I told this teammate exactly what I thought. That these people had generously and openly invited us into their home so that we might learn about how they live, how they experience their medical conditions, how they interact with these essential medical devices. Whether we found their lifestyle appealing or disgusting, it was valid. Their experiences were real, and we were there to learn about them. It was unfair and totally inappropriate to judge them, and it missed the entire point of what we were there to do. I said all this, I’m sure, not nearly as eloquently as I say it now, and likely with less respect than my colleague deserved as he had more experience and knowledge on the subject than I did. He actually took it relatively well all things considered, and we remain friends today despite the words exchanged on that trip.
But I’ve found this to be one of the formative moments of my career-a moment when I expressed with passion and understanding just exactly what our purpose was there. And I’ve found similar sentiments coming to my lips again and again (with increasing grace and respect, of course), as I’ve had to remind most often clients but sometimes colleagues why we do this work. For an hour or two, we go into the home of a stranger, with a respect and appreciation for the validity of each individual’s experience. We must practice empathy, reserving judgment, allowing ourselves to stand in the other’s shoes, understand how he lives, why she does what she does, what they want to achieve, what makes that hard for them. So that in the end we might create better solutions that help them do it and make theirs and other people’s lives better and healthier. Sometimes we just have to remind ourselves.
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