Doing Our Homework on our Research

Checking our assumptions about basic things could be the difference between design delight and doom.

If you were to tell me that one of the greatest lessons I would take from the pandemic – one of the few globally reaching, shared issues of the last 100 years — was a much deeper appreciation of diversity than I ever had before.

That might seem strange considering that, at times at least, we were “all in this together” (even if that wasn’t really true).

One of the gifts of the pandemic has been that it has brought me closer to many of my friends and colleagues in ways that come from this shared experience of having our mobility restricted and changes to our social and environmental condition. Yet, its been through these conversations with people who are very much like me — as friends and colleagues tend to be — that I’ve noticed differences the most.

Differences Laid Bare

Geography, living structure, personality, and family circumstances are all being amplified right now. I have friends living in parts of the world where they have little to no cases of COVID-19 and are free to go out and socialize with minimal disruptions. Some people I know have cottages they can escape to while others are feeling the effects of a small apartment closing in on them. For my more introverted friends and colleagues, they are enjoying working from home while others are suffering greatly from the loss of in-person contact and workplace rituals.

I know parents who are relishing in the chance to spend so much time with their kids, enjoying the newfound opportunity to see them grow and learn every moment of the day while others are struggling to keep things together under the same circumstances. I’ve seen people who were out of work before the pandemic find jobs while others in stable settings and industries get furloughed out of the blue. My fellow consultants are seeing business boom and fall-off a cliff — all in the same market. Some of this is due to skill and experience and some of it is dumb luck and happenstance. It was always like this, but now everything feels amplified.

The point of all of this is that it has really exposed a lot of assumptions I had about people, work, community, and myself.

If I was a betting man, I would have lost my shirt on predicting how people would do during this pandemic and what kind of success and stresses they would face and how well they would fare in dealing with things overall.

A New Research Imperative

What this all points out is how a change in condition can have such ripple effects on behaviours, attitudes, and strategies. While the pandemic will end, the effects of these changes on how people see their work, their world, and themselves is likely to linger for years, probably decades. It will shape what will eventually be considered ‘normal’. Just like the effect of the 2008 financial crisis, what comes next is going to be transformative to how we work and what we do.

A lesson the pandemic can teach us is that when we design anything for public consumption — whomever that ‘public’ might be — we need to do our research well and be clear about our assumptions up front. We have to do our homework. That means doing a lot of upfront research and it means doing it differently and better if we are going to design for dynamic, evolving situations. This means developing strategic plans using foresight, not the traditional models where we draw on what we’ve done to guide what we’re going to do in the years to come.

It means service design research that goes deep into understanding people as individuals, as part of families and communities, and embedded within social groups that are going through upheaval. While good design research should already consider this – what we will need going forward is a ‘leveling-up’ of what we do to understand what people’s needs are, what they use (and want), and what serves a new world.

If so much of what we knew will have changed this means that anyone pitching the same old ‘background research’ plan for a service design project is out of touch and maybe out of line. Just as with so much, research is about to see a transformation.

Photo by Arisa Chattasa on Unsplash

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