Originally published at MassArt Design Innovation (updated here)

Designers see the future, specifically when surfacing insights. Seeing the end is a multi-step process for the designer, forming wisdom from the body of research about midway. It’s hard. I pace around the room, stumble into a chair or onto a studio stool, gaze back at a wall of multi-colored notes, and wonder what it means. I re-watch hours of video interviews or scroll through pages of observations and notes, looking for clues. Sometimes alone or conversing with my team, I am searching for insight. This search is both my darkest and brightest hour during the design process. Something bigger than me seems to play a role in discovering wisdom.

Most recently, our team has been working with the city of Boston to answer the question, “How can we help people make use of — and create a play in — public spaces?” The mayor’s office of New Urban Mechanics is “investigating and experimenting prototypes around Boston’s 3rd spaces.” Our team is tasked with looking at permitting and the relationship between the city and organizers creating in public space.

We approach the design process with measurable and systematic methods we learn during our human-centered design training. These uniform methods can guide us to focus on our challenges, conduct and document our research, and prototype our best ideas. But these dependable methods, for me, fall apart regarding insights. According to Jon Campbell, a good understanding is “not obvious, synthesized from more than a single data point, able to be traced to your research, provocative, and actionable.” ~Lecture, 3/14/17. A high-quality solution needs provocative, actionable insight. Let’s consider the following approach to locate where wisdom sits in the overall process.

      1. Define, frame, and state (the challenge)
      2. Research, co-create, collect, gather (analysis)
      3. Apprehend, understand, focus (insights)
      4. Develop, create, ideate (prototypes)
      5. Test, share, evaluate (solutions)
      6. Repeat

Using this process, we define a problem and can conduct and organize research. (Steps 1,2) We used our problem statement with the third spaces project (from the second paragraph above). This problem was distilled from dozens of possibilities we reviewed at the kickoff meeting with our client. We used our own words to guide our research plan and worked our way back to the more specific requests asked by the city.

The plan consisted of interviews, intercepts, and competitor and stakeholder secondary research. Here I will focus primarily on our use of interview and intercept to point to our insights. However, we combined findings from all analyses. We conducted lengthy discussions with organizers and participants and many intercepts with passersby and non-event-goers.

According to the IDEO Idea Kit, “Human-centered design isn’t just about talking to a lot of people; it’s about talking to the right people.” I would add that it’s also about asking them the right questions. We were vigilant in asking the right people what we thought were the right questions. With the third spaces project, we intentionally started by not asking the city about their current process for facilitating events and, more specifically, for permitting. We felt organizers and participants were the ‘right people to ask first. These people would have interacted with the city process out of necessity and would have no investment in the status quo. We initially wanted to understand what jobs these organizers were getting done before approaching the tactical operations of how they did it. We also investigated the process of event planning on our own to arrive at a first-hand experience that we felt would support or contradict what we would learn from our informants.

Here comes the darkest hour that I mentioned above

With some ready methods, we research (Steps 1,2). With a bit of creativity, we ideate and design prototypes. If given enough time, we test them and repeat them. (Steps 4,5 &6) But there’s always that pivot at the center of the process. That part where we have to apprehend something we did not see before. The Insight (Step 3).

No matter how often I approach the process, I always find that generating high-quality insight is the most personal and emotional challenge of the design cycle for me. This may be because we look for the inconspicuous. We look for something that seems completely obvious once it’s been discovered. Design lore holds countless stories about game-changing insight. Continuum found something with P&G resulting in a new approach to cleaning. Benrath Senior Center in Dusseldorf was designed for Alzheimer’s patients, discovering how a fake bus stop could prevent wandering.

The discovery of insight begins when we look at our inputs and move beyond what people think or say. We move closer when we observe what people do or use. The natural fertile ground is when we start comprehending what people know, feel and dream. “It’s not what they make that matters as much as what they feel while making it.” ~ Jen Briselli, Lecture, 3/14/17

So now we have these hours of interviews, copious team notes, images, quotes, and artifacts. Now what? We recreate with every project that classic picture — a wall full of messages with designers standing, arms crossed, wistfully looking on. That picture doesn’t capture that even if we get into our research subjects’ feelings and dreams, these are still only the terror for the real insight to grow from. This is why methods to surface insight can involve tons of moveable notes on a board that we place and re-place in different configurations. We have ways of organizing observations but a less clear path to understanding.

These are my darkest hours because it feels as if I am pushing against an immovable object as I review, re-arrange and reflect. It may be difficult because it requires me to move away from ego and start empathizing with others, to be in their skins. It may also be that the perception of insight happens only when I am making a new mental or emotional connection — drawing a comparison or contrast that has never been made by me before. It is also tricky because it’s nature, not me, that will eventually uncover the insight. Nature takes time.

Don’t get me wrong. There are methods. We use facts. We use data.

“Without the hard little bits of marble which are called ‘facts’ or ‘data’ one cannot compose a mosaic; what matters, however, are not so much the individual bits, but the successive patterns into which you arrange them, then break them up and rearrange them.” –Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation.

We can move the highest level of observations and meaningful quotes and artifacts onto moveable, arrangeable formats that allow us to look at the information in new ways. We can talk it out. (Oh, and how we talk it out. If the walls of room 122 could absorb the verbal record of our work, there would be a trove of inspiration.) We can draw, sketch, and roughly ideate. And we can watch and wait. “Inspiration is a fair place to get an insight.”–Jon Campbell, Lecture, 3/21/2017. I can draw strength and inspiration from mindfulness training or sitting still. I would recommend the contemplative practice for every designer. This, too, can help. We are just standing by and waiting.

We took an observations distillation, and discussion method for the third space o derive insights. We reviewed all the raw materials and organized them by theme. Then we distilled these themes into generalized observations. It may be helpful to point out here that we continually struggled with each other on the team to prevent ourselves from deriving insights from our own experiences. Though it is sometimes helpful to recall an experience we may have had, we attempt to derive insights primarily from those we learned about others.

This was not painless. It spanned several in-person and online meetings. It required us to backtrack and develop personas through whose eyes we might look at each observation. And it required many iterations and organizations of the information. But eventually, nature came through, new connections were made, and we discovered a few insights.

One insight we uncovered is that there seems to be a Vitamin X that people crave in their engagement with public spaces. The vitamin is different for everyone and maybe a combination of many attributes. But we are beginning to map a matrix of vitamins that may or may not be used in our idea and prototyping phase. Everyone kept returning to this insight in our second client meeting, so we feel there may be some value to it.

We are looking forward to the ideation and prototyping part of the project. Next, we will take a deeper dive into the city-side operations involved but now do so through the lens of our personas and insights. Each insight is based on accurate data, honest quotes, and real emotions we can point back to through our observations and distilled notes. We can keep our continued research and iterations up against the measuring stick of these insights to consistently monitor their applicability and promise.

Compelling design starts with an exciting challenge, quality research, and insightful observations. Design heroes, both well-known and lesser-known, seem to arrive at methods and formulas for arriving at good human-centered design. We hope to hone and improve the process through this and other projects.

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