Social experiments are fun because people are so unpredictable, full of surprises! I recently pilot tested an exercise with some Nuruners to let them get their feet wet with design research as we move towards increasingly collaborative research in our teams. What was really highlighted to me was the human tendency to gravitate towards judgment and familiar stereotypes vs. curiosity and empathy. It’s instinctual.
The world can be a chaotic jungle, so we navigate through it by organizing what we see into familiar categories in our brains. It helps us quickly understand our surroundings and reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. It streamlines our lives. While these mental buckets are great for efficiency and survival, it means that much more effort is needed for us to unravel life experiences that can tint our perceptions.
The challenge when we’re trying to understand our customers, clients, and end users, is to shift from looking and judging to caring, actively observing, understanding, empathizing, and appreciating a person’s experience in a given moment or process. There needs to be curiosity, care, and appreciation for the person’s experience. It’s not easy, but when done well, can surface some opportunities to offer meaningful experiences for customers, filled with all kinds of utility.
How can we rediscover that curiosity and innocence towards our surroundings and people we encounter? Travel can be a great way to culture shock us into a state of healthy awkwardness and sensitivity, though there are some more cost-effective ways to get a fresh perspective. Of course it also depends on the project and domain, but some empathy-inducing research methods can be valuable. Role-playing, experience prototyping, design fictions, empathy maps, and physical devices like empathy suits are some methods/techniques to name a few. MIT’s AgeLab has been using a full body suit called AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System) to help researchers and students better understand the needs and experience of an aging body through physical sensation.
Research methods aside, a couple points of inspiration that get my curiosity flowing are photographer Jason Travis’ photo series called “Persona” and Keri Smith’s How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum. If you have any anecdotes, inspiration, or curious habits to share, I’d love to hear them here or via twitter (@jenchow)!