Listening Matters

Shared events do not always yield common experiences or perceptions: our design research must keep that in mind.

Prior to the global pandemic of 2020 design philosophies tended to view research as ’rounding out’ or ‘filling the gaps’ in our knowledge about someone or something. Designers would assume they had a good read on what people wanted and needed and research largely validated that. It’s the reason why design research often uses so few participants. Yes, there is something called saturation that you can get from qualitative research that might come from less than a dozen participants, but that usually comes when you are asking general questions about a general topic.

What the pandemic is teaching us is what happens when you ask general questions about a specific topic — and it’s changed a lot.

The Band of Brothers and their Tune

I have a group of friends who are more like family – we even call each other brothers. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and near global lockdown we started a check-in over Zoom which has grown to a weekly call that has continued to this day. These friends are located across Canada, Costa Rica, and Australia. A couple of weeks ago one of us summarized things this way: “It’s like we’re all on different planets.”

He was right.

Some of us were under full lockdown, while others were not. The variety of policies and practices that we all experienced or saw where we lived and with whom we shared our community was remarkable and only partly a factor of the level of COVID-19 infections reported in that part of the world.

Further, the manner in which we were all dealing with these was also remarkably different.

I’ve seen this with other groups I’ve been a part of or with interactions with colleagues, friends and family: it’s difficult to predict what kind of experience people will have. It’s remarkable how diverse people’s experience to this has been — unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

That’s the lesson. While we might all have a shared set of events, our experiences are remarkably different to them. It’s too easy to expect that they will be the same. My Band of Brothers plays different tunes.

Designing for a New World

While the brothers play different tunes, that doesn’t mean we can’t create a symphony of stories from understanding where we are all coming from. To do that we need to consider vastly different approaches to research.

This is not only about listening more, but differently. It’s about bringing together an understanding of culture, psychology, and systems thinking together. Traditional design research looks at culture — an anthropological view of things. What it rarely accounts for are the other issues.

Take psychology. The pandemic’s effect on a person has much to do with a person’s personality, preferences, family situation, economic situation, workplace (and type of work), life experience, housing, health status, presence of children in the house, relationships status, and proximity to others. All of these together can play different roles that will determine how a person does. Add on top of that: time. For example, some Australians were under among the most restrictive lockdowns for a while. As of this writing, Australians still can’t travel between states. In Canada, that is possible (although it might change).

Every one of these factors can influence how people think and react to a situation. Do you need a lot of privacy? Do you strive for quiet? Are you comfortable being separated from others for long periods of time? How to do manage being restricted in your movement? These are all contributing factors to why some are thriving (to some extent) and some are struggling.

In the world that is shaped post-COVID — whenever that is — we are coming into this recognizing more than ever what our preferences, life goals, and needs are. These will carry forward into whatever shape our communities, economies, and workplaces look like. We’ve had to design and re-design our lives and going for the usual design is no longer acceptable.

How we design for this will mean asking new and different questions and listening for what that means.

Photo by Joshua Lawrence on Unsplash

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