At The Other End of The Table

I’m writing this as I fly over the East Siberian Sea from Austin, Texas on my way to China. Our crew of frogs and client team members will spend the better part of two weeks immersed in the lives of Chinese people in the health and wellness business. We’re tasked with re-imagining what a career-defining educational tour of their products might be like for them as they aspire to reach new levels in their personal lives and businesses. In order to do that, we have to learn what makes them tick. Why did they get into the nutrition field? Who or what inspired them? Do they practice what they preach and sell by living a healthy and nutritious life? What does health and nutrition mean in a Chinese context? What’s a great vacation like for them? Where do they go? What do they pack? Have they ever been to Disneyland?

We’ll visit people in their homes, see and hear how they’ve designed their businesses, flip through photo albums, listen to stories about the evocative objects in their lives, and visit a Traditional Chinese Medicine hospital to understand diagnoses and treatments. We’ll observe the distinct exercise habits of different generations in parks and clubs to learn what it’s like to be them so we can better design for them. Our collective frog-client team ranges from experts with 20 years of experience doing this kind of research to first-timers: just the right mix of experience and naiveté.

During the 1970s and 80s social scientists at Xerox Parc and other technology corporations paved the way for the use of ethnography in the research and design process. During the 90s consumer anthropology started to make its way into mainstream business consulting thanks to the transformative impact of an all-of-a-sudden complex, networked world. Now, the time is ripe for design research— the practice born of these histories— to broaden its scope and become a standard way of designing. If our form of research includes the word “design,” then our way of working should include designers...and administrative assistants, managers, human resource staff , executives, and consumers or users of every kind.

The more widespread research is within design, the more empathic we become as designers. To be clear, I mean empathy in the most conventional way. It is a particular understanding of people that helps to answer the question we often quietly ask ourselves when we see a diabetic checking her insulin, a teenager in a shanty town classroom, or even the bathroom cabinet of a Japanese bachelor— what is it like to be that person? Consider Desmond Connolly’s reflective email in the beginning of this book. He had returned from Africa, where he went to understand how Community Health Workers in Zambia can leverage mobile technologies to increase mothers’ visits to clinics (with our strategic partner, UNICEF). Prior to this project his sphere of work included visual design, a practice that is usually considered desk-bound. His email perfectly captures the effect that the immersive form of design research we practice at frog has on a young designer (and a client team) by “placing oneself in the other’s shoes” for the first time and seeing things “from the other end of the table.” For all our worldliness—it’s a refreshing reminder of the possibilities of being out there, whatever our roles.

(This essay was first published in “frog in field”, a catalog of frog’s Design Research practice.)

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