I’m no Jan Chipchase, traveling to the far reaches of earth to discover unknown user behaviors. But over the years I’ve worked with midwives in Uganda, HIV/AIDS rights activists in Seattle, humanities scholars in Holland, oncologists in Basel, and Finnish kids wanting to travel to learn a language — so I know a bit about interviewing different types of people with vastly different life experiences from mine.
As digital product makers, it’s important that we know how to parachute into situations in which we’re unfamiliar. At the research institute of Novartis I’d interview scientists with deep expertise, and I’d have to quickly become familiar with their lab jargon so that they could speak freely and get to the bottom of what I was actually trying to discover.
A ‘subject matter expert’ embedded in the project team served as the critical bridge between scientific knowledge and design. These experts explained complex scientific information to the tech and design teams. Before most interviews, I’d sit with this expert and go through the words and concepts I’d expect to hear during the interview. After the interview, I’d often meet with the expert again to make sure I understood what I heard correctly.
When parachuting in, it’s important that we take the vocabulary of the person we’re researching. If you stop the conversation and ask them to clarify too much, then they might adopt the same mindset as a kindergarten teacher would to kids. Or they might never get to the “meat” of what you’re trying to discover because they think it would be too complex.
At Novartis, I had to make sure that the scientists were speaking on a similar level with me as their colleagues. That they felt free to tell me exactly about their workflows and their pain-points, without my lack of knowledge getting in the way.
But it’s not only expertise I’ve learned how to navigate, but also when a person I’m interviewing is vastly different from me in terms of ordinary life experiences. For example, when I interview 10 or 12 year olds, I have to “parachute in” to their mindset, their way of thinking. One of the ways I do this is by employing a “field partner” who knows the particular culture or age group well. Another way is during the actual interview, asking about their best friends, hobbies, music tastes, or favorite weekend activities. After they tell you, even if it’s totally unrelated to your research, I’ve found it makes them more comfortable throughout the conversation.
To navigate effectively into other people’s worlds is a fundamental skill in product design. Prepare for what you might encounter, use the interviewees’ vocabulary, and make people as comfortable as possible, so you can bring their stories back into designing meaningful products.
I’d love to hear your suggestions and tips as well! Let’s chat. 🙌
- Take off those headphones. Be a part of the world.
- Connect with your friends and family. You have very little time with them left.
- Sing your heart out. Your voice is good enough.
- Walk slower and listen. To breathe and feel the ground beneath your feet.
- Taste your food. It's entering your body, becoming a part of you.
- Sleep. You never get enough on any other days.
- Meditate. Find peace with yourself and your world.
- Pray with your community. You soul rejoices with God when you do.
Last weekend I read an interview with Shawn Sprockett in the Techies Project where he was asked: “What is really exciting to you about your work? What are things you’re super proud of, what are things that really activate you right now?”
If I were to answer this very quickly, I’d say that it was exciting that my work involves transforming lives through travel and education. But this is a very expected, somewhat drinkin’-the-koolaid response. I just finished a long, drawn-out, somewhat arduous project and am wanting to dig a little bit deeper into what “activates” me.
If I go into my past, the work that I was most excited by involved stories of people finding themselves in this world, and how technology can facilitate that process. Perhaps it started with my experience as a bullied 12 year old gay boy in the Midwest finding support online. And from there, finding a way to travel to Germany via my online Filipino penpal. And then later, the projects that I worked on in college, such as designing a medical device for Ugandan midwives, or HIV disclosure service, certaintly “activated” my passions for the impact that design can have on people’s everyday lives.
I must press forward toward what activates me, what makes my soul come alive. As I wrote yesterday, we should remain close to what matters most to us, close to our heart, close to who we are. Same with passions and interests - they don’t only come from looking outside, but from looking within.
"People are accustomed to look at the heavens and to wonder what happens there. It would be better if they would look within themselves, to see what happens there." - Kotzker Rebbe
As a 6 or 7 year old, I remember a relative pointing at a burning campfire and saying: “If you’re not a good boy, you’ll burn in there forever.” I used to think God was a mean, punishing power. That if I cussed or didn’t honor my parents or wore shorts above the knee (seriously!) I’d burn in hell for eternity. This made me have a very frightened view of God, and kept religion at a distance.
As I grew older and became more confident, I realized I could have a new relationship with this power, a relationship that I would help me to become a better - “higher” - version of myself.
But it didn’t come easily. I had to deal with false notions of right and wrong. I had to reframe God and my relationship with Them. I had to become comfortable with my own truth, in how I see the world and what I feel most spriritually comfortable with.
But how to break through? How can we shed our preconceived notions of God and arrive at a version that speaks to us, that is in line with our hearts? Part of it is growing up and being comfortable with yourself - that your adult beliefs are as valid as your parents were at the age you’re right now.
Another part is through practice, such as praying or meditation and creating the space for silence, a space for just being. It also begins with affirming what we believe through how we live, how we treat others, and how we take action to make a better world.
A dear friend and former Trader Joe’s colleague was brutally murdered in her home last Sunday. Lita was not only one of the kindest people one would ever meet, but she was also a fighter for social justice and equality.
The fact that she died is one thing, but the brutal way in which she died begs me to ask: why her? Why would anyone want to do such a violent act towards another human being, much less Lita?
On this past Shabbat Rabbi Angela Buchdahl spoke about gun violence in America. She said she couldn’t believe in a God who would choose in a mass shooting which kids would live and which ones would die. In the same way, I can’t believe in a God who would pick Lita to die, so young, so full of kindness and life. It just doesn’t work like that.
I believe in the God that brought Lita’s impact on other people into this world. “Remember to keep it kind,” Lita would say. During this past week, there has been a massive outpouring of love for Lita, for her life and her work. God exists with these people; the presence appears when Lita’s friends come together and ask: “Why?” When we shed tears for Lita. When we donate money to help pay for her funeral costs.
HaShem exists in the acts that come from us, the actions that work against violence, against evil. To work to make this world a more loving, kinder world.
It’s been years since I heard Lita’s laugh, saw her smile. But my memories of her play in my head. Please, let her death be a reminder to keep working, keep building to make this a better, kinder world.תיקון עולם
Repair the world, it’s on us