three differences that shock my audiences

newsletter #23  |  18-Apr-2017

When I give workshops or short talks about researching the problem space, there are three things that audiences have a hard time wrapping their minds around. Each audience is different, and they all don’t react to the same concept. But here are the three concepts that consistently generate the most thinking and questions:

In problem-space research:

  1. No users
  2. No note taking
  3. Not a part of a product cycle

The last one is actually the hardest to understand. People listen to my explanation of the two-cycles diagram, then ask me, “So, how does this research fit it into our development cycle?” The idea of starting up a separate research process meets with wide stares. The hesitation is along the lines of, “Wow, that would require a fundamental change to the way we plan and budget our work process.” And then people wonder how they could make that happen within their own organization. The key to making that happen is for well-known companies and agencies to extol the value of it. (For example, an agency can use this understanding, accumulated in small sets over time, as a way to differentiate themselves in their market. Deeper understanding leads to more successful solutions and attracts more clients in that market.)

I think the hardest part to understand about this is that problem-space research is a background thing, evergreen, that you add to over time. It’s about developing empathy and meaning, not about solving anything. That’s hard for designers to come to grips with. It’s hard for designers and product managers to stop thinking about solving the problem—everything is tied to the product for them. Ideas are how you get cred.

The second point, no note taking, is easier to grasp. You record a listening session (my term for an interview, to emphasize the important difference). Recording allows you to focus intently on what the participant is saying, constantly checking if you understand or are making assumptions, and constantly diving into any shallow areas like opinions and explanations. You can certainly jot down a concept that comes up in passing, so you can remember to get back to it later when this part of the conversation seems played out. But, if you have more than about 10 of these concepts jotted down in one listening session, you’re not paying enough attention to the participant.

The push-back that I hear from my audiences goes along the lines of, “But the act of note-taking helps me make sense of things.” During a listening session, you aren’t trying to make sense. You’re not analyzing, comparing, or solving problems. Instead, you’re simply following the direction of the always-shifting conversation. True note-taking steals your attention away from the person you’re listening to. (Note: If no recording is allowed, then have a second person in the background type up the transcript as it is uttered, like a stenographer. First-person point of view, from the participant, is key to developing empathy when doing analysis with this transcript later on.)

No users is not hard to grasp either. When you say “user,” you might be muddying the conversation with your collaborators and stakeholders. A user is a person with a relationship to your organization. You can substitute many other words for user: customer, member, passenger, patron, consumer, client, etc. All of these words still have the meaning of a person with a relationship to your organization. When you speak about someone who has a relationship to your organization, you are speaking about the solution space.

There’s nothing wrong with talking about the solution space—it’s just that organizations are trying to explore the problem space, in an effort to understand the intents and purposes a person has. The problem space gets muddied when you think of it through the lens of your organization. To clarify your thinking, try saying “person” instead. A person is a human with intents and purposes.

Here’s an example. A bank wants to understand customers in order to innovate. But innovation will be restricted to the existing framework the bank uses to engage its customers. In the consumer realm, this framework is: checking, savings, credit. To get out of the rut, the bank embarks on problem space research—only they ask existing customers about their checking, savings, and credit needs. These are framed exactly how the organization thinks. Instead, the bank employees might pretend they are employees of a research think tank, pursuing studies across the banking industry to understand the purposes people have in mind when they’ve done certain transactions. They could study buying a house with a loan, preparations to renovate a home, preparations for an expensive life event, like sending kids to college, or the thinking behind group efforts like going on a vacation together or eating a meal together. There are myriad scenarios to explore over time, and the scenario-related explorations will produce a deeper understanding of the inner reasoning that goes on in people’s minds. Their reasoning is not tied to the framework of checking, savings, and credit. This deeper understanding, from a multilateral, cross-industry exploration yields fertile ground for innovative solutions outside the existing checking, savings, credit framework.

When you say the word “user” (or it’s relations), check in with yourself to be sure you mean to be speaking about the solution space. And if instead you mean to be discussing the problem space, substitute the word “person.” It will help un-muddy your discussions and free you from the framework that binds your thinking.

Thought Provoking

Can empathy be learned? Violeta Cone, PhD candidate in Counseling Psychology, has been researching how parenting style affects empathy development in young adulthood. She’s given permission to print a few of her findings. “Alvin Goldman talks about ‘lower level’ and ‘higher level’ empathy, the former being the automatic, unconscious mimicry and the latter being other-oriented, cognitively and ethically advanced empathy. I would say that the higher level empathy can definitely be trained, and then in turn ‘retrain’ the lower level one.

“My data showed that the lower level empathy is strongly affected by parental warmth, while the higher level empathy is more affected by specific training, theater participation and probably dance, as well as other factors and activities, like cultural norms, fiction reading, etc. Most probably, if the lower level empathy has been strongly hampered in early childhood, the higher level one might not develop well and then improvement is possible, but more difficult.

“In other words, if parenting in the early childhood was harmful, the low-level empathy would not develop, and it would be even harder to build a higher-level empathy. However, optimal parenting was not predicting high empathy levels. Therefore, optimal parenting (high level of care, low level of control) would be a necessary, but insufficient condition for good empathy skills.

“The data is from my dissertation, where I studied the connection between parenting and empathy among 400 students in Bulgaria (moderately collectivistic culture) and US (extremely individualistic culture). An interesting note is that the US students turned out to be more empathetic than their Bulgarian peers and this is similar to at least 6 other cross-cultural studies of empathy I found.”

[Cone, V. (2017). Empathy and parenting among students in Bulgaria and US. Dissertation, Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski. “Unpublished manuscript, personal correspondence.]

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