Within the Design Thinking process, one of the most important phases often doesn’t get the necessary attention in needs: the research phase.
Why the research phase?
I want to emphasize this area. I have the feeling that the other phases of the process have gained significantly more notoriety given the (false) belief of fast and efficient results. It is also easy to want to jump into solutioning and skip the sometimes time-consuming task of research. However, if you don’t feed the ideation phase with relevant, quality information about and for the user, how do you expect to create solutions that provide value and meaning for your target audience?
How can we avoid this creative deficiency?
We can use the research techniques from ethnography, sociology, and anthropology. The user research process shouldn’t focus exclusively on generating empathy through various tools such as the empathy map or user persona. You must be able to carry out a qualitative process that leaves you inspired. Inspiration is extremely useful when going into the ideation phase and can result in vital user information that we can use in the following phases that either observed or extracted through these research techniques.
The Context of Stairs
To carry out a good investigation, we should put aside our assumptions about the context (as much as possible) and assume the mindset or the role of curiosity. Seek to be able to generate feeling of “estrangement” or the ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
A fairly clear example that we use in our Design Thinking Fundamentals course is “The Stairs”. During your day, you likely pass stairs of all kinds; you go up and down without much concern (beyond the effort involved). Now, change your perception from someone who uses stairs to go from floor to floor to that of someone with a different reality. For a person with a handicap or reduced mobility, stairs are an obstacle. For a street artist, they can be a canvas. And for a skateboarder, stairs can become their own park. I even have met several architects who see stairs through the eyes of a sculptor.
The Concept of Estrangement
The ability to understand that there are different representations of the same reality and generate the curiosity necessary to understand another context and meaning is called the “estrangement process.”
The concept of estrangement is a skill. By this I mean that there are people who have unconsciously been able to develop it throughout their lives; others, given the nature of their work, have had to do it like the sociologists or anthropologists themselves. If you weren’t born with this innate ability, you can mature by making small efforts every day.
I recommend trying a simple challenge. Start using non-participatory observation. This is the idea of observing a user within their environment and context without actively participating in their experience, performing it in situ, just observing.
Another idea is to ask someone you don’t know well – maybe a co-worker, a friend, or someone from a social group you belong to – to send you three photos of things or areas in their home that they think represents them as a person. Aside from this small request, don’t explain further. Do the same with someone who you know better than the people above, someone about whom you might be able to discover something new that you didn’t know. Once you have the photos, just look. Look for details and ask yourself questions about what you are seeing or why you think the person chose that particular scene. Look for patterns within the photos, adaptations of elements that can demonstrate that there is a latent need or want. Look for what surprises you and what is unexpected. If you end up with more questions than answers, you are on the right track.
I encourage you to start using the little moments of your day-to-day to start training your curiosity or the ability to use estrangement. I assure you that your formal creativity sessions will be much richer and more productive with a little practice.